A Week and A Day

In Issue 66 by Cathy Robertson

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Image by Elina Li at Shutterstock

Charlie was scared, all right. More frightened than they could ever remember being. The razor-shaved hairs on the back of Charlie’s neck stood straight out as the deafening scream of terror rent through the darkness once again. What the hell could make this horrendous noise that tore at their flesh and flipped the heart into a mass of quivering gel? This, they decided, had to be stopped.  “Aiyeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!” Charlie’s eardrums reverberated in their head. Their blood ran cold, and Charlie wanted to scream back in response.

Was it night or day? The blackness pervaded every open space, crawling up and around what appeared to be jagged rocks and peaks just feet away. Or were they miles away? There was no depth perception without any shadow. They were frozen to the spot so that surveying their surroundings was made impossible. It was as if black ink had been thrown across the horizon, blotting out any semblance of light or shadow. Even the wooded area outside Charlie’s bedroom had never looked so dark in the middle of a moonless night.

Other than the shrieks that emitted from the darkness periodically, the silence roared in Charlie’s ears. It was a thick, heavy stillness, like a down comforter smothering out any vibrations. Charlie’s ears hurt from the pressure pushing in from all sides.

Charlie felt totally alone suddenly. They not only stood alone, frozen to this small plot of land, but they were alone in spirit and soul. Where had their friends and wife gone? Or more apparently, it was Charlie that had gone. They stood crouched now, wrinkling their new tuxedo they had bought for the special celebration today.  Charlie had successfully defended their dissertation and could add PhD to their long list of accomplishments. How suddenly one could go from happy, safe, celebratory surroundings to terrified, lonely existence. Charlie shivered as they realized what could happen to a person alone in the dark, a foreign landscape all around, with no means of defense or support anywhere within reach or shouting distance.

That banshee scream tore through the blackness again, and Charlie could take no more of the incessant yowl. “Who the hell are you? Where am I? What the fuck is going on?” Nothing answered. No wisp of a breeze, no disembodied voice. Charlie was apparently going to have to take charge and move out of their crouch into the depths of darkness ahead – or behind. Did it really matter which?

********

“Where did they go?” Sandra couldn’t believe her eyes. Charlie was there and then, well, they weren’t.

“They were just here. They stepped out the front door, and they were just gone,” said Kate incredulously.

“That makes no sense. We use that door all the time and nothing like this has happened before,” Sarah cried out.

“I’m just telling you what I saw. After all, today is April 23, the Day of Reckoning,” Kate mentioned. No one else would have known that date or recalled the significance of it.

“Oh, that happened so long ago – if it ever really happened at all. Nobody believes that old story anymore,” Robert remarked.

“Go ahead, stick your head out that door. Only I suggest you use your hand, not your head. If it is a Portal to the Black Dimension, you don’t want to be sucked in, too.” Kate had a way of forcing reality right down your throat, whether you wanted to see it or not.

“Let Tom and his husband do it. They’re always looking for adventure,” Robert added.

The problem was, Tom and Larry hadn’t had enough to drink yet. The higher the alcohol level got, the lower Tom and Larry’s intelligence became. At that point they were liable to do nearly anything to get a laugh or prove how brave they were. The truth was, they were both scared of their own shadow. They had been married about three years, and though still in the throes of early love, they lapsed into the teen-like playing at love periodically. This caused trouble on the home front, and they were either talking or not talking, depending on what week it was. This week they were talking.

“So, who's going to check it out, see if it’s a Portal? Charlie’s out there by themselves with absolutely no one to help. At least I presume they’re on their own.” Sandra always looked after everybody and was the epitome of motherhood.

“I’m their wife, I will check it out. Someone hold me tight in case I begin to get sucked in.” Sarah cautiously stuck her left arm out into the night. At first there was nothing. No sensation of anything except the warm spring air. Then, the suction was strong and sudden. Sarah could feel her body being literally yanked into this abyss in front of her. She knew she didn’t want to go in there, instinctively, but a part of her wanted to go find Charlie and be with them, talk with them, help them. Three people grabbed Sarah by the legs and pulled with all their weight to keep her from going through. Sarah landed with a thud on the concrete porch, leaving a nice bruise on her hip. The bruise was a good reminder that she was back in reality. “Oh, Charlie, where are you,” Sarah cried into the night air.

There were twenty people gathered to celebrate Charlie’s PhD, and what would normally be a loud, joyous group now sat in stunned silence. Even Sandy, who always had something to say, was quiet. The group was a mixture of couples and singles, gays and lesbians, heterosexual couples, and many different ethnicities. This was the wonderful part about living in and being part of a college town and academia. The many different lifestyles, ethnicities, socioeconomics and demographics that were represented offered a wide array of friendships.

Sarah softly sobbed into her cupped hands, and Sandra patted her shoulder, not saying a word. The silence was eerie, nerve-wracking, and they were all growing more tense by the moment.

Sandy finally broke the silence. “Well, look, it’s up to us to try to get Charlie back somehow. One of us could go through the Portal and try to find them if you think that would help.”

“Don’t be crazy,” Kate piped up. “How do you know you would even go to the same spot, and then you would both be trapped in there.” Kate was a great intellectual but did not have some of the finer social skills.

Sandy sulked. “It was just a thought off the top of my head.”

“Maybe if we call for Charlie, they can hear us and follow our voices out,” Mary, the eternal optimist chimed in.

“That might be worth a try,” Sarah said. “Maybe if all of us yell at once.”

“That sounds mighty silly to me,” Larry complained.

“Until you come up with a better idea, get over here and raise your voice.” Sarah was getting irritated, not so much at all their friends, but at the sheer helplessness of the situation.

They all stood in the doorway and yelled Charlie’s name for a full three minutes. There was no change in the Portal; no movement, no vibration, absolutely nothing. No Charlie. The door was closed, and they all dejectedly went back into the living room to think of other ways to bring Charlie back through the Portal.

No one spoke because no one had any idea what to do. No one ate or drank. They all sat and stared at the ground and the minutes ticked slowly by.

********

Before another dreaded scream, Charlie planned on making it to the peaks and at least halfway up them to gain a better line of sight over this foreign landscape. Although what good it would do, they didn’t know. They could barely see the end of their toes in this all-pervasive blackness.

Every instinct told Charlie to run for their life, headlong into the mountains, looking neither left nor right, oblivious to their surroundings. But a soft voice inside whispered, “Crawl slowly over to the rocks. If you run, you will only stumble and fall, damaging your vessel perhaps beyond repair.”

“Damaging my vessel beyond repair? Who is that talking? Certainly not me.” Charlie didn’t realize they had spoken aloud. They had to make a quick decision and act on it. Run quickly and get this over with, possibly doing damage to themselves, or do a slow and tortuous crawl along the ground, opening themselves to unknown hazards but under more controlled circumstances. Charlie opted for the latter. After all, some small voice had told them not to run, and who were they to argue at this point?

They began to belly crawl across the hard ground, trying to assess their surroundings as best they could. What type of ground was this? Certainly not loose dirt or sand. No, it was much harder than soil. Perhaps cement? Not cool nor hot to the touch. A very hard substance, seamless, with no odor, no pits or divots, no flaws of any kind. It sent shivers down Charlie’s spine, not from cold, but from the unfamiliar touch of the substance. Was this some alien substance unknown to man? Their imagination must be out of control. However, they had to admit that everything about this place so far was totally foreign to their previous experiences. Where had they gone after they had exited their front door? Some great force had literally yanked them into this “world.” And this “world” was scary as hell so far.

As Charlie crawled, they began to hear noises they wished they hadn’t heard. Small creatures, scuttling between the rocks. Quick, little jerky movements, then nothing. Were the unseen, noisy creatures climbing the rocks? Were they hiding underneath the rocks? Charlie’s imagination ran wild trying to keep track of the clattering the creatures made. There were also slithering creatures hissing along the hard, smooth surface. Oh, God, don’t let them attack me. Charlie cried out to God not because of any specific religious beliefs, but only because it emphasized the height of their fear.

As Charlie crept along, they felt hard-crusted creatures with pincers attach to the sleeves of their tuxedo. As the creatures bit into their tuxedo, they nipped Charlie’s skin, and they began to leave droplets of blood in their wake. This only drew more of the creatures, as apparently the blood attracted them, and soon there were fifty to one hundred of them nipping and biting at Charlie and their clothes. Charlie tried to shake the evil creatures off to no avail. And now something even worse was happening.

What was that? Something. Something slimy, slippery and wet. Crawling up their pant legs. Gross. Oh, how high was it going to crawl? Not between their legs!!! Something that felt like a leech was crawling up Charlie’s pant legs and attaching itself at various heights along the way. It hurt, sucking with heavy pressure, and it was so gooey. Charlie could feel the blood literally being sucked out of their legs as these grotesque bugs continued to attach themselves higher and higher along their inner legs. Charlie stopped dead in their tracks, stood straight up, stripped off their pants, and yanked off the slimy pests that had crawled up their legs. It took a hard, twisting motion to get the gooey creatures to detach, and there were angry, red blotches where the suckers had attached. Some of them even left open sores. Charlie was damned well not going to let these slimy worms crawl in their crotch!

They likewise yanked the pinching creatures from their wrists and stomped on the hard shells. The sickening crunching sound the shells made when Charlie smashed the bodies with the heel of their shoe had Charlie doubled over with the dry heaves for several minutes. Charlie hadn’t eaten since morning, so nothing came up, but their gut lurched with the effort and left Charlie’s stomach muscles aching and weak. This situation just kept going from bad to worse. How was Charlie supposed to get back down on that ground and make it the rest of the way across the floor? But it was still too dark to dare try to walk or run.

After Charlie was certain all the slime bugs were out of their pants, they dressed again and anxiously fell back to their belly, feeling very vulnerable out in the open in this dark unknown. Charlie swept their arms in front of them to feel what was ahead and to hopefully scare off any live hazards. They hastened their forward momentum, feeling a sense of urgency. After traversing the great expanse – in only thirty yards – they could feel the hard surface give way to rising peaks. These peaks felt more like plowed earth, and though they wouldn’t slide uselessly off the side, as they would if it had been the slick surface they had been crawling on, it would be like climbing in quicksand.

Charlie planted their feet as firmly as they could in the loose soil and began their ascent. One foot forward, sink back two steps. Charlie’s frustrations were running high. They finally found what felt like a tree limb and pulled upward, making better progress as they went. The tree limbs felt soft and smooth. They had a terrible stench. The stench of decomposing flesh. When they pulled on the next limb, the flesh tore away and Charlie saw, as they held it close to their face, that this was indeed rotting human flesh. They immediately let go with a gasp, and at the exact same moment...

“Aiyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!” The force of the scream caused Charlie to stumble, and they nearly jumped off the mountain in sheer terror. Without thinking, they took a deep breath and, “Aiyeeeeeeeeeee!!!” Charlie let out a blood curdling scream of their own. It was not from mere fear, though, it was their way of saying, “I am here. I am not taking this anymore!”

With that the thought filled Charlie’s mind: “You are here for the Reckoning. Shall we begin?”

********

They all slowly began to come out of their stunned silence.

“Come on,” said Mildred, “we have to help find Charlie, bring them back, do something. Sarah and Charlie need us now. Don’t give up.” Mildred had also always been the cheerleader of the group.

“What all do you know about the Day of Reckoning?” This was Kate again. She seemed to know the most off-the-wall facts for all situations.

“Only what I’ve heard rumored in the last few years. It’s mainly the old-timers that recall what it was like in the beginning. My parents could probably tell us. But I heard it changed after a few years. There were rumors of Portals and supernatural beings, of people being torn to shreds or so dumbfounded when they returned that they could never speak again. None of what I’ve heard is good.” Harold streamed hours and hours of videos and historical events, so certainly he must have some idea of what had occurred previously.

“Each of us needs to run a search and see what information we can find. This may be a matter of life or death for Charlie, and if there’s any way we can get them back through that Portal, we are going to do it tonight. I don’t like what I’m hearing at all.” Sarah was going to take charge at this point, or at least get them all moving in the right direction. She couldn’t just sit and wait for an unknown outcome. Charlie had always believed that education was just one important implementation to change, and they sure as hell needed to change this situation.

“It all started in approximately 2009, when the Tea Party movement was at its height. Apparently, the politicians began to round up all the ‘subversive’ members of society and brought them to trial for their alleged offenses against nature or against the United States. It looks like this included all the queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, non-Christian, pro-choice people they could identify, and all the illegal immigrants they could lay their hands on.

“These sham trials were televised, and the person’s entire life history was discussed disparagingly over the airways. Even those who weren’t tried were too scared to come forward and argue for the rights of their fellow humans. After a guilty verdict, the person was thrown into prison, never to be heard from again.” Kate was the spokesperson for the factual information, along with Harold’s input from his extensive knowledge and what he was reading off the computer screen as the night wore on.

“What’s the scoop on the supernatural angle and the Portals?” At least now they were asking pertinent questions, thought Sarah, and she gave a small smile to Tom for having asked for the information.

“There’s not much data out there about that. It appears that initially, in the first year or two, people who had been tried were sent through the Portals on the Day of Reckoning and came back in various states of disorientation and dismemberment or even death. The Tea Party used these reports as propaganda ‘proving’ that their call for a return to God in Government, and anti-gay/lesbian perspectives were correct and important. They touted that April 15 was the day people rectified their tax debt, and April 23, a week and a day later, was the day they rectified their spiritual debt.” This, again, came from Kate.

“In many firsthand accounts, one gleans the true nature of the tortures and the pain they suffered in the name of their beliefs and life’s circumstances.” This was Harold’s bailiwick, and he conveyed the information not only educationally, but with feeling. Everyone at the gathering had difficulty listening to what he had to share.

“The people told their stories, they were asked questions about their homosexuality or their religion, questioned about their political views or lifestyles. Many answered truthfully, at least the first time, and immediately lost an arm or hand for their honesty. They were standing in darkness none of them had ever experienced before, and they ‘heard’ the questions form in their minds. The moment they thought their response, they were standing in this vast blackness with a bloody stump hanging by their side.

“The individuals go on to explain that each person was in turn told how their thinking was wrong, and as people of this country they must change or there would be dire consequences. Unfortunately, the consequences began immediately, and those with true conviction that were brave enough to hold strong to their ideals were either killed outright or sent back through the Portals with minds filled with gibberish, in various forms of wholeness.”

Harold paused to take a breath and allow everyone to decompress for a moment. He recalled the first time he had streamed a firsthand account of a person’s abduction he had thrown up at the end of the account. For a person to be treated so cruelly for standing up for their own rights and freedoms seemed impossible. This went against everything America represented, and yet because they did it all in the name of God, people were swayed and thought they were doing something good in taking away their neighbors’ rights.

Harold paced the living room and continued.  “Eventually, the beings on the other side of the Portals must have been convinced that the people they were abducting were standing up for the common good by believing and fighting for individuals’ rights. The beings saw how narrowly the politicians they had originally spoken with construed the religious beliefs, and they saw the harm they were doing. People have continued to be taken through the Portals on April 23 each year, but they no longer return dismembered or dead. What is happening to all of them appears to be a great mystery.”

“Here’s a video of a report of a lay person returned through one of the Portals in the early years. Let’s listen and see what it says.” Kate had pulled up a site and was now prepared to show it to all the guests, regardless of how shell-shocked they already appeared to be.

The person was obviously shaken, voice trembling, short of breath, and near tears. “I won’t even try to describe the beings that I encountered in that bleak dimension. They are too horrific for words. To look upon them was agonizing. My head felt like it would split open if I continued to gaze at them. I had to look away to protect my own sanity. They toyed with my emotions and feelings, terrifying me until I was frozen.

“I finally was so scared I just screamed out, ‘Who the hell are you and why are you doing this?’”

“I received an answer in my mind, ‘You are one of the few who has ever asked us why. The answer is simple. We are trying to save your community.’”

“Instead of screaming this time I thought back, ‘You’re going to have to explain that to me.’”

“Your leaders made it clear to us that your people have strayed far from what your founding fathers intended. They told us how your country was founded on Christian values, and to save your communities drastic action must be taken to return to that ideal.

“The marriage between a man and a woman is being ignored. Christian values of prayer in schools and the votes taken in the Senate and House not being based on Christian morals are all part of the destruction of your communities and must be stopped at all costs.

“Your leaders begged us to use our powers and influence to weigh the scales back in their favor. We abhor using our powers to inflict harm on others, but they assured us this was the only influence your ilk would understand. It was the only chance to make you conform.

“Conformity can be quite important in maintaining a cohesive community with common goals and good intentions.”

“Bullshit!” I yelled out loud.

We all yelled “Bullshit” in unison. We might have been shell-shocked, but now we were ready to fight.

********

“We are in your mind. You cannot deceive us. Answer our questions truthfully and with great thought, and The Day of Reckoning will soon be over.  You have just used the limbs of your fellow man to pull yourself up the mountain. In your life have you likewise pulled at the rotting flesh of those in your way on your rise to the top?”

“No, and I didn’t do it now. I mean I didn’t know. I couldn’t see. I thought they were tree limbs. I would never hurt someone else to gain rank or prestige in my life or career.”

“We see you state the truth. Do you know of others who pull others down to achieve their goals in life?”

“Of course. There are many people in business, in politics, in power, who do this all the time. We all see it, but we are limited in what we can do to stop it.”

“Would you like it if we used our forces to stop these people with bodily damage or even death?”

“No, no, that’s not how our society functions. We try to influence the success of these companies by choosing to purchase instead from B Corporations, by financially supporting companies who are loyal to their employees and making more responsible choices in our day-to-day lives.”

“Do you find these methods helpful?”

“Some of the companies are changing their methods, and they are being successful and winning more of the market share. Also, it depends on what you look at as helpful. It has helped employees make a livable wage, with family leave time available, and more loyalty to the employees. I can’t possibly go into it all here, but suffice to say, yes, it has been helpful to both employers, employees, the economy and the environment.”

“Very well. You have incorporated these skills into your daily life. Proceed up the mountain as you can.”

Now Charlie was terrified to grab anything to help them ascend. It would be better if they did it themself. If only they could see something.

“You will see when it is time.”

“Damn, they obviously know everything I think. Well, no way to outwit them through trickery.” The climb started to become steeper as the soil became looser. This appeared to be an impossible task. They still couldn’t see past the end of their feet, and they soon became disoriented. It looked like there might be some light on the other side of the peaks, so they tried to continue in that direction.

They became overheated and began to sweat profusely. Where the hell was the heat coming from? There was no sun, no obvious source of heat. They sat down to rest, and as they looked wearily up through the rivulets of sweat, they swore. They were sitting on the rocks at the bottom of the mountain. How the hell had that happened? They just knew they had been climbing upwards the entire time.

“So, you are hopelessly lost. Tell me now, how do you identify?”

“I identify as non-binary, using they/them pronouns.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Have you always been certain, or have you felt lost?”

“I was lost especially in the beginning, because of what other people told me I should or should not be. Then it was a journey of growth before I knew and could tell others how I wanted to identify. When I first explained this to the people closest to me, I was told I was too difficult to understand and received no support. Of course, I felt lost. What the hell.”

“Who have you blamed for being lost?”

“At first, I blamed myself. I was angry at myself. I have since learned it is okay to be angry with those in your life who will not support you.”

“You have grown indeed. Who are you angry with as you sit here lost?”

“I’m angry with you for bringing me to this stinking place and making me play these games. I’m angry because I can’t see a damned thing and you’re keeping me in the dark.”

“And do you think it is your job to convince other people of your point of view, that all people need to be non-binary and that makes the most sense?”

“No, that would be ridiculous. Each person must identify their own authentic self. The thing I would like people to understand is, as fellow humans, that it is our job to simply honor that person’s identity, treating them with dignity and respect.”

“Do you believe these politicians that push for all to conform to their ideals, as the Tea Party Movement, have ever felt lost, as you just experienced?”

“No, I believe they are so full of pride and false confidence that they would never concede that anything they believe could be wrong, no matter how many people point it out to them. And not only do they firmly believe it, they think it is their job, even their mission, to bring the entire populace around to their point of view, no matter what it takes.”

“But you still don’t see the value in us eradicating these people?”

“If we eradicate them, then they think they should get rid of us, and the cycle continues. The wars continue. Why can’t people see that they can hold their own beliefs without running over the beliefs and rights of others? There doesn’t need to be mutual annihilation or overwhelming power and domination.”

“Well said, and the same views are held by many of your friends and colleagues. However, we doubt your dissuaders agree. Shall we continue?”

“Only if you insist.”

And at that instant I was raised to the apex of the peak, where on the other side was a pink glow lighting the space just enough to see a great, blue ocean. I smiled. Was the worst of it over? Not even close.

********

The video continued. “Did you bother to look at the historical facts? Most of the founding fathers were not Christians at all. They were Puritans, Spiritualists, and many different belief systems. They specifically founded this country on freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and in fact wrote the Constitution protecting our freedoms.

“I can’t believe you took the politicians’ words for it and dismembered, maimed and killed people based on a misunderstanding. What type of beings are you?”

“In our defense, we have no planet or land of our own. Our entire purpose for being is to travel from planet to planet, helping those near extinction to survive. The condition of your planet was described to us as being near extinction, and quick action was required, according to your leaders. This, however, is inexcusable, and amends must be made.” The video cut out at that point.

“I wonder what type of amends they plan to make,” Sandy mused aloud.

“I don’t know, but we still need to find a way to open the Portal and bring Charlie back to this side without getting sucked in ourselves.” Kate stated the obvious, but she said it with such vehemence that we all felt empowered.

“Any suggestions,” Sarah asked hopefully.

“We just need to find someone who has returned from the other side.” Larry was finally trying to contribute.

“Oh, just that. How the hell are we supposed to do that when no one claims to know anyone who’s returned,” argued Larry’s husband, Tom.

“Who do we know, what age group do we start calling to ask?” Mildred needed the facts to get started.

“Well, it sounds like it was around 2012 when people started disappearing from their neighborhoods, not rounded up by the government. That’s apparently what’s happening now, and it still remains a mystery. The people who disappeared like that are probably the ones we want to contact. If they were in their twenties at the time, hell, that would mean anyone from about age thirty to forty.” Kate could always bring it around to facts needed to obtain the desired results.

“Who’s going to admit to being sucked into a Portal, poked and prodded by supernatural beings, and then spit back out on the street whole or in pieces? Everyone will think they’re nuts.”  Poor Denise was always on the pessimistic side.

“We will just have to convince them how much we need their help. I’m willing to give it a try. Come on, everyone, Charlie needs us.” Mildred cheered us on once again as we each began dialing numbers.

“So, just start calling people you know. Maybe they will confide in us if they know what we’re up against.”

********

As Charlie stood there smiling, they thought maybe the rough stuff was over. After all, it was all downhill from here. Those words would soon haunt them.

They began their descent, and the soil suddenly turned into that hard, smooth surface they had been crawling on earlier that day. They couldn’t hang on, and they began to slide and fall from one ledge to another, bruising a knee, a rib, a shin, fingers, an ankle. They were going to get to the bottom a lot quicker than they thought, but was it worth it? Their entire body felt beaten, and when the knowing came into their mind it gave them a headache.

“Have you ever felt like this before?”

“Yes, if it’s any of your business. I was in a relationship that was failing, and the longer I tried to make it work, the faster it seemed to give way beneath me. I felt bruised and beaten, even though my partner never physically abused me. I felt just like I do now, sitting at the bottom of this mountain.”

Charlie felt totally broken at this point, and as they reached a handout to Sarah and grabbed empty air, tears rolled down their cheeks as their heart throbbed with pain. What was the point of this pain and agony the aliens were putting Charlie through? At this moment Charlie felt totally drained and overwhelmed. They took a deep breath and inhaled a little courage.

They didn’t know what else the aliens had in store for them, but all was quiet for the moment. With that small glow of light surrounding them, they finally felt a little less afraid, a little more certain of their abilities. They were so tired. “Rest for now.” Charlie hardly noticed the intrusion into their mind again as they laid their head on the hard ledge above them and drifted off to sleep. They were just going to rest for a moment, but soon they were dreaming.

********

“How are your calls going?” Sarah was running out of patience.

“No one admits to knowing anything about the Day of Reckoning or the Portals. I’ve been called nuts by more of my friends than by casual acquaintances,” Larry grumbled.

 “Well, did you find out anything about the politicians and what happened to them? That may be a clue.” Tom was grasping at straws at this point.

“It said on the gov site that after they were abducted, they were all found flying through an invisible doorway, dismembered and in various forms of harm the next day. That’s what the newspapers reported.

“On the other hand, online sightings state all kinds of ideas and theories, apparently based in part on actual findings, but mostly conjecture. The far right that started the whole affair stated that it was ‘Divine Retribution’ because they overplayed their hand, many using this day as an opportunity to get rid of anyone who didn’t back them politically. They claim to have seen the Portals, with their pals coming and going. None of them claim to have seen a citizen being taken by a Portal or coming out of a Portal. To them, it was apparently God himself coming and weeding out some of the overzealous participants.” This was Harold chiming in with what he had previously researched.

“One woman I talked with told me that she had heard a story told of a college student who had been sucked into one of the Portals. She said they waited by the spot for twelve hours, but nothing occurred. She claimed they never saw him on campus again, but that he always was a loner, and no one knew him very well.” Sandy stated this with a hopeful note in her voice.

“At least we don’t have any reports of any citizen coming out mutilated after the first two years. It would be so much better for Charlie to simply live their life out in that world, than try to come home and be torn apart,” Linda remarked.

Sarah began to wail. Linda could be so insensitive. Of course, Sarah wanted Charlie to return. They loved each other deeply, and they had the children to consider. They were raising twin boys that were ten years old and they both doted on them. Sarah was inconsolable and simply could make no more calls in her state of mind. The others would have to take over and help her and Charlie.

Thank goodness they had so many close friends. Each of them had been instrumental in some way in helping Charlie achieve their goal they were celebrating tonight. PhD. Wow, that was earned while holding down a full-time job, helping raise the children, and sharing their life with Sarah.  They could all give testimonials to Charlie as a person; good, caring, loving, giving, sometimes painfully shy, yet a great presenter at conferences, and sometimes, though less lately, self-deprecating.

They had not only fought for freedom from stigmatization for themselves, but for others also, no matter what the stigma was. They spoke strongly for diversity, never preaching, but making strong, intelligent arguments that one could not quite find a reason to argue against.

Charlie was an influencer, and the world was ready for a warrior to change the status quo and shake things up a bit.

********

They immediately drifted into dreamland. They were standing in an unmown wheatfield, sun lighting the golden grains and a breeze made the wheat whisper in a steady vocabulary. They could almost, but not quite, make out what the wheat was trying to tell them.

“Go forward and tell the world. Find your voice. Let your Pride be your guiding force.”

Then they leaped to the right just in time. A huge scythe cut through the wheat close to Charlie, and they realized they had almost lost their head, quite literally. So, this place was not to be trusted, either. There was plenty of light, they could see for miles through the tall wheat, but they could not get their bearings on where they might be in relation to their dad’s farm back home.

They wandered through the wheat, narrowly escaping the scythe’s path on several occasions. This dream was so realistic. Charlie was shocked when they awoke on the rock slab, their head aching from twisting their neck and lying on such a hard surface.

What was that dream supposed to mean? They could feel and appear safe and yet be in danger? Gee, they really didn’t want to walk around on guard constantly, waiting for catastrophe around every turn while searching for their true meaning in life. The dream could have been about their strength and ability to take care of themselves, no matter what powers tried to cut them down or silence them. That made a lot more sense to Charlie. Even in their new job, there were obstacles and resistance to some of the changes they wanted to make. But diversity and inclusion were two of the most important ideals to mainstream, as far as Charlie was concerned. If they could begin that movement on campuses around the nation, then perhaps it would influence the public. Awareness was a big part of that battle. Awareness and education. They knew they were up to the challenge.

“So, you interpreted the dream as a lesson in life, not a nightmare?”

“Yes, I suppose I did,” Charlie thought. They no longer bothered to speak aloud. They knew the beings could hear them without that, and it seemed superfluous to speak aloud at this point.

“And these politicians that lied to us to try to change your world, if they were cut off from their goals, how do you believe they would react?”

“They would definitely go into stealth mode and gather all the power and control they could to do exactly what they wanted accomplished in the first place.”

The aliens agreed and made no further reply.

“What horrors await me this morning,” Charlie asked in their mind, thinking, “I hope they can sense my sarcastic tone.”

“We don’t put you through these exercises to torture you or terrify you. Terror is often a side effect, but that is not our intention. If you will be patient with us, you will see what the journey has been about in the end.”

“Who are you? What are you? Why don’t you show yourselves?”

“We come from a world, if you will, where there is no real substance or form. However, we have had to take on a form to fulfill our work in this dimension. Unfortunately, our form is viewed as so horrific by your people that we chose long ago not to show ourselves to you again. Many unfortunate people left with their eyes burned out of their sockets and their minds gone mad from having gazed upon us.”

“More fun news.” This sentiment Charlie spoke aloud. It reverberated across the great expanse of pink glow, growing in intensity, until it finally reached its crescendo with a crash. Charlie had to cover their ears as hard as they could. It felt like their eardrums were going to split. This was even worse than the banshee screams they heard when they first arrived.  Their headache grew exponentially, and they reached in their pocket for their Ibuprofen. Nope, not in their tuxedo pants. Damn, they were just going to have to wait it out.

Then the disembodied voice they had expected all along finally spoke. It was excruciating. What if they had just whispered? They knew what their voice would do.

The floor beneath Charlie’s feet fractured and left large fissures where solidity had been moments ago. The soil side of the mountain had already collapsed, and the sheer rock face was splintering into sharp, dangerous shards. The cacophony caused by all this destruction nearly drove Charlie mad. This was louder than any human ear was meant to register.

At first Charlie screamed in anguish, begging for the beings to stop this ludicrous show of power. They brought Charlie to their knees, they made Charlie scream, but they knew Charlie would get the point. Don’t make fun of the beings running the show. No one likes to be made fun of or laughed at for their personal flaws. Go against us and we have the power to destroy you. When Charlie stopped screaming, the other noises stopped, also; it just took about two minutes for all the sound to go back from where it came.

“Have you ever felt unheard, talked over, rebuked by noisy people in power?”

“Many, many times. New ideas, behavior modification, changing how people look at sex and/or gender. These are all difficult for some people to grasp, and not only do I feel that I need to scream to be heard but they also scream at me that I’m wrong, I'm bad, I’m sinning. I have tried to help open-minded, real people obtain the positions and the power that could make such a difference in so many individuals’ lives and in society in general.

“Clarity is a wonderful thing. I can no more make progress by screaming my message than they can win their point by screaming theirs.  Perhaps we should all learn to whisper words of encouragement instead.”

“Perhaps you have found a truth.”

As the aliens “spoke,” the wheatfield cleared, and before Charlie was the wide expanse of blue ocean that they had seen upon crossing the mountain. The ocean was placid, with no waves, no disturbances that were visible. Charlie knew that out in the far depths it could be churning intensely. They wondered whether the water would be cold or hot? It was a reasonable question in this crazy world. Charlie began to walk toward the water’s edge, but as they walked, the shore stretched farther and farther away from the water. Then they saw it closing in from the side.

One sand crab, probably as big as a truck – then two; five; ten; twenty.

Charlie began to run toward the water. Could they outswim the sand crabs if they got in the water first? The crabs were coming from the right; now they were coming in equal numbers from the left. Charlie’s breath came in short spurts. They felt the ice-cold water hit their shins but had no moment’s hesitation in diving headlong into the surf. They quickly gained their purchase in deep enough water and began swimming. Thank goodness they were a strong swimmer. If those sand crabs got ahold of them, they were going to lose some flesh.

They were safe now, not a sand crab in sight, but they were far away from the shore. In fact, they could no longer see the shore, and they were exhausted from swimming so fast for so long. Now what were they supposed to do?

“Have you ever felt like you fought like hell to hold your own, to keep from being pulled under and won the day, only to be left treading water with no support in sight?”

“You know that’s happened before. It more than likely happens to everyone who pushes the envelope for change in their field.”

“You’re probably right about that. What did you do to get out of it?”

“I must have received help from someone because I didn’t drown. So, are you going to help me, or what?”

“Just waiting for you to ask.”

Charlie blinked and they were standing on a grassy knoll in a beautiful green clearing. The smell of new-mown grass filled their nostrils, and Charlie remembered back to younger days, days of sun and leisure, fun and running barefoot through the meadows. Those had truly been happy times. They were times of innocence and naivete. Charlie was no longer naïve nor innocent, but they could say they were truly happy again in their life today. How could they get back to that life? Were they stuck in this crazy, frightening, mind-blowing world forever?

“You will pass through the Portal again – whether whole or in pieces depends entirely on you.”

Ominous.

********

“Here’s a headline about a college student that went missing for two days. He was found wandering the shores of Lake Michigan, a couple miles away from his home, unharmed, but disheveled and disoriented.” Mildred had found something they might be able to use finally.

“We need to find out where he is now and how to contact him,” Sarah blurted in excitement.

“Let’s hope he’s on social media and he has really open privacy settings,” Melinda piped in.

“Here’s a guy with the same name, Anthony Florey, born in Chicago, lives in California, photographer. We can start there, anyway.” Harold was excited by this turn of events also.

“What do we do, just write him a message and say, ‘Hey, were you taken by the unknowns for the Day of Reckoning?’ He likely won’t want to talk about it, or certainly won’t want to admit it to strangers.” Denise chimed in. There has to be a pessimist in every crowd.

“Maybe if we explain what’s happened tonight with Charlie. I mean, this guy is certainly tired of being alone with this experience all these years. Maybe he’s just looking for someone to talk to about the whole situation. But we need a quick reply. We need someone to get over here and come up with a message he can’t ignore.” And here was Mildred again, being the optimist, so it all balanced out.

“Should we try to go in sideways, asking him about his photography first and then somehow slowly slide into the real issue?” asked Tom.

“Hell, no, he will think we’re trying to trick him or we’re underhanded. Just put it all up front and let him decide what he wants to do.” Larry and Tom could disagree about what color the sky was, but they loved each other deeply. They always said it added spice to their marriage.

“Okay, here goes.

“Help! Friend taken through Portal today, April 23. Any way to help them get back? We understand you may have some knowledge about this.” Harold knew how to get down to brass tacks.

“That’s certainly up front. Send it. We can’t afford to pussyfoot around the issue at this point. Who knows what Charlie’s going through over there?” Sarah stated what was on their minds.

In about five minutes the answer came back.

“Yes, I was taken through the Portal. Your friend won’t be harmed. May go through some rough lessons, but beings all about making amends. Help people find path that are lost and encourage and celebrate people that are succeeding. As far as getting them back...

“Wait.”

********

Charlie reveled in the feel of the grass. They took off their Doc Martins and their socks and wriggled their toes in the softness of the earth. So, were there some good things in this realm also? Charlie hoped so, but they were cautious. They languidly reclined on the bed of green and dreamed of days spent with Sarah and the boys. They had been good days for the most part. Days of joy and fun, activities, playfulness, but also discipline and learning, growing and teaching. Sometimes Caleb and Cory taught Charlie more than Charlie taught Caleb and Cory. Life in their family was a good deal of give and take, and sharing, both responsibilities and love. Family life as they knew it at this time agreed with Charlie, and all who knew them could see that.

As they relaxed into their reverie, they felt slowly uncomfortable, as though an intruder were slowly moving into their mind, stealing their thoughts, stealing the energy off their feelings. Charlie sat bolt upright and yelled out loud, “Stop!” They saw the full outline of the creature move across the field and out of sight behind a copse of trees.

If possible, it was shining even hotter and brighter than it had before. It was taller than Charlie recalled, and the eye sockets were deeper, with more gunk and worms than they had seen previously. Was it getting more powerful? Did it feed off Charlie’s emotions, good or bad?

How could they stop this monster from growing?  They would have to become numb. But Charlie was a very passionate, sentient being. They put their feelings and heart into every project, every paper they wrote, every presentation they made, literally everything they did in life. It was impossible to ask them to shut off their feelings even for a short while. They would have to find another way to defeat this monster, if indeed it was a monster and needed to be defeated. That was the question Charlie hadn’t answered to their own satisfaction. Was the alien a benevolent benefactor, bringing gifts of knowledge and growth, or was the alien devious and malicious, playing Charlie’s people off one another to gain power and strength for the being’s own benefit?

Sometimes Charlie felt they were receiving strength and assistance from the being, and other times Charlie felt they were being probed and fed upon by the entity, zapping Charlie’s energies.

They were thinking these heavy thoughts when the earth began to rumble low and long. It was so subtle at first that Charlie almost didn’t notice, but then they became aware that something was “wrong” and identified the rumbling. It grew in intensity. With each passing thought. Crap. This was a full-blown earthquake. Trees were toppling over nearby, but Charlie’s biggest concern was the craters that were opening beneath their feet all around them. What if they fell – “Ayyyyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!” Too late, they were ten feet down in a crevice looking at nothing but a stark wall of smooth soil. Now what the hell were they going to do?

They tried leaping up and down to reach the lip of the crevice. No luck at all. They put their shoes back on and tried to kick toe holds in the soil so they could climb out. No luck on that score, either. They wished they had a rope. They hollered for help just in case some other lost soul happened to be out there somewhere. Charlie was tired, their throat was sore, and they were totally dejected, when they began to “talk to themselves.”

“Who decided these beings are ‘monsters?’ They may have brought me here, and there may be really bad things here, but perhaps we’re supposed to help each other past these obstacles. Maybe if we work together, we will both survive, and neither of us will end up going back through the Portal with our limbs torn off or dead.

“A week and a day later, we look at our spiritual path. In the beginning they wanted to dictate to us what path we had to take, and if we didn’t, then they decided we were unfit and had to be destroyed.”

At first the beings went along with this, but they quickly learned that this had all been a lie. They began taking the unjust and lying humans, bringing them through the Portal, and trying to teach them the true path of compassion and spirituality. Many of them could not grasp it, and because they could not work in the spirit of cooperation, they were thrown back through the Portal dismembered and dead or dying.

“Tell me, why do you continue this practice on April 23 of each year?”

“We need your human desires and compassions to survive here in this inhospitable land,” Charlie’s mind heard. “We have no land where we can return, and this place has disformed us so that it is difficult to maintain any sense of normalcy. By continuing to study your people, especially the spiritually transformed people, we recall what it takes to be compassionate, caring and kind. Although we were never human, we have always exhibited human traits, and until this land deformed us so, we had rather melodious voices and were pleasing to the eye.”

“We worry about the leaders that try to influence your communities to the extremes, however. They have not gone quietly into the night. We hear they have outlawed women’s reproductive rights; they want to outlaw gay and lesbian marriages, and the list continues. Isn’t it better that we destroy these people before they destroy your way of life?”

“If you have learned anything about us, you know we are not about destroying any people for thinking or acting differently than one another. The atrocities they are inflicting on some people are indeed inhumane, but we will once again raise our voices and our numbers and do what we can to change this situation. Although it has come down from the highest Court in the land, that law cannot be changed again until it is voted on again. The justices sit for a lifetime appointment, so it doesn’t look very hopeful. However, killing the rightwing Tea Party Movement members would do nothing at this point to change the situation either.”

“You have reached understanding much sooner than many of your other contemporaries do. Your wife and friends will be happy to see you soon, and you may continue your celebration of your life.”

“I feel bad just leaving you here like this,” I think out loud. “I mean, I can’t wait to get home, but is there anything else I can do for you? Is there anything that would make you feel better or make your life better?”

“That is a very generous offer. There is perhaps one thing you could do. If you could educate people about the Portals and about our plight in this foreign land, perhaps they would not be so distraught when a few of them pass through each year. We take as few as possible because we know how upsetting this is to your people. We hear the rumors and the stories, and we sense the fear it induces. We would be more comfortable and could continue to grow more rapidly if we could bring more over each year. Maybe an ad campaign or something like that would suffice?”

“I’ll have to think about that. What would I say? ‘Only the spiritually inclined need apply?’ That might be a little awkward.”

“Whatever you feel you could do to help us would be appreciated.”

“Maybe you could give me maps of where all these Portals are so people don’t keep accidentally falling in.”

“Oh, well, you see, we move them every year. We never know where their exact location is going to be until we place them. If you could round up some volunteers, we could point you to one or two Portals for them to enter.”

Charlie felt doubt creeping into their consciousness. “How about putting me back even with the top of the ground?”

“Yes, of course. And here is your Portal. Go home to your family.”

Oh, good, they hadn’t noticed the doubt in their mind. But that hardly seemed possible. Nothing got past them. Charlie threw up a big red and white “STOP” sign in their mind. They concentrated on nothing but that until they got over to and through the Portal and were back in Sarah’s arms again. They heard the Portal audibly close. Were the aliens really gone, or were they forever in Charlie’s mind?

Should they help the aliens gather more people next year, or were the beings a little too dangerous to be “helping?” Charlie felt that they still had more questions than answers, but for tonight they were going to put it away and enjoy their celebration.

Everyone was so happy to see Charlie again. They all talked at once. “Where were you? What was it like? Are you okay? Are you injured? Was anyone else there? Could you hear us? It felt like forever here. How long was it for you? Did you see anyone or anything? It all sounded like a riotous uproar to Charlie.

“All I want is a kiss from Sarah, a hug from Caleb and Cory and all my friends, and a drink, in that order.”

About the Author

Cathy Robertson

I have just begun submitting works for publication within the last year; however, I have been writing since I was a teen. I have had one of my short stories published in an anthology of short stories, titled "The Dragons Have It". The stories in it relate to youngsters coming of age. I am a 66-year-old kayaking grandmother of three 11-year-old boys. I have a very active life and enjoy many activities.

Read more work by Cathy Robertson .