Ellis tried to join the junior high stage crew. He wanted to play in their school band. They turned him down.
“You’re a freak,” said head crewman Gordon Heltman. “Don’t you know you’re still wearing your pyjama top and slippers?”
Ellis looked towards his feet. The rest of the stage crew chuckled. Ellis sank against the stage wall. He’d never be able to get out of this low status life and become a rock star or an actor or an artist. That very morning he sat at the table staring into space thinking of playing James Bond, while his oatmeal boiled over. His Mom ran in yelling “You’re gonna cause a fire, you brainless daydreamer!”
Then she asked, “have you finished your math homework?”
Now, Ellis gazed down at his scuffed brown slippers, and his pyjama bottoms poking out the top of his cargo pants. The stage crew bustled around, ignoring him.
“I can’t even dress properly,” Ellis whispered. “Everyone acts like I don’t exist.”
He sat against the wall and pulled at the hair on his lower legs. Gordon walked up to him.
“Everyone knows you have hairy legs” Gordon grinned.
He clipped the top of Ellis’s head with his big meaty hand and stomped out to class.
“If I had one wish,” Ellis said, “I’d wish to be in a different world.
He sat there a while, hands clasped over his knees. He heard a click. A door opened in the wall above him. Ellis wiped the tears off his face.
“That wasn’t very nice of Gordon,” said a mellifluous, radio announcer voice. “But nothing to cry about.”
Ellis perceived a hairy leg dangling from the door opening, then another leg, and a long, skinny boy about Ellis’s age in green camouflage pants and a buckskin jacket jumped to the stage floor.
“Lucky the curtain’s pulled,” said the mantis like boy, in a low, hoarse tone, like someone years older, or a pack a day smoker. “Our secret meeting may commence.”
“You look like the drummer in my dream last night.” Ellis said.
He’d dreamed of being a rock star. In the dream, he couldn’t get his guitar in tune. He woke up gasping with stage fright.
“I’m Roy Witigo” grinned the pointy-headed lad. “I think I was in that episode to keep you company.” He squatted across from Ellis. “You didn’t want to be alone,” he said.
“Yes,” said Ellis. “It’s very strange. You were in my dream, and then you came out of that door.”
You’re in my dreams too,” said Roy. “I can appear anywhere. Some call me the demon drummer from the mountains.”
“Demon is not a good name,” Ellis said.
“Anyone can call names,” Roy told him. “We all have our bad side.”
Ellis nodded. He knew this from his own experience. He often felt miserable and isolated because of people picking on him.
Roy seemed to read his thoughts. “You think no-one cares for you,” said the low-talking boy.
“That’s right!” Ellis replied. “Even my Mom says I’m a miserable useless person.”
“Well,” said Roy, “I know a better world, a place where you will be accepted by all who love you.”
“Where’s that?” Ellis asked.
Roy pointed behind him with a long index finger. “Up there, behind the wall.”
“It’d be great to be accepted” said Ellis. “What’s this better world like?”
“First, you have freedom from this one” Roy told him. “Freedom from the bullies and the Moms and school and work.. Besides that,” Roy continued. “You never grow old.”
“Are there girls there?”
“There are,” Roy said. “Beautiful ones. And all guitars are in tune.”
“My life has been terrible since I started junior high,” said Ellis.
“Yes,” said Roy. “You’re a very creative and imaginative fellow.” His voice became deeper. “You simply need a place to fit in.”
“That’s very true,” said Ellis. “What do I do?”
“Crawl through that opening, and down the shaft,” Roy said. “When you get to the bottom, wade down the underground stream. It takes you out to the secret world.”
“Can I come back?” asked Ells, “I might want to visit my pet dog sometime.”
“Sure you can!” Roy grinned. “Retrace your steps to the stream and wade back up. It’s easy!”
“You don’t want anything in return?” Said Ellis.
“It’s not my world I’m offering,” Roy told him. “It’s your world to climb into.” He grinned. “I’m simply the ambassador.”
“What about you?” Ellis asked. “What are you going to do when I’m gone?”
“I’ll take your place here for a while,” Roy said. “It’ll be a temporary exchange. I’ll do your math homework for you. I’ll fit right into the human world, like you’ll fit into mine.”
“That sounds good. Maybe I’ll go and take a look,” Ellis replied.
He climbed up into the doorway.
“It’s dark down there,” he said.
“Here’s a flashlight,” Roy called, throwing him up a small cylinder. “Courage, my man.”
Ellis turned the light on and pointed it through the hole. The beam was powerful, yet the ladder descended down past the end of the brightness.
“Seems like a long way,” Ellis said.
“Change doesn’t happen on its own,” Roy told him. “No angels are going to fly you to paradise.”
Ellis put his feet on the ladder.
“It’ll be an adventure” he thought. “I’ll never get anywhere here, and I can always come back.”
The ladder felt solid. He began to descend. Roy’s head appeared in the door entrance.
“I’m closing this now,” the insect boy said.
Ellis saw Roy’s dark head shadow against the fluorescence of the stage lights. The door shut and all turned pitch black. Ellis began to move down and down for what seemed an infinite distance. After a time, he shone the light again. Water shimmered below. Sweat dripped from Ellis’s forehead.
“So hot here,” he thought.
At the bottom of the shaft, the stream gurgled through a high tunnel.
“I’m gonna get wet,” Ellis dipped his slippers in, and the water came up almost to his waist. It felt warm, too, like a swirl pool bath massage.
“No turning back,” he told himself, and waded downstream.
He played the flashlight on the tunnel walls, which shone black and smooth as obsidian.
“Courage,” he whispered.
The tunnel narrowed. The water squeezed itself through a hole just big enough to crawl through.
“Roy didn’t tell me about this,” Ellis thought.
He’d have to dive down and push his way along underwater.
“Maybe I should go back,” cascaded through his mind.
He looked behind him. Even when he shone his light, the obsidian cavern swallowed up the brightness.
“It’s like I’m in a dream,” he thought, “yet I’ve come this far now.”
His legs began to shake as the current swirled faster against them.
“My knees are giving way!” he exclaimed.
He took a huge breath, bent and dove under. A humming sounded in his ears. He opened his eyes. A shimmering glow appeared ahead. Ellis pushed his way through the water, his arms and legs flailing, and emerged dripping and shivering in a ditch over by the hockey arena.
The world looked pretty much the same. He stared up at Mount Usakam, the rocky peak that looked over the town. Roy’s words came to mind.
“Some call me a demon drummer from the mountains.”
“He had an odd voice,” Ellis thought. “Like an old man, but he was a boy.”
A few cars passed silently as Ellis stood by the road. Their occupants stared straight ahead.
The sun burned hot, like mid-summer. Earlier, at the school, it was a cool November day. The thrumming he heard underwater, like hummingbird wings, continued. It seemed to emanate from Mount Usakam. Ellis’s house sat up on the side of that mountain.
“I should walk home and put on some dry clothes,” he thought.
He stepped through the streets. A hot wind blew, then turned ice cold. The sky darkened. For a few seconds, a blizzard of snow whirled around him, then the sun came out again. He looked up at Mount Usakam, noticed light green spring leaves on the poplar trees ahead. The snow melted from his shirt and his pants dried as the sun hit and it became hot once more.
“Weird weather,” he thought.
A girl walked across the street, and Ellis waved.
“Hey!” he said. “Lenore Jenkins! Are you skipping out today?”
She strolled on, without a nod, and vanished in a fog rising from the end of the block.
“She looked older,” he thought. “Like in Grade 11, not Grade 8.”
A group of young men jogged around him. They appeared clear at first, then blurry.
“Hey!” he yelled. “Don’t come so close!”
They kept running and disappeared in another bank of fog. The humming became louder as he hiked up the hill towards his parent’s place. Cars passed.
“Why doesn’t anyone see me?” Ellis wondered. “Are they all snobs?”
He noticed a brand-new house near the top of the hill.
“Funny, it wasn’t there this morning.” he mused.
He smelled woodsmoke, then wild rose blossoms. The leaves on the trees disappeared and re-appeared once again. As he passed Schmidt’s sheep farm, he glanced to one side. The farm blurred out and reappeared as a subdivision. The only thing that seemed solid was Mt. Usakam. He kept his eye on it.
“I just want to get home” he said out loud.
His parent’s place looked different. The fir tree in the middle of the lawn loomed huge. Its branches spread all the way to the roof of the house. An old dog walked stiffly out to greet him.
“Tip!” said Ellis. “Is that you?”
The old animal rubbed itself against Ellis’ legs.
Ellis squatted down. “Wow, you’re all grey and white fur!” he exclaimed. He recalled what Roy said about acceptance. “You love me, don’t you Tip?” Ellis said.
The dog shook itself and panted and stuck its nose against Ellis’ side. Ellis loped towards the front door. He heard noises in the kitchen, and hip-hop music from the basement.
“Mom! Dad!” he exclaimed.
He walked into the kitchen. The stove and fridge still stood in the same places, but his Dad sported grey sideburns and was practically bald.
“Have we got any more butter?” Dad asked.
Tip licked Ellis’ hand.
“Who let the dog in?” His mother remarked.
She pulled some bread out of a bag. She appeared dumpier and more wrinkled than Ellis remembered.
“Dunno.” His Dad answered. He stood there holding a jar of jam. “Maybe I’m going senile.”
“It was me!” Elis shouted, “It was me who let the dog in!” but his parents kept making their lunch as if he didn’t exist.
Ellis ran over and waved his hands in front of their faces. They didn’t budge. He tried to touch them, but his hands could not connect. When he moved towards them again, they turned away.
His Dad walked towards the top of the stairs.
“Roy!” he called. “Ten minutes til lunch!”
“Roy!” Ellis exclaimed. “What’s he doing here?”
He tried to grab his Dad, but every time his hands slipped away like they were coated with grease. He leaped around his father, ran down the stairs, the dog lumbering behind. His room was the first door on the left. It was open. Ellis looked in. Roy lay on his back on Ellis’ bed, his big bare feet sticking out the end.
“Hi Ellis,” said Roy. “You took a long time to get here.”
“You see me!” Ellis said. “Like Tip!”
“Well, Tip still loves you,” Roy said. “And you’re part of my dream. I always write down my dreams, so I don’t forget.”
“I’m real,” Ellis said. “What are you doing in my room? And you look old, you’ve got a beard!”
Roy heaved himself up on his elbows.
“I live here, man,” he said. “Remember, I took your place?”
“That was only a couple of hours ago,” Ellis said.
“In your time it was only hours,” Roy told him.
His face looked longer, his chin chiselled, yet his voice still sounded low and lulling. “In this world’s time, it’s been ten years.” He grinned. “I work in landscaping. Don’t make enough to live on my own yet, so I’m still living in Mom and Dad’s basement.”
“This is my basement!” yelled Ellis. “And it’s my Mom and Dad!” He heard saucepans clattering from the kitchen above. He yelled louder. “Mom and Dad!”
“They don’t see you,” said Roy, “because I’m their son now. When we changed places, everything switched. They accepted me because their memory of their son changed too.”
Ellis’s legs shook. He collapsed against the wall, and curled up, hands around his knees.
Tip moved close to him and sat with his head against Ellis’ shoulder.
“Easy, bro,” Roy said. He heaved himself up on the bed and rubbed his face. He stood even taller than back at the school. “Remember, what I said? In the better world you’re in, you’re only accepted by those who love you.” He continued “Time moves differently in the world of dreams. An hour can be seven years.”
“I’m not in the world of dreams!” yelled Ellis. “You told me I’d be free. You scammed me.”
“You can go anywhere,” Roy said. “And you’ll never grow old.”
“But.” said Ellis. “I’m alone!”
“You can go back to the stream and swim up,” Roy said. “Get into the school again.”
“Then will everything be like before?” Elis said.
“It sure will,” Roy told him. “When I come out of the stage opening, ignore me, and go to your math class. All will work out as if you never left.” He grinned. “Tip still loves you. Only a dog’s love never changes.”
Ellis pressed his fingers against his eyes. He let them go. Roy was still there.
“Who are you really?” Ellis moaned.
“I come from under the mountain,” Roy said. “Mount Usakam.” He grinned and pulled on his socks. “I’m thousands of years old. I wanted human experience. For my resume.”
He stood up and fastened his cargo pants. “You should’ve looked up my last name, Witigo.”
“What does it mean?” asked Ellis.
Roy laughed. “Cannibal,” he said. “Eater of men’s souls. You took reality for granted, Ellis. When you went down that shaft, I became your reality, and you became my dream. I’ve watched you walk this way every night for ten years.”
He gave Tip a pat on the head and stepped out the door. “Going up for lunch,” he said.
“By the way, one positive thing about your situation is you don’t have to eat your parents’ food.”
Ellis sat there a while, feeling old Tip’s head on his shoulder.
“I gotta get back to that stream,” he said, though his knees shook, and his vision blurred.
He pulled himself up and rubbed his eyes. He staggered out the basement door and ran down the driveway past the trees that had grown so tall.
“I have time,” he told himself, loping along the road towards the school. “I’ll find that stream again.”
As he ran, the snow and the heat passed by, the leaves fell and re-formed. Ellis sprinted against the weather and the humming from Mt. Usakam. He put his hands over his ears and galloped, felt his feet pound against the asphalt as he tore down the hill towards the dilapidated hockey arena. The stream still flowed out of the old culvert. He took a deep breath and wriggled his way in. With all his strength he pushed hard against the current, crawling against it. The pipe widened, changed into the tunnel and he stood up, reached into his pocket for the flashlight. To his amazement, it turned on. He played the light against the shiny black wall above him.
“Nothing attached to me changes,” he said out loud. “And thank god that humming has stopped.”
He waded his way towards the shaft and shone the flashlight ahead. The light vanished in the distance. He began to climb the ladder, pulling himself up and up faster and faster.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” he repeated over and over.
He almost bumped his head on a circular plate that blocked the shaft. He shone the light all round it. Solid iron.
“This wasn’t here before,” he said, and tried to push the plate.
He almost fell back down the shaft. He tried again, and it lifted enough for him to jam the flashlight in the opening. He rested, and after he regained his strength, pushed again and the cover lifted, tipping over with a crash. Ellis stepped out. He stood in a parking lot. Across from him sat a brand-new office building.
“They tore the school down,” he said. “They tore the god damn thing down.”
As he spoke, it began to snow. Ellis screamed. He squatted in the parking lot until the hot winds came again and melted the winter. A middle-aged woman walked towards him, carrying a shopping bag. She looked vaguely like Lenore Jenkins.
“Do you see me?” he cried. “Do you know me?”
Even as he ran towards her, she passed by, expressionless, into fog at the end of the lot. He stood weeping. How many years had passed since he left his parents’ house? Tip would be gone now, in the time it took Ellis to crawl back upstream. Roy might be the only other being who would be able to see him.
Ellis paused. Did Roy love him? That’s what the insect boy said. “You will be accepted by all who love you.” Did he love Ellis as a brother? Was it love from gratefulness, when Ellis gave up his life and Roy became Mom and Dad’s son?
He looked up at Mount Usakam, which loomed above an incoming storm. Ellis once again heard the humming from the mountain, louder this time.
Usakam would always be there, Ellis knew, though all else would pass. Roy would come back to it, after his human body ended its physical time. “He told me himself he’s lived thousands of years.” Ellis thought. “And I’m so alone here.”
He began walking towards Usakam, fingering his never decaying pyjama top, feeling the movements and the marching forward of his immortal arms and legs.
His everlasting slippers flip-flopped against the asphalt.
BIO: I grew up under a mountain very much like Mount Usakam, rumored by the local indigenous people to be populated with “little people” who could be very very good, or very very mischievous. As a stage crew member at my old school, I explored mysterious passageways above the ceilings and between the walls. I linked these topics together for the story. I live in Victoria, Canada, and recent work has been published in “The Horror Zine,” “Bewildering Stories,” “The Chamber Magazine,” and others. My blogspot is here: https://harrisonkim1.blogspot.com