“Mars, help me. Help me, Mars.”
Betty Garimonde wasn’t dead. Mars could see the slight rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. Her body was so frail that when he lifted it, it felt as if all her substance were gone, and he was only lifting her skin and her bones. The light, not just sunlight, but even the light of the torches, seared her skin, so that Mars had to keep her covered from head to toe with a cloth. She looked even more so like a corpse when he did. Maybe she was close to being one. So there was nothing to lose now.
Mars left her lying on the floor of the cave, in the cloying humidity just beyond the torchlight. She didn’t speak again. He was getting nervous. He wiped the sweat from his chin and his forehead. He held the key to the door, a key carved from the bone of a being that no longer lived on the same earth that he lived upon. The door was vast. It was seven times his height at least, and a dozen burly men standing side-by-side could have walked through it at once.
But first…it had to be unlocked. It had to be opened.
Mars Dietrich had always had a passion for learning about the things that lay on and beyond the edge of human understanding. So it was no surprise that when he finished his schooling, he sought out and joined an organization whose mission aligned with that passion. His job was to learn, gather information, and pass it on to those who were authorized to act. They looked into dubious news and extraordinary claims. The first five cases he was assigned tested and expanded his understanding. He witnessed proof of ancient folklore and even managed a feat himself that defied the known laws of nature. Mars believed he had indeed found his path. But with the sixth case, he broke with his given protocol; and by the end of that case, he broke with the path he had been traveling.
He was sent for his sixth case to the home of Ms. Rosamunde Garimonde. She was one of the quietly wealthy, well-known in her own circles, but mostly unknown to the world at large. She had bought an estate for her parents on the East Coast. But she and her younger sister lived more modestly in the west, in a two-story house at the end of a tree-lined dirt road.
Bethany Garimonde, though taking advantage of her sister’s offer to provide a free residence, made her own way in the world, pursuing her great passion, voice acting.
When Mars mentioned it, as he and Ms. Garimonde exchanged pleasantries over a simple spread of coffee and sandwiches, she sighed and smiled fondly.
“She’s actually quite wonderful.” Ms. Garimonde’s smile faded. “You wouldn’t know it if you spoke to her now.”
“May I?” Mars asked. “Speak to her?”
Ms. Garimonde’s shoulders tensed. “She’s resting.” She sighed again. “But that is why you’re here, isn’t it? That’s why I asked for you—for someone. She’ll be awake soon. She can’t really rest anymore. So she doesn’t sleep for long. She’ll doze off a dozen times during the day, and the night. But she doesn’t stayed dozed for long.” She gave a tight-lipped smile.
“My home office didn’t give me much background. This has something to do with your travels.”
She perked up. “When I was young, I loved archaeology. That’s what I really wanted to study, but I didn’t think it was practical. So I didn’t. But…your true love never goes away, does it?”
“I’ve worked hard enough. It’s paid off. And now, I am at leisure to return to it, in a manner of speaking. I consider myself an amateur archaeologist.” She waved a hand behind Mars, and he turned to note the bookcases full of literature about artifacts, dig sites, histories of ancient civilizations, languages lost to oblivion.
He turned back to her, one brow raised. “How many have you read?”
Ms. Garimonde laughed. “Most.”
Mars nodded. “You found something.”
“I’ve found many things. Most of them, I’ve given to universities and museums. A few I’ve kept. But my travels and searches weren’t at random, Mr. Dietrich.” She pointed to the golden-brown skin of her forearm. “There is a lot of mystery in my background. Even if I were to go three generations back, mystery. But three generations back is still very recent. Three generations back is not that many people. Imagine how much mystery there is in the history of the whole human race. We know that humanity has lost vast amounts of knowledge. Makes me wonder how many times we’ve have to reinvent the wheel. Where we could be if we didn’t go one step backward for every two we take forward.
“We’ve had hold of powers that slipped through our grasp. We’ve gone blind to doorways that stand right in front of us. I’ll be honest. I’ve always wanted to find something extraordinary. Not just a relic or a precious stone. Something that actually…works. I know that sounds foolish and dangerous. I’ve always known that. I know that even better now. Too well in fact.”
Mars set his coffee cup down and leaned forward.
“Yes, I found something. And it’s affected my sister. She’s wasting away up there, and I’ve tried all I can think of to help her.” She rose from her seat and sat down next to Mars. She startled him by taking his hand and folding it between both of hers. “I know you are only here to gather all the information that I have. To send it back to your superiors and let them sort it out. I know they will try to find some way to treat my sister. Cure her, perhaps. But there is no way on this earth. Not anymore.”
Mars put his other hand over hers. “Ms. Garimonde. I’m not here just to gather information. If there is anything else I can do for you, please ask.”
“They won’t want me to open it. It would be even more foolish than what I’ve already done. But I have to. It’s the only way to save her. It really is. Over the past year, I’ve taken her to dozens of hospitals all over the world. I’ve brought in mystics and faith healers. Tried different kinds of exorcisms. But she isn’t possessed by a demon or overrun by a virus. I don’t think it’s just her body that is affected either. I think whatever it is, it’s mangled her very soul.”
Mars frowned. “What makes you say that?”
“In fact, I think that’s why her body is decaying,” Ms. Garimonde said, in lieu of a direct answer. “Her soul is drowning and it’s dragging her body down with it.”
“Please, tell me what happened.”
She suddenly ripped her hands away from his and stood up. She placed a hand over her mouth, and blinked away the tears that filmed over her eyes.
“I’ve never said it out loud. It’ll sound preposterous and…horrific.”
“You won’t want to help me. But I’m hoping you’ll want to help her.”
“There she goes again,” another voice said. “Talking about me like I’m not sitting right here.”
Mars turned. She rolled up to him in a wheelchair. Her hands were gloved. She wore a long-sleeve shirt and slacks, over which there lay a thin folded blanket. On her head was a wide-brimmed gardening hat. The lights in the living room suddenly dimmed. Ms. Garimonde was pulling close all the curtains as her younger sister stopped rolling and Mars sat back down.
“I’m Harmless Betty,” the younger sister said as she stuck out a gloved hand.
Mars took it gently and was mildly surprised at how strong her grip was. He peered curiously at her upon her self-introduction.
Betty tipped her head toward her sister. “That’s what she calls me. It’s never really been true until now.” She took her hat off and set it on her lap.
“Be careful with the light,” Ms. Garimonde said.
Betty waved her off as she locked her gaze on Mars. “It’s fine.” She smiled. “Just fine.”
With her hat off, Mars saw how pale she was. In the pictures above the fireplace mantel, Betty shared her sister’s golden-brown complexion and midnight-colored hair. Only her eyes were different, a glowing light brown, like honey.
In the dim light, her eyes looked darker, but her skin was sapped of color and vibrancy. It was ashen and gray. Even through her loose clothing, she seemed atypically thin.
“She hasn’t told you what’s happening to me, has she?” Betty asked. “She’s been beating around the bush, setting the stage, afraid you’ll run out of here. You’re pretty much her last hope. Our last hope. And we have a lot to ask of you. So if you are the type to get easily run off,” she said, turning to her sister, “we’re better off finding out sooner rather than later.”
She turned back to Mars, who glanced between the sisters before resting his gaze on Betty’s brown eyes.
“I drank the marrow of a giant,” she said.
Mars knew many legends about giants. He remembered one that was particular to the New World.
Giants ruled over the earth before humans came along. One time, these giants committed a sin so grievous that it was not written down, lest the next race to rule the earth, humanity, was corrupted by the sin. The giants were struck down by whatever forces ruled the heavens at the time. Struck down, but not killed. They were given a worse punishment. Their souls were taken and they fell into eternal sleep, their bodies never rotting, for their bodies were as immortal as their souls. Humans discovered where the giants lay and tried to rouse them, wanting to learn the secrets of the great powers they once possessed, powers that were not granted to humanity, again out of fear that they might sin as the giants once sinned.
They managed to wake some of the giants, but the beings that woke were not the same as the ones that went to sleep. Without souls, these were hideous, terrible creatures that attacked the ones who woke them. The awakened giants remembered their own story. They had no souls, and they wanted some. A giant’s soul resided in his body, even his hair has portions of it. So they thought they could consume the souls of humans by consuming the humans’ bodies. Those humans who were maimed and devoured, torn limb from limb while still alive were, as it turned out, the lucky ones. They suffered a moment of terror and then were free. When the giants found they could not gain the souls of the humans they ate, they captured some of the humans and tried to extract their souls by primitive and brutal magic. In trying, they failed, but not before they mangled the human souls, beyond all hope of restoring.
The humans managed to capture one of the giants and question him until they learned much of what he knew about magic and power. Human sorcerers used that knowledge to craft tools. In the wisdom born out of horror, the sorcerers did not build the tools to wield power, but to contain the giants, who could not be killed by mortal means. Brave warriors sought to rescue the captured humans, and they succeeded, but those people wasted away, and yet never died. Their mangled souls, touched by the magic of the giants, lingered and would not let the body die. The awakened giants meanwhile begat more giants, but these offspring were like no creature that had or ever would walk on earth.
Some glittered like light glinting off dust motes on a misty day. They seemed beautiful until they were breathed in by mortal creatures, who thereafter went mad and transformed into hideous monsters. Some appeared only in the corner of one’s eye, laughing and creeping. Some looked like a boulder, with no organs, no limbs, no eyes, nose, or face, and yet they watched and waited. The humans with the mangled souls could not be helped, and the menace of the giants and their children grew worse.
The human sorcerers all gathered and used their knowledge to craft a key and a door that opened to another realm, far from the human world. They positioned the door in a cave that led to a valley where most of the giants lay sleeping, and the waking ones lived and lurked. When the door was locked and sealed, the valley and everything within it vanished into another dimension.
Upon the door, the sorcerers carved horrific images of bone and flesh to ward off any who might try to find some other way to open the door or enter it.
“Rosie found the bones in a jungle somewhere,” Betty said. “Part of a spine and a couple of ribs. She had them tested to find out if they were the real deal. But who could tell in this day and age? She extracted the marrow from the spine. She gave it to me and I drank it.” She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head as she glanced at her sister. “According to ancient legends, that should have given me extraordinary power and longevity.”
Mars knew better than to ask why Betty would do what she did. By the tense posture that her older sister held in Betty’s presence, he got the notion that there was something the sisters weren’t telling him. If it was something relevant to the case, he would find out in due time. He recounted for them the story he had remembered.
“That’s one account,” Ms. Garimonde said, as she reached behind the sofa and lifted a file box. “This is filled with all the accounts I could gather about the giants who once walked our earth. It’s possible they weren’t that bad to begin with. We were the true villains, slaughtering the giants for the magic contained in their bodies. Humans made magical tools and weapons out of giants’ bones, their hair, their entrails. The greatest part of a giant’s soul resided in the marrow of her bones. Consuming that marrow gave human beings the powers of a giant’s soul, great longevity, youthfulness. Instead of dying a natural death, such a human could only be struck down by violence, and even then, it would be a challenge. Their skin would be tougher, their own bones turned hard as rock. When giants were felled, the prize for the champion who felled him was the marrow.
“The giants fought back, of course. They had crude magic. But humans had their wiles and greater numbers. As in your account, the giants had offspring that terrorized humanity. Some say they created them on purpose, because it was in their power to control the forms and manifestations of their offspring.”
“It’s a good thing they’re locked away behind that door then,” Betty said. She tilted her head again as she peered pointedly at her sister.
Ms. Garimonde crossed her arms. “Now we come to it. The reason we need your help.”
“Don’t do as she asks,” Betty said. “Don’t take this job.”
Ms. Garimonde opened one of her files and began to read. “’There are many openings in our world through which things from other worlds may enter, and through we too may pass into planes and dimensions beyond our reckonings, beyond even our broadest imaginings.’”
Mars knitted his brows. “You’ve found the door.”
“No, Mr. Dietrich, you have. Or rather your organization has. What I’ve found is this.” Ms. Garimonde pulled at a cord around her neck and pulled out the pendant that was tucked under her shirt. It was a key, carved of what appeared to be bone.
“You can’t do it, Mars. You shouldn’t open that door. We have no idea what might come through.”
“Betty won’t die,” Ms. Garimonde said. “She’ll linger like this, wasting away, and never dying, because something touched her soul.”
Betty swiveled her wheelchair to face her sister. “You don’t know that. I am going to die, and then it’ll be over. And this whole conference will be for nothing.” She turned back around. “Though it has been a pleasure to meet you, Mars Dietrich.”
Mars glanced between the sisters and fixed his gaze on the file box. “I’ll bring it to my superiors.”
“They’ll say ‘no.’ For the same reason Betty is saying ‘no.’” Ms. Garimonde handed him the file box. “Please review all of this yourself.”
Mars understood what she was asking. He wondered, but did not ask what made her think he would have access to the giants’ door, assuming it existed.
Based on Rosie Garimonde’s research into the folklore and myth of the region where she found the bone, the giants aged extremely slowly. So slowly that they rarely died, save for in battle, and then only with severe wounds. Their bodies did not decay upon death. In contrast to the story Mars knew, it was believed in that region that the giants’ bodies did not decay because their souls lingered within their bodies, so that if the parts could be brought together, and the wounds healed, the giant might rise again. There were wicked creatures who slipped between realms and made mischief. According to one legend, it was these creatures who first told humankind what other uses a giant’s fallen body might be put to. According to other legends, legends that sought to exalt the cleverness of humans, the discovery was made by humans on their own. The end was the same. Human beings could attain powers they normally did not own by consuming the parts of a giant.
Giants, despite being so vast in girth and towering in height, could hide better than any human being. Giants could twist their forms and colors so they could hide on the side of a mountain. They could become as light as air and lay atop gathering storm clouds, reveling in the energies of the lightning. What easily harmed a mortal man or woman was refreshing to a giant. Their skin was so thick and tough that the strike of a weapon provided only a soothing kneading of their muscles. These were only a few of the marvelous skills and powers they naturally possessed.
There was a war. The giants had vast powers, but humanity had vast numbers. Humanity had a will of unparalleled force and perseverance. That will was a great tool, but like all great tools, could be turned to good or to ill. Even as the ingenuity of humankind grew in leaps and bounds, so did a thirst for power and dominion that no being on earth had ever born before. The giants were stronger, more powerful. Yet they were losing. They were being felled in greater and greater numbers, and their bodies were being desecrated by humans who dragged off the carcasses to be used for purposes both banal and arcane.
It was the giants who built the door. Within a system of caves and tunnels that lie under a great desert of the New World.
The giants created a series of vast doors, all but one being decoys, on which they carved with figures meant to ward off humans. Then they locked and sealed the door from their side.
As he studied all the stories, Mars wondered if the giants came to the earth from another world. Or if they fled to another world when earth became…inhospitable.
Some accounts faulted the giants and their villainy. Some faulted the humans and their villainy. The truth was probably in between, as in the stories that told that both sides warred viciously, and both sides sought to end the war and have peace desperately. But there was too much gone wrong between the two peoples for them to share one world. So the giants retreated to theirs. Both peoples built the door. The giants from their side. The humans from theirs. Both peoples locked and sealed the door from their respective sides. The door would not open unless it was open from both sides. After many generations passed and the memories of old terrors faded, humans were ready to open the door and see if their legends of a race of giants living in the desert caves was true. They opened their side of the door with their key. They “knocked” upon the door to draw the attention of the giants on the other side, but they did not succeed in getting through.
There were legends of a few clever humans who did make it through. One was a humorous folktale of a hapless human man stumbling upon the door with his clever companion, a dog. The dog could somehow read the signs on the door that the man could not read or even see, and the dog managed to get the attention of a giant on the other side of the door, talk the giant into opening the door, and letting them through, and leading his master into a lush land of great riches. As humanity waned in a dark age, and suffered the loss of knowledge and wisdom when baser instincts prevailed, the giants enjoyed a continued age of progress and peace among themselves. Though they were long-lived enough that almost all recalled the days of the wars with humanity, they were also long-lived enough for their tempers to even, for their understanding to overcome their grievances. They welcomed the man and dog, treating them as honored guests. The two had some adventures and did some heroic things, but eventually felt homesick and were allowed to pass back through the door. They were each given special tokens by which they would be able to enter the giants’ realm by a secret way without the need of keys.
Another was a purported historical account of a sorcerer who found a way to bypass the locks and seals using incantations. He stood before the door and spoke spells for almost a year, until the last minute of the second hour of the three hundred and fourteenth day. He had cast spells upon himself so that he would not need sleep, rest, food, or even water during all that time. He was set upon the task by a king who knew just enough of the legends to be intrigued by the stories of the powers that ancient humans gained by consuming and thereby absorbing the native powers of the giants. But the king was betrayed, or perhaps the sorcerer simply did not know exactly how the spells he cast would work upon the door. When the spells were done, the king had a retinue of men ready to pass through the door, enough men to find a lone giant to slay and drag back through the door for the pleasure of their king. Instead the sorcerer was said to frown when his spells were done and the door did not open. He placed his hand upon the door, declared that it was open. Then he stepped through it as if the door were a mere illusion of mist and mirrors. The men tried to do the same, but they bumped into hard stone. They banged upon the door, but their banging was for naught. The king placed a bounty upon the sorcerer’s head after a sufficient time had passed, and he realized that he must have been betrayed. But the bounty was also for naught. The sorcerer was never seen in those lands, or any lands of earth, again.
Centuries later, a group of prospectors went searching the caves for precious stone, and found the door instead. Though it was hideous, they recognized that it might have value as an artifact. They reported the find to the nearest major scholarly institute, and dreamed of directing tourists through the area, and collecting hefty viewing fees. There would be no more need for hard mining and scrabbling through stone. They chipped off pieces of the door, ready to sell them as souvenirs. When the scholars arrived, they came at odds with the prospectors, saying it would be years before their study would be sufficiently complete enough to allow visitors to tramp through the caves, disturbing evidence and information, and possibly harming artifacts that the scholars hadn’t yet found or recognized.
The dispute between the scholars and prospectors went on for many months until one day there was a terrible cave-in that killed several of the men involved on both sides. The cave-in was cleared and the bodies of the men recovered and respectfully buried. Rumors spread about the state of the bodies, withered away, as if they had died in the cave decades past. Both sides were sobered by the ordeal and they had a more civil, if not cordial, arrangement after that. One day, one of the scholars claimed to have found a key in the system of caves that he believed was a key to the door. After much debate, it was decided that the key should be tried. It was reported that a large group of men, prospectors and scholars alike, went into the cave to see that door opened. None returned. There was another cave-in. The second cave-in was cleared, and once again, the bodies of the men recovered. Then a purposeful cave-in was triggered, so that none might find the accursed caves and the door again. After that, the site was abandoned.
The most recent tale of humans opening the door and venturing forth into the unknown world beyond was from the past century, was indeed just a generation past. A husband-and-wife team of archaeologists sought to find and study this purported giant doorway and they found the system of caves. They had it cleared and sturdily bolstered against future cave-ins. They limited their excursions and kept close contact with those above ground. It was said there were hauntings in the small research camp. There was even illness, and the couple feared they may have released some ancient disease. They quarantined the area and thereafter only went forth wearing protective gear, full-body suits, and filtered gas masks.
Their research notes didn’t specify what happened, but one day the couple emerged from the cave, the wife holding the husband, who was half-unconscious and covered in boils. She was crying out that she had locked the door but not fast enough. Something came through. Something got her husband. She grabbed one of the ever-burning torches that flanked the door and held it to whatever was reaching through, and it recoiled long enough for her to lock the door and drag her husband out of there. Thereafter she dismissed the rest of the research team, and called in mystics and spell-casters instead. She had them study the door and determine whether or not it was truly closed and locked. To the best of their knowledge it was, but they cast further seals upon the door just in case. And they warned the woman not to destroy the key, for it was linked to the door, and as it went so did the door. If the key was destroyed, the door would be destroyed, and whatever lay beyond it would be unleashed. The woman took the key, and she took her ailing husband, who fell into a coma and did not wake, and she vanished. Some say her husband wasted away, never waking, and that she cursed the key every day, even as she kept watch over it.
Over the next several weeks, Mars reviewed all of Rosie Garimonde’s research, making summaries for his home office. He had been skeptical of her knowledge, but it did go far beyond what his own organization had gathered or could gather on a race that no longer abided on the earth.
When he asked her one day how she had discovered the new information, she told him that she read it in the figures on the door itself. She had acquired pictures and drawings of the door. She claimed the carvings on the door was a language.
“It’s a language that used to exist on earth, spoken by the giants,” she said. “Lots of humans knew it too, but not only did the language die, it disappeared altogether.”
“How did you figure that out?”
She frowned and looked at the piles of books, the stacks of files, and the hundreds of photos of the door and the surrounding cave. “I…can’t remember exactly what got me from point A to point B on that one. It’s probably in my notes somewhere. Anyway, the particular configuration of the figures on the door—as you can see they’re not all symmetrical and reflective—tells a specific story. There were many battles and both peoples showed their ugliest sides.”
“What makes you think that there is a cure behind that door?”
“Because the cure is closely linked to the malady. And the malady, in this case, came from behind that door. At least, the beings that are responsible for this…effect, live beyond that door.”
“What if the giants are all dead, and some other things live beyond the door?”
Rosie Garimonde would not be deterred. She would save her sister. Mars feared that she would save her sister even if it damned the world.
As for Betty, she continued to fade. The organization sent specialists to look over Betty. They tried to help. But they could not. Her voice became low and soft, and sometimes was only a whisper. Her skin wrinkled and grayed. Her dark hair was leached by whatever afflicted her until it too turned a misty gray. Her eyes began to cloud. Her skin turned translucent, and blistered at the slightest exposure to light.
“I don’t feel as if I’m rotting,” she said, sitting beside him as he read one morning. “I know I look that way. I feel as if I’m…floating. Or treading.”
“Treading? Treading what?”
“Maybe I should go.” She shook her head. “No, that’s weakness talking.”
Mars entreated his superiors to let him try what Rosie Garimonde wanted to try. He was refused. He told the sisters.
“It’s too bad,” Betty said. “I had made plans. For the first time in my life.”
Mars smiled at her. “Don’t give up on them yet.” But he heard no conviction in his own words.
A few nights later, Mars answered a desperate knocking at his door to see Rosie Garimonde standing on the other side. He waved her in. She clutched at her hands as she walked in and complimented his apartment, the reflex of manners overriding, at least momentarily, the obvious distress she was in.
“I thought she would have told you, Mr. Dietrich. But she hasn’t. And now that your organization has refused my request, as I knew they would, and I know they are right to, I make my final entreaty.” She stepped close him, locked eyes with him. “You have to tell me where that door is. I’ve had those caves searched based on all the research I’ve gathered. I can’t find the right one. And time has run out.”
“I want to help Betty. But it’s not just that I have orders not to. No one knows the whole truth about what’s behind that door. All we have is stories of horrific things happening.”
“I should think you would be more suspicious if the stories were all rosy.” She gave him a wry smile. “Pun intended.” For a moment, she reminded him of Betty, who despite her ghostly appearance, managed to hold onto some moxie.
“I didn’t tell you this, because I thought if I did, your organization would put her in quarantine. Betty needs to go through that door because she can’t abide in our world anymore. But she can survive and thrive over there.”
“I’ve read it on the door itself. She’s…she’s undergoing something like a metamorphosis. But she can’t finish here. I think she’s right about dying, but I don’t think she’ll just die. I believe when she dies, it will poison this world, or at least a part of it. I don’t think anything can contain it. Because it’s not something that can be filtered or disinfected. Her soul will fall apart, and it will spread and corrupt.”
“Where are you getting all of this?”
“The door. From reading the door. It’s not myths. And it’s not horrors meant to scare us away. I mean, it is in one way. It communicates multiple things. One of those things is knowledge of what happened and what may happen.”
“I’ve been trying to decipher that door myself,” Mars said. “Others have tried. No one has seen, or read, what you claim to be reading.”
“And no one ever could. Unless they drank the marrow of a giant.” She stepped back from him now. “All these weeks, she never told you, did she? I gave her the marrow, after I took some myself. But she didn’t know she was drinking it. When I asked her to, she refused. So I put it in her drink.” She flinched suddenly, as if she’d been struck by her own confession.
Mars took a breath, his frown deepening as he took in all she’d said. “Then there’s only your word to go by. Why isn’t the same thing that’s happening to Betty happening to you?”
She shook her head, her expression poised on the edge of crying. “I don’t know.”
Mars strode toward the door, grabbing a coat and his keys. “Let’s go.”
Rosie Garimonde’s eyes widened.
“It will be a long drive,” he said. “We’ll stop by your place to get supplies and Betty.”
“You know where.”
Mars knew where the door was. He’d known since the first week, just as Rosie Garimonde had known all along what was really happening to her sister.
Mars had feared he would be followed, or that there would be guards. But his organization trusted him. Or perhaps they knew what he was doing and was letting him do it. Betty slept haphazardly, waking to find herself in a moving car, covered in a cloth so her skin would not burn from the sunlight. She spouted random phrases in her delirium.
“I’m not as spry as I used to be.”
“It has to be ingested, not injected.”
“Bones. Flesh. Rosie said, We are all made of such disgusting stuff.”
Rosie Garimonde remained silent, tending to her sister.
Betty had spoken of it. Her sister’s disdain for her own kind, for humanity. So much disdain that she sought not to destroy herself, but to become something other than what she was, to transform into what she called a “higher being.” But she wasn’t the one who changed.
Rosie Garimonde told Mars to stay in the cave and make sure the door was locked again after she took her sister through. But it was night by the time they arrived at the mouth of the cavern. Her resolve melted little by little as they walked the tunnels where the only light was the glow of their flashlights and lanterns, and they could see only a few feet in any direction. She had been easily carrying Betty outside the tunnels. But Mars was afraid she would drop her sister now. He took Betty and gave the lights to her sister.
He knew by the time they reached the door with the eternally burning torches to either side, that Rosie Garimonde would not be going through the door. She was terrified.
Mars would have to take Betty through, before she crumbled in his arms.
Rosie handed him the key to the door.
“Mars.” It was Betty’s voice. She had woken. Mars lay her on the ground. “Help me. Help me, Mars,” she whispered.
“Hang on, Betty,” Mars said, not knowing if the key would work, if the door would open. Not knowing which of the many legends about the door were true, and what else Rosie Garimonde might know that she wasn’t revealing. Or if he were being kind, what Rosie Garimonde might have misunderstood when reading the door.
The door was vast. It was seven times his height at least, and a dozen burly men standing side-by-side could have walked through it at once. It was carved with figures, both human and giant, faces moaning in pain, bodies twisted and bent in torment and entreaty, limbs and bones cast about. There was a seam down the middle of the door. Dust began to fall from the seam as it split apart. The door was not opening out. It was sliding apart. It slid open just enough for him to pass through. He saw nothing but darkness beyond. Mars lifted Betty’s still body and approached the seam. He glanced at the wide-eyed, gaping figure of Rosie Garimonde, hovering by the keyhole. She had her hand on the key and she nodded to him.
He nodded to her and he passed through the door.
Through the darkness, he caught flickering at the corner of his eye. When he looked, there was nothing but darkness. He took a few hesitant steps. He had a flashlight clipped to his belt, but he’d forgotten to turn it on. He would have to put Betty down if he wanted to turn it on now. But he didn’t think he should let go of her. He became disoriented, directionless.
Something flickered again, and this time, when he looked, a scene appeared. Trees and vines. He blinked and they flickered out of existence. The world beyond the door didn’t seem to exist until he fixed his eye upon it. The next time he spotted something of substance, he stared at it, not blinking for as long as he could
More and more of it came into his view. And as it came into his view, it manifested for his other senses as well. It felt warm and humid. There was a heavy scent of sweet flowers in the air. The air felt thick like mucus in his throat. It was a verdant valley, but there was something eerie about the way the birds trilled and the insects chirped.
He kept seeing the flickers. Always at the periphery of his vision.
“It would appear we are in jump-scare country.”
Mars started and almost dropped Betty. She was the one who had spoken. He had been so absorbed in trying not get ambushed by something horrible, he hadn’t noticed that she had thrown off the cloth that covered her head.
She asked him to put her down. She too was an eerie sight. She had grown so thin, it seemed all the muscle had been sucked out of her. He didn’t know how she could be standing. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened her eyes, the clouds upon her irises parted and faded. As he watched, they were restored to their natural honey-golden hue.
She scratched her neck and her skin flaked off. She frowned and turned to him as she wiped her hand on her trousers. “Sorry.”
Mars gaped at her. “How do you feel?”
“Better. I’m…changing.” She blinked and her eyes shifted to a hazel-green. He noted that the skin on her neck that shown beneath the flakes appeared smooth and healthy, dark and vibrant. “I have to stay, don’t I?”
“We both do. Rosie has locked us in.”
“Has she?” Betty walked past him, back the way he had come, or so he figured. He was stunned to find that the door, the other side of it, was several yards away.
Betty stood back from it and peered at it.
“Can you read it?” Mars asked, clearing his throat of the thick air.
“The language of the giants.” She propped her gaunt hands on what was left of her hips. “My sister was right about the marrow after all. The door is still open. Go back and close it.”
“I can’t leave you here all alone.”
“You’re already having trouble breathing. I can tell. The things that could harm you here are not transmissible, but they are immediate,” she said. She appeared to be scanning the door. “So much as I’d love to have you here. You’ll have to go back.”
She took another deep breath, and it seemed as if the roots of her hair darkened a few centimeters. Her frame didn’t look as skeletal. Some flesh seemed to fill her skin.
“Do you know what’s happening to you?” Mars asked.
She turned to him and tilted her head. “Do the birds here sound weird to you?”
“I’m not going to lie. I’m a little bit scared.”
“She wanted to come with you.” Mars tried to think of something more to say.
Betty shrugged. “But she chickened out. It’s all right. Strange. No, actually, I’m not scared. I’m nervous. This is new.” She grinned. “Maybe I’m becoming a giant.”
“Not the kind that devours men, I hope.”
She smirked at him.
In the end, Mars left her there. She asked him for one thing. She asked him to return to the cave in seven years, that she would be able to safely pass through by that time, and she asked him to bring her sister.
After thinking of her daily, sometimes confident he had done the right thing, sometimes struck by a twinge of guilt and regret for abandoning her, Mars kept his word and returned in seven years. By that time, the organization had blocked off access to the caverns. He was working for a different outfit, and he tried to flash his credentials, but that didn’t work. He wasn’t authorized for any investigation in the area. Rosie Garimonde never showed up. As far as he knew, she still had the key.
Foiled, he finally resigned himself to give up. As he left the site, he muttered, “I tried, Betty. I’m sorry.”
He hoped there wouldn’t be any mystic repercussions of his breaking his promise. The next morning, he found a note that had been slipped under his apartment door.
I know you tried. Another time perhaps. Another…place.
Always your friend,
There was something attached to the other side of the postcard note. It made him think about what Rosie Garimonde quote from her research all those years ago.
There are many openings in our world through which things from other worlds may enter, and through we too may pass into planes and dimensions beyond our reckonings, beyond even our broadest imaginings.
He detached the object.
It was a key.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “The Door Beneath the Desert” by Sanjay Patel.