“Earthquakes? This ain’t California.”
Sheriff Lockley shook her head at her deputy.
“Well it’s not Kansas either and we get the occasional tornado some summers,” she said, peering at the television screen in her office.
The sheriff, two deputies, and the science reporter for the Acton Daily were watching the latest report on the strange rumblings that had started almost a year ago.
“We’re just lucky, Grubbs” the reporter said. “We get a little taste of all the natural disasters.”
Grubbs crossed her arms and frowned. “If it’s just earthquakes, why is it happening a few times a week now? I’ve never heard of that. That can’t be natural.”
Lockley wondered the same thing.
The rumblings were so quiet at first that official records conflicted on the date they actually started. People thought they were imagining them. They only happened at night. And they were only felt in their town of Acton.
Lockley investigated some, just to make sure the phenomenon wasn’t being caused by illegal activity. She and her deputies scoured the Unoche Hills to the town’s east, and all along the coast of the lake that lay beyond the hills. They didn’t find signs of any drilling, dumping, smuggling, or squatting. In those first few months, the rumblings weren’t happening on the regular. Sometimes two or three weeks would pass without a single incident.
But a few months ago, the rumblings started getting worse and worse. Kids would gasp as the floor started rolling and jigging as they walked between classes. Shoppers would glance nervously up at the suspended lights in their local mart as the lights began to sway, and items began to tilt and tumble off the shelves. Some folks bought latches for their cabinets and stocked up on canned goods. A few folks moved out of town temporarily. A few spoke of moving out for good.
The nearest inhabited town was over thirty miles away. Close enough to have heard and felt something. But the rumblings and the quaking could not be heard or felt anywhere but in Acton. Again, that was strange.
Someone with a fresh geology doctorate from an out-of-state university that Lockley had never heard of contacted the town’s mayor and asked if he could come and study the phenomenon. He and his small team streamlined a grant application, and were dispatched to Acton.
By the time they arrived, the Daily’s science reporter, Salway, had already started referring to the rumblings as a “brontide.” The word apparently referred to the very phenomenon the town was experiencing, vague rumblings that could probably be attributed to the earth moving.
The geologist and his team set up seismometers and other equipment under the watchful eye of the mayor’s office, Lockley, Salway, and any citizen who wanted to come and make sure that the science team was making honest measurements.
For a few weeks, there was renewed hope that the young geologist and his team would pinpoint the cause of the brontide.
That hope began to fade when the science team—honestly but unsatisfactorily—reported finding nothing concrete or useful upon preliminary reviews of their data.
Soon after, a hunter who’d taken it upon himself to patrol the woods near his house reported seeing something that he was certain was causing the rumblings. Something big. Big enough to make the ground shake when it moved through the forest. The hunter claimed he was knocked off his feet, so suddenly did the earth shift. By the time he recovered himself and called his dogs back to him, the thing was gone. His dogs couldn’t find its trail again. Lockley interviewed the man and surveyed the forest, searching for any strange tracks. The man swore it was not a bear, but something bigger. And she knew him well enough to trust his word. But she also wondered, if the months and months of being on edge, of losing sleep, of losing balance, maybe even losing some of their hearing, was taking its toll on her people.
A group of teens decided to camp in those same woods near the hills in answer to a dare. And out of curiosity. They weren’t the only ones who were curious. After so many months without any answers to the cause of the vague rumblings, people were ready for a solid and specific answer. And this large beast in the woods, while also being vague in actuality, at least seemed solid and specific. The teens didn’t see any beast, but they claimed to have felt its passing. The earth rumbled in the early morning, just before dawn, waking them. But they claimed it felt different from the way it felt in town. It wasn’t a general rolling and shifting. It was…rhythmic. Pounding. Like the sound of something running. Something big.
They were the ones who started calling it the Brontide Beast.
Prior to the first mention of the Brontide Beast, on the nightly news and the morning shows the next day, the townsfolk had done a fairly good job of keeping their speculations about the rumblings in the realm of reason.
Lockley heard the occasional joke about some giant beast sleeping under their town. Standing in line for coffee, she’d hear students relaying myths that would have typically bored them, like the one about the titan who held the earth on his shoulders. They guessed the rumblings were happening because he was shifting the weight. Or maybe because he’d gotten an itch he couldn’t scratch.
But the wildest conspiracies had to do with natural mortal human beings. Usually in the form of a reckless corporation.
The sheriff listened one morning to the three regulars who sat by the counter and always ate croissants and coffee for breakfast.
“Gas…they found it, and you know what else? They’re drilling hundreds of miles away from us, but they hit the earth in just the right spot for some wave formation to come right to us. And just to us.”
“That’s why no one in Renewal can feel it? They’re only a skip-jump away.”
“That’s it exactly. That’s what the seismology expert from the university told me. She said it was a new type of activity. She warned me she was still looking into it, but she seemed pretty convinced.”
“Yeah, those kids are young. But seem like they know what they’re doing.”
“I’ll grant you they mean well, but I think it’s something simpler than some new kind of earthquake.”
“Oh yeah? Do tell.”
“Explosives testing, plain and simple.”
“There aren’t any bases nearby,” Lockley said, interjecting on the conversation.
“That you know of, Sheriff. But what if there’s a secret one?”
“Oh come on, Bob, those meddling kids of yours would have found it by now.” Lockley leaned toward him. “Or are you holding out on me? What do you know that you’re not telling?”
“We should ask you that, Lock.”
“That’s right. You and your pack of deputies hunt down that Beast yet?”
Lockley smiled politely and tipped a hat to the trio. She usually knew better than to tangle with them. But ever since news of the Brontide Beast broke, the issue of the rumblings was no longer a vague natural occurrence. It was no longer a matter for researchers. Now there was something to be hunted down. And even though no crime had been committed, the general feeling in town was that it was only a matter of time. Only a matter of time before someone disappeared. Before grisly remains were found in the woods. The rumblings were already coming closer and closer to town.
Now it was a matter for law enforcement. For those who were sworn to protect.
“They now think it’s centered on the hills,” Salway said.
He was standing before Lockley’s desk. She’d just gotten in, an hour earlier than usual, and was hoping to get some paperwork done before everyone else arrived.
Over the past week alone, there had been three more sightings of a large shape in the woods, and in one case, in the yard of a neighbor who was on vacation. All the sightings were at night. Details were beginning to trickle in. Glowing eyes, not supernatural, but reflective, like a dog’s or cat’s. Some kind of eerie clicking sound, which one person—with no corroborating evidence—attributed to the opening of the Beast’s jaw. Some kind of shimmering of the air around the Beast, like waves of heat coming off hot concrete.
If there really was some animal running around in the woods and getting closer to town, and this wasn’t just a case of mass hysteria, or subliminal suggestions, or whatever it might be called when people believed a thing because their minds were primed to believe, then Lockley and her people did indeed have to find and capture the animal. It hadn’t hurt anyone yet. It had just startled and scared a few folks. Even those who claimed to be the most scared also noted that the Beast itself seemed skittish. It always ran away whenever it was startled by movement. The movement of a baseball-bat-wielding mother. The barking of a protective dog. The flicking headlights of a jeep.
No one had reported any missing people or even pets. Strangely, there was no evidence to follow up on. Other than blurry videos on phone cameras. There were no hairs. No nails or scales. No prints. No blood or urine. No trace.
Grubbs found a claw mark on a witness’s fence. But it turned out to be a raccoon’s.
Lockley was focused more on finding the Beast than on confirming whether or not it was really the cause of the continued rumblings.
So when Salway spoke, despite the excited twinkle in his eye, and the sure grin on his face, the sheriff didn’t quite understand what he was talking about.
She sighed. “I’m only halfway awake, Sal. And I was expecting to be alone for another hour or so.” She rubbed an eye, and sipped the slightly bitter coffee that had come out of the pot in the break room. “You’ll need to take it slow, and simple.”
“Well that works for me, because I don’t get the graphs and calculations either. But the way they explained it to me, their instruments and readings were being…confused by something they couldn’t figure out how to filter out. Like…”
He snapped his fingers and pointed to her. “Yep, something like that.”
Lockley nodded her head. “Great. The hills. How long do you suppose it’ll be before someone starts a rumor about how there’s a nest of vampires hiding under the hills?”
“Or an alien ship?”
“Or giant ants?”
“On the bright side,” Salway said, “if it’s one of those options, it means we’re in the clear for causing this thing.”
“I’ll try to comfort myself with that thought when the giant ants bite my head clean off.”
Salway grinned again. He was far too chipper and bright-eyed for so early in the morning. The front door opened. Lockley and Salway glanced toward it.
Deputy Hazard slouched into the office. He turned to them and gave a tiny wave before heading to the break room with his lunch cooler and what looked like a bag of donuts.
Lockley shook her head, wondering if everyone had decided to start the work day early that morning.
Salway turned to her and leaned on her desk. “Poor guy. He’s been looking a little green lately.”
“Yeah, I noticed.”
“You’re working him too hard, Lock.”
Lockley sat up. “I offered him a day off. He wouldn’t take it. I can’t force anyone.”
Sal threw up his hands and backed away. “I was just kidding. It’s probably this case. The case of the Brontide Beast.” He snapped his fingers again. “I’m on it, Sheriff. I’ll help you guys crack it, before Hazard over there falls over.”
With that, he swept out of her office and out the front door.
Lockley sat down beside Hazard at the break room table. He had an earbud in one ear. He always liked to listen to something when he was working at the desk or taking a break. Lockley tried not to look as he removed the earbud. Hazard kept his ears covered, with his long dark hair, and with some kind of hat, bandanna, or something. He’d requested her permission to keep his head covered at all times on the job, not for any beliefs he held, but because he had, in his own words, a “congenital deformity” of his ears. He assured her that he could pass any hearing test she wanted to throw at him, but he just wanted to keep them covered, so as not to distract from his job. She had agreed, just as she had agreed to a few other reasonable requests made by her other deputies. She required strict adherence to their oaths and duties. Adherence to other rules and regulations were negotiable.
Salway was right. Maybe it was the morning light, but Hazard did actually look a bit green, not pale like she was expecting. Lockley wondered if he was a little jaundiced.
“You feeling all right, Deputy?” she asked.
Hazard gave her a small smile as he sipped a cup of orange juice. “I’m not a hundred percent, boss. But I am not too sick to work, if that’s what you mean. I’m just tired.”
“Did you take someone’s shift?”
He shook his head. “No, just stuff at home.”
“The brontide? Won’t let you sleep?”
He paused a moment, lowering his gaze to his juice. “Something like that.”
“Anything I can help with?”
“No,” he said, then raised his gaze to meet hers. “I’ll ask if I need.”
Lockley nodded. “Please do,” she said. She rose and patted his shoulder.
The ground began to rumble. Lockley could tell it wouldn’t be a long or harsh one. She remained standing. They braced themselves against the table until it passed.
“What did Sal want?” Hazard asked.
Lockley glanced at his orange juice. “It can wait until everyone else gets in. Enjoy your breakfast, and your quiet.” She began to walk away again.
“Oh, hang on, boss.” Hazard unrolled the paper bag on the table and reached into it.
He pulled out something in a white and yellow wrapper and handed it to her. It was a croissant sandwich with sausage, egg, and cheese. It was still warm. “I didn’t see your car in the driveway when I passed. Figured you’d be here.”
Lockley suddenly felt hungry. She accepted the sandwich. Then he handed her some packets of ketchup.
She took the ketchup. “Deputy, you’re an angel.”
“So, we’re taking another look at the Unoche, I take it,” Hazard said. In the full light of the post-dawn sun, and after a good breakfast, he’d gotten some natural color back in his skin.
“We did a thorough job the first time,” Lockley said, “given that we weren’t sure what the source of the brontide was, but now that we have more to go on, let’s go see if we missed something.”
“Are we taking any special precautions?”
Lockley raised a brow. “We haven’t been given reason to. What are you thinking?”
Hazard shook his head. “Nothing in particular. Just covering our bases.”
Lockley nodded. “I don’t want to spread us too thin. So I’ve asked for some volunteers to help us search the area.”
“Are we thinking that Beast lives there?” Grubbs asked. “Is that what we are searching for specifically?”
“Are we setting out traps for it?”
“Yes, and yes,” Lockley said. “And we need to coordinate with that geology team. They’ve started focusing on the hill too.”
“I found out something, about these hills,” Salway said as he traipsed alongside Lockley and Grubbs.
Lockley swept her gaze across the area ahead of them, searching for any signs of a passing animal. She’d grown up in the city. She had a little experience and training now. But she’d never quite learned to be comfortable with the woods. That was why Grubbs was with her, and even Salway. He always seemed to be distracted, because he was always talking, about whatever new fact or piece of information he’d uncovered. Yet he had a knack for spotting some minor detail of the environment that most might miss. Like that time he caught someone pickpocketing her at a bar when she was questioning some patrons.
She wasn’t sure what to make of him when they first met, some ten years ago, but when he and Grubbs came back with her wallet and the thief who’d taken it, she’d decided to give the reporter a second look. She was afraid he’d print some article ridiculing the new sheriff’s inability to hold on to her own wallet. But he hadn’t. And she’d like him ever since, even when he printed stories that infuriated her.
“What did you find out?” Grubbs asked, stooping to brush her fingers against a patch of mushrooms.
“The indigenous people, the people who lived here, or near here actually, about a thousand years ago left records about a phenomenon. It started with a meteor shower.”
“No, not legends, historical records. And they even note that the meteor shower did not appear like others they’d witnessed. Not only that, this specific one was one they’d never seen before and hasn’t been seen since.”
“Maybe it’s got a long natural cycle. It might take like ten thousand years or a million years. Did you look into that?”
“Maybe, and no, I didn’t…yet. Anyway, here’s the really weird part. The Unoche Hills, they came up overnight after that shower.”
Lockley frowned. “By ‘overnight’ did they mean…was it some kind of metaphor for a longer period of time?”
Salway shook his head. “No, this was not poetic or figurative. It wasn’t a hundred years, or ten years, or even one year. They meant it literally. Overnight. The meteor shower happens. And the next morning, the plains around the lake are no longer plains. They are now hills.”
“I’m confused,” Grubbs said. “If we’re saying that one of these meteors hit the earth, there would be a crater, no? Not hills.”
“They don’t say anything about any meteors hitting the earth. They’re not sure the two events are related. They just thought it was likely.”
“How does this inform our present situation?” Lockley asked. “Did they mention any earthquakes?”
Salway snapped his fingers. “Yes, just one. The night the hills were formed. There was a great rumbling.”
“So…more evidence that the hills are the source of the rumblings,” Lockley said.
“Boss, can we stop talking about this?” Grubbs said. “We seem to be heading towards the classic UFO crash landing, and I don’t do bug-eyed aliens.” She put a hand to her stomach and exhaled through her mouth.
They fell silent for several minutes.
“So, a giant beast stalking the forest, you’re fine with?” Salway said after a while.
Grubbs nodded. “Bring it on.”
“But gray aliens…”
Lockley knelt down and peered at the plant. “What is it?”
“We’re not sure,” the geologist said. “We just noticed that they’ve started sprouting up in the hills, and we don’t see them in the survey pics we took when we first got here. We’ve sent pictures and video to a colleague who’s a botanist. He’ll probably want us to collect specimens, maybe do a guided dissection, to help him identify it.”
“We were hoping you’d be able to tell us if this is native plant-life,” another researcher said, “or something you’ve seen before.”
Lockley rose and glanced at Grubbs and Salway, both of whom shook their heads.
“I don’t come out here as much as I used to,” Grubbs said. She looked up at the hilltop, beyond which was the lake. “The fishing was much better when I was a kid.”
It was late afternoon now. The geologist had called Lockley an hour past and asked her to meet him at that spot. She thanked him and walked back toward her car with Grubbs and Salway in tow.
“Great,” Grubbs said once they were out of earshot. “How long before someone starts a new rumor, about a giant Venus flytrap hiding under the hills and trying to bust out of the ground so it can drink our fluids?”
Lockley sighed. “She’s right, Sal. Instead of narrowing down a cause, or finding a clear path to follow, we’re just adding more crazy to crazy. Aliens, strange beasts, killer plants.”
“No, there’s your focus, boss. The plant. It’s been lying dormant all this time, because maybe the environment wasn’t ideal. Maybe over the past decade or so, it’s been it’s been growing and feeding and just getting bigger. Maybe that’s why there’s no good fishing in the lake anymore. The rumbling is the sound of it growing and moving its roots and shoots through the earth.”
“Why did you have to make it a carnivorous plant?” Salway said.
“I didn’t make it that. People will make it that.”
Lockley suddenly stopped. The others kept walking a few steps before they realized. They turned to her.
She suddenly smiled.
“What are you thinking, Lock?” Salway said.
“I’m thinking maybe I want to go back there and kiss that geologist on the mouth.”
Salway grinned. “I love it when you get this way. Talk to me.”
“What if Grubbs is right? There’s a giant plant growing under those hills. Conditions have gotten favorable and it’s growing larger and larger, shifting the earth. And maybe something about this plant confused the science team’s instruments at first. It’s not some kind of monster. It’s just…a giant weed.” She pointed behind herself, the way they had just come. “What if we just found the real Brontide Beast?”
Grubbs shook her head. “What about that creature people have been seeing?”
Lockley shrugged. “The only evidence we have is eyewitness accounts, all of them at night. Even from reliable, upstanding people, that’s not enough to go on.”
“Good news for you, Grubbs. No alien visitations.”
“It may fit those historical records you found too,” Lockley said. “Maybe the hills really did arise overnight. What if there’s a plant or group of plants that grow overnight, the way mushrooms can pop up overnight? Maybe that happened and then they petrified over time and became the hills.”
“Impressive stretching, Sheriff. But we won’t know anything until those guys get their botanist friend to confirm what that is. It could just be a regular hill weed that none of us really paid much attention to.”
“I know it’s too early to get our hopes up,” Lockley said, “but we’ve been at this for months now. Half the town is gone. It’s almost the end of the summer. They should be coming back from vacations by now. But they’re not. I don’t blame them, but I’m worried. We’re on the verge of losing our town to this thing.”
Salway and Grubbs exchanged a glance.
“So, if the Brontide Beast really is a giant underground plant,” Salway said, “you’re thinking we just pump in a whole bunch of weed killer and put a stop to its growth? Or maybe…controlled burning? And then, no more quakes?”
“And the mayor personally hangs a medal on each us,” Grubbs said, her eyes wide.
Salway shook his head. “See what you’ve done?”
Lockley held up her hands. “Okay, yes. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
She knew it was a dream. But she still wanted to take a closer look at it, at the thing that was staring at her from the trees, its large eyes reflecting the milky white light of the full moon. Lockley moved closer, slowly, so as not to startle it.
She couldn’t make out its shape. She couldn’t see how big it was. Its shadow shifted and a hazy glow around the creature made it appear to flicker. She wasn’t afraid of it. There was something familiar about it. Something…friendly?
She moved closer and closer to the Beast, and though it didn’t move, its shape was no clearer to her.
She stopped and took a final breath before stepping all the way into the woods. Maybe when the moonlight was blocked by the foliage, when her eyes adjusted to the darkness, maybe then she would see it.
Her phone began to ring.
She moved her left hand to her pocket, fumbling for the phone, but it was too late.
The Beast turned and loped away, as the ground rumbled beneath her.
Her phone was still ringing when she opened her eyes and gripped one side of her mattress. The ground was still rumbling too.
She reached for her phone and answered it.
“Lock! You have to come. You have to come right now.”
“Sal?” Lockley tried to rise out of bed. The rumbling wasn’t stopping. “Where are you?”
“The hills! The hills are…alive!”
He hung up then. Or the phone lost its connection.
Lockley’s heart leapt. What Sal had said…she never thought that sentence could be so terrifying. She tried Sal again as she got dressed. He wouldn’t answer. So she tried Grubbs. The deputy answered right away. She sounded sleepy, but aware. The brontide must have woken her before Lockley called.
“Sal just called. I think he’s in the trouble. I want you to call the others. Meet me at the hill. I’m going to get him.”
Grubbs asked no further questions.
The ground wasn’t just rumbling as Lockley drove toward the hills. It was quaking now. She stayed in the middle of the road in case any branches or trees collapsed onto the road. But aside from having to keep a steady grip on the wheel, she had no obstructions.
A long fifteen minutes later, she was pulling up to the edge of the hills. Three other cars were there with their headlights on. Salway ran toward her. He knelt by his window and pointed to the sky above the hills and the lake. It was shimmering with some pattern that looked like an aurora borealis.
“Something is happening!” he said. “We don’t know what!”
As she got out of her car, he explained that everyone in the research team had managed to get out of the hills and meet at designated meeting points. They had spotty contact on their phones, but the team had walkies. The ground, the surface of the hills, appeared to be simmering.
“We should move further back!” Lockley said. “Is it the plants?”
Salway shook his head. “We don’t know.”
Suddenly, the quaking slowed to a deep rumbling. The sky above the hills became filled with shooting stars.
Lockley gaped. “Is that what I think it is? A meteor shower?”
“That’s not a meteor shower.”
Lockley and Salway turned to see Grubbs walking toward them. She had parked further back.
“I’ve seen a meteor shower,” she said.
“Is Hazard on his way?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been able to reach him.”
A crack, like thunder, split the air. There were gasps from the researchers.
“We should get them out of here,” Lockley said.
Suddenly, someone yelled out. As another crack sounded, Lockley looked in the direction that one of the researchers was pointing.
There was a figure descending from the hills.
“He could be hurt,” Grubbs said. “I’ll grab the first aid kit from your car.”
Lockley nodded and made her way toward the descending figure.
“Wait!” Salway grasped her arm.
Lockley turned to him.
“All the researchers are accounted for.” He shook his head. “We don’t know who that is.”
As he spoke, the figure came into the dimmest edge of the light cast by all their headlights.
“Yes, we do,” Lockley said.
She moved toward him, recognizing him even though he wasn’t in uniform, and wasn’t wearing any kind of head covering.
“Hazard, are you okay?” Lockley glanced behind herself to see Grubbs jogging toward them with the first aid kit.
Hazard smiled at them. “I’m okay. I didn’t expect to see you all here.”
“Likewise, buddy,” Salway said.
“Those hills are about to collapse, aren’t they?” Lockley said. “We need to get out of here.”
“The hills will be okay,” Hazard said. “They’ll settle soon. They’ll stand. Like they’ve been doing for a thousand years.”
“Is it me, Deputy,” Lockley said, stepping closer to take a look at him, “or do you look a little bit green?”
Hazard pointed up to the sky. “The transition will stop in a few moments. And with it, the rumbling. We can watch it, and then, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned. What’s been going on with our town.”
Lockley peered at her deputy for a moment, even after he and the others cast their gazes to the sky. Then she followed their gazes, and she witnessed a sight that had not been seen in those skies for a thousand years.
When the rumbling stopped and the spectacle of shooting stars and ribbons of color in the sky calmed, everyone looked back down to earth.
They looked at Hazard. A circle formed around him as the researchers huddled around Lockley and the others.
Lockley held her breath, wondering what her deputy would say next.
Hazard smiled and looked at Grubbs. “Remember that one Halloween when you told me my fake elf ears looked real?” He swept his hair behind his ears. His pointed ears. “They’re real.”
Grubbs took a step toward him. “You’d better tell me those are your real eyes or—“
“These are my real eyes,” Hazard said, nodding. “This is my real shape. I’m…a neighbor.”
Lockley frowned. “A neighbor?”
“I didn’t know, by the way. Until a few weeks ago. I didn’t know about the Unoche. How it came to be. I didn’t know it had anything to do with me and my people.” He turned his head to include all of them in his gaze. “You’ve been trying to solve this mystery. The rumbling. Was it a giant sleeping under the earth? Aliens? Prehistoric plants? Natural seismic activity? Some impending manmade disaster. I wondered along with you for a while. Until people started spotting that creature in the woods, and then in town. What sounded supernatural to you, was very familiar to me. And I realized what must be happening. And I also realized, something was wrong.”
He took a deep breath. No one else spoke.
“There is a world next door to this one. Right next door, but invisible, most of the time. And this world is invisible to that one. Most of the time.”
“A parallel dimension,” Grubbs said. Her eyes were wide. “Are you the real Hazard? Or are you his evil twin?”
“Grubbs.” Lockley shook her heading, frowning.
But Hazard smiled. “No, it’s not like that. It’s not a twin world. There is no Grubbs there. No Lockley. No Sal. It’s like a neighboring town. Different people. Different layout. But similar in a lot of ways. In the structure. There’s one difference. We have the means to see and travel the…paths that lead between our worlds. Most of you don’t. Just as you travel to different places in your world, to visit, sometime to settle for a while, we do the same by coming here. There are times when you wander into our world by accident. Most of the time, we’re able to send you back. Sometimes, people want to stay and settle. If this is all sounding familiar to you, it’s because you have legends about our world. Some of them are really weird, and we’re not sure how you came up with them.”
Salway leaned toward him. “Dude, are you an elf?”
“No, I’m a person.”
Lockley peered at her deputy. He didn’t look any different to her. Except for the no-hat thing, and he wasn’t slouching, and he was smiling differently, more lightheartedly. “So…the hills?”
“Right. After Sal found out that local history about the hills, I got suspicious. I’d visited the hills before. I’d never seen any paths leading to my native world. I’d never sensed anything—the air feels a little different there. Gravity is just a bit stronger. But what that history described sounded like a thing I’d heard of when I was a kid. A thing called a ‘transition.’” He paused. “I mentioned Halloween earlier. The legend says it’s the one night out of the year when the doors that separate the worlds of the living and the dead are open, so the spirits can walk freely on earth. A transition is something like that. Normally, the paths that lead to your world are well-guarded, on both sides. I had to go through a lot of paperwork, and interviews, and a lot of hoops, and a lot of red tape just to visit here. And even more so when I decided to settle here. But a transition is an open door. It happens because of…well, I don’t understand the details.” He shook his head. “Forces align along the edges of both worlds. It’s a natural phenomenon.”
Grubbs glanced at the hill. The rumbling had calmed somewhat, but it was still going on. “You said something was wrong.”
“The way Sal described the historic even from a thousand years ago sounded the way a transition normally goes. It’s pretty quick. Flashes in the skies. A little rumbling. This one was bigger than most. And that chain of hills that appeared, that was the result of our world leaving something behind in yours. We got lucky. There weren’t any animals living in the hills really. And all the plant-life native to our world either died or adapted to yours. Most of it is pretty similar.” He gulped. “But this time around, the transition was slow in building, and instead of a night when the doorway is open, it seemed as if there were…leaks, in the closed door. That beast that people saw. That was real. It’s harmless. And it was only halfway in your world. That’s why it left no trace evidence. I was able to use the transition to go to my world, to report what was happening, and ask for some guidance. We think the problem might have something to do with a highway that we built on our side of this particular transition. It interfered with the energies. Normally that would just prevent the transition from happening. But…”
“You got some kind of partial transition,” Salway said.
Hazard nodded. “We think so.”
“So…can we ride this out?”
Hazard nodded again. “They’ve lined up some machines on the other side of the transition. They should act as dampeners. This rumbling that we’re feeling now, it should go away soon. And they’re going to try to figure out a way to keep the door closed, so we don’t go through this again a thousand years from now.”
“Well, we won’t be going through it,” Salway said, pointing to everyone in the circle besides Hazard. “We’ll all be dead. But…will you still be here?”
Hazard laughed. “No, I’ll be dead too. I just meant whoever is here won’t have to go through it.”
Grubbs rubbed her forehead with the back of her hand. “One, I’m glad you’re not a bug-eyed alien. Two…what the hell, Hazard? So we never would have known who you really are if this hadn’t happened?”
“But our governments know.” Lockley said. “They watch the roads, you said. So they know.”
Salway rubbed his hands together. “And now we know. A reporter and a bunch of researchers.”
“We’ll be getting a visit from some black sedans come tomorrow, won’t we?” Lockley said.
Hazard nodded. “They’ll give you warnings. Have you sign some documents. But even if you don’t sign, they know it will be hard for you to convince anyone of everything that’s happened here.”
“So what will be our official explanation?” one of the researchers said.
Lockley turned to Grubbs. “I really liked that underground plant theory. We can go with that.”
“Or we can tell as much of the truth as we can,” Salway said. “I can keep a secret, but I’m not keen on out-and-out lying to people. We can say we didn’t really figure it out. But we do know that the rumblings have been slowing down. The research team can confirm that. And we figured out the pattern, and it shouldn’t be happening for another thousand years.”
Lockley nodded. “Not as fun. But I agree.”
“You leaving us, Hazard?” Grubbs asked. She pointed to the pack by his feet.
“I’d like to stay, actually, but…am I still welcome here?”
Lockley smiled at him. “This is your town, Deputy. If you say it is.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to cover up my ears and color my skin anymore. If I stay, I’d be walking around like this. Your government is okay with it, so long as I don’t say why I have slightly green skin and pointed ears.”
“No one will notice,” Grubbs said, waving a hand. “I’m telling you. Dye your hair green too. If the boss lets you.”
“Actually…” Hazard hesitated and looked at Lockley. “My hair is naturally green.”
Lockley crossed her arms and laughed, and she noticed that her laughter shook her more than the quieted rumbling that was now passing through the ground. “I’m glad the odd natural disaster isn’t the only thing this town has going for it.”
“No, Sheriff,” Hazard said, glancing between Salway, Lockley, and Grubbs. “It isn’t.”
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel