Excerpt from Chapter Two: An Archaeologist, a Marine Biologist, and an Astronaut
Clement looked for the few stars he could see, tried to identify them by their placement, their brilliance, their red and blue shifts.
He didn’t know that he slept.
He was waked by the glow of that same sky, by the slow breaking of an ominously swirling-clouded dawn. He was surprised to find himself still face-up on the bench, in exactly the position he must have fallen asleep. He was damp, uncomfortable, cold. His joints were sore, as was his back. Then again, he felt rested, finally. He was hungry and thirsty.
With a jolt, he realized that Judith would be looking for him, this morning. He had played right into her hands! He sat up so fast, a rush of blood made the world spin. And there, in the spinning world, came a man shuffling across the alcove. The man grunted an “All right, there, soldier,” as Clement strained to focus on him. He wore cargo pants that were mud-caked at the bottom, grease-stained at the top, and about as old as dirt. He wore a tattered, navy blue hoodie over a threadbare, plaid button-up shirt, and the hoodie was pulled up over his black, unruly, shoulder-length hair. He sported a full beard and moustache over an olive, dirty face with bulbous features and a large mouth. He carried a plastic grocery bag which hang limp with only a few, heavy items.
Clement hastened to gather up his bag, his sweatshirt, his vest-pillow, and to shove everything else back down in the cardboard box as he retrieved it from under the bench. With Judith on her way, an itinerant approaching him in a secluded area, and the whip of sudden wind that carried with it a cool moisture that meant rain was on the way…
“No hurry, fella’. Just want to sit down, rest me legs.” The man was already to the bench, and he sank down onto the end of it with a long sigh of relief.
“Good morning, sir,” Clement mumbled.
The man turned to look Clement squarely in the eye, giving Clement a close view of his large, dark eyes. “Good morning to you. You been here all night, then?”
“Uh, well, on accident. I guess.”
“Lucky stiff. I never get away with it.” The man looked up toward the sky and Clement followed his gaze. In the west, a deep, steely gray was building and the clouds in front of it mounted from dark to bright above them. The distant gray rumbled. Maybe Judith wouldn’t even come. What was he going to do, anyhow? Go into work covered in dew, in yesterday’s clothes, smelling of morning breath and night sweats? He returned his task to reorganizing the contents of the box so that he could close the top.
“So, tell me something about yourself.”
Clement sniffed. “Why, so you can steal my identity? Murder me and cut me into pieces based on my transgressions?” He was still working at the box.
“Do I look successful at anything, even murder?”
“Alright then, for being rude, answer my friendly question. I like stories. Who are you?”
“I’ll give you the quick version before I get ahead of this storm.”
“That’s a different question and the answer is ‘I don’t know.’ As to the primary, my name is Clement, I am an administrative assistant at an ObGyn, I lived at home with my parents—even though I’m thirty, two months ago—until they died suddenly in a tragic accident, also two months ago. I was married to my high school sweetheart out of college, an actress. She was very successful at acting, with me, and she revealed her intentions for an ‘open marriage’ and convenience marriage until after we tied that knot, her career needed a boost, and my aspirations and finances were crushed by the attack of the economy; you know the one, I bet. That same ex-wife from hell has intentions of hunting me down in this park, this very morning, so I guess you understand why I need to go, now, rudely or otherwise.” Clement folded the cardboard box’s flaps over themselves and grabbed at his backpack just as the man also solidly grabbed Clement’s backpack.
When Clement looked up at him, he was shocked to see—not the bearded man with the large eyes, but a darker man with a long, sallow face, and no facial hair. Clement jumped back so that he was standing in a sort of crouch next to the bench, with his hand outstretched toward the bag he had relinquished in his alarm. He stared, as the man—who was still wearing the same outfit, had the same physique, although sort of straighter and seemingly taller—said with a smoother voice. “I am Essen.” He said it like a proclamation, in even meter with authority. His caramel eyes kept Clement rapt to them. “You are the one, and I have a message for you.” Essen held out his hand and opened the fingers slowly, where a crumpled sheet of paper sat in his palm.
“But you—” Clement pointed slightly at the man’s face. “I mean, you—”
“I am two,” said the commanding face. Then, as Clement watched with disbelief, the smooth, dark face slid sideways around until it disappeared back into the hoodie and another face—the bearded one—appeared from the opposite side. The mellower voice of the other Essen, with a changed demeanor of the whole body, coaxed, “Go on. Take it. It won’t bite.” He lifted the paper higher toward Clement’s terrified face.
In a stupor, Clement took the paper and brought it slowly up to his eyes. He was afraid to remove his gaze from Essen—or whomever the other face was—but managed to look down and read:
- A man will be on a seat, where he will have slept all night.
- The man will be alone in the Wide World, without parents or wife or children.
- He will have with him his meager possessions, which will include his broken spirit.
- He will be the man to descend to Hollow Earth and either save—or condemn—the Uplanders.
“There you have it.” Essen winked at Clement as Clement looked up from the paper. Clement was statuesque, paralyzed in fear and confusion. To make matters worse, Essen’s face was now rotating again, and the darker man appeared just as Essen’s body stiffened. The dark Essen said in his deep, oily voice, “A man will be on a seat, where he will have slept all night. The man will be alone in the Wide World, without parents or wife or children.” As Essen continued, Clement receded from his transfixion. He began computing what was being said—recited—to him. “He will have with him his meager possessions,” Clement looked down at the box at his feet, “which will include his broken spirit.”
“Hey, now. You don’t mean to tell me you think I’m this guy you’re looking for?”
“I know it to be so.”
Clement let out an ironic laugh. “That’s just silly. Don’t you have a name or something? Something more concrete? I mean, you might catch any bum…” he looked down at Essen’s appearance. “I mean, you might catch any residentially deficient person here sleeping on the bench with no family and nowhere to go. You have the wrong guy, man.”
“I know you to be the one.”
“Alright.” Clement was starting to edge away, but wondering how much he wanted or needed his back pack when he remembered that his dad’s journal was in it. Crap! He tried a new approach. “Alright. Mister, um, Essen, what do you need me to do to get my bag back?” A gust of wind came crashing through the park, flipping the leaves of the trees and bushes up so that they flashed silver. Clement looked up at the sky, much more of it now covered with a bluish black.
When Clement looked back, the face with the beard had reappeared. “Go down the hole, man. You’re the one to save the Uplanders.”
“Or condemn them, yeah. Don’t think about that, just fulfill your awesome destiny and jump down the hole.”
Essen raised the arm that was not holding the bag and pointed toward the base of a giant tree surrounded at the bottom with a thick brush over twisting roots. “It’s in there. You’ll see.”
“Okay, so here’s the part where you lure me in and chop me up into little pieces.”
“For Pete’s sake, Clement. Just go look at the hole, decide whether or not the Uplanders are worth it, and then get the heck out of dodge with your precious bag.” A flash of lightning streaked the sky just as the darkness hit the apex. It was followed by an ear-splitting peal of thunder, one that shook the ground. In the trough of stillness afterward, Clement heard a small voice call out from behind the trees, “Clement?” It was Judith. Really?!
“Okay, fine, let’s make the… make the exchange.” Essen turned and walked fast toward the tree, Clement’s bag swinging from his hand. Clement walked with him, sticking to his left side. Clement considered grabbing the bag and running, but before he could, Essen bent down and disappeared into a false wall in the brush. Clement followed.
Inside the bushes, a very tight clearing opened up at the base of the old tree, there among the exposed roots. Essen was crouching in it, leaning over a massive hole at a slant into the ground. The hole would be big enough for a grown man to enter, and the edges of it were overgrown with grass, moss, and even flowers among the leaf litter. Clement was curious how a hole so large could have been here for so long, undetected. And where was the dirt dug from this massive hole? The roots surrounding were brushed clean, the small bit of ground flat and smooth between them. Despite himself, he moved a step closer to peer inside.
Clement saw a flash of lightning reflect off of the gaping mouth of the hole, heard another deafening crack of thunder, and another, now panicked, call come from somewhere in the park, “Clement!” Then he was pushed from behind.