Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Death Gate (Full Story)

They say if you go inside, your fate is sealed. Just like that. You open the rusted iron bars, step through the threshold and you might as well say goodbye to the world. I’ve only known two people to ever test the urban legend: Tommy Diaz, who died six months after he went inside from a heart condition nobody knew he had, and me.


There was nothing special about that day. It was cold outside, not really winter anymore but not quite spring either. Just cold in that wet way that sticks to your bones. The walk to the old turret wall was a short one, made longer by Kim’s nostalgic silence. She’d been talking about days that I’d rather just forget--sleepovers at my old house with popcorn and root beer floats, and a mother that could tell the best stories. I’d never told Kim, but the reason my mother’s stories were so good, or scary, or real, was because to her they were true.

The turret wall was built in the eighteen hundreds, made to protect our city by the sea from invading ships. Now it was just an old crumbling structure along the nature walk. Smaller structures were scattered along the trail. Some were bunkers that held cannons in them hundreds of years ago. And then there was the death gate.
Nobody knew why the death gate was built. Nobody that I knew, anyway. I’m sure a historian somewhere knew why it was put there, but it didn’t matter.  The legend was what we cared about. It was the kind of thing everybody knew, but nobody talked about. The dare that everyone claimed they’d take, but nobody ever did.
“Do you think it’s for real?” Kim asked as we stopped to stare at the gate. Someone had spray painted the wall next to it years before us. An eerie warning, though not at all subtle.  Enter and you die.

“No.” I stuffed my fists into my jacket pockets and stared down through the bars. Inside was littered with trash—a broken red plastic cup, a slew of beer bottles, a candy wrapper. It wasn’t the sort of place you’d expect to carry such a reputation.  It was just another littered bunker.

“What about that kid that died?” Kim climbed down the small slope to get a better look inside.

“He had a heart condition.” The words tasted like a lie. Tommy Diaz was an athlete with no prior history of any heart problems. He went inside one night on a dare, the red plastic cup could’ve been left there by him, and six months later Tommy was dead.

“I guess. Still, isn’t it fun to pretend? Like when we were little and we’d sneak into the cemetery and do the Bloody Mary thing.”

I shrugged. At least she wasn’t still talking about my mother.

“Oh, come on, Elizabeth. You’re no fun anymore.”

“Beth. Just Beth.” Elizabeth was my mother’s name. She’d died some years before and nobody had ever explained exactly how or why. She was too curious for her own good, my grandmother said. She was ill, was all my father could say. My mother was crazy. That much I knew. Cold-hearted as it seemed, it was easier to forget her completely. And in a town by the sea, where people tossed their problems into the waves like dead rats from a plagued ship, forgetting her was just something we did. Most of the time.

“And I am fun,” I mumbled. My skin prickled in that way it does when hidden eyes are watching. The wind didn’t blow colder, though I half expected it to, but still I could smell it—lilacs. My mother’s perfume smelled of lilacs.  Whether it was to get away from her memory, or if something inside me was trying to find her again, I don’t know, but I said, “Move. I’m going inside.”

“What?” Kim jumped back from the gate like my words had made it come alive. “You’re fun, Beth. I was just messing with you.”

I slid down the small hill until my nose found its way between the bars. I could smell rotting leaves, and dirt, and maybe stale beer inside.

“C’mon, Beth. Let’s go.” Kim tugged at my sleeve. I pushed on the gate and it gave way. I took a breath, filled my lungs with the stench of lilac, and stepped inside.

That was when it started, about six months ago.

Everyone started waiting for me to die.

Kim was on her phone, texting God knows who, the minute I went through the gate. If the sea wall wasn’t so far from town, and it hadn’t been so cold, I’m sure there would’ve been a crowd waiting when I came back out. As it was, it hadn’t been necessary. Kim snapped a pic of me looking dazed and confused, one hand out in front of me, pushing the door open. By the time we got back to my place, everyone in school had a copy. I got seventy-two new friend requests on facebook. I became, quite suddenly, the most popular girl in Hancock Bay.

It was the single greatest thing that ever happened to Kim. I know this because she said so almost every day. I can’t believe I’m best friends with a real-live celebrity!

A month after I went inside, my fan page, Beth Against Death! and its counterpart, the death gate’s fan page, Death For Beth! had around 2000 fans each – most of them double dippers. A ticking clock counted down the days until my impending doom – or triumph – depending on which side you were on.

By summer, the whole town knew. There wasn’t a day that went by without a tourist coming into the Ice Palace and asking for a photo with “the girl who went through the death gate.” My father was not impressed, but every one of those tourists also bought a cone, or a sundae, or a smoothie, so he mostly kept quiet about it. Business was business whether it was for Rayburn’s Hand-Churned Ice Cream or “that freaky girl who’s going to die.”

Only my grandmother got upset when she heard the news from her knitting circle. You’re just like your mother, she said. Once upon a time, that would’ve made me mad, but every day since I went through that gate, my mother has felt just a little bit closer. Like she’s a buoy out in the bay and the undertow’s pulling me toward her.

When the breeze comes in from the sea, it always brings the scent of lilacs with it. I used to hate the smell, but I find it comforting now. At night, even though our house is too far inland to hear them, I listen to the waves crash against what’s left of the sea wall and think about my mother’s stories. Red sunrises and water ghosts. Pathways to a city under the sea. And promises accidentally made, but binding nonetheless.

In my dreams I remember the darkness beyond the gate. The way it grew thicker the further I followed it. How it went on too far, seemed endless. How I turned back, feeling emptier than I had when I went in.

But no one cares about that. They want the kind of story told over a campfire. One that will make them jump and scream and clutch their friend’s hand. One where I emerge breathless and victorious, having conquered death itself. Or peed my pants. Either will do, so long as it’s entertaining and shallow.

If anyone is broken up about the idea of me dying, they haven’t shown it. Not even Kim, who was so scared for me before I went in. The betting pool leans heavily in favor of my death coming exactly six months from the day I went in. Or in other words – today.

My father doesn’t acknowledge me, or the day, when I come into the kitchen, despite the headline on the front page of the paper he’s hiding behind that reads Is Today The Day?

I’ve promised the paper an exclusive on what I saw behind the gate, if I make it through the day. Part of me hopes I don’t. I keep thinking about Tommy Diaz, and how his parents would feel if I survive the gate’s curse when he didn’t.

“See ya, Dad,” I call as I open the kitchen door to the warm September morning. I don’t even bother with my backpack. There’s no way I’m going to the madhouse otherwise known as school. Today, I finish what I started.

Or die trying.

Every day for six months, I’ve tried to die.

On that very first day, the six-month anniversary of passing through the death gate, I returned to the littered bunker and sat inside. Waiting for whatever it was that was going to claim me to get it over with, and trying not to gag on the overwhelming scents of stale beer and piss – apparently, visiting the gate had become even more popular in recent months. A small crowd gathered, posting Facebook updates whenever I stood to stretch my legs or sniffled too loudly. But the sun went down and the moon came up and all the diligent followers abandoned me and the gate around midnight.

Kim stuck around. She hugged the life out of me when I stepped back through the gate. A photographer from the paper snapped a shot of the moment: Kim looking tearful and relieved, me looking still dazed and still confused.

I gave my exclusive and the paper ran the story under the title Beth Survives the Death Gate! And for a few weeks, everything was miserable. I couldn’t go two minutes without someone snapping a picture or asking for an autograph or begging me to tell them something I hadn’t told the paper. But then it stopped. People moved on. Forgot all about me and the gate when it was time to think about something more exciting like Homecoming.

I thought it was over. But every morning, I woke with the same question in my head: why six months?

What did it mean that Tommy had died six months after going through the gate? Nothing. It meant that was when he died and nothing else. There was no Death Gate Guide that said six months was what you got after entering, no way of knowing when death would come for you. Or how. Every morning, the thought broke over me like frigid sea spray, with a growl and startling violence.

I spent three days rolled up in my comforter, letting dad think I was sick, wondering if there was something lurking inside me the same way there’d been for Tommy. I spent three days letting death taunt me.

And then I got over it. I got up and started taunting death right back.

It never occurred to me that tempting fate came with such variety. I thought I’d run out of dangerous activities before a month had passed. But that was only the beginning. Once you start dreaming up all the different ways you could die on any normal day, the possibilities are endless.

I started off with the obvious – walking the edge of the crumbling sea wall, driving too fast, diving into the ocean in November – any opportunity that looked even marginally reckless was a good one.

Then I got creative. I started looking at everything with an eye for the unexpected adventure it might offer. School became much more interesting when started noticing how many windowless doors dotted the halls, and the pier was a wealth of nookish alleyways and craggy descents. Things that might have scared me before became something else entirely, challenges and possibilities.

At first, no one noticed but Kim. She’d tag along beside me making nervous jokes about back when we thought the death gate was for real and how crazy the whole town got over nothing. “Everyone’s going through it now,” she’d say, snapping her gum through her teeth. “But it’s so last year, ya know? It can’t ever be as cool as when you did it.” And then, when she realized I was really going to jump off the pier, or climb up the tallest turret of that old wall, or squeeze past the barbed wire fence on the old Seavers property, she’d add, “You don’t have anything to prove, Beth.” I didn’t know how to tell her it was about dying with integrity without sounding crazy. Instead, I smiled and said, “I know.”

My new reputation came in with the tide and sometime after Christmas there was a new Facebook fan page, Beth Defying Death!, reporting on my recent daredevil activities. The fan count has been reinvigorated by the possibility that I might still die in an exciting way. I couldn’t really care about the page one way or another, but the discussions over what crazy thing I’d do next have been useful. I never would have thought to cross Winney Lake on my own – a notoriously thin lake at its widest point, even in February.

Now, it’s the one-year anniversary of my passing through the death gate, and I’m running short on ways to die. Haven’t I done everything I can to make sure it isn’t something stupid and sneaky like a brain aneurysm that takes me? What else can I possibly do? After living with death for a solid year, our relationship is ready for the next step.

For the first and only time, I comment to the fan page, “Today, at 2pm, I’m crossing Winney lake.” Within minutes, it has more likes than people at my school alone and Kim is on the phone begging me to drop this already.

“I’ll meet you there,” I say and hang up.

There are crowds on either side of the lake when I get there. Stomping their feet in the fresh snow and talking in low voices. No one says anything directly to me. They’re all too afraid to be the last one to speak to me before I die. If I die. There’s a new theory floating around that the death gate didn’t steal my life, it made me invincible. After a year of chasing death, I’m ready to believe them.

I have to wend through tall weeds to get out onto the pond. Snow covers everything, hiding dark ice below it. I move quickly at first. My breath is loud in my ears and before long, I’ve managed to work up a sweat. When I’m a little more than halfway across the breadth of the lake, I stop to rest. The ice is so quiet and so loud all at once. It yawns and groans, pops and hisses. I wonder if this is what death sounds like. If death is a whisper and a snap.

Beneath me, the ice shudders. I have time to wonder if death isn’t a sound, but a feeling before the ground falls away and my body drops like an anchor.

I thrash, reaching for solid ground, kicking my heavy feet. My lungs contract. My mouth freezes. And water covers my head.

Death is a cold lake and a single note in my ears.

Death is my heavy feet, my numb fingers.

Death is the promise that makes everything else mean something. I kick. Of all the things I’ve done this year, I don’t regret a single one. I kick. I wouldn’t have done any of them if I hadn’t crossed that threshold. My hands press against something solid. The death gate didn’t kill me, but it did change me.

I haul my body out of the water and roll away from the hole in the world. I roll until I’m dizzy and my ears and eyes start to work again. The shore isn’t far but it’s loud and fractured with people running in all directions. Part of me can’t believe that there are so many people obsessed enough with my life to stand out here in the cold while I attempt something not all that amazing. And part of me can’t help but wonder if they’re out here because this is the closest they’ll ever get to doing something dangerous.

I climb to my feet, listing for any sounds of cracking or complaining from the ice. It’s hard to hear over the clatter of my teeth. My head will ache when I can feel it again, but the pain will be welcome.

My progress across the ice is slow, but by the time I’ve made my way back to the reeds where an ambulance with warm blankets waits, I know that my fate was sealed before I ever stepped through the death gate.

But what the rest of the town doesn’t know is, so were theirs.


Photo by Lacey Boldyrev

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