Excerpt from Falter Kingdom
This is the place.
I’ll try to explain it. It’s kind of a simple picture, nothing really wrong with it. You might see it and think, ‘So? Just another place where high school kids chill and smoke.’ But the first clue is how it should be a sewer tunnel but it’s too big to be one. The opening is the size of a car tunnel, made of concrete, and looking in you see nothing but darkness.
That darkness, it doesn’t let up.
Someone painted a crown around the concrete opening of the tunnel.
You can see the black paint, the spikes of the crown, from really far away. It has something to do with the lore, what people say about it.
I’ve been here a number of times but I’ve never taken part.
The thing about Falter Kingdom is that it’s not just any tunnel.
The tunnel is full of darkness and it goes on and on and on, without end. People say that initially it was a tunnel supposed to be part of the city subway system but the mass transit authority discovered that a couple miles in, there was a weak point, a sort of fissure. The fissure opened itself up to all sorts of frequencies and energies and stuff. That’s what you get when people turn spirituality into hard science.
People used to play around with the thought that there was another plane of existence, probably because ours was too much of a bummer to be the only one. Everyone knew ghosts existed; they’d speak to you if you dared to listen. But demons want what people want, whatever that means.
Nearly half of the employees working on the tunnel attracted demons. Like anywhere else, the demon chooses you and you’ve got no choice. It latches to you and you don’t have a whole lot of options.
Back then, it was really expensive to get rid of them. You couldn’t just call up a priest and get exorcized. You had to fill out a ton of paperwork, go to a number of experts, and stuff. By the time they could get rid of it, there was basically only the demon left. The person gone, fully possessed.
So that’s how the legend goes. The legend of Falter Kingdom.
A bunch of us go here just to feel the change in atmosphere. A lot of Meadows students go here to prove a point.
But see, when we arrived here that day, we just wanted to be alone.
I wanted to get drunk. I was willing to listen to Brad if it meant getting a head start on the weekend.
I didn’t think I would have to run the gauntlet.
But I’ll get to that.
We arrived at Falter Kingdom and the first thing that happened was our cellphones all lost signal. Again, that’s part of the fun of the place.
That kid, Steve, stood at the opening looking in.
Brad shouted back at him, “Careful or you’ll be dragged in!”
Blaire snickered, “You’re a walking cliché.”
Brad signaled to me, wanting me to toss him a beer. “Yeah?” Cracking open the beer and taking a gulp, “You know what they say about being judgmental?”
This went on—back and forth—for longer than it should have. I listened and I observed the conversation from where I sat, on a rock, drinking the beer probably way too fast.
Blaire wouldn’t let up.
Brad was too oblivious to care about anything Blaire could say.
Eventually the conversation made its way back to me. Brad saying something like, “Why do you keep this chick around?”
But that really wasn’t a question. Brad’s good at being a jerk. He’s a jerk. I can’t stand the guy. But he’s there. He’s around. We were freshmen when we met. I think it was Biology. Yeah, that was the one. We both sucked at the subject. We were failing and quickly facing summer school. We got assigned to some peer group for people that suck at science. We had to be tutored by substitute teachers, meaning we had to take the class twice in one day. It was horrible. Brad being around made it a little less horrible but only because he knew how to get the answers. He knew people.
He still knows people. I don’t think anyone really likes the guy but they see value in how he can slack his way through anything.
Brad gets his way. Brad always has beer.
I guess we’re friends because I’ve gotten used to him being around.
Sort of like most people, I get used to them and in time, it’s all the same. This is as close to getting along as I’ll probably ever know. But yeah, Brad can be a real jerk and I was the one to break up the argument. It was easy—all I had to do was tell Brad to shut up and catch up.
“I’m on my third.” I dangled the can, “Which one are you on?”
That’s enough to end it, but nothing would change the fact that Blaire wouldn’t end up having much fun. Not that she would have. This is what Blaire always does. She spent most of the afternoon sitting on some far rock working on our homework assignments for next week.
I let her do her thing. We all did.
She was doing my homework, too.
Steve, Brad, and I stood at the opening of the tunnel. That made me take another drink.
And looking back, I got really drunk that afternoon.
Drunker than I should have. Even Steve got on me about Becca. He talked about how my situation took me off the radar, how nothing good can come from being trapped like that.
Yeah, I went with them to Falter Kingdom of my own free will.
But alcohol and competition go hand-in-hand and all it took was one mention of the tunnel and Steve shut up.
It was obvious that he had never run the gauntlet.
It was a little less obvious that I hadn’t either. Every other time I hung out at Falter Kingdom, I got out of having to run. Trick is to wait until it becomes a possibility, the talking about running, and you encourage whoever it is that’s being pressured to run, but when they turn it on you, don’t freeze. Don’t stop and worry. Don’t say no. You pretend to consider and then you pretend to think about it. If there’s beer, take a sip. By the time any pressure is given, you can ask someone that hasn’t run and have them mess up and take on the pressure. So they end up running and you don’t. That’s how it works.
End lesson, or whatever.
But yeah, I was drunk and on a short string, Brad selling Steve on the whole thing, legend and all, I downed the last of the beer in that can.
Then I said it, “I’ll do it.”
Instantly the conditions changed.
“…Really?” Blaire had joined us, standing at my side.
Brad grinned, “My man!”
Steve didn’t say anything. He wanted to run it. He wanted the respect.
I just wanted the conversation to end.
I didn’t want to hear any more about Becca.
So they crowded around me as I took my first steps into the tunnel.
“Ten minutes bud, you got this,” Brad said.
Running the gauntlet is more or less exactly how it sounds. You run into the tunnel, into the darkness, for ten whole minutes or until you reach the end. But no one’s ever reached the end. So I had to run, sprint really, for ten whole minutes. They synced up and set a timer on each of their phones.
On their count—three, two, one—I ran.
It was actually kind of easy, going through with it.
Everything leading up made it feel impossible. I wasn’t into running it; I had nothing to really prove, which could be cause for a bigger problem. But, I don’t know—
I guess it had a lot to do with being fed up.
With their voices. With their claims. With the fact that they were kind of right: It’s almost graduation and nothing’s changed.
It’s like I needed something to prove to myself. I needed to do some- thing that anyone that knew me would have problems believing if told in the context of some story.
The actual running was the hard part.
I felt like I couldn’t keep to a straight line.
I felt like I couldn’t run fast enough. The air was thick in the tunnel.
Kind of a strange musk, the same kind you smell in old basements or places with stale air. The ground muddy and wet, each step had that sinking feeling that you get when you find out you spaced a test or some other important event.
But I ran the whole ten.
It didn’t even last that long.
I ran with my eyes wide but they might as well have been closed. The dark was so thick it was like running in place.
You can’t really hear anything in the tunnel. You can’t hear your own footsteps. I ran until it felt right to stop and turn around. Something worth mentioning—I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t hear my feet slip- ping in the mud. I didn’t hear my lungs gasping for air. I didn’t hear.
If I didn’t hear my own breath, there’s no way I heard their phones. It probably doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
It’s hard to explain. Telling it right is usually tougher than you think; it’s all about using the right amount of words to get your point across. You say too little and it’s just strange; say too much and it’s you’re not really making any sense. This is probably one of those situations. It’s just that, being inside the tunnel felt like… what’s that term for when you are frozen in a chamber?
It’s kind of like that. But there’s a better word.
Let me look it up.
It’s like being in suspended animation.
Stuck in place, but you also know that your body is moving, your thoughts racing, because I could feel the sweat dripping from my forehead.
While inside, I could think only about one thing.
I thought about my body breaking into pieces.
And even now I can’t make complete sense of why.
When I made it back to them, you can bet they were surprised.
Brad saw me first.
I was drenched in sweat. Dirt caked in layers all over my body.
Steve didn’t say anything.
Blaire played concerned friend, “Are you insane?”
I asked them if I lasted the full ten, but the words didn’t come out until later, after I had laid down against the cool rock.
By then Brad and Steve had left.
Blaire stayed with me. She was sitting next to me when I woke up.
I stirred shortly before the sun completely disappeared.
“Did I make the full ten?”
Blaire looked at me with this strange look. Maybe she really was worried. I’m not sure what she felt that day. But when she told me I had been in there for twenty-five minutes, it clicked into place.
I didn’t feel any different but, well, it kind of made sense. I felt peaceful sitting there, letting the information sink in. Like I did something I wanted to do.
We walked back in silence.
I didn’t say anything and she didn’t say anything.
When we got back to Meadows, our cars were the only ones left in the parking lot. “Where’d Brad and that other guy go?”
Blaire kind of ignored me but also kind of didn’t. It was a mumble, one that I maybe imagined. “They went for help.”
We left without saying goodbye.
By the time I got home, I felt nothing. Not tired at all. I stayed up with a six-pack that I finished and watched walk-throughs of two different videogames. I didn’t have trouble sleeping at all that night.
Stu started happening the following day. Minor things: mostly the broken vase and my bedroom door opening and closing on its own. I misplaced my cellphone twice only to find it where I couldn’t have left it. Why would I leave my phone in my locker at school if I had it with me when I left for Falter? Why would my phone turn up in my dad’s pocket when he had been at work all day and I used the phone not ten minutes before it went missing? These aren’t really questions, really, just the mind fighting the facts.
And I knew the symptoms.
They say it’s best to get rid of a demon quick.
Yeah, I know, I know.
But just thinking about how much e ort it would have been to tell my parents… what it would mean for them—their only son, haunted— made me feel exhausted. I would never hear the end of it.
So then it just felt better to put o telling them for a little bit.
It won’t be much longer.
Soon everyone would know.
Excerpt taken from Falter Kingdom by Michael J. Seidlinger. © 2016, The Unnamed Press
Michael J. Seidlinger is the author of a number of novels including The Strangest, The Fun We’ve Had, and The Laughter of Strangers. He serves as Electric Literature‘s Book Reviews Editor as well as Publisher-in-Chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, an indie press specializing in innovative fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Falter Kingdom is his first YA novel.
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