There’s an old well in the center of our small, backwater hometown; Asher and I used to play near it all the time as children.
He would wear his overalls with the broken strap, and I would always wear a dress because I wanted to be a little angel.
On the occasion I am thinking of, we stood on the rough gravel surrounding the well and tossed a ball back and forth—a mundane activity which was good for the purposes of conversation.
I stared at his hands jealously as they caught the ball. They were far softer and more feminine than my own.
“So, how was your week, Asher?” I asked him as he tossed the big red ball.
Asher shrugged. “Same old, same old…”
Asher was a sick kid—the kind of sick kid who had an overprotective mother because she had lost a kid before. I could only play with him on Saturdays because that was the only day his mom let him out. It sucked because he was my only friend.
I caught the rubber ball and enjoyed the satisfying, resounding, hollow sound it made.
“How about you?” Asher asked. “How’s your mom, Robin?”
I bit my lip. “Annoying as usual.”
Asher nodded with a soft grin. “We have that in common.”
I returned his pretty smile with an unfortunately rugged one of my own. “We sure do!”
An hour past, and, as the sun went down, we pressed our backs against the well and had the benign and often silly conversations that children tend to.
“You’ve been reading the latest Dragon Crown book, right?” Asher asked and then promptly sneezed violently thereafter.
I cleared my throat awkwardly. “Well…”
Asher pursed his lips and knitted his brows. “You didn’t! You promised me you would…”
I rolled my eyes—leaning my cheek on my hand. “Oh, please. Only dorks have the patience to read.”
Asher made a face. “You’re so mean. I literally have nothing to do most of the time, but even if I didn’t, I would still be reading because it’s fun!”
I laughed a little. “Playing ball is much more fun!”
We both looked up at the orange sky and watched the sun sink in the sky.
I pulled my knees up to my chest. I enjoyed the cool breeze and the pretty array of bright colors the sun had cast upon the two of us.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Asher glance at me nervously twice, and then he awkwardly leaned his head on my shoulder.
I stared forward with stiff, rigid shoulders.
I liked Asher; I liked him a lot. And liking someone a lot as a kid meant that you loved them.
We had a few more minutes of peace and silence, but then Connor showed up. He wound his way around the well and stood a few paces from us with his hands on his hips.
Connor was a bully. And, he was a good bully—he had knocked one of my teeth out once because I called him stupid for disrupting class. He got a suspension for that, but unfortunately, he was not expelled.
He brought two of his cronies with him—a slim, shady kid named Yancy and a beefy kid named Bob.
“Look at those fags! You can wear all the dresses you want, Robin, but you’ll never be a girl!”
I remained silent, but Asher stood up with his fists clenched.
“Robin is a girl! Leave her alone!” Asher responded—puffing out his chest.
I could barely withhold laughing at how ridiculous a sick, pale, short kid looked trying to white knight for a… Handsome girl like myself.
I tried not to let it get to me; I couldn’t help the way I was born after all.
I grabbed Asher’s arm and whispered, “it’s fine, Asher, let’s just go home.”
“What a couple! A shemale and a sick kid!” Connor taunted us.
I bit back tears.
Asher looked at me with compassionate eyes, and then turned back to Connor. I saw him reach down and grab something but didn’t bother to check what it was.
I was too upset.
I looked at my tanned, rough hands with a sniffle.
I ignored more insults from Connor as I stood up and dusted off my pathetic pink dress that was unable to hide what I was.
I heard Connor grunt in pain. I was shocked to see a sizable rock slam into his eye.
Asher had a good arm on him for a sick kid.
Connor’s face turned purple with anger.
He was cursing and yelling obscenities that I had never even heard of. Asher stood paralyzed as Connor charged him like a mad elephant.
“Time to go!” I yelled.
I grabbed Asher’s arm and dashed through our dusty and decrepit little town as fast as my unfortunately buff and manly legs would carry me down the dirt path to our left—a path enclosed by buildings on either side.
I ran past many dilapidated houses and businesses—the buildings becoming blurred lines as we ran--until we were nearly at Asher’s house.
I glanced behind me and saw that we were far ahead of Connor and his cronies.
“We’re almost to your house, Asher!” I said as Asher’s house came into view at the end of the row of buildings.
Something caught my eye, however.
I didn’t see it for a sec—no, that wasn’t it. I refused to see it.
I skidded to a halt—dirt flying under my well-worn shoes. Asher and I stared at the out-of-the-ordinary sight in front of a house on our left.
It was impossible to peel our eyes away.
We came closer to the gray body and Asher murmured, “I’ve seen this disease on TV…”
I cocked my head to the side. “Really?”
I didn’t have a TV or a computer like he did, so I was behind on the news a lot.
We glanced behind us and I saw Connor in hot pursuit. I touched Asher’s shoulder. “Come on! We have to keep going!”
I tore Asher away from the body and we continued to his house.
I spent the night at Asher’s house after giving my mom a call and I got to enjoy things I typically never got to enjoy at my own. I enjoyed cartoons on TV, I enjoyed his videogames, and I even glanced through the books on his massive bookshelf.
His mom set up a makeshift bed for me on Asher’s bedroom floor. As she turned out the lights, I asked him with a yawn as I nestled under the covers, “what was with you earlier? You don’t have to defend me like I’m some kind of… Princess…”
There was silence for a time, and then he said boldly, “I’m going to make you a princess! Just you wait! When we’re grown up, I’ll get you a diamond ring and buy you a big house where no one will make fun of you again!”
I rolled on my side and snorted. “Me? A princess…?”
“You’ve always been one to me!” He interrupted.
I found it hard to get to sleep that night without constantly dreaming of being a beautiful, blushing bride.
After all, there was nothing more feminine than a bride, I thought.
Interspersed with pleasant dreams of my wanting to be a bride were invading thoughts of that dead man we had seen.
His eyes were hollow, his cheeks sucked of all blood and marrow--his skin hanging from his body like puddy.
Between those two images of something heavenly and something hellish, I couldn’t seem to get to sleep.
I did poorly in school as I usually did the next day. We got our math tests back. Asher only came in on test days due to his sickliness, and, ahead of me, I saw that he had gotten his usual A. I covered up the D I had gotten with an elbow. Asher looked behind him—ready to show me his good grade—and when he saw tears in my eyes, he put a comforting hand on my shoulder instead.
After school was done, in the hall, I listened to the cacophony of kids filing out the front door of the school.
“I can’t wait to go home!” Was the sum of what most of them said.
I stood still on the white tile of the school floor and plastered myself against a wall—letting all the children brush past me.
Being unable to wait to go home was such a familiar and yet alien phrase to me.
People who were at the end of the work day used it, children getting off from school used it, even people on vacation used it sometimes.
It sounded so alien to me, because I didn’t understand the relief it brought people, I supposed.
I never felt like I belonged anywhere.
Asher noticed me plastering myself against the wall and approached with his familiar, wide-eyed grin. “Hey, I saw your score, and I have a great idea!”
I stared forward, unable to listen as I heard a far-off sound at the edge of my hearing.
It made my bones ache and my head throb with pain.
It was as soft as a whisper at first, and then got so loud that I could no longer hear a word Asher was saying.
It was the hollow sound of the rubber ball being tossed back and forth.
I blinked twice.
The first time I blinked, I saw the familiar, white halls of the school and the crowd of children funneling outside; the second time, I was looking down the seemingly bottomless, dark hole that was the well in the dusty, brown plaza.
“Robin?” Asher repeated. “What’s wrong?”
I brushed past him with tears in my eyes. “Leave me alone.”
The sound of the ball relentlessly hammered my skull on the way home.
Every time I blinked, the well flashed in my eyes.
I got closer and closer to the edge of it with every blink.
I could feel a wind emanating from it that was so cold it was like a knife cutting through my body as I careened downward.
The well bit relentlessly into my mind for the next few months.
It seemed to be calling out to me.
Every time someone threw a ball during recess at school, reality would be replaced with the well.
The sound would start in the back of my mind… It would start at the edge of my hearing, but then it would get louder. So loud that I could hear nothing else.
It felt like a nail being driven slowly through my skull.
On a cloudy day, rain drizzled and wind stirred the smell of wet dirt into the air.
Asher and I were tossing a ball back and forth in front of the well like we typically liked to do.
We were having a pleasant time out in the rain with our slickers on until--
The hollow sound of the ball began echoing as we tossed it.
The first time it happened that day, I stared forward with my mouth agape and bit back fearful tears.
“Robin…?” Asher asked as he held the ball steadily.
I was lost in the image of the well for a moment—unable to crawl out of it—but in another, I forced a nod. “I was just thinking that I haven’t been nearly grateful enough to you for tutoring me.”
Asher grinned and tossed the ball.
I caught it with a disturbed look on my face as the noise repeated right afterward.
“In that case, I was thinking… Maybe we should go over to your house and study sometime? My mom likes hosting you and all, but a change of scenery is always nice!” Asher exclaimed.
I tossed the ball back to him and managed to block out the following noise as I vehemently shook my head. “No, no. I like your house! You have a TV and your mom orders pizza!”
Asher threw it back to me, making a face, but reluctantly dropped the subject.
We were silent for a time.
There was just the hellish noise of the ball being tossed back and forth.
Asher cleared his throat awkwardly. “So, are you going to tell me how you got that scar on your cheek? It looks pretty bad… You did get it checked by the doctor, right?”
“I-I tripped and fell on a sharp rock.” I answered as the well got closer.
Asher narrowed his eyes. “Come on, Robin, I know you didn’t trip and fall on—”
Suddenly, all noise ceased and came to a sharp, cutting silence.
Asher and the ball were gone; all I saw were gleaming, sharp teeth in the pit of darkness.
A voice overrode all other senses.
I screamed and suddenly lurched toward the well. My hands gripped the edge of it--my eyes could not be torn from the depths of it which seemed to have peered into my very soul.
I leaned over the edge, fully intent on falling head-first down the well.
Asher grabbed me around the waist and yelled, “what the hell are you doing—”
My prince refused to let go of me even as I launched myself into the well. We both plummeted into the darkness with howling, screeching wind in our ears.
I awoke sometime later with dirt under my fingers and a pained rib cage.
I dizzily lifted myself to my knees and looked around in confusion. I moaned from how much my body and head hurt.
I was unbearably cold.
My heart inexplicably felt like it had frozen over and wasn’t beating fast enough; my fingers felt like icicles.
At first, I concentrated my attention on the ground beneath my nails, but I quickly lifted my eyes when I remembered what had happened.
Asher had fallen down the well with me. I had to look for him.
I stood up, but nearly fell back down when pain shot through my abdomen.
“Asher!” I screamed when I saw him lying face down nearby.
I turned him over with trembling hands. His face was dirty, and he had bruises, but his chest was thankfully heaving up and down with even breaths.
I wrapped my arms around him. “You’re alive! Thank God!”
Asher’s eyes opened with a sharp intake of breath. “Robin! You’re okay! But… Where are we?”
“I don’t know…” Apprehension was in my shaky voice.
I finally took a thorough look at our surroundings.
Words caught in my throat at what I saw.
Asher stood up jaggedly and looked around as well.
I clung to him nervously at the chilling sight before us.
There was an ugly, black city through the mouth of the cave in front of us; a tall, castle-like structure loomed far in the distance on a rocky hill overlooking the rest of the iron city. The structures were alien in nature--twisted and grotesque. All were tinged with a sickening, pale-green color whose light source was unknown.
My stomach churned at the sight.
Ignoring what we had just seen, I nervously reached into the pocket of my dress. “I-I’ll call mom…”
I tried to turn it on, but it either needed to be charged or it had inexplicably died.
I gulped. “It’s dead…”
Asher checked his own phone with the same result. “Mine too…”
We had nothing left to do but stare at the horror in front of us.
There was movement in the city. A faint clicking sound echoed throughout the cavern.
We couldn’t get a good look at the creatures below; they moved too quickly.
The clicking got louder in my ears.
My bones were frozen from the cold; my ears were colored red from the shrieking wind.
The voice from earlier cut through my head like a knife through butter.
Every hair on my arms, legs, and head stood up.
I heard a shhk, shhk, shkk of something inching its way toward us from behind. I couldn’t bring myself to look.
Asher managed to turn around slowly and came face-to-face with whatever was behind us. He was so horrified he couldn’t even scream. He let out a disgruntled gasp and took a step back.
I felt something cold and inhuman grasp my upper arms—they felt like sharp, metal fingers. They poked holes in my skin.
I glanced at my arms with sweat dripping down my forehead and my heart pounding uncontrollably.
The sound of the rubber ball being caught resounded over and over in my head—getting louder and louder with each heartbeat.
You have seen the origin of human misery.
Beneath the sound of the ball being caught, I heard the monstrous creature begin inching over to Asher.
Asher backed away from the creature whose movements were slow and rigid until he was backed up against the wall. The creature’s shadow enveloped him.
All I could do was stare at the creature’s sharp, metal fingers as it closed in on Asher—