“For what it’s worth, I believe you,” the officer said, “but our hands are tied. We can’t do anything. Look, I can be upfront with you because nobody will believe any of this. We’ve already investigated these things and saw the same sort of stuff as you. One of our men committed suicide after seeing what he saw. But the district attorney thinks it’s bullshit, and even if she didn’t, there’s no way in hell we could convince a jury that this stuff is real.”

The officer was right, of course. I could go to the media, but any respectable journalist would laugh in my face. It was just too incredible, like the visions of a raving madman.

I myself had never believed in the portals. Only the gullible, the superstitious, the overly religious types could believe in that stuff. I preferred to stay grounded in reality. If it wasn’t reported in the New York Times, and if there wasn’t a scientific consensus behind it, it couldn’t be real. Until one February morning my friend took me to meet a shaman somewhere out in the middle of the Sonoran desert.

I know what you’re thinking. It was some cheap parlor trick. That’s what I thought, too, when the shaman first opened one of the portals, disappeared through it, and came back a few moments later. If I was at a loss to explain how he did that, much less could I explain how I was able to enter the portal myself afterward. I found myself in a jungle. I have no idea where it was, whether in South America, or China, or some other world. I think it must have been India, though, based on the appearance of the man over there and the accent of his broken English.

The man must have been some sort of shaman, too. He had the appearance of one of those Hindu ascetics who spend their days in meditation and eat little, if anything. We didn’t talk much, as I wasn’t there for more than a minute or so. He said he was a friend of the shaman, and that he was there to make sure I didn’t become disoriented and wander off, but that I made it back.

I walked into the portal a skeptic, but I came out a believer, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that I was beginning to believe. The shaman showed me and my friend how to open the portals. It was a simple ritual, which I won’t describe here because I’ve come to realize the danger of these portals and their attractiveness to the wrong sort of people. He warned us to be careful, to never step into a portal we weren’t familiar with without someone who was familiar with it.

“There are many portals that nobody knows where they go to,” he explained, “because nobody who entered them has ever come back out.” Caution was warranted where experimentation could prove deadly.

The portals attract a strange sort of people, just the sort who would believe in portals. Neopagans, witches, hippies, and others who don’t quite fit in normal society. Many of them can’t open the portals and have never seen them in actual use. Only the true believers can actually open them.

I later found out that many don’t even need the ritual. It’s just a crutch for those of us who are inexperienced and awkward in these matters. It helps us to focus our spiritual energies, but it can be done with just some concentration as long as the person opening the portal doesn’t doubt his ability to do so.

The portals themselves can be found just about anywhere. People say that their locations were sacred sites to the ancient peoples. There must have been much more communication across cultures in the ancient world than we have imagined, maybe even communication across worlds. Some people have said that Buddhist missionaries from China visited the Americas long before Columbus. If that’s so, they may not have come by boat.

Once you’ve been through a few portals, you begin to recognize where others are. There’s a sort of energy emanating from the earth at those points. You can feel it. I always remembered the shaman’s warning, though, and never went through a portal that nobody I knew was familiar with. I never dared even to open them up.

I have visited every continent, and places that I think were on other planets, in other galaxies, since going through that first portal. I have met many other people, many other portal-hoppers, during that time. There are probably around ten thousand people or so who use the portals, so you end up seeing some of the same people over and over again, and get to know at least a few quite well. We never talked about the dark side of the portal culture, though. Nobody ever told me in direct terms about the malicious people among us.

It’s obvious in retrospect. The portals are just too appealing. If you’re into some shady business, say drugs or even human trafficking, such a quick, invisible travel method is a real boon to your enterprise. Not only that, but the portals to nowhere, that nobody ever returns from, are convenient for making your enemies disappear or disposing of the occasional body.

I’m not naive. I always knew that there was evil in the world. Sure, the human traffickers in particular make me naseous, but it’s the capacity for evil in seemingly ordinary people that really makes my stomach churn. I get sick even thinking about what I saw. I haven’t used a portal again since that day, and I nearly have a panic attack whenever I feel the energy of one nearby.

It was a morning in late winter in Arizona again, this time near Sedona. A couple had brought their young daughter, probably about seven or eight years old, to visit a portal I had not known about. I happened to arrive just after they did. I walked up to an area from where I felt a strange energy, an energy I recognized as indicative of a portal. They were already opening it up when I caught up with them.

It seemed that they were unfamiliar with the portal, too, since they hesitated to enter it. Eventually they convinced their daughter to stick her hand inside. She did. As soon as they heard her scream, they pulled her away, as a bloody stump where her forearm used to be emerged from the portal. A loud argument between the parents ensued, which I heard over the shrieking of the terrified little girl. I only remember two phrases from the chaotic moments, but those two phrases are seared into my memory forever.

“How are we going to explain this?” yelled the father.

“We aren’t,” responded the mother, and shoved her own daughter into the portal.

I was stunned. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say so. I stood in shock, unable to move or comprehend what I had just witnessed. Before I came to my senses, the former parents departed calmly, as if I wasn’t present, and as if their daughter had never existed.

That scene has haunted me since. Days later I worked up the courage to report it to the police, but they said that they could do nothing for me. They’re right. Who is going to believe a crazy story about a couple feeding their daughter to a killer portal in the desert? But it’s true. I saw it with my own eyes, and I can’t unsee it.

If only I knew how to do so, I would destroy every one of those damned portals.

The Bunker

“Pull harder!” exclaimed Tim, as he and Carlos tugged on the flat, round piece of metal. Just enough faded paint remained among the rust to reveal that it once was green and probably neatly camouflaged among the tall weeds and grass that fluttered this way and that in the light breeze. The old oaks were too few to call the place “woods,” but they strained upward from the ground, then outward, at random intervals, making it apparent that this place was outside the city, even if just barely. Their branches and leaves were too proud to join the herbs on the ground in their dance, so instead they sat motionless as if suspended, timeless, in empty space beyond the edge of the universe.

To Tim and Carlos, it was the edge of the universe. They had skipped class, not for the first time, and slipped into a steam tunnel they had found the week prior. The tunnel allowed them to avoid the hall monitors and the assistant principal up to a place near the playground. Their chosen exit was conveniently situated near a part of the fence that they called their “secret exit.” The fence was a series of equidistant metal posts with a rail near the top, and another rail near the bottom. At the secret exit, one of the posts was not evenly spaced, leaving just enough room for the kids to squeeze through. Having reached the outside of their scholarly prison, they made way to the uncharted territory just outside the city limits, which provided the dual benefits of a lack of truancy officers and undiscovered treasures like whatever the round piece of metal hid.

It didn’t budge. A new strategy was needed.

“If only we were near my house,” lamented Carlos. “I could get us the crowbar from my dad’s toolbox.”

“Too risky,” Tim replied, “We’d get caught. But there must be something around here we can use as a lever to pry it open. Look around.”

The two kids scoured the area, looking for anything that might be requisitioned as a lever to pry open the metal cover. Some tree branches could be found scattered here and there on the ground, but Tim quickly wrote them off as too thin and flimsy, and Carlos agreed. Something firmer would be needed. Either a thicker branch, or…

“I got it!” yelled Carlos. “The farmhouse! There must be something we can use in there!”

About half a mile toward town, only a couple hundred yards from the last city block, stood an old abandoned shack. The boys, unaware of whatever purpose it had once served, had dubbed it “the farmhouse.” Inside was a single large room, or at least no interior walls had been left. The room was empty, having been ransacked decades earlier, except for a broken table and a couple of untrustworthy chairs, and, more relevant to the purposes of the moment, some two-by-fours and other rubbish strewn across the floor.

Tim didn’t need to respond. A brief glance between the boys communicated the necessary agreement, and they were off in a gallop toward the farmhouse. Not much more than three minutes had passed when the informal half mile race was over. Carlos arrived just moments before Tim, and the boys passed through the doorless doorway into the one and only room of the farmhouse. Carlos immediately grabbed one of the two-by-fours lying on the floor, while Tim looked around a bit before deciding on an iron rod that was probably once part of a gate or a fence. The boys walked their cargo back to the field with the mysterious metal lid, their chatter along the way full of speculation about the secrets it hid.

“There must be a buried treasure hidden underneath,” asserted Carlos, whose primary goal in life had always centered around searching for hidden treasure. At least ever since he saw a treasure map complete with ‘X’ marking the spot in a book about pirates, even before he could read.

Tim, always more practical, replied that it almost certainly covered some secret alien technology that the government had hidden many years ago, but forgot about.

The conversation continued along those lines for the fifteen-or-so minutes that it took to get back to the field and the metal circle.

Upon arrival, the boys immediately got to work. Tim shoved the rod under the metal plate and began to pull upward, while Carlos used a nearby rock as a fulcrum for the two-by-four, and pushed it down in order to lift the lid. The metal circle showed a stubborn reluctance to give way, but little by little the boys were able to force it until the thing sprung open with a snap. A rusty set of hinges had held it in place, but, vanquished by youthful ingenuity and determination, had broken into pieces.

“Oh wow,” remarked Tim. Removal of the lid revealed a hole consisting of a metal tube just over three feet in diameter that descended downward about fifteen feet. A set of metal bars, each shaped like a flattened U, stood one above the other to form a ladder on one side of the hole. “Who’s going in first?”

Carlos gulped. He felt a little queasy in the stomach, while his chest burned with excitement. As fear battled with curiosity, Tim took advantage of his friend’s reticence to make the first move. Tim’s head was already descending below the surface when Carlos decided to follow him down.

“Bad ass!” cried Tim when he reached the bottom. “There’s a whole house down here!”

Carlos finished his climb down and strained to look around as his eyes adjusted to the little bit of light that made it so far down into the subterranean dwelling place. They were in a cylindrical room, like a tipped-over can, except the circular cross-section was interrupted by a flat floor about three-quarters of the way down. On either side of the boys was a bunk bed. At the end of the beds stood a bookshelf against one wall and a small desk and chair against the other. The limited light failed to provide sufficient visibility to see what was on the other side of the room. Undeterred, the boys made their way past the bunk beds to try to make out what was there.

Books and magazines filled the bookshelf. Carlos took some interest in these, but exploration was the initial priority. As they progressed past the bookshelf, they found themselves in a small kitchen with a sink, stove, and some cupboards on the left, and shelves of canned food and packages to the right. Tim tossed one of the packages to Carlos, who took it over by the bunk beds to see what it was in greater light.

The package was brown or dull green; the color wasn’t entirely clear in the limited light. Carlos red aloud the words printed in black on its surface.

“Meal, ready to eat. Spaghetti with meatballs.”

He walked over to Tim and put the package back on the shelf. Over at the end of the kitchen, beside some large drums of water, was a door hanging slightly open. Pitch black reigned on the other side, and the boys decided that they would have to return later with flashlights to see what was inside.

“I bet it’s the bathroom,” commented Tim.

While Tim browsed through the cupboards and cans in the kitchen, Carlos returned to the middle part of the room. The desk wasn’t much more than a small writing table, similar to the student desks at school. The shelves held probably between forty and fifty books, and at least a couple dozen magazines. Carlos tried his best to make out the titles. Although the books were limited in number, they seemed to be quite varied: Carlos thought he could make out novels, science and math books, self-help books, and practical books on home repair, gardening, and troubleshooting cars. The nature of the discovery finally dawned on him.

“We’re in a bomb shelter!” Carlos had seen such things in an old television program about nuclear war, after which he read everything the school library had on the cold war, nuclear weapons, bomb and fallout shelters, and anything related he could find. Tim had seen the television show, but was more inclined to experiential knowledge than to books.

“Whoa, cool!” Tim responded after making sense of what Carlos had just said.

It was starting to get late. School would be getting out soon, and Carlos and Tim needed to make it back to their respective homes. After climbing out of the shelter, they carefully placed the circular metal plate over the downward-leading aperture. Without the hinges, only its weight would hold it in place now, but that was sufficient: It took the two kids working together to move it into place, and they made sure it would stay put. Their new secret hideout needed to stay protected, after all.

The light breeze had died down, and the grass and herbs were as still as the oak leaves when Tim and Carlos began the walk back toward civilization.

Looking Backward

Steve’s feet sunk only slightly into the wet sand, just enough to feel it between his toes. Only the sound of the breaking waves interrupted the eerie silence. Not even a seagull graced the shoreline to provide a sign of life on the empty beach. As Steve pondered on the unusual emptiness, the shock of icy water hitting his feet jolted him out of his thoughts. He suppressed his reaction and continued walking, allowing the periodic flows to come and go over his steps, as if the ocean were breathing over them. It tempered the feeling of solitude, but only for a moment.

A set of footprints. Someone else had been on the beach. In the wet sand. Recently, since the tide had gone out. They extended southward, away from the houses and other signs of civilization. Nothing beside the single set of footprints. The lone and smooth sands stretched out as far as eye could see in both directions.

“There are no return steps,” Steve muttered to himself, “whoever was out here must still be on the beach.”

He took a step forward, almost involuntarily. A strange feeling compelled him to follow the footprints. Like the sound of the waves breaking and the crash of water against his ankles, the footprints failed to hinder the feeling of solitude. Step by step he followed them as the sun sank toward the horizon and the water shifted imperceptibly inward as the tide began to roll in.

Steve walked, lost not in thought, but in a strange thoughtlessness. Perceiving, not pondering. He was acutely aware of the water and the sand, the shifting tone of the sky as dusk approached, the houses no longer visible in the distance behind him. The angry sun beat down heavily on the sole trespasser in the void over which it ruled, as if bitter over its own impending disappearance at the rapidly approaching end of the day. Steve perceived but didn’t react. In his awareness without thought, he continued after the footprints, step by step.

He walked. He felt the sand between his toes. He felt the water washed away. He felt the non-presence of the mysterious person whom he compulsively followed, but who didn’t seem to exist.

The footprints shifted slightly inward, away from the water and away from the incoming tide. The mysterious being couldn’t be far ahead, but Steve still could not see him.

The sun hit the horizon. The footprints made an abrupt turn. Steve turned toward the water. Against the wide sun melting into the sea stood a man among the waves. As the icy water hit Steve’s feet once again, the chill ran up his spine and into his chest. He tried to call out to the man, but the mysterious figure dove into a wave and disappeared, just as the last of the sun disappeared below the horizon in a green flash.

Steve stood motionless, frozen solid. He waited. The figure did not rise back out of the water. He waited. The sky turned a deep blue and Steve could make out the first stars. He turned to head back. The squawk of a seagull interrupted the silence as the bird flew past Steve. He glanced back for a moment and saw the silhouette of a black dog in the distance.

After the sickness

My dear grandchildren, it is time you learn what happened when people started disappearing. They didn’t vanish all at once, you know. They began to flicker and fade away over time, as if they were a radio signal from a departing ship. The signal is strong and clear at first, but over time becomes lost in the static. So many people slowly departed this universe, and perhaps reality altogether, in this manner.

Naturally it was a frightening experience, even for those of us who remained. Those who disappeared were driven utterly mad in their final days. You have to understand, even our doctors didn’t understand what was going on, and a number of them picked up the vanishing sickness, too. I know of nobody who was cured before completely disappearing. I have heard of it happening, but if the cases were anything more than rumors, they were extremely rare.

I mentioned that a number of doctors picked up the sickness. In general, it seemed that the professional class was afflicted much more than tradespeople or unskilled laborers. And among professionals, perhaps doctors and engineers were the least affected. Scientists, lawyers, bankers, managers, and even teachers disappeared in large numbers. Virtually no politicians remained. Although the sickness was much less common among the working class, even they didn’t come out of the crisis unscathed. I remember old Joe, a plumber who used to live down the street. He was an alcoholic who regularly beat his wife. He got sick and faded away fairly early on in the outbreak. People began to say that it was those who had lost touch with reality who got the sickness. Maybe there is some truth to that. Almost no children picked it up, and the few who did were those who spent their time on smartphones and tablets.

Politicians? Smartphones and tablets? Yes, I realize those are strange concepts these days. We haven’t had much use for them since the outbreak. Or rather, we have been afraid of them since then.

Before the outbreak, there was a thing called government. It was an organization of people who made “laws,” rules everyone had to follow, and people who enforced those laws by capturing and punishing anyone who broke them. A government was necessary back then, because there were some few people who would steal, kill or hurt others, trick others to get power over them, and do other bad things. You can imagine it only takes one such person to ruin the peace of a community, so a main purpose of government was to discourage people from doing those bad things.

Even among those who didn’t do bad things, back then very few people would help out their neighbor when he was sick or hungry. Government sometimes tried to help people in trouble, but not always.

We have done well without government since the outbreak, but you can see that it was necessary before because of the nature of people. I don’t know if people can live without government when they aren’t terrified of an existential threat. Since your generation didn’t live through the crisis, it might be difficult for you to maintain the peaceful way of life we established after it passed. You might need to establish a government again. So you need to be aware of its risks and problems.

You have a lot of power when you are the one who makes the rules or the one who enforces the rules. Those who were or wanted to be rulemakers were called politicians. We had a government here that was set up in hopes of attracting the best people to government as a public service. We thought this a good thing because we had seen terrible things from other types of government, in which one person or a few people ruled for their entire lives, and in which rulers obtained their positions by birth or violence. Nonetheless, even in our system, power was too attractive to scoundrels who looked out for their own interests before the people. They would make laws favoring their friends and hurting the poor. Another class of people, lobbyists, tried to influence the politicians in favor of certain people, businesses or movements. Political movements tried to influence politicians by stirring up people to anger, so that they would pressure politicians to adopt certain laws. Things got so bad, that, as I mentioned, virtually no politicians survived the outbreak. As far as I know, no lobbyists or activists in charge of political movements did, either.

You learned about computers in school, right? We don’t use them nearly as much as we used to. Tablets and smartphones were small computers that were very common before the outbreak. Smartphones were small enough to fit in your pocket. You could play games on them, take photographs, watch videos, and communicate with people around the world on a world-wide computer network called the internet. The internet held so much promise, but boy did it bring out the darker aspects of humanity! People were so cruel at times that they drove each other to suicide. So much time was spent on pornography—I know you don’t understand the term, but it was an all-around degrading thing—and other things to satisfy one’s greed, lust, and self-interest. A concept called social media was the worst of it. People would mislead their acquaintances about how good their lives were, creating a never-ending competition of consumption and bragging that was perhaps more mendacious than real, but had the real effect of driving so many people, especially young people, into depression and despair. Not only that, but governments and commercial enterprises used the internet, and especially smartphones and social media, to track and monitor everyone. They became experts at using the information they acquired to manipulate and control people, without those people even realizing it.

Yes, it was incredibly convenient. People no longer wrote letters, because they could send a quick message or perform a video chat. People no longer visited the local stores, because they could order anything online and have it delivered to them–sometimes within an hour or two. So it sucked us in, and we were trapped in a comfortable, pleasure-filled hell. And in hindsight, a hell it was.

Yet we exposed our children to it from infancy. Even as some psychologists and other prophetic voices cried out against the harm we were doing, we convinced ourselves that technology was the future, and that our children needed as much exposure to it as possible to prepare them to get ahead in the world. We convinced ourselves that we were doing the right thing, and that the fact that these toys kept our children entertained so we didn’t have to give them our attention was just an extra benefit. We would never admit we were just lazy and self-centered.

I mentioned that the few children who got the sickness were from among those who spent most of their waking hours with these devices. Many other children also suffered even after the sickness was gone. They had become dependent on the gadgets and were too young to understand why they were suddenly taken away. They are from your parents’ generation, by the way. Your mom and dad can probably tell you more.

I don’t mean to trouble you with my warnings, dear grandchildren. I just want to help you understand why things are the way they are. The traditions of our community are based on experience. They aren’t arbitrary. And the disease that made people disappear was one of the most terrible experiences that humanity has gone through. Nothing quite like it had ever happened before, so I can at least hope it never happens again, but it has influenced us. It changed us. For the better, I hope, even though my generation, and to some extent your parents’ generation, will always bear the scars. Even though I think we are better people now, the pain, the existential dread, the sorrow never goes away completely. It is a part of me and everyone else my age.

I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t change the traditions. Every generation does to some extent. Some generations go so far as to throw out their past and culture entirely. And some things need to be changed. We once had a tradition, long before I was born, that allowed people to buy and sell other people. A stubborn resistance to change required a lot of bloodshed before that tradition was taken away. So my advice is to be open to change when necessary, try not to make it so people have to die for good change to be brought about, but also be cautious about it. But I don’t know if my advice is good. Constant uncertainty is one of the long-term effects of having lived through the crisis.

Do what you want, then. You now understand why our traditional ways of doing things are the way they are, so you can make informed decisions. Hopefully they will be wise decisions. Either way, your grandmother and I will always love you. Nonjudgmentalism is another long-term effect of having lived through the crisis.