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Twice nominated for Best of the Net, Neil Ellman lives and writes in New Jersey. Hundreds of his poems, many of which are ekphrastic and based on works of modern art, appear in print and online journal, anthologies, broadsides and chapbooks throughout the world.
Hannah Fantana goes to Dream Island in search of Stephen Tully Dierks
Dream Island comes into view through the heavy rain. It is small, with one tall black mountain in it’s centre, haloed by trees until its peak vanishes into the black clouds. It’s surrounded by jagged black rocks that protect its black sandy beaches and lagoons.
Hannah Fantana is approaching it rapidly on a small black speedboat, carefully negotiating reefs as she goes. They are almost invisible in the pitch black of night. Seems dangerous, but she keeps going.
There are no stars in the sky, but a gibbous (basically full) moon hangs high and pale, peeking through a convenient window in the black clouds. Hannah looks out from beneath a heavy black raincoat that is slick with water. She seems determined about being here. It’s a really horrible night to be in a small speedboat at midnight in an unspecified part of the black ocean, so she’s had to be determined already to get this far.
She’s doing good approaching the island. She arcs past some sharp rocks into a wide bay, and heads for the shore, slowing down because the sea is choppy, but the tide is going in and it carries the boat landward. When she is very close to the shore, Hannah pulls the small black engine inside the boat, then jumps out into the boiling surf, her booted feet sinking ankle deep into the black seabed. The water is up to her knees, and it’s freezing cold, and the tide is pushing her around a little.
She manages to wrestle the boat up onto the shore a little way, past the high-tide mark of rotten black sea vegetation and weird little black shells, and then pauses, leans down, puts her hands on her knees, and rests, panting for a moment. Her clothes are soaking now even despite her black waterproof cape, and it’s uncomfortable. It was pretty tiring negotiating those tall black waves and high winds, and that black boat is really freaking heavy when it’s not on the water.
She’s here to find Stephen Tully Dierks. He came to Dream Island unexpectedly, on a work trip, a week ago, leaving just a hurried note saying not to worry and that he’d be home in a few days. He took a black rucksack full of tools and stuff from the basement.
But Hannah did worry because that seems kind of mysterious, and Stephen didn’t come home after a few days anyway. In fact, neither he nor his work colleague ‘Guillaume Morissette’ have been reachable by phone or email for a week now, which is unusual, because one or the other of them is online like 95% of the time – ‘Guillaume’ particularly is permanently on Facebook. Neither of them have tweeted in that time, or anything.
So, Hannah has taken matters into her own hands and come to Dream Island to see if they are okay.
It’s hard to rest in these terrible conditions on the black shore of the island, so she looks ahead to the point where the black beach becomes a black forest. There is no light under the trees. The canopy seems heavy. The trees rage in the wind, black foliage shifting against the black sky, illuminated starkly by flashes of lightning. Seems weird for her to be here, but she sets her jaw and pulls her black backpack from the boat. She walks down the beach until she spots an opening in the black forest, maybe the start of a trail or something. She pauses for a second in a way that is unintentionally dramatic, then goes in.
The trail is hard work, it’s dark and there are black rocks and weird roots everywhere jutting out in unexpected places, so she stumbles here and there. The canopy shields her from a lot of the rain at least, and there’s a weird roaring sound from above, it’s almost like being indoors except there’s still lots of rain and wind. She has a little black pen torch thing but it’s not that useful. Sometimes she feels like she might panic because this is a really weird thing to be doing, and it seems more real in the black forest than it did on the black boat somehow, but she still seems resolute and carries on.
After a while, the black canopy lightens a little bit and it seems like more of an official track than before. Hannah thinks she can see a faint light ahead. She’s right and she slows down and walks towards it. A black tent comes into view, with a black battery-powered lantern hanging from the black guy rope, swinging around wildly in the wind and casting weird dancing shadows. As she gets closer she can also see a pulley and a winch on a black frame, maybe for lowering something or pulling something up. ‘Guillaume’ is standing there with his back to her in a black hoodie, looking at something. She wipes the water from her face and goes over, feeling relieved to see him.
“Hey ‘Guillaume’,” she says.
“Hannah!” he seems shocked. “Wtf are you doing here?” But then he smiles suddenly, and gives her a hug hello, and they laugh. He still seems pretty serious, though. He looks kind of pale actually. He pauses. “You found us,” he states.
“Yeah it’s been a week, wtf have you been doing?” she says. “Where’s Stephen?”
“He was here,” he says, trying to wipe some rain from his black-framed glasses. ‘Guillaume’ has to raise his voice a little because the wind and rain are picking up again. “We found some weird old maps on Alta Vista and it seemed like there was something important here,” he said. He points to the pulley. A black rope is attached, but it seems to vanish into the solid black ground.
“He went down into this tunnel that was on our map, but…” he tails off and looks at Hannah.
“But what?” she prompts. “What happened?”
“Well. It closed behind him like the rock was soft suddenly,” he says. His glasses are steaming up now but everything is too wet to wipe them with. “It was really weird. I can’t get him on the radio, but I can see him moving on the scanner.” He shows Hannah his scanner screen, on which a black dot pulses. “See?” he says, pointing. “He’s moving upwards, slowly, so he’s okay at least.”
They talk a while longer, but Hannah doesn’t feel like she’s finding out much more that’s useful. Neither of them can imagine why the black rock would suddenly just close like that, it’s pretty weird, and the raging weather is making it hard to think straight.
‘Guillaume’ goes into the tent after a while to get his water bottle. Hannah looks up and notices that the moon has vanished. The sky is black and everything around her is black, her clothes are all black and so are the trees. She feels enveloped by the weird blackness, when suddenly the air seems musty and she can hear her own breathing really loudly, like she is in a small space, and the rain has stopped. She can hear droplets rolling off her raincoat and dripping onto a floor. She pulls back her hood. She is in a black cave.
“Woah, hi Hannah,” says a voice suddenly. Hannah jumps and yelps out of fright, and looks round to see Stephen Tully Dierks climbing into the cave from a small, high tunnel mouth. His face is black with dirt. Obviously she is super pleased to see him after all this, and she throws her arms around his neck and seems happy. He seems happy too. She asks what happened, and he tells her about finding the map and coming here, and about how they were looking for this important archeological site and stuff, and he talks about how it was weird when he looked back and the tunnel had closed up behind him like the wall had just swallowed it. The black rope goes into solid black rock here, too. He looks dishevelled but basically calm and practical, which also makes Hannah feel more calm.
Stephen has a scanner too. He shows her ‘Guillaume’’s position, not far away, but further up at ground level.
“I found something really weird,” he says, “when I was scanning the rock to gtf out of here again, some fossils showed up. They’re all around here in the rock, in a line, leading upwards towards the surface.”
He shows her, switching the scanner to a different setting. Sure enough, weird black images of skeletons begin to appear. “See?” he asks. “There are bodies frozen in the rock here, fossilized. They’re maybe human, maybe humanoid, I can’t tell, they seem kind of big.” He looks at the radiometer bouncing blurry shapes on the flickering black screen. “I’m not sure, but it looks like maybe they were swimming, from the poses they are in, and the water hardened into rock around them, like lava. But they couldn’t have been swimming in lava obvs.”
He sighs, and seems mildly frustrated that there are so many weird questions and so few answers at this point. He puts the scanner down on a black rock covered in black dust.
“I can use these to make a tunnel, anyway,” he says, taking a handful of portal bombs from his rucksack. “They’ll extend the tunnel towards the surface if we place them right and follow the fossil trail. They’ll just dematerialise cylindrical shapes of rock big enough for us to crawl through, so the tunnel should hold”.
“This is really weird,” says Hannah.
“Yeah it is,” replies Stephen, “it’s weird that you were just suddenly here. There’s a lot of weird stuff about this, but let’s just get out now huh and gtf off this black dream island and go home.”
Stephen smiles at her and squeezes her hand, then takes the scanner and grips a portal bomb between his teeth, turning away and hoisting himself into the narrow tunnel, which is a round, smooth hole just big enough for him. It’s like a worm entering a wormhole or something, not that they do that. He’s gone, anyway.
Hannah feels cold. She has butterflies in her stomach suddenly, like she’s on a rollercoaster, and her vision goes blurry. Seems like there’s black everywhere and like she’s whooshing really fast suddenly, then she feels the shock of cold raindrops on her face again, and trickling down her neck, and going into her mouth, and she looks at the trees and black bushes all around her. The slick leaves are illuminated by more flashes of lightning. She is outdoors again, in a small unfamiliar clearing. Something isn’t right, and she feels like she’s not alone. Sure enough, someone emerges from the trees in front of her, moving in a weird way, smoothly, as if his slender frame is gliding just above the black ground. It’s not Guillaume, anyway.
Suddenly she recognises his face from his macros. “Hannah. What’s down there?” asks Meta Knight, without moving his thin lips. He stares at Hannah coldly, from the sides of his black eyes, his “IRL IS DEAD” t-shirt flapping wetly against his skinny torso. His hair is plastered to his forehead, and the rain runs down his face, but he does not blink. Seems kind of mean. There are some coincidentally dramatic lightning flashes.
Hannah hears him again: “What did you find down there?”
His lips don’t move this time either, seems weird.
“You can’t make me think you,” smiles Hannah. The smile freezes on her face as the nonsense words are thought, and not spoken out loud, like she’d tried to do. A cold grin spreads across Meta Knight’s face. “Oh really?” he thinks to her, slowly, tilting his head. “Say that again?”
Her smile wavers, but she seems defiant. “You.. can’t.. make, me think/tell you can… you?” stammers Hannah. Her thoughts are coming out wrong. She feels that some other force is guiding her words, jumbling them before they reach her lips.
She freezes up, getting really scared, panic rising in her chest. His cold eyes lock on hers and bore into her, and his expression hardens. Suddenly she realises she can feel his invisible fingers picking through through her mind, editing and stripping stuff away, curious and hungry, copying and pasting her thoughts into a new order.
Down inside the earth, not far away, Stephen crawls forwards, making slow progress. He is wearing a headlamp on a black strap. He uses his scanner to follow the trail of entombed skeletons back towards the surface of the earth, carefully dematerialising new sections of rock to extend his narrow tunnel upwards. It is hard, claustrophobic work. He is trying not to dematerialise any of the skeletons themselves. He feels like he and ‘Guillaume’ might come back and do some more work later to find out what happened here, when everything gets less black and weird.
‘Guillaume’ is standing by the pulley thinking about what to do. This has been a really shitty week for him. He thinks about Facebook. He looks up and sees Hannah coming out the of the trees, staggering a bit. “Hannah!” he says. “What the fuck happened? Where did you go?”
“Now backwards all are words my,” thinks Hannah, but not in her own thought-voice. No words come out. She looks at ‘Guillaume’ and tries to smile, but instead, some black tears fall out of her tear ducts. She walks towards him, and slowly opens her palms. Two black eyes stare up from them. They blink and look at him, then up at her.
“We thinks you now,” think the eyes, in Hannah’s brain. More black tears run down her cheeks. ‘Guillaume’ stands totally still and doesn’t know what to do. The black palm-eyes have weirded him out. Hannah stumbles away, black tears now pouring down her face. ‘Guillaume’ watches her leave.
Hannah staggers shakily through the trees and rain, back down the track to the beach, until she is out of his sight, her hands open and the new black eyes looking up from her palms, glancing ahead or gazing into her own teary eyes. When she reaches the beach she walks past the boat and straight into the sea, ankle deep, knee deep, waist deep, and she eventually begins a jerky sort of backstroke out into the black rolling waves. Her salty black tears mingle with the salty black ocean.
“Take us away from here, take us to cities”, think her new thoughts. The eyes on her palms close calmly as she swims farther out. Black salt water laps over her face and into her mouth, and she splutters, and keeps swimming.