The Impossibility

The streets take on a different character at night. During the day the roads seem purposeful: vehicles crowd the lanes transporting goods and school children. But as daylight fades and the houses bloom—however briefly—like lanterns, each doorway inevitably plunges towards its own particular darkness.

There is the droning of traffic somewhere, but not here. The sound lingers like a ghost recording, the radio of a distant neighbour. Context is stripped from the houses like the flaking paint and the overturned scooters resting in the tall grass. The footpath becomes an eerie mirror of long shadows that lengthen and fold in on one another like alien origami, all big heads and long fingers.

Voices call back at me. “You alright mate?” and “Here, catch!”

The sound of breaking glass rings out and the silence seems angry to be disturbed. Glass and beer, gilded bronze by the streetlights, glistens wetly near my worn-down sneakers. They are not the same as the ones I was wearing that night, but they may as well be. The feet inside of them are the same and—inside my skull—the same eyes are taking in the same view.

Except, it’s not the same view.

There are no broken beer bottles tonight; no laughter to defy the silence. There is only my own rasping breath and the tepid breeze and the dark, empty streets of my childhood. And there’s something else as well—a nagging sensation that I’m doing something wrong simply by being here.

So much has changed in this landscape of my youth. Once familiar landmarks have crumbled into ruin. The painted signs on the local pizzeria are barely even readable. Has that much time really passed?

On the street corner there is a new petrol station, illuminated like a spaceship. The crisp white interior stands in contrast to the washed-out sepia of the suburban night. I can’t see anyone working the counter and there are no cars at the pumps. The building seems totally indifferent to my shuffling footsteps.

Afterwards, I stop to look back at it. Time has passed since I stood here last and, similarly, I have now passed the petrol station. Day has become night and somewhere (perhaps, during the mid-afternoon hours when everyone becomes sleepy) I began to get old. I became old. And staring back at that the glowing geometry brings all of these thoughts rushing out.

It’s as though I’m looking through a window—at either the past or the future—I can’t tell. In a way the past and the future both seem the same and I am the only thing that has changed. In another way, everything has changed except for me.

I keep on walking and, after a little while, the companions of my childhood return.

“There’s no way she likes you man, keep dreaming,” says Johnny. He was the brave one. The one who all the girls liked. Johnny was the one who would stand up for you in a fight, even if you turned yellow-belly and ran for the hills.

“Can’t knock a guy for trying,” said Shane, fishing in his pockets.

“She’s gonna think you’re a fucking creep, man,” said Tom, perpetually morose. He was the only one of our group who could have been considered cruel. The rest of us had heard stories about the things Tom had done before he came to our school, but mostly we chose to ignore them.

“I wish we had more beer,” Johnny sighed.

A car zooms past, but I can’t make out the face of the driver. Both of us are strangers in the night, out past our bedtimes. These dark streets are no place for people like us, and yet, here we are. The noise of the car banishes the phantoms and I am alone again.

There is another sound now—rustling leaves. It’s a noise that is easy to miss in the daylight hours when there is so many other things competing for our attention. But now the sound seems almost overwhelming; it makes my skin prickle. There is something tantalising about it. Something dreadful.

I walk amongst the trees for a little longer until I reach the school. I am surprised to see many of the same buildings remain as those that stood here twenty years ago, but they are not unchanged. Strange pipes and tubes and metal boxes cling to the sides of every building. I see a blinking red light beneath a cluster of aerials. It is as though the buildings are being kept alive on life-support.

My footsteps echo back at me as I pass between the buildings, ignoring the reflections of myself that pass across each pane of dark glass. Beyond the last building I hear the CHK-CHK-CHK-CHK of the automated sprinklers that guard the football pitch, set into the ground like turrets.

Back then we would duck and weave amongst the sprinklers like cavalrymen on training drills. Now I discover that I can achieve the same aim with almost half as many steps. I negotiate a winding trail between the sprinklers as they turn and blanket-bomb each new section. But the last wall of water turns out to be unavoidable and CHK-CHK-CHK-CHK…

Whoosh. I am drenched in an instant. The recycled water smells funny. Heavy drips and drops tumble from my face like giant’s tears. My sneakers squelch through the wet grass, staining the tops of them green. Now they look a little more like the ones I was wearing twenty years ago.

At the edge of the oval the football field backs onto the river. There is another new sound rising to join the chorus of the sprinklers and the rustling of the trees; the beginning of the day’s birdsong. The dark blue sky has been diluted as though somebody added cream.

Gum trees border the very edge of the oval before it drops off towards the river. I make my way along the edge, looking down into the black water. We lost so many footballs here. We lost bicycles and G.I. Joe’s and probably other things I can’t remember.

I wait for a while and watch the sun rise. I can’t see the sun itself as it’s obscured by the roofs of the houses on the opposite side of the river. But I can see the colours change; the little shapes of TV antennas and weather-vanes gradually becoming more distinct.

“Hey,” says a voice, but I know it’s not really Johnny. I think that those are the last words that I ever heard him say, but I don’t ever want to be sure about that. “You coming?” he asks and it’s a good question. A relevant question. It stirs my feet into motion.

The descent to the river is steep in parts, forcing me to take care as I traverse the narrow path that winds down to the riverbank. I step across fallen tree branches and places where the ground drops suddenly and unexpectedly away to the dark water below.

At the bottom of the path, near the water, I come to the little hidden grove filled with flowers. This is where Johnny once prodded a beehive, forcing us to flee back up the path, screaming and flapping our arms. But there are no bees here today, at least, none that are awake.

And at one edge of this hidden place is a wall of thickly overhanging foliage gathered like a curtains. I part the leaves and extend my foot to the first stepping stone. I stride across the rest, stepping directly over those that are too close together to be comfortable for the length of my grown-up legs.

There is a stormwater drain hidden by the foliage and nestled into one narrow cleft of the river bank. “Hey,” says that voice again. “You coming?”

I’m not, but they don’t know that yet. I don’t quite understand how that’s possible considering all of this happened already. I’m not going with them. At the time of course I couldn’t have imagined the finality of that decision.

The wind picks up again, the leaves rustle even louder. There is something of a lusty whisper in the voices of the trees down here beside the river.

I shake my head at the vision of my young friends and they look through me. I suppose they can’t see me—they are ghosts, after all. Or perhaps that’s me. I open my mouth to speak, but from beside me, my younger self does it for me:

“I’m going home,” I say. “I need to crash.”

“Fucking loser,” says Shane, but there’s no malice in it. It’s just the way we were.

“We going?” asks Tom, who was always the most eager to travel to the other side.

“Yeah, come on.”

They don’t try very hard to convince me and I still don’t know how that makes me feel. The rustling leaves seem sympathetic and the sound is soothing. I stand and stare into that pit of darkness where I watched my friends disappear—at those iron bars spaced too widely apart to reasonably keep anything out—and I try very hard to feel something.

The storm water drain is cold and uncaring. The iron bars remain immutable, the cement mute. I wrap my fingers around those metal bars and press my face between them, blinking into the darkness and trying to remember how the smudgy shapes of my friends must have looked as they faded all those years ago.

A scent comes to me then, not of river water or metal or stone. It is the lingering smell of that other place. Impossible, of course, and that’s exactly what we called it: the Impossibility.

The smell muddles my thoughts and for the first time I seriously consider slipping between the bars and flinging myself into that unapologetic darkness. But only one other adult had ever tried to follow us through and afterwards, the school had needed a new social studies teacher.

“Hey,” says a voice out of the darkness. But I know that it’s not real because it’s just how Johnny sounded then. I don’t know what he would sound like anymore. I don’t need to know.

I turn my back on him and head back across the stones. There are a few bees buzzing around the grove now, but I don’t intend on disturbing them. The sun has just started to poke its head above the buildings and where the water was dark, I can now see lily-pads and reed rushes and the trails of things darting about beneath the surface.

I can feel things as well. My feet feel uncomfortable in my wet shoes and socks, so I sit down to take them off. The sun begins to dry my hair and my t-shirt. I can smell the grass and I can hear that the trees are still whispering.

For a while I feel like there is nothing else in the universe except for me. I am sitting at the very centre of everything and all events, memories and bumblebees are spiralling outwards from me. Hey, the trees whisper, you coming? But I realise that I don’t need to answer that question anymore; I already have.

Something crackles at the edge of the grove. The boy standing there can be no older than fourteen or fifteen. He’s holding an overnight bag that’s no doubt stuffed with mundane objects from around his own home. Beyond the Impossibility, even empty chip packets are considered priceless artifacts.

“Don’t worry,” I tell him and I try to smile. Voices come clamouring in as two more boys appear beside him. As soon as they see me their faces contort into similar expressions—terror and outrage that they should find somebody else here, in their special place.

“Don’t worry,” I repeat, quickly dragging my wet socks over my feet and putting my sneakers back on. “I’m going.”

The boys watch, distrust plain in their eyes. They don’t yet understand that they will be me, one day. My curiosity smoulders like embers. My foot pauses mid-step. I’ll just ask them one question. I’m sure they won’t mind just one.

Unsurprisingly they are all still standing there at the centre of the grove, waiting to be convinced that I am gone for good before they dare to step across those stones and squeeze between those widely spaced iron bars.

“Hey,” I say, sounding like a distant echo of my friend Johnny. “What… do you guys call it? My friends and I called it the Impossibility,” I tell them.

“He knows,” says one of the boys without moving his mouth. I can tell that all three of them are unsure about how to handle things.

“Never mind,” I tell them. “Just… be careful over there. Stay safe.” I almost add: “Come home,” but that seems like too much. I don’t want to jinx it.

“We don’t really have a name for it,” one of the boys pipes up. “Nadjip says it’s a wormhole.”

His feet shuffle in the dirt, I can tell that thinks that he’s said too much and I understand what it’s like to not want to share any part of that place with outsiders. His friends vanish into the foliage behind him, leaving us alone in the clearing. I decide to push my luck and ask him one more question:

“Who’s the King?”

The boy gives a barely perceptible shake of his head. His eyes go to the ground and he turns away from me, like the others had done twenty years ago. Dozens of conflicting emotions play out across his face and I know that he’s not going to answer. It’s hard to talk about that place—not just because you don’t want to, but because on this side of the storm water drain it quite literally becomes difficult. Even now, all these years later, my words feel like toffee that’s stuck to my tongue.

“Never mind,” I decide that this has to be enough for me. I turn away from the boy and the Impossibility and start back up the path.

“Wait,” he says. I turn and watch him fumble in his pocket and take out an inhaler. The whole scene strangely reminds me of Shane and the fact that he had always carried three or four loose cigarettes in his pockets.

I ask him if he’s okay and he nods. “You asked… about the King?” he says to me between breaths.

“It must be Westford,” I say, that was Johnny’s last name. It has to be him.

But the boy shakes his head. I can feel my heart racing in my chest now, I can hear it rising to blot out all of the other noises that had blossomed around me as the day wore on: droning traffic, bees and birdsong, whispering trees and sprinklers like machine guns. Now: the sound of my own beating heart as the boy tells me that Johnny Westford isn’t the King of the other side.

“It’s Tomas,” the boy says. “The Tyrant.”

Something must change on my face because the boy begins to panic. “Please Mister,” he says. “You won’t tell anyone will you? Nobody can know, it’s…”

I wonder who exactly he expects me to tell about a storm water drain that leads to another world. About Johnny the Brave and Tomas the Tyrant. About what really happened to my friends on the night they disappeared.

“It’s important,” I finish his sentence for him. Although the word that I’m looking for is ‘impossible’.

“Go on,” I tell him. “I won’t say anything. Catch up with your friends.”

He looks at me uncertainly and shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Eventually he is unable to resist the weighty traction of that place that seems to offer so much to a young boy—no, a young man—that this side does not.

As he goes I begin to realise that everything has changed. I didn’t think that I’d come here looking for anything; I’d been wrong. But it wasn’t my friends I’d been seeking… it was an excuse.

An excuse to go back.