Every inch of her exposed skin felt raw and pained as the wind whipped backwards then forwards. She cursed herself for choosing to walk to school in such conditions, but she knew the cold was a better option than riding the bus with him. This pain could be managed far better than the kind he could inflict. With renewed determination, she trudged on.
Joanna came to a stop and the corner of Tesla Street and Arkham Lane. I could continue on this way for the next half mile and be an ice queen by the time I get to class, or… she turned to her right to examine the small woods. I could cut through there. It’d take half the time. Maybe the trees will act as a barrier to the assaulting wind.
She crossed her slender arms in front of her chest, bracing herself against both the raging wind and the onslaught of memories. The long purple scarf she had wrapped around her face kept sliding down to expose her now bright red button nose. Her discomfort was exacerbated by her stringy brown hair, which flew constantly over every inch of her face, most annoyingly her eyes. She tried to ignore her impending transformation into an icicle and focus instead on her trek.
There was no reason to fear the woods, although the film enthusiast in her warned of supernatural curses and animal attacks. Still, she turned right and embarked on her chosen path.
The trees did not, in fact, help with the wind chill. With hardly any sun peeking through the branches, the woods were at least five to ten degrees colder than the road she’d just left. Joanna clung to the fact that this route was shorter, therefore she’d be warmer sooner. It was a sad untruth that she put her heart into.
Her big, green eyes jumped from the tree line to the ground as she felt the earth quake beneath her. A preternatural rumble grew from beneath her as the ground seemed to almost boil at her feet. By the time she realized that the dirt would soon give way to her weight, it was too late to evade.
Is this the rabbit hole, or certain death?
While Joanna fell for what felt like forever, she noted how perfectly round the hole of dirt was. On her way down, she tried desperately to cling to exposed roots, while avoiding the insects crawling around them. She was unsuccessful, and the insects latched onto her arms and hair. Finally, with a painful thud, she hit the ground.
Joanna lay face down on the earth for several minutes. She feared that any small amount of movement would send her to the fiery depths of the earth’s core. She slowly turned her head to gather her bearings. To her horror, slight amazement, she discovered that she had fallen into a cavernous maw. In the middle of the palatial dome stood a square wooden table and two matching chair. The surfaces of which were completely barren. She examined the space further to find that the ceiling was decorated with even more uncovered roots and one perfectly circular chute.
Beyond the wooden table sat an open doorway. I probably shouldn’t go through that. Nothing good ever came from exploring doorways in the center of the earth.
As her curiosity began to get the better of her, a shadow began to grow in the doorway. Joanna frantically looked about for an escape, or at least a hiding spot. There were none. The shadow came closer and her panic sat in.
Within the next second, a tall, svelte man emerged from the poorly illuminated opening. His hair was too white and was slicked back with one metric ton of hair gel. Joanna was eerily attracted to him, despite his air of emptiness.
He moved gracefully to the table and placed the candle he’d been holding in its center. Once satisfied with its placement, he sat in the chair closest to the entrance. He did not acknowledge the girl until his legs were perfectly crossed and his pants perfectly creased.
“Aren’t you going to sit down?” He asked, without glancing at her. His voice was cool and aloof, like a British villain’s would be. Joanna didn’t move. “It’s terribly rude to not sit upon invitation,” he continued, this time focusing his icy blue eyes on her.
This time, she obliged. She walked clumsily to the other chair, tripping once on her way over a mound of dirt. The man didn’t notice. She pulled the chair out with more than a little consternation. When she was finally situated, he spoke again.
“How did you come to find our humble abode?” He inquired as he used the candle to light a cigarette. He offered her one, and she accepted.
“It more or less found me,” she replied after expelling smoke. He nodded and looked up to the chute.
“I’m sure there’s an interesting story there,” he prodded.
“Not as interesting as you’d think,” she evaded.
“Come now, don’t be shy. Regale me.” He leaned in and smiled at her, though she felt colder once he had.
“Well… I was walking through the woods and I fell. That’s really all there is to it,” she said apprehensively.
“You’re a great conversationalist,” he said. She shrugged and looked away.
“You’re hurting,” he continued. She looked down at her wrist, which felt a bit sprained. She had begun to feel the initial ache from her fall, though it was relatively minor compared to the pain she should have felt. “Not physically,” he clarified, “your pain is not on the surface.”
“Life is hard,” she breathed, intending the simple statement to blanket any and all reasons as to why she’d be in such a state.
“That’s how most people perceive it, but why? Why is it so hard? It doesn’t have to be. We’re insignificant. Why does one’s actions, and, for that matter, one’s reactions to other’s actions, cause so much grief?” He lit another cigarette and waited for her response.
“I… I don’t know,” she said after a long moment.
“So articulate. Truly, it is better to not care, to not feel. Walk the world as if nothing matters, because nothing does. It is pointless. We are born, we live, and we die.”
“You’re right. I could do it. I could turn off my emotions. It’s not like I ever feel any emotions worth having,” She looked at him straight on this time. He smiled again.
“There you go,” He handed her another cigarette. “You’ll be much more at peace here.”
“Here? No, I have to get out. I mean, I can be a robot up there, but I have things to do. I have a test today.” She began to panic and searched frantically for some kind of exit.
“Just think about it a little more,” he said as he stood and buttoned his suit jacket. “In time, you’ll see that it’s better down here.” Before she could protest, the man disappeared back through the doorway.
Joanna didn’t want to go after him. He hadn’t really been much help to her as it was, and she needed to focus on a way out. If I were proficient in the art of parkour, this would be a piece of cake. Unfortunately, she was not. She stared at the chute hovering ten feet above her and tried to think of an escape plan.
“Well hello there,” a sultry voice said from behind her. Joanna turned to face a woman more beautiful than anyone she’d ever encountered in reality. The woman’s natural red hair hung in perfect curls to frame her porcelain skin. She wore a gold dress that clung to her curves for dear life, and Joanna couldn’t help but think that there may be a gala of some sort happening beyond the doorway.
The woman motioned for Joanna to again sit in the chair. With slight reluctance, she agreed. Once Joanna was seated, the woman hopped onto the table in front of her.
“Are the Oscars going on somewhere in this cavernous hole?” Joanna asked sarcastically.
“Why? Oh, because Niall is in a suit and I’m in a dress. Okay, I understand now. No, this is just how we look,” she replied.
“Is that what his name was?” Joanna realized she’d never properly been introduced.
“Yes, Niall likes to greet our guests first, though he doesn’t do a wonderful job of it. I’m Belle Lefaux.” She beamed. “I’m Joanna,” she said, looking down at her dirt-covered jeans and t-shirt, feeling under-dressed. Belle pursed her lips.
“That doesn’t roll off the tongue at all. That’s a horrible name; it’s harsh and only barely feminine.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t choose it,.” Joanna’s head fell slightly.
“No one would. It’s a good thing you’re down here so no one has to say that again, or look at that wardrobe.” Belle examined Joanna’s attire with nothing less than utter disgust.
“I don’t remember asking for your opinion,” Joanna spat, her anger boiling over.
“That’s the thing; you don’t have to ask for someone’s opinion. People will judge you without your permission, and often times they’ll vocalize it. You can’t prevent people from evaluating you. People are always going to think your hair is too mossy brown, that your nose is too big, that you’re not pretty enough to be amongst the world above. You’re far better off down here,” Belle said, with a smile.
She’s right. I’ve never been gorgeous. Guys don’t typically fall at my feet; I’m not one to be on a silver screen. “Maybe you’re right,” Joanna finally conceded.
“Of course I am. Beautiful people are always right,” Belle said. She stood and patted Joanna condescendingly on the shoulder before strutting back through the doorway.
Joanna half-heartedly looked up at the chute, trying to formulate a plan of escape, only to realize that she didn’t care to at the moment. Negative thoughts were brewing in her mind, and she became disinterested in the upper-world. She was so lost in thought that she didn’t realize when another man sat in front of her, watching her facial expressions intently.
“Hello,” he said, once she’d been made aware of his presence. “I’m Saul.”
“Joanna,” she replied flatly. She wasn’t really in the mood to speak with another person from the doorway.
“You look sad,” he said. Joanna rolled her eyes. She didn’t need some scrawny guy in a Cheeto’s stained t-shirt and wild curly hair telling her what she looked like.
“And so I am,” she responded dryly.
“Is that because no one is looking for you?” he asked as he tilted his head to the side, much like the way a dog would.
Joanna thought about this for a moment. She’d easily been in the hole for forty-five minutes, and no one had called her or even sent a text. She checked her phone again. She amazingly still had service, but not one missed notification.
“Why do you think no one is looking for you?” Saul asked with genuine curiosity.
“I don’t know. I mean, my parents are at work and probably just haven’t noticed. I guess my friends thought I was staying home and are giving me my space. I… I’m not really sure,” she said.
“You know when some people go missing for ten minutes people flip out. Search parties are organized, flyers are put up. Your phone hasn’t rung once. Are you sure there are people who care to look for you? Will anyone notice that you’re gone?” His curiosity had now given way to goading malice.
“I’m sure they will; they just probably don’t suspect anything is wrong at the moment,” she said defensively.
“Ah, but everything is wrong, isn’t it? Not only are you sad, but now you’re trapped at the bottom of a hole. Where is your knight in shining armor?”
“He wanted to downgrade to just being my friend,” she said, the pain searing in her heart.
“What about your friends? How many friends do you pretend to have, and how many are here helping you?”
“None,” she whispered.
“There you go. Don’t worry too much, at least now that you’re down here you can be alone, and if you’re alone, no one can hurt you,” Saul said, before sauntering back through the doorway.
Joanna put her head on the table and tried not to cry. She focused on deep breathing and the idea that eventually someone would care, that someone may find her beautiful, that she didn’t need to not feel. Everything would work out, but she knew in her heart of hearts that it wouldn’t.
Joanna heard the rustling of someone slightly clumsier than herself trying to get into the other chair. When the person seemed to be situated, she looked up. He was gaunt and dressed in all black. The bags under his empty eyes suggested he hadn’t slept for days, and the way he twitched led her to believe that he was a junky.
“Are you here to tell me I’m sad, and then make me feel even worse?” she asked heatedly.
“No, no. No, that’s not me. I don’t… Talking is just not… It’s not really my thing,” he said.
Joanna felt a slight sense of relief. She didn’t feel she could handle another interaction without doing something drastic.
“Life is pain,” he continued, though he wasn’t really talking directly to her. “Life is pain, but it doesn’t have to be. Sure, you can turn off your emotions, but things will eventually seep in. It’s not like… It’s not a permanent fix, you know. They say time heals all wounds, so why not just numb the pain for a little while; numb yourself until time has run its course?” He rustled in his pocket and pulled out a vial of gray powder, a credit card, and a straw. Though she wanted to look away, Joanna was fascinated by what he was doing.
“Do you want some?” he asked, once he was finished. Joanna shook her head. “Are you sure? This… This is pure happiness harvested from flowers. It’s virtually all natural. It’s a pain killer, but pain is not just physical. It’s emotional, it’s mental. If your leg were broken, would you hesitate to take what I offer?” He made a valid point.
“I’m not sure. I don’t really know. I guess if the pain were bad enough,” she said hesitantly.
“See!” He slammed his hand on the table. “You’re in just as much pain as you would be in that situation, but you’re taught to ignore it and fight through it. There’s no medicine to make it better.”
“There are anti-depressants for that,” she said.
“Have you tried them?” he asked, pulling a hand rolled cigarette from his pocket.
“I have,” she said.
“Was it any better?”
“No,” she responded. Honestly, the medication had just sort of made her feel like a zombie. It didn’t make her happier; it just made the sadness a little more bearable.
“See, they don’t make a pill to make you happy. Well, they did once but then the rave scene got a hold of it. The FDA doesn’t want people to actually be happy.” He looked at her and then looked at his watch. “I better head back.” He stood and took a step before turning back to her. “My name’s Opie, by the way. It was nice to meet you.” He disappeared before she could reply.
She turned back to the table to see that Opie had left his possessions on the table. She stood up cautiously and moved to the other chair. She sat there, looking at the table for a long moment before a familiar voice stopped her.
“You don’t really want to go down that road again, do you?” Joanna looked up and stared herself straight in the face. The other Joanna smiled and sat down.
“I don’t, but I think I’m going to,” Joanna said.
“It’s a bad decision,” Other Joanna said, without judgment.
“I know it is, but I am in pain. I don’t want to admit it, but I am. I just want something to take it away.” Joanna hung her head.
“Pain is temporary, my dear. You can stay in this hole numbing yourself and pretend that the world above doesn’t exist, but pretty soon it will forget about you in return.”
“How? How can I get out of here? I need someone to save me, but no one seems to care.” Tears began to well in Joanna’s eyes.
“You don’t need anyone to save you, you have to save yourself. Be your own hero, your own knight in shining armor. You should have learned by now that you can’t depend on other people for your happiness, for your sanity. It’s all you.”
They sat in silence for a few moments while Joanna considered what her doppelgänger had said. As she accepted the idea that she didn’t need the world to be there for her, that she just needed herself, a rope descended through the chute. The Joannas looked at it and smiled.
“Save yourself, love,” Other Joanna said, as she walked back through the doorway.
Joanna walked over to the rope and examined it. She gave it a tug to check if it could hold her weight, and then began to climb. As she did, the words of the people from the doorway echoed in her ears, coaxing her to stay. Though some of what they said stuck with her, she refused to stay down there trapped in a hole. She pulled herself closer to the sunlight, determined to escape.
Joanna found herself in bed, still in her pajamas from the night before. The alarm clock next to her bed suggested that it was well after 11 AM, and she realized she’d never gone to school. She was about to turn over when she heard her best friend down the hall.
“Jo! Jo, are you here?” Sara called while walking towards Joanna’s room. She peeked in the door and heaved a sigh of relief. “You’re still asleep? Dude, we’ve got a test today and lots of other things to do!” Sara yanked the covers off Joanna.
“I’ve been awake since 6:30,” Joanna said.
“What the hell have you been doing for the past five hours?” Sara asked as she went into Joanna’s closet to pick her out an outfit.
“Just… Thinking, I guess,” Joanna replied as she sat up.
“Well I hope you were thinking about economics, because I heard the test sent Steven to the nurse’s office with an anxiety attack,” she replied.
“I don’t know if I can handle that today,” Joanna said, with an air of sadness. Sara stopped picking out clothes and sat next to Sara.
“Is it because of him?” she asked.
“No, not really. It’s more to do with me,” Joanna responded.
“Well, all I can tell you is that I’ll be there with you. If you want to talk, we’ll talk, if you want to laugh, we’ll laugh. You don’t have to go it alone.”
Joanna didn’t respond, she simply hugged her friend, knowing that she would have to save herself, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t have help along the way.