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With a population of a quarter of a million, my city wasn’t technically a small town. But with how insular the districts and neighborhoods felt, 'small town' was the only way I could describe the atmosphere of my Northern Californian city. Since it was made up of mostly upper-middle-class residents, it was able to afford things that other, more populated, and “economically diverse” cities couldn’t. Large stretches of nature reserves and open spaces divided each major neighborhood, creating this strange marriage of mundane suburbia, deep forest, and marshlands just beyond our well-manicured lawns. I spent a lot of time in our local nature reserve, a small plain with a few skinny trees that transitioned into a moderate strip of forest. The point of change was marked by the deep scar of a creek splitting the reserve in two, and it was here within the creek where it first appeared. A smooth, stone cube the size of a shed, with no entrance, no windows, and nothing to identify it.

This might come as a surprise, but much of Northern California and the central valley region are historical flood zones. People tend to forget that in the decades-long drought that's ravaged the area. There's been a few sporadic storms here and there, but nothing substantial. That was until early this winter. Within a single day, half a foot of rain fell, flooding much of the area. It was the most rainfall recorded in a day in several counties, but as the winter rains receded, so did the creeks, leaving behind whatever the deluge flushed up.

I was the first to find it, stepping down into the creek bed, now with only a trickle of moving water. It didn’t feel wrong; there was no sense of danger walking up to it. And when I placed my hand on the smooth, cold stone, there was no jolt of anxiety, no emanating malice. I might have been able to pass it off as a uniquely shaped boulder, if not for the fact that I could tell it was hollow.

My friend Jamie thought it was an ancient crypt, and was certain we’d find native mummies or artifacts, but I’d never read of natives building structures like this. My father thought the city was behind it, probably something relating to maintenance. Grandpa also thought the city was involved, but in a far more nefarious way.

“Siphoning off our water, eventually they’ll revoke our water rights and force us to shower once a week just so people like Beyonce and the Baldwins never have to face the indignities of a brown lawn. And even then, they’ll talk down to us like we’re what's wrong with the world.”

I guess that’s why the neighbors call him a kook. Mom didn’t even react; I don’t think I’ve ever gotten anything from her besides a shrug. I guess that’s why they call her “emotionally comatose.” I didn’t know what to think of the structure, so I put it out of my mind for a few days until Martin from down the street brought it up again.

“You know a door appears at exactly midnight? It's gone by the time 12:01 rolls around, though, so you only have a minute before you’re sealed in.”

“No fucking way, you expect me to believe that?” Jamie responded.

“You and Adrian can come with me tomorrow to see it happen. I’ve watched it for days, and it’s always been consistent.”

“What’s inside?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been inside, and it's too dark to look in. Only someone crazy would risk going in alone.”

Martin and Jamie both threw skeptical glances in my direction. I guess I now knew that I had evolved from the weird, homeschooled kid to the crazy one.

It was brisk the night we snuck out. A moderate breeze snaked through our neighborhood, rattling wind chimes and muffling our footsteps. Streetlights were few and far between, and most houses only had dim solar garden lights meant to mark a path, rather than cleave through the darkness. The night was especially dark. It was moonless and overcast, but without the promise of rain, the night sky was smothered by an inky miasma. I too felt like some creeping, formless thing weaving through streetlights, undetected.

We reached the structure with 10 minutes to spare, flashlights aimed at the side where Martin claimed the door appeared. We let the minutes tick away, silenced by anticipation. Even Jamie was too nervous to crack his usual jokes. Midnight came, and in the tense few seconds afterwards, the door failed to manifest. Jamie was already opening his mouth to speak but Martin simply pointed a finger at the wall. I noticed it then: a portion of the wall had become semi-transparent, and with each passing moment, it became more mist-like until it had dissipated entirely. Without thinking, I had already started walking towards the door.

“Dude, what are you doing?” Jamie asked.

“We have a minute, right?” I spoke.

Martin nodded, clicked a button on his watch, and followed me. Jamie wavered for a moment before jogging ahead. At its threshold, we hesitated for a second, flashed our lights in, and noticed nothing of interest. The inside was just the same as the outside: smooth stone. The only blemish was some graffiti. It looked like gibberish at first, but in the moments I had to examine it, I realized it was some kind of foreign language. The characters had enough commonalities amongst themselves that it must have been some kind of phrase. I couldn’t recognize it as any specific language; it bore no resemblance to any human language, in fact. The characters were maddeningly complex, with spirals and concentric geometry and patterns involving mathematics far too advanced for it to be human. Someone had left a message here, but what it said or meant was beyond me. I quickly darted back outside, to the protest of my friends, grabbed a rock, and ran back in. Underneath the alien vandalism, I quickly scribbled a single word, “hello.”

“10 seconds,” Martin said.

Jamie was the first one out, Martin at his heels. I followed, slower than the duo, but still brisk, and watched as the wall materialized and solidified before our eyes. The walk home was made with bravado; it didn’t matter if we got caught now, we had seen what was on the inside of that strange building. I couldn’t help but obsess over that alien language and was already planning for a return trip to take pictures. I hoped that somehow, I’d be able to decipher the meaning, but by the time I got home, a new thought arose within me.

If that scrawl had evolved independently from any human language, would it be possible that this cube was bridging two different realms across incalculable space for one minute at dead midnight? The meaning of the scrawl had come to me at this realization; it was a greeting, just like my hello. But the writer was missing, which led me to another revelation. There must have been some discrepancy between our time, synced space, and unsynced time. Maybe it connected to a place where time ran differently, or some kind of time dilation was occurring. Would it be possible, then, to enter the room, let it seal, wait out the discrepancy, and arrive in whatever alien landscape it led to? I went to bed with these thoughts, eager to greet the dawn because I knew I would find my answer come midnight.

Being the weird, homeschooled kid gave me the advantage of having the whole day to plan out my excursion into the cube. I didn’t; the yoke of arrogance is difficult to cast off. Though I was only 14, I had already outpaced not only every child but adult as well. I was in the gifted programs, but as public schools began dismantling them, my parents pulled me out. My father said it was for the better, that he feared me becoming “one of those public school monstrosities.”

In the years since, I had skipped far enough ahead in grades to be eligible for a university, but even the most elite posed no challenge for me, so I was holding out on it. Plus, I had a life to live. I wasn’t going to let my affliction rob me of my childhood. It was this intellect and my arrogance that led me to believe that I’d be able to escape from this consequence-free. If anything came out of how wrong I was, it was my humbling.

I found myself in front of that cube ten minutes before midnight. Jamie, Martin, and a half dozen other kids I recognized from around the neighborhood were alongside them.

“What’s going on? Why are you showing them?” I asked.

“It’s safe, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t we?” Martin shrugged.

I pondered whether it was truly safe. There hadn’t been an indicator of anything otherwise, but absence wasn’t a guarantee. As the minutes ticked down towards midnight, a cold sweat set in. I had come to my assumptions about the cube hastily. Who was to say that whatever left that strange alien scrawl wouldn’t come to the same conclusion upon seeing my hello? That and the fact that I had never considered which way the time discrepancy ran. Was it behind or forwards, and by how much? What else had I missed?

“It’s happening,” Jamie called out.

My head jerked to face the cube, and the kids gathered around where a doorway was manifesting. I adjusted my backpack and braced myself as the door finally stabilized its existence. It was empty, and the kids gathered around, but none dared to step past the threshold. Seconds ticked by painfully, and the thudding in my chest was starting to subside. I took a tentative step forward as a kid I knew as Sammy found the courage to set foot inside. Seeing no reaction from within, he stepped in fully, and I let out a sigh of relief that I quickly sucked back in when Jenna’s scream reached a fever pitch.

I was too far away to see fully into the building, and while the rest of the children dispersed and ran in all directions screaming, I scrambled closer. Angling myself to get a better view of Sammy, I saw that he was struggling against the grip of a black tendril. As I inched closer, the ceiling coming into view, I saw that something amorphous was clinging from it. Made of shadow and some other great abstraction, it hauled itself down in one fluid and whipcrack-fast motion, drawing Sammy into its mass.

It shot out of the room towards a still fleeing Marco and caught him in its appendages, hoisting the screaming boy high into the air. Its form was inconstant, shifting between highly geometric structures and free flowing, patternless miasma. In one moment, it was a million writhing arms and limbs all fighting to break away from each other, and within a heartbeat, it was smooth and uniform. It had countless eyes blossoming into existence, taking in a foreign world. I blinked, and it had become this massive, pale, blind salamander that had never known light or warmth in its entire existence. Marco was absorbed into its mass, and it took off towards a kid that had run down the creek bed towards the dense forest. I was left alone with fading, echoing screams and the gaping maw of the cube.

Time slowed, and I saw the door starting to materialize as the seconds ticked down towards midnight's end. I made the dumbest decision of my life that night and sprinted into the fading doorway. A half second after I had entered, the door sealed, and I was plunged into darkness. I don’t know for how long exactly. I let the dark permeate my being, despite the fact that I had a flashlight in my backpack and could have dispelled it anytime I wanted. There was a pang of strange guilt, though. Misplaced or not, I felt as if I deserved to sit and stew here. For a moment, I felt like I was caught in that stage between awake and asleep, that trance-like atemporal state, and then there was light.

My eyes strained and focused on the world beyond the door, and it left my mouth agape. I expected alien vistas and cities out of a work from HP. Lovecraft, but what I saw was a sprawling, endless meadow of yellow flowers. I wavered at the door for a moment, aware of the shrinking window of opportunity to step through. Hesitation was cast aside; I had gotten this far already.

I don’t remember stepping out of the cube. One moment I was at its threshold, and the next I was in the middle of green and yellow. The sunlight was harsh; I could tell so by the way its brightness washed everything out, but I felt no heat. I tried to move, but found that I was frozen in place, and I started to panic. The light dimmed, and everything became enshrined in lurid color. I could see the swirling patterns of air currents, though they were colorless, and the taste of wild mustard greens was upon my tongue. I tried to move once more and found my perspective shifting. Without warning, I was looking at myself in the 3rd person. The colors intensified and everything blurred together, and a bell was ringing somewhere. In the distance, a great sentinel tower loomed, and I saw it all together at once. The field of wild mustard and a red and white lighthouse with no coast in sight and my lone shadowy silhouette in the midst.

Once again, I tried to move, despite being disconnected from my body. The effort was futile. I thought I could just shift around to face the cube, figuring it was behind me. I imagined the perspective, and as I pulled into the thought, the world warped and shifted. When I regained sight, the lighthouse was gone, and now in front of my body were rolling hills of yellow and green, a dozen gray squares scattered amongst them. They were cubes, all with doors that led elsewhere, but I had no way of knowing which one led back to my world. A shadow fell upon the flowers, upon my silhouette. Its position meant it could only have come from the lighthouse, but it was far too big considering the distance, and too angular, as if it had begun to stretch and warp the second I stopped looking at it.

As the shadow grew longer and reached towards my body, I saw the uncountable writhing masses contained within. I was straining to think of a way to escape it, to get back home. These beings were native here, wherever here was. Their movements weren't bound to the same restrictions and limitations I was currently afflicted by, and yet, I still found a way to traverse. I looked to the hills and tried several times to recreate the perspective of the meadow from their vantage point. With each failed attempt, the creeping shadows grew nearer. They swelled and rose like a tidal wave and blocked out any source of light, a thousand forms screaming and thrashing, all coming down in a torrent of agony. Hands and mouths, grasping and gnashing, encircled my being. At the moment before contact, I was spirited away amongst the hills.

I had figured it out; not only was time and space here operating on foreign framework, but so was causality itself. Physical action in real space had no reaction, but if I knew, or at least accurately estimated where I wanted to project myself in real space, I could. I looked back at the meadow. It was like a ruined painting.

On the horizon was a tower of impossible height, evil and warped. Black ink spilled out from it and stained all in its shadow. The meadow and the sky were consumed by the malady. Veins of black lightning stretched out across them, racing towards me at alarming speeds. But I felt no fear. I knew what the meadow looked like from the perspective of my cube. Black plasma bridged the space between me and the tower, but it was already too late. I was in the cube, back in my body, looking across the expanse of a shattered landscape. The entities birthed from the tower cast their tendrils toward me, but the door of the cube had already sealed shut, letting me know that I had spent less than a minute in this strange world.

When light again greeted me, it was dim moonlight. I stepped out into the creek bed, which was now marked in crime scene tape.

The proceeding hours were a shitshow, with questions from my parents, the police, and zealous reporters. I kept my story simple; someone had ran out from the cube and snatched Sammy and Marco. In the ensuing chaos, I was assaulted and knocked out cold and I didn’t wake until the next night, deep in the woods, having to find my way home. It didn’t undermine the other kid's accounts, since no one believed that a formless shadow monster took them and that the cube had supernatural properties. I was able to manipulate my father into rounding up parents from around the neighborhood to take sledgehammers to the cube and destroy it. That caused controversy and anger among the local law enforcement.

I didn’t care. I had fucked up royally and shown those tower dwellers how to cross over into our world. I needed to have its gateway destroyed. I don’t know where the other cubes led to. Somewhere far away, I hoped, but I was also aware that I might have assured the invasion of some other plane by these things. As for the one who crossed into our world, I don’t know. There have been disappearances reported in a few districts downstream from my neighborhood. Rumors say it was the work of a strange, shadowy figure, but those are just that: rumors.

I let myself believe that we’d be fine for at least a while. But that was before new reports predicted a high probability of heavy rains and flooding for the region. We got a drizzle and a lightning storm a few days ago. I hope that should these rains come to pass, they don’t dredge up any of those strange structures, because now they know how to use them.