Lights off we’d crashed hard onto his grandma’s old sectional, still spinning after yet another long night out during that fateful summer, which was dreary and hazy and covered in smoke. And through that indoor fog of comfortable darkness Aleks had mumbled on, somewhat-lucid, about his dreams: how none were the same, but that they all had a similar feeling. Like knowing for certain you were about to die and praying for the end.
Or, that’s how he’d said it anyway.
“And there’s this sound…” he’d managed to say through the alcohol I could smell on both of us, “…like breaking. Like the sound of rocks breaking. Over and over again. A mountain cracking in half.
I should have listened to him closer, but exhaustion took me. We’d both been too busy at Skip’s, this place where kids like us used to gather just outside of town. It was just that kind of place where equally odd-ended teens could gather and become something of a collective under the stars. Where growls and hoops and howls under the moon were the norm, and encouraged, away from the brick-a-brack of our rural schoolhouse, which taught us nothing, it seemed.
Our crew was all of 17 when we realized that a six-pack left on Skip’s door would get us all hours access to his junk-yard–full of car carcass and bad iron. On nights when it got really cold, Skip didn’t even mind us pulling an old mattress or some sort from his banks of growing mould and trash. With his silence he seemed to encourage us as we dowsed whatever we’d found with a bit of beer and gas, lighting the place up just for something like fun.
Anyway, it was in that half-light, the flickering movement of it, that you could really believe in ghosts and oddities–or at least, the ones that would live in a junk-pile like Skip’s. Piles upon piles of rough and broken invention would stare down at us with eyes that could pierce a soul, if you were drunk enough to think so. And of course, looming down on us always was the Crane.
A monolith, above everything else in town (even the church steeple), the Crane was always the first thing you’d see coming back from a trip to the big city. It stood fast, a marker of that feeling you get when you know you’re travelling back somewhere invisible to the world; when you realize you’re about to become invisible right along with it. Yellow, rusted, weathered, and brutalized by brutal wind, nothing had taken it down, and especially not Man. Even when the huge cement blocks that were screwed in to weight the Crane would turn, the industrial arm moving with it, the whole town would just watch and wait to see if the base would finally give.
We’d all taken more than one turn standing under the cement blocks endlessly weighted to one end–the group of us back then, some nights drunk and hysterical, the wind whipping and us running beneath the creaking arms of the Crane, shouting that it was our name carved in rock between the plates. Some of the braver of our small group, me and Aleks included, climbed all 45 feet of it one night just to hear the wind howl; just to see if there really were any names carved there in stone.
Long after I’d come down, Aleks had stayed. And when he did finally descend, his shirt had been torn, the deep purple mid-section of it, lost against the black sky, waving, invisible, tied to the uppermost rampart of the Crane. I think it was Linds who suggested a couple nights later that we start saluting it at fire-out, just before we would tramp our dirty shoes in the dying ash, sneezing from the rise. Aleks hadn’t done it with us at first, but had lifted his hand to his forehead with us the last few times, dazed, his dark eyes shining red in the low-light of the dying coals.
The end of our last summer together, all of us–me, Aleks, Linds, Milo, and Doug–decided to get together one last time at Skip’s before we all got the hell out of there. I think we all got to his front porch around 11:30, our calendars blaring the event’s signal into the cool, late-autumn evening.
“You bring Skip’s beer?” I ask.
Doug raises his right hand, six cans of the cheapest hanging from his knuckles.
“Looks like Skip’s out,” he mumbles, piling our offering neatly on Skip’s dark stoop before (with almost no effort) catching his foot half-way up the chain-link fence and basically vaulting over, grasping a few links by his hands on the other side. One by one, each of us follow with much more struggle, trying to avoid the clipped barbed wire near the top.
When we arrive, no one else is around. There’s no fire going. From the looks of it, our usual pit hadn’t been lit since we’d last been there ourselves.
“Give me a beer before we start the heavy lifting, huh?” pants Lindsay, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her old man’s army jacket. Aleks, nursing a papercut from the brown paper bag that holds our beer, pops the tab before handing one over.
“Really? Guinness? Who the hell got this thick garbage?” says Lindsay, taking a long drink anyway.
“Doug’s call this time,” Milo laughs, rubbing his hands together. “Whatever, drink it fast, I’m freezing!” he says, fog rising from the heat of his breath.
We drag from the refuse two mattresses this time, piling that on top of an old dresser filled with ancient clothes. We light these slowly, our faces up close to the stench, the beer already making us woozy, watching as the fire takes, slow. The air is quiet between us at first, all of us stepping back to wait for the warmth of it, everyone sipping now and idly watching Lindsay fidget with her portable speaker.
“Can’t it go any louder?” asks Doug after she gets it going. Strangely, the dark night seems to swallow the sound no matter how high Linds pushes the volume.
“Didn’t this happen last time?” someone says. Soon, no one even notices the hidden absence of the barely-there music. Within minutes Milo gets everyone to pitch for a game of Spit. Afterward, Doug and Linds disappear for their usual and come back giggling. I notice Aleks is quiet, but it doesn’t strike me as strange. He seems pretty usual in his favourite trench–the one his Dad had given him the summer before he disappeared. Aleks had just been quiet ever since the guy vanished.
“Look,” says Milo, pointing up with his pocket knife at the first of the night’s fine snowflakes. Mesmerized, all of us fill with a similar sense of now-drunken wonder, a couple dregs of rum left between us from Milo’s flask. Doug curses the early snow as the rest of us trace snowflake patterns through the air with our eyes, watching them disappear into the growing flames, the heat of them now felt. And then…
A sound. Like a gunshot. Or a compactor.
The trance is erased, and everyone begins patting themselves down like they’d forgotten what they were supposed to remember. Dougs hands find his phone from his pocket, and it lights his face blue against the reddish blush of the fire’s glow.
“You hear that?” asks Linds of Doug, who shakes his head, putting his phone back in his pocket.
“Wait, where’s Aleks?” I ask. All of us look from one to the other, realizing his spot in the circle is empty, the fire crackling and laughing at us in the background, growing ever higher. A resounding creak from behind us sends shivers down our spines, a million goosebumps covering the napes of our necks. Even the flames seem to recede for a moment from the sound, eating away now at the bedbugs between the burning sheets.
“The Crane,” I whisper, running toward it. With every footfall, more and more of our exhausted conversation from before returns, each word from Aleks’ mouth pounding worry further into my skull as I run, a torrent into the approaching dark:
“They’re like murder,” he’d said, long after we’d stopped talking. “The dreams.”
“Or about it. Like seeing it, and doing it, and being killed all at the same time. It could be anything: watching the trees blow and knowing how many bodies lie below them, and how many bodies below that. I’ll wake up, only to be in another dream, one filled with nothingness: a vast plane filled with hunger and nothing else and you can’t escape. And then the sound, the breaking sound. Every time. Crack! I’m out of it. The waking sound….Like the sound that tells me I’m waking up.”
“What?” I’d asked after a too-long pause.
“The sound it makes. That’s the only time I know I’m really awake.”
I’m the first to arrive.
Aleks is there standing below the cement blocks, their shadow cast in a tight square around him that turns his usually sandy hair pitch black. With every passing second, his coat seems to get bigger on his frame, swaying back and forth, a stark contrast to the stillness in his limbs. The chains and screws holding the cement high above suddenly seem no thicker than sewing thread, and about as strong. There, waving from high atop the crane is a long strip of purple fabric.
“Aleks, what are you doing?” I yell, getting as close as I can without being enveloped by the dark shadows cemented to the ground, contrasted by the glow of a crescent moon. Slowly–he lifts his chin to the sky, his right hand rising to salute.
“Did you hear it?” His voice carries across, though he does not turn. I do not see his face as he stops; as he says it again once more:
“Did you hear it?”
Doug and the rest arrive, blatantly pale, their feet pounding hard against the pavement, so loud that I barely hear Aleks whisper against the growing night:
“Time to wake up.”
There is no drink that will save me from the sound of those cables snapping–how the whole town must have heard the screws coming loose as the Crane was fully relieved of its weight. I remember barely stepping away in time. I remember as thick shards of gravel hit my arms and industrial refuse around that. And Aleks…
I remember Aleks disappearing under it all. Blinking, my vision coated in dust, I saw too the purple strip of his t-shirt fall slowly down, coming to rest atop the pile of dirt and gravel and metal and bone that had erased Aleks from my life forever. Just like his father before him.
But most of all, I remember the sound. Like breaking. Like the sound of rocks breaking. Over and over again.
A mountain cracking in half.
This story was written as a part of WordsofHers’ “Face Your Fears” Short Story Draw, whereby contestants submit their name alongside their worst fears, and one winner receives a spooky short story about themselves encountering that fear to their inbox on Halloween night!
The above story features winner, Aleks, encountering his own worst fear: being crushed alive.
Header image copyright Jessica Barratt