By Binneyan Smith
Hi. My name is Jerry. Last week when my friend Dan and I were taking a shortcut home, the strangest thing happened. We ended up in… Nah, you’ll never believe me, but I swear to all the gods above, I’m not kidding… Okay. This isn’t going right; I’m not making any sense. Let me start over… from the beginning this time.
The last class of the day for me is History. I really like History, but last Wednesday I had to get home because of a baseball game that I wanted to watch on TV. And Ms Ellis was dragging the class out, which was strange in itself because she’s never done that before. Dan and I were going nuts! We were watching the clock and, I swear, it stayed on 3:19 for twelve minutes! Look, this was an important game. The Mariners were playing the Cubs in Seattle and it was a day game. The Mariners start most weekday afternoon home games at 1:10. That’s 3:10 here. We get out of school at 3:30 every afternoon and it takes another fifteen minutes to get home.
Oh yeah… did I mention that I live in Chicago? That’s kind of important. You see, the Cubs were playing. That’s my team! We play a two or three game series against the Mariners a couple times a year and for the last 12 or 13 games, they’ve owned the Cubs! Dan and I had to hurry home because we didn’t want to miss too much of the game. We knew we’d miss the first twenty minutes before the bell rang, and then it was another fifteen minutes to get to my house. (We decided to go to my house because I live closer.) That’s thirty-five minutes and meant that the first two innings would be pretty much over. That wouldn’t be too bad, especially since we couldn’t think of a way to get out any earlier… well, without getting grounded, that is.
At lunch, Dan and I planned our route home. Using Google Maps, we checked a half dozen possible ways to go on our walking route. It turned out that if we cut through a couple of yards, and ran most of the way, we could get home in ten minutes rather than fifteen. After sixth period, Dan and I took all the books we needed for homework so far, and the stuff we needed for seventh period, and went to our History class. This way we wouldn’t have to stop at our lockers after class and waste time.
Now Ms Ellis was droning on. Strange. I never noticed her droning before. What the heck is up with that? Finally, the bell rang and she yelled out our homework assignment as we made a beeline for the door and out of the school.
Following the route we mapped out, we took Oakton three blocks north to Summit, then we went west on Summit a block and a half to the apartment building that we knew so well. It butts up against another apartment building, but there’s a gangway tunneling through it. It had an obstacle in our path as well… Chuck. Chuck is a German Shepard. We heard all the stories about Chuck, how he had eaten at least a dozen kids over the years, bones and all, but we weren’t afraid.
We’ve known Chuck for at least four years and, sure, he barked, but he never attacked or snapped at us. In fact, we’ve gone up to the wrought iron fence and stuck our hands through to pet Chuck, right below the No Trespassing and Beware of Dog signs. And Dan and I still have all our fingers intact. Today we were ready for him; we saved some of our lunch for a doggie snack. One thing was new though… we had never actually gone into the yard before. But Chuck was all show, so we weren’t worried about it. The gate had a locking handle with an eye for a padlock, but instead of a lock, the owner used a snap-hook to secure it. I released the snap-hook with my thumb, lifted the handle, and the gate creaked open. I entered first and Dan followed me, securing the gate behind him. Chuck ran over to us and we hugged him and gave him his treats, and then we went down four steps, under the building, through the gangway… but we couldn’t get through. There was an old sheet of plywood blocking our way. The only other way would have been to go in through the basement door, but that didn’t help… the door was locked.
We went back to the plywood blocking our way. We tried to push it, but without luck. It wouldn’t budge. Then Dan saw a knothole in the plywood. I shuddered as he put his finger through it and tried to pull the door towards us. I could imagine all the spiders and other bugs biting his finger…
Let me tell you something about Dan. At first I thought he was certifiably nuts. For instance, once, at my house, we heard my mom scream. Naturally, we ran to see what was wrong. She was backed into a corner and pointing at the wall on the other side of the kitchen. In the corner was a spider, making a web.
“Jerry! Kill it! Get it out of here!”
Dan said, “I’ll handle it,” and he walked over to the spider and its web and scooped them up in his hands, he walked to the back door and told me to open it. When I did, he walked down the porch steps and into the yard, and he gently set the spider down in the grass. After dusting his hands off, he came back in the house and acted as if that was nothing. I’m not sure if Mom felt any better knowing that Danny had picked the spider up in his bare hands, but at least she wasn’t screaming. Okay, back to the story…
With his finger in the knothole, Dan pulled the plywood panel towards himself; there was a groan and a scraping sound, but the panel opened like a door. As it opened, we saw there were at least a dozen fly carcasses caught in the spider webs. Unfortunately, we also saw that there was a second sheet of plywood on the other side of the one Dan just opened. We were ready to give up and turn around when Dan noticed another hole in the second plywood sheet. Just for grins, Dan pushed the second sheet right at the hole. That worked! After another groan and some scraping of the plywood on the concrete path, the second sheet swung open and we went through. Just to be safe, we put the plywood panels back in place before we went back up the four steps at the other end. We went through the backyard and to the alley. But something didn’t look right to us. We grew up in this neighborhood and we knew every street and alley for a two-mile radius around us. Yet this alley was different. Neither Dan nor I knew where this was. We couldn’t get our bearings; nothing looked familiar.
This is the strange thing I was talking about at the beginning. Dan and I looked up and down the alley and, with neither of us feeling good about this, we decided to go back the way we came. When we got back, having closed the plywood barriers, Chuck was lying in the grass and he just lifted his head and stared at us. We gave him a hug and a scratch behind his ear, and then we went through the gate, securing it once we exited, and took the long way home. Throughout the run to my house, and during all the commercials between innings, Dan and I tried to figure out what it was that confused us behind Chuck’s building. It was early April, so although there was a bit more sun, it was still dark when the game was over. (The Cubs WON! 2 to 1.) We decided to walk through the alley the next morning on our way to school and see if we could figure anything out.
= = =
On Thursday morning, Dan knocked on my back door at 7:50, ten minutes earlier than usual. Mom raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. I grabbed my backpack and my lunch, gave her a hug, and said goodbye. Dan and I walked down the back steps and we were on our way. Pine is the next street north of Summit, and as I said, Dan and I know every inch of the streets in our neighborhood. We walked south of Pine and turned into the alley, the one between Pine and Summit. We walked halfway down the alley, and there was the place, two apartment buildings, side by side, and sharing a wall. Well, not really sharing a wall, each building had its own wall, but they were touching each other.
A four-foot wrought iron fence separated the yards, just like in front, and the only way in was through the secured gate. There were also the No Trespassing and Beware of Dog signs. We could see the gangway we used yesterday afternoon with its four steps going down to the underpass. We could also see the plywood barrier blocking the way through the building. We heard Chuck out front barking. Unfortunately, it was almost time to leave and we hadn’t found an answer, then Dan had an idea. “I’m gonna take a picture of the area.”
He took out his phone and set the camera for panoramic view. Then he put his back against the gate and started panning the alley from his left to his right. Once he had it, we headed off to school. We were still in the dark as to what happened yesterday, but we couldn’t do any more until 3:30.
= = =
Although Dan and I have a few classes together, we didn’t have an opportunity to talk until lunch – it had something to do with teachers demanding that we pay attention to them. Whatever. At lunch, Dan showed me the panoramic picture he took. We both agreed that the alley was just as we remembered it. We decided to retrace our steps from yesterday and go through the gate, play with Chuck for a bit, and when we got to the back gate, we’d see if we could figure out what happened the day before. Today we’d have plenty of time since the Cubs were playing a night game and wouldn’t be on until late. Supper wasn’t until 5:30, two hours after we got out of school, and two hours should be more than enough time to figure this out.
We finished our lunch and went back to classes for the afternoon. This time, since we weren’t in a hurry, the time went by normally, including History. Ms Ellis had resumed being interesting and she didn’t drone, as she did yesterday. Finally, classes were over for the day and Dan and I returned to our lockers. We got our stuff for our homework, and we started on our way to my house. We talked about yesterday’s game on the walk. The Cubs had finally beaten the Mariners!
Chuck started barking as we neared his front yard, so we walked over to him and entered through the gate again. After hugging and scratching Chuck, we gave him the remnants of our lunches and walked down the four steps, through the gangway, the plywood wall, and up the four steps at the other side. We got the same feeling that we had yesterday.
Dan took out his phone and brought up the picture that he took this morning. That clinched it. Nothing that we were looking at through the back fence matched what we saw in Dan’s picture from this morning. Dan closed the picture app and got a confused look on his face.
“Jerry, what time do you have? I think my cell phone’s clock is off.”
I pulled out my phone and looked at the clock. “4:52. Wait a minute! It should be 3:52. What time do you have?”
“I’ve got 4:52 as well. That’s why I asked you to check. What’s going on here?”
“Jeez. Not only is the time different, but it seems a bit cloudier here, too.” I checked the weather on my phone and almost freaked out. “Dan, we have the same weather app on our phones, right?”
“Remember how we realized that the weather app uses the satellites to determine where we are and always gives us the local weather? What city does your phone say you’re in right now?”
Dan took out his phone and when he pulled up his weather app, his jaw dropped. “What the heck? This says we’re in Cleveland, Ohio!”
“Oh crap! I was hoping it was only my phone! Dan, this doesn’t look like the alley in Chicago because we’re in an alley in Cleveland! That explains the time changing, too. Our cell phones sync to the local city’s time. Cleveland is an hour ahead of us.”
“Jer, let’s figure out exactly where we are now. Google Maps should still work, right?”
We both started Google Maps and found that Google believed we were halfway down the alley between Taylor and Thomas in Cleveland. The next street east of us was Wells and the next street west was Washburn.
“Dan, before we go anywhere else, let’s go back and see if we make it back to Chicago.”
I followed Dan back down the steps, through the gangway and the plywood wall, up the four steps on the other side. Chuck was lying there. He lifted his head, looked at us for a few seconds and laid his head back down. Dan and I were looking at Google Maps and it now showed us in Chicago, on Summit, halfway between Melvina and Kingston, right where we should have been. Our clocks changed back as well.
Dan was visibly shaken and I’m sure I didn’t look much better. “Now what?” I asked.
“I want to walk around the block and go in from the alley and see where that side leads us.”
I was a little nervous, but I was kind of curious, too. “Okay. But let’s do it before I change my mind,” I replied.
When we got to the rear of the building, we unhooked the snap-hook on the gate, lifted the handle and walked through, securing the gate behind us. Dan and I had our phones out, looking at Google Maps. We walked side by side down the steps, through the plywood wall. I was surprised to find that this wall still had fresh spider webs. Then it hit me… we had never opened this side, so it should look like this. We walked through the gangway, and up the four steps at the other end. This time Google said we were in Kansas City, Missouri. The time was still the same as Chicago, as it should have been. We wrote down the street we were on, Archer, and the two streets at either end, Magnolia and Mason. I looked at Dan and I think he read my mind. “Yeah,” he said, “let’s go back.” When we returned to the back yard in Chicago, we exited through the gate, secured it, and walked to my house.
Ten minutes later, we were in my room. It was almost 4:30. I turned on Spotify so we could listen to music while we tried to make sense of the last two days, especially today.
“Jerry, what is it with you and Reggae?” Dan asked. He walked over and loaded the ‘Top 100 Alternative Tracks on Spotify’ playlist and Coldplay’s ‘Magic’ started playing.
When he was satisfied and walked back over I said, “Dan, I’m at a loss to explain this. Do you have any ideas?”
“Yeah, but it’s kind of strange… but no stranger that what happened to us so far.”
“I’ll agree with that. What do you think?”
“Jer, I think we experienced two wormholes.”
I thought long and hard for another explanation, but I couldn’t come up with anything better. “Okay. So now what do we do? My mom and dad will think we’re nuts!”
“No kidding! My ‘rents won’t be any better. Why don’t we just log what we know so far?”
Dan and I were already sharing a Dropbox, so I opened a Word file on my laptop and we entered what we knew so far, which really wasn’t much. Dan started.
“All three buildings were in the middle of their block.”
“All three buildings were butted against the building next to it,” I added.
“All three buildings were on the north side of an east-west street,” Dan said.
“Right! And going in the front of the building took us east, while going in the rear of the building took us west.”
“I wonder if there are any buildings that would take us north and south,” Dan said.
“We could look. Let’s check the three we have on Google Maps. We could check them both overhead and in street-view,” I mused.
“Right!” Dan said excitedly. “Then we could use Google Maps to see if there are any others! We know that these three have wrought iron fences around them as well as the signs on the fences. They should show in street-view too.
“But I have to get going. I’ll check for buildings on north-south streets and you continue with the east-west streets. Let’s stick to the two-mile radius around the place on Summit. We should be able to find probable buildings easily enough.”
I agreed and said goodnight to Dan and gave him a bro-hug. After switching Spotify back to Reggae, I searched for a few more minutes, until Mom called me to supper.
= = =
After supper, I rushed through my homework. I had a B average, so I had a bit of room for improvement, but I also had a life, so B was good enough for me. Heck, George ‘Dubya’ Bush had a C average and he got to be the freaken president. So an hour later I was searching the east-west streets for target buildings. I found seven, in addition to the building on Summit. They weren’t all on the north side of the street, either. Three others were, and four were on the south side of the streets. I went through the four square miles of streets again and still only had eight that met the requirements: surrounded by a four-foot wrought iron fence, a secured gate, and No Trespassing and Beware of Dog signs in front. We’d have to check the back later, since street-view only shows the front of the buildings. As well, each building butted up against the wall of one of the buildings next to it, with a gangway going through the building. The search had only taken forty-eight minutes, so I used Skype and sent a message to Dan; I told him my results and that I was going to start in Cleveland and then go to Kansas City.
Dan replied that he found eight buildings as well and he found four on the east sides of the streets and four more on the west sides. Like me, he was moving on as well, but he was starting with Kansas City.
The second cities had the same density; eight buildings. We were getting a system down, so we finished our second searches in about thirty-five minutes. The same was true for our third searches. We had a lot of data, but we weren’t sure if the other buildings would also have the wormholes.
When we finished our searches, we Skyped for a few minutes to celebrate. We had no idea what we had found, but if it panned out, there had to be a route across the United States at least. We made plans to search four more buildings the next day after school. Then, on Saturday and Sunday, we could check out the rest of the buildings. After giggling for too long, we eventually said goodnight and went to bed.
= = =
On Friday morning, I was up before the alarm. We each saved the information we gleaned from Google Maps on spreadsheets and stored them in our Dropbox. All day Friday, we were unable to concentrate on anything that wasn’t related to ‘The Portals’, as we had begun to call them. We thought about going to one of the buildings at lunch, but we were both afraid that we’d be late getting back. We knew if we screwed up, we’d probably get detention and waste more time. So instead, we went over the spreadsheets again, and tried to set up the quickest route to get to all the buildings.
Afternoon classes dragged by even slower than they had on Wednesday. I think I was looking at the classroom clocks every second or two… with no progress. Finally, the last bell rang and Dan and I rushed to our lockers to grab our stuff for the weekend. We headed home and unloaded our school stuff. We had a list of things to bring with us, so we quickly loaded them into our backpacks. Since I lived closest to school, we stopped at my place first. Then we went to Dan’s house. We told our moms that we’d be late for dinner and not to worry; we’d get a burger or something while we were out. That seemed to work. In fact, Dan’s mom said she and his dad would go out instead of cooking. His dad said he’d give us twenty dollars if Dan would stay at my place that night. Dan’s dad wasn’t the only one who was getting lucky. Ka-Ching!
= = =
We already decided that we wanted to go to the closest place to the one on Summit. It was on a north-south street – Nova Avenue. When we got to it, we had a great feeling about it. Naturally, it had the requisite four-foot wrought iron fence and gate. It also had the No Trespassing and Beware of Dog signs. We unhooked the snap-hook, entered, and replaced the hook before looking for what appeared to be a non-existent dog to beware of… so much the better. We headed down the four steps, and as expected, we found the plywood wall. As on Summit, Dan put his finger in a hole in the plywood (as I cringed) and it swung open easily, but hardly silently. With a light nudge, the second plywood panel also swung open. I was starting to get used to the spiders and spider webs as I walked through. As usual, Dan secured both of the plywood panels.
As we were going up the steps, we had our phones in our hands to see where we’d end up. The clock didn’t change, but the weather sure did; it was warm and kind of muggy. The weather app told us we were in St. Louis. We logged the information and updated our Dropbox files. We were tempted to look around, but we still had a few more places in Chicago to check out. As soon as we got back to Nova Avenue, we went around the block and went in the alley entrance. This led us north to St. Paul. It was freezing there! It’s a good thing we packed a pair of gloves and a beanie in our backpacks. We were already wearing our winter jackets, so that wasn’t a problem. (Early April in Chicago isn’t so nice, either.) We logged the address and returned so we could look for the next place.
The next closest place was an east-west street – Morton Lane. It led us to the borough of Queens in New York City. The weather there was about the same as Chicago. We again logged it and were on our way back. Going around the block and using the alley entrance got us to Los Angeles. Finally, a place with decent weather! As much as we wanted to look around a bit, we had to return to Chicago.
I know, I know. You want to know why we didn’t do more in the cities we found. First, we really didn’t have much time for exploring. That would come Saturday and Sunday. Remember, we wanted to check out at least four places Friday; that means eight cities. Second, being in a strange place in the light of day is one thing, but going there at night could lead to trouble. Face it, we’re cowards. I mean, what sense would it make to get into trouble hundreds of miles from home? How could we possibly explain that?
Now we’re at the fourth place on the list, a building on Halsted Street. It seems kind of strange that no one has seen us, or tried to stop us from going in. It’s good luck, I guess. Why turn it down? This time the front way led us to Miami and the rear entrance led us to Seattle. We wanted soooo much to stay in Seattle and see if we could get into the Cubs-Mariners game, but we forced ourselves to return to Chicago. We sighed.
= = =
When we returned, we decided to grab a burger, fries and a Frosty at Wendy’s, what the heck, Danny’s dad was buying. Hehe. While we were eating, we wondered where the wormholes came from.
“Jer, I wonder just how long these things have been here. I mean, were the buildings built around them or were they somehow ‘installed’ later?”
“‘Installed’? Like a new counter top? Hahaha! What? Do you think someone went down to Ace Hardware and said, ‘I’d like a 4×8 wormhole with a 1,500 mile reach’?”
“Hahaha! No, not Ace Hardware… Fry’s Electronics. Come on, you know what I mean. If they were added later, I’d love to find out how. Think about it. We could put one between our houses.”
“Yeah… and you’d probably walk in while I was beating off.”
“Seriously, Jerry, I’d like to know how they got there and why they’re there. Think about it; all the buildings are the same, so someone had to plan that part of it.”
“Not all of them, Dan. The buildings in Los Angeles weren’t made of red bricks; they were stucco. But I think that had more to do with earthquake safety than anything else.”
“Okay… and the building in Seattle was newer and looked like it was cinder block with a red brick façade. That was probably for earthquakes, too.”
“Dan, someone must have done this, but who could have that technology?”
“I was just thinking. We never really looked around the portals; we just opened them and walked through. Tomorrow, why don’t we do some investigating as well as exploring?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Tomorrow let’s inspect them and see what we can find. We won’t dismantle anything; we’ll just look and take pictures. That might give us some clues.”
Using my best Bullwinkle Moose voice I said, “Gee, Rocky, that’s so crazy it just might work!”
“Hehe. Come to think of it, we could check the place on Summit on our way to your place after we eat!”
“Yeah… it’s only 8:30, so we definitely have the time.”
We stopped talking so we could concentrate on finishing our food. We both remembered to save some for Chuck, and in 10 minutes, we were on our way. Before long, we were walking up to Chuck’s place and he stood at the fence, quietly wagging his tail. As we walked over to the gate and opened it, Chuck jumped up on Danny and nudged him in his hand with his snout… the one holding his treats. He knows us too well. As I was closing the gate, Dan gave him the leftovers. We froze when someone called over to us.
“Oh boys! Can you help me with these bags please?”
We turned and saw an old woman walking up the sidewalk, pulling a wire shopping-cart with several plastic bags of groceries in it.
“Yes ma’am,” we said in unison, and I unfastened the gate to let her in. Dan took her shopping cart and asked her which apartment she was in. It was on the first floor, but the building didn’t have an elevator and the stairs were kind of steep. As Dan carried the cart and I helped the old woman navigate the stairs.
“I’m so glad you boys were here. I really didn’t mean to get so much, but I was trying to save another trip. I would have had to make two trips up the stairs with these things, and I know my knees would have hated me for that.”
“We’re happy we could help, ma’am.”
“Yes, that’s what the letter from the landlord said about you two.”
“The letter from the landlord?” Danny asked.
“Oh yes. It came last Tuesday and said that you two boys would start coming around last Wednesday and that you were no danger and to let you onto the property. I see you’ve made friends with Chuck already. If Chuck likes you, that’s good enough for me. He seldom lets strangers near the fence, let alone in the yard.”
I looked at Danny and saw he was as confused as I was.
“Oh! I’m forgetting my manners. I’m Mrs. Scott. My husband and I were the first tenants of this building when it was built in 1963. Mr. Scott passed away several years ago… he had a heart attack.” She sighed and continued. “I’ve lived here for fifty-two years now.
Danny spoke up next. “Mrs. Scott, I’m Danny Caputo and this is my friend, Jerry Collins. We live near here…”
“Oh yes,” she interrupted “That’s what the letter said your names were.”
“Ummm, Mrs. Scott, do you still have that letter? We haven’t seen it yet.”
“I think I do… it’s probably in the recycling bin. I usually dump it every Saturday, so it should still be there.”
We waited in the hall outside her door as she walked in. A minute or two later, she returned with an envelope in her hand. “Here it is. It was in the recycling, just as I said.”
“Mrs. Scott, would it be alright if we kept this?” I asked.
“Of course, boys, as I said, I was going to recycle it anyway.”
We took the letter and thanked Mrs. Scott again. I put the letter in my backpack and we left the building. Danny and I both had sore tongues from biting them so hard at the news that we were expected by the landlord.
“Jerry, how could anyone know that we were coming here on Wednesday? We didn’t know until lunch on Wednesday. How could anyone have known last week that we would be here?”
“Last week?” I asked.
“Yeah… well, Monday at the latest, but probably Friday or Saturday; maybe earlier. Who was the letter from?”
I already had the letter in my hand and I grabbed a flashlight from my backpack so we could read it. I held the light and looked at the return address printed on the envelope:
Express Worldwide, Inc.
315 W. Washington St.
Chicago, Illinois 60606
“I’ve never heard of ’em,” I said.
“Yeah, but what you’ve never heard of could probably fill a warehouse.”
“True. Let’s put this away until we get back to my place. We still have to check out the portal for any obvious electronics. I’ll open the door and shine my flashlight so you can take pictures.”
“Sounds good to me,” Danny said.
Within ten minutes, we had taken pictures of the entire circumference of the doorway. Danny’s phone has a 12-megapixel camera and he took a shot about every foot around the opening. We figured that should be enough, so we closed the two panels and wrapped it up for the night. As we were walking out, we noticed that Chuck was going through a doggie-door into the basement.
“I wonder if that’s where he lives,” Dan said.
I just shrugged and we kept going. We were at my house in next to no time and we went straight to my room to look at the pictures. Danny uploaded the pictures from his camera to our Dropbox while I raided the kitchen for some Cokes and chips. By the time I got back, Dan had the first picture displaying on my laptop. We went through each shot and carefully examined them. The door frame was made of two-by-fours. There were two boards running side-by-side around the frame with about a one-inch gap between them, but it looked like it was filled in with some kind of caulking compound, probably silicon. We could check that tomorrow at the new places.
What was more important now was the letter that we got from Mrs. Scott. While I got the letter out, Danny Googled ‘Express Worldwide, Inc’. There were no exact matches for that, or even ‘Express Worldwide’. We shrugged and I opened the letter. Sure enough, it said that we would be coming around last Wednesday and frequently after that, and we were allowed on the property because we were ‘inspecting the premises for proper maintenance’. The letter listed our names, ages and descriptions. I suppose we should have been worried, but we were distracted by the other things that were going on, namely, the portals. We saved everything and turned off my laptop so we could watch a movie. Netflix sent me a copy of Prince’s Purple Rain and neither of us had seen it yet. It was an ancient movie, but my dad said it was a classic, so we sent for it.
Just before we watched the movie, we each took a shower and put on a pair of soccer shorts. When that was done, we turned off the lights, settled in next to each other on my bed with our backs against the wall, and turned on the DVD. “Prepare to be amazed,” Dad had said.
“Your leg is cold,” Dan told me.
“No, yours is hot… and hairy,” I replied.
“It must be my hot Italian blood.”
“And what makes it hairy? Is that your monkey blood?”
“Hey! You’re talking about my MOM!”
“It’s not my fault your dad married a monkey!”
To be continued…