The pot on the stove boiled over with a hiss. Isaac calmly moved it to a different burner and cleaned up the mess. Charlie was at the table chopping a carrot for the soup. “Dad, do you ever get scared?” he asked.
“Why do you ask? Did something scare you?”
Charlie shrugged. “Not really. It’s just that you always know what to do. Even when weird or scary things happen, you seem so calm.”
“When I was your age, something really strange happened. After that, nothing seemed as weird or scary, I guess.” Isaac wiped the edges of the pot clean and turned on the heat.
“Tell me about it,” Charlie said.
“It’s a long story,” Isaac said.
Charlie smiled. “I like long stories.”
Isaac and his friend Jimmy wanted to play baseball in the empty lot by Jimmy’s house. It was right next to the woods, and Jimmy and Isaac weren’t allowed in the woods. They stood at the edge of the woods and looked inside. It was full of rocks and bushes and trees, and they couldn’t see very far.
“When is everyone coming?” Isaac asked.
Jimmy checked his watch. “They were supposed to be here half an hour ago.”
“Maybe we could play catch while we wait,” Isaac said.
“Did you see my ball? My dad caught it at a baseball game for me,” Jimmy said again. He’d told Isaac the story twenty times already, or maybe more.
“I saw it,” Isaac said. “How far away should I stand?”
“How far can you throw?” Jimmy asked. “I’ve been practicing, and I can throw super far.”
Isaac backed up. “I think this is good for me,” he said.
Jimmy stepped and threw the ball. Isaac caught it. “Strike one!” Jimmy said.
Isaac shook his hand. “Ouch! You threw that pretty hard. Maybe I should get my glove on.”
“You’re fine,” Jimmy said. “We’re just playing catch. Throw it back.”
Isaac threw the ball back. Jimmy had to step forward to catch it. “Can’t you throw any farther?” he asked. “Back up and watch this.”
Isaac backed up a couple more steps. Jimmy stepped forward as he threw again. His arm whipped forward and the ball flew over Isaac’s fingertips. It crashed through the bushes and disappeared into the forest.
“My ball! You lost it!” Jimmy said, and then he started to cry.
“Don’t worry. I’ll get it,” Isaac said. He pushed the bushes aside and hurried into the forest, scanning the forest floor for something small and white. Movement caught his eye, and he turned just in time to see the ball slowly rolling down a slope behind some trees.
Isaac raced after it. It was rolling faster and faster. The path was narrowing and growing rockier. Near the bottom of the hill, the ball bounced off some rocks and launched into a small gap between two large boulders leaning against each other at the base of another hill.
There was just enough space between them for Isaac to crawl through. It was the entrance to a hidden cave. The floor sloped down, so the ball must have continued rolling. The small cave entrance behind him was the only source of light. As he crawled forward the light grew dimmer and dimmer.
Isaac decided to crawl forward a few more feet, and if he didn’t find the ball, he was going to go back for a flashlight. He crawled forward, and suddenly the cave floor was gone and he fell.
It was black and silent. He’d never been anywhere this dark. And then, all around him, he could see tiny points of light. Fireflies? Cave moss? He didn’t know, but they looked like stars. He was falling through the night sky, and it felt like he could fall forever. But the stars grew dimmer, then vanished. Light was shining somewhere below him.
And then bright light surrounded and blinded him, and he fell into a pile of leaves and pine needles and dirt in the middle of what looked like an enormous hotel lobby. He looked up. He’d fallen out of what looked like a large, open air duct, high up in the vaulted ceiling. Blinking, he looked around at the fancy furniture and fake trees. “This is really strange,” he said.