A few years ago, Seth, Aria, Devin, and Amir were enjoying a glorious Sunday afternoon in springtime. The corner at the end of the narrow lane that led to their houses was their usual meeting spot. “Let’s explore the woods today!” suggested Devin, who loved the outdoors. “Yes, let’s!” Aria agreed, for she loved imagining that she was a princess in a fairytale, and the woods lent a perfect background for it. An old abandoned barn was her castle. One day, she could be Rapunzel, another, she was Cinderella, and so on. Together, they set out to the woods near their home.
“Hey!” Amir exclaimed. Seth stopped, his gaze following Amir’s pointed finger. “What’s that?” Devin ran up to join them. “It looks like a trail!” Aria chimed in. Seth frowned, “we have been here so many times, and never noticed it.” Amir shook his head, “it was pretty windy last night, maybe the wind blew away whatever twigs and dust were covering it, revealing the trail underneath?” Seth and Devin exchanged a glance as an idea formed in their heads. “We must explore it!” Devin could not contain his excitement. The other two nodded to show their agreement.
A few feet on the trail, and the boys began laughing as Aria kept gushing over every colorful blossom and fragrant flower they crossed. The trail was lined with beautiful flowering trees and shrubs, and made for a lovely walk indeed. “Let’s go all the way to the other end and see where we come out!” even the usually reserved Amir could not stop marveling at the beauty around them. The wood was a tiny one, and could be covered in a couple of hours. Finding a hidden trail would cause so much excitement amidst their neighborhood, the four would be considered heroes! Who knew, the mayor might even honor them by naming the trail after them, the children began thinking to themselves.
A few minutes in, the trail which had been even and easy so far, suddenly narrowed and became steep. The children automatically fell into line behind each other, with Devin taking the lead, followed by Amir, then Aria, with Seth bringing up the rear. At one point the climb was so steep that they had to walk holding hands! “Slow down!” Amir pleaded after a few minutes of walking uphill. Devin did not comment, but he did slacken the pace, making it easier for them all to follow close behind each other.
Seth stumbled on a root, and his hands flew out to brace himself as he lost his balance. “Wait!” he shouted, rising to his feet, and dusting off the dirt from his hands and knees. The three walking in front of him stopped. “What is it?” From his spot at the head of the line, Devin looked much like a king looking down at his subjects. Seth, however, neither noticed his friend’s royal look, nor heard his question. “Are you hurt?” Amir asked.
Seth’s failure to reply to their questions prompted his friends to climb the few feet back down to him. “Look,” he said, coming back to himself when Aria placed a hand on his shoulder.
The kids fell silent, staring into a dark recess between the trees. “Should we explore it?” Aria whispered, as if afraid that speaking aloud might awaken something. “I say yes,” Seth and Arim replied in unison. Devin, of course, was already itching to explore the recess. Cautiously, the four headed towards it. The recess was a huge branch of a tree, lying in a surprisingly odd way. “This has grown downwards, as if it is seeking the earth, not the sun!” Arim exclaimed in surprise. “See the direction the leaves have grown in?” he pointed out, ” they are all facing down.” Seth examined the leaves, and gasped when he realised the reason why they were growing opposite what was natural.
“Look!” he pointed, “the branch is barely connected to the tree! There is something behind it!” Devin hurried to take a closer look. “Shall we move it?” Seth nodded. On the count of three, the two boys shifted the branch, which was surprisingly heavy. They were still panting, trying to catch their breath when Aria started jumping up and down in excitement. “It is a cave, guys!”
As if by some unspoken agreement the children gripped hands tightly and set a foot into the cave. It was pleasantly cool despite the high afternoon sun, and to their surprise, not as dark as they had feared it would be. In fact, the deeper into the cave they went, the more pleasant it began to seem. The air was fresh, unlike the damp, stale air found in most nooks and crannies, daylight seemed to be creeping in from somewhere. Aria, who had sharp ears, paused, “I hear water.” Heads cocked, they all stayed still, listening. Sure enough, the faint sound of flowing water was audible.
Following the direction the sound came from, they soon came to a tiny opening in the cave, and saw a spring! The water flowing in the spring was clear, and Devin, who had been a boy scount since kindergarten, quickly scooped some in his palm and took a careful sip. “It is fresh!” he announced shortly, and everyone rushed to quench their parched throats. The water was not only fresh, but also delightfully sweet, and they giggled and laughed, splashing water on each other.
“The sun will begin to set soon,” Amir observed, “we should head back home.” Devin began to argue, but Seth agreed with Amir, “we can come back next weekend to explore the cave further.” Aria too added her weight, “our parents will begin to worry if we aren’t home in time.” They made their way out of the cave, and Seth and Devin took care to cover the entrance once again with the branch.
“Why did you do that?” Amir asked them. “So it will remain our secret hideout,” Devin replied. Seth smiled, “the branch was there for a purpose. My mother says that wherever we go, we should always try to leave the place better than we found it. Since we couldn’t do anything for the cave, I thought it is better if we at least leave it exactly as we found it.”
On the walk home, the group was silent, each lost in their own thoughts about their discovery. About half an hour later, they reached their spot, and bid goodbye to each other before heading home.
As was their habit, each child washed up well, changing out of their now dirty clothes into fresh ones. However, no one, neither the kids, nor their families and friends, noticed that each of the four kids, now had one additional tiny strand of hair, which shimmered slightly only when the four were together!
No one, not even the families of the four kids suspected that there was anything different about them. The only mention about the Sunday stroll was, “you were gone quite a while, looks like you had fun.” The kids merely nodded their head, replying, “yes, the woods are a great place this time of the year.” And thus, the day got over, with neither notice, nor mention of the kids’ adventure.
Monday morning was bright and sunny, and the walk to the school was enjoyable. “I hope none of you squealed about the cave at home,” Devin asked. With complete seriousness, the other three shook their heads. Any further discussion of their discovery was put on hold when Tina and Sam joined them. “Hey guys!” Tina ran up to them, “you will never believe what Sam and I did this gone weekend.” The four waited for her to continue. Just then, Sam reached them, “we went to the beach on Friday afternoon, and came back just yesterday. The water was so perfect!”
Aria was first to react, “that is amazing, guys! Say, now that you mention it, you do look a bit tanned.” Tina smiled, “do we now? We hardly left the beach at all. What did you guys do? Did you go someplace fun?” Seth shrugged, “we were in town, Saturday was busy helping mom finish the chores around the house. Met these three for a while on Sunday afternoon.” The four were glad when neither Tina, nor Sam asked what they had done on Sunday afternoon, for they did not want to lie to their friends.
Soon, they reached school, and every one got busy with their classwork. When the bell rang to indicate school was off, the kids had no time to talk about their adventure, for they each had to rush home to finish their homework and attend to their extra-curricular activities. Devin had soccer pratice, Amir was excited about his chess class, Aria loved going to her ballet classes, while Seth learnt tennis, but wasn’t quite sure he enjoyed it as much. It was only because daddy insisted on playing at least one sport that he went to the tennis academy, which was right across the street from his house.
The rest of the week flew past much like Monday, and by the time Friday rolled around, every one felt like they had been running all this time just to be able to stay in the same spot, just like Alice in Wonderland!
By evening, however, the four were getting antsy, hoping they could go explore the cave again. “I know!” Seth said, as soon as they met at their usual spot, “let’s meet early tomorrow, right after lunch. That way, we’ll have more time to explore the cave!” Aria jumped up and down in excitement, “and we can be better prepared. I’ll bring my bug spray. The insects almost drank all my blood yesterday.” The boys chuckled at her description, but no one teased her about it, for indeed, the walk through the woods had meant lots of insect-bites on their arms and legs.
“I’ll whistle as soon as I leave home,” Devin, whose house was on the furthest end of the lane, suggested. Amir agreed, “good idea, that way, we’ll know it is you, and we can meet you here.” With this plan set, the four returned to their homes, excited about the adventure they were planning to set on the next day.
Would they find the trail as easily this time? Would the cave be as welcoming again? What would they find in the cave?
All four kids were ‘verrrryy hungry’ and wanted lunch as early as eleven on Saturday. “You are eating too slowly considering you were about to faint due to starvation,” Seth’s mother teased. When her back was turned to him, he hurriedly passed the food to Bruno, his dog, so she’d think he had indeed finished the food. The situation in the other three houses was no different, and the parents were amused by how hard the kids seemed to be trying to hide their excitement.
“I am off to play with the others,” Aria exclaimed suddenly, startling Leila, her younger sister, who was playing nearby. “Be sure to be home by four,” her father saw her off with the reminder as she ran down the lane, chasing after Devin. “She was so eager to go,” her mother remarked, watching from the kitchen window. Her father chuckled, “looks like the four have something up their sleeve.” Mother shook her head, sighing in resignation, “whatever it is, I hope they have a good time.” Father agreed, “it has been a long, cold winter. It is good to see the kids spending time outdoors in the spring sun.”
Seth and Amir were already at the spot when Devin arrived, Aria close behind him. “Oh you brought Bruno!” she exclaimed, dropping to her knees to hug the huge dog, who immediately left Seth’s side and ran to her. “His sharp nose will be useful,” Devin remarked. Wasting no more time, the four kids and Bruno, set off towards the woods.
The trail had disappeared, almost as if by magic, and despite their best efforts, the kids could not find it. “I am so glad you brought him along!” Amir remarked when the dog took the lead and began making his way across an unwalked route. “Slow down,” Seth commanded, looping the leash around his hand a few times to make it short so the dog couldn’t go too far.
A few minutes later, Bruno came to a stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere. “I know where we are!” Devin announced. “Then why do you look puzzled?” Aria asked. He met her gaze, “because we are at the exact spot where the cave was the last weekend!” Seth knew it was pointless to ask Devin if he was sure, for the boy scout had a sharp sense of direction and wouldn’t have said a word if he weren’t a hundred percent sure. “You mean, the cave vanished overnight, or rather over the week?” Amir asked. Devin shrugged, “I don’t know. All I know is, Bruno has brought us to the right spot. You gave him your tee-shirt from last weekend to sniff, and he brought us here.”
Eyebrows drawn together in a frown, Seth began to look around. “What are you searching for?” Aria asked him. He pursed his lips, “I am looking for a hint, a sign of what could have happened.” Amir joined him in his efforts, “I hope we can find some answers.” The kids formed a circle, each one facing outwards in four directions, eyes peeled to the ground for signs of rock, or anything that might have come from the cave. “I’d be happy if we could even spot the branch that was covering the cave that day,” Aria muttered.
“That’s it!” Seth exclaimed, as Aria’s words penetrated his thoughts. “The branch! Not only were the leaves growing downwards, with a different, darker shade of green, but the branch itself was an usual shade of brown, unlike the rest of the tree. Let’s find the tree that the branch was connected to!” Each kid spread out, separating from the others, looking for the tree. Amir spotted it, and called to the others, “guys, take a look.” His voice shook slightly. The other three doubled back to him. “The tree!” Amir stage-whispered. The four kids stared at the tree. To a casual observer, it was a regular, ordinary tree commonly seen everywhere. But the kids could see beyond that. At the very center of the huge bark was a circle, roughly the size of a coin. The circle was neither green nor black. It was a dull shade of yellow, covered with dirt and soil, as if someone had done their best to hide it.
“Should we remove the soil and see what the circle is?” Aria’s voice barely contained her excitement. “Yes, let’s!” they agreed, and Devin, ever the boy scout, stepped forward and began to carefully scrape away at the dirt with the edge of his belt. A few seconds later, he held what looked like a coin in his palm. “Is it gold?” he asked. Seth held it up to examine it better, “I daresay it is gold. Not like the one used in making jewels, this seems to be a different kind of the same metal.”
“Okay,” Amir let out a breath, “do you think there is a connection between this coin and the cave?” The four kids exchanged glances. “There might be,” Aria was the first to concede. “So what do we do now?” Devin asked, looking around at his friends. “We put the coin back where we found it, and cover it up. Maybe we weren’t meant to find the cave, maybe it belongs to someone who is conducting some experiment. Let’s leave it undisturbed.” The friends carefully put the coin back into the bark, taking care to cover it with dirt and soil, camouflaging it as best as they could.
“Thank you,” they were startled by the voice behind them. Turning around, they were shocked to see a pair of grown-ups standing there. “Thank you for keeping the coin back where you found it,” the woman smiled. Seth’s eyes grew wide, “this was a test?” The man nodded, his expression kind, “you can say that.” Devin stepped forward, “but what for?” The man looked at him, “you will know that in a few years.” Aria gasped, “years? It is so hard to wait so long for the answer!” The woman stepped forward, “don’t worry, Aria, time has a habit of flying so fast you’ll barely know how the years pass.”
Seth frowned, “how do you know her name?” The woman straightened up and smiled again, “I know the names of all of you, Seth. It wouldn’t be much of a test if we didn’t know who we were testing, isn’t it?” He nodded, “I suppose you are right. I, however, agree with Aria. It seems unfair to have to wait for so many years when we are all right here right now.” The man shook his head, “we will make sure that you do not have to worry about the cave and coin and the answers to its disappearance until it is time for you to know the answers.” Amir, who had been quiet until this moment, stepped forward, “what do you mean? How will you…”
The children looked around, confused. Aria was the first to speak, “how did we end up here? Looks like we wandered off the trail and got lost.” Seth gently shook Bruno, who was fast asleep, “time to go home, boy.” The dog jumped up and began sniffing around. A moment later, he picked up the scent, and soon, the kids were back on their usual trail. “Whoa!” Devin looked at his watch, “it is almost half past three. Time to go home.” Amir nodded, “time flies so fast when we are in the woods, doesn’t it? I cannot remember what we did today, except that we walked on the trail and talked.” Seth smiled in agreement, but his mind was stuck on Amir’s words. Time flies.
Time, as it is prone to, flew past, and the next few years saw the children get busier and busier with their school, activities, and the general hectic pace of life. No one had found out about their long-forgotten discovery of the cave. When the four met, the strand of hair still glimmered, unseen and untouched. There were, of course, the occassions when they fought and argued, but the strand never stopped glimmering.
Now, as the kids were in their freshman year at high school, one or the other would unexpectedly dream of their childhood hangout – the woods. In there, they would chance upon the trail, and discover the cave, and would disappear into the morning mist, leaving behind a faint sense of having lost something. Often, they would try to discuss this with the others, but somehow, the topic always got lost in the midst of other, more pressing matters, like homework, sports, grades, and more.
Once, the topic almost arose, with Seth, Devin, and Aria, having had the same dream the previous night. A prestigious event in the school took precedence, and the topic about the weird dream was left unspoken. “Let’s go to the old trail this weekend!” Amir suggested out of the blue at the end of the day. Seth was startled as the hint of his dream surfaced, teasing his memory. “Yes, let’s,” Aria added her weight to the idea. All four of them agreed to meet at their usual spot just after lunch on Saturday.
Their families did not suspect a thing, for the four often tried to meet up on weekends. Bruno, however, seemed to sense Seth’s excitement, for the dog refused to leave his human’s side. Seth loved him too much and did not want to disappoint him. He leashed him, and off they set for their usual spot.
“I feel a sense of déjà vu,” Aria commented, walking up behind Devin. Seth nodded, “I know what you mean, I have been getting a strange feeling all morning, like we are about to walk into some adventure.” Not wanting to waste even a minute, the four kids and Bruno set out towards the trail. “Do you think we’ll find something strange?” Devin, ever the one for excitement and adventure, mused aloud. “Let’s just hope we don’t run into something dangerous,” Amir replied.
Seth and Aria brought up the rear. “You seem pale,” Seth remarked, then bit his tongue as he realised it was a wrong thing to say to the girl one liked. To his relief, she did not seem to mind, and instead, nodded, “I think I haven’t been sleeping very well lately.” He was puzzled, “you think you haven’t been sleeping well?” She sighed, “yes, because I am always tired when I wake up, like I’ve been running in my sleep. I know I see a recurring dream, but it flies away as soon as I realise I am dreaming.” Seth stopped walking and turned to stare at her. “This is the exact same thing I have been feeling too!” he was glad he could finally admit to someone. “Me too!” Devin confessed, joining them. Amir said nothing, but his expression revealed that, like them, he too had been living with the same situation.
A sharp tug on his hand had Seth looking down to see Bruno straining at the leash, trying to go off the trail. “What is it, pal?” he asked, following the dog, who seemed to gain strength as soon as he realised that Seth was listening. Together, the four allowed the dog to lead them off the trail, to a huge tree, that looked like it had been there forever. “Funny,” Seth commented, “I know I have seen this tree somewhere. But where?” Aria’s eyes widened, “I think I come to this tree in my dreams!” Amir added, “as do I, but this is not the path I take. I seem to climb a narrow path before it opens up to this tree.” Devin agreed, “we came here pretty quickly. It should take us quite some time. At least, that is how it happens in my dream.”
“Wait!” Seth exclaimed, noticing something glinting in the bark of the tree. “Could it be the reflection of the sun’s rays? Amir suggested, pointing to the sun that was shining down from between the trees. Aria shook her head, “no, look, there’s the cave from our dreams.” Seth whirled around, puzzled, “how do you know I see the same cave?” She grinned, “because the three of you are with me in my dream. And if you have been having the same dream as I, then it isn’t a far stretch of imagination to think you visit the same cave!”
With gentle hands, Seth pried the coin from the bark. He was not surprised when the cave was suddenly bathed in light, as if beckoning them inside. Speechless, the friends entered the cave, mesmerized by everything they saw.
“This is familiar, yet strange,” Devin murmured, looking around. Where their dreams showed a vacant cave, this one was full of signs of life. With plants that had leaves in all hues and colors, flowers that seemed to jump and walk, tiny bees busily buzzed around, talking. The kids froze. “The bees are talking?” The bees, however, seemed to not hear them as they went about their work, gathering pollen. As the kids stared, the flowers seemed to open their petals to invite the bees. The colorful leaves were fragrant, more so than the flowers, and the kids could not help but simply stand and stare. In some time, the activity died down, and to their amazement, the signs of life withdrew into the ground until all that was left was the fresh air and a faint fragrance!
“Ouch!” Amir jumped as Devin pinched him. “Sorry,” the scout apologised, “I just wanted to check if we really saw all this or if we are all dreaming again, all together.” Seth shook his head, “we definitely saw all this. My intuition tells me we have been to this cave before, and seen something then too.” Aria frowned, “we would remember something so strange, would we not?” He shrugged, “we should, but if my instinct is correct, we were made to forget, by choice or by force, and we will forget this too the moment we step out of this trail.” Devin stepped forward, “but how? and why?” Amir exhaled, “maybe it is something to do with the right time and the right moment? Maybe we cannot rush the answers to all our questions, and have to wait until the time is right?”
Seeing that it was almost evening, the four hurried back to the old trail, each silent, each lost in thought. Sure enough, by the time they reached the trail, they had once again forgotten about the adventure, and all they could remember was walking on the old trail. “Boy,” Amir commented, panting hard, “I was having so much fun that I did not even notice how fast the time went.” Devin nodded, “true, when we are together, time flies.”
No one remembered what they had done in the woods, but returned to their homes, happy and tired. The dreams continued, but did not bother them anymore. Their subconscious still had questions unanswered, but it had agreed to wait until the time was right. What none of them knew, was that the right time was just around the corner, waiting for a trigger from the other side.
To know what happened when the time was right, please read The Other Earth.