The Well of Sins was a tower of indeterminate height, thrust like a great, fat thumb in the eye of the countryside, a smudge on the handiwork of God. I had been climbing for a day, round and round on the black stone steps that wound their way, serpent-like, up the tower’s interior. The Well of Sins boasted no windows and its interior was shrouded in an inky, cloying blackness. Those who sought to conquer the impossible construction would have to bring enough supplies to keep a lantern lit and themselves alive for three to five days. Many had gone mad there in the spiralling darkness, others simply succumbed to thirst and died a slow, crack-tongued death, waiting for the next seeker to round the endless steps.
Thankfully, I had yet to encounter the remains of anyone who had attempted the climb before my arrival some 24 hours previous. The muscles in my legs and back were firing frantically throbbing messages of pain through my nerves, begging me to stop. My lantern cast a pale halo of buttery light onto the endless cascade of steps before me. The straps of my pack dug into my shoulders, sweat running in stinging rivulets into my eyes. I figured as best as I could that I was about one third of the way into my journey. I glanced at the face of my grandfather’s watch to find that it was 7pm back wherever it was I had come from. They said the Tower didn’t like electrical things. Just chewed them up and spat them out, they said. Hence the kerosene lamp and the trusty old Timex.
I honestly cannot remember when I first heard about the Well of Sins, more often referred to simply as “The Tower”. It sort of seeped into my life in that unconscious way some things tend to do and I found myself digging through messageboard posts in search of mentions of it. This was long before I learned the reason why others sought to find the Tower. I poured over books, looking for clues in paragraph and photograph alike. I was one red string short of becoming a true conspiracy theorist, ranting and raving about magic bullets and thermite paint. I saw signs and allusions to the Well of Sins everywhere. Slowly, I began to believe that the Tower actually did exist, not just as a metaphor born or ancient myth and legend, but a true, physical place.
I continued my search but didn’t turn up very much, at least initially. People who were close to me began to worry and I let them. They wouldn’t – no, couldn’t – understand. So I let them think their thoughts and continued on.
I found the book in a junk shop, one of those places with stacks of yellowing paperbacks and the overhead fluorescents in dire need of replacement. It was a collection of short entries on various mythical esoterica, more like brief descriptions in some sort of arcane mail-order catalogue than an encyclopedia. But there it was, on page 293: “The Well of Sins”. The description was terse, very nearly a haiku of cryptic information. It read:
“The Well of Sins is a tower into which one can cast the encumbered soul.”
These few words spurred my research on. The dreams began shortly after I found the book. At first, they were uncertain, drifting things, even as dreams go. I felt them more than saw or heard whatever it was they contained. I was outside. I knew that much. Time did not exist in that place. This was not to say that time had merely stopped passing. Something must begin in order for it to cease. I would wake from these dreams, heart racing, gasping for air like I had just broken the surface after a deep dive. My marriage had not been in the sunniest of places before I began my search for the Tower and my wife treated these dreams like they were personal, coordinated attacks on her restful slumber. I took to sleeping on the couch shortly after the dreams began. My wife was past the point of concern. Only her body had remained, going through the motions like a wind-up toy tipped over on its side. I didn’t care. Neither of us did, truthfully. I had known someday she’d right herself and then nothing would remain but her slowly dissipating scent on the sheets and places that had once been hers. I couldn’t blame her. Some friends continued to worry and I continued to let them. Their concerns were their own. They could never understand the importance of what it was I was searching for. Frankly, there were many times when I could not quite explain my need to find the Tower. I felt its call on a primal level, like a migratory bird at the turning of the seasons.
My research continued on in a haphazard, stumbling fashion. I found a mention of “The Well of Sins” in some obscure central European folktale and then again in a blog entry about bilocation from a long-defunct Geocities page, thankfully preserved by the Internet Wayback Machine. At no point did I ever feel as if I were getting any closer to finding anything resembling concrete information. But that feeling of being drawn towards something inevitable never left me.
A few weeks after my wife moved out, the dreams began to change. It was almost as if my eyes had slowly, over the course of weeks, adjusted to the dim around me. I still experienced the dreams, primarily as a feeling of shifts in the atmosphere around me, but now I could make out indistinct shapes there in the gloom. I was deep in a thickly overgrown forest of gnarled trees. Subsequent dreams revealed a barely perceptible path through the twisted trunks. I was able to pick my way through, making a little more progress each night. The forest was entirely silent. Nothing but trees lived in that place.
With the help of a few different sources, I began to gather my supplies. I knew that such an exercise was far from logical and yet I felt compelled to purchase the kerosene lantern and backpack from the military surplus store all the same. That night, as I picked my way along the path in my dream, I stumbled across a partially complete skeleton half-buried in dead leaves. An old kerosene lamp was clutched in the bony fingers of the right hand. After a few moments, I pried the lantern free. A quick inspection found that it was in surprisingly good shape after having sat for so long among the leaves. I fumbled in my pack and soon found matches. Not long after, the lantern flared to life and I set out again, this time moving much quicker thanks to my newly discovered light source. Just before I woke, I swore that I saw sunlight off in the distance.
Throughout my research into the Well of Sins, I had made a conscious effort to avoid anything that felt like pseudoscience or spiritualism. For whatever reason, I was convinced that I would find the path to something that didn’t exist through traditional, empirical methods. The trail had gone cold and I was becoming desperate. A few nights went by with no dreams of the shadowy forest and that feeling of being drawn towards something was becoming weaker. I began to panic. I decided that it was time to abandon logic and try anything that would put me back on the path to the Tower. That magnetic feeling of gaining ground was intoxicating and to feel it slowly eroding away was threatening to unhinge me. My new search took me to a number of astrological and paranormal messageboards but nothing seemed to provide any further guidance until I began to look into the Tarot. It seemed so obvious, a glaring oversight on my part. In the standard deck of Tarot cards, each card has two independent meanings, based on its orientation. These meanings are further defined by the context in which they are presented. The tower card, when upright, signifies disaster, extreme and sudden change as well as revelation. Reversed, the tower denotes avoidance of disaster or fear of change. Despite the generally dismal prospects presented by the tower card, I seized upon its meaning as portending a revelation. I began to search for a knowledgeable and reputable (if there were such a thing) authority on the tarot who could help me understand. That night, the dream returned.
Lantern in hand, I stood on the path, which seemed less overgrown than I had remembered. Against my better judgment, I turned the gas down on the lantern until it was a barely perceptible firefly trapped in the glass bulb. Off in the distance I could see it. Daylight. I turned the lantern back up and continued along the path. Gradually the narrow dirt track widened and the trees became less tangled, gnarled things, their branches spreading, not grasping. When I first felt the breeze on my face, I jumped, unsettled by the then unfamiliar sensation. Laughing at myself, I was equally amused and ashamed by my overreaction. After a few deep breaths, I continued on, occasionally pausing to dim the lantern as more and more sunlight began to filter down through the leaves overhead. It wasn’t long before I found myself at the edge of the forest. A seemingly endless sea of of ivory colored grass stretched out from the line of trees, the afternoon sun spinning the gently waving blades into an ocean of gold. Off in the distance, rising against the pure blue of the sky like some inky behemoth was the Tower. I had my first glimpse of the Well of Sins. When I woke, I could still feel the play of the wind across my face, the smell of the dry, bony grass, like an attic on a hot summer afternoon still strong in my nostrils.
It took a few days to find the right fortune teller. The magnetic feeling was stronger than ever and I had begun to rely on it almost subconsciously. I wandered the city, trying to find an alleged psychic or medium that would satisfy that unnamed feeling inside of me. It took me to a strip mall storefront the looked remarkably like a nail salon. I could see the stations insides, women and a few men of various ages and ethnicities laughing, arguing and sharing their stories of the minor victories and defeats that constituted their daily lives. The sign on the door informed me in bold, red Helvetica that this establishment was called “Gloria’s”.
I hesitated for a moment in front of the door and the feeling vibrated deep in my stomach, as if somehow some sorcerer had filled my abdomen with a swarm of agitated bees. I took a deep breath and opened the door, a small bell jingling above my head. The sound mixing not unpleasantly with the highs and lows of conversation. I approached the front desk and was enthusiastically greeted by a deeply tanned, vibrant woman in what I guessed was her early seventies. The various gold earrings, bracelets and necklaces jangled as she stood and stepped out from behind the desk to greet me. She looked like she belonged in Miami Beach rather than a stripmall nail salon in some rustbelt city.
“Hey hun! Welcome to Gloria’s! In case you have not guessed, I’m Gloria.”
Her voice was a little raspy, but in an endearing kind of way. She looked me up and down from behind oversized, gold-rimmed glasses.
“I’m getting the feeling this is your first time in?”
“Well then, what’ll it be? You look a little stressed. A nice pedicure could be exactly what you need.”
I shook my head.
“Did there used to be a psychic here?”
The older woman’s expression shifted perceptibly.
“We should step into my office.”
I followed Gloria as she threaded her way through the shop, stopping to offer and approving look or laugh at a customer’s joke. I was an awkward, silent presence that everyone in the shop unconsciously and simultaneously chose to ignore. Gloria ushered me through a door marked “private”. Her office was relatively neat, with a generic glass and metal desk and two office chairs. Behind the desk was a cockatiel dozing in a large wire cage. It woke with a squawk as Gloria settled herself in a cracked leather swivel chair. She indicated the preening bird absently.
“This is Oscar. I named him after my late husband. Somehow he manages to be an even bigger pain in my ass than his namesake.”
Oscar made an incredibly rude noise in response. Gloria just shook her head and sighed. She looked at me, studying my face for a long time.
“Why are you here?” She asked finally.
I shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. The swarm in my stomach buzzed with agitation.
“I’m looking for information on something called the ‘Well of Sins’. Somehow, that brought me here. I’m not going to waste your time pretending any of this makes sense.”
She stared at me across the desk. I didn’t really know why I was here, so I just shifted uncomfortably under her gaze, which now seemed significantly less friendly. The silence in the little room was broken only by the muffled buzz of conversation from the salon and the rustling of Oscar, who appeared to be sulking on his wooden swing.
“What makes you think I know anything about this, what did you call it? Tower of Sins?”
I shrugged again.
“Call it a feeling?”
Gloria looked at me, searching intently for something in my face. She sighed and I took that as my cue to leave. She held up a hand, the bracelets jangling down her thin wrist.
I sat back down.
“Look. I’m not going to pretend any of this makes sense. But the Tower, the Well of Sins, I mean, it’s...it’s in my head. And I feel like I’m being pulled toward it. I can’t explain it any better than that. It just felt right to look for a psychic. I’ve gotten this far following this feeling...I know how crazy that sounds...” My head was starting to ache and I lowered it into my hands.
“Have the dreams started yet?”
I looked up at the old woman. She leaned back in her chair, looking up at the tiled ceiling.
“How..?” I managed.
“Well, have they?”
She let out a long breath, head still tilted back. The chair creaked, eliciting a spat of squawking from Oscar. Gloria fixed the bird with an icy stare. She turned back to me, her tanned and wrinkled features softening.
“Have you left the forest?”
I nodded slowly.
“I’m sorry. But I can’t help you. Not if you’ve made it through the forest. Even if you hadn’t, you were probably beyond anything I could do for you.”
I blinked, unable to process what I was hearing.
“What do you mean ‘you can’t help me.’?”
The look of pure sympathy on her face was too much for me to bear. She shook her head.
“I’m sorry. There’s nowhere for you to go but forward now.”
I slumped in the chair, still unable to understand what the old woman was telling me. The silence stretched out, the strands straining before Oscar’s rustling unraveled it. Gloria fixed the erstwhile cockatiel with an icy glance that belied the image of the spunky septuagenarian that had met me at the reception desk. There was a hard edge beneath the tan and the jangling gold jewelry. She turned back to me, the razor edge gone from her eyes. Staring at a spot on the wall above my head, she began to speak.
“I met my husband, Oscar in 1946. I was working at the lunch counter in Sibley’s department store and he had come in to buy a suit. Just back from the war. He was so handsome with his wavy black hair and those piercing blue eyes. I was 17 and didn’t know enough to know I didn’t know a damn thing. He came right up to me and asked me out on a date. Just like that. Didn’t even bother to ask my name, though I just assumed he’d read my nametag. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that my name didn’t matter one bit to Oscar. I was something he wanted and when he saw something he wanted, he took it. That was how he lived his life. It made him quite the successful businessman.
He bought the dry cleaning shop on Locust street from the Camellas in 1947, about six months after we got married. We lived in a cramped one bedroom above the shop and no matter how hard I tried was always permanently haunted by the smell of chemicals from below. I ran the front counter at the shop during the day and took care of all the domestic duties in the apartment at night. Oscar liked everything to be just so and I learned very quickly to anticipate his whims. I’ve always had a knack for reading people’s emotions, even when I was very young. Misreading Oscar was...unpleasant, to say the least. He was particular, systematic, even in that aspect. He knew the customers liked me and so he made sure that his “little corrections”, as he called them, never showed up where anyone could see. We settled into our lives together and as long as I managed to stay one step ahead, we coexisted in a shared masquerade of domestic bliss. I made excuses, convinced myself that this was how everyone lived and that the fairytale romances I would see in our weekly trips to the movies were just fantasies concocted by Hollywood writers and had no place in real life.
Oscar loved the romantic comedies. Refused to see anything else. Especially the war movies. For the longest time I thought it was from shell-shock, you know, PTSD. It made it easier to explain away his “corrections.” I even felt bad for him at times. But the real truth was worse. Much worse. Oscar didn’t like the war movies because they weren’t realistic enough. The merely whetted his nostalgia and appetite for violence but provided no outlet. Oscar needed to be in control and those movies, they didn’t do it for him. They were a tease, a poor facsimile of what he longed to return to. He never came right out and said it, but I knew. I could see it in his eyes when he hit me. I saw who he was. I knew one day I wouldn’t be enough.”
Gloria’s gaze broke from the wall above my head and her face softened briefly.
“Oh honey, what a rude hostess I’ve been. Would you like some cucumber water? I can’t believe it took me this long to offer you something.”
I shook my head.
“No thank you.”
“Are you sure?” She prodded.
I nodded. Gloria’s gaze drifted back to the spot on the wall.
“The truest things, those truths that you feel more than you know, those are the things we lie to ourselves about the most. So I kept telling myself that what I felt was wrong. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Oscar reenlisted. It was all he could talk about. He was ready to fight for his country. I’d never seen him in such a good mood. And I began to feel hope return. Hope that he wouldn’t come back. Terrible, I know, wishing that someone, anyone would die. Even worse when that someone was my husband. I spent my days in the dry cleaning shop, smiling for the customers, pretending to be worried about Oscar’s deployment. Trying to hide my growing excitement. Oscar, on the other hand, didn’t need to hide his. He strutted around the apartment and the shop, talking as if he himself was a one man H-bomb, called upon personally by President Truman to wipe Communism off the map. I’d never seen him in such a good mood. His ‘little corrections’ almost entirely ceased and there were times when I almost believed that the previous four years had been nothing but a bad dream. The Saturday Evening Post calendar next to the telephone showed a line of red xes marching towards a big red circle around Oscar’s deployment date: August 1st, 1950. I didn’t have to feel guilty about counting down the days. Oscar giddily took care of it like a child waiting for Christmas. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and I dared to hope.
The night before Big Red Circle Day, as I had mentally been referring to it, I threw Oscar a send-off party at his favorite bar, Tom’s Tiki Hut. I had planned everything down to the smallest detail, had even special ordered a cake from Oscar’s favorite bakery (Cirrito’s), and invited his favorite customers and acquaintances. It was a beautiful night full of laughing, drinking and well wishes. I could not remember ever being happier the entire time we’d been married. Oscar revelled in the attention and he was praised as a selfless hero for yet again risking his life for the freedom of others. We had sex that night like it would be the last time and the sheer hope that it truly would be carried me away on a wave of euphoria that Oscar’s clumsy rutting could never have managed. We laid there afterwards, bathed in sweat. Oscar quickly drifted off, his face relaxed, almost blissful. I stared up at the ceiling and prayed that I would soon be able to sleep that peacefully.
The next day I drove Oscar to the bus station. He could barely contain his boyish giddiness. I did my best to mask my own excitement, trying to conjure up tears, but the best I could manage was an awkward look, like I had cramps. We barely said goodbye. He disappeared onto the waiting bus with the rest of the enlisted men and I stood there, dutifully waving until the bus lurched out of the station. I cried the entire way home. I was free. At least for now.
I hired an old coworker from the lunch counter to help out with the dry cleaning business while Oscar was gone. Jeanie was a lively, outspoken woman a year or two younger than me. She had long curly hair that no blend of industrial strength chemicals could tame, a not so subtle sign of her heritage. Oscar didn’t particularly care for Jeanie and she didn’t care for him at all, which made me love her to me all the more. We laughed and gossiped and over those first two months the dry cleaning shop began to fill up with the wives of other deployed men. We drank coffee, shared stories, propped each other up when the knock came on that first door, the uniformed man on the front stoop, hat in hand, doing his best to deliver the worst kind of news.
Maureen was the first, but she was far from the last. It was after the third knock, Elsie Chambers’ husband, I think it was, that the feeling began to grow in me. Jealousy. And with it, guilt. Why should these women be burdened with grief when I was the one who so desperately needed that knock at the door? I thought I was free, but I had begun to realize that as long as Oscar was alive, my leash had just grown longer. I could almost feel it around my neck at times, chafing the skin.
My knock came in the second week of October. The man, tall and handsome in his formal green uniform, stood in the hall outside of the apartment doing his best to appear official. I invited him in, struggling so hard to contain my nervous excitement that I nearly spilled his coffee as I delivered it to him on the davenport. I sat on the loveseat and straightened my skirt nervously. Oscar had been wounded he told me. He was out on patrol with three other men when they had been ambushed. They were under heavy fire and Oscar took shrapnel in his right leg almost immediately. One of the other men carried Oscar to safety while another provided cover fire. The fourth was face down, his blood seeping into the cold Korean mud. I was speechless. I barely heard anything the officer was saying until he mentioned a date. The date Oscar would be coming home. I dissolved into tears. The officer, mistaking my sobbing as an expression of relief, patted me awkwardly on the shoulder.
He did his best to reassure me, to let me know how lucky I was that my husband was coming home, that we could celebrate Thanksgiving together. We’d have a lot more to be thankful for than many other families that he had to visit today, the officer assured me. I was inconsolable and he eventually gave up and left me there on the loveseat, my body seizing with anguished sobs. Oscar was due to return on October 30th.
He needed a couple more weeks of bed rest in a military hospital in Seoul before he would be cleared to travel. I floated through those intervening days, barely conscious of the world. The other army wives disappeared slowly until it was just Jeanie and me at the shop for that last week of October. She pleaded with me to leave Oscar, but she knew as well as I did that I couldn’t. And then she was gone. I was alone. That was when it first came to me. The Tower.
It was just a feeling at first, a glimmer in my haze of resignation. I had no words for it. Too faint to inspire anything resembling hope, but there like a shred of apple skin caught between two molars that you can’t seem to get out, so you just worry at it forever with the tip of your tongue.
Oscar came home. He refused to use a cane, so when he walked he dragged his right foot behind him, like Igor in Frankenstein. He was thinner than when he left, his face harder. But it was his eyes that unsettled me most. They burned like distant, uncaring stars. There was nothing but hatred and pain, plain and simple, behind those eyes. I could barely look at them. We did our best to fall back into the rhythm of our lives before the war, but Oscar cared very little for daily life stateside. He had started drinking more almost immediately after coming home, which made his whims were much, much harder to anticipate, even for me. The corrections were more frequent and anything but little. I had to begin explaining my two and three day absences from the counter at the shop as bouts of some mysterious, chronic illness. It wasn’t long before people stopped asking questions altogether. It’s funny how easily our minds cling to convenient answers despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
That unnameable feeling continued to grow inside of me. I had the first dream two weeks after Oscar came home. The dark, tangled thicket that I felt more than saw. I woke in a cold sweat with a word inexplicably lodged in my brain. Tower. I was lost in the tangle for what felt like a very long time. Meanwhile, in my day to day life, things became worse. Oscar had lost a great deal more than the use of his leg in the cold mud of Korea. His drive to succeed and prosper had been burned away under the starfire of rage and shame. The business began to slip and the corrections came more and more frequently. I spent the whole week before Christmas in bed and Oscar barely opened the shop. I fumbled through the tangle in my dreams, making painstaking progress, but those little steps towards whatever this Tower were the only things that gave me hope.
I bought the lantern a little after New Years, hiding it behind some boxes on a high shelf in my closet. Somehow I felt the path would become clearer after that. When I got feelings like that as a child, my mother just explained them away with ‘women’s intuition’ and a subtle wink. Whatever this ‘Tower’ was, I knew it was a way out, even if I wasn’t sure where it led or what the price would be.
I reached the edge of the forest a week or two after I bought the lantern and there it was. The Tower, squatting off in the distance. The sight filled me with hope. Somehow, I knew the Tower would help. And I knew what I had to do. At least I thought that I did. I woke the next day, a plan already forming. I knew that I would have to wait for the right time and that it could very well be a long way off. But I knew when the time came, the entrance to the Tower would not be far. My life, if you could call it that, continued on. I kept a mental calendar much like the one on which Oscar had so giddily drawn those thick red exes leading up to his deployment. I looked forward to the brief moment at the end of the day when I could draw the big red X with my mind’s eye.
The dreams came and went, sometimes only lasting for one or two steps on the path that snaked through the tall grass. I would sometimes go a whole week without a dream, but I never doubted that they would return. I couldn’t doubt the dreams. Not for a single second. To doubt them would be admitting that I was trapped. Trapped with a man who was slowly shedding his man-skin, revealing more and more of the thing beneath. I wouldn’t survive his transformation. I knew that. So I clung to the dreams that began to feel more real than my life when I was awake, even when I woke one morning to find the dried remains of a leaf on my side of the bed.
The drinking became even worse as the business began to slide. Already unpredictable, the alcohol made his whims and rages that much harder to anticipate. The corrections grew steadily more violent. The dry cleaning shop was frequently closed for three or four days at a time. I dreamt of the red circle on the calendar on February 19th, 1951. I couldn’t make out the date, but I could feel that it was soon. My dreams of the field started coming every night. I could feel the wind that rustled the endless sea of white grass on my face, playing with my hair. I heard the soft rustle of the ivory stalks, could smell the hot, dry earth beneath my feet. The Tower loomed closer, ever closer and I longed for the day when I could place my hands and face on it, feel the smooth stone, know that it was real. I felt that red circle on the calendar approaching with each step I took towards the black smudge on the horizon. I bought supplies.
Oscar was passed out in the bed next to me, the snores rising from deep within him like grinding gears in the guts of a broken machine. I was staring at the ceiling. I closed my eyes to draw the red X across the day on my secret calendar and there it was. The circle. It wound its endless way around the little numbered square. I didn’t hesitate for a second. My eyes snapped open. I grabbed my pillow and slipped out from under the covers. I walked around to Oscar’s side of the bed, lowered the pillow over his face and then scrambled up to kneel on his chest. I pushed down with all of my might. For a second, I thought that Oscar was so drunk that he would never wake up, and this part, at least, would be easy.
But whatever Oscar was, he was not one to make things easy. He began to thrash, grabbing first at the pillow and then his frantic fingers found my hands and wrists. He tried to wrench them from the pillow, muffled threats and curses coming from beneath the red floral print. His body heaved, his fists beat at my arms, desperate claws tried to find my throat, my face, my eyes. I held on, not for a second giving a thought to what would happen should I fail. The thrashing began to wane, the searching hands weakened, then went limp. I stayed there, knees dug deep into Oscar’s chest, the pillow clamped firmly over his face for almost fifteen minutes after he finally stopped moving, just to be sure. My arms were numb.
I practically fell onto the floor. I sat there, trying to get my breathing under control. Eventually, I was able to stand. I retrieved the lantern and my supplies from their hiding places and set them by the apartment door. I dressed and then set to dragging Oscar from the bed. He was not a large man, but I was probably 110-115 pounds soaking wet at the time and dead weight is called dead weight for a damn good reason.
Shouldering the pack, I picked up the lantern. I took a deep breath and put my hands on the knob. The door swung open and I saw the black stone steps spiraling up into pure darkness. The sight of those steps was confirmation that I could finally be free. It was almost too much for me to handle. Somehow I held it together and began dragging Oscar’s corpse across the threshold. Three, maybe four days later, I stood, more exhausted than I thought a person could be without dying, at the edge of the well. The body lay there, one arm dangling over the edge. I didn’t hesitate. There were no last words. Just a shove with all the strength I could muster from my dead arms. The darkness swallowed him. I stood at the edge and spat into the well. It was over. He was gone. I knew, somehow, that no one would ask about where Oscar went. He would fade from everyone’s memory but my own. The Tower took him and it keeps its secrets.”
I had been so consumed by Gloria’s story that it took me a few seconds to realize that the she had stopped speaking and was looking at me. I shook my head.
“I...I don’t…” I stopped, fumbling for the right words. I settled on a simple “thank you”. Gloria rose and opened the door to the salon.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
I stood and left. I opened my bedroom door onto the spiraling black staircase a week later.
* * *
Despite the fact that my supplies had begun to run low, my pack was growing heavier with each successive step. By my loose accounting, I was somewhere between the second and third day of the journey. Keeping track of the passage of time in a place where the concept of time did not exist was an exercise in futility. It helped me maintain a semblance of normalcy in the spiraling darkness, so I kept at it. The battered old Timex kept up its accounting, ticking off the seconds that crept by in the world I had left behind. I couldn’t stare at the watch for long, though. I had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, regardless of the protests my exhausted body mounted. I had gotten into the habit of keeping the flame on my lantern to a firefly’s glow in order to conserve fuel. Because of this, I couldn’t see more than one or two steps ahead at a time and it took a full thirty seconds for my weary and thoroughly disoriented brain to register that I had reached a landing. I stumbled and barely righted myself, narrowly avoiding smashing the lantern and plunging myself into the maddening dark.
After catching my breath, I determined it was worth the extra fuel to get a better picture of my surroundings. I gently turned the knob on the lantern’s base and the flame grew. The soft glow that barely illuminated six or so inches beyond my toes expanded to reveal a large circular room of the same black stone as the stairwell. In the center was a void so black it seemed to draw in the light of the lantern and swallow it whole. I had reached the Well of Sins.
Overwhelmed by this realization, I carefully lowered myself into a sitting position on the cold stone floor. I set the lantern down, making sure it was within easy reach should I need it and then proceeded to shrug my pack from my aching shoulders. My hands, seemingly of their own accord, unbuckled the straps and plunged inside, rustling around until they found what they were looking for. I stared down at the thing clutched in my hands. A stuffed tiger, faded and threadbare in many places, clearly well-loved. I turned it over in my hands, reverently, like an archaeologist handling a once-in-a-lifetime find. The tiger’s name was Hobbes. And it had belonged to my son.
We were out for our usual Saturday morning bike ride. It was late September and the trees lining the road were a positive inferno of reds, oranges and yellows. He was riding about fifteen feet or twenty feet in front of me when a car shot out of a sidestreet, blowing through the stop sign. I didn’t have time to scream. The image of the mangled Huffy, the front wheel spinning lopsidedly, was the only thing I remembered before I blacked out. I woke in a hospital bed twelve hours later, my wife an incoherent wreck slumped in the vinyl hospital recliner, looking for all the world like a puddle of wrinkled laundry. Our parents were there and were soon joined by a police officer. He interviewed me, but I couldn’t remember anything but the bent front wheel, valiantly trying to finish its rotation. My wife exploded from her slump and lunged at me, clawing at my hospital gown, sobbing and screaming.
“HOW CAN YOU NOT REMEMBER!? OUR SON IS DEAD! AND ALL YOU CAN REMEMBER IS A FUCKING WHEEL? WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU!?”
It took my father-in-law and the officer to pull her off of me. No one else had witnessed what had happened and the police were doing their best to track down the driver, but the unspoken sentiment hanging in the room was that there was very little chance that whoever had killed my little boy would ever be caught. I was discharged from the hospital the next morning with a mild concussion. My wife and I did our best to make things work, but she could never forgive me for what had happened. I couldn’t blame her. How could I when I couldn’t forgive myself?
The Tower had first drifted into my mind like the blown seed of a dandelion nine months after the death of my son and had grown into the riotous infestation that had brought me here, to the edge of a void that was said to swallow the burden of any soul brave enough to reach it. I stood on shaky legs and approached that circle of darkness, Hobbes clutched in my hands. I stood there at the edge for a long time, staring down at the threadbare tiger. I had come to unburden my soul, in hopes of being able to shed some of the pain of my son’s death. To stop seeing that mangled wheel whenever I closed my eyes. If the accounts were true, all I had to do was to let go of the ragged tiger in my hands. But I couldn’t. Something Gloria had said kept running through my head.
“Somehow I knew that Oscar would fade from everyone’s memory but my own…”
My wife had lost her son because of me. Who was I to take her memories of him because I couldn’t bear the weight of my own guilt anymore? I stepped back from the edge and placed Hobbes back in my pack. I had made it to the Well of Sins only to find I didn’t deserve to be cleansed. I turned and looked back at the yawning void in the floor and in that place that only truly existed for those who needed it, I finally understood why I was really there. I set my backpack down and stepped off the edge.
* * *
Gloria woke with a start. She had dreamt that she was in the dark tangle of the Forest. She had found herself there amid the darkness but it did not feel the same as it had on those nights all those years ago. Gloria could feel the Tower, calling to her. The path wasn’t hard to find this time and soon sunlight began to filter down through the branches. She was surprised at how beautiful the Forest actually was. The soaring trees with their leaves of fiery red and smoldering orange and rain slicker yellow. With the sun came the light breeze to stir the leaves, making them sound for all the world like waves breaking on the shore. This was a peaceful place, Gloria understood. A place outside of time. A place to rest. But somehow, Gloria knew that she was here again for another reason. This wasn’t about her, but she was here for a reason, even if she didn’t know what that reason was.
Gloria followed the call of the Tower, this time more like music heard through open windows on a summer night. You can’t quite place the tune, but something about the sound makes you feel good. Good that you’re home and in bed and that the whole summer is still ahead of you and it feels as if the summer could last forever. Music that you can feel more than you can hear. The call or the song or whatever it was drew her off the path as she neared where the Forest began to thin out and become the meadow in which the Tower resided. She couldn’t see the Tower, but she could feel its presence, radiating a deep, enveloping calm.
The song grew stronger as Gloria approached a towering old oak. IT was quieter here among the trees than it was on the path. She could hear the music more clearly now, though she still couldn’t make out the sound. Something in the leaves collected around the old tree’s roots caught her eye. Gloria bent down and picked a stuffed tiger out from among the riot of red and orange and yellow. Its orange and black striped coat was worn and matted. Here and there were signs of repairs. It was a well-loved thing and would be missed by someone, Gloria could tell. She felt a deep sense of peace that didn’t seem like it entirely belonged to her as she held the tiger. Gloria closed her eyes and clutched the stuffed animal to her chest, her breath catching in her throat. The man who had come to see her had found the Tower. And Gloria knew then that he had made it to the top. Looking at the tiger, Gloria felt the tears well up in the corners of her eyes. She knew. Her mother had always said that the women in their family knew things, even if they couldn’t say how or why they knew them. But they knew all the same.
Gloria sat bolt upright in bed, tears tickling their way down her face, leaving damp spots on the flowered comforter. She shuffled her way into the bathroom to splash some cold water on her face. It wouldn’t do to have puffy eyes at work tomorrow. She would never hear the end of it. Patting her face dry, Gloria winked at her reflection and headed back to bed. As she moved the covers over, she saw a leaf, rain slicker yellow, lying on the sheet. The tears came again, but Gloria smiled all the same.