A lot of my stories come from real life events, or people I know in the real world. Which is weird, when you think about it, because most of my stories involve something supernatural or super science or pure fantasy. Yes ... ponder that, my friends.
But the reality is that I know so many "characters." And those characters and I have gone on a lot of little adventures that, when nudged just right, make the perfect framework for something fantastic.
This story is one of those. The characters are both sort of a mish-mash of several people I've known, and the adventure itself is pretty much a collage of little side trips I've taken with friends. The twist is different, of course. It's born from a 'what if,' and it's something I've thought about here and there over the years. I may even recycle it at some point, because little things like this always end up making appearances in new places. It's how I tie it all together.
I hope you enjoy this story! And as always, if you like it, I would love to hear your feedback. Just leave a comment below, or email me, or just leave me a comment on social media. I'm easy to find, and always open to hearing what you think.
THE CRYSTAL POND
By Kevin Tumlinson
We had been plowing through the thick underbrush and vines for nearly and hour. This part of the country wasn't all that jungle-like—the trees were mostly large oaks and pecan trees, with little spruces and other small trees filling in the gaps. But the tangle of vines that grew on everything, and the thick brambles that coiled and crawled around our feet with every step, those made progress as tough as I imagine it would be to machete your way through the Amazon. The humidity in South Texas was probably just as high, too.
We were just a mile or so from the banks of the Brazos River, cutting our way through the woods in as straight a line as Billy could manage. He had the lead, because he was the one who saw it and knew where it was. Personally, I wouldn't be cutting my way through this mess at all if I weren't trying to be a good friend. I was the only person Billy thought he could trust with it. And I trusted Billy.
He didn't talk much, which was both a relief and an annoyance.
A relief, because I was so busy trying to just keep from tripping or getting snagged and tangled in this mess, I really wasn't going to be much good in a conversation.
Annoyance, because Billy hadn't yet told me much about what he'd found, or why he thought I should see it.
That was the way it was with Billy. On the days when he wasn't working shift work out at the petroleum plant, he was usually hunting or fishing. Sometimes he played golf. But mostly he liked to be out in this kind of thick and tangled mess, scaring up something he could put an arrow in.
I was starting to get tired. Billy could do this all day, but I was a desk jockey. Most of my days consisted of being hunched over a laptop, writing estimates and arranging locations and booking crew. That's what being a 'producer' really means, if you've ever been curious. At least, on the local level, where video production is largely about making car commercials and training videos, that's what being a producer means. You sit, you email, you call, and you really only show up on set to make sure everyone else got there. It's not glamorous work.
Billy apparently had the notion that I was the one making all those blockbuster movies in Hollywood, though. He was always calling me up late in the evening, and I could practically hear the beer in his hand and his feet propped up on the rail of his porch as he would say, "You know what would be good, Ricky? You should make a movie about that song, 'A Country Boy Can Survive.' That's a good story. They don't do stories like that in music no more. That'd make a good movie, like 'No Country for Old Men.'"
And I agree with him. That should be a movie. And for years I tried to explain to him that making a movie requires a budget and financial backing, and that wasn't something I ever had. And I tried to explain that what I did was mostly take orders from clients, kind of like working in a drive-thru, and then arrange for everything they wanted to happen, paid for by the smallest sliver of a budget that I was somehow able to multiply like loaves and fishes, though there were hardly every any basketfuls left over. I got by on the crumbs of every production.
Billy would "uh-huh" to that, and then ask me what I thought about Leonardo DiCaprio playing the lead.
"It's up ahead," Billy said, pausing for a blissful second to pull an actual handkerchief out of his pocket to mop his forehead. That's how anachronistic Billy was. He was the kind of guy who went bow hunting in the brush, who drank a cold beer every night, who worked on his own cars and fixed his own plumbing. And he was the kind of guy who carried a handkerchief.
I didn't have a handkerchief, so I used the front of my T-shirt. I leaned against one of the thin trees that was hungrily pushing upward from the leaf-strewn mud at the floor of this forest, trying for some sunlight up top. Everything this deep into the woods was choked and strangled, and barely able to stay alive. But it managed somehow, by God. I knew how it felt.
"Billy, what is this thing, anyway? What is it you're trying to show me?"
"You'd never believe it," he said. "It's better than any of the movies, I'll tell ya. You'll never believe it."
That was a lot of hyperbole from Billy. He'd always been a pretty plain spoken and straightforward man, even when we were younger. He was almost ten years older than me, but he had always felt much older. He seemed venerable, even when he was in his twenties.
And maybe that's why we had stayed in touch all these years, even after I moved away and into the city. To him I'd always been that tow-headed boy who gawked at everything he did. So me going to the city to work in video was "making it big." He had this weird sort of pride in me, and that wasn't something I got from anyone else. I clung to it, maybe even played into it a bit. I never had the heart to tell him that I was probably the lowest guy on every totem pole you could imagine. I was a step above being an errand boy, only we didn't hire errand boys at my company.
Billy started back through the brush, and in a few minutes the whole world abruptly changed.
We broke through the tree line into a large clearing that was circled by all sorts of natural debris. Fallen trees and tangles of vines lined the edges of the clearing, making it nearly impenetrable from all sides. The path Billy had cut for us to get through was just about the only way I could see to get in and out of this place. And even that was practically invisible from more than four feet away.
"Wow," I said. "I can see why you'd want me to see this place. It's kind of impressive."
"Oh, this ain't it," Billy said, grinning. "It's more toward the middle. You're going to crap yourself."
That was quite an endorsement for anything from Billy.
I followed him into the clearing, and was grateful for the easier walk. There were tall weeds growing here, where the sunlight could reach the soil. The brambles had been choked out, and for whatever reason there were no saplings growing. I asked Billy about it.
"Rocky soil," he said. "there's a bunch of rock just under the dirt here. Makes it hard for trees to take root. Grass grows fine, though."
I nodded along with this. It seemed logical enough, though you couldn't always trust Billy's estimate of things. Sometimes he was just making stuff up based on what he thought made the most sense. Sometimes he spoke from experience, though, and so you'd be foolish not to listen. He might not have finished high school, but Billy was a smarter guy than most.
We clomped through the clearing until we came to a pond.
"There it is," Billy said, pointing.
I looked, and nodded, and then looked up at Billy expectantly, hoping for the story.
He rolled his eyes. "What do you see?" he asked.
I looked again, and suddenly caught my breath.
This wasn't a pond.
I stepped forward, toward the edge, looking back at Billy to make sure I was safe. He nodded, and I then crouched down to look closer.
What I had thought was water was actually some kind of reflective crystal. It wasn't quite mirror-like. I had mistaken it for water, in fact, because aside from the reflection of the sky and the clouds and the trees surrounding the clearing, the crystal was translucent enough that you could look into it and see the banks sloping downward. The light only penetrated so far, and eventually the downward slopes disappeared into a sort of murky darkness.
"Touch it," Billy said.
"Buddy, just touch it. I wouldn't tell you to do nothin' that would lose ya a finger!"
I nodded. That was true. Billy had made a habit of looking out for me. I could trust him.
So I reached out.
First, my hand met with the surface of the crystal, which felt smooth and cool to my touch. Then, after just an instant or so, the surface seemed to ooze a bit, going from the feel of hard crystal to something more like a cool gel. It was sort of the way hand sanitizer feels, as the alcohol suspended in the gel evaporates and carries all the moisture with it. Only this was a little more substantial.
I could feel it pulling me, too. It wanted me to push further in. It wanted to ...
Well, I didn't know what it wanted, actually. Or if it was even capable of wanting anything. So I pulled my hand back. And with almost no resistance at all it let me go. No problem.
I looked up at Billy, and he was grinning wide. "Ain't that a kick?" he asked.
I smiled and nodded. "What is it?" I asked.
He shrugged. "I ain't got a clue. But you ain't seen nothing yet. Wait 'til we go in."
I blinked, then shook my head. "No, Billy. I don't think that's a good idea."
He laughed, spit on the ground, and shook his head. "It ain't nothin', Ricky. I've been in there. I've been in a bunch of times now, and right back out again. You ain't gonna believe it."
I already didn't believe it. Or rather, I already had a head full of thoughts and ideas about it, and a growing fear of it. I didn't know what this was, so it could be anything. I could be radioactive, for all we knew. We could be getting cancer right now! Or worse! What if this thing was some kind of disease carrier? What if it was an alien? What if it was a toxic substance from space? Or maybe some kind of government experiment. Or worse than all of that!
I stood, wiping my hand on my jeans even though there wasn't a trace of anything on it. I stumbled a bit as I stepped back from the pond. Or whatever it was. I really didn't have a word for it. I just knew I didn't want to have anything to do with it.
Billy laughed. "Ricky, it ain't nothin' to be afraid of, alright? Trust me."
I looked at him, and something strange happened. For the first time in my life, I didn't trust Billy.
I turned and started walking toward the edge of the clearing again. I couldn't see where we had come in, but I was determined I was going to get out of there, to go back to Billy's truck, parked all the way on the other side of these woods. It was going to be rough getting through, but I was going to do it. Because whatever that was didn't feel natural to me. And I was freaking out.
I felt two big, bulky arms wrap around me from behind.
"Hey!" I shouted. "Billy! Let me go, man. I swear ..."
"You ain't swearin' nothin'," Billy said. "I need you to see it."
I kicked and fought as Billy carried me back to the pond, but that was useless. Billy could crush a beer keg in his arms, I'm pretty convinced. The guy was massive compared to me. And he was used to picking up dead deer and hogs after putting arrows in them. He could hoist a couple hundred pounds more than I weighed with little trouble. So I was little trouble.
In seconds I was staring back at the crystal surface of the pond, and I could see our reflections. Billy was grinning like this was the funniest thing he'd seen in forever. I looked like I was about to crap myself. Which, as I thought about it, was exactly what Billy had promised earlier.
"Ok, Ricky. I was hoping we could go in peaceful. But I was ready to take you in this way, too. Just hold your breath."
"Billy, don't!" I shouted. But again, that was useless. Billy held me just a bit tighter, making it kind of hard to breath anyway, and I sucked in a deep breath at the last second as he walked us into the crystal.
There was a weird, distorted few minutes in there where light was being bent in all sorts of directions, and I was surrounded by colors and skewed sights, with trees bending and clouds swirling. And the darkness grew with each step Billy took.
I was going to drown in this stuff! I could already feel my lungs starting to burn, and I could feel a throbbing in my head. My pulse was going crazy. I was starting to panic, and in a second I would open my mouth and try to breath and my lungs would be filled with this viscous crystal goo that was probably toxic waste and ...
And then we were out of it.
Billy let me go, and I collapsed to the ground, gasping. I got to my hands and knees and just sucked in air for a few minutes, my eyes closed and my heart slowly coming back to normal. I opened my eyes and looked up at Billy, who was grinning his head off.
And I wanted to kill him.
"How could you do that to me?" I asked. "I ... I thought we were friends!"
There was a brief flicker of something on Billy's face, as if he suddenly felt ashamed. "Ricky, I'm sorry, brother. I just needed you to see this!"
"See what?" I asked.
Billy spread his arms wide, and turned a bit. "See this!"
I looked up finally, and for the first time I saw where we were.
This was not the clearing where we had been just a few minutes earlier. This was some kind of valley that stretched into hillsides and small patches of forest for miles in every direction. There was a large river nearby, but opposite of that was a large plain of uninterrupted land. It was all fresh and green looking, too. The sky itself was a deeper set of blue than I was used to. Everything I could see, for miles and miles, just looked so pure.
And then I saw the animals.
"What are those?" I asked.
"I ain't sure, to be honest," Billy said. "But they barbecue up real nice."
"Wait, what? You've eaten one of those?"
"Sure," Billy said. "I spent a couple of months here. Had to eat something."
Billy's barbecue beast sort of resembled an elephant, but without the large ears and the long trunk. It had the big, thick legs with rounded feet. And its head was sort of small and almost rodent like, with a big, twitching black nose. Two large green eyes were on either side of its head.
There were several of these in a herd nearby, and I watched as they leaned forward and chomped small trees, straight through the trunks, and chewed on these for a good long while.
"Those things make some big piles of dung, let me tell ya," Billy said. "The dry stuff burns real good."
I looked at him as if he was out of his mind, when really I was thinking I might be the one who'd lost it.
"C'mon," Billy said, waving for me to follow. "Let me show you the camp. You're gonna love it."
I followed him for a while, away from the crystal pond, which was nearly identical to the one we'd come through. I was reluctant about leaving it. That was my way home, after all. On the other side of that crystal ooze was the world I knew.
True, the world I knew was further barricaded from my be a lot of really dense forest.
But this was a whole new world. And there was this part of me that was starting to warm up to the idea of it. What could be here? Strange animals. Strange landscape. What else might be here? The urge to explore was rising.
Still, I stayed close to Billy the whole time. He clearly knew how to get along here, while I was still busy gawking at everything around me.
I followed along behind Billy as he walked, until we came to a large tree that I had assumed was closer to us, when I saw it from the pond. It was a natural assumption, because I've never actually seen a tree this large before. I've seen Redwoods on TV that were maybe as immense, but this was more like the typical South Texas oak tree I grew up with. Just ... bigger.
When we got to it, Billy ushered me to a wooden staircase that started in the divide of two massive roots.
"It took me a while to build this, because I had to bring the tools in a few at a time," Billy said. "And I was originally going to build it with just materials I found here, but that was gonna take too long. So I brought in a bunch of wood and stuff from Home Depot. I don't think it'll matter much."
He wasn't just talking about the staircase. He was talking about the massive tree house he'd built in one of the low-hanging branches of the oak—if by "low hanging" you mean about 50 feet off of the ground.
I gawked at it, and Billy had to grab my arm and drag me forward, up the steps and into the first flight of the tree house.
"This is my camp," Billy said.
"Camp? Billy, this is a whole freaking house!"
"Yeah," Billy grinned. "Cool, huh? I thought it would take longer to build, but something about being over here just puts me right. It's like there's more oxygen in the atmosphere or somethin'. I had all kinds of energy. And the days last longer here, so I was able to put in a whole lot of work each day."
I didn't finish. I just looked around at everything. Billy had furnished the house with a lot of homemade furniture, but he'd also clearly imported some things from the other side of the pond.
There were cushions, and all sorts of baskets and containers. There were photos and paintings, too. I recognized a painting of three deer—a large buck and two does—standing along a golden-hued tree line. That painting had belonged to Billy's dad, and was pretty much the nicest thing they had owned, when Billy was growing up. And Billy had inherited it when his dad passed away. I had seen it in Billy's house every time I'd ever visited. So seeing it here meant only one thing.
"You live here?" I asked.
Billy grinned and nodded. "I've been in and out for a while now. Most of a year. But I spent my first full couple of months here recently. And I liked it. Peaceful, ya know? Quiet."
"But ... Billy, where the hell are we?"
Billy shrugged. "I ain't got no idea, to be honest. When I first found this place, I didn't really know what to make of it. So I went home and got on the internet, and started reading anything I could find. And there ain't much. I found something about 'wormholes.' But most of that was above my head. No one seemed to be talking about a crystal pond that led to a place like this. So I figure I got first dibs."
"First ... Billy, this place ... " I sunk down on a homemade sofa—a wood frame covered in cushions. It was surprisingly comfortable, and perfect for letting me just collapse for a second, to lean forward with my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands, and wonder what had happened to the world I had woken up in that morning.
I looked up, and Billy was leaning back against a bar made from a hewn tree trunk. There were a few bottles of whiskey and a couple of tumblers sitting there, and I was tempted to ask for something straight up.
Billy had his arms crossed, and he was looking at me, waiting.
"I don't even know what to say about this," I said. "It's just amazing."
"It gets way better," Billy said, smiling. "I haven't shown you half of it yet. C'mon."
I followed him out and down the stairs again, and this time we walked around to another gap in the roots. Billy had cover the top of this with a half dome of corrugated aluminum, and he had built two massive doors to close it in. He opened these, and I stepped into what looked like a workshop and garage. It even had a concrete floor.
And in the middle of the floor was what looked like the skeleton of a truck.
"She's gonna be a beauty," Billy said.
"You're ... you're building a truck?" I asked.
"I already built it, actually. She runs well enough. She just ain't much to look at. I'm going to put some body panels on her, just to spruce her up. But she runs."
"How do you get gas for it?"
He laughed. "I don't! She's running on batteries. I brought over a whole mess of 'em. I charge them with the solar. Just like the panels that are running power for the whole camp. And there's some big portable solar panels I can fold up and carry with me when I range out. I top off every time I stop. Cost me a few hundred grand to get everything right. The batteries were the most expensive bit. I bought the new ones—the ones that that fancy car company is putting in their electric sports cars. I can get about 400 miles on a charge with the packs I installed, which is plenty. Takes a while to charge 'em when they run down to zero, but that's ok. I got nothin' but time."
"Wait, wait," I said. "Did you just say you spent a few hundred grand? Since when do you have that kind of money?"
And now Billy could hardly contain himself I've only seen him get really excited a few times in my life, but it's kind of fun to watch. His face goes red, and he starts rubbing either side of his nose with both hands, like he's clearing the way for whatever he's about to say. He grins and tells me, "Gold."
I blink. "What?"
"Lots of it. And it's easy to get! I found it the fourth or fifth trip in! It's just laying there on the river banks!"
"More than you've ever seen! C'mere." He motioned me over to an area behind the truck, where a large YETI cooler was sitting on the floor. He bent beside it and put his hands on the lid. "This is the last batch I brought back, just before I went back through to call you."
He opened the cooler then, and I gawked.
It was absolutely filled with gold nuggets.
"Billy! What the hell?"
"I know, right! Free money, brother. Seriously, I've been carting this stuff over for months, driving into the city to sell it. I told the guy that it was something I inherited from my dad. I don't think he believes me, though."
"Gold," I said. "And this place. And those animals. What ... Billy, do you even know what this place is?"
"Paradise," Billy said, smiling. "It's untouched. It's pure. And I want to keep it that way."
"How?" I asked. Because frankly, I could see the need for that. I'd only been here a short time, but I could see that it was special. I could see that it was something that needed to be protected.
"I'm going to buy the land that pond is on, from the other side. And I'm going to make it a nature preserve or something. I'm going to make it a place no one can touch. Big fences all around it. Stock it with local wildlife. Get a security team to patrol all around it to keep hunters out. No fence is gonna stop a hunter when he sees the kind of game that will be in that place," Billy said, and I knew he was talking from personal experience. "But the pond is so far in, and so hard to get to, I think it's going to be pretty safe. If I can make the rest of that land secure, it'll be kind of one big fence for the pond."
"And then what?" I asked.
"Then I move here full time. I only go out there when I need something I can't get here. But this is home. This is the place I want to spend my life."
I nodded. "I can see it," I said. Billy had always been a loner, and had always preferred being on his own. "But Billy, you're going to want to be around people every now and then. You can't live ... well, on another planet or whatever—you can't just live here alone for the rest of your life."
"I'll probably meet a girl," he said, smiling. "I already know a few. One in particular. I'll go into town once or twice a month. It ain't no bother. I'll meet someone eventually. Or I won't. I'm happy enough here."
I considered this, as I looked around at Billy's paradise. I still didn't know what this was. I didn't know how I felt about it, either. But Billy ... he seemed happy. So why did I feel sad?
"This means I won't see you or talk to you much," I said. "You'll be here. And I'm guessing there's no mobile phone coverage."
Billy laughed and shook his head. "First thing I checked. But hey, I said I'd be back often. And you can always come stay here too, if you want. Any time. Full time, if you want. There's plenty of room. We could live out here together."
I laughed. "I'm not like you, Billy. I'd probably lose my mind if I stayed here too long. Too quiet for me. And I do have a life back home. I'm getting along. I'm getting better. Maybe I'll eventually make enough money to start my own production company. Maybe I'll find a way to get funding for one of those films you and I always talked about."
And now Billy lit up again. "That's something I wanted to discuss," Billy said. "I remembered you telling me about not having budgets and all that. And I thought, there's all this gold here. And I live in a place where I don't need to spend much. So maybe I could back you."
"Back me?" I asked. "Billy, I couldn't ask that."
"Like I said," Billy grinned, "it ain't like I need the money. I know you have a whole life you're building on the other side. You can visit here any time. But it would do me good to see you doing something you love to do, instead of doing something you ain't all that thrilled about."
I smiled, and we continued to talk and make plans for the next couple of hours. Billy made us lunch, some of his barbecued beast with a few sides he'd imported from back home. And later we made our way back to the pond and went on through to the other side.
I would definitely be back. I didn't know how I'd manage to get through those woods without Billy, but I would manage it. This place was something amazing, and I wanted to explore more of it. And I wanted to see my friend.
But for now, I could return to the life I had in progress, and thanks to Billy I could boost things a bit. Nothing I did was nearly as exciting as what Billy was doing, but I still managed to enjoy it all anyway.
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