The scent of history clung to the air. A fragrance of musty pages, oiled mahogany, and weathered stone. Murals adorned ceilings high above the marble floors. Brilliant sunlight flooded through the massive arched windows that faced Fifth Avenue, and bathed the grand room in dancing motes of dust. The infusion of light made Dylan squint. His time in the dimly lit basement left him unaccustomed to the sun’s glare, yet he welcomed it. He had awoken in solitude and smothering darkness. The single candle that had burned beside the slab he laid upon the night before was nothing but a wick. An infinitesimal sliver of light crawled in beneath a door on the opposite end of the massive room, and Dylan groped his way toward it on his hands and knees. The stairs outside the door had led him to a foyer with two more sets of stairs racing from opposite ends to the same plateau. After declaring the contestant to his right the winner, his exploration eventually brought him to what was once the primary study of the New York Public Library. Row after row of desks adorned with brass lamps and green lamp shades were blanketed in dust. The place had clearly been abandoned after the fall.
It seemed strange to Dylan that he could find no evidence of his rescuer ever having been there with him. The floors were slick with their own three-inch carpet of dust. Not a single footprint was present that he had not created himself. Nothing laid about that would indicate refugees, or squatters, using the building for a base of operation, or hiding place. In fact, everything Dylan observed told a tale of desertion and emptiness. He couldn’t reconcile what logic dictated with his own memories of the evening before. It could not possibly have been a dream. He knew he had been attacked atop the Freedom Tower. He also knew he had been thrown from its heights and should be dead. That he wasn’t was evidence of intercession by something inexplicable.
Dylan made his way to one of the study stations nearest the windows. A thrill of fear coursed through him as he climbed atop the desk. The trauma of falling to his death was too recent a memory to be ignored, even at a height of three feet. A deep breath steadied him as he stood to his full height. Dylan assessed the situation outside to determine his chances of reaching the Empire State Building unnoticed. He was familiar with the schedule of patrols that ran through the area, but he didn’t know what time it was. Waiting for the next patrol to roll by felt like a plan that he would rank right up there with waterboarding, or enduring his brother’s cooking. The difficulty with being in the middle of a city of skyscrapers was not being able to get a good read on the sun’s position. Dylan had no shot of determining the time with any accuracy. The way his luck was going, he would walk out the door and be picked up by a patrol the moment his feet hit the pavement.
He climbed down from his perch, no more knowledgable than when he ascended. The impulse to simply make a break for it was nearly overwhelming. Dylan liked to think he had many redeeming qualities, the greatest of which was his humility, yet patience was definitely not one of them. Logic dictated his best chance to make it back to base without being seen or, more importantly, caught, was to wait for nightfall. Trying to convince his battle tuned senses of that was nearly impossible. Still, Dylan knew it was the right move.
With the decision made to spend the day bunkered up in his marble fortress, Dylan turned his attention to scavenging for possible resources. Considering the building covered two full city blocks, it was unlikely everything had been pillaged. From what he could see in his brief trek upstairs, it appeared that most of the books that had lined the shelves had been destroyed simply for destruction’s sake. Tattered pages and broken spines littered the floor between stacks. The irreverent were true to their moniker, showing no respect for the centuries of work, beauty, and knowledge so many others had poured their souls into.
Dylan had never understood how anyone could simply seek chaos based on its own merit. It was what had confused him most about society’s fall. Those rebelling against the establishment had no alternative plan to present. They just wanted the world to feel their anger. Part of him could identify with their frustration. The rage they stoked into full blown revolt, however, was not something Dylan could support. He had believed in the system, in spite of its obvious flaws. What he saw in individuals was masked and disfigured by the masses. Reasonable people were convinced to do unreasonable things by the emotional rhetoric of a few zealots.
After wrapping the desecrated innards of the library’s former inhabitants around a broken chair leg to form a torch, Dylan headed for the bowels of the marble behemoth. He knew he had not been alone. Exploring where he knew his rescuer to have been seemed the most logical starting point to satisfy his curiosity and identify possible scavenging opportunities.
Under the relief of flickering light, the room seemed even more intimidating than it had in pitch blackness. Shadows cast an eerie presence and feeling over the expanse of space. Dylan trembled as he recalled the memory of his healing the night before. Never before had he experienced the kind of power that surged through him in that moment. It was what he imagined being struck by lightening to feel like. Fire scorched through his veins, smelting away the broken slag, leaving him perfected and whole. That was something he never thought he would ever be. Whole.
Taking great care, Dylan inched his way forward into the room. Common sense told him there was nothing to fear, but fear rarely makes sense. So its presence remained as a brick in his gut and ash in his mouth. With the torch held aloft, and the light from the open door behind him, his silhouette stretched out to blend in with the shadow beyond his small circle of luminescence. With each step, isolation crept deeper into his chest. Nothing seemed real down here. It was all an illusion. A trick his mind had played on him. It had to be. Except it couldn’t be.
A large stone slab loomed up in front of Dylan. It had not been this large in his memory. Nor did he recall the cross piece, though he was in no state at the time to have perfect recall by any means. Where the cross piece met the vertical pillar there appeared to be some sort of discoloration. Upon closer inspection, the perfect outline of a man was scorched into the stone. Incredulity masked Dylan’s typically jovial features as he gazed upon the spot where he was certain he had been healed the night before. Trembling fingers reached out to verify what his eyes presented him. It was his outline.
Warmth spread out from his core, leaving his extremities tingling. Knees weakened from shock and adrenaline made moving any closer nearly impossible. Dylan had to will his legs to keep him upright. He traced the outline with his fingers but no soot clung to them. The stone was permanently etched. As he leaned in and brought the torch closer a secondary form was visible. It appeared that another person had lain there as well.
At first, Dylan thought it was a child’s body. It was smaller and almost entirely contained within his larger outline, like a shadow within a shadow. The torchlight wavered, making it difficult to discern details. Curiosity overwhelmed trepidation and a closer look was required. Since he stood near the foot of the slab, Dylan decided to start there in his evaluation.
The figure didn’t stretch the full length of his own body. It took only a moment for him to realize this wasn’t a child as he had originally hypothesized. He could make out bare feet crossed atop one another. Marks striped the torso. Dylan’s throat constricted. His eyes ventured further up the body. Right were the cross piece of the slab intersected. In the middle of the outline of his own chest. The arms of the shadow outline stretched out wide. Each palm marred by a darker round mark. A nail. A head adorned with a crown of thorns easily discernible above the shoulders of the outstretched arms.
“Oh Dear Lord!” Dylan exclaimed as his knees hit the floor beside the slab and his torch was extinguished.
Panic filled his chest as the darkness swallowed him. His mind raced as he found himself back where he started, in the smothering solitude. Just as that thought enveloped him, he heard it. The voice that would forever be burned into his memory.
“Fear not! I am always with you.”
Check out all the chapters of The Mountain by Duane Deats