Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Adventure

by Allen M. Jenkins


My Hyundai barreled down the dusty Montana back-road like a French Poodle heading up an Alaskan sled dog team. Little puffs of water-starved earth and the occasional rock barraged the car as it jumped and clanked its way back to my old home of Scathlock. My car was used to smooth, paved New York roads -- it was spoiled on them. So much so, that an ominous crank and metallic squeak from the hood signaled that the car was refusing to suffer the dirt road any longer. The last time I drove down that road, it was in an old, faded red coupe that never broke down. The courageous little two-door made treks from both east coast and west in a cloud of menacing black smoke, but refused to stop moving until its last drop of gas.

The trunk popped open to reveal my scant luggage, a few newspapers, and a grubby pair of worn out tennis shoes stuffed into the corner, laces still tied in a double knot. I threw my new Italian shoes into the trunk, prying the old ones from the back of the car. I fumbled with the laces and slipped them on under my charcoal grey suit pants, black T-Shirt and sports coat. I wasn't sure why I had taken those old shoes with me -- I had a pair that didn't look like went through a sandstorm. The last time their worn soles had touched the ground was on that very road, ten years before. It was the last time I had seen my folks, my friends. The last time I had seen the Old Man.

Dusty rows of potato plants sprouted up and headed for the horizon on either side of the road. The relative cool of the night, the crickets and locusts with their incessant but almost musical drone, and the purplish pink of the sky as the sun made itself scarce told me that Scathlock's only event of the year was approaching -- Independence Day. Why was I going back? As I walked my stomach felt like it was digesting chunks of metal. Something was missing. Maybe I just wanted to see the Old Man again. I had forgotten to say goodbye. He had to be there. His theater couldn't have shut down. It couldn't.

Dim neon lights in the distance spelling out "GAS" flickered on and off, heralding my arrival to town. Scathlock usually hibernated at about 6 o'clock every night, the Gas station looking out for wayward travelers until about eight. My digital watch laughed a green nine at me as I looked down. The only thing that ever stayed open in Scathlock was the movie theater, "The Adventure". My legs walked towards the corner where it jutted flamboyantly from the lines of old antique shops and empty businesses. Tonight "The Adventure" was dark, swallowed by the navy blue of the night sky. Flashbulbs didn't run around the box office, the buzz of neon and frying insects didn't fill the air, and a few letters clinging desperately to the Marquee spelled out, in jagged tones, movies from more than a few years ago. "The Adventure" was closed.

Someone added another ten pounds to my stomach. My mouth felt mossy and thick, my skin felt slick and cold, but on fire underneath. I tried to stave off the thought that was beginning to peek through the shutters in my brain. The only sound I could hear was the weak hum of the gas station's sign that welcomed me, and the scrape of my feet on the old cracked pavement. They led me to my old front door, green and scratched. I could see a stick figure carving at the bottom of the door, a faceless fighter bending a bow and arrow, and a deformed, scrawled dragon about to be felled. My watch read 9:30. As I opened up the door the figures of my thin, silver haired mother and my Hawaiian shirt clad father slammed into me from the threshold. They exclaimed, like they usually did when I was lost, that they were glad I wasn't dead on the side of the road, stabbed by some hitchhiker who moonlit as a serial killer.

"Yeah, me too," I said through their shoulders. "It's okay, the car just died."

"The coupe?" My father said in disbelief. "The 'Deus Coupe'?"

"I... I got a new car Dad... A Hyundai." I felt my insides cringe as I said the words. I hadn't really told my parents what had been going on in my life for years, not since I left. Years of avoiding my parents, of avoiding this town, and something had brought me back. My ears burned as I stood in the doorway, stuffing my hands in my pockets, and waited for the abuse I'd been expecting for my Car choice.

"Well good for you!" My dad exclaimed finally. He slapped me on the back, my mother rubbed my shoulder, and they brought me into the musty old house. The redness left my ears with the surprise that my father's biting wit hadn't come out yet. I felt almost disappointed as I breathed in the smell of that house again. Thousands of memories crashed back into my skull like marbles rolling around a basin. The house smelled exactly the same at it had when I left, like Italian food that had just come steaming from the oven, garlic still hanging in the air to seduce me back into the kitchen.

My Mother came out of the kitchen with two Tupperware cases full of pasta, shoving them into our hands as we walked out the door. There was never any towing service in town, so my Dad took care of most of the mangled or dead cars that made an appearance every few years. He had always owned the biggest truck, and the best -- albeit only -- useable chain in town. I wondered vaguely as we drove how a one horse show like Scathlock had ever sustained a movie theater.

####

I was a skinny seven year old; my dark black hair was in my face, wet from the rain. Thunder echoed off the streets as the water ran off the unlit bulbs of the theater into little pools, running slowly into the street and down the gutter. I sat huddled in the Box Office, wondering why I had run away. The Old Man stood waiting behind the wooden doors of the Theater with a towel.

"What are you doing out on a day like this, Johnson?" he asked. He knew my name -- he seemed to know everyone's name. I felt safe walking down the hall to the lobby, the walls lined with creased and old, but still somehow vibrant movie posters. The heroes, villains and lovers depicted on them looked almost real. The storm, and all the coldness I felt outside dripped off my consciousness as we walked into the dark wood trimmed lobby with scarlet and gold carpet. He sat me down in the cushy chairs of the cavernous auditorium.

The huge white canvas at the end of the room loomed high, surrounded by decorative metal stars and gigantic paint flourishes of green and red. I looked behind me, but the Old Man was already gone, the sound of metal clanking in the projector room above. The lights above dimmed, and above me a shaft of light flickered and shot through the room towards the giant white screen. The dust in the room passed through the magic light beam, the click and hum of the projector running filled the room. I looked up at the beam of light with wonder, and the pictures it made on the screen. Parchment paper and regal letters appeared. My body tensed in fear as I looked beside me -- the Old Man was sitting there, as if he had simply materialized.

"You see that light?" The Old Man asked, pointing. I nodded. "That's a magic light, Johnson."

I smiled as the beam made the pictures, showing me a heroic, green clad warrior, making speeches, fighting bad men, and saving the damsel. Just as the hero was captured after splitting an arrow in two, my parents in turn captured me from the theater. The Old Man had called them. I ran up to the balcony to look at the light, the Old Man didn't stop me. I ran my hands through it -- the light moved like smoke, swirling around my fingers. I stared in shock, my hand felt warm, like it was becoming part of the beam coming from the projector. Was light supposed to do that?

And then the Old Man appeared again, grabbing my wrist.

"Not yet."

####

The truck lurched to a stop near the still smoking hull of my Hyundai. As we chained the front end to the rusty hitch of the truck, my Father spoke.

"You were pretty silent, bud. What's on your mind?" he said. That long and I still had nothing to say to my Father. Not a hint of rebuke in his voice -- he was waiting for me to tell him how things had been going. I was a man. He would let me be a man and tell him myself. It was galling how nice he was being. I made sure the rough red chain was secure as I tried to form a sentence. Before I could, the thought I had tried so hard to keep back fell out of my mouth.

"The Old Man," I said shakily.

"Son," my dad said slowly. I could feel the words about to leave his lips. "Son, he's gone."

Then ten years of guilt spilled into my stomach. That bubble, that feeling that had been lingering these past few months, popped. I hated myself for feeling worse about not saying goodbye to the Old Man than for ignoring my parents. But I had a job, I told myself. I had deadlines, I had important films to watch -- and what would the newspaper do without my reviews? Somehow, those last few things I said to convince myself didn't sound as important as they had -- but that feeling passed. My newspaper was counting on me. It was my first real job since deciding to become a film critic. If I didn't review them, then the really good films wouldn't get out there anymore. These days a movie critic was the only beacon for a truly great film -- and yet, something still seemed odd about that thought. I had said it a thousand times, written it a thousand more.

####

It was the first movie after I landed the big job at the newspaper. A more seasoned critic sat beside me in the huge multiplex, the room was dark and bland, with tan and maroon harlequin, and a sea of gray suits and black ties. The critic gave me a stern look through his tiny rectangular glasses when I sipped the last of my coke through the straw. With an uncomfortable grin I put the cup between my feet, and searched for my smuggled candy bar and began munching on it in the dark. Another look slammed into the side of my head, and I stuffed the half eaten candy bar back into my pocket. The movie went on to a near silent room, the only sound coming from my occasional laughs or noises of awe. The movie's credits rolled and I clapped my hands. I thought the movie was outstanding. I heard my claps echoing in the auditorium, and realized that they were accompanied not by other hands, dozens of other eyes framed in rectangular glasses, squinting at me. My hands slowed, I made a strained laugh, and made my way for the door.

I knew my father resented me, my success. Yet he remained silent. He was determined to be amiable. As the truck wobbled back home my Dad suggested that we get a movie on Pay-Per-View to take my mind off things. I appreciated his suggestion -- ever since the Old Man had shown me Robin Hood, I became obsessed with the magic light. I couldn't get enough of movies, they were my escape from a world that didn't make sense, and I couldn't make sense of his death. I thought wildly that I felt his death when my life as a film critic started taking off. It felt like the Magic Light died. Did it even exist?

####

My Dad and I sat down in the cramped living room. Dad flipped through the Pay-Per-View choices on the same dusty old TV that was there when I left. The only thing that had changed was an outdated Satellite box that sat on top in place of the rabbit ears. I saw dozens of popcorn flicks and formula pictures listed, marred by the occasional serious film. Something about my own thoughts as I saw the titles seemed foreign, and yet familiar. I looked with disdain at some of the titles on the screen, but the disdain I had felt almost like looking through someone else's glasses. Everything seemed distorted and alien, yet it had some lingering sense of familiarity.

My Dad chose a recent adventure that had been out for a while. I'd seen it already, and gave it a thorough flaying in the paper months before. I sat through the premiere barely paying attention, never slipping into that magic light that had enticed me so long ago. I blamed it on the movie as I had done many times since I took the job at the newspaper. It was overdone, it relied on special effects and big stunts -- there was no artistic value whatsoever. Most of all, the ending was predictable from the first few frames. It was one of the many movies that killed the Magic Light, I thought. Somehow even when a movie possessed what I learned were good qualities, the Magic Light still wouldn't come back to me.

The opening credits rolled through the dusty screen in the Living Room, illuminating my father and I stuffing popcorn into our faces. Again something felt different. As I sat on the couch I had no thoughts about the movie -- the room seemed warm with the beam of light coming from the screen. It was as if I hadn't seen the movie before -- I knew what was going to happen, but everything was new. The big explosions and flying shrapnel, the impossible stunts and the innumerable amount of fatal injuries the villain took brought a smile to my face. There was a stack of newspapers by the couch, the newspaper I wrote for. They had kept up, despite my best attempts to throw them off. He'd know about the bad review I gave the movie we had just watched. I waited for his rebuke but it didn't come. Why wouldn't he just make fun of me already?

"Well that was totally unrealistic," I said in the most scathing voice I could muster, but again came that feeling that my words were someone else's. I wanted to provoke him; I wanted to hear some sort of condemnation.

"So?" Dad said simply. Still he wouldn't fight with me. Why wouldn't he fight?

"Only an idiot could be fooled into thinking that was a good movie," I said harshly. I felt sure this one would work. He would give me the reason I needed for abandoning this place. I knew it was there. He just wasn't saying it -- and when I strained my memory to think of why I hadn't come back, nothing came.

Dad merely shook his head and got up from the couch with the dishes. The ceramic clank of dishes came from the kitchen as I felt myself nodding to sleep, still fuming with rage. He thought I was just some stupid city boy now. He thought I was some snob. I had a right to an opinion. I went to school for it, I had a job to prove it. My thoughts began slowing, the anger slowly faded like a fire burning out in the dead of night. My eyelids gave up the fight against unconsciousness and fell shut.

"Love you son," came Dad's voice from the hallway as the last of my brain shut down. The whole world went dark.

####

I was peeling thin cardboard tickets from a small gray machine on my last day working at the theater. The glass tube around me faced a crowd of moviegoers, all clamoring to get into the Theater. The rush subsided, the moviegoers filed through the wooden doors of the theater, and I handed some stragglers a bag of popcorn and some jellybeans. The Old Man beckoned me up to the projector room. It was a small space with room enough for two, with scarlet and gold carpet to match the lobby. He didn't speak much -- the movie was good that night. Through the small projector window I could see a sweaty man in a Fedora running from a boulder, dodging flying darts, and punching Nazis.

The credits rolled and the Raiders March played -- I sat dreamily in the afterglow of the adventure that I'd just been in. As the last of the passengers -- that was what the Old Man called them -- filtered out the big wooden doors, the Old Man walked out of the projector room. I lingered for a second, and reached into my pocket, pulling out a small empty glass bottle I'd stolen from my mother's medicine cabinet. I tested the light, running my hands through it -- wisps of golden photons curled around my tingling fingers, just like before. I uncorked it, and dipped it into the line of the projector, still running the last of the credits. The light flowed into the bottle; I pulled it back from the beam of light, returning it to normal. I stared at the glowing bottle for a moment, and ran back downstairs with a broom and dustpan to help the Old Man

"You know, Johnson, I'd like it if you took over here," the Old Man said abruptly. I didn't know what to think -- I was graduating next week, did he just want me to take over the job after college? Or did he mean something else? Was he going to die? I fingered the bottle in my pocket, staring down at the floor.

"What do you mean by that?" I said back, trying hard to focus on the broom. I kept sweeping the same place over and over, keeping my eyes on the black and purple carpet of the auditorium. The Old Man wasn't daunted -- he kept speaking as if he didn't have much time left.

"Johnson, you understand," he continued. "You're the only one who can run this place. You know about the Magic."

"Plenty of people do."

"Not like you, Vale," he said using my last name. I knew it was important. "It's in you, see?"

####

I felt the couch return to my back, supporting me, the glow of the television, the smell of garlic. The light streamed in through the window, casting the whole room in a golden glow. The smell of bacon was coming from the kitchen.

"Wake up sleepyhead, happy Independence day!" Mom said from the kitchen.

The festivities would start pretty soon -- Scathlock didn't have fireworks, so most people journeyed to "The Adventure" when it turned dark outside, watched a classic that the Old Man picked out special, and then danced in the Lobby all night to a scratchy phonograph belting out swing music. I realized as I crunched on the salty bacon that things would be different this year. There would be the parade, the little striped canvas kiosks lining the streets, vending anything from cookbooks to cheap machetes and ninja stars. Tonight, however, there would be no movie, the old phonograph had probably scratched out its last swinging notes years ago. I walked outside, still chewing the last of my bacon, into the warmth of the July day, stretching in the midday sun.

Dad was loading up the truck with some stuff he used to set up his yearly "antique" kiosk for the 4th, which, in truth, consisted mostly of things he found in the dime bins of thrift shops and yard sales. But tradition was tradition, after all.

"You coming to the festival?" Dad asked, politely.

"I'll walk."

It took a little longer to get to town on foot, but Dad was being obstinate. He wasn't going to argue with me, he was just going to keep on thinking what he thought. He was going to keep on criticizing me, and not give me a chance to defend myself. He would think it was my fault that the theater had closed down, that I had killed the Old Man by leaving. I walked alone among the crowd of people on Main Street. My footsteps brought me "The Adventure" once again, the light bulbs gleaming dustily in the late-afternoon sun. I felt like something gravitational was drawing me away from the festivities and into the Theater. I walked slowly past the box office up to the huge, ornate wooden doors that I knew so well. The door made a painful creak as I pushed my way inside. The gold flourishes on the carpet of scarlet seemed to have turned yellow like stains, the posters lining the walls in shadow boxes lay dark in behind the glass, faded and creased like they'd been in the sun too long. The lobby still had its old candy; the glass cube on the edge of the counter was filled with stale popcorn. The entire room looked like a duller, grayer version of itself.

The Old Man probably died during a movie, I thought hazily. I went over to the counter, and put my hand on the countertop, layered thick with dust from years of disuse. I felt my hand touch something cold and smooth.

I looked up -- a small bottle made for medicine sat corked and empty on the counter. I picked it up, pulling out the cork. No light, no smoke, no trace of anything. It was all a lie. None of it ever existed.

Then a voice echoed in my ears.

"Where's the light, Johnson?"

I looked toward the sound. Standing at the top of the stairs to the projector room was a man clad in green with a bow and arrow strapped to his back. He walked down the stairs slowly. I ran, slamming into him, but his body vanished into dust. I spun abruptly but was cut short by a man wearing an old fedora and a leather jacket.

"You've forgotten who you are," the Old Man's voice came from his stubble lined lips.

I threw a fist at him, dashing him into nothing, dust particles flying everywhere, burning my eyes. I ran toward the door, coughing, eyes watering. Without warning the Old Man appeared in front of me, stopping me with one finger at my chest.

"It's is in you, see?"

I felt my knees hit the floor, kicking up dust. I ran a hand through my hair, clenching the empty bottle with the other. The Old Man was gone. The theater was dead, the magic was dead, and I was to blame. What else had I lost in becoming who I was there -- kneeling on the floor, looking blankly out the windows at the end of the hallway where the sun was dipping back below the horizon, turning a deep navy blue.

Glowing warmth spread across my hand. I looked down to see the bottle pulsing a translucent light like golden candle smoke. A familiar mechanical snap and hum began to sound behind me. I got up from the floor, slowly turning toward the auditorium doors. Light began to cascade from the threshold, the dust of the room disintegrating, flying through the air, illuminated in the giant shaft of light. It began to touch everything in the room, the gold of the carpet began to shine with new brilliance, the candy in the glass case brightened and was new again, the popcorn machine popped, the posters on the walls lit up one by one in succession. Clangs of swords and adventure began to sound in the auditorium -- I ran to the hallway, a smile spreading on my face, my heart beating faster with each passing second, each light crackling on as I ran past the shadowboxes, containing the memories of past films, all becoming like new again. I burst out the doors of the theater, past the box office. People gathered around the corner of the theater, making noises of wonder and excitement, questions flying, pointing up at the old movie theater. The lights of the marquee buzzed on, the flashbulbs surrounding it and the box office issued a crack and lit up -- and one by one, the red and golden lights of the theater sign, in a brilliant vertical pillar, sparks flying through the air, steadily spelled out only two words:

The Adventure.

I looked at my father standing in the crowd, holding my mother close. I returned his warm smile for the first time since I'd been back. Behind me the Theater flashed brilliantly out of the night, and one more light snapped on, illuminating the box office. I stepped slowly into the pillar of light surrounded by glass, up to the gray machine sitting on the desk.

With a grinding whirr and a soft click, came a ticket.

THE END


© 2009 Allen M. Jenkins

Bio: Allen Jenkins is a college student in Stillwater Oklahoma, and a writer of magical realism and fantasy. He is currently working on a novel and several short stories.

E-mail: Allen M. Jenkins

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