One morning a black pillar appeared in the center of town, within the boundaries of the park and right outside of the library. It stood at least thirteen feet tall and was as wide as a mature oak. They deduced it was made out of some kind of polished stone. Some guessed it was obsidian; others argued it was too strong to be such a fragile stone. It could have been granite, but when was the last time you saw black granite in that quantity, and in that shape?
"We should knock it down and drag it away!" someone shouted.
But they were too afraid to touch it.
"Why not just leave it here?" another suggested.
But they wondered what would happen if they didn't do anything at all.
Whoever put it there didn't do it alone. They'd need a truck to transport the thing, and they'd need some way to get it off the flatbed and stand it up straight. But why go to all of that trouble for a pillar of rock? Or was it part of something bigger?
My mother fell into the category of townspeople who thought it was best to leave it alone. She ordered my younger brother and I back home, away from the crowd around the pillar. She said there was no use dwelling on things that we didn't, and couldn't understand. Someone else would know what to do. It was beyond the three of us, a single mother in a sleepy little town and her two sons. I said that I was tired and went to bed shortly after, though I lay in bed for a long time not being able to close my eyes.
A knock on my bedroom window startled me at first, though it took a few more knocks to figure out that someone was throwing stones at the glass. I dragged myself out of bed to see who it was, letting in a flying pebble as I cracked open the window. Without my glasses I could see Bryony's faint outline as she fished stones out from underneath the fence below my window. It couldn't have been anyone else. Lucky for her, my gun-toting-conspiracy-driven neighbors had been gone since the pillar appeared.
I stopped her before she could throw another, and hissed, "What are you doing?"
She took a sigh of relief when she noticed I was leaning out of the window, squinting to see any discernible shapes below me. "Good, you're still awake. Get dressed if you're not decent and get down here."
"Why? Where are we going?" I asked.
I didn't have to be able to see her to know she had a sly smile painted across her face. "Where do you think?"
"Just give me one minute."
I couldn't blame her for wanting to get a better look at the black pillar. She had always been the adventurous type; that's why we worked so well together. If we weren't friends, I would spend every night in my room with my nose in a book, never seeing the world outside my window. I pushed my glasses onto my face and shrugged on a sweater before lowering myself out. My bedroom laid above the living room, and with everyone in bed, there was no one on the couch to see my feet dangling above the bushes.
"Just let go," she whispered. "You've only got five feet, six tops."
My fingernails were digging into the paint on the windowsill. I was afraid to let go for a moment, but I was more afraid of not doing so at all. I relaxed my hands expecting to land on my feet suavely, though have I ever been suave? I ended up landing with too much pressure on my heels and fell backwards onto Bryony. Better on her feet than I was, she kept her balance and kept me from crashing into her and the fence. The last thing we needed was for my mother to be awake.
"Let's get going, smooth operator," Bryony joked, "before you almost fall on someone else."
My neighborhood was near the outskirts of town, and at that time of night it was quite quiet, and we expected the park to be the same. Those who chose to ignore the pillar were asleep, and those who were riled up by it had filtered into town hall to decide what to do about it.
We passed town hall along the way, alight with chatter and yells from the people.
"What do you think of it?" Bryony asked me.
From where we were on the street, I could just make out the top of the pillar as it reflected light from the streetlamps. "I'm not entirely sure. You?"
"Maybe it's one of those government experiments, where they see how close we'll get to killing each other before they need to step in. Or it fell from space."
"And landed upright?"
"I think everything can stick a better landing than you."
Though the pillar fascinated the both of us, we still didn't get too close to it once we arrived at the park. Some caution had to be taken, of course. I couldn't consider Bryony's latter theory too much, only because it was hard to believe a perfect cylinder could fly through space and land perfectly without anyone seeing. Her former theory was more realistic, but just as puzzling to think of being true. I didn't have any interesting ideas involving the pillar's origin. It was simply an enigma. Was there a need to explain it?
"It looks stranger in the dark," I observed, "if that's possible."
"Looks kinda like a big penis," Bryony added. "It's not really the exact shape, and it's a little lonely without the twins at the bottom, but it's essentially a big cock."
"You think everything looks like that," I laughed.
"I'm always subject to pathetic phallacy. Want to touch it?"
"You're the one who just suggested it's the dildo of the gods."
"Hey, we can stand out here all night and be immature about objects like this, or we can be the mature young adults that we are and figure out what no one else is smart enough to understand. Hell, you're only going to be seventeen once."
I figured that there was no harm, if it was in fact made of stone like everyone said it was. We kept getting closer until we were only inches from the monolith. It was even more daunting that close. I felt like a young child again, stuck in a world of giants where they knew much more than I could ever hope to know. This giant knew something that no one could guess just by looking.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" I sighed.
"Come on, Daff," Bryony smiled, "you wouldn't want someone else to be the first to touch it, would you?"
I noticed she was already reaching for it. I told myself that it was just another rock, and pressed my palm against it before she could.
I wasn't in the dark park with Bryony anymore. I was somewhere else. I was sitting down on a vinyl-covered couch in a room nearly the size of mine back at home. There were no windows, only a pendant lamp hanging above my head. A door was directly in front of me, varnished to be as shiny as the couch I was sitting on. I noticed that the doorknob was turning, and braced myself for what was about to come.
The door seemed to open on its own; I didn't see a hand wrapped around the knob on the other side. Instead, light poured into the room and I was forced to shield my eyes.
"I know you think I'm hot, Daff, but am I as bright as the sun?"
I peered through my fingers to make sure what I was hearing could be true. I could only see a faint outline through the blinding light. It hurt to look. "Bryony? Is that you?"
I heard the door close and the only light source was back to being the lamp above me. She was really there in the room with me, though it was not a Bryony I was familiar with. We'd been friends since we were five, but I'd never seen her out of her clothes, save for the occasional pool-hopping we'd do on hot summer nights. Now she was standing before me in nothing but a delicate black bra and lacy underwear to match, one hand on her hip and the other hanging free at her side. She'd curled her pin-straight hair into rolling brown waves, had even thrown on some makeup.
She didn't say anything at first. She just walked over to me until she was directly in front of me; our knees were touching. She then swung one leg up onto the couch, and then the other, and lowered herself until she was essentially straddling me.
"What's going on?" I asked, a bit breathless.
She began running her fingers through my hair, the tips of her nails lightly scratching my scalp. "Isn't this what you want, Daff?"
The moment that her pink-stained lips met mine, the bright light returned and I was brought back to the dark park in our sleepy little town. I was being pulled away from the black pillar by an unseen mob, though they eventually surrounded me and unleashed a barrage of questions.
"What were you doing?"
"Why did you touch it?"
"It was you, wasn't it?"
"What did you do?"
I still felt a bit delirious over what had just happened. I couldn't focus on the many faces around me, and I couldn't see any sign of Bryony anywhere. I just strung a few words together. "I saw something."
I don't think a full second passed until others began turning around and hovering towards the pillar with their fingertips reaching for the polished stone. I found myself to still be in a bit of a fog over what I had seen, wondering what it was, and why I'd seen it to begin with.
I picked out Bryony's hands waving back and forth as she jumped through the crowd. She eventually stumbled through the back of the mob as everyone jostled to get closer to the pillar. I could see that people were already touching it, frozen in thought with their hand on the flawless monument. What were they seeing?
Bryony was visibly shaken. As soon as she was close enough, she stumbled into my arms, her pale hands clutching the loose fabric of my sweater. "What just happened, Daff?"
"Did you see something too?" I asked. She nodded frantically; a big yes. "What was it?"
A half-sane smile came across her face as she remembered. "I was back on the farm." I knew what she was talking about right away, though it had been nearly ten years since one of her disgruntled family members burned down her grandfather's farm to keep it from being sold by the bank. The crops were seared and the house was reduced to a pile of ash and debris. There were pictures in the paper for weeks. "Everyone was there, and everyone was happy." She made intense eye contact with me, to reinforce her seriousness. "You were there too."
"I was?" I questioned.
"What did you see, Daff?"
I stammered out a lie instead of telling her the truth. "I'm not too sure, there was a lot of light in what I saw. My head still hurts from it. It just happened so fast."
Bryony looked over her shoulder at the crowd of townspeople, fresh from their meeting at the hall, nearly comatose as they saw their own fantasies through the pillar. I was both puzzled by the revelation of its purpose, as well as troubled by what it could do. There were still unanswered questions, mainly Why?
"Let's go," I said to her. "You can crash on the couch at my place." I began leading her out of the park and away from the commotion, as voices in the crowd piped up that it was their turn.
I was so tired when we got back to my house that I thought I would fall right asleep, but that was far from what did happen. All I saw was the hallucination from the pillar. Bryony wasn't below me in the living room, sleeping soundly on the couch under my mother's quilt. She kept appearing in my room as she had in my head, spinning a finger through her loose curls.
I might have stayed in my room all morning if JB hadn't opened the door to find me sitting up straight on my bed with some blank stare on my face. It took me a moment to realize he was really in the doorway and that it wasn't just another illusion.
"If you want to eat, you have to go downstairs, space cadet," he said to me. "Mom also wants to talk to your about your overnight guest."
I threw off my blankets and got to my feet to get my glasses and sweater. "She didn't have anywhere else to go."
He snorted. "If I have anything to say about it, it's that you should have been a gentleman and let her stay here in your room."
I treaded lightly down the stairs to the kitchen, to find my mother shoveling piles of hash browns onto a plate in front of Bryony.
"Bry," she said, "you know our door is always open...but Daff, I'd appreciate if you gave me some head's up first."
"It's my fault," Bryony apologized. "I should have made sure it was okay with you before I stayed."
"Nonsense, you two have been friends for ages and I wouldn't turn you back into the street."
"It's been a weird day," I defended.
JB came in behind me to the kitchen. "It's about to get weirder. Noah just called and said the mayor's having people line up to touch that crazy pillar."
"Why would they line up to touch it?" my mother asked, grimacing.
"Apparently you see cool things when you do," he replied, grabbing a seat at the kitchen table next to Bryony. "Wouldn't surprise me if the whole thing is covered in LSD, but now it's what everyone's talking about. They let you touch it for five minutes before it's the next person's turn. They're charging ten dollars, probably to cover money spent on the road no one uses."
"People are lining up?" I repeated. "And taking turns?"
"Wanna go check it out later?"
"No," my mother sternly answered for me. "No one's touching it and no one's going to see it. Just because something's there doesn't mean you need to drop everything and see it. I better not find out either one of you went there, you too, Bryony."
"Thanks, Ms. Ahern," she smiled in response.
I listened to my mother only because she was right. When people began lining up into the night to touch the pillar, I knew better than to give in to what I desired. It had been a cruel dream of something that would never be in the real world. I doubted that the townspeople understood that idea as the days passed and the same people kept returning to hallucinate. Some people saw what they thought was God. Others saw their dead loved ones resurrected for a window of five minutes. There were those who saw their life in a different light; successful in the big city rather than struggling to get by in a small town. It didn't matter what they saw, because they kept coming back to see it again.
I kept coming back to what I saw in my own way. Though I was not drawn to touch the pillar as often as everyone else, Bryony in black lingerie still lurked her way into my thoughts and dreams.
Deep in my subconscious, she would whisper, nearly beg, "Why don't you come see me again?"
I eventually began to push her out of my mind, inch by inch. I was too fearful of what I would see if I went back to the park, and I knew better than to let myself become a slave to the fantasy. A day spent in a fog brought me to the realization that I would likely never see Bryony as I'd seen her in the small room on the vinyl couch, her hands running through my hair. It was not real, and never would be.
I took my head out of the clouds and put my nose back into a book.
About five days after our initial visit to the pillar, Bryony admitted to me that she'd been dreaming of her grandfather's farm ever since, though in the end, it would always return to a pile of ash in the middle of a charred field.
"I think I'm trying to subconsciously tell myself that it's not real every night," she said to me. We were sitting on a bench across the street from the park that night, far enough from the pillar that my mother couldn't complain but close enough to see people frozen in thought whenever they touched it. The line of patrons twisted out of the park and down the street past the library. "I still can't believe you didn't see anything but light."
I avoided eye contact with her, as she always found a way to get the truth out of me. "It's a shame, but I'd rather not have seen anything than see something and force myself to go see it again."
"What was I doing in what you saw?" I asked.
"What were you doing?"
"Yeah, everyone you saw was doing something on the farm. You said they were happy. What was I doing?"
She thought for a moment, reliving what she saw for a brief moment and remembering her grandfather's farm as it was a decade before. "You were with me."
I was about to respond to her answer, but we both became distracted by an onslaught of yelling from the park, from the pillar. It brought the two of us to our feet, and we soon found ourselves walking closer to the shouting mob of people. I could pick out a few sentences.
"It's my turn!"
"We shouldn't have to pay for this!"
"We've been waiting all day!"
"It's my turn!"
"No, it's my turn!"
Everyone fell silent at the sound of a gun being discharged. On the front steps of the library stood the mayor, and on either side, two of his top men armed with what looked to be automatic rifles. The moment I painted a picture with both the pillar and weapons that could kill, I realized that there was no good outcome to the story.
"Everyone will get their turn," the mayor assured everyone.
"Why do we have to pay for it?" someone in the crowd yelped. "You're just being a greedy bastard!"
"The town needs the money."
"We need the money!" another person countered.
"I don't think this is going to end well," Bryony whispered to me as the fighting ensued. "It can't end well."
"I know," I mumbled.
"We have to do something, Daff. People are going to die."
Maybe that was the last straw. Not everyone would be able to disconnect reality from fantasy, and order from chaos. They would never realize what we had concluded. The pillar was going to draw blood from our town and wouldn't stop until it had every ounce.
My instinct turned my body around to see that the hardware store down the street was open, though I assumed the owner was among those in the crowd. I couldn't risk leaving Bryony there when the guns were out, so I grabbed her hand and dragged her along so I could get an axe.
Everyone was still fighting when we returned, but so engrossed with the argument that they didn't notice us step into the park. We made a wide half-circle to the pillar to ensure we weren't seen. Eventually there was nothing between us and the monolith but a distance of merely ten feet. I knew once I started, there would be no going back.
"Make sure you stay far away from it," I said to Bryony.
Before I went for the pillar, she quickly ran her fingers through my hair, her nails lightly scratching at my scalp, and said, "Don't die, Daff."
I took long strides for the pillar. I was hoping it would come down like the dead tree it was. No one noticed me there until I took the first swing at it. The stone cracked under the force.
"What are you doing over there?"
Another strike. The crack was a series of thin white lines in the light of the streetlamps, spreading like a plague on the flawless monument. The throng of people began moving towards me.
The third strike of the axe doubled the size of the crack. The people were moving faster; there would only be enough time for one more hit at the rate they were going.
The mayor's voice could be heard over everyone else's. "Stop it, young man, or we will stop you."
I felt the fourth strike of the axe break the stone, and as the white veins spread on the black surface, something began to flow out of the wound I'd created. It was a thick black liquid, like oil left for years to congeal. When I jerked the axe from the pock in the pillar, the liquid quickened and poured out from inside, staining the grass around it as it got closer to my feet. Everyone else froze at the sight of it, realizing that there was more to their godsend than heavenly hallucinations.
The fifth strike removed me from the park.
I still had the axe clutched in my hands, though the park had become another room of my fantasies. It was all made of shiny white marble, reflecting a bright light from the other side of the room. It was as if this room was in a close orbit to the sun, tidally locked. A figure was moving through the room towards me, though the glare on my glasses distorted it into a strange transit as it approached.
"Daff, why are you doing this?"
It was her voice again. The strange figure became Bryony when it was close enough for me to let go of the axe and touch her, yet I kept my guard up. She was angelic in this white marble room, especially when the light revealed feathery wings that sprouted from her back. They were the same virginal white as everything that surrounded us. I was the only deviation from this color wheel; a black spot of dirt in a rather clean heaven. Bryony wasn't wearing anything on her pale ivory skin, forcing me to keep my eyes on either her face or wings.
"Why do you have to hurt me?" she pleaded, though spoke so softly that she barely opened her mouth. "You're destroying what you love."
"I have to do this," I told her. "Everyone is going insane over this pillar. It has to stop."
"Why does it have to stop, Daff? Everyone is so much happier, seeing things they could never see in their real lives. I thought you cared about me. I thought you loved me."
"You're not Bryony."
"Don't you love me, Daff?"
I raised the axe into the swinging position.
"You're hurting me," she cried.
"I'm sorry, whatever you are."
Mid-swing, the pseudo-Bryony revealed itself for what it was. Its lips pulled back over a set of black teeth, fangs sharpened to pointed tips. It hissed as its green eyes went completely black, and it moved its arms into a cross between a defensive and attack position. It was ready for me, but I was ready to destroy it. It tried to grab the axe from me, but the blade still made contact with its collarbone, cutting a long gash into its ivory skin.
It became distracted by the black liquid pouring from its wound, the same viscous substance that dwelled inside the pillar. It looked almost sad that I'd ruined its perfect appearance, but I wasn't done yet.
The next strike got the other side of its neck and tore a wound that intersected with the one I'd just made. It screeched, making a sound that could only be from a nightmare. I got the side of its torso next, which brought it to the marble floor below. It held up its arms in an attempt to shield the remaining blows, but it proved to be no use. I was prepared to hack it to a million pieces. The black humor that came from its gashes and wounds began to splatter on all of the surfaces around us as I kept going.
My last strike was to separate the head from the snake.
The moment the blade made its final contact with the stained skin of the creature's neck, an ear-shattering screech exited its body and everything disappeared into one last flash of light.
With a start, I found myself back in the park, the axe still in my hands as the white cracks on the pillar spread at an alarming rate. I could hear the stone begin to shatter as it bled black.
"Daff! Get out of there!"
I let the axe slip from my hands and staggered backwards. The crowd around me began screaming as they ran away. Someone grabbed me. It was Bryony, in a frenzy to get away as the pillar broke around the axe. We were well away from it when it came crashing down, shattering into countless pieces wet with blackness upon kissing the ground.
My frantic breathing became the only thing I could hear after that. Everyone had fallen completely silent, staring at the remains of the pillar with jaws dropped and eyes wide open.
"What have you done?" It was the mayor, brooding from the steps of the library, glaring at me.
Bryony piped up, her voice full of anger and rage. "Do you think we could have lived like this for the rest of our lives? Fighting over something that was tearing us apart? You were about to kill each other over it! You were wasting every penny you have to see things that would never happen! It's done now!"
Another long moment of silence passed until people in the crowd began to turn their backs on the remains of the pillar, returning home after five days of living in another reality. The mayor ran down to the street, trying to turn them back around, but they would not listen. They shrugged him off and continued home.
"Don't go!" he insisted, sprinting to the sticky black carcass. "We can still see everything we saw before!"
When he was at the remains, he reached out to touch one of the largest pieces of the stone, but he did not freeze as his mind was brought somewhere else. He never left the park. He tried touching it again. And again. And once more. But as much as he tried, he would not return to the fantasy he saw before. Just as the rest of his people, he turned around with his head hung, and left.
I noticed that Bryony had found my hand and was clutching onto it tightly. "We should go," I told her.
The following day, the town woke up to find that every last piece of stone that had made up the pillar was gone. All of the black ooze that had flown from its cracks had disappeared into the ground. Even the axe I had taken from the hardware store was missing in action.
I was supposed to meet Bryony at the library a few days later, though while waiting on the steps for her, I found it hard to disconnect what had been there shortly before to the present state of the town. The pillar had been there for six days, but it was hard to imagine the park without its resident giant.
Someone walked past me while I was waiting, though I didn't think too much of them until they walked back to the step I was on. A hand was holding out a wallet in front of me.
"Is this yours? It was on the steps behind you."
I looked up at the man next to me, dressed in a long black overcoat that was loosely belted around his waist. The skin on his hand was as thin and pale as it was on his face, though his eyes were hidden behind a pair of round and very opaque sunglasses. I couldn't say he was a regular in town, likely stopping through on one of the charter buses. "No, sorry. If you give it to the front desk inside, they'll know what to do."
"Of course." He noticed me looking back to the park, where I had brought the strange pillar to its knees. "I have to say I'm glad that thing's finally gone. Goes to show you that even an ounce of uncertainty can bring out the worst in people."
"That's a good way of putting it," I offered. "Luckily it ended before blood was shed."
"Too bad we'll never know where it came from."
"Whoever put it there had a pretty sick agenda planned out."
"We may think it to be sick, but those behind it still got what they wanted."
"And what would that be?" I asked, my line of sight being pulled back to the park.
"A little insight into the human race. See you around, kid."
I turned around to offer the man a wave goodbye, but found that he had already vanished into the library. I looked back around to see Bryony sauntering up the steps towards me.
"Everything good, Daff?" she asked, half-laughing and half-concerned. "You look like you just saw a ghost."
I shook it off. "It's nothing. Ready to go?"
She held out her hand to mine. "Always am."