The Land of Ends
Chapter 1: A Ticket To Nowhere
Some childhoods don’t stick. Some slip through the cracks before catching hold, while others never show up at all. Such was the case for a twelve-year-old boy named Edmund Eaton.
Edmund was six when his father left home, which is not to say his father ever really was home. Being home implies one must live there at some point, and Edmund’s father certainly never held that kind of residence. His side of the bed was never slept in; no slippers left by a favorite chair; his closet bare except for a few wire hangers and a winter coat, which like Edmund’s father before his disappearance, was either there or not there, depending on the weather.
In that time, Edmund’s mother, never very capable of anything motherly, became even less so. She slept mostly, rousing only to stare out the window at the perpetual grayness of the sky, and repeat some version of the same thing she’d said for years — your father should home soon.
Their house at 10 Watch Street was spartan to be polite. There were no pictures on the walls of family vacations, no report cards clinging to the refrigerator with bright, colorful magnets. There was nothing to say that a happy family lived there, mainly because one did not.
The only bright spot one might observe if they were a fly on the wall (but surely even flies had better places to be) was the presence of Edmund’s little sister, Gert.
Gert was magic, which is to say she was innocent and had little understanding of how unhappy her life truly was. This was in part due to her being five (or five-tastic as she preferred), but mostly because her older brother did everything possible to keep her from knowing. She saw the world through Edmund’s eyes, yet never the one he knew existed, but rather the world of the fantastic tales he created for her.
“Read me that story again—the one about the underground city,” she said, snuggling beneath the tented blanket Edmund had hung above her bed.
“But I just read you the one about the good monster,” he yawned and scratched his shaggy brown hair.
“Please,” she pleaded, “I like that one, especially the part about riding the giant moles underground.”
“Alright, one more. But then I need to clean up dinner.”
Gert’s stomach growled.
“I guess it’s still a little hungry,” she said.
“I know, Gert.”
“Why are the only books we have yours? Your journals, I mean. Did you have any books when you were my age?”
It was not precisely true. Edmund had one book, a pamphlet really, that sat beside his story journals. Titled A Better World, it was a manifesto of sorts, written by his father, who’d recite its contents to anyone who might listen, like some kind of roadside preacher. It was one of those books thinly disguised as a story but filled with lessons of morality and the great wrongs of men, which Edmund had always found ironic for a family who never attended church. He hated when adults hid lessons in stories. It was dishonest, which is precisely how Edmund felt about most adults. At any rate, A Better World spoke to just that, the notion that this world wasn’t good enough, never could be, and would be far superior if one could only start over fresh.
He only kept it because of his sister. He’d often find Gert paging through it longingly as if searching for answers in a book she couldn’t yet read about the father she never knew. So Edmund had decided to fill in the gaps, writing his own version of A Better World, except his was full of magical worlds and mythic creatures. Gert loved his stories, which, he supposed, was some small solace for a father who’d chosen to chase his idealistic fantasies over them. Still, Edmund was never disillusioned to think that a better world was ever in the cards for him. However, he promised himself things would be different for Gert.
“You’re right, Gert,” he said dismissively, looking at the thin book on the shelf with his father’s meticulous hand-lettered title. “I suppose I had Dad’s book.”
“Well, I like your stories the better anyway,” she said.
“That’s because the only stories you hear are mine.”
“You could tell me about the moles again?” she prodded slyly.
“Okay, one more time.”
“Edmund? Edmund! Where are you?”
“In here, Mom.” He turned back to his sister. “Try and close your eyes, okay? I’ll be back soon.”
“No, I’m staying awake until you come back.”
“Can you at least try… for me?”
Gert crossed her arms in quiet rebellion.
“Tell you what… I’ll leave my journal here, and you can practice your reading, okay? But then it’s time for bed.”
She frowned, still wanting to negotiate, but he patted her on the head and went to the kitchen.
“Did you hear something? said a boney silhouette peeking out the window.” I thought I heard something. Maybe it’s your father.”
“No, Mom. It was probably the neighbor’s cat. He’s been climbing along the windowsills.”
“Cats,” she said, chewing her thumb. “You can’t trust them. Are you sure that’s what it was? What if it was those crows again.”
If his mother didn’t like cats, then she absolutely hated birds, in particular, crows. It was one of reasons she rarely left the house. She shrieked every time she saw them, claiming they were following her, or that they were pecking on the panes outside her bedroom trying to get in.
“I’m sure that was only the cat,” eased Edmund. “I saw it looking into Gert’s window a few minutes ago. Why don’t you sit and have some dinner? I didn’t know if—when—you’d be getting up, so I kept some warm for you.”
He placed a bowl on the table, and his mother sat, or half sat, really, one of those fidgety sideways sits one does when they’re not sure whether they’re staying for long. She rubbed her neck, frowning at the kitchen window, and then leered down at her bowl as though might have something to say.
“What is it?”
“Chicken noodle soup,” he said.
She ladled a spoonful and let it pour back into the bowl.
“Where’s the chicken?”
“Just imagine there’s chicken, Mom. We’re kind of short on food again.”
“Well, your father can go to Streeters Grocery when he gets home. He should be home soon.”
Edmund smiled thinly, hoping it expressed more hope than pity. “Right, mom, I’ll let him know.”
“I was putting her to bed when you called.”
“Is it that late?”
“Uh, yes, it’s a little past her normal bedtime.”
“Then shouldn’t she be asleep?” She said it as an honest question, not a reprimand. Edmund tried to give her credit for motherly thinking, which he always did in such moments, hoping it might one day catch on.
“Good point, Mom,” he said with an obedient nod, “Gert’s been hearing bumps in the night and things under the bed. I was only reading to her a new story I wrote, about a loyal monster. I thought it might help if she thought that not all monsters aren’t bad.”
“Mm,” replied his mother, kneading her hands. “Most are…”
“Monsters…” she murmured, “most are bad.”
She lumbered to her feet, checked the refrigerator as if something might’ve magically appeared in the few minutes since he’d told her it was empty, and shuffled back to her room and shut the door. Edmund lingered, staring at the peeling paint on the ceiling, then cleared her bowl, finished washing the dishes, and went back to Gert’s room.
“C’mon, Gert, you have school tomorrow. You need to go to sleep.”
“But, Edmund, the words… they keep disappearing.”
“Here,” she said, pointing at his journal. “I was practicing my reading, sounding out each word like you showed me, and they disappeared one by one as I said them. One second they were there and then... poof!”
“What are you talking about,” he said.
He took the book from his sister and flipped to the first page. It was indeed blank. He flipped forward one, and then once more, and then another, each page an empty sheet of white.
“Ha-ha… where my real journal?” he said impatiently. “C’mon, Gert, it’s too late for tricks.”
He tucked her under her covers and switched off her lamp.
“It’s not a trick,” she said, yawning in the glow of her nightlight. “I was reading out loud, and the words went away. Go to the end, you’ll see. They went away like magic.”
She rolled over, and Edmund gazed at the small lump under the blanket until he heard light snoring. She’d been making things up and fibbing lately, and he wondered if his stories weren’t the reason. Maybe it was wrong to want to shield her. After all, she’d figure out their reality soon enough.
He flipped open the journal and thumbed through the mysterious blank pages until he found the story he’d written—about a group of children living in an underground city of tunnels dug by giant moles. At least, he found the end of it.
The words were there, but different than he’d ever seen before. He pushed the book closer to his face thinking his eyes were playing tricks.
The first word on the page, the word now, pulsed; the lines of the letters expanding and contracting as if breathing. He touched it, but it continued pulsating around the edge of his finger, maybe even a little quicker than before. What was it Gert had said?
They disappeared, one at a time, as I said them.
The word pulsed, urgent, and waiting. Edmund opened is his mouth and then closed it.
This is dumb, he thought, I’m over-tired.
Yet the word beat in tempo. It was definitely moving.
“Now…” he murmured.
In an instant, the word vanished from the page.
Edmund threw the book across the room as though it had suddenly sprouted eyes, and pulled his feet onto Gert’s bed, scanning the shadows for some dark specter that wasn’t there. His sister murmured something unintelligible and snuggled deeper into her pillow.
There’s a perfectly good reason for what just happened, he thought.
He just couldn’t imagine what.
Slowly, Edmund slid off the bed and crept to the journal in the corner. He picked it up cautiously with his thumb and index finger, fearing it might bite him, and then turned it over and thumbed back to the page. Again the first word of the page pulsated. He read aloud.
“Now…” beginning where we’d left off, “we… must… journey… someplace… beyond…”
One by one, the words dissolved; his eyes so wide he thought they might fall out of his head. He kept reading, and the text kept vanishing, until suddenly, as if having a mind of its own, the lines disappeared one after the other until the entire page was blank. Quickly he flipped the page and watched those lines vanish and then turned to the next. He flipped madly, pages-at-a-time, following the disappearing text until he reached the final page.
Tucked against the spine was a rectangular stub of paper printed with three odd symbols: a crow, a key, and a crescent moon.
He flipped it over, expecting to find more information, some explanation like a name or place, but it was blank. Whatever it was, and wherever it had come from, he certainly hadn’t put it there.
He placed the slip back inside and was about to put the journal back on the shelf with others when he spied the answer: a bottle of disappearing ink—the one he’d splurged on to give Gert for her birthday.
I gotta give it to her. Her magic tricks are getting better.
However, something else caught his eye as well, sticking out the top of another journal. He pulled it from the shelf and opened it. Then another. And then another still. He ripped open his journals one by one, each completely blank, and each containing the same strange bookmark at the end.