The Space Beyond

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Summary

A quiet, autistic trans boy and his best friend have explored the creek countless times. When they find a mysterious waterfall and enter an alternate reality, can they find their way home?

Genre:
Scifi / Adventure
Author:
Avery Engstrom
Status:
Ongoing
Chapters:
1
Rating:
5.0 1 review
Age Rating:
13+

Chapter 1

“Woah, look! I found an alien!”

“Morgan, that’s a frog,” Oliver said, only glancing in her direction for a moment.

Oliver and Morgan were picking their way through the creek in the field behind Oliver’s house, a usual morning ritual before school. Morgan found “an alien” just about every other day.

“We should head to school soon, it’s almost eight,” Oliver said, brushing some dirt off his hands. The creek was always muddy and wet, but it was worth it for the feel of cool water around his rain boots and the frigid stiffness in his cheeks.

Morgan sighed. “Fine, Mr. Education. Did you remember to bring your shoes this time?” she teased him.

Last week Oliver had forgotten to bring his school shoes and had to wear his muddy boots the whole day, resulting in a reprimand from every teacher he met. The school had a strict dress code, and boots were definitely not allowed. The only thing the dress code was lenient on was socks.

The two trudged their way back up the slope to the field and began to walk across it. On the other side was the Catholic Church, and a block away from that was their school. If it was still a Catholic school, the students would be in church right now. But the former St. Mary’s Academy had recently been converted into North Union Academy, much to the distaste of Morgan’s mother. It was still the best private school in the area, as well as the only one for all-girls. Morgan knew her mom would stick her in a boarding school in a heartbeat though if she knew Morgan was sludging through the creek every morning.

It took Oliver and Morgan around 15 minutes to walk across the entire field and to the church, and by that time there was only 5 minutes left before they had to be in class. Technically school didn’t start until 8:30, but all the students were expected to arrive 10 minutes early. A ridiculous rule, especially since the school had no bus system for students who lived far away.

At the side of the school, next to the entrance, was a little entryway that contained lockers. The students were expected to keep any boots, coats, or other non-regulation attire in these lockers during school hours. They were always urged to keep the locker area clean and tidy, but the place always looked like a mess in the morning, with boots strewn here and there, and navy blue capes draped over benches. It didn’t matter so much though, as long as visitors didn’t have to see it.

Oliver and Morgan slipped out of their boots and into their loafers, putting them next to their lockers so they wouldn’t get muddy. Oliver noticed that Morgan’s socks today were unusually bleak for her; the only color was the stripes of orange running through them. When he remarked on this, she said: “Ugh, my grandmother is staying with us this week, so Mom hid all my best socks. She says that Grandmother would think that my ‘attire’ is too ‘un-ladylike.’” She rolled her eyes.

Morgan and Oliver didn’t have first period together, so Morgan stopped at the second floor for mathematics, and Oliver went on to the third floor for French. These were both difficult courses to take first thing in the morning, and Morgan was especially vocal in her complaints. Oliver was quieter about it, but then again he did love French. It had been one of his special interests years ago, but he had forgotten about it until he started high school and saw that they offered a French course. This had sparked his interest again, which was useful since it helped him do well in class.

Unfortunately, they had a substitute teacher today, and the only words she knew were “bonjour” and “merde.” She told them to read from their textbooks, but Oliver had trouble focusing on the words, and his mind kept drifting. He looked out the window, at the view of the field blanketed by an overcast sky. It would be winter break in a month, and he was excited, but a little sad. Morgan would be leaving for Wales to visit her grandmother like she did every year, and Oliver would be left alone for two weeks. He thought back to an especially lonely day from last year.

It had been a dull winter day, the sun hiding behind the clouds casting a gray overtone on the world. His breath came out in little puffs, fogging up his glasses. His nose had started to run, and he wiped it on his sleeve. The sky was as overcast as his mood. Morgan had already been gone for a week. She had promised to write to him every day, but it wasn’t the same. He had thought going to the creek would lift his spirits.

It hadn’t worked. He still felt the same emptiness inside, just with added coldness. He considered walking back, but it wasn’t like there was anything to do at home either. He was suddenly jarred from his reverie. A misplaced step had caused him to slip, and he thumped to the ground, the thin ice breaking around him. He sat for a moment in stunned silence, hands listlessly swishing in the water as it seeped into his clothes. Could this day get any worse? He was about to stand when he noticed something small next to him. A small leopard frog was asleep in the creek bank, its heading poking out from where it was buried in the frozen mud. Normally Oliver would be excited, but today he just felt numb and tired. The frog twitched, and then lethargically unearthed itself from its resting place. It landed in the water with a soft plop, and swam away under the ice. Even the frog had left him alone.

Oliver’s thoughts were interrupted by the bell ringing. He sighed and packed up his stuff. He daydreamed through his next class too, unable to focus on anything for more than a minute. He just wanted to go home, curl up under a blanket, and watch The X-Files. Too bad the school day had only just begun.

Second period zipped by and then it was finally time for lunch. Oliver and Morgan met up at their usual place and got their food. Since it was a private school, the lunches actually weren’t that bad. The only problem Oliver had was that sometimes his palate would change without warning, and something he normally liked to eat would be inedible. It was hard for him to explain to others, but sometimes the textures of certain foods would just suddenly be disgusting, and he was unable to take more than a few bites. But today his usual mac and cheese tasted and felt fine. Morgan had different ideas though.

“How can they even call these tacos, they’re so limp.” She poked at her soft taco and some of the sauce oozed out. “This is a disgrace to all Mexican food everywhere,” she declared. Morgan liked to pretend she was a connoisseur of “exotic” foods, although their small town of Newport, Vermont didn’t have that much variety in the way of restaurants. The only Mexican place nearby was Taco Bell.

Oliver snorted and Morgan grinned, even though he was laughing more at her than what she had said. The two managed to finish their food in peace, or at least as much peace as one can have with Morgan talking a mile-a-minute about whatever popped into her head. The peace was only interrupted as they were leaving.

“Well, if it isn’t the lesbian duo. Off to make out in the custodial closet again?” Trinity Winslet sneered. Ever since Oliver had almost had a panic attack the other week due to a sensory overload and Morgan had helped him calm down in the custodian’s supply closet, Trinity had been telling the whole school—or at least anyone who listened—that Morgan and Oliver had actually slipped off for some “alone time.” This was ridiculous of course, especially considering that they were both gay.

“Fuck off, Trinity. Unless you want me to tell everyone what happened between you and Sarah at her party last summer?” Morgan leered back.

Trinity’s face turned bright red and she glared in return. “Whatever. You don’t know anything about what happened,” she said, but she left anyway.

Morgan laughed. “Well that was a lucky guess. I thought the thing with her and Sarah was just a rumor. At least now we have something to hold against her.”

Oliver’s next class was English, his favorite class aside from French. The reason was his teacher, Ms. Princeton. She was the only adult in Oliver’s life who knew that he was transgender. She was a kind and quiet woman who, like Oliver, lit up when she talked about her interests. She often went on at great lengths about literature, and the wonders of reading a great story. She encouraged the students to write creative stories, and often strayed from the curriculum, but she was an inspiration and a great asset to the school. Oliver particularly loved writing because it allowed him to get all his thoughts out in an organized and complete way.

Today’s class focused on a book they had been reading recently, The Hall of Mirrors by Gregory Stahlinsky. Oliver didn’t particularly like it, because many of the things that seemed literal ended up being some confusing metaphor.

“Stahlinsky talks at great lengths about the reflections he sees in the mirrors. How even though he sees himself, it is also not himself. Can anyone explain what this could mean?” Ms. Princeton asked, scanning the room for volunteers. The class remained motionless. She continued.

“What Stahlinsky sees is his true self, or selves. But it is also his false self. The mirror shows him his reflection as others might see him, in an undistorted fashion. In a way, how others see us is both true and false. Yes, Ashlyn?” Ms. Princeton pointed to a girl in the first row who was raising her hand.

“But then who sees us as we really are?” Ashlyn asked.

“That is a good question. I believe that what Stahlinsky is implying is that no one sees the true self. When you think about yourself and who you are, you might overestimate your faults or underestimate your strengths. You might be able to see things about yourself that others will never see, but it is also true that you will never see yourself as others see you. However, when Stahlinsky looks at himself in the mirror, he is able to see what his true self might be, but he knows there is no way he could even tell if he was looking at his true self or his false self.”

Ms. Princeton noticed many of the blank stares in the class, and chose to move on rather than explain it further. “Alright, now can I have Charity start reading at the beginning of chapter six please?”

The class seemed to take longer than usual for Oliver, and it seemed like hours had passed before the bell rang for the end of the day. Before he could leave, Ms. Princeton stopped to talk to him.

“Oliver, how did you find today’s class?” she asked him, smiling warmly.

“It was pretty interesting, Ms. Princeton. Although to be honest, I had a little trouble understanding some parts,” he admitted.

Ms. Princeton nodded sympathetically. “I understand. Metaphors can be tricky things, and unravelling the mysteries of a text can be a daunting task. If you would like, I can help you understand a few of the trickier metaphors after school.”

“That’s okay, Ms. Princeton. I think I can manage for now,” he said. She was always offering to help him, since she knew he was more of a literal thinker. Normally he would jump at the chance for some help, but right now he didn’t think he could stand staying late after school.

“Okay, just let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. I’ll see you later, Oliver. Have a good afternoon.”

“You too, Ms. Princeton.” Oliver smiled at her, and then left to find Morgan.

Oliver and Morgan left the school, making sure to grab the boots they had left in the entryway. Morgan wanted to stop by the creek again before heading home, but she knew her mom would throw a fit if she didn’t make it to tea with her grandmother. “Sorry, Oli. See you tomorrow,” she said, heading towards her home. She lived in the opposite direction of Oliver, on the other side of the school, in the fancy district with all the big houses. Her family had a lot of money on her mom’s side, although she didn’t know all the details. She didn’t care, to be honest.

Oliver headed to his own home, which was back across the creek. He had slipped his boots back on, since going through the creek was faster than going around. On the way he walked up the creek, staring into the water. He loved the way the stones seemed so smooth and shimmery underwater, and he even kept a fish tank filled with them in his bedroom; his mom said that one of these days it would fall over and make a huge mess. While he was looking for the perfect rock, he didn’t notice how far upstream he’d gone. He ended up at a place he didn’t recognize, where the creek was stopped by a stone outcropping. Water poured into his side of the creek from above and over the rocks, a waterfall about 10 feet high. He finally spotted the perfect rock by this outcropping, in a shallow area close to the bank. While he was picking up his rock, he noticed a frog sitting on the creek bank nearby. He smiled at it. He had always been fond of frogs and bugs, and had often taken them home when he was little, much to the dismay of his parents. He faltered though. Something about this frog was… different. He crouched closer, letting his hands hover just above it. In one swift movement he scooped it up, managing to catch it before it could hop away. He stared at it through his hands, cupping them so it wouldn’t escape.

Oliver had been right, this was no ordinary frog. For one thing, it had six eyes and strange, small red spots all over its back. There was also a bulbous bump on the back of its head, making it look misshapen and top-heavy. He marveled at it. Was it an alien? A real alien? Or maybe a mutant? He started to get excited. He covered the “frog” with his hands and hurried back through the mud. When he got home, he didn’t even bother to take his boots off, which his mom would not be happy about when she came home from work later. But Oliver was too excited to care. He ran upstairs and searched for an empty jar, but couldn’t find anything with his hands full. He decided to stick the creature in an empty water bottle until he could find something better. If it was anything like a normal frog, it would need to have water as soon as possible. He rushed over to his closet and began tearing through it, looking for a jar or container of some sort. He finally managed to find a small plastic tank that was supposed to be for catching bugs, but it would do for a frog. He shook out the dried grass that remained at the bottom of the container and then filled it with water. He took a few rocks from his large tank and stacked them at the bottom of the plastic container so the frog had something to sit on.

Finished with the task, Oliver went back to his bedside table where the water bottle was sitting. The frog was completely immobile, and Oliver hoped it wasn’t dead. He picked up the water bottle and shook the frog into his hand, but he gasped as something pricked him. He dropped the bottle and the frog and looked at his hand. Small pinpricks of blood were beginning to rise to the surface of his skin. He stared at his hand in confusion, although it was barely a scratch. Then he remembered the frog. He scanned the floor frantically for the creature, but couldn’t find it. Then, yes! There it was, hopping across the floor toward his bedroom door. He grabbed the water bottle and dove towards the frog, barely missing it. But before it could take another hop he managed to scoop it back into the bottle. The frog jumped a few times in an attempt to escape, but it soon became immobile again, accepting its fate.

Oliver let out a breath, relieved that he had managed to catch it. There was no way he could let this thing go before Morgan had seen it.

This time instead of dropping the frog onto his hand, he just dumped it straight into the plastic tank and closed the lid. The frog landed in the water but crawled up onto a rock, leaving its body only somewhat immersed. Oliver stared at the thing, fascinated. It really did seem like a frog, unless you looked closely. He set the container on his desk, so that the weak light coming in through his window shone on the frog. He considered putting a couple of textbooks on top so he was sure it wouldn’t be able to escape, but that would plug up the air holes. Instead he grabbed a few more stones from his fish tank and set them on top of the plastic one. There, that should keep it.

Oliver decided to do some research on the strange creature. Maybe it was some sort of sub-species of frogs or amphibians. But an hour later, he had turned up nothing. He closed out of Google, frustrated. He had looked for everything: creatures with six eyes, frog relatives, meaning of red spots. There was nothing that mentioned the creature he had found. He looked down at his hand, where a bit of dried blood still clung to his palm. He looked closer and discovered that the he had bled from several tiny cuts in his hand. He picked up the frog’s tank to look at it. It was sitting peacefully on its little rock, its neck bulging every few seconds. Oliver looked at the pattern of spots on its back, then back at his hand. The patterns seemed to match up. Perhaps the spots on its back had hurt him?

To test his theory, Oliver decided to touch the frog again. He braced himself, then gingerly scooped it back up. Nothing happened. No pain, no blood. Nonplussed, he put the frog back in its tank. Maybe he could try using other objects? He poked it with a pencil, then put a rock on its back, then draped a tissue over it. Still nothing. Perhaps it didn’t perceive these things as threats, and didn’t feel the need to activate its defenses. He decided to try it with another living thing.

Outside the sky was already turning dark, even though it was only just past 6 o’clock. Oliver headed to the field behind his house anyway, hopping over the creek so he wouldn’t get his shoes muddy. He had changed out of his boots since they weren’t optimal for chasing mice. The field there was full of them, munching on the grains they found there. Oliver had learned how to catch them when he was little, for his first big snake. The only way he could feed the thing was if he caught its food himself. It took him about a half hour, but he finally managed to catch a small mouse. He tucked it into his pocket and buttoned it closed.

When Oliver got home, he saw his mom’s car in the driveway.

“Rebecca, is that you?” she called from the other room when she heard the front door open.

Oliver cringed at his birth name and walked into the kitchen. His mom was rummaging in the fridge, looking for ingredients for dinner. She pulled out a carton of eggs and some cheese.

“We’re having omelets for dinner, and I’m also cooking apples. Were you at the creek this late? It’s dark out there,” she said when she noticed his shoes were muddy. “You could have slipped and fell and hit your head on a rock or something.” Oliver’s mom was never afraid to lay out the plain truth, no matter how graphic.

Oliver rolled his eyes. Even though he was already 15, she still treated him like he was 5.

“I know, mom. I was just going for a walk in the field. I wasn’t even at the creek.”

“Alright, just please leave a note if you’re going to be out that late.” She didn’t sound like she thought it was alright at all, but at least she wasn’t pushing it any further.

“I’m gonna go do homework,” Oliver said, heading out of the kitchen.

“Okay, but make sure to come down for dinner when I call you. Oh, and did you have an afterschool snack?” his mom called to him.

“Yeah,” he lied, already heading up the stairs.

Back in his room, Oliver took off his coat and laid it on the bed, ready to get to work. He checked to make sure the frog was still there; it was sitting on its rock, in the exact same place it was when he left. He reached for his pocket and unbuttoned it, making sure to cup his hand around the opening so there was no chance of the mouse wriggling out and escaping. He reached his hand inside and firmly grasped the mouse. It squirmed, and Oliver could feel its heartbeat quickening. He pulled it out and dangled it over the frog’s cage, then let it drop.

The mouse landed on the frog’s back; there was a short, shrill squeak and the mouse rolled off the frogs back and into the shallow water. The mouse paddled furiously, even though its tiny feet could touch the bottom with no danger of its head being underwater. The frog hadn’t moved, and for a second Oliver thought that he had been wrong, and nothing had happened. But a moment later he noticed that the water around the mouse was turning red. He reached into the tank, careful not to touch the frog, and picked the mouse up by its tail. The mouse struggled to free itself, but Oliver could see, on the underside of its belly, a pattern of bloody dots like the one on his hand. The mouse was significantly smaller than him though, and was starting to lose a lot of blood. Its movements slowed as the life left its body. Blood trickled down its torso and dripped on the floor. Oliver knew his mom wouldn’t be too happy about mouse blood in the carpet.

Oliver looked around for some place to put the dying mouse. He spotted his water bottle, where he had discarded it on the floor after dumping the frog out of it. He picked it up and dropped the mouse in. It hit the bottom and ran in slow circles, scratching at the sides of the container trying to get out. Its blood still dripped out of its stomach, and it began to pool in the bottom of the water bottle. Oliver stared in confusion. The mouse was bleeding much more than he had, even though it was smaller than him. What was different about this mouse’s wounds than his own?

The mouse was becoming more and more lethargic by the moment. Oliver couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the creature, as it stopped circling and just lay down in its own pool of blood. Its tiny mouse chest moved up and down, and its breathing became shallower. Finally, the mouse breathed its last breath, and was still.

Oliver sat for a few minutes in silence, dumbfounded. He had that strange sort of feeling, the kind you get when you hear about someone you didn’t know dying. He was interrupted by a knock at the door.

Oliver whirled around, panicked. There was no way he could explain the dead mouse and bloody water bottle to whichever parent was outside the door.

“Just a second!” he called, scrambling to grab the water bottle and shove it in the closet. He considered putting the frog away too, but decided that was normal enough it wouldn’t be questioned too much.

“Rebecca, what’s going on in there?” Oliver’s father called from outside the door. He opened it a moment later, not waiting for Oliver’s permission any longer.

“C’mon, it’s time for dinner. Woah, your room’s a mess,” Oliver’s father commented, after surveying the contents of the closet that Oliver had previously strewn across the floor. “You better clean that up before your mom sees it. Change out of your uniform and come eat dinner.”

“Sure, Dad. I’ll be there in a minute,” Oliver said, unconsciously rubbing his hands along the side of his skirt in a nervous stim.

“Okay. Hurry up though, you don’t want it to get cold,” his dad said, looking around the room once more before shutting the door.

Oliver let out a breath he didn’t know he had been holding. He decided to leave the mouse in the closet for now, and rushed to change out of his uniform. It was so comfortable he was always forgetting to change out of it after school. He stepped out of his skirt and unbuttoned his blouse, then stripped off his binder. He shoved it under his mattress so his parents were less likely to find it, although they mostly stayed out of his room anyway since they never knew what kind of creepy-crawly things he might be keeping at any given time.

Oliver pulled on a random t-shirt he found on the floor and a skirt that had spilled out of his closet. It was a floofy black one with a gray hem, one he hadn’t seen in months. At least there was some use to rummaging through his closet and making a mess. He made a mental note to go through and organize it later.

Dinner that night was quiet because, as his dad announced at the beginning of dinner, “work that day had been frustrating and exhausting.” Oliver’s dad worked as a dentist. He usually worked only on adults, but one of the pediatric dentists was on holiday and they were a little short-staffed. He was not used to working with children, especially those who had been forced or tricked by their parents to go to the dentist.

“At least I don’t have to fill any cavities… that would be a nightmare,” he mumbled. Oliver’s mom nodded in understanding. She was familiar with his pain, as she was an orthodontist who often had to put braces on children and teens. It was certainly a struggle.

Dinner was quick, and Oliver went upstairs to his computer after he finished helping with dishes. He logged into ChatMate. Morgan was already online and he sent her a quick message.
Roxass: guess what!!!!
SpookyMulder: ???
Roxass: i found a weird frog at the creek??
Roxass: it like pricked me or somthin? like i just touched its back and then i was bleeding and i think its some sort of defense mechanism
SpookyMulder: wth?? are u ok??
Roxass: yea it didnt rly hurt. cant say the same for the mouse tho……
SpookyMulder: ?
Roxass: well i tried pokin it with stuff but that didnt work so i had to use something live
Roxass: i caught a mouse but for some reason it bled a whole lot more and it died
Roxass: had to hide it in my closet so my mom wouldn’t see
SpookyMulder: gross u better get rid of that thing b4 it starts to decompose or whatev
SpookyMulder: thts rly weird tho??? u found this at the creek??
Roxass: yeh, it was by the waterfall
SpookyMulder: theres a waterfall???
Roxass: yeh i didn’t know about it either. its like super far upstream
SpookyMulder: wtf you gotta show it to me tomorrow, lets meet at the creek after school
SpookyMulder: sry i gotta go now im still grounded :(((((
SpookyMulder: see u tomorrow tho

Oliver closed out of the browser screen, deciding to just go straight to bed. That way tomorrow would come faster. But the excitement made it hard for him to sleep and it wasn’t until 2 am that he finally drifted off. The next morning he awoke groggy and disoriented, so he snuck a cup of coffee after his parents went to work. His parents always said he was “too young” to drink coffee, and he usually only got it as a special treat. But this was an emergency. He needed to be as alert and awake as possible today.

Morgan came over to see the frog before school. She gawked at it.

“This is some X-Files shit right here,” she said. Oliver agreed.

They decided to leave the frog here so they could pick it up after school. They wanted to wait to go to the waterfall, so they’d have the whole afternoon to explore.

Once at school, it was hard for either of them to sit still. They had 2nd period American Government together, and kept glancing at each other in excitement. The day seemed to pass slower than usual, and then finally they were allowed to leave. Oliver was feeling eager and anxious himself. He didn’t know what they expected to find, but the anticipation was growing. They both put on their boots as fast as humanly possible and raced to the field.

After grabbing the frog, they reached the creek and began walking upstream toward where Oliver remembered the waterfall being. He pointed out the bank where he had seen the frog.

“Weird, I’ve never been this far upstream before. Where even are we?” Morgan asked, glancing around. In this part of the creek trees encroached on both sides of the bank, and even though it was only 4:00 it looked like night. She shivered unconsciously.

They picked their way closer to the waterfall.

“The water here is so pretty. I wish I’d known this was here before,” Morgan said, marveling at the cascading water in front of them.

“Hey, what was that?” Oliver asked. He had noticed a small shape moving behind the falling water. Another frog maybe?

“What, what did you see?” Morgan asked, pushing closer to the falls. She was standing in a deeper part of the water now, and it rose almost to her knees.

Oliver found a rock to set the frog on before he joined her in the water. They stepped closer to the waterfall, and Morgan hesitantly stretched out a hand. The water spilled over it and they could see through the gap it made in the falls. The space beyond was dark, but they could see something shimmering.

“I think it’s a cave of some sort,” Morgan breathed.

“We should go in,” Oliver blurted out. He had the strange feeling that it was what they were supposed to do.

“I don’t know… it looks really dark and we can’t see what’s in there.” For once, Morgan wasn’t all for doing the dangerous thing. She would never admit it, even to Oliver, but she had a big fear of the dark. She also didn’t want to die.

“Morgan, there could be something that explains what that frog is, or maybe even where it’s from. There could be some kind of mutant breeding grounds, or even alien nest.”

Morgan perked up at this, just like Oliver knew she would. “Okay, fine. But you go first.”

Oliver agreed. He took a deep breath and plunged in.

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