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Time Tunnel



“Here,” said David, casually pointing off to the right. 

“Here?” Jamie asked, his voice clipping a step higher than usual, maybe trying to create a little harmony with the brakes, which had also started to protest. 

“Yes, right here! This bit!”

Jamie managed to slow the car down enough to squeeze into a little dirt segment on the side of the road, flush to the mountain. The cliff face. Would you call it a mountain when it was technically one half of a canyon? Inner wall? It could also be considered a valley, he supposed. Valley wall? He wasn’t sure. It was sheer, and tall. Made of rock. Red, desert rock. He could have parked on the other side of the road, there was another dirt section over there, next to a drop into the canyon itself, but why pull the U-turn if you didn’t have to, right? 

“You weren’t kidding when you said we were just going to pull off onto the side of the road, huh?”

“I told you it was gonna come up quick after the statuary!” said David, grinning from the passenger seat. 

               David popped out of the car, all his weight in his toes, as usual, just careful enough not to throw the door open onto the rock next to it. There was some squeezing and shimmying to get out, but David’s enthusiasm always made it feel like popping when he arrived somewhere. It was a gift of his. Or a curse, depending on who you asked. There were mixed reviews. 

               He waited for Jamie to get out of the driver’s seat. He took a second, peering out the window to make sure that no cars were coming toward them, since his door was roadside. Probably good that he’d been the one to drive - David wasn’t really one for taking a second. But then again, how many people got hit by oncoming traffic stepping out of their cars, anyway? Couldn’t be that many. 

               “You ready?”

               “I guess so.”

               “Got your stuff? Phone, wallet, keys? Water? Bathing suit? Book?”

               “Yes, David, I have my stuff,” Jamie said. He couldn’t help but laugh at David standing there on the side of the road, hair blowing the wrong way, his tiny backpack jam-packed with everything he’d just mentioned and probably a few things more.

               “You’re gonna love it, I’m telling you. No place like it. Exists outside of time and space, I swear. It’s a different world down there. Untouched almost. That’s how it got its name, after all,” said David, turning on his heel and strolling straight down the winding canyon road, his red Converse kicking up a small cloud of dust. Jamie and his brown hiking boots followed. 

               David led them down the road a ways, the sun beating down from directly overhead. He kept tight to the rock until there wasn’t rock anymore, just some trees and bushes, pretty densely packed together. Jamie thought you could probably walk down through them if you didn’t mind taking a couple cuts and bruises home with you. He looked a little more closely. Maybe more than a couple.

               “First time I came here with Mia,” David said, turning halfway over his shoulder to mostly-but-not-quite look at Jamie, “we went down that way. Felt like a bunch of idiots when we left and came up this way instead.”

               He’d stopped in front of a slight gap in the general shrubbery, the start of what looked like a clear and worn path down a small hill. The slope down was made of old concrete, married to a tenacious layer of dirt and leaves. 

               He grinned at Jamie sheepishly, clearly remembering how he’d trudged through the bushes and branches for a good twenty minutes, only to pop out into a clearing that had an obvious path attached. What could he say? He’d made it to the Tunnel, after all. Just hadn’t taken the most conventional of routes. 

               “I’m glad we’re not going through the bushes this time,” Jamie said as David started down the slope. 

               “Oh, there’ll be bushes aplenty, Jamie, don’t you worry.”


               He walked about four feet in, then hopped down another small slope, coming to a standstill in what felt like a large concrete bowl. He turned to Jamie expectantly, awaiting his arrival so they could keep going. Jamie followed him down slowly, keeping all his weight back to counterbalance. 

He was surprised at how close it was to the highway. He’d expected to haul ass into the wilderness for a while before getting there. Yet here they were, spitting distance from the main canyon road. Well, maybe more like rock-throwing distance. Shouting distance for sure. David’s voice cut into Jamie’s audio-spatial calculation. 

               “It’s an old storm drain, far as I can tell. Can’t imagine it would be anything else. And I can confirm it gets plenty slick after it rains. Mark had to walk up outta here on all fours once!”

               The pair stood at the mouth of what indeed looked like an old storm drain. Probably around seven feet in diameter. Absolutely covered in graffiti of varying tones. There were the usual stylized names, but there were some dogs, too. Some flowers. Black Lives Matter. A couple mushrooms. A lamb with squiggles for eyes. Yin and Yang. It went all the way down the Tunnel, disappearing into the warm darkness after about the first six feet. The word “Portal” was written at the top, all caps, gold spray paint. Someone had scrawled “Time Tunnel,” in what looked like pink hi-liter in a small white spot under the P and O.

               “I love it,” Jamie said. 

               “Told you that you would. You haven’t even seen the inside yet,” he replied, taking his eyes off the Tunnel for just long enough to flash his friend a quick grin. 

               A couple cars flew by on the road above them.


               “You won’t be able to hear any cars once we’re through, either.”


               “Really? Is it that far down?”


               “Not sure. I’m not sold that it has a whole lot to do with distance. You’ll see.” 


               Once again, David and his red Converse led the way, with a little less speed this time. The intent was still there – always the intent with David, and always brightly kinetic – but there was a reverence to his stride that Jamie hadn’t seen from him before now. They’d not quite grown up together – grown up adjacently, they liked to say. Made it through 12 years of the same schools before having their first real conversations after they both graduated. They knew a lot about each other then, remembering little bits of information that had come down through the grapevine, which made them feel familiar to each other even if they'd taken their time before starting to actually talk.   Funny how the timing of their friendship had worked out. They were better for it. 

               By the time Jamie set foot in the Tunnel, David was already easily a quarter of the way down. When he was a third of the way in, David was about to step out into the sunlight on the other side. He wasn’t trying to beat Jamie or leave him behind – there was enough trust between them for Jamie to know that. David was just quick. Of course he’d pop right out the other side of the Tunnel. How else would the boy move? He’d wait at the bottom, though, and he wouldn’t mind doing it. 

               Jamie kept his way down the Tunnel, hands loosely touching the concrete above his head to help keep balance. He probably didn’t need to, but it made him feel a little steadier to have at least three points of contact. The bizarre zinging sound of each footfall echoed through the Tunnel.

               He stepped out into the light to find David sitting on a rock, legs crossed, head tilted slightly to the right like a dog waiting for his friends to come play. A field of rocks stretched out before them – all of which were too big to lift, certainly, probably about half the size of a person. Some of them certainly were person-sized, and some of them maybe a couple people. The way they all stacked on each other, it looked like a giant had tripped and dropped a bag of marbles, creating this little offshoot of the main canyon. Trees sprung up all around them, sunlight falling through their leaves to decorate the rocks, joining the various things that had been painted on them. It smelled like Jamie imagined healthy soil smelled.

               Could he hear water? David had mentioned a river, but with David that could mean anything from a small creek to white water. He’d try to hop across either way. He’d probably make it, too. He’d been known to lose his shoes to rivers. 

               David said he tried to be unattached to material things. To Jamie, it seemed like that was mostly shoes. David claimed otherwise. Jamie had stopped questioning it. 

               “Here’s the plan,” said David, pulling Jamie’s attention from the rock-field. “We’ll do some rock hopping this way til we hit the level of the river. Then we have a choice – we can either shoot northeast for a while,” he said jerking his head to Jamie’s left, “and then head back southwest since northeast stops pretty quickly, or we skip the northeast part altogether and just go southwest til we hit the grotto. What do you wanna do?”

               “David, I have no idea, I have literally never been here before in my life. Can’t you just…?” he trailed off. 

               “Nope!” said David, brightly. He stood up, giving a little hop at the end of the movement, before turning and starting to make his way down. It appeared he’d meant rock hopping literally. 

Jamie followed suit, though he proved to be more of a rock-stepper than a hopper. Hey, he’d never been here before, and taking rocky paths wasn’t usually his MO. There were a couple pieces of metal worked into the rock piles – old and rusted. They almost looked like cars. David noticed him looking. 

“I think they’re train cars, but how those would have gotten down here, I couldn’t tell you. We’ll probably see more. They’re only bits of the outside world that have made their way in here. Aside from some of the litter.” His distaste for this was obvious.

               He looked ahead to the last bits of the rocks, narrowing his eyes not in suspicion, but the way one looks at a particularly mischievous and particularly beloved child. “I swear this place changes every time I come here. Feels like it, anyway.”

               They hopped down into some dirt, and David turned around to face Jamie, arms outstretched, pointing both ways down the river.

               “What’ll it be? A detour to the northeast, or southwest til the grotto?”

               “David, really, I don’t care. I’m so neutral here. Whatever you think is best,” said Jamie, his voice tired.

               He rolled his eyes before turning to his left, taking them southwest. “You’re gonna have to get better at that eventually.”

               David talked as the two headed further down. Jamie saw David’s river – a small creek at first, that turned into more of a brook, weaving in between rocks. Small, blue dragonflies stopped on its surface wherever they could find pockets of stillness. David, crowdsourcing from Jamie after begging him for some input for once in his adult life, jeez, named them all Holland.

               He showed Jamie the crook in the tree by the brook where you could sit. Though David assured him it could bear weight, he was dubious until David sat in it. At the first crossing of the water, he asked Jamie if he’d rather cross on some rocks, or hop across some small logs that some helpful Time Tuneller had laid down long ago. 

               Jamie stood hesitant, unsure. The logs were closer together, but they seemed to shift a little bit when David crossed them. He didn’t love that. The rocks were probably stable, but they were wet and slippery and farther apart, which again was less than ideal. 

               “Tell you what,” came David’s voice, breaking into Jamie’s silent River Crossing Committee meeting, “I’ll cross here, and you head over whenever you like. We’ve got time.” 

               David chose the logs, on a whim, because he thought they’d be the fastest, and he was determined to get to the grotto as ASAP as possible – the longer they took, the hotter it would get. He turned around, ready to tease Jamie some more from the other side of the creek, with love, of course, and stopped in his tracks.

               There, back across the water, head tilted to one side and clutching his backpack straps like they were the only real thing in the world, stood a little boy. Couldn’t be more than five. And he was caught choosing between the rocks and the logs. Brown eyes as big as his whole little head, it seemed. 

               David stared, his latest taunt vanishing before it was even fully formed. He thought back to everything that he’d heard about the Time Tunnel and then promptly dismissed. Every weird legend from too-talkative canyon locals. Every odd experience relayed by a hippie he’d assumed had been on shrooms. Every bizarre shimmer he’d seen, every hint of children’s laughter he’d overheard, every time the air had felt old or young or middle-aged. 

               Absolutely not. And yet, here he was. And he was five. Four? Six? David didn’t know. He didn’t work with kids. How are you supposed to tell them apart by age, anyway? They’re all just small. Oh boy. 

               “Well. I mean. I guess on your first trip in,” David paused. “That can sometimes happen,” he said, slowly, beginning to cross back over the logs. 

               Yep. There was no getting around it. The same too-long cargo shorts he’d always worn when he was a kid. The same purple backpack with the little clip in the front, one of those ones with a whistle built in, though he’d probably never dream of using it, it was so loud. Right down to the white shoes with blue stripes and Velcro. A boy he’d never played with but had always seen. 

               “Let’s figure out what you need, little dude. But first, let’s get across this stream. Only way forward is through, right? Which way do you think we should go?” 

               Little Jamie looked up at him like he’d never been asked a question in his life. 

               David frowned. “I see. Maybe that’s all it is then.” He plopped down next to the boy. They were nearly eye to eye now. “Do grownups ask you what you want to do a lot?”

               Jamie shook his head. 

               “Do you want them to?”

               He shook his head again, fervently this time, with maybe some of the most decisiveness David had ever seen from him. 

               “Why not?”

               He wasn’t quite sure he’d expected an answer, but he figured he’d ask anyway. Kids were kids, sure, but he figured there wasn’t a reason to not give them a chance to speak. Little Jamie just clipped and unclipped the front of his backpack, looking around at the trees. Time for a new approach, maybe.

               “I’ll tell you what, kid. There’s a great thing about this place. You wanna know what it is?”

               He held still for a second before he nodded. Progress already. Look at us go. 

               “No matter which way we pick,” said David, lowering his voice into a theatrically loud whisper, as if to keep the information secret from hidden ears, “we’ll end up in the same place eventually.” 

               Jamie spoke in a small voice. “You mean there’s no bad choice?”

               “No bad choice, kiddo. I mean, in this case there isn’t really a good choice either. We’ll get to the grotto either way, and it’ll be good. It’ll be. Some ways might be quicker or slower or a little trickier, but none of them are bad. We’ll get there.” 

               Jamie took this in like a world leader in a war council. David waited. As a general rule, he liked to keep moving, but it was alright. He had nowhere to be, and he’d decided to work on patience lately anyway. One of the several things he was trying to practice through his multiple trips down here. It would probably be a little hotter than he wanted at the grotto, but there were worse things. And besides, now that the Time Tunnel was doing its thing on Jamie, he couldn’t exactly leave until that had been resolved. “Hey guys, sorry to return your son to you fifteen years removed, but he got caught up in one of the most benevolent urban legends I’ve ever heard, and I couldn’t be bothered to stick it out”? Absolutely not. Would he revert when they got back anyway? Best not to take any chances. And best not to fight the Time Tunnel. And besides – David truly had nowhere to be but here. He wondered how much of this Jamie would remember afterwards – if it would feel like a childhood memory or like a day’s work.

               David let himself lay down and closed his eyes, letting his hands fall into the dirt on either side of him. Feeling the sun and the wind chase each other through the Tunnel like a couple of sisters on a playground. It occurred to him that maybe he should be trying to offer some more hands-on guidance to the kid. He decided against it. Jamie would decide when he was well and ready. 

               He hoped.

               He’d just gotten comfortable in that liquid state of not-quite-asleep-because-I-can-see-the-heat-of-the-sun-through-my-eyelids when he felt a tug on his shirt, followed by what had to be the world’s smallest, “Excuse me.”

               He sat up, stifling a yawn. “What’s up? We have a path yet?”

               Jamie spoke slowly, hesitantly, like he expected to be interrupted. “I think we should go across the logs.” 

               David sprang up and clapped his hands in front of him. A course of action, finally. “Logs it is!” 

               He hauled across the stream, moving quickly and surely across what couldn’t be more than a four-foot section of water. He turned around, expectantly. Jamie had watched him, eyes narrowed, hands by his sides in little fists. He took a deep breath and stepped out onto the first log, arms held out to the sides to balance. 

               “You’ve got it, Jamie – just some logs in some water!”

               He’d never really encouraged a child before, but Jamie seemed to pick up on it. He took the remaining steps slowly and methodically, but he didn’t stop the whole way across. He seemed quietly pleased with himself afterwards. 

               “You ready?”

               Jamie nodded sharply, squaring his jaw, eyes focused. 

               They headed down the river, walking through a patch of sand that seemed like it belonged to Malibu instead of Topanga. As they walked, David trying to ask Jamie about his favorite colors and plants and whatever else he could think of, the sand turned to dirt, the dirt turned to pebbles, and the pebbles led into other remarkably shallow parts of brook they’d already crossed over. Once Jamie had seen that David didn’t mind getting his shoes a little wet, he marched right through after him. Shoes are for shoe-ing, after all. They came into a patch of tall grass, about the height of David’s waist, where bamboo hugged the side of the canyon wall. He’d taken at least six steps into it before realizing that it probably came up to around Jamie’s neck.

               He turned around and saw Jamie’s head just barely breaking the surface of the grass, like he was trying to doggy-paddle through it. 

               “You got this one, or do you maybe want some help?”

               “Help, please.”

               David laughed and waded back toward the boy, scooping him up and placing him on his shoulders. Jamie rested his arms on the top of David’s head. David gave another good-natured laugh at the boy’s obvious relief. 

               “You know, you could’ve just asked. You didn’t need to wait for me to say something,” said David absentmindedly, routing them southwest once again. 

               “I didn’t want to bother you!” came Jamie’s reply, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “You were busy!”

               From his new vantage point, Jamie began to point out birds and trees that he liked. He spoke to the dragonflies quietly, only ever raising his voice to ask David what something was, how it got there, and to demand he go carefully as to not crush any tadpoles. The further the pair went, the brighter the air felt, and Jamie’s voice seemed to carry a little further with each step. 

               David carried Jamie on his shoulders until they reached the grotto – one of the biggest watering holes the Time Tunnel had to offer, closed in by boulders on two sides, the canyon wall on the third, and a small sandy beach on the fourth. A small stream ran between the boulders, just enough to put some motion into the grotto. It wasn’t uncommon for Tunnelers to jump from them into the water – it was just deep enough to do so safely, if you paid a little bit of attention. For a lot of people, this was the be-all end-all of the Time Tunnel. It held a special place in David’s heart, but even further southwest where the terrain became more unstable, there were other gems to be found. He’d see them another time.

               “Feel like swimming?” asked David, tilting his head upwards to direct the question toward Jamie, accidentally looking into the sun. 

               “No, please.”

               “Wanna just find some beach to sit on?”


               David lowered Jamie down and set him on the sand before finding himself a place to sit. He pulled his water and a book out of his backpack, figuring he would just let the kid do his own thing. He’d keep an eye on him. He’d be fine. 

               While he read, Jamie pulled off his socks and shoes and waded into the water. He came back and dropped a rock by David’s backpack. Then another. And another. Before long, he had a small pile going, like he was gearing up for a game of marbles with Mother Nature herself. When his work was done, he sat beside David and explained that there were not, in fact, just rocks, but little creatures he’d found living in the water of the grotto. David quickly learned that they had families and relationships, a wide array of interests, and what sounded like a democratically elected ruling body.


                Jamie asked if he could take them home. 

               Into the backpack they went. 

               Sitting down, Jamie let out a yawn that was bigger than he was.

               “Ready to head home?”

               Jamie nodded. “Can I ride on your shoulders again?”


               David carried him back the way they’d came, listening to the quiet conversations Jamie had with the birds, the dragonflies, the trees. Before he knew it, they were almost back where they’d started. That was another thing about the Time Tunnel. The way back out was always faster than the way in. He never knew why – he just knew it was always true. 

               He popped Jamie off his shoulders down to the ground, and before he’d even stood back up from his crouch, Jamie shouted, “Rocks this time!” 

               He took off, hair bouncing. He slipped a little here and there as he stepped across, pausing to catch his balance, arms out like he was walking a tightwire. As he made the final leap to the opposite shore, he glowed, erupting into a flash of bright light, giving the sun a run for her money. 

               When David opened his eyes, Jamie was standing there, car keys in his hand, boots digging into the sand.

               “You coming or what?” he called, grinning. “Nice of you to do the carrying labor, but I can’t stand here waiting for you all day, now can I?” 

               David laughed and shook his head, deciding he’d run across the logs because it would probably be faster. He was hungry by now, and clearly Jamie wasn’t in the mood to be kept waiting. 

David started, “So that was –”

               “Yep. Like you said. Time Tunnel.” That seemed to be enough.

               Jamie led them up and over the field of rocks, up and out of the storm drain. The pair emerged from the Time Tunnel, the sun straight overhead. 

               “Lunch?” David asked. 

               “Lunch,” Jamie agreed. 


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