Underlands

Submitted by Michael Lacey to Contest #6 in response to: Write a story about friends taking a road trip they've been planning for years.... view prompt

“Ugh, I can’t wait til we pick up Sara and Billy,” Mary says in her most earnest voice.

I try not to be offended every time Mary brings this up. 

You see, we’re on a road trip, but not just any road trip. This is THE road trip to end all road trips to a place not even on a map—except for the underground one I got from some junkie who had no idea what he had. It’s both a relic and a compass for the few real adventurers left in the world like myself.

I say, “epic,” but now the trip feels like a game of Monopoly, threatening to end the friendships we’ve fought so hard to reel in. Instead of meeting up and driving out to the last known location of the map’s mystical properties—yeah, I know, I get made fun of it, but I believe there’s more to this world than we know—anyways, instead of meeting up, we’re picking up a few people along the way.

“Yeah, yeah,” I try to shrug it off. “Maybe if they wanted to be with us at the start, then they would have flown out to begin with.”

“Come on, T-T,” Scroty says in his gruff voice, using that nickname I hate. Only one person gets to use that with my blessing. “This just gives us more time bond. It’s about the journey and all that.”

I’m not sure why we call him that, and I’m sure I don’t want to know. College truly was the greatest ten years of his life. Maybe that’s one of those nicknames that he hated also.

He grabs my shoulder and shakes me. The RV swerves, and I have to loosen my grip until he’s done. 

As anxious as it makes me, I can’t help but laugh. Scroty has that way with people. He’s always been the life of the party, since we all met and up to our college graduation when we all went our separate ways—except Scroty. For all I know, he still lives on campus ten years later. I guess I haven’t been as good a friend to him as I hoped. 

Even more reason this trip has to be epic. 

“You know she has a family,” Mary starts, “and it’s not so easy to just take off, not like you, Mr. Hotshot entrepreneur! I’ve seen your face on more billboards this Spring than I can count.”

I know exactly why Sarah didn’t fly out, and I can’t blame her. If she could see who I am now...it wouldn’t matter. She’s “happily married,” as if that’s possible.

Spring is a great time to sell the American road trip dream. Those commuters and desk jockeys need something to work towards.

“Yeah, Tomster, why don’t you shoot me some of that cool cash? I can drive RVs as good as I can drive any car!”

“Two words,” Mary says. “House boat.” She and I bust out laughing.

“Hey,” Scroty defends, “I said any CAR. The house boat—rest in pieces—wasn’t made to drive on land, as I found out. Hey, college is where we go to learn, right?”

“You should’ve learned most of what you’re missing in kindergarten,” I say, never knowing how far to take jokes with people, especially since I’ve become the most successful of our friend group, even if I’m not the “happiest.”

“Maybe I can teach you something you never figured out, the art of chill.”

“Ha-ha.”

I miss this. This is what I’ve been missing for the last ten years, friends who don’t kiss my hind-end to get a promotion.

We drive on til we reach Sarah’s place. 

“Let’s make this quick,” I say as I leave the RV running. Honestly, we right on schedule, but I don’t want to see her perfect life up close and personally. But that’s exactly what Mary wants.

“Mm, let’s make this quick, wah,” Mary mocks as she jumps out of the RV. 

I can hear the reunion, squeals of delight and tears mashing between their faces. I still haven’t looked over. Part of me doesn’t want to see her ever again, but most of me wishes I dropped my dreams to live hers.

This isn’t who I am, not anymore. I’m the CEO of the largest vacation rental companies on the East coast. I don’t sit and wait, not anymore. I’m the action taker.

I hop out of the RV, and walk towards the front. Before I get to it, I see a flash of blonde hair and feel a body crash into me. It’s familiar and strange all at once, like a box of childhood knick-knacks. My arms follow their old route as I return the hug. Just like discovering a long-lost toy—and with it, rediscovering a part of yourself—I start to find something old and new, but not as expected.

Knowing that she cares for me like this, like a long-lost friend—even after what I put her through—well, that releases something in me. I feel forgiven. I feel free. I feel sadness for what I’ve lost and shame for what I hoped for.

After a moment, we separate, and I’m surprised when I wipe my cheek and feel moisture. 

She’s still beautiful, but she looks older. Family life must be tough. Something shifts in me. No longer do I want to prove to her that I’m better for my choices. Instead, I want her to be happy regardless of where I am. I guess I do still love her, but it’s not the kind of love I thought.

“Hey Sare,” I say, then add the, “-a.” 

“Hey T-T, or should I say ‘Tommy Travels?’ You’ve done well for yourself. You look good.”

I try to stop my eyes from scanning her and noticing that having three kids seems to have taken its toll. It doesn’t take anything away from her, it’s just not exactly how he remembers her. But nothing is ever as remembered, nothing ever lives up to its former glory.

“You…” I hesitate, hating myself for waiting. I just say what I’m thinking. “You look…happy.” I smile with sincerity, an odd feeling if I must admit. I was planning to use my newfound charm and status to, well, to take this somewhere else. Now, I can’t imagine doing that to her family.

“I am,” she smiles as she sighs. “It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows—lots of unicorns though. It’s hard, but it’s the best kind of hard. I don’t think I’d want it any other way.”

That stings a little, but he knows it was his choice to leave, his choice to chase his dream. They say, “hindsight is 20-20,” but I’m having a hard time seeing it so clearly. I honestly don’t know if I would’ve changed it.

Our reunion is cut short as three little girls crash into their mother. I glance down into Sara’s eyes, but they exist in a tiny face. She’s nearly a direct copy except for the auburn hair. Then again, I remember when Sara tried a similar color. 

“These—“ Sara is jostled about, “—are my girls, Joanna,” she puts a hand on her head, then off to the next, “Simone, and little Ivy.” 

“They take after their mother, prettier than a picture.” 

The girls smile at me, and I wonder when the last time it was I talked to a child. I’m usually not so good with them.

“Mommy, can we come with you?” the middle girl asks. “This looks fun!”

“Sorry honey, mama needs this trip. I think we all do,” she says, glancing up at me. I smirk then shrug and nod.

 “Who’s that?” Ivy, the youngest at maybe six? Seven? Five? I have no idea how to tell. “Is that our new daddy?”

“Whoa there, princess!” I laugh. “I’m just an old friend, and I do mean old.” 

My terrible attempt at a joke actually lands. The little girls laughs and points again, saying, “you’re old!”

I’m in my mid-thirties, little girl. Of course, it was a lifetime ago that he was her age, perhaps a few lifetimes if you count the roads not taken.

***

The roads not taken. I stare down at the map as we walk through the woods of Yellowstone—one of the world’s most beautiful and well preserved piece of nature. 

According to the lore, the map was crafted by a master navigator, one who claimed he could find any place on earth without a map. That was a clever way of saying it, especially when I’d learned that there are—possibly—lands under the earth: underlands, they’ve been called. 

“There’s a reason no one knows how to find these underlands,” men have said—according to some stories. So, when I learned of rumors that this master navigator created four maps, I became obsessed.

My thirst for adventure and the mythos behind the four maps led me to start my travel company. I’ve been looking for years and finally tracked one down. The map itself cost hardly a thing, but all the information and decades searching for it cost everything. 

“It should be working,” I say, halfway mumbling.

“You got ripped off, T,” Billy says. We picked him up close to the rendezvous point—according to my research. “Any crackhead could’ve scribbled that mess or stole it from some Dungeons and Dragons dweeb.”

I don’t say it, but I can tell Billy has some inside knowledge on how addicts think. I’ve crossed enough of them to see it: the quick movements when no one seems to be looking; the strange aversion to money when it’s pulled out, as if it’s cake in front of an athlete; and especially the way he can talk his way through anything. He shares that with Scroty, but Scroty just gets by on blind luck.

“Oh no,” I defend. “This isn’t like that. I’ve got a solid source that something will happen, something will activate when we’re close.”

We finally reach the grove, a cluster of trees that float above the ground in a way that allows us to walk underneath them. It’s like entering a human-sized rabbit burrow. Roots traverse in every direction and we go through it like children at the playground. 

“What’s supposed to happen?” Scroty says as he reaches for the map.

“Not so fast, buddy,” I say, pulling the temperature controlled glass case away. “This thing is literally hundreds of years old, at least. Just opening this box in the wrong humidity could turn it to dust.”

“Whatever,” Scroty says as he lurches for it again. 

I hold it out and away, but it’s pulled from my grasp. 

“Billy! Seriously man, you don’t know what that—“ I freeze as I watch my life’s work go sailing over my head. I relax a bit as Scroty catches it, but I’m still ticked off.

“Scroty,” I hold my hands up like I’m a hostage negotiator. I might as well be. “Just hand it back to me nice and easy.”

“This old thing?” He smiles. “I just want to see if it’s legit. I imagine I’ve made just about every mistake there is to make and bought every fake that exists. One time, I bought a bag of glowing air, thinking it’d get me as high as a 747, but when I breathed it in, all I got was a buzz, and I don’t even know if that was real or something I told myself to feel better.”

“For real, Jack,” I use his real name to let him know how serious I am. With old friends, we all have a trump card, and we all respect when it must be played.

“Dude,” he shimmies his shoulders. “That doesn’t feel right. Call me Scrotes, Scrotazoa, Socratestes—anything but, Jack,” he spits the word out like salty brine.

“How about Scrota-liscious?” I say, finally relaxing a bit.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” he says with a wink and hands me the map.

By now, the girls have caught up and jumped in, but my spirits are low. I all but stare a hole through both sides of the glass case which protects the map. 

We find the end of the space and, in my exasperation, I yell, holding the map up like the knife Abraham almost used to kill his son, Isaac.

I stare back through the cave of roots, now looking more like prison bars. I can’t believe this is the end. Then, I do what I should’ve done long ago. I throw the map down, smashing the glass to bits and scarring the map.

I regret it right away and fall to my knees, not caring about the cuts to my hands and legs. I hold the map like someone losing a loved one. 

A hand rests on my shoulder, the familiar touch of someone I’ve known intimately. Then, Sara puts her arms around me from behind. I close my eyes and melt into her. Just as before when I’d seen her after ten years, another revelation hits me. I do still love her, in every way. Now, I just want to know her again, whatever it takes.

Someone removes the map from my hands gently. I glance up to see Scroty.

“I got this, dude.”

Then, as soon as it leaves my hands, I see it. Something flares up, scorching a line across the map that was never there before. Part of me dies as I fear the worst—that it is falling apart—while a bigger part watches jealously. I’d heard that some carry something deep inside, the rarest of genetic markers that trace back to the greatest explorers of the past. I had hoped it was in me, for my love of the world and thirst for adventure.

Freakin’ Scroty, I think, but I don’t dwell on it. He has unlocked the map. Some ancient ink is charged to light, coming alive in the darkness of this cave. 

A matching light peaks through the back wall, and I realize that the dead end is actually the very beginning. 

“It has to be you,” I say to Scroty without explanation. He seems to understand and puts a hand on the wall.

None of us know what to expect, not even me. And when it happens, we still don’t believe it. 

It’s not until each of us are walking through the gap in the wall where only a tree trunk had once stood. It has spread itself apart like curtains inviting the sun in, and we each dive through with reckless abandon and curiosity.

We walk into a land of turquoise light, a radiance like the most exotic bioluminescence this world has to offer. Even though there are untold wonders ahead of me, I’m not looking at those, not yet.

What I see is the woman I fell in love with all those years ago, her face softly lit by some turquoise radiance, like moonlight bouncing off a lake but it seems to shower her face from every direction.

Before my thoughts carry me through the possibilities, Mary says she needs her camera but doesn’t move.

“I’ll get it.” I force myself to look away from Sara. I turn around to go back through the split, but the wall is solid. I imagine I must’ve misplaced myself, so I scoot along it, sliding my hands across the petrified wood wall. After a few feet, I change directions. 

It’s dark in here, but not pitch black. Regardless, I turn on my phone’s light, noticing the service bars have disappeared. The light flickers, and I glance at the battery bar. It’s still halfway up yet the phone dies. 

“I can’t seem to find the way out,” I share. 

“Tommy, you’ve got to see this,” Sara beckons. I abandon my quest for a moment, but the strangeness never leaves my mind.

When I turn around, my eyes adjusting to the dark, I intentionally keep my eyes off of her. Then, I understand why they’re all so transfixed. 

The world is lit with something like fireflies, thousands all around us. The floating particles of light are the same color as the glowing ink from my map. They illuminate the world around us enough to see that we’re in some sort of cavern. 

There are tree roots dangling from the ceiling and some wood pillars driving up from ground to ceiling as though they’re holding the world up. Though I can’t see very far, I already know that this is one of those lands of legend, and I dream of what we might find. 

The lost cities of gold, proof of an Amazonian culture, Atlantian artifacts, the fountain of youth?!

I glance back at the wall and see Scroty searching the wall. When it no refuses to responds even to him, I’m reminded of the thing I’d heard over and over in my search for the map. 

“There’s a reason no one knows how to find these underlands.”

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