Todd Harmon jumped down from the cab of his truck, landing on the pavement with a wince as his old knees protested the treatment. He straightened with another grimace of pain for his back, permanently griping after more than thirty years of sitting for hours each day. It was a situation as old as modern society, but somebody had to do the job he did, and the compensation for it had helped him to build a very nice life for himself and his family. He could have taken early retirement three years ago, but he just hadn’t liked the idea of someone else doing this job without him around to see that it was done right.
With a sigh, he turned to the curb and the row of waste receptacles that the residents of the nearby homes had lined up there. He made a quick count, then frowned. One can short; the Harris’s hadn’t put theirs out. There had been nothing in the notes about them being out of town or anything. Something unexpected must have come up; he knew that they had a kid with a congenital health problem that required frequent, expensive treatments.
Shrugging, Todd grabbed the first tall plastic bin and wheeled it toward the truck.
The back gate of the massive vehicle was closed tight, as per regulations when it wasn’t being loaded. The stern warning labels affixed to the scraped, dented metal were still clearly legible, though Todd had long since committed them to memory. They all said the same thing, in a number of different languages: Do Not Enter the Portal.
Todd clipped his safety tether to a stout metal cleat on the bumper, following the procedure that had been drilled into him in training. Tether first, then open the gate. Never the other way around. He then ran a finger over the strange symbol engraved on the center of the heavy metal hatch, murmuring the words he had memorized. The symbol flashed red and the gate swung ponderously open.
Beyond was a gaping, black hole, unfathomably deep, endless and bottomless as far as Todd knew. And he didn’t know much about the Portals. All he’d ever been told was that it led somewhere else, someplace where no one lived, where no one minded a world’s worth of garbage being dumped. Just another bit of magic in a world where it was becoming more and more common.
It was a perfect solution to the problems of overflowing landfills and increased use of nonbiodegradable materials. Todd just had to do his job the way he’d been shown, and not ask questions. For seventy-plus thousand a year and great benefits, he could do that.
Lifting the first receptacle, he tipped it over the edge, keeping a careful grip on the bin. Bags of trash tumbled into the yawning black abyss, one after another, vanishing down the hole without a trace. When it was empty, he set it back on the ground, peeked inside to make sure he’d gotten everything out, then pushed it back to the curb and grabbed the next one.
As he did so, he heard the soft rumbling of plastic wheels on concrete, and looked up to see Rob Harris wheeling his trashcan down his driveway. Even as he guided the bin along, he had his phone pressed to his ear with the other hand.
“Yes, sir, I’ll be there,” Rob said, in that tone you use when telling your boss that you can totally do that impossible job he just gave you. “Just running a little behind today.” He pushed the trash can into line and gave Todd a quick nod of greeting.
Todd returned the nod and watched as the other man practically ran back up the drive and slipped into his car, still talking into his phone.
Turning back to his work, Todd heard the car drive away. He kept grabbing cans, dragging them to the gate, and emptying them into the dark hole, working with the efficiency of long practice.
Another can emptied over the edge, another jumble of trash tumbled into the void. Todd dragged it back to the curb and grabbed that last one, the Harris’s bin. As he pulled it away, he noticed a little girl standing behind it, staring up at him.
She couldn’t have been more than four years old, but she seemed small for her age, thin and wan, with dark circles around her large eyes. She stared up at him, pale lips parted over small teeth, her breath rasping.
“Hi there,” Todd said, smiling at the little girl.
“Hi,” she said back, the word coming out short and clipped, followed by a deep, ragged breath.
“How are you today, little lady?” Todd said, continuing to roll the bin up to the gate, but keeping an eye on the kid to make sure she didn’t come any closer to the truck.
“Okay.” She lifted a hand and pointed at the truck. “What are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m just getting rid of the trash, kiddo.”
A small frown wrinkled her brow. “Getting rid of it?”
“Yup. It all goes in here, and then it’s gone.” He jerked a thumb at the Portal.
“Where does it go?”
Todd gave a short laugh. “Well, let’s see, I’d have to say it goes where everything we don’t want goes. I just put it in here,” he lifted the bin and tipped it out over the hole, watching as bags toppled into the endless darkness, “and it’s gone.”
A knew look came over the little girl’s face, her eyes widening and mouth dropping open. “But my locket,” she said, her voice very faint.
Todd set the bin back on the pavement and glanced into the Portal. “Your locket? Did you put it into the trash?”
She nodded slowly.
“But you didn’t mean to?”
“The chain didn’t close right. It fell off while I was putting in the eggshells. I went to find Mommy to help me get it back, but before I could the bag was gone.”
Todd pursed his lips. “Sorry to say, little lady, but it’s gone.”
“Yup. Gone for good. Nothing comes back out of there.”
The girl’s lower lip trembled. “Uh-oh.”
A shout rang out in the morning air. “Wait!”
Todd looked up to see a woman running down the drive, waving her arms. It was Sharon Harris, wearing what looked like clothes she’d just thrown on, her feet still bare.
“Wait!” she shouted again. “Don’t dump our can!”
Todd looked down at the empty container. “Uh…”
The woman skidded to a stop at the edge of the street. She took one look at the empty can at Todd’s feet, and covered her mouth with her hands, her eyes widening in horror. Her gaze went from Todd to the little girl. “Oh, no…”
Todd swallowed, imagining that he’d just chucked a priceless family heirloom down the Portal. This could mean a serious complaint, maybe even a lawsuit. “Sorry, ma’am.”
Sharon stared at him. “Is there any way to get it back?”
“No, ma’am,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
He nodded, licked his lips. “May I ask what it was? How… how expensive?” Maybe there was some way he could pay them back, keep it between them.
But Sharon was shaking her head. “You don’t understand. Sarah is very sick. The locket was magical. It kept her well. Without it…” She cast a worried look at the little girl.
Now Todd felt like the world had just dropped away beneath his feet. “Can’t you get another one?” he asked, his mouth gone dry.
“Not in time. It took months to craft it, and the magic was terribly expensive.” The woman pressed her hand to her forehead, her eyes darting from side to side, as if looking for some solution.
Todd stood there for a minute. Then he looked at the little girl, standing there looking so frail, real fear in her eyes. Technically, it wasn’t his fault. He’d just been doing his job. But if he walked away now, and that little girl died…
His gaze went to the truck, and the yawning black Portal. Nothing ever came back from wherever it led. It was the flip side of having an unlimited place to dump all the world’s garbage. It all just went away, and you never saw it again. But if you lost something precious down there, well, that was gone for good, too.
Another glance at Sarah, and Todd’s mouth closed into a taut line.
Walking around the truck to the cab, he opened the door and snatched his emergency flashlight off the dashboard. Then he hurried back to the gate, trying not to think about what he was going to do.
Sharon had now turned that worried expression on him. “What are you doing?”
He shrugged and didn’t meet her gaze. He double checked his safety tether, made sure the winch on his harness was working. Then he stood for a second in front of the open Portal.
During his training, the instructor had made it very clear: never enter the Portal. If you fall in by accident, you activate your winch pronto, and get out. Someone had asked what would happen if your tether broke. The response had been to make sure that didn’t happen. Then the instructor had gone on to explain how the company had an excellent compensation plan for the support of surviving family members. It had been answer enough for Todd.
“Please, sir,” Sharon said, coming toward him, hands outstretched as if she might try to hold him back. “I know you aren’t supposed to go in there.” She gave the dark hole a quick glance, looked away again. “We’ll… we’ll figure something out.”
Now Todd did meet her gaze, and what he saw there told him he was doing the only thing that could be done. Between hard times and harder choices, her family was barely getting by. They couldn’t afford more doctors, more magic. No more than they could afford to let their child die.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, planting a foot on the bumper.
“What if you aren’t?” she asked.
He gave her a nervous grin. “Wait ten minutes. Then call customer service and report a missing driver. They’ll know what to do.”
With that, he climbed over the gate, and dropped into the waiting darkness of the Portal.
At first, it wasn’t so bad. He didn’t even feel like he was falling, just floating gently downward. Then his feet touched something, and with a rustle of plastic he landed on a pile of garbage bags.
The impact wasn’t hard, but it was unexpected, and he toppled onto his back, gasping in surprise. The intake of breath brought with it a terrible stench of rotting food, human waste, and thousand other foul odors, all mingled together into a cloying miasma. Coughing, his eyes watering, Todd clambered back to his feet, shining his flashlight around.
He was perched atop what seemed to be a colossal mound of refuse, sloping away beneath him. Innumerable plastic garbage bags lay beneath him, many of them splitting open, their slimy contents mingling with broken bits of furniture and the tattered remnants of old clothes. Farther away, at the limits of his light, Todd could see that the mound on which he stood joined another, and another, melding into a vast sea of trash, stretching into the distance.
Tearing his gaze away from the sight, Todd looked up. The line of his safety tether trailed above him into the darkness, vanishing somewhere beyond the glow of his flashlight.
Todd heard a noise then, turned his light back to his surroundings. In the near distance, his beam caught the sight of a cascade of garbage falling from above. It landed on the heaps of trash already there, bouncing and tumbling down the slope before settling to a halt, lost almost instantly in the landscape of trash.
The sight reminded Todd of why he was there, and he turned his gaze to the trash around him. He knew that the Harris’s used greenish-black bags. Kicking aside a few other bags, he spotted one of the right color.
He crouched over the bag and tore it open down the side. Empty food packages and soggy papers tumbled out around his feet. He pawed through the mess, looking for anything shiny. There was nothing, and he stood again, looking for another bag like the first one.
Something made him pause, freezing in place. It was a strange sensation, like the feeling you get when you just know someone is watching you, but you can’t see them.
Todd looked around, probing the gloom with his flashlight. Nothing showed itself. He shook his head; this place was unnerving enough to get to anyone.
He spotted another greenish-black bag, tore it open. More spoiled food, a few broken clothes hangers. No locket. He clenched his teeth; this was taking too long.
Then he heard a sound, a rustling, crunching noise. Still crouching over the torn bag, he played his light around. As the beam swept across the sea of trash, he thought he caught a glimpse of motion, and brought the light back toward it.
But there was nothing.
Todd went back to his search. There was another likely candidate, half hidden under several white bags. He shambled through the shifted piles of garbage and fished the bag out.
The sound came again, the crinkle and crackle of plastic compressing. Once again, he turned his light on his surroundings.
And then he saw it.
Some distance away, the surface of the mountain of garbage was shifting, rising and falling. It looked as if something was moving under the trash, pushing a wave of refuse up before it and letting it settle behind it. Todd kept looking for a minute; yep, it was definitely something moving.
And it was moving his way.
He squinted at the sight. Was it some sort of security device, something to keep people from dumpster diving in this place? Or was it something that lived here, something that might not be happy about all the garbage being dumped in its home?
Panic gripped Todd. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to find out. Almost against his will, his hand stole to his tether’s winch, hunting for the start switch.
Then he looked at the bag at his feet, and took his hand off the winch.
He ripped the bag open. Banana peels, a wad of tissues, some eggshells: nothing metal. He was just about to shove the bag aside when he remembered something about eggshells.
The sounds of shifting, tumbling garbage was getting close. Todd glanced up, to see that the disturbance was right at the base of his mound.
Panting in short, choppy breaths, Todd reached back into the torn sack. He grabbed at the eggshells, pawing through them. There: a glimmer in his flashlight beam. He snagged it in his fingers and pulled it out. Sure enough, it was a small locket on a slender gold chain. He flipped it over, and on the back was etched the name “Sarah.”
Todd closed his hand tightly over the locket and stood up. It was hard to keep his balance; the entire mound was trembling as the unseen…thing…approached. Todd wrapped his arm around the tether line to steady himself and reached for the switch.
It activated with a click and a growing whine, and he felt himself lift away, just as the trash beneath his feet gave way.
Todd stared down in sickened fascination as a dark red hole, lined by rows of huge, jagged teeth, opened below him. For an instant, he was sure that it was going to get him, that it was going to leap up and snag him, like a fish jumping after a fly.
Then he was floating upwards through absolute darkness, toward a growing circle of light.
Todd tumbled over the bumper to sprawl on the hard concrete of the street. He stayed like that for a long moment, staring up at the bright blue sky, sucking in great breaths of wonderfully clean air.
Sharon Harris was suddenly at his side, kneeling next to him. “Are you okay?” she asked, concern and fear and hope on her face.
“Yeah,” Todd said, exhaling the against the last of the lingering stench. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He managed a smile. “And look what I found.” He opened his hand to show her the locket.
She stared at it for a second, then let out a sob. “That’s it. That’s the locket.” She took if from him, as carefully as if she was picking up a baby.
Sarah was beside her mother, watching with a finger stuck in her mouth. She stood still as her mother slipped the chain around her next and closed the clasp. Then she looked down at the locket resting against her chest, and turned her gaze to Todd.
“Thank you, mister,” she said, giving him a huge smile.
“Yes, thank you,” Sharon said. “I don’t know what we would have done…”
“No problem,” Todd said, standing up and brushing himself off. “All in a day’s work.”
“Oh, I’m sure it was more than that,” she said, glancing at the Portal. “Please, if there’s anything we can do for you, just ask.”
Todd took a deep breath, suddenly rethinking the idea of taking that early retirement. “Just don’t tell anyone about what I did,” he said. “In fact, just do your best to forget any of this ever happened.” He took another look at the Portal, at the absolute darkness. The image of whatever it was that lived in that place came back to him, and he shuddered. He hoped fervently that at least some of what ended up that really was gone for good. “I know that I will.”