It was evening. We were standing near a line of trees that looked like conifers; the sky was darkening behind the trees. It was time to go back. This was the last crossing: our damaged equipment would permit no more. We had seen things that were almost impossible to believe. Ahead of us, our scientist turned a dial as her assistant busied himself next to her, attaching leads, connecting wires. Before long we saw the familiar blue flames, the portal hanging in torn space. One by one we stepped through. As soon as we emerged on the other side, we hurried down the corridor and up the stairs: it was necessary to conceal the equipment. We had already been away for too long.
In the small room at the top we worked quickly, boarding up the passage to the stairway, dragging bookcases across the room.
One of us stopped working. It was the scientist’s father. He looked around curiously, as if he had forgotten something, pushing between us, peering short-sightedly into the corners of the room. When he didn’t find what he was searching for, he looked at us, searching our faces for what we all knew, although none of us knew how to tell him. As his eyes looked up to one of us, that one of us would look towards another helplessly, who would then shrug and turn his own gaze towards a third, who herself would look away with a small gesture of impatience towards a fourth, and in this manner his terrible expression was deflected between us like a beam of light, until, with a sudden violent gesture he began undo our work, shouting and dragging the bookcases away.
But the bookcases were too heavy; he took the books down from the shelves, but the piles of books proliferating at his feet made it impossible for him to drag the bookcases away; and when we, taking pity on him, began to help, we ourselves only blundered, getting in his way and in each other’s way; and when at last we had removed the bookcases, it still remained to pull the boards away from the boarded-up passageway; and with every new delay, he became more frantic and inconsolable, and we milled around and watched him, hardly knowing what to do.
Then, quite suddenly, the way was clear. I followed him down the passageway and down the stairs. The portal was still open, burning at the end of the flickering corridor. It was difficult even to move through its blue light; impossible to actually approach it. Through it we made out, for the last time, the scientist and her assistant making an adjustment to their apparatus, preparing to close the portal forever.
The scientist’s father raised his hand. He was crying inconsolably. The scientist, glancing up through the portal, stopped and raised hers. They stood there for a moment, looking at each other through the burning doorway. Then it flickered and went out.
Tom Payne lives in London. His work has previously appeared in Lighthouse and The Sun.