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The Secret Place

~3700 words

Listen to this story (narrated by Counting Sleep)

When I was in the fourth grade, my friends and I had a secret clubhouse at our school. It was one of those places that only kids are stupid enough to try to get to; a small, sealed off rectangle of space between an older weathered brick building and a yellowed portable one. It was a non-place, a forgotten gap that whoever assembled the portable didn't know what to do with. To us, it was a secret realm that only we knew about. We called it the Secret Place.

You could only get to it by crawling through a narrow gap on the back side of the building, through a dark squeeze about thirty feet long and sandwiched between dirty asphalt and the underside of the portable’s floor. There were likely an uncountable amount of bugs in there, but usually a dry wind blew through it and kept the center clear of debris, which made accessing it an achievable feat for any grade schooler of sufficient bravery.

It was originally discovered by my friend Bryan, who made sure to only share it with me and our friend Jess in hushed whispers. We knew that if anyone else found out about it, it’d get shut down faster than you could say “egregious safety liability”. It would have to remain a secret if we wanted it to stay alive.

The Secret Place was only about the size of a large bathroom stall, surrounded by high walls and open to the sky above. We managed to throw a few milk crates over the wall to use as makeshift furniture, and we’d write notes and doodles to each other on the walls in black marker pen. Over the three years we’d spend there, we’d cover those walls in scribbles, always making sure not to use each other's names, to maintain deniability in case it was ever discovered. In the Secret Place, of course, you could only use your Secret Name. It was one of the many rules we agreed on that helped keep the Secret Place safe.

Usually, we spent at least one lunch recess a week there, sometimes even after school. We’d make sure to only meet randomly, less frequently if anyone seemed suspicious of us. There were a few close calls. We were scolded for getting our clothes dirty on more than a few occasions. Thankfully, they didn’t ask how we managed to get cobwebs in our hair.

As three socially inept kids without many other friends to speak of, the Secret Place was our home away from home. There we could forget about our teachers and parents who didn’t understand us and be ourselves with the only other people who we could trust. And surprisingly, we managed to keep it between ourselves until we all left elementary school.

I grew up and slowly forgot about the Secret Place. Bryan went to a different middle school, and the three of us all went to different high schools. Life happened. Friends came and went. I grew up and thankfully managed to develop some social skills, and by the time I graduated Bryan and Jess were distant. I still saw Jess on occasion, but we were just acquaintances now.

I hadn’t thought about Bryan in years, until one morning I got an email saying he had sent me a Facebook friend request. I hadn’t used Facebook in so long I had forgotten that it even sent email notifications. After remembering my old password, I logged in and saw that he sent me a message as well. It was one line. “come to the secret place.”

I sent a reply, brushing off his weird message and asking what he had been up to in the nearly a decade or so since I had last spoken to him. Looking at his profile, I saw that he hadn’t used it since he was a teenager, his last posts being back from around high school. After waiting a while for a reply, I just closed the tab and tried to move on with my day. Something about it gnawed at me though. What the hell was he thinking messaging me with some weird shit like that out of nowhere? What was he even doing these days? Was he just messing with me?

I ended up messaging Jess. She replied back to me, and after catching up with each other,  I asked her if she had heard anything from Bryan. She replied that she hadn’t. I was going to mention his weird message, but I hesitated. I’m not sure why I didn’t say anything then. Either way, we chatted a bit, and I went to bed.

The next morning I still hadn’t gotten a response from Bryan. I tried to take my mind off it at work, but it nagged at the back of my mind, like an itch that I couldn’t quite scratch. I even searched his name to see if he had died and I was being haunted, but that didn’t seem to be the case. If anything, he just didn’t have an internet presence, which sounded about par for the course from what I remembered. In the end, I decided the easiest way to find out was to just go.

I decided I’d swing by the school after work. It was a pretty well off public school in a suburban area near a big public park. I decided to wait until the evening, just to make sure there wouldn’t be anyone else there. An adult sneaking around a school alone isn’t a good look at the best of times, so I just wanted to get in and get out as quickly as possible.

There was a shortcut through an alleyway to get to the back side of campus, close to the buildings that hid the Secret Place. The campus looked just as I remembered it, maybe a fresh coat of paint and a new building, but nothing radical. The school was eerily silent though. I immediately regretted showing up as late as I did, as the winter sun was already entirely gone.

I passed by dark classrooms cast in a blue hazy moonlight. Children’s drawings adorned the walls while the desks sat empty. I decided to pass by some of my old classrooms just for old time’s sake. The rooms, occupied by a new generation of teachers and students, were nearly unrecognizable. but the walls, the corners, the bones of the building were all the same, merely draped in a fresh skin that would be shed again in time. Only the memories remained.

Reaching the farthest row of buildings, I approached the gap that led to the Secret Place. There was an old board placed over it, but it was merely wedged in place – easy enough to remove. I got down on my belly and looked through the gap, the same way I’d done a hundred times before. I could see that same faraway spit of asphalt lit by the dim moon, a little dirtier, a little more overgrown with weeds. But still, it looked just as I remembered. I could even see the same old milk crate furniture. But I couldn’t see Bryan.

I whispered his name into the gap, breaking the tense silence. After a few seconds, I shouted a little louder. If I hadn’t been lying prone I would have jumped about a foot in the air when I heard a response. It was Bryan’s voice, whispering, but still audible.

“Come in.”

The tension snapped and unleashed a shudder through my body. It definitely sounded like Bryan. And despite the wave of fear, I started to crawl forward. One arm over the other, into the gap.

I was nearly halfway through when I started to question what the hell I was doing. Now that I was closer, I still couldn’t see Bryan’s shoes, or any other evidence that he was there. The height of the gap had definitely shrunk over time, perhaps due to the building settling under the weight of years of students. Though most of that perceived shrinkage was certainly me growing. Either way, it wasn’t the easy task I remembered it being. I dragged my body forward, my shirt getting caught between my chest and the rough floor as I tried to inch towards the end of the tunnel.

“Bryan, what the fuck!?” I spat almost involuntarily, my breathing growing quick and shallow. I could smell the concentrated must and petrichor from decades of rotting detritus on either side of me. The roof felt like it sagged a little closer to me as I slowly scrambled forward. Again I heard what sounded like Bryan, just on the other side of the squeeze.

“Almost there.”

It definitely sounded like Bryan whispering. But it shouldn’t have been him. It sounded like my memory of Bryan. The same pre-pubescent voice I remembered him having back in school.

Finally, I saw pale moonlight grow closer and I pulled myself into the Secret Place. I rolled onto my back, collecting myself as I stared up at the gray clouds framed by those familiar four high walls. My clothes were totally ruined, and my chest was scraped up to boot, and starting to ache. But I had made it. I rose to my feet, opening my phone’s flashlight to take in my surroundings.

The Secret Place was just as we had left it. I half expected Bryan to be standing behind me and grab my shoulder to scare the wits out of me, but he was nowhere to be seen. I stacked two of the milk crates on top of each other and sat down. I started shivering. It had either gotten colder, or I was just realizing how cold it was.

“Hey Bryan, I’m here. What the hell do you want from me?” I called out to nothing in particular. 

“Stay with me.” 

I heard the whispering voice again, closer this time. It felt like it was coming from directly behind me, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I jolted forward involuntarily, pointing my meager phone light behind me to see where the voice was coming from, but there was nothing there.

The voice was different this time. I could hear the same voice I remembered as Bryan’s, but there were other voices mixed in as well. One was higher, it sounded like Jess, or my memory of her at least. The other voice was another kid’s. I can only assume it was mine.

I moved my light around the space as I frantically turned to see if anyone was there. I was alone, but turning my phone’s light to the walls, I revealed the old pen drawings and scribbles we had made all those years ago. I recalled the broad shapes of the words we had written. I had started on the far left of one of the walls, writing out logs of our secret meetings. In other places were lyrics to rhymes about our least favorite teachers, notes we would leave for each other, and descriptions of the fantasy worlds we made together. So many stories written in faded black on the peeling white paint. As I got closer to the paragraphs, I saw that they were different. All the text we had written was gone, replaced by a single repeating phrase.

stay here stay here stay here stay here stay here stay here

It was repeated hundreds, thousands of times, on every wall, replacing all the words we had written.

On the far wall in the middle, where Jess had written our Secret Names in a flowing calligraphy with stars and flowers around them, there was now only 




Not only was the text changed, but the old doodles we made also seemed to have taken on strange new forms. Each childlike sketch seemed to be warped, not only by the flow of time and the erosion of the elements, but by some strange venom seeping through from below the surface. Castles that had stood nobly atop hills were now crumbling, their stick figure inhabitants curled up and dead of famine, dotting the hillsides. Jess had drawn a series of cats and birds which now appeared pleading and emaciated, staring out with dull eyes. Bryan’s robots were rusted and dark.

The three of us had covered one of the shorter walls with a drawing of a snake, but the thing that occupied the space now was more sinister. Its body coiled into a dark spiraling mass that seemed both horrible and familiar. The twisted facsimile grinned at me with white pin-prick eyes and a grin filled with uncountable needle-like teeth.

I nearly dropped my phone to the ground, and recoiled as if it was going to jump out of the walls and grab me. Thinking fast, I grabbed the three milk crates and quickly stacked them on top of each other, leaping onto them to try to get enough height to grasp the top of the wall and climb out. I only succeeded in kicking the entire stack out from under me and landing hard on my side.

Rolling over in pain, I shouted for Bryan again, more desperately this time. After receiving no response but silence once more, I remembered one of our cardinal rules. In the Secret Place, we could only use our Secret Names.

“Lava Hawk?” I called out questioningly into the cold air. Again, there was no response. As lame as they sounded to me as an adult, there was no way I could forget our Secret Names.

I called it out again, a little louder. Once more, it was swallowed by the silence. Just as I was about to try a third time, I heard something from the gap. It was far away, just a grunt, like someone crawling through the gap, but it was human. I turned to the gap and peered through.

There wasn’t anything there, just the few distant lights of the school buildings and the darkness between me and them. I shouted again into the gap.

“Lava Hawk! Bryan! Answer me!”

I could have sworn I heard something whispering, but it might have been a rustle of dry leaves. At this point, I had had enough. Whatever was going on, I had to get out, and now. I started to crawl forward into the gap.

Again, it was a tight fit. I had to keep my head turned to the right, only straining my neck to look forward when necessary. One limb at a time, I moved forward, clawing my body inch by inch towards escape. The cold ground below me pressed new, painful patterns into my cheek with every inch I gained.

I tried to turn my head forward to see the exit, but it was gone. Only blackness lay ahead. My heart began racing even faster. Surely one of the lights just went out, or a cloud passed in front of the moon, or someone had put the board back over the entrance, or my eyes hadn’t yet adjusted back to the dark. The dark that pressed in around me from all sides. One limb at a time, I continued my crawl. I felt my skin tear as it scraped along the asphalt.

I had to move my right arm up against my body to see behind me. The Secret Place was similarly engulfed by darkness. I was alone. I screamed, wheezing, choking screams, hoping anyone could hear me, but they just echoed hollow into the darkness. I continued crawling forward, pushing through the pain of my body scraping against the rough floor and roof, doing anything to move forward.

It felt like the space was growing tighter, like I was caught in a vice grip that was being slowly tightened. My chest and head were getting pinned as I struggled to push myself to freedom. My throat aching from screaming, I could only choke and spit fruitlessly against the foul air.

Somewhere within me I knew I should have reached the end of the tunnel by now. I had done this hundreds of times as a kid, I knew exactly how long it took to crawl through. I tried to ignore this feeling as long as I could, staring frantically into the darkness before me for any familiar shape. Eventually all I could do was sob. Between the sound of my own exhausted body scraping forward, I heard something else in the distance. It was a faint scraping sound from somewhere deeper within, that only served to riddle my mind with images of a long scaly belly dragging itself around deep within the confines of the tunnel, and a maw lined with teeth.

After a long time alone in darkness, I heard something else – a voice. 

“Storm Clover?” a man’s weak voice called out from somewhere ahead of me.

“Bryan? Lava Hawk?” I called into the darkness, straining my neck to look forward.

The voice gave a laughing sigh of relief. I sensed the shape of another person in the darkness.

“Oh my god James is that you?” He sounded, thankfully, like a normal adult, but it was undeniably Bryan. I crawled forward with renewed strength. “What are you doing here?”

“You told me to come here dude, what the hell is going on?” I said, reaching my arm forward to grasp him. He grabbed mine. I could feel dried blood on his palms.

“I got a text from Jess saying to come here. We can catch up later though, do you know how to get the hell out of here?”

“I… I don’t know” I didn’t want to admit we were trapped, fearing that speaking it would make it true. “We’ll find a way out if we keep moving forward”.

“But which way is forward? You’re trying to leave the Secret Place too, right?” He asked. My stomach dropped. Had we really somehow met up going opposite directions? I could no longer pretend to have a logical explanation for whatever was going on.

“Yeah, I – I don’t know which way is out, I don’t know how long I’ve been down here. I don’t-” I started to trail off as my breathing quickened.

“Ok, stay calm, we can figure it out.” Bryan said, holding my hand. “Let’s try moving this way, it feels a little less tight. Worst case scenario, we hit a wall that we can move along.” He motioned our hands to the side.

I took slow breaths, as deep as I could manage. “Okay, you lead the way.”

“Just keep close to me and we’ll make it out” He said as we shifted our bodies to crawl in the new direction.

We both wanted it to be true, and we didn’t really have another choice. We continued forward, inch by inch. To distract ourselves, we talked about high school, our careers, what we were doing now. It wasn’t the easiest conversation to have physically, but it distracted us from the crushing weight of the gap squeezing around us. Bryan was just as I remembered, able to crack a joke even in the worst situation imaginable.

I wasn’t sure if I was just hallucinating from exhaustion, but it seemed like he was right. The tunnel felt like it was slightly wider here. Or at least it felt like chatting made the slow crawl a little easier. After what felt like hours, we heard something faint ahead of us. Somewhere in the distance there was another voice. A woman’s voice, shouting our names.

“Is that Jess?” Bryan asked.

“What direction is it coming from? Can you see her?” I was struggling to breathe, but hearing the voice gave me a boost of adrenaline, and more importantly, hope.

“I think I see something, follow me.” He continued to crawl forward into the black abyss. I followed behind him, trying to keep in contact so I wouldn’t lose him in the darkness. Jess’ shouts grew louder, and we yelled back to her. My last ounce of strength was used to push my burning muscles forward, towards her voice.

Eventually I reached my hand out, and it was met by another.

“I got you!” Jess pulled me out as Bryan grabbed my other hand. They pulled me free from the gap and we all collapsed to the floor, breathing haggardly. I rolled over, my eyes squinting against the pale moonlight shining down on the three of us.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Jess stood over me, accusingly. “You start talking to me out of the blue and then send me some weird ass message about the Secret Place and I show up to find the two of you…” She trailed off, looking over our dirty, bloodied clothes. “What even happened in there?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out.” Bryan rose to his feet, shakily. The front of his clothes looked like they were ripped to shreds from being dragged across pavement for hours, dark spots of blood dotting his graphic tee and jeans.

With some effort, I got up as well. “Let’s get the hell out of here. Whatever’s in there can stay there.”

As we turned to leave, I shared a glance with Bryan. Beneath the dirt, scrapes, blood, and facial hair I saw the same friend I had once known. I could tell from his eyes he saw me the same way. We snuck off campus, meeting under a streetlight near where I had parked. We discussed what had happened, then started just talking about what had been going on in the years since we had last seen each other. After a while, we were back to laughing together like it was old times.

At home, I took a long hot shower and tended to my scraped skin. As far away as it already seemed that night, the pain kept it real. Even now, it feels like just another distant memory. We don't talk about it, Bryan, Jess, and I, but we all remember. The secret is safe with us.

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