The Gateway by AlexKonstad
The world was a vastly different place outside, and that was why no one passed through the gateway.
It didn’t help that the gate itself was a large, imposing mess of rock and moss so old it looked like it would collapse if you looked at it wrong. Probably why it was (finally) decided that something should be done about the rotting corpse of it that was left, whether it was used or not. Just because nobody went through didn’t mean that the exit couldn’t look nice.
As was done in their city for certain jobs, it was decided by lottery who would do the task. A small slip of paper with each individual person’s name written on it was placed in a large (ever growing) spinning cage made with tightly woven wire. After being spun so many times, a small door was opened and a name was selected.
Jessamine had to suppress an ugly reaction (which might or might not have included groaning, stamping her feet or cursing at her own luck), because receiving a task was not something to take lightly. It may have been chance that her name was picked, but now that it was she had to accept it.
She managed to knot her hands in her hair and force a smile, bowing slightly to show she’d heard and (not that she had a choice) accepted her job.
Ikuko, a girl a little older than her that she had some classes with, was to be her companion in this job. Jessamine had no positive or negative feelings toward Ikuko, having never spoken to her much. Ikuko had never done anything to get on her bad side, so she hoped they could get along fine during their shared work.
But her sharp eyes and expression that she threw Jessamine’s way after giving her own bow to the head of their town and council sent a shiver down Jessamine’s spine. Nothing particularly mean was in her glance, but it certainly wasn’t nice. Almost sizing her up.
“Now, when you’re sprucing the gate up,” the town leader began, leading them to the tools they would need in order to replace/fix the gate, “you must keep the very base stones there. All the rest can go. But those are essential to keeping the gate and where it leads in tact.”
“Do we even need the gate?” Jessamine asked, gripping the handles of a wheelbarrow to keep it upright as Ikuko and the leader loaded it up. “Since no one goes through it, anyway…”
“While it’s not used,” the leader said, not even sparing Jessamine a glance. He probably got this question a lot, especially after bringing up replacing the gate in the first place, “it’s a part of our culture, our lives. And in the off chance someone were to arrive, or to leave… Without the gate, there is no entry or exit. It is a necessity.”
The gate was located on the very edge of their city, and followed by a line of trees that wrapped around the circumference of their home, so thick you couldn’t see through them. The only way to see outside of town was looking up at the sky, or through the gate.
The sky was normal, of course, but looking through the gate seemed to always have the opposite time of day. It could be lunch time for them, but look as dark as midnight on the other side, with the ground covered in such a thick fog you couldn’t even see it.
It would be easier to figure things out if someone would just peek through the gate and then come back, but… Anyone who left never came back. Or, no one remembered if they did or not. Everything about the gate was a mystery, and so it was generally just avoided.
Jessamine settled the wheelbarrow down a few feet away from the gate, just as Ikuko set her own things–food for later and a ladder–on the other side of the gate, opposite Jessamine. They both stood and stared at the gaping rock doorway for a moment, awed by it and also unsure how to start.
Jessamine cleared her throat after a moment, twirling a finger around her braid and giving Ikuko an awkward smile. “Ah, I guess we should get started, huh? We could probably pick at the rocks on top and go down, huh?”
Ikuko made a noncommittal humming noise, but turned and began setting up the ladder so one of them could reach the top. Slightly put out at the other girl’s attitude, Jessamine sighed and grabbed a pick.
It took the two of them most of the day, having started early in the morning, just to take the upper part of the gate down. They took turns between sitting precariously on the ladder and hacking away at stone while the other was handed larger chunks of rock to be moved to the side. Eventually they had it low enough where both girls could reach their own sides and begin picking on their own.
Jessamine, during their lunch break, jokingly brought up how they could make a race of it, to help pass the time and make it more fun. Ikuko shrugged and bit into her sandwich. She had been silent for the most part the entire day, and it was a real mood-killer for Jessamine. She was a bouncy, energetic girl compared to Ikuko’s somber, analytical looks and words. It didn’t stop her from trying to strike up more conversation.
An occasional person came by to check on them–family, the city leader, a friend–and the progress of the gate. They never came too close, though. This was the first time anyone in the town had known the gate to be changed, and while the leader seemed confident in nothing odd happening, the townspeople were leery all the same.
The sun was half set for them, and had risen a while ago it seemed on the other side, by the time all that was left was a smattering of randomly tossed stones surrounding them and the two large, base rocks that set up the foundation of the gate. The gateway had been an arched monstrosity, and the trees on the sides of it seemed to be trying to fill in the empty space left behind.
The girls’ hands were blistered and achy, even with gloves, but at least this way they were halfway finished.
“It looks… naked. Barren,” Ikuko said softly, one of the few things she’d said all day. Her expression was just as awed as it had been that morning when they’d just started to work.
“Yeah, but we’ll have it filled back up and looking better than ever in no time!” Jessamine reassured, plopping down next to one of the base stones and examining it. “I wonder what makes these base stones so special that they’re what keeps this thing going… Or maybe it’s just a superstition of ours at this point.”
“They’re imbued with past magic,” Ikuko said, despite Jessamine’s pondering being rhetorical. She pulled her dark hair from the bun it had been in all day and shook it out, seeming to shake her head in wonder at the same time. “It’s what makes it lead elsewhere, and also what keeps us afloat.”
“Afloat?” Jessamine asked, skeptical. “That’s just speculation. There’s no proof we’re floating. The trees block us in so we can’t see.”
Ikuko shook her head. “If you stick your head through the gate, through the fog, you can see the ground far below us.”
“You’ve done that?!” Jessamine jumped up at the admission. She had never known anyone so brave–foolish even, maybe–to have tried.
With a shrug and a lazy smirk, Ikuko giggled. “I was curious. It was worth it.” She held up a finger, asking for a moment, as she went a few feet away and dug through the trees. She came out a second later with a rope. “I’d tie this around myself and the gate, or a tree, and come here late at night to sneak a peek. It’s actually rather pretty, exhilarating, to do it. It’s almost like flying, I’d think. It’s very windy.”
Jessamine had never seen Ikuko so animated about anything before. It was a nice change from the usual, almost dower personality she adopted, but because of the subject matter the younger girl found it hard to share Ikuko’s enthusiasm. She’d always been curious about the gate, herself, but would never dare–
“Would you like to see?”
Jessamine’s breath whooshed from her lungs. She wouldn’t dare. Not alone. But with someone else there, and someone with experience, no less…
“This rope is pretty old,” Ikuko continued, “but I’ll hold you up. It’s beautiful, Jessamine. You have to at least look once.” She was almost pleading. And Jessamine wouldn’t mind seeing it…
She bit her lip and twisted her hair, so tightly the braid pulled at her scalp. It felt like forever before she finally met Ikuko’s eyes and asked, “You’ll be sure to hold tight, right?”
The next thing Jessamine knew the sun was almost blinding her from beyond the gate, and the last rays of the setting sun were disappearing behind the trees on the other side of the city. Ikuko gripped Jessamine’s ankles like a wheelbarrow, and Jessamine was going to crawl through on her hands and stick her upper body through to the other side. It wasn’t a very hot day, but at this point Jessamine was sweating from nerves. She felt Ikuko’s hands shaking on her ankles–whether from excitement or exhaustion, she wasn’t sure. But Jessamine was sure that she’d only take a quick look, before Ikuko’s hands gave out on her.
She gulped before slowly crawling forward, closing her eyes tightly as her face, head, shoulders passed the gate’s base stones. Once her whole torso was through, Jessamine took a shaky breath and opened her eyes.
Ikuko hadn’t lied–in the bright light, Jessamine could make out the earth far, far below from inside the fog. No, not fog. Clouds. Was their entire city floating on a cloud? Her bangs fluttered into her eyes, and she blinked rapidly to adjust them to her hair as well as the sunlight.
This–the view, the feeling, it was–
“Incredible!” she blubbered, and she could barely hear Ikuko laugh over the wind in her ears. Feeling brave, Jessamine rested her upper torso on the edge of the ground and let her arms out at her sides. “I do feel like I’m flying!”
Ikuko smiled and opened her mouth to reply, when a voice behind her stalled her words.
“Girls, how–what are you doing?!”
Ikuko shrieked in surprise, and her grip let loose. Jessamine felt herself fall forward and shrieked herself, waving her arms wildly to try and bring them back up to grab the ground. She was already halfway over the edge when she felt gloved hands snatch at her ankles again, and Ikuko’s voice yelling her name as her weight pulled them both over and they plummeted toward the newly revealed earth.