[Mysteriousheartland.com] As the Fallen’s rusted Toyota Corolla sped down Lebanon Road east of St. Louis, Twiztid’s “Dirty Lil’ Girl” bumped from its speakers. Mike, Greg, Emmet, and Davin repeated the lyrics in unison. Aurelia, who sat in the front passenger seat, rolled her eyes.
As the song faded, Greg turned to Emmet, who sat next to him in the backseat. “It’s too bad you were unconscious for the fight at Cahokia Mounds. You wouldn’t believe what happened if we told you.”
“You did tell me,” Emmet replied, “and you’re right, I don’t believe it. Everything paranormal happened after I passed out. How convenient.”
“It’s too bad Emily died in that fight,” Davin whined. “You guys don’t even care. We loved each other.”
“Give me a break,” Aurelia shouted. “She was just using you.” Her friends fell silent. “Well, someone had to say it!”
“Great,” Davin muttered. “I’m going back to bed for a few weeks. You can wake me when you’re not being assholes.”
“Forget about all that,” Mike said as he turned the steering wheel. “So two years of searching for the astral portal was in vain. So we wasted thousands of dollars in gas. It’s the journey that counts. It’s the times we had along the way.”
“You keep telling yourself that, buddy,” Emmet grinned. “I know I had a few laughs along the way.”
Suddenly, the soft yellow headlights of their dark blue Corolla outlined a concrete railroad tunnel as the car navigated around a sharp curve in the road. A colorful variety of graffiti clung to the tunnel’s moistened walls.
“Ah, that’s what we’re looking for,” Mike announced. “The first gate to Hell! According to legend, if we pass through all seven tunnels by midnight, the final one will transport us to the underworld. Hellhounds reportedly guard the tunnels.”
“No wonder you wanted to stay out so late,” Aurelia snorted. “This is past your bedtime, isn’t it?”
“There’s nothing wrong with getting a good night’s sleep,” Mike replied.
“What’s with you and looking for portals and tunnels?” Emmet asked. “I think Sigmund Freud would have something interesting to say about this.”
“Shut up,” Mike grumbled.
The Fallen’s Toyota swept under the concrete bridge and down the road. Its passengers were quiet as the scenery flew past.
“Look out!” Greg shouted. “You almost missed another bridge!”
The blue Toyota screeched to a halt and Mike threw it into reverse. He strained his eyes to see the turnoff. Finally, the car’s headlights revealed the second bridge, which lay to their left along a side street. The car’s rusted frame groaned as it turned and passed between the colorfully painted stone walls.
“Well, that’s number two,” Aurelia announced.
Greg chuckled. “Another insight from the queen of the obvious,” he joked.
Mike depressed the gas pedal and tried to navigate the dark street. A thick cloud obscured the moon behind the trees lining the road.
“Let’s focus on the mission,” Mike said. “Right now I want to find these bridges and test this little story. We only have twenty more minutes before midnight.”
“I’m beginning to worry this tunnel isn’t going to transport us to Hell,” Emmet said sarcastically from the backseat.
“It’s too bad we couldn’t bring Casey,” Greg lamented, referring to the feral coydog the Fallen had adopted a few months earlier. “She would tell us if any Hellhounds were lurking.”
“Strangely, I haven’t seen a single one of those,” said Emmet.
Mike sighed deeply as the forest became denser and an overgrown railroad bridge came into view in the Corolla’s headlights. It was obvious from first glance no train had used the bridge for a long time. If the steel rails of the railroad tracks were still there, a layer of dirt and weeds hid them. Small bushes and saplings sprouted atop the bridge.
Suddenly, as they entered the tunnel beneath the bridge, a sharp bang pierced the air and Mike briefly lost control of the car. “Crowley’s ass!” he swore. “I think we blew a tire!” He guided the Toyota through the tunnel and pulled onto the dirt shoulder.
Cutting the ignition, Mike stepped out of the car with his four friends, who each examined one of the four tires using small flashlights. It only took a few seconds to discover the rear, passenger side tire had blown.
“Well, we’re screwed,” Emmet joked. “We’ll never get to Hell!”
Greg and Davin laughed and pushed each other as they tried to keep warm in the January temperature.
Aurelia groaned and pushed him aside, waited for Mike to pop the trunk, and then dug out the spare tire. As she worked, the Fallen hardly noticed three interlopers appear. The high schoolers, one fresh-faced boy and two plus-sized girls, wore an assortment of striped Hot Topic apparel colored red and black, black and green, and black and blue. They parked their purple Kia along the shoulder at the tunnel’s opposite end.
One of the two girls cleared her throat. “Uh, excuse me,” she whined. “What are you guys doing here?”
The Fallen stopped and looked up, surprised to see a group of teens on the road at night. “Where did they come from?” Mike wondered out loud. “Did we pass them on our way out here?”
“They look like wannabes,” said Emmet. “Are you?”
“We’re dead!” the boy exclaimed. “We’re the undead.”
“Great,” Greg grumbled, “Twilight has only been in theaters for a month and already junior high kids are pretending to be vampires. Didn’t Anne Rice cause us enough pain already?”
“You know, she’s Catholic now,” Davin remarked.
“That’s old news!” Aurelia yelled as she tightened a bolt on the spare tire.
“Excuse me,” a vampire kid whined. “I don’t think you’re taking us seriously.”
Emmet laughed. “It’s always the most ridiculous people who demand respect!”
“All right,” Mike said as he dug his hands deep into his trench coat pockets. “Suppose we take you seriously. Me and my friend Greg have already killed a vampire before. A real vampire. Now, are you going to take us seriously?”
“You… you’ve killed a vampire, man?”
“Are you gonna stick around to find out if they’re telling the truth?” Emmet asked, dryly.
Mike removed a cigar and a lighter from his pocket, lit the cigar, and took a puff. “What are you doing driving around Lebanon Road in the middle of the night?”
“Same reason as you,” a girl replied. “We read about the Seven Gates to Hell online and wanted to check it out.”
Suddenly, her friend’s eyes lit up. “Hey!” he cried. “I know who you are! You’re the Fallen, right?”
Mike, Greg, Davin, and Emmet exchanged glances while Aurelia continued to tighten bolts.
“You’ve heard of the Fallen?” Mike asked.
“You guys are legendary!” the boy replied enthusiastically. “I mean, I’ve only heard rumors on forums and in chat rooms… I didn’t think you existed.”
Greg grinned. “The Fallen don’t exist,” he said. “Beat it. We have to change this tire and go find the entrance to Hell.”
“It’s too late,” Mike announced, looking at his watch. “It’s five minutes to midnight. We’d never make it through all the gates in time.”
“Darn,” Emmet said. “So close.”
The three teens exchanged nervous glances. “Can we join you?” the girl dressed in red and black stripes asked.
“What do we look like, tour guides?” Aurelia replied from beside the car. She had just finished tightening the last bolt and was preparing to put the tools back in the trunk.
“Sorry,” Mike said. “We work alone. We don’t have time to worry about hangers-on. And stop spreading rumors about the Fallen. They’re a myth.”
The wayward teens looked disappointed, but eventually turned and shuffled away. Aurelia slammed the trunk closed and, without warning, slapped the cigar from Mike’s mouth. Orange sparks flew as it hurled to the ground.
“Hey!” he protested.
“You know I have asthma,” she said as she opened the front passenger side door.
Mike threw up his hands, but did not apologize. “We’ve had enough interruptions this evening,” he said. “Maybe we missed the midnight deadline, but we can still find the other bridges.”
The Fallen piled into their Corolla and drove toward a fourth tunnel that appeared just around the bend.
“Our reputation is spreading,” Greg said with concern. “This could bring heat on us.”
“We’ll need to be more cautious,” Mike said. He adjusted his glasses and turned up the volume on the tape deck. “What a way to start the new year.”
[New episode every Friday…]
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