Chapter 1: The Prom Date
I firmly believe that every girl has the desire, whether expressed secretly or openly, to be a princess. No matter how hard-bitten she is on the outside, deep down she wants to throw banquets and dances, dress up fancy and have the man of her wildest dreams hold her in his strong arms. Thus, every man wants to be that masculine figure, the prince riding in on a white stallion. Though they do not dare show this externally, I believe that this feeling is found deep down. Now men do not want to be the girly, somewhat effeminate, tights-wearing picture of a prince. But they do want to be the hero, the one who stands up and does something brave; the one who saves the damsel held captive in the tower; the one who boldly slays the dragon. In short, girls want pageantry; guys want glory.
I believe this applies to everyone including Laura Drake and myself, Matt Wayne. Laura and I had been friends and classmates since 8th grade. We were very similar. But the attraction was never one of love. Sure, she was a pretty brunette with brown eyes and a lovely personality to boot, but that is not why we got along so well. The connection was because of our families. What I mean is this: we were both members of dysfunctional families. That is not to say that our families were dysfunctional as in “crazy” or “goofball.” By dysfunctional, I mean problematic. Laura and I had issues with our parents.
Her parents did not take too much interest in her since she was the youngest of four kids. By the time they came to her, they were burnt-out and preferred to focus on her siblings. Even though she was the only one left at home by the time of this story, her parents were not on the verge of suffering “empty nest syndrome.” On the contrary, they were looking forward to being alone in the house, though they were prone to harmless shouting matches. So the “love-hate” relationship between Laura’s parents unfortunately took precedence over the relationship with their child. This resulted in making Laura an independent person and an even more estranged daughter. She was, if you will, a “tom-boy,” and learned quickly to live and make decisions for herself.
As for me, my family was also dysfunctional, but in a slightly different way. My parents did care for me. But things changed. You see, I was an only child for a long time. But my 8th grade year, the same year I met Laura, my parents decided to adopt a baby girl, named Lin, from China. Although I loved my adorable new sister, I felt pushed off to the side and neglected by my parents. I started to distance myself from them and wrapped myself in friends and various athletics. Sports can be a way to gain popularity, and I used everything from basketball to baseball and even fencing, to gain a loyal following in the secluded kingdom I had built. Thus, the canyon began to gape wider between my own family, leaving me in a good position to sympathize with Laura and her pains. So our high school years plodded along while our friendship grew stronger and our families faded more into the back of our minds.
Because we connected so well, I decided to ask her to prom our senior year. It was not intended as a real date; we were just friends. We both understood that and so did our “crowd.” Soon the time rolled around for prom night. It was spring, so the air was cool and soft. A crisp breeze blew through my open window and robed me with a mien of freshness as I readied myself for that night. I was wearing a typical black suit with dark pinstripes that made me feel like a mobster. My shirt was a rich cream color as opposed to the normal, bland white one. My coal-black shoes were shiny and slick with polish. At last, I put on that dreaded noose, my tie. My dress for the evening being complete, I took up the wrist corsage for Laura and left my room. I headed down the stairs and came into the living room where my dad was watching television.
“Whoa! Aren’t you looking snazzy tonight!” my dad quipped. “Is that for baseball or fencing?”
“Dad,” I sighed, “tonight’s prom.”
“Oh, that’s tonight?”
I nodded my head in an annoyed fashion.
“Did you tell us that?”
“Yes, a couple weeks ago.”
“Well, there you have it! I’m getting old, son. Two weeks gives me ample time to forget something. So are you taking a date?”
“Yes, Dad,” I mumbled, fidgeting toward the door.
“Aw, who is it?” my mom’s voice said. She was standing in the kitchen cooking dinner and keeping little Lin, now in kindergarten, busy.
“Laura,” I answered, trying to strike up some patience. They always seemed to start an interrogation when I was in a hurry.
“Laura who?” Dad pressed.
“Oh, is that the girl you’ve had over for dinner a couple times?” Mom questioned.
“Aw, good. She’s a cute girl.”
“Are you two dating?” Dad asked.
“No, we’re just friends.” By now, I was inching closer to the front door.
“Well, you should be,” said Mom. “You two would make such a cute couple!”
I shot my mom a glance and then said, “We’re just friends, Mom. That’s all we’ll ever be. Now I need to go pick her up.” I reached the front door and opened it wide.
“Don’t be out too late!” Mom commanded.
“And drive safely,” Dad added. “No need to get involved in any tomfoolery!”
“We’ll be fine, bye.”
“Bye, Matt,” my parents said as the door slammed behind me.
I walked down the sidewalk to my car parked in front of the garage door. It was a small gawky green ‘95 Geo Prism. The car was not, by a long shot, a hot car. It was actually embarrassing to drive. You know what it’s like to brag to someone about all the sports you play and all the authority you have and then remark that you drive a Geo Prism? Try it sometime. It’s like getting one “F” on a report card full of “A’s”. Frowning a little at my ignominious carriage, I hopped in and drove off to fetch the princess.
I lived in a suburb outside Louisville, Kentucky, but Laura lived in what was called “Old Louisville.” Her house was a two-story abode typical of houses from the 1950’s. In other words, narrow in width, but deep in length. I believe my dad used to call them “shotgun houses.” Hers was a faded yellow color with a small flower garden up front, some oversized shrubs that acted as green walls for the porch, and hanging baskets filled with neglected withered flowers. When I pulled up in front of her sidewalk, Laura was sitting on her porch swing apparently soaking in the pleasant weather. I had the windows rolled down and the radio playing. But when I turned the radio off, I could hear raised voices. There was no doubt in my mind Laura’s parents were arguing again. Before I had even come to a complete stop, Laura was already up and on her way to the curb. She wore a light blue dress covered in sparkles and billowing out at the bottom.
“Looks like I’ll be vacuuming sparkles out of the car tomorrow,” I thought.
She approached the door, quickly opened it, sat down inside, shut the door, fastened her seatbelt, and sat back staring straight ahead waiting for me to drive off. Her cheeks and eyes were red from crying.
“Parents arguing again?” I started softly.
“Yes,” she said, keeping her gaze fixed, “They say I don’t talk to them anymore, so they’re arguing over whose fault it is. I don’t even think they saw me leave.” Her eyes became moist, but she shut them, brushed away the water, and held back the tears.
“Well,” I said at last, treading cautiously with my words, “Cheer up. Tonight we can put our worries behind us. Let’s just enjoy ourselves and have fun and make this a night to remember.” I forced a smile with these words of comfort to try to alleviate the sad atmosphere hanging in the car.
Laura forced a choked laugh, smiled, and looked at me. “Thanks, Matt. I know I can count on you.” It felt like that oppressive feeling was pushed out the window and so I drove away to leave it sitting on the curb.
I decided to drive through downtown Louisville in order to make sure the least memorable parts of the evening were really behind us. I made it a priority to drive by the AEGON Center, which was then the tallest building in Kentucky. After the large dome crowning the structure inspired us, we headed off to the prom site. The prom was held at the Galt House down by the Ohio River. Friends of mine who had a hand in planning the event told me that the dining room had a perfect view of the river, and, more importantly I think, the food was superb.
Soon we arrived and parked in a garage across the street from the hotel. A skywalk connected the two buildings, which gave a somewhat stunted view of the city’s skyline. As Laura and I stepped into the garage’s elevator, the night held so much promise. That night was going to be the night that we would put our cares behind us. We would throw off the yoke of our troubles and breathe the fresh air of teenage freedom and joy. But, of course, things can never be perfect.
Something strange started when the elevator doors closed on us. The first oddity we noticed was that the contraption was going down instead of up, like we had commanded it. I figured someone had pressed the button on a floor below us, but even when the elevator reached the ground level, we continued descending. The fancy digital screen that should have told us what floor we were passing no longer displayed a number but a question mark!
“Where are we going?” Laura wondered, showing signs of anxiety.
“Hell, perhaps?” I joked, trying to hide my own fear.
Laura gave me a look.
“Well, I’m sure Satan needs to use the elevator every now and then…”
“Seriously, Matt, we could be getting kidnapped right now and you’re cracking jokes about the devil!”
“Sorry, I was trying to comfort you.”
“It’s not working.”
I remained silent and decided to keep my jokes to myself and wait for the elevator to stop, wherever that would be.
At last, our ride halted and the doors slid open before us. We were definitely not at the level we were hoping to arrive at. Outside the safety of our little chamber, it was dark, except for where the light shone out from the elevator. A musty, dank smell reeked in our noses. The air felt suppressed and reminded me of how I had always pictured a haunted basement in an abandoned house. As we tried to peer through the darkness, Laura inched closer to my side and began wringing the blood out of my arm like it was a towel. Quite frankly, I didn’t know what to do, and until I thought of something, I wanted to stay safe and secure in the elevator.
“Maybe the door will shut and it’ll take us back up,” I foolishly hoped in my mind. Knock on wood.
Suddenly a noise jolted both of us. It sounded like a machine with moving gears, parts, and a loud, clunky engine.
“The walls!” screamed Laura, which scared the insides out of me.
Indeed, the walls were moving in from side-to-side. We leaped to safety through the open door. I half-expected to jump into a network of spider webs more complicated than the internet, but the dark path before us was clear. As soon as our feet alighted outside the door, the walls stopped moving.
“Well, look at that,” I said, trying to be of some comfort, “we would’ve been fine in the elevator!”
The second I said that, the back of the elevator began pressing toward the door. The closer it came toward us the more light it choked off until total darkness engulfed us. We could hear the door slide shut, the bell sound its pitiful ding, and the elevator ascend to freedom. Laura was practically clinging to me now like statically charged socks. I felt the need to be strong. I was quite clueless, so I stated the obvious.
“They wanted to force us out of the elevator.”
“Into what?” Laura wondered, her voice wavering as she spoke.
“A dark room, apparently,” I answered. It was my second attempt at humor that failed horribly. I couldn’t see Laura’s face at that moment, but I could feel the heat of her glare puncturing a hole in my head. Now my mind was frantic. I didn’t know how to handle the situation and I was proven a horrible comedian.
Suddenly a misty green light appeared behind us. We turned and saw a rusty metal wall with a small square illuminated in the middle. Out of this square came the light and a type of fog that crept along the floor and hid our feet from us. Curiously and cautiously, we approached. When we were in close proximity to the wall, out came a…thing. I suppose it was a robot. It looked more like a rejected puppet from the set of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. It had a square, metal body, two flexible arms that looked like an old dryer hose, claw hands, and a square head with two large eyes that flashed red and blue.
“Greetings,” it said in a high techno voice, its mouth lighting up in yellow. “You are about to embark on the adventure of your lives.”
“That’s what they told me at Six Flags,” I quipped; “I wasn’t too impressed.”
“What you are about to enter is not a theme park, but a whole new world,” the robot corrected.
“What are we entering in to, exactly?” asked Laura.
“Plethora,” the robot answered.
“Plethora?” Laura repeated.
“Plethora?” I scoffed.
“Does this have to be so antiphonal?” the robot snapped. “Now listen: I am to introduce you to Plethora and why you will be there. Right now Plethora is in its Silver Age with King Autumnus on the throne. You will have to help him with the current crisis he is facing before you can return to this world. You cannot return until you have completed this mission.”
“There’s always a catch,” I noted. “So what’s the crisis?”
“You will find out when you get there. Now Plethora is in just about the same state as King Arthur’s Britain, with some notable distinctions. Dress and travel may be a little different from what you are accustomed to. But do not expect this land to be completely primitive. Some things and some people will surprise you. Dangers abound before you, but if you are to survive, you must obey the leaders over you and the friends beside you. Stay vigilant, hold to their plans and success is guaranteed. Go your own way, and certain doom awaits.” To our right a door shrouded in mist opened. “Now if you will please step through the door, you will find your passage to Plethora.”
I began to move toward the door, but Laura dug her nails through my clothing and into my skin.
“Wait,” she urged, “we have a prom to go to! What happened to the evening of no worries? Why don’t we demand this thing to let us go?”
“I cannot let you go until you complete your task. Your request is impossible to acquiesce.”
I stood for a moment and contemplated the situation. We were quite trapped and helpless in some unknown, dreary basement with some odd robotic device shoving us through a door into some whimsical land of oddities. Do we fight back? Perhaps I could charge the little piece of metal and fiber optics and rip him out of the wall. But then what? Suppose the hole closes up and we are left in the dark with nowhere to go. So the way I saw it was as this: we could retaliate against this monstrosity and as a result maybe die down there. Or we could go through the door and see what happens. Either way, we were probably going to meet our demise. So do we die with the hopes of seeing some distant country or death by starvation in that bleak basement? For some reason I trusted this robot, or at least liked what he was saying. There was something appealing about this land called Plethora…the more I dwelt on it, the certain dangers and glory, the more my heart begged and beat to go…
Finally, I looked at Laura and shrugged. “We don’t have a choice. Let’s go and get it over with. I’ll be with you; we’ll be fine.”
“Why are you going along with this?” she whispered desperately.
“It’s either this dark room or whatever is through that door. Oddly enough, I think we’re better with the other side of that portal. As long as we stay together we’ll survive.”
Laura stood frozen for a moment as fear manifested itself in her eyes. Finally, she budged and we moved, arm-locked-in-arm, to the portal. We stood in front of it and stepped in together. To describe the feeling would be useless. The mist engulfed us and produced an effect almost like a gas, dizzying and nauseating. The door shut behind us and the world went dark until we arrived in Plethora.
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