The Gates of Hell. Such a dramatic name for the place where Jack stood, staring at the metal gate just in front of him. The fence was made up of rusted metal bars bolted to termite-ridden wooden posts, designed to keep cars from turning onto the unkempt street that laid before him.
Torn canvas hung off of the bars, littered with incomprehensible words and symbols that were spray painted onto the fabric and surrounding concrete. Behind the gate was a thin winding street, cutting through small hills and into a wooded area about two miles from where the street separated from Empire Mine Road.
The area was barren, only one tree until the woodland, stationed next to the gate, the only protection from the beaming California sun. The rest of the vegetation was dried up and dead, typical for the hot summer months.
Jack leaned against the solitary tree, rough bark clawing at his arm as he wiped sweat from his face. He slung his backpack over one shoulder, pulling a can from the front pocket and approaching the canvas. He shook the can of paint roughly in his hand, preparing to write something of his own on the dirty scrap of fabric that waved in the dry summer breeze. Holding the can out, he pushed the nozzle and bright green paint sprayed from the can. His arm moved rhythmically and smoothly, falling to his side in a matter of seconds. He stepped back and coughed, trying to clear his lungs of the foul-smelling fumes.
The paint particles in the air blew away with the breeze, a light green mist captured by the wind. He studied his mark on the canvas, his name written sloppily in neon green paint. He had painted it exactly where it was painted every year, on the left side of the gate right next to the lonely tree. He had come here every year of high school with his friends, escaping from their normal lives to smoke and drink.
This year, however, Jack was alone. He invited his friends, but each had declined. Now that everyone had graduated, they were falling away from each other, preparing for college and work, adjusting to adult life. He missed them. He took his phone from his bag and checked it for notifications, hoping that someone had changed their mind at the last minute. No one did. Of course.
Jack shook his head. He didn’t know what he had expected. No one wanted to come out and be reminded of all of the times where it felt as if they had all the time in the world to be kids. They didn’t want to be reminded of the fun they had and the friends that had been left behind. In a way, Jack understood. But he couldn’t let this go just yet. He needed closure. Time to say goodbye to that chapter of his life as he moved onto the next.
He packed everything carefully back into his bag and put it on. For some reason, it seemed heavier as he hopped the gate and trudged along the old road. As he walked, the road became more and more unkempt, chunks of the asphalt missing and strewn about. Every year it seemed to become even more ugly than the year before. It was sad, really. A fitting metaphor for the passage of time.
Lost in thought, he came up to the small wooded area. From there, he followed a trail that he and his friends had carved out five years before, now only a narrow dirt path in the undergrowth. The trail opened into a small clearing filled with tall grasses and a semicircle of fallen logs along with a rusted ivy covered bench. The sight of his old campsite filled Jack with nostalgia and a pang of sadness that he was the only one here to enjoy it.
This place used to be filled with wonder and joy, the sound of rowdy kids laughing and roughhousing, but now they were only echoes in his memory. The ghosts of times where he had been fully and truly happy, without some sort of hidden sadness tearing away at him.
Jack sat, leaning against the center-most log, brushing his fingers over the moss that had grown over it. It was soft and smelled slightly of rain, even though it had not rained in months. That really was a miracle of nature. The fact that something so small can hold on so tightly to times when things had been better, hopeful for even better times ahead. Jack admired that blind optimism.
He reached back into his bag, digging through his few possessions and pulling out a small box of cigarettes. He pulled one from its container, holding it in his left hand as he dug around for his lighter. When he found it, he pulled it from the bag and quickly lit his cigarette, placing it between his lips. He inhaled, taking in smoke, and coughed it out. He had never truly been a smoker, nor did he even enjoy cigarettes. It was embarrassing in the past, coughing out smoke as he got used to the rhythm of taking the smoke in and breathing it back out while all of his friends laughed at him. He’d laugh with them too, he knew that he looked ridiculous. Now he didn’t have to worry about being mocked for not being able to properly smoke, but the clearing felt empty, devoid of any friendly and inviting feelings that it used to hold.
With every inhale, Jack’s mind was overcome with memories. He remembered past nights spent here, surrounded by only nature and his closest friends, a group of dumb kids in the woods. They would always tell their parents that they were staying at his house, and tell his parents that they were going out for a late night movie marathon. Then they’d take one of their dad’s cars and drive an hour here, to the middle of nowhere, where they’d stay for a night and late into the following day. They’d stay up for hours, getting drunk or high, just talking and running around like idiots in the woods. It was so simple.
He missed it all so much.
Without his friends, he wasn’t completely sure what he was supposed to do here. Pretend that everything was fine? That things weren’t completely falling apart around him?
His cigarette burned down to his fingers, and he winced at the sudden heat. Jack hadn’t noticed how much time had gone by. He sat there, the sun slowly sinking out of sight behind the canopy of leaves. He dropped the butt of the cigarette, and crushed it into the dirt with the toe of his boot.
The ground was littered with old garbage, mostly made up of plastic whiskey bottles and dirt covered candy wrappers. He and his friends should have cleaned up after themselves over the years. But they never did. It seemed as if they didn’t really need to, like this place would forever be lost in time and look exactly as it did when they first found it. Plus, they hadn’t really cared how the place appeared. All that truly mattered was that it was theirs. But now it was only his.
He searched for a spot to set up his tent. It was a small one person tent, made of an uncomfortable canvas-like fabric, but it was the first time he had ever brought his own. He bought it just for tonight, which accounted for its low quality. He purchased the first and cheapest tent he saw before setting off.
He decided on a spot, as crickets began to chirp, becoming the first instrument to play in the symphony of night. The coming darkness rushed him to clear the trash and leaves away from his chosen spot and he struggled to set up a tent. After many failed attempts, he managed to put the small structure together, even though it seemed a bit flimsy. Jack hammered the stakes into the ground, hoping that they would be enough to keep his small shelter stable throughout the night.
As he had just finished forcing the last stake through the dry dirt, he noticed a glint of silver next to his foot, small and metallic. He kicked it away gently, assuming that it was a candy wrapper or some old label off of a bottle, but it slid away with a thunk. He moved towards it, curious. As he leaned over, he noticed that it was indeed not a wrapper or some trash, but a piece of metal. He picked it up and examined it, realizing that it was a flip phone. He turned it over in his hand to look at the top and noticed a small sticker on it. A heart.
He knew this phone.
Jack fell to a sitting position when he realized why this phone seemed so familiar. It was his. This tiny silver and red flip phone had been his very first, and the sticker had been given to him by his best friend, Kady. At first, these camping trips to the woods had been her idea, and no one had cared more about them than her. But she had stopped going in her junior year, and they had barely spoken since. In fact, no one had really spoken about her since then, either. He wondered how she was doing, if she was okay.
Jack clutched the phone in his hand, opening it in some strange hope that it would turn on and he would see years worth of missed texts from her, hope that she hadn’t just grown away from him and left like everyone seemed to do. He knew that it was wrong to feel abandoned. People were busy and sometimes friends grow apart. But he didn’t want to accept that people don’t always stay together forever, that people can change.
He shut the phone gently and returned it to his backpack. He’d try to charge it when he got home, even though it was unlikely that the thing would turn on. Even if it wasn’t water damaged, it was ancient. It barely worked when he first got it from his dad, but he wanted to salvage whatever photos he had taken on it. Save whatever memories were trapped inside of this electronic shell.
Jack fell to his back, splaying his limbs out onto the dirt awkwardly. This was too much. All the memories, all the moments that he had lost to the cruel hands of time were rushing back to him, overtaking his mind in a bittersweet sort of ecstasy. Now that he thought of it, those times did not seem so long ago. Almost like they had never faded in his mind. Almost like he had never truly stopped caring no matter how often he told himself that it would never be the same again.
But in that moment, he wondered: Had everyone else truly moved on? Had they truly come to peace with the fact that they would be giving up everything that they had ever known in hopes that the world would keep spinning regardless of the choices that they made? Did they, like the moss, hold their memories dear but still hope for more? For better? Had they become the blind optimists that Jack had so admired his entire life, living for the future without holding onto the past so tightly that nothing truly compared?
Jack hoped so. He hoped that, unlike him, his friends could move on, fully and truly, to become the people that they had always wanted to be. He knew that he valued the past far too much to simply let go, too much to really move on. That was okay. Jack would be okay. He clutched his bag to his chest and laid there. He laid there as the moon made its nightly voyage across the sky, bringing light to the clearing. And he laid there as the sun began to rise.,The animals began to stir, and the forest came to life around him.
The wind whistled softly and the leaves rustled, light dappling the ground underneath the canopy of trees. And Jack felt alive. Really and truly alive. So maybe, just maybe, he had found something that made him truly happy. Maybe, Jack would stay another night.