It was an old three-story house, sitting at the back of a wooded lot off a street that seemed always to have been there. Reputedly, the house was constructed, many years ago, by some stranger who came to town from nowhere or possibly England. The stranger had the house built by out-of-towners and he lived there for a short while, then, just as mysteriously he disappeared and was not heard from again.
Local legends grew up concerning the place, tales that involved the
man in witchcraft and dark magic. There were stories that he held Druid
cult meetings attended by foreigners from around the world who danced to
bizarre music in the woods behind the house. Supposedly the place contained
secret passages that led to the underworld, but no passages were ever found.
In time, after the stranger's disappearance, just after the "Hurricane of 38" the land was purchased by a Doctor Phelps who moved in with his wife and there began his family. Over time that family of six children grew up and moved away to different parts of the country. The house remained empty for years until Dan’s family bought it and fixed it up.
Dan was reading "Mandrake the Magician" in his room when the front doorbell rang. With a lurch the boy leaped into the air and the book in his hands dropped. Almost before it hit the floor he was halfway down the stairs.
"Here it is! Here's your package," said Mister Daniels, the mailman as the brown-haired twelve year old spun onto the porch, to snatch the cardboard box out of the man's hands.
"Hey! Take it easy," said the postman, "You'll get hurt."
"Sorry," replied Dan, "but I've been waiting for so long."
"Just about eight weeks," added Mister Daniels. "I guess we won't see you so often any more, now that you have that ... package, whatever it is ..."
Dan tried to be polite, but wished the man would leave so that he could
open “that package “.
"Well, good luck," said the man as he turned to descend the long squeaky, wooden steps of the old gray house. Just as quickly Dan was back through the screen door and racing up the stairs, then down the long hallway, stopping just before his room.
Dan held the package ahead of him, anxious to rip it open, yet a little frightened at the power that might lie beneath the thin skin of cardboard. "It's finally here," he whispered as he remembered that moment eight weeks ago when he had placed the six box-tops along with two dollars in an envelope, sealed it and walked downstairs to wait for the mailman.
Now it was his. Slowly, like he was peeling an orange, Dan opened the package, breaking loose first one side, then the other. He lifted the lid and took a deep breath before going on to the next level, the crinkled, white stuffing that held his treasure.
No! Not just yet. He entered his room, walked past the brightly colored posters of Tarzan, and Buck Rodgers, the Wizard of Oz and Frankenstein. There he sat, on his rumpled bed by the window as he cradled the package in both hands while letting the tingle in his stomach grow until he could bear it no longer.
Setting the package between both knees, his thumbs gently probed through the wrinkled paper to the core. For a moment he was afraid there was nothing there, that they'd mistakenly sent him an empty package. He squeezed the paper but still he could find nothing. Losing patience he tore the package into two halves dropped one section onto the floor while he ripped apart the first section. Nothing! In panic Dan dropped the torn pieces and snatched up the other half. Quickly he opened the second part wide; not a thing.
"I think I feel sick," he mumbled.
Then his eyes widened as a thought came to him. "What if the ring fell under the bed?" Dropping to hands and knees the boy searched the orange rug; but there was nothing there beyond yesterday's dirty socks and underwear and his good shoes.
With a sigh, the boy began to stand, but then he reconsidered and knelt down one more time. Hmm! Wasn't there a glint of something shining from down in that knothole in the floor, at the corner of his bed? Sure! That had to be it. He was always finding strange stuff in there: nickels he had lost or fishhooks and sometimes things like jacks and marbles he'd never seen before. It was a black hole of sorts.
Dan scurried back to his toolbox and found a hook and some line and fastened them; then he was back under the bed and lowering the line into the hole. A couple of times he missed, but finally, after taking a deep breath and calming himself down, he concentrated on the task.
There! He had it now. Gently he lifted it up and out. There it
was, the ring: A Phantom Wizard Magical Ring. It was his.
"Beautiful! Worth every penny of that two dollars." Dan held the ring in the palm of his hand enjoying the coolness of the gold metal against his skin. It was heavy too. He'd expected much less. Now, this was a real ring; and the green stone set in the middle actually sparkled. He slid the ring onto the index finger of his right hand. A perfect fit. Holding it up to his face he explored the two miniature dragons which guarded the precious stone between them. On the bottom their scaly tails came together and entwined. Tiny stones set into the eyes of the dragons gleamed a red glint.
Dan, dressed in his wizard's cape, the one he had taken from a trunk in the attic, stood in front of the bureau-mirror and pointed the ring at his image while he narrowed his eyes into small slits. Focusing the power of his mind into a dragon’s eyes he concentrated on Todd Lundgren, that bully from down the street who was always giving him a hard time. If he could make Todd disappear that would be worth the two bucks alone.
"Zap!" he said, and Todd was gone. Now for Miss Hageman, next year's teacher, a crabby old biddy, who was acquainted with his mother. "Zap!" he said, and she was gone too. He thought of his friend Walt and almost zapped him too for not being around when he wanted him and for Walts always being away with his parents on trips. Then suddenly, realizing what he was doing, Dan dropped his hand to his side.
"I almost zapped Walt!" He was shocked at the act he had practically committed. "How could I think of zapping Walt?" Walt! He had to find Walt and show him the ring.
In full flight, the boy darted through his bedroom doorway, down the stairs to the screen door where he threw it open. He charged across the porch to leap into space, missing all the steps and landing on the grass below, to tumble once, and roll to his feet. With a bounce he was running across the wide-lawn to leap into the air, to scale the row of neatly trimmed hedges that separated the two houses. Then he was on the front porch. "Walt!" he yelled through the front door. "Walt! It's here! the ring."
But Walt didn't come crashing down from the second story to view this most wondrous of all acquisitions. There was silence from the house as if no one had ever lived there. Dan tried once more: "Walt! Are you home? Walt!"
He turned away from the door, feeling sad that he couldn't share this moment with his friend. Then, halfway down the steps he froze in mid-step. "What if … just supposing that ... No! It couldn't be … or, could it?" He nodded his head, held out the ring and looked at it, then took another step, but came to a pause and reconsidered. "What if I had imagined that Walter disappeared?”
Frantically Dan tried to remember his thoughts, all of them, after he'd put on the ring. Let's see now. I imagined Todd disappearing and Miss Hageman too. But not Walter! Not my best friend...
Suddenly the air around him was scary, the steps of Walter’s house became ominous, the air electric. The hairs on the back of his neck tingled at the thought of what might have taken place. Slowly, deliberately making his mind a blank, the boy took off the ring and put it into his pocket. He had the feeling, quite strong, at that moment, that he wanted to be home, checking to see if his mother was in the kitchen, getting supper ready and that his sister Martha, who he despised, was still playing dolls in her rooms. He wanted them to be there, needed them to be.
Dan ambled across the lawn, parted the hedge and was halfway through
the bushes when he heard a familiar yell from down the road.
"Hey Dan! It's me. Wait up!"
"God! What a relief." There was Walt jogging down the sidewalk. All of a sudden, as if the clouds had opened wide on a rainy day, liquid sunshine poured over everything and the world was okay again.
Dan let out a loud sigh of relief, at the same time feeling in
his pocked for the ring.
"Where you been?" asked Dan.
"Just down the street, watchin Todd and his folks packin their things."
"What? What did you say?"
"They're going away, for the summer. But Todd might not come back, not this year anyway."
"I don't know. Said he might stay with his aunt and uncle or somethin. I think his folks got money problems I guess."
"Yeah! Why wouldn't I be sure. It's no big deal, is it?"
"What about Miss Hageman? What about her?"
"I don't know anything about that witch."
"Oh!" said Dan, "I thought you might have heard something about her.
Like her going away or, you know, something like that."
"No such luck," said the boy, "Anyway, I don't know anything about her. Hey! Did it come, the ring in today's mail?"
Dan had been clutching the ring in his hand within his pocket. He dropped the ring into a crevice in the pocket while he slid his hand out into the open. "No," he said, "Maybe in tomorrow's mail. Come on over to my house and we'll see if we can get some sodas and stuff from my Mom."
The two boys walked across the lawn toward the house.
That evening, when the house was quiet, and the family was either asleep, his sister was anyway, and his father was reading in the living room, Dan climbed out of his second-story bedroom. He slid across the roof and shinnied down an old oak tree to walk to the edge of the woods bordering their back lot. There he dug a hole, stopping now and then to listen to the cries of bats flying overhead, as they crossed in front of the full, orange-moon.
He dug a hole with a table-spoon carried in his back pocket for this occasion and there he planned to bury the powerful, mystical ring where he would never be tempted to use its powers for his own selfish gain. And, he thought: "I'll save the world and all of its citizens from tyranny.”
Removing the ring from his finger, Dan placed the band into the fresh hole and stared down at its beautiful stone which caught rays from the moon and reflected the glow into his eyes. He took up a handfull of dirt and began to sprinkle it lightly over the hole. The boy sensed, rather than heard, a mournful wail from somewhere in the darkness, which sent a shiver of chill up his spine. His second handfull sprinkled on top of the first, diminishing the ring's sparkle; again a wail which caused him to dump the remaining dirt and look all around him.
Had the wail come from the woods, or -- or from the hole? The boy stood and backed away, swinging his flashlight around him, checking 360 degrees. Shadows from the light’s play on the bushes gave him the willies, but there was nothing -- maybe. Quickly and quietly, almost as if the thought came from somewhere else, the boy reached down, lifted the ring, brushed off the dirt, and stuffed the glimmering jewel back into his pocket. Shivering in the damp air he returned home.
When Fall came, school began without Miss Hageman, who it seemed, had gone off to England to become engaged. Dan was again worried that he had done the wrong thing by not burying that powerful ring. And though he never wore it or talked about the ring to anyone, including Walt, the gold colored band was always with him, usually lodged in one corner of his pant's or jacket pocket.
One warm evening, Indian summer Dan and Walt played down in the local park, behind the volunteer firehouse where there were swings and a chute, next to the ballfield. Though both boys had outgrown the swings, or so they thought, this evening after playing ball with the kids in the neighborhood they sat and swung as they talked. It was one of those evenings where the blue of the sky and the dark of the night caused the star-field to twinkle ever bright, and the rising moon seemed to fill the sky.
"Walt! Do you think there's life out there, like us, I mean?"
"I don't know. There could be I suppose."
"But would they look like us?"
Walt shrugged as he pumped his swing higher, "Why not!"
For a while the boys raced each other on the swings, each trying to outdo the other in height, then each, in turn reaching the limit and jerking down. But the feeling of exhilaration in their stomachs was worth the effort. It was a wonderful, glorious night.
"Do you think there's a god?"
"Both my mom and dad say there is."
"But you, I mean, what do you think?"
Walt was silent for a while, pumping slowly now, no longer reaching for the heights, but just enjoying the wind in his face as he swung back and forth. "I don't know," he said, "I used to believe, but then, you know, finding out about Santa and the Easter Rabbit and all that. It makes you wonder just what to believe ... How about you?"
While they were swinging, Dan found himself looking at the moon and one hand slipped into his pocket, withdrew the ring and slid it onto his finger. It seemed to fit, just right.
"Me, well that's hard to say. I did believe, for a while but then one
night when I really had my doubts I looked at the stars and asked God for
a simple sign, just a little signal that he was there. I looked for anything,
a shooting star, an airplane passing by or an owl would even do. But there
was nothing and so I made up my mind ..."
"So what do you think there is?"
"I think its us, we're the gods, each one of us creates the universe in his own mind."
"So. What happens when you die?"
"I guess a universe somewhere blinks out ..."
They swung in silence for a while longer, then yawns dispelled the magic of the night and both headed home. In the morning when he awoke Dan found the ring on his finger. It was comfortable there, but he felt the old fear and remembering the disappearance of Todd and Miss Hageman he got up early and went out into the woods, replaced the ring in the ground and covered it over. Though, in later years, when he tried, out of curiosity, to locate the "Ring of Power" he could never quite find the spot where it lay.
Dan grew up, went to college and became a schoolteacher, and part time magician. Walt married Dan's younger sister Martha, and there was one child, a girl. As the years went by, Dan retired, and a year later Walter did too.
Dan had remained a bachelor and spent a considerable amount of his personal
time doing benefit amateur magic-shows for schools, hospitals and other
charities. His parents were gone now and Walter and Martha's daughter got
married, leaving just the three of them alone in the two large houses.
And suddenly Martha died and now there were only the two of them.
In another neighborhood old Dan might have looked out of place, dressed as he was in top hat, long flowing cape and tuxedo; but here, walking down the quiet avenue among the old houses with wide lawns he belonged to a sort of "left-over" part of another time. In one gloved hand he carried a straight, silver cane, and in the other hand a black valise. He crossed the street and walked toward the old gray house, noting a little sadly, how run-down it was getting. Not that Walt's place next door looked any better though. Walt was reclining on a lawn chair reading in the shade of one of the great oaks that circled the property.
"Hey Dan!" said Walt, "How'd the show come off?"
"Pretty good Walt. But the kids are getting awfully demanding these days."
"What'd they want - an elephant out of that hat?"
"How'd you guess? Rabbits are pretty tame now I guess. World's changing too fast for me."
"What do you mean?"
"Walt. Its time we talked. There are a few things I want your thoughts on. Come on over to the porch and we'll talk about it with a beer in our mitts."
Dan walked into the house and emerged a short time later wearing casual
jeans and a sport shirt. When he came onto the porch Walt was sitting in
his usual rocking chair, feet propped up on the railing, looking off toward
some far off place.
"You're thinking about Martha again," said Dan.
"Un-huh! Just wishin we could have spent more time together, but I guess it wasn't meant to be... Things change."
"Yup! They sure do. That's one of the parts I wanted to talk to you about."
"Do you remember, about a year or two after Martha died; you kept thinkin she was still around; you kept hearing her in the kitchen or upstairs?"
"Hmmm! Yeah, of course, I remember."
"Did you think you were goin crazy ... for a while?"
"Maybe! Yeah, I suppose I did."
"Well! I've got almost the same problem. No! Not seein Martha, but somethin like it; I need your help to try and figure it out."
Walt slid his feet down from the railing and, straightened his posture in the chair to turn toward his friend. "So! Tell me about it," he said.
"I started to a couple of times," said Dan, "but I was a little embarrassed."
"Not with me, I hope."
"Yeah! I'm guilty. A man doesn't like to feel that he's slippin but I just might be."
"Let's hear all about it."
"Do you remember England?"
"It sounds a bit familiar, but no, I never heard of it."
"How about Ireland, Scotland or Wales?"
"No! I can't say that I've ever heard of them. Where are they?"
"I don't know. Somethin's happened, somethin very strange. You see, up until very recently all of those places I named were countries; small though they might be, they were countries which at times were very important in history."
"You mean ancient civilizations?"
"No, that's the troublesome part; they were, they are, I mean, they were modern civilizations, but they've disappeared."
"How do you mean, disappeared? They changed their names, you mean, like Constantinople and the likes?"
"I'm not sure. About three months ago I noticed that there hadn't
been any mention of any of those countries in the news for some time. So,
just out of curiosity I went back through the micro-discs to see where
they were last mentioned."
"What did you find?"
"That's it - nothin."
"What do you mean nothin?"
"It's just a simple statement of fact. I could find nothin in the news that gave even the faintest indication that any of those places had ever existed."
"Did you go back in the history books? And ... geography texts?"
"That was the next step."
"Nothin... they don't exist. Never did."
"Well, that's simple then; you've made them up. Probably part of a dream
that got lodged in your memory. Could be the makin of a book you know."
"Yes, that's all well and good but I know that they existed."
"How can they exist if nobody knows about them? You say they're modern nations or rather modern civilizations but how can they be if nobody knows anythin about them? Phantom nations perhaps?"
"That's not all. Does the name Japan mean anythin to you?"
"Ja - pan! You mean as in the god Pan?"
"See! I thought so. That was a country too. Try Australia."
"Australia. Hmmm, sounds familiar. No, that's just because it sounds like Austria. Are you sure you don't mean Austria. Now, that's a nice little country, visited there about ten years back. Right on the ocean, a nice place to vacation. Martha loved it."
"On the ocean is it? What about the Alps and Italy? No, don't tell me:
I've looked at the maps. Those places don't exist either and a whole bunch
of other places that were there when we were children. For that matter
all of them were there until just over a year ago, but now they're gone."
"Dan. Have you ... I mean, have you been for a check-up lately?"
"Yep! Just this week and by the way it was a psychological check-up. I had the same question on my own lips. But the Doc gave me a clean bill of health. My memory losses were due to aging, he said."
"Did you mention this problem, the loss of whole nations?"
"Well no. I didn't tell him about that."
"Uh-huh! Shouldn’t you have told him?"
"Sure, but I didn't want him to think I was crazy."
"Oh, I don't think it's that bad, just some minor delusions. Perhaps some chemistry imbalance, probably a few pills would straighten you out; don't you think?"
"No Walter! I wish it was that simple. I think what's happening is that those countries have been stolen."
"Oh come on now! How could anyone steal a country? It just isn't rational, is it?"
"But how come you're the only one who remembers them? I trust that you've
made additional inquiries."
"I have and nobody does, nobody remembers them... Still, I do. Here, let me show you. I've started a journal with all the information I can remember about them. Mostly its bits and pieces. I never was much of a history bug. Though, as you can see, there's quite a bit of information here."
Walt took the journal and went through it. "Hmmm! This is impressive
Dan. If it was fiction you could probably get it published. Why don't you
try the science fiction markets?"
"Because its not fiction; those places really existed."
"Have you tried a travel agent, tried to book a ticket then?"
"That I have; went down to Brownstone Travel; still no luck. They never heard of any of them."
"Well then! Isn't that enough Dan? If the travel agencies never heard of them, surely they don't exist." Walt smiled and sipped his beer. "If those places were there you can bet that someone would be selling tickets to them."
"I hear you Walt! And I know that I don't have a single written fact
to stand on. Perhaps I am crazy, though I don't feel any different than
I ever did. A little older maybe."
"Don't get worried," said Walt, "It happens all the time. Go back to your doctor, fill him in on the details you overlooked. He'll probably find the answer on page 256 or somethin of his medical book. They have pills for that sort of thing."
"I guess you're right, but those places ... that England and Scotland, Wales, Japan, Italy and ... and the rest. It seems like they've always been a part of my world and I can't see how they come into it ... or rather, how they got away from us."
The men finished their beers. It was Walt's turn to cook that
evening so they went over to his house for ham sandwiches, watched a football
game on tv for a couple of hours and then each retired to his own home.
And, though they met each day it was over three-weeks before the conversation went back to that evening's subject.
"You know that conversation we were having just the other day about disappearing nations?"
"I seem to recall somethin of that nature. Did your doctor prescribe a pill?"
"I haven't been to see him yet, though maybe I will next week."
"But Walt! Do you remember tellin me about your vacation, the one you
and Martha took in Austria ... about ten years ago?"
"Austria! Austria? No, I don't think so. Actually I've never heard of the place. Is it another one of your vanished civilizations?"
"You really don't remember it, Walt, from our talk the other day?"
"Sorry Dan; if I'd been to such a place as that I'd certainly remember
it now, wouldn't I?"
"I guess so; the whole thing is terribly confusing. Europe? How about Europe? Do you know anythin about it?"
"Europe ... That doesn't sound the least bit familiar. You've certainly got an imagination for names Dan. You should think about writin that novel."
"How about Greece Walt? You know: the god Pan … and all that mythology?"
"Mythology! Greece! Pan! Those are interesting names; I’ll bet you could write a great fantasy story. Why don't you give that a chance?"
"I think I might, right after I visit my doctor."
Dan cooked hot-dogs for supper with ripe red tomatoes plucked fresh from the backyard garden. They ate, listened to the tv for a while, and returned home to their separate houses.
Time passed. Dan sat alone rocking his chair on the porch of the crumbling home. He looked across the beach to the endless expanse of ocean and remembered a vague neighborhood that might once have been there. And he thought of his friend, brother-in-law and neighbor, Walt who had once lived only a stone's throw away.
As if to test the thought about distance he got up, carefully walked down the steps to the beach and picked up a rock which he threw in the direction where Walt's porch once was. The stone splashed and disappeared beneath the waves. Dan placed his hands, clasped them, behind his back and began his circumnavigation of the world.
Rounding the backyard he looked into the distance at the watery horizon and stopped to remember the woods that had been there not too long ago. His attention was attracted to a sparkle on the beach and so he walked there, stooped down and retrieved the circle, washed it in the salt water and held it up to the light. He smiled at the gold band, and the dragons holding a green stone between them and tried to think of where he remembered it from. The ring had been his once, he was almost sure of that, but when?"
"Oh well, " he shrugged, "It doesn't matter anyway." And pocketing the ring, he continued the short walk back to his starting point at the front porch. It was getting to be a chore, all that walking, with his arthritis and all. It was certainly a big world, but somehow it had once been bigger.
Climbing the steps he sat on the porch and watched the waves. Several times he patted his pocket to make sure the ring was still there and tried to search back through the haze of his mind to remember it, but the mist was too thick.
Dan thought he'd like to go on down to the library to do some research on disappearing continents, but wondered how he could do that. And then he'd like to consult with Walt about all the changes in the world, but that didn't seem to be possible either. So he settled for going back up the stairs to the study.
On the way in, the golden ring fell through a hole in his pocket and then bounced twice on a floorboard to vanish down a crack to the darkness below the house.
Dan climbed the stairs, entered the study and, taking a geography text down from the bookshelf, he opened it at random. The page was blue; as a matter of fact every page he opened to was blue and nothing more. Except for one page that seemed to have a single tiny dot on it, a flyspeck perhaps. But he brushed this speck away and watched it fall off the completely blue page.