Julie grew up hearing stories of Jagged Canyon.
It wasn’t special to her family, but something everybody told stories about once in awhile when they wanted to be dramatic. The Canyon was an awful place, and you could only get there on accident. The real people who came out of it always had their lives ruined or else would start to have superpowers that were useless because there wasn’t any villain to fight. (It was a nice kind of town that way.) People who had been there woke up screaming in the middle of the night. They broke down in tears in the middle of conversations, remembering. Anything that reminded them of it –smells and sounds, certain words – were ruined forever. So whenever other people told stories about the Canyon, you had to listen very carefully and very quietly and take it serious, even if it was a fiction story with made-up characters that used the Canyon for setting. No one could make jokes about it, ever, but sometimes people did anyway and they’d get in trouble if anyone important heard.
People in the town were real peculiar about the roads – there were big red signs all over, and painted lines down the roads, and people honked at each other shrilly if they were driving and started to drift over those lines, even a little bit. Nobody wanted to see anyone get lost and wind up in the Jagged Canyon. It was best to drive with a buddy or two, just in case. The worst thing would be to be on the road by yourself, at night, and especially if you were driving out of town.
When she was old enough, Julie’s mother told her that the two of them had been in Jagged Canyon when she was just a baby. They’d gotten lost and had to wander it for three long years. Julie didn’t remember any of it, but she believed her mother. She’d always had nightmares, and feelings about certain smells and words. When her mother told her, she wished she could remember more. She’d wanted to ask a lot of questions, but she had to stop because she could see how much her mother didn’t really want to talk about it. So she tried, on her own, to figure things out. She remembered a certain way the stars looked, and at night sometimes she stared at the sky, comparing – trying to know for sure whether the memory was one from in the Canyon or not.
When Julie was a teenager, she tried to run away. She knew that all the stories said the Canyon ruined lives, but she wanted to see inside of it anyway. Maybe she’d find the things her mother had lost there long ago. She’d left her car behind, and her wallet, and her lighter. The wallet would have money and pictures inside. Julie didn’t think that she and her mother were the same kind of person; she was sure that if she found herself in the Canyon, she’d still know which way she’d come into it and not get lost. Maybe she’d find other lost people there and she could help them get out. But she’d never find Jagged Canyon without driving out of town, and her mother would see her leave and not be able to stand it. So she never had run away.
Now and then, somebody would say to Julie that they had been through the rift, and she’d listen to each word with inappropriate thrill. All those people felt like family, or like neighbors from a hometown she’d left to go on vacation. The Canyon didn’t scare her. She woke crying from dreams about it, but she was never afraid when she listened to the stories. People who had been there remembered a lot of things the same. They spoke of rusty canyon walls that curled like jaws overhead, blocking out the sky for miles. They spoke of spears of rock popping tires, shredding clothes, of sludge puddles glowing neon, and the wind whipping sand day and night. There were voices that crawled along the spired rock and echoed through ordinary conversation – screaming voices, pleading for mercy in the heat, and senseless laughter rising out of shadows.
Julie wondered, but never asked, how much of it was real. She believed them, but when you’d heard the same stories all your life, how did you know that it wasn’t just in your head all the time because other people put it there? How did you know it wasn’t just another trip off the beaten path? Maybe her nightmares had nothing to do with the Canyon – maybe she’d just had nightmares because she was a kid who’d heard too much about a scary place. Maybe the feelings she had sometimes of neon sludge stuck in her throat and electric disgust raving through her was all just her good imagination acting up. And if she would just grow up and forget all the stories, then maybe she’d be completely normal and completely fine, like anyone.
When she was grown up, a lady that she worked with who was always sad came in and said she’d been in Jagged Canyon that weekend. Her boyfriend had been driving, and when he realized where they were he’d pushed her out of the car to conserve fuel and driven off like a maniac, hitting her big toe on the way. She’d limped out onto a road alone and stopped by the hospital before coming into work this morning. The lady said it so matter-of-fact and didn’t cry at all, Julie wondered if she was even really hurt. She asked her why she’d date a guy like that in first place, and they talked about that guy for a while, and then just before Julie had to leave to do her job she looked the sad woman in her eyes and asked her how she could be at work when she’d just gotten out of the Canyon this morning. She asked her how, and was looking in her eyes, and there all of a sudden was the break the lady was hiding, and the tears that she’d be choking back, and Julie looked away to help her not to cry and patted her shoulder. Then Julie wondered if maybe everybody who went through Jagged Canyon really hurt a lot, but couldn’t afford to know it most of the time.