Heart of Light and Shadow – A Novella

smallerWhen they said that the heart of darkness was a real place, he thought they had been kidding. He never believed that he would actually find it after years of searching. Now that he was here, however, he was faced with a quandary. Was it safe to go inside? And who’s heart was it that he would be entering?

He stood looking up at it. He knew that it rested in the crevice between a cliff and a mountain made of dark rock that had been formed by lava. The volcano was long dead now, but villagers said they still saw a red glow if it was a cloudless night. He could see something that resembled a barn crowning the mountain. It looked ready to fall over and the red paint had faded to a dull pinkish colour.

In front of him, there was a vast wasteland of gravel. He could see coins and pieces of glass glinting in the sunlight. He saw something that he thought might be a child’s toy, languishing in amongst the dirt and rocks. It seemed like such a sad place to find someone’s heart.

Taking a deep breath, he started forward to the base of the mountain. He expected to find steps carved out of the stone, out of the very mountain itself. What he didn’t expect to find was an escalator. It rose smoothly up the mountain with nary a noise. He looked at it apprehensively. What kind of people would put an escalator into the mountain face of a dormant volcano?

He had expected to use the climbing equipment strapped to his back. It seemed he was over prepared. Taking another deep breath, he stepped onto the first stair of the escalator and it brought him slowly up the mountain. He could see that the land went on forever and all of it was dry and desolate. There were cacti and other hot climate plants dotting the terrain.

From somewhere above him, he heard the sounds of soft music. He wondered vaguely what awaited him at the top of the mountain. Still though, he held onto the railing and waited. He would find out soon enough. A breeze moved past him and while the air should have been filled with scents of heat and rock, it was filled with the scents of spicy food and baked goods.

Feeling a little like Alice down the rabbit hole, he looked up to where the escalator would eventually reach its apex. Soon, he began to hear snatches of conversation and even the sound of songs being sung on the air. This was not what he had expected for the location to the heart of darkness. It was supposed to be a barren and desolate landscape, completely bereft of people.

When he finally came level with the top of the mountain however, it was to find a sea of people in front of him. There were food stalls selling the food he had smelled and musicians playing the music he had heard. There were even stalls selling souvenirs. In front of him was a woman with a wide smile and kind eyes. She had blond hair that had been teased, backcombed and hair sprayed into a large bouffant that probably would not move during a tornado. She held out her hand to him and he saw that her nails were painted a vibrant red.

“Hi y’all! Welcome to the Heart of Darkness! How y’all doing today?”

He stepped off the escalator and reached out with his own hand to grasp hers. She gave it a hearty shake. “I’m fine. A little confused, to tell you the truth. I didn’t expect there to be anyone here. I thought it would be deserted.”

She gave a tinkling laugh that sounded like bells. “Oh honey, everyone who comes here says that. Why would you think that?”

“Because it’s called the Heart of Darkness?”

“Oh honey, don’t you know that the heart is both light and dark, joy and sorrow? The heart is a balancing act as you can’t have one without the other.”

“Then why call it the Heart of Darkness?”

She gave him a roguish wink. “It sounds better, don’t you think? Brings more people in to see it. We used to call it Heart of Light and Shadow and no one came. Call it Heart of Darkness though, and look! It’s a simple marketing ploy.”

He was stymied. “I see.”

“Oh honey, don’t look so glum. Here, what do they call you? My names Faye McCallister and I’m pleased to meet you!” She smiled at him showing all of her teeth.

“I’m Jasper. Jasper Halloway.”

“Well, Jasper, so good to meet you. You just go on over to registration and sign in and then get yourself a bit of food and maybe a t shirt? I take it from all that gear on your back that you’re going to enter the Heart of Darkness?”

“I was planning to.” He said.

“Well good on you! But you can’t take that kind of gear with you. You just have to go in without any kind of help. It’s the rules of the mountain.”

“Why? Who made the rules?”

She looked at him blankly for a moment and shook her head. “You know, I don’t rightly know who made the rules. But it doesn’t matter Jasper honey, for we don’t take mountain gear with us when we take on matters of the heart in every day life, do we? It’s just the way things are done. Anna May will take your rucksack and hold on to it for you should you make it out.”

Those words sent shivers down his spine. “Not everyone makes it out?”

Faye laughed lightly again. “No, sugar. Some people get lost in there and never find their way out. It’s why we have y’all register, so we can notify your families should you get lost. There’s a waiver for you to sign, but Anna May will tell you all about that. Now go on, get some food! Listen to some music. Welcome to the Heart of Darkness!”

She gave him a soft hug and it was as if he was being embraced by his mother. Faye smelled of Elizabeth Tayloy’s White Diamonds perfume and Aqua Net hairspray. When she stepped back from him, she patted his cheek in a kindly way.

“You take care of yourself. Y’all will do fine in there, Jasper Holloway and I’ve never been wrong yet.”

“What’s it like inside?” Jasper whispered, not willing to admit that he was slightly afraid.

“No one knows dear. It’s different for each person and those that leave the mountain never tell. You’ll have to experience it for yourself. You go on and see Anna May now and get something to eat, okay?” She saw the look of fear on his face and gave him a knowing look.  “Go on now and explore. It’s what you’re here to do.” With that, Faye turned and greeted another one of the people gathered on the mountaintop.

Jasper tried to take them all in, but there were too many. It looked more like a festival rather than a gathering of explorers wanting to find out what lay within the mountain’s heart. He began to walk among them. There were young children running along the rocky terrain, streams of red ribbons flowing behind them.

He saw young couples having their picture taken in front of pressboard signs that read “I went inside the Heart of Darkness!”. They stood in front of the signs with wide smiles, laughing. Jasper wondered when the Heart of Darkness had become a theme park instead of the starting point for a quest of sorts.

Jasper became aware of a man standing beside him. He was watching the crowds with a grim expression on his face. A line of song reached Jasper then, carried on the air and he recognized the song instantly.

“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it better. Remember to let him into your heart, then you can start to make it better…”

The man let out a snort of derision. “From the sounds of it, they should all be smoking pot and having a love in, don’t you think?”

Turing to look at him a bit more closely, Jasper saw that he was older than most of the crowd that he could make out. The man was well into his seventies and dressed as if from another time. He was wearing a velvet smoking jacket made out of a purple brocade and a black velvet ascot was tied around his neck. He also had a thin pencil mustache gracing his lip.

“You don’t approve?” Jasper asked.

Letting out another snort, the man shook his head. “No, I do not. This used to be a place where a man or woman went to find oneself, or the piece that was missing. It was never supposed to be a sing along.”  He took out a silver cigarette case and pulled out a cigarette. “Would you care for one?”

Jasper shook his head. “I don’t smoke.”

“You should start. Heaven knows when you’ll get out of there. Could take minutes, could take hours, possibly days. Or you may never find your way out again. You’ll be wishing you had the taste of smoke upon your tongue to keep you company.”

“It’s all good.” Jasper said. “I quit years ago.”

“Suit yourself.” He lit one and puffed on the cigarette which enveloped his head in a cloud of smoke. When the cloud had cleared, he held out his free hand. “Names Alexander. I’m assuming from the gear that you’re carrying that you are going to venture into the mountain?”

Nodding, Jasper said “Yes, I am. I’m just wondering what I’ll find in there.”

“I’m still wondering what I saw inside, myself.” Alexander took another drag off his cigarette and his face was momentarily lost in smoke and shadows. “It’s been ten years since I entered the heart of the mountain.”

“You went in? And you survived?”

“Of course I did, dear boy. I’m talking to you, aren’t I?” Alexander smiled at him, showing even white teeth. “The thing about the mountain is that it’s different for every person who enters it. Some experience a twisting maze, others a room that is locked on the outside and inside. Some even find their hearts desire.”

“What was the heart of darkness like for you?” Jasper asked softly.

“As I said, I’m still wondering about what I saw in there. There are images I’ve retained, but they don’t make any cohesive sense to me. They are but snapshots in my memory, like an album I flip through occasionally to remember the good old days. The only problem is that these are days I don’t remember.”

Jasper was getting anxious now. “So you can’t tell me anything?”

“Only this: you were brave enough to seek out the Heart of Darkness. Now that you have found it, be brave enough to enter it, regardless of what you will find in there.” He took one more drag off the cigarette, his face hidden once more in a fog of smoke. He reached into his pocket. “And take this with you.”

Alexander held out his lighter. He saw that it was inlaid with mother of pearl and there were designs upon it’s surface. Placing it in Jaspers palm, he said “Please take it.”

“I can’t take this from you.”

“You can and you will. It gets dark inside the mountain. You will need light. Be brave, young Jasper.”

Alexander gave Jasper’s shoulder a quick squeeze and walked off into the crowd. Jasper watched his cigarette smoke trail after him as he disappeared in amongst the others. Jasper was more confused than ever and wondered, only for a moment, if he would continue. Then Alexander’s last words rang in his head: “Be brave, young Jasper.”

Squaring his shoulders, Jasper walked towards Anna May at the registration booth. On the way there, he passed souvenir booths selling things like t-shirts, key chains and ash trays. He was about to pass the booths by when a woman called out to him.

“Just a moment sir. I have something for you!”

She had gorgeous red hair that curled over her shoulders and framed a pale face. She smiled at him but it was her eyes he noticed most, a vibrant and startling green.

He shrugged. “I’m sorry, I didn’t bring any money.”

“Oh no, this is free. This has been waiting for you.”

“How could it have been when I just got to the mountain a half hour ago?”

“The mountain knows. I was told to hold it for you. You are Jasper Halloway, yes?”

Jasper was a little freaked out that she knew his name, but nodded his head anyways. She smiled at him and beckoned to him to come closer and, despite his sense of unease, he felt compelled to. She grasped one of his hands in both of hers when he was standing in front of her.

“I’m Felicity. I’m one of the keepers of the mountain. This is for you.”

She opened his hand and placed a small stone within it. It was black like the mountain but had streaks of silver running throughout it. He moved the stone and marvelled at how the light caught the silver, as if it were made of liquid and not something hard. It felt warm in his hand. He noticed a jagged edge, as if a piece of the stone had broken off long ago.

“You can carry that in your pocket. You have to leave your gear with Anna May, but you can take whatever is in your pockets inside the mountain with you.”

“I can’t accept this without paying for it. Here, let me give you some money.”

Felicity shook her head. “No, I can’t accept it. The mountain wants you to have it. It wants you to find your way out. To do that, you’ll have to find the other half of this stone. It will show you the way.” She said.

She closed his hand around the stone and smiled again. Her touch and the smile filled him with warmth. “May luck and love be with you, Jasper Halloway.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek softly. He felt himself blushing.

“Thank you, Felicity.” He said.

“There is no need to thank me. Many come here not knowing what they will find and end up getting lost in the shadow realms. I don’t want that to happen to you. You have such a bright future in store.” She gave his hand a squeeze. “Now go on and see Anna May. The mountain has been waiting for you for so long, it’s best not to keep it waiting too long.”

Jasper walked away from her, feeling a little dazed, as if he had fallen down a rabbit hole before he entered the mountain. He could still hear music floating on the air toward him.

“Hey Jude, don’t be afraid, you were made to go out and get him, the minute you let him under your skin, then you begin to make it better…”

Jasper could see Anna May and walked towards her. There was no one registering to go into the mountain today so there was no line and she was looking wistfully out into the crowd of people. She had short black hair done up in a bob and black framed glasses shaped like cats eyes. She smiled warmly when she saw him.

“Hey there!” She actually waved at Jasper, eyeing him with hope. “Are you planning to enter the mountain?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Oh thank goodness, I’m so bored with no one to talk to over here. Everyone else is so busy having fun and singing, but I’m all by my lonesome. Have you gotten anything to eat? You should probably eat something before you go inside.”

“I haven’t actually, I was too focused on getting here.” Jasper

“I have just the thing!” She pulled out a lunch packed in brown paper bag. She pulled out a sandwich and a pickle, each of them wrapped in wax paper and tied with string. “I don’t have any beer, but this should fill you up. Smoked meat on rye bread and a thick cut pickle, they always go well together, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I do.” Jasper looked inside the bag. “Where’s your lunch? Aren’t you having anything?”

“I already ate. I usually bring two with me. I eat one and give the second to an explorer entering the mountain.”

“Well, thank you, Anna May. This is very nice of you.” He was moved by her gift. Jasper hadn’t met many nice people throughout his life, so he was genuinely touched by her kindness; Jasper had also been moved by the kindness of Faye, Alexander and Felicity. He wasn’t used to anyone doing anything for him. “Do I need to register with you?”

She gave him a small grin. “I’ve already got you in the book. Go on, eat. You must be hungry after coming so far to get here.”

Unwrapping the sandwich, he went to take a bite, but noticed that a penny was sitting on top of the bread, wrapped in a piece of wax paper. He picked it up between two fingers and took off the wrapping. “What’s the penny for?”

“Didn’t you ever pick up a penny for luck? I figure that since you can only take what’s in your pockets, this way you get two gifts. A good meal and a little bit of luck. That’s something isn’t it?” Anna May grinned at him. “Go on and eat, you’ve got a long journey ahead.”

He put the penny in his pocket. It clinked against the stone. Before he took a bite, he asked her “Do you know what’s inside the mountain?”

She shook her head. “I’ve never been in, but I’ve seen so many people pass by this threshold. I know that it’s different for everyone and there’s no way to predict what it will be. You just have to trust in your gut and your instincts. I’m pretty sure you’ll experience stuff that will test you, that will push you beyond your boundaries. Remember that you can do this, okay? Be brave, Jasper.”

There were those words again. He began to wonder if they did know something about what he would see within the mountain. Jasper nodded, astounded to realise that he had already finished the whole sandwich. All that remained were crumbs and the pickle. He unwrapped it and crunched into it. As he finished eating, the wind brought him another piece of the song he had heard before.

“And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, don’t carry the world upon your shoulders, for well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool, by making his world a little colder…”

Despite himself, Jasper shivered. Anna May put a hand on his arm. “It’ll be okay, Jasper. You got this, remember?” She smiled at him again, and he was warmed by her touch.

“I got this,” he said to himself. He stared at the black rock, looking like the mountain itself had at one point melted and then reformed in a different shape when it cooled. For some reason, he put his hand into his pocket and felt the lighter, the black and silver rock and now the penny. They brought him comfort.

“Now you’ll have to be careful going in. The entrance hangs low so watch you don’t bonk your head. That wouldn’t be a good way to start your journey, now would it? Just go right, around this bend of rocks. Then follow the red glow.”

Nodding, Jasper started forward and took one last glance behind him. Anna May gave him a little finger wave. Cheered, he walked a little further and then found his path turning right, the gravel crunching underneath his shoes.

He ran his fingers along the rock face felt the bumps and grooves, the smooth portions of granite. Then he turned the corner and stopped in his tracks. In front of him he could see the red glow that everyone in the village had told him about. It looked as if the mountain was pulsing, as if there were a real heart inside of it instead of just cold rock.

Taking his hand off the wall of the mountain, Jasper walked on, his heart beating a little faster with every step. And with every step he took, Jasper wondered what waited for him inside the mountain. He wished that he hadn’t eaten that sandwich now, he was so nauseas.

He took a deep breath and tasted the sea and the clouds on that air. He was so close to the mountain, to finding the Heart of Darkness, that he couldn’t give up now. Jasper forged on ahead. The red glow began to grow brighter and it looked as if the mountain was slowly letting a red fog out from inside of it. He had to walk into it in order to reach his destination.

The red fog-like substance was warm upon his skin. It was as if he were sitting inside of a sauna. He stood there for a moment inside the fog, letting it warm his skin. He still smelled the clouds and the sea but there was something else as well. He could smell the rock and the earth from inside the mountain. It was a heady smell, almost as if it wanted to help him float away. He found himself lost in himself, only momentarily, but it was enough make him give his head a shake. He had come too far to lose concentration now.

When he cleared the red fog, what he saw took his breath away. The entrance to the mountain, and according to legend the Heart of Darkness, looked as if a massive hand had created it. Jasper knew that it was volcanic rock that had melted and froze in this shape, but to him, it looked as if the unseen hand had twisted and pulled, shortened and prodded, until the lava rock was in this formation. It looked like one of the traps in the Goblin King’s labyrinth.

The red glow was coming from a hole that looked as if it were surrounded by hands that wanted to reach out and greet him. He eyed the entrance with a little bit of fear. Could the volcano still be active after all this time? What else could be causing the red glow but a sea of lava?

Reaching down to his left pocket, Jasper made sure that the lighter, silver rock and penny were still there. Then, taking a deep breath, he stepped across the threshold of the mountain’s entrance.

He let out a breath that he had been unaware that he was holding when nothing happened. Jasper actually felt a smile slide across his face and he felt relieved. This was going to be easy, he could do this.

Then he took a step further and everything went black.

It was as if someone had turned off the lights. He turned around to go back out, to leave the mountain, felt around in front of him, but the entrance was no longer there. It was no longer there and neither was the soft red glow or the glowing red fog. Jasper felt a true sweat of fear slide out of his pores and cover his body. He was going to die in here. He desperately needed to see where he was going but had no flashlight on him, hadn’t even thought of bringing one with him.

Not that he could have brought one with him anyway. He could only take into the mountain what he could fit into his pockets. He put a hand inside his pocket to feel his talismans and felt the lighter. Jasper’s panic melted away a little and he drew the lighter out.

The lighter was already glowing. He hadn’t even flicked it on and it was already giving out a soft glow. He looked at it in the darkness. The symbols that had been carved into the lighter were letting out the light. The lighter seemed to glow from within. He thought he should test the lighter out and flicked it on. Expecting to see a flame, he wasn’t prepared for the almost blinding flash of light that came from the lighter. It seemed impossible that the lighter could hold so much brightness.

He let the lighter click off, but he had seen where he needed to go. The lighter let out enough light on its own to see by, albeit not quite as bright as flicking the lighter on. There was passageway that led further into the mountain on his right and nowhere else to go. He went that way.

As Jasper walked, he listened to the sounds of the mountain. There was a steady drip of water coming from somewhere ahead of him and he could hear the soft steady sound of mist being released into the air. He thought of the mist that had glowed a soft red and wondered where it had gone.

He had to think of what he had heard about the mountain. He knew that the name of Heart of Light and Shadow was more apt than the name of Heart of Darkness. It was rumoured to reflect what you held in your heart. You were able to leave the mountain if you proved yourself worthy of it. Rumour also said that you had to go through three challenges, all having to do with the heart in some way.

Jasper knew from the people that were on top of the mountain that not everyone made it through their challenges. He had been shocked to learn that it was his heart that he would be venturing through. A man in town had laughed at Jasper when he expressed his shock. “Whose heart did you think you were going into? Someone else’s? Where would the challenge be in that?”

Now Jasper wondered at the wisdom of him coming here, of entering the mountain. He supposed it was his ex-boyfriend that had been the inspiration. During their breakup, Rodney had accused Jasper of being too closed off, too cold. “I’ve been with you for over a year and I still don’t know you. I can’t read you. It’s like you keep me purposely away, so I can’t get to know you.”

Jasper had explained that it had been conditioning from past relationships, that Jasper loved him, he was just afraid of being hurt or letting someone hurt him. It hadn’t mattered. Rodney had moved out and had taken his belongings and a piece of Jasper’s heart with him.

Rodney had been adamant. “You need to do something drastic, Jasper. You can’t keep pushing people away, especially ones that are trying to love you.”

Wondering what was wrong with him had kept Jasper up at night, well into the early hours of the morning. Was there something wrong with him? Was something missing within him? Why did his past relationships make him afraid of committing to a new one?

On one of the evenings his worries had kept him awake, Jasper had stumbled upon stories about the Heart of Darkness, a mountain off the coast that supposedly healed people of their heartache and problems with love. He had tried medication and therapy with no result, so he as ready to try anything. He dreamed of love that he was too afraid to take hold of. He was almost forty and didn’t want to end out his days alone.

So, he had travelled to the mountain in search of the Heart of Darkness. Now that he was here, inside the mountain, he wondered if he had made a mistake. Was coming to this mountain too drastic? It was a little late now, he thought. He couldn’t find his way out of here. More worrying than that, was he so willing to give up so quickly?

No, he decided. He would see this through. Jasper would find his way out of the mountain and conquer the Heart of Darkness. He just didn’t know what kind of shape his challenges would take. He had been walking for what seemed like hours in the dark now. Jasper decided to flick the lighter on again to see if he could see further into the dark.

He flicked it on and was momentarily blinded. Blinking his eyes several times, Jasper received a shock when he heard the soft sounds of music around him. He heard traffic, the sounds of horns honking and the voices of people. He rubbed his eyes and opened them and felt the world fall around him.

Then a voice spoke from the darkness. “Are you just going to sit around all day, writing your stupid stories?”

Jasper shivered and opened his eyes. He was sitting in his old living room. He hadn’t lived here for almost a decade. He took in the state of the walls, the shabby furniture, the sound of the neighbour next doors music that rattled the walls. Then he turned and looked at who had spoken.

With his face shaped into a mask of loathing, Frank looked down upon him. Jasper wasn’t sure how Frank did it. Even though Frank was sitting across from him, Frank always managed to look down upon him. It was one of Franks particular talents.

Frank was looking at him with cold grey eyes that were filled with loathing. He nearly spat at Jasper. “Is that what you want to do with your life? Tell stories to the fat housewives who read your books? That’s who you’re famous to, fat housewives! Nobodies and losers just like you.”

Jasper remembered the conversation. He had quietly nodded and had said nothing in his defense, had remained quite while Frank had railed on and on. Jasper had let Frank run out of steam and then had gone to bed alone. Jasper remembered how empty he had been afterwards, as if everything good had somehow leaked out of him throughout the night and the tears that had wet his pillow.

I’m different now, Jasper thought. Hadn’t he scaled a mountain? Hadn’t he willingly gone into the Heart of Darkness to conquer what lay inside? He was stronger than he had been before. He remembered how much joy he had experienced writing, letting the words flow from his fingertips. He hadn’t written in so very long. Jasper decided that the first thing he would do upon leaving the mountain was write again.

However, he had Frank to deal with. Frank was staring at him with a look that verged on hatred and he was gearing up to yell out another insult. Jasper stopped him by saying, simply: “I am not a failure.”

Frank looked stunned for a moment. The very fact that Jasper would disagree with him seemed to have shocked Frank into silence. Jasper knew that it wouldn’t last though, that another uproar was coming.

“What, you think you’re so special? So fucking fabulous? Sitting alone in front of your computer, writing your stupid little stories? You’re nothing, Jasper. You’re a failure.”

Jasper squared his shoulders and said what he had meant to say, so very long ago: “I am not a failure. Writing brings me joy. I should never have listened to you, should never have given it up. Writing was how I truly lived.”

Cracks began to appear on Franks face. It looked as if he was made of glass and he was slowly coming apart, as if the glass had chosen to break. Jasper wondered if he was causing this, if defying the memory was breaking its spell?

“You’re nothing without me, Jasper. You’ll always be nothing.”

Jasper shook his head, even though the anger on Franks face filled Jasper with molten fear that rushed through him, making him want to cower and give in. He was stronger than that though. He had scaled a fucking mountain. “No, that’s not true.” He said. “Without you, I am everything.”

Frank exploded like a window being shattered, pieces of him flying by Jasper’s face and into the darkness. As Frank dissipated, so did the scene before him. Slowly, the light began to fade and he was once again left in darkness. He flicked on the lighter and could see something moving before him. He heard water and of leaves rustling in the distance.

Jasper headed towards those sounds and soon found himself at the edge of a forest. He hesitated only a moment before stepping across the threshold. The trees sprung up behind him, blocking the way he had come. He turned and pressed his hands along the bark, feeling the sap there and smelled the scent of pine and leaves.

Raising his lighter, he flicked it on, but the flame didn’t come. He shook it and then flicked it again. Still no flame. The lighter still did glow slightly, the symbols upon the casing standing out in the dark. Holding the lighter in his palm, it glowed like a night light that helped to shed a little bit of light upon the leaves.

He saw that some of the leaves had black veins and red leaves. The pine needles were tipped in red, as if someone or something had bled upon them. He tried to walk quickly through the forest, tried to see his way through this part of the mountain as fast as possible, but the forest went on forever. It was a mass of darkness without end.

After some time in the dark forest, Jasper began to hear noises that frightened him. Every time he took a step, he heard someone else taking a step. Every time he continued walking, Jasper could hear someone matching his steps. He knew that he was being followed, knew that he wasn’t the only one in the forest.

Eventually, tired and spent, he just stopped walking. He fell over into the grass and felt the grass underneath him. Jasper couldn’t move another muscle and was sure that he had been walking for hours. He couldn’t walk anymore, not a single step. The lighter fell from his grasp and was lost among the leaves.

He heard footsteps coming from the darkest part of the trees. They grew louder as they came closer to him. Each step that he heard sent a shiver through him and he grew chilled. He closed his eyes and found himself praying for the first time in a long time. He didn’t know who he was praying to or what his prayer consisted of, more feeling than actual words. When Jasper opened his eyes, Daniel was standing there, looming above him.

His blond hair hung like a curtain around his face but Jasper could still see his blue eyes. They glowed like sapphires, cold and unfeeling. Daniel smiled and the sight of his teeth sent Jasper’s heart racing.

“You’re a broken man now.” He said. “There aren’t many people who would have you in this condition. You should just give up and take me back. You’re weak right now, so weak. Isn’t it better being in a relationship than being alone?”

Jasper remembered this conversation as well. How it had felt like a slap in the face. He had thought that Daniel had loved him, but really, he was just something else to control. It had taken all of his willpower to get free of Daniel.

“No, I won’t. I’m not broken.” Jasper said, hating how his voice sounded, so weak and tired. As if he had already given up.

“You already have. The moment you crumbled. You’re like the gingerbread man, lying there with broken legs. You might as well give in. I always know what you want and what you prefer anyways. It’s easier just to do what I say.”

Jasper felt something shake in his pocket. He kept his eyes on Daniel while he reached a hand in and felt the shard of black stone with the silver running through it. Moving his hand slowly out of his pocket, he began to speak. The words just flowed from his tongue and were shaped by his lips. It was as if he had been waiting his whole life to say them.

“You know something Daniel? I’m not broken. I’m just damaged; but damaged stuff heals and revives itself. You’re the broken one.”

Daniel kicked him. “Look at you on the ground, grovelling at my feet while I stand before you. I’m far from broken.”

“No, you’re not broken physically.” Jasper wrapped his left hand around the stone and his body took strength from it. Heat filled his hand, his arm, then his whole body. “You’re broken on the inside and you have no wish to heal yourself. You only want to break other people so that you don’t feel so alone.”

Jasper took in Daniel’s tired face, the lack of shine in his eyes. He had feared this man for too long, had let what Daniel had thought of him shape “You were never going to give me what I needed, what I deserved. You only took from me. You didn’t give.”

His face hardened and Jasper saw the man that had been underneath Daniel’s skin for so long, only Jasper had been too blind to see it. It was a hateful, spiteful face. Jasper hadn’t seen it because he hadn’t wanted to.

“I gave you everything! Everything! I bought you things and toys and clothes and shoes. What more do you want? I gave you everything!”

“Not everything.” Jasper said. “I wanted something that had no price tag and no monetary value.”

“What’s that? Ideas for another one of your stupid stories?”

“No,” Jasper said. “I wanted love.”

At the sound of the word, the stone in his hand began to shake and vibrate. It shone with two kinds of light: the dark stone with a soft black light and the silver with a bright, gorgeous light. The light filled Jasper with hope. It reminded Jasper of something that Faye had said: “Oh honey, don’t you know that the heart is both light and dark, joy and sorrow? The heart is a balancing act as you can’t have one without the other.” Jasper looked at the stone again and saw that it was indeed shaped like a heart.

The stone began to shake more and then launched itself at Daniel. Rather than bounce off of his skin, it ripped a hole right through him. Jasper watched as a substance like dry sand and dust began to pour out of him. The sand began to blow away in the wind that was moving through the branches. Soon, there was nothing left of Daniel. His body, dry and brittle, had faded away to nothing.

Jasper looked around for the stone, but he couldn’t see it. What he did see was a rip in the fabric of the world around him that was shaped like the stone. Bending down, Jasper looked through the rip in the fabric of the sky. He saw a fountain and could hear the water sloshing within. Jasper wondered if this was the sound of water he had heard deep within the dark forest.

Touching the hole, Jasper was amazed to find that it opened wider, seeming to stretch itself, as if melting away. He ran a hand through the wall and found it wasn’t hard. It was as if his hand were moving through water. The wall of liquid began to shimmer and then it was as if Jasper were staring at a rain shower. The details of the stone faded and all he could see was a massive pool, surrounded by more of the rock walls. He took a step forward through the misting rain took it all in.

The fountain he had seen flowed into a pool that was made within the rock of the mountain. It was Olympic sized, perhaps bigger. Jasper wondered if it was safe to go in the water. He turned and looked at where he had come from, not surprised to find the way was blocked. The mountain seemed to work that way; once you moved forward, you could not look back. Jasper wondered why he had difficulty doing that in life outside of the mountain.

Turning back to the fountain, he took it all in. The sound of the water from the fountain hitting the pool, the soft mist of water droplets floating up into the air. Taking a deep breath, Jasper was amazed at how peaceful he felt, as if he had let go of some rocks he had been holding onto even though they hadn’t been doing him any good.

Something began to vibrate in his pocket. Putting his hand inside, he took out the last thing remaining in his pocket: the penny. It shone with a bright copper sheen. He had always loved throwing pennies into fountains when he was a kid. He loved the joy of it, the innocent magic that came with that action and the hope it inspired.

Walking up close to the fountain, Jasper held the penny in his closed fist, Jasper made a wish. Again, the words came to his lips as if they had been waiting there for Jasper to say them: “I wish for someone to love me. To love all of me, the good and the bad. I wish for love.” Jasper felt a tear slide down his cheek but didn’t make a move to wipe it away.

Instead, he did what he did as a child: he turned around so that his back was to the fountain and threw the penny, releasing it when his hand was all the way up in the air. He heard the small splash of the penny and knew that it had found its mark. Before he turned around, though, he heard another splash, this one coming from the pool of water.

Turning quickly, Jasper saw the most beautiful man that he had ever seen standing waist deep in the water. He had beautiful hazel eyes that changed colour in the light filtering through the top of the mountain; first green then blue then a lovely and calming golden shade. He wore a look of shock on his face when he saw Jasper.

“Hi there.” He said, smiling. “My name is Matthew.”

“Hi, Matthew.” Jasper couldn’t help but notice that Matthew looked as if he was wearing a halo, the light from filtering in to the cave making it seem as if he was producing a soft glow.

“I really don’t know what happened. I was in another part of the Heart of Darkness one moment and then it went all black. Now I’m here.”

“How long ago did you come to the mountain?”

“I don’t know. I have no idea how long its been. How long have you been inside?”

Jasper thought about it and realized he had no idea. Time moved differently in here. It could have been hours or it could have been days. “I’m not sure.” Jasper surprised himself by letting out a laugh. “Does it matter?”

“I suppose not.” Matthew said. “Why don’t you come in the water? It’s nice and warm and I could use the company. I’ve been alone so long, I’d forgotten what it’s like to be attracted to another man.”

Letting out another laugh, Jasper said “How could you be attracted to me already? We’ve just met.”

Shrugging, Matthew said “I just know I like you, Jasper.”

Jasper shivered. His first instinct was to run away, as far away from Matthew as he could. Jasper saw the kindness in him, the sheer goodness of him. He didn’t want to soil that or mar the presence of light that came from Matthew.

Just as he was fighting with himself, Jasper heard singing. He supposed it was the group sitting on top of the mountain. Their voices carried all the way down here and echoed off the chamber walls.

“Hey Jude, don’t let me down, you have found him, now go and get him, remember to let him into your heart, then you can start to make it better…”

Jasper knew those words were meant for him. He steeled himself, stood straighter. If he was going to take control of his future, it would start now. He looked down at himself and saw that he was wearing only his underwear, his clothing having melted away. Looking around, he saw his clothes next to the fountain, awaiting his return.

He slipped into the water, trying to calm the fierce beating of his heart. Making his way closer to Matthew, Jasper took in all of him. Matthew was looking at Jasper with want and need, not with revulsion and contempt. Not waiting until Jasper made it to him, Matthew made his way through the water and soon they were standing right in front of each other.

Jasper could see every eyelash and crease of the skin, the glow from the halo that Matthew wore and the brilliant gleam of his eyes. Jasper took a deep breath, trying to centre himself and a look of concern crossed Matthew’s face.

“Are you all right?” He asked.

“My hearts beating so fast.”

“So is mine. Here, feel.”

Matthew gently took Jasper’s hand and placed it over his heart. Matthew’s skin was warm to the touch. Jasper was astounded to feel a tattoo underneath Matthew’s skin that matched the beat within his own. Looking into Matthew’s eyes, Jasper saw the heart within them, the pulse of life that thrummed through him, and Jasper was entranced by it.

Not thinking about it, Jasper pushed his fear away and leaned in to kiss Matthew. When their lips touched, there was only the sound of birdsong and the cavern filled with light. Jasper and Matthew didn’t notice any of this, so entranced were they with each other.

The kiss was more than Jasper could have hoped for. It was a kiss of true love and it filled all of him. He felt a heat slide down his body, warming his cold skin. When the kiss slowly broke, Jasper looked into Matthew’s eyes and knew that he would never be cold again.

Jasper felt a rush of heat flow into him and he kissed Matthew again, trying to communicate everything that he couldn’t with words. Matthew seemed to understand him because he kissed Jasper back just as fiercely, with a much open need.

When they broke the kiss again, Matthew said softly “I think I’ve been waiting my whole life for you.”

Jasper reached up to touch his face. “And I you.”

It was then that Jasper noticed the breeze all around them. The water began to fade away and with it the fountain and the sound of the water. Slowly, as if seeing a mirage disappear, like sand dissolving in thin air, they watched the whole cavern fade away, as if it had never been.

They found themselves on the top of the mountain once more but only this time, there were no crowds of people, no one singing and no food and souvenir stands. There was only the barn that Jasper had seen when he had looked at the mountain from below. They were also fully clothed. Reaching into his pocket, he wondered if the trinkets he had brought into the mountain would have reappeared, but his pocket was empty.

“Jasper…look over there.”

Jasper looked in the direction to where Matthew had pointed and saw a sea of headstones. There were thousands by the look of it. Matthew took hold of Jasper’s hand and they approached the gravesite. Jasper shared what he had been through in within the Heart of Darkness and who had helped him along the way. Matthew said that his tale was best shared for another time.

Soon, they were walking in amongst the stones and Jasper started to see names he recognized.

“Look, Matthew! Here’s Faye! And she’s next to Alexander!”

They walked a little further into the headstones and Matthew pointed. “And didn’t you say that Felicity and Laura May helped you?” He gestured to two stones. “Here they are, too.”

Jasper stood back and looked at all the stones. Matthew stood next to him and pulled Jasper close. They were quiet for some time until Japer said “Why do you think they helped us find love?”

Matthew thought about it for a moment before answering. “I suppose because love, true love, never dies. Maybe they wanted to help us find ours.”

They walked hand in hand away from the sea of headstones and looked down over the edge of the mountain. There was no escalator in sight now. Jasper supposed it only appeared when someone wanted to come up the mountain.

“How are we going to get back down?” He asked.

“Well, let’s see if there’s anything around here that can help. Let’s look inside the barn.”

They walked toward the barn and, though the hinges were rusted, the doors opened with little to no problem. Sitting inside the barn, there was only one thing. A hot air balloon.

Matthew looked it over from basket to balloon and pronounced it in good condition. There was even enough fuel for the gas to keep the balloon filled. Looking at Jasper, Matthew smiled and said: “So how about it? Feel like jumping off the mountain with me?”

Jasper thought about it for only a second. They could be jumping to their doom but something told Jasper that they were taking a leap into their futures. “Sure, let’s see what this baby can do.”

They moved the basket to the edge of the mountain and began to heat up the gas. Soon the balloon was filled and they got into the basket. Matthew let more gas fill the balloon and the hot air balloon began to rise. They held on to each other tightly as they started to slip along the sky.

“I found these in the water.” Matthew said. He reached into the pocket of his pants and pulled out two black stones with silver running through them. Matthew pushed the stones together until they formed the heart. “I had one and you had the other.” He said. Jasper put his arm around Matthew and pulled him closer.

Looking back at the mountain, Jasper thought of everything he had conquered, the mountains in his life as well as the physical one he had just been through. He looked up at Matthew as he was gazing out at the sky around them, so blue and so pure, with nary a cloud in sight.

As a writer, Jasper knew that all good stories started with a beginning. Knowing that he was at the beginning of their own tale, Jasper was astounded to realize that he didn’t feel any fear of what was to come, only hope.

Jasper couldn’t wait to find out what the next chapter would bring.

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