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Excerpt: In “A Borrowed Hell,” a man struggles to understand his presence in an alternate reality

As he meets others occupying this at once familiar and bizarre landscape, he finds he must come to grips with a troubled past

2018 Colorado Book Award winner for Science Fiction/Fantasy

Fate has dealt July Davish a lifetime of nothings: no happy childhood, no lasting relationships, and now, no job. Faced with losing his home, he starts down the same road of self-destruction the rest of his family followed. A car accident changes everything. When he dives from a San Diego sidewalk toward safety, he lands somewhere far from safe — in a bizarrely deserted version of San Francisco. Though he wakes in his own reality, he continues to pass out, dragged back to that strange world each time. July is willing to do anything to end his world-hopping, right up until he learns the price: reliving a past he’s tried his whole life to forget.

“He’s here,” a woman said.

July opened his eyes.

The first things he saw were buildings jutting high into the foggy sky, forming a tall, jagged skyline that matched nothing on the San Diego coastline. He sat with his back against a rough, brick wall. Across the street rose the unmistakable pyramid shape of the Transamerica building in San Francisco’s financial district. July’s mind struggled with the incongruity. He should be five hundred miles to the south, squashed like a bug under a three-thousand pound Prius. The last thing he’d seen before opening his eyes here had been a close-up of the car in mid-roll.

Maybe he was dead. The thought was too uncomfortable to contemplate.

L.D. “Liz” Colter, author of “A Borrowed Hell” from Digital Fiction Publishing.

A man squatted next to him. Smudges of dirt stood out in grey-brown streaks against his dark skin. He wore faded green fatigues — the jungle kind that had preceded the desert kind — and an olive green T-shirt covered with dirt and holes. His hair lay flat against his head in small, tight plaits, and a single, bone-colored bead decorated the end of each braid.

“Hey there,” he said. His smile was genuine, wide, and natural. It was the smile of someone at ease with himself and his surroundings. July found it reassuring in this place where nothing else was.

“How did I get here?”

The man shrugged. July looked to the woman standing behind the man. She shrugged.

Woman may have been a stretch; she looked more a girl, ultra-thin and waifish. Her worn blue jeans sported gaudy sequins at the frayed hems, and her long T-shirt emphasized her skinny legs. Dish-water blonde hair hung lank on either side of her face. Her eyes held a hunted look.

“I don’t understand,” July said.

“Then best to just move on,” the man said, standing and stretching. “Come on.”

He and the young woman turned from July and began walking. July pushed to his feet, still finding no pain or injuries. He looked the other direction, down the length of the empty business district. Empty. The wrongness he had been feeling crystallized. Not only was he in the wrong city, but the city itself was wrong. Other than the two people walking away from him, there was not a car or a person in sight.

The pair receded at a steady pace. Panic prodded July to jog after them. He wanted to believe this was a dream but couldn’t, everything here felt too visceral. The man and the young woman walked side-by-side taking up the center of the sidewalk; July caught up to them and walked behind.

The silence of the city hung heavy around him, the slap of shoes on concrete loud in the unnatural quiet. It brought to mind old Twilight Zone episodes of people thrown into muted, artificial environments, but everything around him confirmed the reality of his surroundings. He could feel the breeze ebb and gust against his skin, heard the rustle of a candy wrapper crunch underfoot. He saw low clouds drifting above, and smelled warm brick, paved road, and the odor of the two unwashed people in front of him.

“Where is everybody?”

The young woman looked back at him without answering. The man answered without looking back. “They’re around.”

A dozen questions formed in July’s mind but none of them made sense. He let the silence take him. Chinatown lay empty and quiet only a couple of blocks to his left and Telegraph Hill just ahead. The Embarcadero must be to the right. They were walking through perhaps the most quintessential square mile in the city; places that would normally be some of his favorite to visit. They climbed steadily for twenty minutes or so until they reached Pioneer Park, where a tall, whitewashed cylinder dominated the grassy knoll. A sign near the parking lot announced it was Coit Tower. It looked like a lighthouse had gotten lost and wandered into the park for a rest. He found it as eerie as the rest of the deserted city.

The door to the tower stood open and July followed the man and young woman inside, stepping into a circular hallway that looked to run full circle around the base of the tower. Enormous murals covered the walls of the hallway. Directly ahead stood a door to what appeared to be a small round foyer leading to a gift shop, an elevator that he could see and, according to a placard posted near the elevator, a staircase that he couldn’t. A solitary mural occupied the header over the door. It depicted an enormous pair of eyes hooded within a storm cloud. Lightning struck down from the left side of the cloud and the eyes weighed and judged him as he entered their domain.

July looked to the right and left around the curving hallway. The murals along the walls were as disturbing as the one above him. They stretched nearly floor to ceiling, making the characters in them larger than life-sized. Facing him at the far curve of the wall to his left was a butcher. A pig hung by its hind feet and the butcher was gutting it with a metal hook as blood ran down the belly of the pig. A morose woman in the next panel weighed huge hunks of fresh meat.

The characters and their clothing looked dated, depression era he guessed. There were customers sitting at a diner counter; their sad faces spoke more eloquently than words of their difficult lives. An immense cowboy near July stared down at him with a severe expression, as if he didn’t approve of his new visitor. A lariat hung from one hand to coil at his booted feet and July thought if the giant man could step out of the painting, the cowboy might bind and brand him like any other animal.

“Make yourself at home.”

The words jerked his attention from the murals. The black man gestured to the inner room and disappeared through the arch. July followed. Inside the room, sleeping bags lay scattered around the curved walls. Trash littered the concrete floor and a small camp stove near the gift shop listed on its broken and bandaged leg.

The man settled cross-legged on a sleeping bag and indicated that July should help himself to one of the others. He chose a red one against the opposite wall. The young woman dropped bonelessly to the sleeping bag at his left, her weight too meager to make much impact with the ground.

“Something to eat?” The man leaned back and rummaged one-handed through a small paper sack. He tossed July a Kit-Kat and an energy bar, one after the other. “There’s a water fountain over there,” he pointed, “and the bathrooms are in the hallway.”

“Thanks. My name’s July Davish.”

The man just nodded.

“What should I call you?” July prompted.

The man thought for a second and shrugged. “How about Pat.”

The young woman giggled. July looked at her, but she didn’t deign to share the joke.

“And you?” he asked her.

“Pat,” she said.

Great. “Patty okay?”

“Sure.” She flopped onto her back, crossing one ankle over her bent knee.

Wherever July was, it seemed the season hadn’t changed. The evening air bore a fall chill. He’d been here maybe an hour or a little less and the sun balanced on the horizon. If time ran the same here that would make it a little after six, which was about right for sunset in September. He could only guess at the time. The clock in the gift shop pronounced perpetual noon or midnight, and he wasn’t in the habit of wearing a watch after cracking the glass on half a dozen of them at work.

Of all the questions July had, only the most morbid had the strength to push its way through the strangeness and silence of this place.

“Am I dead?” he asked Pat.

The tangibility of this place was undeniable. If it wasn’t a dream, then death seemed the only explanation.

Pat huffed a quiet laugh. He picked a small cellophane wrapper off the floor and watched it twist and untwist as he rolled the ends between his fingers, smiling that comfortable smile of his. “No, man. You aren’t dead.”

Pat looked up. The confidence in his dark eyes was too certain to gainsay. July believed him. He clung to the man’s calm reassurance like he would to a life-ring in the middle of the ocean.

“What then?” his voice broke on the words. He felt strangely let down to hear that he wasn’t dead. At least that he could have understood.

“It just is.” Pat said the words slowly, his gaze still locked on July. “When you come here, you got to roll with things. That’s how you get through this, okay?”

July didn’t reply. Rolling with things was something he knew how to do. It was how he’d weathered the first seventeen years of his life; keeping his head up, his eyes open, his mouth shut.

Dusk morphed into darkness over the small park and more people arrived. Not many, maybe a dozen or so. He could see some still outside in the park, a few drifted into the hallway, some climbed the stairs to the open top of the tower.

Most of them walked past July without noticing him, but he watched them all — the loud woman laughing with her male companion, the hunched shoulders of the lone woman hurrying through the room, the arrogant carriage of the tall, elderly man. All were shabby in appearance but their personalities seemed as varied as the colors in a rainbow. July wondered if these were all the people in the city. Or all the people in the world. He wondered why they lived homeless in a city full of empty homes.

“Why this place?” he finally asked Pat.

Pat was lying on his back reading by candlelight, a book from the gift shop about the history of San Francisco. He dog-eared his page, set his book aside, and propped himself on one elbow. “It seems a good place. The murals represent such a slice of humanity. Did you read the plaque explaining them?”

July shook his head. He’d used the bathroom earlier and walked partway down the corridor, but the empty hallway and grim paintings had kept him from exploring too far. Things felt too surreal and he didn’t understand the rules of this place yet.

“Lillie Hitchcock Coit donated money from her estate for projects to beautify San Francisco,” Pat said, sitting up. “She was an interesting character, a turn-of-the-century socialite who liked to smoke cigars and wear trousers and gamble. Anyway, the city used her money to build the tower and commission the murals in the 1930s. The goal was to portray the essence of California life.”

July looked around the small room at the sleeping bags on the concrete floor of what he found to be a fairly disturbing tourist attraction. He didn’t get the appeal Pat felt for this place. “Why not live in a house and just visit here?”

“Is a home really that important?”

July thought of the foreclosure looming over his house. “I guess to me it is.”

Pat shook his head, as if July’s opinion had been incorrect. “You need to learn to let go, July. You need to let go of a lot of things.”

July wondered what made this man think he knew anything about what he did and didn’t need to do. Before he could form a retort he heard footsteps. A man entered the tower alone. He had long brown hair and a heavy moustache, and wore a knee-length oiled duster over a tattered T-shirt and jeans. The intensity in his dark eyes and the tension in his posture set off July’s inner alarms.

The man’s head swiveled toward July when he entered the foyer, as if he sensed him there. A slow frown spread across his face. He turned to glare at Pat. “Playing God again?”  His voice rumbled in his chest, coming out in a growl. “Don’t you learn from your mistakes? Or do you just not give a damn?”

“We don’t initiate this, Bill,” Pat said. “You know that. We’re trying to go slower this time. I’d appreciate it if you help us with that.”

The man in the duster crossed the room and squatted on his heels in front of July. The back of July’s neck prickled as goose bumps raised the small hairs there.

“Leave,” Bill said. “Leave now, and don’t ever come back.” It might have been advice, but Bill’s expression and gruff voice made it seem like a threat.

July made no answer. Every muscle in his body tensed for a fight. The fellow was stocky and looked unpredictable. It would be a fight July wasn’t sure he would win.

“Bill,” Pat said with quiet authority, “let’s go slow, okay?”

Bill stood and turned to Pat, barking a laugh that had no humor in it. “Slow? Yeah, sure, ‘cause we have all the time in the world, right?” He twisted to look back at July. “Want to know what forever feels like Sonny-boy? ‘Cause that’s how long you could end up being here.”

“Bill,” Pat said again, with more weight. He said no more.

“You tell him or I will,” the man said. He marched to the staircase and took the stairs two at a time.

July looked to Pat. He expected a vague explanation if he got one at all. Pat looked down, weighing some decision. He sighed. “Bill’s wrong on one point, right on another,” he began. He pulled the book into his lap and thumbed the pages at an unbound corner. Patty watched them both in silence.

“He’s wrong that you have the option to leave here and never come back. Things were set in motion the moment you arrived. Before, really.” He gave a one-shouldered shrug. “You won’t be staying this time, but you will come back.” He paused long enough that July began to wonder if that was all he’d say. “He’s right, though, that being here comes with a risk. I hope this all works out well for you, July. I truly do. And I think it can,” Pat looked him in the eye with that convincing sincerity. “But if it doesn’t, Bill’s right. You’d stay here with us. Forever.”

“If what works out?” Frustration and apprehension made him speak louder than he’d intended.

“Nothing you need to know this time.” Pat said. He stood, his book still in his hand. “Don’t worry about it for now. We’ll have a chance to talk later.”

Buy: “A Borrowed Hell” at Book Bar.
Interview: Author L.D. Colter.