Dakota Foreman faced the bright orange brick wall, staring at the eye-level sign. Underneath the words LIVE A GREAT STORY would be an ironic place to die, but that is what she thought she might do.
The middle-aged man behind Dakota reburied his pistol into the twenty-two-year-old's lower back. The barrel was hot from the warning shot he had just fired. It burned Dakota’s skin through her shirt.
The man had startled Dakota, jumping into her backseat as she was leaving the gym. She was trying to text the boyfriend she wanted to break up with that she had quit her job. The man’s gun was up before she could dial 9-1-1.
He made Dakota drive to the outskirts of Charleston. Now they stood in front of an empty building in an abandoned part of the commercial district.
“You’re the final piece to the puzzle I’ve been putting together for the past twenty-four years.”
Dakota felt the pistol barrel dig deeper into her lower back, pushing her forward towards the wall. She had cried the entire drive out to this location. But her nerves had calmed since she parked the car and climbed out.
“Peel off the sticker,” said the man.
Dakota hesitated for a moment.
“Three seconds,” said the man, raising the gun to poke into Dakota’s rib cage. “I don’t have all day.”
Dakota jumped forward and dug her fingers into the brick at the left edge of the sticker. The adhesive held at first. Dakota felt the brick scratching away her green nail polish while the sticker refused to budge.
Eventually, Dakota successfully pulled the sticker away, revealing a circular stone carved to resemble a screaming face. There were two dots for eyes, a big mouth and three slits on each cheek.
“What is that?” asked Dakota.
She partly asked because she had no idea why there was a screaming face cut into the wall – or why it had been covered up by a sticker. But she also asked because the face had an unexplained effect on her. For the first time in years, she felt at home.
“That’s for us to find out,” the man replied. “Push it.”
Dakota’s gut told her to oblige. Her mind screamed in protest.
“Why me?” she asked, biding time to settle her internal conflict.
“Because I’ve seen enough Indiana Jones movies. And I have the gun.”
“Fair enough,” replied Dakota.
Like the man, Dakota had seen plenty of Indiana Jones movies. She knew what happened to the no-names who messed with secret doors and mystical objects. But her gut told her she was far from a no-name here.
Dakota took two deep breaths and slammed her palm into the stone face. The rock resisted at first, holding its ground. Then there was a soft click and the piece slid back into the brick wall.
A soft hum started behind the stone face. It quickly turned to a louder buzz. Dakota peeked over her shoulder at the man behind her, but he looked just as perplexed by the sound.
Then the buzzing intensified.
“What’s happening?” asked Dakota.
“The door’s opening.”
Dakota had confirmed multiple times there was no door. But as she turned around, she saw that was no longer true.
The buzzing was thunderous now. The ground shook and the bright orange wall that had previously rested before them was splitting and folding away. When the rumbling stopped and the wall settled, there was now an empty doorway leading to pitch black mystery.
“I was right,” said the man, stepping up next to Dakota. “You’re one of them.”
“One of what?”
“An Atlantean,” he said. “I found the way to Atlantis.”
Suddenly, the smile was gone as a spear flew from the darkness and tore through the man’s midsection. In horrified shock, he looked down at the back of the spear protruding from his stomach. He dropped the gun, collapsed to his knees and then fell to his right.
Dakota froze next to the man. She wanted to run, but her legs refused.
A mountain of a man scooted through the doorway and stepped out in front of Dakota. His dark brown beard was thick, bushy and stretched down past his chest. His hair was pulled back into a braid that extended down the same distance. The man did not wear a shirt, revealing skin bronzed as if it had never missed a minute in the sun. His muscles were ripped – taut, holding another spear, ready to throw at Dakota.
The man’s expression quickly shifted from anger and questioning to recognition. Then a smile appeared.
In a deep, rumbling voice, he stated something in a language Dakota did not understand.
Chills rushed up her spine. Chills of relief.
“You’ve arrived,” the man said in English. “The princess is home.”
Dakota’s eyebrows jumped at the word ‘princess.’
“Follow me,” said the man, waving for Dakota to follow him.
She followed. The other side of the doorway was not the dark cavern she expected. Rather, Dakota found herself in awe of a white marble walkway lined by a majestic ceiling, grandiose walls and Greek-like columns.
“Where are we?” asked Dakota, walking along the Atlantean’s side.
“This is a portal station. A bridge between our world and theirs.”
“Yes,” said the Atlantean. “Ours. Including yours. Heirs to the throne spend their formative years above so they can better understand the land humans. So that you can empathize with them.”
“I’m from Atlantis?”
“Everything will come back to you once you’re home.”
“And who was that?” asked Dakota, peeking back over her shoulder to where they had left the armed man.
“Doctor Higgins has spent the better part of three decades hunting proof of our existence.”
“I’d say he found it.”
“He has found proof before,” said the Atlantean. “But he was obsessed with proof he could share.”
Dakota and the Atlantean stopped at a set of tall stone doors, having reached the end of the long walkway. The man banged his fist on the door in front of him three times.
“I hope he lived a great story,” he said. “Or at least a good enough story for him.”