Fantasy friendship cemetery physically challenged wheelchair

Roller Derby Dan

By James Van Pelt
May 27, 2020 · 2,923 words · 11 minutes

Beautiful statue I've found on a quiet cemetery in the city of Dresden. Rest in peace.

Photo by Veit Hammer via Unsplash.

From the author: Sometimes we are confronted with the inexplicable that will forever remain a mystery: an event that can't be shared, nor forgotten. Sometimes we have to live with memories of the unknown.


   Late at night, separated by three states, two thirty-five year old women who were once close friends a long time ago, rolled uneasily in their sleep, caught in the same dream.  It was this way with them often, although neither knew it.  They hadn't talked for years.

    Their eyelids fluttered.  In their minds they saw the scene, an old scene, the familiar scene:

    Ten year old Roller Derby Dan sat in his wheel chair at the edge of the open grave, looking down.  His friends, Susie and  Robin flanked the chair on either side, holding the handles in case he got too close.  A light breeze rippled the lengthy expanse of grass dotted by tomb stones.  Dan had his hands on the wheels and moved the chair back and forth in six inch runs.  Playing cards, clothes-pinned to the frame so they would stick into the spokes, snapped sharply in single reports each time the chair rolled.

    Susie's short, dark hair blew in her eyes, and she shoved it back into place.

    "What have we got here Dan?"

    "It's not just another hole in the ground.  I can tell you that."  His voice was whispery, as if there was no muscle behind it.  Lately the girls had taken to leaning towards him when he spoke so they wouldn't have to ask him to repeat anything.

    "The bottom looks funny."  Robin spit to her left.  Susie had talked her into trying a wad of chewing tobacco, and the taste would not go away.  Her long, straight, red hair was rubber banded into a ponytail.  She crouched at the edge.  Bright, late afternoon sunlight cut an angle starting from the long end away from them and penetrated to the side four feet below.  The depths were partially obscured in the contrast.  "Doesn't even look like earth."

    "That's what I thought."

    Susie squatted down too.  "Who's supposed to go in this one."  She looked around.  The new grave was in an old section of the grounds.  The stones around them had dates from 1867 to 1904.  "I thought your Dad didn't bury anyone in this part."

    "He doesn't."  Dan looked at them both smugly.  "It's a mystery."

    The three fifth graders peered silently down.  Since Roller Derby Dan was the girls’ best friend, and had been as long as they could remember, the cemetery, Dan's Dad's business, did not bother them in the least.  Hide-and-seek among the grave markers, and coffin-warehouse-tag had been their favorite games two years ago.  Last summer they became bird watchers, finding twenty-three species resting in the oak branches planted throughout the burial park.  Once, even, they spotted a rare Great Horned Owl gliding silently at dusk, claws almost scraping the low mounds covering each grave.  Then, Roller Derby Dan had both legs and he was just Dan, the nickname coming when bone cancer was discovered in August, and his left leg was amputated.  The right one went in December, and now, seven months later, his face had the high, pallid gloss of the terminally ill, his eyes intense and bright in a face that seemed drawn and pained constantly.

    "Do you see anything wrong with this picture?"  Dan swept his arms to include the whole scene.  "Is there anything here that's odd?"  The girls looked around them.

    "You mean beside the bottom?"  said Robin.

    "Right."  Dan folded his hands across his lap and sat back, waiting.  His jean legs were neatly tucked under him and pinned in the back.  A strap the same color and width as his Boy Scout belt held him securely to the chair.

    "Hah!  The dirt."

    "Right again."  Dan smiled wanly, but Sue looked puzzled.

    "What about the dirt?"

    "Come on Sue.  I figured it out."  Robin sat in the grass and dangled her feet over the edge.

    "But there isn't any dirt."

    "Good."  Robin laughed.

    "Oh."  Susie walked around the hole.  "There isn't any dirt."  The grass ran neatly to the edge of the grave on all four sides.  No dirt pile discretely covered by a blanket, waiting to be shoveled back in.  In fact, except for its size, depth, and shape, the hole could have been cut into a golf green and had a flag sticking out of it.

    "Not only that, but I know that this wasn't here yesterday, and Dad couldn't have dug it.  The backhoe is busted until tomorrow."

    "How did it get here then?"

    "Glad you asked."  Dan reached behind him and pulled his backpack off the chair's handle.  In it were a flashlight and some rope.  "I bet its deeper than six feet.  I'll bet it's eight at least, so I brought the rope."

    "You didn't say how it got here Roller Derby.  I don't think we should go down there, Sue, if we don't know what it is.  It looks spooky to me."

    "Scaredy cat."

    "Am not!"

    "I think it’s magic," said Dan.

    "Magic?"  All of a child's disdain, and contempt of a stupid idea resided in Sue's voice.

    "Well, what else could make it?  There is no dirt, and where are the truck tracks if somebody hauled it off, and look at the edges.  Have you ever seen a grave with edges sliced this cleanly?  So what else could it be?  I say there's some magic here."

    "A spaceship did it.  That's obvious.  You know they kill horses and cows and cut out their tongues.  So now they're digging holes to bury them in."

    Robin looked at both of them closely.  "You guys are retarded.  Spaceships?  Magic?  Let's get your Dad and have him tell us what this is really."

    "And why don't I just get in there and see what that bottom is, and we can stop guessing." 

They considered the practicality of Sue's suggestion.

    "O.K., but I say we tie the rope around your waist just in case.  What if there is a trap door?"  Robin looked nervous.

    "All right, you'll tie a rope around me.  Now let's get going 'cause I got to be home before sunset."

    Dan did the honors, fashioning a bowline and pulling the loop of rope up so that it snugged under Sue's arms.  Robin sat six feet back wrapping the rope around her so she

could control the descent.  Sue dropped her legs over the edge, then rolled to her stomach and lowered herself out of sight.

    "I'm on the bottom.  Hey, it's sloped."  Robin rushed to where Dan was peering down.  Sue looked back at them, her face like a white splash in the darkness.  "Give me the flashlight."  Robin handed it to her, stretching as far as she could, her legs splayed out behind her, while Sue stood on her tip toes to get it.  Dan hunched intently, his elbows on the end of the arm rests.

    Pointing it at the floor, Sue turned it on, and knelt.  "It's not dirt at all.  Looks like polished rock."  She directed the light to the other end.  "Oh."

    "What?"  Robin was still lying down, her head sticking over the drop-off.  Sue stood, walked down the length of the grave, and out of sight.

    "Sue!"  She reappeared.

    "It's a tunnel."  At that end of the hole she was perceptibly lower in the ground than at the end she had entered.  "I can't tell how far back it goes because it curves about ten feet in."

    "I told you. Magic."  Dan's voice was so soft that only Robin heard him.

    "Let go of the rope.  I want to explore it."

    "No."  Dan's unexpected strength surprised them.  "I found it.  It's mine.  I want to go."  He sat up straight.  His knuckles whitened on the arm rests.

    "No way.  I don't think Sue should either.  We ought to tell somebody.  This must be some secret government thing and none of us should be here at all.  We're probably already in trouble, and if we're smart you should get out of there and we should go home."  Robin pulled on the rope and to her relief Susie didn't resist.  Within seconds, she was out and the three of them were in their original positions of when they first arrived.

    "Don't you understand.  There is something supernatural here.  It's like Alice in Wonderland, or Lord of the Rings."  Dan looked back and forth between them, almost pleading.  "There must be a reason this is here.  There must be a reason why I discovered it.  I mean, look at it."

   The sun was lower in the sky casting long shadows through the cemetery.  Soon it would be dark.  The hole looked even more like a freshly dug grave.  The breeze had quieted and the only sound in the late afternoon were the meadowlarks in the fields behind the remote mortuary.

   "Why do you think it is wide enough for a wheel chair?  Why do you think the bottom is what it is if it wasn't for me to go down there?"  He was pleading now, openly.  "But I need your help.  You have to lower me, or I'll never get in."  The girl's expressions were a cross between skepticism and compassion, or pity.

    "I don't like it.  What if there is danger, like the tunnel ends in a cliff, or you crash, or something horrible like that?  What if it is magic and there are dragons, or monsters?  You don't know what might be in there."

    "Really," Sue added, unexpectedly agreeing with her traditionally conservative friend.  "This is not one of your better ideas.  We're supposed to protect you, not drop you into holes to get killed."

    "Who asked you to?"  Dan sat back angrily.  His face reddened with exertion, and the contrast between the Dan they remembered from a year ago: strong, unstoppable, so alive; and the Dan who faced them now: weak, almost helpless, and so painfully emaciated from disease, had never been so clear.  "Who said you were supposed to watch out for me?  I don't need babysitters."

    Robin put her hand on his arm.  "No, no, no Dan.  She didn't mean that.  Honest, did you Sue?"  Sue shook her head.  "It's just that when you got sick we were worried.  That's all.  You understand that don't you?  I mean why do you have friends if they aren't going to help each other out?"

    They froze in that pose for a long moment, Sue with her hands at her side, looking down at Dan, the rope on the ground at her feet; Robin crouched at the wheelchair's side,

her hand resting on his pipe-stem thin arm; and Dan, sitting defiantly in his chair.

    Suddenly he slumped, the anger gone, but his voice remained full and resonant, better than they had heard from him in months.  "Then help me now, with this.  I've never asked anything from you guys.  Let me go through the tunnel."  His eyes were brimming over, but he didn't seem to notice.

    "Should we?"  Sue glanced meaningfully at Robin.  Robin's freckles were particularly vivid in the redder light of the setting sun.  Her lower lip vanished into her mouth, as it always did when she concentrated.

    "I don't know.  Maybe if we put the rope on him and let him go real slow it would be O.K."

    "I'll go slow--cross my heart."

    "All right then, but when you reach the end of the rope you got to stop, even if you can't see the end, and we get your Dad out here tomorrow to look at it, and you don't tell anyone that we helped you get in there."

    "Agreed."  Dan gestured towards the rope.  "Let's get started."  Robin gave it to him and he put the loop around his chest, like they had for Sue, and rolled to the edge.  "You know what I think this is really?  I think it’s a wheelchair ramp to adventure."

    Sue snorted cynically.  "Yeah, or it's handicapped access to Hell."

    "Can we get you and the chair down at the same time?"  Robin looked at the entire arrangement doubtfully.  Sue, now that they had made a decision, regained her normal confidence, and bustled around, checking the knot, testing the edge they would put him over, and generally presenting a picture of youthful competence.

    "No problem.  The belt will hold the chair to him, and I know that even with it, he weighs less than I did.  Between the two of us we can put him down and pull him out with no trouble.  Let's go."  She sat back from the hole and indicated where Robin should sit, so they could both hold on.

    Robin tilted the chair so that Dan was reclining, the handles now resting on the ground, and Dan stared at the sky.  When Robin was positioned, he looked back at them, his face upside down.  "Wish me luck."

    "Luck."

    "Be careful."

    He pushed against the wheels, and even though it was harder with the handles digging into the grass, it wasn't difficult for him to drop the wheels over the miniature cliff, and immediately all his weight, which wasn't that much, was in the girls' hands. They inched him down until there was slack, and they scooted forward on their rumps till they could see him.

    Pulling the flashlight out of his shirt, he looked up.

    "Thanks."

    Robin kept her hand on the rope.  "We're controlling your speed, and we're going slow, but go ahead."

    He didn't say any more, put the light on the chair between his stumps so it pointed forward like a single headlight, and rolled down the slope, the playing cards clicking hollowly.  He vanished into the back of the grave, and Robin continued to gradually let the rope slide between her fingers until there were only a couple of feet left, then she settled all her weight on it and the rope straightened as Dan was stopped.

    Sue cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted.  "What do you see?"  Dan's voice, once again oddly robust, but sounding miles away, came back to them.

    "It keeps going.  Let me go farther."

    Robin yelled this time.  "Can't Dan.  That's all the rope."  There was no reply for a second.

    "I'm turning off the flash."  The sun was on the horizon casting a deep red flush on the tombstones.  Both girls were belly down, undoubtably putting grass stains on their shirts. Their sneaker's soles pointed up.

    "I can see something.  There is light ahead."  They could hear an eagerness in his voice, a kind of pre-Christmas expectation.

    Frightened, Robin hauled back on the rope, lengths of which fairly flew out of the hole, sitting her down hard on her tailbone.  The loop rested at the bottom of the grave. He had taken it off.

    "Dan!  Dan!  Come back!"  They both shouted.

    Distant, but clearly they heard him.  "I hear singing.  Can you hear it too?  I hear them."  And faintly came the rising buzz of playing cards flailing against whirling spokes, and then silence.

    Panicked, they fled towards the far away mortuary for help.

    Meanwhile, the sun dropped completely out of sight flaring brilliantly against the clouds while all other colors gradually turned to grey.  The meadowlarks quit their melodies and were replaced by early evening bats whose high pitched squeaks, and quick flitting flight, filled the young night.  A rush of air stirred the leaves in the oaks into a complex medley of rustles and creaks.

    Ten minutes later lanterns bobbed quickly towards the site of Dan's disappearance, casting wild shadows.  Dan's Dad, two of his assistants, and the girls arrived at the same time.

    Looking much like a prayer meeting, they all stopped and stared at the ground.  Robin was sobbing softly, her breath catching up in her throat in heart rending hesitation.  Susie was quiet, but tears streamed unchecked down her cheeks.

    Dan's Dad held his lantern high, illuminating the area. "Robin, Susie, what is this?"

    They never were able to answer adequately, for on the ground before them was Dan's backpack and a sprawled confusion of rope, one end loose ten feet away, and the other vanishing into a smooth, unbroken expanse of grass.

   The hole was gone.

    The disappearance itself was a five day wonder.  The newspapers covered it at first as a kidnaping, ignoring the story from the girls, but eventually they printed it, which caused a new sensation.  Eventually that too died down.  Dan's father, in desperation, dug up the site but found nothing.

    As time went on, Robin and Susie grew up, grew apart, and they never really talked to each other about the strange time in their lives, but their dreams, late at night, unknown to their friends and relatives, were the same.  And if you would have asked them for the most vivid memory they had, they would have told you about a summer long past, and their imaginative, cancerous, dying friend, Roller Derby Dan, who said in the end, "I hear singing," set his chair a-buzzing, and disappeared forever into the depths of a strong and enigmatic earth.

This story originally appeared in SDO Fantasy, and The Best of SDO Fantasy.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."