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Wormhole

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Two days after the earthquake--not the Big One, just a tectonic joint-pop--Burrows hiked into the hills behind his Tarzana neighborhood and made an interesting discovery. The shaker had loosened some of the hillside not far from the Van Alden Caves. About a quarter mile up a seldom-used fire road a large amount of scree and topsoil had slid downhill, exposing sedimentary layers of sand, limestone, shale and bedrock. He clambered up and as he scanned the cross-section of geologic time hoping to find a few fossils for his son Josh, an opening behind some brush further downhill caught his peripheral attention.

It was a sizeable opening, man-made, most likely a mineshaft of some kind, thought Burrows. The opening was not visible from the road, he'd been lucky to spot it. A pair of rusted steel doors easily swung open. There were cement and wood supports, about seven feet high and nine feet wide. He entered, surprised to find it hollowed out in a smooth professional manner. It smelled dank and ripe--like a basement. The tunnel obviously went deep and disappeared into impenetrable blackness. Burrows started to head back home to retrieve a flashlight, then noticed a spider web covered breaker switch of some kind on the wall. He gingerly wiped away the strands and just for fun threw the breaker. To his everlasting shock the place lit up instantly, revealing a line of connected ceiling lamps stretching to the distance where the tunnel veered left. Only a few bulbs were burnt out. A low hum now filled the tunnel and a cold flash of adrenaline shot from kidney to groin. His "Holy shit!" echoed into the distance. Was this some kind of underground bunker or fallout shelter? The workmanship of the support beams and fixtures was spotless--as was the tunnel itself. No trash, hobo urine or bottles; no crack vials or even animal droppings. The floor was paved cement. About a half-mile in, he rounded a corner and came upon a storage area.

There were piles of weapons, ammunition, old fashioned radio equipment and food. It was all labeled in German and Burrows suddenly remembered that the remains of what was once a World War II Nazi spy encampment still existed over in Rustic Canyon. For a time these Nazi infiltrators fully expected America to fall and they wanted Brentwood as the location of the West Coast Eagle's Nest. Fanatical tight-assed Nazis would certainly explain the pristine efficiency of this engineering marvel. It would also explain how the electricity was still hooked up--German engineering; built to last, tapping the power grid in perpetuity. Closer inspection of the cache revealed everything stacked perfectly and stamped with tiny swastikas. It was creepy and absolutely thrilling. Burrows pressed on, hoping the next storage area might contain pallets of gold ingots.

There was no gold--but something almost better. After a long walk, he spotted another door at the end of the tunnel. He pushed it open and found this entrance, just like the other, similarly hidden behind some brush, beyond which lay another fire road. He walked down the road to where he found an unlocked gate. A hundred yards beyond that he sighted the sign for a street that eventually spilled onto Mandeville Canyon Road. Burrows had just walked through the Santa Monica Mountains all the way to Brentwood. The implications of this were not lost on him.

On the return hike he checked the route for possible hiccups, things that might sour his still-percolating plan--but found nothing. Driving the Prius in and out of the tunnel would require flattening the brush at each opening a specific way, then restoring to its original state so that each entrance remained hidden from view. Not only was the brush flexible enough to do this, but on the Valley side he found a steel pole and on the Santa Monica side a heavy plank to assist--but not so heavy he couldn't drag it. He went over the plan in his mind again and again. Nothing about it didn't add up.

The next day was Monday and that night Burrows could scarcely sleep thinking about the morning commute. He left his house at the usual time, said nothing to Natalie or Josh about the tunnel, just breakfast as usual. He brought along some work gloves to protect from splinters and cuts. Now all he had to do was make it to Mandeville without getting caught.

Things couldn't have gone smoother. He even honked his horn as he passed the cache of Nazi weapons. As he sped along, he imagined himself the architect and builder of the tunnel, indulging in mental masturbatory fantasies celebrating his uncanny practical genius and unlimited power. Nothing seemed impossible.

On the Brentwood side, Burrows lifted, then closed the fire road gate and soon merged onto Mandeville as if he were just another resident of the little side street. He whooped with joy and exultation, arriving at work a full 70 minutes early.

All day long he had a spring in his step. His was one of those soul-sucking day jobs where even Burrows wasn't quite sure what he did other than show up week to week, collect a paycheck and attend a lot of meetings. His job had something to do with "media" and he was a "coordinator." His wife Natalie worked in the Valley at an insurance company in Woodland Hills. The company was a big enough household name that they could coast on years of public familiarity and provide very little in the way of actual service and compensation once claims were filed.

Natalie often expressed frustration that Burrows couldn't collect Josh from school or take him to the orthodontist. That night Burrows made it back over the hill (or rather, through the hill) in record time, picked up groceries and had a special pasta dinner waiting for Natalie. After Joshie slinked off to lose himself in video games, Burrows spilled the beans about his newfound "shortcut."

"Incredible," she said, after taking it all in, lightheaded from two glasses of Chardonnay. They were watching Colbert Nation with the sound turned down. "I'll bet that Nazi stuff is worth a fortune."

"Not as much as the shortcut--at least for now."

"You should remove those relics, put it all in storage--sell it later when your secret is discovered."

"What do you mean? It won't be discovered."

She smirked and rolled her eyes in her know-it-all way that had always turned him on. He cozied up as she poured herself another glass, draining the bottle.

"All conspiracies fall apart," she said.

"I'm only conspiring to commute faster."

"That's enough--you're officially a conspiracy of one."

He nuzzled her neck. "Two."

"Three, actually," she said, tilting her head in the direction of Joshie's bedroom. Then: "I hope this means you'll be spending more father-son time with him."

"Sure, I guess. You think he'd want that?"

She deadpanned disapproval.

"Okay, okay. How about I pick him up from school starting next week? I want to make sure I've got this down."

Burrows' conspiracy of one continued for the rest of week and into the next without a hitch. It went so smoothly, in fact, he was able to delay his departure in the morning by over an hour. It was a victory to sleep in while Natalie rushed off to her job.

As promised, he got so far ahead in his daily tasks he was able to slip away early and pick up Josh from school. Josh's middle-school pals sullenly watched the two of them drive away.

"Where we goin'?" said Josh.

"Wherever you want."

"Am I in trouble?"

"Nope. Just wanted to hang. That okay?"

"I guess."

They wound up silently nursing chocolate shakes at Johnny Rockets.

"Are you and Mom getting a divorce?"

"No, of course not! Jesus." Burrows asked him what he'd been up to lately. Josh launched into an extensive, sugar-fueled description of his latest video time-suck, Wormhole.

"It's this really dope game where you have to find a way to the other side of the universe. There's like seventy ways to get there including conventional space travel but the quickest is ..." Josh waited for Burrows to catch on. "The Wormhole. See?" He had it on his iPad. It looked completely confusing but Burrows made all the appropriate active-listening noises and facial expressions lest Josh be offended. His son was blathering--but he was still his only child and beautiful.

"So have you ... 'wormholed'?"

"It's called 'Piercing the Limbic,' Dad."

"Okay--have you 'pierced'?"

"Not yet--but I will."

"Then what?"

Josh hadn't thought that far ahead. "I don't know, Dad. Come back home, I guess. I don't know."

"Just wondering. Sounds cool."

"It is," said Josh as he brushed the screen with his fingertips. "Hey--I advanced another parsec."

"Outstanding."

Trey Inderlokken lived one street over from Burrows. He had four kids he was trying to put through St. Cyril's Private School and Burrows was aware of his coworker's jealousy over Burrows' reduced expense of having only one child in free public school. When they'd first met and it was revealed how close they lived to one another Trey was eager to carpool, but Burrows begged off with some lame excuse for which Trey never forgave him. The malevolence was unspoken but palpable to Burrows. Often they'd head off to work at the same time and competitively leapfrog past each other on the freeway, slight hand-wave to Trey more often than not unreturned.

The unraveling began when Trey passed Burrows' office one morning and did a double take. That morning Burrows had left for work early to prepare a presentation and, while sitting in his driveway, he'd unthinkingly honked at Trey Inderlokken driving past. He regretted doing so immediately for he knew that Trey would be looking for him on the freeway.

"How the hell did you get here before me, Burrows?"

"What do you mean?"

"I saw you honk at me," he said. "Did you take Sepulveda or something?"

"Yep."

"I heard there was an accident at Skirball. How'd you get past that?"

"Lucky I guess."

Trey wasn't buying it. The next morning as Burrows flattened the brush and was about to drive his Prius on through to Brentwood, Trey Inderlokken's own Prius coasted to a gravel-crunching stop. He leaped out, wide-eyed.

"What. The. FUCK!?"

"Look, Trey. You cannot tell anyone about this."

"What is it? Holy Mother of ..."

Burrows explained the whole deal. After Trey heard it all, Burrows reiterated the need for absolute secrecy.

"Of course. Sure. It'll be our little pact."

"Okay."

"I can't wait to see the Nazi stuff."

"Well, I can stop this one time and show you, but we need to get on through. I know exactly how to disguise each entrance. And we need to get to work."

"Right, right ..." Trey straightened up, alert. "We have to come up with a secret code-word for it."

"Okay, good idea."

"How about 'The Shortcut'?"

"No, gotta be more vague." Burrows snapped his fingers: "Wormhole."

"'Wormhole'--I like! 'Wormhole.'"

"So, absolute silence--right?"

"Right-o."

They shook on it.

The next Prius to crash the party was Trey's brother-in-law, to whom Trey owed money and was willing to forgive a portion of the debt for being included. Trey did this without permission and Burrows was furious. It was bad enough Burrows had to follow behind since he didn't trust Trey to cover up the entrances properly. In fact, when Trey had left work early one day, Burrows found the brush on both sides of the mountains sloppily replaced. Now he was micromanaging Trey and his brother-in-law, sucking their tailpipes in the tunnel--it was worse than carpooling.

Then Trey's brother-in-law told two more people and they told others ... soon the tunnel was close to gridlock and when they'd exit Burrows felt dizzy and his fingernails sported a bluish tinge. Some idiot tried to bring in a friend with an SUV and it almost blew the whole deal ("You thought an SUV could fit in here?!"). Fortunately, the guy's wife drove a Mini-Cooper so he was able to switch cars with her and not rat-out Wormhole. When someone rear-ended someone in the middle of the tunnel, Burrows had to run ahead on foot yelling for everyone to turn off their engines, screaming at the bumper-thumpers to sort out their exchange of information on the other side. Fucking idiots.

The last straw was when someone snuck in one weekend and stole the Nazi stuff.

It was a Tuesday morning in January, post-rain. Very clear--you could see snow on the San Bernardinos. Burrows sat in his driveway, waiting for all 37 Prii to pass so he could take his place at the end of the line. The last one sped by with a friendly honk and Burrows realized he had no idea who that woman was or how she'd been brought in. The 70 minutes he'd initially saved was now down to 20. Over the last four months, he hadn't really spent any extra father-son time with Josh and his attempts to do so felt awkward. When Natalie heard about the party crashers and gridlock, Burrows could tell she blamed him.

Instead of pulling out to follow, Burrows sighed and stayed put. His cell rang. Trey Inderlokken.

"Where are ya, chief?"

Burrows glanced at his reflection in the rearview. It was shocking how unhappy he looked. He knew he was finished.

"You guys are on your own today," he said. "I can't make it."

"Really?" said Trey. "You sick or something?"

"No, I'll just be taking the freeway."

"You trust me on cover-up?"

"I'm sure you can handle it, Trey."

"Okay!" Call end.

Burrows couldn't believe how relieved he felt to be crawling up the Sepulveda Grade. He listened to an audio book for a while before snapping it off to simply enjoy the sensation of commuter ... community. He smiled at an Asian woman in a neighboring Honda and she tentatively returned his grin. Another smile lobbed at a motorcycle cop elicited a cautious, stony-faced wave. But to not have that claustrophobic constriction; to be breathing relatively clean air--it was the best he'd felt in a long time. Sure, he'd be a little late to work--fuck it.

A week later, a KNX traffic reporter in a helicopter spotted what he described as "a column of Priuses exiting a hole in the hillside!" and in no time both sides of the tunnel were sealed off by the authorities. They cited safety issues--and to be sure, it was a disaster waiting to happen. The next earthquake bore that out as a large section of the tunnel collapsed during what would have been Wormhole's afternoon transit.

Trey refused to give up. Six months later he approached Burrows with an offer to create Wormhole II. Seems Trey had found a tree-canopied canyon to The Palisades that, "with a little work," they could make passable. "All we need is a few machetes, chainsaws and a bulldozer. And this time I promise I won't tell anyone."

"No thanks," said Burrows. "Good luck."

Josh eventually made it to the other side of the universe.

"'Pierced the Limbic,' did you?" said Burrows.

"No, did it by more conventional means--it just took 50 times longer."

"How do we feel about that?"

"You know," said Josh, "I had a lot of fun getting stranded on strange planets, dodging asteroids. I don't know. Sometimes I think Wormhole is just a myth."

"I know what you mean." He'd never shared his own Wormhole story with Josh. He sometimes thought about telling--then held back, not sure why. Something about not encouraging foolish risks, perhaps. Joshie was his only child; when the tunnel collapsed Burrows had been struck with a distinct vision of Josh trapped in there for some reason. It was odd, sobering. Josh went on at length about his failure to Pierce the Limbic. Seems he'd looked up "limbic" and found it had something to do with the brain. The idea of "worms" piercing "holes" in a "brain" understandably repulsed him.

To hear him tell it, Josh had crossed the universe divide in an honest, uncompromising manner--and there was a certain sense of honor for him in that. No cheap shortcuts. For Burrows, it brought to mind archaic poems and prose about mountains and brains of mountains: Thomas Mann and Tennyson, which he hadn't read since college. Wormhole's collapse was the brain of the purple mountain trying to heal itself from opportunistic invasion. A "healing surge," as gamers say. With no small sense of paternal pride, Burrows listened to his son earnestly explain the need he'd felt to slow things down, to not give in to callow temptations of shortcuts, trickery and impatience. Solar wind at his back, luxuriating in the familiar certitude of lyrical light years.