When I was about ten or eleven, there was a legend about our yard. All the guys knew the story; I knew it myself from childhood. The legend was about the cellar of one of the five-storey buildings. The entrance was closed by a metal door with a massive lock on it. Right in front of the cellar was a large stone. It was so high that you could even sit on it. Legend had it that an animal had to be placed on this stone and then killed. Then the lock would break and fall to the ground, and the metal door would slowly open. But behind it was not an ordinary cellar but an entrance to the dead world. Once there, you had to find a market stall as quickly as possible, go to the window, and ask clearly and loudly what you wanted. If you did everything right, then the wish would come true. You had to run back quickly before the passage closed again.

It’s a typical scary children’s story; kids love those. Besides, one of the local boys had scratched some strange symbols on the stone. There were often rumours in the yard that one of the boys had done the ritual, which worked. But I didn’t believe it, and I would never check. No one in our group ever thought of killing a poor animal to check out a silly story.

But one summer, Bayan moved into our yard. She was a gorgeous girl and a little older than us. All the boys immediately fell in love with her.  In a very short time, Bayan became the most important person in our company of boys. All summer, we went around together. During this time, I also fell in love with Bayan. One summer evening, we were sitting in the yard as usual, and one of us told a story about a cellar. The next day, Bayan brought her kitten into the yard.

We immediately realised what she wanted to do and started shouting at her. But Bayan didn’t listen to anyone. She put the kitten on a stone and hit its head with a brick with all her might. At that moment, we all fell silent. I was in shock and couldn’t believe that Bayan could kill the poor animal so brutally. Nothing happened for a few seconds, but then there was a loud and eerie sound. It was like someone huge was breathing out at us from a locked cellar. Suddenly, the giant lock fell off and fell to the ground, and the metal door slowly, with a grinding sound, began to open.

Just as the legend said, behind the door was no ordinary cellar. As we got closer, we saw houses and streets. But when we looked closer, we noticed they were dusty and long abandoned. A cold wind blew on us and a foul, rotten smell.

I noticed Bayan running over there and managed to grab her arm. But she managed to break free and ran through the portal. Bayan stood momentarily, twisting her head around, then turned to us. There was fear on her face, but then it changed to confidence.

– If anyone wants to come, follow me! – she shouted to us from the other side.

But none of us moved. On the contrary, the other boys got scared and ran away from the place. It was just the two of us. I noticed that Bayan’s black hair was faded in the dim light outside the passage, and her whole face was discoloured.

– Come back, please,” I said pitifully.

– Aren’t you interested? – Bayan said to us in surprise.

Her voice was muffled, and I could barely hear what she said.

– Really, you don’t. You shouldn’t go there, it’s dangerous. Don’t you see,” I urged Bayan.

– I’m sorry, I have no choice. Please guard the portal until I get back,” she said, looking at me sadly and leaving.

I waited for about ten minutes, but nothing happened. Overcoming my fear, I walked closer to the cellar to get a better look at the world beyond. There was a city there, similar to ours, but completely colourless. Everything was more extensive than needed: the window holes were more significant, the floors were higher, and I could climb into the bins in one piece. Along the roads were crooked lampposts that didn’t even shine. The sky had thick clouds, but they weren’t moving either. Here and there lay piles of fine grey sand. Looking at this, I realised at once that no people had ever lived there at all.

But suddenly, I heard a shriek from the side. It was Bayan, but her shriek was so intense and lasted so long that, in the end, it became a growl, even a croak. I was frightened, for a little girl could not shout like that. There was silence, and then the shriek came again; it came nearer. Bayan was about to emerge from the corner around which she had recently disappeared.

I strained my eyes, trying to make out something of the dead world. Finally, a swaying silhouette emerged from around the corner, but it didn’t look human. The creature had no arms, and its legs were disfigured. As it walked towards me, meat dripped from its body and dragged on the ground. You could see that every step was challenging for it. I didn’t know what to do; I couldn’t even move out of fear. As I approached the portal, the creature screamed in Bayan’s voice. The scream came from the pile of meat it was dragging behind it.

I shrieked and recoiled. Stumbling over a rock, I threw the kitten’s corpse onto the grass. A loud sound came again, completely blocking Bayan’s scream. The cellar door closed abruptly, and the lock flew up from the ground and into place. Then, the other normal sounds returned: the laughter of children from the side of the sandbox, the noise of cars, and the voices of people. The metal cellar door was closed again with a strong lock.

In tears, we told the adults what had happened: first to our parents, then to the police. Bayan’s grandma was taken to the hospital because she had a heart condition. No one told us that we were lying or playing games. But they didn’t take the little ones’ testimony seriously either. They asked us time after time if we had seen a suspicious man or anyone else. I escorted the policeman to the place where Bayan was last seen. He looked around, searched the neighbours’ cellar, went round the house, and left. Bayan disappeared without a trace.

That summer, I remembered her. But at night, I dreamt of that horrible creature. But as time went on, it happened less and less. My father left us in the autumn, and the problems started at home. The years went by. There were new mates from other yards. I didn’t remember much about Bayan and avoided the cursed cellar until I was fifteen.

After Dad left us, Mum started drinking. First, a little after work. Then things got worse. When she drank, my mother became tearful, asked me for forgiveness, and promised me that she would soon leave me. The headteacher put our family in the risk category. By the eighth grade, all the household was on me; I even learnt to cook. Mostly soup. I got a job at a car wash when my mother was fired from her job. She drank most of the child support. Dad knew about it, but he didn’t want to get involved. After another call to the ambulance, while my mother was sleeping under the drip, the paramedic told me that she wouldn’t last that long.

Every morning, I started waking up thinking about that cellar. The legend was accurate in its first part, so why shouldn’t it be true? I knew what wish I wanted to make. Only a miracle would save my mum. I remembered the horror of that summer, but I had no choice. In the morning, I went to the pet shop and bought a lizard with my last money.

It worked just like the last time. I heard that loud sound again, smelled the rotten odour, and felt the cold wind. The cellar door opened slowly, and I saw the dead world again. It hadn’t changed; it was as if time had stood still there. Humans had never inhabited these houses. Their inhabitants were very different creatures, but I felt they were still there.

I immediately started looking around for Bayan’s footprints when I got there. I had my lantern with me, but it was light outside. It was only unclear where the light came from because I had not seen the sun. Soon, I noticed a light in some windows: in one part of the building and another. Long black branches of dead shrubbery were sticking out of other windows.

Cold inside at every step, I walked in the direction Bayan had gone. Pressing myself against the icy stone, I peered around the corner. There was still nothing moving on the street. But I constantly felt as if someone was watching me from the windows of the houses. Gathering my courage, I took a few steps towards the centre of the street, looking around tensely for possible danger. I looked ahead. In the distance, one house away from me, one of the streetlights was burning, the only one as far as the eye could see. A row of ordinary market stalls with small windows stood in the circle of light.

My heart raced even harder. So the legend wasn’t lying about that either! I had to walk straight down the street past the entrances to get there. As I approached the first one, I heard something rolling inside, bouncing off the steps. Suddenly, a worn rubber ball rolled out onto the road before me. It was the same one I had as a kid, but it was lost somewhere. I swallowed with fear, but then I kept walking. Finally, when I reached the stall, I perceived almost nothing. Nothing hurt me, but my psyche was on edge. My whole body was shaking, not believing I had made it.

Almost all the stalls were smashed and destroyed. Slowly, I reached the last stall in the row, but it had no lights on. Even the panes behind the bars had survived. They were so dirty that you couldn’t see anything behind them. Gathering my strength, I knocked on the window. A second later, it opened. There was a horrible smell of corpse. I could smell that someone was inside. I forgot all the words I had prepared; my voice sounded strange and muffled in the middle of the empty street.

– My mum… She’s a good person, but she drinks a lot. She can’t stop alone because she’s sick,” I stammered.

But there was no answer. So I decided to keep talking.

– Mum will die if she keeps drinking. She doesn’t deserve that. That’s why I want Mum to stop drinking so we can get back to the way we used to be! Can we? – I said, waiting for an answer.

There was silence. A minute passed, and I exhaled doomedly. What was I thinking? I’d fallen for children’s stories, climbed into a world where everyone either died a million years ago or became monsters, trying to talk to one of them… I’ve got to get out of here. Or maybe it’ll be closed when I return to the passageway? Thinking I could stay here forever made me want to lie down and cry.

– Finger…” it said from the darkness.

I realised what they wanted me to do. I broke out in a cold sweat. Why did I even think it would be free? Clenching my left hand into a fist, I put my pinky out and stuck my hand right through the window of the kiosk, simultaneously clenching my eyes and teeth. But nothing happened. As soon as I pulled my hand out, the window slammed shut with a clang. The sight of my left hand made me dizzy and nauseous: the little finger was gone. There was no blood, either, and the remaining half of the phalanx looked like I’d lost the finger a long time ago, at least a year. Deciding to deal with it later, I embarked on my return journey. The portal was in place, and I made my way back through. After removing the dead kitten from the stone, I closed the passage to the dead world.

The legend turned out to be accurate, and my mum stopped drinking. She went back to work; we renovated our flat. I was able to get a good job, too. Anyway, we had enough money. I learnt to do without my little finger within a week, and I lied to my mother about the accident at work last year. She cried again, of course.

Ten years later, Mum died quietly in bed, already retired. She never drank again and would have lived longer if not for her failing health. Only in a terrible dream could I imagine that I would ever return to the dead world. But fate had it differently.

After a while, my best man’s wife got terminal cancer. The doctors said there was no chance. I couldn’t bear to watch their happy family suffer. Unable to bear it, I went to the dead world again. It cost me another finger to cure the cancer. The doctors were shocked, and my friend didn’t know where to go from happiness.

Then, the relative’s son fell ill, and I couldn’t help them. I felt sorry for my nephew; he hadn’t even lived yet. What is one of my fingers against someone’s life that has just begun? I thought about it a lot. So I lost another finger. So I helped people a few more times, lost two more fingers and a kidney, and couldn’t see out of my left eye. I reckon I’ve been to the dead world precisely nine times. I’ve seen all sorts of horrible things there. Not even the creepiest monsters from horror films can compare. And each time I killed some poor animal, and each time, a part of my soul died. I have a theory. When you open the passageway, you’re doing something disgusting. That even God himself is against it.

Recently, I went there for the tenth time. I gave my pancreas to a boy with congenital paralysis. On the way back, I heard a quiet child crying. It was coming from the windows of one of the flats, away from my usual route. I decided to check it out and climbed through the window. It was Bayan.

How long had it been, over thirty years? But that’s by earthly standards. How long had she been walking through the monstrous emptiness of this creepy world? I dread to imagine. The important thing is that she’s alive. And she’s still a child, albeit a mutilated one. Oh, what her foolish wish did to her. What was it? Maybe something like “I want to live forever”?

I was astonished when she recognised me. I had to try and save Bayan. Bring her body back; bring her back to our world. There’s no worse fate than the one she’s been dealt. I don’t know the price, but it doesn’t matter. Even if I have to take her place, I’m ready. It was my fault the portal closed back then.

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