A misty rolling Points Reyes bluff.

The Exit

Short story by: Ronan Furuta, December 2021

Ray had spent the entire night working on his next assignment. The professors had been relentless, assigning paper after paper. Each assignment ratcheted up the difficulty until his mind was numb and his fingers were raw from typing. Every night stretched his ability to stay awake to satisfy his professors’ requirements. The warm glow of his table lamp cast an eerie glow across Ray, creating long shadows in his dorm. In the far corner of the room, a tall bookshelf overflowed with pristine textbooks and memoirs from finance “wunderkinds.” Ray had read each book cover to cover. On top of the shelf there was a single book, covered in dust. Its edges and corners were wrinkled from salt water damage. Under the dust, you could barely make out the title: The Book of Whales, by Richard Ellis. Its pages were dog-eared and well loved by young Ray. On the first page, he had written a list of whales in the order that Ray wanted to see first.

As a child, Ray had begged his mom to take him to Alaska to see the whales. Every day, he would spend hours scouring the library for anything related to those magnificent creatures. This fascination was long forgotten as the sharp tapping of his typing reverberated through his room and pummeled his ears. As the night grew long, he fought to keep his eyelids open. Each sentence he attempted squirmed through his mind, melding with the endless papers he had written. When the next phrase came to him, the motion  required to press each key felt equivalent to lifting a dumbbell. By the time 4 am rolled around, it was as if textbooks were dangling from his eyelids; they crept lower and lower until his eyes shut and he slumped over in his chair. Thunk, the sound of him falling asleep on his desk emanated through his room.

The sunlight diffused through the high fog, onto the empty field. Each blade of grass stood tall and undisturbed, blanketing the rolling hills in a stunning green wash. Dotting the bluffs, stands of trees resisted the constant onslaught of the wind. Contrasting the green and darker green of the hills, the ocean shone a brilliant blue to the west. Racing over the landscape, the wind battered the grass and made the bushes dance in the air.

The rectangular shadow of Ray’s desk dominated the grass. Where the grass blades used to stand tall, four table legs smashed them into the dirt. The top of the table, a dark walnut, clashed with the green and blue color palette of the field. The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business, The Ten-Day MBA, Economics (21st Edition), and Quantitative Analysis for Management (13th Edition) created a wall around the back of the desk, keeping its contents from escaping.

The harsh sound of his papers flapping in the wind jolted Ray awake inside the dream. The cold wind rushed over Ray’s head, sending chills down his back as the bright green of the rolling hills clashed with the expected darkness of his room. His heart pounded harder and harder in his chest as the unfamiliar landscape loomed in his vision. The peaceful rolling hills were an endless maze, a homogenous barrier to returning to the life he knew. The grey clouds loomed ominously over Ray. Above the clouds and the landscape, the sun shone, but only its diffuse light reached Ray, a taunt. A single dirt trail snaked through the foreign landscape from the horizon culminating in a trailhead at the end of Ray’s field. At the trailhead, the light revealed a water-stained sign; the chipped white paint read: “the exit.” The tang of the salty air infuriated his nose, making it turn bright red and sting in response. He reached for his phone, his hands beginning to shake as the “no-service” indicator greeted him.

“CRAP!” he screamed, throwing his phone on the table. His cheeks began to flush, a sour taste crept onto his tongue, and his stomach turned to lead as he realized he was lost.

After a healthy amount of time spent hyperventilating, Ray grabbed his phone and set off down the path. His tennis shoes trampled over the dirt, propelling him to make quick time over the trail. Each step he made compressed the unruly dirt into neat pressed sole impressions. The tracks he left followed him across the landscape. Every half a mile or so, he would stop and yell for help. His voice cut through the natural din of the landscape, traveling for miles before eventually dissipating. The top of his head was a small speck amongst a vast green and blue. A redtail, invisible to him, soared over.

Many miles later, a dark blot began to appear on the horizon. Ray’s anticipation matched the growing outline. Maybe it was a town or a car! He was saved! Ray thought. As he neared it, the dot morphed into a large box-like rectangle with objects poking out of it. His footsteps increased in frequency as he started being able to make out more and more features. The rectangle had some sort of circular thing next to it; a horizontal black disk sticking out of the ground. More rectangular-shaped boxes were stacked on top of the larger rectangle with a lamp next to them.

Wait what? A lamp? he thought. As he drew even closer he could make the details of his entire desk. His heart turned into a bowling ball and dropped into his stomach. “How on earth could this happen? I walked in a straight line,” he thought. He couldn’t believe it. Rushing up to it Ray dug through the drawers and scoured the textbooks. Sure enough, this was his desk, exactly how he had left it hours ago. His heart pounded in his chest with the force of a blacksmith shaping a piece of metal. Each thud reverberated through his ears. Ray found himself running down the trail again. I’m stuck! How can I get out? I need to find a way out.

Ray spent dozens of hours searching for a way out. Each time he would inexplicably end up back at his desk. Every conceivable path always led him back. Ray had even tried zigzagging, walking in a random direction, and going backward on the trail, all to no avail. After each try, his heart pounded harder until it created a deafening cacophony inside of Ray’s head. Fear started encroaching upon him. Creeping up through his legs and down from the top of his head, this wave of terror made his skin flush. I’m trapped. He had to get out.

By try #20 fear consumed Ray. It coursed up and down him, causing his face to flush and his heart to pound. The “exit” sign stood, unworried and undisturbed, across the field from him. Ray took great offence to its misleading presence: Why was it there if it meant nothing? Overcome with a combination of fear and anger, Ray ran over to it and slammed his fist into it. Despite his bleeding hand, Ray took great satisfaction as the sign fell to the ground with a smack. With an air of accomplishment, Ray set off down the path again. Behind him, the sign lay in the grass, stained with his blood.

When Ray inevitably and inexplicably returned to the clearing with his desk, he was flooded with disbelief: the “exit” sign was standing, untouched, and his hand showed no sign of injury. What the hell?

By try #157 he could almost feel his eardrums bursting from the pressure. Like a caged rat, his actions became more and more frantic. Before he knew it, he found himself sprinting down the trail. As his heart pounded harder and harder, his feet matched it; each step an attempt to drown the cacophony of worry in his mind.

“CRACK!” His foot smashed into a rock. His shoe wrinkled as it compressed. His big toe hit first, it shoved against his shoe’s rubber tip. The joint, unable to withstand the direct force snapped; like tectonic plates in an earthquake, his bones slid over each other, rupturing. His index toe was next, meeting a similar fate when it reached the stone. Searing sharpness shot upwards from his foot for a moment. Then the numbness hit. Unable to control himself, Ray soared through the air briefly before crashing into the ground. As Ray collided with the ground the wind was knocked out of him and he passed out.

When he woke up, his foot was simultaneously on fire and icy cold. He couldn’t cope with the damage. Sweat soaked through his shirt despite the chills racketing up and down him. The grass tickled and taunted him as he sprawled on the ground. Mimicking his bruised and broken toes, the sky above him glowed a deep reddish-purple. His feet felt like they were burning hotter than the sun as it began to dip below the horizon, sending blood red streaks through the sky; glowing arcs that danced amongst the clouds. The fire emanating from Ray’s toes pulsed, each one searing his nerves. Even the ocean glowed; the waves carrying the orange and purple reflections closer to shore. Near the horizon, two black specks emerged from the sea’s depths. Spouting out of their backs, a mist shot up into the air, blocking the reds and purples of the sky.  Ray let out a gasp and pulled himself into an upright position.

Two whales, magnificent, massive whales, leapt out of the water. Each one spinning in perfect unison with the other. Despite being so far away, they consumed the skyline. The water poured off of their bellies as they soared, almost floated, through the air. Their splashing echoed through the landscape creating a slow, stunning, steady, rhythm. Ray’s heart couldn’t help but sync up with this rhythm. As he slowed down to the steady beat, he felt himself being drawn in by the sight. It was as if each glimpse of the whales sucked out more and more of Ray’s pain. Somehow, being stuck here, with nothing to do but enjoy the sight, calmed Ray enough for him to fall asleep, eyes locked on the sight.

The harsh sound of his papers flapping in the wind jolted Ray awake inside the dream. The cold wind rushed over his head as he sat up next to his desk. The peaceful rolling hills, an endless maze, dominated his vision. The grey clouds loomed ominously to Ray, the sunlight diffusing through them a taunt. A single dirt trail snaked through the foreign landscape from the horizon culminating in a trailhead at the end of the field. At the trailhead, the light revealed a water-stained sign; the chipped white paint read: “the exit.”

However, despite this dreaded sight, only one thought was in Ray’s mind: The whales. How could he see them again? Ray leapt out of his chair, like with the sign before, his foot was as if it had never been broken. He took off down the trail. Where was that rock?

After half an hour of searching, Ray found it. The rock stood in the middle of the path, just as it had been when he tripped. There was no sign of his injury anywhere. Despite this, Ray knew that it was the right rock. He plopped himself down on the ground against the rock and waited patiently.

The sun slowly made its way across the sky, casting reflections at different angles, until it finally reached the horizon. Like the night of the injury, the sky turned a stunning blend of red and purple. The ocean mirrored this light back upwards almost creating a seamless wall of color. Ray’s eyes watered as he scanned the horizon. His heart leaped at any small shimmer or tremor in the water but was always let down.

As the evening turned to dusk, the arcing colors of the sunset faded into the rich blue of the night. The stars, like tiny candles, dotted the sky. The moon, a brilliant white ball, reflected onto the ocean’s surface. Ray waited for hours as the moon slowly made its way across the night sky. By the time 4 am rolled around, it was as if his eyelids were being pulled down by the fleeting whales. They crept lower and lower, tugged along by the unstoppable pod until his eyes shut and he slumped over in the grass. The muted sound of the grass compressing underneath him emanated over the landscape.

The harsh sound of his alarm jolted Ray awake inside his room. His nose crinkled in disgust as the musty smell of his room flooded in. The familiar sight of his room comforted him less than usual. The textbooks piled high around his desk, his laptop, and the dark interior only served to bring up Ray’s stress. It was as if he was in a loop. Each day was spent trying to cram as much work in as possible. There must be an escape.

As he sat contemplating, the whales leaping, silhouetted by the setting sun, flashed through his head. He had been free in that dream. As his textbooks and piles of work loomed in his vision, Ray grabbed his coat and decided to go for a walk instead.

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