We were not scared when we found the door, as they told us perhaps we should be, but somewhat awed by our own discovery and competence in uncovering a new frontier. It was made of a dark metal that we could not recall ever having seen, and it towered over us, larger than any gateway we have encountered in our town, at the least. There were tangles of gnarled roots that protruded from the small space under it, twisting across the ground and finally sinking back into the earth. Other roots grew up over and around the door, preventing us from being able to see if there was a knob or means of opening it. The man on the news told us that these roots were evidence of a separate plane beyond the door where trees might grow, otherwise how would the roots to a tree exist so far within a mountain? –and although we did not fully understand how another plane could exist in the base of this mountain or under the earth, we accepted it, because it solidified our belief that the door led to something important.
We initially thought that it might be the doorway to an ancient civilization that had lived in the mountains, or maybe a Pagan temple that had been lost to history for thousands of years. It did, after all, resemble the doors to some of the older churches that we had preserved in our modern cities, although we could not see whatever stood behind it. Most of us believed that it was a giant temple that had been swallowed by the mountain, and if we were to drill past the door, we would find it and be hailed for our contributions to ancient anthropology.
When we tried to open it with drills and saws and great machines, we could not even leave scratches on its surface. We tried to dig under it, but we could not remove the soil directly under the door with even the most modern devices. No amount of mining in any direction would reveal anything but more stone, and the door was determined to be a freestanding structure. We could not imagine how an ancient civilization could have built something so strong, and we began to doubt.
Rumors began to circulate among us that the door was just a hoax, pulled off by some rich man with too much time on his hands. The town officials did not listen to us as we mocked them for their fear, and declared that interaction with the door was strictly forbidden until science could determine its nature. They arranged for scientists to come and take samples of the door, as well as the rocks and roots surrounding it to determine their origin, and the scientists came, and they looked serious as they did their work so that we might take it seriously, too. And perhaps we might have, had we paid attention, but the door had become something of fodder for idle chatter at parties and we did not see any need to acknowledge any tests being done on it. We did not begin to realize the enormity of our discovery until the results of the test on the door came back and declared the metals alien in nature. It was very shortly after this that the John Burton experiment was conducted.
John Burton was a serial killer, sometimes called "The Mississippi Strangler", who was waiting on death row. He was to be sent from his cell to make first contact and quell the modest attention from the media that the door had begot, chosen on the grounds of stoic disregard for the rumors that most other inmates believed. When it was announced that he was the one who would be coming to our town, we all resolved to stay in that day, and when he came, we peered out at him from cracks in our shutters He was led to the door by a group of armed guards and one local news crew, and he approached it with no ceremony, simply walking up to it and laying a hand on the dark surface. He removed his hand to seemingly no adverse effect, and so we took him back to his cell, where, the next morning, he was found dead of causes unknown to modern medicine.
The explosion of media attention from John Burton's death was instantaneous and inconceivably massive. We told the television people who came to interview us that it was not something to be preoccupied with, death-row inmates die of mysterious causes all the time. But we could not deter them, and news crews flocked to the town and hailed us as the discoverers of hell, and after days of never-ending attention to the matter, it began to seem so plausible to us that that was what it was.
Whisperings of divine forces at work on the door began to consume our minds, and we grew wary of the door. We feared for our children and families, although we still came and lingered around the mouth of the cave where hell had been found, just to say that we had been there. Fearing suicides and accidental deaths from visitors like us, the town roped off the entire mountain until they could devise a safer way of keeping us out. We still came to the gate, though, in such numbers that the town stationed guards around the ropes to keep us safe, although many children and headstrong teenagers would still dart under and run to the door. There had been only been a few deaths, but many instances where death had seemed imminent and the women screamed and closed their eyes as the men reached out arms to stop the runners. The town kept hiring more guards until their funds ran low, and they had no choice but to begin charging for entry to Hell's gates to pay their salaries.
Upon the establishment of the ticket booth, the rope was moved closer to the gate, and a large plastic sign was placed overhead, shaped like a curled scroll with tall, black script that read "HELL". A small gift store opened close to the mountain that sold novelties for the tourists and construction began on a hell-themed hotel. Billboards were erected along the highway, telling tourists to get off at exit 31 to "Go to Hell!" The guards were told to remove their crisp white shirts and pressed blue slacks in favor of pompously decorated medieval tunics and black leggings. They held spears as they carried their guns and tasers on their hip.
For many weeks the crowds of people in and around the cave were so massive that they received coverage on the news; every day there were sweeping panoramic shots of undulating crowds while the anchor speculated as to if someone would die there that day. They would wander through the crowd on some days and talk to people, and the bloated families with their large black cameras would talk so fondly about the religion of it all.
We watched the people as they stood in their herds before the gates, and we tried to please them, to make them stay. They were hungry, so small fast-food restaurant opened directly outside the cave and earned the highest yields of its entire company. The children would get restless, and we hired a man to dress as the devil and pose for photographs, and workers in red polo shirts handed out flimsy devil horns on plastic headbands that cut into your scalp.
It was not long after the crowds began to form in the morning that the protestors would break the masses and form a line in front of the ropes near the gate, holding signs and shouting into megaphones. They were from the churches in the area, and they feared for our souls, calling us "mindless" and "worshippers of hell". We laughed at them, and they were parodied on television shows, because we knew that our intrigue could not be worship, and that we were smarter than perhaps they were. They would stay until as late as noon on some days before being pushed so far back into the crowds that they gave up and returned to their homes.
The people closest to the gate were always the loudest, always the ones who reached out with grappling hands as though they believed they could make contact as John Burton had. They strained against the metal barriers that had replaced the ropes, bending their torsos over the top and pleading with the guards to let them closer and promising that they would not touch the door, just breathe the air that came from under it. Some of them got through, either through the guard's distraction or clever bargaining, and they always flung their bodies against the door and pulled on the vines that wove across it as though they believed themselves capable of opening it. Hordes of fanatical onlookers encouraged them and screamed to be let in. The guards would take the runners aside and tell them to hurry home to their families so that they might spend their next 12 hours among their loved. Their faces were always the same when the reality of death became apparent. They would walk from the cave, heads hung, eyes averted, sometimes on the phone, booking flights home. We would look at them curiously from the familiarity of our own streets as they waited for the bus to the airport.
To stop the runners in their suicidal dashes, the town paid for a large wall of Plexiglas, two inches thick. People would run up to this, also, and they would press their whole bodies onto it, distorting their faces against its cold, smooth surface. For a while, the guards tried to pry them off the wall, but the clung so tightly to it that they eventually gave up, and the wall was covered with greasy, smeared prints of hands and cheeks and foreheads by 9:00 in the morning.
The enormous throngs of people lasted for a few months before subsiding to smaller crowds of people, mostly Americans who had waited for a lull in the activity before venturing out of state to see hell. They came with their families as they drove to other places, and they didn't stay for long before leaving us. These types were regulars for a few weeks more, and then all that was left were dwindling groups of families from the surrounding states who had come for the weekend, mostly to stay in the hotel which, in the time of mass hysteria over the gates, had grown quite rich and become something of an attraction in and of itself.
We could not understand why the people had left. We had lowered the price of tickets and taken away the glass wall in our desperation for business, but we still did not have many people who even expressed interest in venturing over to the mountain to see hell. The only people who seemed to come anymore were church groups going on field trips to talk about sin, and they did not stay for long. They were forced to leave when the children became unruly, rushing towards the door and trying to lay their hands on it, although they were told that they would die.
For a long time, nobody came, and we put a permanent stone wall over the cave door for the safety of the children in the town. The hotel closed, having already started a chain and choosing to devote more money to the resort in Las Vegas than to the one here, and the signs were taken off the highway. We retired back into our normal lives, and many of us no longer remember where hell even is. If we do remember, we don't bother ourselves believing. Why would we?