Foreign Shores

She sat in the dim light of her old TV’s glow. Nearly an hour had passed since Megan had, probably foolishly, decided to take the proverbial plunge into whatever the odd passers-by had left for her. The bottle of wine in her hand was mostly empty; she’d given up on the glass after leaving it in the kitchen. Outside, the wind was playing havoc with half-frozen rain. At least she hadn’t had to pay anyone for the pill. How long does it take for … oh, hell, she didn’t know what it was, so even scouring the internet would help.

Giving up on the idea of some grand, drug-fueled bender entertaining her for the night, Megan drained the last of the wine and let the bottle roll from her hand onto the floor. She gave a moment’s consideration to her bed, but its unbending dedication to remaining a full room’s length away won out. She pulled her faded patchwork quilt tightly around her and curled onto the couch, the flickering screen across the way shifting colors across her closed eyelids as she waited for sleep.

The illumination dancing across her vision became a blur, and Megan found herself wondering if she was already dreaming. The echoes of whatever inspid inspirational Christmas-miracle dreck played at this hour bounced off the walls, creating a nauseating din of saccharine pseudo-morality. Between the noise and the shifting hues of light, it became an unbearable whirl of excruciating activity; she grasped blindly for the remote, hoping to end the cacophany.

Absolute pandemonium. Where there should have been the soft folds of her quilt and the threadbare cushions of her couch that too often substituted for a bed, there was — sand? Megan’s fingers sank into it; it was warm and wet, and she was suddenly aware of the scent of saltwater. Maybe that stuff the kids had left on the table wasn’t entirely useless, after all.

Her mind struggled against itself. She knew, of course, that she was still resting lazily on her own couch; the smells and sensations might betray something else, but it was illusory. It had to be, and Megan knew that. She might be high as a kite on god knows what, but she hadn’t entirely lost her senses. It was time to take full stock of just how distant from herself she’d become. Hesitantly, dreading the dissipation of her fantasy, she opened her eyes.

It took her breath away. Nothing was as it should be. Her dim apartment, the damnable winter, the stagnant streets of her backwoods town — everything was gone, replaced by a bright, warm, sun-drenched beach. The broad strip of sand extended as far as she could see along the edge of the gently-rolling waves. The cold, gray sky of her home was gone, as well, and a brilliant blue expanse glimmering with an almost supernatural quality spread out above.

Megan stood up and glanced downward; she was still in the same jeans and faded band t-shirt she’d been wearing when she passed out on the couch. On the ground near her feet, the wine bottle she’d finished earlier lay empty in the sand. Where the hell — none of this made any sense. Megan knew she couldn’t very well leave the bottle where it was, she grabbed it from the sand and turned inland.

The beach stretched upwards, where it gave way to a dull, bluish grass and rocky terrain. There was someone walking in her direction; a small-statured figure in a dark green hooded cloak that obscured their features. They were moving quickly, in rapid short strides that soon had them stepping onto the sand. As they neared, they lifted their head. From behind wisps of black hair, a pair of steel-blue eyes met Megan’s gaze. She was pretty, with sharp features and a stern look of concentration.

Megan shifted the bottle in her hand. She tried to remember how it had come to this; she remembered the pill. She told herself this was some strange half-dream, half-hallucination. That in reality, she was probably standing atop her old, sagging furniture, brandishing a wine bottle at her thick-draped window. Maybe she was about to shatter the glass, flinging her inebriated body out onto the concrete and hedges outside. It was hard to say, really, but she was doing her best to remain grounded.

“You must be Megan,” the approaching stranger said. Her voice was clear and bright, confident yet kind. “I’m Delfine. We’ve been waiting.”

Megan took a step back; this made no goddamn sense, and wasn’t anything at all like what she’d heard from Julie or David about their “experimental” phases. This was something else entirely, and she had no idea what to make of it.

“I’m sure you’re confused,” the newcomer added. “We’ve all been there. Come with me, and we’ll explain everything. You’re going to be alright.” There was a definite sincerity behind her words, but Megan was still reeling. She tried to reply, or to prepare for a fight, or to scream — her brain couldn’t choose just one, and she flung the bottle uselessly towards Delfine, stammering out a “what the fuck?”

Delfine’s hand moved swiftly, snatching the bottle from the air; it wouldn’t have struck her, but it was clear that even a well-aimed, harder throw would have been no more effective at this. She smirked. “Come on, serving girl. This isn’t the time or the place for any of that,” she said. She turned, twirling Megan’s wine bottle in her hand as she started back up towards solid ground.

At least Megan wasn’t swinging it wildly at her window anymore, and the throw shouldn’t have been hard enough to go through it. She’d find out soon enough, she figured, and there wasn’t a whole lot of other options; with nobody and nothing else of note across the sandy expanse, she was bound to follow this Delfine one way or the other. She fell in behind her cloak-wrapped guide and tried to gather her senses.

“You’re probably terrified that you got a bad dose, or that all those horror stories about weird pills handed out by strangers were telling you the truth, huh?” Delfine was speaking without turning her head, but Megan could hear the smile on her lips in the light tone of her words. She was right, too, so maybe it was worth hearing her out.

“Don’t worry. You’re still safe, assuming you were safe when you got here. By and large, people tend to make sure they’re in a good spot before they swallow shit they’re not sure of, so hopefully you’ve got that going for you. Time doesn’t quite work the same here, so I wouldn’t fret. Like I said, you’ll be alright — long as you stick with me, anyway.”

Megan was trying to form a reply. Every time words came to her, though, they slipped back away like the tide sliding back behind her and out into the boundless ocean. The part of her that was clinging desperately to her unkempt apartment was losing hold of her thoughts as she was swept into — well, wherever it was that Delfine was leading her. They were following a worn-looking cobblestone road, passing by small shrubs and squattish trees that barely reached over her head.

She felt like Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole, or Lucy Pevensie crawling out of the other end of the wardrobe. This wasn’t some melting-clock trip that toyed with her senses, but a fully formed world with no recognizable parallels to her home. Up ahead, a tall building made of some kind of smooth, almost silvery stone stood in the distance.

“Come on,” Delfine called out to Megan behind her. “I’ll introduce you to the others, and we’ll getcha all sorted out.”

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A Tip

The alarm’s piercing shrill cut through the darkness, as it did on so many mornings before. The sun wasn’t yet out, but that had become normal. Megan slapped the snooze button, bleary eyes struggling to make out the digits on the clock face. Goddamnit, she’d already turned it off twice more than she should. She struggled out of the blankets and towards the bath; she’d have to cut her morning shower short, but at least there was still just enough time for one.

She was still covered in suds when the snooze timer ran out, the incessant screech reminding her that she was running behind already. She hurried out to turn off the screaming devil-box and reprimanded herself for, once again, ignoring her well-documented need to be in bed earlier. Maybe tonight, she told herself. She knew it was a lie, but it still made her feel better to pretend she’d get her shit together somehow in the next 12 hours.

Bare-bones makeup and a hastily chosen outfit later, she was out the door. She muttered thanks to some unknown god that the car didn’t take its time starting up despite the cold. Megan hated the winter; it wasn’t just the chill in the air, but the whole package. The wet weather, the nuclear-family holidays, the obligatory postcard pleasanties. Not everything needed to be pumpkin-spice flavored, but even less people needed to be shamed for liking things that were. Winter was bullshit.

She pulled into the mostly empty lot, her dashboard whining about low fuel. That was a problem to deal with later, like most problems. For now, it was time to set to work preparing the tables and getting the coffee pots going. A small perk to working in an ass-backward’s town’s biggest breakfast joint was the coffee. Yeah, it wasn’t exactly premium brew, but it was better than instant and they made it plenty strong. It did its job, like everyone here.

Mick and Jerry were already outside, smoking cigarettes by the dumpster. At least, they were probably cigarettes, not that it mattered. Washing dishes and stocking the kitchen didn’t really rely on having your wits about you, anyway. Megan waved a distant hello as she made her way inside, ready for another day of mostly familiar faces; taking orders here was mostly done for show, the few road-weary travelers on their way to someplace interesting aside.

She got the coffee pots going, setting aside her morning cup to be used as soon as they were ready. Cammie didn’t mind her using the diner’s cups, and all the ones she’d bought had been broken or lost within a matter of weeks, so she’d given up trying. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, realizing she’d forgotten to do so before leaving for the morning. Rushing out the door has ways of playing havoc with the details, no matter how automatic. At least she hadn’t forgotten pants.

The sign near the door flickered to life, and the daily routine started. Cops on their way to the station, nurses grabbing a bite after a long night, truckers on their routes that carried them back and forth across the interstate; Megan knew most of them by name, and almost as many knew hers. Coffee helped keep the smile on her face, however forced it felt at times, and the morning went by well enough. She tucked a few bills from the first tables’ tips into her bra, remembering that she’d need it to fuel up after work.

The morning passed without much event. There was a bit of a buzz in the kitchen over some strangely-dressed visitors, decked out in wild colors and beads, like some kids that got lost on their way home from a rave in 1995 and somehow landed here and now. Besides looking out of place, though, they were nice enough, if a bit indecisive about their orders. The group caught more than a couple of stares from the locals on their way out the door, but Megan was caught up in the tip they left behind — a solid 30% in cash, and a small plastic baggie with a curious-looking orange pill stamped with what looked like a corporate logo of some kind.

She tucked the pill away in a pocket without much of a thought. It was an interesting gesture. Megan hadn’t ever fallen into drugs; around here, all you’d find was low-grade weed and amphetamines of dubious origin. Still, she had the weekend coming up, and the kids sure seemed like good folks. Maybe it’d be a way to kill some time, forget the crappy weather, and otherwise distract her from winter’s overall awfulness.

The rest of the day passed without much of note. The tips were good, the jokes were bad, and the coffee was a bit of both. For all the negatives in the worst season’s offerings, people tended to be a little more generous with their cash, and Megan’s struggling bank account was thankful for it. She grabbed up her things and headed off, letting her hair down as she made her way to the car.

Damnit. Gas. The dashboard offered a friendly reminder as she turned the key, so that was her first stop. She pulled the wad of cash from its hiding place while driving, knowing that whichever greasy-faced high schooler happened to be running the register today would surely have some color commentary to accompany the action. Still, foresight can’t account for a teen boy’s dedication to degrading bullshit; she did her best to brush it off and considered buying herself a medal for avoiding an assault or arson charge.

She headed home, stewing about the terrible people and the terrible season and the terrible town; she wondered why she didn’t up and leave, but she knew she wouldn’t act on anything so impulsive. As she pulled in to her cramped parking lot — where the hell had all these cars come from? — her mind turned the small pill stuffed into her pocket. Once she was inside, she extracted the baggie and looked more closely at the bizarre customer’s gift.

The pill itself was unremarkable. A dull orange color flecked with darker spots, and the stamped-on logo. The design reminded her of some faceless corporation’s emblem, the product of old white men in suits arguing over proposed icons put together by design-school “interns” desperate to make some meager stipend off of their student loan debts. Turned one way, it resembled the front of an old European castle; another, it reminded her of a jagged-edged bird of some kind. It felt vaguely familiar, but not enough so to stir any direct connections.

“Fuck it,” Megan said aloud to nobody. With the help of a glass of cheap wine, she swallowed the pill and sat back to see what awaited.

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Eulogy

Part 12, and the conclusion of this tale. See the rest here if you haven’t.


His voice rang out clear in the vast, open room, echoing off of distant walls. There was not a soul in the small crowd that had gathered who could not hear every word, who could not hear the trace of empathy beneath its cold detachment; it wasn’t a cruelty, but a defense mechanism. It was important to tend to your own wellbeing when delivering these speeches.

“Daniel Willis was a bright young man. Troubled, yes, but who among us has not struggled? That we toil every day, both in our labors and in our thoughts, is testament to our tenacity. So it was with Daniel. I am certain all here recall his trials, the struggles he faced after an accident nearly took his hands from him and changed the course of his life. This struggle, though, did not define him. He did not allow it that power.

“Daniel — or Dani, as he liked to be called — instead found himself in a different battle. Ever sure that he had been cast into the wrong role, given a life and body that was not his own, he fought against his own existence. Those who knew him well will never forget his unique perspective, his insistence that this world in which we live is not all there is. It was more than a fascination with the yarns we spin of the time before; it was a true, deeply rooted belief in something greater. Something different and fresh.”

The gathered observers remained still, their silence punctuated only by the occasional cough and the deep sighs of Dani’s mother, seated in the front. She would not allow the pain of a lost child to break her in front of the assembled; no, that would be for later, in private. Here and now was a time for strength and resolve as the words of their elder fell flatly against her ears.

“Today, we remember Daniel not for his struggles, but for his optimism and strength. With all odds stacked against him and what he felt was right, he still stood tall in his own beliefs. He refused to allow the limits of his body to define how he looked at the world. Some might accuse him of being a dreamer, of being lost in some fantasy, but to Daniel, it was more than that. He was never lost in his mind, but rather, his mind was the one place he could be found.”

The words went on, more touching recollections of how Dani had lived. There were very few words about how she had died; the malnourished husk found sealed away in the trappings of a forgotten experiment. Secreted off in an abandoned sensory deprivation chamber, she’d found the one place she could be herself, free of judgment and half-cocked grins. It was hard to talk about this without speaking negatively. The speech concluded, and the attendees made their final pass by the remains, hidden beneath the stone casket, to pay their last respects.

Dani’s mother was the last to leave. As the room emptied, she could no longer bite back tears. Her mind raced across every argument, every assertion that her son — no. That wasn’t the word, not anymore. Every time she had sparred words with her daughter flooded her memory. Every single battle she thought she’d won was just another push towards this ledge, and every word hung on her like a steel weight attached to her skin. The elder looked on in solemn silence as she collapsed onto the casket, desperate for a conversation that, now, would never come.


Epilogue

A warm breeze drifted across the field, each blade of grass bending to its gentle push. The air here smelled of something sweet and undefinable. A new lightness carried Dani’s feet across the emerald expanse, as though she’d been freed from chains that had once held her captive to something that she could not define, and she knew that the echoes of that awful dream would never again encroach on her existence.

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Searching

Part 11. Previous entries here.


Joshua hated this part of the job. Sure, most of the time, janitorial wasn’t so bad. People kept things tidy, by and large, so there wasn’t a whole lot to do. Yeah, the backed-up plumbing was a pain in the ass, but it didn’t come up often enough to be unbearable. Mopping up after the drifting masses, that was an easy life. Just pushing a broom, nodding at folks passing by, and earning your keep without hardly a sweat. Wasn’t glamorous, but hell — glamor was just in books and plays, splayed out in the films with lavish costumes and other dreams.

This part, though. This was the worst of it. Tracing pathways through old tunnels, the places people didn’t go now. Chasing down some idiot’s report of some noise echoing through a damn air vent, like that wasn’t something that they all dealt with. It was never anything. Some moles or ugly rodents, maybe a snake. Down here, though, shadows played with your eyes and dust was a thick layer that covered everything but those footprints.

Footprints. Joshua stopped. These weren’t the scatterd, tiny paws of a miniscule pest. There were human footprints, full-formed in the dirt that spread across the floor. Not even boots, but bare feet — he could make out the toes in the glow of his shoulder lamp. He traced them back with his eyes, wondering how they’d even gotten to where they were. There. Just beyond a nearby curve in the walls — why hadn’t these corridors been built straight, anyway? — a line scraped across the base of the hall. They’d used a damn maintenance hatch.

Joshua sighed. As if the idea of walking alone through these forgotten depths wasn’t enough, now he was chasing some brain-fried moron scampering in the dark without any shoes, and they probably had a goddamned blueprint to boot. He thought about getting back to report in, but — well, damnit. Gotta know what exactly you’re reporting. Storming back to Crawford with some half-cocked idea that the closed-down district was playing home to some delusional kid without proof wasn’t likely to fly.

Time to do some searching, then. Somewhere in this long-abandoned maze, he’d find something that could prove there was someone living here, or at least visiting. People don’t go anywhere without leaving parts of themselves, especially not if they’re certain nobody knows they’re there. The things men do in secret are — well, you learn things, being a part of cleanup. Most people follow the rules well, but when certain folk think that nobody knows what they’re up to, rules aren’t really a consideration. It’s only bad if you get caught, or so they tell themselves in their brief and inconsequential fits of lucidity.

He followed what he could of tracks in the dust, using his lamp to light the way. Joshua wasn’t about to start squeezing through the much narrower shafts that the feet followed through the walls, but sticking his head through an access panel or two allowed more than enough to keep on tracking. He had to turn back once, realizing that he’d wound his way almost back to civilization, but the delay only fueled his determination. He had one end of the path; finding the other was only a matter of time. There were only so many tunnels.

Joshua grinned broadly when he found it. A wide steel door that led into an old lab — one that wouldn’t have any direct access through the walls. This had to be the place. Footprints and scrapes across the ground confirmed his convictions. He pulled the doors open with both hands, opening up into a wide room scattered with derelict equipment. Tables, desks, and weird-looking metal cylinders; he approached these, still letting the path of the one who’d been here first guide him.

Joshua froze. He was standing an arm’s length from the dull metal of one of these bizarre contraptions. Through a small glass window, he could see a face.

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Carry On

Part 10 of probably 12 or so. The collected set, in order, is here.


Several more days passed in similar fashion. The shop was busy, the tales were tall, and the village was abuzz with excitement. Dani made more than her share of the cut as the knight’s men and would-be adventurers stocked up on everything they imagined they could need. She’d made sure to spread the coins, too, keeping supplies stocked and the necessities on the shelves. She was well fed and content.

Between these moments of ease, Dani felt something else beneath her own thoughts. Like fragments of a dark dream or memories of the vivid imaginings of youth amid the wild tales of beasts and monsters lurking in the wild, a growing heaviness weighed on her shoulders, fading in and out of conscious thought. At times, she felt like she had been somewhere else, as though her happy life was the dreaming of some unfortunate urchin scraping by on the streets of a large city. At other times, the sensation was a distant thought that pulled at the edges of her existence, a dim grief that flickered on the borders of her mind to distract her from the world that needed her attention.

As the days went on, the crowds thinned, and life returned to its normal cycles. Most of Dani’s days were spent in her backyard laboratory or the shop, and the slow wind-down to familiar faces filled her with a sense of security. The flurry of activity had been nice enough, as the weight of her coin purse could testify, but she maintained that business as usual was usual for a reason. The comfort of a life well lived rarely allowed time for too much excitement; adventure, she’d decided long ago, was probably overrated.

The stories always told of the great trials and tribulations that heroes faced, the monstrous creatures that tried to end their chance at glory. Sure, there were riches and princesses sung about as rewards, but Dani had more than enough money to live well and had never met a girl, princess or otherwise, who seemed worth the trouble of being put through all that. Maybe they did exist, but — well, maybe the stories were only that, anyway.

With life returning to normal, Dani allowed herself to imagine. Imagine that she’d been born in the right place, or blessed by some omnipotent being, or imbued with magic, or otherwise extraordinary. Imagine that she was an adventurer, buying up the balms and potions for a journey to distant lands. Imagined that she wasn’t grinding leaves and mushrooms in a ramshackle lean-to. Imagine that her name would be on the lips of bards, her face carved into monuments by great sculptors.

It was nice to imagine, she thought. It was nicer, though, to know that a simple and well-lived life was here for her. For all the small inconveniences and petty drama she’d endured, none of it bore the gravity of these great deeds. Nobody would question her role in the tides of history, or set out to prove that she was not who she claimed to be. That was, somehow, her greatest comfort; she may not be praised in song, but she was herself.

Days sped by and the seasons changed around her. She tried new recipes, both in the kitchen and in the laboratory. She continued to hone her craft and tend to her garden. She allowed herself to live, and the world to live around her. It was a perfect serenity, broken only by flashes of dark dreams and feelings of something sinister that spread across her mind at times, only to blow away in the breeze.

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