Hazel was starting to get worried about Aiden. They’d been hiding in the parking lot of the tattoo parlor, Madam Inky’s House of Pain, for half an hour, and he’d been in the bathroom for most of that time.
Tongue poking out of the right corner of her mouth, Hazel diligently sketched, erased, and re-sketched to get the scale just right on the giant chicken she was drawing. She crossed her left leg over her right to raise the sketchbook a bit closer to her.
Eric, who was sitting next to her in the driver’s seat, looked down at her drawing. “That’s not gonna come to life, is it?”
“Huh? Oh, God no. I’ve got a special notebook for those drawings.”
“So, is the notebook magical or is it what you draw?” he continued.
“Neither, really,” she said, using the edge of the pencil to thicken the lines around the chicken’s feet. “It’s when I draw something in white crayon. I just use the black notebook because it’s easier to see.”
“Why white crayon?” he asked.
“Why blue vapor?” she responded. “Besides. I kinda like it. Unassuming, unpretentious. The crayon that no kid ever wanted to use ended up being the thing that…” she trailed off. Not now. Not yet. She liked these new friends. She wasn’t about to run them off with her aggressive oversharing. Not again. She forced a smile. “Ended up being the thing for me. Hey, did that chicken’s mole-paws have three fingers or four?”
Before Hazel got her answer, her vision blurred. Her head lolled and she lost control over her limbs. She heard someone’s head thunk against a window. Then her own head thunk into the dashboard.
Sharp stop to music
She was standing in water, calf-deep. The mud below her feet was thick. The air was humid and the sky was a rolling, deep purple.
Her new compatriots were standing beside her, all just as confused as she was. They were standing in a swamp. The banks on either side of them were thick with trees and brush. It felt almost real. Almost. Until Hazel realized that the yellow light that filled the space around them to the treeline was coming exclusively from large fireflies. They weren’t the only wildlife. A doe on the shoreline drank from the swamp. An alligator lay belly up, scratching its back on the ground like a dog. A frog perched on an oversized banjo that was sticking out of the water. A group of rabbits sat on a tiny gnoll, wiggling their noses and ears at the newcomers.
“What’s a group of rabbits called?” Hazel asked.
“Is that really your first question?” Eric demanded.
“A Fluffle,” said Giselle.
No one dared to move, and the creatures continued to stare at them all.
“They’re afraid of the water,” Giselle said.
“Yeah, should we be worried about why?” Eric said, clicking on his vape. “Is anyone hurt?”
No one said anything, but Hazel took a deep breath of the healing cloud. She wasn’t in pain, but she enjoyed the smell. It calmed her. She wondered if it helped heal mental things, too.
She was the first to move toward the bank. Solid ground was about thirty feet away. When she took a step in that direction, a large snake dropped from a branch overhead and hissed at her.
When she backed away, it didn’t follow or reach for her. It only stared.
Cooper attempted to do the same on the opposite side. When he did, the frog leapt from the neck of the banjo and wrapped its arms and legs around his face.
“MMMPHHH!” He fell backwards into the swamp,
yelling into the frog’s belly. When Cooper was down, the frog deftly leapt several yards back onto the banjo from whence it came.
“Point taken” said Hazel. “We follow the swamp, I guess?” The swamp animals nodded.
“Wait, Aiden’s not here.” Cooper said, still lying in the swamp sloshing through the water to look for him.
“I don’t think any of us are here,” said Eric. “He might be safer than we are. Not a clue how we got here without him, though.”
SFX: Walking in water
The entourage moved forward along their watery path at a creeping pace for several minutes. The waterway twisted and turned at sharp angles, seldom opening wider than ten feet from bank to bank. As they walked, none of the animals followed them. Rather, new animals ruffled the underbrush and ran to the shoreline to meet them, as though they were on some kind of bizarro parade route. Likewise, the fireflies overhead stayed in the same spots, fluttering about in the same pockets of air. As the group walked, new ones came to life in the dark overhead, lighting their way like automatic lamps.
When at last the swamp widened after a sharp right bend, more yellow light filled the space to reveal a cottage, tilted backward and partially capsized in the swamp. Along with the buzz of the fireflies, the crunch of the brush beneath animal paws, and SFX: walking in water steady slishing of their own movement, Hazel heard the creak of a wooden rocking chair.
“Twenty minutes!” An old voice called from the porch. “Everything had gone just like I thought it would for years. And then you managed to fuck it up in twenty minutes. Either way, I’m happy to see you. Even if there’s one fewer of you than I’d hoped to see.”
“You know where Aiden is?” Cooper called out. The panic in his voice echoed through the woods. “Can you tell us?”
“Not if you make me keep hollering!” the woman shouted. Hazel couldn’t make out her appearance, only the movement of her rocking chair on the porch of the cottage. “Get over here, we have to talk.” The animals who had been watching their walk through the swamp blinked from the edge of the water.
Hazel saw several logs of fallen trees sticking out of the water, as well as a sunken covered wagon and a rotting wooden canoe that bobbed in their wake. Moonshine stills. Butter churns. As they passed the covered wagon, it sprang to life and was pulled out of the creek by an alligator on the bank who was hitched to it as a horse would be. As they approached the porch, the source of the voice came into view.
She was barefoot. Her eyes were wide and her white hair, though thin, was long enough to coil on the porch behind her like rope. Her cheeks were sunken, her skin was pale and covered with liver spots. She wore a thin, white cloth nightgown with a pattern of small, pink and purple flowers. Beside her was a large tank of boiling water. There was no fire, nor any other source of heat that Hazel could see. She didn’t look at them as they approached and stopped just shy of the steps.
Water lapped against the wooden exterior of the cottage. There was no glass in the windows, nor was there a door in the frame. What must have been hundreds of vines, some as thick as Hazel’s thigh, climbed out of the water and reached over the roof of the cottage and back into the water on the other side, like the house would fly away if they weren’t there to hold it down. Green and black mold dotted every surface, and thick curtains of Spanish moss draped from the limbs of trees overhead and piled onto the roof.
Something flew out of the pot of boiling water. A peanut. It was only then that Hazel noticed the smell. At least a dozen spices, but paprika and garlic were the only two she could pick out.
The peanut, still dripping scalding water, sailed toward the woman, who lazily stuck out her tongue. It cracked open in midair, its contents falling into her mouth before the empty husk flew into the water.
“Boiled peanut?” she asked. Her mouth neither moved to chew or speak, but the voice was clear.
The group exchanged a glance, but didn’t speak. “Suit yourself,” she said, another peanut cracking open above her.
“Who are you?” Eric asked.
“Call me Ora,” her voice said. It even sounded like she was chewing while she spoke, but apart from a weak movement of her jaw as she swallowed the peanuts, her body made no movement. “That’s the best I can give you.”
“What is this place?” Giselle asked. Hazel couldn’t help but notice how the yellow light from the fireflies bounced off of her eyes.
Ora was silent for a moment. In the span of that silence, she ate three peanuts. Her face betrayed no emotion. “Maybe I oughta talk first,” she said, eventually. “I’ve been waiting a long time for you five to wind up in the same place at the same time. It was hell. Nothing I could do but watch and wait. Now, I can finally fulfill my purpose in this whole kitten kaboodle. The rest will be up to you. God help us.”
Her eyelids fluttered in what couldn’t even be considered a half-blink. The surface of the water illuminated, like something was projecting on it in perfect resolution.
A sickly-looking middle-aged woman crammed Aiden’s body into the trunk of a car. He bled profusely from a wound in his head.
“What did she do to him? Is he dead?” she demanded. “He’s just a kid!”
“He’s ain’t dead.”
“Who is she?” Eric asked.
“That,” Ora began, still staring straight ahead, “is Natalie Gillum. Heiress of GillCo.”
“GillCo?” Eric asked. “The company that makes elevators and toilet seats and stuff?”
“And everything else,” Cooper said. His tone was low. Troubled.
“Companies like that don’t stop when they find one thing that’s profitable for them,” added Giselle.
“Including prisons for Wielders,” Ora said. There was that word again. Wielders. She took a deep breath Not with her body, but with her voice. While she spoke, her rocking chair never slowed its creak and craw. “This is going to be a lot. So, try to keep up and save your questions til the end.
“People have always figured there was some kinda magic to explain the weirder things in the world. You all know how hard they’ve tried to get rid of us, which is why none of you knew each other before today. They forced us into hiding, even from each other. But it was never quite enough to get rid of us completely. The fear would always be there, especially as the world became more… connected. And while it got more connected, it also got more resources.
“So when powerful people with a lion’s share of those resources started telling the governments of the world, starting in the good old U.S of A., that they could stow us away nicely… far away from the good, law-abiding voters who toed the line they drew for them, those governments were more than happy to throw money at a solution. They started hunting down Wielders… erasing the existences of anyone they could find, and taking them somewhere new.”
“And what? Nobody noticed?” Eric demanded.
“ Amazing what people can overlook, ain’t it? Whether it’s a missing neighbor or half a million bodies. There’s nothing people won’t do to avoid thinking about what makes them uncomfortable.
“The exact locations were kept a convenient secret from Uncle Sam and his many employees. Plausible deniability and all of that. But you already managed to stumble on one of them. To get rid of us, GillCo made little pockets of reality, right next door and just out of reach. Ripped open by the bastard child of magic and science. They threw a bunch of animals inside and tweaked it with radiation until it was safe enough for crews to come inside and build prisons. Which is the explanation for some of the more unpleasant critters you’ve had to deal with already.
“And when they were done, they hid us and waited for us to die. And they did it pretty well. But people who think like that… so cold and precise... they got no way to wrap their head around the amount of magic in the world. It lurks right beneath the surface in most folks. Some let it out. Some don’t. And it looks different for everyone. As complex and unpredictable as people’s personalities. All that to say, they couldn’t quite hide us as good as they thought.”
Ora trailed off. After a moment, Eric chimed in. “These pocket dimensions. Are we in one now?”
“No,” she said. “Wherever we are… I think I might have made it.”
“You think?” Giselle demanded. “You could be that powerful? Powerful enough to bring us here, yet you don’t even know?”
“Look, I need y’all to understand something. I’m no god.”
From the corner of her eye, Hazel saw Eric shift his weight and scratch the back of his head. She’d had to break that same nervous tick whenever anyone mentioned her parents.
“What are you?” Hazel asked.
The rocking stopped. “I’m kinda hoping y’all can figure that out for me.” She pointed to the projection on the surface of the swamp, which now showed Natalie Gillum speeding down a freeway. “Eventually. Bigger fish to fry right now.”
“So what do we do? About Aiden, the prisons… all of it.” Cooper asked. The others nodded. The corner of Ora’s mouth twitched, almost as if a part of her tried to smile.
“That’s it? None of that old ‘It’s impossible! There’s only four of us, we can’t just yada yada’ bullshit? No ‘We barely know each other and you want us to trust each other with our lives?’ Not even the ‘Why us?’ and ‘woeis me’? Because I was prepared to guilt you.
No one spoke, and something about the silence caused a smile to bubble deep in Hazel’s chest. She had only met these people a few hours ago, but in that time, impossible things had happened. Impossible even for people like them. Not once had anyone asked why. Because they had all learned, like she had, that there was never any good in asking why. Only “what” and “how” to help who was hurt because of the why. In that moment, she felt a kinship that was so overwhelming it frightened her. She’d never belonged to a group, not once in her life. Was it wishful for her to think that she might?
“Where is she taking him?” Eric said, breaking the silence.
“That’s where the water gets muddy,” Ora said. “While the Gillums made and spent billions building prisons to cram us into, the two of them—Natalie and her brother Ray—notoriously hated each other’s guts. Allegedly young Nat once made quite a display during a shareholders’ meeting by interrupting Ray’s speech to knee him in the danglies.”
Realization spread across them in a wave.
“He locked his own sister in one of the prisons,” Giselle said.
“She wants revenge,” Eric added.
“She ain’t gonna get it,” said Ora. “Ray died twenty years ago. But she saw what young Aiden there can do. I don’t know what she plans to do with him, but, frankly, her plans shouldn’t change yours all that much. She’s just an obstacle. If you can get that boy back, you can start clearing the other prisons… maybe a little less violently than last time. After that, who knows? You might be able to start building a world where nobody’s gotta hide.”
Hazel was halfway into a warm and muggy breath when, once again, her vision blurred. She saw her body fall into the water, but didn’t feel it.
SFX: Reverb “Hop to it,” Ora’s voice echoed.
The rest of Hazel’s breath was ice cold as the swamp beneath Hazel’s feet was replaced with the soda cans, fast food bags, and unopened bills of Eric’s floorboard. They’d run out of gas and the heater had quit. She had no idea how much time had passed.
“Trippy!” Hazel said. She reached into the floorboard and grabbed her sketchbook. Her sneakers and jeans were soaked and plastered with mud. “So where do we start?”
The door to Eric’s apartment swung open. The handle caught in the perfectly knob-sized hole in the drywall behind the door. Eric stormed inside, followed by the others. He grabbed a backpack off of a chair, dumped its contents, and threw it to Cooper.
“Fill this with food and anything else we might need,” he demanded.
“Wait, why bother?” Cooper asked. “I watched Hazel draw a perfectly delicious sandwich”
“I won’t be able to feed us all. I can only do that a couple of times a day, three at most.”
Eric continued. “Anyone else… feel free to grab anything that looks useful. If there is anything…”
Eric’s apartment was sparse. He was only there for a few hours a day, so why spend too much money on it?
He jogged to the bedroom and opened his closet door. Inside was a miniature greenhouse. The floor was full of trays of potting soil and yellow vines. The carpet was stained blue and brown from years of soil and fertilizer. A fluorescent tube that hung directly over the vines was connected to a timer to provide the sproutlings with the very specific ten and a half hours of light per day that they required to reach maturity.
He tapped the pods at the end of the vines. Only about half of them were ready to harvest. He picked what was ripe, shelled the small, blue seeds into a plastic bag, and grabbed two of the unripe trays, hoping it would be enough.
He heard footsteps behind him.
“You have to make that stuff yourself?” Hazel asked. “How the heck did you figure that out?”
“Someone taught me,” Eric mumbled. “Do me a favor? Grab that light.”
(from another room) “We have to go! Now!” Giselle barked.
“One more thing…” Eric said, handing her the armful of supplies he was holding. He ripped open a drawer in the kitchen with such force that the knob popped off in his hand. He let it fall to the floor.
He dug under a pile of credit card offers and junk mail to find a small black case. He unzipped it. Inside was an old, backup vape pen, and a vial of blue liquid.
The entourage leapt into his car, now loaded to the brim with pillows, blankets, gardening supplies, and what little food Eric had in his pantry. They sped out of the parking lot through the back entrance of the complex, away from the squad cars that were now surrounding his building. Deep in his core, Eric knew there’d be no coming back.
SFX: City sounds
“I thought you forgot about me,” she said. She was wrapped tightly in a sleeping bag, lying with her head against a guitar case, under the awning of the museum entrance. Eric couldn’t remember her name.
“It’s only been a day…” he said.
She shivered. “I can… lose track of time.”
“So. I have to leave town. I’m not gonna be able to come by every day like I promised.”
“Oh…” she said. “That’s… that’s okay.”
“But… here.” He handed the woman the case. She unzipped it.
“Do *not* get caught with that,” he instructed her. “But when you feel the pain coming on, take a hit. This should be enough to get you through the worst of it.”
“I thought you said you were a nurse,” she said, clicking the pen and taking a drag. “Oh… oh wow.”
“I am. Do *not* get caught with that. It’s not illegal, but that won’t stop them from arresting you for it. They won’t know what it is.”
The woman sat up straight. “That’s… that’s unbelievable.” Eric held his hand out. She grabbed it.
“I can’t pay you…” she said.
“I don’t want you to,” Eric responded.
“Why me? How do you know I’m even worth helping?”
“Anyone who needs help is worth helping,” he said. “Here’s how you can pay me back. Over the next few days, every time you use that… I want you to think of everything that this life has taken from you. Of everything that has been kept from you. I want you to think of what you want out of this life.”
“...That’s it?” the woman asked, taking another puff.
“No,” said Eric. “When that vial is gone, you’re gonna go fucking get it.”
Tears welled in the woman’s eyes. She hugged him.
“All this for a stranger you found behind a dumpster?” Eric smiled and stood. He pointed to the guitar.
“There’s a food truck that parks out near Erlanger hospital. Doctors eat there all the time. Guaranteed payday if you know anything by The Eagles.
She smiled. “I’ll keep that in mind. You just said you’re leaving town. Where are you going?” the woman asked.
Eric had already started walking back to his car. He shouted back to her. “To prove I’m still worth an old friend’s time.”
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