The Traveling Bridge
by Skylar Stevens
The girl had reached her destination, according to the sign sticking out of the ground. “Entering Jericho,” she whispered. She wasn't sure why she hadn't said it louder. There was no one around to hear her.
As far as she could see, the town stretching out ahead of her was a ghost town. There were no people, no signs of life, in amongst the shells of buildings she had once recognized. She pulled out the photo she had been carrying on her journey and stared at it for a few moments before stashing it in her backpack and going forward.
They had told her that this was what she would find, as she approached by bus and then on foot. “Long gone,” everyone had said, though no one could tell her what had happened, or how during the few months she'd been crossing state lines and searching for her lost parents, everything she'd left behind had been obliterated. “They pissed off the wrong people,” some had mused. “Same as everyone else – they ran out of supplies and patience,” a man selling corn at the side of the road had told her. Her heart had sunk but she had continued on, needing to see for herself if her home was really gone.
The place itself was the same, she decided, as she walked the empty streets. Here and there, she recognized a remnant of a wall, a coloured fence post, a dented mailbox. But there wasn't a trace of a man, woman, or child anywhere she looked. The quiet was eerie and nearly suffocating, and the light and shadows played tricks on her mind. In some places, she could nearly see them. That was where they'd eaten barbecued corn and burgers in the middle of a street with no traffic. That was where they'd rescued burning books and a few people trapped in the stacks. There was the place she'd been found so often herself, watching things unfold, making things happen, putting stuff on shelves and into people's hands, no matter what the cost. But now, it was empty. She wandered through blackened shelves and dusty aisles, and listened and listened but couldn't hear a sound.
Her tears were a slow rhythm as she searched the rest of the abandoned town. She came to the graveyard and touched familiar headstones, but they were all from people long gone. There was still no sign of the ones she'd expected to see again. She hadn't expected everything to be fine of course. It had been a long time since she'd ever had such a rosy view of things that she didn't see, with every departure and every goodbye, the potential for casualties and losses in the places she left behind. She had known she might not find what she was looking for when she'd gone out there but it was somewhat of a shock to have nothing to look for on her return.
She finally crossed the bridge and reached the field at the other side of town by the end of the day. Her shadow was long in the field and her steps were slow. She sat down in the grass, dropping her heavy pack beside her and stretching out her legs in front of her.
She would have to pick herself up, keep walking again, and keep searching for her next move. She had done it before, countless times, and she was sure she would gather up the strength to do it again. But for now, she wanted to sit still and spend one last night listening to her quiet home. She dug her hands into the soft grass and leaned back, staring up at the darkening sky, imagining it as it had once been, for this view was nearly the same, despite everything that had happened. She let out a deep sigh and tried to imagine, in the silence, the voices of those she'd loved and lost.
She could almost hear them. Faint whispers and laughter, and someone singing, moving along the breeze. She shivered and hugged her arms closer to her. She was used to ghosts, though, and kept staring at the stars in the sky. They were the most unchanging, she thought, but still they felt strange and unsettling when she stared at them from down here, each time everything around her changed. She looked back across the field, over the bridge, at the shadows of her old home. Dark buildings stood out, only faintly darker than the sky. Empty, but she could nearly feel a buzzing coming from them. Human minds were strange. They made sure you were never alone, even when you were clearly alone. Now, her mind was letting her hear whispers, and now, her mind let her catch a glimpse of movement in the field.
She blinked. Things were moving in the field. There were definite shadows dancing across it, sharper and more graceful than the crumbling buildings. She peered through the darkness, listening for something over the sound of her pounding heart.
Laughter again, but clear, and strange. It couldn't be, she knew instantly and completely, coming from her mind this time. She had learned in her travels that she shouldn't trust her senses, but something in her, the instinct she'd learned to trust more, was shouting at her to pay attention to the field. She slowly stood on shaking legs and walked carefully and quietly, making her way to the bridge and towards the field.
She crossed the bridge, feeling a jolting through her entire body, keeping her eyes on the figures in the field. As she came closer, she realized that they looked like children. Their voices sounded like children too. Loud children, fearlessly laughing and playing some kind of game. Not like the children she'd left behind months ago, the kind that hid behind their parents and were afraid to cry out loud as guns went off and soldiers kicked in doors. These ones looked similar enough though; their clothes were raggedy and badly fitting, she could see as she got closer. But their faces had breathless smiles and full cheeks. They raced and twirled in the darkness, laughing, following their own rules of the game.
She watched in silence, for a moment transported to a time she'd forgotten. She noticed rather suddenly that one pair of eyes was staring back at her. And then another. Slowly, they each stopped their game and stood, looking at her from their spot across the field. There were seven, no eight of them, she counted, and she couldn't see them well enough to recognize them as any children she'd seen in town before. Maybe they were the children of new refugees, hiding out in the abandoned town. They came together in a group, first walking slowly, then quickening their steps. None looked more than ten years old, but they didn't seem extremely afraid. Mostly curious as they looked at her. One girl with wild hair and a vaguely familiar expression said something to the others. They were all watching her, glancing at each other, watching again. Then, without warning, they took off running in the other direction.
The girl stared for a moment, reminded of the experience of walking up to a field where birds are resting, watching the scatter to the skies. She realized then what was happening. “Wait!” she shouted, almost surprised at the sound of her own voice. “Hey, wait!” She began running too.
They had a head start, but her legs were sturdy from months of walking. She followed the little apparitions, who shouted to each other now and then as they ran. Her ears were able to follow the child voices well enough, but her eyes seemed to be playing tricks. The retreating children were going towards buildings, but they weren't, she realized, the same buildings she'd searched today. These buildings were intact. They were familiar and strange at the same time. She followed the children along a path and onto a street. It was Jericho, at night. Jericho, before it was a ghost town. Or perhaps it was a ghost town, all the same, she thought, as the strangely familiar kids scampered ahead of her.
She came close enough to catch their expressions as they glanced over their shoulders. One little boy's eyes widened as he took in the incoming girl, and one of his companions urged him to keep running. The library steps were on her right. This was Main Street. “Incoming!” one of the young girls shouted. They passed the hardware store. She had to speed up to match them as they seemed to be approaching home free.
“Whoa there,” a man leaning against the side of the old Cyberjolt stood, coming towards them. “Hey, it's you!” he exclaimed as he came right up to her. With the presence of an adult, the children slowed their steps, and now stood, clustered around him, some of them leaning their hands on their knees as they caught their breath, all staring at her in awe.
It took her a moment to recognize the man, because he stood in a different way, his clothes were different, and the stack of paper he clutched under his arm was odd. “Gray Anderson?” she asked. “I – um, Mayor Anderson?”
He reached for her hand and held it in both of his. “I'm glad you're back,” he said, grinning. The children seemed to take this as further confirmation that the threat was averted, and now some were stepping back, whispering amongst themselves, while some still watched the exchange between mayor and newcomer with rapt attention.
She glanced around. “What is this place? I mean, things seem different. What happened?”
He chuckled. She noticed vaguely that he was pulling out a piece of paper and he had a pencil in his hand. “Can I draw you? I have to draw you. I draw everyone, eventually.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked. She looked around again. She noticed out of the corner of her eye that the children had circled around a man who was lifting them up in the air, tousling their hair, and laughing even louder than them. She looked back to Gray, who was already sketching with his pencil. “Why are you doing that?”
He gave a good natured shrug, peering closer at her face and looking down at his page. “I show people what they want, with my painting. I start by doing some drawings to really get the essence of the person, and eventually, I put it on a canvas.” He smiled. “My technique is really nothing to brag about, but in the end I always help them find out exactly what they want. You see, that was my wish.”
“Your wish?” she repeated, looking over at the children still gathered around the man. Suddenly, something clicked into place, even though he had a completely different posture and expression than she remembered. “Is that Jake?” she asked. “Jake Green?”
Gray nodded. “That's Good Uncle Jake, to be specific.”
She stared as Jake swung a little boy into the air. “Good what now?”
“He's also Good Son Jake and Good Brother Jake, but since he's only around the nieces and nephews right now,” shrugged Gray. “Being a good uncle is his main objective.”
“Um, okay,” she said carefully. “Doesn't he miss being the town hero and going off to save the world and stuff?”
“Not Good Uncle Jake,” said Gray. “But the others spend all their time doing that. Town Hero Jake is usually found wherever there's a crisis. Getting cats out of trees and breaking up fights in the ration line. World Saving Jake is somewhere out there.” He gestured in the direction from which she had come. “Haven't seen him in a long time but I guess he's probably saving the world.”
She wrinkled her forehead as she watched Jake balancing between two little girls who were tugging on either of his arms. “Any other Jakes running around?”
“Well, Angst Jake isn't usually running. He spends most of his time hanging out in Archie's backyard. You know the well he had out there? It's full of beer now.” Gray grinned again. “It didn't take long to paint him. He knew what he wanted right away.”
“Huh,” she said, folding her arms and watching the kids playing with the silliest sheriff she'd ever seen – though she wondered if this Jake was still the sheriff, considering there was another one running around saving cats. A new sound began traveling across Main Street. She looked towards Spruce Lane. It was music and it seemed to be coming from the bar, which was faintly lit. She looked back at the people on the street, who didn't seem to notice. She gasped as she noticed another figure approaching the kids and sheriff. The children greeted his arrival with enthusiasm, running to grab his arms too. A little girl with dark pigtails giggled as she touched his arm and her pigtails stood up on end. The curly haired boy did the same, and his hair also stood on end. This wasn't as disturbing though, as the realization that she recognized him too. His hair was much shaggier (and it stood out on all sides), he had a scruffier jawline, and he seemed to be taller, but she was certain it was Sean.
“Rock on, little dudes!” he was saying, picking up one of the smallest kids. Her sandy hair puffed around her head like a troll doll.
“No,” she said, partly to herself. “How is Sean – how is he so different?” It wasn't like seeing Gray turned starving artist or Jake with multiple personalities or body doubles, or even the familiar children she'd never seen before. Sean looked older than her, a lot older than a few months. They were supposed to be the same age. He'd broken her Pocahontas lunch box in first grade. “Those aren't his kids, are they?”
Gray shook his head. “He just helps out.”
Older, weirder Sean seemed to have noticed her. “Whoa, it's you!” he said. The children were chattering excitedly. He stepped over, holding out his hands, as if going in for a hug. A spark of blue light shot between his arms, and she jumped back. “Oh, it's okay. I won't shock you,” he said with a chuckle. “Wow, you haven't changed a bit!”
She was speechless, but Gray nodded encouragingly. “You look – well, different,” she said. He chuckled again. “Well, it's good to see you back. If you'll excuse me, I've gotta get the bambinos back to the farm. You guys want to hear about your mom's trip to Venice don't you?”
Several of the children cheered. He scooped one of them onto his shoulders and took two others by the hand. All of them grinned as they crackled with electricity. “See you around!” he said, and began leading them away. Only two children remained, standing on either side of Jake.
“So what happened?” she asked, watching the odd group walking away. “Did he get hit by lightning and age a few years or something?”
Gray chuckled. “His wish!” Her eyebrows raised again. “He saves the day whenever we're nearly out of power. Gives things a jump start. If the generators are down, sometimes he keeps the machines going at the med centre. And of course, it's fun at parties.”
“Of course,” she said. Gray smiled and turned back to his drawing paper. She noticed again the music, which seemed to be building to a crescendo, coming from the bar. Vaguely familiar voices soared over the triumphant chords.
“Is there a party or something?” she asked.
Jake shook his head. “Bailey's was closed today. A tree went through the back wall last night so they had to fix it. I helped them out in the morning but then my mom needed me to find something in the basement later. I guess they're done fixing it though.”
“How do you know they're done?” she asked, but as she spoke the front door of Bailey's flung open. Eric Green and Mary Bailey stood in the doorway, looking a bit different but mostly the same, except for the strange light that seemed to be shining on their heads and the way they were holding their hands out to the side, as if presenting prizes on a game show.
“You fixed it all?” asked Jake, running up to the bar and pulling the hands of the children with him.
“There was a bit of a dramatic ballad earlier when I got bogged down thinking about how bad luck seems to hit us every few weeks,” said Eric.
“But then we harmonized about all the times we've pulled through it, and we got to work, and we were just into a sort of retro duet about new paint when you got here,” said Mary with a shrug.
The young woman glanced at Gray. “Did they make some kind of a – a wish?”
“Their life is a musical,” nodded Gray. “Sometimes they cover pop standards but a lot of the time they do original pieces to suit the occasion.” She couldn't say anything. “It's pretty entertaining,” he said with a chuckle.
“Look, look!” the little girl from earlier was tugging on Eric's hand, and pointing towards her. “Look who's here!”
Eric, Mary, the children and Jake all looked at her. “It's you!” exclaimed Eric.
“Welcome back!” smiled Mary. “We haven't seen you in ages!”
They glanced at each other. A tinkly opening chord came from somewhere in the night. Eric began to sing. “Everything you left is so different now,” A guitar seemed to have joined the mix.
“You've got questions, like why? And how?” chimed in Mary.
She could only stare as they continued to sing, the two children and Jake taking on additional harmonies. It seemed as though they didn't really know a lot of the answers to their own questions, though the refrain of the song kept promising things would be better now that she was home. Gray just smiled and continued to sketch. She was certain if he finished her portrait, she would look as though her eyes were popping out of her skull.
“You'll stay with us, won't you?” Mary asked, after the final refrain had come to a close. “Your first night back, you shouldn't be alone. There's things you'll need to adjust to. We'll explain things. Well, we'll try.”
She wanted to hesitate. She was certain there were other things she needed to do, and she wasn't sure how many more key changes she could endure. “Our old business partner,” said Eric, taking her hand in his. “It's the least we can do to look out for you.”
She started to protest, but Gray cleared his throat. “That would be a good idea.” He leaned in and spoke softly. “You wouldn't want to be wandering around at night by yourself. Not until you know more about things. They can help you out.”
She surprised herself by asking “What about you?”
“I've got to get back to the studio,” he said. “Get started on prepping a canvas for you. I'll see you again soon.” He flipped over the cover of his sketchbook before she could see what he'd been drawing.
“I've got to go too,” said Jake, giving his brother and sister-in-law hugs and kissing the children's heads. “I have a Parcheesi date with Mom.”
“Give her our love,” said Eric.
“And we'll see her tomorrow,” added Mary.
“She says dinner's a surprise, but expect something magnifique,” said Jake.
“Coq au vin?” asked one of the kids.
“Oh, or beef Bourguignon?” asked Eric.
“Surprise,” reminded Jake.
She glanced at Gray. “Oh, she can make anything out of rice,” said Gray. “Or at least, make the rice taste like anything. Usually French or Italian.”
“It's pretty cool. I'm sure you're welcome to come along to dinner. She loves to show off and share her creations,” said Jake. “But I've got to go. Goodnight everyone.” Gray exchanged a quick goodnight with the group too.
She watched the two men part ways and disappear into the night. The street was now empty, but for a second she thought she could hear an eerie sound. Maybe it was a weird echo of the singing, but it sounded more like someone crying. A hand reached for hers. The little boy was smiling up at her. Eric was looking at her, and he followed her gaze out to the empty street. “Come on inside,” he said, with a careful smile. “You can have Molly's room tonight.”
She followed the musical Greens warily up the stairs to their apartment. She was so full of questions she couldn't pick one to start, but they provided some answers without prodding. Unfortunately, each answer seemed to suggest a new question.
“It's been a while, hasn't it? Lucky you found us tonight. We move around a fair bit,” Mary said as she tossed a sheet in the air. “Never far, of course, but whenever we've gone out, we've had to be careful when looking for the way back in.”
“We can't go far. Only enough to meet our contacts. It's a huge mind warp every time though,” said Eric, helping her to fit the sheet onto the bed. “We lose time, even if it's only a few hours. It can be a lot more though.” He glanced at Mary and a small, sad look passed between them. Their guest looked at the ceiling and thought a silent thank you when no violins started to play. “Danny caught the chicken pox, recovered from them, and passed them onto Molly the last time I did a supply pickup,” he added.
“Why?” she asked, staring at the faded Finding Nemo sheets. “Why is all of this happening?”
“We don't know,” said Eric. “We just figured out some of the rules, sometimes the hard way. We're still learning more, but we're being careful.”
“How long have you been gone?” asked Mary, pausing in her straightening a blanket to peer at her. “You don't look a day older, from that day we last saw you. How long were you traveling?”
“Five months,” she answered, thinking back for a second to make sure. It'd been clear as anything this morning, but with old Sean and weird Gray, all the Jakes and Eric and Mary musically bantering back and forth with bantering children, she was getting disoriented. “I left to look for my parents in the spring, and it's just getting into fall now.” She paused as the girl child handed her a worn stuffed cat. “How long has it been here, since I left?”
The adults glanced at each other. “We don't know how old we are anymore,” said Eric. “They're six.”
She looked down at the cat, no doubt owned by generations if its frayed ears were any indication. She clutched it tighter as she asked the question. “How about him?”
Mary sat down so that she could face her. “He isn't here right now. He went to find you, a while ago.” She reached out to touch the young guest's arm. “But that doesn't mean -”
“We can talk about what it means later,” the guest interrupted. “We can talk in the morning.” She couldn't know any more tonight. It was too tiring, it was too weird, and she hoped if she went to bed soon she'd be spared any good night serenades.
Her hosts glanced at each other once more and nodded, handing her an extra blanket, rounding up the kids, and leaving the room. She made sure the door was shut, climbed into the bed, and pulled a pillow over her head for good measure.
She slept restlessly in the borrowed bed, though it was far more comfortable than some of the places she'd sheltered on the road. Her dreams were confused, with storms of coloured paint rain, electrical cyclones, and out of tune pianos that seemed to call her name. She followed a faceless figure through crowded streets where people shouted but she couldn't see their bodies.
The next morning she joined the musical Greens for breakfast, horrifying herself when her own request for their daughter to pass the salt became a melodic line that gave way to a lulling early morning song. She was glad when it finished and she was able to thank them for their hospitality and accept their offer to accompany Eric as he walked the kids to school. As they stepped out into the morning sun, she was saved from further musical styling with the arrival of Gray. He was still carrying the sketch pad and now he had a back pack she suspected was full of more art supplies.
“Morning!” he said, waving cheerily, though he had a more serious look as he glanced over at Eric. “There's been a development. The town wants another vote. Tonight.”
Eric looked thoughtful for a moment, glanced down at his son and daughter, who were peering curiously at Gray, and nodded. Gray turned back to her. “There is something I want to show you. Will you accompany me?”
Any other time and place it would be too weird, but since she'd already passed too weird a few musical numbers ago, she just nodded. After bidding farewell and adieu to Eric and the twins, they began walking in a different direction. “So what do you want to show me?” she asked.
He looked ahead as they walked. “The town.” She raised her eyebrows. “You should see what we've become while you've been gone. So you know all the facts, when it's time for you to decide.” He looked down at his sketchbook.
“Right. I get a wish, don't I?” she asked. He nodded. She let herself smile a little bit. Last night it had been too confusing, exhausting, and overwhelming to really contemplate, and she'd missed the people she hadn't found too much. She hadn't stopped to consider what the possibilities were in a place where suddenly wishes could come true. “What's the deal with the wishes I've seen happening so far?” she asked. “Musicals, multiple personality disorders, and static shock? I would never waste a wish on something so...”
“Wishes are strange,” said the mayor with a shrug. “They don't come about after making pro and con lists and people don't just say them out loud. When I realized I wanted to help people get what they wanted, I thought it was going to happen in some other way. Never thought it'd involve paintbrushes. I just felt it, somehow, and this is how it came out. That's the thing. We feel them, we don't think them, and we don't always know how they're going to play out.”
She frowned. Somehow this sounded less enticing than it had a minute ago. She stared at the bright green grass as they began to cross Lawrence Park. “Of course, we've figured out some of the rules,” he added. “The old standards, really. No one's made anyone fall in love. You can't make someone from out there magically appear here,” he added before she could ask. “We can make stuff out of things we already have, but we can't make everything we want appear out of nowhere. We've still got to find ways to get food and medicine. And don't even think of wishing for someone to come back from the dead.”
“Doesn't work, gotcha,” she said.
“Doesn't work out very well,” he said. “Dr. Dhuwalia wished he hadn't lost his patients. Now, they never leave him alone. They're around him all the time and nobody else can see them. He has whole conversations with them. Makes him look like a bit of a nut, I'm afraid.”
She shivered. She had, she thought to herself, imagined this particular wish a few times, but she'd never thought of a reality playing out where she was caught between worlds, living and dead. She was about to ask another question when a strange series of shadows on the lawn caught her eye. She glanced upwards and gasped. There were large creatures circling in the sky, their huge wings flapping eerily quietly. She blinked. They were horses. Ordinary looking horses, same as the ones she'd grown up riding, except for the delicate, scaly wings. And the riders, seated on their backs, carefully avoided the wings like this was an ordinary way to travel. The horse and rider who were clearly the leaders circled in for a landing, with the others following. As the leader climbed off her horse, the young woman gasped again. Her blond hair was shorter and it danced freely in the wind, but her smile was the same. “Miss Sullivan?”
Emily Sullivan smiled as she walked up to the newcomer. “I heard you were back!” She leaned in to hug her. “And you can call me Emily now, seeing as it's been how many years since you've been out of school now?” She leaned back, looking the newcomer up and down. “Well, you don't really look it, but time away is time away, isn't it?” She chuckled and then looked at Gray, her expression turning serious. “So I guess we'll be voting again?”
He nodded. She sighed.
“What's the vote?” asked Emily's former student. “What does it have to do with me?”
Emily glanced in surprise at Gray. “We're getting to it,” said Gray. He turned to her. “A few times, the question has come up about whether, well, whether there should be a bridge anymore. Whether people should be able to get into our town.”
“But – I wouldn't be here,” she began.
“It's because you're here they're thinking about it again,” said Emily, a grim look on her face. “We've got a list of people who left before the wishes started. We wait for them to come back, and it's because of you, waiting for the rest of you, we've been able to convince the town the bridge should stay open. But each one that comes back, each time, we raise the question again. You're one of the last.”
“I'm not the last though,” she said.
“No,” Emily shook her head. “But it hasn't been only friends. Sometimes it's been strangers, enemies.”
“People get scared,” said Gray.
Emily sighed. “It's not like we're sitting ducks here. We can fly. We can see pretty much any threat headed our way.”
“Is that what they're for?” the newcomer cut in. “Defence?”
“Not really,” Emily chuckled, reaching to pat the side of her horse's face. “We do all kinds of chores. Pick apples, hard to reach building repairs, quick emergency transport. But it's really about the feeling we get. When you're soaring, through pure air.” She took a moment to lean her head back and sigh contentedly. “Nothing's so good.” She looked appraisingly at the newcomer. “Do you want to give it a try?” She motioned towards some of the horses in the flock that were riderless. “They're really gentle. My senior classes have helped me train the flock over the years.”
The girl surveyed them, and the unfamiliar high schoolers tending to them that she supposed she would recognize as once annoying middle schoolers, if she looked carefully. It had been a while since she'd ridden a horse, but she'd loved learning as a child. She glanced at Gray. He raised his eyebrows. “Good way to see the town,” he said.
It was a thrilling way to see the town. The wind tossed her hair as she held on, soaring over hills and tree tops in the cold air. She could only wonder at the green fields and wild flowers she saw dotting the landscape. It was hard to believe it had been fall where she'd been walking just yesterday, and yet she remembered the dead leaves crunching under her feet while she walked home. This place. This strange place. They passed over someone doing yard work with arms that stretched across the yard. They passed someone conversing with thin air, that she vaguely recognized from far away as Dr. Dhuwalia. As they neared a field on the south edge of town, a sudden noise startled the horses. She looked around for the source of the gunshot while trying to keep a hold on her frightened horse. Around her, others were doing the same. Emily groaned. “It's them again. Haven't they been warned?”
Gray sighed. “I'll put a stop to it.” He motioned to his tour goer. “You'll want to see this for yourself too.” They alighted safely in a nearby meadow and she said goodbye to her former teacher and the others, who quickly flew off in the opposite direction.
Gray began walking, shouting out “Jimmy, Bill! It's me. I'm coming over. Don't do anything stupid.”
“We're not!” came a voice. The young woman followed the artist-mayor across the field and saw the two deputies out in the open. Bill was raising his hands in a peacemaking gesture. Jimmy was seated on the ground with his legs crossed, his eyes closed.
“Gray, we checked. No one was around,” said Bill. “Nothing is going on. We haven't done it in so long!”
Bill looked as though he was expecting further trouble on the subject but Gray instead gestured to her. “Look who's back!”
“We heard. Well, saw,” said Bill, motioning to Jimmy who was still sitting lotus-style. “Well, you look as tiny as you were back when you left. What was that, five, six, seven years ago? We must look so old.”
“No, not really,” she said, distractedly watching Jimmy, who still had his eyes closed.
“Town must seem pretty different,” said Bill.
She nodded. “I can't say it's...what I was expecting.”
Bill looked to Gray. “A lot of people are talking about the vote.” Gray glanced toward Jimmy and back at Bill. “What way are they leaning?”
“Too hard to tell,” said Jimmy for the first time. His eyes were still closed as he talked. “Too much conflict. People look upset.” He opened his eyes and scanned the countryside. She shivered. It was like he was looking past them, or even through them. “Also, Olsen's cows have locked him out of the house again.”
Gray chuckled. “I'll send someone to help him, in a bit.”
Jimmy looked at her. “So how are things going, for you? Enjoying the sights?”
She shrugged. “Seen some weird things. So what happened to you guys? You got some kind of x-ray vision?”
“Kind of,” said Jimmy, with a somewhat embarrassed look on his face. “I wanted to see what was going on. Be able to see everything. Not like I wanted to...spy on anyone or anything. It was more like a protecting people thing. It's taken a lot to get used to. To not see everything, all at once. I meditate a lot.”
Bill was chuckling through this. She was struck with a horrifying thought. “Can you see everything too?”
He shook his head and grinned again. “No. But you'll want to see what I can do.” He raised his eyebrows at Gray. Gray reluctantly nodded. “It's worth catching the show, at least once.”
She watched in confusion as Bill backed up a few feet, Jimmy drew his gun and pointed it at him, and pulled the trigger. She couldn't help a small squeak from escaping her mouth. She gasped as a completely unharmed Bill rooted around on the ground and a few seconds later, came over to them, holding up a bullet. “So you're what, like a superhero now?” she asked.
“Well, it's only one of Superman's powers, but it's a pretty good one,” said Bill. “I'm the first line of defences if we get attacked.”
“Not that that happens all too often,” said Jimmy. “Barely anyone ever finds us. When they do, I see them coming.”
“Yeah, not much need for these,” said Bill, turning over the bullet in his hand.
“Still, we're not supposed to waste 'em,” said Jimmy. “Heather'll tell you – speaking of which.” He was looking to their right. “She'll be by in a few minutes.”
She looked in the direction he was looking. She could hear a faint, strange sound. It was like a low, mechanical humming. As it grew louder, she noticed the grasses parting, like waves in a gentle sea. Then there was a stranger sight. It looked like something out of a science fiction magazine. A round metal platform was hovering a few feet in the air. Passengers stood on it, holding onto railings that encircled it. Short passengers, she realized. The tallest one stood at the front, piloting the strange vehicle, pointing to things on either side. As they approached, the young woman recognized the pilot.
“Once you've collected your plant sample, remember, we'll be looking them up in the library and identifying them,” Heather Lisinski was saying. “Everyone say hi to Mayor Anderson and the deputies.”
The children waved as the craft approached. “Oh, I heard you were back,” said Heather. “Welcome home! I hope that things aren't too strange for you.”
“They're strange enough,” the young woman shrugged, watching as the teacher fiddled with the controls of the hovering vehicle so that it stopped going forward and hovered in place. She noticed that in the centre of the craft, there was an arrangement of children's desks. “Deputy Kohler was just showing me his new trick.”
Bill bounded forward eagerly, handing the bullet to Heather, who deposited it in a shoulder bag. “You know, maybe the kids would like to see it. Wouldn't you guys like to see me catch a bullet?”
Heather gave him a warning look. It seemed they'd had this conversation before. Bill protested. “Come on, you can make metal into anything in that shop of yours. Even if we lose the bullets, you can make more!”
“I can't make more gunpowder,” she said. “Someone has to go on a supply run for it. And if you make Mary miss another Christmas and New Years because you've been putting on too many bullet catching shows, I won't be responsible for the fallout. Spencer, don't lean so far over!” She waved a hand at one of her students. The little girl jumped back. She chuckled, turning back. “We've been through hover-classroom safety a few times this year but sometimes curiosity gets the better of them. It's why we fly low.”
“This is your classroom?” asked the young woman.
Heather nodded. “There's a roof that comes up in bad weather and even walls when we need to keep the heat in. But this time of year, I feel like everyone is more energized when we're surrounded by nature. So I just made sure to put in safety features.”
“You made this?”
Heather nodded. “Well, since the town...happened, I've been able to do pretty much anything with metal.”
“Except get someone to fall in love,” interrupted Bill.
“Yeah,” said Heather with a laugh. “We're riding out towards the Richmond farm. They've got some excellent aquatic plant specimens growing around their pond. Do you want to come along?”
Soon, she was gripping the railings of the hover-classroom, watching the scenery go by. It was much slower than the winged-horse ride had been, more like the boat trip she'd taken with her parents the year they'd visited her aunt in Florida. Instead of impossibly blue water, she watched grass sway beneath them and instead of fish and birds, there were townspeople, and as they approached the Richmond ranch, cows. Around her, the children were waving at the animals. One of the cows stood up on its hind legs and waved.
She did a double take. The children were giggling. Heather was smiling like it was a normal occurrence. But it couldn't have happened.
As they neared the barn, a rooster flapped by, letting out a strange sounding squawk. She turned to the school teacher. “Did that rooster just say hello?”
Heather nodded. “He likes to greet people when they arrive.” She turned to the kids. “Everybody stay put. We're not playing in the barn today, we've got a job to do out at the pond.” Sounds of disappointment echoed through the ranks, and it seemed more animals were gathering on the lawn, some waving their greetings. Two horses, a trio of geese, and an eager piglet seemed to be smiling at them. A pair of little girls with bare feet and braids flying behind them joined them, peering up at the hover-classroom. Looks of surprise on their faces turned to smiles and they ran back the way they came. They were soon back, dragging Stanley Richmond along behind them. “It's her!” they were shouting. “We told you we saw someone new last night!”
Stanley waved a greeting to Heather, and then noticed the newcomer. “Yes, I see her,” he said to the girls. “Welcome back! Would you like a tour of the farm?”
She hesitated. They'd been on okay terms when she'd left, months ago for her and years ago for him, but things had been weird not long before that. Still, she was curious as ever about the weird way the animals were behaving. “We'll just be over at the pond,” said Heather, more for her benefit it seemed than Stanley's, as he gave a nod as if this were a common happening.
Stanley made a welcoming gesture, and she followed him across the lawn, trailed by the little girls, the piglet, and a floppy eared dog. “Would you like anything?” he asked. “The girls and I were just going to have some cucumber sandwiches.”
“No thank – maybe some water, would be great,” she said.
“We'll get it!” said the little girl with the sandy hair. Her sister nodded and they raced over to the house, with the dog running between them, shouting “Will help!”
He looked at her reaction. He seemed somewhat amused himself. “Must feel kind of like Alice.”
“What?” she asked. She had noticed a team of horses, a goat, and a pig that seemed to be fixing a fence.
“You know, after she falls down the rabbit hole and everything seems like the world's worst acid trip,” said Stanley. “It's the kids' favourite book.”
“Not surprising,” she smirked. “So what, all your animals turned into fairy tale creatures or something?”
He smiled, but his eyes were more serious now. “I just wanted family.”
They were walking around the side of the house. There was a table set up in the back, upon which several pages of crayon drawings were flapping in the gentle breeze. A small boy looked at them over the side of a playpen set up in the shade. Nearby, a woman was dozing in a hammock. Stanley picked up the boy and sat in one of the chairs, motioning to another nearby. Before she could step towards it, a pair of sheep were pushing it towards her.
“Thanks,” she said, sitting down somewhat awkwardly.
“So,” he said. “Gray started painting you yet?”
She shrugged. “He's doing some sketches.”
He smiled, bouncing his son on his knee. “Wait'll you get your wish. It's an exciting day.” He glanced over at the sleeping woman. “Mimi didn't get hers right away. It was a few months. She woke up one day and said she knew. Gray was on our doorstep in an hour, with his painting. But me, I knew right away.”
She looked over at the woman in the hammock. “What was her wish? Unlimited relaxation time?”
He laughed. “Not really. She has the least restful sleep of anyone. She travels the world when she dozes off here.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“She can go anywhere,” he said. “Part of her anyway. Part of her's always here of course. But she can see anything she wants. The view from the Eiffel tower. The Sahara desert. Today she's visiting the pyramids in Egypt.”
“How...nice,” she said, though she looked thoughtful as she sat back in her chair.
The little girls and the puppy came out of the house, triumphantly balancing the big glass of water with a plate of sandwiches. Stanley passed the sandwiches around and Mimi, who had newly woken up, joined them, telling them all about the sphinx.
“Do you miss it?” she asked suddenly. Mimi raised her eyebrows. “Being here, I mean. When you're out there, in the world?”
Mimi shook her head. “I'm here for everything important. And maybe one day, my kids'll see what's out there too.”
“The vote...” she trailed off. The Richmonds and their animals all stared at her. “Are you worried about what will happen, if people vote to close off the town? What if they want to leave?”
Mimi stiffened slightly. Stanley looked out across the field. “Looks like school's out,” he mused. The hover-classroom was heading back in their direction. It stopped at the end of the lane, and one student climbed off and began walking towards them. “There's Bianca. Other kids should be home soon too.” He looked over at her. “We're going to play baseball, and you're welcome to join a team, but if you were thinking of seeing the rest of the town you might wanna see if you can hitch a ride.”
She nodded, thanked them quickly, assured them she would see them at the meeting that night, and ran towards the hover-classroom. Heather quickly agreed to take her back to town. Along the way, they stopped a few times to let off students who lived along their route.
“The voting thing,” she said quietly as she stood beside the teacher. “Have they done that lots of times before? It seems like everyone knows what to expect.”
Heather nodded, making sure a young boy didn't forget his backpack as he stepped down from the craft. “Usually whenever someone finds us, from outside. We decide again whether or not we want people to be able to.”
“Do people keep changing their minds?” she asked.
Heather smirked. “Well, the people who want to keep it open have won every time so far, but the people who want to keep the outsiders from getting in are never happy about it. They're afraid, you see.”
She gripped the railing and shook her head slowly. “I know. But I wouldn't be here if it weren't for -”
“Yeah, but not everyone who comes through is a long lost citizen,” said Heather. “And then there are other things...” Her expression seemed darker.
The young woman stared at the buildings of the town as they grew closer. She couldn't imagine giving up, no matter what she was afraid of out there. Suddenly she knew where she wanted to go next. She turned to Heather. “I'm supposed to meet Gray, but would you mind dropping me off somewhere else? There's something I want to do first.”
Ten minutes later, she was standing in front of the store.
She hugged her arms around herself as she stared at it. It looked so much the same, and so different. Those months she'd been away, she'd imagined him going on supply runs, meeting with the business owners, restocking his shelves and commanding deals with customers. What had really happened? Someone had painted the store's outside a bright shade of yellow, but without him running out to greet her, it seemed less friendly. She took a breath before opening the door.
Inside, it was like before and also not like she'd ever seen it. There were firewood piles and food signs, but other odd knick knacks they'd never sold and a big pyramid of brightly coloured wool. A young woman was standing behind the counter, but she came over to greet her.
“I heard you were back! You might not remember me -”
“Allison!” she said, in a somewhat surprised tone. “Allison Hawkins. You look – well, mostly the same.”
Allison smiled. When the newcomer had last seen her, Allison had been a bit shorter than her. Now, she was a bit taller. Her hair was longer, half tied back, and her face looked a bit thinner, less like a kid than she had before. Her smile was different too. She seemed completely confident and at ease. “So do you work here now?” asked the one time store clerk.
Allison laughed and nodded. “This is my day job. I also teach a dance class at the school on Thursday nights.”
The woman, who felt strangely young standing next to her one-time peer, smiled awkwardly. Allison raised her eyebrows. “Is this too weird? It must be a shock, being back and all. Feel free to look around and ask any questions.”
The young woman nodded, and stepped forward to touch the counter. This is where he had worked, where they had both worked so hard on their business those months so long ago in this world. It seemed strange now, remembering how proud she had been of all of their stuff. How rightfully it had all belonged to them and filled up the place, specifically marking it as theirs. So many strange and unfamiliar things filled the shelves now. She reached to run her hand over one of the brightly coloured balls of yarn. From behind her, she heard Allison say, “You should see the sheep that came from. All the Lawsons' sheep are day glow colours. They're not sure whose wish that was. My money's on Sally Taylor.”
“Wish,” whispered the young woman, replacing the hot pink yarn in the pile with the others.
“Oh, that'll be Jeremy,” said Allison. A man who looked similar in age to Allison, though seemed much too old for her at first to the still-adjusting newcomer, had arrived at the doorway. She realized, as he came into the store, kissed Allison in greeting, and waved over at her, that he'd been in their class at school too. “Ready to head to your mom's?” he asked.
Allison nodded. She looked over at the visitor. “My mom's having us over for dinner. I'm sure she'd be okay with adding another, if you'd like to come.”
She considered for a moment but shook her head. “Thanks, but I think I have to meet Gray.”
“Okay,” nodded Allison. “We can meet tomorrow and talk about what you want to do. The store's being run by the town, sort of like a co-op, but it really is yours.”
She nodded, lost in thought as Allison put away her work and gathered her things. She stared at the yarn again, and then she turned. “Allison?”
“What did you wish for?” she asked. She glanced around the store. Allison seemed to catch her eye as she surveyed the kingdom that had once been hers, but she smiled. “Ice skates.”
“I have a great pair of ice skates. In the winter, I go skating on the river. I love it.” Allison smiled, exchanged goodbyes, and when they were outside, locked up. Her one-time peer watched as she walked away, hand in hand with Jeremy. They seemed more at ease than a lot of the people she'd met over the past day, but she couldn't shake the feeling that there was something dangerous in making these wishes.
She began making the trek to Gray Anderson's house. She'd seen it from the outside a few times before. It was close to the house she'd grown up in – only a few streets away. As she walked, a motorcycle pulled up beside her. “Hey!” called a voice. She turned.
“Oh, hi Marcus,” she said. Her former classmate, like the others, looked like he'd lapped her by a few years. His hair was shorter than she'd last seen him, and he had gotten a bit stockier. He looked prouder than ever though, grinning from his seat on his bike.
“Give you a ride somewhere?” he asked.
“Is this your wish?” she asked with a small smile.
“Okay,” she shrugged, climbing on behind him and putting her arms around his waist.
She said goodbye to him a few minutes later, waving and turning to walk up to the house. When Gray didn't answer her knock, she cautiously pushed the door open. “Gray? Uh, Mayor?” she called.
She had never been inside Gray's house, but she wasn't very interested in snooping around. She walked through the living room, peering at the walls. There were a few paintings hanging. They all seemed to depict places in town. She recognized Herberts' orchard, the gate at the edge of the Richmonds' farm, and the clock on Main Street. She rounded the corner and found herself in what was unmistakably Gray's studio. It was a sunporch, and some of the late afternoon light still came through the windows that made up the walls, but paintings leaned on easels and covered table tops everywhere, taking focus from the moment you entered the room. She slowly circled the room. Some of the paintings were still unfinished, but most were lively with bright colours and solid lines. She recognized some of the people.
There was a painting where five different Jakes, each with a different expression ranging from vaguely amused to horribly discomforted, looked in different directions. There was one where Eric and Mary posed mid-step, hand in hand with their mouths open mid-song. Some seemed more abstract. There was a tiny-scale town, with a big pair of ghostly eyes hovering over it all. And there was a figure in a police uniform surrounded by splashes of colour and jagged edges. She spun again and again, taking in all the images.
There was a close up of a pair of hands, gliding through shimmering metal streams that seemed to leap off the canvas. A silhouette of a rider and a horse, flying across a moonlit sky. One big panorama showed, on one side, many people standing together, all wearing variations on the same colour, all smiling the same. The other side was crowded with places, all contrasting colours, different shapes, but somehow seeming less defined, less solid, than the muted people. She took a breath.
There was a painting where a man sat, his head in his hands, while silvery figures gestured dramatically all around him. There was a small boy surrounded by a landscape of bright, unnatural colours. Some canvases had watery, half finished faces, but they all stared at her. She backed up, holding a hand to her head.
“Oh, I didn't hear you come in!” exclaimed Gray from behind her. She turned to look at him. His arms were full of paintbrushes and containers. “I was just getting some extra brushes from the basement. Are you alright?”
“Just a little dizzy,” she said, looking around again. “So this is your work, huh?” she asked.
He nodded, with a strangely shy smile. “Well, it's their wishes.”
She nodded, trying to hide a nervous shiver.
“Here, you'll want to see this,” he said. He motioned at an easel in the centre of the room that had been turned around. He spun it so she could see. The board balancing on it was covered with three drawings. They were pencil sketches, showing her from three angles, focused on her pensive expressions. “Just a start, of course,” he said. “But you look like you're thinking hard. It'll only be a matter of time.”
She took a sharp breath. She stared at her face, sketched out in 2D but so familiar. She backed up. “I – I need some air.”
“Is there anything I can do?” he asked.
“Oh, no, everyone's done so much already,” she began.
“Well, I can walk with you to the vote. It's at town hall -”
“I can make it to town hall myself, I think,” she said.
“But there are things we haven't -”
“I'll see you there,” she said, leaving the room before she could say anything else. She hadn't quite put it into words for herself yet but she needed to get out of there. She walked as quickly as she could, out of the house, down the driveway, and along the sidewalk, away from the house.
The further away she got, the more she became surrounded by darkness, the clearer her head became. Her breathing slowed and she realized she'd been longing to be alone. There'd been something strangely isolating about being back, after all her months of taking care of herself out there. These were the people she'd left behind, but they'd left her behind too. They all seemed to be moving a million miles a minute, and it was a relief to walk slowly, away from them all, in the fresh air.
A sound pulled her out of her own thoughts. There was someone crying, up ahead in the darkness. She looked but she couldn't see who it was. A cold chill ran down her spine. She'd heard plenty of crying in her life, especially her life the past two years, but this sound seemed to invade her bones and skin with a cold, clammy kind of dread. It sounded so desperate. So final. She stepped forwards, unable to stop herself. “Hello?” she said into the darkness. “Are you – is there anything I can do to help?”
The crying got louder, but didn't stop at her voice. She kept walking forwards, but still couldn't see anyone. “Where are you?” she asked, hearing a strange almost nervousness in her voice. What reason did she have for panicking? She'd been around sad people before. The crying was louder than ever, but she still saw no one.
Behind her, suddenly, she could hear another voice. A deeper, unmistakably male voice, muttering something. She leaned, trying to hear what he was saying. Another voice then, from somewhere to her left, with the same kind of desperate tone, was shouting “They're all dead!”
“What?” she whispered, backing up. It was a mistake, as another voice behind her was wailing, “Why did we have to come back?”
She looked frantically in all the space around her, but couldn't make out eyes, faces, or bodies. More voices were intruding. “How can you act like this is –”
“- dead in my arms!”
“Why can't you just leave me –”
“- seen them? I can't find them anywhere –”
“I can't...” she whispered, hugging her arms around her, spinning around. Some of them sounded familiar, but she couldn't keep up with them.
“- kill you if you touch me!”
“Just burn it all to the –”
“See their laughing faces every time I close my -”
“Stop it! Make it stop!”
They were crying. So many of them. She stared and stared. There were no bodies, no colours to break up the night, but she began to think her brain was playing tricks. The air was starting to look distorted, shapes of things stretching, and she could feel a crowding of people, with the voices, though she couldn't see them. Her space and theirs were becoming the same, and it was getting tighter and tighter. She found herself falling to the ground. She suppressed a small scream herself, and tried to gather her limbs together. They were still closing in on her with their terrible voices.
A hand grabbed her by the shoulder. She screamed for real. “It's okay,” said Emily, still holding on and helping her to her feet. “Come on.” Not letting go of her once-teacher, the young woman followed her to the nearby winged horse. She climbed on behind Miss Sullivan, holding onto her waist as they rose above the mass of invisible crying people. They flew through the cold darkness, not saying anything until they landed in Bradbury Park a few minutes later.
“You okay?” asked Emily.
The young woman nodded. “Well, sort of. What the hell was that?”
Emily looked slightly pained and stared ahead for a moment before speaking. “We call them shadow people. But they're, well, us.”
The young woman wrinkled her forehead. “How?”
Emily let out a breath, becoming more resigned. “After we made the wishes, they appeared. Our best guess is, they're the other side. The us there would've been, if we didn't get to make our world how we wanted it. You know, some kind of balance of the universe thing.”
“Don't they -” the girl didn't know if she had the right words to talk about something like this. “Doesn't it make it weird, enjoying your life with the wishes, with them running around?”
“They don't hurt anyone,” said Emily. “They scare people, of course. Having these reminders, of what we could have been. We've mostly learned how to avoid them, how to spot them coming, but every now and then you run into them and have a bit of a rough night. It's why people feel so strongly about the vote.”
“How is the vote going to fix it?” asked the young woman.
“Well, when you leave,” said Emily, clearing her throat, “you and your shadow become one and the same.”
Another chill ran up the young woman's spine. “You – you're them?” The crying was still playing in the back of her mind, like a song on loop.
“Some combination of both,” said Emily.
“As soon as you leave town? How far can you go?” she asked.
“Across the bridge,” said Emily. “That's what happens to Eric, and Mary, when they cross over for supplies. They won't talk about it, or tell us which ones are them.” She motioned back towards the place where she'd encountered all of the shadows. “But sometimes I think that's why they wanted their life to be musical the rest of the time.”
She nodded slowly, feeling sorry for them and for the others for a moment, though that feeling began to change into something else. “Why didn't they tell me?” she asked. “Why didn't you? Or Gray, or Heather, or Jimmy and Bill?”
“We should have,” said Emily, looking guilty. “We were going to. You have to understand how scared they make everyone. How difficult it's been.”
She would have made a sarcastic retort about how awful it must've been with their fairy tale winged horses, magical invention studios, super powers and spontaneous music parties, but she couldn't. She was beginning to see their wishes and the paintings that framed them as something sinister and she could perfectly imagine it being hard. Her sympathy took over for a moment, but then her anger was back. “If people are making a decision about this, based on me coming back, expecting me to help decide, I should've known!”
Emily lost the guilty look and put on a more businesslike one. “Okay. Ask me any questions you want. Meeting's coming up soon. You'll know everything.”
She folded her arms, ready to unleash a storm of criticism, but she could only ask one. “Did he make a wish? Before he left? Is he out there, fused with one of – them?”
Emily shook her head. “No, he didn't. He isn't. I think what he wanted was one of the only things you can't get here.”
She sighed. She had imagined this, and somehow it was comforting and disturbing to actually hear it. “Okay,” she muttered.
“What?” asked Emily.
“I know what I wanted to know. I think I want to walk over to town hall. Don't want to be late for the vote.”
“You can come with me,” said Emily, but she shook her head.
“I need to be by myself, to think about things.”
“If you run into them,” began Emily.
“They can't hurt me, right?” she said, a small smile on her lips though she was far from amused. “I'll see you there.”
The flapping wings were the last she heard before she was alone. She trudged along, feeling, for the first time since she'd first arrived, the tears stream down her face. They were hot and strangely comforting. They felt more real than anything else.
As she walked, she stopped thinking about her 'why' questions. It didn't matter anymore how the town had come to be this way. She started thinking about what she had seen, and asking the question 'what if?' By the time she reached town hall, which was lit against the night, she felt a kind of solid certainty in her mind.
People were arriving from all over the town. Most of the seats were already packed, and she slipped in and took a seat near the back. She watched the people around her. Some were the adults who'd watched her grow up and who had welcomed her back over the past day. Some, she began to recognize as her own one time peers, though they all had a few years on her now.
Gray arrived and nodded at her before making his way to the front of the room and calling the meeting to order. It was an open forum, and it seemed that many of the arguments being made on both sides were ones everyone had heard before. People groaned and protested as some people began to speak, while others would cheer and support the very same speaker. When someone else would speak, the vocal listeners would switch sides.
“What if the next person to find their way into town is from New Bern, or the government?” asked Mr. Dennis, the high school P.E. Teacher. “Bill said it himself, we're running out of ammo. What if we can't fend them off?”
“We're safe here. We have lots of advantages they don't have,” said Jimmy, flashing a dark look at Bill as the other deputy rose to speak.
Bill cleared his throat. “We should think about what could happen if someone else finds a way to get at those advantages. There's no saying the wishing is just for Jericho citizens. What if someone from Team Tomarchio wishes they could deliver us all right to an ASA prison camp? What if Ravenwood wishes for some Jericho-born slaves?”
“We don't know if that can happen,” said Heather. “We won't know until we study this stuff more. But if we choose to cut ourselves off, we'll never know.”
“She's right,” said Eric. “Protecting ourselves is important, but not at the expense of cutting ourselves off from all the possibilities of the outside world.”
“I'd think you of all people would argue otherwise,” said Harry Carmichael. “Wouldn't you agree safety and stability for our families is more important than pursuing answers we might never get?”
“There are things out there we can't get in here,” countered Mary, standing beside Eric. “Every time we risk going out there, it's because we really need to.”
“But you don't get to make that decision for all of us,” argued Bill. “We have food. We have water. We have people who can fix any problems that come up.” Some people loudly agreed.
“He's right,” said Gail Green, standing on Eric's other side and flashing an apologetic look at him. He looked resigned as he nodded. It seemed they had spoken about this before. “It's dangerous out there, more dangerous than any problems we'll face in here. Whatever happens here, it's contained and we can deal with it, together. So maybe it's better if we decide, together, that we're going to protect ourselves.”
“She's right. This is what we know, this is what we love. There's not much we can hold onto, but this is our chance to hold onto that,” said Jake, standing up on Gail's other side and putting his arm around her.
“Things are dangerous everywhere, inside and out there,” said Jake – another Jake – from the front row. He stood up, tensing his muscles and striking a heroic pose. “I've kept us safe before and I'll do it again. We don't have to be so afraid we destroy our only link to the world out there.”
The Jake beside Gail narrowed his eyes and the Jake in the front row sent a smirk in his direction.
“Are you people forgetting, we've had this debate dozens of times already?” asked Allison from the other side of the room. “We can't even agree whether we should do anything about this, or for some reason whether or not we should repaint the library. Are you sure you want to be stuck in here, with nowhere to go, if we ever really disagree?”
“What are you trying to say?” asked Stanley, sticking his chin out defiantly. “I'd risk my life for this town all over again and I know they would do the same for me. It's where I want my family to be safe and grow up.”
“What if they don't want to stay here forever?” asked Emily from her seat. “What about your kids?” she looked around at everyone in the room. “We all got our say about what we wanted out of life, and this town. But they're still growing, and learning, and deciding things. What if they decide that what they want is to leave? To see the world?”
“They can wish it!” said Mimi, looking rather emotional.
“It's not the same,” said Allison with a strange almost-smile.
“If they go out there, we lose them,” said Sean, sending a few sparks flying as he stood. The people on either side of him found their hair to be standing on end. “Someone leaves, they might never get back. If they do, they're a different age and you're still far apart. This way, we won't lose them. We won't lose anything important.”
“We will,” said the girl who had returned the day before. Everyone was suddenly quiet, staring in her direction. She hesitated a moment but stood up.
“This is because your boyfriend is still out there!” someone shouted. She peered through the crowd. A young woman holding a baby who was pulling on her hair stared back at her. She wondered if she could possibly be Lisa Whalley.
She shook her head slowly. “No, it's not. Well, yeah, that's part of it, but he's not all we'll lose. When I came back here I thought I'd lost something. And now it's something out there you're saying I could lose. But it's an if. I didn't lose this place, it just changed. And he's out there, somewhere, and so are...other people. They're not lost. Well, maybe for now, but until we cut them off, they're not lost for good. Why would we choose a world where we're so afraid of losing that we cut ourselves off from not losing?”
“Okay, Yoda,” said someone from the side of the room where Stanley and Sean were sitting. There were a few laughs. More people shouted their objections.
She glanced helplessly to the front of the room. Gray had raised his eyebrows at her. She felt her expression changing on her face, becoming more certain. He looked slightly surprised, but gave her a small nod.
“So it's all about choice, isn't it?” she asked. “Staying here, leaving. Wishing, moving on, or waiting. I'm going to make a choice today, and I hope you'll choose carefully too.”
“What are you trying to say?” asked Bill.
She smiled a small smile. “I'm not going to make a wish. I'm just going to make a decision. And I'm going to make it happen through my own work. I won't be a shadow, and I won't have to choose between staying and leaving. And if you let me, I will keep this town safe so you won't have to cut it off from the rest of the world.”
A few people nodded. Some still protested. She leaned towards Heather. “Do you think you could help me?” She whispered her idea and Heather nodded as she spoke. “I don't see why we couldn't,” she said.
“Great,” said the newly decided woman. She turned to the rest of the room and began to explain.
The vote was close. Friends and family members opposed one another, and in the end those voting to keep the passageway between their tiny, insulated world of fantasy fulfillment and physics law suspension and the larger world beyond it outnumbered those voting to destroy it. There weren't a lot of hard feelings, it seemed, as opponents became friends again on their way out the door, many of them heading towards Bailey's for a celebratory drink and chorus number.
“That was a pretty good idea you had,” said Gray, from a place near the doorway. Most people were already out of the room, and the two of them were bringing up the rear.
She shrugged. “It just sort of came to me. Partly on my way there, partly listening to them talk.” She glanced sideways. “How did you – you looked like you understood. What I was going to do. How?”
It was his turn to shrug. “I didn't know, exactly. But I had an idea where you were going. At least in the personal decision way.”
“But how?” she asked.
He handed her a small piece of paper. “Well, I knew I had to stop at this.”
She glanced down. It was her own face, sketched in charcoal across the page. There was nothing magical happening. No laws of the universe were bending around her, she wasn't surrounded by puppies or winning a figure skating medal. It was just her face, staring intently at something, with the kind of cool confidence she imagined must have appeared on her face just moments before, in the meeting. She glanced up quickly as a thought occurred to her. “It's not a -”
“Not a wish,” he nodded. “You're still just you. That's what the artist saw.”
She began to hand the drawing to him. “You keep it,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said. With a wave goodbye, she began walking into the night. For the first time since coming home, she really smiled.
It only took a week to finish. She planned it with Heather and Harry Carmichael, she worked on it every day, and many of her friends came down to help. The day it was finished, there was no fanfare. No one was out there watching a ribbon cutting ceremony. Allison was the only other person there as twilight began to creep into the sky and she stared up at the finished product.
“Pretty cool, huh?” asked Allison. “How fast we can put something together when we work on it?”
The woman nodded, with a small smile on her face. “It's nothing fancy, but I think it'll work.”
The wooden structure was fairly small, with a ladder leading up to its door. The walls were rough, but the beams holding it up in the sky were sturdy.
Allison smiled too. She pressed a package into her friend's hand. “It's hot chocolate. The Taylors grow it in their backyard. You have something for boiling water right?”
She nodded. “There's a camp stove. Thanks.”
“Welcome,” nodded Allison. “So, have a good first shift. Great town protector.”
They both laughed. “Thanks,” said the woman, nodding her head and stepping towards the ladder.
Allison began to walk away, but she turned back. “Hey, if you need anything, you know everyone'll -”
“Yeah, I know,” said the woman. She waved goodbye and watched her friend walking away for a few moments before she began climbing.
Once she reached the door and went inside, she smiled as she looked around. There were a couple old chairs and a couch, the table with the little cook stove, and a stack of books from the library.
She picked up the binoculars from the table and went over to the other door, stepping out onto the small balcony and sitting in the lawn chair. She lit the lantern by her side and settled in, looking down from her perch at the bridge below. As she began her watch, she smiled again.
“Happy Halloween!” Bill had been about to open the front door of Bailey's tavern, but he turned and noticed Emily and Heather approaching. He let out a big laugh when he took in their costumes. “Too perfect!”
Emily raised an eyebrow. Heather looked confused. “I didn't think our costumes were that funny.”
“Hers is,” he said as he caught a breath between laughs, pointing towards Emily. “But I've got to say, yours is genius.” He looked at Heather. “Just make sure you stay around Emily all night and maybe we'll all avoid going up in smoke!”
Emily rolled her eyes. “At least we're wearing costumes to the costume party.”
“I'm wearing a costume,” said Bill indignantly, tugging on the collar of his uniform.
“You're what, Captain Overtime?” asked Heather with a smirk.
Bill tapped his name tag. Only it wasn't his name written across it. “Sorry, that was insensitive. I'm allergic to soy. Go Jayhawks!”
“Did Jimmy approve this?” asked Emily.
“How do you think I got his name tag?” asked Bill. He opened the door, and gestured. “After you, my fellow public hero and Chef Dangerous.”
Inside, the bar was decorated with a few twinkling jack-o-lanterns and a bunch of old decorations Emily remembered from other Halloweens before the bombs. A lot of people were already gathered there, wearing costumes they'd likely cobbled together that day, from the look of most of them. Most people these days were pretty tired, doing double shifts as they contributed to the harvest on top of putting in time at their regular jobs. They enjoyed celebrating and unwinding as much as ever though, and tonight they were all drinking cider or the 'Pumpkin Surprise' being offered on the blackboard over the bar. Music played, some people were dancing, and Emily searched the crowd for their friends.
“Hey, you look great, man!” said Jimmy, smiling at Bill. “Chip off the old block.”
“He's just wearing your name tag. That's his whole costume,” said Emily. “You're at least using your work shirt to be another profession.” Jimmy was indeed wearing his usual work shirt, but he'd paired it with non-work pants, a bucket hat, and a stuffed animal on each shoulder.
“I love the tiger, Jimmy!” said Heather.
He patted his shoulder. “It's a loaner. I promised Sally I'd have him back before morning.”
“Good party so far?” asked Bill.
Jimmy nodded. “Try the pumpkin surprise. Speaking of, if you'll excuse me, I promised my lady I'd get her another drink.” He motioned to a booth, where Margaret was sitting, wearing a plastic tiara and silvery cape, chatting with a few friends. He started towards the bar. The newcomers began to follow. It seemed tonight's offerings were popular as there was a lineup. It was there that they bumped into Stanley and Mimi. “Hey, did someone call 911?” Stanley said, looking at their costumes. “Cop, firefighter, and...that's a weird paramedic costume.”
“I'm a chef,” said Emily, tugging on her hat.
Stanley laughed. “And I thought none of us were going the scary costume route. Mary,” he called in the direction of the bar. “Better make sure your extinguishers are working.”
Mary was behind the bar, busily pouring drinks and handing them in all directions. She nodded without looking up and the fall leaves she'd stuck in her hair bobbed with her.
Emily swatted teasingly at Stanley. “Your costume could be scary. What are you, someone's drunk uncle?”
Stanley pointed to the whistle he wore over his football jacket. “I'm the coach of an underdog football team that I've just led to victory. I was going to be a football player, but then I figured I should do something to show how I'm moving up in the world and stuff.” He brandished a clipboard proudly.
“And you are?” said Emily, looking to Mimi, who had just accepted a drink. “You, on one of your fancy days at work?”
Mimi drew herself up to her full height. “I'm the news reporter, interviewing the coach after his unprecedented victory. Some might say it's a heartwarming human interest story.”
“I gave some great pep talks,” said Stanley, taking his own drink. “I think she's going to fall in love with me.”
Mary chuckled from behind the bar. “I don't know. Football coach and news reporter? How would you make those schedules jive?”
“Aw, come on, that's what they've said about all the greats,” said Stanley. He took a sip of his drink. “That is awesome!”
Emily noticed Kenchy, wearing a black turtleneck with white medical tape running up it in a dotted line and a matchbox car driving up the left side. She nodded and returned his smile. Something in the conversation going on around her caught her attention and she whipped her head back towards her friends.
“I was going to do my famous zombie football player again,” Stanley was saying.
“And I thought zombie apocalypse was probably a little too dark for this year,” Mimi added.
“Yeah, we get enough of the apocalypse. Who wants to deal with zombies on top of it?” asked Stanley.
“And this way, the news reporter can interview him instead of running screaming from him,” finished Mimi.
“I don't know,” said Stanley. “I picture you more as the zombie fighting reporter type. Hey, you okay Em?”
“What?” asked Emily. She realized that she had been staring, open mouthed, and that everyone was staring at her. “Yeah, zombies, bad. So you guys raided your closet. Good call.”
“I thought so. How much more am I going to get to wear this?” asked Mimi. “Hey, watch it,” she said, jumping back as Eric went by balancing a tray. “You may have that magic...chopstick, but I don't believe you can magic away pumpkin stains from my Ann Taylor jacket.” She glanced over at Mary. “You going to join us for a toast?”
Emily didn't hear Mary's reply as she had begun laughing at Eric's costume as soon as she'd registered the worn bathrobe he had paired with a pointed paper hat. “And you guys raided your linen closet?” She looked over at Mary, who was coming out from behind the bar, handing drinks to her and Heather. Her leafy hair accessories accompanied a bright green floral printed bed sheet, which she'd fashioned into a toga of sorts.
“Awesome,” Heather was saying to Eric. “It really goes with your beard. Are you a specific wizard or do you have your own wizardy name?”
“I'm Radaveld the mighty,” said Eric, taking a big swig of his drink as Emily and Bill laughed again. “Hey, I could turn you all into talking animals you know.”
“I'd want to be a puppy. No, a lion,” said Stanley.
“As you wish,” said Eric. Emily nearly choked on her drink.
Bill turned to Mary. “Who are you, then? The mighty Aphrodite?”
“No, I'm Demeter, goddess of the harvest,” said Mary. The line had disappeared for now so she paused to sip her own drink. “I figured that'd be the most helpful for us right now.”
“She's also the goddess of fertility and seasons and the earth,” said Eric.
“And I'm a badass mom so if you ever take my kid away, I'll ruin your life,” added Mary. Eric grinned at her and she chuckled but grew serious as she looked at Emily. “Everything alright, Em?”
Emily blinked. “When – if you guys have kids,” she looked from them to Stanley and Mimi and back again. “Could you just, you know, watch them carefully? Make sure you catch any...radiation eyes or weird psychic powers early on?”
Her friends chuckled, and she herself smiled. “I guess we can do our best,” said Eric.
“But psychic powers? Not sure we should be trying to stop those. Don't you think they'd be pretty handy?” asked Stanley.
“I can think of cooler powers you could develop,” said Bill. “What about being able to fly? Or being bulletproof like Superman?”
Emily turned to look at him. “What?”
“Speaking of children to keep an eye on,” said Stanley, nodding with his head to the area by the pool table. They all looked over. Emily noticed several of her students clustered, chatting and getting ready to play a game. “Looks like the scary costume is still trendy with the young'uns.”
“They were allowed to sign out costumes from the high school theatre department,” said Heather. “I think it's nice they got into the spirit.”
They did look like they were enjoying themselves. Skylar, in a shiny space suit and colourful wig, was laughing and scolding the others who were teasing her as she prepared a shot. Allison, wearing plastic armour over a hoodie, was leaning back and enjoying her own drink. Dale had transformed a lab coat into some kind of mad scientist ensemble, with a doll's arm sticking out of his neck. She recognized Sean's fake leather jacket with a T across the back from the last production Jericho High had done before the bombs, but the furry arm bands were from another era.
“Is Sean a teen wolf or a greaser?” asked Eric.
“Seems like he's both,” mused Emily.
Sean was pretending to wind up to hit Marcus with his pool cue. “I think maybe he's trying to take on Jack the Ripper. I wonder if Marcus knows that's a woman's shirt.”
Some of the kids cheered and others booed as Skylar sunk a striped ball. “So how'd the story project go?” asked Stanley. “Lots of thrills and chills from the junior league of horror?”
“Some,” said Emily, flashing Heather a glance and sipping her drink.
“I bet it'd be scary. Getting a look into their brains. Sometimes I wonder if we should be watching our backs more,” said Bill. Stanley chuckled and nudged him. “Seriously!” continued Bill. “Doesn't it freak you out, sometimes? Trying to figure out what the hell they're thinking?”
Emily glanced at her students again. Sean was lining up his shot, distracted for a moment by Marcus trying to yank the cue out from behind him. Skylar and Dale were watching with only half concentration, their hands casually intertwined for the moment. Allison had also been watching but she glanced over and caught Emily's eye for a moment. She smiled and waved. Emily smiled and waved back.
They were all smiling, all at once. She could feel her friends laughing. She thought of the song. “They're alright.”