“In all honesty,” said the explorer - an aged cocktail-jacket wearing man with a cane - “I’ve made up the entirety of my exploits.”
The group stopped. James Kaur turned to take in this admission. They stood on a thin beige gravel path which cut through a sea of aquamarine grass, leading to the mountains ahead.
A few other dusty grunts gave ascent.
“I always thought,” reasoned a pipe-smoking gargoyle, “that the explorer’s club was what you bought your way into firstly, by status of birth, and secondly, by not losing all your money during the follies of youth.”
“Of course,” said a third, breath whipping beneath his walrus mustache. “No one’s ever actually gone outside.”
“Outside is just the space between myself and the car,” said cocktail-jacket.
“I don’t know about you,” said the stooped fellow with a head hidden in a cloud of cigar smoke, “but I could use a stiff drink.”
“Tally ho!” the rest of them cried in unison.
James waited patiently, arms crossed at the front of the group for them to notice the obvious.
“Um . . . where’s the house?” asked the gargoyle.
“I’ll tell you where it’s not,” said James. “Anywhere you’re capable of reaching right now. And it’s certainly not where we’re going.” He pointed behind himself where the mountain range had seemingly crawled to right where they stood, like a lap dog.
On flights of awareness, Olivia gathered merchandise for her shop. Her goods came not from the vine world, nor from the mountains, where the endangered magic was kept, but from the empty spaces around people in crowded areas. It’s easy to be overwhelmed in a beautiful wilderness, to dispel the idea that your life is all that matters, whatever your individual story is. But in a metropolitan shoving-match, everything important gets overlooked, and Olivia is there with her sack, picking up the vitae that people would sooner stamp on than admit exists.
She ran the shop by herself now, assuming James would never come back. He had taken nothing with him, not knowing how to use anything she sold.
As if knowing she had important business to attend to, the bell over her door clanged over and over again, every entering customer staring at it like an alien relic, not used to old-fashioned bells. Maybe commenting on what an annoying ringtone it was.
Olivia sold much, and that was good. Ruby Davies reappeared, asking what Olivia was going to throw out. If anything ever truly expired. If, in a thousand, ten thousand years, something buried in a landfill today might be incalculably valuable and set off another gold rush. All the landfills that became parks would be dug up again and people digging through the trash, reselling, recollecting. Like cities that covered their rail-tracks with asphalt, only to dig them back up again decades later when the demand for public transport reemerged.
Olivia had not much time for discussion so she kept Ruby busy by having her take out the trash. When that proved too distracting, she had Ruby sweep the basement. She had Ruby send a pouch of dirt, ‘send’ it by placing it on the center table, amid a series of very specific gashes. Olivia’s table was a runway.
“I’ve never known what you’re doing,” Ruby said. “But instead of selling things, you seem more intent on people having things.”
“I’m reuniting,” replied Olivia. “That’s my purpose. Worlds expand uniformly, without regard to connections, and I think some connections are worth preserving. So I’ll never be out of work.”
Professor Irving Adwell was truly befuddled by the scope of his backyard. He had never noticed the path they walked on, but it began around the side of his shed. Julie had told them to keep their eyes on the beige dirt, right where the grass ended. As they walked around it, hands on the shed as a banister, Irving took a step further, and the shed was no longer there. The path was, along with rolling hills of grass.
The sky had changed tint to a light purple, not quite evening, but not afternoon either. And Julie pressed them on. Brock walked, hands in pockets as if out for a leisurely stroll.
“There!” Julie pointed ahead.
If he squinted, Aldwell could see the hazy shimmer of a mountain range in the distance. “That must be miles away,” he said, “and we didn’t bring any water.”
“It’s closer than you think,” said Julie, “and it’ll carry us over.”
Aldwell glanced behind him. No sign of his old house. He had no choice but to follow the party.
To pass the time, Brock told a story . . . one day, a meteorologist had been tweaking a device to measure the molecular concentration of the upper Gyliosphere. He deduced that the vibrations of quarks - making up the constituent atoms of the compounds he was interested in - were influenced by a certain frequency found only in that part of the sky. At first, he recorded it. Easy enough to localize, then he played it back. With its volume now double, the compounds exploded and the sky incinerated and he ended all life on his planet forever. The End.
“You sure are an anti-science bunch,” observed Aldwell. “People changing into animals, twilight making certain paths visible, distances that don’t really matter . . .”
“It’s your students that are the anti-science bunch,” said Brock. “At least we care about our worlds.”
The professor had to reluctantly agree. And then, the mountain range was before them. Only this time, accompanied by gales of wind. The professor caught his breath and looked up. This was no wind. Three enormous birds - the size of buses - holding an end of a giant basket descended toward the group. The professor clutched onto a hat he didn’t even have.
As the birds lowered themselves, a ladder fell from the bottom of the basket and the birds maintained a low altitude, gliding in a circle, which rotated the basket using the ladder as a central axis.
“C’mon,” said Julie, and up she climbed.
Brock ushered the professor up ahead of him. “You know, in case you fall.”
There were no seats in the basket, just simple handholds along the side. Brock rolled up the ladder and the basket rose, quickly surpassing the mountains in altitude and the birds carried them over.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done a damned thing worth any value in your entire bloody lives, this is the moment that will ensure your immortal glory,” James said to the hunting party.
“My son,” said the gargoyle, “you seem to have us at a disadvantage right now, as we have no wireless service, but rest assured, people will look for us as all of our fathers were very rich.”
“No one’s going to come looking for you,” said James. “Everyone hates you and wishes you would die because they want your money. Even fighting over your money is more profitable than you living and sipping whiskey for the rest of your days. That’s why you have no better option than to do as I say.”
An increasing number of alien sounds from the mountains caused the old men to clump together like kitty litter.
“That bird is out there,” said James. “And I will have it. With or without your help. For those that assist though, a lifetime of comfort awaits.”
“We’ve already had a lifetime of comfort young man,” said the cloud of cigar smoke. “And anyways, I believe our chariot is arriving.” He pointed upward.
James wondered how that old man could even see the three-bird-basket descending to them.
“For the last time, I’m not going to eat dirt,” said Professor Aldwell. “You two have been in on something the whole time that I know nothing of. You could just be pulling an old man’s leg. You take me out of my classroom, break into my home . . .”
Julia dumped a portion from her pouch onto her hand. “None of the class knows you’re there.”
“. . . already my wife has surely phoned the police, wondering where I am, for all I know, I’ve been kidnapped . . .”
She held the pile up to the professor’s constantly moving mouth. “There is no wife.”
“. . . plus how I ended up at that weird shop I’ll never know I’ve probably been drugged and . . .mfff -”
Julie shoved the handful into his mouth and forced his head back. Sho pressed her hand against his lips. Having no other recourse except to die from suffocation, the professor swallowed the dirt, and the world followed with him.
Irving Aldwell was a creature of the night. The daytime had trapped him, or rather, he’d been trapped there. Impossible memories of seeing the earth from a great height. Of soaring into windows. Of moving between people with incredible speed. He was a window-traveler. A dark window-traveler. Maybe it was his pride, maybe it was the cunning of the enemy, couple that with laziness, but he’d become entranced by a path between sorcerers that lead deep into the bowels of the earth. He followed, and would steal from them the secrets that Olivia required to repair the membranes of the worlds. The sorcerers lured him deep, and he realized too late the trap they had set. Through caves covered with hieroglyphics, incantations echoing off the walls, shadows of flames and hooded figures in the distance, he’d fallen into a rotating office chair, pen in hand, staring at a pile of papers all with identical questions followed by a series of wrong answers. Looking up, the sense of deja-vu that gripped him at the sight of a sea of indifferent faces, looking at the screens in their hands. Deja-vu is a trap set by the sorcerers to make you believe that your life has always been this way.
And Julie . . . a scout just like him. They had found each other centuries ago it seemed, but time is different than we think. She followed him as well, but he never noticed her missing. He never noticed the point where she looked into a symbol on the cave wall, and got sucked into an SUV during rush hour and construction, assaulted by black trap magic.
How dull he had been! everyone trying to help him the entire time!
It was so much to bear and he could have sank into memories all evening, but the feel of the ground hitting the basket, and the birds swooping away, indulgence was always his weak point. Professor Aldwell, he’d always liked the term ‘professor’ even though it was never his, gazed at Julie the way he used to and she knew that she had succeeded finally in bringing him back. They looked up and beheld James Kaur and his cronies staring into the sides of the basket.
“Good evening,” said Brock Hanson, as he helped the professor to his feet. He walked to the side door of the basket and opened it. James backed away. The three of them exited the basket. “No hard feelings I hope,” said Brock.
Julie stared at James, arms crossed. “Do you know what we’re going to do with you?” she asked.
From behind James, the cronies moved past him and toward the basket.
“At last, our carriage has arrived,” said cocktail-jacket.
“The driver took off though,” said cigar-smoke.
“Probably just off for a quick puff,” said the gargoyle.
“Is it safe to smoke in one of these?” asked cigar-smoke.
“You’ve never cared about safety before,” said the gargoyle. “Must be getting old.” The explorer’s club chortled with each other as they each tried to find a comfortable spot in the basket for sitting.
“Your mistake,” said Julie, “is relying on a single world to do the bidding of many.”
“My mistake,” corrected James, “was trusting others to something I can do myself.” He lifted his hands to his mouth and made the piercing shriek of the lost mountain bird.
The old men groaned and covered their ears, but it was too late. Blood poured out and their heads melted like rotten pumpkins and they collapsed on the floor of the basket, their living-rotten bodies making the sound of a squashed grapefruit.
“Here,” said Julie, tossing her pouch of dirt to James which e caught reflexively. “You’ll need this.”
“What is it? No I won’t,” said James, looking at his hands like they had betrayed them. “This must be useless or you wouldn’t give it away. Or it’s a trap. You would know all about traps, wouldn’t you?”
“The light is changing,” said Julie. She turned to her party. “We need to go.”
“Of course,” said Brock. “I’ll handle this.”
Julie turned to Aldwell. “You still remember?”
“Of course,” Aldwell said.
No one knows what this looks like from outside because to talk about it defies language. From Adlwell and Julie’s point of view, the world condenses into a ball, like a snow globe, and they are able to move it, gently, and it appears that their moving the world changes it, although no one is sure if that is correct or not. Is it the travel of astral beings that turns the seasons, or does the turning of the seasons pave the way for astral beings to travel?
For those observing the beings leaving, it comes on as a memory, but faint, and one is distracted trying to clutch it before you notice the disappearance of your friends.
Brock Hansen and James Kaur remained in the field at the base of the mountains. It seems they meet this way constantly. Their battle continues until they part. A shrinking and expanding universe.