752 Inside Thoughtful Lane
Chamber of the Next to Last A
North-South Webbton, Old York
The names were odd and the address absurd. There was no place called “Old York”; even the one in England was simply called “York”.
It also was handwritten, with the sort of care only given to weddings and other such events. The envelope itself was made of a thick paper — clearly handcrafted — and the very feel of it was smooth. The final touch was it had been sealed with wax, a copper-colored wax that was impressed with the image of a bottle.
There was a heft to it; whatever was in it was heavy, but not rigid like metal or plastic. The idea that it was plastic seemed somehow wrong. It had a slight give when pressed, gently of course; something told Paul to press gently.
There were no other instructions on the envelope, no memo, no stickies, nothing. Picking it up, Paul went to his supervisor’s office, Ms. Barbara Karkowski. Ms. Karkowski was a good boss in Paul’s estimation. She neither micromanaged nor attempted to be pals with those in her department. Questions would be answered, if asked, and paychecks would be passed out twice a month, which was all he asked for.
Paul stuck his head in Ms. Karkowski’s office and said, “Boss, I have a question.”
Ms. Karkowski did not look up from her laptop screen; she continued to tap away but did say, “Shoot.”
“I got this odd letter…” he began to say, which caused his boss to stop whatever she was typing and look up.
“Close the door,” she said, as she shut her laptop and gestured to the chair in front of her desk. The whole office was super-clean and functional, as if it had been decorated by Scandinavians from the future. There were no personal touches. No photos of loved ones, no tchotchkes, no themed calendar of dogs or cats, or anything else, for that matter.
She took out a key ring from her purse and unlocked a desk drawer, removing a wooden box and placing it in the center of her desk. The box was in sharp contrast to the rest of the office, as it was battered, stained, and clearly extremely old.
“What’s –“ he began.
“Please be quiet,” she said, but not unkindly.
Paul did as he was bid; this was odd, she almost seemed nervous. She was never nervous, occasionally irritated, but not nervous.
Paul watched as she pulled out a tiny key that hung from a thin chain around her neck. It looked a little dull to be jewelry, and Paul had never noticed it before. Ms. Karkowski didn’t wear a lot of jewelry, and the chain the key hung from was thin, so it must be normally hidden inside her blouse.
With a loud click, the box was unlocked, and she removed a leather-bound notebook. Like the box, it was stained and worn, but it did not seem in any danger of falling apart.
“What is written on the front of the envelope?” she asked.
Paul tried to hand it to her, but she made no move to grab it, saying, “Put it on the desk, facing me.”
He did so. She read the address and said, “Now turn it over.”
Again, he complied. This was getting odder and odder.
“Huh,” she said, and opened the notebook. She checked several pages and found what she looking for. Taking a card from the box, she wrote down what looked like several sentences. She then put the notebook back in the box, locked the box, placed the box in the drawer, and locked it once more.
“Paul, it is very, very important that you do exactly what I tell you to do,” she said.
“Can you tell me what is going on?” he asked.
She stopped and looked him in the eye for a good minute. He felt as though this was a test of some sort, not that he could tell what for, but he didn’t look away.
“You need to deliver that envelope,” she replied, and handed him the card she had written on. “Follow these instructions exactly.”
Paul read the card and said, “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Just do exactly what I wrote, and there should be no problems.”
“Listen, is this some sort of hazing? I know I’m the new guy but –.”
“Paul, you’re a good worker, please just do this and it will sort itself out,” she said.
He looked at her; there was no hint of humor, no twinkle in the eye, no sly smile. There was however, a slight furrow of the brow.
“OK, I’ll be back when I’m done,” said Paul.
“Yes, of course, why wouldn’t you be?” she replied.
He was about to step out of her office when she added, “Be careful of the Coppermen.”
Paul wanted to ask if he had heard her correctly, but she was back to her tip-tapping on the laptop, and he knew that meant this conversation was over.
* * *
Paul put on his coat and left the office, the letter in his inside pocket. He pulled it out. The first part of the instructions were, “Take the 6 train downtown to the end of the line, riding in the last car”.
The 6 train was just two blocks from the office, but it began to rain, so he ran most of the way.
Paul walked to the back of the subway platform, and the train arrived just as he got there. Some good luck, he thought, as he pushed his wet hair out of his eyes. The car was crowded, but he was able to wedge himself in. Stations came and went — 50th Street, Grand Central Station, 33rd street, and so on — till they reached City Hall, end of the line. By then, it was only Paul, an old lady with a shopping cart, and a tall, thin man with a handlebar mustache and wearing an old-style suit with enameled pins on his lapel — clearly some sort of hipster, Paul thought.
Paul got off and looked at the card again. “Go down the metal stairs at the end of the platform till you reach the seventh step. Then walk backwards (this is important!) five steps and then forward nine”.
There was a metal stairway leading down at the end of the platform. It looked like there was normally a chain across it, presumably to keep people from doing what Paul was about to do. The area was poorly lit as it was, and it looked dark down there. This had to be some sort of elaborate prank. Paul didn’t like pranks, usually because he was the victim of so many, but he tried to be a good sport about them.
He counted out his steps carefully, watching his feet: forward seven, backwards five, and forward nine more. On the ninth step, he looked up and saw a tiled archway and an old-fashioned turnstile ahead of him. Oddly, the lighting seemed better now. There was no slot for a Metrocard, but he saw a metal sign reading “Entrance” and below that “5 Cents”.
He looked at the card his boss gave him. There seemed to be new instructions on it somehow: “Enter the turnstile, DO NOT JUMP! Wait for the W train. Get on and ride till you reach Stuyvesant Square station, but before that, go to the hot pie stand and buy two”. Paul, who had never jumped a turnstile in his life, fished through his pockets and luckily found a nickel, dropping it in the slot and pushing through the turnstile, which made a metallic thunk as it turned.
Walking down a tiled, arched corridor, Paul eventually came out to the platform for the W train. Like the corridor he had just passed through, it was tiled and had a curved but higher ceiling. It did look like a subway station might’ve looked when you only had to pay a nickel to ride. Must be one of those station restorations the city did to commemorate the subway’s long history, and he probably entered it through some little-used back entrance — a shortcut, Paul thought. There were even people dressed in what, at first glance, seemed like period costumes. Upon closer examination, though, there was something off about the clothing.
One young woman wore a hoop skirt with denim jacket over a yellow tank top and a tiny hat with blinking lights. The man from the subway with the handlebar mustache was there, reading a newspaper. Another gentleman, in a bowler and goggles, checked his pocket watch and raised his eyebrows. Three women wearing military jackets, jodhpurs, well-polished boots, and some sort of veiled hats that suggested a very stylish beekeeper nodded at Paul as he passed them, murmuring something he couldn’t make out.
This was clearly some sort of subculture gathered here, Paul thought; hipster-ish, what with all the old-timey clothes and affectations. He figured it was best to go along with it. Then he saw a cart selling, according to the sign, “Hot Pies”; so Paul walked up.
“Two hot pies, please,” he asked.
“Sweet or Savory?” asked the old woman standing behind the cart. Paul consulted the card his boss had given him; it now said, “Buy both, eat neither”.
“One of each, please,” he said.
“I like your manners,” the Hot Pie lady said, with a smile. She pulled two pies out of the cart, wrapped them in paper, and placed them in a brown paper sack.
“Ten cents” she said, as she held out bag.
Paul fished a quarter out of his pocket and received the change. Glancing at the coins she gave him, he saw that the nickel had Jefferson on one side and an owl on the other. The Dime had a wasp and the profile of a woman he didn’t recognize.
“Ummm… my change,” Paul began.
“Would you rather have pennies?” asked the Hot Pie lady, who held out a handful of copper coins of varying sizes and shapes.
“No. I’m fine,” he said, “Thank you.”
Paul mingled in with the others waiting for the train. As he looked around, he saw, worked into the tile, the name of the station: “New City”. If this was a hazing, it was the most elaborate he had ever been in.
He felt a light breeze and saw a light coming down the tunnel. The sound of clattering was heard and the train thundered into the station in a cloud of steam. The train stopped, doors opened with a hiss, and a new group of unique people poured out, and Paul was fighting a rushing river of lace, crinoline, old leather, silk, and canvas. With some effort and more than a few excuse-me’s, he made his way onto the train just as the doors slid shut.
Paul fell into the wicker seat, and nearly into the lap of a spindly man as the train took off. The man was dressed as if he were submarine mechanic, based on the brass and steel tanks that sat on the floor between his legs, the helmet with many small, thick glass faceplates that he held on his lap, and the many tools that hung from his broad, rubberized belt.
“Sorry,” Paul said, over the noise of the train. Submarine Mechanic said something in what sounded like Chinese, and shifted down two seats with a dirty look.
Normally, Paul enjoyed reading on the subway; it made the time go faster and usually prevented strangers from talking to him. However, he didn’t want to miss his stop and get lost. A little voice in the back of his head told him that would be bad, very bad.
A short man wrapped in a coat many times too big looked up at Paul, then closed his eyes and lowered his head. Paul normally took great care in picking out clothes that blended in with his surroundings, but now he was the odd man out. If he were dressed in a Napoleonic Calvary officer’s jacket and a kilt made of fur, he’d blend right in. Of course, that would be silly, as there already was someone sporting that particular ensemble at the other end of the car.
Stations came and passed: Pieter’s Point, Inside Star, (Submarine Mechanic got off there), Old Amsterdam, Widower’s Walk, Svetlana Boulevard, and Lonely Hill, to name a few. Paul glanced at the card, which now read “PAY ATTENTION”, and he looked up and saw they were pulling into Stuyvesant Square Station.
He leapt up and exited, carrying the paper sack with the two hot pies, which seemed to still be hot. Looking around, he saw people walking towards an archway with the word “EGRESS” across the top. He vaguely remembered that was another word for exit, albeit an old-fashioned one, but that seemed to be the order of the day.
* * *
Paul came up a stairwell and out onto a street lined with trees and cozy-looking brownstones. It looked like an affluent neighborhood in Brooklyn, which, given the time he had just spent underground, made sense. What made less sense was that it looked like late afternoon: The sun was low in the sky and everything was bathed in a golden glow that made Paul think of warm caramel being poured over a large bowl of vanilla ice cream flecked with tiny bits of vanilla beans.
He shook his head and looked down at the card, which again contained new instructions — he wondered for a moment where his boss had managed to buy an apparently location-aware notecard. Maybe it was that “e-paper” he’d read about? Something made by Google? He shrugged to himself and read the instructions: “Walk on the even side of the street till you see the greenstone house. Turn one hundred and eighty degrees and look for the door with the brass A on it. Walk to that door and knock on the smaller door to the right…”
There was an ellipsis. Paul turned the card over: “Knock twice, then once more, and enter when bid, but not before.”
He noticed the doors started at Z and went backwards from there. Given the amber afternoon light, picturesque buildings, and tree-lined street, Paul took his time. It seemed wrong to hurry here, so he strolled. Thoughts of the work awaiting him back at the office seemed a distant and minor concern. When he had arrived at the office that morning, he seemed to be facing an endless workload, and he had resigned himself to another late night and not being able to meet friends for drinks, which, as always, depressed him.
But now, none of that seemed to matter. There was a pleasant breeze and the birds were singing, in what sounded like harmony. Could birds do that? Paul had never heard of that happening, but here it was, so he had to admit that it could happen.
Looking to his left he saw that he was close to his destination… E, D, C, B, and finally A. There was a smaller door to the right of the main door of the house, and a little path, in the small front yard that all of these houses had, split off and led to the smaller door.
He walked up to the smaller door, which had two knockers, and looked at the card again. It read, “Knock both at the same time but don’t drop the pies”. Paul looked around, but there wasn’t a place to rest the bag, so he held it in his teeth and rapped both knockers simultaneously. Twice, then once more.
Immediately, two small peepholes opened and two eyes looked out. One eye was brown with flecks of green and the other was green with flecks of brown.
“Who are you?” asked Brown.
“And what do you want?” asked Green.
“I was about to ask that!” protested Brown.
“I can’t wait all day for you to ask the correct questions!” countered Green.
“Do you believe this?” asked Brown, “The absolute temerity!”
There was a pause as Paul listened to this argument, which had the rhythm and comfort of something often said.
“He asked you a question,” Green said.
“I’m sorry?” said Paul, as he took the bag from his teeth.
“So cheeky!” exclaimed Brown.
“Perhaps he didn’t hear you,” said Green, “Maybe he’s deaf.”
“He’d have to be, to not hear you!” said Brown.
Paul looked at his card, which advised “Tell them you have a letter, but do not slide it in the mail slot”.
“Uh, I have a letter,” said Paul.
“Please just put it here,” said Green, who flapped his mail slot open.
“You’ll just lose it,” said Brown to Green. “In here, please,” as he flapped open his own slot.
“I’m not supposed to do that,” Paul said, wishing he could.
“I’m afraid we’re at an impasse then,” said Brown.
“In this we are agreed!” added Green.
Paul looked at his card, which only said, “HOT PIES”.
“I have some hot pies,” he offered.
“Savory?” asked Green, enthusiastically.
“Or sweet?” asked Brown, with equal fervor.
“Uh, both,” replied Paul.
“Why didn’t you say so!” said Brown.
“You hardly gave the poor soul a chance to slide a word in!” said Green.
“As if you every stop chattering!” said Brown.
“Please come in,” Green and Brown said in sync.
* * *
There was a click and a line appeared down the dead center of the door as it slowly swung open. Paul stepped into a long room that was bisected by a neat yellow line of paint. On the left side it looked homey, if a little sloppy; books were stacked on most available surfaces, there were odd-looking devices on the shelves that whirred quietly, and the furniture looked worn but comfortable. It seemed a place where an eccentric professor might live. The man with the brown eye (he had in fact two eyes, Paul noted) stood on that side, dressed in a green suit. His coat was long, longer than was in fashion, as Paul understood fashion, but it looked freshly pressed and fit him well.
The other side mirrored the layout exactly. Well, not entirely exactly, Paul realized. There was the same furniture, but it was neatly organized with books on shelves, odd devices in glass cases with brass plaques at the bottom, and it was spotlessly clean. Green was dressed in a brown suit, but unlike his companion — Paul was unsure if they were friends exactly — it was worn and showed some food stains.
Both of them inhaled through their noses and smiled.
“The Table,” they said simultaneously, and hurried to the center of the room, where each took hold of two seemingly invisible points on the yellow line of paint and pulled back, revealing a rectangular stone table that rose up from the floor, along with three chairs, one on either side and one at the head.
“Shall we?” they said, pointing to the middle chair. Paul sat down and placed the sack with the pies on the table. Brown produced from his pockets a placemat, small plate, and silver fork and knife. Green pulled out a greasy, crumpled piece of newspaper from his pocket and smoothed it on the tabletop. They each took their respective hot pies and ate them. Brown in small, careful forkfuls, and Green with his hands and spilling flaky crumbs down his front. Brown neatly dabbed his mouth with a napkin, though there was nothing to dab, and Green licked his fingertips and collected the remains of the pie and popped them into his mouth.
“That was splendid!” said Brown.
“Top notch!” agreed Green.
They both seemed in a very good mood, now that they had eaten. Paul thought they might be hypoglycemic; his last girlfriend had that and was a terror if she missed a meal. Paul had taken to carrying energy bars in his jacket to avoid arguments.
“Now, young man,” said Brown, “what may we call you?”
“Indeed, names are important,” agreed Green.
“But not your full name, of course,” added Brown.
“Indeed not! Keep your secret name, well… secret,” said Green.
“I’m Paul,” replied Paul.
“A good name!” said Brown.
“Solid, reliable,” added Green.
Paul did not feel quite solid at all. In fact he felt as though he was in a dream, even though it had a through-line that was unlike most of his dreams, which made no narrative sense when repeated out loud afterwards. Or so the girlfriend before the last seemed fond of telling him.
“Thank you…” Paul said.
“You’re welcome,” said Green.
“Quite welcome,” added Brown.
All three stared at each other till Brown said, “Have we introduced ourselves?”
“I’m sure he didn’t come here by accident,” said Green.
“Surely not, but it is rude not to do so,” countered Brown.
Green thought a moment and said, “Agreed.”
Brown said, “I am Lucius Parsnip, esquire.”
Green immediately added, “And I am Petronius Looseleaf, esquire.”
“So, you’re lawyers?” asked Paul.
“Oh my, no!” said Parsnip.
“We are gentlemen!” added Looseleaf.
“It’s just that–“ began Paul.
“I believe you brought a missive?” said Parsnip.
“I’m sorry, a what?” asked Paul.
“The letter,” said Looseleaf.
Pulling it out from his coat pocket, Paul put it on the table.
“Lovely penmanship,” observed Looseleaf.
“Quite. It’s a dying art, I’m afraid,” said Parsnip.
Neither reached for it, but they did look at Paul.
“Would you mind terribly?” asked Looseleaf.
“Just turning it over,” finished Parsnip.
“Sure,” said Paul, as he flipped the envelope, revealing the wax seal.
“Oh, well, this is a surprise,” said Parsnip, although he did not sound surprised in the least.
“Shocking,” casually replied Looseleaf.
They each took out a small pocketknife and sliced through the wax seal. With an exhalation of air the envelope unfolded itself, getting larger with each unfold until, lying flat, it fully covered the table. Parsnip and Looseleaf grabbed their place setting and newspaper, respectively, just as it finished. It was an illustration of a doorway standing in the middle of a forest glen. The image was rendered in black ink, but so highly detailed that it seemed almost real. The foliage seemed to flutter in a wind. Which was impossible.
“Very well, in you go!” said Parsnip hurriedly.
“No time to waste!” added Looseleaf.
Paul had enough. He stood and said, “What is going on here?!”
“You need to go through the door and retrieve Julia,” said Parsnip.
Paul, who felt he’d been a pretty good sport about everything today, said, “It’s a picture of a door! Not a real door! If this is a joke, it’s over! And not really funny!”
“It’s no joke, old boy,” said Looseleaf, who grabbed the doorknob on the paper and flung it open as he stepped aside, the door falling back and hanging off the side of the table.
Surprised, Paul leaned over and looked in. He saw a forest glen at dusk, the horizon at a right angle to where he stood. Crickets chirped, and a nightingale sang. There was an earthy smell, rich and loamy. Paul didn’t know what loam was, but that’s the word that sprung to mind.
“What is this?” asked Paul, as he looked back at these odd men.
Without a word, Parsnip and Looseleaf each bent down, grabbed one of Paul’s ankles, and tipped him over and down through the doorway. Paul felt a wave of vertigo as he passed though the doorway and landed in a heap on the forest floor. Shaking his head, which did nothing to ameliorate his nausea, he then closed his eyes, took deep breaths, and did not move. When he felt as though he was no longer going to vomit, he opened his eyes.
* * *
He was in a forest. There were trees — thick, heavy trees, which seemed misshapen somehow, not that Paul was an expert, but there was something wrong about them. All of the smells and noises he noticed before were now intensified.
Looking back the way he came, he saw Parsnip and Looseleaf peering downwards through a doorway that was set upright into a large tree.
“Three things,” began Parsnip, “One, never leave the path. That’ll be the end of you.”
“Quite right,” added Looseleaf. “Two, don’t eat or drink anything, or you’ll never leave.”
“Leave where?” asked Paul, who felt a panic attack approaching.
Ignoring his question, Parsnip said, “And when you’re dealing with the Old Lady, always be polite but do not volunteer any information.”
“Is that three or four,” asked Looseleaf of his partner.
“The last bit is linked, so I think of it as the third thing,” protested Parsnip.
Looseleaf considered that for a moment and said, “Seems fair and just.”
“As I endeavor to do in all things,” replied Parsnip.
Paul felt well enough to stand, which he did, and moved towards the door, which was starting to swing shut.
“Wait!” cried Paul, lunging towards the closing door.
“One last thing, Julia has the key!” said either Parsnip or Looseleaf, it was impossible to tell.
Paul tried to open the door but it was locked and immovable. He tried banging on it, but all that accomplished was to make his hand sore. Not knowing where he was or what was going on, he did what most people do in such a situation, he took out his smart phone. Just map where he was and he could find his way to a subway; this must be a park. There was of course no signal. Paul sighed and slipped the phone back into his pocket. He felt the card that Ms. Karkowski had handed him this morning.
It finally occurred to him that, during his brief meeting with his boss that morning, there was no humanly way she could have written all that he had read so far on this card. And the fact that it always had some up-to-the-minute, context-aware information on it — and that it still seemed to otherwise be plain old ink on paper — was proof that something was very, very wrong. It was not, in fact, Internet-enabled “e-paper”. Removing it from his pocket, he read it once more: “Just do what they told you and everything will be fine.”
Paul did not think that outcome was possible, but with apparently no other choice he walked into the woods, keeping on the path, as he was told.
As he walked along the path, which was well-worn and lined with stones, Paul had the unpleasant feeling that he was being watched. This intensified until he wheeled around and saw a squirrel behind him, holding an acorn with both hands. With eyes like liquid night, the squirrel held his gaze. It felt like one of those moments in an action movie, just before a gunfight broke out, except that Paul didn’t have a gun and all the squirrel had was an acorn. Paul turned slowly back around and the squirrel did the same, mirroring Paul.
Paul quickly turned back again, but the squirrel was gone, off to bury its acorn, if he knew anything about squirrels (which he did not; few really do). He picked up the pace and passed a number of odd things, such as a small waterfall that fed a little pond, whose surface was undisturbed and shone like burnished silver. In the pond, he could see the reflection of the surrounding trees and what looked like a tall tower, although the tower otherwise wasn’t there.
He saw a group of standing stones, through which a wind blew and the faintest of music could be heard. It was tempting to get closer — he knew that if he stood in the middle of them he could hear the song fully — but the words of Looseleaf or perhaps Parsnip echoed in his mind, “Never Leave The Path Or That Will Be The End Of You”. So he put his fingers in his ears and hummed tunelessly, which incidentally was the only way he knew how.
Paul passed a rabbit on the side of the path, looking at him from a patch of tall grass. Unlike the squirrel, which had a very suspicious demeanor, this rabbit seemed, well there was no other word for it, amused. It cocked its head and grinned. Then it chuckled. Rabbits can’t grin or laugh, thought Paul, but there it was, enjoying the sight of Paul, for reasons of its own. With one final guffaw (guffaw?), it disappeared into the grass. At least it didn’t have a pocket watch, but that’s something he shouldn’t have to think about wildlife. Ever.
Winding downwards, the path led into a clearing where two people sat around a wooden table on which sat a rustic teapot and cups. The first person was an old woman, dressed like a peasant from somewhere in Eastern European, complete with babushka. All the colors were yellows and reds. She was pouring tea into three cups.
The second was a beautiful young woman dressed like a peasant as well, but with a wholly different effect. She had hair the color of honey, with subtle highlights of gold. Her eyes were gray, which recalled clouds seen just as you arrive home ahead of the storm, safe and dry. Her nose was a little crooked, which only enhanced her unique appearance. As for the rest of her, Paul had a difficult time thinking of a polite way to describe her, other than “Wow”.
“Julia?” he asked, his mouth gone dry.
“It seems your hero has arrived, my dear,” said the old woman.
Julia looked him up and down and sighed. “Parsnip and Looseleaf, why do I bother.”
“Now, now, sweetie, he may have hidden talents,” said the old woman with a sly smile. “Please, hero, have a seat.”
Paul sat down.
“I’m not a hero,” he said.
Julia shot him a look that made it clear she agreed with that assessment.
“Now that remains to be seen,” the old woman said, “Let us now introduce ourselves. You may call me Gran.”
I’m P-…” Paul suddenly remembered the advice to not offer any information. “I’m the one they… sent.”
“That’s a rather long name,” replied Gran. “Do you mind if I call you Hero?”
“Uh… sure,” Paul said. He looked at Julia with a smile and shrugged. She stared at him as if he were an idiot. Lots of women had looked at him that way, and over time he had accepted it as an unhappy fact. But he wanted to prove Julia wrong.
“So, you are here for this fair maiden?” asked Gran.
“I’m not a maiden,” said Julia, with vehemence.
Gran tutted, “Not a thing, in my day, that a young lady might say so willfully or proudly.”
“Not ‘your day’, is it?” countered Julia.
“That remains to be seen, doesn’t it?” replied Gran.
With that, both women looked at Paul. It was clear they were waiting for him to say something, but he had no idea what. Julia shook her head and Gran smiled.
“What?” said Paul. He nervously fingered the card, looked down at it, and it read “Say why you’re here”.
“Oh, right, I’m here to bring Julia back,” Paul declared.
Julia gave him a look that said “Finally”.
“Excellent!” said Gran.
“Oh, that was easier than I thought,” said Paul.
“Would you like a cookie? I baked them myself,” said Gran, holding out a plateful.
Paul was suddenly ravenous. He’d not eaten since a bagel on the way to work that morning, and those cookies looked amazing. He took one and popped it in his mouth.
“You are an idiot,” said Julia. This was the first time she had spoken to him directly.
The little voices of Parsnip and Looseleaf that had been chiming in and keeping him from harm had gone silent. Or he had just forgotten. Either way, Paul had the sense of encroaching doom.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” he asked around the chunks of cookie in his mouth.
“I couldn’t!” Julia said.
“Why?” he persisted.
“Don’t eat or drink anything! How hard is that to remember?” Julia yelled at him.
“My two children, I have so many things for you to do for me,” Gran said, her smile widening to show many tiny, sharp teeth. It reminded Paul of a nature show he’d seen about weird fish that lived in the deepest part of the ocean.
“It was just a cookie,” he said. “Why can’t we just leave?”
“By all means,” said Gran, as she gestured to the path behind him.
Paul began to get up but found he was stuck to the chair.
“We are bound by her will,” said Julia.
“Indeed you are,” Gran said.
“All you had to do was not eat that damned cookie,” Julia said.
“And why can’t you leave?” Paul asked.
“It’s a long story,” Julia replied, looking away.
“Did you eat a cookie too?” he asked.
Julia’s cheeks flushed — adorably, he thought — and she said, “It doesn’t matter.”
“Why?” Paul asked.
“Because shut up!” she said.
There was a sound, like nuts and bolts poured over aluminum foil, and they both looked at Gran, who appeared to be laughing. Her shoulders shook with each exhalation.
“This is going to be, oh, so merry,” Gran said, as she wiped a tear from her eye.
“This really is unfair,” said Paul loudly.
Julia rolled her eyes, but Gran said, “No, you are correct, Hero. It is unfair; you came into this with a pure heart.”
Gran looked right at Julia and said, “Truly pure.”
“What do you–“ asked Paul, but was cut off by Gran.
“I’ll make this wager: We will each make a portrait of fair Julia here, and the most accurate will be able to do what they will.”
“Portrait?” asked Paul.
But Gran had already produced an easel with a canvas, a pallet with paints, bushes, and an hourglass.
“When the sand runs out, then we will judge,” said Gran, who turned the hourglass over.
“What am I supposed to use?” asked Paul, who had not brought art supplies with him that morning.
“Whatever you like, dear, whatever you like,” said Gran, who was already painting away.
The hourglass was more likely a minute glass, with the rate that the sand was falling. Paul frantically went through his pockets; he had a pen, excellent! But the only paper he had — other than the notecard his boss had given him, and he probably needed that — was a ripped receipt for the Thai takeout he had the week before. The sand was running faster and faster, as he reached into his last pocket and felt a smooth, cool shape.
With a confidence he rarely felt, Paul pulled out his smart phone and snapped a picture.
“Done,” he said, as the last grain of sand fell.
“Pardon?” said Gran.
“Here, take a look,” he said, and showed the old woman the picture he took. It was entirely accurate — even more so than the one Gran had done, though her work was eerily accurate, but still not as complete as a digital photo.
He showed it to Julia, who favored him with a smile. “Good work, hero,” she said. Not a sonnet, but it did make Paul feel as if he deserved the title.
Gran’s eyes narrowed, and she looked as if she were ready to inflict grave damage. Instead, she pulled out two twigs from somewhere and broke them. With that, Paul knew he could get up and walk away.
He stood, offering a hand to Julia, which she took (yeah!), and they walked towards the path.
“I misjudged you,” said Gran, “I thought you a stupid oaf. I will not make that mistake again. Go, for now.”
Paul did not care for the “for now” part of that, nor for the “stupid oaf” comment, but he had fixed this and was enjoying the moment. In fact, as they proceeded back to the doorway, the Rabbit winked at him, and the squirrel dropped an acorn into his pocket. He felt, and quite rightly, that this was a sort of praise.
As they walked, Paul who still felt pretty good about the way things turned out, turned to Julia and asked, “What was that all about?”
“It’s kind of a long story,” she replied, avoiding his eyes.
“But who-“ he began.
She stopped and looked him straight in the eyes, “Listen, do you have relatives that you might not talk to if you weren’t related?”
Thinking of his cousin who had joined the Salvation Army to meet girls and subsequently deserted when it was apparent that while women loved a man in uniform, it didn’t mean they loved every man in uniform, Paul said, “Uh… sure.”
“That’s the short version,” she said.
Paul felt that pursuing this line of questioning would ruin the moment, so he just enjoyed the companionable silence.
Once they arrived at the door, Paul said, “They said you had the key.”
“What key?” she said, distractedly.
Paul felt a bubble of panic rising in him. While he enjoyed strolling through a forest with a beautiful woman, he was quite certain that if he was stuck here, he would die pretty quickly.
“Oh, you mean this key?” Julia asked, as she produced a brass key from a hidden pocket.
“I hope so,” he replied.
She smiled and turned the key in the lock, and the door swung inward to show the ceiling of Parsnip and Looseleaf’s apartment. She took his hand and together they stepped forward and onto the table. Paul again felt vertigo, but much less this time. Parsnip and Looseleaf stood on either side of the table and said in unison, “Welcome back!”
There was a feast in the apartment, which seemed very appropriate, with excellent food and beer. And there were stories that were at once funny, exciting, sad, poignant, informative, and scary (but only the one about the Coppermen). Afterwards, he could not recall even a word, with one exception. He had said, perhaps aided by the exceptional beer, that he wished he could stay there. Soon after that, Paul got up to stagger home and Julia kissed his forehead, which was the last thing he remembered clearly.
* * *
Paul woke up in his own bed. He couldn’t recall how he got there, and everything that had happened seemed like a dream — except, unlike most dreams, he could recall everything with complete clarity, except for those stories.
He looked at his clock, 7:30am. He needed to rush to get to work on time, so he jumped in the shower, grabbed an energy bar, and walked out of his apartment door into the front yard. Front yard? He looked around. He was standing in front of a door with a brass A on it, which was next to a smaller door. He looked back through the doorway — that was his apartment, but now it was next-door to Parsnip and Looseleaf’s apartment.
Just then, Looseleaf, in a tatty brown robe, opened his door.
“Good morning! Ready for work, I see,” he said cheerily.
“What’s going on?” asked Paul, who was not sure he wanted to know.
Parsnip, sporting a spotless green robe, stuck his head out and said, “Excellent! Early for work. I like the cut of your jib!”
“What is going on?” Paul repeated.
“You work for us now,” said Parsnip.
“No, I don’t,” said Paul uneasily.
“Indeed you do, young sir!” chimed in Looseleaf.
“’Twas your request!” added Parsnip.
Looseleaf produced a folded-up piece of heavy paper. It was long and contained many heretofores and in-the-event-ofs, but at the bottom was Paul’s signature, countersigned by Parsnip and Looseleaf and witnessed by Julia, and apparently made official with a wax seal. Quite official, in an unfair sort of way.
“But my apartment…?” Paul asked.
“All part of your signing bonus. Traveling expenses taken care of,” said Parsnip.
“No worries, old boy!” added Looseleaf, with a hearty slap on the arm.
Paul took a moment. This was crazy, this sort of thing didn’t happen. He had a life, and friends. He couldn’t just pull up and leave. He turned to say just that, when Julia walked up and opened the front gate. She was dressed in an aviatrix jacket, cream-colored silk blouse, tight brown pants, and high boots with buckles up the side.
“You’ve joined the team, have you?” she asked.
“Yes,” Paul said, and he meant it.
“Welcome to The Borough,” she replied with a smile. *
About the Author: Leo Byrne Jenicek, a native New Yorker, is an award-winning screenwriter and D&D player. If more people follow him on twitter, @DangerRanger, he will tweet more.
Story and photo-illustration copyright 2014 by Leo Jenicek