The Underground (part four)

A knock at the door interrupted John staring off into space.  Unable to sleep and unwilling to venture out, he was stuck sitting in his living room, doing nothing. It was already well into the evening, and he wasn’t expecting anyone, so he didn’t get up.  Maybe whoever it was would just go away.

The knock came again, a little louder this time. “John?”

Even muffled by the door, the voice sounded familiar. Reluctantly, he left his chair and walked over to look out of the peephole. Sure enough, it was her. How had she found him? Did she go through his wallet after drugging him the other night? Did he even want to talk to her? No, he decided. He had stayed home for a reason.

“John, I know you looked out; I could see the shadow. Please let me in.”

He walked away from the door and began heading to the back of his apartment away from the door.

“John. I dropped the restraining order. It’s okay to talk to me. I wanted to explain.”

Colleen? Why was she here?

“No need to explain,” he shouted through the door. “Thank you for dropping it, but I don’t want to cause you any more trouble. Please just go.”

He turned around to walk away again.

“I had a dream about you.”

Once again, he stopped. “Probably because I kept insisting you were someone you aren’t. I’m sorry about that. It won’t happen again.”

“No. Before. Before that first time.”

A shiver ran up his spine. He walked quickly back to the door. There she was, the perfect copy of Cailín, except for the apparent lack of confidence.

“When?”

“Can I please come in?”

“When did you have a dream about me?”

“The night before you first came up to me.”

He didn’t think she was lying, but he wasn’t sure he could trust his intuitions anymore. Still, he stepped aside and gestured for her to come in. Leading her to an armchair, he sat down on the corner of the couch next to it.

“Go ahead.”

She looked nervous. Would she call the police? Was this a set up? He tried to ignore that possibility. If she could shed any light on this whole mess, he wanted to hear her out.

“Okay, well… The night before we met, I had a dream about you. We had been drinking in a bar. I actually hadn’t remembered the dream until you talked to me. It kinda freaked me out. I don’t usually remember my dreams. And I’ve certainly not dreamed about someone I’ve never met just before meeting them.”

“I can see why that might freak you out.” Realizing he might be making her uncomfortable, he leaned back against the couch to give her some space.

She nodded. “So when I saw you again…”

“And I grabbed you.”

“Yeah. I thought… Well, I don’t know what I thought, exactly. The dream had really unnerved me. And I wanted to get rid of you so I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore.”

“I shouldn’t have grabbed you.”

“No, you shouldn’t have. But the dream bothered me more. I didn’t know what to make of it. And then you thought you recognized me. It was all rather unsettling.”

“So what made you drop the restraining order? Why come here to tell me all of this?”

“I went to that bar. Or I tried to. They wouldn’t let me in. But it really bothered me that I had never noticed it before. And I thought about everything you’d said… And… so I came here. I thought maybe you knew something that would help me make sense of this.”

“It doesn’t really make sense to me, either, I’m afraid.”

Her disappointment was obvious. But what could he offer her? He hadn’t believed anything Cailín had told him. Maybe, though…

“I think there is someone who might be able to help you. Let’s try the bar again.”

“But they already turned me away.”

“I know a guy…”

*     *     *

“I’m sorry, sir. Members only.” The doorman blocked the door.

“What? Since when?” John hadn’t expected this, even after Colleen had told him she hadn’t been able to get in. “You know me. You’ve let me in before.”

“Sorry, sir. If you aren’t a member, I must ask you to leave.”

Desperate, he tried another tack. “Don’t you recognize your boss?” He gestured at Colleen.

“Not the boss. Please leave.”

John was defeated. He had been certain the doorman would let him in.

Colleen tugged at his jacket. “Come on. Let’s go. I’m not feeling well, anyway.”

John hated giving up. The answers were inside. Colleen and Cailín face to face would surely bring some sort of resolution. Maybe that was the way in. He turned back to the man standing between him and the door.

“Look, Matt?” The man nodded. “I need to prove to this woman,” again indicating Colleen, “that she and your boss are twins. It will help clear up some trouble I’m in.”

“But I…” John gave Colleen a quick look to stop her. She appeared to get the message.

“My instructions were clear. No one gets in. I’m sorry.”

“John, I’m really not feeling well.”

He finally noticed she had started looking very pale.  “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I felt this way earlier, but it seemed to go away…” She collapsed before she could finish her sentence.

John tried to catch her but didn’t get there quickly enough, and she landed heavily on the ground. “Dammit.” He picked her up; she was completely unconscious. “I suppose you can’t call anyone?”

The doorman seemed frozen with worry and uncertainty. John pushed past him into the club to get to a phone. By the time the man had recovered his wits, John was already through the door. He took a step toward the bar, and Colleen vanished from his arms.

She hadn’t fallen, nor had she gotten out of his arms herself. She was just gone, as though she had never been there.

John turned around and opened the door without walking out. “Did she leave?”

“Who?”

“The woman I was with.”

“No one came out. But you need to. Right now.”

“Not going to happen. And Cailín told me you won’t come in, so I don’t think you’re going to make me.” John closed the door again.

If she hadn’t left, where was she?

John saw Cailín walking over to him from the direction of her office. A sad smile on her face, she did not seem to be in a hurry to get to him. He walked swiftly to close the distance.

“I’m surprised to see…”

John cut her off. “Where is she?”

“Who?” The question seemed genuine enough, but he had lost his patience.

“You know who. Colleen.  Where is she?”

“You brought her here?”

“Yes. To straighten things out.”

“Oh.” Cailín started chewing her lip.

“Do we need to go somewhere to talk? This is getting old.”

“Well…”

He sighed. “Lead the way.”

The Underground (part three)

“Do you understand?” The police officer – or maybe he was a detective, John couldn’t remember – was stern.

“Yes, sir. I am to stay at least 50 feet…”

“Yards. 50 yards,” the man corrected him.

“50 yards from her at all times, and I am not to attempt to communicate with her.” John looked for some confirmation, and the man nodded. “Do I need a lawyer?”

“Not unless you plan on contesting the order. But if it was just a case of mistaken identity, as you claim, why would you do that?”

John knew no one believed his explanations. They thought John was crazy and probably needed to be locked up. But since there was nothing more than grabbing the woman’s arm, they seemed content to settle for the restraining order.  This man just wanted John to know that he’d be watching.

The only thing John wanted was to get out. A bizarre situation had become a nightmare, and he would just be happy if he never saw Colleen again. Whatever connection might exist between her and Cailín no longer interested him. Being arrested was more than his curiosity could take.  His apartment was the only place he wanted to be after a night in jail.

“I will stay away from her.”

“You better.”

And that was it.  He retrieved his belongings and was free.  It was already past noon. Going straight home, he messaged his boss, told him he would explain everything tomorrow. John hoped the news hadn’t gotten to his work; he wanted to be able to put it in context.

As soon as he sat down, exhaustion overwhelmed him. It had been a long night, and no amount of sleepless nights prepared someone for a sleepless night in jail. Deciding his state of tiredness might be severe enough, he moved to his bed and promptly slipped into unconsciousness.

*     *     *

The club never seemed to change. The people did; some different faces every night. But it was as though everyone was a regular, everyone knew how to behave to preserve the atmosphere. It might be kind of comforting, if it didn’t seem so odd.

Sitting at the bar, John wondered why he was back here. In his dreams, he would sometimes realize he was doing something he didn’t want to, and it would shock him. He might smoke a cigarette and then be horrified that he had done it. This felt very much like that, except he was awake.

His anxiety rose when he remembered that Colleen said she lived upstairs. Was he violating the restraining order? He stood to leave. It was silly being here; what had possessed him to come back?

“Hi, there. Missed you last night.”

Once again, Cailín seemed to appear from thin air.

“I was in jail.”

Her surprise looked genuine enough. “Why were you in jail?” Concern permeated her voice.

“We’ve already talked about this. You drugged me.” John surprised himself by saying that, but he immediately realized it was true. “I don’t want to go back to jail, so I’m leaving.”

He turned to walk away. Her voice stopped him.

“I’m sorry.”

He looked back at her. “What?”

“For drugging you. I’m sorry. I thought it was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t. I’m sorry.”

“Well… thank you.”

“Please stay.”

“I have a restraining order on me. From the woman who looks like you. She lives in this building. I have to go.”

“No, you don’t. Let’s go talk. No funny stuff. I swear.”

He should leave, he knew that. This admittedly fascinating woman had brought chaos into his life. Nothing good could come from staying. But her pull over him was undeniable. He could not say what it was about her. Yes, she was attractive, but that wasn’t it, at least not all of it. Whatever drew him to her, he found himself unable to ignore it now.

He motioned for her to lead the way. Rather than taking him back up to her office, she led him to an alcove off the floor. Pushing back the heavy curtain revealed a couch, a couple of chairs, and a low table. She waved him inside and closed the curtain.

“I didn’t know this was here.”

“These little spaces don’t get used much. But sometimes people want privacy.”

“It’s cozy.”

“Yeah. So tell me what happened.”

“Two days ago, after my last visit here, I woke up at home and went about my day. Something reminded me of you, which is when I realized I had forgotten about you. I assume that was whatever you gave me.”

She looked down to avoid his gaze. “Yes.”

“Why? Why did you do that?”

Her sigh was heavy. “I really did think it would help. I wanted you to forget this place.”

“It didn’t work.”

“I know. Please go on.”

He considered pursuing the question, but decided to continue. Maybe she would understand how messed up everything was. Maybe it would make her more willing to answer him.

“After work, I came over here to talk to you. But you weren’t open yet, so I sat and waited. I saw Colleen, your doppelgänger, walk by. Since she had said she’d never heard of this place, I grabbed her arm to stop and question her. Before I could get anywhere, the police showed up, and she said I was stalking her. They threw me in jail overnight and slapped a restraining order on me. That’s what happened.”

“Oh.”

“Oh? That’s all you have to say?”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to minimize it. I was just thinking about how to make this right.”

“Tell me the truth. Do you have multiple personalities? Are you really Colleen?”

“No. I mean… No. I don’t have multiple personalities. This is rather difficult to explain.”

“Try.”

“Okay. Let me start with… Well, do you remember when I asked you if you remembered me before seeing Colleen?”

“Yes.”

“This place is separate. It’s… different. People come here to get away from their day-to-day grind.”

“So you’ve said.”

“Well, it’s not just a slogan. It’s literally true. Everyone here is someone else outside of this place. No one here remembers their lives out there. And no one out their remembers their time here. It’s the ultimate escape. In other words, you shouldn’t remember events in one while you’re in the other. What you’ve described has never happened before.”

“So you are Colleen?”

“That’s your question?”

“Well, yes. At least in part.”

“No, I’m not Colleen. I know nothing about Colleen. I know nothing about her life. And she knows nothing about mine. Or about you. Except that you seem to think she’s someone else and are stalking her because of it. We are not the same person. It should be impossible for you to even remember both of us.”

“That is unbelievable.”

“I know. That’s why I didn’t want to explain it before.”

“If you don’t know about Colleen, if you only know about things in here, how do you know about any of this?”

“I’m the owner, remember? I set this place up. Nobody else out there knows anything about this. They just come here and enjoy themselves. I know the rules, but I still have to follow them.”

“So nobody can verify this?”

“Well… Now that you ask…”

“Who?”

“Matt.”

“Matt?”

“You’ve met him. The doorman. He’s never been inside. When I hired him, I explained things. Told him not to come in, it would make it hard to do his job. He agreed. You could talk to him.”

“So why do I remember?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s why I drugged you the other night. Try to put things back to normal. Obviously, as you noted, that failed. So I’m trying to tell you the truth, trying to make things right.”

This was crazy. He should have left. Should never have come back. A place separate from the rest of the world. John stood up and walked out of the alcove. Cailín said something, but he wasn’t listening. He kept going right out the door. The doorman was there, but John didn’t stop. He didn’t want to hear any more. Cailín was at the door calling out to him. But he didn’t stop this time, and she didn’t cross through the doorway.

Once he was up the stairs and a few steps away, her voice faded into the night. How had he even gotten here? It didn’t matter. He was exhausted again. He walked back to his apartment and went straight to bed.

The Underground (part two)

The interaction with Colleen occupied John’s thoughts for the rest of the afternoon.  Maybe last night had been a dream.  He might have seen that woman at his building before, even overheard – or misheard – her name.  Somehow all of that worked into his dream.

Perhaps she had a twin?  That could explain it.  Colleen and Cailín. And Colleen simply didn’t know about him.  Just a simple misunderstanding.  But she hadn’t heard of the club.  The one her twin owned?  That was less likely.

It had been so real.  Even now he could feel Cailín’s head on his chest.  Smell her hair. It couldn’t have been a dream.  But a twin seemed impossible, too.  Maybe she just didn’t want to admit to knowing him right then and there.  But Colleen’s confusion was convincing.

No matter how he thought about it, it didn’t make any sense.  He tried to focus on work to take his mind off of the whole thing, but to no avail.  Everyone else had left for the day.  Normally he would work well into the evening to make up for the time lost in the morning, but he couldn’t get anything done.

On the way back to his apartment, he went past The Underground.  It was there; at least that much hadn’t been a dream.  But it was dark and closed.  He couldn’t check to see if Cailín was there.  See if she was real.

At home, he sat in his recliner with the television on.  The noise helped keep his mind from wandering too much.  There was nothing for him to do, so distraction was the best he could hope for.

He woke up hours later, surprised sleep had found him.  Groggy and a bit disoriented, he showered as much as to wake up as to make up for rushing that morning. The grogginess lifted some, so he finished getting ready and headed back to The Underground.

The same doorman waited for him, and, without being asked, John handed over his ID.  There was no conversation this time, and he was waved inside.  The place was already filling up, and it was still relatively quiet.  She was nowhere to be seen.

He found an open seat at the bar and waited for the bartender.  When the man finally came over, John asked, “Is the owner around?”

The bartender just shrugged, offering no sign that he would be of help.  John just ordered a beer and waited.

Time passed at its own pace.  He tried to drink slowly, but he felt some pressure to keep ordering.  Being alone in a new place made him want to be a good customer, so that he wouldn’t be seen as just taking up space.

“You came back.”

He hadn’t seen her arrive.  She was just next to him, smiling.

“Hi.  You’re talking to me.”

“Of course, why wouldn’t I talk to you?”

No indication that it had been her today.  “I just wasn’t sure you’d be here tonight,” he managed.

She laughed. “I’m always here.”

“I thought I saw you earlier today.”

She frowned a bit. “Impossible. We weren’t open earlier.”

“No. Not here. Outside my office building.”

“When was this?”

“Around noon.”

“Definitely not me.”

John wasn’t sure what to make of this exchange. He believed it wasn’t her.  But there was still something about her responses.

“Do you have a twin sister?”

Another laugh. Still kind. But more, too. Uncertainty?

“No. I’m an only child. No sisters or brothers. You said this was noon?”

“Yes.” Why did she think the time was important?

“And you thought you saw me?”

“Yeah, but she said she didn’t know me.”

“Well, it wasn’t me, but…” She trailed off and stared past him at nothing.

“But what?”

She looked at him with an intensity he hadn’t felt from her before. “You were thinking of me at noon?”

Suddenly he felt self-conscious.  Did she think he had become obsessed with her? Had he become obsessed with her? No, he had just seen her, or thought he had.  It wasn’t that he was spending the morning dwelling on the night before.

“Well, only because I thought I had run into you.”

“So seeing this woman made you remember me. But not before, right?”

“Well, no. I mean it’s not like I had forgotten you.  I mean I enjoyed our time together last night.”

“Look, this is kind of important. Had you thought about me before you saw her or not? I’m not going to be mad if you didn’t.  I just need to know what happened.”

“I don’t understand.”

In spite of her reassuring smile, he felt unsteady. He had thought all of this had to have a simple explanation. But her reactions told a different story.

“I know. And I’ll try to explain, but I need to know if you remembered me before you saw her.”

He tried to think back, but the confusion was making it difficult.  Of course he remembered her. But there was no clear memory of thinking about her before he had arrived at his office.

“I… I’m not sure. What’s going on?” It was the beer. He had had too much to drink, and it was making the room swim. That was it, he decided. But he didn’t believe it.

She chewed on her lip a bit as she considered him. “Come with me,” she said finally.

He followed her through a door and up a flight of stairs to an office. She motioned for him to sit on a short couch as she poured a couple of drinks. The office itself was neatly kept. One wall hidden by bookshelves, the others were covered with music posters. Handing him a glass, she sat in an armchair across a small table from him.

“I want to ask you some questions, but in asking them, I make the answers useless. So I don’t know what to do.”

“Why not just tell me what’s happening?”

“Because that might spoil everything.”

“Spoil everything?”

“I should probably just ask you to leave. That would be the easiest solution. But I don’t want to do that.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

“Yeah. I know.”

He waited for her to say more, to say something he could understand. But she just sat, lost in her own thoughts. As the silence wore on, he felt increasingly awkward, unsure of what to say or do. He took a sip from his glass. The whiskey burned his throat in that pleasant way that made it a calming drink.

As though that had been the signal she was waiting for, Cailín spoke. “This place is supposed to be a place to get away from the rest of the world. What happens out there is supposed out there. And what happens here is just for her. You seem to have dragged last night out into the world and brought some of the world back here. Do you understand?”

“Wait. Are you saying that was you today? That you just won’t acknowledge me during the day?”

“No. That’s not it. At least, not exactly. The two places are separate. That wasn’t me. And it shouldn’t have been you. And that’s the problem.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“Yeah. Please finish your drink.”

He saw no reason not to, so he drained his glass.

*     *     *

John woke up early, at least for him. It was the first time in as long as he could remember that he felt rested. In an unusually good mood, he laughed when he thought about how surprised his boss would be with him arriving before ten.

He was not disappointed, then, when his boss remarked that he would need to make a note of this day on his calendar. He offered to treat John to lunch. The morning went by quickly as he got caught up on a number of important matters.

It was only after he was outside on his way to lunch that he remembered Cailín. He saw the bus he had taken yesterday drive off, and it reminded him of the encounter in this very courtyard yesterday. His time at The Underground came flooding back as well. He knew he hadn’t remembered any of it before that moment, though he didn’t know how he could have forgotten.

All of his questions, all of the confusion, came back in a rush, and it made enjoying lunch impossible. His boss, however, didn’t notice the onset of John’s sullenness and seemed to have a good time. After lunch, John returned to work and managed to still get some things done. Uncharacteristically, he left when everyone else did and managed to smile at his boss’s joke about it. He promised not to make a habit of it.

Instead of going back to his apartment, he went straight to The Underground. As he expected, it wasn’t open, so he sat down at the top of the stairs to wait.

He almost didn’t see her walk by. She hadn’t noticed him at the top of the stairs. He stood up and grabbed her by the arm.

“Excuse me! Take your hand off of me!” She was yelling, trying to draw the attention of other people.

So this was Colleen. “I thought you hadn’t heard of this place.”

A flash of recognition crossed her face. “You’re the man who accosted me yesterday!” Still yelling. “I told you to leave me alone!”

“You said you hadn’t heard of The Underground, yet here you are.”

“I still haven’t heard of it!” When John pointed out the sign, she continued yelling. “I live in this building, but I had no idea there was a bar down here!”

“How could you not…”

“Excuse me. What is the trouble here?” A police officer had walked up and was staring right at John.

“Officer, thank goodness. This man started bothering me yesterday, and now he’s followed me to my home.”

“Take your hand off of the lady’s arm.”

John hadn’t realized he was still holding her and let go immediately. “Officer, this is just…”

“I don’t want to hear it. Shut your mouth. Ma’am?”

“I’ve never seen this man before yesterday. He seems to think we know each other.”

“You want to file a complaint?”

She glared at John for several seconds. “Yes.”

The officer put John in handcuffs and called for a squad car as he took Colleen’s statement. He told her to come down to the station to finish the report. John was taken in, fingerprinted, photographed, and put in a cell.

The Underground (part one)

It’s one thing to hate insomnia, and another thing to have to live it. John had moved past hating and on to accepting it as a normal part of his life. Rather than dreading going to bed, he simply incorporated the extra hours into his daily routine. Sleep came when it did, and when it didn’t, he would walk around the city. It was a chance to see faces of the world he would otherwise remain ignorant of.

Tonight was no different. His wandering brought him to a club below street level. The Underground. Perhaps a bit too literal. But it was something new. John’s beard and rough skin clearly put him in his late twenties heading towards forty, but the doorman checked his ID anyway. In fact, he spent more time on it than seemed reasonable. Eventually, he handed it back.

“Haven’t seen you before.” His voice was deep and gravelly, but not threatening.

“Nope,” John agreed. “First time here.”

The doorman kept eyeing him. “You sure you want to go in?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

The doorman shrugged as though the reason were obvious. “Go ahead. Enjoy your night.”

John wasn’t sure what to make of the man’s comments, but he wouldn’t let it him stop him. If anything, it made him determined to check the place out. He walked through the door, making sure it closed behind him to cut off the doorman’s gaze.

Inside, the place was dark and crowded. In spite of the number of people, it was surprisingly quiet. Music – he guessed dance music from the late 80s – played over the sound system, but even it was not overly loud.

He found an open stool at the bar, and sat down. After catching the bartender’s eye, he ordered a beer and looked around the room.  Almost immediately, he noticed a woman down the bar looking directly at him.  There was no smile, just a look of mild curiosity.  Long, straight, dark hair.  Loose fitting white shirt.  Jeans.  Attractive, but not making any attempt to draw attention to herself. He tried to ignore her staring and continue his survey of the other customers.

It really was an odd place. It looked like it was meant to be a nightclub, but everyone acted like it was a small, unknown hole in the wall. A place you’d go to for a secret rendezvous. With so many people, however, it could hardly be that.

“I haven’t seen you before.”

The woman was next to him. She must have asked the person who had been sitting there to move.

“You’re the second person to tell me that.” He tried to act nonplussed by her continued interest.

“Well, it’s true.”

“I suppose it is.” So far, this was the only thing that made him uncomfortable. Maybe the doorman was warning him about her.

“My name is Cailín.”

“Hi, I’m John.” Whatever was making him feel uncertain, he didn’t want to be rude.

“John. That’s a nice name.”

“Nothing fancy. Your name is intriguing, however.”

She laughed. It was a kind sound, but he didn’t understand what had prompted it. “I say something funny?”

“No. Or at least, I know you didn’t mean to. My dad gave me the name. He didn’t have much of an imagination. It means ‘girl.'”

“Oh. Yeah. I guess I can see why that would be funny. Still ‘Cailín’ sounds better than ‘girl.'”

“I guess so. I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

His early unease dissipated, he found her pleasant company. “So what’s so special about this place? The doorman seemed to want me to stay away.”

“Him? He just likes to be picky about who comes here. Probably likes the power too much. As for The Underground, it’s just somewhere people can get away from everything. Here, your other life doesn’t matter. Nobody here knows what you do, or what responsibilities you have. None of that belongs here.”

“Sounds nice.” And it did. A place to escape. “But there are lots of places you can do that, aren’t there?”

She laughed again. Still friendly. “Perhaps, but I don’t own those other places.”

“I didn’t realize . . .”

“Why should you? You haven’t been here before.”

“I guess I wouldn’t expect the owner to just be sitting at the bar like any other customer.”

“Ah. Well, I created a place I would want to go. No sense sitting in an office when this is where I would want to be. Besides, it runs itself. Not much for me to do.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t. Not yet. But I understand your confusion. For now, just enjoy yourself. That’s what this is here for.”

“Alright.” John expected her to leave, now that she had introduced herself, but she stayed next to him. Her presence refused to be ignored, and he couldn’t stop paying attention to her.

A new song started, and Cailín suddenly grabbed his hand. “Dance with me.”

Maybe it had been a request, but he found himself dragged halfway to the dance floor before he even fully understood what was happening. He decided he didn’t mind and followed her lead. No one else was dancing, but she obviously didn’t care. She leaned against him, only a little shorter than he was. Even while he wasn’t sure how to take all of this, she betrayed no awkwardness. She seemed to be in this moment with no thought beyond it. He found himself feeling envious of her ability to relax into now.

As the song came to an end, she took a step back and looked into his eyes. “Thank you.” Kissing him lightly on the cheek, she turned and walked back to the bar.

*     *     *

John didn’t remember how he got home when he awoke the next day. Light streamed into his window, the sun already high in the morning sky. It was after eleven. Grateful once again that his boss was understanding, he quickly got dressed and caught a bus downtown to his office.

From the building, a number of people were streaming out to grab lunch. It was a typical sight for John. What was new was seeing Cailín walking out of the building, too.

Without hesitating, he walked up to her. “Hi, Cailín. Why are you down here?”

Her expression held only confusion. “I’m sorry? Have we met?”

Now it was his turn not to understand. “It’s me, John. We met last night at The Underground.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve never heard of The Underground, and we have never met.”

“But . . .”

“And my name is not Cailín, it’s Colleen. Now please leave me alone, or I will call the police.”

Nothing about her body language suggested she was joking. She genuinely did not know who he is. Maybe she really wasn’t Cailín. But he was so sure.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you. Please excuse me.” He walked quickly into the building and took the elevator to his office.

Alone in the Woods (part two)

After a day and a half, he finally stirred.  Rian had tended to his injury and waited.  It had been an anxious wait.

“You are awake.  Good.  How do you feel?”

“Confused.  Sore.”  He sounded groggy.

“That is not unexpected.  You have been asleep for at least two days.”

His hand shot up to his neck.  “Where is it?”

“Where is what?”

“My medallion.  It was around my neck.”

“What does it look like?”

He scoffed.  “You took it off.”

She feigned ignorance.  “I did no such thing.  Is it a family heirloom?  There was no medallion where I found you.”

He did not look convinced.

“So what happened to you?  I found you unconscious in the woods, but how did you get there?”

He stared at her intently.  “Do you really not know who I am?”

She was trying very hard to appear relaxed and unconcerned. Luckily false appearances were her speciality.  “I have never seen you before.  How should I know who you are?”

“And my clothes?  They mean nothing?”

“They are very nice.  Since you seem so concerned about this medallion, I assume you are from a wealthy family.  But I know little of such things.”

Doubt began to creep across his face.  Had he begun to believe that she might really not know anything about the Terrgat?  When he spoke next, he sounded less rough, more cordial toward his host.

“I had been riding.  Something must have startled my horse, and she threw me.  I assume I hit my head, and that is where you found me.  Perhaps I lost the medallion in the fall.  I apologize for accusing you.”

She waved her hand.  “It is alright.  I can take you back where I found you when you feel better.  We can look for it.  I saw no sign of your mount, however.”

“Thank you.”  His eyes closed and his head sank back into the pillow.

She needed to know more.  Was he in the woods because of her?  Did others know where he was?  In the end, did it matter?

She sat and watched him sleep.  What should she do?  Even if he was not looking for her before, he knew she was here now.  How long would it take to suspect her of being a mage?  Could she really be safe anymore?  If he were to disappear, would others come looking for him?  And is that something she could even do?  She had never killed before.

This Terrgat, he and his, had killed nearly everyone she had ever known.  If he found out who she was, he would certainly try to kill her.  But could she kill him to save herself?

Maybe she should just leave, go somewhere else.  Now that she had been found once, it could happen again.  It would be safer to quit this place.  But she was tired.  Too tired, she thought, to start again.  She would not run once more.

That decided it, then.  What she had to do.  He was defenseless; it would be a simple matter to stop his breathing.  A kinder death than he would give her, she was certain.

The shadows had grown long during her deliberation, and everything had taken on an orange hue in the late afternoon sun.  The Terrgat’s eyes were open once more and looking at her.

“Could I have something to drink?  I did not want to interrupt you, but I am very thirsty.”

“Oh, of course.  You need liquids to recover properly.”  She poured a glass of water from the pitcher and handed it to him.

“Thank you.  You have been very kind to me.”

“You are welcome.”  She smiled.  “I could not just leave you to die.”  As she said it, she knew it was true, and she could not bring herself to make it false.

Alone in the Woods (part one)

Rian was walking back to her small cabin from the village when she found him.  The woods around her home were inhabited only by small animals.  It was more than a day’s walk to the village and there was no road or other path, so she had never seen another person out here.  Yet it was the fact that he was wearing the green and black colors of the Terrgat that truly unnerved her.

Ever since she had had to flee from her last home, this day haunted her thoughts.  She had refused to form new ties because of it.  Only making trips to the village when she was desperate for supplies, no one there knew who she was or even where she lived.  Just another crazy hermit in the woods or the caves.  She had offered her services to no one, so there wasn’t anyone to depend upon her.  All of this was to make it easy to run again.  And running is precisely what she should do.  If there was one Terrgat – even if he was unconscious and perhaps injured – there would be more.

Despite all of that, she did not relish the idea of leaving.  Why was the Terrgat here?  She had been extremely careful; there was no reason for them to suspect her presence.  Maybe his presence was merely a coincidence.  Perhaps they weren’t looking for her.  Could she stay after all?

It was foolish, she knew.  Even if he was here by accident, she should not take the chance.  And yet the mystery intrigued her.  It was probably the isolation.  The ideal mage life of solitary study, unimpeded by social obligations, had never quite fit her.  Rian always enjoyed contact with others, cooperative endeavors.  These past several years spent almost entirely alone had worn her down.  Finding out why this Terrgat was here, and how he had gotten injured, excited her far more than it should.

She could see he was still breathing.  Getting closer, blood was evident on his brow, but it was not much.  He might have hit his head on a rock, but that still didn’t explain his presence.  If she wanted answers, she would need to ask him.  That meant bringing him back to her cabin where she could tend to his wound properly.

He was not a very large man, maybe not even as tall as she was, though it was difficult to tell while he was prone.  Still, she had no intention of carrying him.  The levitation spell was simple.  It would make him light enough to pull without much effort at all.  However, though it was one of the first spells she had learned, it would not work.  Only after several attempts did she remember the medallion, the Terrgat’s secret weapon against mages, making them immune to magic directed at them.  Secret, that is, until word spread about them after the catastrophe that brought down Cepheus’ kingdom.

She pulled the chain over his head and stared at the circular piece.  Gold, emerald, and onyx, just as it had been described to her.  Holding it made her feel a little dizzy.  The magic that normally infused her was silent, she realized after a moment.  Its absence seemed to unmoor her from the world, and she dropped the disk.  Having one of these, studying how it worked, was tempting.  But it frightened her as well.  She wished she could send it far away, but she had no means to do so.  She left it where it lay.

The levitation spell worked easily now, and she resumed her journey home, the unconscious Terrgat in tow.  It was almost certainly a mistake.  But it was also a chance at information she might never have again.  And anyway, life had gotten too boring.

The Storyteller (part six)

“That is not how I remember the story,” Ara began after they had reached the fire.

“Perhaps it loses something in my telling,” Aaron replied.  They sat a few feet apart, each on their own bench.  He could not guess what she would do after catching him trying to escape.

“Perhaps,” she said thoughtfully.  “Though I often find a difference in stories is due to the purpose of the teller.”

“And what is my purpose?”

“I am not sure.  Maybe I’m wrong.”  She fell silent again.

Aaron did not want to speak, to interrupt her thoughts.  Trying to escape had been a risk, but now that it had failed, he found himself wondering what it would cost him.

The fire drove away the night chill, making it almost uncomfortably warm.  The rest of the village remained still and quiet.  Whatever was going to happen would be between just the two of them.  However, he had to remind himself that both Ara and the child had snuck up on him earlier, so it was very possible there were a dozen people nearby that he was unaware of.

“So you want to leave?”

Aaron felt his body relax a little.  Until that moment, he hadn’t realized how tense he had become waiting for her to speak.  At least now they could get to wherever this was going.

“Rather than wanting to leave, I’d say I didn’t want to die.”

“Die?” Ara sounded genuinely confused.

“Yes.  I thought you might kill me to protect the village from outsiders.  Isn’t that what you were trying to decide?”

Though she may have intended it to, Ara’s laugh did little to calm his fears.  “You are more paranoid than I am, and I didn’t think that was possible.”

Now it was Aaron’s turn to be confused.  “But Eres said that…”

“Eres?  Oh.  Yes.  I suppose she did.”

“Did what?”

“She told you this?”

“Yes.”  Aaron felt uncertain; there was no solid ground for him to get his footing.

“I wondered why she was so sure you would try to sneak away tonight.”  She was definitely not talking to him now, though he still saw no one else around.

But Aaron was still trying to find something that made sense and didn’t wait for her to come back to him.  “Why would she tell me such a thing if it weren’t true?  Why did she want me to sneak away?”

Ara turned back to him.  “Because I told her to.  I told her to enable your escape somehow, anyway.  I wanted to see what you would do.  When you ran into one of the children, I mean.  And I was impressed.  Mason is good at pretend, but he was actually interested in your story.

“The boy…?”

“Yes.  He was following you.  Told to approach you when it was a good time.  Oh, I suppose if you had tried to hurt him, I may have had you killed.  But if you had just walked away, we would have let you go.”

“So it was…  a test?”

“I suppose you could call it that.  I wanted to see how you’d act when you thought no one was watching.  To get a better sense of who you really are.”

“Did I pass?”

“What?”

“Your test.”

“Oh.  In those terms, you passed.  But it’s not just a yes or no.  After all, you never answered my question.  Do you want to leave?”

Aaron’s thoughts were racing.  Eres had misled him.  His life was not in danger?  That was still a little unclear, but he felt less threatened now.  Who were these people?  Why had Jonon even brought him here?

“What if I do?  Want to leave.”

“That’s simple enough.  I’d have Jonon take you out of the village, make sure he got you good and turned around, and then drop you off somewhere.”

“So you’d let me go?”

“Of course!  I didn’t ask you to come here.  If you want to depart, I won’t stop you.”

“And if I want to stay?”

Her face grew more serious, more reserved.  Leaving was easy, it seemed.  Staying would be more complicated.  “If you want to stay, we would have much to discuss.  I do not yet know if you fit in here.  Is it worth the resources it would cost?  But your time with Mason speaks well for you.  I am more inclined to say yes than I was earlier.  Do you want to stay?”

Aaron didn’t know the answer to that.  An hour ago, he was certain the people of this village wanted to kill him.  But that had been a trick, a lie.  Still, lying was not a great start to his introduction to the village.  Nor was being tied up and brought here against his will.  And Ara seemed happier to have him go.  Yet there was something appealing about this place.  He could not identify what it was, but his curiosity was roused, and he was not certain he wanted to leave it behind.

“I guess I don’t know.  Do you need an answer right now?”

The slightest of smiles tugged at the corners of Ara’s mouth.  “No.  No need to make long-lasting decisions tonight.  Sleep sounds like a welcome end to a very full day.  Will you stay in your room tonight?”

“You aren’t going to kill me?”

That prompted a chuckle.  “I promise, as long as you harbor no ill will towards the people of this village, you have nothing to fear here.”

“I suppose that will have to do.  And sleep does sound very appealing right now.”

 

The end, for now.