A Story Well-Travelled

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Chapter 13: Emerson

Aspen and I take refuge in a coffee shop near the Square. We’re still absorbing the information from Adelyn’s letter. Somehow Adelyn ended up in my dimension and I ended up in hers. It’s maddening that we should be in the same time and place together right about now—my dimension or hers—and yet somehow we’ve been flung apart again. I wonder if I’ll ever really meet my pen-pal who coincidentally looks just like me. There has to be some connection between us, but what is it?

While all my attention is on the fact that my family thinks Adelyn is me, Aspen is more worried about whoever this “Grayson” guy is and why he pushed Adelyn into the lake in the first place.

And I should be worried about that, too—Adelyn asked us to find an answer for her—but I just keep thinking about her back home with my family. I’m not mad, per se, just…unsettled. Will they figure out that she’s not actually me? Will Lee figure it out?

Gosh. I’m in a whole different dimension and somehow my adolescent mind still focuses on a stupid crush.

“Grayson needs to respond.” Aspen checks for phone screen for the sixth time this minute. “Like, right now.”

She sent a text to him immediately after reading the letter, asking him if we could meet up with him, but he has yet to respond. Now, she sips on an iced latte and refreshes her phone screen over and over again.

“God, Grayson!” She slams a hand down on the table. “Just text. Me. Back.”

“So who is Grayson again?” I ask. The name is familiar. Maybe Adelyn mentioned him in a letter one time, but I still feel terribly left in the dark. My mind fights to place the name with a specific person or detail, but my thoughts are ending up in a jumbled mess.

“Grayson is our friend from childhood.” Aspen says. “He works for the Council. Adelyn finally got a meeting with the Council, which Grayson warned her not to go to. So then we met him for lunch and then they apparently went to the lake after where he apparently pushed her into another dimension.”

“Wow.” It’s a lot to take in.

Aspen checks her wrist for a hair tie before throwing her blue hair in a messy bun. It looks striking with all the different blues sticking out in strands. Whereas some people might look over the top with blue Ombre hair, Aspen looks like she was born with it. Only certain people can master the art of being-themselves and Aspen is the queen of it.

I’ve never even seen someone with dyed hair, but Aspen makes me want to do it myself. What would my family think if I went back home with rainbow hair and plucked eyebrows?

“Speaking of plucked eyebrows…” Aspen says.

“Was I talking out loud?” I lean over our small metal table, absolutely horrified. How much did I let loose?

Aspen waves a hand. “Nothing incriminating.” She assures me. “I just heard something about eyebrows and made some…inferences.”

My hand subconsciously reaches above my eyes. Thick hair greets my fingertips. I’ve never been disgusted by my eyebrows before, but everyone in this dimension has perfectly sculpted brows. If there is one thing I hate, it is feeling out of place.

At the counter, the worker—who Aspen called a barista—is shooting us weird looks. We’ve been here for far too long, but Aspen has only sipped a fraction of her iced drink and I’m too nervous to even touch mine. I don’t remember the last time I’ve had anything but water. Kenzi found some apple juice once, but it’s been years. Besides, we only have room to hydrate and survive. Anything else is excessive and unnecessary.

“So, my eyebrows?” I tear my eyes away from the concerned barista.

Aspen nods. “We’ll go back to my house.” She says. “I not only have tweezers, but I also have a hairbrush.”

My face flushes a deep red. I hadn’t even thought about my hair. “How awful do I look exactly?” I don’t even want to know the answer.

Aspen tilts her head back and forth, debating. “I mean, on a scale from one to ten, you’re a solid 3.2.”

“Three point two?”

Aspen nods. “Because you and Adelyn are naturally gorgeous, but again, you’re wearing space pants that do not match the polka dot shirt. Your hair looks really healthy, but healthy as in a jungle that is thriving. And the caterpillars could use some plucking.”

Caterpillars. Jungle. Humiliation.

Aspen reaches out and grabs my hand. “But again, you’re gorgeous.”

“Really?” I ask, only partly joking. “Because I picked up more insults than compliments in that monologue.”

“No! I was just being honest.” She says. “Sorry, Adelyn always wants me to be honest. No matter how…”

She lets her words trail off, so I pick it up with a suggestion. “Brutal?”

“I was going to say ‘enlightening.’”

I scoff, but Aspen can tell that I’m not mad. Her smile transforms her face, her white teeth a sharp contrast to her sun kissed skin. “Besides,” Aspen says. “We’re friends. I can tell you anything. I even told you that you can call me Penni.”

“Is that significant?” I joke.

“Oh, yeah.” Aspen nods her head exaggeratedly. “I’ve always been self-conscious of that nickname. Wesley started it. He called me Penni because that’s all he said I was worth. A penny.”

“That’s awful!” I glance at the light brown drink set in front of me and wonder if I should take the monumental sip. Sitting here, bantering with Aspen, I feel like a normal girl who could pick up her drink and take a sip. But I just can’t, so I turn my attention elsewhere. “Who’s Wesley?”

“Another childhood friend.” Aspen says proudly. “It was me, Adelyn, Grayson, and Wesley.”

“Where is he now?”

Aspen’s face darkens. Regret fills me instantly, but there is so much I don’t know about her world. How could I have been expected to know that Wesley is a taboo topic? Is he even a taboo topic or is it just my imagination?

“Out of the picture.” Aspen picks up her drink and downs half of it without stopping for air. When her phone finally dings, she practically throws the drink down on the table and bursts out of her chair. “Oh, my gosh! Did he text? Did he text?”

We both stare at the phone on the table. “Aren’t you going to check?” My eyes flick from Aspen to the phone and back again.

She holds her hands tight against her chest and stares at the phone like it’s a foreign object. Then she meets my eye and seems to realize how absurd she looks. Her eyes close slowly and when she opens them again, Aspen is a girl transformed.

She reaches out and takes the phone in her hand, the embodiment of tranquility. This changes when the screen pops on and her eyes light up. I wait in anticipation while she deflates like a balloon. “Shoot.” She says, sitting back down in the metal chair she had so anxiously abandoned.

“What?” I lean closer over the table.

Aspen’s eyes are still on the phone, a frown fixed on her face. “He can’t meet until tomorrow.”

“So what do we do?”

Aspen shrugs. “Get through the night?”

Aspen takes me back to her house in the fading daylight. The streets are crowded, but less so than earlier. I’m still getting used to the sensation of being around so many people. Every time someone walks past us, I whirl around and check for weapons. Aspen senses my anxiety, slipping her steady arm between my own arm and body.

Together, we walk down the streets and leave the crowd behind. She lives on a rather secluded street in a big house. I recognize the style from a book I’ve read—Kenzi breaks into the abandoned library all the time. It’s Victorian, painted lavender and reaching three stories into the darkening sky.

The door and trim are all white. We walk up the front porch and Aspen walks right in. “My Mom shouldn’t be here right now.” She tells me, leading me up the stairs in the entryway and to the second story. “She’ll be at work for a while longer so we’ll be alone.”

I want to ask about a father figure but think better of it. Besides, I’m not one who knows anything about a conventional family. I haven’t seen my Mom in years. My Dad died when I was young—shot in the town by ruffians who wanted his puffy winter jacket.

Aspen’s room is bright blue. It looks a lot like the color of the walls in Under the Sun, her place of employment, but there’s a big white bed instead of picnic tables and an elaborate chandelier hanging from the ceiling. I walk over to her vanity and eye the pictures of her and a girl that looks shockingly similar to me.

No wonder Aspen mistook me for her. Had I taken better care of my appearance over the years, there would be no telling us apart.

“So!” Aspen claps her hands together. She’s standing in the middle of the room on a rug shaped like a star. “The tweezers are in the bathroom. I’ll go get them. Take a seat by the mirror.”

I do as instructed, sitting on a tiny wooden stool by the vanity. I hate mirrors, always have. And maybe I wouldn’t if I looked more like a human instead of a wild animal, but old habits die hard. I don’t look at my reflection as I wait for Aspen to return. Instead, I watch the clock on her bedside table tick the seconds away. It’s shaped like the ringleader of a circus—something else I’ve read about in books. The ringleader wears a tall hat and a bright red jacket lined in gold. His robust stomach holds the actual time-telling device.

“Adelyn got it for me.”

I whip around to face Aspen in the doorway. She nods towards the clock. “She had one shaped like an elephant, so it just seemed fitting.”

I nod and try to calm my racing heart. “It’s cute.” I finally say.

“Thanks.” Aspen crosses the room and stands next to me. Her eyes go directly to the mirror, and as much as mine don’t want to follow, it almost feels required. Aspen’s reflection is gorgeous, of course. She looks exotic and unique and beautiful, whereas I’m the wild animal sitting next to her, about to be tamed.

My hair looks like the black version of a lion’s mane, and my eyebrows…well, they’re as bushy as I remember. Maybe even worse. And my face crumples.

Aspen bends down on her knees beside me, making us eye level. Her eyes seek out mine in the mirror. “I’m really sorry about what I said earlier.” Aspen begins.

“It’s fine—”

“No.” Aspen shakes her head, and one look in her eyes tell me that she genuinely feels awful. “You are beautiful. And you might not look your best right now, but nothing can take away the fact that you’re perfect. Don’t let me or anyone else tell you otherwise. Including yourself.”

To take my mind off the tears rushing to my eyes, I nod my head dramatically.

“Now.” Aspen stands back up. “How about we pluck these big, brown monstrosities.”

I laugh, despite myself and my building tears, and Aspen gets to work.

By the end of my makeover, I look exactly like the girl in all of Aspen’s pictures. Namely, I look just like Adelyn. We have to be related, but I couldn’t guess how. No two beings can look this exactly alike and not be related.

“Wow.” Aspen says to the mirror. “You look…”

“Like her?”

Aspen shakes her head, adamant yet contemplative. “No. You still look like you.” She shrugs. “You two are completely different people. I mean, carbon copies of your appearances, but I think it’s something in the way you hold yourselves. I can tell you two apart.”

“You and Adelyn are really close, huh?”

Aspen’s eyes glaze over as she reminisces. “Yeah.” Her voice is a whisper. “Adelyn is like my soul sister. And we fight and yell and sometimes she drives me insane, but I still miss her like crazy.”

I sigh and think about what it would be like to have someone who loved you more than you loved yourself. I can see the way that Aspen just adores Adelyn, and Adelyn isn’t even here. I hope she savors it. I hope she gives Aspen the friendship she deserves. It’s not exactly jealousy that courses through me. It’s just…hopefulness. Maybe I’ll find this myself one day.

Aspen walks me home to Adelyn’s house. We have no idea where Adelyn’s phone is and Aspen doesn’t have Ezra’s phone number, so going home tonight is a must. Aspen says that Adelyn would never just not show up at home and not text or call. Ezra and Sebastian, as emotionless as they usually are, might freak out and start asking questions, which we so desperately do not need.

When we’re at the door of an all-white house that Aspen assures me belongs to Adelyn’s family, I’m beyond nervous. Beyond scared.

“Are you sure they won’t realize I’m not Adelyn?” I ask, fumbling with my hands in front of me. I’m not sure I can do this. How can Adelyn masquerade as me back home around an entire group of people who know and love me while I can’t even face two “statues” who hardly care about their adoptive daughter?

“They won’t realize it.” Aspen says. “Just go in. Say hi or something and then go up the stairs in the living room and take the first door on the right.”

Up the stairs. First door on the right. I nod my head but make no move to walk.

I can feel Aspen’s eyes on me, but I stare at the white door that I need to conquer. “You know the offer is still up to stay at my house.” Aspen’s voice says from beside me. “You could go in, ask to spend the night and then leave again.”

While this is supremely tempting, it feels like the easy way out. I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but I need to face Ezra and Sebastian eventually. Might as well be now. “Nope.” I say. “I’m good.” Just to prove it, I walk up to the door and place my hand on the cold knob. Before I can talk myself out of it, I turn the knob and walk through the door.

The woman who can only be Ezra comes into the foyer when I enter. Aspen sends me one last smile for good luck before I shut the door behind me. Ezra’s hair is the blondest I’ve ever seen, bordering on white and hanging in straight locks right to her waist. Her body seems to sway in the wind, but there is no wind so I can only insinuate that she’s sickly or weak.

“Hello, Adelyn.”

My immediate instinct is to correct her mistake, but I don’t. “Hi.”

“Did you have a good day?”

Two sentences and this conversation is already insufferable. “Yes. I was with Aspen.”

Ezra nods and clasps her hands in front of her. We both walk down the hall, where Aspen has informed me that it should open up to the living room. It’s all so…white. Stark. Bare. I’m afraid to touch anything and disrupt the despair.

“Well, I’m tired.” I say. We’re finally in the living room, where the staircase lies ahead, as promised. “I think I’m going to my room now.”

“There’s food in the kitchen.” Ezra’s expression is stoic. Thin wrinkles are starting to pop up on her aging face. “I made chicken and rice.”

“Maybe I’ll get some later.” Food sounds amazing right now, but there’s little I want to do more than get away from this situation.

Ezra smiles before leaving the room through the hallway we entered from. I take it as my cue to bolt up the stairs and run into the first room on the right. Adelyn’s bedroom is as white as the rest of the house, but there is the promised elephant clock on the bedside table and the added bonus of some abstract art above the bed. It makes me think of Aspen and some of my anxiety drifts away.

I collapse onto the white covers of the bed, not bothering to take off my shoes or search for pajamas. I’m exhausted from the stress of the day, but it takes me ages to go to sleep. Adelyn’s life has its sweet spots, but how can she come home to such misery every night?

I miss my family. I miss Cade and his bunny tattoo. I miss Kenzi and her homecooked deer meat. I miss Porter and his supportive smiles. I even miss Zofia’s complaining. I got my wish of a crazy life and the bustle of the city, so why do I miss the comfort of home so much?

Eventually, I give up on sleeping and walk towards Adelyn’s single window. I stare out at the night sky and realize that Adelyn is completely right—there’s not a star to be seen.

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