A Story Well-Travelled

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Chapter 15: Emerson

I wake in the morning to the harsh knocking of fists on a door. Ezra’s voice rises from the first story, tremulous and weak. “Who is it?”

I hear the unmistakable creak of the front door opening and Aspen’s perky voice. “Hey, Mrs. Josephs. Is Adelyn here?”

I’m out of bed in a heartbeat and running down the stairs. “Aspen!”

Ezra and Aspen turn around to look at me, still in my clothes from yesterday. I don’t have time to worry about whether or not Ezra finds this odd. Aspen’s eyes light up when she sees me, grabbing my attention much more than Ezra’s stoic and detached expression. Gosh, that woman is intolerable.

“Go get dressed!” Aspen says. “We’re going out.” Just then, a massive roar of thunder shakes the house. I hadn’t noticed before, but the familiar ping and plop of raindrops outside fills my ears. Aspen sighs as if exasperated with the weather, as if she had tried to persuade it to stop raining and failed miserably. “And wear a raincoat. I have an umbrella.”

I run upstairs and raid Adelyn’s closet. Even though I’m technically stealing her identity right now, stealing her clothes somehow feels immoral. I decide to choose some clothes she probably holds little sentimentality towards: some old faded jeans and a bright blue t-shirt. Her collection of clothes is much more extensive than mine at home. I have approximately three outfits that I wash over and over in the river. Adelyn’s closet is a walk-in room; the shelves are overflowing and a plethora of shoes scatter the carpeted floor.

Over the t-shirt, I throw on what looks like a rain jacket—the material seems waterproof—and run back downstairs. In the foyer, Ezra and Aspen are standing around and looking uncomfortable. For the first time ever, I see Aspen looking anything but confident. Her eyes flick from one place to another, searching for any possible distraction, as her hands bunch and un-bunch at her sides.

“Let’s go.” I say, grinding to a halt in the foyer.

Aspen lets out a relieved breath and waves goodbye to Ezra. “See ya, Mrs. Josephs.”

The thunder rumbles again as Aspen and I step outside. Despite the weather, Aspen still looks immaculate. Her hair is now cut to her shoulders and hangs down in beachy waves. The top layer is almost silver, but a teal blue and deep purple jump out from underneath. She wears a sundress despite the complete lack of sun. Her bright yellow rainboots are far more appropriate.

“When did you cut and dye your hair?” I ask her. We’re still standing by the front door of the house, protected by a small overhang keeping a sliver of concrete dry.

Aspen lifts a hand and strokes a lock of her hair. “Oh, this?” She picks up some silver and examines it. “Did it last night. Does it look okay?”

“It’s…” I can’t find the right word for it. “Amazing.” And that’s truly how I feel. While it’s a look I could never in a thousand years pull off, Aspen makes it look perfect. She could look fantastic wearing a plastic bag, apparently.

Aspen moves to open her umbrella, but I hold out a hand to stop her. “Wait.” I say. “I thought you weren’t supposed to use umbrellas in a thunderstorm.” As if on cue, lightning strikes in the distance. It cuts a jagged yellow line across the sky as the rain picks up. “You know…the metal.”

Aspen sighs. “Would you rather get wet?”

“Than get struck by lightning? I’d have to go with yes.”

“Fine.” Aspen shrugs. “But I like to live on the edge. You can stand outside the umbrella.”

With that, she takes off into the heavy rain. I run after her, absorbing about a hundred raindrops before I duck under the edge of the umbrella and join her in the protection. The sky is far too dark for the hour, a deep gray-blue and getting darker by the second.

“Where are we going?” I yell to be heard over the sound of rain on the pavement.

Aspen pushes onward, picking up the pace from a jog to a full-on run. “Under the Sun!”

It’s a good thing I’m in shape. The short mile to Under the Sun passes quickly. We hit multiple puddles along the way, meaning Aspen shrieks every time the blast of splattered water hit her exposed legs. The air is warm, but the rain is cold. The cobblestone provides even purchase under my feet, but I still worry about slipping.

The entire way there, the sky thunders in a way that almost sounds angry. Loud, explosive sounds that reverberate inside me. I’m bordering on scared even though I’ve always loved thunderstorms back at home. Kenzi, Cade, Porter, Zofia and I usually bundle up with heavy blankets in the living room and tell stories, fake or real.

Kenzi’s big on using stories to tell lessons. She likes to tell us hardships in her life that taught her some lesson, and we all love to listen to them. There’s a sense of intimacy when someone is sharing a piece of what makes them who they are. It’s the lessons we’ve learned that define us and make us act a certain way. It’s like her stories are an explanation, a way of saying, “this is why I believe the way I do.”

The striped awning of Under the Sun finally comes into view. Aspen and I duck under it, huffing and puffing as she closes the sopping wet umbrella. “I’ll just leave it out here,” She says, dropping the umbrella onto the pavement.

I open the door and step inside. The fantastic scent of food wafts out from the kitchen. There are no customers in the dining area, but it’s still early and the rain might be scaring them away. The streets of Resdon were significantly less crowded than usual on our run here.

Bagel comes out of the kitchen as soon as the bell above the door indicates our arrival. He looks hopeful, but his face falls when he catches sight of Aspen. “I thought you were a customer.” Bagel says.

“We are customers.” Aspen says, contradicting her words by nonchalantly grabbing two menus off the front podium and leading me to a table. She’s a waitress at heart. “And we’re going to need two orders of pancakes.”

“It’s syrup day?” Bagel asks.

Aspen nods her confirmation. “It’s syrup day.”

“Addy, make sure she doesn’t go overboard.” Bagel tells me, heading back for the kitchen. “We don’t need any more puke to clean up.”

“It was one time!” Aspen shouts to be heard. Bagel is already back in the kitchen. “I ate twenty pancakes. Can you blame me?”

I sit down at the table Aspen has led me to—the small one in the back we sat at the first day I came here. “What’s syrup day?”

Aspen sits down across from me. “Every once in a while, Addy and I come here and eat pancakes with every single syrup flavor I currently have available.” She says.

“And how many is that?”

“About ten.” A look of pride crosses Aspen’s face. “I conjure them up at home in my own kitchen.”

The word “conjure” strikes me as odd. She makes it sound as if she’s making some potion that’s going to turn me into a pancake instead of just syrup that’s going to make the pancakes taste better. But I let it slide. Aspen isn’t someone you can easily challenge; her confidence makes it a daunting task.

“So—” Aspen says. “The goal today is to meet up with Grayson.”

“How?”

“I’m going to text him?” She holds up a phone and shakes in the air. “And he’s going to meet us whether he likes it or not.”

“Well, let’s go then.” I make a move to stand up, but Aspen lays a stilling hand on my arm. I’m eager to get going and learn more from this infamous childhood friend. Anything to do with my doppelganger Adelyn fills me with curiosity.

“Not so fast, Em.” Aspen shakes her head and I sit back down. “It’s syrup day. We’re not going anywhere yet.”

Bagel brings out two plates of pancakes about five minutes later. The pancakes are stacked high—not enough to make Aspen puke again, but an impressive amount nonetheless.

Aspen jumps up from her seat. “I’m going to get the syrups.” She says. “Be right back.”

As she waltzes off to the kitchen, letting Bagel trail in her wake, I stare at the pancakes. This is a luxury I’ve never had before—an abundance of food not for the purpose of survival but for the fantastic taste. My heart is racing just at the thought of it. In my already jumpy state, I almost come out of my seat the next time the thunder rumbles.

Aspen comes back holding multiple glass bottles close to her body. Stacked precariously on her head are two extra plates.

“Aspen!” I hold out a hand, as if that would help if the plates were to go crashing to the floor.

“Don’t worry about it.” Aspen shrugs—shrugs—and I think my heart is going to stop. But the plates stay balanced on her head and she reaches the table without catastrophe. She sets the small bottles down on the table carefully. Each one is filled with a different color liquid, presumably all sticky and sweet.

I don’t want to tell her that I’ve never had pancakes before. It’s too humiliating, but something in her excited expression tells me she might already know. Aspen’s already feeling the excitement of being the first to introduce me to such a delicacy.

“Okay.” She takes the plates off her head and sets one beside her pancakes and one beside mine. “This plate is for the pancake we’re actually eating so that the others can stay dry. We’ll use one syrup at a time for half a pancake and then we’ll switch syrups.”

I nod my head, starting to understand the guidelines. This was probably supposed to be a casual event, but I’m so attentive I could probably take a test on this. “So which syrup is first?”

Aspen smiles and grabs the bottle with a deep brown liquid. “Maple.” She says. “We’ll start with the basics. I’m assuming you haven’t had it before?” She raises an eyebrow as I flush red, the only answer she needs. “As I thought. Now, grab a pancake, rip it in half, and let’s get started.”

I take the pancake off the top of my pile and rip it as best I can down the middle. The inside is fluffy and warm and it smells amazing. I almost take a bite out of it plain, but refrain from doing so. Aspen would probably think it a sin.

When the pancake half is on my empty plate, Aspen pours over some syrup and then pours some on her own. “Now get to work.” She says.

I don’t hesitate to obey. My reserve at the café yesterday and my fear of any of this dimension’s food is gone and replaced by intense hunger. I cut off a piece of the pancake and shove it in my mouth.

And it’s amazing. Sweet and warm and fluffy. It’s as close to heaven as I’ve ever been. While this dimension has its flaws—the lack of stars and the abundance of people—it makes up for it in pancakes. I almost can’t believe such a magnificent thing exists. Tears fight their way to my eyes, but I push them away if only so I can better focus on my pancakes.

The next flavor is lemon. Then sweet tea. Then honey-bacon. Strawberry. Tri-berry. Lavender. Pecan. Apple-cinnamon. Chocolate-mint.

Each one is a brand-new experience, one I’ll never forget. Once we’ve gone through all the flavors, I eat the rest of my pancake stack with the apple-cinnamon flavor. It’s my favorite by far, though honey-bacon is a close second. Aspen and I both eat every pancake of our respective stacks. By the end, my stomach is bulging but my heart is soaring.

I’m on top of the world. I’ll never be the same again. I’m—

“Grayson texted!” Aspen’s shrieks as she looks down and reads something off her phone screen. The light from the screen illuminates her face. The restaurant is still dark—there’s no natural light coming in through the windows. The sky is still dark and ominous.

“What did he say?” I ask through a mouthful of pancakes.

Aspen doesn’t even point out how disgusting this is. I can hardly understand myself through the muffled speech, but Aspen has no trouble deciphering it. “He says he can meet. We need to go to the Council house. Now.”

She jumps up from her seat. I’m hesitant to do the same. My pancakes are all gone, but we could always ask for more. I’ll find more room in my stomach. I’ll—

“Let’s go!” Aspen grabs my hand and pulls me from the seat. “I’ll pay Bagel later. He’ll take it out of my paycheck. Whatever.” She pulls me all the way out of the restaurant, pausing only to pick up the umbrella and open it.

The umbrella shoots out. When it’s extended, the device is wide enough to fit both of us under it. Small bodies are easier to keep protected from the rain. With stomachs filled with both pancakes and anxiety, we head out for the meeting.

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