A Story Well-Travelled

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Chapter 2: Four Years Later—Adelyn

Our house is white, gray, and completely impersonal. It’s perpetually clean, so much so that I hesitate to walk on the immaculate and sleek gray tile floors. I hesitate to enter the kitchen and look for food as everything is always in its place and not a fingerprint taints the stainless-steel appliances. I even hesitate to enter the library. While it should be my favorite room in the entire unbearable residence, it’s the one I dread the most. There is something fundamentally wrong with the precise ordering and arrangement of the books, divided by author or publication year or some system I have yet to discover. Not a book is out of place and the couch is about as comfortable as a bed of nails.

When I walk into the kitchen on Tuesday morning, Ezra is sweeping the kitchen once more. There’s nothing to sweep up of course; this just keeps her busy while Sebastian is at work. She could easily use a vacuum or even one of the newer robotic ones. They’re not only silent as a mouse, but they clean every inch of the floor up to five times better than the leading vacuums, or so their infomercials say.

But Ezra chooses her ancient broom with its silver handle and fraying ends. For this, I have to respect her, even though I know she’s not doing it to protest the excess of conveniences we have these days to augment our laziness as a society.

Ezra looks up when she hears footsteps on the tile. “Good morning.” Her voice is mechanical, showing little emotion or humanity.

“Hey, Ezra.” I walk slowly to the white cabinets in search of a water bottle. My so-called mother sighs loudly, though she’s given up on trying to make me call her “Mom.” She is not my mother. She is a lady who adopted me at age thirteen when my life was abruptly turned upside down and the Council decided they didn’t want my addition to their team after all.

“Any plans for the day?” Ezra asks, sweeping once more. The shuffling of the broom on tile is the only sound I hear.

I glance over at my surrogate parent. Her blonde hair is tied back in a severe knot and her frail body seems to tremble with her movements. She looks weak and fragile. In the four years I’ve lived in this house, I’ve seen her rapidly deteriorate. Some part of me wonders if her deterioration is in any way my fault, but I quickly dismiss the notion.

It softens me nonetheless. “I’ll probably go eat breakfast with Aspen.” I speak kindly, treating her like a human instead of the paper cutout of a human that she actually is. “And it’s Tuesday, so I’m going to pick up my pen-pal letter.”

Ezra nods. “That sounds fun.”

We’re left in silence once more as I watch her sweep from my position in front of the refrigerator. I reach out and let the fridge fill my bottle with water. The entire time, I watch the frail lady, knowing the technology will cut off the flow of water once my bottle has reached max capacity. Ezra is not completely okay; I’ve known that for long enough. And I still can’t work up the nerve to care.

It’s like living with a statue. Expressionless and without life.

Aspen works at one of the oldest restaurants in Resdon. While the new ones are modern, impressive, and glossy, her restaurant of employment is a small, squat building made of ancient brick and mortar. The awning is stripes of blue and white, embellished with the name “Under the Sun.”

I open the glass door to the restaurant to the sound of a little bell above my head. Aspen already stands at the wooden front podium, anticipating my weekly appearance.

“Welcome to Under the Sun!” She says brightly, despite the fact I come here every Tuesday and have known her since childhood. “Table for one?” Her brows furrow. “That’s sad.”

“Totally sad.” I agree, nodding my head. “Are you going to give me a menu?”

Aspen shakes her head, her colorful blue, green, and purple curls dancing all the way down to her waist. Her hair is always a crazy color; she’s obsessed with the new, permanent Fordyever hair dye. “It’s not like you’re going to look at the menu.” She grabs some utensils wrapped neatly in a napkin and leads me back to my normal table. “We only have so many menus. Leave them to the customers who don’t know it by heart.”

My table is a small picnic table built for two near the back of the restaurant, directly next to the bright yellow door to the bathroom. The bell rings at the front of the store, alerting Aspen to another customer’s arrival. She groans and shoots me an apologetic smile before waltzing over to serve the young couple.

I look around the familiar surroundings of Under the Sun. The place has been open for ages, and little has changed in that time. The ceiling is a cheery yellow, hence the name of the restaurant. The walls are sky blue and the floor tile is beige peppered with other colors, meant to symbolize the sand. All the tables are picnic tables and all the centerpieces are beach themed. On one table center sits a pile of seashells, another boasts a collection of sun screen. My table has a purple sandcastle mold.

But Under the Sun also has a double meaning. The menu—which Aspen so rudely deprived me of—has literally every option under the sun. There is breakfast food and dinner food. Mexican, Italian, Chinese. You can get a grilled cheese, or you can get an elaborate steak dinner. You can get pancakes, or you can get a quesadilla.

Aspen leads the customers to a picnic table near my own. She sends them her brightest smile, one she fixes all her customers with, and launches into her speech. “Welcome to Under the Sun. I’m Aspen. I’ll be your server.” She curtsies, a completely absurd gesture. “I’m supposed to tell you about how fantastic and lifechanging our lemonade is, but I forgot to make it this morning so you’ll have to order something else.”

I stifle a laugh, knowing she says this most Tuesday mornings when I’m here because Aspen is the most forgetful person on the planet. How many times does she forget to make the lemonade the rest of the week too?

One side of the couple, a pretty girl with fiery red hair, raises an eyebrow at Aspen. Her menu lies open on the table, though she’s only on page one of many. “You mean to tell me that a chef that can make quality fettuccine alfredo can pull off guacamole and Chinese food?”

Aspen’s eyes flick over to meet mine. “Brian is a culinary prodigy.” I call over to the couple. They whirl around to look at me. “Anything you get on the menu is bound to be delicious.” It’s the same rant I’ve heard Aspen feed dozens of customers, including me.

The fiery haired girl glances back and forth between us before closing her menu. “It’s morning. I guess I’ll have pancakes.”

At that, Aspen’s eyes light up. Her long lashes flutter as she blinks with rapid excitement. “Yay! A new convert!”

The customer looks appropriately bewildered. I watch the show with glee.

“Would you like to sign my petition?” Aspen asks. “I’ve been trying to tell Bagel that we need to branch out with our syrup flavors. I mean, maple is so last century. There are so many other options!”

“Like what?” The customer asks.

“Lemon flavored syrup.” I pipe up, naming one of my personal favorites.

“Bacon flavored.” Aspen adds.

“Sweet tea flavored.”

“Honey flavored.”

I furrow my brows. “I mean, you also need the necessities: blueberry, strawberry, pecan.”

Aspen nods. “And maybe incorporate some together?” She’s talking to me now, gray eyes on mine. “What if we did like a triple berry one? Or honey and bacon flavored?”

“Cinnamon flavored?”

The customers watch our exchange in wide eyed confusion. They don’t know that we have this conversation almost weekly. Over the years, Aspen and I have concocted multiple syrup flavors, even though Bagel will never concede and admit that Aspen is a genius when it comes to syrup.

Bagel. Otherwise known as Brian Agle, the chef at this fine establishment. He hates the nickname, but it’s stuck with him for years. It clings to him like the most stubborn of all the sticky syrups.

For a while, Under the Sun gets busy with the breakfast rush it always has. I sit at my back table, flipping through a book I’ve brought just to get through these few hours. My letter won’t arrive at the fountain until much later and I have nowhere else to go. Home isn’t an option; Ezra has probably moved on to sweeping the living room and that’s not something I care to stick around to observe. The rest of Resdon is probably overflowing with people, as it always is. At least here I get my own little corner of privacy.

Finally, Aspen is left with nothing to do. The restaurant is empty save for me and my book. I put the novel down when Aspen walks over and plops down on the opposite side of the picnic table.

“Exhausted.” She points a long finger at herself before lowering her head on the table. “And hungry, but not hungry enough to move.”

“You know, you could quit this day job.” I remind her.

Aspen groans at my implications. “Not this again.”

“This again.” I confirm before degrading myself to a pleading tone. “Come with me to speak to the Council.” Her head lies on her crossed arms; I can’t see her face through the mass paint palette of hair, but I can see her head shake adamantly. No. “Please, Aspen? If more than one of us goes, maybe they’ll reconsider.”

“You’ve been trying for years.” Her words are muffled by her sleeve. She picks her head up to resume the conversation properly. “They aren’t going to reconsider anything, Adelyn.” Her gray eyes bore into mine, begging me to understand. Even though I’ve irritated her, the right side of her lip tilts up. I don’t even think she realizes that her lip constantly does this; she doesn’t have it in her to appear anything but quirky.

“We can at least demand some answers.” I protest. “Don’t you want to know why we were told for years that we were going to be on the Council only to have that promise revoked with little explanation? We were kept from being adopted for years so we could rule Resdon, and then they just decide to kick us to the curb?”

“I’m sure they had their reasons.” She says.

“Which is precisely what I want to find out.” I cross my arms over my chest. Aspen mirrors the stubborn pose a moment later; this is what all our arguments end up as: a bland staring contest. “Come with me.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“NO.”

The door to the kitchen suddenly swings open and Aspen and I both turn. Bagel rounds the corner a moment later. His skin is dark as night, a stark contrast to the white t-shirt he wears every day. His muscular arms cross over his chest, meaning we all three hold the same obstinate position. “Must you two fight again?” His deep voice should be commanding, but I know him too well to be intimidated.

“Adelyn started it.” Aspen says, rolling her eyes like an immature kid. I kick out my leg under the table and hit her shin. “OW!” She yelps, turning to glare at me.

“The Council started it.” I argue. “I’m trying to finish it.”

Bagel sighs. He’s a father exasperated with his two bickering kids. “Adelyn, if you’re going to spend all your time here, you might as well get a job.”

“No thanks.” I stand up, taking my cue to leave. If I stay too much longer, Bagel will bring out a job application and a pen. I have no interest in serving the general public. Besides, Ezra and Sebastian provide everything I need. At least they have some role in my life; it certainly isn’t the role of adoring parents. “Maybe next week.” I glare at Aspen once more before crossing the sandy tile and opening the door.

Aspen sticks her tongue out at me, but she’s smirking and trying not to laugh. I grin right along with her, sticking my tongue out once to have the last word. Then the glass door swings closed behind me.

The streets of Resdon are a long expanse of cobblestone, grayish with an almost purple hue. It should look gloomy, but they wind through bright and cheery buildings that offer some respite for the eyes. The buildings themselves are outrageous colors; red, neon green, and lavender assault my vision all at once. Across the cobblestone roads, twisting bridges of metal connect buildings on either side.

The bridges are high above my head, but the “streetlights” are only a few feet beyond my arm’s reach. The streetlights are little yellow-white orbs that light up at night, a small source of magic. They hang suspended in air with nothing to support them but the finite amount of magic found in our universe. We’ve learned to harness it, use it. Some people have magic, some people don’t.

And no one has special powers, per se. That would be problematic. Some people just have a little more spark of life. They’re just different. There’s rumors that the Council knows more about the magic that keeps creeping into our society, but that’s all they are. Rumors. As someone who has met the Council on numerous occasions, I’m positive they’re just as clueless as we are.

The streets of Resdon are actually gorgeous, but the sight is hindered by the constant stream of people roaming the town, looking for trouble or distraction or both. They’re all pretentious as can be. I see shoes that act as stilts, propelling people a foot higher in the air than nature intended. I see shirts and jackets strung with lights like a Christmas tree, a beacon for attention. I hear obnoxiously loud laughter and know that no one can possibly be that blissfully happy. The entirety of Resdon seems to be a stage, and everyone is eager to perform.

Even more vexing, everyone is desperate to smell like something. Lavender, vanilla...coffee? People pass me walking in both directions and every single one smells like some new horror. I’m a fish out of water in this packed street of socialites. How I long to be back in Under the Sun, where they wear ratty employee t-shirts and regular shoes.

There are no cars on the streets; there’s no room for them. People must walk or stay home.

I glance at the watch on my wrist, adorably shaped like an elephant. Its trunk holds the actual time-telling part; the tip of the trunk points to the hour. It’s the only gift Ezra and Sebastian have gotten me that I actually like. This elephant stays on my wrist day after day.

My letter should arrive in approximately two hours. Emerson is usually on time, but sometimes she runs a little late. Humans are imperfect. I wish I could jump forward two hours, but while we can send letters to a different dimension, we still can’t time travel.

Emerson is from a dimension without electricity. The thought is mindboggling to me, but my constantly illuminated life is just as inconceivable for her. We’re a good pen-pal match in that we’re both desperate to know more about the other’s world and customs. I tell her about the magic orbs of light and the winding cobblestone streets, and she tells me about her world once ravaged by disease.

Emerson lives in the remnants of a broken society. The buildings all stand from previous civilization, and there are places for lightbulbs and technology, but Emerson knows nothing of it. Disease spread like wildfire years ago in her world and killed almost everyone. Those left had to recover in a world without electricity or modern conveniences. None of them knew how to work such a thing and all of them wondered if they would be better off without it. Take the lessons of a generation previously plagued by addiction with technology and learn to steer clear of it. I wish my own dimension had gone a similar path.

There’s nowhere to go but the Park of Resdon. Trees and bushes take me in when I get there until I reach the center of the park: a grassy field with a statue in the center of Cornelius Wagner. He founded our great village, but is treated with little of the respect deserved.

Teens of Resdon make him a joke, always dressing him up as something different. Paint clings to what is left of his exposed skin, reds and blues from previous pranks adhere to his body in ragged patches. Today, Cornelius Wagner is dressed as an elderly lady. A silver wig with a mess of curlers sits on his head and a patterned nightgown has been wrapped around his body.

I can’t help but to laugh. Some of the pranks actually are funny, despite being fundamentally immoral. I lie in the grass by Cornelius-Wagner-the-Grandmother and settle in to read my book until it’s time to head to the Square.

All the cobblestone streets in Resdon lead to one thing: the Square. It’s where letters arrive from our pen-pals in another dimension. A large fountain sits in the middle of it. Instead of water, the fountain shoots up packaged letters like lava from a volcano. From there, the letters rain down on a conveyer belt where they are taken to workers who sort and distribute them.

When I reach the Square, it’s packed. It always is, but I’ll never get used to the suffocating stench of a single street overflowing with impatient people. Up ahead, I can see letters shooting to the sky over the heads of onlookers. The voice of workers call out names at intervals of people the letters are addressed to. If the person receiving the letter isn’t in the Square, the letter will be filed away.

“Randy Smith!” A worker yells, louder than the constant chatter of those around me. “Oliver Petes! Tanya Lockhart!”

I try to push my way towards the workers. According to my elephant watch, my letter should be arriving any minute.

“Adelyn Josephs!”

“I’M HERE!” I fight to be heard, but luckily the people around me catch on and call ahead to the worker than I’m here for the letter. They part begrudgingly to let me pass until I’m right in front of the fountain. Letters fall to the ground around the woman like confetti. One letter hits her in the head and she scowls as her meaty hand passes my letter over.

I grab it hungrily, ripping open the envelope as I fight my way back out of the crowd. This time, they aren’t as willing to let me pass. Everyone is trying to get closer to the fountain while I’m trying to get away; it’s a constant struggle and takes a good five minutes until I’m free.

In the fresh air around me, starved of people, I can finally breathe again. The cobblestone is hard underfoot, but I sit down on it and lean up against a yellow building regardless. I should go home to read, but I’ve quickly become one of the most impatient people here.

Emerson’s handwriting is familiar. It’s quenches the thirst I’ve been feeling since last Tuesday.

Adelyn,

I loved hearing more about the streets of Resdon. I wish I could come, but I think I’d be completely out of place. And I loved hearing about your friend Aspen. I’ve never met somebody with dyed hair—can you believe it? You said that the people of your village are pretentious and you want to get away from it all, but do try and see it like I do. Magical. Magnificent. Beautiful.

But you also asked for more details about my world, so here it is:

I forgot in the last letter to tell you about the stars. You said that there is too much light to see the stars where you come from, but I feel sometimes like I can see every star in the galaxy on clear nights. They swim in the murky black expanse of sky. And you know how black and dark the sky is, but it’s balanced out in my world by a million twinkles of light. I like to think of each one as its own tiny miracle—a glimmer of hope in the darkness.

I went in an old general store the other day and most of the shelves were empty—we’ve scavenged multiple times at every store in the area—but I saw some blue hair dye! I wanted to take it so bad, but I’m not brave enough to actually dye my hair. My friend Porter promises he’ll do it for me one day, but I highly doubt that. You’d love Porter. He feels just like you do about people and crowds. Namely, that they’re awful.

Actually, you’d probably find something to love in every person of my group. Even Zofia, and she’s a lot to handle. I’ll write more about them in the next letter. Promise.

Emerson

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