A Story Well-Travelled

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Chapter 20: Adelyn

Desperate times call for desperate measures. At least that’s what Kenzi says when she grabs a flashlight from one of the kitchen cabinets and makes her way back to us. Inside the flashlight, two of their last six batteries reside. They’ve been reserving those batteries for over a year, Zofia informs me, and my guilt flourishes with every annoyed look the girl shoots me. First I pretended to be her friend and now I’m using her last precious batteries.

But Kenzi is adamant. The night is only halfway through, meaning the sky is black with the exception of the stars and moon. In a clearing, there is enough light to be useful, but in the cover of the forest, everything will be shrouded in black.

Porter is the one leading us through the woods and towards the lake, surprisingly. I’ve been informed he knows the route best of all; he and Emerson found the lake in the first place. Then there’s Cade, marching along with big loud motorcycle boots. Zofia is next, snaking along and on the lookout for spiders and cobwebs. Wesley and I follow. Kenzi brings up the rear, trying to aim the flashlight where it illuminates the path in front of all of our feet. Our shadows make it difficult, but we get along well enough.

The only sound tonight is the crickets and our thunderous footsteps. I glance to the sky multiple times through breaks in the tree coverage to catch a glimpse of the stars. If this is my last night in this dimension, I want to memorize the image of the universe. Even when I trip and fall down, scraping my knee through Emerson’s jeans, I don’t give up my vigil. Scrapes and scars are well worth the cost for a view of the galaxy.

And it effectively keeps my mind occupied. If I allow my mind to roam, it immediately goes back home. The thought of Aspen in a prison cell gives me so much anxiety. She’s my best friend and I’d die to protect her, yet I’m not even there when she needs me the most.

Then there’s the mother I never knew I had. No matter how many times over the years I fantasized about having a mother who loved me, I never thought it would actually happen. Along the way, Wesley tells me her story, one he knows from his brief stint in the Council’s prison: how she saved us with the heroic sacrifice of her own life and magic. He paints her in a beautiful light, like she’s a saint who has done no wrong. While I’m sure this isn’t anywhere close to the truth, it’s a nice story. Grayson would approve of its theatrics. I want to ask why he didn’t save her when he had the chance, but I imagine one prisoner slipping away is a lot easier to overlook than two. Besides, she did give her life up for his to begin with. I imagine she probably even made the choice to stay behind so that Wesley was easily forgotten.

Cade, Porter, and Zofia listen to the story with attentive ears, though they have more questions than valuable input. They’re more confused than I was the first time Aspen dyed her hair and I wasn’t sure if I was looking at my best friend or a circus clown. She’s gotten much better with hair dyes over the years, but I’ll never forget the yellow and orange stripes. Never.

And I worry about Emerson, too. I’ve never met my pen-pal turned sister, but I’d like to think we’ve gotten to know each other to some significant extent. She’s another version of me, after all, though infamously much less appearance driven.

The terrain is uneven beneath my feet. I step on tree roots and rocks, my eyes straining to make out the obstacles in the small patches of light from Kenzi’s flashlight that I receive on the occasion. Each of us has stumbled too many times to count, but I’m the only one that’s left blood on the ground from my fall. It’s humiliating but fitting. A forest scene is nothing like the Resdon walkways I’m used to.

When we finally duck under a low hanging branch and come out into a clearing, I recognize the smooth black surface of the lake. Moonlight reflects off of it in little yellow wisps and the light is much more prevalent here. Kenzi switches off the flashlight to conserve the battery life and we’re all left blind until our eyes adjust.

Then I see the small beach that gives way to water. Someone comes up beside me; I can see the outline of Wesley to my right. All I can see is a dark face shape and even darker outlines of his features inside of it. It’s eerie, but I imagine I look pretty similar right now. Then my eyes start to adjust and I can make out his deep brown eyes and the shape of his crooked nose. For some reason, I’m remembering the time Aspen said that God made more than one mistake the day Wesley was born: not just his birth in general but the regrettable shape of his sniffer.

“Are you ready?” There’s no mistaking Wesley’s voice. Deeper than when we were children, but still smooth enough to charm a snake. There’s a slight tremor present now though, evidence of nervousness, but I know he’ll go through with it. Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s our ability to overcome it.

“Ready.” I say, nodding my head. The dark lake looks ominous enough to swallow me whole. It’s the color of the night sky with a section of darkened trees to separate land from sea. “I’m ready,” I say again, making no movements whatsoever. Whether I want to admit it or not, I’m terrified.

How does portal travel even work? What if I get stuck between dimensions or something? Is that even possible?

And if it does work, that means I’m left with an impossible task on the other side: save my friends and family. If Grayson frees them from prison like he’s promised to do, I’ll be indebted to him forever. I’ll kiss him if I get the chance. Then it’s just a matter of finding them, but Resdon is only so large. They wouldn’t go to the wasteland outside of city limits, and I’ll search every corner of the city until I find them again.

We’re stalling. I can feel the rest of the group watching us from behind, so I turn around and face them. All I can see is dark figures in the shape of bodies—some large and some small—but it’s easier this way. Talking is much simpler when you can’t see who you’re talking to.

“Thank you guys for everything.” I say. “I, um, really appreciate it.”

The dark, Kenzi-shaped figure steps forward and pulls me into a hug. This close, I can see her silver hair shining. She pulls away but keeps her hands on my shoulders. “Go save your family.” She says. “And tell Emerson we’ll be waiting for her.”

I nod my head, once again reminded that they probably aren’t doing this for me. They’re doing this for Emerson. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I suppose Emerson is going to have to come back to this dimension. She can’t camp out as a fugitive from the law in Resdon forever, and she probably misses her home dimension. As much as I love the stars and simplicity of this dimension, I still feel the steady pull for home. There’s a thin thread connecting me to Resdon that I’ll never completely sever.

But I’ll have to come back here too, now that I know what I know. If the Council wants to use my magic, I’ll just have to do whatever I can to prevent them from doing so. Teenagers are nothing if not spiteful and insubordinate. And I’ll get Aspen to come with me. Maybe even Grayson, too. We’ll live out our days—all friends again—and take on a new world that’s not our own.

But first I have to get to them. And I’m not even sure why I’m going back if Grayson is going to free them and the first place they’ll go is probably the lake. But I know Aspen will be hesitant to come to a new world. She’ll take some convincing, and I’ll be the only one who can do the job. Besides, I’ll want to say a sentimental goodbye to my home dimension as well.

So I turn around and take Wesley’s hand. With my heart in my throat, I lead him to the lake. The water hits my sneakers and then my ankles and it is positively freezing, but I take the next step anyways.

Coming to this dimension was about my past and what I needed to get away from. Going home to my dimension is about my future and what I’ll make of it. But in the present, the water is cold and the night is endless and my hand is entwined with the hand of the boy I’ve missed for years.

Our hands stay together until the water reaches my stomach. Then we break apart without discussing it first. I hold my breath, and I sink into the water.

I come up gasping for air and flailing my arms in the water to surface. Once the air hits my skin, I’m swimming for the shoreline. Or at least what I can make of it; it’s all dark shadows and night. Behind me, I can hear Wesley surface and start swimming as well.

I reach the beach and practically flop onto it. My clothing is plastered to my body. Wearing soaking wet clothes is a miserable sensation, but it was either that or go into and come out of the lake naked. So I ring water out of my shirt and onto the dirt and I try to ignore the shivers making my body tremble in the night air.

Wesley reaches the shore only moments after me. “I can’t believe I’m back here.” He says, ringing out his own shirt. “It’s been ages.”

“Yeah, I—” There’s a rustling in the trees that stops the rest of my sentence short. I hold the words in my throat, but they’ll never escape through my fear. It’s not the wind shaking the leaves. This is the sound of running footsteps—multiple pairs. And in the distance, I can see the telltale light of a flashlight coming straight at us.

“It has to be them.” Wesley says, far too loudly in my opinion. But I realize that he has to be right. No one else would come to this lake in the dead of night, meaning I’m about to meet my sister and Mom for the first time. Before that, however, I’m going to launch myself into Aspen’s arms. I miss her so much. The elephant watch on my wrist—probably broken due to the lake water—reminds me of her and her ringleader clock. And my elephant clock back home, in my room, in this same dimension but seemingly a world away.

I wonder how Ezra and Sebastian will survive without me.

Then the flashlight is on us and two figures come crashing out of the woods. The light flashes in my eyes and blinds me as the person holding it brings it up to examine us. “It’s me! It’s me!” I shout, trying to tell whoever it is to put the stinkin’ flashlight down. I’m seeing white spots and feel forever blinded.

But the flashlight goes away and I can see who is holding it a moment later. She looks…exactly like me. It’s disconcerting, to say the least. Emerson holds the flashlight up to illuminate the faces of her and what must be our mother. She looks like us as well, same black hair and thin body. But she’s deathly thin compared to my mildly-unhealthy. And her hair looks like a hurricane came through, but at least her clothes aren’t clinging to her body in a way that probably isn’t flattering in jeans and a t-shirt.

“Adelyn?” The woman—my Mom—asks. Her voice holds evidence of tears and emotion. I’m immediately uncomfortable because I’ve never met this woman, but I’ve just brought her to tears.

“Yeah, it’s me.” I say awkwardly, even throwing in a little wave of my hand.

“Lee?” This comes from Emerson, whose voice—not so shockingly—is exactly like my own. A shiver runs through me just hearing my voice coming from a source other than my own mouth. She’s looking at Wesley beside me, and I can feel his body tense up, a tangible rigidity in the air.

“Em?” He asks. There’s a brief pause before they run to each other and hug tightly. I fight the urge to freak out because my childhood friend apparently has something going on with my sister. It’s so odd, but I’m happy for their peculiar love affair.

But it also means that Emerson drops the flashlight on the ground with an audible thud. My mother reaches down to pick it up, then holds it so she can see my face but I’m not blinded. “I can’t believe it’s you.” She whispers.

Emerson and Wesley break apart and return to their opposite corners. I’m left looking around for the people that I actually cared to see. “Where are Aspen and Grayson?” I ask. My question hangs in the air and Emerson and our mother share a pained look. My heartbeat turns frantic as fear fills my veins. “Where are Aspen and Grayson?

“Adelyn—” My mom begins.

“WHERE ARE THEY?” I hate the fear in my voice. The desperation.

“I’m so sorry.” Mom says, her tone telling me it’s the truth. “They were caught while we were trying to escape.”

“And you just left them?” Wesley asks, disbelieving. He glances at Emerson, not with delight this time but with disgust. My stomach knots.

Emerson takes a step forward, halving the distance between us. “We had no choice.”

I take a step backwards, towards the lake and away from her. “There’s always a choice.”

My Mom looks like her heart is breaking in two. I know the feeling. “Come back with us, Adelyn.” She says. “Come back to our dimension.”

“You want me to choose you over saving my friends?” I ask, my voice rising in pitch.

Mom shakes her head. “No!” She starts. “We’re coming back to save them. We just need to go somewhere safe so we can form a plan…”

Emerson looks like she wants to argue with this, but her lips stay glued shut. I find myself watching her more than I should, gauging the differences between us. For one, I wouldn’t have abandoned my friends. I wouldn’t come to this lake with her look of regret; I’d come oozing triumph.

My fantasies about having a mother crawl to the surface at once. I’ve always wanted this—a family—but at the same time… “That’s not good enough for me.” I shake my head. “I know Aspen and Grayson a whole lot better than I know you.”

Emerson wearily says, “But we’re coming back…” Yet I can see the hesitation in her.

“It could be too late by then!” I argue, shooting her the same disgusted look as Wesley previously had. “Do what you want, but I’m going to save Aspen.” I glance at Wesley beside me, waiting for him to back me up. But what I see isn’t steely confidence and bravado…I see reluctance. “Wesley?”

Emerson raises an eyebrow at the name “Wesley.” The boy in question glances back and forth between us. He’s known me for longer, but he’s known Emerson for the past three years. Which is greater? Which has a bigger pull?

His eyes finally land on me. “I’m sorry Emerson,” He may speak to my sister, but his eyes never leave mine. “But I can’t just leave my friends behind. I’m with Adelyn on this one.”

“You two can’t do this alone.” My mom argues. “You could get hurt.”

I break my eyes away from Wesley’s and meet my mom’s instead. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s disagreeing with my mother figure. And she’s right. Wesley and I might get hurt in this. We have a much greater chance of failing than succeeding. But how will I live with myself if I let Aspen go so easily? The simple answer is this: I won’t.

You two can’t do this alone. I hold my mother’s gaze. “Well, I guess we just don’t have that much of a choice.”

My words cut deep, as they were intended to. Her eyes tear up and her hands bunch nervously at her sides. Emerson looks hurt, too, almost like she’s reconsidering her stance on the issue. But she finally nods her acceptance and deftly avoids Wesley’s eyes, hard as he may try to get through to her.

I finally met my sister. I finally met my mother. But we’re at a cross roads here, only meeting for a fleeting moment in time before heading our separate ways. I walk up to my mother and hold out my hand. “Can I have the flashlight?” I ask. “We’ll be needing it more than you will.”

She glances down at my hand, then places the flashlight in it delicately. The flashlight barely seems to skim my skin, so I wrap my hands around it to better feel the grip. “Thank you.” I say. Before I can back out, before I can turn around and see my mother and run into her arms, I walk off into the forest. Wesley’s footsteps follow me, though I don’t turn around.

Coming to this dimension was about finding my future. It’s sad to think Emerson and my mom might not be in it.

“So tell me you have a plan.”

For Wesley, the silence was apparently too much to bear. My eyes are surprisingly well adjusted to the forest by now. While I have the flashlight to illuminate the path directly in front of us, I keep finding myself look out towards the woods and pick up on a twisted, faraway tree or a rock. A few times, I see eyes, but I keep this to myself.

“Adelyn.” Wesley sounds unamused. “Answer me. Tell me you have a plan.”

“I have a plan.” I acquiesce, even though this is far from the truth.

“What is it then?” He demands, and I’m left with a big fat lie to explain. A child looking at her beautiful but permanent drawing on the walls who doesn’t know how to make her parents understand. See…I kind of lied…

“Um…”

“You said you had a plan!”

“Well, actually,” I begin. “You told me to tell you I had a plan. Which I did. You never once asked me if I had a plan.”

“Which you don’t.”

“Precisely.”

Wesley’s sigh is louder than my thumping heart. Walking through the woods at night is something I’ll never get used to. I don’t even feel fear, but my heart is pounding all the same. It’s like I’m conditioned to be scared of these ancient trees even when my head tells me not to be.

“Well, we need a plan.” Wesley says.

I’m content to just listen to the cricket’s song and the rustling of leaves, but Wesley does have a good point. Going with the flow won’t exactly help our chances of success, but there is one idea I have in mind. “We’ll use the tunnels.” I decide. Wesley knows which tunnels I’m talking about; the endless hallways underneath the Council house used to be one of our favorite places to play.

“Okay…” Wesley trips on a root behind me and I hear him stumble, but he seems to stay upright. When he’s balanced and safe once more, he says, “And what about after we get into the Council house? What then?”

Then we go with the flow.” It’s the best I can do right now. Wesley sighs long and hard. It’s something he’s done since we were kids, a not-so-subtle way of saying he’s discontent. I roll my eyes and try again. “They’re in the prisons. There has to be a way to get to the cells without going to the main floor first. We need to find it.”

“And if we can’t?”

I don’t want to think about “can’t.” I want to breathe in the sweet smell of victory and get the heck out of this dimension with my friends. But victory is only sweet because of the hardships you have to overcome to get there. I know this, yet I can’t help but wish for an easier path, one without all the uncertainty and fear.

I come to a stop at an intersection in the path. Here, three paths—including the one we’re on—are evenly spread out in opposite directions like spokes on a bike. I’m so glad I’ve been here before. One path leads back to Resdon, and one leads to the chasm. I haven’t thought about that place in so long, where the ground opens up in a big black hole where “endless” takes on a whole new intensity.

Without a word, Wesley and I both know to take the path on the right. We readjust our directions to do so and take more and more steps towards Resdon. I can almost taste the city life in the air, though it may be sewage. And I can almost imagine the moment I can turn off my flashlight and rely solely on the magical orbs that hang throughout my city. I think I’ll miss them most of all.

Then the sound of thunder fills my ears. It’s loud enough to reverberate inside of me, rocking my ribcage and taking my breath away. I try to look up at the sky, but the tree coverage overhead currently makes it impossible. The few breaks in leaves I do see show only darkness and no stars, but that’s normal for Resdon, even out here in the woods.

“It better not rain.” Wesley says with a bitter edge on his voice.

“We’re already soaked.” I remind him. Even now, my clothes still cling to me from our brief dip in the lake. But I’m trying not to notice the cold water on my goose-bumped skin. Mind over matter. Warmth over cold.

It doesn’t work.

The sky roars again and this time, I flinch. I pick up the pace, knowing Wesley will follow my lead. The sooner we’re at the Council house, the sooner the threat disappears. Well, at least momentarily. If all goes well, we’ll have to make a getaway through these woods. If all goes really well, the sky won’t cry over our departure.

Something catches my eye up ahead in the path. The trees break and a new, dark blue color takes hold. It’s the road leading back to Resdon.

I run the rest of the way and jump out of the forest with little hesitation. It’s a good thing no one drives cars in Resdon, because I’ve hopped right onto the pavement and out of the forest, leaving me vulnerable and exposed.

Wesley joins me a moment later. Now that I’m looking at him, I can see he’s scared. It’s understandable. This is the first time he’s been back home in three years. His memories of this place must be unreliable. The sense of home, unfortunately, is a temporary thing. For me, coming back here is a breath of relief. For Wesley, it must feel like a dazed dream with familiar objects but completely different emotions than when he lived here.

The sight of bright orbs up ahead sends joy rocketing through me, whereas Wesley blinks his unaccustomed eyes at them. The buildings in the distance make me crave the proximity to other people, but Wesley looks incredibly uncomfortable. In the dimension he’s been living in, other people are to be feared. There are very little “casual encounters,” only dangerous ones with taut muscles and nervous eyes.

Sensing his insecurity, I take his hand in mine. His skin is warmer than the rest of me, so I hold onto this little bit of comfort. My hand in his says everything I don’t know how to say out loud. We’ll be okay. We’ll get through this. I’m right here with you.

And hidden away behind the forefront affirmations, my hand holds a sliver of doubt. While the contact is reassuring and comforting, it’s nervous, too. It says, Hold onto me, Wesley. I’m so scared. I can’t do this alone. At least by his side, I won’t have to.

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