Chapter 8: Emerson
Monday night, I sleep in the woods. “Sleep” is a generous description of my actions, but I’m somewhere in between conscious and not. My heart pounds in my chest all night long, but eventually, I grow used to it. The pounding becomes a constant rhythm that gives me some form of distraction from the overwhelming fear I’m plagued by.
I lie on a bed of pine straw and leaves, curled up against the thick trunk of a tree. It’s completely uncomfortable but it’s the best position I can manage.
All night, thoughts of my group back home assault my brain. I’m sure my disappearance has been noticed by now. They’re probably all out searching for me, wondering where on earth I could’ve gone. And I’m not even sure of the answer to that question. My whereabouts are a mystery to me as well.
Is Porter nervously biting his nails, a habit I’ve tried to break him of plenty of times? Is Zofia annoyed at the uproar I’ve caused? Is Cade rubbing a hand over his bunny tattoo? Is Kenzi taking the lead, ever the voice of reason?
I long to be home. The night passes at an agonizingly slow speed. Crickets. Rustling underbrush. Labored breathing—my own, thank goodness.
Then the sky starts to lighten. I can see further and further in front of me. My hand, once a dark hint of a shadow, is now visible in perfect clarity. I can see the rocks and uneven ground. I can see the dirt stains on my metallic pants.
So I stretch my arms and stand up slowly. My head spins and my eyes blink lazily, not wanting to open up again. How much sleep have I really had? Two hours?
I can easily find my way back to the house I stole the clothes from—I slept directly behind it. But I stay hidden in the woods, always in sight of the backs of houses but never visible from afar. Hugging the tree line, I make my way down a long line of houses until I finally reach the end of the forest and what appears to be a string of businesses.
All the buildings are shocking colors with long, swirling bridges cutting through the brightening sky. They look eerily still in the early hours of the morning, like curling tree branches with no leaves between the painted brick.
And the roads…I finally know what cobblestone is. Adelyn explained it in her letters, but I could never wrap my head around the sight. Small, uneven bricks in the ground, twisting through the crazy buildings. But they aren’t the color of regular bricks. These cobblestone roads are a deep purple, but it could a trick of the morning light.
This town is so overwhelming, and I don’t even know where it is. How did I swim in a lake and end up somewhere completely unfamiliar? This town is modern, newly built. The decrepit old buildings I’m used to don’t compare to the glossy shine of these monstrosities.
Then I see the streetlights—little orbs floating above my head. They light up the cobblestone underneath, exactly like Adelyn described in her letters. Could I possibly be in her world?
Something slightly familiar catches my eye towards the very edge of the town, separated from the newer buildings by its rundown appearance and about twenty feet. A brick building in desperate need of a wash. A low awning hangs above it, striped with a sunny blue and a bright white. The inscription “Under the Sun” tells me nothing really about the business itself, but the old building is a beacon for my unaccustomed eyes.
There’s hardly anyone on the streets—a businessman in a bright blue suit and a group of girls wearing big, puffy dresses. They glance in every window they pass, giggling and pointing and gesturing. Even being near anyone else is making me nervous. Usually, I have a small pocketknife within reach, but mine is back in the pocket of my discarded jeans on the shore of my lake.
I feel defenseless and awkward, but talking to someone may be the only chance I have at finding my way home. I pull open the glass door to Under the Sun. A bell jingles overhead. My heart stops for a moment and I whip around to look for the culprit.
“Can I help you—oh!” A girl is running up to me, wearing a dark gray t-shirt and skintight jeans. Her hair is blue, fading from dark at the top to white at the bottom. Her eyes are wide and excited. “Adelyn! Did you talk to Grayson yet? I texted you…”
Her excitement wears off and the warm smile on her face slips away. Left instead is an expression of complete bewilderment. “Wait—why do you look like you’ve been mugged?” She gasps. “Oh, my gosh! Were you mugged?”
“Um, no…” The words slide out of my mouth easily, but mostly because I’m unsure what “mugged” even means. It doesn’t sound like it has a good connotation, but it’s hard to tell.
“Your hair looks like a bird’s nest.” The girl observes. I self-consciously bring my hand up to smooth it. “And how did your eyebrows double in size and thickness in a matter of hours? And what are you wearing, Addy?”
Addy. She called me Addy. And she called me Adelyn before that. It could be a coincidence, but what are the odds that I’ve ended up in a town that precisely fits the picture that’s been painted of Resdon in my head? And what are the odds that the first person I see is calling me by the name of my pen-pal who lives in said town?
Do I look like Adelyn? I have no idea what she looks like. How do I not know what she looks like?
“You’re not Adelyn.” The girl says slowly, as if connecting a jumble of puzzle pieces in her head. “So who the heck are you?”
The girl—her name tag reads Aspen, the name of Adelyn’s best friend—leads me to a table near the back of the restaurant. It’s a picnic table cut in half so only us two fit. A little plastic mold of some sort sits on the table. It’s purple and cute, but I’m not familiar with its use.
But I understand the name of the restaurant now. The ceiling is the color of the sun, and everything else is under it. The picnic tables, the sky blue walls, the eccentric table centerpieces.
And the employee who figured out that I’m not her best friend.
“Okay.” Aspen says promptly after we sit down at the table. She entwines her hands and rests them on the table in front of her, the picture of business. “Who are you and why do you look like my best friend?”
I have to tell her; there’s no other choice. I suppose I could lie and tell her I have no idea what she’s talking about, but I’ve never been good at making up stories. And I’m even worse at sticking to them. Besides, the overwhelmed look on my face probably tells her that I’m not from around here. And from what I’ve heard from Adelyn, everyone in this world is from Resdon. There’s only wasteland anywhere else.
“My name is Emerson.” I say after a prolonged pause.
Aspen draws in a breath. “Emerson?” She asks. “Like Adelyn’s pen-pal?”
“Yes.” I say. “I’m her pen-pal. Adelyn Josephs, right?” She nods in the affirmative. “But I have no idea how I got here. I just swam in a lake and then surfaced in another world.”
Something lights up in Aspen’s eyes. Her eyes are huge, never seeming to squint. And they’re the same gray as the darkest thunder storm, set off even further by her thick, dark eyebrows. The edge of her lip tilts up ever so slightly.
But she isn’t saying anything and I’m left with uncomfortable silence. I’m good at being silent on my own, but with other people, I feel the need to fill the empty space left by the absence of words. So I twiddle my thumbs under the table and wait for her to make the next move.
Aspen finally stands up from the table. I’m positive she’s going to walk away from me, but instead, she does an elaborate bow. “I suppose I should introduce myself then.” She says. “My name is Aspen Aliyah Aaron. My Mom calls me AAA which was apparently some Act during the Great Depression, which coincidentally is another nickname she has for me. The Great Depression, because I stress her out and drain her of her life savings. But I’d prefer it if you just called me Aspen.” She thinks again for another second. “Or Penni. But only if you want to be my friend.”
“The…” I’m not sure how to phrase this. “The Great Depression?”
“You don’t know what the Great Depression is?” Aspen sits back down in front of me, brows furrowed. “Well, I suppose you wouldn’t considering what Addy’s told me about your world.” She clears her throat and switches to teaching mode. Her lips are pursed. Her brain is turning. She’s a well-oiled machine with perfect posture and focused eyes. “The Great Depression is some really bad economic crash in this other dimension. My pen-pal is from that dimension and I get her to tell me all about the history stuff.”
“And your mom knows all the history stuff too?” I’m dumbfounded that there’s so much going on in the worlds that I don’t know about. Another dimension?
Aspen nods. “She’s not my real mom, of course.” She says like it’s obvious. “But she’s the one that actually got me hooked on history. It’s like a drug. We share weird history facts and stuff. Bonding, and all that crap.”
My mind is whirling, a tornado of new information destroying everything I thought I knew. I thought I knew a lot about Adelyn’s world, but there is so much more to learn if I’m going to survive here. Hooked on history. What does that mean? Crap. I have no idea what that is, but it doesn’t sound good.
“Okay.” I say for lack of a better idea. This is too much to process if I’m expected to have a coherent conversation while doing it.
“Now.” Aspen folds her arms. “We need to find out where Adelyn went. I’m sure she’ll want to meet you.”
“I have no idea how to find her though.”
Aspen grins with a look that says she knows something I don’t. “Adelyn goes to the same place every Tuesday around this time.” She says.
My mind tries to work and piece together what I know about Adelyn, but I’m coming up blank. Grasping in the dark for answers is not a good strategy.
Aspen rolls her eyes. “She goes to the Square!” She finally says. “To pick up her letter from you!”
I have no idea how to get to the Square. Aspen tries her best to explain the route to me, but I’ve always been terribly bad at directions. At home, Kenzi is our leader and tour guide; she knows the route to wherever we need to go. I’ve never felt this useless.
Finally, Aspen lets out a defeated sigh and lays her head on the table. She hasn’t stood up since I’ve been here; other employees rush around serving the few customers that come in. “I’m going to have to show you.” Aspen says. “There’s no other way.”
I refrain from asking her why she didn’t just show me where the Square was in the first place, but I admittedly know little about jobs in this dimension and the guidelines employees are bound to. She probably can’t even leave the restaurant. She should probably be helping the other waiters deal with customers.
“Bagel!” Aspen yells to oblivion. It’s loud enough to make me jump in my seat. Aspen shoots me an apologetic look before cupping her hands around her mouth and trying again. “BAGEL!”
A door slams open a moment later and a large man walks around the corner. He looks like Porter in skin tone, dark and depthless, but he’s the muscular extreme to Porter’s scrawniness. Thick muscles bulge against his tight white t-shirt.
“Ah, Aspen.” The man—Bagel—says with a smirk. “I see you’re working quite hard today.” He glances over at me and a look of confusion marks his face. “Hey, Addy. You look…different today.”
Aspen meets my eye but neither of us points out that I’m not Adelyn at all. It’s too much to explain. “I need the rest of the day off.” Aspen turns to her boss. He looks ready to argue, but she cuts him off. “Technically, Bagel, I’m not even supposed to be working today anyways. So…”
Bagel sighs. “Aspen—”
My breath catches. Bagel looks incredibly intimidating. He isn’t the kind of person I’d push, but Aspen faces him with little reserve. Had she not been sitting down, I’m sure she’d be on her knees begging. Bagel’s face darkens for a moment, angry and stern. I inch further away from him on the edge of my seat, but all his attention is reserved for Aspen. The rest of the employees in the store look on with detached boredom—a young boy rolls his eyes at the affair and an older lady stops washing her picnic table to watch. I get the feeling that this is not an isolated event.
“Fine.” Bagel breaks down. His arms hang limply at his sides. “But you owe me.”
“Actually…” Aspen stands up, nodding at me to do the same. “You kind of owe me. I’ve been working for three hours.”
Bagel shakes his head in exasperation before turning and walking back to what has to be the kitchen. The bright yellow door swings shut behind him.
“We should go.” Aspen says, checking a bright pink watch on her wrist. “Adelyn should be getting to the Square by now. We need to hurry.”
She grabs my wrist and holds on tightly, leading me across the restaurant and towards the door. Her fellow employees call out farewells in her wake. She shoots a prize-winning smile behind her and gives a small wave. I don’t know much about Aspen, but I can see that she’s full of life. Hopefully, she’s full of answers too. Despite all the new information assaulting my brain, I currently have only one question in particular…
“Why do you call him Bagel?”