Freedom In Oxford
The sun soared high above the valley floor, baking the ground, creating the illusion of a wavering horizon. Dust filled the air, tossed up by wind that tore across the barren plains of yellow grass and dry leaves, causing my eyes to blur.
My legs were tired, my tear stained cheeks hot. Nothing looked familiar, but it wouldn’t here, would it? How long had it been? Minutes, hours? How much longer could I last? My tiny body couldn’t carry me much further.
A loud crack rang out, sending a nearby rabbit into a frightened sprint. The sound should have scared me, but it didn’t. To me it was the sound of rescue.
From out of the vast expanse of uninhabited wilderness a figure appeared, a man.
I tried to call out but the sound was little more than a raspy whisper.
He spotted me and broke out into a run, his Nike sneakers pounding against the hard packed earth. The sun beat down over him and as he neared, the sharp rays glinted off the blade of the rapier clutched in his hand.
I threw the bags down onto the bed and stretched, releasing the tension in my shoulders. It wasn’t the twenty-something hour flight or the train ride from London to Oxford that had me so tense, I knew Gates weren’t accessible at high speeds or in the sky, it was the walking to and from the buildings that had kept me on edge. Thankfully, though, we had made it all the way to my dorm without stumbling across a single Gate, my first minor triumph at university.
I took a cautious stroll around the room, making sure it was a Gate free zone. Having to avoid the bed or closet for the duration of my degree because a Gate decided to plant itself near my headboard, would be a serious problem, but fortunately, the room was free of any such inconveniences.
There was a series of loud thumps coming from the hall just before Dad appeared in the doorway, followed closely by Grandpa, carting heavy suitcases and a few small boxes. Dad dumped his armload into an ungraceful heap on the floor.
“Home sweet home.” He beamed up at me before looking around room that would be mine for the next four years.
It was a simple room with bare cinderblock walls, a narrow twin bed, and well-worn desk. The mattress was relatively clean, but used, and a too-small closet tucked itself near the door. To others it might have appeared like a prison cell, to me it looked like freedom.
Dad did his own walk about the room, no doubt also checking for the mischievous Gates that often liked to appear without warning from time to time, stick around for a few years, then vanish just as quickly. He sat down on the edge of the bed frowning slightly.
“Dad, what’s wrong now?” I asked, taking one of my bags from Grandpa who was still in the doorway.
“I just can’t picture you living here… there’s no space to run and it rains all the time in England.”
I sat down beside him and put my arm around his wide shoulders. He’d been a mess ever since I had announced that I was going university halfway around the world from our family estate in Napa Valley. “Dad, I can’t be home schooled forever, you know that.” I glanced up at Grandpa leaning against the desk. “Sorry Grandpa, you were a great teacher and all, but eighteen years is a long time to be a prisoner in your own home, even it if is a sprawling vineyard in the heart of Napa Valley.”
Grandpa waved me off and smiled, his bright blue eyes twinkling from exertion. “Nonsense, Iris. It’s time for you to experience the world independently just as your father and I did when we were your age. True, the vineyard was the safest place for you as a child, there we could protect you from the Gates, but now you’re an adult, you have to learn how to deal with both worlds, like a true Sinclair.” He paused. “Like a true Gate Jumper.”
Dad huffed beside me. He was not nearly as understanding and had made that clear for the past four months. It was his opinion that I should live on the vineyard forever where I could keep my feet firmly planted in the Primary Dimension and continue to study Physics under my Grandpa’s studious tutelage with hopes of one day solving the puzzle of the Gates.
“Thanks Grandpa,” I said standing and wandering over to one of my large suitcases, unzipping it.
“Have you called your mom yet?” Dad asked, still sounding pouty.
I flinched. “No, not yet.”
It wasn’t that I disliked talking to Mom. She was fine. She was always cheerful and pleasant, happy to hear from me. The problem was that I always sensed that mournful under tone in her voice. I could feel the resentment, oozing out of her words, always bubbling just under the surface, waiting to break through the cotton candy exterior. Often times I found myself reasoning that it was all in my head. Sometimes though, I couldn’t help think that maybe it wasn’t.
Dad gave me a long look that I caught out of the corner of my eye. “She’ll be waiting to hear from you.”
“She’ll be fine,” I mumbled, pretending to focus on refolding one of my many cashmere cardigans.
“Iris, I know it’s been hard for you since she moved to Texas, but you have to make an effort. She’s your mother.” He paused then a twitchy smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. “Besides, you haven’t told her anything about switching majors from Physics to Business. I think she’d be proud to know you want to take after your old man.”
I gave him a stern look. “Very funny, Dad. You know she’ll be just about as happy as you and Grandpa were when I told you. Furious. She wants the Gates closed more than any of us and me switching into Business means that Grandpa is still our only hope.” I looked over at him then back at Dad, my smile falling just slightly. “I’ll call her later, okay? After you fly back tomorrow.”
Dad frowned but didn’t press the matter further. I knew he was just as unsure of how to handle Mom as I was.
Grandpa cleared his throat, providing a much-needed shift in conversation. “I have a gift for you, Iris.”
I turned back to him. He was standing over the desk and riffling through a duffle bag. From inside, he withdrew a small backpack.
I frowned but kept my tone light, “Did you get me a backpack for a going away present?”
He laughed and the wrinkles deepened around his eyes. “Well, sort of – it’s what’s inside the backpack.”
“I hope it isn’t more Barbies Grandpa, you know I’m eighteen right? I’m studying at Oxford not going to playschool.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, when did I ever buy you Barbies?”
I raised a challenging brow. “For my sixteenth birthday.”
He wrinkled his nose and waved me off. “Well how was I supposed to know they weren’t cool anymore?”
I laughed. “It’s not that they aren’t cool anymore, it’s that I’m about ten years too old for them.”
Grandpa looked unconvinced as came to set the bag down on the bed beside me. It was simple, black with one thick strap to pull over the head and wear around the shoulder. He unzipped it and pulled out a flashlight.
“A flashlight?” I asked, underwhelmed.
“This bag.” He motioned to it. “Is exactly the same type of bag your father and I started out with when we first left home. You should wear it all the time, no matter where you are. You could be walking down a hall at school and suddenly end up on the Other Side. It contains basic survival items to get you through until you find an Exit back; food, water, rope, jack knife...and this.” He reached back into the bag and pulled out a small black oval tube.
“What is it?” I eyed the thing with interest.
Grandpa stood up and gave the tube a quick flick with his wrist. It made several loud snapping noises as a long slender blade shot out, opening up in three separate sections.
“A retractable sword?” I was stuck between being horrified and finding it all a little ridiculous. I turned to Dad. “I thought I told you I was giving up fencing while I’m away?”
Dad shrugged and looked back at his dad.
Grandpa snorted and handed the sword over to me. “It’s for your protection.”
My frown deepened as I took it. “The Other Side isn’t dangerous Grandpa, just a little inconvenient. If I was moving to New York you wouldn’t give me a handgun, would you?”
Dad laughed but Grandpa scowled. “Of course not! But this is different, you can never be too careful over there. Besides, it would be completely irresponsible of me to give you Primary World technology like a gun. Haven’t we warned you enough about that?”
Dad rolled his eyes but kept quiet, knowing there was no point in arguing with Grandpa once he got something in his mind. He was right though, at least partially. Mixing technologies between worlds could potentially be catastrophic, not that any of us had ever put the theory to test.
“What about this?” I held up the flashlight with my free hand. “Doesn’t this classify as technology from our world?”
Grandpa eyed it intently. “Well yeah, sure, but it’s just common sense to carry a flashlight.”
Rolling my eyes, I repacked the flashlight and looked back to the sword. Running my hand over the smooth black lacquered surface of the hilt, I watched as the tiny iridescent flakes shimmered beneath my touch. I smiled. The feel was so comforting. It soothed my soul like an old friend.
Gripping the hilt with one hand, I gave the sword a quick flick down, loosening my sparring arm. I spun and thrust the blade at the door in a deadly point. As the steel cut through the air in a high-pitched wiz, I thought about my life, the complexities of it.
I’d read those books, the ones where the teenagers were vampires or werewolves or witches or whatever, and how difficult they seemed to think it all was. Well, they didn’t know the half of it. At least they could keep their feet firmly planted in the same World. All they had to worry about was drinking blood and casting spells, not finding their way back home from a Secondary Dimension.
Dad cleared his throat loudly, causing me to look back over my shoulder. He stood with his hand on his hip, a sour expression on his face.
“What?” I asked, screwing my face up in an annoyed scowl. “What’s wrong now?”
He glared at me and pointed to my back, shaking his finger up and down. “I certainly hope you are planning on covering up a bit more here.”
Knowing exactly what he was referring to, I glanced back at my shoulder, eying the circular mark of the Gate Jumper. It was clearly visible underneath my bronzed skin; the two circles entwined together, each representing the Primary and Secondary Worlds. Around them, a larger circle representing the universe. I had been born with the mark, just like every other Sinclair since the day of the first Gate Jumper, thousands of years earlier. The history of our inconvenient ability wasn’t well known, but I knew the Sinclairs were an old family, ancient even, and had relocated from England the century before, leaving much of our sorted past behind.
Running my hand quickly over the mark, I wondered what others would think of it here in Oxford. It resembled a raised scar, but the intricate detailing was too complex for it to be just a fluke in genetics. Maybe they would guess self-mutilation or something as equally gruesome. I shrugged and turned my attention back to Dad, deciding that I really didn’t care what anyone else thought.
“Don’t worry, Dad.” I gave him a placid smile. “I’ll wear a sweater all the time. Like you said, it always rains in England.” I spun and stepped forward in a graceful lunge going for his heart, an easy move to block.
He pulled back, stepping aside and knocking the blade away with the back of his hand. “I think you better put that thing away before you poke someone’s eye out.”
Laughing, I clicked the same button on the hilt as Grandpa had, and watched as the fine steel of the sword shot back into the case, leaving behind the innocent looking black tube.
Smiling down at the little gadget, I shoved it back into the bag and zipped it up. “Thanks Grandpa, I love it. I seriously doubt I’ll ever need to use it though. You’ve taken me to the Other Side enough times before that I know what to expect. Besides, violence is never the answer.”
Grandpa shook his head at my sarcasm. “Just be careful, Iris. Who’s to say what the Other Side will be like here. You’ve seen how hostile the Secondary people can be back home, it could be the same here, worse even.”
I knitted my brows together and snorted. “Yeah, that’s because they think we’re wandering evil spirits out to steal their souls. I’d be freaked out too if I watched the same family of strangers suddenly appear from out of nowhere and then vanish over and over again.”
Grandpa gawffed and got up from the bed, turning to repack the duffle bag on the desk. “Evil spirits… what primitive nonsense.”
They weren’t primitive though, I thought to myself, recalling the first memory I had of the Other Side. I still remembered the man’s face. He had been wearing contacts, making his eyes appear an unnatural blue.
The man had been whistling as he walked…the sound lost in the swirling wind that blurred my vision with dust. Only the sword that dangled from his belt reminded me that this hadn’t been the Primary World. In the Secondary, there had been no industrial revolution, and although time, weather, and environment, all stayed the same on either side of the Gates, the Secondary World’s progression followed the Primary like a shadow, moving at their own independent rate, not slower really, just different.
“Well, we should go check into the hotel.” Dad’s voice brought me back to the moment. “We’ll be back around six to take you out for supper?” He looked back at me as he tried to force one of the empty suitcases under the bed.
I nodded, pushing away the unwanted memories of that day in the Secondary, the one that had changed all our lives forever, the one that still haunted my dreams. “Yeah, that sounds good. It’ll give me time to get settled here.”
“See you soon, pumpkin.” Grandpa leaned over and kissed the top of my head.
Dad paused by the door. “Iris, be careful okay? We’re not at home here, we don’t know where the Gates are, or where the Exits might be.”
I turned to face him, setting a determined hand on my hip. “Dad, I’ll be fine. I know how to handle myself. I’m not a kid anymore.”
He gave a lopsided smile. “I know, I know. You’re a Sinclair.”
I smiled and shooed him off. “Bye, I’ll see you later.”
He gave one last wave and then disappeared into the hall, shutting the door behind him.
A few minutes later, as I sorted out my sundresses, a knock sounded at the door.
“Did you forget something?” I asked as I stood from the bed. A cramp suddenly shot through my calf and I rubbed it as I hobbled, half bent, to the door and yanked it open.
I was surprised to find someone other than Dad standing in the hall. “Can I help you?” I asked, still crouched over and rubbing my leg.
It was a boy or I supposed a young man, he stood with his hands shoved into the pockets of his designer jeans, looking down at me, his eyes resting on my hunched figure.
I stood up immediately, hiding the Gate Jumper’s mark that peeked out from beneath my spaghetti strapped tank top.
He seemed frozen for a second, and then snapped back when I cleared my throat to get his attention. “Oh.” He frowned. “I - I think I have the wrong room. Is this Wadham College?”
The stranger spoke with a very proper English accent. He was my age, or at least he appeared to be. His hair was a dark chestnut color, cut short, but still long enough to look tussled. He was gorgeous, to say the least, although I didn’t really have much for comparison besides movie stars on TV. His face seemed well proportioned with sharp angles and the most amazing multicolored blue, grey, green, jewel-like eyes that slanted just slightly, as if he were squinting.
“Yeah, it is. This is the girl’s floor though. Who are you looking for?” I leaned casually against the door jam, trying not to look like I had been checking him out.
He didn’t move from his stiff position. “I’m looking for my friend, Dave. He said this was his dorm room.”
“Well, I highly doubt that. Unless Dave has long blond hair and wears a dress? If that’s the case, she’s next door.”
The mystery man raised his brow at me, as if to tell me my joke was lame without actually having to verbalize it. “No.”
His reaction left me feeling a bit cold. “Try the next floor up.” I nodded my head to the ceiling.
He gave me one last blank look before turning away. “Thanks.”
As he turned to go, I stepped out into the hall. “I’m, Iris.” I didn’t know why I bothered to introduce myself. It was clear he wasn’t interested in knowing me, but it just popped out of my mouth before I had the chance to stop myself.
He stopped and slowly turned back toward me, giving me the most thorough examination that anyone ever had. It was extremely unnerving. His magical eyes lingered on all the places that made me blush. “Jude,” he finally answered and continued to seem unimpressed.
A brief flare of hostility sprang up in my gut. How dare he look at me that way and then act as if he were completely indifferent. I had the urge to run my hand through my hair and flatten my fly aways, or look in the nearest mirror to check and make sure my mascara hadn’t run. I knew I wasn’t exactly a super model, but I wasn’t goblin either. This doorknob didn’t seem to think so. I decided he was probably gay.
I shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, my hand resting behind me on the doorframe. “Well, nice to meet you. Maybe I’ll see you around?”
He shrugged. “Yeah, maybe.” He gave a slight nod, turned, and walked away.
“Rude,” I said quietly under my breath, closing the door on his hastily retreating figure.
Inside my dorm, everything seemed quiet, too quiet, like the quiet before a great storm. I rested my head back against the door, closing my eyes, and trying to take deep calming breaths. How was I going to get through four years of this? Of pretending to be normal when deep down I knew it was never possible, no matter how hard I tried. Would I ever meet someone who would understand? Who would make me feel as if the Gates didn’t control my entire life? Whatever happened, good or bad, I was ready for it. I had to be. It was here.
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