Break time. Rick commenced the trek to the stock room double doors, nodding with a smile at an elderly lady as he passed her.
As he scanned his employee number into the time clock, something strange happened. A shadow fell across the time clock, darkening the narrow hallway. The breakroom seemed to fade in and out (like a faraway radio station). There was a sensation of wind on his face as the sound of the grocery store’s recorded music flickered in and out. He couldn’t see anything but blackness, though he knew his eyes were wide open. A tremendous feeling of nausea gripped him. What was the deal here? Was he blind? Going deaf? About to faint? Even dying? At this, Rick couldn’t suppress a faint grin as he pictured a pseudo-newspaper headline: Overworked Boy 16, Dies While on Break. How ironic. That was it, he realized as he clutched at his stomach, now he knew he was crazy.
Even as he envisioned this, small explosions of color threw themselves across his field of vision: orange, red, green, purple. Psychedelic popcorn. He felt as though he were about to vomit, and all the strength had drained from his body. Rick forced himself to stay awake. He certainly didn’t want to faint and be found by his peers; he’d never live it down….
And suddenly Rick found himself crouched down, staring at a tree.
He blinked. A tree? He blinked again – hard (what the – ) . Without moving, he looked around. A butterfly drifted lazily by.
“No way…” he breathed. Rick tried to stand up and immediately regretted it as he hit his head on a thick branch above him. “Ouch!” And then his stomach rebelled with unrivaled fervor. Rick capitulated and retched noisily.
After a moment, panting, he ducked out from beneath the tree and swiped a hand across his mouth. One hand on his head, the other on his stomach, Rick stared all around him, awed at the forest spread out before him in every direction. (I’m not going blind or deaf, I’m going absolutely insane.) Putting up an arm to shield his watering eyes from the brightness of the sunlight, Rick took a tentative step out of the shadows.
He studied the serene terrain around him more carefully as he assumed a brisk stride. Most woods Rick had their naturalism sadly punctuated with man’s relentless presence by an old styrofoam cup or cigarette box. Not so here.
As he tramped along, fighting nagging nausea, taking in everything he saw wide-eyed, he knew he was the stereotypical tourist. (Well, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore, are we?)
Not sure what other action to take, Rick continued on what he hoped was a westerly course, although it was hard to tell between the finely woven screen of trees overhead and the radiance of the sun filtering through the leaves. Besides the sun being brighter, the air seemed to Rick to smell (sweeter) cleaner, sort of crisp, he mused.
After some time of traipsing through the woods, Rick suddenly considered himself. He was still wearing his green stock apron. He snorted and untied it, tossing it over his shoulder. Rick tried not to think about what his parents would do when he didn’t make it home that night. Then Rick caught himself. How did he know that he wouldn’t make it home?
Oh, come on, he reasoned. It’s not every day you get zapped into the middle of (another world) nowhere – it’s pretty safe to assume that you’re definitely not going to get in your car and drive home later. All the same, his almost natural assumption that he wasn’t going to make it home bothered him, about as much as how he got wherever he was.
Rick resolved to ponder whether he would be sleeping in his own bed that night later, whenever he got where he was going. Not, he observed ruefully, that he knew where he was coming from.
So Rick swallowed his doubts and continued to crash through the unyielding underbrush, whistling aimlessly.
After lumbering through more of the forest, all he found was that he was both hot and thirsty. Regurgitation had left his bodily resources sorely depleted. Storebrand soda, water, milk, anything would suffice so long as it was wet. He also realized how slim the chances of stumbling across a water fountain out here in the middle of nowhere were. He wiped a rivulet of sweat away with his apron. The last time he’d had anything to drink was –
Rick froze. Was there someone out there in this Godforsaken empty forest?
And then a girl sprang up out of the bushes, scaring Rick out of what was left of his senses.
“Hoooly cow…” he breathed, at a loss for a more euphemistic oration. Neither of them said anything for a moment, they just gaped at one another. Finally, Rick broke the enduring silence.
“Anyone else going to pop up before I change my pants?”
The young girl stepped forward timidly.
“Do you – do you know where we are?”
Rick appraised the girl. Not exactly his idea of a wood nymph. Though pretty in an exotic sort of way, a sweatshirt stained with earth enveloped her slim frame while jean shorts revealed slender, well-toned legs. Short, carefree black curls blew around a face, which, while smudged lightly with dirt, framed quite startling blue eyes, sort of Windex colored. Rick decided detachedly that it was this type of poetic composition that made girls think twice about dating him. He also observed the tell-tale, little-girl-lost look on her face and, with a sinking heart, knew the chances of getting home tonight were probably slim to none: this girl had about as much of an idea of where they were as he did.
Lightly, he replied, “I would be tempted to say the Land of Oz, except that I don’t see my store sitting on any witches, and you don’t look much like a Munchkin….” Rick shrugged. “Seriously, I don’t really know, I haven’t been here long myself. Who are you?” he asked, concluding quickly that if neither of them knew their location, it would probably benefit them both to recommence in each other’s company. Power in numbers and all that.
The girl eyed him nervously.
“Look, my name’s Rick Frank. I don’t have any idea where I am or how I got here, but right now I don’t care. All I’m interested in is getting home.” After hearing himself, he decided wryly that he must come across as a new therapy patient with an attitude; he’d be lucky if the girl didn’t turn and run.
She stared at him steadily for a minute, seeming to weigh his words. Rick felt as though she were reading his soul, her eyes just sort of bore into you. As he was wondering if he had been found wanting, the girl stepped nimbly forward.
“My name is Elise Scott.”
Rick nodded briefly in acknowledgment of the introduction. He then suggested attempting to find some water, since people tended to live along banks of water. Survival, he claimed, was more important than finding their way home at this point, his dry throat only reinforcing this idea. Elise voiced no objections. She reminded him of a deer trapped in approaching headlights. Rather ruefully, he realized that he was feeling quite the same. Finding yourself in two different places in as many seconds produced that effect in a person. Strangely, the shared feeling of helplessness was almost comforting. Misery loves company, thought Rick.
After a while of disheartened traipsing through the woods, Elise broke the stillness. “Can I ask you something?”
Rick looked back over his shoulder at the slender girl.
“Where are you from? I mean, where do you live?” She picked her way carefully around the clump of thorny green vines that he’d just trampled.
Rick sighed and nodded, shrugging. “Rockville, North Carolina. You?”
He heard an intake of breath from behind him.
“Rockville. North Carolina.”
He threw another look over his shoulder and stopped. A strange look had crossed Elise’s face.
“Well, any ideas where we are?” inquired Rick hopefully as he resumed their assiduous trek. Maybe she knew more than he did.
“The last I knew, I was in my best friend’s house,” Elise replied bitterly as she threaded her way agilely through a superfluity of low-hanging branches waving in the wind. “And then, all of a sudden, I was here.” She gestured with annoyance at the trees that surrounded them.
Rick nodded and sighed, recollecting with distaste his own disappearing act.
Just then, something caught his attention. A distant but steady noise. He strained to identify it. Elise stopped walking, listening also.
They dashed thankfully toward the sound, finally encountering a small creek, its waters running merrily over small stones, rippling the reflections of the dense tree cover overhead. Rick slurped shamelessly at handful after handful of cool, clean water.
Sated at last, Rick splashed some water on his face and lounged against a tree trunk to rest. He noted that Elise had consumed a fair quantity as well, watching her wipe her forearm across her mouth. But as she turned around to join him in his respite, the look of content on her face changed to one of wonder….