A drop of water landing on her cheek woke Avi up. “Sodding roof,” she muttered as she rolled over in bed and reached for the pillow next to her...which was not there. “Oh, Penny. Did you steal Mummy's pillow again?” Avi's dog, a small, cheeky Westie-Beagle mix, was notorious for stealing pillows because she was not allowed on the bed. Avi shivered and realised that she'd kicked off her bedding, too. Groping around, she couldn't find her sheets, her blankets, or even her own pillow.
Wait a minute. She couldn't find her bed either. Where was her bed?
Avi's eyes snapped open in alarm and she stared straight up at what should have been the ceiling of her bedroom, but which was instead a canopy of glorious red and gold leaves shimmering in weak sunlight and dancing in a soft breeze.
She scrambled to her feet and slipped on the layer of wet leaves she'd been laying on. She reached out to catch herself and her fingers grazed the rough bark of the oak tree she'd been sleeping beneath. A rising feeling of panic was growing inside her, and she whipped her head around, trying to figure out where she was, where her bedroom was, and how she'd ended up in the woods.
A fine mist settled on her skin with a crystalline coolness, sending another shiver through her body. As if the colourful leaves hadn't been enough of a clue, the musky, earthy scent of fallen leaves and rich soil filled the air with definite signs of autumn. The sight of squirrels and other wee rodents scurrying about, stuffing their faces with nuts was also a big sign that somehow, the season was now smack-dab in the middle of autumn.
Which was weird, since it had been early spring when she'd gone to bed the night before.
Avi stood for a moment, stock-still, her eyes moving over her surroundings. This had to be a dream. An incredibly detailed dream. For one, she knew that it was late April, not mid-October. For two, trees in Scotland did not turn red in the autumn. For three, the only place she knew of that trees turned red in the autumn was in America. It made a certain amount of sense that she'd be dreaming about America, since she'd just spent half the night before convincing Maisie, her best mate and cousin, that they needed to go to America for a holiday.
Another drop of water fell against her bare arm and she looked down at herself. She was wearing a sleeveless nightgown, the same one she'd gone to sleep in. She ran a hand down her stomach, feeling the thin cotton material, which was soaked through and clinging to her backside. Okay, that was weird, she decided. If this was a dream, and she was pretty certain it was a dream, wouldn't she be wearing clothing more appropriate to the setting? Jeans and a jacket, for example? Her feet were bare, for heaven's sake!
She took a deep breath, glanced around the area once more, and then headed in a random direction. She knew that eventually, in the normal way of dreams, there would be a scene cut and she'd be in some other part of the forest, or some other part of the world, or hell, maybe she'd even wake up.
After walking for an indeterminable amount of time, she came to the realisation that she wasn't getting a scene cut, which led her to believe that perhaps—just maybe—she was not actually having a dream. That she was actually awake and wandering about the forest in some unknown area of the world that was not even remotely close to Edinburgh, let alone her little flat on Circus Lane.
Determined not to stop walking, knowing that eventually she'd come to a road or maybe some hearty campers braving the weather, Avi continued on, moving through tree trunks, thick underbrush, and the occasional rock. The mist slowly cleared, and the sun broke through, warming the air and helping her dry off. In fact, the sun did more than warm the air, it made her start to sweat, which made just that much more miserable. Her feet were still freezing, though; apparently the warming air had no effect whatsoever on the layers of wet, slippery leaves she was forced to walk barefoot over.
Soon she caught the faint sound of water and turned towards it. She was hot, thirsty, covered in sweat, and growing more and more desperate. Where was she? How did she get there? How was she possibly going to get home?
She spied the distinctive shimmer of moving water ahead, just between two large, healthy oak trees covered in crimson leaves. “Oh, thank heavens,” she said and picked up her pace. She broke through the treeline and saw a pretty little burn, babbling and laughing over smooth stones. The water was clear and she could see all the way to the bottom, which was no more than a foot below the surface. There were tiny, silvery fish flashing in the sun as they darted in and out of some overhanging rocks that lined the banks.
She sat down on one of the larger rocks and rested her feet for a moment. The stream was flowing in the general direction she was walking in, and it appeared as though the banks were mostly clear of underbrush. Maybe it would make the most sense to follow the stream for as long as she could.
She climbed down off the rock and knelt at the side of the stream. She dipped her fingers into the water and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was somewhat cool. Not snow-melt cold, but cool enough that drinking it would no doubt prove refreshing. She cupped her hands beneath the water and drank deeply. The water was indeed delicious; it tasted vaguely metallic and maybe a little tiny bit like dirt. Something her mother said popped unbidden into her head—“God made dirt, so dirt doesn't hurt.” Avi snickered and straightened.
Her feet were warmer now, most of her nightgown was dry, and her thirst had been slaked. Now all she needed to do was find the road and bum a ride back to Edinburgh. She began walking along the stream, weaving her way through rocks and small trees. The ground felt as though it was headed downhill. That was promising. She refused to think negatively. That wouldn't help anyone. It never had, and she knew it never would. She'd find the road, she'd find someone helpful, and she'd get back home.
There was simply no other alternative.
The stream began growing wider and the land became flatter. Soon, she came to the tree line, and could see a huge grassland that covered everything in front of her, from right to left and clear to the horizon. The sun was low in the west, and the slanted light turned the plains red as spilled blood. It was breath-taking and more than a little frightening.
There were certainly big, wide open spaces like this in Northern England and Scotland, but at this time of year—autumn, apparently, her mind reminded her—the heath would be brown, dried and dead. She took a few steps forward, deeper into the grass and saw that it was tall, almost up to her ribcage. She was by no means a tall woman—she barely topped five feet—but unless farmers in the U.K. were now planting great, tall, red wheat, she might be forced to admit that she was still dreaming, no matter how real everything seemed.
As she moved through the grass, she noticed that the stream had turned west, moving in and out of the tree-line, disappearing over a large hill to the west. Avi stood for a long moment, gazing north across the vibrantly red plains, before turning west to follow the stream again. The sounds of birdsong became stronger, and she glanced up into the trees and spotted birds that resembled starlings. Their song was more melodic though, and they danced and skimmed across the tops of the red grain, snatching tiny flying bugs out of the air as the birds' wings disturbed them.
The stream eventually curved back towards the north and disappeared from sight. She stood still and tried to ignore the sounds of the birds and the wind in the grass and the trees. There was a roaring sound, something that she felt in her chest more than she heard it, something that was vaguely familiar. She went deeper into the trees, following the roaring sound, which grew louder and louder with every step.
Only fast reflexes kept her from going over a fifty-foot drop that was hidden by low-growing ferns and other bushes. The roaring sound was a waterfall. The stream was pouring over the edge of the cliff, dumping down onto wicked-looking rocks, turning white with the force of its impact. Avi gasped and stumbled backwards, fetching up against a tree trunk and sliding down it to collapse on the ground. “Oh, my Lord,” she said, a hand clutched at her chest, feeling the pounding of her heartbeat.
She sat still, hearing the roaring of the waterfall as her thoughts circled around a horrifying thought. The trees were covered with autumn leaves. She was deep in a forest, filled with ancient trees. There was a burn that widened into a stream, that went over a cliff. There was strange red grain that covered acres and acres of land. She hadn't seen a single person or house or other building. And the air was... Well, it smelled clean. No wood smoke, no car exhaust, nothing but clean, fresh air. Was there anywhere on Earth that the air smelled that clean?
“I'm not in the U.K.,” she said absently, and then clapped her hands over her mouth. But like when a bottle is unstoppered and all the wine inside spilled out, she couldn't take back the thought or the words. “This is not England. Or Scotland. Or anywhere else in Great Britain.”
She suddenly felt light-headed, nauseated. She closed her eyes and laid down slowly. Soon she felt the ground beneath her head, and was surprised to find it soft and moss-covered, almost like a pillow. She wanted to go back to sleep. Maybe she'd wake up and be back in her flat on Circus Lane in Edinburgh, with her dog on the bed, her car in the garage, and her life still intact.