Author’s Note: Well, here we go, the beginning of what I hope to be a great journey that we’ll take together. I suppose the first thing I should mention is that I hope no one will expect updates on this story to come particularly rapidly. I have some parts hashed completely out, and some parts that will take quite a bit of work before I can put them down in full words.
But procrastination will only lead away from one’s destination, I suppose.
A quick note. This chapter does start off a little slow, and there’s a specific reason why that I discussed a little with my friend Kathy who is going to help me keep this story nice and tidy. The main reason is that when I first started telling this story to my daughters, the main character was originally much younger. But it became quickly necessary to grow the main character up a bit, which is what accounts for the kind of slow exposition that leads into the story. I could have done this a different way, but at that point we would have had to burn several chapters just to get to the real story, so I made a choice and ran with it.
Other than that, I truly hope you enjoy!
For Kalani and Camryn
Chapter 1: The Man in the Room
Lindsey and Sara were sisters. No, not just sisters; sisters hardly seems adequate to describe the relationship the two girls shared. After all, some sisters hardly ever speak, others speak an awful lot, but usually when they “speak,” their speaking is better defined as screaming and shouting and swearing.
Some sisters go their entire lives without seeing each other, while other sisters will smile and talk sweetly to one another, the whole time harboring old grudges and grievances behind their pleasant masks.
Not Lindsey and Sara. When I say they were sisters, I mean to say that you would be hard pressed to find two girls who cared more for each other, who loved each other more unconditionally, and who were as fond of each other as these two.
Lindsey was the elder of the two by one and one half years. Quiet and somewhat shy, Lindsey’s big brown eyes were often found buried in a book, be it a school book or one of the many adventures she had stocked in her bookshelves. She was pretty, mind you, and friendly if given half a chance, but being around people always made her a little self-conscious and far too uncomfortable for her liking.
In fact, Lindsey and Sara were opposites in many ways. Where Sara was adventurous and seemingly fearless, Lindsey was cautious and reserved. Where Sara liked to wear loud clothes and keep her hair in spunky pigtails, Lindsey preferred muted dresses and no nonsense pony tails.
And yet, for all their differences, the two sisters found no better company in any one person than in each other. Lindsey, who always excelled in her school work, naturally helped Sara whenever she was having trouble with her math homework, or studying for an English test. Sara, who never liked to see her sister sitting alone, always managed to find a way to squeeze Lindsey in whatever social group she found herself in.
Though, because of their age, the two girls had been separated by schools before, and suffered little because of it, high school, for some reason, was different. It wasn’t as though they began hating each other all of a sudden, nor was it that they missed each other much; they still shared a bedroom.
But as Lindsey plodded her way tortuously through that first year of high school, she came to realize that the place itself was so different from everything else she had experienced. She loved Sara, appreciated Sara, and was most grateful for the fact that she never minded helping her big sister meet new friends; but she never felt as though she would be completely and totally lost without Sara.
High school was different. She felt… She felt like a little girl lost among a world of adults. Her plain and simple dresses felt so unnatural in a world where all the other girls wore women’s clothes, evocative clothes, the kinds of clothes that even Sara wouldn’t wear. And the social castes that existed; those took Lindsey’s breath away.
Sure, she had been used to being something of an outcast without Sara to prod her along, but in high school there were full blown communities that moved in packs; even the outcasts had their own little pecking order, and none of them, from the elite debutantes to the lowest geek squad, none of them seemed to notice her in the slightest.
And over the course of that first year, for the very first time, Lindsey began to resent her sister a little. She hated how dependent she had become on Sara, and when she felt at her most invisible, when she felt as though the entire world was spinning while she continued to stand still, she could feel herself blame Sara at least a little bit.
And on, and on. For Lindsey, high school had become little more than torment, but to see her sister as the days of Summer slowly drew to a close, Lindsey would have thought that there was no greater place on Earth.
How can she be so excited? Lindsey would often wonder. She just couldn’t understand it. To be sure, she understood full well her sister’s excitement, she just couldn’t understand how it was so easy for Sara when it was so hard for her.
She never grew to hate Sara. But as Sara’s first day at high school neared, Lindsey found herself blaming her little sister more and more until, on the night before school was to begin, she had finally come to a realization.
If anything, it was her fault for relying upon Sara so much; for not taking control over her own life.
With the horror of a new school year only hours away, Lindsey laid awake in bed, her thoughts racing. When she finally decided to talk to Sara, to quit hiding the feelings that continued to eat away at her, the little red digits on her alarm clock that cut through the darkness told her it was eleven o’clock at night.
This would be yet another thing that differed greatly between the girls. While Lindsey would lie awake for hours staring at the dim shadows that crawled across their ceiling through the darkness of night, her mind busily leaping from one stream of thought to another, Sara had the enviable gift of falling asleep almost as soon as her head touched her pillow.
Lindsey sighed. She supposed she could wait until the next morning; they had a sufficiently long walk to the bus stop wherein Lindsey could ask her sister, perhaps years too late, what it was that she had been doing wrong all this time in private. But with a sinking feeling, Lindsey remembered Sara earlier explaining that she had a group of friends that would be joining them on their morning walk.
Lindsey sighed again, rolled over, and closed her eyes with the hopes that sleep would soon come to her. But it didn’t. It never did, not when she had this much weighing on her mind, which, lately, was most of the time.
Frustrated, she opened her eyes again and stared at the ceiling. She thought of the scuffed and faded walls of that place, and the concrete floors. God, how she hated that place, from the tired looking buildings to the ever present sound of shuffling feet and idle chatter. She didn’t know how much more of it she could take, how many more days and weeks and months she could stand having everyone walk by her as if she didn’t even exist.
In the darkness of her room and her own thoughts, she surveyed her short life, looking for some signal, some sign that it wasn’t just her; that it was instead that place she had learned to hate, but nothing came.
That thought stung a little. It wasn’t just high school—it was her. It was as though she was like a puzzle piece thrown in the wrong box, one that simply never fit. Earlier on in her life it didn’t quite matter so much because there were so many other pieces like her, pieces that had yet to become a part of the greater picture. But now time was running out and with the picture nearly fully formed she could tell that she didn’t belong; her colors were wrong. Her shape was wrong.
Rolling over for what felt like the hundredth time, Lindsey cast a wary glance at her alarm clock. Great. One in the morning. Not only did she have to begin another year at high school in just a matter of hours, she would have to do so with big bags under her eyes and a whole body full of muscles and joints aching to go back to bed all day long.
After fifteen years of sleeping in the same room, in the same bed that had not been moved since Sara had outgrown her crib and their parents had to rearrange the furniture to accommodate two full sized beds, Lindsey knew what her room looked like after bedtime. She knew the way the light of the street lamps crept in through the slats in the window blinds and cast the opposing wall in thin bars of dark gray. She knew the way the shadows of the desk and night tables and drawers all lurked in their places, blurry and nondescript. She even knew the different lights that snuck in under her door; there was the yellow light from the hall when her parents were making ready to go to bed, and the faint orange light from the hallway nightlight. She could even recognize the faintly flickering eggshell blue light that darted back and forth whenever her parents were watching television.
It was dark blue, and for the briefest moment Lindsey mistook it for the light that signaled her parents watching tv, but this light was dark, deeper, and did not jump back and forth. Besides, at one in the morning, her parents should be in bed by now.
She sat up, thinking that what she saw was just a trick of the light, but even as she squinted at the narrow opening beneath her bedroom door, the dark blue light did not go away. Lindsey rubbed her eyes and tried again, but the strange light persisted in being there.
Standing at her bedroom door, she could see her toes bathed in the light, her toe nails glistening ever so slightly. That’s not a trick of the light, she thought and, curiosity getting the better of her, she turned the door knob.
Half expecting to be bathed in darkness, Lindsey was shocked to find the entire hallway cast in that eerie blue glow. Could Mom and Dad have left the tv on? she asked herself. It wouldn’t be the first time, she knew, but at this point she also knew that she didn’t really believe that this was the case.
At that moment, Lindsey faced a simple decision. She could just close the door and go to bed, pretend she didn’t see what she thought she was seeing, and when she woke up she would pretend nothing had happened and go about her normal life. She could take the two or three steps to her parents’ bedroom, knock on their door, and with wide eyes tell them about the blue light.
There was no going back to bed after this; that much was obvious. But what about her parents? No, that wouldn’t do. The mere thought made Lindsey feel as though she were three again and running to her mommy and daddy to get away from the monster under the bed or in the closet.
With a look over her shoulder at her sleeping sister, Lindsey took a step into the hallway. She kept a hand braced against the wall as she slowly crept her way down, past her parents’ bedroom, past the bathroom, past the cramped little office where her father did most of his work.
It did seem as though the light was coming from the living room, the front room that forked off to the right at the end of the hall as pitched in shadow as ever. It was off to the left, through the dining room, the kitchen and into the living room where the blue light seemed to be getting stronger.
It was like listening to the heartbeat of a heart that forgot the way that hearts were supposed to beat, and just this thought alone forced Lindsey to pay attention to her own heart which was thumping furiously against her chest.
It wasn’t like she was afraid, exactly; at this point it seemed the worst case scenario was that someone had broken into their house to play music in their living room. But there was a kind of anxious thrill running through her, as though something was waiting for her, something dark, something that rested on the tip of her tongue like the name of that song that you just barely overheard and you would know the title if you could just hear a little more of it, but then it’s gone like a memory that never was.
That’s odd, she thought, but odd was an understatement. Beneath her fingers was no longer the off white painted wall she had grown up with, but brick, dark red brick that looked purple or maroon in the blue light. There was never brick there before, and she looked behind her, half expecting the hallway from which she came to be lined in the stuff, but instead she saw only the familiar doors and familiar off white walls, and she thought, for the second time, that she could still just go back to her bed, go to sleep, and forget any of this was happening.
Lindsey didn’t get far, though, when she noticed a change in the music. Not a change, exactly, but an addition. Now, along with the low, almost sleazy feeling base line, she could just make out a staccato rhythm softly tapping its way out on what sounded like a hi-hat or a cymbal.
The two independent strains of music wound themselves around each other, mixing and mingling, becoming almost a single entity, but not quite. It was mellow, but edgy, harmless but dark, and it lured her ever closer until she realized she was standing in her dining room.
Only, it didn’t look much like her dining room. It looked sort of like the place where she and her family ate dinner every night. But the floor was different, replaced with smooth concrete, just as the walls continued on in the red brick that began back at the hallway. The once wooden table was now made of black wrought iron with a grated surface.
Lindsey continued to stare at this strange reflection, or parody, of her dining room as she crossed the threshold into the kitchen only to find that the kitchen hadn’t just changed; it simply wasn’t there anymore.
While the hallway and dining room both at least bore a resemblance to what they once were, the kitchen and living room were completely different. The breakfast bar where she and her sister forced down toaster waffles every morning was gone, along with the refrigerator, the couches of the living room, the television—all of it.
What took their place was what appeared to be a restaurant of some sort, with miniature versions of the wrought iron table in the dining room scattered about, flickering candles shielded in blue glass in the center of each. Posters for film noir titles Lindsey had never heard of hung from the walls next to framed photographs of beat poets and jazz musicians while small circular frosted windows tucked high up in the walls hinted at a dark, arc sodium lamp lit night outside.
The shock of all of this, however, paled in comparison with what Lindsey found all the way on the other side of the room. There, where their modest television should have been, was a three piece band, still playing that strange tune.
They were dressed in white, which shone pale blue in the brilliant blue spotlights that illuminated them. A short, troll-like man plucked a bass that towered over him, whilst in the center of a staging area a chubby, cherub-faced man continued to tap out the rhythm on his little drum kit, his white sports coat looking as though its seams might bust at any moment, and yet he didn’t seem to care. In fact, from the way his dim eyes stared off into space, Lindsey wondered if he even realized where he was at that moment.
Off to the side, the third man stood, his thin figure scarecrow like as one hand held a trombone, and the other snapped lazily in time with the music. A pristine white wide-brimmed hat covered nearly the entirety of his face, and even when he finally raised the brass horn to his lips Lindsey still couldn’t make out the barest details besides shadows and nothing more.
He blew a slow, sad dirge that felt almost, but not quite, out of place to the rest of the music. At first, the mismatch was so glaringly obvious that Lindsey likened it to nails across a chalkboard (she could NEVER stand that noise, and even the thought of it made goose pimples break out all over her arms), but either she acclimated quickly to the strange blend of rhythms, or the horn man subtly adjusted to be more in keeping with his band mates for the effect quickly faded.
Lindsey could feel the music moving through her, moving her, touching her in a way that music hadn’t done in a long time. She had only ever listened to what Sara listened to because Sara was the one that knew which bands were popular and which weren’t, but those bands always felt so terribly empty and two dimensional, as though you could almost reach out and peel off the veneer and all you would find underneath were simple mathematic formulas (Lyrics A + Rhythm B + Instrumental C = $$$$).
This was different. This was deep. Without speaking a single word, this little band was saying more than any song Lindsey ever heard on the radio, and despite the absolute impossibility of her situation, she found herself gently moving in time with the music.
She turned to see a tall thin man in black slacks and a crisp white button up smiling at her. It was a kind smile, toothy beneath a thick moustache and made all the kinder by his shiny bald head and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes. He was motioning to the tables, and, catching the intense feeling that standing wasn’t exactly smiled upon, Lindsey pulled out the closest chair to her and sat.
“Would you like anything to drink, Miss?” the kindly looking man asked, and at first Lindsey began to shake her head, but something in the man’s eyes darkened. It was almost imperceptible, nothing that Lindsey could actually describe, but still there was… something there. Something not nearly as kind as the toothy grin and reflective pate.
“Come now,” he said, that dark edge in his eyes solidifying even as his grin broadened. “Let’s not be coy. We’re night people—night people don’t drink water when they’re burning the midnight oil, do they?”
“I… uh… um…” Lindsey wasn’t much of a coffee drinker. Her parents liked to visit coffee shops where they did all sorts of things to the coffee, but Lindsey had never been particularly fond of the stuff.
“I see,” the man said, and as he did so his eyes darkened even more just as his smile seemed to stretch to its very limit. If he smiles any further, Lindsey thought, his head is going to split in two. But it remained quite intact as he added, “I’ll select something suitable for you, how does that sound, Miss?”
“Uh… That sounds fine,” Lindsey whispered, nodding, trying to appear as natural as one could given her circumstance. But the waiter, if that was indeed what he was, only continued to give her that smile which was now quite far from kindly, and had stumbled into being downright chilling.
He gave a curt little bow, turned, and Lindsey watched as he briskly walked back to where the kitchen should be. He pushed a couple of swinging double doors open, and for a brief moment there was the pale yellow light of a restaurant kitchen, but none of the sounds and smells and wafts of steam that should have issued forth ever came. Then it was closed, and the man was gone.
The waiter gone, the music again washed over her. It was violent, but calm, harsh, and yet soothing, three ribbons; drums, bass, and horn, all interwoven in a stream of contradictions, and with each new note she grew more entranced.
She peered inside the enormous cup. There was a creamy kind of froth that covered the surface, and in the center was a sprinkling of what looked to be some sort of red spice; paprika? Nutmeg? She wasn’t sure. What she was sure of was that the sights, sounds, smells, all began to coax her, to form around a single coherent thought where none existed before, two simple words.
Lindsey redirected her attention to the band, consciously aware of how her senses again were assaulted, now from within even as the blue lights and the music and the aroma of her drink pelted her from without. Her mouth danced with an intricate combination of chocolate and coffee, the warmth of the drink sinking down her center and spreading outward and she was all of a sudden very, very relaxed.
“W-who are you?” she asked, thrusting her shaking hands under the table in a vainattempt to not let on how startled she was. It wasn’t just that he had snuck up on her, but that he himself was disconcerting. He looked more like a cartoon than a man; his scarlet suit and wide brimmed hat all but hanging off of what appeared to be a matchstick frame, his bone white skin and ruby red lips giving the impression less of a living breathing man, and more of some distorted harlequin doll in a zoot suit.
He smiled, his mouth the only part of his face that Lindsey could make out from beneath the hat, and she noticed that his teeth were uncommonly large, and white, and sharp. “Yes, your host. I brought you here. That is, you’ve always been here, but I made here here, you see?”
“My name,” the man parroted her. He seemed to contemplate the query intensely, his broad smile tugging down ever so slightly, threatening to turn into a frown. Finally, with a subtle shrug, he said, “You may refer to me as Mr. M.”
“Oh, for something quite a bit better than a prize. I’m offering you a whole new life. A new world, a world where…” He paused. Lindsey instantly got the intense feeling that he was studying her, that his eyes were boring through the brim of his hat, and surveying her, looking into her and searching her deepest thoughts. “A world where you belong.”
“But what about that place. That place where you feel like such an outsider, an alien. Misfit doesn’t begin to cover it, does it? Oh, I know you. You’ll sit and wait for Sara to cram you in where you don’t belong, like she always does, but what makes you think she’ll be there for you this time.”
“Don’t lie to me,” he said, his lips contracting into an exaggerated pout. “Lindsey, don’t you understand? I can hear the tears your heart weeps every day. I know the torment you feel as the world passes you by, never giving you even a glimpse of recognition that you exist. You can’t tell me this doesn’t get you… get to you. I know.”
Lindsey sat stunned. Her thoughts were her thoughts, safe and private, and she preferred them that way. This, however, was dangerous. She speaking her own thoughts out loud would be bad enough, make them real enough. But for this stranger to voice her darkest secrets; it was as though they weren’t just made real, but breathed into life, into large hulking beasts lurking just beyond the periphery of her vision.
“And I know you’re just waiting for your little sister to hold your hand and drag you through it, just as she always does, and maybe she will tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. But what happens when she grows weary of forcing you into a light that rejects you? What happens when she gets a real boyfriend, and no longer wants her awkward big sis around? What will you do then?”
Lindsey gaped. Her mouth worked open and closed several times, her mind trying to formulate something resembling a response, but she couldn’t get beyond marveling at listening to her own anxieties spilled out before her.
Mr. M’s words melted into the music, and the taste, and the smell of the coffee and the continuous glow of the blue light and the way it collided so magnificently with his crimson clothes. She seemed entranced, enthralled, hyper aware. She found herself focusing on the strangest things, like the way Mr. M’s slick black hair curled up at the nape of his bone China neck ever so slightly, or the way she could trace faint, vein-like, cracks in the concrete floor.
And all the while, her mind continued digesting Mr. M’s words. Go somewhere I belong, she mused. Go where I fit into the big picture. It was, to say the least, an intoxicating proposal. What would such a world look like? Would she really be happy there?
Lindsey could feel her will eroding within her, feel herself warming up to the proposal Mr. M had put before her. It would be an adventure, the kind of adventure that she didn’t need to lean upon Sara…
The blue light cast itself deep into her house, past the remnants of what was once her kitchen, and into the transformed dining room. And if she craned her neck just so, and squinted just right, she could make out the hallway, the same hallway that led to her bathroom, and her parents’ room, and her room where Sara was sleeping.
She thought about her sister. Lindsey imagined what it would be like in any kind of world, whether she belonged in it or not, without her sister at her side. That was one question she wasn’t particularly interested to find the answer to.
And in that moment Lindsey had attained clarity. The music was dulled, the scent of the coffee did not reach her enose, and the blue lights that assaulted her were, from this vantage point, casting more shadow than illumination, and she then realized that it was all something of a trick. The lights, the music, the coffee, even Mr. M’s silky voice, had slowly put her not in a trance exactly, but at the very least in a state where she was uncommonly agreeable.
He laughed. “I tried,” he said, shrugging, his palms face up, the effect of the gesture further exaggerated by his loud clothes and clown-like grin. “You seem to misunderstand me, Lindsey; you’re coming whether you wish to or not.”
When she gripped the knob to her door, it felt right; simple, small, metallic, warm, and when she turned it, it made the familiar rattle-click noise she was so accustomed to. The door squeaked feebly when she got it halfway open, and with a heavy sigh, she looked at the red digits on her alarm clock and saw that it was now two in the morning.