We walked for a whole minute in total silence when Maddie began to hum a tune. She even added a little hop every once in a while. All the while I thought about what I could say to her, what I could ask her, but somehow all the words in my head crashed into each other and became a tangled mess.
We reached a crossroad with wooden signs. One pointed to the right and said: left. And the other pointed to the left and said: right.
I looked at Maddie who had placed her slender claw-like fingers on her chin. “It seems like a riddle, don’t you think? Something that can trick you before your eye can blink.” She laughed like a broken violin again.
“Well, right can mean two things, so I think the sign that says right refers to the correct way.” I paused. “Right?”
Maddie’s lips burst into a smile, this time revealing her teeth as white as bone. “Whatever you say, my friend. Your way is my way and therefore always the right way.”
I curled my hands into fists. “Okay, this is too weird and I can’t take it anymore. I don’t care what happens. I don’t care if you’re a crazy serial killer that wants to kill me, but just tell me where I am, how I got here and who you are!” I breathed heavily and became aware of the red ribbon that danced against my wrist because of the breeze that rushed through these woods.
“My, my, why didn’t you tell me you were scared, I don’t want you to think I never cared.” She placed her hand in front of her mouth. “Oops, once you start rhyming it’s hard to stop.”
“Th—that’s okay. It’s just a little…unusual.”
She grinned. “Unusual is a nice word isn’t it? I suppose that is the best way to describe this place.”
“And what place is this?”
She put her fingers together and started to pace around me. “Well, it’s kind of your place. And kind of mine. It’s like your subconscious is visiting my world. Only it’s not really your subconscious, you are in fact really here. But your part of this world is made up out of your subconscious. And now we get to try and bring you home.”
“Home? So you mean, I can actually get out of here?”
“Most definitely. This world is a journey, not a destination.” Maddie touched the rim of her hat. “The question is, which way do you want to go?” She pointed to the signs.
“Left, because the sign says it’s the right way.”
Maddie’s black, thin eyebrow shot up. “How do you know?”
“It says so on the sign.”
“But how do you know the right way for the sign, is the right way for you?”
Maddie moved her arms to her side and shrugged. “Only you know the right way. I’m just here to keep you safe.”
“Safe from what?”
At that moment a cry came from the woods. Something that didn’t come from a human, nor from an animal.
“From something like that?” I asked.
“Something like that.” Maddie gestured to the left path and then to the right. She held up her hands like a scale and moved them up and down. “Which one is the right one, George?”
“Then we go right.” I turned to my right and started walking in a rapid pace.
“Excellent, the boy has made a choice.” Maddie made a twirl and then dashed after me.
“So why am I here? Why am I brought to your…world, or whatever?” I asked without looking up.
“I don’t know why they come to me, but they all have something untold buried inside of them, something that they need to uncover here.”
I huffed. “That’s ridiculous. I’m perfectly fine.”
The shrubs beneath one of the orange trees rustled. We both stopped in our tracks as I stopped breathing for a moment.
The shrubs rustled and rustled like something huge was trying to come through. I was afraid to speak and held my briefcase in front of my chest. Whatever it was, I would fight it. I would make it—
From the bushes hopped a baby deer.
I let out a short, high-pitched scream out of surprise then slapped my hand in front of my mouth. “Sorry,” I mumbled.
Maddie ran her long finger nail over my cheek. “I like men who scream like girls.”
I frowned and took a side-ways step away from her.
“I need to show you something,” a little boy’s voice said.
I looked at the deer. “D—did you just s—speak?”
“Yes,” the deer said.
“But you’re a deer.”
“No, I look like a deer. But that doesn’t make me one.”
The deer shook his head. “Follow me.”
I looked at Maddie.
“If he says you should follow him, then you should follow him.”
We both followed the deer off the trail to a small pond and a large oak tree with a door. The deer stopped at the pond and turned to me. “Normal reflections show you the opposite of what is true, but here it shows you the opposite of what is false.” With that statement the young deer dashed off and disappeared between the shrubbery and trees.
I looked at the oak tree and its door, the pond and back at Maddie. “What did the deer mean?” I scratched my head. “Never thought I’d say that in my life.”
“It means you should never look at the surface, but rather beneath it.” She gestured to the pond.
“More cryptic messages, great.”
“Shall I hold that?” Maddie held out her hand as she glanced at the briefcase.
“No, no thank you.” I gripped it tighter.
“I really think you should. You’ll get it back as soon as you’re done. I’ll guard it with my life, if that’s what you want.”
“You won’t do anything with it?”
“Of course not. That would be wrong. You’re my guest. I told you, I’m here to protect you.”
I nodded and pursed my lips. I touched the ribbon before I handed the briefcase over.
Maddie bowed and gestured toward the pond before holding the handle with both hands and standing up straight like she was a guard that wouldn’t let anyone come near me or the briefcase.
This made the muscles in my neck relax as I stepped closer to the pond and kneeled. I looked into my reflection, but didn’t see anything. Just the clear water that reflected some of the light behind me. I leaned in closer and just before I was ready to turn back to Maddie a hand shot up from the water, grabbed me by the face and pulled me in. I tried to scream and flung my arms and legs. Nothing happened and I could still breathe. When I opened my eyes, I was sitting in an office with a sofa, bookcases, a mahogany desk and diplomas on the wall.
A man sat behind the desk. He had glasses on and was bald.
“Where am I?” I asked.
“Welcome, Mr. Giovanni,” the man said.
“How do you know my last name?”
“Let’s talk about your problems, shall we?” He grabbed a notebook and pen and leaned back in his office chair.
“My problems? I only have one, really and that’s being stuck in here.”
“Really and what about the ribbon?” He took the tip of his pen and dipped it on his tongue.
“What do you know about the ribbon?” I asked, growing itchier by the second and wishing I had kept my briefcase with me.
“How do you feel, knowing she’s not here anymore?”
“You don’t know anything about it.”
He scribbled something.
“Stop writing, there’s nothing to write. It’s none of your business.”
“It is, because it troubles you so. Sharing is caring. Why don’t you tell me what’s beneath the surface?” His voice was heavy and his eyes light.
I wanted to protest and shout, but instead I blinked a few times and sat back into the sofa. My limbs began to feel heavier. “I don’t now…she’s gone. She left me.”
“Why did she leave you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember. She was just gone one day, all her stuff was still there, her scent was still there, but she never came back to me. I don’t know why. I don’t know why.”
“Hmm.” The man scribbled some more. “Are you sure you don’t remember? I think you do, you just have to open that door.”
A door appeared in the middle of the office.
I blinked and stared at it, unsure if it was real or just my imagination. I looked back at the man, but he’d disappeared. The entire office had disappeared and there was nothing but me and that door. The door hummed.
I stretched out my hand and touched the door handle. The door started vibrating and I pulled my hand away. The moment I did I was launched backwards, feeling the cold air around me before hitting the ground but instead of embracing a rush of pain, the ground lowered under my weight and then shot me back up like a trampoline. I waved my arms in the air and somehow managed to land on my feet, but this time the ground stayed as it was.
“Holy hell,” I said. I felt my arms and stomach to make sure I wasn’t hurt and then glanced around for Maddie. She was nowhere to be seen, but the door in the tree was ajar. I walked around the pond and edged closer to the door. My hand trembled as I grabbed the door knob, what would I find this time?
Inside the tree were a few wooden steps that led downstairs to a big place that looked like a bar of some sort. Strings with white-coloured lights hung up on the wooden ceiling and the place was packed with strange-looking people. A woman dressed in a yellow dress with actual flowers at the bottom and butterflies in her hair. She had green lipstick on and her eyes were purple. She winked at me as she passed me.
I scanned the people at a nearby table, taking in the snake that was wrapped around the neck of silver-haired woman when Maddie’s distinct laughter drew my gaze to the bar. She was talking to a man who only had one eye in the middle of his head. My briefcase was placed on the seat next to her. I sighed with relief and dashed towards it.
I grabbed the handle and turned to Maddie. “Maddie,” I said, my voice smaller than I had intended.
She looked up, her eyes widening as she saw me. “George, you made it back. That’s too bad, you seemed like you might be ready.” She took a sip of her drink. “Oh, well, I suppose the journey continues then. First, I’ll get you a drink. You’re gonna need one.”