I hugged my briefcase as we sat down in a corner of the bar. My eyes were no longer drawn to the unusual individuals that were laughing, drinking and chatting. Instead, my gaze was on Maddie, who was now sipping a green drink in a glass that was shaped like a flower.
“Are you sure you don’t want a drink?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I just want some clarity. Why am I not ready?”
“Only you know. But usually it’s fear. Fear of something.” She took another sip and touched her earlobe.
“Why all the questions? Why am I supposed to be ready to answer questions. What does any of that have to do with getting out of here?”
“That’s because this is not a destination.”
“Right. It’s a journey. But a journey to what? Where am I going? Home? Because that’s the only place I want to go to.”
“Yes, but are you willing to get there, that’s the question. You said you were, but you’re not. Otherwise you would be by now.” Her voice had gotten softer, like the melody of a broken song.
“What do I do if I won’t ever get ready?”
She glanced around the establishment. Look around, that’s your answer.”
I swallowed. “You mean, all those people?”
She took another sip.
“But they look nothing like me. They’re not from the same place as I am, right?”
“They were, but just like decorations, at some point it all becomes one with the room. It blends in like it’s the most natural thing in the world. And maybe it is. Maybe it’s survival. Or acceptance.”
“I don’t want to accept. I just want to go home.”
“But is that what you truly want?”
I looked at the ribbon on my briefcase. “I don’t know.”
“Good. Then think about what it means to be home, for you. What needs to be achieved in order for you to get home.”
A short while ago I would have answered: ‘Some bloody good directions instead of talking deer and strange ponds.’ Instead, I uttered the word that had been stuck in my throat for a while and had difficulty coming out: “Forgiveness.”
Maddie grinned an extra mischievous grin. “Then I know our next stop.”
“Are we there yet?” I asked after what felt like an hour of walking. All this while my thoughts had taken a seat in my head and refused to leave. I hadn’t even realised Maddie had been whistling a tune. I rubbed my forehead and paused my thoughts for the moment.
She stopped whistling as quickly as she stopped in her tracks. She turned around and took a step closer to me. Personal space was not a concept to her because our noses were almost touching.
“We’re here. Are you ready?” she whispered.
“Excellent,” she said loudly and dashed backwards. We had reached the bottom of a hill, where a large, broad willow stood. Its branches reached to the ground as if it was too sad to lift them to the sky.
Maddie walked towards it and I followed.
“Knock, knock,” she said and laughed like a hissing cat.
“Not funny,” a voice said.
Without thinking I took a step back. “Who was that? It sounded so close,” I whispered to Maddie.
“Why, the tree of course,” she said.
I cleared my throat. “Of course.”
“Who wants to pass?” The tree asked and out of the bark appeared a face as if someone was pressing it against the wood from inside the tree, trying to break free.
“George wants to pass.” She stepped aside and held out a hand to me.
“George wants to pass.” The tree let the words role of his tongue, his voice low and deep with rough edges.
“May George pass?” Maddie asked.
The tree grumbled something as if contemplating his answer. Then silence returned to the woods. One fly buzzed past me and hovered in front of the tree before doing the same with Maddie. She kept staring at the tree.
A breeze swayed the tree’s branches.
Maddie didn’t blink.
Buzz—she moved her hands forward in a sharp motion and smacked the fly between her hand. When she rubbed her hands together yellow dust fell down.
I was surprised by the fact that I wasn’t surprised anymore.
“Yes. He. May. Pass.” The tree spoke slowly, interrupting any other thoughts I would have had about the fly that turned into yellow dust.
“Excellent. Thank you.” She bowed and tipped her hat before turning to me.
My eyes were still on the tree, whose face had sunken deeper into the bark until it looked like a regular willow tree again.
“This you must do on your own, because only you know what you must do.” She grinned and held out her arm to the path that led up to the hill, where there were no orange trees to light the way.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Do you trust me?”
“Strangely enough I do.”
“Then good luck and I hope I won’t see you again.”
“Wait, so if I succeed, then you won’t see me again?”
I shifted my weight on my other leg. “But, then…I mean…”
“Ah, George, will you miss me?”
I cleared my throat. “I didn’t say that, I mean, I just wanted to get to know you more, I guess.”
“Trust me, it will be a good thing if you don’t.”
“Will you be okay?”
“Of course. This is my home.”
“Has it always been?”
“I don’t think so, but the longer I’m here, the more I forget where I once was from.”
“Have you been here long?”
“It feels that way, but time is different here.”
I nodded. “Thank you for helping me.”
“It’s my pleasure.” She bowed to me and winked.
“Take care.” I smiled and started walking up the sandy, dark path as I felt Maddie’s eyes on my back. It wasn’t until I reached the top when I turned around and all the orange trees had gone out below me and there was only a sea of darkness that had swallowed my peculiar friend.
There was a well on top of the hill and the full moon shone enough light for me to see things clearly enough. Like the short grass that surrounded the well and the one flower that stood a few feet away from me. It was a tulip. They had been her favourite.
I walked up to the well, feeling that this is where it would all begin. Or end, rather. I put down the briefcase on the bricked edge and took off the ribbon. Then I placed the briefcase on the soft grass and rested one hand on the cold stones of the well as I leaned forward and stared into nothing but black. It felt like it was staring back at me. And I wanted to see it, even though I also didn’t want to see it.
I let go of the ribbon. “Forgive me.” The darkness swallowed the ribbon but I knew it was still descending, I knew it was getting closer and then I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again I was at home. The home I had lived in with her and I looked at the calendar which hung above the bin in the country-style kitchen. It was that day. Today was that day.
I heard her hum as she came down the stairs, always that same tune, that tune that I had missed so much. I felt the tears well up and blinked repeatedly so I could see her clearly when she waltzed into the room. And when she did I couldn’t help but shriek and run over to her, clinging to her tightly, inhaling her lavender scent and touch her golden hair that reached between her shoulder blades.
“Love, what are you doing? Are you okay?” she asked. Her voice soft and high, laced with the warmth of a crackling fire.
“Yeah, I’m fine, sorry.” I cleared my throat and let her go as I stared into her light-blue eyes that searched mine with curiosity and concern. Her eyes had been the clearest thing about her I’d remembered, I’d see those every night as I woke up from my nightmare.
I touched her cheek. “I’ve missed you.” And I kissed her hard and soft at the same time. When I pulled back there was even more confusion written on her face.
“Are you sure you’re okay? You know I just saw you when I woke up, right?” Her mouth unfolded into a smile and I held her close again.
She laughed this time and I felt her body shake. “What is wrong with you? Did you have a bad dream or something?”
“Yes, you could say that.”
“Well, I’m late for work, so I don’t have time for breakfast and I’ll have to take your car.”
I swallowed and felt like somewhere inside my stomach I was being set on fire. “Err, are you sure that you want to go? Maybe you can stay home and—” my voice trailed off. I knew these words wouldn’t help. This wasn’t a second chance, this was a second viewing. Front row seat. A chance to say what I needed to say, a chance to see it very clearly.
“No, no, I can’t do that. I have a very important day, I told you.” She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. She then grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl and tucked it into her bag. “I’ll see you tonight, have a nice day.”
The fire in the pit of my stomach grew wider. “Wait.” I followed her to the door where she had her coat over her arm and my car keys in her hand.
I touched her elbow. “I love you.”
She smiled. “I love you too.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“For letting you go, for letting you leave.”
“What are you talking about? You really did have a bad dream, didn’t you?” She frowned and handed me her coat and the car keys. “Hold this.” From her hair wrist she undid a pink ribbon and she bent down next to the stairs where my briefcase was. She tied the ribbon around the handle and stood back up. “There, it’s a lucky ribbon and it will keep your nightmares and worries at bay.” She kissed me on my lips and grabbed the coat and the keys. “Now I really have to go or I’ll be super late.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. Sometimes things just happen. It’s called bad luck.” She waved at me before the door closed behind her.
“It’s not my fault,” I repeated and closed my eyes. “It just happened.” The next images that flew through my mind were of the phone call, the hospital, the doctor, the funeral. And finally there was nothing but black around me. My eyes were closed. I lifted my eyelids as they fluttered against the harsh lights of the carriage.
Outside the window was the familiar sign that indicated I had arrived at my local train station. “I’m home,” I yelled with unexpected enthusiasm. I got up and ran out while the doors were still open. It was like the train had been waiting for me. The doors closed soon after I stood on the platform and I embraced the chilly breeze that swept right through me.
Maybe it had all been a dream, I thought as a sigh escaped my lungs. The thought planted roots in my mind as I started heading home but when I stopped at a crossing, I forced myself to look down.
The ribbon was gone.