“Oh don’t you worry about that,” she said. “For starters, nothing at all has gone back to normal. I’m afraid that it never really will, either.”
He stared hard at her, wondering if this was all some kind of joke. The wings on her back fluttered in his vision, barely visible, whispering “This is no joke!”
He took another look around. There was the grungy-looking copy and print place across the street; it had seen better days. There was the sandwich shop, his favorite for when he needed a quick bite for lunch but had to be back at his desk in a hurry.
And out of the corner of his eye, he could swear there was an enormous oak growing out of the pavement down the street, with walkways extending out from just beneath the canopy.
Had someone built a tree house facade or model for some event? He whirled to face it, to get a better look, but when he turned his full attention to it, it was gone.
That’s when he spotted the low hill where the sandwich shop had been just moments before. There was a low, round wooden door painted green inset there, flanked by two wooden-framed windows with rustic flowerpots on the sills. It looked for all the world like Bag End, the home of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins from Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
He spun back again and stared at the sandwich shop’s sign, which proclaimed the beginning of a sale on foot-long meatball sandwiches. There was neither hill nor green door in sight.
Hmmm, could go for a sandwich for dinner a little later, actually, he thought, then mentally gave himself a slap.
“You’re beginning to see it now, aren’t you,” she said, sounding pleased.
“I saw a tree with walk—there it … no, where did it go? And the hill, with the round doors—”
“What you’re seeing are overlapping sections of the world.”
He blinked. “Like in Sliders?”
She clapped her hands together excitedly. “That was the one with Jerry O’Connell and Johnathan Rhys-Davies sliding between parallel Earths, right? I love that show! But no, not like that at all. These aren’t parallel worlds, they’re just different parts of this world that normally you don’t notice.”
“So why am I noticing them now?” He felt his grip on the situation slipping away from him, and the start of another headache coming on.
She crossed her arms and arched her brows at him. “How many times do I have to tell you? You were called.”
“But what does that mean?” he cried in exasperation. If he’d thought he was attracting stares before, he was really getting looks now.
“Oh, you humans are really hopeless, I swear. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother with any of you. If it weren’t for your imaginations … okay, look. Do you have dinner plans? This is going to take a while to get through.”
“I was planning on—”
“Okay, good. Come with me.” She grabbed him by the wrist and they walked down a street that suddenly looked like it’d come straight from an anti-pollution warning advertisement. The air was filthy, the streets were worse, the buildings were low two or three storey factories belching smog and ash everywhere. “Not my favorite part of town, and do watch your step, but it’ll get us where we need to go faster.”
“How the hell did you do that?” he exclaimed.
“Oh come now, you can barely even see the different parts of the world, and you expect me to be able to explain how to move between them? You can’t learn to fly before you learn to crawl, Brandon.”
“Um, okay, sure,” he said, not entirely sure how to respond.
The air smelled of sulfur and coal, gas and rock and the sharp tang of metal. It burned his throat something fierce to breathe it. He’d never wanted a glass of water and a breath of fresh air so badly in his life. “This place is horrible, how can you stand it?”
“I don’t come here often, and each time I do, I remember why,” she called back, sounding as bad off as he was feeling. “But like I said, it’s the fastest way to where we need to go to get you the answers you’re looking for!”
The sky was a poisonous-looking yellow-brown for all the smog, and was taking on a distinct orange tint as the sun lowered itself toward the horizon. They passed through the factory area and walked along a street filled with what he’d have sworn were decrepit old brownstone tenements transplanted straight from New York City decades ago. Clotheslines were strung up between buildings in places, with clothes hanging out to dry. Some of them looked normal enough. Others made him wonder just what kind of people lived in this place.
“Hey, where are all the people?” he wondered aloud.
“Oh, they’re all at work still.” She nodded back toward the factories they’d left behind. “They work long shifts, won’t be off for hours yet.”
“All of them?” he wondered.
“In this part of town, yeah. We wouldn’t be here if they were off work, way too dangerous.” She was huddled in on herself and walking quickly, with purpose. He kept pace, eager to be away from this place, whatever it was.
They came to the end of a block and she smiled. “Here!” She snagged his wrist in her hand and turned a corner. She moved so fast that he swung wide to follow her, and found himself jogging to catch up, going down the side of a grassy hill with a well-worn dirt path carved across the face. The change was so abrupt he actually choked on a lungful of fresh air and sputtered.
“What’s this?” he asked. He thought for a moment it might be the area that the Hobbit-like hill had been from until he noticed they were in a distinctive village with some sort of clay huts that were made and apparently fired all in one piece. They almost looked like pinkish-brown igloos with windows and ventilation holes up top. It was lovely, in a weird-looking sort of way.
“This is just a section of town we’re passing through,” she said with a bright smile. “Honestly there are faster ways we could’ve gone, I just really like this place, and it won’t slow us too much. And I don’t know about you,” she said, relief in her voice, “but I really needed to get out of that smog. This was the fastest safe place to get to.”
Once again he noticed a curious lack of people. He looked all around them as they moved through the village, but if there was anyone around, he couldn’t see them. “Are these people all at work, too?”
“Oh, no, not these ones. They’re around, mostly down by the water there,” she said, pointing. He followed her finger and saw a collection of scuttling iridescent domes moving about by the water’s edge.
“Those … are those giant bugs?” he asked hesitantly, suddenly feeling a bit squeamish.
She looked at him reprovingly. “Bugs? Yes, but you don’t have to say it like it’s a dirty word, you know.”