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    Mapleberry - [7500]

    Discussion in '10th Anniversary Contest' started by doggiedude, Jun 23, 2016.

    Chapter One

    Thomas refolded the battered and faded picture then returned it to the pocket of his tattered jeans. After ten months in this strange place, they were riddled into shorts. Ten months by his count of ten cycles of the moon. His other pocket held ten rocks he used to keep count, and he often wondered if he’d end up living here long enough for the stones to weigh him down.

    He looked around the landscape, not exactly sure what he expected to find. Predators, a way home, certainly not civilization. Water. That’s what he desperately needed. Thomas picked up his makeshift animal skin pack and continued to hike along the forest trail cut out by roving critters.

    A branch fell to the ground in front of him. He froze. Dusk was settling into the day, and the red sky was getting dark, making it difficult to see. His eyes moved up the purple tree where the branch originated. It could’ve been an old branch knocked down by a gust of wind. However, he learned to be careful.

    The first day he came to this place, one of the tree-sharks jumped down on him and slashed at his arm with a claw. They weren’t tree-sharks really, but this land had animals no scientist ever named. They had large cougar shaped bodies but no fur. He got lucky during that attack. He still held a laptop at the time and smashed the animal, scaring it off.

    After five agonizing minutes, Thomas decided there was nothing in the tree and trudged on. His ragged-shoes crumpled the leaves as he walked, making him the loudest thing in the forest. He scanned for a safe place to set up camp. Once he started a fire, he wouldn’t need to worry about attacks. None of the animals ever approached when he had a blaze going, or so he nervously told himself.

    Just as the red sun was setting, the living trees abruptly stopped. He stood at the edge of a vast open area, one that had been claimed by a forest fire sometime in the past. Now new growth took over. He could still see the remains of old stumps, dead and charred.

    Thomas surveyed his surroundings and wondered, should he keep searching for water or stop for the night? His exhaustion won the argument. He dropped the pack and began to clear a campsite. When he was satisfied, he searched for stray branches. He found a few saplings, already partially burned and dragged them over to his site along with small sticks and leaves.

    “Fuck you, Doc. Smoking saved my life,” he told the air. His dry throat cracked and only made his thirst more predominant in his mind. Thomas flicked his black Bic and started the fire. When he was sure the wood would continue to burn, he propped his back against a log and opened the pack.

    “Last piece of thieving-asshole meat and a clam-fruit. Yummy.” He turned and smashed the clam-fruit against the log, cracking the shell. Thomas used his fingers to dig out the sweet flesh and greedily ate. The taste reminded him of peaches, but there was an undertone of tomato. The moisture cooled his parched throat all too briefly.

    He gazed at the flickering firelight in the last hours of the evening while his thoughts were on Sara. Before he settled down for sleep, he rearranged the burning wood and pushed the unburnt sides deeper. Feeling his first need to urinate since this morning, he wandered off to relieve himself. That’s when he noticed a light coming from the other side of the clearing. He was bewildered to be standing with dick in hand, looking at another fire.

    Lightning hadn’t struck in weeks so it couldn't be a wildfire. Thomas stood unmoving and curious long after he finished. There hadn’t been signs of other humans since he fell into this land. Considering all of the bizarre animals and plant life, not to mention that red sky, he had an uneasy feeling that the other campsite didn’t mean another human.

    The fire looked more than a half mile away. He wanted to investigate, but Thomas wouldn't risk nighttime travel. He looked back at his burning flames licking up at the saplings and wondered if it would be safer to put it out and risk an animal attack, or to let it burn and hope another set of eyes wouldn’t see it. He decided a predator was almost guaranteed. There was a chance whoever, or whatever, was over there was just as blinded by their light and wouldn’t see his. He moved a few logs between his campsite and the other fire to block the view.

    Thomas pulled a grimy sweatshirt from his pack and used it as a pillow. Before he closed his eyes, he took one more look at the picture of Sara. The image of her eating ice cream outside a shop was the last thing he saw every evening. “I love you. I miss you,” he whispered to the picture and kissed it before carefully folding it back up and returning it to his pocket.



    Chapter Two

    Thomas woke to the chittering sound of a thieving-asshole. He didn't move or open his eyes. The little furry six-limbed ferret-like animals were everywhere in this land. Despite their cute appearance, they were a nuisance. The meat was tough, and while he thought of it as gamey, he never tasted traditional game. Like the name suggested, the thieving-assholes would steal anything they could carry away. If he saw them in a zoo, the upper paws which they used like hands would’ve fascinated him. But that was another world. Here, they stole his food which made them intolerable.

    The sounds at his feet meant the creature was at the remains of his fire, probably seeking scraps. He cracked opened his eyes and silently lifted his neck. He was horrified to see the thieving-asshole held his lighter. That lighter was life to him.

    With his hands behind his head, he made the only move he thought would give him a chance. He gripped his sweatshirt and in a flash of adrenaline, lifted and swung it over his body and on top of the thieving-asshole. Thomas was able to cover it for a moment, but when he tried to make his killing blow, Mr. Breakfast slipped out and dashed away. He fell on his side, ash from the burnt out fire covered his face. He watched with dismay as his meal disappeared into the woods with the only thing he had left from his world. “Shit!”

    He lumbered after the little beasty into the open clearing. Even if the animal dropped his lighter, he wouldn’t be able to find it among the detritus. Thomas made it halfway across the grassy field before he lost sight and gave up. Puffing and out of breath, he stumbled to the ground, screaming curses in frustration.

    He picked himself up and dusted ash off his body, willing himself not to weep in despair. That’s when he remembered the strange fire from last night. When he peered off to where it had been, he couldn’t see anything besides more forest on the other side of the clearing.

    Thomas went back and inspected his burnt out fire, looking for still hot embers to carry with him. He couldn’t find any. He gathered his belongings, as meager as they were, and trudged on. Soon a glint of yellow, contrasted against the purples, reds, and browns, caught his attention. He poked through a bush and found what he expected, mapleberries. Pleased with his find, Thomas unslung his pack and picked, gobbling a mouthful as he gathered. He had visions of one day turning these berries into wine. He looked forward to getting drunk.

    Circling wide, Thomas made his approach from the wooded-side of the camp. It took him almost an hour to find the remnants of a campfire. Only ashes remained. He was disappointed not to find a human, but it was better than the alternative.

    As he meandered around, he caught the scent of water. That had been one of Thomas’ big surprises from living primitively off the land. When civilization was missing, and you were thirsty, you could smell water from a far distance. He zeroed in on the proper direction and traipsed away.

    It didn’t take him long before he started to hear the rushing sound of water. His thirst made him careless. Thomas almost broke his neck when he reached the end of a small cliff. It sloped softly enough for there to be plants growing all the way down, but it was too steep to continue. The stream below had trees lining each bank, but he could see where animals had carved several trails on their journey to water.

    He walked along the edge of the cliff until the slope flattened enough for him to descend. Thomas got on his knees and grabbed the trunk of a small tree. He held on tightly as he slid down the initial drop. Moving cautiously further down the hill, he examined the ground for loose footing with each step.

    He didn’t notice the woman standing in the water until he reached the bottom. He froze in his tracks and gawked. She waded in the water, wearing only her panties. Her back was to him as she bent and splashed her face. As surprising as it was to see another person, it was bizarre seeing a woman wearing underwear from his world. They were navy blue and had the fancy lace women loved and made Victoria Secret millions. The bizarre turned to outright insanity when she turned, and he saw her face.

    Sara. His Sara. His heart stopped and all the pain he had felt over the past ten months washed away.

    Thomas ran. “Sara!”

    She turned, and her eyes opened wide. She splashed through the water toward him. “Greg!”

    They closed in an embrace that filled Thomas’ heart. He squeezed hard as tears filled his eyes. After an extended desperate clutch, it softened enough for them to kiss, which felt strange. It was a normal kiss, but after ten years of marriage, he knew Sara’s kisses. That’s when he realized what she had shouted. Not Thomas, but something else.

    He flinched out of her arms and stepped back. “Sara?” The woman had an expression on her face that never could have come from his wife.

    “Greg? Why are you calling me Sara? And what the fuck is this place?”

    “I’m not Greg.” He mumbled and backed into the water. “I’m hallucinating.” All the heartache of this last year tumbled back on top of him, crushing him down. He dropped to the ground on the water’s edge, and a rock cut into his knee. Thomas drank from the water, ignoring the gash. It cooled his throat as his heart burned.

    “That’s not funny. What’s going on?”

    “You aren’t real.” She looked like Sara, but the voice was wrong. Sara had a southern drawl. She grew up in Georgia. When she went off to college, she started intentionally accentuating her accent as a way to stand out amongst the other artists. Thomas missed that voice.

    “Will you answer me,” she yelled!

    He stopped drinking and turned back to her. “I’m not Greg. You aren’t real!”

    “What’s your problem? I’ve been scared to death.”

    Thomas stood and took a few slow steps closer, holding out a hand. She didn’t move, only watched. He poked her shoulder with an outstretched finger. “Maybe you are real. But how?” She was a precise replica of Sara. “You should put on some clothes.”

    She crossed her arms over her chest and stepped over to the pile left at the water’s edge. “This isn’t funny.” She snatched up a shirt.

    “You said that. No, it’s not funny.”

    She pulled a shirt over her head. “Say that again.”

    “No, it’s not funny.”

    Her brows furrowed. “You don’t sound like Greg.”

    “I’m not. How long have you been here?” He already knew it couldn’t have been more than a few days. Her clothes were too clean.

    She grabbed up her jeans and put them on. “About a day and a half, maybe two. What is this place?”

    It pained him to look at this woman. None of it made any sense. He turned back to the water and waded in. “I have no idea. I fell into this world almost a year ago.”

    “Are there any other people? Why is the sky red? What the fuck is up with those purple trees? Where are…”

    He interrupted her. “Do I look like Yahoo? I… don’t… know!” He enunciated every syllable.

    She shrunk back. “Christ, sorry.”

    Her sullen expression made it even worse. He always hated seeing Sara upset. “What’s your name?”

    “Elizabeth. Call me Lizzy. And you are?”

    “Thomas Brooks.”

    “Okay, Thomas. Why don’t we sit down and maybe you can calmly explain to me what you do know. And why you look like Greg.”

    He drank some more water. A few fish swam nearby, and he eyed them hungrily. He rinsed the last remnants of dirt from his face and went over to where Lizzy sat on a small boulder. “I’m sorry I yelled. I’ve been under a lot of strain and when I saw you and thought…” He let his words die.

    “I felt a beard when we kissed… But, you don’t have a beard.”

    Thomas let out a loud laugh and tugged at his beard. “Of course, I have a beard. I’ve been living in the woods for a year.”

    She looked puzzled. “No. You…” Her voice trailed off as she reached over and touched his face. Then her hand jerked back. “Shit.”

    “What?”

    “That’s weird. I can feel your beard, but I don’t see one.” She examined his face. “Describe me.”

    “Seriously?”

    Describe me.”

    “Umm… You’re a twin of my wife.”

    “Some detail, please.”

    “About five four, short blonde hair.”

    “Wrong.” She tugged his hand over to her head. “Feel my hair all the way to the end.”

    Thomas took up a few locks of hair. He felt to the end of what was visible. There was more hair he couldn’t see. “What the hell?”

    “It’s not blonde either. It’s a mousy brown which I’ve always hated. I think we’re seeing… Well… What we want to see.”

    Thomas backed away. “I must be in Hell.”

    Lizzy looked around the clearing. “It’s too pretty to be Hell. It’s weird, but it has a certain charm.”

    He absently pulled at his beard again, deep in thought. “Purgatory?”

    “I don’t think I died. I didn’t fall that far. Would you like to shave?”

    A laugh escaped his mouth. “Yes. That’d be nice. You don’t actually have a razor do you?” Her returning smile made him feel warm inside until he realized what was going on. He wouldn’t pretend this was Sara.

    “I’m a woman. I have my plus-three bag of holding.”

    “What?”

    “My purse. Yes, I have a razor.”

    “I’m not going to ask why. You don’t happen to have a lighter?”

    “Yup. I think I even a small pair of scissors in my sewing kit.”

    “Sewing kit… Jesus. I landed here with a laptop.” The lighter was a relief.

    “Did you play solitaire until the battery died?”

    She even had Sara’s sense of humor. “No. I used it to smash a skull.” He sat down on the ground next to her rock, not wanting to get too close.

    “So, how did you end up here?”

    “I’m not quite sure. I was… drunk.” Thomas didn’t like thinking about that last night. “I was at a Big Joes. Christ! My last real meal was an appetizer sampler. Some crappy fried mixture I always hated.” He picked up a twig and snapped it in half.

    “If you didn’t like it, why’d you order it?”

    “I didn’t. My… friend did.”

    “Your friend who wasn’t Sara?”

    “Fuck you. It wasn’t like that. Anyway… I left… I drove.” He glanced up, expecting to see the scowl Sara always gave him when he drove after drinking.

    Lizzy sat blandly listening. “And?”

    “I was driving home and needed to pull over… Had to piss. I was on one of those roads with the scenic view stops, so I… “

    Lizzy broke in. “Where! What road!”

    “Blue Ridge Parkway.”

    “In Virginia,” she finished.

    “Yes. Is that where you were?”

    “Yes. I dropped my iPhone while taking a selfie. I stepped over the guardrail to get it and slipped down the side of the incline.”

    “Taking a what?”

    “A selfie.”

    “What the hell’s a selfie.”

    She blinked a few times before answering. “It’s a picture you take of yourself. Usually on your phone.”

    “You have a phone with a camera?”

    “Are you screwing with me?”

    “No, I just never saw a phone with a camera attached.”

    “Umm. Thomas, what year was it when you came here?”

    That stunned him. “Nineteen ninety-six. Why?”

    “It was twenty sixteen for me.”

    “Shit. Twenty years. There’s no way I’d lost that much time.” He twisted his beard, trying to comprehend the situation. “What happened after you slipped?”

    “I went rolling down the side of the overlook and into some bushes.”

    “And?”

    “When I pulled myself out and looked up, the sky was red, and there was no road above me.” Her eyes gazed at their surroundings. “Just all these purple woods. Even the bushes I came out of were purple.”

    They both grew quiet for a moment, listening to the sounds of nature. She broke the silence by asking, “How’d you end up in the bush?”

    “There’s a question I never thought I’d hear.” When she chuckled, it pained him to see Sara’s laughing face with a different voice. “I’m not sure. I got out of the car. I remember walking to the guard rail… And I woke up next to a purple bush.”

    “Did you try going back into the bush?”

    He skipped the obvious straight line. “I didn’t remember coming out of it. It was no stranger than anything else I saw. What about you?”

    “I poked around, but didn’t see anything in there.”

    A fish jumped in the water close to them. “That reminds me. We need to find food unless you happen to have lunch in your purse.” Thomas stood.

    “I’ve got a Hershey bar and some Tic-Tacs.” She dug through her bag.

    “What’s a…” He stopped when she pulled out a candy bar. It looked like a Reynold bar except for the name.

    “What?” She sat there holding it out to him.

    He took the candy bar and flipped it around, reading the label - Made in Hershey Pennsylvania. His eyes flipped back up at Lizzy for a moment, then back at the bar.

    “What?”

    “Have you ever heard of a Reynold bar?”

    She looked puzzled. “No. I don’t think so. Why?”

    “Because I don’t think we’re from the same world.” He handed the candy back to her. “That’s probably going to be the last taste of chocolate you’ll ever have. I can’t take that from you.”

    She opened the wrapper. “It’s going to end up a melted mess. We may as well eat it now.” She took half the bar and offered the rest to him.

    “You sure about that?” He wanted to grab it and shove the chocolate into his mouth but restrained himself.

    “Take it. Eat,” she said, waggling the bar at him.

    “Thanks.”

    They sat in silence, chewing and watching the water. A few birds were at the edge, looking for fish. Thomas got an idea. “Can I see that sewing kit?”

    Lizzy took it out of her bag and tossed it to him. He opened the little plastic container. It had five different colors of thread, a packet of needles and pins, and a folding scissor. “Damn.”

    “What?”

    “I was hoping for some safety pins. I remember a story where a guy used one as a fish hook.

    “Hold on.” She rummaged through the bottom of her bag and pulled out a safety pin. “Here ya go.” She wiped something off of it.

    “Unfair.” Thomas walked around, looking for a long stick he could use as a pole. “Any chance you have some bait in there? Maybe a worm or two?”

    “I might have a gummy worm at the bottom.”

    “If you do, you’re gonna eventually be wiping it off and eating it,” he mumbled to himself. He found a long stick that might work. Little branches stuck out, but it was still purple, so it wasn’t brittle. He started to fashion it into a fishing pole as best he could.

    “So, why’d you think this was hell? Did you do something horrible?”

    He groaned. “Please don’t tell me you’re religious.”

    “No. Only curious.” She watched him work.

    Thomas braided two strands of thread as a line. “I have no idea if this is going to work. Wish I still had some of the dried meat.” He pulled a couple of berries out of his pack.

    “Oh… You have some of the yellow berries.” She picked a few out of his bag and ate.

    “Yeah, I thought they tasted a little like maple, been calling them mapleberries. You can find them all over the place.”

    ”It’s the only thing I’ve been able to find since I got here. Are you avoiding my question?”

    “If you see any that are white, don’t eat them. I named them diarrheaberries.” Thomas strung one of his berries through the bent safety pin and cast the line into the water. “Sara and I were having trouble… In our marriage.”

    “What kind of trouble?”

    He was quiet for a long time, deciding if he wanted to answer. “I was drinking too much. She didn’t like it.”

    Lizzy let out a little chuckle. “I don’t think you’re going to Hell for that.”

    “No. I guess not. But there were other… issues.”

    “Like the person you were at the bar with?”

    “I wasn’t having an affair. She was a friend. Well, my lawyer.” Thomas jerked his line back and threw it out again.

    “Oh. Headed for a divorce?”

    He didn’t want to talk about Sara’s plans. “What about you? Do you have a reason to think this might be a punishment?”

    She blew out a breath before answering. “I don’t believe in a Heaven or Hell… Or a God. But looking around this place makes me wonder how much is in the universe we don’t understand.”

    “That didn’t answer the question.”

    “Yes. If… and that’s a big if… there’s a Hell, then I suppose most religions would say that’s where I’m going.”

    Thomas turned to her, hating to see Sara's face. “Care to confess?”

    “I was having an affair.”

    “Ahh. That’s why you assumed I was doing the same.” He felt a bite on his line and pulled back hard.

    “You get something?”

    The tension on the line disappeared as quickly as it came. When Thomas withdrew his line, the berry was gone. “At least the bait works.” He attached another and tossed again.

    “So, I’m assuming you’ve been searching for a way home.”

    “Always. But I’ve been on the lookout for anything interesting.”

    Lizzy sat down near him. “I’m not getting home. Am I?” Her voice was soft and forlorn.

    Thomas wanted to stop what he was doing and comfort her, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He knew how she felt. He’d been through the same emotions during his first few weeks and still longed to go home, but he no longer believed it would happen. “No. I think whatever brought us here was random.”

    “Maybe it’s a doorway that occasionally opens. I might be able to find my way back to where I entered.” She sounded as if she needed for him to confirm the possibility.

    He glanced over and saw water standing in her eyes. “Which direction did you come from?”

    She pointed to what he thought of as south. “If that’s where you came from, it’s not the same place I popped into this world.” She put her face into her hands. Thomas heard a few muffled groans. “We can try.”

    Something pulled at his bait. When Thomas snatched back on the line, it caught. Since there was no reel, he walked backward and dragged the thrashing fish out of the water.

    Lizzy jumped up. “You got it. Go… Go!”

    The hapless fish flipped up and onto the bank. Thomas quickly used a foot to sweep it further from the stream. “Hello, breakfast!” It wasn’t a huge fish, but it was more than enough for the two of them.

    Lizzy laughed wildly. “You go, Mr. Hunter!” That made him smile. It felt nice to care about another person.

    Thomas used a sharpened stone he carried to clean the turquoise fish. Within an hour, they had a fire started and were cooking the meat on a rock close to the burning embers. Thomas tossed the guts of the fish into the fire.

    “Why’d you do that?”

    “It keeps the thieving-assholes away.”

    “The what?”

    “Scavengers. Shitty fucking scavengers. Think of them like raccoons with better dexterity.” He poked at the cooking fish. “You haven’t seen them?”

    “I think I know what you mean. Those little six-legged things?”

    “That’s the ones.” He flipped one of the pieces over, singeing a finger. “Ow!”

    She let out a laugh but then cut it short. “Sorry, wasn’t laughing at you.”

    “What’s so funny?”

    “Nothing.”

    Thomas peered over at her. “There isn’t much funny in this world. I could use a good laugh.”

    “Just a random thought.” He stared at her, waiting for her to explain. “I realized it was time for me to take my birth control pill and wondered if I should bother.”

    “Oh.” Thomas didn’t care to think about the idea. As much as he missed sex, the idea of being with a fake Sara disturbed him. He went back to shifting the meat around out of discomfort more than need.

    “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” She put a hand on his leg which made it worse.

    “It’s not your fault. And it’s not that I’m not horny. God, am I horny. But no. Just no.”

    She didn’t say anything, and they sat in silence listening to the chirps, croaks, and occasional howl, against the background of churning water. The smell of cooking fish filled the air.

    Now he couldn’t stop thinking about sex. Seeing his Sara made him want to pounce all over Lizzy and get out a year of frustration. “I knew you weren’t Sara by the way you kissed.”

    She raised an eye in surprise. “I was that different?”

    “You were more… aggressive, I suppose is the best way to describe it.”

    “Huh.” She picked up a piece of sizzling fish and tossed it from hand to hand before popping it into her mouth. “This isn’t bad, but it could use sauce.”

    “Can I ask you something?”

    She chewed slowly and swallowed. “Go ahead. If we’re going to be stuck together, we may as well get to know one another.” She took another bite.

    “Is Greg your husband or the guy you were having an affair with?”

    “I’m not married.” She shook her head. “The man I live with is Rick. Greg was… Well, just a fling.”

    “You think that means anything? That I see my wife, and you see some guy from a fling?”

    “Maybe there’s something in the water affecting our perceptions.”

    “Possible, I guess.” But that made him wonder if he could change Lizzy’s appearance. He stared at her while trying to vision Sandra Bullock.

    “What are you doing?”

    “Experimenting.” He kept his focus on what he was imagining.

    “You’re kinda creeping me out.”

    He tried harder, feeling silly. “Just wait a moment.” Lizzy stayed still, watching him intently. It went on for more than minute. Then she wasn’t Sara. She became Sandra Bullock. It all happened so fast that it startled him, and Thomas fell back. “Fuck! That’s freaky.”

    “What happened?”

    “You’re not going to believe this.” He explained what he had done.

    “Let me try.” They set their food off to the side and sat cross-legged opposite each other.

    It took longer for it to work for her, but he could tell when something happened because she grinned. “Who do I look like now?”

    “I’m not telling.” But then she mumbled something that sounded like cummerbund.

    The afternoon stretched into evening as they wasted the day talking. They had fun turning each other into famous people. A few of the thieving-assholes showed up, and they even tried changing them into something else. That didn’t work. Nothing else would change either. It only worked on them. At one point, Lizzy had Thomas describe himself in detail. She tried to make him look the way he should, but didn’t get any results.

    He splashed into the stream as the last light faded from the day. “I don’t suppose you have any soap?”

    Lizzy waded into the shallow stream with her pants rolled up to her knees. “I might have a wet-nap but no soap.”

    Thomas scrubbed at his body. Lizzy came up behind him and put a hand on his back, startling him. “Sorry. I was only going to help get the dirt off your back.”

    “It’s okay. You just surprised me.” He turned around, letting her hands rub up and down his back. “It feels strange being touched.”

    “Can I ask you a personal question?”

    “Sure.”

    “What were you doing with a laptop if you only got out to pee?” She backed off, letting him clean his legs.

    He scrubbed at the cut on his knee. “I haven’t got the slightest idea. It wasn’t even my laptop.”

    They both stopped what they were doing, then broke up laughing. “Damn, you must’ve been tanked.”

    “I usually was.” Thomas sloshed toward the water’s edge, Lizzy followed.

    Water dripped off him, and Thomas froze when he looked at the campsite. There was a steggi sniffing near the remains of their fish. It had to be six hundred pounds. The sound of rushing water and their conversation allowed it to come up unnoticed.

    “What is it?” Lizzy whispered to him.

    “I call them steggis. Don’t move.” The steggis were another hexapod species. They looked like dinosaurs with sharp horns growing along their spine. Thomas had never been attacked by one, but that was because they were usually too loud to sneak up on him. He’d seen one in a fight with a tree-shark, and it hadn’t been much of a struggle. The steggi ripped it to shreds in seconds, using its beak-like mouth to snap the limbs off the smaller animal.

    “Back up.” They were still a dozen or so yards away.

    “Do they swim?”

    “I’ve never seen one do it, but it could probably cross this stream without having to swim.”

    They got in a little deeper, and Thomas heard a splash from behind them. He turned and saw another steggi on the other bank with a fish in its maw. “Fuck.” He nervously looked around for a way to escape.

    “How good are their eyes?” Lizzy murmured.

    “Not a clue.” He took Lizzy’s hand. “Come on.” They flattened into the water so that only their heads remained exposed. It was shallow enough for them to use their hands to push downstream.

    The steggi at their camp let out a loud bellow. It had turned and was looking at its friend. His buddy responded with a grunt. As Thomas and Lizzy maneuvered slowly through the shallows, more bellows filled the air. Thomas saw movement in the trees. There was the crash of undergrowth snapping like fireworks. A herd of steggis broke through, ignoring the path. “Keep going.”

    “My purse,” Lizzy whimpered.

    “They don’t want your lipstick. We’ll come back later.”

    They made it about a mile downstream before Thomas decided it was far enough. The sun left for the day and a chill settled into the air. He left his shirt at the campsite, and while Lizzy was fully clothed, her damp outfit was going to make it worse.

    “What do we do?” She shivered.

    Thomas wasn’t sure. Her lighter was back at the camp. “I could try walking back and see if they’re still there.”

    “You’re not leaving me alone out here. I spent the last two nights scared out of my mind.” She pulled him into a reluctant hug.

    Thomas was awkward holding her, but he soon accepted the situation. “I don’t know if I can start a fire without a lighter. It would be a bad idea not to have one tonight.” He mentally kicked himself for letting the fire die back at the camp. The steggis might have stayed away. He sat her down on top of a fallen tree. “Let me see if I can find two sticks to rub together or something.”

    Thomas searched for kindling in the dim light of the evening. He brought a few small branches back over to where Lizzy huddled and piled the wood together. He let out an exasperated breath as he sat down, picked up two of the smaller sticks and made his attempt.

    Fifteen frustrating minutes later, Lizzy began to giggle. “That’s not going to work.”

    “Man. Fire. Ugg.” Thomas joked.

    “Yeah, well. Woman watch Man vs Wild. You wrong.”

    Thomas looked up. “You want to try?” He offered the sticks.

    Lizzy peeled a long strip of dry bark off the tree she sat upon and hunkered down next to him. “Watch.” She grabbed a few of the dried leaves he’d collected and one of the sticks. Then she began rapidly swishing the stick back and forth over the inside of the bark like a five-year-old scribbling with a crayon. After a minute or so, smoke started to swirl up from the bark. Lizzy continued to coax a little ember with air and a leaf. It took her a few minutes to get it right, but she eventually was able to produce flames.

    “I’m impressed.”

    “Thank you.”

    “I never considered rubbing it that way.”

    “Most men don’t.” She said it deadpan, but when he smiled, they both got the giggles.

    Thomas was able to bring himself to hold her that night out of need. They slept in each other’s arms, still damp from the swim.


    Chapter Three

    It took Thomas ten days to give in to his desires. He knew it was inevitable from the first day they met. Eventually, his guilt over Sara began to fade. Having the ability to change the appearance of the person you were with provided them with endless fun. Lizzy was a proficient impressionist so he would make her look like whoever she wanted to role-play for the day. He refused to imagine Lizzy back into an imitation Sara. As much as he longed to return to his old life, it wouldn’t be fair to Lizzy, and somehow, a greater betrayal to Sara.

    As the summer turned to autumn, Thomas insisted they find a way to store food. He could recall the hungry months he spent during his winter here without preparations. They were able to dry meat into a bland jerky but not having salt had him worried the slices wouldn’t stay safe. Lizzy dove into the task of preserving the many fruits and vegetables scattered throughout the land. Some of them she could dry, but the mapleberries only rotted in the sun.

    The two traveled most days while gathering supplies, always watchful for a doorway home. They maintained a regular path that encompassed what Thomas considered their territory. They wandered round and round over many miles which included the places where they had each entered this world. On the days they didn’t hike, they languished around lakes and streams fishing, hunting for small game, and making love.

    Lizzy knew making leather required the hides to be boiled and then stretched. Not an easy task without a cauldron. After months of trial and error, he made a firepit that surrounded tightly-fitted rocks and clay which held water long enough to boil.

    “You think you can make us some pants?” Thomas tossed another pile of thieving-asshole pelts to the ground.

    Lizzy took several long thin strips of leather and braided them into a crudely made string. “I was never good at sewing, but I should be able to make us a few coverings. Just don’t expect a tailored suit.”

    “Take a break.” He offered her a handful of mapleberries.

    “Oh. You found more. I thought we had eaten the last of the season.”

    “I got lucky.” He sat down beside her and pushed at the burning wood with a stick.

    “After today, I should have enough material. We can leave this campsite tomorrow if you like.” They made several camps in their territory and had winter supplies stored at all of them. So far they only returned to one site where scavengers had found their hidden cache.

    “Where do you want to go next?”

    “I like the one on the western ridge. Stunning view.” That was the site closest to where Thomas thought he entered this world.

    “You sure you’re up for the trip?”

    “I can keep up.”

    He dropped the subject. He found out Lizzy was a decade older than him and had never been athletic. “Western ridge it is.”

    It rained a mixture of sleet and snow, the next two nights, so they stayed until the weather cleared. The journey would take a few days. Thomas led the excursion, pack on his back and a short branch in his hand which he’d fashioned with a sharp rock to make a spear. “You want me to carry that?” They already traveled several miles, and he knew she was flagging.

    Lizzy lugged her old Coach purse, filled with dried food and a pack she made. “I’m fine. Keep going.” He helped her over a narrow section of wooded path blocked by fallen trees. The constant change from snow and freezing temperatures at night to warmer temperatures in the daytime made the trail muddy.

    While he steadied her over a log, he was enveloped in pain. Lizzy shrieked and Thomas heard the hissing roar of a tree-shark. He turned to find a large one crouched to strike again. He was unsure if the animal bit his leg or used its claws. Weaponless, after leaning his spear against a tree to help Lizzy, he yelled out. “Run!”

    The tree-shark growled again and menaced with its fangs. He thought the predator was analyzing for weakness. “Nice kitty-kitty.” Thomas had no idea if eye contact was a good tactic while dealing with this species but he couldn't look away. The pain in his leg crippled him, and he felt blood drip down his calf into his moccasins.

    The animal shifted, ready to pounce. There was a flash of movement over Thomas’ shoulder. The horrid beast yelped as the spear bounced off its muzzle, possibly injuring an eye. The tree-shark bolted away, making pained yipes as it went.

    “Run,” Lizzy said with mock disgust. “Are you kidding me? We’re in this together jackass.”

    “Nice throw. But in the future, stab the animal. Don’t throw your weapon away.” He stumbled back and sat.

    “Let me look,” she said with motherly concern. Lizzy crouched to examine his leg. “It doesn’t look deep.” She pulled a piece of leather out of his pack and wrapped the wound. “Can you go on?”

    “Give me a few minutes. My heart's still racing.” It took more than a few. They camped for the night where he lay.

    When he woke, instead of being in the arms of Daryl Hannah, the woman that held him was someone he’d never seen. She was in her forties, crow’s-feet around her eyes, upturned nose, and her hair was a disaster. She was no ten. Thomas didn’t care. “Good morning.”

    Lizzy opened her eyes. It took her a moment to react but then she quickly sat up. “Thomas?”

    “You too?”

    “What happened? You don’t look like George Clooney.”

    “No idea.”

    “What changed?”

    “Couldn’t be the attack. It didn’t get you.” He sat up.

    “Well, something must have changed. How’s the leg?” She pulled the bandage back and looked.

    “Better. I think I can walk today. I won’t be fast.”

    “At least the bleeding stopped.” She returned the wrapping.

    “What do we have for food?”

    Lizzy pulled over her bag. “Here, eat well. You need your strength.”

    He picked out some nuts and strips of dried pine melon. “Kiss me, darling.”

    “Not until we get some water.” But she gave him a peck on the cheek. “Wish we had some mapleberries, they always freshened my mouth in the morning.”

    “That’s it!” His eyes widened in realization.

    “That’s what?”

    “This is the first time we’ve gone more than a day or two without eating them.”

    “You think there’s something in the berries that affected our minds?”

    “Just a guess but I can’t think of anything else.”

    “I’d like to bottle that shit and sell it back home.”

    “Yeah, no kidding.”

    “You need to shave again.” She laughed.

    After breakfast, he said, “We better get moving. I think the next water is two hills over.”

    “You sure you’re going to be able to walk?” Lizzy helped him stand.

    He moved a bit and stretched. “I’ll be fine.” But he hobbled unsteadily down the path.

    It took more than an hour to traverse the distance to the water. They stood overlooking the small cliff by the stream where they first met. “Can you make it down?”

    Thomas only waved her off and looked for an easier place to climb down the muddy slope. He tested an edge with a foot. “I think we can get down here.”

    “Let me carry the spear and pack for you.”

    “Don’t worry about it. There’s nothing to break.” He tossed his bag over the side and watched it fall, then roll to a stop near some bushes. The spear went next. “Come on.”

    “Don’t throw away the weapon. Right,” she scorned.

    They moved carefully down the slope, slipping through the mud. Thomas made it about halfway down before his unsteady leg gave out. He stumbled and then fell. He rolled down the incline screaming, “Fuuuuck,” all the way down.

    Lizzy dashed after him, which was a mistake. She followed his fall with a tumble of her own. They landed in a muddy mess next to his pack. “That was stupid. Are you okay?” Lizzy wiped at her face.

    “Nothing’s broke.” Thomas sat up and looked at her. He roared with laughter, seeing her covered in mud. She flung a handful at him. “Well, we made it to the water. It’ll wash off.”

    Lizzy gasped, “Thomas.”

    “What?”

    “Look!” Lizzy hurried to her feet. She stared at something behind him.

    He turned and saw a bush shimmering. “Holy shit!”

    “You think that’s our way out of here?”

    “It’s gotta be.”

    “We should hurry. It’s not gonna last.”

    Thomas staggered to his feet, holding his right leg up as he stood. “It might not go to one of our worlds.”

    “Still, it’s a chance.”

    “Yes. A chance.” He nodded.

    Lizzy waved a hand close to the shimmer. It rippled as her hand passed over. “You want me to go first?”

    “Shouldn’t we go together?”

    “What if whatever is doing it melds us when we go through. You ever see The Fly?”

    He hadn’t considered the possibility. “Let me go first.”

    She moved back. “I’ll be right behind you.”

    He hesitated for a moment. His mind filled with uncertainty. Thomas stepped.

    The sound of cars whooshing by overhead struck him. He looked up to see a road about twenty feet above him. He laughed with excitement, spinning around and hobbling a dance. A minute later he watched the still shimmering bush, waiting for Lizzy to come through, but nothing happened. “What the fuck?”

    His eyes darted several times up the slope, then to the doorway. He considered it was possible she stepped through and went back to her world. Thomas glared at the bush trying to decide what to do. He couldn’t live without knowing. “Fucking magical shrubbery.” He stepped back through.

    Lizzy tackled him with a hug. “Ow… Ow.”

    “I was so frightened. It didn’t do anything when I tried.” They were back on the ground in the muck.

    “You want to try first this time? Or together?”

    “Together.” She helped him stand. They clasped hands and walked. Nothing happened.

    “I guess it only works for one of us. Or maybe it was my world, and it won’t take you there.”

    “Go,” she said sullenly.

    “I can’t do that.”

    “Yes. You can. Leave me. Go back to your wife.” There were tears in her eyes.

    Thomas looked at Lizzy and didn’t have to think about it. “Come on. We can get to the Western ridge by nightfall.”
     
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