I wake in a room. I don’t know where I am. I lie still for a bit on the bed, afraid, trying to remember how I got here. Nothing comes to me.
I look around. It’s a nice room. Comfortable. It reminds me of the small one room apartment I had in college. I notice there are no windows, only walls, and a single door.
The door frightens me, though I can’t say why. Something about it makes me want to never touch it. I feel as if should I, something terrible will happen.
I curl up on the bed and try to remember how I got here. It’s blank, a complete nothingness that is almost as frightening as the door. Almost, but not quite.
A clock on the wall ticks, but it means nothing in the room. Finally, I stand, not looking at the door, and go to the bathroom. When I wash my hands, I stare at myself in the mirror.
I know who I am. My name is Sarah O’Malley. I live at 827 Rourke Street, with my husband, Chris, and our two children, Sam and Beth. I’m 38 years old. I’m a painter.
I wonder if they are alright, and the sense of dread I feel is crippling. They are looking for me, I know. Chris will have called the police by now.
How long have I been gone? I can’t say. Time has no meaning. Where am I? I don’t know, there is no way to tell. Why am I here? I don’t understand, everything is too foggy.
I spend the rest of the day waiting for someone to come, but no one does. Finally, I fall asleep, afraid to eat the food in the kitchen, afraid to look at the television in the corner, terrified to open that plain and monstrous door.
I spend the next six weeks in the room. No one ever comes.
I’m watching a movie and eating macaroni and cheese when I notice the crack in the ceiling. I stare it for a while, but can’t recall ever seeing it before. It wasn’t there yesterday, I’m sure of that.
I would have noticed if it was. It’s not a big room after all.
Setting aside my bowl, I grab the chair and pull it over so I can get a closer look. It’s just a crack, but it makes me nervous. It shouldn’t be there.
I run a finger along it, but nothing happens. I feel stupid for a minute. It’s just a crack, nothing more. It was probably always there.
The room is safe. I know that now. It took a while, but I finally accepted it. Whoever put me here, for whatever reason, they are protecting me from something. I can’t explain how I know that, but I do.
There is always plenty of food in the cabinet, and the fridge. I want for nothing, save to see my family again, but there are old home movies in a trunk at the foot of the bed.
It sounds stupid, and I know it, but I don’t really want to leave. It’s quiet, and safe. I know, though I can’t say how, the beyond the door is something that will kill me.
I hear it sometimes. It sniffs around the door frame, and growls. It claws at the door, but can’t get in. Whatever it is, it’s huge, and when it comes, I hide.
I look at the crack again. It’s gotten bigger. I climb down from the chair. I tell myself it’s just an optical illusion.
That holds until I see the other one.
Like a spider web, it runs the length of the wall behind the dryer. I know it wasn’t there before. Something is happening. The thing outside, maybe. Has it learned how to get in?
I begin to be afraid.
It’s been eight weeks since I woke up in the room. I know I can’t stay much longer. The room is shattering around me. Cracks are everywhere and the beast at the door comes more often. It senses it will soon be able to get in.
The wallpaper is rotting and hanging. Half the things in the room don’t work anymore. The entire thing is just collapsing.
I don’t understand it. It’s happening so fast. Every time I turn around, something else has changed. I barely recognize it anymore. I don’t want it to happen.
I like it here. I feel safe here. Nothing can hurt me here.
The beast is at the door again, growling as it hammers the wood. I hear it’s claws ripping, trying to get through. What is that thing?
The room keeps getting smaller. It smells bad, and I can’t fix it. I’ve tried and tried, but it doesn’t do any good.
Where am I? Why is this happening? What should I do?
I realize I know what I have to do. I have to leave. I have to step through the door.
I’d rather stay in the collapsing room, but I can’t. Somewhere, out there, is my family, and they have been looking for me while I sat around and waited.
I feel guilty, a hot flash that goes through me. I never even tried to save myself. I sat, watched movies, ate, and slept. I waited for the police, or Chris, or anyone to come through that door. I waited to be saved, like a stupid storybook princess.
I stand, facing the door. The beast has left, I think. If I am going to leave, it must be now. The room won’t last much longer. If I stay, I know, I’ll die.
It’s hard. The simple motion of walking across the room is so hard. I’m shaking as I reach for the knob. It will be locked, I know, but still, I must try.
What was I thinking to spend so much time doing nothing? Cowering in this room while others searched for me, needing me, missing me. Why did I never even try to reach them?
Fear. It was fear. I know that as my hand slips around the knob, holding it with those trembling fingers that betray me to my own truth, the one I tried not look at.
I was afraid that if I opened the door, I would discover that no one searched for me. I was afraid I would learn that no one needed me, or missed me, or worse, were relieved I was gone.
I was afraid Chris would have gone to her again, taken the kids, and pretended I never existed. I was afraid my children would like her more, and be happy with their new mother.
I was afraid of being forgotten, unwanted, and unloved. I was afraid that if I opened the door, I would discover I never existed in the first place.
The room crumbles around me. The plaster falls from the walls and ceiling as I turn the knob. It was never locked, and I always knew it. I put myself here. I ran away after I learned of Chris and her and locked myself in this place.
I push on the door as the room falls apart. No more running. No more hiding. I must find my way back. Reclaim my life. Take back myself.
I stare at the jungle beyond the door as my safe haven falls to rubble. There is nothing left to do, but move.
I step through the door.
The jungle sprawls all around me. Lush, green, cool. Behind me, the room is gone, no sign it ever existed, even the door frame turning to dust. Birds call in the distance, and the sun filters through the canopy.
Where am I?
There is no trail to follow. No way to know which way I should go. Any direction is better than none, and I make myself walk. My sneakers squish in the mud as I take my first steps.
The plants are huge, far bigger than I think they should be. Too green, I suspect. This place isn’t right. It isn’t the sort of place that should exist.
Have I died?
I hear my heart beating. I feel sweat on my brow. I don’t feel dead. Would I know how it felt if I was?
I walk for hours. I hear birds, but little else. I can’t tell how far I’ve gotten, or if I’ve gone in a circle. I try to keep the sun to my left, but I’m not sure if I’m doing it right.
I never liked camping. My mother use to take me camping, but I wanted to stay home and play with my friends. This is too much like camping.
I laugh at that. It’s stupid, but I do it anyway. I stop and laugh at the joke I told myself. I’m lost in a jungle that seems wrong, and all I can think of is how much I hated going camping with my mother.
“What’s so funny?”
I jump, trying not to scream. I look for who spoke, but see nothing save a large monkey. It wasn’t there before, I think. Was it?
It looks back at me. It’s wearing a red vest and a fez. It looks like a living version of the wind up toy that crashes cymbals together.
“What’s so funny?” it asks again.
I stare at it. Monkeys don’t talk. I know that. I really am dead. I must be. Monkeys don’t talk. Or wear silly clothes.
“Are you alright?” it asks, looking at me with concern.
“You’re talking,” I say.
The monkey looks annoyed. “I would hope so, otherwise you’d have gone insane, wouldn’t you?”
The monkey in the fez has a point. “I think I may be dead.”
It takes the fez off and scratches its head. “You don’t look dead.”
“I don’t feel dead, but what other explanation is there?”
It ponders that for a bit. “Perhaps you’re just lost.”
“In a jungle with talking monkeys?”
It puts the fez back on. “I’ve seen stranger things.”
“I’m dead and going crazy,” I tell myself.
“What was so funny?” it asks.
“You were laughing a minute ago, when I found you. What was so funny?”
“Oh.” I’d forgotten that already. Talking monkeys can do that to a person. “I was just thinking how absurd it was that I’m lost in this jungle, and all I can think about is how much I hated going camping with my mother when I was young.”
The monkey stares at me for a bit. “I guess you had to be there,” it says at last, just a bit sarcastically.
Now I’m lost in a jungle with an insulting talking monkey. This is much better than the room.
“Where are you going?” it asks.
I shrug. “I don’t know, really. I thought if I just kept going in one direction, I’d find something sooner or later.”
“Find something?” it asks, looking at me strangely. “There’s nothing here you want to find.”
“I have to get back to my family,” I tell it. “So, if you know the way to the nearest road, or maybe a rangers station or something, I’d appreciate it.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” the monkey says, looking at me like I’m insane. “Why don’t I just walk you right up to the city limits of Rio.”
“There’s no need to be an asshole,” I tell it.
“There are no roads, Sarah,” the monkey says. “No rangers, either. There’s no way out of the jungle.”
I didn’t tell it my name, did I? I don’t remember doing that.
“How do you know who I am?”
The monkey shakes his head and holds out my purse. “You’re drivers license, stupid. You must have dropped this when you got here. I found it a few days ago.”
I stare at it. It’s a bag, like any other, yet it seems so alien to me now. I take it when the monkey offers it and go through it. Everything is there.
“How did I get here?”
“Do I look like the Wizard of Oz to you?” the monkey asks me with indigence.
“No, sorry, I’m just confused.” That’s an understatement, and I’m sure we both know it. “If I’m dead, why would my purse be here?”
The monkey shrugs. “Probably because you aren’t dead.”
“Then where am I?”
“The jungle,” it answers.
“I’m not a tour guide, lady,” it replies.
“Bobbin, be nice!”
The monkey looks up as a bird floats down to sit on a branch next to me. It’s very large, and by that, I mean fat. It looks like it swallowed a basketball. It’s yellow and cream.
I stare at it, trying to grasp such a creature.
“Mind your own business, Toggle,” the monkey says.
“She’s lost, Bobbin,” the bird says. “We should help her.”
“Why bother?” the monkey asks, looking sulky.
“Because it’s the nice thing to do,” the bird points out.
“Stop,” I say. “Bobbin and Toggle, those are your names?”
“Well, duh,” the monkey says.
Toggle gives him a dirty look, at least, I think the monkey is a him. “They are, yes. What’s your name?”
“I’m Sarah,” I answer.
“Hello, Sarah,” Toggle chirps. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
The monkey gets agitated. “How sweet. Why don’t you girls just run along and get your hair done? That way, you’ll look nice when Razortooth comes to eat you.”
Toggle chirps in anxiety, wings covered her mouth. She is a her, I think. Seems like a her.
“Who’s Razortooth?” I ask.
Bobbin sighs. “Christ on a pogo stick, lady. You won’t last five minutes in here if you don’t know that.”
“Razortooth is bad,” Toggle whispers at me. “He’s the big bad wolf.”
I think of the thing that clawed at my door. The beast that I knew wanted to eat me. It had a name. Razortooth.
“Well, hell,” Bobbin says. “If we’re going to do this, we best get going.”
“Do what?” I ask.
“Find you a safe place to sleep for the night,” Bobbin replies. “Come on, follow me. I know a good spot.”
Toggle flaps after us, though she looks silly when she does. I follow the monkey deeper into the jungle. What else can I do?
At least he knows where he’s going.
We spend the night in a treehouse. It reminds me of the one Billy Raskin had in his backyard. Billy was my first boyfriend, if you can call him that. We were ten.
It isn’t entirely comfortable, but it could be worse. Bobbin fusses a lot about it being crowded, even though he’s eight feet away. Toggle sleeps in the window, tucking her face under her wing, though I’m not sure how she craned her neck that far around her girth.
I sleep in fits and starts. Nightmares plague me. I wake more than once to hear something crashing through the jungle, but it’s a long ways off. At least, I think it is.
Tomorrow, I promise myself. Tomorrow, I’ll find a way out of here. When the sun come sup, I’ll be heading home.
By the time the sun rises, I’m groggy and feel like crap. I can’t remember the last time I ate, or even had something to drink. I have to pee.
Toggle takes me behind the tree. It’s not comfortable, but what in life is? Bobbin has some food and water. We eat a meager breakfast and he says we have to leave.
I’m not sure where we are going. I’m just following the monkey at this point, because I’m not sure what else to do.
Then it hits me. I’m doing it again. I’m letting someone else be responsible. A talking monkey in a fez, at that. Either I really have gone insane, or really am dead. Neither option is comforting.
“Where are we going?” I ask at last.
Bobbin stops, giving me a surly look. “Nowhere it particular.”
“No,” I tell him. “I have to find a way out of here. I have to get back to my family. I told you that.”
“And I told you there is no way out,” he snaps at me.
“There’s a way in, then there’s a way out,” I reply. “Just tell me where it is and I’ll go there myself.”
“That’s a bad idea,” Toggle chirps.
“The Wastes,” Bobbin replies. “It’s a bad idea because of the Wastes. No one can cross them, not even you.”
“What are the Wastes?”
“A bad place, full of monsters,” Toggle tells me, flapping about anxiously. “Stay with us, Sarah. We’ll keep you safe.”
“Toggle’s right,” Bobbin adds. “You’re better off with us.”
I shake my head. “I can’t do that. I have to get home. My children, they need me.”
Bobbin sighs. “But do you need them?”
I stare at him in shock. “What kind of question is that? Of course I do! They’re my kids!”
“Didn’t stop you from hiding in that building for two months, did it?” he yells at me. “If you needed them that damn bad, why wait so long?”
I can’t meet this eyes. He’s right. I’m ashamed of myself. Toggle lands on my shoulder, remarkably light, and pats my head with her wing.
“I was wrong,” I tell him. “I shouldn’t have stayed there.”
“Then why did you?”
“I was afraid to leave,” I admit. “I was afraid if I did, I’d find I didn’t really exist. That my life was a dream someone else had.”
Bobbin glares at me, angry for some reason I don’t understand. Finally, he waves a hand at me in disgust. “Stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Of course you exist. I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
“We both are,” Toggle twitters. “You’re real.”
“If you weren’t,” Bobbin smirks. “Then I’d be crazy, and I know I’m not. You, I’m not so sure about, but me, I’m as sane as a banana.”
I can’t help but smile. “You’re right, of course. It was just a fear, nothing more. I shouldn’t have stayed there as long as I did.”
“Nothing to do for it now,” Bobbin sighs, scratching his head under the fez, which he holds up with his other hand. “But going to the Wastes, that’s not smart, Sarah. Odds are, all you’re going to find there is death.”
“Then what should I do?” I ask him. “I have to get home.”
“We can ask Guru!” Toggle squeals.
“The wise man,” Bobbin tells me. “Though, the trip to get there is hard.”
I think about that for a bit. “It’s better than going nowhere. Take me to Guru.”
“What am I, your damn sherpa all of the sudden?” Bobbin asks in anger.
“Sorry,” I say. “Please, will you take me to Guru?”
He glares at me for a bit. On my shoulder, Toggle chirps at him. Finally, he shrugs.
“Fine, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
I promise not to. He shakes his head and waves us on. We head deeper into the jungle. Soon, I’ll be going home.
I repeat it like a mantra.
We travel for two days through the endless jungle. Bobbin always manages to find food and water, though it isn’t great. Better than nothing, I know.
We sleep in the trees at night, safe from the things that crash around in the dark. They are always in the distance, but seem to follow us.
We don’t talk much. What is there to say? I think of asking them how they came to be here, but decide not to. There are some things it may be better not knowing.
Somewhere ahead of us lies answers. It crosses my mind often that Guru may know more than how to leave. He may know how I got here, and what this place is. I’m not sure why it’s important, but it feels like it is.
We pause for a rest. Bobbin sits on a rock, watching the jungle behind us. Toggle just flutters around, something she seems to do a lot of. I drink some water from a thermos Bobbin had at the treehouse.
Behind us, something in the jungle crashes. We all stare. It is silent again, even the birds refusing to make a sound.
“What was that?” I ask.
“Probably nothing,” Bobbin replies, still staring at where the crash came from.
“Probably no one,” Toggle chirps.
I look at her. “No one?”
She looks embarrassed, an odd thing on a bird. “I just meant it’s probably not Razortooth.”
“Shut up,” Bobbin snaps. “Don’t even go mentioning him.”
The crashing comes again, louder now, and growing closer. Bobbin jumps down from the rock, grabbing my hand. We run through the jungle now, fleeing the thing behind us. Toggle flaps along, twittering in panic.
We reach a clearing and pause, Bobbin looking around frantically. Behind us, the thing draws closer. Toggle flies away into the trees, leaving us to it. I want to be angry with her, but can’t.
I wish I could fly right now, too.
It comes through the trees, massive to the point I can’t move as I look at it. Eight feet high at the shoulder, at least. A wolf. It’s a wolf and it towers over us.
“RUN!” Bobbin cries, darting back into the trees.
I try, but my feet won’t move. I’m paralyzed, fear welling in me so strong I can’t even think. The wolf is looking at me with red gold eyes as it lowers its head, snarling.
I hear a sound that doesn’t belong. A rasping buzz that penetrates my mind like a lance. The wolf is easing closer, eyes fixed on me. I want to scream, but all that comes out is a whimper.
The thing opens its mouth and roars. I realize where the sound is coming from. Its teeth are moving in its jaw, like a chainsaw blade. Massive and jagged, they spin in its mouth.
I run. I run as hard as I can. The thing is behind me, chasing, its buzzsaw teeth whirring as it bellows. I can’t even think, fear pounding at me. Shredding me inside with teeth of its own, making me flee the monster without direction or thought.
Primal instinct rules me now. My heart hammers in my chest. I don’t know where Bobbin or Toggle are, but the thing, the monster called Razortooth, is right behind me. Its mouth seeks me, spinning and deadly.
I reach a cliff and stop, looking down. A waterfall roars to one side, a river below. Behind me, Razortooth crashes through the underbrush, pulling to a stop as it stares at me with hungry eyes.
I look back down. It’s a long drop into murky water. Behind me, waits only a terrible death. Still, I hesitate, fear warring with outright terror.
Razortooth howls, the cry punctuated by that insidious buzz of its teeth.
Falling, so fast. I hit the water painfully hard and struggle to right myself. The current pulls me, and I fight that as well. I can’t see anything. My lungs start to scream.
I’m not dead. I’m alive. I know it now, though this jungle is madness beyond understanding, I am alive. I want to stay that way. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to drown, or be ripped apart by that impossible mouth.
I break the surface, gasping for air, my lungs burning like fire. Coughing, I struggle against the current, trying to reach the shore. More than once, I’m tugged under by the water.
“Give me your hand!”
I struggle, looking. A man in an army uniform is reaching out to me. Green and drab, he carries a machine gun. From the cliff, I hear Razortooth roar.
I take his hand. He pulls me from the water and stands in front of me, raising his weapon. I shiver as he waits. On the cliff, Razortooth paces a few times, then lopes back into the jungle.
The soldier lowers his weapon, breathing a sigh of relief. I’d like to echo it, but I can’t stop shivering. The jungle is not hot, but cool, and I’m freezing, wrapped in wet clothes.
“You okay?” the soldier asks.
I nod, teeth chattering.
“Let’s get you someplace warm,” he says and leads me from the river.
He takes me to a campsite. A tent sits to one side, old and ragged. A ring of stones filled with ashes sits to another side. It isn’t much, but it has a feeling of safety to it.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” the solder is saying to me. “Razortooth is a nasty fellow.”
I nod, wide eyes, still in shock from my near brush with being a meal to a monster. The soldier looks at me with kind eyes and smiles. He gathers some wood and starts a fire.
“Have a seat,” he encourages. “I don’t have anything else for you to wear, or I’d offer it while those dry.”
“It’s okay,” I tell him, kneeling in front of the fire, the warmth a comfort.
“Names Joe,” he tells me.
“Sarah,” I reply. “Thank you.”
He nods as he digs around in a battered backpack and pulls out some cans. The labels are gone. He opens them, and hands me one, along with a spoon. Beans are inside.
“It’s not much,” he tells me. “But it’s better than nothing.”
“How did you find me?” I ask suddenly, realizing his arrival at the river had to be more than coincidence.
He laughs, a pleasant, comforting sound that makes me feel at ease with him. “Once old Razortooth starts howling, he’s pretty easy to find. I figured somebody might be in need of an assist and saw you jump.”
I smile and eat some of the beans. They actually taste good. I don’t mean to, but I practically inhale them. He watches me with a smile as he sets a grate and an old fashioned coffee pot over the fire.
“How long you been wandering around this place?” he asks when I finish.
“A few days,” I tell him. “I woke up in a room, but it collapsed and I had to come out.”
He looks at me funny. “A room, huh?”
“I’m not sure how to explain any of this,” I admit.
Joe smiles at me again. “No need. I’ve been here long enough I know how things work.”
“Do you know where we are?”
He shakes his head. “No place that I’ve ever heard of, that’s for sure.”
“Do you know how to leave?”
He laughs at me. “You think I’d still be here if I did?”
I feel silly. I’m wet, cold, and full of beans. He’s a bit handsome. I try to think of Chris, but can’t seem to find a good reason to. After all, he had her. I think of Sam and Beth. That keeps my head on straight.
“Where were you going?” Joe asks.
“To see Guru,” I tell him. “I was with a monkey named Bobbin. He thought Guru might be able to help me get home.”
Joe nods. “I know Bobbin. Kind of an ass, but not a bad guy.”
“I guess I’m not crazy after all,” I sigh at that.
“Why do you say that?”
I look at the fire. “I thought, for a while, I must be either crazy or dead. I know I’m not dead, or I’m pretty sure of it anyway. Now, I’ve met you, and you know the talking monkey that wears a fez. That means I’m not crazy.”
Joe thinks about that a bit, then pours me a cup of coffee. “Well, I’ve wondered the same, so I guess we’re both sane.”
“Which means this place is real.”
Joe pours himself some coffee. “There’s worse things.”
“I can name two,” he replies with a wink. “Crazy, or dead.”
I smile at him. The coffee is black, and strong, and I’m shivering less. He is very handsome, and I’m very scared. I think of my kids again.
It’s still enough. For now.
“Once you’re dry, we’ll head for Guru,” he tells me. “If anyone knows the way out, he will, though he’s never spoken to me before.”
Joe shrugs. “I think he’s a hippie.”
I laugh. After a minute, Joe joins me. Two lunatics in an insane jungle, laughing. It could be worse. We could be dead.
We leave in the morning. Joe let me sleep in his tent. He’s a gentleman, I can tell. I slept deeply, and when I wake, I feel better than I have in a while.
We have some breakfast, some more coffee, then set out. He doesn’t break his camp, saying he’ll come back later. As strange as this place is, I feel better with him there. It seems more normal.
We travel for several hours before I see Toggle, flapping towards us, chirping. I hold out my hand and she lands on it.
“Sarah! I’m so glad you’re alright!”
I smile at her. “I’m glad your okay, too. I was worried about you.”
She ducks her head. “I left you to Razortooth.”
“It’s okay,” I tell her, patting her head. “There was nothing you could have done. I’m just glad your not hurt.”
I nod. “Really.”
“Thank you, Sarah,” she twitters. “Hi, Joe!”
“Hey Toggle, how you been?”
“I’m good!” She seems really excited to see him.
He nods and smiles at her. “I see you guys have already met.”
“Sarah’s my friend,” Toggle tells him, flapping her wings.
“We’re going on to Guru,” I let her know. “Have you seen Bobbin?”
Toggle wilts a bit. “Not since Razortooth. You don’t think he’s hurt, do you?”
“Bobbin’s fine,” Joe says. “Knowing him, he’s up a banana tree somewhere.”
Toggle sees relieved by that. I suspect Joe is right. Razortooth chased me, not Bobbin. He had plenty of time to go hide.
We continue on for a while. We talk a lot. Joe tells me about himself. He’s from Nebraska, same as I am. We laugh about that. It’s a small jungle after all.
By noon, we find the car. It’s sitting in a clearing, smashed to pieces. It looks like it’s been in a terrible accident. The front is twisted wrong, and all the glass is broken. On top of it, sits Bobbin.
“Bobbin!” I cry, running over to the monkey.
“About time you showed up,” he sulks.
I grab him and hug him anyway. I’m relieved to see him. I didn’t want to tell Toggle, but I was worried about him.
He makes a fuss about being held, but I do it anyway. When I set him town, he straightens his vest and his fez.
“Sorry, I was worried about you,” I tell him.
He snorts. “Yeah, well, I guess I was a little worried about you too.”
“Softy,” I tease.
He folds his arms and refuses to look at me. “I see you got by fine without me.”
I look at Joe, who just shrugs. “Joe helped me escape Razortooth.”
“Oh,” Bobbin says. “I guess, you know, thanks, then, Joe.”
“Forget about it,” Joe tells him. “You’d do the same for someone in need.”
“Uh, yeah,” Bobbin tells him, looking nervous. “That’s me, Mr. Helpful.”
I take a moment to look at the car. It’s red, like mine, back home. Whatever happened to it was terrible, I can tell, and see dried blood on the steering wheel.
“How did this get here?”
Joe pulls me back. “Best not to ask. Strange things wander into this place. You learn to leave them alone.”
I nod and we leave. We travel for the rest of the day and make camp at night. Joe shares his canned food with everyone. We tell stories around the fire.
In the morning, I see the house. It wasn’t there last night, I know, but it is now. It sits on a hill, clearly visible.
“Where’d that come from?”
“The terrain shifts sometimes,” Joe tells me. “Best to not worry about it too much.”
“I wonder if someone lives there,” I muse.
“Don’t go up there,” Joe tells me.
“Joe,” Bobbin says.
“Hush, Bobbin,” the soldier snaps. “It’s dangerous there, Sarah. Trust me on this. Don’t ever go in that house. You won’t like what you find.”
Bobbin gives him a strange look, as does Toggle. They know something about it, I think. Regardless, I nod my head, and promise not to go there. Joe wouldn’t lie to me.
I find it odd when I think about it, that I trust him so much. I can’t say what it is. He makes me feel secure, though he hasn’t done any more for me than Bobbin and Toggle have.
It’s probably the uniform. We trust people in uniform automatically, don’t we? I always have.
He tells me we’ll reach Guru by that afternoon. I’m excited. Soon, I’ll be going home.
I look at the house one last time. I think I see something move in the window. It’s probably the sun. I think of what Joe said.
I hope it’s the sun.
Joe makes us stop, looking at me when he does. Ahead of us, there is a path, the first one I’ve seen since I left the room. Beside me, Bobbin and Toggle look at each other, clearly nervous.
“Guru is down this path,” Joe says.
“Let’s go, then,” I say, looking at the strange trees around the path. They are different than the rest in every way. They seem older.
“We can’t go with you,” Bobbin tells me. “Guru will only see one person at a time.”
“Nobody knows,” Toggle chirps.
“If you want to talk to Guru, you have to go alone,” Joe says.
I nod, understanding. I look at the path as it disappears into the darkness of the trees. Something about it makes me uneasy.
I take a deep breath, look at my friends one more time, and start walking. They are my friends, too. I’m not sure when or how it happened, but I know it.
“We’ll be waiting right here,” Joe calls after me.
I spare a look over my shoulder. Though I’ve only taken a few steps, they seem far away. Steadying myself, I head deeper into the strange trees. Around me, no birds sing, but things seem to groan in the dark. I can’t see them, and I’m glad.
It takes a while, but the path ends in a clearing. There is a tree in the middle of it, huge beyond any I’ve ever seen before. It reaches so high, it blocks out the sun, and has the feel of something ancient to it.
As I stand there, the tree opens its eyes and looks at me. I stare, shocked. It shakes itself slightly, leaves turning from green to yellow.
“Groovy,” it says.
I’m not sure what to do now. The tree looks at me and smiles. Suddenly, I realize, this is Guru. He is a tree. I’m not sure why that seems strange, all things considered.
“Are you Guru?” I ask, just to be sure.
His leaves change to pink. “That’s me, pretty momma.”
Even for this jungle, this is weird. “I’ve come to ask you something.”
“Of course you have,” Guru chuckles, his leaves changing to blue. “Everybody wants the cool cats wise words laid on their ears.”
“Will you help me?”
He looks at me for a moment, then smiles again. “Tell me your woe, and I’ll see if I can give you the guidance you seek.”
“My name is Sarah,” I tell him. “I’m trying to find a way to leave the jungle, to go home.”
“Hmmm,” Guru mutters, thinking about my request, his leaves changing to violet. “Here’s some wild and crazy words, so open your mind, and tune in your ears.”
“I’m ready,” I tell him.
“Don’t run away,” he says. “If you don’t run, all will be revealed.”
I stare at him. “I don’t understand.”
He laughs. “No one ever does, sister. It’s the nature of wisdom. It’s hip to things you aren’t.”
I nod slowly. I’ve no idea what it means. “Is that all?”
“I’m afraid so,” Guru replies. “Remember my words, and light will shine on you, like a crazy diamond.”
“I see,” I tell him.
“Do you, sister?” Guru asks, looking at me closely. “Do you really get the crazy beat?”
“Not even a little.”
He laughs at that, his leaves changing to red. “It’s all good, baby girl. Don’t fret it none. Just don’t try to run, and you’ll find your way home again.”
“Okay, I guess,” I say, none the wiser than I was before. “I guess I’ll go. Thank you.”
“No, no,” Guru tells me. “Not that way.”
I look back down the path. “But my friends are there.”
He smiles, his leaves turning back to green. “I know, but you have to go the other way.”
“Cause the groovy tree says so,” he laughs.
I look around him and see the path goes on. I take a deep breath. He smiles at me, a kind smile, and I walk past, heading down the path.
Soon, I’ll go home.
It’s getting harder and harder to believe.
Beyond the ancient trees, the ground grows rough. Heavy stones litter the earth. Some of them watch me as I pass. I try to be nice and wave at them. They stick their tongues out at me.
The walk becomes steep. I climb, ignoring the crude rocks now. Before long, I reach a ridge, and pause, looking back. Before me, the jungle sweeps out in a wash of green. It really does seem endless.
I realize I can see the treehouse I spent that first night with Bobbin and Toggle in. I can see the river, and the waterfall I jumped from. I can see where Joe’s camp should be. I can see the house.
Behind me, I hear rocks clatter. They moan about it. I turn, and see him, standing there, looking at me with those hungry red gold eyes.
He lets loose with his chainsaw howl. I scream and run. The ground isn’t easy to navigate. I slip several times, but don’t fall. I feel him behind me, hear him panting as he closes in on me.
I reach level ground and run for all I’m worth. Behind me, he pursues, the buzz of his teeth chilling me. He’s going to catch me, and I know it. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Guru’s words come back to me. Don’t run. If I don’t, I’ll die, I argue with myself. If I do, I’ll never get home.
I think of Chris and run harder. I’m still so angry with him, so hurt by what he did, it stabs at me. I think of Sam and Beth, and somehow, somewhere, find the strength to stop running.
I turn, facing Razortooth as he comes after me, a mountain of fur and moving teeth. I stand my ground, thinking of my precious babies, my reason for living.
Razortooth pauses, looking at me, circling slowly. He senses something has changed, or so I tell myself. Maybe it has. Maybe I have.
I know I have.
“Come on,” I tell him. “Come and get me. Come and eat me! I don’t care. I won’t run from you anymore. You want me, well here I am!”
He stares at me, then steps forward. I wait for it, knowing I’m going to die. Face death, or eternity in this nightmarish jungle. Neither is appealing.
“Come on!” I scream.
He lopes toward me, shrinking as he does, until he reaches me, suddenly the size of a regular wolf. His teeth no longer move. I stare, not knowing what to think.
“Well now,” he says. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
He looks up at me in amusement. I look down at him, lost. Something has changed. I can feel it. The jungle seems brighter.
“I don’t understand,” I finally say.
“You didn’t run,” Razortooth replies. “It isn’t very sporting to chase someone who doesn’t run, now is it?”
“Sporting?” I ask. “How is threatening to eat me sporting?”
He winks at me and smiles. “What ever makes you think I was going to eat you? Perhaps I just like the chase.”
I blink at that. The thought had never crossed my mind. In a place where monkeys talk, and birds shaped like basketballs fly, and trees are groovy, it never crossed my mind that he just liked the chase.
I sit down. I kind of need to.
“This place makes no sense,” I tell him.
He tilts his head to the side. “When did life ever make sense, Sarah?”
“It did, once, a long time ago,” I answer.
“Before Chris,” he says quietly.
I stare at him. “How can you know about that?”
“I know all your fears,” he replies, resting a paw on my hand. “It’s why I chased you.”
“I don’t understand,” I tell him. “I just want to go home.”
He nods and looks towards the house in the distance. “Then you must go there.”
“Joe said not to,” I tell him. “He said I wouldn’t like what I found there.”
Razortooth looks back at me, his eyes sad. “You won’t. That’s why you must go.”
I stare at the house for a long time. “Will you come with me?”
“Of course,” he says.
I stand up. He joins me. I walk towards the house on the hill. The monster walks at my side.
I stand at the gate, staring at the house. It feels dead. I feel like I’ve seen it before. Razortooth hovers at my side, but does not say anything. Night is falling. It takes me a few minutes to push the gate open and step into the yard.
When I do, I realize why it seems familiar. I stop, staring around at the yard. Razortooth pauses on the steps of the porch, watching me.
“I know this house,” I say at last. “I lived here when I was young.”
Razortooth looks at the front door. “You must go inside, Sarah.”
“How can this house be here?” I ask him.
“You’ll understand,” he replies.
“Tell me how this house can be here, dammit!” I yell at him.
He sighs. “I would, if I could, but I cannot. You must go inside, and face what waits there.”
I feel a chill run through me. “Are you coming?”
“I am, yes,” he tells me. “Though I cannot help you.”
He gives me a sad smile. “I’m just here to chase, Sarah, nothing more.”
I don’t understand what he means, but I can see he’s not going to tell me anything else. I walk up the steps, heart heavy. I’m not afraid, but I do feel dread. Whatever lies beyond that door, I’m not sure I want to face it.
I’m not sure I want to know.
I call Sam and Beth to mind, and take hold of the doorknob. They need me to be strong. They need me to come home. I turn the knob. The door swings open.
The living room is just as it was. Everything is sepia though, washed out and faded. I step inside, Razortooth at my side. From somewhere in the house, I hear Mr. Sandman playing, The Chordettes singing. It was my mothers favorite song.
I hesitate. I hear nothing else. Nothing moves. Still, I wait. Razortooth sits by my side. I swallow against the lump in my throat, and ease farther in.
Beyond the living room is the kitchen. I remember sitting and watching cartoons while my mother cooked breakfast on Saturday mornings. I remember sitting on the couch with her, and listening to her read me fairy tales.
I look around the room. It’s so clear, like a memory brought to life. I touch things idly, remembering a time when she and I had been close. It had been hard for her, a single mother, working and raising a daughter. I’d never made it any easier.
I see the mantle over the fireplace and stare at it. Pictures line it. Snapshots of me, and her, many of us together. My grandparents, and family outings. So many memories, discarded along the years, forgotten, and now before me. I want to cry.
My fingers tremble as I lift one of the pictures. It’s old and dusty, but I know which one it is. The only picture of my father I’ve ever seen. It got lost somewhere along the way, in one of our many moves. I cried about it for days when it was lost. My mother tried to console me, but couldn’t.
She had promised I’d always remember his face. I hadn’t though. I had forgotten what he looked like. I hold the picture frame, and wipe the dust, angry with myself for having forgotten what he looked like.
In the picture, he stands by an army jeep, in his uniform. He’d gone off to Vietnam, and never come home. It happened before I was even born.
I look down at the image in my hand. It’s of Joe.
I drop it, backing away. Razortooth growls, and I see him in the doorway, watching me. Joe, the soldier who had saved me from the monster that only wanted to chase me because I ran. Bobbin and Toggle are by him, staring at me sadly.
“Who are you?” I demand.
“Sarah, listen,” he says.
“Who are you?” I scream.
“I’m your father,” he tells me.
I shake my head. “That’s not possible. My father died before I was even born. Who are you?”
He comes into the house, holding his hands up, trying to calm me. “Listen, please, Sarah.”
“No,” I yell, backing away from him. “You lied to me! I want to know why. I want to know who you are, and I want to know right now.”
“He’s your father,” Razortooth says.
I stop, looking at Joe. The pain in his eyes is powerful, the sadness heavy. He looks to me, hands out. I can’t move. I can’t think. This is not possible.
“I just wanted to get to know you,” he tells me. “I just wanted to get to know my daughter.”
I shake my head, turning away. Razortooth blocks his way. Bobbin climbs onto the coffee table, pulling the picture from the broken frame. Toggle coos from the doorway.
“You should have told her, Joe,” Razortooth says. “It’s not right she learn of it this way.”
“I wanted to,” he tells the wolf. “I was going to. Just, not yet.”
“Then when?” Razortooth roars.
Joe slumps. “Is it so wrong that I wanted to spend some time with her? To know her? Is that wrong?”
“No,” I say slowly. “It isn’t wrong.”
“I didn’t want to lie to you, baby, I swear,” he tells me. “I just didn’t think you’d believe me. I needed a little longer. I was going to come clean. I promise.”
“How can you be here?” I ask him. “What is this place?”
“I don’t know how to answer those questions,” he says. “But, look, we’re together, and we’ll figure it out, okay?”
“No,” Razortooth tells him. “She stopped running from me, Joe. It’s time for her to see the Queen.”
Toggle cries softly from the doorway. I go and gather her up, holding her to me. “Who’s the Queen?”
“Never mind that,” Joe, no, my father, tells me.
“Joe,” Razortooth snaps. “It’s time.”
“Not yet!” he yells. “I’ve only just found her. Please, give me a little while. Please.”
“Who’s the Queen?” I demand.
They both look at me, but it’s Bobbin that answers. “She’s the one who can send you home.”
“What?” I can’t believe what I’m hearing. “You knew? You knew all along how to get out, and you never told me? Why?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” he replies gloomily.
“I have to get back to my children, Bobbin,” I yell at him. “They need me!”
“So do we!” he yells back.
I recoil. His words strike me deep. I look at him, see him for the first time. He’s just a monkey. Toggle, in my arms, looks up to me and trembles. Joe won’t meet my eyes. Razortooth looks out the window.
“We need you, too, Sarah,” Bobbin tells me. “Why can’t we spend time with you? We do we have to wait? They’ve had you for years! What about us?”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I am, Bobbin, so very sorry, but I don’t belong here.”
“You could,” he pleads with me. “With us, you could.”
“No, I can’t,” I say. “This isn’t my place. It’s strange, and it’s beautiful, but it isn’t where I belong. I have to go home. I have to see my family. I have to be with them. I need them.”
He sighs and nods his head. “That’s what it is, isn’t it? You need them, and hope they need you.”
“That’s what love is,” I tell him, kneeling by the table and holding out an arm. He hesitates a moment, then comes to me, wrapping his arms around my neck, and nuzzling against me.
“Then, I guess, I love you,” he whispers.
“I love you too, Bobbin,” I reply. “I don’t want to go. I have to go.”
“I know,” he cries.
“We’ll take you to the Queen,” Razortooth says softly. “But you’ll have to get past her.”
I nod my head. My friends are with me. My father is with me. I’ll get past her. I will go home.
I must go home.
We cross the Wastes together, riding on Razortooth’s back, Toggle flying alongside. The land is black, and shattered. Lava flows over it in places. Terrible things lurk in the shadows of the twisted trees that grow here, but none dare threaten the massive wolf.
My eye is set on the black castle that rises in the distance. There is my way home. Through that twisted place that fills my heart with fear is the doorway to where I belong. I will reach it.
“We’ll be there by nightfall,” Razortooth calls to me over his shoulder.
“Thank you,” I reply.
He smiles, his teeth beautiful and white. “You stopped running from me, now I run for you. It’s the way things should be.”
I smile back, though I don’t understand what he means. I don’t understand any of this. Nor do I care to anymore. Home awaits, glistening before me like a dream.
One last nightmare to go.
The sun is setting when we reach the wide steps of the ominous structure. It reaches into the sky, a skeletal hand grasping at the stars. I hesitate.
“It’s not to late to turn back,” Joe tells me.
“It is,” I answer. “I have to do this.”
“We’re with you, Sarah,” Toggle twitters.
“All the way,” Bobbin adds.
“Though we cannot help you, we will be there for you,” Razortooth tells me.
I nod and smile at them. My friends, my other family, in this strange world. They are so precious to me. I do not want to leave them, but I know I must. I do not belong here.
We mount the steps slowly, reaching the great black doors that lead to the Queen’s audience hall. Beyond, is the road I seek.
I don’t know how I know, but I do. I feel it. I push on them, and they swing wide, creaking heavily. Beyond, it is dark, but I enter anyway.
They walk with me. The monkey in the fez. The basketball bird. The wolf that chases. The father I never knew. I am stronger for their presence.
Ahead, I see light. We enter a massive room. A red carpet leads to a dais. Behind it, a shifting light glows. Before it, stands the Queen.
She is wrapped in bandages, like a mummy, and wears a red dress. She does not move. I stare at her for a long time. Finally, I walk forward, mounting the steps, and stop before her. My friends wait.
“I’ve come to go home,” I tell her. “Stand aside.”
She shakes her head, and says, “I can’t do that, Sarah. You belong here now.”
“I don’t, and we both know it.”
“What do you have that’s worth going home for?” she asks me.
“My children,” I tell her.
She raises a bandaged hand, pointing down to where my friends wait. I look back. Bobbin becomes Sam. Toggle becomes Beth. I can’t breath.
“They are already here,” the Queen tells me. “Why would you leave?”
“I..” I can’t speak. My mouth won’t work. They look up at me, sad and ashamed. How did I not notice? How could I not have seen it?
“Go back to the jungle, Sarah,” the Queen tells me. “Forget home. It’s better here anyway.”
“No,” I answer. “I have to go back. I have to face Chris.”
She points again. Fearful, I look, and see Razortooth transform into my husband. He lowers his eyes, unable to look at me.
“So, face him,” the Queen says.
“This isn’t…” I try to say, but the words fail.
“What can you have there that you don’t already have here, Sarah?” she asks me. “Tell me, what can that other place offer, that this one can’t?”
I think about that for a long time. What does it offer? Before me stand my children, and my husband, and the father I never had. I am tempted, and feel myself sway.
“Leave,” the Queen tells me. “Never return.”
“No,” I tell her, turning back to her, grasping her dress. “This is not where I belong. This is not my home. I will not stay. Now get out of my way!”
I shove at her, the bandages around her face ripping as she falls. She strikes the floor and lays there. When she looks up, I stare into my own eyes.
I back away. She stands, a woman with my face. Behind me, I hear them, my friends, my family, mounting the steps. Chris rests a hand on my shoulder, my father grasping the other, keeping me steady. Sam and Beth stand in front of me, blocking the Queen.
“You know what will happen if she leaves!” the Queen yells at them. “Do you want that?”
“We want her to be happy,” Sam answers, ever the defiant and sarcastic one.
“We want her to do what she needs to,” Beth adds, always so tender and kind.
“We want her to follow her own road,” Chris says, always the pursuer, until I finally stopped running.
“We want her to go home,” my father, Joe, tells her.
The Queen backs up. “No, I won’t allow it! She must stay! I demand she stay!”
I find my feet and step towards her. “You can’t do that.”
“I can!” she shrieks at me. “I can do whatever I want!”
I move quickly, grabbing her, holding her, pulling her to me. “I’m sorry,” I tell her.
“What?” she gasps.
“I’m sorry,” I say again, holding her tighter, holding myself tighter. “I let us forget who we are. I allowed us to drift. I brought us so much pain by not being who we are.”
“Stop it!” she bellows, but does not struggle.
“I can make it right,” I promise her. “I can take us home again.”
“You can’t,” she whimpers. “It’s all gone. It’s ruined.”
“No,” I tell her. “Just forgotten. I know how to find it.”
Slowly, she embraces me. “I’m scared.”
“So am I,” I admit. “We can do it, though. All of us, together. We can go home again.”
She looks at me, eyes wide, trembling in my arms. “Will you take us all?” she asks.
“All the way home,” I promise.
She nods. I let her go. I turn to face the light.
“Go, mom!” Sam cries.
“Hurry!” Beth adds.
“We’re waiting!” Chris calls.
“Goodbye,” Joe says.
I don’t look back. I step into the light.
I wake in a room. Machines beep from the bedside. I blink a few times and try to move. It’s hard. Light filters in through a window. Something is resting on my hand.
I roll my head and see Sam. He’s asleep, head resting on the bed, my hand beneath him. My body feels heavy.
A hospital. I’m in a hospital.
“Sam?” I say, my voice a croak.
He raises his head, looking at me in shock. “Mom? MOM!”
He embraces me, my beautiful son. He holds me and cries, and I hold him back, though it’s hard to move. I want to cry with joy.
He pulls back. “I need to go get a doctor,” he tells me. “And Beth. And Dad!”
He races to the door, yanking it open and yelling down the hall. All of them come quickly.
My beautiful Beth, so kind, so sweet, I hug her as tight as I can. Chris watches, unsure he should approach. I hold out my hand and he takes it. We aren’t okay. There’s a chance we can be.
The days pass swiftly. The doctors examine me. I take physical therapy. I’ve been in a coma for six months, after the car accident. I had learned of Chris’ affair and run from him. I was crying. It was foolish of me, but I had been hurt.
My mom comes to see me, and I tell her I’m sorry, that I love her. She cries and tells me the same. We aren’t okay, but it’s a start.
I stand, looking out a window at the city. I hear a noise, and turn, looking at the mirror on the wall. I see them there. A grouchy monkey with a fez, a happy bird that’s too big for her own good, the monster that chases because I run, and that which I’ve never known and always wanted to.
They smile at me, and I smile back. They are inside me, and always have been. They will never be gone from me, and I will never be without them.
©-2017 Cain S. Latrani