This story is by Bana Aassy and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“We rarely walk into the woods at night,” she placed the tray down. “The woods are haunted,” she said, “by the spirits of pilgrims of hundreds of years ago.”
James smiled sardonically at his host, taking a bottle of beer. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” He eyed the waitress with the name tag, Eileen.
“Bet I do, city boy,” she winked and went away.
That evening he took a stroll into the trees and was lost in the sound of the birds and the rattling of the leaves. Soon it was dark, but his eyes adjusted quickly as one who had seen the gradual darkening of the sky, studied the colors deeply and observing the reflections of the leaves. As a young architect the woods was yet another space he could study, a space in which the elements can be studied to be bent at his wish on paper at his arrival home.
Wings flapped over his head swiftly causing him to duck reflexively. A loud croak of a raven shouted him down. “Whoa,” he let out, looking at the bird that landed on a branch, puffing his chest and staring down at him with beady eyes that shimmered in the moon glow. “Sorry for trespassing,” James said, straightening his jacket, feeling dreariness under the gaze of the animal. The raven held his stare and looked away, his beak pointing forward. With another turn to the young architect, he flew towards the same direction. James followed with sudden intrigue, taking out his phone to see the dark shape. The black bird led him to a small meadow lit by the moonlight. To the far edge was a slit of white light that quickly stole all of James’s attention. He paced closer, all the while the white slit becoming clearer in his eyes to be a dancing thread of light, hovering and swirling in place. James reached out his hand slowly to feel a cold creeping up to his fingertips. As his palm wafted through the thread, a strong chill shot through his body and a great darkness descended onto his eyes.
James was woken by the sun staring down at him. The leaves rustled at the touch of a faint wind. The young architect sat up to face more confusion as he found himself on the side of a dirt road where a large sign stood saying, ‘Welcome to Wintermont’. He rolled the word on his tongue as he got up, trying to remember if he knew such a name. “It has to be a neighboring town. I must have… sat down… to rest…” Even aloud, James’s words escaped him. His mind was lost in the remembrance of the night before. Each moment was a strain as he pushed harder and harder to recall the latest events, until he could reimagine the raven and the white thread of light.
“Excuse me!” A deep voice called to him from the left. James turned abruptly to find a man in his truck looking at him with a confused frown. “You look lost!” He called again. Only then did James realize he was simply standing there staring at the sign. He dusted his clothes quickly and walked to the man.
James nodded, his lips twitching in a nervous smile. Next to the man appeared a little curly-haired girl playing on her phone. “Could you point me to the direction of Sunston, please?”
James repeated the name of the town from which he came from, telling the story of going through the woods. “He’s drunk, dad.” The girl grinned at the stranger.
“Hush, Jane. I’m afraid you were dream walking, son. That way,” the man pointed behind him with a thumb, “is the only way into town from the city.”
“And you’ve never heard of Sunston?” James asked again, after following the man’s pointed thumb with his gaze. The man shook his head. “Nope, sorry. The only thing around this town is the sea.” Still baffled, the young architect thanked the man and headed to the city, insisting he was well enough for the journey. With his hands in his pockets, James started walking, his legs moving on their own accord as his mind surrendered to thought. Sunston was a small town on the coast, a peninsula so tiny it’s barely a spot on the map. Could there be a similar area down or up the coast? And he walked along it while in the woods? But he would have known he was so close to the shore. Surely. Time flew as the thoughts bred more and more questions and upon arriving to the city, was amazed to find it was the same road on which he had found himself the first time he came back from Sunston. Rushing to his apartment, James found the first map he could lay his hands on. There was the city, and to the north-east was the small peninsula… nameless. He found another map, and another and another, all showing that small patch of land in the country to be a large nameless forest.
“What are you saying, James?” Professor Hawthorne gazed at the young man with red eyes, his glasses still in his shaking hands.
“I have no cause to lie to you, professor.” James shook his head desperately.
“Two towns existing in one place? Oblivious to each other’s existence?!” The old man’s voice almost broke in its vigor, causing him to breathe in deeply immediately.
“This is unbelievable, I know,” his student pleaded, “but I checked on more than one occasion. There’s a place in the woods, a small meadow, where I believe there’s some sort of rupture in space.” Across from him, his professor was shaking his head, in deep painful denial. “Professor, I can lead a double life with this. I can help build the two towns, offering different architecture to each.” His voice rose in excitement and hope, looking for some sense of innovation and exploration from his mentor.
“James, you are my best student,” the old man lifted his shaking hands defensively, “but what you say cannot be accepted by the laws of nature, or the laws of ethics for that matter.” For the first time in his career, James looked into the eyes of his mentor and found not admiration and pride looking back, but judgement and fear. “Maybe you need a rest, eh?” The old professor tapped him on the knee and awaited an answer, a shy smile surfacing on his lips. James held his look and weighed it but bitter disappointment crept onto his tongue as he swallowed the silence and instead, rose to his feet and walked away, slamming the door behind him.
He sat in his office and thought about them both, both sharing his heart equally. He had built both of them a house, with the vigor that each woman provoked. Eileen waited in a house with large glass windows, where she could wake up to the view of the trees. He would gaze at her figure in the window, the light shining through her golden hair, making a halo around her. And Jane was in a small wooden house by the sea, the younger, adventurous woman who urged him to run with her on the beach and make love in the rain. In the presence of one he would think of the other, yet blessed there was no need for him to choose.
James finished his workday excitedly and exited the building to the concrete city. He was about to take a corner when he heard his name being called; two sweet voices rang from both sides. He instinctively turned right, where Eileen approached him, smiling, next to her holding her hand was little Hellen. To the left was Jane, walking with the same smile with little Hellen in her arms. His heart was about to leap from his chest, his feet bolted to the concrete. “James, sweetie?” The two women called in unison, approaching still.
“I-I can explain,” he said immediately. Looking between them frantically, knowing well enough he couldn’t in any way.
“Explain what?” Again, they said in unison. James looked closely into Eileen’s eyes, focused only on him, blue and unmoving. When he turned, Jane had the same confused look, her large brown eyes glimmering. “What are you looking at, my love?” Their voices made a bittersweet symphony. He kept looking between them in astonishment as they looked toward each other then back to him, seeing absolutely nothing.
Seeing them there, invisible to each other, he felt irony cutting through him fiercely, paralyzing him, causing him to collapse on his knees in surrender. Jane put Hellen on the ground and the toddler crawled to her father. His two daughters stood beside him, “Daddy,” the two Hellens spoke and James burst into uncontrollable tears. Each beautiful woman laid a hand on his shoulder pleading for explanation, but James felt nothing, as if one trapped in a glass mirror.