A smell of fresh paint and cleaner permeated the air, boxes lined the walls, their bulky form made Ryanne feel small. She inhaled deeply, the excitement and exercise of the day may have been too much for her weak lungs. She felt as though she were breathing through a coffee straw. She coughed heavily, it was nearly time for her treatment but it would have to wait.
She was sweaty from the day's work. Ryanne desperately wanted a shower. The hot water rushed down her back as she stood under its warmth. Steam rose from her body and dissipated into the atmosphere. Mucus loosened within her body and she coughed, thick saliva caused her to gag slightly.
Her father said she was too sick to move everything by herself, he wasn’t wrong, most exertion caused some sort of respiratory distress. She’d already missed out on so much, she wanted to experience moving at least once.
Her dad, a Battalion Chief, ran her life like a fire department as he prepared her for a lung transplant. When she finally became a candidate for the list, he insisted she do it. In her mind, the risks didn’t out way the benefits. The transplant wouldn’t cure her anyway. She’d only be prolonging her death.
Ryanne finally put her foot down when she reached college age, she wanted to live the rest of her life in peace. No life altering surgery, no death on the operating table, and free of scars. The only way to do this was to leave. It hurt her dad of course, but she couldn’t handle the constant nagging anymore.
I hate this, she thought as she leaned against the cool wall. Suddenly the warm shower didn’t feel as nice. Ryanne’s body felt weak as she left the water. Condensation covered the mirrors as she dressed in pajamas. Her reflection appeared different beneath the foggy mirror. Her usually brunette hair looked green.
She wiped at the mirror with her towel and saw a reflection without her familiar cannula. She exhaled, a trick of the mind, she thought as she felt the tubing lining her nose. Large trees filled the background, Ryanne turned to see her ordinary wall.
What would it be like? I have never had any kind of life without oxygen, she thought casually as she turned back to the mirror slowly. Her heart beat rapidly. The landscape and her form remained the same. It’s a trick mirror, she thought as she extended her hand and touched its surface, a gravitational pull sucked her in.
It was like entering a rushing river. Her atoms felt fluid as Ryanne became undone, she stretched her hand forward to see it extend out like a thread being pulled. She unraveled quickly, her mind swirled along the white water. Her consciousness had left her body, then total darkness.
When Ryanne came to, she found herself lying on her back in shallow water. A bed of moss surrounded her body. She groggily rose, as she did green moss covered hair fell over her shoulder. Startled by its slimy texture she lunged forward face first into the water.
“Are you alright,” the voice of a young man called, Ryanne lifted her head. A thin man stood before her, a half smile spread across his face. He looked almost fox-like with wispy white hair falling into his eyes.
“I...guess.” The boy started to approach as her brain was struggling to catch up. She knelt in the cloudy water as ripples brushed against her legs. This water, its brimming with bacteria. Water like this could mean contracting a deadly virus, she stood quickly. The sensation of forced air she’d grown accustomed to was gone. Panicked she felt her face, gone, she began to hyperventilate.
“You don’t seem okay,” the boy grabbed her arms and pulled her from the water, “You’re fine, everything is fine. This is a safe place.” His grip around her wrists did not loosen as Ryanne tried to break free, though she desperately wanted to search the water.
“My oxygen,” she cried. He seemed genuinely worried about her.
“You don’t need it through the portal, take a deep breath you’ll see. This place is a safe place.” He repeated calmly. Ryanne couldn’t simply believe his words. They didn’t make any sense to her.
Ryanne closed her eyes. Her heart fluttered in her chest, birds cawed behind her, and wind whispered at her ears. She inhaled, the smell of moss and fresh water filled her nose. He was right, Ryanne’s lungs were open. She took in air and more smells wafted in. Her eyes opened to see the fox boy as he smiled brightly..
“Better but how?” she asked sucking in more of the precious air.
“It’s the magic of this place.” He released her and started heading toward a medium sized rock where a fishing rod lay. A patch of sun fell through the canopy and glistened along his blonde hair.
“Why am I here?” Ryanne stumbled behind him. She had nowhere else to go and this body, though whole, felt awkward and unnatural.
“The same reason any of us are here. We don’t know. Some of us were sick, some were handicapped, others were normal. The portal finds people who it deems worthy.” He retrieved his pole and began descending deeper into the forest. What makes me worthy? Surely I am not here only because I am sick, she thought.
“How do you know all this? Who are you? Why did you come here?” Hundreds of questions rushed forward in her mind. The boy stopped, his back stiffened and he turned swiftly around. Ryanne froze, she could tell she’d touched a nerve
“You have a big mouth for such a small body.” A hint of despair danced in his eye as ire fell from his mouth. Ryanne felt a twinge of annoyance within her.
“I am not small. I don’t understand what’s happening and you’re the only one here. You could at least tell me your name,” Ryanne snapped. The boy scoffed and continued forward. She had no other choice but to follow. She was painfully aware of the potential dangers in her new environment. She skittishly walked behind him with tumultuous steps.
They walked without words until they came upon a small cluster of massive trees. The trees appeared to be homes with doors sitting open on their hinges. People, Ryanne looked questioningly at the boy, he grunted in their direction and turned to leave. He must still be angry, she thought as she tried to follow. A small hand grasped hers before she could leave.
“Don’t bother Larkspur, he is very mercurial. I am Delu.” Ryanne turned to see a young girl holding her fingers. She couldn't be more than seven but her vocabulary made Ryanne believe she was much older. She was small with a sweet round face. Her thick curled hair pulled in tiny individual braids.
“Why do you say that,” she watched as Larkspur hustled back toward the lake.
“Well the others say it because he’s forgotten something but I think he is just grumpy that he’s terrible at fishing.” She smiled, flashing her missing front tooth.
“What did he forget?” Ryanne asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. The others say it's really important though. Are you going to stay for a while, we love new people.” She finally let go when Larkspur was out of sight. Ryanne guessed that she wanted to keep her from following.
“I can leave? Why would I want to? I’m not sick here.” Ryanne answered.
“You can leave but only through the portal you came through. I figured you wouldn’t want to leave. Few do, c’mon,” she tugged. Ryanne looked back in the direction of Larkspur and pulled from her, a frown spread across Delu’s face.
“I’ll be back, Delu,” Ryanne said as she took off in a slow jog. Her feet pounded into the ground and pushed the earth behind her. Her breaths fell into each step. Amazing, she thought, is this really what it's like? She ran wildly through massive pine trees, it was beautiful.
Larkspur had reached the lake by the time she found him. He sat at the end of a small dock, she hadn’t noticed it before. Green algae filled the shore lines of the lake but it was still picturesque. He didn’t seem to notice right away,
“Hey!” Ryanne yelled, her once meek voice suddenly boisterous. He jumped and angrily looked over.
“You’ll scare the fish,” He shouted. She laughed loudly, as she popped down next to him.
“I think you did,” Ryanne watched as he smiled halfheartedly. Ryanne moved to put her feet in the water but Larkspur grabbed her legs before they touched. He seemed more gentle now, his anger must have subsided.
“If you want to stay, go back to the settlement. You can’t touch the water or the portal will send you home.” He seemed to know so much about this place. For a magic portal, it had so many weird rules, she thought. He must have been here a very long time.
“Which portal did you come from?”
“I don’t remember anymore. I don't know anything about returning home.” He said cautiously. He was so closed off.
“What do you mean? I’m listening” He grimaced like it was hard for him to talk about.
“I mean, what if I go back and everyone I knew is gone? I never said goodbye when I found the portal. I stayed because it was easier than going back.”
“I understand. I didn’t say anything to my dad, too. It is probably better this way though. He won’t have to watch me die or pray for miracles anymore.” Ryanne sighed loudly, suddenly she missed her dad.
“What is your dad like?” he asked as he swished his hair from hazel eyes.
“He is brave, admirable, but also thick headed. Honestly the last conversation I had with him was a huge fight. I wonder if he’s still angry.” Her words pained her heart as she reflected. Tears welled in her eyes as she thought about how much her dad must miss her.
“If I had the choice to see my nan again, I would want to. I should have faced my problems when I had the chance.” He stated flatly, Larkspur’s eyes grew cold. Ryanne could tell he was still afraid to find out where the return portal would lead him. She also wondered how time passed between portals.
“I guess we differ there. My old life, it wasn’t worth living. I was tied to life sustaining machines. I never did anything noteworthy or exciting. I stayed home and healthy, without simple freedoms.” Larkspur met her eyes, his cold stare sent shivers through her spine.
“Couldn’t you change your outlook? Sure living like that isn’t easy, at least your family wanted you and cared for you. My nan was the only person I had, the day I left I found out she was giving me to social services.” His voice was filled with spite but Ryanne understood. She did leave behind a perfectly good family. Still it wouldn’t change her mind. Before coming here, she was waiting to die.
“I know you’re right about leaving my family. The truth is they were hoping for surgery that would prolong my life. I guess I just wanted to die by the enemy I know. They didn’t understand how I felt, and I know the transplant might give me more time. It also might not work and I could die before I leave the table. I’m sure your grandma also wanted what was best for you, maybe she just didn’t understand how you felt.” Ryanne stood quietly, suddenly she felt vulnerable. Larkspur seemed deep in thought while she stretched her legs. He seemed to understand the fears folded her heart.
“If I have learned anything from this place, it’s life is only worth living when you take risks.” He shrugged as he leaned forward at the edge of the pier to peer into murky waters. Ryanne felt the dock quiver under their wait.
“Be careful,” she yelled but it was too late. The board Larkspur sat atop flipped forward, launching him into the water. He dove in head first and fought vigorously to stay afloat. She could tell immediately that he couldn't swim. She carefully reached for him at the dock as he struggled. He tried desperately to reach her but it seemed he couldn’t. She stood swiftly, jumping in was the only way.
“Don’t- even- think about it,” He bubbled. Too late. She flung her body into the water. With that singular move, she grabbed onto him, she was able to swim with him for a moment.
“I guess we will find out today where we go from here. Didn’t you just say I should take risks,” Ryanne smiled, they were both taken into the pull of the portal. This time as Ryanne’s atoms disbanded, she watched Larkspur stretch like a rubber band. They moved swiftly through white waters and just before darkness descended on their consciousness she watched him swiftly turn onto a different path. Maybe he can go home, she thought.
Her eyes suddenly opened, forced air puffed in her nose as she inhaled. Ryanne’s hand still rested on her mirror as tears fell from her eyes. For just one moment in time, she experienced normalcy. Larkspur, I hope you’re home with your nan, she thought as she placed her hand at her side. Her phone rang expectantly in the kitchen and she jumped to answer it.
“Hello, dad?” she said, “Everything is fine, I was just busy unpacking. Hey I was wondering, would that doctor for the transplant be willing to go over everything with me again. No, I Just want to make sure I don’t miss out on anything. Okay, I love you.”