I swear there wasn’t a car anywhere near me when I started my walk across the intersection. It was empty, and it was a four way stop. You’d think I would notice an impatient driver creeping through the stop sign, or they would see me speed walking across the walkway.
The horn blaring wakes me up from whatever thoughts were absorbing me as I walked. My hands wave frantically in front of my face, as if to stop the oncoming car. The car barely bumps my legs. Breathing shakily, I stumble the rest of the way across the street. It doesn’t occur to me until I’m inside the convention center that there was no one driving the car. I suppress my racing thoughts, buy an entrance bracelet, and weave my way through the throngs of people to find my sister’s court.
Whistles chatter back and forth as girls shout in rhythm to their footsteps and the balls hitting the floor. 124, 124, 124… I repeat the number over and over to be sure I don’t accidentally wander to the wrong court again. It’s so easy to get lost at volleyball tournaments.
I find court 124, fold my arms and stand quietly near a pillar. Addison’s team hasn’t started warming up yet. Volleyball games are always running over, which works out for me because I’m always running late.
Addie is standing in a circle with the girls on her team in the middle of the court, stretching and waving her hands about excitedly. Every girl on the team has their attention on her. She’s always been such a magnetic personality. The girls erupt into laughter and Addie smiles happily at their enthusiasm. Her eyes scan the parents surrounding the court looking for out mom. I haven’t seen her yet, and I’m not keen on seeking her out.
Addie freezes when she spots me. There’s a brief moment where her face opens with shock, uncomprehending. Tears run down her face. “ANA!” She shrieks. Her bewildered teammates are left behind as she sprints towards me and launches herself into my arms. She’s sobbing too hard to speak and nuzzling her head in my neck like she always used to do when she hugged me.
“Hi, Bean,” I whisper into her hair and she sobs harder.
It’s been two years since I’ve seen my sister. The last time I saw her she was being rushed into an ambulance and mom was screaming at me to never come back. I know she still blames me for the accident, but Addie never did. There’s not a single shred of resentment in her small body. She loves too much and forgives too easily.
Once Addie has pried herself from my arms, we rush some greetings and I kiss her on her head before sending her back to her team. Several of the girls on her team are crying, as are most of the parents. Many are looking at me. I shuffle my feet uncomfortably and retreat to the stability of the pillar.
Addie plays so well. She sprints and lunges and never seems to let the ball hit the floor. Her small, muscular figure makes her a great libero. There’s always been a funny contrast between her tiny stature and my tall, willowy frame. When I played volleyball, I was automatically vetted to the middle front position, but she’s always been a back row player.
Halfway through the second match of Addie’s second game, my mother decides to approach me. She saunters up and pretends to be friendly, asks how I’ve been holding up. I know she doesn’t care; she just wants to know what I’m doing here, today. After several minutes of painful conversation, I excuse myself to the bathroom. I just need to breathe. Even after two years of freedom, my mother has the fantastic ability to make me feel as if I need to care about her and her suffocating judgments. Addie sees me walking from the court and I wink at her reassuringly.
Amid the chattering people and shrill whistles I hear my name, whispered from some corner of the center. The voice is not one I recognize, and I’m not even sure it’s real, but it is enticing. Much more enticing than the echoes of screams that haunt my mother’s voice. It can’t hurt to look, can it?
I follow the sound of my name to a corner of the room cordoned off by a thick black curtain. I glance around to see if anyone is watching me, then slip behind the curtain. It shouldn’t be possible to have a tunnel this long going straight through the wall. The wall isn’t thick enough. There should be a road. There should be cars and people. But there’s a tunnel of cramped stones with no discernible end.
My thoughts flicker to Addie. As curious as this is, I can’t miss her games. I can’t miss her any longer. I turn around to go back through the curtain, but it’s gone. Instead, my hands meet a stone wall and an eerie quiet. Now that I think about it, the whistles have been silent since I stepped behind the curtain.
Panic threatens to overwhelm me; I feel it welling up in my throat. Mom will never let me see Addie again if I disappoint her today. I breathe in, hold it, and breathe it out with a curse. There’s nowhere to go but forward. The sound of my footsteps follows me down the dimly lit hallway. I keep my breathing steady to keep the panic at bay. I’m so absorbed in my breathing that I don’t notice the ceiling is getting lower until it brushes my head. Fantastic.
The ceiling continues to slope lower. It becomes more and more difficult to keep the panic away. I keep imagining the walls closing in on me and crushing the air from my lungs. Me sliding on my stomach and realizing there’s nowhere in front of me and I can’t go back. I’m crawling by the time I finally reach a door. The dilapidated wooden frame is no more than three feet tall. My hand is several times the size of the knob. I pinch it between a few of my fingers and the door swings open.
Music pours forth from the massive room on the other side of the door, filling the cramped space and making me feel more claustrophobic. I shimmy my shoulders through the doorway, then scoot the rest of my body out. I take a grateful breath before opening my eyes to whatever is before me.
This room is as massive as the convention center, but much heavier in atmosphere. The lights are dim yellow and the walls are shrouded by thick, velvety curtains like the one that led me to the tunnel. Gaudy chandeliers hang from the ceiling. However, the strangest part of the room is that it is full of dancing women.
There are hundreds of women, tall and short, all draped in sheer red dresses, cut off at the knees to allow their fluid legs freedom. They curtsy and pirouette in perfect synchronicity. I keep one hand on the wall and a wary eye to the mob of women as I shuffle around the perimeter of the room.
I complete a lap around the room without finding an exit. None of the women pay me any mind. I am positive there were no other passageways branching off of the one from which I entered. I can’t even seem to find the door anyway. Exasperated, I slump to the floor.
The congregation of women keeps dancing. I feel like I’m going to cry.
But then I notice one of them is looking at me. She seems to be gesturing at me with her eyes. She’s a couple rows back from my position against the wall, but the women are rotating in a complex circular dance and she’s slowly getting closer. I stand. A few more rotations and she’s right in front of me.
“Grab my hand, pull me out,” she whispers, barely audible over the music. So I do.
The music roars. A collective sob emanates from all the women before their faces fall back into complacency. The girl grabs my hand and drags me along the edge of the room.
“Don’t let go!” She stops in front of a seemingly random section of curtain, pulls it aside, and jumps through the wall, dragging me with her. I feel as if my body is being ripped apart. I scream but there’s no sound. All I can feel other than the pain is the desperate grip of the girl.
We collapse on the other side of the wall in an open field. She’s laughing.
“What the heck was that?” I ask once I can speak again. She ignores me and continues to laugh. Her hair pillows around her head. Pieces of grass are sticking out of the curly mess at random.
“I’m out, I’m out, I made it out!” she sings between giggles. Eventually she rolls over onto her stomach and exhales. “I can’t believe I’m actually out…” Her skin is like creamed coffee in the sunlight, warm and inviting. I can’t help but note she’s quite beautiful.
“Care to explain what just happened?”
She jumps and turns to look at me. I could swim in the chocolate pools of her eyes. “Oh yes, sorry…” Her lilting voice fills me in on the last several years of her life, trapped in an endless dance, waiting for her body to expire. She doesn’t remember how she got there, but knows very well the toxic touch of the dancers. She thinks that some have always been there, like spiders, capturing and leeching off of the energy of whoever stumbles into that cursed room.
“Where are we now?” I ask. We’re in a clearing surrounded by trees. Everything is a shocking shade of green, and the air is likely the cleanest air I’ve ever breathed.
“To be honest, I don’t know. But there has to be something, somewhere.”
We rest for a while in that field, soaking up the sun and enjoying the feeling of the wind tickling across our bodies. I tell her about the strange circumstances that led me there. She says her name is Jaida. The sun doesn’t move at all.
After several hours, we grudgingly stand, pick a direction, and begin to walk. She’s pleasant company, witty and kindhearted. She tells me stories about her life before the dancing room, when she traveled from place to place doing whatever she could to get food and a place to stay. I tell her about my sister and my life as a freelance journalist. She seems shocked by the idea of some of the technology I describe as part of my daily life. But this world, wherever it is, seems magical, and I assure her that mine is boring in comparison.
We travel for who knows how long, living off of the berries and streams that seem to appear whenever we need them. The sun never changes position, so it’s difficult to determine how much time has passed. Somehow, the temperature is always moderate and pleasant. I’ve always loved the outdoors, but the perfect weather and easy resources give me a whole new level of love for this forest. Jaida is endlessly fascinating and disconcertingly beautiful. She is the perfect partner on this strange expedition. I am honestly disappointed when we begin to see houses in the distance. Neither of us is sure if it’s been days, weeks, or months, but we both agree that it feels like we’ve lived a lifetime together.
As we approach the first cluster of houses Jaida stops, mid stride. “I’m getting tired, I think we should rest a bit before we go meet with any people.” I agree, a bit selfishly, not wanting our travels to end. We find a patch of thick grass under a tree and lay down.
“Ana, can I tell you something?”
“Of course, anything.” My heart is pounding, imagining all the things I want her to say to me but know she probably won’t.
“This trip with you has honestly been the best time of my life…” she begins. She’s struggling to make eye contact with me. “I just want you to know… well, I think I might be in love with you. And I know that you want to get home and be with your sister and live your life normally, but I honestly can’t imagine a life without you.” I hope she can’t hear how loudly my heart is pounding.
“I-“ I start, but she cuts me off before I can finish.
“You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. I just wanted to get that off my chest.”
I’ve never been good at talking anyway.
So instead, I lean in and do what I’ve been thinking of doing for what feels like forever. I kiss her. And she kisses me back, which is better than what I ever dreamed would happen.
I wake up with Jaida in my arms and sweetness on my lips. I don’t move until she begins to stir. The soft smile that lights up her face when she tells me good morning is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. We take our time getting ready to go, as we keep falling over each other with kisses every few minutes.
Eventually we make our way towards the houses. We knock on doors to ask for directions, but no one answers. Soon we see why.
We reach a large semicircle of grass flanked by three massive mansions, and possibly the entirety of the town is congregated in the center. People and animals flit about from stall to stall, vendors shout their wares. Fruits and toys and potions line the tables, little girls hand out clusters of flowers that chime with music. Some stalls have books, some have charms, some have bones and feathers and stones. Musicians perform around every corner, their hats and cases filled to the brim with spare change. A stack of what look like mattresses as tall and wide as a building hosts a fleet of screaming and jumping children.
“It’s so beautiful…” mutters Jaida as we float between stalls. I grab her hand and intertwine my fingers with hers.
At the far end of the semicircle, a fence stretches out into the distance, separating the bustle of the town from a massive steel bridge. There’s very little activity there. We slowly make our way to the fence out of curiosity.
Then I hear my name, whispered from across the bridge. It’s a voice I recognize.
“I need to figure out what that bridge is,” I tell Jaida urgently. She looks concerned but doesn’t ask questions.
An entrance booth flanks the fence, directly next to the only gateway through. The man sitting inside the booth is asleep.
“Excuse me, sir?” I ask. He startles awake. “What is this bridge?”
“Not from around here are ye, lady? This be the Destination Bridge.”
Jaida gasps. “I’ve heard of this bridge! It’ll take someone wherever they want, whenever they want to be there, but you can only cross once.” Her eyes widen. “Ana, it could take you home!”
It could take me to Addie.
My chest tightens.
“But Jaida, what about you?” I can’t bear the thought of being anywhere without her sweet laughter and mischievous wit.
“I’ll go with you,” she says without hesitation. “Assuming you want me to…”
Once again, I’m at a loss for words. So I kiss her instead.
The man in the booth clears his throat uncomfortably. “Eh, ladies, ye can only go one a’ a time. ‘En it’s very difficult to end up in the same place as someone else. Yea, ye can have a place an’ time in yer head when crossin’ the bridge, but it won’t always take ye right where ye want to be.”
Panic seeps it’s way into my lungs. Jaida doesn’t know how it is to be in my world, she wouldn’t know where or how to find me. What if she ended up on the other side of the world?
“I’ll take my chances.” Jaida’s voice is so confident. But I can’t risk losing her just yet.
“Let’s walk around a bit and then come back.”
So we do. We eat unknown fruits and play with potions and jump on the mattress tower and dance to the music that surrounds us. And I have the most lovely first date with the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met in my life. And I can only hope that once we’ve crossed the bridge we’ll be able to find each other again.
The man in the booth smiles when I hand him a pastry I picked up from one of the booths.
“Thank ye, lady. Ye ready to go?”
“One more thing.” I turn and kiss Jaida one last time before he opens the gate and I step onto the bridge.
. . . . .
White walls and blinding lights shock my eyes as I blink awake. I’m wearing next to nothing and lying under a thin blanket. My mom is asleep at my bedside.
Tubes extend from my arms and bandages cover my skin.
They tell me that I got hit by a car on my way to go visit my sister’s grave. They tell me I’ve been in a coma for three months. But I can’t believe that, I won’t. The other place was too real. Jaida was too real.
Weeks of therapy later, I’m discharged. They’ve almost convinced me that I was really in that hospital the entire time. That I didn’t travel in a perfect world with a perfect girl.
But as I step onto the street, gripping my mom’s arm, I catch a glimpse of a familiar smile and hear the approach of dancing footsteps.