Author’s note: This is a collab with my amazing writer friend Jasey Lovegood! Check my comment for the link to her POV!
Sometimes, Emmeline-Chanel Sun Yoon-Ah wished she lived in fantasy.
No, cut the ‘sometimes’. Make it ‘mostly’.
Maybe it was because of her obsession with reading and poetry, or because she never really found it comfortable being too close to reality.
She’d read all the major fantasy books that were there. You name it- Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Divergent - and she would have them on her bookshelf.
“Why can’t something happen?” she would say, “why can’t everyone be a little more fun?”
Why couldn’t things be a little different?
She tried to be upbeat and crack jokes and merge in with the crowd, but it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. When she said something, people either stared at her as if she was wacko or listened for a few minutes before complaining that she was being too talkative.
She’d stopped looking for people who were like her. She’d most likely never find anyone in the course of her lifetime.
She wanted an escape.
That’s why she hid near the old lake in the forest.
The lake was Emmeline’s secret hideout. She’d accidentally discovered it years ago, when she was little, and she hadn’t told anyone about it even now. She always found safety propped up among the trees and grass.
Em was just sitting there in her usual spot on a log, trying to write a poem about the lake glimmering under sunlight, when she heard the bushes rustle from behind. She whipped around to locate the source of sound.
Someone - a boy - had tripped amid the creepers and nearly crashed headfirst into the ground. Em’s pulse spiked when she saw someone else in a place that was supposed to be her own, but she regained her composure, “That looks like it hurts.” she smiled.
The boy apparently hadn’t noticed her presence till now, and he sprang back to his feet, staring at her.
Emmeline had never seen anyone who looked like him. His dark brown hair was a stark contrast to the azure sky behind him, and his clothes looked like they were from a different era. At first, she thought it was only the sunlight, but she realized that he had golden eyes. Definitely not ordinary.
He looked like he’d come straight out of a fantasy book.
Astonishment crossed his face when Emmeline spoke, and he stumbled back a little. She tried to look unruffled, like she always did, and introduced herself as ‘Em’, which everyone else used to address her.
She figured that the boy was probably from the neighborhood on the other side of the lake and forest. Not that she knew what was there on the other side, but she’d always assumed there would be other houses just like hers.
“Your clothes look pretty eccentric,” she wanted to say. Was it Halloween? No, Halloween was days away. But why else would someone want to dress like a character from a fantasy story?
“Okay, where are you from?” he said, and when she shrugged back the answer ‘Earth, he frowned.
“No, we’re in Adreanor,” he said.
Ah-dren-nee-or? Was that even a place? Em ought to have known if it was. Geography was one of her favorite subjects at school and she would’ve read that name somewhere, but she hadn’t.
Em took a step back because she wasn’t sure whether this was such a joke anymore. The boy actually looked like he meant it when he said he was from ‘Adreanor’, and that he was an ‘Adreanorian’.
He hadn’t heard any of the names Emmeline told him, not even ‘Korean’ or ‘American’ or ‘Earth’, which were pretty much basic. He grew defensive when she tried to counter his words and refused to acknowledge reality.
Was something wrong with him? Was he imagining something so much that it became a hallucination?
Or was he really earnest? Flashes of fantasy stories crossed Em’s memory: of magical realms, of other worlds and universes that existed unbeknown to humanity.
Who said it couldn’t be true?
“I can show you,” he heaved a sigh, “I promise it’s a real place.”
Emmeline tried to hide her curiosity. Yes, why not? Why couldn’t she just reach past the invisible barrier and move across to the other side, to Adreanor, if it really did exist? She only had to draw an arm forth and slip it through, and she'd be there.
Emmeline hadn’t realized that she had an arm suspended in the air. Conall was looking at her, an eyebrow raised. Something made her swallow her uncertainty and nod.
“Right,” she lowered herself from her log and advanced forward. The moment she touched the air between them, a blinding spark pirouetted in front of her eyes, and searing pain shot up her fingers, almost like she’d been electrocuted.
Em couldn’t help crying out involuntarily, as she bounced back from the force.
“You tricked me!” she said, her voice rising an octave, a little accusative. But even as she uttered those words, she doubted they were true. How could a boy just install an electric field near a lake like that?
She studied the landscape behind Conall, her eyes moving across the lush green meadows that shrugged the land.
Strange. She’d been to this clearing nearly every day of her life, but she had never seen a meadow there until now.
He said he was called Conall. Conall Erolith Sylfaren. Pretty unusual for an English name. Emmeline could think of no place that had a name like that.
They spent a long time talking to each other, and Emmeline barely noticed the time passing. The invisible border kept them away from it, and it didn’t take them long to realize that it was the thing that connected both their realms: Earth and Adreanor. With it in between, they wouldn’t be able to cross to the other side without suffering an electric shock, but if you thought of it, without the barricade, they never would’ve met each other
When Emmeline returned home, it was well past dusk, and the city had slipped into darkness. She hadn’t taken a watch with her but the living room clock read eight o’clock.
She had been there for five hours?!
She was lucky her parents hadn’t returned from work yet. They usually came back at seven or eight, and she imagined what would’ve happened if they’d arrived before her. They would have grounded her, no doubt, and forbidden her from going out anywhere other than school for a solid week.
After her parents arrived home and she finished her bowl of noodles that night for dinner, she sneaked to her room with her tab and began looking up a few things on the internet, mainly for a place called ‘Adreanor’.
She saw the depressing words: ‘NO RESULTS FOUND’
“Em?” she heard her mom from downstairs, “Why is the light in your room still on?”
Em slipped off her bed and switched the glaring lights off before returning to where she’d stopped. She couldn’t tell her mom, could she? Her mom wouldn’t believe her - she wouldn’t even wait to listen.
No amount of internet searches helped Emmeline. All she got was blank screens or totally unrelated stuff. Absolutely nothing popped up about Adreanor or Adreanorians.
As Emmeline lie awake in bed that night, staring the ceiling, she could say with certainty that Conall Erolith Sylfaren was definitely not from Earth.
“Why are you still here?” Em said the next day, her mind buzzing with questions, “I mean, do you come here frequently? Does anyone know where you are?”
“Wow, you ask so many questions,” Conall’s eyes widened a little, “I needed some escape from my parents. And no, I don’t come here often.”
“Escaping from your parents? Conall, you don’t know that’s exactly what I’m doing,” Emmeline said, laughing a little. She didn’t know why she was here, talking to this stranger and telling him everything, but something made her feel light-hearted when she spoke to him.
Emmeline had always felt like she’d been trapped, but slowly, she began seeing ways of escape. Ways that showed her Conall was different in a way she hadn’t imagined.
They talked about the time difference. Apparently, the time back at Conall’s realm ran a little slower than on Earth, making an hour over there amount to around ninety minutes where Em lived.
Emmeline had no idea why she kept returning to the same spot every single day. Perhaps there was something different about having a friend like Conall - she didn’t know what, but she enjoyed talking to him more than with any of her friends back at school. Was it because he didn’t treat her like she was weird? Or because he had some of the same problems she did?
She couldn’t explain why her mind kept running back to him so often. She’d remember his golden eyes and brown hair and think of all the conversations they had together, and smile to herself. Occasionally, someone would catch sight of her giggling all by herself, and make the cuckoo sign at her.
She didn’t care anymore.
Conall said he was camping out for a few days until his parents got over their anger at him. From the other side, he showed her his supplies. Most of it was ordinary stuff like food and clothes, but he also had a few other artifacts that Em had never seen before.
"You have apples?" She said when he'd fished out one from his bag. That fact struck her as quite ironic. Conall lived in a magical realm and they had apples?
He threw her one before any of them could remember about the invisible barrier. Contrary to burning up or vanishing in a flash of light, the apple sliced clean through the air and landed in Emmeline’s outstretched palm.
“It didn’t disappear,” she mused, studying it with a finger. Even when she threw it back, it didn’t burn up.
But when Conall threw two apples through, only one survived. The other disintegrated into thin air.
Conall returned with four sticks and hurled them through in the same fashion, and like last time, only one of it passed through the border.
Wow, so that meant you couldn’t say what made it through and what didn’t.
Emmeline debated throwing her phone across seeing that it was the only thing she'd carried, but she suspected it wouldn’t do any good anyway.
Conall lived with his parents and they sounded just like Em’s own parents. “Adreanor only sounds blissful,” he said, “but that’s deceiving. You won’t know unless you actually live there.” He admitted that he was sick of his parents trying to control every movement of his and that they never let him taste independence.
“And thus,” he concluded, “The reason I am here.”
Those moments, it seemed to Emmeline that there was no one who felt the same way as her more than him.
“I’m not brave enough to do that,” Emmeline said, shaking her head with a smile, although she felt like she could do exactly the same thing if she wanted to. Conall gave a sheepish grin.
If anyone had seen them, they would've wondered what was happening. Emmeline stood on one end and Conall on the other, each at the brink of their own realm, at the very edge of their universe. The barrier was invisible, but to them it felt like the stifling bars of a cage, restraining and like a huge reminder that told them they could never cross to the other side.
Especially Em’s parents. Even her imagination didn’t know what kind of grounding they’d give her if they found out that she spent hours talking to someone she hadn’t known last week. Oh yeah, and the someone was from another realm.
Maybe they’d just laugh instead.
“Should I throw myself over?” she said, “and see if I pass through?”
But that would be a do-or-die situation, and even Conall didn’t suggest the idea of being so hasty, although he looked like he wanted to throw himself over if he could.
Emmeline knew she would slip into trouble if she returned home late, but something always made her linger around till the very last moment, before waving a reluctant farewell to Conall and dashing back home. She nearly got caught a few times, but she tried to talk her parents out of it.
Homework, she would say, I was at my friend's, doing my homework.
She was lucky she wasn't a bad liar.
And Conall was always there, no matter when she went. She nearly asked him if his parents weren't gonna worry about him vibing it out there all the time, but something stopped her from doing that. Maybe he could disappear and not return, reasoned her mind.
Until one day, he wasn’t there.
Where she expected to see him was an empty sparse of grass blowing in the breeze. Even his stuff had vanished into nothingness.
“Conall?” Em inched forward, a frown cresting her eyebrows. There was no response. She wanted to leap through and go in search of him, but she held back. She’d wait. Maybe he had just gone to refresh his supplies, and he’d be back soon.
The next day, after returning from school, Emmeline stowed her bag away and took the secret shortcut back to the thickets, but there was no Conall. She waited in vain till the sun went down, the blood-pink hue of the sky reflecting in her face, but Conall did not return.
Was it because of his parents?
For two consecutive days, she headed to the very same spot but she saw absolutely no sign of the familiar figure returning from the meadow. Her heart dropped at each consecutive futile visit.
“Why aren’t you coming?” she wanted to say. “What’s keeping you back?”
Was it a dream? All of it?
“No,” she told herself, “It isn’t a dream. I know it isn’t.”
When she couldn't bear keeping it to herself anymore, she took her best friend to the same clearing that evening. She didn't tell her anything about Conall or Adreanor, but only asked her what she could see on the other side.
"The lake," her friend frowned, "obviously. And some houses."
"What about the meadow?" Em said, "Can you see the overgrown grass and the daylight on the other side?"
Her friend shook her head. "On the other side of what? I don't see any meadow."
Emmeline wanted to scream.
For a moment when her gaze flitted back to the border, she thought she saw houses too, and not the meadow.
Then, the next day, Conall was back.
Emmeline broke into relieved laughter when she saw the familiar shadow crossing the thickets and making its way towards her. She opened her mouth to ask him why he hadn't arrived so long, but he was in a hurry.
“Conall,” she began, “I haven’t seen you for-” but her voice was drowned out by her own ears, as her eyes followed Conall, who was trying to do something outrageous, by the looks of it.
“Em, move out of the way,” his voice was sharp through the wind. “Start running, I’ll catch up.”
“I’ll carry your things,” she said, and he tossed his duffel bag towards her.
That moment, it hit Emmeline what the ‘outrageous’ thing was.
She tried to reason, to tell him that there was no way he was gonna risk something so huge like that. He didn’t listen, no matter how much Emmeline pleaded with him to rethink his decision.
“I don’t care. I have to get out of Adreanor,” he said, reaching over to one of the sturdiest trees. “I want to be by your side!” Emmeline’s mouth fell open in horror when she saw him leap across and begin scaling over the tree, climbing it.
He was going to jump over.
“No, stop!” she wanted to scream, “Don’t jump! Don’t jump, Conall!”
But it was too late.
* * *
Emmeline couldn't see what had happened to Conall after that. She couldn’t even hear anything - other than her rapid breathing and her heart thumping. She lugged Conall’s stuff behind her, running like he’d told her to.
On the contrary, running was the worst thing she could think of doing. Why was she deserting him like a coward? Conall might need her help.
The only thing that fuelled her forward was the voices behind her, which sparked off and grew innumerable, blending with one another and slamming into her ears. Her legs wanted to buckle under her but she amassed all the energy she had and kept going, her arms numb.
If anything happened to Conall, it would be because of her. Because he’d risked taking the leap for her.
“I want to be by your side.” he’d said.
After what felt like eons of running, she felt someone's hand land on her shoulder.
"Conall?" She called out, her voice wavering. "You survived the jump. How?"
"No time to explain. Don't make any noise."
"They're behind me." Conall said, his expression imperceptible in the darkness, "It's my parents for now but they'll soon call a search party."
Emmeline opened and closed her mouth as Conall spoke.
"We need to hurry," he said, "need to run faster, faster."
Emmeline heard someone yell from behind. Goosebumps raced up her arms when she distinguished the word 'Conall' from the rest. Their pursuers would jump. She knew they would, and then - what? Would they disintegrate? Vanish? Pass through?
She had no idea.
But even as Conall and she sprinted through the thickets side-by-side, Emmeline-Chanel Sun Yoon-Ah knew one thing:
Freedom was just at reach, yet so far away.