As I wake up, my eyes still closed, I hear a soft hum buzzing in my ears. The bees have likely come by to check out the Spring flowers again. As I listen further, I hear the babbling brook down by the creek, but something about it sounds different. A sudden jolt causes me to open my eyes shock fills me. I am not in the meadow, as I am every morning when I wake.
I appear to be on a train, rumbling down the tracks to some unknown destination. I look around slowly, trying to comprehend what I am seeing. Confusion must be etched on my face because a man walking by gives me a strange look. I sit up, and take in the rest of the train car. It is filled with people, most conversing with someone nearby, none showing signs of the panic rising in my chest.
I have never been on a train before, but I have heard about them. Growing up, we all learn about trains and cars and buildings and electricity, everything the Dwellers create and use. We learn how they depend on us, without even knowing we exist. We learn that they build these things that destroy the forest, even though without it, they, too, would die.
My people have been protectors of the forest for thousands of years. We live in secret, and care for the plants, the animals, and all of creation. Contact with City Dwellers is very rare. Only those who have been trained to blend in are supposed to attempt it, and then only when absolutely necessary.
I quickly glance down at my clothes, shocked and relieved to find that I am not wearing my usual flowing dress made of leaves. I wear the clothes of a Dweller, pants (which feel strange on my legs), a loose shirt and sandals. My confusion continues to grow, and the panic starts to take over.
I stand up so abruptly that many eyes turn towards me. I try to look casual as I walk out into the aisle and head towards to back of the car. I try to calmly ask a man where this train is heading but he gives me a strange look and turns his eyes back to the morning newspaper. While we learn a lot about the City Dwellers culture, I am not able to read the markings on the paper.
My heart is beginning to ache, and my throat seems to be tightening up.
How did I get here?
Why am I here?
How will I get back?
Why am I dressed like this?
Why can’t I remember anything?
The questions in my mind seem endless as my fear continues to build. I stagger outside, between the train cars, and I am blasted by the wind. The chill morning air and light dew striking my face seems to revive me a bit. I am back outside, closer to nature, back where I belong.
I stare out at the view that is thundering past me, and I don’t like what I see. I am not surrounded by trees or hills but by buildings and streets and cars. The panic threatens to take over, I begin to reel backward, afraid I might fall off the train. But, as my head rolls back, I see something on top of the train that steadies me. A pair of eyes peek over the edge, light brown curls whipping around atop the head of a young boy staring straight at me.
I would recognize those eyes anywhere. The piercing blue cuts into my soul and my heart skips a beat. I just stare into his eyes, not realizing his hand is reaching out to me. When he calls my name, I snap out of it, “Juniper, grab my hand.”
“What are you doing here, Birch?” I blurt out.
His response is short, “Just grab my hand.” When I don’t move, he adds, “I’ll explain later.”
I grab his outstretched hand and he hoists me on top of the train. If I thought the wind was powerful standing between the cars, it is nothing to the blast that hits me the second I am above the top edge of the train car. I nearly fall back down, but Birch’s strong hand continues to pull me up.
Once we are both safely atop the train, I think he might explain, but he looks me deeply in the eyes and says, “Do you trust me?”
As soon as he locked eyes with my, my body began to melt, but I shake off his intense stare and say, “Of course.” He extends his hand, which I grab, and helps me to a standing position.
He says, “Then, on my count, we are going to jump.”
My mind nearly explodes, What!? Jump off a train moving this fast. We will be killed for sure. The only thing that comes out is, “Huh!?”
Birch begins to count, “One…” My mind is racing, unsure what to do, or say. “Two…” I see that we are coming upon a bridge that crosses a river, I begin to understand. “Three…”
We both leap out into the sky, as the ground quickly falls away below us. We begin to fall, almost as fast as the ground. It is instantly replaced by the water of the river and we strike in and submerge instantly into its depths.
The river is icy, but I am instantly refreshed to be back in nature. When our heads come up, Birch asks if I am alright. I nod and we swim towards shore.
We both emerge, crawly gingerly onto the rocks. The sun has just come over the hillside and the warmth on our skin feels like a glowing ember. After a short moment to catch my breath, I turn to Birch and ask, “What is going on?”
He looks back at me and says, “I can’t believe I found you. There were dozens of us out looking for you. Do you remember anything that happened?”
“No,” I reply. “I woke up on the train. How did I get there?”
“Last night, we were attacked.” My eyes must convey instant fear because he pauses to reassure me, “No one was hurt. We actually thought that nothing had come of the attack until someone noticed you were missing.”
That panic and dread I had been suppressing since I woke on the train rears its ugly head again, threatening to start its attack anew. I was kidnapped, taken, but by, “Who attacked? Who took me?”
“We think it was a group of Dwellers. You know the ones who have been getting closer to finding out about our existence?” I nod, still too shocked to respond. “A group arrived during the night. No one knows how they got past the sentries, but once they were spotted in the camp, panic ensued. Everyone was screaming, grabbing for weapons. But, then they all left, almost as quickly as they had arrived.”
My mind still whirling, I try to make sense of this. “But why take me? And why can’t I remember any of this?”
“I don’t know the answer to that. As soon as we realized you were gone, the chief called a meeting. He selected 15 of us, mostly boys around my age, and sent us off to search for you. We were told to dress like Dwellers as best we could and head towards the city.” His face falters, and his voice breaks a little, “I thought I had lost you. I didn’t think anyone would find you.”
“But, you did,” I tell him, grabbing his chin to pull his eyes to mine. “You found me, and I am okay.”
His crooked smile returns and the butterflies in my stomach start doing backflips. Our eyes are locked, I can’t look anywhere else. Slowly, our faces draw closer together, “Birch, you found her!?”
We yank back and look towards the sound of the voice. We see Aloe emerging from the bushes behind us. He walks closer and we all embrace.
I glance back at Birch, but he is all business again. The moment has passed. “We need to get you back to the village,” he states. “Can you run?”
This question would normally be insulting. One thing we all could do was run. We were easily 3 times as fast as any Dweller and could run at full speed for hours without tiring at all. This was one of the reasons we could keep our presence hidden so easily. But, I understand his hesitation, nothing seemed normal this morning. “I should be fine,” I say cautiously.
We all begin to jog slowly along the riverbank. It’s not long before we are up to full speed, following the bending river north to the glade. We all know the way and are soon climbing the bank and pausing at the top of the hill.
I grab Birch and Aloe by the arm, stopping them both at the crest of the hill. They look at me questioningly, but I just say, “I need a moment.”
I look down over our valley, the trees swaying in the morning breeze. The sun bathing every inch of the valley in a golden light as it rises over the far hill. The birds soaring overhead. The butterfly that alights on a flower near my feet. This is home. This is where I belong. But, I know, when I return to the village, nothing will ever be the same.