It was a sunny autumn day.
Patten opened the sliding door and stepped out into the backyard. Amidst piles of leaves scattered everywhere was a puffy mat that she and her twin sister Esmerelda practiced acrobatic gymnastics on. It wasn’t the safest option, but they couldn’t go to the training facility because they were quarantined from COVID-19. Just like everyone else around them was.
“Esmerelda!” she called over her shoulder.
“Coming!” A short, slim girl with blonde hair tied up in a bun on top of her head hurried out of the sliding door towards Patten. Patten was a little taller than Esmerelda but other than that, they were identical. Slim, blonde hair, blue eyes.
“Let’s do some handstands first,” Patten said. She did a handstand on the mat. Esmerelda grabbed hold of her feet to do a handstand on top of Patten.
“Nice one,” Patten said. She shifted her hands a bit to get more comfortable. “Ready for something more fancy?”
She slowly split her legs so she was doing the splits in a handstand position. Esmerelda’s hands crept further and further apart as Patten’s feet slipped away from each other. Then Esmerelda overbalanced. “Engage your core, Esmerelda!” Patten shrieked as they wobbled dangerously. She brought her legs back together so it would be easier for Esmerelda to regain her balance. But in the end gravity won the battle and Esmerelda came toppling down, dragging Patten with her.
Patten squeezed her eyes shut as she waited for the ground to knock the breath out of her, but nothing came. When she dared to open her eyes again, she saw that she and Esmerelda were falling through a queer pink substance that reminded her of cotton. ‘Falling’ wasn’t quite the right word. ‘Floating’ was more like it. They were drifting down in slow motion like feathers in the wind.
They slowly drifted away from each other. Patten grabbed hold of Esmerelda’s hand so they wouldn’t be separated. She looked up and saw nothing but pink. She looked around and saw more pink. Sticking through it were vertical structures that looked like ladders. Would they lead back up to the normal world? Patten tried to swim towards the ladders but there was nothing to push against to propel herself forward.
Beside her, Esmerelda spoke in a hushed whisper.
“I think we fell straight through the ground.”
Patten nodded. She tightened her fingers around Esmerelda’s.
They approached what seemed like a canopy of trees. They floated through the canopy and found themselves in a pink forest. Tall pink trees, giant pink toadstools, pink streams that flowed along slowly and silently. Everything was a shade of pink. Light pink. It seemed insubstantial, like the opacity had been turned down. The whole scene was pale as a shadow.
They drifted down towards the ground. Patten’s hand brushed against the edge of a giant toadstool as they floated past it. It was soft, like cotton.
Their feet touched the ground. They looked around. All was empty and silent.
“I hate it here. I hate being so alone. It’s so silent.” Patten could feel Esmerelda shivering as she pressed closer against her.
“We’re not alone. We’ve got each other.” Patten had always been the big sister; she had been born a few minutes earlier, was a little taller, was more outgoing, more of a leader. But now she felt scared and needing protection too. She hugged Esmerelda close. She was infinitely glad that she wasn’t alone in this eerie place.
“We should call out and see if there’s anyone else in here. See if anyone knows how to get back up to the normal world.” Patten took a deep breath and clutched Esmerelda’s hand tightly. “Hello? Anyone there?”
They started walking. Patten did most of the calling out. Her voice echoed off the trunks of trees and toadstools. They walked for a long while, slowly and cautiously. Finally, they saw some movement. A little shadow leapt down in front of them. It was hard to see because it was the same shade of light pink as the forest around it; faded, semi-transparent. But Patten could tell that it was a squirrel.
The squirrel steadied itself from its leap and looked up at Patten and Esmerelda. It cleared its throat and began to speak.
“I only came down to talk to you two because you aren’t pink yet.” He scratched his nose and sighed. “Look at yourselves. Your clothes, your skin, your hair, your eyes. You aren’t pink yet. That means you haven’t been here for long. That you probably need help.”
“Pink?” Patten looked down at herself. She was still her normal colour. She looked at Esmerelda. Esmerelda was fine too. “What does it mean if we’re not pink yet?”
The squirrel sighed again. He seemed sad. “If you spend any more time here, you will begin to turn pink too. First just subtly, like you are looking at yourself through a pair of glasses slightly tinted pink. The pink will be dark at first, almost undistinguishable from your normal colours. Then slowly, it will start to get lighter.”
He turned his head to look at the forest around them.
“When your pink gets as light as the pink of the forest, you cannot leave. You will be trapped here forever. Many animals have lost themselves to this fate. You will wander around the pink forest until you turn into a shadow of shadows and fade away into nothingness.”
Esmerelda whimpered. Patten frowned. “You said we can still be saved. Is that true? How do we get back up to the normal world?”
The squirrel looked up at them sadly. “There is no ‘normal world’. Your ‘normal world’ is just the world you came from. There are many worlds, joined together by ladders and portals. I assume you fell through a portal and that’s why you’re here. I assume you want to get back to your world?”
Patten nodded vigorously.
“What you have to do is find a ladder and climb up it. Ladders glow, so if you follow a glow, you will find one. If you keep climbing, you will eventually make it back to your world.” The squirrel looked at Patten and Esmerelda’s hopeful faces and a shade of pity darkened his eyes. “However, the ladders lead to other worlds too. I don’t know which world you came from so I can’t advise you which ladder to take.”
The little spark of hope that had warmed Patten’s chest dimmed down. “Is there any way we can guess which ladder leads back to our world?” She looked around nervously and tightened her grip on Esmerelda. There seemed to be shadows, many of them, flitting around at the corners of her eyes, that disappeared when she turned her head to get a better look.
“Yes, there is.” The squirrel turned around to go. “Do you remember what colours belonged to your world? If you do, then look for a ladder that has the colours of your world. It will most likely lead to your world.”
“Wait –” Patten held out her hand towards the squirrel, trying to make it come back. “What do you mean by ‘if you remember’? Will we start to forget?”
The squirrel seemed to be fading before their eyes. His pink tail bobbed up and down as he bounded away from them in slow motion. When he answered, his voice seemed to be coming from all around them; the toadstools, the whispering streams, the trees. “Yes. When you turn pink, you will start to forget.”
Patten and Esmerelda stared for a few seconds at the spot where the squirrel had vanished. Then they looked at each other.
“Should we start looking?” Patten asked.
“I guess,” Esmerelda replied, her voice trembling a little.
Patten looked around at their surroundings. They were standing on the side of a little hill. The grass on the hill was pink like everything else. At the bottom of the hill was a pink stream. Pink rocks jutted out of the water here and there. On the other side of the stream were toadstools and tall, straight trees. The forest beyond the stream seemed to be darker than where they were standing, like it was melting into the dark.
Patten turned around to look up the hill they were standing on. She couldn’t see what was over the top, but it seemed lighter than the bottom of the hill. Almost like it was glowing.
“I think there’s a ladder somewhere over there,” she said, pointing at the top of the hill.
“Yeah,” said Esmerelda, gazing at the top of the hill as well.
They started walking up the hill. Soon they reached the top.
They had a very good view of their surroundings from up on the hill. At the bottom of the other side of the hill was a ladder. It glowed an eerie blue.
They descended the hill and came to a stop in front of the ladder.
“Does this look like something that would lead back to our world?” Esmerelda asked Patten quietly. “The sky back home is blue.”
“Yeah…” Patten leaned into the ladder to get a better look. There seemed to be many shades of colours dancing around just below the surface. “This blue kind of looks different, though.”
She leaned in more and cautiously put her eye against the ladder to see the colours inside. As soon as her skin made contact with the ladder, she jerked back. “Ow.” She rubbed her eye. Little blue icicles came off on her fingers, which quickly melted into pink dewdrops. “It’s cold.”
Esmerelda whimpered and hugged Patten closer. “Our world isn’t cold,” she said. “It’s warm. With sunshine and greenery. And the blue of the sky is gentler than that.” They looked at the blue of the glowing ladder. “That blue is too hard-edged. It doesn’t lead to our world.”
Patten leaned forward again. “Just curious,” she said to Esmerelda when her twin tugged on her sleeve. She leaned in close to the ladder but made sure her face didn’t touch it. The closer she got, the more she could see of the inside. It was like looking out through a window on a dark night from a brightly lit room. Through the shadow her face made on the rung of the ladder, she saw glittering a blue cavern with many cold, blue crystals. Many passageways branched off from the cavern, leading into a darkness that her eyes couldn’t penetrate. Everything glimmered with an icy blue.
Patten shivered and pulled away. She stroked her sister’s hair, glad for the warmth of her companion. “Nope, definitely not our world.” She turned away from the ladder and hunched her back. It seemed to radiate cold. “Let’s keep looking.”
They had to walk away from the ladder for a bit before they could discern another glow. As they walked, Patten saw the shadows of animals that she hadn’t noticed before. They flitted around the trunks of the toadstools and trees and drank from the streams. They darted out to catch an eyeful of Patten and Esmerelda before vanishing again. The more she looked, the more she saw. There were shadows everywhere. Patten shivered. She hoped against hope that she and Esmerelda would not end up like that.
They reached another ladder. It was a brown colour and looked like wood. The glow that it gave off was yellowish and warm, like the glow of a lamp.
Patten leaned into the ladder again to see inside. She saw a big green meadow dotted with daisies and puffy white clouds in a gentle blue sky. It was achingly familiar.
Beside her, Esmerelda had also leaned in to take a look.
“Yup, I bet this leads to our world,” Patten said. “Should we start climbing?”
“I want to go first,” Esmerelda said. “If I go last, I’ll be scared there’s something behind me.”
“Ok, I’ll go behind you.” Patten looked at her sister and pity twanged in her heart. “Let’s go.”
Esmerelda grabbed hold of the first rung in the ladder and hoisted herself up. She climbed up a few rungs and Patten hopped on behind her. They began climbing.
Soon they were above the canopy. All around them was a sea of pink treetops submerged in a pinkish light. Patten focused on looking at her hands and swallowed down the waves of nausea that rolled in her belly. She gripped the rungs extra tightly. She was afraid of heights.
As they climbed and climbed, Patten felt more and more tired. Her eyelids drooped and her arms and legs became heavier and heavier. Above her, Esmerelda was obviously feeling the same. Their climb slowed down from a scramble on the edge of panic to a sleepy crawl.
They reached a junction in the ladder. It split into two branches, like the letter Y. Ahead of her, Esmerelda stopped. Patten looked up blearily in time to prevent herself from bumping into her.
Esmerelda yawned and rubbed her eyes. “Which way do you think we should go, sis?” she asked wearily, not bothering to turn around.
Patten climbed up another rung to peer around Esmerelda at the two branches. “I don’t know, the squirrel didn’t say about branches in the ladders…” she looked at Esmerelda for an answer. It took a lot of effort to get her eyes to focus. There seemed to be clouds of pink floating around in front of her eyes. “Esmerelda…” she climbed up another rung and reached out to touch Esmerelda’s cheek but quickly grabbed the ladder again when she swayed, almost falling off. “Esmerelda, your face is pink.”
Esmerelda looked around at Patten. Her head moved sluggishly and her eyes weren’t focused either. “Patten, you’re pink too.”
The pink clouds continued to swirl in front of Patten’s eyes. She couldn’t tell if it was Esmerelda that was pink or her eyes that were pink. “What did the squirrel say it meant if we turn pink? I can’t remember…”
“I can’t remember either…” Esmerelda turned around again to look at the branching ladder. “Both ladders are pink… wait no, one seems a bit… what is that colour… it’s so familiar… what is that colour…”
Patten craned her head to look at the branches as well. One was pink, the same as the forest far below and the mists around them. One was… she couldn’t put a name down. It was like a little mouse at the very corner of her brain that scuttled away every time she tried to catch it. It looked a little bit like wood. But what was wood again? She couldn’t remember. She couldn’t remember what colour wood was either…
“Pink, pink, pink,” Esmerelda chanted under her breath. She started climbing up the pink ladder, moving like she was in a dream. “Pink, pink, pink,” Patten whispered as well. Heavy waves of drowsiness rolled over her. Somewhere deep inside her she seemed to know that the pink ladder wasn’t the right option, but she felt an irresistible force drawing her towards it. Plus, she couldn’t leave Esmerelda and Esmerelda had begun climbing up the pink ladder already…
Patten struggled to keep her eyes open. The pink mists drifting around her became heavier and heavier, giving off a thick, sweet scent and wrapping around her body like a warm blanket. She felt very sleepy. She shook her head to try to clear it. Her arms felt as heavy as lead and it took a tremendous effort to move them.
Abruptly, Esmerelda’s feet disappeared from above her. Patten lifted her head with an effort and saw that Esmerelda was climbing through a shimmering blue hole that the ladder led into. She followed, hauling herself through the hole.
They were standing at the start of an immense cavern. Everything was blue. Sparkling blue mists drifted about high up over their heads, hiding the roof. Patten could see the end of the cavern, though it was a long way away; an uneven slope of blue jewels the size of boulders led up and up, moving out of sight when they penetrated the blue mists. A blue waterfall slipped over the glittering stones and sloshed into a pool in the floor of the cavern. The water flowed along tiny cracks in the stone they were standing on like thin blue veins. The water wasn’t like water as they knew it; it glimmered like liquid starlight. A deep bass beat resounded from within the stones and the sparkling water like a heartbeat of the land. Patten shivered. This most definitely wasn’t their world. She turned around wildly and tried to go back the way they had come. But it was too late. Her shade of light pink had already rapidly blended into the blue of this world and now that blue was lighter than the blue of the portal. She bounced off the shimmering substance over the hole and thumped down onto her rear, knocking over Esmerelda, who was standing behind her. The portal wouldn’t let her through. They were trapped inside.
“We forgot what colour our world was. Just like the squirrel said we would. Now we’ve gone the wrong way.”
She turned around when Esmerelda didn’t answer. Esmerelda was wordlessly pointing to the waterfall, far away on the other side of the cavern. There didn’t seem to be anything worth noting… just that they were trapped in an alien world with blue rocks that had a heartbeat and a blue waterfall that gushed water in pulses in time with the heartbeat. Then she saw. There was a glittering blue ladder snaking its way up around the boulders, beside the waterfall. In some places, where the slope was less steep, it blended into stairs. She couldn’t see where it led; somewhere up in the blue mists.
Esmerelda spoke. “If we can’t go back, let’s go forward.”