You could easily go past it. It is a drab little building, built right under the bridge. It has mottled walls of brown, grey, and tan bricks, darkened by the exhaust from the cars going by or floating down from the road above. Apparently, windows had been used to fill in any gaps in the wall. It was the only logical reason for their scattered position and mismatched styles. But if you go through the black door with the bright yellow trim, they say that you will find help.
It doesn’t look like it. It’s just a simple restaurant with muddled yellow lights and big brown pillows in the corner where the owners will let you sleep if they like you. It doesn’t even have a sign. I personally call it The UnderRoad. Weird, I know, but I’m not the only one who calls it that.
I haven’t had any extraordinary experiences yet, but I’ve heard rumors. Things about people who aren’t really people and gold found in drainage ditches. Even stuff about finding paths to a strange land upon leaving the back door.
I’ve even flipped the door back and forth hoping to find someplace new, until Emma, one of the owners, told me to please be careful not to create a breeze, I was letting the cold air in, dear. So, I went outside and sat on the step but all I could see was the metal stairs above me going from the grey sidewalk at the top road to the greyer sidewalk at the bottom.
Somewhere beyond the sidewalk, you can see a meadow and a dark forest but it’s surrounded by chain-link fence. Otherwise, I would have explored it myself but as much as I want an adventure, I don’t want to trespass either. I don’t know who owns it. Sometimes, I see deer out there and sometimes I think I see other things. But always, rain or dew makes the grass shimmer and then it’s gone before I can even tell what it is.
Like I said before, I’ve only heard rumors and they haven’t been clear enough to know. It’s a quiet place filled with fairly quiet people. People tend to keep themselves to themselves. But I’ve seen feathers slip out from some customers’ sleeves. And I’m certain that one man’s braid swings and curls by itself whenever someone walks behind him.
The UnderRoad still seems like a place where things could happen. Maybe it’s because it’s so small and yet everything fits. We feel hunkered down in a place closed off from the main world. Even the vroom of the cars above is faded. Or maybe it’s the way how everyone acts as if this was a home they had forgotten about. You can tell it by the way they sit in the chairs. When people go out in public, you’re supposed to sit back up straight. Nice sharp little lines with corners, keeping yourself pressed and neat for the world. But here, people settle. Sometimes they even fall asleep. Then Emma has Owen carry them to the brown pillows and wrap them with a red blanket that smells of mint and cinnamon.
Owen is the other owner of the shop, Emma’s husband. I still think that the shop belongs more to Emma. She’s the one who cooks the food and talks to people. It’s not fancy food: tea, eggs, bread, and homemade candies. But it always warms you up.
Sometimes, there’s someone else who comes in and talks to people. He has very shiny hair. I wish I could say more about him but honestly, that really sticks out so much, I can barely focus on anything else. He sometimes talks to the people who are sad. I think he might be the one the adventures come from. He’s never talked to me. I don’t even know his name.
Emma says I should not rush it. “Everything happens in its own time,” she says. Still, I’m sure that if I just wait around in the right place, the door will open. Things will happen. And I am sure that this is the right place. That’s why I’m a dishwasher here.
Emma says, “You can’t just wait around. Adventures happen to people who are doing the right thing right where they are.”
So, I’m not just waiting around. I go to school, then head over to The UnderRoad to wash dishes for the afternoon. Eventually, something will happen.
It’s not like I’m in a hurry, really, even if I am impatient. I have a good life. I’m not trying to escape. If I was, I think Emma would let me in, but she would try to make me fix it as well. Or fix it herself although she says that people’s problems never change unless they change themselves as well. But I do want something more. I don’t know what, just something, something to make me raise beyond the world I see and make my heart pound.
I have a good family, too, although my birth order leaves a lot to be desired if I ever do get a fairytale adventure. My family doesn’t have seven daughters or seven sons. You see, I’m an only child. So, I guess you could say that I’m both the youngest and the oldest at the same time. The youngest always seem to do the best in fairytales.
My friend, Ezra, says that’s because the oldest were expected to have all the luck so if they did well, nobody bothered writing a story about it. Which was highly discriminatory against any hard work they might have done. Ezra is the oldest in his family. He says that it’s a lot of work. And he wrinkles his nose. He does that whenever he is trying to look important, usually to try to convince his two little brothers that they should listen to him. He also carries around a big book of Sudoku which I suspect is another plan to be important by looking smart since he is hopeless at math. I think eventually he might start wearing glasses for the same reason if he thinks they are cool enough. That might help him with the math.
Rachel, my other friend, is the youngest so she has the best chance of getting a fairytale story. Except she’s totally uninterested in it and her family loves her. Apparently, having your family hate you is another common requirement in fairytale stories.
I am not willing to go that far. I like how my Dad always gives me a hug when he comes home and how my Mom always makes me chocolate chip banana muffins for Wednesdays because she says that’s when Saturdays feel the furthest away.
After school, I once again grab my red bike helmet and ride to The UnderRoad. I put my hair up and put on my apron. I turn around to see the shiny-haired man sitting at the counter.
“A cinnamon hot chocolate.”
Emma is out, which is strange. She tends to pop up whenever she is needed. I’ve never once seen her take a sick day. It doesn’t matter because I know how to make everything except for the candies. I don’t even know what the candies are called. I’ve never heard anyone order them. Emma just seems to know who needs them.
I turn back to him. He has a nice voice. For the first time, I really get to look at him. His hair is not merely shiny but long. Not shaggy though, smooth and well-kept like the rest of him. He also has grass-green eyes.
“My name is Alan,” he says.
Ok, so I thought I had this all planned out. Not that I knew the exact words but I thought when he finally spoke to me, I would have something glorious to say, something that would convince him that I was worthy of an adventure. Instead, I say, “I’m not sad,” which is not what I expected at all.
He smiles, “That’s good.”
“It’s just you always talk to the sad people.” I am not sad. Am I going to be sad? I don’t want to be sad.
He acquiesces with a nod of his head before continuing, “Not always. I can talk to happy people, too. You’ve been here a long time.”
“Yes, I’ve been working at The UnderRoad since I was twelve, so two years now.” Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I know that sounds young but Emma talked to my parents, so it was ok. I have never heard anyone say no to Emma.
“The UnderRoad?” he repeats, “How did you know its name?”
“It just fits. Besides, other people call it that, right?”
“What other people?”
“I don’t know.” For some reason, I can’t actually remember.
Silence. Then I speak again, “You take people on adventures, right?”
“I do,” he says.
I don’t want to sound like a beggar or rude again but I say, “So, why are you talking to me?”
“Do you want to go on an adventure?” It’s not an offer but a question.
“Yes,” I say.
“Do you have adventures here?”
“If you don’t have adventures here, how can you have adventures anywhere else? There are many wonders in this world but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have your eyes open.”
I get what he is saying. I really do, and it makes me feel a little guilty. Of course, there are wonderful things like how bumblebees can stay in one place in the air but I haven’t been paying attention recently. I don’t want to give up though.
“Owen says that sometimes when you’re too close to something you become used to it and you stop looking at it. You just pass by it. But when you go to a different place, your eyes are opened and when you come home, everything looks new. He says nobody can ever appreciate their home until they have gone away.”
“Owen talked to you?”
“He doesn’t talk much but that doesn’t mean he never does.” I come up with another analogy, “It’s like the ice cream fund.”
“The ice cream fund?”
“You see, my Mom makes sure that most of my money goes to college, and then I give some to the church, and the rest of it my Dad puts in my ice cream fund. He says that ice cream is actually slightly healthy because it makes you happy and that’s good for you. He says that happiness that does not hurt anyone else or mess up your future is nothing to be ashamed of. But if you had ice cream every day, it would get boring and it wouldn’t make you so happy anymore. And my brain would be frozen and I would be sick of it. I would need to eat something else before I could taste ice cream properly again. So, you see, I think it’s like that. This world is amazing and there are probably a lot of wonderful things I’ll never understand. But I’m bored and I can’t see it right now. But maybe if I went somewhere else or went on an adventure, I could see it again.”
He seems surprised and contemplating my answer.
I’m uncomfortable and just keep wiping my hands over and over with the dishtowel before I finally ask, “So, why did you want to talk to me?”
“Do you know what I am?” He says “what” not “who” and I think that’s a sign I might be right about him being different.
“No. Some kind of guide?”
“Yes. That’s a very good way to say it. I think you could be one, too.”
“Maybe. I think I have to speak with your parents first.”
“That’s ok. They don’t get home till five though.”
He sits to the side and other customers start coming in and out. With everyone coming, I almost forget about him. We close rather early. There are still customers but it’s quiet enough it doesn’t matter. I got Emma to come with me to help convince my parents. Owen also decided to tag along. We make a strange parade as I walk my bike back. Alan’s hair isn’t quite as bright outside but it still seems weird. The biggest thing is how short Emma and Owen are once they are out of the dark of their shop. They are only about my height.
I introduce them to my parents, a little nervous because I just realized that I don’t know their last names like my Mom would want me to. I never heard anyone called by their last name in the UnderRoad.
However, I make sure I call them Mrs. and Mr. Then I went back to my room. I have found that grown-ups need about ten minutes to get to the real conversation. Besides, I have something I need to check. I go to my room and pull the duffel bag out from my bag. Just a check. I have two flintstones. I still don’t know how to use them. My Dad and I tried last summer but even watching eight YouTube videos, we couldn’t get a spark. But I kept them anyway in case I met an actual adventurer.
Maybe Alan knows. He seems like he would. He probably knows how to tell the time from the stars.
Anyway, it shouldn’t matter because I also have matches, a lighter, and a flashlight. Just in case. Oh, and extra batteries. I also have a waterproof jacket, a blanket, a hammer, some thin rope, a sewing kit Mom gave me, duct tape, and a knife that I used a lot of my ice cream fund on.
The conversation seems to have gotten off and I feel like my check might have caused me to miss more than I expected. I leave my bag in the hall and slink to my place at the kitchen table. Owen can tell that I’m nervous and he holds my hand.
“You can trust Alan,” Emma says. She acts as if he’s her son or something. I don’t know how old she is. Owen is old. She’s a little harder to place. Alan could be her son.
“So, what exactly would my daughter be doing?” Dad asks.
“I can’t say for sure,” Alan answers, “It changes. A few weeks ago, I had to deal with a frog stealing a girl’s shape. But I think she could do it,” Then he turns to me, “It won’t be what you’re expecting, I’m afraid. I’m calling you to be a guide, not an adventurer. That means you’re going to have to step aside, you’re going to have to listen, you have to give questions and let them come up with the answers. It’s more talking than fighting and a lot of listening. It can be rather boring and frustrating but it’s worth it.”
I am getting less excited by the way he describes it but I still don’t want to give up. This is my chance.
“I’ll try it.”
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“You can’t just wait around. Adventures happen to people who are doing the right thing right where they are.” Great line. Really popped the tale there. "she says that’s when Saturdays feel the furthest away" and that sounds beautifully wise, the type of comment we wish every parent would say.