Benny was disappointed when Baliwick brought him out of that place with the magnificent pools and endless trees. It was so bizarre, so remarkable, that he thought he could explore it forever. This place they were now was just a boring old orchard with a silver pool in the center. But Baliwick had given him very good reasons before they came here. “Evertime is not a place one wishes to remain, Benny,” Baliwick had told him while they were still in that strange place of water and trees.
“Yes. That’s the name of this realm. It is the world between worlds – no more, no less. In here, nothing changes, time does not pass, and you can find a pathway into any world you can imagine.”
“Any world?” Benny asked.
“Oh yes. Any sort of world you can imagine, and many you cannot. There are worlds here where Lions rule armies, where rabbits speak in riddles, where children like you wage epic battles in the depths of outer space. Goblins. Leprechauns. Aliens. Pixies. Orcs. Cowboys. Wolfmen. Jackalopes. Griffins. Mock Turtles. Unicorns. Everything exists somewhere in Evertime.”
Benny’s eyes grew to the size of baseballs. Everything he’d ever imagined, everything he’d ever dreamed of was in these pools. Even the pools themselves felt wonderful and familiar, like something he’d read about in a book somewhere, although he could not remember which one.
“Can’t we explore them now, Baliwick?” he asked.
“Plenty of time for that later, my little friend. You have the rest of your life to journey among the pools. You are an Evernaut now.”
“An Evernaut. Just like an astronaut on your world is someone who explores the reaches of outer space, an Evernaut is one who explores the vast mysteries of Evertime. Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful life, Benny?”
Indeed it did. Benny could imagine nothing more wonderful.
“But before you can begin, there are things we must discuss. Things I must learn from you, things you must learn from me – but I promise we shall return in good time.”
The pool to which they had traveled stood next to a young, slender tree bearing some yellow fruit about the size of an apple, but shaped more like an oval. “Here we are, lad. Are you ready?”
“Good. Now take my hand. Remember – when you enter Evertime from any other world, you must be touching whomever you are traveling with. It isn’t so important when you’re leaving Evertime, but I would certainly hate it if you were separated from me now.”
“That would be terrible,” Benny said, looking around at the billions of trees, each representing a different world that was just begging to be visited. His heart was quite heavy, now that he would be leaving it.
Baliwick pulled him down into the pool and, after surviving the cold and the raging waters, they came to the surface in the middle of a large orchard of the trees with the yellow fruit. The water dribbled from their bodies and back into the pool very quickly, and Benny was again dry.
“Are you hungry, Benny?” Baliwick asked. “Would you like something to eat before we continue?”
“Yeah,” Benny said. He hadn’t even realized he was hungry until Baliwick asked the question, but now he felt a growing pit in his stomach and his throat felt dry and parched.
Baliwick smiled at his answer, then carefully began to stroke his left hand with his right, as though he was gently pulling on his fingers. In fact, with each stroke, the fingers of his left hand began to appear longer. After ten seconds or so, the fingers and nails had grown to almost six inches long and turned a shining, black, metal color. Baliwick spun on one of the trees and chopped off several of the hanging yellow fruit. He speared three of them on his razor-sharp fingers as they fell and, smiling, he extended them to Benny.
“Here you go, my boy.”
Benny laughed. What a great trick! He slid one of the fruits off Baliwick’s finger like it was a knife and bit right into it. It was full of a thick, sweet juice that didn’t really taste like any fruit Benny had ever eaten before, but it was still delicious. The meat was firm, but not grainy, and gave way eagerly for his teeth. He gobbled into it, finding a hard, brown pit in the center, which he discarded before reaching for a second fruit.
“What are these called?” he asked, juice dribbling down his chin.
“This is a baumer fruit,” Baliwick said, biting into one of his own. “Do you like it?”
Benny nodded and kept eating. He finished off the two baumers in only a few minutes and he was suddenly refreshed and ready to continue the journey.
“Let’s go. It’s still quite a distance to the palace.”
“We’re going to a palace?” Benny asked.
“Of course. Where else would I be taking you? You will have only wonderful things from now on, my little friend.”
They wandered through the orchard, farther and farther away from the pool. It wasn’t as interesting here as it was in Evertime. All of the trees were baumer trees, as far as Benny could tell, and nothing seemed to change, just like any orange or apple orchard at home. Here and there they would see a basket half-full of fruit or a ladder leaning against one of the trees, all just left there as though whomever they belonged to had been forced to leave in quite a hurry.
Soon Benny could see the end of the rows of trees and the vast, green plains beyond them. There was a path there, and as soon as he saw it his heart leapt.
“Baliwick!” he shouted, tugging on his new friend’s coat sleeve. “Is that what I think it is?”
Baliwick smiled again, that paper-thin smile that seemed to suggest some sort of smug confidence that would have disturbed Benny very much only hours ago. “Indeed it is, Benny,” he said. “I told you, we’ve been keeping an eye on you for quite some time. When the decision was finally made to bring you here, we decided to make every effort to make your journey as pleasant as possible. Do you like it?”
“I love it!” Benny shouted, running ahead and onto the path. It was laid with cobblestones, packed tightly together, and he began to dance upon them as he waited for Baliwick, still walking with his normal gait, to catch up.
“They’re not bricks,” Benny said, with slight disappointment.
“I know, Benny, and I’m sorry about that, but this world doesn’t have any bricks in the fashion you mean. Most construction here is simple stone. I hope these cobblestones will be enough.”
Benny flexed his toes in his shoes, trying to feel the stones beneath his feet. It wasn’t exactly right, but it was still far more than he ever believed he would see. “It’s great, Baliwick,” he said.
“I’m so glad you like it. Now, let’s be off.”
Baliwick took Benny’s hand and pointed off to what must have been the west (as the sun seemed to be setting in that direction). Together, they took their first steps on the long, winding road of cobblestones, each of which had been carefully painted a brilliant, shining yellow.
* * *
“Okaaaay,” said Linda, because nothing else seemed entirely appropriate. She could still hear the little girl on the flying tricycle squealing for the older kids to wait for her.
Gail managed to access a bit more of her own vocabulary. “Did we really see that?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Kevin said, smiling. I’m starting to like this.”
“Maybe we should go that way,” Gene said, pointing in the direction the skyboarders took, only closer to the ground. “Chances are there’s something over there – people, something. I mean… if you guys still want to do this.”
Linda, Gail and Kevin all looked at one another. Gail looked really nervous. Kevin was bubbling with excitement – and relief, Linda suspected, since the pains she felt in her legs immediately began to vanish when they were out of the pond. It was like there was something in that other place that kept their bodies from resting. Whatever the case, she knew she wasn’t ready to go back there, and she didn’t think the others were either.
“Gene’s right,” she said. “Let’s try going that way.”
“Are you sure, Linda?” Gail asked. “This place is crazy.”
Gene grinned. “What’s crazier, Gail, a couple of kids on flying skateboards or a giant field of trees and ponds with no sun or sky?”
“Yeah,” Kevin said. “At least you see flying skateboards in the movies.”
“I know I’m going to regret this,” Gail said, but soon all four of them were walking into the woods in roughly the same direction that their flying friends had followed.
This forest was rather nice. The trees were heavy enough to provide shade, but sparse enough to let light filter through so it didn’t look like the middle of the night even at high noon like it did back in Kane Forest. Most of the trees looked familiar, too – Gene recognized some elm, some ash… the only thing he didn’t recognize was the tree with the faint green leaves that stood at the bank of the pond in the other place. There was lots of that tree here.
They had been walking more or less in silence for about five minutes when Gene caught some motion out the corner of his eye. The others saw it too – Gail yelped – but he bent down to the base of the nearest tree to see what the commotion was.
“Hey, it’s a squirrel,” he said, somewhat relieved. It was hard to imagine something more normal than a squirrel. This one had a nut clutched between its claws, a hard-shelled seed that looked a little like a pecan, only rounder. Gene realized it was the nut that grew on the light-leaved trees. He reached a finger out to the squirrel, which sniffed it.
“Gene, no!” Gail said. “What if it has rabies?”
“Or what if it turns into a giant, man-eating robot?” Kevin offered. Gail shot him a dirty look.
“What if it’s just an ordinary squirrel?” Linda said, glaring at both of them. Gene rather agreed with her.
“Hi, pal,” he said. “Ignore those clowns, you’re just getting food, aren’t you?”
The squirrel chittered and bobbed his head – it almost looked like he was nodding in agreement – then scampered up the tree trunk into his nest.
“You’re pretty good at that,” Linda said. Gene just shrugged.
“I like animals. Come on, we don’t know how much further we’ll have to go.”
They continued their march through the woods, which turned out to last only ten more minutes before coming out on the side of a concrete highway that could have led to any small town in the America they knew. There weren’t many cars, but those that were there looked very old-fashioned, with rounded bumpers and boxy cabs. The model looked a lot like the cars you would see in old movies or like the blue P.T. Cruiser Gail’s father drove.
“See? Gene said. “It looks pretty normal.”
“Yeah, except for that,” Gail said as one of the vintage cars sputtered past them. Behind it, instead of a trail of foul-smelling exhaust, there was a tender puffing sound and a cloud full of sparks, like glitter floating off into the air.
On the opposite side of the street was a row of cozy-looking houses, some with more of the old-style cars in the driveways. In one yard, a man was trimming his hedges. Instead of clippers, though, he was aiming a metal wand with a red bulb at the end. When the man squeezed the bulb, the wand spat out a thin tongue of fire that burned the extra leaves and branches away. At the end of his driveway was a mailbox with the flag up, indicating there was mail waiting to be picked up. Instead of simply standing at attention like any proper flag, though, this one was waving back and forth in the air, occasionally whistling at passing cars. At the house next door, some kids were playing baseball. As the runner approached first base, though, the base sprouted a pair of tiny legs and began running around. Suddenly there was a three-way chase; the runner was chasing the base and the first baseman was chasing the runner. Kevin shuddered. It was like watching his worst nightmare.
“Where are we?” he said.
“Not in Kansas, that’s for sure,” said Linda.
They followed the road for a few blocks and saw that it led to a commercial district, a few blocks of small stores and markets, that looked like it had been lifted right out of one of those old shows their parents watched on TV Land. The storefronts were all done in glass, chrome and shiny red and green plastic. Inside the diner was a man in a white smock, wiping down the countertop with a rag. Next door at the bookshop a woman in a sunny yellow dress was sweeping off the sidewalk in front of her store. There was a candy store with smiling children filtering in and out, a hardware store with a display of a shovel digging into one tub of dirt and filling another – all without the aid of a human being – and another store whose purpose they could not identify but which had a sign proclaiming it as “The Black Cauldron.”
“This just keeps getting weirder,” Kevin said. “I love it.”
The four children carefully made their way across the street, where Gail immediately walked over to a newspaper box next to the diner. It seemed ordinary enough – there was a slot to put in a quarter and then, presumably, the machine would open so you could take your paper out. The newspapers also seemed average, and she studied the front page of The Lewiston Courier-Star.
“It’s got today’s date on it,” she said, “so that seems right. These stories are weird, though.”
“What do you mean?” Gene asked.
“It looks like the big news today is some politician who’s trying to get money to build a road somewhere.”
“That’s not so strange,” Linda said.
“Yeah, but he’s asking something called the Department of Exomantic Infrastructure.”
They all scratched their heads at the strange word. Gail pronounced it slowly, “Eggs-oh-man-tick,” but none of them were sure if that was how it was supposed to sound, let alone what it could possibly mean. Kevin confessed that he didn’t know what “infrastructure” really meant either, but at least it was a word he’d heard before, usually when some adults were off complaining about the quality of the roads. As he said that, they realized that none of the roads they’d seen since emerging from the forest had any potholes or dips or even the slightest cracks.
“Hey, is anyone else hungry?” Kevin asked. He was staring through the diner window, his mouth quivering a little.
“Yeah,” Linda said. Gene and Gail each nodded.
“I’ve got some money,” Kevin said. “Want to get something to eat?”
“That’s sweet,” Gail said.
“Well, y’know, that’s the kind of guy I am. Come on.”
The four of them walked into the diner and Kevin glanced at the menu. He only had a five-dollar bill, but that may be enough for them to split a bag of chips and some drinks. When he flipped open the menu, he was stunned.
“Hey, burgers are only seventy-five cents,” he said. “Cokes are a quarter! This is wild.”
“Afternoon, kids. What can I get you?” The cook was twirling a dishtowel around in his hand. He was a red-haired man about Kevin’s parents’ age – late thirties, early forties – in a pale white shirt and white paper hat, with a red nametag on his chest that said “Dean.”
“Four hamburgers and four cokes,” Kevin said. He sat down at the counter and the others joined him.
“Comin’ up.” Dean reached into a cooler and produced four bottles of Coca-Cola — to their surprise, they were old-fashioned glass bottles. He opened each one with an old-fashioned bottle opener before putting them down on the countertop. Kevin took a small sip.
“Tastes normal,” he said.
The others each picked up their bottle and began drinking, emboldened by Kevin’s recommendation.
Aside from the cook, the only other person in the diner was a woman at the end of the counter. She was wearing a light brown trenchcoat pulled tightly around her slim body, with long, blond hair reaching a few inches past her shoulders. She was younger than Dean, but only by a few years, and she was sipping a cup of coffee over an empty plate with some crumbs on it, the remains of a sandwich, no doubt. Linda thought she cast a slight glance at the children when they walked in, but as she looked back at her now she was just scribbling on a notepad – with an ordinary pen, she noticed. Linda started to wonder exactly when seeing ordinary things became worth noting to her.
The burgers were being cooked in the traditional way as well – Dean had pulled four meat patties from the cooler and slapped them down on the sizzling-hot griddle. The air was filled with the crispy smell of frying beef and the crackling sound of a good meal.
“Things look normal enough in here,” Gene said to Linda, his mind obviously occupied with the same things as hers.
That’s when they heard a groaning sound coming from beneath the griddle. Dean the Cook grunted when he heard it – it sounded like a hungry dog echoing through a long tunnel. Dean reached under the counter and pulled out a small bucket full of coal. “Sorry about this,” he said. “Won’t take but a minute.” He gripped a wooden handle beneath the metal griddle and slid open a door. Reclining in the cabinet, beneath the grill, was a small purple creature with scales, horns and a wagging tail. It was sitting back on its haunches, as if in wait, and if its four feet had been constructed properly it would have looked perfectly natural tapping one impatiently.
“Hold your horses, Fewmet,” Dean said. He picked up an empty bucket from inside the cabinet and put the full one inside. Fewmet gurgled happily and started to gobble up the coal. The kids got a good, long view of this before Dean slid the door closed.
“He’ll start breathing on the grill again in a minute,” Dean said. He brushed his hands off and looked up at the surprised faces staring at him. “What’s the matter with you four? You’re acting like you never saw a dragomander before.”
“A… dragomander?” Kevin said.
“Well, you can copy people at least,” Dean said. Linda thought she heard the woman in the trenchcoat chuckle, but she wasn’t sure.
They remained quiet until Dean, a few minutes later, flipped their burgers off the grill and onto some buns. He slid them over to the waiting children, pointed to where the ketchup and mayonnaise bottles were on the counter, and left the check next to Kevin. Hungry as they were, none of them immediately reached for the burger.
“Think they’re safe?” Gene whispered.
“Well,” Kevin said… “If these guys can eat them, I guess…” He squirted some ketchup under his bun, lifted the burger and took a bite. It was delicious. Hot, juicy, just crispy enough on the outside… maybe the best burger he’d ever eaten
“It’s great!” he announced, and Dean nodded from the other end of the counter. Soon all four of them were wolfing their burgers, washing them down with gulps of Coke.
“Pay that any time you’re ready,” Dean said in a voice that clearly indicated paying right now would be most convenient. Kevin reached into his pocket and produced the five-dollar bill, which he handed to Dean. “Back with your change,” Dean said, taking a step towards the cash register. As he was popping the drawer open, though, he looked down at the bill, then at Kevin with an angry face.
“Hey, what are you trying to pull here, kid?”
Kevin gulped the mouthful of burger he’d been chewing. “What do you mean?”
“You can’t spend this here! This looks like the money my kids use in their Monopoly game!”
“Huh?” Kevin said. Linda caught a chill – she suddenly had a vision of the four of them washing dishes while Fewmet the dragomander heated up the water with his fiery breath.
“You need real money, like this! Or haven’t you ever seen a five-dollar bill before, either?” He whipped a five out of the cash register and flashed it at the children. For a moment, Kevin couldn’t tell the difference – it looked very similar to the one he’d attempted to spend… maybe the picture of Abraham Lincoln was a little smaller, but it seemed the same otherwise. Then he realized that, while the bill Dean was holding was green when he took it out of the register, the ink was shifting colors right there in his hand. It was blue now, and turning purple.
“I can’t believe this,” Dean said. “They’ve been printing money with these spectral inks for what – 25 years now? And still, some brat like you tries to pass off some cheesy counterfeit knock-off!”
“Oh, lay off him Dean,” said a sweet, pleasant voice. The woman in the trenchcoat was smiling. It was the first thing she’d said since the kids entered the bar. “I’m sure the kid just got mixed up – felt the play money in his pocket and thought it was the real thing. Isn’t that right?”
“Uh… yeah, I guess that’s what happened,” Kevin said. He couldn’t believe it – they may be saved after all.
“See?” the woman said. “No harm intended. Put it on my tab – they seem like good kids.”
“All right,” Dean muttered, “but next time, check your pockets before you come in here, kid.”
The woman handed Dean a color-changing ten-dollar bill (it was red when she gave it to him, then orange, and was shifting to yellow by the time he put it in the register) and he gave her back change for their meals and her own. Then, still keeping one eye on Kevin, he picked up her empty plate and took it into the back room to be washed.
“Thanks,” Linda said to the woman once Dean was out of the room. “Um… but, why did you…”
“You looked like you needed some help,” the woman said. “Seems to me you’re not from around here.”
“Oh, no,” Gene said, trying to think fast. “We’re visiting. From the next town over.”
The woman laughed. “Right, kid. I don’t mean you’re not from around here. I mean you’re not from around here.” She used the same words, but somehow the way she emphasized them made them all realize exactly what she was talking about. If she had mimed them jumping into a pool of water and swimming incoherently she couldn’t have been any clearer.
“How do you know that?” Linda said.
“We can tell our own,” the woman said. “I’m not from around here either.”
Next: Chapter Six-The Walk