Friday, November 18, 2005

Chapter 17 - Midwinter Night

December 21st was a cold and blustery day. Jeremy almost got in trouble at work, not because he was tired -- he went to bed early the night before, and took a pill to make sure he'd sleep, because he knew he might not get much sleep tonight. But he was so wound up and anxious, not unlike a child on Christmas Eve, that he couldn't pay much attention to his job. Cecilia glanced at him sharply once, but she didn't say anything. Jeremy assumed she put it down to holiday season jitters, which wasn't entirely untrue. His eagerness just wasn't associated with the holiday she thought it was.

He drove straight to the park from work, risking another ticket rather than taking the time to find parking on the street and walking over to the pond. It was only a little past 5:30 when he got there, yet it was already dark. Liliana was waiting for him. There were several other people around.

"We have to wait," she said.

"Wait for what?"

"For the others to go. I had forgotten that your people no longer govern their behavior by the seasons. You'd think it was not yet Samhain, and these lights make it brighter out than on some cloudy days. It should be dark, but I can deal with that. We do need solitude, however."

Jeremy's face fell. "I guess I didn't need to bother rushing over here, then. I don't think the park will clear out for at least an hour or two. Maybe not for longer than that."

She looked dismayed. "I don't dare . . . not in front of all these people . . ."

"Don't dare what?"

She sighed and gave him an exasperated look. She took his face between her hands and whispered fiercely enough to give the force of a yell: "Don't ask questions!"

"I may be able to arrange a diversion. Go over by the doorway and wait for me. Don't leave no matter what you see or hear." She walked away swiftly, headed east, toward the main entrance to the park on Grand, although that was a mile away and he doubted that was her destination.

Jeremy shrugged and did as she had bade him. He sat down on the rock by the door where she had been sitting when he first met her.


"What was that?"

"Did you hear--"


Everyone around Jeremy was shouting and pointing. A dark black cloud of smoke rose up half a mile to the east of the pond, from the middle of the park.


Some people began running toward the noise and smoke, others away. Sirens could be heard in the distance. Within seconds, Jeremy was all alone.

He was a little worried. There was some slight possibility that Liliana was in trouble, and part of him wanted to go see if he could help her. But he was pretty sure that she was instead somehow responsible for the fireworks, and that she would be joining him soon.

Sure enough, she soon came walking back with a smile on her face.

"I hope you didn't do too much damage," he said, going to meet her on the sidewalk.

She laughed. "Probably not enough. I just hope I left enough . . . what is it your people call it? . . 'evidence' behind that the authorities suspect nothing more unusual than some mischievous youngsters." She grew serious. "Come. We haven't much time."

She took his hand and led him back to the doorway. She said some words in some other language -- not Spanish or French, certainly, and not German or Bosnian, either -- not any language he had ever heard before. She gestured with her hands and she spoke, or sang, perhaps, was a better word, a kind of chanting sing-song that he realized suddenly must in fact be a magical spell.

The air in the doorway shimmered, and suddenly grew dark. He could no longer see the pond through the doorway. Right beside it, where the "wall" of the faux ruins "crumbled" away, he could see the pond and the water pouring down from the top of the fountain, but the fountain itself and the pond and the trees beyond that had been visible through the doorway moments ago were gone. All was blackness.

"How did you do that?"

She sighed. "That's twice you've asked about my magic. Don't do it again. Do you remember the rules?"

She'd told him the rules two weeks ago, and then again a week ago and again three nights ago.

"Don't speak unless I'm spoken to. Don't antagonize anybody. Don't give anyone my name. Tell anyone who asks to call me 'Hugh,' because that means guest, and I'm your guest. Let's see. Don't take anything from anybody. Right?"

"Don't eat anything."

"Right. Don't eat anything. Although how I could eat anything without taking it -- "

"Don't pull an apple off a tree. Jeremy, this is important. I can't repeat these after we cross through that door. You'll be on your own. I mean, I'll be there beside you, but I can't do much to help you."

"I understand. I think I'm ready."

She nodded and took his hand. They walked up to the door. She went first, and pulled him through.

* * *

It didn't feel like entering another world. It didn't feel like anything, really. He might have just walked through the stone doorway on any other day in the park. Except he was no longer in the park. He didn't know where he was, but he could see that it wasn't quite as dark as it had seemed. There was a full moon out, but there was no artificial light anywhere he could see, which wasn't all that far. There was a forest nearby, and the doorway they'd just stepped out of was a rock building set into a hill. There was a road in front of them, crossing in front of them running east and west, roughly -- that is, if directions here were the same. He really had no idea, after all, which way was north or south.

He looked up at the sky, and suddenly was dazzled by the millions and millions of stars. The familiar constellations were there -- it seemed to be the same night sky he was familiar with, at least much like the one he'd been familiar with back home in Caledonia. But even in Caledonia he'd never seen so many stars! In the city, he was lucky if on a clear not he could see a few hundred little pinpricks of light. Now, under this sky, he could really believe that they were all mighty suns, unimaginably far away. Thousands and thousands and thousands of them. It took his breath away.

After a long moment of just staring in awe at the night sky, he finally remembered why he'd looked up. Yes, he could see the big dipper, and the little dipper, and therefore that was the north star, so north was the same direction here -- back through the doorway they'd just passed through, for instance. They were facing south, and the road ran roughly east and west, maybe a little south to the east and a little north to the west. But he couldn't see very far, so he couldn't really tell. In the moonlight, he could see himself and Liliana, and the building behind them and the trees across the road, and maybe a few hundred yards each way of the road before it faded into the darkness. That was it. Beyond that, the blackness grew quickly impenetrable. Not a streetlight. Not a houselight. Nothing at all.

"You are seeing what no mortal eyes have seen for many a year," Liliana told him.

"Right now, I'm not seeing much of anything."

She laughed, like a clear mountain stream bubbling over pristine rocks. She seemed to have grown . . . well, not larger, certainly, but somehow sharper and clearer and more . . . Liliana than she had been before. He guessed that he was seeing her as she really was, rather than the shadow of herself that she presented to him in his own world. He wondered how he looked to her, here.

They walked down the road, hand in hand, in silence, Jeremy content to merely walk beside her, taking in his surroundings. It didn't seem like some magical fairyland, really, just a pleasant bit of countryside. It's true that everything was achingly beautiful, clearly and sharply delineated as things are only on special days, when a recent rain has scrubbed everything clean and the sun has come out to play and you're in a perfect mood and look around you and see as if for the first time in your life with brand new eyes the wonderful beauty of the natural world. It was like that. He imagined every day, every moment, must be like that here, and wondered if an ordinary mortal could even survive living that intensity.

They walked and walked, and the path they were on curved and twisted along the hillside, then followed a brook for a ways, then crossed over the brook on a delightful covered bridge. They passed no houses, nor farms, though they did pass a meadow. They did pass a ring of standing stones at one point, and Jeremy asked Liliana whether that was some sort of temple or altar, and she said no, but she didn't tell him what it was. He knew better than to ask again.

Finally, up ahead, Jeremy could see the faint glimmer of a light. It grew as they approached, and resolved itself into a building, a house he'd thought at first but as they drew closer he realized that it was an inn. It had three stories, and out of the windows flowed light and music and the sound of happy voices.

There was a barn in back, perhaps attached to the main building, and out in front near the road was a hitching post for horses that weren't staying in the barn -- none were there now, but Jeremy guessed that was what it was for -- and a large wooden sign swaying faintly in the breeze that had a picture of a rooster on it and the word "Chaunticleer."

"Come," said Liliana. "I want you to meet my family."

Jeremy stopped, his spine frozen. "What? You didn't . . . I mean, I . . ."
Well, he had wanted her to meet his family after all. She hadn't done it, but it wouldn't have been easy.

Or would it? She probably could have whisked them both down there in the blink of an eye, couldn't she?

He shook his head. That wasn't important now. What was important was that she had sprung this on him all unprepared, although he supposed he shouldn't have been. After all, it made sense. She was showing him where she came from. Wouldn't one have expected that to include meeting her family?

OK, it hadn't been that she had played a trick on him, it was that he had been really, really dumb. Either way, he was not prepared to meet her family.

"Um, I, uh . . ."

Great, he thought. I sound like an idiot. Her folks will think she found the stupidest guy in my world and brought him over here for them to laugh at.

"Jeremy, what's wrong?"

He took a deep breath, then just said it straight out: "I'm scared."

She chuckled affectionately and hugged him. "You don't have to be. I promise I won't let anyone eat you."

He didn't think to wonder until later if any of her relatives had eaten people before.

Chapter 16 - Working

The next morning Jeremy was not late, but it was a near thing. He remembered again his promise to himself to go in early, and cursed himself for coming so close to getting in trouble just the day after being warned by Cecilia.

He yawned as he sat down at his desk with two minutes to spare. He remembered she also said something about falling asleep at his desk. He didn't think he was in bad enough shape to do that, but he hadn't gotten enough sleep, and he needed to try to manage not to let it show.

He sat for a few minutes, checking the schedule, reading his e-mail, getting settled in for the day, then went to get some coffee. He'd need lots and lots of coffee today, he decided.

Jeremy managed to make it through the day without any major displays of his lack of sleep, partly helped by the half dozen cups of coffee he gulped down before noon and the four Cokes he had in the afternoon.

Of course, he was so wired when he got home that he was up half the night writing, but he still got more sleep than he had the night before and this time remembered to set his alarm earlier before he went to bed. It was tough dragging himself out of bed that early, but he forced himself to do it, and drank a whole pot of coffee before he left for work. He wasn't quite as early as he planned, but early enough to do some writing research for himself and write a couple of letters to magazines before his day began.

The days went by in a blur. Although he griped about it a lot, and hated many things about it, the fact is that Jeremy had always actually liked most of the work he did as a librarian -- excuse me, library assistant. He didn't like the hours, and he didn't like the pay, and he didn't like the whole working-for-the-city bureaucracy aspect of it. And he certainly didn't enjoy shelving. But he did enjoy doing the research, looking up the answers to questions for people, helping them find information, the real core of what it means to be a librarian appealed to Jeremy very much, and he had often thought off and on about going back to school and getting his MLS so he could advance in the profession.

Lately, though, it had just been a job, a way to get money to pay the rent and buy food -- or, more importantly, buy paper and toner cartridges and postage. He was focused on two things: Liliana and writing, more or less in that order. Nothing else really mattered to him.

So even though he wasn't doing anything to get him into trouble, even though he wasn't coming in late or skipping work or falling asleep at his desk, even though he wasn't breaking any rules, Cecilia still called him into the conference room the second week of December and said, "Jeremy, I'm worried about you. Did you call the counseling center as I suggested?"

Jeremy shook his head. "No, I didn't." Then he added, a bit belligerently, "Are you telling me I have to now?"

She drew back, surprised and a little hurt, and Jeremy was immediately sorry. "Why, no. I wouldn't . . . I can't do that, Jeremy. You should know that. And I wouldn't if I could. I'm just worried about you, that's all."

"I know. I'm sorry. I just . . ." He shook his head. "This isn't something anybody can help me with, OK? Trust me. It just isn't."

She shook her head. "Well, I can't say that it's been affecting your work much lately, so this isn't a warning or anything and you're not in trouble." She frowned, suddenly, then added. "Well, actually, that's not quite true. I have noticed a lack of . . . something. You don't have the drive and the spark you used to have. Your answers to e-mail questions, for instance, used to be superior, even occasionally extraordinary, and these days I'd describe them as merely adequate."

Her eyes bored into his, and he knew he was supposed to feel ashamed at being described as merely "adequate."

"However, adequate is, by definition, good enough, and you aren't in trouble. That is, you're not in trouble with me, or as far as your job goes. But it seems to me you are in trouble, Jeremy. And I'm here if you want to talk about whatever it is. And really, you should try calling the counseling center. They have a pretty big staff, with experts in just about every kind of problem. Whatever it is, I'll bet there's someone there who could help you."

It took a great deal of self-control for Jeremy not to laugh in her face. He was pretty sure they didn't have an expert in fairy-human relationships on the staff. "Thanks, Cecelia," he said. "Really. I'll think about it."

She shrugged her shoulders and left, and Jeremy slunk out of the room behind her. He thought he'd been doing well, but apparently there was a difference in him that was still visible.

Well, let them see. Let them see he was no longer an eager-to-please puppy dog willing to put in 110% every day for half pay. He'd come in, do his job, and go home, and collect his check every week and that was it. Maybe he'd start publishing soon, and maybe one of these days he'd make enough money from his writing that he could quit this job.

"Excuse me?"

He looked up. It was that girl from a month ago, what was her name? The one who wanted to know about the Constitution.

"Can you help me find some information about photosynthesis?"

"Sure, Miss. Just general information about what photosynthesis is and how it works, or did you have something in particular in mind?"

"I remember you," she smiled. "Thanks a lot. I couldn't read all that stuff, of course, but the way you showed me how to find good quotes using the index helped a lot. I got a A on that paper. I've never made an A on a history paper before. In fact," she giggled. "At first the teacher thought I might have cheated, but I showed him the books and my notes and stuff and he asked me some questions and I knew the answers to them, so he gave me an A."

"Good. I'm glad to hear it. So now you're doing a paper for biology class?"

She nodded. "A presentation, actually. Three of us are supposed to do a presentation on plants. Amy's doing cell structure and the difference between plant cells and animal cells, and Tom's doing their place in the food chain, and how some animals eat plants and other animals eat animals that eat plants. And I'm doing photosynthesis. So just general stuff, I guess. What I'd really like is some visual stuff that I can use for a Power Point."

"OK," said Jeremy. "Let's see what we can find."

"I mean," she interrupted him before he could even get out from behind the desk, "it's in our textbook, so I know the basics, but I'd like both a bit more detail, maybe some nifty angle the textbook doesn't cover or something, and some really cool graphics or something. I tried looking for that on the Internet, and I found some stuff, but I figured you'd know better how to search for that stuff. I mean, not you personally, 'cause I didn't know I was gonna get you again, but you or whoever I ended up talking to. You know, a Librarian."

"Well, I always like to start with the encyclopedias," Jeremy said. They looked in three of them, World Book, Britannica and Americana. Jeremy pointed her in the direction of research about light and dark periods, knowing that she would soon find the surprising information that interrupting a plant's dark periods can be injurious to its health just as much as insufficient light. And he showed her how to use Google's advanced image search and the USDA image database and a few other places she might be able to find good diagrams or photos to beef up the visual part of her presentation.

He ended up spending considerable time with her, and she seemed appreciative. In fact, at one point she said, "I'm so glad I got you again. You were so helpful the last time, I was hoping I'd get you again."

He smiled. "Don't tell me, tell my boss."

She giggled. Was she making a pass at him?

"Well, I do have other patrons I have to help."

"Oh, sure. Of course. I mean, yeah. See you around, I guess."

He walked away, and when he got back to his desk he saw that she was still watching him. He chuckled to himself. "Well, you can turn the head of a schoolgirl, apparently," he said to himself.

The rest of the day was uneventful. When he got home, he walked to the park. No Liliana. He was really disappointed. He hadn't seen her in several days and was really hoping to see her tonight.

He was overjoyed when he got home to find her in his bed. But when he joined her, there was something different in her manner.

"What's wrong?" he asked her finally.

"You have been with another woman this day."

"What? No. Never."

"You have spent time with a human female. I can tell."

"Oh, that. It was just my job." He told her about the girl, "I don't even know her name," and his encounter with her. Mollified, she said, "Well, that is not what I had feared. I thought you were looking to replace me."

"Never," said Jeremy. "I will love you forever."