The first step felt like a dive into an icy lake. I dropped into darkness, struggling to breathe.
I sank for hours, or possibly two or three seconds, and then I was lying in a bed of thick yellow grass, gasping for breath. The sky overhead was white as Cool Whip and the bright blue sun looked like a beetle floating in the air, close enough to reach up and grab if I’d had the energy.
So I’d made it in one piece. Wherever “here” was. At least the ground here was dry.
I blinked and sat up. The breeze smelled like a tea shop filled with spices: cloves, bergamot, and others that seemed familiar but beyond my memory. The yellow grass felt soft and warm as a comforter. I stretched my arms. I wanted to lay back, catch my breath, and maybe take a nap. Just for a few minutes.
But my client wanted his son. And Rachel was waiting for me in the rain.
So I got to my feet. My ankle hurt, as if I’d dropped from the tree instead of walking through it. I turned around, trying to keep my weight on the other foot.
I was standing—teetering, really—halfway down a steep hill. One tree stood tall and alone up at the top, wide and dark, with thick roots buried deep in the ground. Just like the tree on my world.
No other trees stood on the hillside, so I figured I’d be able to find my way back from at least a few miles away as long as I could see the hill, even without my GPS. Especially since I doubted I’d get any cell reception here. I patted my pocket, making sure I still had the spell that would take me home—I hoped—and started limping down the hill.
I could see a village a few miles away, with plenty of wide flat land spread out around it. Long houses and tall barns dotted the landscape.
I didn’t know where I was. Or where Greg might be. But I’m a detective. I knock on doors and ask questions. Maybe that would work here.
A middle-aged woman with hair the color of maple syrup sat on a stool, pounding a pile of nuts on a tree stump. She swung a hammer like Thor, then picked out the shell fragments with quick, bony fingers and slid them into a canvas bag. The nuts went into a heavy iron pot.
Then she looked up at me and smiled. “Hello.”
The word sounded different, as if I was somehow translating the language inside my head. I smiled back. “Hello.”
She cocked her head. “Do you need help?”
“I need directions.” My words sounded strange, but she seemed to understand me. “My name’s Tom. I’m looking for . . .” I hesitated. Was Shiola the name of this world? A person?
“I’m not from around here,” I admitted.
She cracked another nut. “I thought not. I’m Wooma. Sit?” She gestured toward a wooden bench
I did, grateful. My ankle had started to hurt, either from the tumble through the tree or my walk down the hill. “Thank you.”
“No trouble.” Wooma set down her hammer and picked up a stone pitcher. “Water?” She held out a metal cup.
“Thank you.” I grasped the cup and drank the water down in one quick gulp. It tasted cold and delicious. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was.
“What are you looking for?” She picked up her hammer again.
Reports and detectives ask questions all the time. Even if the questions make them look stupid. “Shiola.”
“Oh. That’s easy.” She pointed toward the horizon. “She lives with her family about a half-hect away. Just follow the road.”
So, a person. “Her family?”
“Her father and brothers. And her son. Her husband went away.”
Husband? “What’s his name?”
For the first time she looked suspicious of me. “Greg.”
That answered a few questions—and led to a few more. “He disappeared?”
“A few months ago.” She leaned forward on her stool. “Is that who you’re really looking for?”
Greg had walked back to our world last night. I wondered how long a day on Earth was here. “Yes. He’s . . . the son of a friend.”
“It’s not far. Do you need help? I can get my sons if you’re having trouble.”
“No. I’m . . .” The pain in my ankle stabbed as I stood up. “I’m fine. Just over there?”
“Follow the road.” She smiled. “Tell them I have some nuts for them.”
The road wasn’t yellow brick, but it was straight and smooth, even though I was wincing with every step. Philip Marlowe could take a beating and still make funny quips; I could barely walk with a slightly twisted ankle. Rachel would taunt me without mercy.
I hoped she wasn’t getting too wet.
Soon I spotted a farmhouse with white smoke drifting from a chimney. An old man with gray eyebrows sat on the porch, sewing a patch on a shirt.
“Does Greg live here?” I stayed off his porch and kept my arms at my sides.
The man put his work down on a small table and stood up. Thick chest, large bony hands, and a knife on his belt. “What brings you here?”
“My name’s Tom Jurgen. I’m from . . .” That might be too complicated. “I’m a friend of Greg’s father.”
A slow nod. As if he’d been expecting me. “He’s inside. He’s sick.”
I thought of his seizures when he’d come back. The fever. He’d been getting better in the hospital. Was this place making him sick? “Can I see him?”
“Dad? Who is it?”
The old man gestured toward the door behind him. “This is Greg’s wife. My daughter. Shiola, come on out here.”
A young woman stepped out onto the porch. About Greg’s age, with long yellow hair tied back in a braid. Her nose slanted left, and her feet were bare.
I understood a lot more now. She was beautiful.
“Hello, Shiola.” I nodded to her. “My name is Tom Jurgen.”
“Are you a doctor?” She folded her arms and looked my clothes over. I suddenly wished I’d worn a nicer windbreaker. “Can you help him?”
“How long has he been sick?”
“Ever since . . . before he left. Now he’s back, and it’s getting worse.” She turned and plunged back into the house.
The father motioned me inside. “Come on.”
Inside the house looked like some sort of rustic hunting lodge. A long table dominated a wide room dominated. Above the fireplace hung a painting of an old woman in a long blue dress and a silver necklace.
“I’m Darik.” The father jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “My son Kevyan is out in the wheyr field. This is Greg’s son, Dariken.”
A young boy, maybe five years old, sat in a corner of the big room, playing with a wooden ball. His face had Darik’s thick eyebrows as his grandfather, and the same square chin as both the Bells.
Dariken glanced up at me, then went back to rolling his ball back and forth on the hardwood floor.
The old man sank into a deep wooden chair. “Greg came here seven years ago. He was wearing the same kind of clothes you have. He was tired and hungry, and we let him sleep in the barn. He didn’t say anything for weeks. But he wasn’t any trouble, so we let him stay, and he started helping us with the farm. He started to talk more, but he never said much about where he was from. Or how he got here.”
The little boy got up and went outside. I heard his ball rolling on the porch.
Darik smiled. “Then he and my daughter fell in love. And Dariken was born. He’s almost five now. They named him for me.” He winked.
“And then he left?”
“A few weeks ago Greg started getting sick.” He looked over his shoulder down a narrow hallway. “He got worse. Shiola took care of him. The doctors came. The priest came. He kept getting worse. Then about two weeks ago Shiola and Dariken woke up and Greg was gone. But he left a note.”
“Could I see it?”
Dariken sighed and heaved himself to his feet. “In their room.”
He knocked lightly on a door in the back of the house. In a moment Shiola answered, her face tense with worry. She glared at me as if Greg’s illness was somehow all my fault. “What?”
“He wants to see the note,” Dariken said gently.
“May I see Greg?” I asked.
She wanted to slam the door in my face. I wasn’t sure I blamed her, but instead she turned and headed away.
Greg lay in a bed tangled in coarse, sweat-soaked sheets. His face was pale and blotchy. He breathed in loud gasps, and his eyes fluttered but never stayed open for more than a few seconds.
An oil lamp cast a yellow glow over the walls. It sat on a tall dresser where Shiola found the note. She thrust it at me like a dagger.
I leaned over the bed. “Greg? It’s me. Tom Jurgen.”
His eyelids flickered as he tried to focus on my face. “You—what are you . . .”
“Your father sent me,” I said.
He closed his eyes. “Go back. Tell him I’m—I’m sorry.”
Shiola sank into a chair and wiped his face with a damp white rag. She shot me another look that could have frozen my face.
I stepped out of the room. I heard Greg moaning from the hallway as I opened the letter:
Shiola, Dariken, Darik, Kevyan—
When I came here to Forsythia I wanted to go back right away. Now I never want to leave. But Cynara says if I stay here I won’t get better. I don’t want to go. But I’m scared. She’s outside, waiting to take me back to the tree.
I love you
I love you.
I folded the letter. Darik was standing next to me. “Cynara?”
He shrugged. “The priests say she keeps the balance between light and darkness, or something like that. I never believed much of what they say.”
“I’ve met her.” And tried to buy her a latté.
One eyebrow rose. “Well, anything’s possible, I suppose. It’s just that when we saw that, we thought . . . we were afraid he just walked away to die.”
Not an unreasonable guess. “Forsythia is—?”
“This region.” He pointed. “Sylvanus is north of us, and Lakeland is west.” He straightened his shoulders. “But Forsythia is the best place for farming.”
“The best for a lot of things,” I agreed. “But he’s not from here.”
Darik nodded. “It’s making him sick, I think.”
“He was better, back on—back in our world.” I thought of Greg in the hospital bed. “Getting better anyway.”
“He should go back.” Darik leaned against the wall, looking tired. “Or else . . .”
I didn’t want to say it. I didn’t want to be in charge of whether Greg lived or died. But here I was.
And somewhere his father was waiting for him.
We said nothing for a long time.
Finally Darik put a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll talk to them.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“I know.” He opened the door. “Shiola? Greg? We have to talk.”
I took a step back. “I’ll leave you alone.”
Dariken was back in the front room, rolling a wooden ball across the table. He’d launch it from one end, run around to the other, and catch it before it rolled over.
He stopped when he saw me. The ball reached the end of the table and dropped onto the hardwood floor.
I reached down and set it on the table. “Hi.”
Dariken stared at me. Then he darted forward and grabbed the ball. “Hah!” He scampered backwards on his small bare feet, then fell down in front of the fireplace. “Got it!” He squealed with delight, pressing the ball between his hands as if trying to crush it. “Got it! Got it!”
I am no good with little kids. I leaned against the table, watching the fire.
Dariken rolled the ball back and forth between his feet. Then he kicked the ball into a corner. Then he turned to me. “Are you going to take my dad away?”
My heart flattened out inside my chest. I owed the kid an answer. One that he’d understand, and hopefully one that wouldn’t make him hate me. I do it with clients all the time. But most of my clients aren’t five-year-olds wondering if I’m going to kidnap their father.
The truth is all I’ve got most days, and what Dariken deserved. “It’s up to your family, not me.” I crouched down until our eyes were on the same level. “But listen—if I do take him back, he’ll get better. And he’ll remember you for a long time. And you’ll always remember him. You’ll have your mom and your grandfather to help. But—” I looked at the ball in his trembling hands. “It’s going to be hard. Either way.”
He looked at the floor. “Yeah.” Then he stepped back, rolling the ball between his palms. “Will you play with me?”
Oh, God. “Sure.” I’d just ruined his life, after all.
He ran to the end of the table. “Catch it! Then push it back!” He rolled his ball at me like a torpedo. I barely intercepted it before it crashed into my stomach. Dariken laughed.
Back and forth, back and forth . . . Then Greg staggered into the room.
Darik held him up, and Shiola walked in front of him, holding both his hands. His feet shuffled across the floor. His legs wobbled, unable to hold his thin frame. I’d never get him back to the tree without help.
Dariken ran to his father, and flung his arms around Greg’s knees.
Shiola and Darik lowered him into a chair. “Make him better.” Darik’s words were an order, but Shiola’s eyes held a plea.
“Yeah.” I hoped getting back home and into the hospital was all I needed to do. “I’ll need some help.” My ankle still throbbed.
Darik patted his grandson’s head. “I’ll get the cart.”
Shiola rode with us. The cart was drawn by an animal that looked like a cross between a donkey and a black bear. I couldn’t drive it, so I sat in the back with Greg while Shiola guided the thing across the field and down the road toward the hill. I could see the tree far ahead.
Darik and Greg’s son stayed behind, after saying a prayer of good-bye. Shiola was silent in the front of the cart. She didn’t look back at her husband. She just prodded the beast with a long staff and pulled on the reins to keep him going on the right path. Every few minutes she wiped her sleeve across her eyes or her nose, but she kept her eyes on the creature pulling us as if we weren’t there.
Greg drifted in and out of semi-consciousness, sometimes whispering Shiola’s name or Dariken’s, and once asking for his father. I fed him water from a leather bag and tried to wipe down his forehead to ease the fever. Other than that, I didn’t know what to do for him. All I know about medicine comes from TV shows, and nothing from ER or Grey’s Anatomy was going to help Greg now.
The beast huffed and puffed as it neared the top of the hill. Finally Shiola set the brake and turned around for the first time. “We’re here.”
The blue sun was on the verge of setting, turning the white sky deep violet. Shiola helped me lift Greg out of the cart, and we carried him the last hundred yards to the base of the tree.
He couldn’t stand. We laid him on the ground, where he breathed shallowly and stared up into the darkening sky. “Shi—Shiola?”
“I’ll give you a few minutes.” I turned back to the cart.
“No.” Now that she’d made up her mind, she apparently wanted to get our departure over with as soon as possible. She knelt on the ground, gave Greg a quick kiss, and whispered something into his ear. He closed his eyes with a sigh.
Shiola stood with a stony face. “What do we do?”
I pulled the spell from my pocket. “Just read this.” I only hoped the spell worked on both sides.
She squinted at the page. “I can barely see this.”
I looked. The words had faded to almost nothing. Great.
“Then read fast.” I crouched down and hauled Greg to his feet. Even as sick as gaunt as he was now, his limp body was tough to lift and move. He leaned against me, gasping as we stood in front of the tree and waited for Shiola to begin.
Her voice was clear and musical, more like Rachel’s than Bell’s. Rachel—she’d be waiting for me. I hoped. How much time had passed on Earth? Maybe only a few minutes. But if the rain started falling hard, she might have gone back to the car. She had her own keys.
Suddenly I ached to see her again. Or maybe that was just my back, struggling to keep Greg on his feet and ready to lurch forward. I gritted my teeth and waited impatiently for Shiola to reach the climax of the spell.
It came sooner than I expected. Maybe she read faster. Or maybe I just knew that I was taking Greg away from his family in Forsythia. Either way, the tree rocked and began to split, and I could see the cemetery on the other side. And Rachel, waiting in the rain.
I lunged forward, my arms around Greg’s chest. A root twisted against my foot. With a grunt, I threw my body into the gap, making sure I had a firm hold on Greg’s body. Then I turned my neck for one last look at Shiola as she crumpled the paper in her hand and stared at me—
—And then I hit the wet ground of the graveyard.
“Tom!” Rachel was next to me. Rain was falling over us. I was on top of Greg. I rolled away, sliding on the grass. Green. Even after only a few hours in Forthsyia, it looked weird.
“How—how long?” My voice was a croak.
“About fifteen minutes.” She pushed Greg onto his back. He groaned loudly. “Is he all right?”
“Help me—get him to the car.” I managed to reach my feet without falling. Rachel took one shoulder and I took the other, and together we dragged him down the hill to my Honda.
I searched Greg’s pockets for his keys as we buckled Greg into the back seat the way his father had last night. I found them—the one thing he’d kept from this world in Forsythia. “You take the other car.” I gave Rachel the keys. “See you at the hospital.”
She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, then ran to Bell’s car.
Inside my car I dug my cell phone out and found Bell’s number.
“Hello? Tom?” Bell sounded like—well, like a desperate father.
“I’ve got him.” My own voice sounded weak. “We’re bringing him in.”
“Thank God.” Bell stifled a groan of relief. “Thank you.”
Greg was back in the same bed, with the same IV tubes and a few new ones hooked up to his arms and body. His fever was down. He wasn’t awake yet, but he was breathing more easily. Like the rest of us.
The hospital staff was annoyed with all of us, of course. The doctors and nurses insisted on looking me over because apparently I resembled, according to Rachel, “a mutant zombie, but not as good looking.” They didn’t put me into the next bed, though, so I was free to go. “And don’t come back” was definitely in the subtext.
“Thanks.” Bell shook my hand, and Rachel’s. “I didn’t think it would turn into something like this. Send me your invoice right away.”
“After I get some rest.” The trip through the tree—twice—had left me exhausted. “I hope your son is okay.”
“I’ll take care of him.” Bell sounded as tired as I felt, but he wasn’t going anywhere. He went back to sit down next to Greg’s bed again as Rachel and I left the room.
I wanted to get home, order take-out, and sleep for a week. Rachel held my hand, helping me walk. “Honestly, you go into another world and the first thing you do is twist your ankle?”
I stopped. “Uh-oh.”
“What? Are you—” Then Rachel saw her. “Oh. Is this . . .?”
“Yeah.” I tried to stand straight. “Hello, Cynara.”
Her scar looked a little more menacing today. “Tom. You got him back in time. Good.”
“This is Rachel. She’s my . . .” That would be too complicated. “Rachel, this is Cynara. She’s a goddess from another universe.”
“Hi!” Rachel reached out to shake her hand. “Nice to meet you. How does someone get to be a goddess, anyway? I’m always looking for a new gig.”
She smiled, but didn’t take Rachel’s hand. “It takes time. Thousands of years.”
I leaned forward, suddenly angry. A little too angry. “What the hell was that all about? Sending people to another universe, than yanking them back? Leaving their families—both ways? Greg has a wife and a son that he’ll never see again.” I could remember Shiola’s eyes as she looked at Greg one last time. And the expression on Dariken’s face when he asked me if I was taking his father away. “What do you think you’re doing?”
A passing nurse blinked at me when I mentioned “another universe,” but Cynara only crossed her arms, as if I were a peasant with no right to question the queen. “He’ll forget. In time it’ll fade from his—”
“No, it won’t.” Bell stood behind me.
Cynara blinked. “Oh. You.”
“Yeah.” He closed the door behind him. “I haven’t forgotten. I hope Greg does, for his sake. But you have no right to do this. To my family, or to anyone.”
“Wait a minute . . .” I looked at Bell. “You?”
“Years ago.” He rubbed his forehead as if summoning bad memories. “I spent ten years there. A family—three kids. Then one day I got sick. Just like him, and then I was brought back here. Everyone thought I’d died. I had to start over . . .” He glared at Cynara. “And then my son disappeared. And I wondered if it was you.”
“Forsythia’s world is my responsibility.” She sighed like a queen tolerating a rude commoner’s question. “I keep the balance. I protect them. It’s closed off, for good reason. But it needs fresh blood over time. Otherwise the people will wither and die. Your blood was good for them. So I came back to you.”
“So Greg is what, a sperm donor?” Rachel grimaced.
Cynara shrugged. “That’s what I do. My job. My duty. It’s kept the people there thriving for thousands of years.” She obviously felt she’d said enough. Gods and goddess don’t justify themselves to mere humans. “But I will leave you and your family alone from now. You have given enough.”
“Damn right,” Bell muttered.
I expected Cynara to vanish in a burst of light. Instead she simply turned and walked down the hall.
Bell sighed. “When I got that call from her, I just—I couldn’t face her. That’s why I didn’t want to meet her in person. Why I called you.”
“And how you knew what would happen when we went to the cemetery.”
“Yeah.” He bit his lip. “Sorry. Maybe I should have told you more.”
Rachel patted his shoulder. “Go take care of your son.”
Bell nodded. “Okay. Thanks again. Both of you.” He walked back to Greg’s room.
We walked to the elevators. “So what was it like?” Rachel pressed the down button. “Were there hobbits?”
“Just people. No Internet or cable TV, though.”
She shuddered. “Sounds like hell.”
“Yeah.” The doors opened. “There’s no place like home.”