Every story has a beginning


**  Because I haven’t posted in a little bit, thought I’d give you a sneak peek of something I literally just wrote.  So, this is essentially all that has been written thus far.  I shall add as the story comes to me! **

**EDITED 5/13**  **EDITED (AGAIN) 5/16**  **EDITED (YET AGAIN) 5/24**  **YOU GUESSED IT…ANOTHER EDIT 5/26**  **DITTO 5/30**  **5/31**  **6/3**  **6/5**  **6/11**  **6/13** **6/14**  **6/30**  **7/26**  **8/5**  **8/15**  **9/12**  **9/19**  **10/31**

Story Number the Next One

 Lila snapped out of her reverie so quickly that she couldn’t help but let out a quite audible, “Ok, I’m sorry, back to the real world.  Check check.”

She snuck a furtive glance around the restroom.  The stall door slam that had so rudely ushered her back into fluorescent glare on porcelain and tile belonged to the third stall over.  The only sound coming forth now from the stall was the rustling of waxed toilet seat covers, quite pretentious and fussy.  Whoever was in there either did not hear Lila’s outburst or kindly kept their own reaction to themselves.  The remainder of the restroom was bare.

Lila let out her breath in an upward motion, her bangs shooting upward in the exhalation like a captive’s hands at gun point.  She turned back towards the mirror where she had been staring when the pull of the other world became too strong to resist.  Her palms were just where she had left them, propped on either side of the sink basin.  Peering into her reflected eyes wasn’t very encouraging.  Hazel eyes that in her imagination blazed with mysteries deeply buried and twinkled with good-natured mischief now only looked in the harsh lighting like sunken moldy pennies.  Get a grip, girl, she thought, lifting one palm to push the recently accosted bangs back into place.  Her appearance wasn’t much improved by the effort and she rolled her eyes in disgust.  Sensing that her fellow restroom inhabitant was close to exiting the stall, she sucked back in a lung-filling breath, ran her hands under the faucet’s stream for good measure, and made her egress.

                                                              *                 *                      *                       *                            *                       *

 

Muriel had just slid the lock into place when she heard Lila say something about being back to reality.  Reminded her of that song…Back to life, back to reality, back from the fantasy.  Muriel supposed that if it had been anyone else talking to mirrors and porcelain, she would have been startled.  But it was Lila, and Lila had that irritating air of knowing something of which everyone else was ignorant — lived in her own la-la world where the normal rules of social engagement and behavior didn’t apply.  It frankly got on Muriel’s nerves.  Ah, but whatever.  Ours is not to reason why and all that.  Muriel simply let her eyebrows lift and fall in practiced disapproval and went about the task of placing a toilet seat cover on the john.  Darn, but those waxy things were hard to handle.  It seemed eternity before she was able to slap it onto the seat.  She was just finishing up her business, resisting the temptation to hum that refrain (back to life, back to reality), when the sound of water hitting a basin and shortly after a door creaking shut hit her ears.  Well, goodie, Wool-Gathering Lila has exited the building, folks.  Now Muriel did begin to hum, throwing in a few doodie da’s in place of the lyrics she could no longer remember.  She slipped the stall lock open with one hand and pushed the door out with her elbow as she zipped up her fly with the other hand. She walked briskly to the sinks, still working her way through the tune. It was in mid da that her oxford clad foot happened upon the most unusual flower she had ever seen, a rainbow hued beauty lying daintily on the black-and-grey flecked linoleum.  Her foot stood frozen just inches above the flower, her lips still pursed with the song, a deep crease beginning to form between her eyebrows as she thought, That’s odd, I swear it wasn’t there be-

Blinding light flashed from the bud’s center, piercing Muriel’s widening eyes with crystallized hues, shining crazily there for one moment before blinking out with an audible click.  The overhead fluorescent lights blinked out with it, and when they buzzed back on three seconds later, the restroom was vacant save for the echo of Muriel’s song about reality…

 

                                *                 *                       *                             *                             *                        *

 

            Walking down the hall under yet more hideous fluorescent lights, Lila couldn’t help but grimly acknowledge once again how terribly boring it all was.  It was always worse after her little trips.  The superior office drones had given the décor the old college try, slapping a cheery green paint onto the walls and hanging some pictures.  But the artwork was of the hospital waiting room variety, bad flower and fruit watercolor renditions matted with blanched shades of ugly.  All you associated with your work place, then, was waiting to die.  Lila briefly wondered if anyone had ever died from Cubicle Fever.  Maybe they paper-cutted themselves to death.

          One foot clopping in front of the other, she passed dreary painting after dreary painting.  Water lily floating on murky water.  Apple and orange (oh, how original) in a basket that could have been wooden.  Lila opened her lips just enough for a quiet but deep sigh to escape, her head hanging low, her bangs twisted crazily over her forehead.  At just that moment, Muriel was disappearing from the restroom, exiting from this world with the exhalation of Lila’s breath.  Not that Lila was aware.  As far she knew, the world to which she escaped from time to time existed solely in her head, safely locked behind the door engraved with Lila’s Private Fantasies, just across the hall from Neurosis—Avoid at All Costs.  Had she been the one to happen upon the multi-hued, transporting flower, her reaction would have been no different than that of Muriel. It seemed to Lila that the remainder of the day held only paper-pushing and frozen dinner with Seinfield re-runs.  She could not fathom that the world to which she retreated when reality was too painful to bear would be calling her soon, and this time when she went, she would leave a space vacant in the Corporate Graveyard.

*                                    *                                      *                                      *                                *

            Wherever “this” was, it was freezing.  Didn’t even have time to grab my wrap, Muriel thought irritably as she clutched each of her arms with the opposite hand.  The mind is a funny thing, insisting on normalcy even when the very rug of reality has been yanked out from under ones feet.  Never mind that she had just experienced the seemingly impossible act of parallel universe transportation, it was cold, goshdarnit, and it would have been common courtesy to let her grab her wrap.  This normal–but still inane given the circumstances– thought over, Muriel began the task of observing her surroundings.  The first thing of which she became aware was an odd clicking and clattering sound, much like the sound of dozens of little spider legs tapping on tile.  Terror seized Muriel, paralyzing her voluntary muscles and rendering her sure that she was going to die a slow and gruesome death by spider digestion.  She could see in her mind’s eye the hundreds of spider teeth, razor sharp and whirring in the furry mouth with hungry greed.  She trembled harder than ever, noting with surprise and horror that the clattering increased in volume as she did so.  Increased in volume… 

“Oh, fish.”  Muriel exhaled.  Just her own chattering teeth, clicking against one another in an effort to get warm.  No ginormous spider advancing its way to make her mincemeat…at least not yet.  She chuckled nervously at herself and her silly mistake, feeling better knowing her life was no longer in imminent danger.  With hands still clutching her arms and knees pressed firmly together, she cautiously creaked her head around to the left and back to the right.  It was so dark.  How odd that she couldn’t see a thing.  It was then that the same rational voice of her brain notified her that it might possibly be helpful if she opened her eyes.  It’s a wonder she hadn’t noticed earlier as the rims of her eyelids were pressed so tightly together as to hurt.  Now feeling entirely foolish, she let loose a hyena-like laugh just shy of hysterical, simultaneously prying her eyes open in a dramatic gesture.  What she saw abruptly cut off the laugh mid screech and folded her legs beneath her.

It was as if she had fallen directly into a rainbow.  Waves of vibrating colors undulated before, under, and through her.  Each time a color band crested—first royal blue, now red, then burnt orange—glints of sparkling light dashing from the surface dazzled her eyes, shimmering more brilliantly than all Miss America pageant dresses combined.  As far as she could see was this ocean of glittering color.  Looking down at where her traitor legs had dumped her sent mimicking waves of nausea rolling through her stomach.  She was sprawled awkwardly over—or rather, though—a wave of royal blue crossing with a band of deep green.  The green, transparent and humming with glints of amber throughout, lapped over her calves and kissed her knees.  The blue playfully rippled over her Oxfords, spilling to pool beneath her ankles and swirl with the green.  There seemed to be no solid surface supporting her weight—just iridescent color.  Vertigo became too strong and she clenched her eyes tightly shut as her stomach clenched sickly.

“One,” she breathed in, the breath catching in her lungs as another cramp seized her.

“Two,” she hissed out through clamped teeth.  Thank God her stomach began to untangle itself now that her eyes were gazing at the familiar flesh of her inner eyelids.

Muriel sucked in breath to continue her count when her ears alerted her that a sound other than her harsh breathing was occupying the surroundings.  A soft humming, the sound of hummingbirds’ wings beating the air filled her ears.  On its tail was a, a choir?, it sounded like.  Muriel frowned with the effort of identifying the sound, but as the music rose then soared, filling her head, infiltrating every crevice of her being, her brow smoothed and her jaw relaxed.

Ah see um-chum, aaaaah aaaaah aaaaah, ah see um-chum, came the melodic chant, beckoning Muriel to respond to its whispery tendrils of delicious sound.

First one blue eye, then the other unrolled until they gazed upon a woman in—was it possible?—a sequined, pink chiffon ball gown much like that of Glenda the Good Witch.  Startled, Muriel blinked rapidly once, twice, and three times not the charm.  The lady in pink frou frou didn’t disappear.  Now she smiled warmly at Muriel, revealing diamonds in place of teeth.

“Oh, fish,” Muriel whispered half-heartedly.

“Welcome,” said the woman in chiffon and diamonds.  Her bare, milky white shoulders winked as she swept her arm palm up towards Muriel.  Muriel merely blinked, half in disbelief and half from the blinding glare emanating from the woman’s bejeweled gown.

“Welcome,” she repeated, “to Alteria.  My name is Paramaya.  And you are?”

The earnestness in her face, how her chin angled forward, and the way her piled, bronzed ringlets bounced lightly as she spoke left Muriel no choice but to answer.  If she was going crazy, there was no need to be impolite in the process.

“Muriel,” she squeaked.  Cleared her throat, tried again.  “Muriel Davidson.”

A wispy smile touched Paramaya’s lips.  “Well, Muriel Davidson, a pleasure.  Now we must make haste if we are to make Glicen by twilight.  The Beings will accompany us.”

“Glicen…beings…wha-what….?” Muriel began, her dazed state rendering her momentarily void of coherent speech.

But Paramaya was already turning away, heading due north.  She began to sing in a—not surprisingly to Muriel—pleasant soprano voice, a song that sounded like a fairy tale princess’ call to her rodent friends.  Her assessment turned out be to close enough for government work.  The already undulating sea of colors became an all-out upheaval.  Humps and bumps appeared haphazardly across the surface, threatening to break forth like new molars beneath gums.  The humming chant that Muriel heard earlier swelled as the sea tossed.

“Ah see um-chum, aaaaah aaaaah aaaaah, ah see um-chum,” sang a bump materializing out of the swirling colors at her feet.  Muriel at last found her feet in her surprise, scrambling backwards, non-descript brown hair falling in her face and puffing outwards with her panting breath.  The bump continued to hum, gyrating obscenely Muriel thought as it emerged from the iridescent colors.  Finally the colors settled into a gelatin-like substance, only transparent enough so as to barely ascertain distorted objects through it.  The gelatin substance formed the shape of a torpedo with arms and legs, both sets of appendages identical in their size and shape. 

Flippers, Muriel thought with horror, they look like flippers.  She knew that her mind was on the verge of cracking—she felt the splitting in her cranium, alarm sirens screeching in panic—but she couldn’t pry herself from her current position, gawking at the Jell-O being.  It was only when a bulge in what must be the thing’s face spread into a wide, waving smile that the paralysis over Muriel broke and she made a mad dash after Paramaya’s departing figure.

She had to hurdle a few humming torpedoes in the process, but at last Muriel caught up to Paramaya’s gently swaying figure. 

“Um, excuse me, Ms., uh, Paramaya,” Muriel began nervously, throwing quick, appraising glances over her shoulder toward the Jell-O creatures, making sure none had suddenly grown vicious teeth. “I don’t mean to alarm you, but there are, uh, some, um…things following us,” she finished lamely. 

Paramaya had turned around mid speech, eyes far away, clearly seeing something that was beyond the current landscape.  Slowly clarity dawned in her eyes and was replaced by amusement as Muriel concluded her sentence.  She let out a delightful, tinkling laugh.

“Muriel Davidson, those things are the Beings.”  Clearly this was common knowledge, and only the soft in head were wont to be ignorant of this information.  It seemed to Muriel that Paramaya was beginning to wonder if she should be classified as the latter – the sparkling lady spoke her next words with a slow and patient tone.  “They are arbiters of passage and will guide us safely to Glicen.  To see Ridaldo.”  Muriel tried for a nod and smile of recognition, but in her bewilderment the attempt looked more like she was suffering from indigestion, grimacing and lurching.

Amusement sparkled in Paramaya’s eyes, but her tone remained patient and kind.

“The king of Alteria, of course.”

*                                *                                      *                                    *                               *

 

            Back at her bleak cubicle, Lila absently flicked a rubber band between the thumb and middle finger of her left hand while punching the down button on the keyboard with her right. 

 

From:  Eriks, Michelle

            To:  Jueller, Theresa; Charter, Michael; Nichols, Lila

            Subject:  Team brainstorm 2pm

 

Hi team,

Be sure to attend today’s meeting in Conference Rm A.  We need to review the expense form outline – could be more streamlined.

Please be sure to prepare by bringing some different template ideas.

Shelley

 

            Deleted with a sigh and a snap of the rubber band.

 

From:  Tassett, Jean

To:  Accounting

Subject:  Missing calculator

 

Hi all~

Anyone seen my Casio calculator?  Has a foil butterfly sticker…please return.  Can’t crunch the numbers without it, haha!

JT

 

            Accounting humor…or lack thereof.  Lila pressed the “delete” button with a little too much force.  Another snap of the rubber band.  At least that was the end of it for now.  Her inbox now had zero new mail, and all flagged e-mails were completed by 10:30am.  It was 11am.  Her wire basket inbox in the cubicle corner held nothing but a pen drawing splattered paper she had put there two minutes ago.  She liked to doodle in her bored moments, even had something of a knack for it, inherited from her father.  This drawing was executed with quick, fluid lines and crosshatch shading. 

            She hardly remembered drawing it.  Her pen had seemed to move of its own accord, depositing odd, bulbous shapes in alternating shades of red, blue, and green (the only colored pens she had at hand).  A flick of the wrist added curved, horseshoe like shapes to the sides and bottom of the bulbs.  Kind of like flippers, Lila mused as she studied the drawing now, still absently snapping the rubber band with her left hand.

            Seeing as how all of her work was completed and she had nothing better to do until 2pm, Lila plucked the drawing from her basket and began to study the images there curiously, really looking for the first time at what she had produced.  Such odd little figures she had sketched, perched on what looked to be a rainbow.  They puzzled her, yet seemed oddly familiar.  Maybe she was watching too many kiddie cartoons and it was affecting her subconscious.  The figures were sketched beautifully, with confidence in each stroke of the pen.  They were attractive in their color and composition, dozens spreading across the page.  But her eyes were drawn to a quick sketch of a beautiful woman, wearing a gown made of chiffon.  Little stars scattered across her dress signified sparkles, and a few of the stars shown on her wide smile, as if she had gems for teeth.  An odd drawing, but attractive, alluring.  Yet, something was missing…

            Frowning, Lila picked up a black ink pen in her right hand–left hand still working at the rubber band—and began to block in a figure just over the woman’s shoulder.  The figure was running, one knee lifted high towards the chest, the opposite fist pumping forward.  Its head was twisted over one shoulder, hair flying back with the momentum.  Lila was just adding an Oxford shoe to the upraised foot when her e-mail inbox alerted her of a new message:

 

From:  Honeyroot, Ophelia

            To:  Nichols, Lila

            Subject:  Escape to beautiful Alteria

           

            Dear Lila,

            Are you tired of your boring life?  Do you wish it consisted of more than crunching numbers and team brainstorming?  Do you want a more fulfilling after-work life, one that does not consist of Seinfield re-runs and TV dinners?

            What you need is an escape to beautiful Alteria!  The people here are far from boring, and the scenery is breathtaking!

            Your friend Muriel has already joined us…what are you waiting for?

 

            Lila stared at the screen in first astonishment and then terror.  Underneath the invitation was a photograph, an exact replica of her boredom-inspired doodles.  And it was Muriel, Muriel with her no-nonsense black Oxfords, running towards the woman in chiffon.  Lila’s mouth gaped open, her eyes blinked rapidly in an effort to return to sanity.  This can’t be happening, it isn’t possible, it was all make-believe!  I created it…this place only exists in my imagination!

            But her attempt to restore the status quo failed miserably.  The e-mail was still there, subtly waving behind the liquid crystals of her monitor’s screen.  And now as she continued to stare for a long, unblinking moment, more words materialized underneath the photo:

 

This is where you belong, Lila.  Besides, she needs you…Muriel.  Not all here is quite as it seems.   Click “Reply” to accept the invitation.  Come on down…the weather is lovely.

 

Sheer horror now, cold and unadulterated.  Lila fumbled for her phone, frantically dialed Muriel’s extension.  No luck.  She slammed the receiver into its cradle, pushed her hand through her hair.  What to do?  It could just be a gag, some sick accountant’s idea of humor.  But the drawing?  How could she explain that?  Sure, maybe a co-worker saw it and staged a photo…but in five minutes, ten tops?  She was pretty sure no one on the accountant team was talented—or creative enough—to whip out a Photoshop masterpiece in any span of time.  And Alteria –she had never mentioned that name to anyone.  She didn’t think she had ever even uttered it aloud.

”It must be real,” she whispered, licking her dry lips.  And Muriel, poor, sensible Muriel…she must be scared spitless, her brains well on their way to frying.  She had to try, no matter how ridiculous it sounded.  If Muriel really was caught in this alternate reality—a world that had dark places as well, if she interpreted the e-mail’s tone correctly—she had to go.  Muriel needed her.

“Ok, here goes nothing,” she said to the screen, and clicked “Reply.”  A brief flash of light, a shimmer in the air, and Lila was gone.  The rubber band sailed across the cubicle and landed with a flat smack in Lila’s outbox.

*                                                            *                                                      *

 

Lila opened her eyes in one of her favorite locations in Alteria – Lildelane Forest.  Multi-hued butterflies with human faces and waving, golden hair flitted by her face. The sunlit patches on the grass shifted as a light breeze played through the tree tops. Somewhere a songbird was chirping, “Someone To Watch Over Me.”

Lila was unsurprised to find she was planted on the grass much as she had been in her office chair.  She was seated with her knees pulled up nearly to her chest, her feet flat on the ground.  The fingers of her left hand were splayed as if she was still holding the rubber band, her right hand cupped around the now absent computer mouse.

She was here…really here.  The breeze licking at her face was touching her real, physical skin, deliciously cool in the sunlight.  She knew their were songbirds in the forest, but she never imagines them to have songs from her world in their repertoire.

Lila began to relax her muscles as she took in the familiar surroundings.  Slowly she stretched one leg, then the next and finally rose to her feet.  Planting both palms on the small of her back, she bent backwards, her spine popping luxuriously.

“Aaaahhh,” she sighed, contented.  It always felt so wonderful to be here in her imagination, and now that she was physically here as well, her body was reaping the benefits too.  Were a reflective surface readily available, Lila would have see that her once unruly bangs were now laying against her forehead, smooth and glossy.  Her ordinary chestnut hair had taken on a golden tone.  Her eyes once again blazed and glittered, tinged deep amber with a tiny, captured sun burning around each pupil.

Here.  Maybe Ophelia was right – maybe she really did belong here.  Could she remember ever feeling so comfortable anywhere else?  Her skin just seemed to fit her bones better, her muscles flexed and contracted with more confidence.  Her purpose for why she was even in Alteria in the flesh was the farthest thought from her mind as she simply relished being.

“You came,” said a soft voice, just over her shoulder.  Lila jumped and twisted her head around towards the voice.

Standing in the shade of a grove was a woman with a serious countenance.  Her age was impossible to gauge, the skin her face taut but lined with care.  She was of medium height, her square shoulders slightly hunched, athletic legs and feet pointing forward.  She wore a simple, knee-length khaki skirt, a loose knit tee, and leather thongs on her feet.  Her hair—a light brown—was pulled back in a bun, a few wispy fly-aways dusting her cheekbones.  Her face was impassive.

“Yes, I, um…you know me?” Lila faltered, turning around to face the woman.

“Yes,” she said simply.  Her body remained still, but she quickly glanced left and right as if expecting company. 

“I’m Ophelia.  I e-mailed you.  I am sorry for the odd message…I had to be discreet, you see.”  She said the last bit in a rush, but remained very still.

“Oh, well, that’s fine,” Lila said, feeling some of her confidence falter in the presence of Ophelia’s odd behavior.

“You said…you said something about Muriel?  Is she in trouble?”

Ophelia cocked her head to one side as if listening to something a great distance away.  Suddenly, Ophelia’s statue-like posture broke and she closed the distance between herself and Lila with urgency.  Lila nearly tripped over her own feet as she backed away in surprise.

Ophelia’s eyes were wild with urgency, her face close to Lila’s as she spoke.

“Yes, we must make haste!  Muriel is in grave danger.” 

  She grasped Lila’s elbow and began tugging her towards the woods.

“She is right now in the Land of Many Colors.  Paramaya is taking her to see King Ridaldo.”

Ophelia paused, halting with a suddenness that once again upset Lila’s footing as she scrambled behind Ophelia.

“We hope to appeal to him and reverse the sentence,” she said, a determined look in her eye and a firmness settling in the grooves around her mouth.  Lila stared at her in bewilderment, but with a firm nod Ophelia turned away and resumed tugging Lila through the woods.

Now it was Lila’s turn to put on the brakes.  She heard a bird singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as a barrage of thoughts tumbled through her mind, trying to make sense of the situation.  Just what on earth—or whatever planet Alteria inhabited—was going on here?  The happenings of the day and Ophelia’s cryptic words swirled through her head like a raging tornado, destroying all deductive brain cells in the process.  What she could gather before the twister scattered her remaining functioning Logic Control Centers was that Muriel was here in this world, she was being lead to King Ridaldo by some woman named Paramaya, she was being “sentenced” for something presumably without a trial, and this strange, stoic woman Ophelia was hell-bent on rescuing her with Lila’s help.  Lila thought that that was a pretty good status report, except it was missing one crucial element:  she had no idea what it all meant or why it was happening.

She did know about King Ridaldo.  She invented him about a year ago in one of her lonelier moments.  He had all the brooding, sarcastic charm of Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester and the stunning good looks of Johnny Depp.  As her mind spun out of control, she noted one thought spin by, almost tangibly like the scenes passing before Dorothy’s eyes as she spun in the house with Toto clutched to her heart.  Why would Ridaldo want Muriel?  He’s meant for me.  Her brow creased momentarily with the pang of jealousy, then cleared like clouds at a sun break as the tornado swept away the thought.  She became aware of a light tug on her sleeve as coherent thought ceased.

Ophelia was staring into her face, bending down a little at the knees in order to peer up into Lila’s eyes.  Her own brow was furrowed, but with a mixture of irritation and mild concern.  Lila had gone gaga on her a moment before, gazing off into nowhere with glazed eyes and a slack jaw.  Dear Lord knew this was no time to go wool-gathering.  With a sigh of barely contained impatience, Ophelia had prepared to bring Lila back to the task at hand by taking hold of her sleeve and pulling.  Just then Lila’s expression had changed, the tiny sun encircling her pupils flaring an alarming scorching red before settling back to molten gold an instant later.  Ophelia had been in mid tug when Lila’s eyes blinked then cleared, looking at Ophelia with a wide-eyed expression as if she had been slapped.  Well, thought Ophelia while pressing her pale lips into a hard line, thank the pale blue sky that’s over.

“Hurry up, now.  We can’t wait but a minute,” Ophelia said as she straightened up and repositioned her grip on Lila’s elbow.  “There will be plenty of time for questions later.”

The firm set of the stern woman’s mouth and the purposefulness of her steps as she resumed her course through the forest left Lila no hope of getting answers to this strange venture just yet.  She sighed, letting her chin drop to her chest and her head roll from side to side on her neck as she plodded after Ophelia through the trees.

A songbird trilled “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” after their departing figures, preening happily in the disco ball scattering of sunlight through the swaying tree tops.

 

 

                                                                     *                              *                                 *                                        *

 

“Your Worshipfulness, I but simply ask for Farmer to keep his snogflats out of my garden.  They are devastating my lishben crops and it is all I have to sell in the marketplace…”

King Ridaldo shifted uncomfortably in his marble throne.  He had his right elbow planted on the armrest, the accompanying hand barely holding up his chin, which seemed heavier with each case he heard.  It seemed to him, as he leaned heavily into his propped hand, his right eye nearly hidden from view as his palm pushed up the entirety of his cheek, that there was nothing so dull as the squabbling of peasants.  He would much rather be in the open fields, breathing in the beauty with which Creator Lila had endowed Alteria.

His favorite activity was to take out Jiminy, his muscular, thoroughbred stallion, and gallop recklessly about the kingdom.  He was known to vanish for days at a time, venturing as far as Lildelane Forest—nearly a day’s journey—before returning, exhilarated, Jiminy’s sleek sides glistening with sweat.  It always sent portly, high-strung Archibald—his chief advisor—into a frenzy.  After such an excursion, he would trot comically by Ridaldo’s side as he practically skipped down the palace’s marbled hallways, pleading to the king with a red face to desist trying to put him in an early grave.  It always made Ridaldo’s day, and each time he had to fight the grin he felt creep on his face in his good humor, the scent of the outdoors still clinging to his clothes and hair.

Now faithful, coronary-failure bound Archibald was eyeing him nervously from his seat at the king’s right hand.  Ridaldo knew that he really should be paying attention to the peasants before him—Archibald had already lectured him once before on the importance of appearing compassionate towards his peoples’ concerns, a lecture that was only partially heard as Ridaldo fought to hold his own against the stable hands in a match of water polo—but his mind was many miles away.  His mind was in the Land of Many Colors, where that offender, Muriel Davidson, should be right now with Paramaya.  His brow furrowed and his handsome face clouded as he thought of her, the crime she had committed, and how he would make her pay-

“Your Worshipfulness?  Your, uh, Worshipfulness, sir?” a voice squeaked tentatively.

Ridaldo’s head snapped downwards as the voice startled his supporting hand to clutch his heart protectively.  A whistling sound came from his right as Archibald exhaled through clenched teeth.  The king lifted his head and turned his eyes to the owner of the squeaky voice, the peasant complaining of his neighbor’s snogflats.

“Er, right, yes,” began Ridaldo, clearing his throat and shifting his weight in the throne until he was upright.  “Yes, of course, thank you for sharing your plight.”  He glanced at Archibald—who now looked much relieved—and gaining confidence thereby, boomed out his next words in a startling baritone:  “I hereby decree that from now henceforth, all snogflats must be branded and contained by their owners.  Should a snogflat incur damage on another’s property, the owner of the snogflat shall pay the property owner all necessary fees for repairs.”

Quite satisfied with his—so it seemed to him—astute and powerful handling of the situation, Ridaldo settled back in his throne and beamed down on the peasant with his best, “the king cares for you” smile.

The peasant, who had been wringing his hat throughout his entire plea, dropped the hat to his feet as the king’s voice thundered around him.  He could only manage to gape at the king in response to his placating smile.

King Ridaldo’s smile began to waver as he realized the peasant was neither moving nor thanking him.

“Yes?” he ventured.

The peasant remained frozen.  Archibald cleared his throat and murmured, “My son.”

This got the peasant’s attention, and he stooped to clutch up his hat like a bird pecks at a bread crumb.

“Yes, Your Worshipfulness….thank you.  I do but wonder…”  The peasant hesitated, once again wringing his hat now that it was back in his sunburned hands.

“Do you now?  It seems to me you do too much of that already,” Ridaldo muttered under his breath.  A scolding look from Archibald led him to sigh and say in a more audible voice, “And what is that?”

The peasant looked uncomfortable still, but a little encouraged by Ridaldo’s question. “I do but wonder about the damages already done by Farmer’s snogflats?  It really has set my crop back by an awful lot.”  He looked up forlornly into Ridaldo’s face.

Ridaldo was beginning to lose his patience with this farmer who was jawing easily enough one moment, and then sickeningly slack-jaw the next.  Peasants squabbling…ugh.

“Yes, of course, my scribe will write up an order for Farmer to pay all resulting damages to you.  Please do treat yourself to a cup of Glicen coffee on your way out.  Good day.”

The peasant beamed.  He bent forward several times at the waist, his head bobbing up and down as he tried to bow and smile at the king simultaneously.  “Oh, thank you, Your Worshipfu-“

But Ridaldo was already up and out of his throne, pushing back the heavy velvet curtains leading to his chambers.  Archibald scurried behind him.

“Your honor-“

“Not now, Archibald,” said the king, holding up a halting hand as he walked briskly down the corridor.  Archibald fell silent and Ridaldo pulled ahead.  Right now he wanted more than anything to just be alone in his room with its picture window, gazing out at the breathtaking scenery.

*                                     *                                    *                                           *

 

“If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years.”

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)

 

*                                    *                                      *                                         *

 

This isn’t real, this can’t be happening.  This isn’t real this can’t be happening.  Oh….maybe it’s indigestion?  Yes, that’s it.  Knew I shouldn’t have had a full glass of orange juice this morning…

Muriel was sitting on one of the Beings, who had formed together to create some sort of gyrating carriage.  It seemed to Muriel that they sort of rolled along in waves, like insects crawling over one another in piles to advance a large crumb.  One moment she was perched upon a green Being, the next a blue one as they rolled under and over one another.  At the beginning of their ride, motion sickness threatened to turn Muriel’s face different colors.  Paramaya saw and heard her discomfort as she made retching sounds over the side of the Being-mobile and offered her a sweet that looked and tasted very much like Laffy Taffy.  Muriel was cranky that a dream would be so vivid as to have bonafide motion sickness, but the treat did make her feel better.

Paramaya watched from her perch at the bow of the Being-mobile as Muriel’s coloring returned to normal.  She smiled at Muriel with her lips, and Muriel found herself smiling wanly in return.

“Better?”

“Much.  Well, as much as can be expected.”  Muriel paused unhappily, upset that she was feeling a bit embarrassed by her own prissy behavior.  She didn’t like that Paramaya was affecting her so…made her feel powerless and annoying.  Her eyes dropped to her lap where her fingers were fidgeting with one another.  “You know, given the circumstances and all.”  She paused again and snatched a glance at Paramaya’s face.  She was still smiling serenely.  “Just, uh, what are the circumstances?  I mean, surely this is a dream and all…a very vivid dream…”

Again she stopped, reflecting on just how vivid this dream was.  Had she ever dreamed with so much detail?  She thought not.  With further reflection, she didn’t think she ever dreamt at all.  Something…something swirled in a deep part of her brain at this thought, rising for a flash and then submerging again like a playful dolphin in the ocean.  A realization, gleaming with truth waiting to be found, beckoned her to discover and embrace it.  She was terrified of it because some part of her knew that to catch it would mean change, and if there was anything Muriel Davidson utterly abhorred, it was change.  She therefore hastily stifled any progress towards capture of the revelation, beating a speedy retreat by opening her mouth:

“…but I think dreams that are not rational are had only by psychos” – or by people who drink  too much OJ on an empty stomach, she thought bitterly—“so there must be some sort of rhyme or reason to this dream, some sort of overarching goal.”  Her eyes, which had been looking earnestly at Paramaya’s face during this spiel once again dropped to her lap as she uttered the only other—and far less favorable—alternative:  “Or I’ve gone psycho myself.”

Yes, highly unfavorable indeed.  So she begged Paramaya with her eyes as well as her words to prove her a rational, healthy being who had just been putting in too many awake hours and too much acidic foods.

“So.  What’s the verdict?  Is there a point to this dream or am I as nutty as a fruitcake?”

For a moment it seemed as if Paramaya had not heard her.  Her head was cocked to one side, ringlets dusting her shoulder as gravity did its work.  Her eyes were glazed, and for a frightful moment Muriel thought the chiffon-swathed woman had turned into a plastic, My Size Barbie.  She remained that way–body leaning on one propped elbow, eyes gazing lifelessly at the horizon while the sun bounced off her smooth locks—for a few seconds longer before blinking in rapid staccato and turning her sparkling eyes towards Muriel.

“Do excuse me, dear, I was just getting a message,” murmured Paramaya, shifting a bit to be better situated in the carriage.  A red Being somersaulted beneath her feet. 

For the first time since their meeting, Paramaya looked troubled.  She studied Muriel’s face for a moment, her gray eyes flickering over the features with acute attention, like an artist with their subject…or one memorizing the face of a loved one before they will see it no more.  Muriel shivered a little under that gaze.  At last Paramaya spoke, her voice quiet and her face solemn.

“You have a right to know, I suppose,” she started.  She took another good, long look at Muriel, and then spent most of her story gazing out at the speeding surroundings, rainbow colors racing by like speed skaters in bright uniforms.

“No, you need to know.  It’s your best chance, and the more detail you know, the better.

I know who you are – I’ve always known who you are.  Unfortunately for you, King Ridaldo knows who you are, too.”

“Wha-wha-?” Muriel began.

“Please don’t interrupt, dear, it’s best if you just listen.”

Muriel mumbled assent.  Paramaya continued, eyes still on the horizon.

“The Beings were the first to be alerted to your existence, as they are Lila’s favorites and she divulges all sorts of things to them.”

Muriel started a little at the mention of Lila’s name, but remained silent.

“The Beings report directly to King Ridaldo, and they told him about you.  He is furiously in love with her…and he does not much care for your type – Non-Believers,” she added with an apologetic smile.

“Our world exists by the power of creativity.  Every molecule, each hue in this Land of Many Colors, every songbird found its being from a single thought.  Lila’s thought.”

Paramaya grew pensive for a moment, and Muriel had time to think, Asinine, completely asinine.  What on earth was in my orange juice this morning? And Lila…what does she have to do wit-

“And in a way, her thoughts hold our world together.  She dreams of this place, and we of her.  But lately” – a frown touched her face briefly – “her dreams have been troubled.  Her thoughts are muddied.  Just the other day, my sister Ophelia’s flock of songbirds plummeted to the earth at precisely the same moment.  It was horrible.  I think something was affecting Lila’s thoughts, and she was forced to let go of the birds.

“We fear it will grow worse if her imagination continues to be compromised.  King Ridaldo is certain that it will, and he can’t abide it.”

Paramaya’s head swiveled over to Muriel and her eyes fixated on her face with intensity.  “That is why you are here.  You must be stopped.”

Muriel was perfectly still, locked in Paramaya’s gaze.  It seemed that thought was burning away like fog in the noon sun.  At last Paramaya broke the gaze and turned back to the racing scenery with a sigh.

“I was summoned—I am a member of his council, you see– to fetch you from your world and bring you to Ridaldo at Glicen.  You will be sentenced, I am sure of it.  I love Alteria as much as King Ridaldo, but my sister, Ophelia, and I, we…,”a sad smile touched her lips, “We do not quite agree with his approach.  We think that people can change.”

Her eyes were blazing on Muriel’s face once again.  “I hope you will not disappoint me, Muriel Davidson, for your sake as much as for our own.”

Muriel suddenly found herself feeling quite queasy again, and retched miserably over the side of the carriage.  Paramaya handed her another sweet, one with an orange flavor.  Oh, the irony, Muriel thought bitterly, chewing on the treat.  She tried to focus on what Paramaya said, but the trails of thought were elusive, like trying to catch your shadow.  It simply didn’t make sense; it was utterly absurd.  People couldn’t create real, tangible worlds just by thinking them.  The only logical explanation was that she was dreaming the whole thing, and soon she would awake to find her office chair firmly beneath her.  Yet something with this explanation rang false, missing some crucial little element…

She gave up for the time being.  She was lolled to drowsiness by the motion of the carriage now that her queasiness had slackened.  A sedative?  Had the taffy-like treat been laced with a dope to knock her out?  Seemed plausible.  That was a funny thought…questioning rationality in a dream that featured Tinkerbell leading an army of rainbow Gumby’s.  She snorted aloud with contempt at her own stupidity.

 Her eyelids now felt weighed down by tiny anvils.  Her head flopped forward on her neck, jiggling a bit with the carriage’s motion.  Is it possible to sleep in a dream? she thought, her heavy eyelids rising to half mast with the thought.  Didn’t matter – she was too tired.

The world went dark.

        *                                     *                                    *                                                     *

The jostling started at her feet and then slowly vibrated up her body, eventually jiggling her heavy eyelids open.  Muriel blinked, rubbed a fist rhythmically into one eye, and stretched upwards with the other hand.  She looked 20 years younger for the span it took her to do these, and then the compounded cares of her adult life and her innate serious nature settled once again into the grooves of her face.

            Paramaya was right in front of her in the carriage, a hand still resting gently on Muriel’s shoulder.  She had been jostling Muriel until she roused. 

            “We’re here,” she said quietly, straightening up and taking a step back from Muriel.

Her sleep had been dreamless – per usual – but what her eyes saw now made her wonder if she had really been awake before and was now dreaming. 

“Hustle and bustle” were the first words to come to mind, pretty normal for a town’s main hub.  But it was the people and the…the things that made Muriel’s unbelieving eyes bug out from their sockets.

System overload!  System overload! some frantic part of her rational mind screamed, hastily shoving down switches and sealing off valves that threatened to blow.  And still she looked, powerless to wrench her eyes from the scene even as they scorched in her sockets.

“Oh.  Dear.  Lord,” she whispered.

Every color imaginable was represented on—and in—the bustling crowd.  One woman, clearly out doing her marketing, was sporting long, tumbling hair of the most vibrant turquoise hue Muriel had ever seen.  On her feet were flashy orange clogs befitting a children’s clown.  The wicker basket thrown over her arm held yards of iridescent chartreuse damask, tied cheerfully with a fuchsia, singing fiber-optic ribbon.

A thing of some sort was levitating down the road scarcely glimpsed through the brightly-shoed masses.  It was completely transparent, an almost exact replica of the Pillsbury Doughboy with emerald-colored organs that looked suspiciously like doughnuts.  The thing’s organs flipped and tossed over one another as it advanced down the avenue.  Muriel felt her own insides heave and quickly diverted her eyes.

She saw now a giant of a man, meaty, muscular, and tanned to a rich mahogany.  He must have stood seven feet tall, and each bicep was roughly the circumference of her waist.  He was herding a group of gorgeous stallions through the marketplace, bellowing from time to time, “Move it along!  Move it along, you beasts!  The king awaits!”

Mention of the king made her shudder in remembrance of Paramaya’s tale, and she focused her eyes on another part of the street.  Now she saw the stalls, each painted in rugby stripes like a barber’s shop, lining the entirety of the avenue.  There was no space in between the booths, each neat, hollowed rectangle snuggling up to the next.  There was a pattern in the appearance of the booths.  Every fifth stall was red and white, followed by blue and yellow, and so on and so forth.  Even in the pressing crowd, Muriel could see that the avenue was carefully constructed to be both organized and aesthetically pleasing.  No one littered, and graffiti was apparently a foreign concept to the Glicens. 

Beneath the clop clop of the stallions, the bellows of the herder, and the high-pitched cries of the salespeople was the uniform thrumming of chatter.  Muriel caught snippets of conversations as people walked by the stopped carriage:  “Oh, you don’t say?  Yes, I do believe the jamuhlia leaves will be quite good this year…”  “I can’t believe the weather we’ve been having!  Do you think you’ve ever seen so many clouds…”  “Well, Tommy, if you are a good boy and make sure to give Pinky a bath, I will let you go sky surfing…”

The barrage on her senses continued as a thousand fragrances mixed together and wafted under her nostrils.  The cloying scent of honeysuckle, acrid horse dung, grilled meat seasoned with dijon, and fruit pies knitted into an aromatic wall and smacked Muriel in the face all at once.  The last wires still functioning in her mind were shooting sparks; she felt sure the end was near, that her sanity would just snap with a hollow crack.  Then Paramaya tore her from the edge of Insanity Abyss with her words, low and quiet in her ear, “Stay here.  I must go speak with the guards.”

No problem there.  Stay put she did, but her eyes followed Paramaya as she advanced swiftly through the crowd.  Was it just Muriel’s imagination (poor as it was) or did the chiffon-swathed woman look a little dejected as she maneuvered through the crowd, a little rounded at the shoulders, a little heavy in her steps?

Paramaya reached the guards who were standing menacingly outside gigantic wrought iron gates.  Behind the gates a tree lined avenue stretched and stretched into the distance, curving up and over a small hill before disappearing.  Somewhere down that road and over that hill was King Ridaldo and Muriel’s fate.  She gulped, feeling the saliva stick in her tight throat.

The guards flurried a bit as Paramaya drew near – Muriel thought she even saw one flush a little beneath his olive green soldier’s cap.  It was clear they were familiar with her, and Muriel remembered Paramaya saying she was a council member.  The soldiers saluted her, heels slapping smartly together as she flitted up to them.  The scene could have been taken straight from a fairy tale:  the pretty, petite princess gazing up at the tall, strong soldiers, sweetly pleading for access to the King.  Only the princess here was in charge, the soldiers looked a little foolish and clumsy in her presence, and the stakes were much higher.  At this moment, Paramaya’s face was drawn and somber, all sweetness shelved for lighter times.  A few brisk words were exchanged followed by another salute, and the guards threw their shoulders into opening the gates.

Paramaya weaved back through the crowds, head and corners of her mouth down.  When she reached the carriage, she climbed in wordlessly.  The Being carriage gently hummed to life, slowly navigating its way to the enormous gates nestled between a hair weaving and a cobbler booth.

The Beings hummed and tumbled beneath their feet, eating up the avenue piece by piece, drawing closer and closer to the palace.  Still Paramaya was silent.  She gazed earnestly towards the western horizon, gazing as if she expected a heroic cowboy to appear, silhouetted against the flaming sky.  But all that was silhouetted was forest, the flaming sky only broken by tree tops and the occasional flitting bird.

Muriel found herself growing increasingly uncomfortable, wishing for some meaningless chatter, anything to take away the gnawing fear deep in her stomach and brain, chewing away at her peace of mind like sewer rats.  She was reflecting on whether or not talking aloud to herself for distraction purposes would really qualify her for a stay in Bellevue Asylum when the carriage abruptly stopped before the largest structure Muriel had ever seen.  Her mouth fell open as she craned her neck to catch sight of the tallest turret.  Could it possibly be?  The palace was a combination of the Disney castle and the Taj Mahal, glistening in black-and-white swirled marble.   A long, rectangular pond ran parallel to the front entrance.  Water lilies and gigantic goldfish cohabitated in the sparkling water.  A tiled driveway sliced through the space between the pond and the castle.  Gorgeous blue and red plants stood at attention in oversize cisterns spaced evenly around the driveway.  Even in her fear the scenery took Muriel’s breath away.

  A small army of sharp-looking officers in navy, white, and hunter green were marching briskly towards where they had stopped in front of the pond.  A gold fish leaped into the air.  So did Muriel’s heart.

Paramaya was already gently stepping down from the carriage.  As she did so, she placed one pale hand next to where Muriel’s was white-knuckling the carriage’s side.  With her eyes on the advancing soldiers and a small, professional smile on her lips, she whispered urgently to Muriel, “This is it now, Muriel.  We will help you as best as we can.”

Muriel felt her tongue swell as all saliva shriveled and died in her mouth.  She still could not move in her terror and it felt an eternity until Paramaya, just before pushing off the carriage towards the officers, looked her directly in the eyes and whispered, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

***

“Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality.”

Jules de Gaultier

***

Chinglee walked down the marble corridor to King Ridaldo’s throne room, relishing the way her heels tapped the ground with sharp authority.  In her hands was a letter, freshly delivered by a messenger sparrow.  She didn’t know what the letter contained or who it was from, but the little bird chirped at her so forcefully that she thought it best to take it to the king at once.

The secretary reached the outer chamber, smiled coyly at the guard to the right of the door—her beau, Stillford—, and with a confident knock, entered into the king’s presence. 

“Your Majesty, a letter has just arrived by urgent carri-,” Chinglee trailed off when she realized the king was not listening.  Ridaldo was furiously pacing the length of the giant, brightly lit room, his cape flying back behind him with each forceful pivot.  Archibald was trying to keep up with him, but was clearly losing oomph.  Sweat poured from his red face and his right hand was clutching his left breast.

“Your Majesty, you really ought to calm down,” gasped Archibald.  He was almost wheezing now in exertion. 

“CALM DOWN?!”, Ridaldo shouted, spinning around so suddenly that he startled Archibald into falling on his rump.  Chinglee stifled a giggle behind one manicured hand.

Calm down?,” he said a little quieter, helping Archibald to his feet and setting him on a nearby sofa.  “Archibald, she is here.  In my city.”  He raked a broad hand through his cropped locks.  “The worst part, Archibald, is that I don’t exactly know what to do with her.”

He started to pace again, but his face took on a brooding look and his steps were slower, more purposeful.

Archibald, “Your Majesty?”

King Ridaldo nodded, but in recognition of Archibald or his own train of thoughts was impossible to tell. 

“Yes,” he began softly, still tracing the marble tiles with his booted feet, his eyes blazing at the floor.  “What to do with her.  She cannot continue to meddle with Creator Lila, that is for certain.”

A pivot towards Archibald, who was still huffing and puffing on the velveteen sofa.  “Do you know, Archibald, I am getting more and more reports of the world falling apart.  Sugar drops are turning sour, song birds forget the lyrics to popular songs…it cannot continue, damn it, it cannot continue!”

He paced so hard across the marble that it seemed he would wear a channel through the floor.  His brows knit together in a fierce straight line above his flashing eyes.  Archibald wheezed on the sofa, rolling eyes following the king’s movement.  Chinglee gnawed on her lip in the doorway.

Ridaldo stopped mid-pace.  “Banishment,” he muttered softly.  His brow cleared and when he turned to his advisor his face was almost serene.  “Samoto to the north…is the colony still there?”

Archibald stared dumbfounded at the king.  His chubby fingers twitched at his vest.  “Y-yes, your majesty.  Sire, you do not mean to-“

“Yes, Archie, I do.” 

“You would exile her?  Into the desert?”

“It is not so cruel.  Samoto is practically an oasis in that land.  The people are simple and will treat her well.  Most importantly, she will not be able to thwart Creator Lila.  For the good of the country, Archibald!”

Archibald nodded at the king’s set jaw.  “It will be done, sire.”

His mind now made up, Ridaldo regained his fervor, his face clouding.  “Chinglee!” he bellowed.

Wincing, Chinglee raised one finger and croaked, “Here, Your Majesty.”

Ridaldo pivoted abruptly toward the door, one high cheekbone and smoldering brown eye facing the secretary.  “Oh.  Have the guards bring in Councilmember Paramaya and the offender.  Also, draft a public declaration of condemnation – banishment.”

“Yes, Your Majesty, and I have this message for you.  By urgent carrier.”  She crossed the throne room to the king and he plucked the note from her hand with an absent, impatient scowl.  He began to open the letter without looking it at as he centered his attention on Archibald.

“Archibald, I am going to need you to be silent during the trial.  Support me on this.  I need to do this myself.”

The chief advisor, still a little pink in the face, stared forlornly at his feet.  “Of course, Your Majesty.  Your decision.”

Ridaldo eyed his advisor warily as he brought the paper up to his face.  The blood in his face retreated at the printed words.  “Chinglee, wait,” he whispered breathlessly.  Chinglee paused at the door and turned back expectantly, one eyebrow cocked in professional inquiry.

“Have Paramaya and the offender taken to the guest quarters.  See that they have a change of clothing.  Tell the chef to prepare a feast.  Tell the maids to prepare the best suite in the east wing.

“The Creator is coming.”

***

Lila formulated a dozen questions as they walked through the chittering, swaying forest.  Not the least of these was why was she here?  What possible purpose could she serve?  Her trips here before were for one thing only fantasy, transporting only the wispy tendrils of her imagination; and for another, not entirely rational.  These trips were in actuality an escape from the rational.  Alteria was the substance of a myriad of dreams, well-loved but not logical and in some places, incomplete.  She was not a little disturbed that something grave was taking place in her make-believe world—something real.  What could possibly be the outcome in an irrational world?  She shuddered to think.

Lila could see they were reaching the edge of the forest at last.  She didn’t know for how long they had been traveling, and her rejuvenated body did not tire.  Yet her growing unease and Ophelia’s continued obstinate silence made the journey almost unbearably lengthy.  In actuality, they had been traveling only an hour or so.

            The luscious, rich greens of the forest began to clear.  I guess the brush didn’t migrate to the suburbs — strictly downtown forest shrubs, Lila mused.  Ophelia led the way, her shoulders erect but a sort of weariness was visible in the curve of her shoulder blades and the sinewy sloping of her neck into the base of her skull.  Lila thought Ophelia might be a manifestation of Lila’s own responsible and worry-laden side.  Even her cares wiggled their way into her escape.  She sighed.

            The pair stepped through the last of the tress.  To Lila it felt as if they were breaking rank as they emerged from the uniform line of towering trees into a wide open meadow of ankle high grass and daisies.  They left behind the song birds chirping their farewell, “Rescue Me.”  Their jazzy song swelled out towards them, but it was decidedly more muted outside the shelter of the woods.  Lila turned back a little to look at Lildelane as her feet obediently plodded after Ophelia.  Her heart took on a slight burden of sadness as she left this sanctuary, an addition of weight like the increase in atmospheric pressure when a storm is brewing.  She felt she was leaving behind the vestiges of calm and confidence to embark upon a journey of unknown components and worse, an unknown outcome.  A light breeze played with her hair then pushed passed her face carrying the song with it.  Reluctantly Lila turned her face towards Ophelia who was briskly heading through the grass to a well-travelled road.

            Lila was catching up to the rapidly moving woman, her arms swinging lightly by her side when Ophelia abruptly stopped cold.  Her head jerked sharply to one side and froze.  Lila cautiously circled around until she was looking Ophelia square in the face.  The woman was slack-jawed and vacant eyed.  The sunlight dappled shifting patterns through the clouds on her face, but that was all that moved.  Lila tentatively reached a hand towards her, “Ophelia?  Ophe—“

            Just as abruptly Ophelia’s head snapped to attention like a guilty school child caught sleeping in class.  Blinking rapidly she swung her head away from Lila and towards the forest.  Ophelia let out a high pitched whistle.

            A sparrow careened out of the trees and skidded to a halt on Ophelia’s open palm.  With her free hand, Ophelia pulled a sheet of blank paper from her pocket. She spoke toward the paper: “I have Creator Lila with me and wish to have an immediate audience with the King.  Will arrive in Glicen by nightfall.  Your humble servant, Ophelia of the Orchids of Lildelane”, and her words appeared upon the parchment.  She spoke softly and rapidly into the little bird’s ear and slipped the rolled sheet into its beak.  Lila would later question her recollection – the bird appeared to wink and grin at Ophelia before lighting off towards the east.

            Ophelia watched the carrier as if soared high into the air.  The frown creasing her brows eventually relaxed as the bird became a speck and then a memory in the sky.  She resumed her walk without a word.

***

Lila could take it no longer.  They had been walking swiftly and quietly down the beaten dirt path for about ten minutes, advancing on a quaint village nestled snugly around the central road, when Lila stopped in her tracks and threw up her arms in exasperation.

“For Pete’s sake, Ophelia, will you puh-lease tell me what the plan is?!  What is going on?!  Why is Muriel on trial?  Just what are we going to do about it?”

She paused for breath, huffing and puffing until her lungs filled to a satisfactory level.  “If I am to be of any help, I’m going to need some answers.”

Ophelia had turned towards Lila at the start of her tirade.  She looked at her with her face calmly set until she had finished.  Then Ophelia’s face sagged into a weary almost forlorn expression.  She heaved a sigh.  “You are right.  We are nearly there and it’s time you know.” 

She attempted a weak smile and sighed again.  “Yet it must wait just a few minutes longer.  We are almost to my home.  Once we have picked up Roger and are on our way, I will tell you all you need to know.”

Lila eyed Ophelia thoughtfully for a minute before heaving a sigh of her own.  Ophelia had just raised more questions instead of answering any—who was Roger and why did they need him?—but she did promise to start answering soon.  Just as long as the answers come before my impatience sparks spontaneous combustion, she thought sourly.  She raked her hands through her hair in a manner eerily similar to Ridaldo’s and nodded once.  Ophelia nodded minutely in response.

The pair headed quietly down the slope side-by-side.  A rickety horse-drawn cart approached them, the driver tipping his sweat-stained hat pleasantly at them as they sidled into the bordering grass.  The cart was packed to the brim with CD’s and sheet music.  Lila raised one eyebrow in question.  Ophelia nodded once and said under her breath, “For the song birds in Lildelane.”

Of course.  Lila loved music and she had imagined the song birds as the conduits for the songs constantly replaying in her head.  Guess they were ready for some new tunes.

“Are we there yet?” she said quietly, trying to play off her growing anxiety with a little humor.  It fell flat.  Ophelia blinked her eyes twice at Lila and her eyebrows pushed downwards in puzzlement.

“My cottage is on the other side of town.  We will be there shortly.”

“No…I mean, it was just a…oh, nevermind.”

They kept walking, Lila a little shamefaced and Ophelia stoic as ever.  Lila was just about to slip into reverie again, the quiet of the modest village and the promise of imminent enlightenment easing her way into her favorite hobby:  thought.  Like a fish slipping beneath the rippling surface of water, effortless and natural, Lila would immerse herself in the sea of thought frequently and eagerly, floating comfortably in its liquid coolness.  She could breathe there, she could stretch there, and she could build a world safe from the deluge of reality missiles.  The membrane of her thought world was thick, impenetrable with the ferocity of her imagination and desire.

But the sleepy town caught her attention just before she could dive beneath the surface of conscious thought.  The sun broke through the clouds in all its glory, tossing the clouds to each side like an actor pushing through stage curtains for their bow.  Millions of lit particles danced about dozens of thatched roofs.  Few villagers were milling—most out doing their marketing likely—but the few who were busying themselves about the town added to the magic of the place.  Some were wielding brooms on their stoops, others were bending over flower beds, their multi-hued locks shiny in the sun.  Here and there children chased each other in the hard-packed streets, high-pitched squeals of delight pealing through the clear air.  One dog with fluffy fur and lolling tongue trotted by a purple cottage, trailing two grinning toddlers with his tail.  Everywhere was the feeling of contentment and safety.

Lila sighed with deep pleasure.  How could she be anxious here?  She created this world as a reprieve from all that burdened her where her physical self (normally) dwelled.  If she could not be calm here, she could be calm nowhere.  She closed her eyes for a brief moment and inhaled the tranquil air.

She felt—or rather heard—Ophelia’s steps falter at her side.  She peeked sideways out of one eye.  Ophelia was looking back at her inquisitively but without impatience.

“Lila, are you feeling alright?”

Lila let the grin she felt coming stretch across her face.  Opening both eyes, she turned them on Ophelia, twinkling with good humor.  “More than alright.  I was just…I really like this place.”

Ophelia smiled back with her eyes.  She gestured toward the oasis with a fluid movement of her hand.  “Lildelane Village.  My home.”

“It’s beautiful.  I would never want to leave it if I lived here!”

“I don’t often.  Most of my work keeps me in the village.  I train song birds and messenger sparrows.”  She resumed her walk towards the village, settling into a steady rhythm.

“So…do you take them to the market?  In Glicen?”  Lila was surprised to hear the taciturn woman was a “bird whisperer” of a sort, but she had encountered many surprises today and she was learning to quickly get over them.  She fell into step with Ophelia without pause.

“Rarely.  Usually Farmer Fillstilks takes them for me.  On occasion Paramaya will take a few to the King.”

“Do you ever get song requests?  I mean, how do you know what to teach them?”  They had reached the outskirts of town, a candy cane striped sign welcoming them to Lildelane Village. 

Ophelia looked over at Lila.  A half-smile propped up one cheek.  “I get them from you.  Whatever goes through your mind, I teach to the birds.”

This constant referral to her “creative power”—to the sheer authority she had here—still staggered her.  “Oh.  Right.”

“Of course, the people here do have some favorites among the songs you think about.  You cannot imagine how popular “Superstition” is right now.”  Ophelia shook her head slowly in sheer puzzlement.

Lila laughed brightly, the act feeling good in her throat and sounding so right in the atmosphere. 

“One of my favorites, too,” she said still smiling.

They pulled abreast of a few cottages, a few children stopping their play to gape openly at the women as they passed.  Or rather, at Lila. 

Lila cleared her throw delicately but pointedly.  Ophelia nodded, her go-to gesture. 

“They recognize you,” she murmured. 

“Huh,” Lila grunted and found herself gaping back at the children.  She closed her mouth with an audible snap.  Clearing her throat, she tried for a more complete response.

“How is that possible?  I don’t think I’m so narcissistic as to have my portrait hanging in every public building.”

There was a low chuckle from Ophelia.  “No, no.  They know you because they feel you.  And they see you in all of this.”  She swept her arm grandly over the village and surrounding meadows.  “And as their creator, you leave a mark on each of them.  They see the resemblance.”

Lila fell silent, thoughtful.  It made sense…she remembered thinking that Ophelia was the personification of her own worries and cares.  Each of these people must also have one of her characteristics, one of her dreams, one of her thoughts…

She looked at the people with a different set of eyes, eyes looking not out of wonder but with adoring almost reverent recognition.  These were her children of a sort.  She imagined the birth certificates of each one:  a fleeting thought, materialized on paper.  No, “fleeting” was wrong.  She must have lingered on each of these thoughts, enough to form these living, breathing people around her.  She felt her hand creep up to her throat as she choked with emotion.

A small girl about five years old with ringlets of sapphire blue broke away from the group of children and shyly skipped up to where Lila stood with a barrage of emotions flickering across her face.  The girl looked up at her creator under long, glistening lashes before stretching out her tiny hand.  Her wide eyes opened wider as she gazed imploringly at Lila. 

Fighting sobs of a mixture of joy and wonder, Lila bent down and gently took hold of the child’s hand.  The girl shivered from head to foot at the touch as if an electric current had pulsed through her.   Then, so suddenly that both Lila and Ophelia were rendered frozen with shock, the girl broke into a sunny grin and threw herself into Lila’s arms, her round cheek pressed against the hollow of Lila’s throat.  Lila felt the girl’s ringlets tickle her shoulder, her soft arms tighten slightly around her neck, heard the thrumming of the girl’s heartbeat.  She began to thaw from her shock, and as she nestled the girl—“Bleu” flashed in her mind like a neon light.  Her name is “Bleu”—tears began to soak her cheeks, a glacier of emotion melting in streaming run-offs.

“Creator Lila, Creator Lila, I see you…I feel you.”  The girl’s voice was the tinkling of bells, high and clear and sweet.  She raised one plump finger to trace a tear on Lila’s face.

Lila gulped back a fresh sob and blinked forcefully to dispel the moisture clouding her vision.  She pulled her face back to gaze down at Bleu, her eyes probing the depths of the ocean-blue eyes staring back at her.  She nodded a rapid bobbing motion.  “I know,” she whispered.  “I feel you, too.  I’ve always felt you.”  She rested her hand lightly on Bleu’s ringlets and the little girl sighed contentedly. 

Behind them, Ophelia gently cleared her throat.  “Lila, we must keep moving.” 

Bleu pulled back from Lila and gave her a cheery grin.  “Will I see you again, Creator Lila?”

Lila managed a teary grin of her own.  “You bet, Bleu.  Be a good girl.”

Bleu nodded gravely and with one lithe movement that only children can manage, hopped from Lila’s lap and sprinted for her friends.

Wiping her face with the back of her hand, Lila walked to Ophelia’s side.  She took a deep breath and smiled crookedly at Ophelia.  “Ok, let’s do this.”

It took them only a few minutes to reach the other side of the town.  Lila was quiet as they walked.  Tear stains were still visible on her cheeks, but she wore a serene smile and her eyes glittered with determination.

This is real, she marveled.  This is really real. 

The full force of the reality of this world was at last seeping into her pores, her brain’s final rational wall of defense obliterated by personal contact with the fruit of her imagination.  She saw it all in Bleu’s eyes.  Staring into those astonishing orbs was like staring into her own soul.  And she understood.  She knew now what her purpose here was.  As Creator, she must protect her creation.  She must protect the people she created.

They had encountered a few more townsfolk along the way, one in a garden and another bent over a boiling pot of deliciousness.  Ophelia greeted them with low murmurs but did not slacken her pace.  She stopped when they reached a moderately sized cottage the color of morning haze over the ocean, set back from the road on a cobblestone path.  It was a very neat cottage, the flower beds at the head of the path arranged precisely and the curtains in the windows on either side of the door were opened the exact same amount.  Yet the place was welcoming – just the sort of place one imagines housing a crackling fire and a warm cup of tea.

But it was not to the front door that Ophelia led Lila.  Instead, she skirted around the right side of the house—lined with more breath-taking flowers—and headed straight for an enormous wooden shack set fifty feet back from the house. 

Lila opened her mouth to ask what was in the shack, but Ophelia beat her to it.

“Roger,” she said simply, and opened the door.

Lila crossed over the threshold, blinking until her eyes adjusted to the dim light.  She immediately wished she hadn’t.  Standing not a dozen feet in front of her was a gigantic creature, all fur with milky brown eyes set high on his head.  He had a muzzle like a wolf, but the floppy ears of a Saint Bernard.  In between his brawny shoulder blades was a divot resembling a wide, deep bowl.  His spine consisted of odd rectangular shapes much like a fur-covered staircase.  His long, lean legs made Lila think of a velociraptor, an unpleasant comparison.  She groped for the wall behind her and finding it, cowered there with her knees knocking.

Ophelia brushed by her until she was standing next to the creature, and absentmindedly pulled hay from a nearby bale and strewed it on the plank floor.  When Lila was relatively certain the thing wouldn’t bite off Ophelia’s head, she tried to speak through her fear-constricted throat.

“Wh-wh-what the…?”  she sputtered, eyeing the monstrous beast with stock horror.  For the first time since meeting the serious woman, Ophelia’s face cracked into a luminous grin.

“This is Roger.  He’s a conveyor beast.  Beautiful, isn’t he?”  She rubbed his side—or rather knee.  Roger was approximately twelve feet tall—with unadulterated pride on her face.

“I don’t remember imagining him.”

Ophelia chuckled softly.  “You didn’t.  Not directly.  You do not understand the power of your creativity, do you?  That your creative power has the power to create by itself?”  She shook her head slowly in disbelief.

“I guess you’ll have to catch me up to speed.”

Ophelia nodded.  “On the way.  Up you go.”

Lila gulped.  “Bring it on.” 

And with shaky hands, she climbed the beast’s spine and sank into place between his shoulders.

*                                      *                              *                                 *

Once she had settled in somewhat to Roger’s lumbering—but so very fast–gait and was actually rather enjoying the ride, Lila turned her attention to Ophelia.  The woman was sitting upright in the chair next to her, her face composed but pride for the beast shone unmistakably in her eyes.  Every now and again she would reach one hand in front of her to gently caress the long, silky hair of Roger’s shoulder blade.

“Ophelia?”

“Mmm?”

“Well…I was just thinking.  About what you said about my ‘creative power creating other things by itself.’”  Ophelia nodded.  Lila paused, composing her thoughts and choosing her words.  She was a little afraid of the answers to her questions.  When she did not continue after a moment, Ophelia gestured for her to go on.

“How can that be exactly?  And why are there so many things, and places, and people that I don’t remember…well, creating?”

Ophelia’s face became pensive and she continued to stroke Roger’s shoulder as she formulated a response.  Lila gazed at the scenery over Roger’s bobbing head as she waited.  A dizzying blur of trees, and villages, and meadows spun by with each stretch and recoil of Roger’s body.  It was breathtaking.

“Creativity breeds creativity,” Ophelia began.  Lila ripped her eyes from the speeding landscape and focused her attention on the woman.

“Creativity inspires creativity in others.  When you see a painting that resonates with you, you could be inspired to express yourself artistically.  Thus, their act of creativity has been transferred to you.”

She glanced over at Lila to gauge her reaction.  Lila was nodding her head up and down repeatedly, absently, her eyes staring thoughtfully into her lap. 

“It is even stronger with you.  Your creative power does not have to be transferred to anyone else…it reproduces of itself.”

“But how does it know what to reproduce?  Couldn’t it have just as easily made an Abominable Snowman as it made Roger?”

Ophelia shook her head slowly.  “I do not think so.”  She bit her lip, an action Lila thought was out of character for the stoic woman.  “I think it can only create out of its own nature, and your creative nature is good…pure.” 

Ophelia’s expression changed as she said this last part, and Lila was surprised to see the same awe and reverence in the woman’s eyes that had been in the eyes of the village children.  She felt a shiver run up her spine but squashed it before it could rattle her shoulders.  When she looked again at Ophelia, however, the woman was looking forward again, her face still and composed.

Clearing her throat, Lila said quietly, “Please continue.”

“Well…,” Ophelia faltered, clearing her own throat lightly and licking her lips before continuing.  “Your creativity has so much energy behind it that it must expend some of it.  Some speculate that your creative power forms new things, or places, or people at random.  Others, like Paramaya and myself, think that it finds its guidance from glimmers of thoughts and ideas in your imagination.  Things perhaps you do not think of for more than a fraction of a second, but reflect an element of your personality and dreams.

“But some,” Ophelia sighed deeply, “Some have no imaginative powers at all…or they simply are afraid to unlock it.”

Ophelia looked up at her creator from beneath her eyelashes, pain burning in her eyes.  “Some of these people are so afraid of imagination that they despise and try to stifle it in others.  Your Muriel is one of these.  They smother the brilliant light of imagination, squelching its flame and all that it would create.

“You see that she must be stopped, do you not?”  Ophelia whispered, her face tortured.  “We of course do not wish her any harm—that is why we need you—but she cannot be allowed to hinder you further.”

Lila gazed for a long time at Ophelia’s anxiety-lined face.  How did this get so complicated?  Was complexity essential to any world?  Or maybe we make it complicated, she thought glumly.  Her heart ached for her people, for the stress they were enduring.  She did not bemoan that this responsibility fell to her; she longed only to make it right.

At last she stirred.  She shifted her weight between Roger’s shoulders in a physical mirroring of her mind regrouping her thoughts.

“Ophelia, why don’t you start from the beginning.  We’re going to make this right.”

*                               *                             *                                                *

Roughly four hours later, they drew near to Glicen, the turrets of a marble castle jutting above gently rolling hills and into the twilight.  Cottages and chateaus were grouped in neat arrangements throughout the surrounding countryside, and unusual livestock grazed on lush acres next to each community.  Roger, who had had a brief rest and about five gallons of water an hour ago, burst into a fresh gallop now that the target was in sight.

Lila spent much of the trip reflecting on what Ophelia had told her.  Alteria was falling apart because Muriel was slowing killing Lila’s creative mojo; King Ridaldo was furious that Creator Lila was being hindered—and that his kingdom of beauty and tranquility was deteriorating—and so he sent Ophelia’s sister, Councilwoman Paramaya, to fetch the offender for trial; Paramaya and Ophelia, although desiring equilibrium in their country, took compassion on Muriel and connived a no-casualties rescue plan; Lila was retrieved by Ophelia in the hopes that she could convince Muriel of the reality of imagination, thereby saving both Alteria and Muriel from an awful fate; and they were going to Ridaldo now to make their plea at Muriel’s trial. 

As the scenery smeared into warp speed, Lila thought about what she would say to Ridaldo.  She thought that he might be easy to get to.  She would have to test her power – perhaps she could even give him a direct order, being Creator and all.  But Muriel…what on earth would she say to her?  Just the thought of seeing the no-nonsense woman in her sanctuary world made her cringe.  And yet somehow, she must convince Muriel that imagination has enormous power, that the air she is breathing and the people she sees found their existence in imagination.

Lila took a deep breath, confused that it was easier to do than it had been the whole trip—Roger generated some serious G-force—and realized that they had stopped.  They had come to a halt on a large avenue.  Roger was heaving, his long tongue wagging from side to side by his jaw in his impatience.  Barring their way to massive wrought iron gates guarded by two sheepish looking men in uniform was a crowd of gaping people and creatures.  They were frozen in place, limbs bent or extended in various poses.  One woman had been bending down to retrieve a fallen piece of fruit, her basket secured in the crook of one elbow, her other hand reaching for the fruit, her torso nearly parallel to the ground.  When she saw Roger and his passengers, her body stiffened in that position with only her head rising to gape openly at the new arrivals.  The whole scene reminded Lila of Madame Trousseau’s wax museum.

Without realizing what she was doing, Lila reached across Roger’s shoulder and clutched Ophelia’s hand, tears rising in her eyes and filling her throat. 

“Dear people,” she began, her voice gravelly with emotion, “I know that things have not been well, and that you are scared.”

The crowd was still frozen with their eyes riveted to her face, and Lila wondered what it would take to thaw them.  Their stillness was eerie.

“But I am here to make it better.  I -”  She choked, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.  “I care so very deeply for each and every one of you.  You are my heart song.  I need you as much—maybe more—as you need me.”

The people begin to stir very slightly.  A few eyes stole glances at their neighbors.  A tear trickled down one withered cheek.

Lila noticed the change in the townsfolk and was struck with a sudden inspiration.  She cleared her throat and straightened majestically on Roger’s back.

“People of Glicen, there is one who has been threatening your very existence.  She does not hold to our way of thinking, and has by her unbelief been harming your world” – a low hiss erupted through the crowd—“But she is doing so unknowingly.”

Lila thought of Muriel with her starched shirts and spotless Oxfords.  She thought of her in work meetings, brisk and to the point, impatient with creativity and brainstorming.  She thought of the way the cold woman looked down her nose at “flighty” people.  And then she thought of what life must be like for Muriel outside of work.  Was she lonely?  Was she scared?  Were pessimism and fear and gloom all she knew?  Lila felt the hurt and bitterness gripping her heart loosen, one barbed tendril at a time, as an image of Muriel in her own home, broken and sobbing dropped into her mind.  Muriel was wrong—no doubt about it—but her wrong stemmed from ignorance.  She hadn’t yet experienced an encounter with imagination, imagination that could not only take one away from the current distressing reality, but create whole new realities.  Imagination had been a good friend to Lila and she hoped for everyone’s sake that it would prove a good one to Muriel, as well.

“All she needs is to be shown how powerful imagination is, that her unbelief is affecting a real world!  Help me show her.”

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