The Transmundane, Episode 5: Solitary Confinement

Ashlyn glared at the closed door. She couldn't claim that her parents were being unjust, but she didn't have to like it. On the other hand, being grounded for a month and losing her allowance until the bus window was paid off had to be better than whatever would have happened if she had tried to explain. Kidnapped by a troll, given magic powers by the touch of its blood, chased by an evil ghost that just incidentally made her discard the last piece of possible evidence to support any of it... she couldn't remember if electroshock therapy was still fashionable, but if not, there was surely something just as barbaric in store for lunatics these days.

On the same hand, her rendezvous -- if that was the right word, considering that they met up a couple of kilometers from where any smooching took place -- with Tetsu had gone mostly unmentioned. Frigarsen apparently could only be righteously angry about one crime at a time, and that was just fine with her.

She wondered how Tetsu was doing. She knew he hadn't spilled the beans, because then his parents would have called her parents, who would have taken her down to the basement with a bare hundred-watt bulb and a couple of rubber hoses, and then it would have been off to the institution for both of them.

Unless someone believed them, of course, in which case she'd probably have gotten carted off to Area 51 to have her eyeballs removed for study by "top men".

She was saved from having to seriously consider whether she might be able to see without eyes by a tapping at the door. "Come in!"

Her mother blinked and fumbled for the lightswitch. "Isn't sitting alone in the dark just a bit melodramatic?" She lifted a hand to protect her eyes from the sudden flood of halogen light; by the time Ashlyn realized she should pretend the light made any difference, it would have been obviously fake, but fortunately her mother didn't seem to notice.

Suppressing the urge to casually toss off a comment about how seeing without light was all the rage these days -- Seitetsu might be wonderful, gorgeous, and a true gentleman, but he was definitely a bad influence -- she shrugged. "I wasn't looking at much of anything anyway."

Her mother pulled the desk chair over and sat in it reversed, arms folded on the back. "Thought up a good story yet, then?"

"If I said anything now, you'd know it was a lie. Anyway, if I was going to do that, I had two hours on the bus to think of something."

"But you didn't."

Ashlyn shrugged again. If her parents didn't know by now that she wasn't a liar, there wasn't any point in saying it.

"I didn't think you would. But I wish you would tell us what did happen. I know you wouldn't damage school property without what seemed like a good reason..."

Of course the concern in her mother's voice stabbed far deeper than any anger ever had, but nothing about trolls, magic powers, ghosts, or evidence had changed. "I don't think that would be a very good idea."

Her mother patted down the pockets of her plain denim work shirt and jeans theatrically. 'Well, I'm all out of sodium penthothal tonight. But even though we happen to be in the position of punishing you tonight, we are still your parents, God help us, and we do want to help."

If there had been any way to rationalize her experiences as not real -- acid in the Gatorade or anything, no matter how far-fetched -- she would have done it. But she had been able to count every fleck of brown and green in her mother's hazel eyes before the light had gone on. "I know, mom."

"Okay. If you change your mind about pleading the Fifth, you know where to find us. But that's not what I came up here to talk about."

It didn't take magic powers to see where this was going, but she just waved a go-ahead. There wasn't any point in giving anything away prematurely.

"I understand tonight's excitement wasn't your only run-in with the forces of law and order. Or Seitetsu's."

She'd known exactly what was coming, and she blushed anyway. So much for protestations of innocence, but she could hardly deny she'd been out walking with Tetsu. "We just went to look at the stars, and got a little lost on the way back."

"Looking at the stars. I see." She paused for a moment, and Ashlyn thought she was off the hook, but no such luck. "I'm pretty sure you have enough sense not to make me a grandmother at my tender age... if you had any choice."

Anger filled her up, lifting her from her slouch and throbbing in her blood. "What are you accusing Tetsu of?!"

Her mother sat back startledly on her chair, hands reflexively raised. "I'm not accusing him of anything; we'd be in the police station if I were. But Ms Frigarsen says one of the other girls reported that you were 'all cut up' under your clothes."

"I fell down!"

Her mother raised one eyebrow.

"I know it's the oldest excuse in the book -- hell, it's probably in cave paintings -- but that's because people really do fall down. It was dark, we got off the path, I tripped over a root or something and fell into a bush. My shirt was untucked, so it got dragged up while I fell down into the branches." Her story was close enough to the truth that she could make a quite sincere face. "And thorns."

Her mother winced, but persisted. "And your elbow?"

"And rocks." That she'd banged her elbow on a rock was even true, in a manner of speaking.

"Okay, okay. I never thought Seitetsu would do anything to hurt you, but I had to ask. He seems nice, but he is a fifteen-year-old boy."

"Yah, one of the ninety-nine percent who manage to be decent human beings anyway. If you put a gun to Tetsu's head and told him to, to throw someone to the ground and rape her, he'd tell you to pull the trigger," she said with complete conviction. "Anyway, remember that egregiously expensive self-defense course you had me take?"

"I said okay! But... it can be awfully hard to defend yourself against someone you think you love."

"I guess I can't say I'd never fall for an asshole, but I'd get over him real quick if he tried to hurt me."

Her mother smiled a little. "I think you would. Okay, enough interrogation. Get some rest." She rose and slid the chair back into place, then paused. "Did you see anything unusual while you were out 'stargazing'?"

Ashlyn's heart thudded like a troll's feet on hard-packed earth, but she thought she answered relatively calmly, "Unusual how?"

"Things that looked like they were moving but weren't, northern lights, strange footprints?"

"No, nothing like that." Strangeness had leapt out and mugged her, which really wasn't much like something you could laugh off as a trick of the light or wind. "Why do you ask?" She couldn't imagine her brown, practical mother mixed up in anything like she'd been through. Her father would fit right in, an absent-minded elven wizard or something, but her mother was too real.

"No reason. Night, sweetie."

Ashlyn stared at the closed door. How would she describe what had happened to her if she wanted to tip someone off that it was not natural, without sounding like the National Enquirer? Not like that, obviously, but it didn't seem likely the exact same thing could have happened to her mother.

On the other hand, her mother might have been talking about something completely different, in which case spilling the beans -- magic beans? -- would still get her a coat with sleeves that tied in back and a nice collection of needle tracks. But she could hint, maybe, the same way. Her parents were already looking at her funny for not explaining why she'd gotten Tetsu to break open the window for her; a few cryptic utterances couldn't make it much worse.

Resolved, she swung her feet to the floor, and crumpled onto the bed as her numb legs gave way. Apparently she'd been sitting melodramatically in the dark for a lot longer than she'd thought.

"Ow! Damn it!" Returning circulation stung her viciously, but eventually faded as she bent and kicked her legs to revive them. Panting with the effort and annoyance, she thought about trying to get up again, but the impulse never made it as far as her limbs, and her eyelids drooped. It was half past midnight, after all. Her mom would still be there in the morning. Almost certainly.

* * *

A hurricane of birds raged around her, pigeons and ravens and seagulls so numerous the sound of their wings was thunder and the clamor of their alarm pierced to the skull. Whenever panic exhausted one, two more rose from the stadium seats to replace it.

The eye of the feathered storm was so narrow she could have reached out and touched the birds, but when she tried, their courses bent away from her hand; when she stepped forward, the eye expanded before her and drew up behind so that she was still in the center. With a shrug, she began walking, placing the burden of avoiding her on the birds. There was something she needed to do, but she couldn't think with all the noise. If she kept walking, eventually she had to reach the edge of the stadium, and then she would remember.

Her footsteps echoed like far-off drumbeats in the concrete corridor, but she didn't worry about losing the advantage of surprise: in the orange sodium light, she could see that the way was perfectly straight, perfectly square, and perfectly empty from the vanishing point ahead to the vanishing point behind. The trickle of water down the slightly dished floor shone like monster's blood, and she wondered what she would find when she got to the top.

After some timeless time, the orangeness of the light ahead changed, and a little later the tunnel debouched into a small patch of wooded ground: not a park, just a vacant lot left undeveloped long enough for thick bushes and weedy trees to sprout up here and there. The dirt tilted down to a rickety chain-link fence, and somewhere beyond that drop-off was city.

The buildings, not real sky-scrapers but at least twenty or thirty stories tall, all poured thick smoke from their tops as though the windows and balconies were only façades around gigantic chimneys. The orange light she had seen from the tunnel was the undersides of those plumes glowing like furnaces in the setting sun.

Although the fenceposts leaned out precariously over the drop, and the mesh was bent down at the top between them, the fence was still higher than she wanted to climb. Paralleling it behind her was the crumbly earthen bank the tunnel mouth had opened in, and clots of brush blocked any progress to right or left. She was considering digging under the fence when she finally remembered what the birds had made her forget.

She reached behind her head and drew the exit around in front of her.

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