Chapter Two

     For the next couple of days, Minde was in an uproar. The sheriff and two kids had turned up missing, one kid was found in a shed (thanks to the help of Geoff Wisenhower,) and just about every person in the town was scared out of their wits. There was no sign of Harrison or his car along the dirt mountain road he had gone down in search of the tweaker who’d stumbled into Geoff’s. So far, the idea was that the tweaker kid had killed Harrison, put him in the trunk, and followed the old dirt road over to the next county. There he probably ditched the car and went for something better and less conspicuous. These were the things that the small town folk of Minde told themselves to avoid facing the fact that lingered over all of them: something unexplainable was going on.

     Yes, they were all pretty freaked out, but it was nothing compared to what they would feel when Benny Jorgens stumbled into town, his hair turned a milky white and his eyes vacant. They would look at him and see a nearly ruined form of life. Once they saw this, all minds would be made up.

     Not all was well in the town of Minde.

**

 

     Harvey Carson was the man who filled in for Harrison while he was missing, and the long dreamed of promotion only made the truth more apparent and awful: his son was dead, all the people who knew anything about his death were missing, and he was stuck investigating the case because Harrison disappeared. What a way to mourn the loss of a son.

     He couldn’t believe it was happening. Both his best and his worst dreams had finally come true at the same time. His wife had cried for thirteen hours straight, seven of them spent with him at her side, also in tears. Jerry was their only son. He was a slacker, yeah, and he was stoned more often than not, but he was still a respectful, funny person. While he was alive, that is.

     Harvey had refused to look at the body of his son. He’d had them take a close up picture of a birth mark on his hip for identification, but that was the only way he’d look. He now sat at the large desk in his room with the reading light on. Sitting before him was a note to anyone who might come looking. It was like poetry to Harvey, but he knew most people wouldn’t appreciate it. The note read:

 

Dear Who Ever the Hell Cares,

For some reason, fate has kicked me in the ass.

It has stolen the soul of my wife and I.

We now live in constant sorrow.

I believe my boy has gone to Hell,

So that’s where I must go.

Might be a pleasant journey, too.

Know that I am selfish.

I do what I do because I love my wife.

I know she has thought of suicide,

Which would surely send her to hell.

I can’t lose my wife and my boy to the flames.

So I will kill her and myself.

She’ll go to heaven, as she deserves.

I’ll go to hell, which I probably deserve,

And there I will kick my boy’s ass.

He hurt his momma and me, so he deserves anything he gets.

And that’s why I hate myself…

Because I blame him…

I do what I do because I care.

 

     Love,

 

Harvey Carson           10-21-04

 

     He read it over several times before concluding that it was good enough. He reached over and opened the second drawer down in his desk. He hated how ironic and utterly perfect it was that there just happened to be thunder and lightning that night. It made the whole thing feel almost stupid. But when he shut off the reading light, and the street lamp was the only thing on, the lightning made the gun in his drawer all the more frightening.

     As he picked the .45 up, he began to feel the pain steadily drifting out of his wife. The emotions in that woman were so strong that he could actually feel them, which made his new task seem more justified. He walked over to her and put a pillow on her face. He didn’t want to see what she looked like when he was done. At the last second he stopped abruptly, feeling foolish for having forgotten the only detail worth remembering. It was his last chance. He removed the pillow, bent down, and kissed his beloved wife firmly on the lips. Luckily she didn’t wake up… he didn’t think he could go through with it if he had to look her in the eyes while he did it. He whispered, “I love you, darling. I do what I do because I care.”

     Harvey replaced the pillow and pointed the gun at the middle. The gun shot was immediate and loud. The woman on the bed bounced slightly from the force of the shot. Immediately, blood began seeping out the sides of the pillow and the sheet.

     “My god,” he said, turning away. “Please forgive me.”

     He put the gun right under his nose, pointed diagonally up. When he pulled the trigger, he felt a last instant of pain, and then his job was done.

**

     It was exactly four days after Jerry had over-dosed that Benny came stumbling into town on the same old dirt road that led to a certain shed. His eyes were wild and he was muttering non-stop under his breath. Somehow, his hair had turned white, including his eye brows. He didn’t know this yet, but he would soon find out.

     If only he could concentrate… That was the thing; everything swam in and out of focus, and his thoughts would change rapidly through different things. Sometimes when he was walking, everything would go black and he’d get memories of that ruined town where he had been held prisoner for what seemed like an eternity, but was only a couple of days. The rattling of chains and the smell of gasoline. Everything was so vivid within his mind that he was positive of the memories authenticity.

     He hoped to never visit that place again, but deep in his mind, he knew he’d have to eventually.

     The first person to see him was, of course, Geoff Wisenhower. He ran out and brought the kid into the store, asking stupid pointless questions the whole time. Once he got the kid hunkered down (in a place where he couldn’t pull a Richard) Geoff picked up the phone to report the strange reappearance of Benny Jorgens. The operator at the station who answered sounded kind of lost, as if he didn’t quite know what to do. He grimly informed Geoff of Harvey Carson’s “righteous suicide” and told Geoff that he didn’t know exactly who was going to come out to check the kid out, but someone was on their way… eventually…

     Geoff hung up the phone and turned around to face Benny. He was now asleep, or at least he looked that way. He sat straight up, his eyes were closed and his breathing was heavy. Every once in a while he’d mutter things like, “Sorry, Laura,” and then laugh. Just the image of that permanently changed boy sitting there muttering mad laughter made Geoff shutter.

     “Beware the Inner,” Benny advised before bursting into a groggy sounding laugh.

     “What’s the Inner, Benny?” Geoff asked experimentally.

     No answer. The kid just sat in the blanket, bundled in with his eyes closed, muttering and laughing. Geoff started to turn away to go grab a beer when Benny blurted out, “He’s coming. Ha… ha… ha…”

**

     Three hours later, Benny was back in the hands of his parents. The cops couldn’t come to any logical agreements on what might have happened to the boy (who had vivid, but short memories of his “encounter.”) Some people said that maybe he was kidnapped and raped, or abducted by aliens as was the common story at the elementary school, and the consensus was that the stress from whatever incident had caused the pigment in his hair to simply die out. But every one knew that that was a load of crap. Rape wouldn’t tear a boy away from all coherent thought. Something had definitely changed the boy.

     His parents were glad to have him back, but neither of them knew how to react to his vacant stare and the occasional chuckle that broke from his lips. They tried talking to him and holding him and everything imaginable, but eventually they realized that they didn’t have a son anymore… they had a vegetable.

     They moved him into his bedroom and got him in his bed. They continued trying to get him to respond, but eventually gave up. Benny sat in silence for a while and listened to the sounds drifting in from outside. He was perfectly conscious, and he knew exactly what was going on around him, but he couldn’t control his own body. He knew there was somewhere he had to go, and that there was a way to get there within his own mind, but he really didn’t want to go back. All the fumes and noise, and all the pain he remembered experiencing there, like being ripped from his own body by some mechanical hand. Slowly.

     There was absolutely nothing good about that place, and Benny would have never gone back if he had the choice. But he did not have a choice. That was the one place where he might regain control. His mind recalled somewhat of a journey to the place where his “separation” had begun, so he told himself to be prepared for the worst. Even in the other world, he had slipped in and out of consciousness, seeing a giant rock here, a willow tree there. For all he knew, the journey would take weeks on foot. He didn’t know if there were woods or swamps or desserts; all he knew was that he had somewhere to go, and he had to travel to get there.

     Sitting in his room, listening to the birds outside, Benny began to concentrate on the memory of Minde in its most desolate form, the place where the Man had taken him after they met on the hill. He imagined the smell of gasoline, so strong that it burned and the sounds of screams, so full of pain that they split one’s head to hear. Slowly his nose was filled with that smell and he heard the far off whisper of screams. He knew his surroundings were probably changing, but he didn’t dare open his eyes. He felt himself falling into the darkness of his eyelids. All at once he was weightless, like he was suspended between two opposing forces.

     Benny felt his feet hit solid ground and braced himself, but he fell down anyways. He felt moist earth on his face, and when he opened his eyes, he saw that his surroundings were now much darker than his room had been. When he tried to move his arms, he expected to find that he couldn’t control them, but they moved with ease as normal. Benny got to his feet and brushed the dank soil off of his pants.

     He was surrounded by massive willow trees that seemed hundreds of feet tall. The sky was a dark shade of purple, and the trees were enormous black figures against it. Benny had never seen such a large amount of willow trees before, but he knew one thing already; it was creepy as hell.

     The ground was covered in a thick layer of bright green moss that almost seemed to glow in the darkness. Benny could just barely see that the over sized willows were arranged in rows, kind of like fruit trees in orchards. Judging by how endless those massive rows seemed, Benny guessed he had at least three days before he’d see any people. Oh good, he thought grimly.

It occurred to him that he had absolutely no way of keeping warm or feeding himself. For miles all he could see were willow trees and the eery, bright green moss on the ground. The only thing Benny could think to do was sit down. The ground was covered in moss so thick that it was like sitting on a mattress.

     Out of habit, Benny began picking at the moss on the ground, and he soon had a shallow dent. He sat doing this without realizing it for about five minutes while he tried to remember the year-long term he’d served in the Boy Scouts of America. So far nothing was coming to him.

     When Benny looked down at the ground in front of him, he saw that he had dug a hole in the moss about five inches deep. Little bits of soil were visible at the bottom, and Benny could just barely see small worm like things squirming in it. Out of curiosity, he grabbed a hand full of the dank soil and examined the worms.

     They didn’t look like anything he had ever seen before, but the closest thing he could think of were maggots. But these were much larger, and had orange stripes across the backs. Benny reached in with his free hand and picked one up. Immediately, the thing curled into a ball, and when the opposite ends of it touched each other, it lit up with electricity. When he felt the shock, Benny threw the thing. It hit one of the massive willow trees and exploded in a bright flash. But there was no sound at all, like a tv put on mute. Just a flash.

     Maybe he could use them to make fire. At least then he could be warm while he thought. He broke some twigs and arranged them into a rather neat square pattern. Then he picked some of the moss off of a nearby tree; he had noticed that the moss on the trees was much drier than that on the ground, as if it had grown and then just sat there. For Gods know how many years. Hundreds?... Thousands?...

     After piling a fair amount of the dry moss in the center of the square, Benny broke some more twigs off a nearby tree. He noticed, with some wonder, that there were absolutely no sticks or foliage on the ground; only that eerie, bright green moss. With his materials set up perfectly, he went back to the spot where he’d first crossed over, or whatever it was that he’d done. There were still plenty of what he had titled “tiger-maggots.”

     Oh shit, he thought. How the hell am I going to get those things into the fuel?

     “Don’t worry about that,” said a voice from behind one of the many massive willows that surrounded him. Benny jumped slightly at the young girl’s voice, spinning a complete circle to see if there were any threats. “A bit jumpy, are we?” the girl said as she stepped out from behind a willow in front of him that had to be at least twenty feet in diameter.

     “Who are you?” Benny asked warily of the girl. His hair wasn’t the only thing that had changed about him when the man had hauled him here by hypnosis. This world had taught him to be paranoid.

     “You mean you’ve forgotten me already?” she asked, still calm and moving slowly towards him in a graceful, flowing stride. She couldn’t be any older than ten. “Tsk, tsk, my friend.”

     Benny closed his eyes and tried to place that face. It seemed so familiar, yet he couldn’t match it to a name.

“Remember,” she said from right in front of him on a moss covered root, “I’m not the one who went away.”

     Benny opened his eyes in shock and realization as he figured it out. The girl was grinning at him. “Laura?” he asked tentatively. “Is that really you?”

     “Score one for jumpy,” she said cheerily.

     “But why are you so young?”

     “Because no matter how old you got, Benny, you were still just a little boy in your head talking to a little girl who would listen. In your mind, neither of us changed. Until you went away.”

     “Laura, I tried,” Benny said, his head still trying to comprehend the whole idea of actually seeing the girl he’d centered his happiness around for so long. “I tried so hard. I wanted nothing more than to sit with my eyes closed, feeling you within my mind. I was terrified when you started to disappear. But I found a way to come back, didn’t I?”

     “Now, five years later.”

     “Not if you include all those days I sat on that bench.”

     “Benny, what’re you talking about?” Laura asked.

     “You…you mean…” Benny stammered, “you don’t remember any of those long conversations we had, with the summer air blowing around me? We used to crack up together at the way people walking by would look at me funny when I’d stare at them. You don’t remember that?”

     “I wish I did, Benny,” she said in a voice that sounded authentic to him. “It sounds wonderful. But either you found someone else or you were talking to yourself.”

     Benny closed his eyes as Laura finished what she was saying. He had hoped she wouldn’t go there, wouldn’t say those words that just barely hinted at the possibility that he was going insane. How was this possible? So many things had changed since he last leaned against  FUK U,  and it just didn’t…seem…possible!

     “What’s happening to me?” Benny asked, not really intending it to be considered as a real question.

     “Perhaps you are going completely bonkers!” Laura answered promptly. “But who cares, eh? Sanity is only limited to a very small scope, after all. And once you cross the border into your sweet insanity, you can only go deeper. Once you embrace that, then you’ll discover what lies within you.”

     “Do you consider yourself insane?” Benny blurted out.

     “You have no clue.”

     This kind of chilled Benny, especially when he considered the fact that he had basically created her, made her to be his perfect partner-in-crime, his twin, which meant that somewhere deep within the abyss of his mind, imminent insanity hid in the shadows, waiting for the right time to spring forth.

     Or maybe it had already, and he was just denying it.

     He didn’t like either option.

     “You can choose,” Laura said in her calm, this-is-all-perfectly-normal voice. “Either follow me and embrace everything within you, or return to your ever useless veggie of a body to wait for your fate.”

     Before he had even attempted to cross-over into this inner world, Benny had made up his-

     -insane-

     -mind to not go back until he knew he had a fully functional body waiting for him on the other side, so there was no question of him wanting to return to being a vegetable, prisoner in his own mind.  “Of course I’ll come,” he said. “But I don’t see anything but these frikkin’ trees all the way to the horizon in all directions.”

     “Have you learned nothing?” Laura asked, and then walked back to the tree that she’d first approached him from. When he followed, she was gone.

**

 

     It turned out that the forest was an illusion that you could follow your whole life without seeing so much as a beggar or any sign of life besides the fire worms. Apparently, the first people to travel to that forgotten land had found some way to make everyone passing through see and feel those gargantuan, intimidating willow trees. Anyone who knew the ancient secret of the forest, however, could navigate it with relative ease.

     The forest was really just a mid-point between the Upper Realms of the mind and Valence, the small town on the edge of the Inner. Laura explained that humans had done great battles on this lower plain of the mind’s existence, and the forest worked as an ingenious defense. The opposition would charge through for days on end, and eventually run out of food. And if, by some wild chance, the did manage to get through, they still had to figure out Brynj, the between-world, and after that, the Fortress Town of Valence.

     No one passed Valence without going through thorough examination and inspections to make sure they were “worthy” of passing on into the Inner. Mainly what Laura called “brain tests.” She told him all of this as she led him through a trap door in the side of the trunk that she’d “appeared” from behind. They went down many zigzagging stair cases and down at least five long, drafty corridors before they finally came out in the largest room Benny had ever seen in his life. The curved ceiling, somewhat like that of an airplane hanger, seemed to loom hundreds of feet above him.

     The room stretched out in front of him for about a mile, and hundreds if not thousands of people were bustling back and forth across it. “Welcome to Hayvan, Benny,” Laura said. “The only underground city in this world.”

     He stared around in wonder at the small buildings and huts that made up shops of restaurants. He had never seen anything that seemed to hypnotize him like Hayvan did, but little did he know that he’d see plenty more before the end. Laura reached up and slipped her child’s hand into Benny’s, and he felt a moment of awkwardness. But then he realized that it was more like a brother-sister thing at the time, and he relaxed as they began walking down the main street.

**

     Hayvan was just as wide as it was long, and another thing that enthralled Benny was exactly how much those people had managed to fit into one square mile. There were no automobiles, and the only alternative mode of transportation were carts pulled by people in green jump-suits. Like man-drawn taxis. Benny watched with interest as one of the latter stopped in front of a restaurant who’s name Benny couldn’t quite pronounce. He set down the two handles of the cart, and continued walking, shouting, “Special offer, this week only! Anywhere on the South Side for just ten dollars and fifteen seins. Anyone need a ride?”

     “Hey, over here!” Benny shouted. The man turned toward Benny, and when he finally spotted Benny’s flailing arms, he headed promptly in that direction. He was at least eight and a half feet tall, and the people bustling around him parted and went on there way. Benny guessed that the cart-men had the Hayvan version of right-of-way.

     “Wow,” said the cart-man in a low booming voice. “You’re the first new face in this neck o’ the woods, pun intended, in about…oh, I’d have to say fifty or sixty years! Where can I take ya’, little buddy?”

     “The Einsqua Circle,” Laura said. “But on the way, would you give my friend Benny here a bit of background on Hayvan?”

     “Sure thing, lil miss LeVille,” the man said, bowing his head in what looked to Benny like a recognition of higher rank. “Hop aboard, Laura de Hayvan and Benny from Away, and see our wonderful home.”

     Benny and Laura LeVille climbed up on the cart (green like the man’s suit,) and made themselves comfortable. Benny jumped a little when the man first lifted up the cart, but was quickly calmed by the gentle rolling of the cart over the cobble-stone street. The man’s voice was rhythmic and soothing.

     “My great, great, great grandfather was the first person to start this place, and its done nothing but grow ever since,” he said. “Over a hundred buildings now, the oldest being the LeVille mansion. When my ancestors came to this place (at the time no more than an underground cavern,) they had no intentions of staying. My great, great, great grandfather was one of the last majickans this far away from the Inner, and he was on one of his many quests to find Merlin’s Crystal Cave. He thought that this was it, but ole LeVille, miss Laura here’s great, great, great, grand daddy, took one look at it and said ‘nope.’ But something about the cavern fascinated LeVille, and he paid my grandfather to build him a mansion right there in the old dank cavern. If you look east, little Ben, I believe you may be able to see it.”

     Benny turned to his left and lifted himself up a little in his seat. Above the row of houses, he could just barely see a row of small, dark red flags lined up along a black shingled roof. The mansion was built right up against the wall of Hayvan, and Benny could see a purple glow coming from behind it, as if they kept their house back-lit.

     “What’s that purple light for?” Benny asked.

     The cart-man began to speak, but Laura cut him off. “I’ll answer that one,” she said. “In order to ensure that Hayvan had enough oxygen to support so many people in an emergency situation, Timothy Einsqua planted a large garden of willows.”

     No surprise there, Benny thought.

     “And since the overhead lights don’t put off enough light to keep the garden going, they use that one. It’s a special light, because those are special trees. They contain a force like nothing else in all the worlds. In fact, they are the creators of our little defense system up above. The seeds were ancient when fire was first being harnessed by man, and it is believed that the Lost Myth of the seeds was the original source of several fairy tales in the Upper Realms.

     “The myth went like this: when the first world came into existence, two humans were created, one at the north pole, one at the south. They traveled far and wide for thousands of years, planting millions of plants and making the world beautiful Eventually, they both came to a high plateau, and the moment they spotted each other across it, they fell hopelessly in love. They met in the middle and embraced. The energy between the two lovers was so strong that it caused the plateau to ripple, forming a ring of hills surrounding them. The lovers rose in the middle as a hill formed beneath their feet, and it is believed that the Mother Earth was literally lifting them to the heavens. The result was something like a bulls-eye, with the hill in the middle and the other smaller hills surrounding it.”

     Benny had been getting a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach as she talked, and when she said that last little bit, his suspicion was confirmed: the place she was talking about was none other than his own home of Minde.

     “They turned into willows and only grew seeds once before they wilted and died, branches intertwined like two lovers embracing,” Laura continued. “The people who were created by the lover’s energy harvested the seeds and planted most of them in a ring around the hill that rose amidst the caldera formed by the other hills. The trees that grew there kept the town healthy forever, even after they died. In the beginning of their race, the humans in that spot had always used the corpses of their deceased for many different things, believing that all things should aid in the benefit of man, even in death. It was because of that belief that they used the dead trees on the top of the hill (once two passionate lovers) to make a small wooden building in which to keep a small bag holding the few remaining seeds. Like a shrine.

     “Eventually, the people came to the tiny building less and less until it was forgotten entirely. Einsqua, this fine gentleman’s great, great, great grand father, was the one who found the shrine and the seeds. He founded a small town that’s still there to this day, right in the epicenter of the entire flow of all cosmic energy in the Upper Realm. One company had requested permission to clear all the dead willows which surrounded the hill, but Einsqua, known in the Upper Realm as John Bonhelm, had insisted that the dead trees remained. No one ever found out why he had wanted to keep the trees, because he disappeared about two years later at the age of forty-five. The last time anyone saw him, he was dressed from head to toe in black, as if he was going to a funeral, and he was standing on top of the Dead Lover’s Hill.

**

     Laura finished the Lost Myth of the Seeds just as they were pulling up to a group of buildings surrounded by a tall, white wall. Above the metal gate that marked the entrance, there hung a sign that read Einsqua Circle. The cart-man set down his load and waited patently for someone to pay him. Laura pulled out some strange looking coins.

She handed him two big silver ones and three smaller bronze ones. “Thank ya’ kindly, ma’am,” the cart-man said. “Good luck with whatever it is you’ve come to do, Benny from away.”

     With that, he walked way, and Benny noticed for the first time just how fast those guys in green moved. It was almost alarming. “Well, this is it,” Laura said. “Einsqua Circle, the village within the town. The mansion is on the other side, and that’s where I live.”

     “There’s somewhere I need to go,” Benny said as they stepped up to the gate.

     “Laura LeVille,” she said, and the gates swung inward. “I don’t know exactly where you need to go, but I can help prepare you for the trip. So come in, relax, eat, whatever. I’m pretty sure my father will have more answers for you than I will. But remember, just because I came from within your mind, that doesn’t mean he did, so don’t expect him to respect you as any sort of authority.”

     “Okie-dokie,” Benny said. He hadn’t even thought of such a thing, but decided it was a good thing to have pointed out to him anyways. As he looked down at Laura, he realized that something was different.

     Something had changed.

     “Hey, Laura,” Benny inquired, “this might sound weird, but you look… bigger.. somehow...

     “You created me,” she replied. “The last time you saw the real me, I was a little girl, and now that you’ve come back, I’ll…catch up, I guess you could say. I’ll continue to grow until I fit your image of how I should look if I was the same age as you.”

     “Oh, is that all,” Benny said sarcastically. Or rather it was meant to be sarcastic, but it came out sounding more rude and stupid instead.

     They came around a cluster of houses and there stood the LeVille Mansion, oldest standing monument in Hayvan. It was raised up on an artificial hill, a series of steps more like a dais than anything. The dark shade of purple coming from behind the house made a really cool effect in Benny’s opinion, and he had to stop and stare in wonder at the magnificent house when it first came into view. It just seemed so perfect and yet awful at the same time. He wanted to both walk into it’s front door and bolt in the opposite direction, back toward the forest.

     Laura once again grabbed his hand and began leading him up the steps toward the mansion.

**

     The LeVille house seemed much larger on the inside than it did from the outside, which was, to Benny, saying something exceptional considering how enormous it had seemed to him as he stood in front of it, with its mouth waiting to be opened and the windows staring like lifeless eyes.

     They ascended a large and beautiful stair case with polished maple hand rails, at the top of which were a set of double doors. Laura knocked three times and waited for a response. Finally, a gravelly voice asked, “Who is it?”

     “Its me, daddy. I want you to meet someone.”

There was a faint click and the doors came open. The man who opened them wore a black suit and sunglasses. He was pearly white with black hair that grew down to just past his shoulders. “Howdy,” the man said, smiling. A chill ran up Benny’s spine as he remembered that same voice asking,  Do you want me to open my eyes?

     “Hello, Mr. Vonwell,” Laura said politely, curtseying as she had been trained to do. The man only smiled before walking back to his seat.

     When he was sure the man was out of hearing, Benny asked, “Who was that?”

     “Oh, that’s Mr. Vonwell,” Laura said. “He comes from Valence every once in a while to make sure everything’s going alright down here. Then he reports back and disappears until he feels he’s needed again. Strange… he usually doesn’t come for another six months or so. Why do you ask?”

     Benny fumbled around in his head for an answer, and all he came up with was, “Just got some déjà vu, that’s all.” Laura appeared to buy his excuse and led him through the set of double doors. How could it be that his former captor, the man who had somehow hypnotized and then kidnapped him, was trusted by all of these seemingly peaceful and innocent people?  By a different name, as well.

     Benny didn’t know, and wasn’t quite sure whether or not he wanted to know. Hell, he couldn’t even remember the name he had first heard the man called by. Natas? Something along those lines. He wasn’t sure.

     “Daddy,” Laura said, leading Benny over to the large oak desk where an elderly man with long white hair sat with his hands folded, “this is my friend, Benny. I’ve told you about him. Remember?”

     “But of course,” the man said. “How could I forget the person who sent me my beloved Laura? Come here, daddy’s girl.” He reached out his shaky arms toward Laura. She moved close and embraced him. “As much as I love you, dear, I must ask to speak to Benny alone, please.”

     Benny expected a childish response from the girl ( who now looked about twelve,) but she simply kissed her fathers forehead gently and said, “Okay, papa. Call me when you’re finished, okay?”

     “But of course,” the old man said. Laura winked at Benny as she passed, and he noticed for the first time that he was nervous as hell. He didn’t even know who this guy was, but he still had that queasy feeling and his solar plexus was going nuts, like some lucky tourist meeting Mr. President in the Oval Office. “Mr. Jorgens, I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Arthur LeVille.”

     “How is everything that I’m seeing here possible?” Benny asked. It seemed like the most obvious and relevant question.

     LeVille chuckled. “The same way me seeing you is possible. We both were created on two different levels of human existence. I was born in the Inner, what you would call the subconscious, whereas you were born on the other side. The Upper Realms. I exist on a completely different level right now, doing my day by day things in the Upper Realms. Every human is split in two.”

     Benny thought about this for a moment before asking, “How did I create Laura?”

     “Why that’s simple, young sir,” LeVille said in his raspy voice. “She’s your twin on this side, only you took a few years before she came around. Its not a very common occurrence, but it is possible. That’s what makes her special and different. She was created by a pre-developed ego instead of most people who begin creating their Double shortly after birth. She’s already changing since you’ve been around. I felt it when I hugged her. You better not ever try to take my daughter away from me. Or from Hayvan. This town needs her. Surely you’ve discovered the… link you have with the willows, right?”

     Benny shook his head slowly. He knew of no connection to the willows.

     “Of course,” LeVille said plainly. “Well, when you finally created her, she came directly out of the garden. I marked the tree that I found her attached to. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and I immediately took her in and named her after my mother, who once saved this town. Up until the day you were born, there was one single tree in the garden. Anyone standing near it could feel the energy pulsing outwards, and whenever it seemed unhealthy, the town suffered also. Then one day the tree just seemed to kind of wave, half of it’s branches moving one way, the other half moving the opposite way. The energy flow was so strong that I actually had to leave Einsqua Circle because it was like an overload. A few days later, there were these little sprouts which continued to grow at an incredible rate, and after only three months, I had grown the garden you see now, give or take a few added bushes here and there. They were about a month old when I spotted a small red fruit growing on one of them. By the end it was a baby, and I watched it grow every day until she finally opened her eyes and severed her own vine. I sent Mr. Vonwell to check out any births in the Upper Realms that might have been the babies Upper Double. The only brainwave match found was yours, but you were already four years old. Laura began telling me about you after only half a year of being in existence.”

     “So my birth powered up your little super defense system?” Benny asked, amazed at the possibility that regular, ordinary he could have any special force hidden within him, like some untapped source of fuel.

     “Of course not,” LeVille said. “The single tree alone produced the forest. You merely strengthened it, making it possible to dazzle our intruders with the size of the trees. Amazing, wouldn’t you say?”

     “That can’t be possible,” Benny said.

     “But of course it is!” LeVille exclaimed. “You proved that simply by coming here. Its not exactly easy for most humans of the Upper Realms to come here, mainly because they know such a small amount about the Inner, but you managed to cross over with relative ease.”

     “Someone’s taken over my body.”

     “Is that right?”

     “Someone named Natas,” Benny said. “Recognize the name?”

     LeVille seemed to consider for a moment before concluding that no, he had never heard of the guy. “And you say he took control of your body?”

     “Yeah,” Benny replied. “It’s like, I can still see what’s going on around me, but my motor skills do everything on their own, as if under someone else’s control. I’m just glad I still have control over my mind.”

     “A very good thing to be thankful for,” LeVille said ominously. “But just remember that your own mind can be your worst enemy sometimes. Trust no one, not even yourself.”

     “Do you have any idea where I need to go to regain control of my body?” Benny asked.

     “Oh, you have quite a ways to go,” LeVille said. “But the first step you should take, I suppose, is to head out the North Gate, into the…forest. But not the one you saw when you first crossed over. No, this one is real. Tell me, Benny. How do you plan to stay alive in the vast terrain of the Unalla Woods?  That place has been there, living, evolving… changing for longer than the moon’s been in existence. So have the creatures within it. Are you prepared for such a challenge?”

     Benny sat looking at him nervously and gulped. Hell no, he wasn’t ready for such a challenge, but he knew he had to do it one way or another. “I didn’t exactly plan to get hypnotized by some Dracula wannabe on top of some frikkin’ hill,” he said sharply. “The only thing I could do was dwell in my own mind, and it led me here. Of course I’m not ready, and I’m not exactly sure how to get ready. That’s where I think I need your help.”

     “But of course,” LeVille said. Benny was beginning to have some distaste for that particular response. “I can help you get where you need to go under one condition.”

     “And what might that be?”

     “You must promise me that you will never return to Hayvan ever again,” LeVille said, enunciating every syllable so that there could be absolutely no mistaking what he was requesting.

     “I can’t promise that,” Benny replied. It was the truth. “But I can say I’ll try.” That also was the truth, no matter how much Benny was dazzled by the order and neatness of Hayvan.

     “That’ll do for now, my friend,” LeVille said, cracking a smile that was four teeth short of a grin. Something about that white hair flowing around those crazy eyes and that even crazier grin scared Benny.

     Scared him considerably.

**

     LeVille arranged for a nice little apartment to be furnished for Benny’s temporary stay. When he was escorted by some butler types to it (once again amazed by the politeness of everyone,) he found a cozy, dimly lit room that he felt comfortable in right away. He plopped down in the main room. One of the butler types approached him tentatively. “May I help you?” Benny asked.

     “I was told to inform you that if you would like, we could arrange for a tevelision thing from your world to be brought to the room, with what I believe is the equivalent to salletite.”

     “Its television and satellite,” Benny said, immediately regretting the rude tinge he heard in his own voice. “Um, yeah… that would be great, pal… Er, friend.” He reached out his hand to the butler type, who at first only looked at it before grasping it firmly.

     “May your stay be very well,” he said before bowing and leaving. Benny hoped that he hadn’t insulted the young man by correcting him.

All at once, the drowsiness he had been suppressing flooded back, and he decided it wasn’t a bad time for a nap.

     Not a bad time at all.

**

     He’s in a green cloud. It surrounds him and is so thick that he can barely see his hands in front of him. It reminds him of the many times he sat with his friends as they smoked pot and he looked on with longing, only this smoke is green, and right away he knows to not breathe it in. Somewhere in the distance, someone is screaming about how he’s the only one left, and that they’re all dead. Benny wants to shout, “Then who do you expect to hear you?” but he finds that he can’t control his actions, as is often the case in his dreams. This realization reminds him of how he’d stumbled into town feeling exactly the same way. Out of control.

     Ahead of him in the fog, someone is walking toward him. As the green smoke swirls before the man, Benny realizes that It’s the man who had called himself Natas, only he has the glasses on like the man LeVille called Mr. Vonwell.

     He sees and feels his hands rise in front of him. They start to form into some symbol but before he can see what the symbol is, there is a bright red flash and---

 

**

     ---Benny woke up. He was breathing hard and a few beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead. In front of him, across the living room, there now sat a 32” television screen (and a pretty nice one, from what Benny could see.) The screen was presently blue. A coffee table had been placed in front of the couch, and on it sat the remote and a glass of water. He grabbed the latter first, craving something to ease the exhaustion the dream had caused.

     After a few moments of just breathing and thinking about the dream, Benny reached for the remote and began flipping through the channels. It seemed to somehow receive the channels straight from the other side, and all the schedules and programming were the same. He decided he’d put it on a movie he’d been waiting on for about a week before he took his first puff of marijuana and all this junk had begun.

     He didn’t know why, but he thought the pot had a part to play in the whole scheme of things. Whenever he thought about Natas, whom he suspected was that figure also known as The Man to the people of Minde, he always thought of Richard saying, “It’s the best shit you’ll find in these parts. My friend grew it right up there. Everyone thinks its haunted, so it was the perfect place for a garden.” There was some key thought there, he could feel it, but he just couldn’t figure out what it was.

     Oh well, he thought. For the time being, I’m going to get something to eat and then lie down in the real bed.

     He made his way into the little kitchen and began looking for whatever there was for food. In a cupboard by the fridge, he found a few cans of vegetables, some beef stew, and hamburger helper. In the fridge there was a quart of milk, a few apples, some butter, and the ultimate easy way out: eggs. Obviously, LeVille didn’t think Benny would be staying long. Benny didn’t know how true that was, but to him, it really didn’t matter.

     Of what he had to choose from, the beef stew looked the best. He took the can down (and also, upon second thought, a can of corn,) and began searching for the drawer that held the can opener. The third one he tried held it, and he was on his way to one of those good ole fashioned bachelor-in-the-making dinners for the stomach of Iron.

     Twenty minutes later, Benny dozed into the first stages of sleep, and for the first time in weeks, he wasn’t disturbed from his sleep by nightmares.

**

 

     Laura awoke in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, and she tried desperately to fall back to sleep. When her attempts failed, she got up and tip-toed towards the kitchen. As she passed the double doors of her father’s suite (conveniently left cracked open,) Laura heard the faint murmur of conversation, and she couldn’t help but eavesdrop a bit. The conversation was between her father, of course, and Mr. Vonwell. LeVille was seated at his desk and Vonwell was pacing the room, visibly anxious.

     “How did he get here?” Vonwell asked harshly. “You said you wouldn’t let any more of those damn things get in my way.”

     “The echani are not under my control,” Laura’s father answered coolly. “I put up every defense I had. This one appears to be rather strong, maybe even equal to Neonokin, though I don’t believe he knows it, and its not my fault that he came here.”

     “Then how did he make it out of the forest?” Vonwell asked. To this, LeVille only sat looking at the man in front of him, unable to answer. Laura saw all this from the door and realized, with mounting horror, the she was responsible for bringing Benny there. She didn’t understand why it angered Mr. Vonwell so much, but she did know that Mr. Vonwell was a very powerful person. She had never actually seen first-hand what he was capable of, but she had heard plenty of rumors. She didn’t want to ever see him truly mad.

     “Either dispose of him immediately, or I will,” Vonwell said, turning on his heel. Laura gasped and ran down the stairs quickly, hoping he hadn’t seen her. She managed to duck behind one of the many statues in the mansion’s entrance hall before Mr. Vonwell came out of her father’s suite. He strode down the stairs in that elegant flowing manner that Laura had once found attractive. He stopped at the bottom and looked around. Laura drew in breath and held it as she watched Vonwell take off the sunglasses she had always seen him wear. In the faint light thrown by the few torches that were still burning, she saw that his eyes were a pearly white, as if he were blind. That would explain the glasses, she thought. As she sat holding her breath, hunkered in the shadows, Laura felt a strange pulling sensation inside her head. It became too much of a burden to keep her eyes open, so she stopped trying. She felt so tired.

     “Have a pleasant evening, Mr. Vonwell,” LeVille said from the top of the stairs.

     Vonwell replaced his sunglasses and turned toward LeVille. Immediately, Laura felt that sensation in her head, that feeling of being drawn, disappear. She took in a breath that was much louder than she knew. “Remember what I said,” Vonwell ordered. “Good evening, LeVilles.

     LeVilles. Plural.

     He left, and the THUD! of the huge doors shutting echoed in the large entrance hall. Laura’s father looked directly at her, but if he saw her, he didn’t acknowledge it. He re-entered his study and closed the door.

     Laura was left in silence.

**

     Benny woke up to find Laura shaking him violently. His head flared with pain and he told her to stop, he was awake already. She sat staring anxiously at him, trying her best to be patient as he rubbed his eyes, stretched, did whatever he needed to do in order to wake up. Finally he looked at her and asked, “What is it?”

     “You have to get out of here,” she said. She didn’t sound panicked, but Benny caught the stronger under-current of concern. “Mr. Vonwell wants you dead.”

     “What?” Benny asked. He knew it was the most stupid response imaginable, but he didn’t know what else to say. “You mean that blind freak?”

     “Benny, you don’t know how strong he-“

     “I know perfectly well, Laura,” Benny broke in firmly. “I’ve been under his control before, and I don’t plan on doing it again. In fact, in the other world, I’m still under his control. That’s why I’m here. I think that if he kills me here, my body will become his puppet forever. How can I get away, Laura?”

     The girl, now just barely below Benny’s age (and amazingly beautiful, he was now noticing,) seemed to consider this briefly, then she said, “There’s a gateway I can show you. It leads into the Unalla Woods, but it will get you farther than if you stay here and wait any longer. I can only supply you with enough to make it for about a week in the woods, but judging by everything I’ve heard, I’d guess you can make due.”

     “Your father said something about ancient beasts,” Benny commented. “What do I do about them?

     “That’s up to you,” she replied. “Come.”

     She turned and headed for the door. Benny grabbed a few things, shoved them in a paper bag from the kitchen, and ran after her. He expected her to be way down the hall, and he jumped slightly when she was waiting just outside the door. “Hurry the hell up,” she said, without the faintest trace of a smile.

     They went down the hall a bit before entering a room. At first glance, it appeared empty. But then Benny’s eyes adjusted somewhat and he saw that there was a small plant in the middle of the floor.

     Laura bent down next to it and motioned for Benny to do the same. The plant was no more than a dead weed in a pot of soil. Benny watched, slightly confused, as Laura began to blow on the branches of the shrub. At first it swayed with her breath, and then it began to sort of vibrate, moving back and forth rapidly like a vibrating string. Color started to seep into the now blurry looking plant. Red, yellow, green, blue, purple, black.

It rested on a greenish purple hue and began to slow in its motion. As it stopped, Benny saw that it had purple stems with green (BRIGHT) leaves.

     Holy shit! That’s pot!! He thought. Then there was a bang and Benny felt himself pulled forward, and his surroundings changed from a small, dim room to a purple fog that consumed his vision. Like that old, eternally popular Jimmi Hendrix song, Purple Haze.

     Even though the fog seemed solid and unchanging, the strong sense of motion still gripped Benny.     Suddenly the fog cleared, and Benny gasped at what he saw. It was a sea of darkness below him all the way to the horizon, and the sky above was blood red. It was like the ground was so far away that the red light couldn’t reach it, and so when one looked down all they saw was blackness stretching to eternity. Ahead of him, still some distance away, a line rose from the darkness all the way into the redness above.

     He only got a brief glance. Then he was thrust onto a cold, dank floor, and he landed on his face, spread eagled. For a few seconds he just stayed in that position, thinking about what had just happened. And it had happened so fast. No more than ten seconds from the time Laura began blowing to the time he hit the floor. As he slowly stood up, his head began throbbing so hard that he cried out in pain. He felt Laura’s hands on his back and heard her telling him she was going now, and that he only had one way to go. She said he would have to go as quickly as possible.

     Then he fainted.
 


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