I wish you good fortune on your journey to meet the Wizard. He or She is waiting.
|Wizard of God
by Matthew K
This story is dedicated to Gary B., a Wizard indeed.
Preamble: The Storm
I ignored hurricane Wilma. Despite history and warnings of those around me, I only took notice after it was raging and any chance I may have had to reduce the destruction had long passed. At the time, it seemed so innocuous. To divert myself, all I had to do was turn on the T.V. The destruction of other far more noticeable hurricanes, such as Katrina and Charlie, was all around. Wilma, on the other hand, was a small tropical storm sneaking across the other side of the state. It was just too easy to compare myself out of danger.
I mocked those who took precautions. Neighbors invested in hurricane shutters, followed the weather channel and talked with each other. They made plans. I simply thought they did not get the joke.
I still dismissed the storm even after the sky and the birds I always took so much pleasure in disappeared. It was not until the wind was shearing away everything I had worked so hard for were my eyes opened to the dark situation. I watched helpless as material items around the house began to deteriorate and be swept away altogether.
Then the unimaginable began to happen. Gusts of wind carrying waves of rain pushed through the seams between the windows and bowed inward the front door. The storm had entered my home. It ingrained itself in the wood and forever changed its makeup. I knew it could never be fully restored to its previous condition. I realized then I could not save myself, nor could anyone else. I lost all hope.
The eye of the hurricane past overhead and I was granted a brief respite before the inevitable. I had reached the end of the road.
“Please help!” I sobbed, convinced no one could.
I looked up to see the backside of the hurricane bearing down. I fell to my knees and gave in to the coming wind.
Chapter 1: Gilt
I stepped into a dream that was placed before me in stop time. All around me was gilded gold and polished copper. From the cobbled sidewalk beneath my feet that weaved through the hunched brick buildings of the town surrounding, to the landscape beyond, which laid across my vision like a loosely placed veneer, all things sparkled at their edges. Beneath each showed a sad juxtaposition of muted grey and dull hazel.
Mixed between the lampposts, benches, buildings and trees, that lined a golden road spanning the whole town, stood an assortment of oddly shaped people, each frozen in step, staring my way. Their small bodies seemed motionless, which belied the emotions in their dancing eyes. They were dressed in skintight suits clad with colored pendants, scarves and other adornments. Their brightly colored exteriors were betrayed by a dull gray skin color with a muted hue.
Time resumed in a frenzy. All the townspeople quickly pressed around my house, which I was astonished to realize was not only right behind me but in perfect condition. The strange people, I noticed after a moment, weren’t focused on me. They were all crowding around the far end of the house whispering frightenly and covering their mouths and eyes with their hands. I was compelled to walk over and join them, despite the continuing surreal situation. I could not help but wonder what was so special about my house.
I made my way to the back of the gathering crowd and wiggled my way toward the front. The tallest of the townspeople did not reach past my chest. I could not see a distinction between the men and women. They seemed androgynous in both their features and attire. The whole affair was quite entertaining in its absurdity.
Once I reached the front of the thrall, it took a turn for the worse. I stood aghast, much like my little accompaniment, looking down at two legs sticking out from under the foundation. My house had landed squarely on some poor soul. By the look of the shoes on the feet, black, sleek and pointed at the tips, they belonged to a woman. I had killed somebody’s mother.
I immediately looked around for the relatives, assuming they would be grief stricken. That is when I noticed there was no sadness on any face. It looked more like fear, terrifying fear.
It came on suddenly, like a trailing sonic boom. There was a crack in the sky above me and within a contained maelstrom appeared a woman with matching legs to those beneath the house. She was riding a lightning-cracked black walking staff. She hovered in the air a moment surveying the scene.
The townsfolk scurried in every direction until it was just the Witch and I, who had a foreboding look on her face. She descended slowly, her gaze focused on me unwaveringly.
“What do we have here?” her voice strung out like an untuned bow.
I was stymied. I could do nothing but maintain eye contact, hoping she would not look behind me.
She was magnifying. I felt a strange attraction to her. The feeling began to become compulsive as she moved closer to me. I suddenly wanted more than anything to join her, to ride through the sky upon her stick. I could feel the air whipping across my face, though my feet were still grounded. I could anticipate the Godly feeling at looking down at the world from so high. All thoughts of my house and those left behind to deal with the wreckage of the storm melted away. It was a familiar, comforting feeling. Though I knew joining her would take me farther from my home and family, this dream was made for me and not them. They would not envy me this chance at such an experience.
She got close enough to see her poor twin behind me and her eyes went from curiousness to blazon ferocity. I new then it would be the ride to end all rides. I was ready to leave straight away.
She bent down and stroked the tip of a shoe. Her hair hung low to the ground. Time seemed to stop again. For a moment I saw the situation for what it was, but the thought faded away and the Witch stood up and turned to face me. She had a look of finality.
“Come with me,” was all she said. No explanation was given and I did not need one.
“Yes mistress,” I spoke out loud, and she was.
“Get your hands off my baby boy,” came a voice above us.
The Black Witch winced and moved a step away. I looked up but saw nothing.
“You are too late Patricia,” the Black Witch said with disdain incarnate. “He is already mine.”
“Not so!” shouted the voice above.
Slowly, like a lantern when the wick is given new length, a light began to shine and overtake the day sky. It formed into a circle, expanded across my vision, then collapsed with a clap. Mere meters from me formed another woman. This one, however, had on regular clothes and wore an ordinary pair of spectacles with a silver chain that hung loosely. Unlike all others in this place, she radiated from the inside. The light was constant and strong. It did not glitter or sparkle.
“You have no power over my baby boy,” said Patricia.
“My sister has been killed. He killed her. This territory is now mine. He is now mine!” the Black Witch hissed.
“That’s unfortunate,” Patricia said wryly. “But it changes nothing. You see it was I who brought him here. I who rescued him from the storm.”
The Black Witch’s eyes got wide. Her lips pursed and turned white.
In one quick motion her walking staff flew to her, she mounted it and whirred off the ground. Some ways off, she halted and turned back.
“This will never be forgotten. You are mine ‘baby boy’,” she said with contempt.
The storm formed around her again and like lightning she was gone.
A caring hand touched my shoulder and to my surprise Patricia was standing next to me.
“Be careful of her, she’s insidious,” said Patricia softly. “She will use cunning to get you on her staff. If that happens I can no longer protect you. You will be lost. Because I brought you here, my stamp of protection will prevent her from forcing you into servitude. You now have a choice. But heed my warning. She will employ powerful deceptions to get you to make the wrong choice, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Baffling I know, that someone would willingly choose suffering.”
“I was ready to,” I said, suddenly aware of the insanity of my thinking. “I knew she only wanted to bring me pain, but the thought of flying through the sky seemed to drown out everything else.”
“Yes,” said Patricia. “That is the crux of her magic.”
“Matthew,” said Patricia in a sad voice. “You won’t be able to resist her long. Eventually you’ll bend to her will. It’s only a matter of time.”
“You mean I’m powerless to stop her? Can’t you just snap me out of it or something?” I asked frantically. I swiftly felt overwhelmed with the gravity of the situation.
“Maybe, for a little while. But, and I’ve seen it time and time again, sooner or later nobody will be able to reach you. The compulsion to enter her world will become too strong,” she said.
“Well then get me the hell out of her!” I demanded. “You said you brought me here. Send me back.”
“I cannot,” she said. “Anymore than I can always protect you from her.”
“What are you saying?” I cried. “I can’t go back?”
“No more than you would have survived the storm,” she said curtly. “That is why I brought you here. You were doomed out there.”
My world came crashing in. There was no lie in her eyes. She spoke the truth and I believed her. The almost comical events leading up to this meeting were exposed for their terrifying realness. I could not, or did not, want to believe it. But from deep within me, sparked by Patricia’s honesty, welled up and unfamiliar feeling that washed away all denial. Despite the insanity of the situation before me, I was forced to accept it.
“Can I fight back?” I asked, finally feeling some strength.
“No!” yelled Patricia. In a softer voice she continued, “You must not fight against her. That will only work to her advantage. She will use those feelings against you.”
“So,” I whispered, “there is no hope.”
“I did not say that my baby boy,” said Patricia. “In fact, there is much to hope for. There is One with all power. He gives strength to all in this world. The Wizard. The way out is through him. I have sent scores of men just like you to him and he has helped all of them, provided they were willing to accept it.”
“What happened to those who didn’t accept help?” I asked.
“They flew off with the Black Witch,” she said as she peered sadly into the far landscape. “They never returned.”
“Who would do that?” I asked incredulously. “Sounds like an easy choice to me.”
“You would think so,” she agreed. “But the journey is one you will have to make alone. Once you reach the Wizard, he will ask you to give up one thing in return for his help.”
“What’s that?” I asked suspiciously.
“I honestly don’t know,” she said. “Those who accepted passed out of my realm into the next. Those who wouldn’t have never said what it was exactly, just that it was too much.”
“Well,” I said matter of factly. “That won’t be a problem for me, even if it means giving up my house to get out of this crazy place. So, how do I find this Wizard?”
“Follow the golden glowing road,” she said, sweeping her arm out.
I could hear the shutter of my mind’s eye click as I took in the sparkling road that started just feet from us and spanned across the zig zagging terrain of this upside down world.
There are moments that the board of one’s life seems to come in complete focus. All the decisions, agreements and promises of the past, present and future appear as colorful pegs in the timeline. For a brief moment it all makes sense. Of course, as finite beings, the knowledge fades like a dream in the early morning. But there is a residue left. These moments are gifts. They provide a general sense of direction, hope and motivation.
I followed the luminescent road to the edge of my vision and became invigorated. I decided I would follow this path to the edge of reality and leap off in desperation if need be. In that moment I became willing to do anything to find the Wizard.
Chapter 2: Oh me, Oh my. Oh my, Oh me!
Just as I completed the thought, the townsfolk came prancing out of their hiding spots. They skipped and jumped toward Patricia and I. They were smiling and laughing. Some were even squealing in joy.
“Why are they so happy?” I asked Patricia.
“They are always happy when someone begins the journey down the golden glowing road,” she said with a wide smile. “It’s my favorite too.”
The streets of the town quickly turned into a festival. I looked at Patricia questioningly.
“Go ahead,” she said happily. “The most difficult step is the first one. It’s the only one you have to do perfectly. Just make sure you start on the right road.”
I looked down and watched as my foot pressed squarely onto the first glowing stone. The crowd erupted. Patricia laughed. With each step I took the townspeople came up one by one and shook my hand or reached out for a hug.
My confidence grew as their positivity outpoured. They genuinely cared for my wellbeing. I could tell these people had seen many begin this journey to see the Wizard. Something told me they had made their own trip as well.
The merry throng followed me all the way to the edge of town. As I passed the last building I noticed they were no longer keeping pace. I turned to look back and saw them pressed as close to the edge as they could go. Patricia stood in the middle. I wanted to ask if any would come with me but I understood, looking at their still encouraging faces, they would if they could. This quest was my burden alone but I knew they would shout encouragement from where they stood whenever I needed it. I waved and received many more in return.
I turned again and began to follow the golden road. At first I strolled along taking in the bizarre scenery. The landscape was alive. Everything seemed to be in motion though I could feel no breeze. Grassy fields were on each side of the golden road. The terrain in both directions consisted of rolling hills but the path I was on remained level. I could see the edge of a forest a few miles away on my left. The trees seemed to be passing by at different rates despite the regular pace I was walking. I began to realize nothing in this world was what it seemed. It was beautiful on the surface, no doubt, but it seemed to be a distraction of some sort. It seemed though nothing wanted what was underneath or within to be exposed. The more I became aware of it the more I noticed it. There was something sinister and shameful beneath. At this thought I began to walk faster, wondering if this was a trick of the Black Witch.
It was then that I noticed a shimmering rectangle that looked like it had cut through the fabric that made up this world. From an angle I could see that it was paper-thin. The length of it was parallel to the road and it hovered just over the grass line. I quickened my pace and as I moved closer to its face I could tell it was a moving scene of some kind. Once I got directly in front of it I stood breathless at what I saw. It was home! Not just the real world, but a place I had been many times. It seemed like a portal in space between this world and my own.
All my friends were standing together laughing and cheering. I wondered if they were cheering for me. It seemed like they were at first but then I noticed they were looking past me. I saw my good friend Evan walk into the scene and join the crowd. They all faced him and gave a cheer.
“It’s his birthday,” I remembered out loud.
“Hey Evan!” I yelled. Nobody heard me.
I stepped off the path. I moved closer and studied the scene, noticing immediately it was a favorite gathering place of ours. I remembered we were all supposed to meet there the following night for his birthday.
“Has it already been a day?” I thought out loud again.
The bar was full of familiar faces. They were all gathered on the back patio that spanned out over the intercoastal. I could see the water in the background and the lights of the boats as they lined up, making their way to the slips along the bar.
I got close enough to reach out with my palm and feel along the face of the phenomenon. My fingers tingled from the energy. This was truly a portal. I could forget this journey and return. The storm was over and things were back to normal.
Just as I was about to push my hand through, I heard a distant chorus. It was a soft cacophony at first but it became louder and distinguishable. I recognized the voices as those from the town I had just left.
“People. Places. Things. Look closer,” they chanted in harmony.
I looked back in the direction I had come but I was too far away to see them. I could not even make out the buildings.
They repeated the same line over and over again. I could not understand what they meant by look closer. It did not make sense.
I wanted to plunge my hand through and forget this crazy world but I felt like I owed those friendly people, especially Patricia, something. I peered intently, focusing on my friends. At first everything seemed normal but as the far off chanting became louder and sunk deeper into my mind I began to see discrepancies.
The first thing I noticed was the wind. It was blowing surf almost onto the deck. It would take hurricane strength wind to do that.
“The storm hasn’t passed!” I said astonished.
What were they doing? I was baffled. Who in their right mind would go out in a hurricane?
I looked intently at my friends for a few minutes. They didn’t even seem to notice.
“People. Places. Things. Look closer,” hummed repeatedly across the landscape.
That’s when I saw it. I became completely frozen. Each and every one of my friends was carrying a staff just like the one the Black Witch had. Some had them strapped to their back, others had them between their legs and a few just held them like a walking staff.
The facade melted away. The jovial scene turned ugly. The bar turned into a prison chamber. It was dark and unsafe. Nobody seemed to notice. They did not see the cement or their tattered clothes. I realized that the staffs they held onto must somehow provide a mental escape from the reality of their jail.
The vision disappeared. Inches from my fingers, right where my hand would have entered the portal, hovered a lightening-cracked, black walking staff. The Black Witch stood directly behind it.
I jumped backward awkwardly, tripped and stumbled back onto the golden road.
The Witch’s eyes were calm. She did not seem affected at all. I could only describe her demeanor as patient.
Swift as light she mounted the staff and disappeared.
Not knowing what else to do, I began to walk again. After a few hours the surrounding area got more and more creepy. Nothing was changing. I wondered how the terrain thought I could be fooled by the incessant tap dancing. It was so obvious.
Just when I believed I had been relegated to walk eternity on an unchanging path, a figure off in the distance came into view.
It was definitely a person, a human. As I got closer I could see it was a man. He seemed to be preoccupied with the landscape to our right. He stood staring, unmoving as if he was mesmerized. A wave of relief came over me and I started to jog his way. This person was probably on the same journey as me and was too scared to continue. He probably stopped walking once he realized nothing was changing like I did. We could walk together I thought. At least we would not be alone in this nightmare.
It was not until I got right beside him that I noticed the unimaginable.
“What the hell is going on here?” I sputtered out loud.
He turned to me and smiled, “It’s such a quiet, calm day isn’t it?”
I stood staring into a mirror. Scared and frightened, I realized I was looking at my twin.
“Are you the Black Witch?” I asked breathlessly.
“Yes, nice to meet you,” he said jovially as he extended a hand.
“Why are you posing as me? Why do you look like me?” I asked.
“I don’t look like you,” he said cynically. “I look like me.” He took away his hand and continued, “I was standing here perfectly content until you came along and ruined my peace and quiet.”
“You don’t act like a Black Witch,” I pointed out.
“This is exactly how Witches behave,” he said matter of factly. “How would you know anyway?”
He paused for a moment, then asked with some trepidation, “Are you a Witch?”
“Of course not,” I said. I was quickly coming to the doubt this imposter was the Black Witch in disguise. My tension eased a bit, even though I was still talking to myself.
“How long have you been standing here on this road?” I asked.
He looked annoyed by the question as if he did not want to answer. “I haven’t been standing here long at all, if you must know. It’s a pleasant morning so I thought I’d enjoy it,” he said impetuously. “Guess that’s out of the question now.”
If this person were not me, I would have started walking away.
“Look, sorry to bother you,” I said making a dramatic sweep of my arms at the deceptive scenery around, “but I just wanted to know how far you’ve traveled on this road.”
“What road?” he answered quickly. “I’m not on a road and I’m not traveling anywhere.”
I was stumped. If there were any significance to meeting myself on a golden glowing road, in a dream world where I was on a quest to find a Wizard because a crazy Witch was after me, as you would think there would be, I had completely missed it.
“Well, O.K. then,” I said sardonically. “I’ll leave you to your serenity.”
“Maybe the Wizard will tell me what this was all about,” I said as I started to walk off, ready to forget the entire incident. My twin self broke out of his frozen stance and hurried to my side.
“You’re going to see the Wizard?” he asked. “The Wizard?” he asked again for clarification.
“Yeah,” I said, relieved the conversation had taken a turn for the normal. “Supposedly he’s the only one who can get me out of this kooky place. Not to mention the Witch that’s on my back.”
He jumped to the side, startled, and glared at my back.
“Not literally on my back,” I said flustered. I guessed it was too good to be true. Nothing normal could have existed in this reality. “Haven’t you ever heard the expression monkey on my back?
“Of course,” he said incredulously. “Who hasn’t?”
It was obvious he had never heard the expression. All of sudden, it made sense.
“You can’t tell the truth can you?” I asked as nice as possible.
“Sure I can,” he said and then made a pronounced gulp. “I always tell the truth.”
After his last statement he blinked his eyes slow and hard. He looked very uneasy.
“What color shirt am I wearing?” I asked.
He looked at me a moment and then said non-chalantly, “Blue.”
I was indeed wearing a blue shirt. Maybe I was wrong I considered. Then I got an idea.
“What color shirt are you wearing?” I asked again.
At this he balked. He was definitely not going to respond.
“Either answer my question or find your own way to the Wizard,” I said.
He looked at me with an exaggerated expression of betrayal, but once he saw the serious look in my eye he dropped it. I thought he might go off on some tangent by the way he seemed to be considering the possibilities. He even opened his mouth to speak, but uttered nothing.
I do not what went on in his mind during those few minutes, but at the end he seemed to resign. He surrendered to whatever force was battling in his mind.
“Do you think the Wizard could help me to tell the truth?” he asked desperately.
That question conveyed more truth than I believe this other me had ever expressed before. I gained trust for my replica in that moment. He may not have been able to tell the truth about himself in the least bit, but he was as lost as me. I wondered if a man might be able to express the truth through a lie. Looking into his eyes, I questioned how much different this me was from me really.
“Let’s find out,” I said with excitement.
He smiled and so did I. I put my arm around his shoulder and together we resumed our trek.
Chapter 3: The I Got Center
The endless walk down the golden glowing road seemed a bit more finite with my new walking partner. With my knowledge of his disability, the other me opened up tremendously. I do not think anyone ever truly knew the depth of his sad state and now that someone did, without judgment, he was truly excited. The other me still could not tell the truth about himself, even though I knew and accepted his absolute penchant for lies. I had hoped the other me might start to break the curse as we walked along talking, but nothing of the sort happened. I guessed the only one who could help was the Wizard.
It did, however, make for some highly entertaining conversations. At one point I noticed how uncomfortable he was walking.
“Do you have to go to the bathroom or something?” I asked offhand.
“Not one bit,” he said quickly but his wide eyes said differently.
I laughed out loud, a deep down belly laugh. This poor fellow could not even admit when he had to go to the bathroom. I thought for a second about the many ways I could extend his misery and my delight. The opportunities were endless but I decided he was in enough pain already. Plus, with his slow waddle we were not making good time at all.
I was about to tell him to just take care of it and catch up with me when he was done, but a scary thought occurred to me. I could not believe I had not considered it before. I had not had any food, and more seriously, something to drink since before I started this journey. As soon as these thoughts came into my mind a sweeping thirst came over me.
“Do you have any water?” I asked the other me with concern.
“Yes, more than we could ever drink,” he said worriedly.
I scolded myself for not thinking of that before leaving the town.
I started to scan the landscape around us again, hoping I might notice a stream I had never seen. There was nothing. It was all perfectly, maddeningly the same.
It was then I noticed something different ahead of us. Off in the distance, directly above the golden road, was a dot of some kind. From far away it could have been anything. But any something was better than all the same nothing.
“Take a look at that,” I said excited.
The other me’s eyes got wide when he saw it.
“Let’s go,” I yelled and started to run.
The other me kept up stride for stride, obviously forgetting about his predicament of nature.
As the dot got closer, it seemed like it could have been anything from a hill to a billboard.
It was a building! We started to get tired at the same time but the realization there was something ahead of us kept us going.
The structure was an oddly shaped store. It was one story and the roof was a hodgepodge of different styles. It had a peak on one end, was flat in the middle and had what looked like missionary style stucco on the other. The windows along the sides were all different shapes. There was a tree house that jutted from the backside at a 45 degree angle. It would be near impossible to climb into it.
Of course, I thought, anything else would not make sense. I laughed again out loud, glad to at least find something new even if it did look like it was built by Dr. Seuss.
“I like it,” said the other me with disdain.
Something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Just behind the building was an overgrown dirt path that led off over the surrounding hills. I followed it with my eyes to the base of a gigantic Castle. I could not believe I had missed it, but assumed the audacious building I stood in front of initially hid it from me.
The other me noticed it too. “That leads right to the Wizard!”
I half expected him to take off sprinting down the dirt path but he stayed still, as if he was waiting for me to take the lead.
I looked at the direction the golden road went and measured that the new path cut the journey in half at least. It was an easier way to get to the destination for sure. It was probably softer too. The golden road was stiff and did not make for comfortable walking.
I was about to step off the golden road but for some reason I hesitated. I remembered Patricia’s statement, ‘Just make sure you start on the right road.’
She did not mention anything about a dirt path. Of course, she did not mention anything about a twin me or this funny building either. However, something told me this was different. Something told me this was not the ‘right road.’
I turned my attention back to the misshapen building, making a decision the dirt path was not an option for me. I was not quite sure, but I could have sworn I heard a faint cheering from the direction I had come.
“It probably has a bathroom,” I noted. At that suggestion the other me headed straight to the front door of the store.
As I followed the other me inside I noticed a small, almost unnoticeable sign above the door reading “I Got Center.” I wondered why they made it so inconspicuous. The letters were painted the same color as the siding.
Once inside the other me made for the back in a hurry. The inside of the store was gigantic. There was no possible way this was the same store I saw from the outside. I could barely see the far wall. It was at least a couple hundred yards long. There were rows and rows of shelves. It seemed endless. The whole set up was haphazard. Some of the rows were cut off by other rows. It reminded me of one of those trick mazes a friend gave me as a boy, the kind that had no real outlet. I chuckled again as I watched the other me as he walked up and down the different isles, often having to stop and turn around. He was grumbling quite loudly.
To my left was a small cashier’s booth. Nobody was behind the table though. I walked over to the first row of shelves that stood about shoulder’s height. A small sign dangled from a rod in the middle of the top shelf. All it state was, ‘MINE.’
I shook my head wondering why the proprietor would display his own items right upfront. Not much of a businessman I thought. The items on the shelves varied from socks to light bulbs. There seemed to be no organization at all. The only consistency I saw were jars that were placed in between the items in intervals of about ten. I picked one up and read the label.
“Jenny’s glance from across the room,” I said out loud. Confused I replaced it and went to the next jar. It read ‘Mr. Rinsky’s approving smile.’
The next few were labeled just like that. From ‘Edy’s jealousy at my presentation,’ to ‘Sunshine on my graduation day.’ They were as varied as the items on the shelf and seemed to have no connection. Everything on the shelves had a small orange sticker at the bottom stating, ‘Not For Sale.’
My belly rumbled just then and I gave up on trying to understand the first row. I lifted up on my toes and began to scan the store for a food section. The next moment settled onto me slowly like a light drizzle. Uneasiness turned to confusion then to fear as I realized all the rows and all the shelves in the whole store had the same label above them. The word ‘MINE’ never sounded so sinister. I stopped myself from looking. I did not have to. I was sure each and everyone was, ‘Not For Sale.’
I tip toed left and right trying to spot the other me but I did not see him. The Witch had us trapped. I knew I could not leave him but I also was not about to enter the maze. I stood frozen, not knowing what to do.
“That’s not for sale you know,” came a voice from my left. I nearly fell over from fright. “I heard you pick up that jar.”
I expected to see anything from the Black Witch herself to a dragon. Instead, from behind the counter, rose up the most preposterous person.
“Oh, come on,” I said sarcastically. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“Not in the least,” said yet another copy of myself. “It’s clearly located in the isle labeled ‘MINE.’”
The second me walked over, fixated on the last jar I had been looking at. Before picking it up he bumped into me and nearly made me fall over. It did not even seem to register to him.
“Ah, this is a special one,” he said dreamily. “You know, it rained on all my friends’ graduation day.”
“You went to a separate graduation?” I asked.
“The same,” he said matter of factly shaking his head.
Oh no, I thought. Another liar. I was not sure I could handle it. One was unique, maybe even eclectic, but two was just plain annoying.
I decided to get to the point right away.
“My friend and I, us… I mean we,” I shook my head in confusion, “are thirsty and hungry. Do you have any supplies that are for sale?” I wondered then what the currency was in this world. It was very possible I was totally broke.
“I got thirsty once,” said the second me as he started to walk back to the counter. “Then I decided I didn’t want to be thirsty.”
“What does that mean?” I asked completely flustered. “You don’t have any water? What about your customers?”
He did not even turn to respond. “Why have water when I never get thirsty?”
I stopped trailing him, watching as he casually walked around the counter and sat on a high stool. It was tall enough that he could survey the whole store. There was a cylindrical looking glass on a shelf next to him. He picked it up and extended it full length. He then began to slowly move it left and right, as if he was scanning the items in each of the rows.
I thought about his last statement for a moment. He got thirsty only once and after he decided he did not like the feeling, he never got thirsty again. I wondered if that was possible. In this world, I supposed, anything might be. I was worth a try.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on my empty stomach. I tried to remember the feeling of a satisfied stomach after a light meal. I repeated over and over in my mind, ‘I’m not thirsty or hungry.’
The feeling rescinded. I could not believe it had actually worked. I wondered how far the power of thought went in this world. The possibilities were endless.
Just when I started to make a wish list, the first me came up from behind.
“It took me no time at all to find the bathroom,” he said breathlessly. “Have you found some water and food?”
“We don’t need any,” I said still mystified at the idea.
“No, No, No!” screamed the second me. He slammed down his looking glass and jumped off the stool. “There is only one customer allowed at a time in my store. Only one at a time.”
“Why?” the first me and I asked in unison.
“I do not allow more than one,” he said in near panic.
It was then I noticed he was not looking at us. His eyes were directed our way but they were not focused on either of us.
I took a few steps to the side and said, “Can you see me?”
The second me was very startled. “Three? No, No, No. There is only one customer allowed at a time. Get out. All of you.”
I was about to try to calm him down when he picked up a yardstick and began to waive it around frantically.
“O.K., O.K.,” I said sidestepping the waving stick.
The first me backed up as well. “Dude,” he said. “Let’s just get out of here. The Wizard will have something to eat and drink.”
At that, the second me stopped his volley.
“The Wizard?” he asked. “Yes, of course. I never should have doubted myself. I knew the answer would come. The Wizard can fix my glasses.”
He pulled out of his pocket a broken pair of glasses. “I’ll be able to run my business again.”
It occurred to me then that the second me could see just fine. He just could not see us. It explained how he walked straight to the jar I picked up and why he was so adamant about only one person in his store at a time.
I was forced to ask myself what type of sickness causes only the blindness to other people?
“You may join me, I suppose,” he said smugly. “Follow me gents. I’ll lead us straight to the Wizard.”
Something about those events offended me greatly. Was I supposed to think this all a sick joke and cast it aside in anger? Whoever was setting this stage hardly knew me at all. Not only were those characters way off basis, the whole scenario was laughable. It was not infuriating. On the contrary, it was hilarious.
Chapter 4: Jest who?
Despite his bold statement, the second me stood motionless at the front door.
“I’ve never left the building before, “ he said scared.
It was odd seeing a replica of mine behaving so differently than I did. I felt sorry for him but I could not empathize in the least.
I took the lead and opened the door letting the first me leave ahead of the second.
“The first step is the hardest,” I said. “Just make sure you do it on the right road.”
He watched his foot step forward much like I had done. It looked as though he wanted to say thank you but nothing came out.
After he tentatively moved through the exit out onto the golden road, he shook off his nervousness. “I always knew I could do it. I just chose not to.”
Something made me guess he tried to open that door himself plenty of times and failed. He was definitely different than the first me. His lying had more purpose. It was shrouded by some sort of twisted perception.
Despite his facade of assuredness, the second me again stood still. He did not know which way to go. I realized that he would not be able to follow us. He could have listened to our footsteps I guessed, but I came up with a better idea. I went back into the store, grabbed a random jar off the shelf and scanned the stack until I found something I could use. I tied the jar around my waist with a jump rope and returned to the odd assortment of mes.
“Hey, that’s mine,” the second me exclaimed.
“I know,” I said raising my hand even though he could not see it. “It was in the isle clearly marked ‘MINE.’ You can have it back when we get to the Castle. Until then, follow the jar.”
“What a wonderful idea,” he said cheerfully. “I’m so glad I thought of it.”
Even the first me rolled his eyes at that remark.
The next couple of hours were amazingly frustrating. The first me could not tell the truth about himself and the second me would not shut up about himself.
“The Black Witch doesn’t scare me at all,” the first me said.
“She’s one of my best customers,” the second me said in response. “It’s no surprise though. I’ve put together the finest store in the land.”
“I find that hard to believe,” I replied. “Nothing in your store is for sale.”
“People come from far and wide to peruse my selection of items. You know it takes a keen mind to set up a proper bazaar,” he said.
“Oh, it’s bizarre all right, “ I said smiling. He did not get the joke.
“Of course it’s a bazaar,” he continued. “Although many people have told me I should open a second store. But why would I want to compete with myself?”
I shook my head. There was no way I was ever that egotistical. I was about to unhook the jar from my make shift belt and throw it as far as I could when I saw some kind of commotion up ahead.
There was some sort of structure being built on both sides of the road. There were people on either side working furiously. I was hesitant to get any closer at first. Every time I came across something out of the ordinary it was either a trick of the Witch or I found another me.
But I continued to walk and as I approached I realized the people that were working on the structure were the same as those in the town I landed in. I hurried forward to see if I could be of help.
I waved to them and yelled out, “Hey there, need a hand?”
“Boy, could we ever,” said one of them that was working on the bottom of the structure.
Gladness swept through me. I was excited to be of help to those people. I felt I owed them so much.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“We’re building a watchtower,” he answered, “for travelers like you so we can spot the Black Witch and sound a warning. We’re tired of seeing her take our friends away.”
I surveyed the project. It seemed to be designed well. On either side of the road they had built up two ladders with supports on either side. It was about ten feet tall.
“What’s your name?” I asked the small fellow.
“Placent,” he said with a smile. “I’m the foreman here.”
“Why are you building two towers?” I asked.
“We plan on making each twice the size as they are now,” Placent explained. “Once that’s finished were gonna make a bridge between the two. That way the person on watch can look over both sides of the road. This is our first one. If all goes well, we plan on making many more. We hope to cover the golden glowing road with towers all the way to the Wizard’s Castle.”
It was such a wonderful idea. It felt like the answer to all my problems. Not only could I help my friends, I could also help build a safer road for those that come after me. All the while making my own way toward the Wizard. And by the look of the project, Placent and his friends could use three more to help, especially since we were almost twice their height.
I explained the situation to my replicas, but to my dismay neither would help. The second me for obvious reasons, since he could not see anyone. The first me merely stated he would love to help and then proceeded to walk away and resume the far off stare he had when I first encountered him.
Placent did not seem fazed when I relayed the sad message. He was just glad to have one ‘giant’ available to help.
The work was invigorating. I enjoyed it tremendously. To my big surprise, the second me’s mental trick to remove the thirst craving also worked for getting tired or sore.
We worked around the clock for an undetermined amount of days. Not that I could have counted anyway since it was always day in the strange land.
The first tower was completed with much fanfare. Everyone clapped and whistled as Placent walked from one end to the other to demonstrate the sturdiness of watchtower number one.
We wasted no time and moved down the road to a point just in sight of the first tower. Erecting the second one went even faster than the first as everyone began to work better as a team.
I lost count of how many towers we completed. Every ounce of my concentration went toward the tower I was currently working on. With each we completed a member of Placent’s crew stayed behind to stand guard over the road.
At one point, as I was attaching a trestle, I looked back at the two replicas of myself. I did not like what I saw. The first me looked older by several years. He wore a grim look on his face. He seemed very stressed. The second me was hoarding all sorts of items. They were odd items that he was picking up from the construction of each tower. He looked several years younger. It was such an alarming sight that I stopped what I was doing and walked over to them.
I glanced to my right and stopped dead in my tracks. Directly in front of me was the ‘I Got Center’ store owned by the second me. It was moving! Slowly, at about a walking pace, it was moving forward. I quickly looked at the second me but even though he was looking in that direction he took no notice.
I did not think it was a trick of the Black Witch or the alarms would be sounding. Not sure what to make of it, I picked up a bit of scrap wood and threw it at the moving building. As soon as it broke the plane between the road and the small path to the front door, the piece of wood curved to my right and struck the sign above the door. It bounced off the store and landed in the grass. It was moving in exact unison as the building.
“We’re moving backwards!” I said astonished. “The road is going in reverse.”
Nobody responded. Something told me that was a very important moment and I needed to be sure in my thinking before making my next move.
I thought back to the beginning of my journey remembering my thoughts when everything seemed simple. ‘I wanted to ask if any would come with me but I understood, looking at their still encouraging faces, they would if they could. This quest was my burden alone…’
It all came together in my heart, snapping like two perfectly shaped building blocks. I looked up at Placent. He looked down at me questioningly. We had shared so many things during our time together. I did not want to disappoint him but there was only one thing to do.
I walked over to the first me and grabbed him by his arm and pulled him towards the second me. I slapped all the junk from the second me’s arms and pulled him along as well. Neither looked very happy. I did not care.
I did not want to but I could not help but stop and look back at Placent and his crew. The others continued to work but Placent had walked forward toward me. He stood completely still, his tools held loosely in his hands at his side. He looked at me with total bewilderment.
I wanted to yell back that I was sorry. I wanted to explain why I was leaving. But it was too painful and I did not have the words. I turned back towards the Wizard’s Castle and pulled my replicas along. Forward was the only direction that made progress.
We made up the lost ground quickly. By the time we reached where I thought we had built the first tower my two replicas had returned to normal, their normal anyway.
After a lot of walking, and strained patience for my replicas, I was finally able to make out the Castle in the distance. The first glimpse of it came when we probably had a dozen hills between our position and its towering form. All I could make out was a general outline. It was a massive form that must have been a hundred times bigger than the I Got Center.
I nearly missed the body lying on the road as all my focus was on the Castle. I noticed him right before I would have tripped over him. He was sprawled face down on the road, a mirror in one hand and a Witch’s staff in the other. The most alarming thing about the scene though was his skin color. He was bright blue.
I rushed to his side and knelt down to feel for a pulse. As soon as my fingers touched his neck he rolled over. I was not sure what was worse, the fact he turned a dark red color right in front of me or that it was yet another replica of myself.
“You scared the hell out of me,” said the third me breathlessly.
I was at a loss. I did not know what question to ask first. I also was not sure I wanted the answer.
“So what’s your problem?” I asked deciding to get straight to the point.
“What do you mean?” he replied expressionless.
“You’ve got some kind of strange defect that you cannot change yourself, and in the hopes He can fix it, you’d like to join us in our quest to visit the Wizard,” I said matter of factly. “So, what is it?”
“You’re a queer fellow aren’t you?” he said with a smirk. “If you’re referring to my devilish looks, then I can understand your assumption.”
It looked like he hesitated for a drum roll, then continued. “As for the Wizard, he rarely sees visitors anymore these days. Not after his run in with the Black Witch. Nasty business that was.”
“You’ve been to the Wizard?” I asked hopefully.
“Of course,” he said with a wink. “I’ve been the Castle jester there for several years. Youngest jester in history.”
“Then you can get us in to see him?” I asked, thankful that a replica of myself could finally be of help.
“You wouldn’t even need to put your name on the list,” he said confidently. “But as I said he stopped seeing visitors along time ago.”
“You said he rarely sees them,” I pointed out. “As the jester, surely you could get us a couple minutes of his time. It’s worth a try.”
“You’re right,” he replied. “It couldn’t hurt to try. I’m headed in that direction anyway. I’m sure once we’re there I can talk him into it. At the least you’ll be able to see the Castle. They are building a new wing for jesters you know. The Wizard wants me to train the next generation of funny men.”
“What’s so funny about you?” the first me asked rudely.
“A jester’s role is all about presentation, my straight-faced friend,” he said as he patted the first me’s shoulder like one would a child.
“It’s all about color,” he continued. “When have you ever seen someone with turquoise skin?”
“But you’re red,” the first me stated.
The third me glanced down into the mirror he held with a look of frustration. In that instant he turned from red to yellow.
“But of course,” he said. “Sometimes I just get carried away.”
“I trust him,” said the first me suspiciously.
“And your color now?” I asked, testing a hypothesis.
He hesitated a moment then glanced again into his mirror.
“This is where I tell you I’m a bold green color,” he said, “but, and don’t take offense, you say I’m wrong. It takes a keen eye to interpret the colors of a master jester.”
“I see,” I replied knowingly. “Well, there is one interpretation I’m sure of. You fit right in. Welcome.”
He gave me a confused look, which was made even more odd with his yellow skin. I did not wait for his next tall tale. I started walking toward the Castle looming in the distance.
After a few steps I realized no one was following me. I turned back to see three mes standing shoulder to shoulder.
I stared at them a moment and was forced to ask myself what it all meant. Why did I keep running into different versions of myself? There had to be a reason. As I looked over their features I was reminded of the quirks each possessed. I reviewed them in my mind. The first could not tell the truth about himself. The second could only speak of himself since he could not see anyone else. The newest addition changed colors but never knew what they were. The obvious connection between each was the inability to relate to others because of their own handicap. Something told me there was more, much more.
I contemplated leaving them behind. I no longer wanted their companionship on this journey. If the third me was anything like the first two, he was probably an outcast, rather than a heralded member of the Castle court. His presence could hurt more than it could help.
I grew tired thinking about it. I was not going to be able to figure that out with logic. It defied my intellect. It also became obvious to me I was going to have to tap a resource I did not possess.
I closed my eyes and felt a foreign sensation. Something was calling to me. There was an entity in the direction of the Castle that was warmly inviting me to join it. It hummed all around and moved around me like flowing water. The current was gentle and soft. For a brief second I felt something within me answer its call. Almost as if this unknown facet buried deep inside me smiled back. Was it an introduction or a reunion?
With that question I got a headache. The second me’s trick to relieve thirst and hunger did not work. It only made it worse.
“Hey,” I yelled back at my replicas. “Either follow me or I’ll bring some serious pain to each of you. Number two, you’re first.”
His unfocused eyes grew wide and he started immediately walking toward the jar that to him must have looked like it was hovering off the ground.
My outburst felt good, really good. It did not go past me I had given new meaning to the adage, ‘move your feet and your ass will follow.’
Chapter 5: Better Man
Almost imperceptibly, as we moved closer to the Castle, we entered into a sparkling white fog. It was not gray or dark like I was used to. I did not even notice it at first, as everything just seemed to be getting brighter. Once I became aware of it, I could only compare it to when a home video fades out to white. My entourage and I started to walk slower. The Castle was no longer visible, nor was the landscape to either side. After a time all I could see was the golden road for a few feet ahead and the outline of the three mes behind.
When I could no longer distinguish who was which, I starter to get very nervous.
“Hey Jester,” I said to the third me behind. “Is this normal? Does this fog go all the way to the Castle?”
The one in the middle responded. “Of course it is. The Wizard created this barrier to keep out the Black Witch. Unfortunately it keeps out everyone else as well.”
“How do you get in and out then?” I asked. He seemed sincere but something told me I was not getting the whole truth. Something was being left out.”
“I use my staff of course,” he answered and apparently held it up in the air as the end of it rubbed my arm.
“Well, couldn’t the Witch just use hers too?” I asked frustrated. “And where did you get yours?”
“The Wizard gave it to me,” he answered. “All the members of the court get one.”
“What’s so different about yours?” I asked.
“Not much really. Well, to be exact, only one thing,” his voice wafted through the fog. “It is connected to the Wizard through a special magic. The staff will return to the Castle at any time, the owner merely has to ask.”
“That’s it?” I stated exasperated. “Why didn’t you tell us this before?”
“Well,” he said, “I didn’t think about it. Also, it can only take one person, let alone four.”
I was about to get into the semantics of flying staffs when one of my replicas sounded a warning.
“Look out,” came the voice. “The Witch!”
Pandemonium broke loose. I turned to see the outline of the Witch just outside of the golden road. She was hovering off the ground with both arms directed downward. Something was coming out of her hands and going toward the ground.
Her arms raised and lighting began to erupt all around me. I dove to the ground, barely in time as I felt the heat of a bolt on the back of my neck right where my head had just been.
Before I had a chance to do anything else, I saw the silhouette of a me go bounding toward the Witch.
“You fool!” she howled.
The lighting suddenly ceased and the Witch’s form jerked high into the air and out of sight.
“What the hell was that?” came a startled voice within feet of me. I too was taken aback, not at the appearance and quick exit of the Witch, but the question came from a woman.
“The Black Witch,” I replied softly.
The woman screamed and leapt up. I saw her silhouette start to back away, looking frantically in each direction.
“It’s O.K.,” I said still lying down. “I’m a traveler on the road to the Wizard’s Castle.”
I rose slowly from the ground hoping not to scare her more. “Were you hurt?”
The outline of her head turned and locked on me.
“No,” she said as she ran her hands across her shoulder. “I thought for sure my back was burned. Lightning went right across it. Who the hell did you say that was?”
“That was the Black Witch. I don’t know what she was doing but I think we startled her,” I replied still trying to make sense of what happened.
“We startled her?” she belted back. “I think I pee’d a little.”
I could not help but laugh at that. She was so absolutely correct. The way she said it and the way her living shadow moved, I immediately felt connected to her. I had no idea who she was and that excited me.
“Yeah,” I said still laughing. “I guess that doesn’t make much sense. But neither does this bowl of milk we’re in.”
She giggled. It was a beautiful sound. One I immediately knew I wanted to hear again, and as much as possible.
“It doesn’t get any stranger than this,” she said. “The whole thing really. The people in the town and my guardian angel told me about the Witch but I didn’t expect that.”
“Patricia?” I asked excitedly.
“Who? No, her name was Angel Dear or that’s what I called her at least,” she said. “She was beautiful. She had long silver hair and a warm soft smile.”
Definitely not Patricia I thought. “Were the people in the town small and wearing flashy clothes?”
“Not at all,” she replied. “Sounds like we came from a different place. The people I met were giants. They were like twice my size.”
“Huh,” I said still contemplating what it all meant. “You’re right. It doesn’t get any weirder than this.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” she said flustered. “Ever since I’ve been here one creepy thing after another has been happening.”
She outstretched her hand and turned around, “Oh no!”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, hoping to be of help.
“The other… my friends were right behind me,” she said worried.
“Replicas of yourself?” I gathered from her hesitation at explaining who they were.
“How did?” was all she was able to get out.
“I had three trailing me as well,” I said. “I think one of them saved us from the Witch actually. Let’s see if they can hear us.”
We both started yelling our names into the pale murkiness all around us. Her name, I was happy to discover without the awkwardness of asking, was Elle.
By the looks of her outline she was thin, almost gaunt. She moved with a light grace that melted through the heavy cloud.
“It’s no use,” she said hoarsely. “They can’t hear us. I haven’t had anything to drink in days. I can barely speak let alone scream. I don’t know how I’m still even standing.”
“I can help you with that,” I said excited to be able to remove her discomfort.
I explained the trick I had learned from the second me.
“Wow,” she said after a moment of concentration. “That’s amazing. I’m not thirsty or hungry. My throat isn’t even dry anymore. What other tricks do you know?”
All my language skills instantly evaporated. I barely got a grunt out.
“Easy Matthew,” she said sweetly. The way my name sounded in her voice only worsened my sudden ignorance. “I was referring to anything that might help us out.”
She moved closer, reached out and held both of my hands. “We need to find ourselves.”
My mind came rushing back. I was suddenly very worried about my replicas, especially whichever one went running toward the Witch.
“Keep hold of my hand,” I said while squeezing one of hers. “If we separate we’ll never find each other again.”
We began to retrace our steps, being careful to stay on the golden road. We found each of ourselves in the opposite we had discovered them. Third me we came across first, his mirror and broom still in hand. The second me next, who was almost in a state of panic considering the only thing he could see was the slight outline of the jar at my side. He kept repeating over and over that he was going completely blind.
Elle’s replicas were just as strange as mine, although their deficiencies were completely different. We came upon our first replicas last. They had somehow found each other already within the haze and were talking.
“You know,” I overheard the first me saying, “I’ve never met someone so beautiful.”
Despite the fact it was not literally me who said it, and it was directed toward Elle’s replica, I blushed nonetheless.
“You can’t even see my face,” replied Elle’s first twin.
“That doesn’t matter at all,” the first me said. “I can see it anyway. You have the face of my mother, my sister, my guardian angel. Your eyes are peaceful, your smile laughter, your cheeks strength. It is elegant. It is love.”
The palm of my hand began to manufacture sweat at an alarming rate. How could I tell Elle this was not me, when it was me saying it? I was sure that she was getting angry at the first me’s pompousness.
“Wow,” Elle said after a long exhale. “That’s the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me. It was to a copy of me, but I’ll take it.”
Elle’s replica began to cry, obviously thinking the same thing.
“I love you Matthew,” the first Elle said.
“I love you too,” replied the first me.
Both Elle and I stiffened at the same time, although for different reasons I was to find out.
“But that’s impossible,” I said confused. “That me can’t tell the truth about himself to save his life.”
“It’s a miracle,” Elle said just as surprised.
“What is?” I asked.
“The first mirror image of myself can’t love,” she said starting to cry. “She wanted to join me to see the Wizard so she could love and be loved in return.”
Elle and I, along with our other replicas, stood silent for a time watching the new couple as they kissed and cried together. They walked over to us after speaking silently.
“We’ve decided to stay here,” said the first me. “Neither of us have reason to visit the Wizard now and every reason to remain.”
I could tell he was not going to be persuaded.
“What about the Witch?” Elle said concerned.
“Don’t worry about her,” said the third me. “I ran her off.”
I turned and looked at him surprised. Something told me his color skin would be important if I could only see it.
We said our goodbyes and decided we could not force them to continue, though both of us were worried about them. I was truly happy for the first me. He was the one I liked the most. He was the most sincere of the three, the one who genuinely wanted help. He was also the only one who seemed to understand his problem completely.
We left them behind and together Elle and I resumed our quest down the golden glowing road. Neither of us had spoken to a real human being since our initial entrance into this world. We told each other all that happened since our arrival. It was a relief to have someone else appreciate the insanity of the whole situation. Elle had a wonderful laugh and we shared a love for sarcasm, of which this world provided plenty of opportunities. I immediately felt comfortable with her. We were both able to act childlike together.
“So will your mirror copies behave themselves?” Elle said coyly. “Or do I need to separate my other selves from them?”
“Listen to what you just said,” I laughed. “You just asked if I need to chaperone a man following a jar and another carrying a mirror and a broom. Are your replicas so desperate?”
She gave me a stiff punch to my shoulder. “At lease I don’t blame my farts on them. And don’t you dare say it was number two again.”
“But it was!” I replied innocently.
We both laughed and continued to make the most of each other’s company. We were lost in a dream with only the dull outline of the road we walked and our clenched hands for comfort. For the first time since I had arrived I felt as though everything was going to work out. As long as Elle was by my side, nothing could be bad. I also felt as though she thought the same. It occurred to me that maybe I had never felt this way before. That maybe I was catapulted into this strange journey to meet her. Seeking the Wizard was a means to an end but this was something different entirely. Maybe we were meant to be together. Our replicas were able to solve their common problem. Maybe we could do the same for each other.
“I wonder if the problems of my other replica’s will go away like the first,” I thought out loud.
“I was just thinking the same thing,” she said.
Just as I was about to guess which ones of me would be the best for hers, Elle bumped into me and I stumbled, nearly falling.
“Would you like to share that flask in your back pocket?” I joked.
She laughed and said, “Again, blaming others. You ran into me.”
“Oh, sorry about that,” I said sarcastically. “I didn’t know we decided to stop walking down the center of the road.”
She stopped giggling. “Your joking right?”
“Well, yeah,” I said, surprised by how personal she was taking my comment. “But I really was just following the road.”
“Which way does the road go?” she asked concerned.
I pointed straight ahead of me wondering if maybe she was going blind.
“That’s not the direction the road goes,” she replied. “At least not the road I’m on.”
The meaning of what she said spread through me like ice water. “Not again. I’m not leaving you. I refuse.”
She burst into tears and put her arms around me. Somewhere within the void our lips met and our silhouettes intertwined into one.
“You meant that?” she asked with a strained voice.
“Yes,” I said with as much intention as I could inflect.
“What should we do?” she asked.
“We can’t stand still. I know that from experience,” I said. “One of us could lead the other down the road visible to them I guess.”
“Would that work?” she asked, her arms still draped over my shoulder.
“Sure, why not?” I assumed. “Not much different than the second me who can only see the jar around my waist.”
It made rational sense I thought.
“Don’t be a fool! That’s what the Witch wants,” said my third replica from behind as he moved closer with staff and mirror. “Can’t you see that the Witch set this whole thing up or has this girl clouded your mind into stupidity?”
It took me a few seconds to get over the fact the insult came from myself.
I let go of Elle and approached the third me with every intention of beating him with his own staff. Instead, I decided it was time to get some answers.
“I’ve heard that phrase before,” I growled. “The Witch said it just before she high tailed it outta here. What did you do exactly to scare her?”
“A simple trick to Wizard taught me,” He replied confidently. “Nothing more.”
“I don’t believe you,” I stated flatly. “You know much more than you have let us in on. Spill it.”
“I’m telling you,” he said taking a step toward me, “The Wizard told me about touching my staff to the Witch’s staff as a way to get rid of her. Nothing more. What you don’t seem to understand is the Witch will do anything to get you off this road. That’s when she has the advantage. What do you think she was doing when we came across her?”
I could tell he was telling the truth. However, I again had the sense he was leaving something out. He cared about our wellbeing, but for some other self-seeking reason that was hidden from me.
“I’ll tell you. The same thing she was trying to do when you first met our blind fellow here,” the third me pointed to the second. “She created that shortcut hoping you’d step off the path. She also combined your path with Placent’s, hoping again you would be distracted from your one and only purpose which is traveling this road to the Wizards Castle.”
“She was responsible for all that?” I asked amazed. “I didn’t know she could do that. How do you know all this?”
“Because I watched her do it,” he responded. “I’ve been trailing her ever since you arrived. I had an unfortunate run in with her. That’s when you found me on the road.”
“What are you saying?” I asked timidly, not wanting to hear the answer. “She was somehow able to combine my and Elle’s path? That doesn’t make any sense. To what end? What did she hope to accomplish?”
“This,” he said sweeping his staff across the divergent paths. “I guess she knew you’d fall for this girl. Either way you go, the Witch will have you both. Don’t you see that? One will be vulnerable and the other more than willing to put themselves at risk for the other. You will both falter.”
His words rang like a bell tolling across an open expanse. They were undeniable when taken in their entirety. I considered the possibilities for a moment but I could come up with none, save the obvious. Above all, I found myself caring for Elle’s well being. I did not want to endanger her in any way.
“You and I aren’t through,” I said to the third me. “There’s something you’re not telling me. I know that for sure.”
He didn’t respond. I turned back to Elle and took her hand in mine.
“He’s right,” I said gently. “I don’t see what else to do but to take separate paths. I will not spend eternity in the clutches of the Witch. Nothing is worth that and I’m sure you feel the same. I don’t think I could live knowing I was responsible for that.”
I sighed and gave her hand a squeeze. “I can’t protect you from the Witch. I want to lie and say I will. I want to tell you you’ll be safe with me and have nothing to worry about. But I can’t lie about this.”
I wanted to lie more than anything but for some reason I could not. I wondered if the departure of the first me had anything to do with my sudden honesty.
Elle did not say anything in response. I craved to hear her say that everything was going to be all right. I wanted to know that she did not think I was abandoning her. I understood, though, that it was not my place to probe her for the answer I was seeking. She had every right to be resentful. I had moments ago said I would never leave her. Everything had changed so quickly.
She slipped her hand from my grip and stepped off of my road onto hers. The path I could not see. Her two remaining replicas joined her. I could here them crying.
“Elle!” I yelled. “Wait, I’m sorry.”
I began to follow her but the third me grabbed my shoulders. The second me pulled the jar and rope. I did not care about the consequences. All reason vanished.
Elle did not turn around and in moments I could no longer see her silhouette. She was gone forever and so was my chance at happiness.
Chapter 6: The Keystone
The walk down the golden road became pointless. All I could think of was Elle alone in the void and it made my heart hurt. The pain centered in my stomach, clenching and sending nausea upward each time I pictured her silhouette in my mind. I had never experienced such loss. I could not think of anything worse, including being ruled by the storm I came from or the Witch that now chased me.
Slowly, just as before, our surroundings started to change. However, this time the white fog rescinded. We had made it through the barrier between the outer world and the Wizard’s Castle. I barely noticed. All my thoughts were still with Elle.
Despite my dark mood, when I looked up and saw the Wizards Castle I was spellbound. It was magnificent. It towered over us in a splendid glory that was both regal and powerful. It commanded attention and inspired positive thought. Though I did not want even one thought to stray from Elle, I could not help but be overwhelmed by a sense of hope and homecoming.
I could feel energy from the Castle radiating in all directions. I could also feel something inside myself answer its call. I realized then that the Castle and I were in some way or form the same. A piece of me was of the same material as the Castle. It was not stone or brick. It was organic and it yearned to grow as all living things do.
My gaze turned downward and I was shocked to see that several yards ahead of us the golden glowing road ended. There was a tremendous gate arching over the road, separating its end from the start of a winding path. The gate was enormous. Its golden rods were raised up high, open and inviting all to enter. The path beyond led to a large palisade and a broad door that must have been the main entrance.
“Shall we?” I asked my replicas. The second me had a wide smile on his face. The third me was trailing behind him. He seemed preoccupied with something else entirely. His eyes were fixed onto the sky above, as if he was waiting on something.
“Can I have my jar back?” asked the second me. “It’s the most important one.”
“You sure can,” I said cheerfully. I untied it from my waist and handed the rope and jar to him. “You’ve been staring at it long enough. Keep an ear out for my footsteps though. I wouldn’t want you to run into me and drop the jar.”
“Good idea,” he said. Amazingly he did not take credit for it this time. Instead he gingerly wrapped the rope around it and tied it to his waste.
We had nearly reached the gate and I was within feet of crossing over onto the new path. However, I noticed the third me had fallen behind and was still staring into the sky. I turned and began to walk back toward him. I forgot to tell the second me I had changed directions.
Before I reached him, the third me glanced down just when the second me, with the jar around his waist, was crossing the threshold.
“Now!” the third me screamed into the sky.
The next few moments unfolded like still images frozen in time as if they were pictures piled one on top of the other. Each image was separate. Each moment was terribly real.
Two claps thundering in the sky above began the turning of the pictures into scenes that would be forever imprinted in my mind. Burned and branded, my eyes would never be able to forget them.
The first one, along with the first thunderclap, produced the Black Witch. There was a strange green light connecting her and the third me’s staff.
The second scene, along with the second clap, came from the hands of the Black Witch. I saw her letting loose a bolt of lighting from two outstretched hands. The light given off hid her body, except for a small sliver that revealed her eyes. They were focused and cruel. They spoke of only death.
The next scene was confusing. The Black Witch’s eyes smoldered and her lips were drawn wide with pleasure. She did not notice the third me who had jumped high into the air, his hand inches from the staff that she rode.
The final scene blasted apart and can only be described as a collage. It also came with a horrendous soundtrack. I remember hearing screams from all directions.
The third me was holding both staffs, one in each hand. The Black Witch was looking down at him in horror. Her body seemed to be on fire. The third me’s eyes were wide and his mouth open in terrible pain. The strange green light from before was tearing through him, separating his body into a thousand pieces. Seconds later he would be scattered like coals in a fire.
I felt pain myself, a dull thudding pulse like a concussion. I then found myself sprawled face down on the golden road looking toward the Castle. The gate had fallen down. A man holding a jar to his chest was keeping it just off the ground. The second me was lying motionless beneath its heavy weight.
My vision became blurry and my eyes shut. I do not know how long I remained unconscious. When I awoke my entire body was on fire and my ears were ringing. Something about that blast transcended the world I was in. I knew right away no simple concentration trick would take the pain away.
The third me’s staff lay inches from me and beyond him the second me was still motionless underneath the gate. Though my entire body resisted it, I managed to stand up, grab the walking staff and shuffle as fast as I could toward the second me.
I got right up to the gate and fell to my knees next to his head. His eyes were open!
“Can you hear me?” I asked in a near panic.
“I can see you,” he whispered through labored breath.
“You what?” I stammered. “Oh buddy, no. I’m so sorry I got you into this.”
“Quickly,” he wheezed. “Go.”
Looking down at myself crushed beneath the golden gate, tears began to run down my face. I could not believe what was happening. I had caused only destruction to everything and everyone. Yet, the second me had a genuine smile on his face despite the obvious pain he was in.
I slid the staff below the gate and scooted my body underneath the threshold. The second me’s breathing was getting more and more laborious. As soon as I was across I stood up and grabbed the gate with both hands. I could tell as soon as I gripped it there was no way I could relieve any of the pressure on top of him, let alone lift it. It was just too massive.
The second me pulled in as much air as he could and lifted his head. With his last breath his eyes locked onto mine and he said, “Thank you.”
His head hit the ground hard and his body went limp. There was nothing I could do for him anymore.
As I picked up the staff I glanced at the label on the jar.
“Impossible,” I muttered out loud.
I crouched closer and read it. ‘Holding the gate open for myself.’ I had never noticed the label on the jar. I simply picked it out at random. The second me said it was his most important one. It was probably the only unselfish jar in his whole store. It occurred to me then those jars held the memories of his entire life, including the future. That memory must have been the only one strong enough to hold open the gate in order for me to get underneath. I wondered if he knew what it meant when we left. Either way, he held up his end of the bargain and he got his sight back. I did not know whether or not it was worth his life but he obviously did. He sacrificed himself for me. Gave himself for this journey that I was forced into what seemed like years ago.
I stood up with more determination than at any other point.
“This Wizard better be home,” I said through clenched teeth. I left the second me there beneath the gate and headed through the palisade to knock on the front door.
Chapter 7: Everything
Whatever awe I had for the Castle died with the second me. I still could not believe the third me double crossed us and conspired with the Black Witch. He obviously had motives of his own. She seemed to be caught off guard just like the rest of us. What he thought he was going to gain certainly backfired on him. I had a certain amount of joy thinking of him scattered across the golden road.
I raised the staff in my hands as high as I could and used it to pound on the door. The top of the staff still did not reach a third of the height. The door must have been forty feet tall. I wondered how something so big could even open.
There was no answer. I was about to slam the staff again when a small door about the size of my head opened up at eye level.
“There is a door bell you know,” said the man whose face appeared in the small door. He had sparkling eyes much like Patricia’s. His face was warm. It was adorned with small rimmed glasses hanging low on his nose. He had short gray hair and a beard.
“Where?” I asked at a loss for words.
“Right there,” he said as he lifted his hand so I could see it and pointed to my right. Sure enough there was a door bell along with a small sign with an arrow pointing downward stating ‘Door Bell.’ I was almost positive that wasn’t there when I walked up. The amused look in his eyes gave me the suspicion it may have just appeared.
“Can I come in?” I said flustered, trying not to lose my temper.
“Sure,” he said with a smile.
There was a pause. He did not move or say anything else.
“Well, are you going to open the door?” I asked.
“There is a door bell you know,” he said again.
I stopped myself from jabbing the man in the face with the staff. It probably would not make the Wizard happy to give his butler a black eye. I leaned over to smash the doorbell with my palm but it was gone.
I looked back to see the little door was closed. The man was gone. I lost it. I had not come all this way to be belittled.
I smashed the staff over and over again into the door until it broke into pieces.
The little door opened again and the same man reappeared.
“If you say I should have rang the doorbell I’m gonna reach through and wring your neck,” I said before thinking.
“That sounds unfortunate,” said the man. “Especially since we don’t have a door bell.”
I stared at him with my mouth hanging open.
“What are you here for?” he asked after a moment.
“To see the Wizard?” I said.
He raised his head and looked at me through his glasses. “Ring the door bell when your ready to answer that question truthfully.” With that, he shut little door again.
“What!” I yelled. “Hey, open this damn door. I’m serious.”
I looked over to see that the doorbell had reappeared. I pushed it over and over again until the little door opened.
“So, you figured out why you’re here?” he asked.
“No. I mean yes,” I sputtered. “Look, please don’t shut the door again. I don’t think I can handle it. I just watched myself explode and get crushed by a gate. All I want to do is get out of this crazy place.”
“Now I’d like to see that,” said the man jovially.
“What?” I asked.
“Exploding and being crushed by a gate,” he said smartly. “That’s one hell of an accomplishment.”
I did not take kindly to his last statement but before I could object he said, “You don’t need any help getting out of this crazy place. You get an A+ in crazy. But I appreciate your honesty. Come on in.”
He looked down and I heard a jingle. A regular sized door surrounding the little one opened up.
“My name’s Gary,” he said outstretching his hand. “Nice to meet you Matthew. The Wizard has been hoping you’d show up for a long time now.”
“He knew I was coming?” I asked amazed.
“Of course,” he said. “He’s been watching you closely.”
Gary ushered me into the Castle. It was completely dark save for a small parlor area with a large dining table directly in front of us. The table and the chairs around it were lit by an unseen lamp overhead. The light casting downward shed just enough to give some definition to the massive Castle surrounding us. I thought I could make out at least three different staircases leading up to three or four different levels. If I was correct, the stories above opened up in a circle around the parlor we were now standing in. There were railings around the edge of each level. Beyond that, I could see nothing.
“How big is this place?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Gary. “That’s what you’re here to figure out.”
“What do you mean? And where is everyone? The court and jesters?” I asked.
He chuckled. “There is only the two of us,” he said with a grin. “You’ve run everyone else out of here by now.”
“I’m so confused,” I said to Gary as we took a seat at the table.
“Where do you think you are?” asked Gary.
“In the Wizard’s Castle,” I responded automatically.
“O.K.,” he said, his eyes rolling upward as if he was reading a teleprompter in his mind. “Where is the Wizard’s Castle?”
“I don’t know,” I said resting my arms on the top of the table. “I was snatched with my house and transported out of that storm.”
“Were you transported out or in?” asked Gary. He looked at me but his focus was not on my eyes. He seemed to be looking just past them into my thoughts.
My mind was tired but a few things started to make sense. “You’re the Wizard aren’t you?” I asked.
Gary smiled. A light just beyond us flickered and turned on. It lit up the room a bit more and illuminated the base of one staircase.
“I am a Wizard,” he replied. “But I am not the Wizard of this Castle. I am merely a guide.”
His words were slow and brimming with meaning. There was an answer, some awareness, at the edge of my mind that was sparked. It was staggering in its implication.
“Am I the Wizard?” I asked, not believing the question.
Lights across the entire parlor snapped on at the same time. It was startling at first but the area seemed to warm up immediately. It was beautiful. If the rest of the Castle looked like this it was surely a place I could fall in love with.
“Patricia sent me a good one,” Gary said. He was not surprised. His expression was more like proud.
“If I’m the Wizard,” I continued, “why did I have to go through all of that to get here.”
“We all do,” he replied. “It’s all part of the journey and one you’ll have to make each time you come back. The Spirit Center is a mirror. It focuses, like a projector, the most powerful personalities within us.”
“But none of my personalities made it this far,” I said sadly, remembering the first and second me.
“They could not,” he said. “Their traits were the exact things blocking you from entering the Castle.”
“What happened to the third me?” I finally asked. “He exploded when he held his and the Black Witch’s staff.”
“Ah, the leveling of pride,” he responded. “Let me ask, who is above you?”
“You mean above him?” I considered, still not making the connection between my personality and the replicas. “No one I guess. He was too conceited for that. The rules didn’t apply to him.”
“What would happen, do you think,” explained Gary, “if someone were to try to rule over both God and himself?”
“He would explode?” I half asked, half stated.
“Be destroyed for sure,” he said laughing. “You’re the first one I’ve met that actually exploded.”
“Patricia said the Wizard asked just one thing in return for his help,” I said, moving on to another burning question. “Any idea what I’ve got to give up?”
Gary became serious and said, “Everything.”
I contemplated what that entailed. At first I only considered my belongings but those seemed to no longer have value to me. The term everything was too abstract for me to wrap my thoughts around. I was just going to have to speak with the man in charge.
“Well if I’m the Wizard,” I thought out loud, considering his response, “I’m assuming there’s someone else other than you that is demanding everything.”
Gary simple continued to look at me. It was obvious he was not going to fill in the gap for me. I looked beyond him to our surroundings again. The lack of light was hindering my vision and it seemed to be stifling my comprehension. This moment was more than just important. It was a turning point. I could either embrace a new way of thinking or fall back asleep.
I closed my eyes and immediately felt a presence within. It was the same one I had felt beyond the Castle. Within the walls however, it was much stronger and vibrant. The center point within myself was inextricably connected to the Castle around me. They were one and the same. The spirit within me cried out in joy. I was home.
“It’s the Castle isn’t it?” I said opening my eyes. “I may be the Wizard but this Castle is something different. There is a power here far greater than me.”
More lights around us turned on. Gary leaned back, his eyes closed, and spent a moment basking in the new light.
“That’s my favorite part,” he said. “When the lights come on.”
He opened his eyes and focused them again on me. “This is the Castle of God, your inner perfection. You’ve neglected it far too long. The world outside of this Castle is made up of all the things that keep you from God. You may be the anointed Wizard of this Castle, but you have a long way to go. You will find new versions of yourself each time you come here. The Black Witch has many sisters. You will never be rid of her. There are also certain requirements that you must meet in order to restore this Castle to its natural brilliance.”
“Everything?” I said thinking I was finishing his thought.
“Well, yes,” he replied. “But let’s be a little more specific shall we. The first order of business is to clean house. It’s your duty to go through the entire Castle, turn on all the lights and sweep out anything undesirable.”
“Sounds difficult,” I said looking around, projecting on how many hundreds of rooms there were.
“Says who? It’s simply different,” he said.
I smiled. I liked that phrase. It did not have to be difficult if I did not want it to be.
“How long will it take?” I asked feeling a little overwhelmed.
“That’s up to you,” he said. “You are embarking on a journey to go where no man in your family has gone before. It’s not better, just new. The journey will be a different kind of storm than the one you were living. If you so desire it will never let up. You will never be comfortable not changing.”
His words lit a fire within me that burned me to my feet. I stood up from the table to greet the most important moment of my life. There were so many things in my life I had never taken responsibility for. There was so many broken promises. If this journey had taught me anything, I finally knew it was time that I made a fist pounding decision. It was time to bring light into the foreboding darkness around. Even if it meant stumbling fearlessly in the dark, I was resigned to the task of a searching inventory of the entire Castle.
There was no reason to wait or consider anything else. I felt from deep within that it was time for action. Within God’s Castle, I knew I could not be steered wrong.
There, in the only brightly lit room within the Castle, I closed my eyes and braced myself for the coming wind.