“You don’t believe me!”
“That’s not what I’m saying!”
“You saw what I saw!”
“I did! I did.” Simone raised her hands and took a deep breath. She glanced over at the closed door of the walk-in closet that was twice the size of her bedroom. “It’s got to be some kind of holographic projection.”
Evie was biting her lip, her upper body kind of bobbing slightly, the way it did when she was truly freaked out. She nodded, but then her face scrunched up in a wince. “But I could smell the dirt on the road,” she said. “Couldn’t you smell it? And look at my shoe. The dirt!”
Simone pulled open the closet door. She walked in again. Evie was right. Simone started smelling the scent of dry earth before she even saw what was supposed to be the back of the closet. Even through the scent of the perfumed scarfs—Evie said they were essential oils. Past the rows of boots on the ground, the racks of color-coded suits, the velvet-lined drawers full of jewelry, the variously shaped pastel boxes that probably contained hats and fascinators, Simone found the far border of the closet. And it was not an array of shelves in a soothing slate-blue shade like the rest of the closet. It was not a changing room with a full-length mirror.
The back of the closet seemed to lead onto a dirt road with a very much open sky above, a sky that looked overcast. Simone felt a chill coming from that direction, but that could be explained by an air conditioning vent.
Simone put her sneakers back on—Evie had insisted she take her shoes off before entering the house. Then she stepped forward and kicked at road, sending out a spray of dirt and tiny pebbles. Some of the reddish dust stuck the front of her sneakers.
Evie stood behind her. “This is like that wardrobe in—”
“Don’t say it.”
Simone stepped back, off the road, and back onto the carpeted floor of the closet. That dirt was still on her shoe, and she had tracked some onto the carpet. “Maybe it’s a very fancy advanced virtual reality set-up?”
“In her closet?” Evie asked.
“Of all the things I would expect to find in a rich lady’s closet, this seems pretty harmless.”
“I called my boss,” Evie said. She’d been holding her phone in her hand ever since Simone arrived, as if she were waiting for a call or message.
Simone nodded. “What did she say?”
“She said to handle it. She’s got more important things to deal with. A real emergency. Why do you think I called you?”
“Did you tell her there’s a deserted dirt road inside the closet?”
“It’s only my third day. Why is this happening?” Evie put a hand on her mouth and then took it away, waving at inside of the closet. “I don’t even see any belts. Where are the belts?”
“Maybe they’re further in?”
“There is no further in.”
Simone looked at her and grinned, pointing to the dirt road.
Evie threw up her hands. “What am I supposed to do about this?”
Simone started walking toward the closet door, waving her friend toward her. “Okay, come back outside. Take a few deep breaths. And walk me through it all again.”
“I already told you!” Evie stood where she was for a few seconds, but as she released a heavy sigh, she started following Simone.
“Deep breaths,” Simone said. “And a drink of water.”
“I’m not supposed to eat or drink anything. Or touch anything. She just sent me to get the belt. Just the belt.”
Evie was in her own words, the “lowly assistant” among a team of assistants for someone who worked for someone who worked for someone who was an executive of the company that Evie wanted to work for because it was in a “growth phase.” She’d been sent to the home of this executive, one Frannie Moss, to find a specific belt for an event planned for that evening. Moss was presenting some important proposal for some new initiative. Evie wasn’t clear on any particulars, and even if she had been, Simone probably would not have absorbed any of that information when she received the frantic call from her best friend that morning. Simone didn’t even remember anything about any belt.
Evie had been sent to the house to fetch a belt that was special to Moss. It sounded like it was her lucky belt for giving talks. It calmed her down by reminding her of some relaxing vacation she’d gone on or something. Evie said her boss was dismissive and vague about it. She just give Evie a picture of the belt, and the security codes to unlock the house.
It already made Evie nervous to be intruding upon the house of her boss’s boss’s boss. She thought she would be overwhelmed with wonder when she opened the closet, but it reminded her so much of a department store, that it brought her back to her senses. She’d started searching for the belt, walking further and further in, and she’d suddenly found herself walking along an empty dirt road, looking up at a sky full of gray clouds, and hearing the distant boom of thunder.
After blinking and rubbing her eyes, and turning around to see that the rest of the closet was still there, she made the wise choice to step back into the closet and out of it. Before she could even understand what she had just seen, she called her boss. And before she could even begin explaining, her boss spoke over her. Whatever hurdle Evie had come up against, she would have to handle it herself. Her boss was dealing with a bigger emergency back at the office. Then, her boss just hung up. Evie went back into the closet, having decided she must have had some kind of lapse and hadn’t really seen what she thought she’d seen.
But she did see it. She did smell the dirt and the rain on the horizon. Just as surely as she smelled the faint scents of mint and orange oils from the scarves hanging to her right.
“And that’s when I called you,” Evie finished.
Her phone, which she was still holding in her hand, began to ring. Evie’s shoulder flinched. She froze for a second and looked at Simone, who pointed to the phone.
Evie answered. Simone heard a voice, but couldn’t make out any words.
“Yes, I’m here still here,” Evie said. “I’m still looking for the—”
The voice interrupted and spoke for a few minutes, with Evie only responding with a weak, “okay,” and then a “no, just me,” as she glanced up at Simone, and a final, stronger, “I will.”
She hung up.
Simone raised her brows.
“She asked if I was still at the house, and if anyone else was here. Then she told me to make sure the house was empty before I left, and message her once I was outside, so I could confirm I locked up correctly.”
Simone felt a nervous thump in her gut. She envisioned Evie’s boss tapping into a live feed of the house’s security system, and Evie being fired for bringing a friend over. She hoped it would end there and not with Evie being fined or arrested or something. She took a deep breath to bring herself to her senses. Evie had called her over to calm the situation down, not make her more nervous.
“Okay, let’s just look for that belt,” Simone said. “It’s got to be there somewhere. Then we’ll check the house like your boss asked. Then we’ll go.”
Evie nodded. She began to turn away, toward the walk-in, but then she turned back to Simone and tilted her head, crumpling her face into a different kind of wince. “Sorry, Simone. To call you out on a Saturday.” She gasped and straightened her head. “Were you sleeping when I called?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Simone tipped her head toward the closet, and they both headed toward it.
Simone started theorizing about the dirt road. She wondered if it was an extravagance that the executive had splurged on. Maybe it was left running on accident. Or maybe a glitch turned the unit on. She tried looking for “emitters” or mirrors, or better yet, an “off” switch, some evidence to support her theory.
“Next time you talk to your boss, you should mention it,” Simone said.
“Sure, if she’d let me speak more than two words.”
Evie’s phone chirped with several message notifications from work. She checked each time, but mostly ignored them since none were from her boss.
“I don’t think these are essential oils,” Simone said, peering at a rack full of small amber bottles near the scarves and gloves. “Mint. Lavender. Orange? These seem like baking spices to me.”
Evie was distracted from answering by another chirp on her phone. Simone watched her review the message. Evie looked up and her eyes were wide, but her upper body had stopped bobbing.
“Someone figured out what the big emergency is at the office.”
Some of Evie’s fellow “lowly assistants” had seen a flurry of activity among the upper management all morning. They pieced together fragments of overhead conversations and realized that everyone was trying to track down Frannie Moss, who was supposed to have reported to the office hours ago.
“Frannie Moss?” Simone pointed to the ground. “Is that the same Frannie Moss…this house?”
Evie nodded, clutching her phone.
“Wait, is that why your boss asked if you were alone, and if you could check the house for someone?”
Evie frowned, and shook her head. “Why wouldn’t she just tell me to look for Miss Moss?”
“Because that would make sense. Making sense of things is not what bosses do.” Simone sighed. “They probably don’t want to let on that she seems to be missing. At least not yet.”
Simone and Evie searched the house, even looking under the beds, and in the shed in the backyard. They didn’t find anyone other than themselves. Frannie Moss didn’t even have any pets.
“There is one place we haven’t searched,” Simone said.
She was half-kidding. Simone still believed the dirt road at the back of the walk-in closet was some kind of illusion. That meant they didn’t know how far back the closet actually extended. Frannie Moss might have been using the device and maybe she fell asleep at best, or at worst, she collapsed and was now lying right in front of them, just out of reach. Judging by the arrangement of the surrounding rooms, there shouldn’t have been much more to the closet.
But the only technology they found in the closet was the impressive lighting system. And even when they turned all of those lights off, the dirt road was still there. And there was wind blowing in their direction, carrying the dark storm clouds toward them.
So Simone walked a ways down the road, while Evie waited at the threshold.
Simone walked slowly and with her hands out, expecting to hit an unseen wall some unknown distance ahead. But as she walked farther and farther down the road, it was easier and easier to feel it was all real. The dirt and pebbles crunching under her feet. The chill that was soaking through her socks, and the single layer of clothing she had on, because it had been a warm sunny morning, going into a warm sunny day.
She turned around, spotted Evie’s small form standing in what seemed to be an archway with hazy borders.
“Evie!” she called.
“Simone!” Evie called back. “Do you see anything!”
Maybe there was some computer that was processing all of Simone’s movements in real-time, making it look like Evie was far away, and making their voices seem far away from each other. Maybe there was one of those moving walkways under Simone’s feet, or even just a fancy treadmill lowered to floor level somehow, that made her feel like she’d just walked a hundred feet away.
“Or maybe this is real,” Simone uttered to herself.
The sky responded with a crack of thunder.
“What are you doing?” Evie asked, following Simone downstairs.
“I’m going to go find some water bottles. And maybe some granola bars. Just in case it’s a long walk.”
Simone had decided to go down the dirt path as far as she could while staying in contact with Evie. She would look for Evie’s missing executive. She would turn back if she started getting tired or if she started losing contact with Evie, whichever came first.
But when she explained this Evie, Evie insisted on coming with her.
“Someone has to stay out here, in case something happens.”
“Let me call my boss again.”
Evie tried calling. Her boss did not pick up. She didn’t leave a message.
But she did write a note, which she left on the main dresser in the bedroom. If something happened, someone would find the note and send help. If nothing happened, she’d take the note and throw it away.
It was Evie’s idea to leave Simone’s phone just at the threshold to the road. They would only walk far enough away that they would still be able to call Simone’s phone. They would take Evie’s phone with them, so she could call her boss right away if they found Frannie Moss.
After fifteen minutes of waking, both of them were rubbing their arms.
“You should have let me bring a couple of her coats,” Simone said. “She had a few that actually looked warm.”
Evie glanced back the way they had come, but said nothing.
The road was bordered by scattered patches of dry grass and the occasional tumbleweed, and nothing else. No buildings. No signs. No trees. No bushes or hedges. No fences. No houses or buildings of any kind. The wind picked up, and the dark clouds rolled toward them, driving lower in the sky. A few times, Simone thought she felt a drop on her arm or head. But it wasn’t yet raining.
Before too long, the path split. One side looked exactly the same as the path they’d been following. The other was extravagantly different.
There were bushes and hedges along that other road, but that was not all. Lying under and over and in those bushes and hedges were belts, an excessive number of belts. Plain brown leather, red plastic, chunks of stone, black leather with rivets, rolled silk. Simone could never had guessed at the vast variety of belts.
Just as Simone stopped so they could consider which path to choose, Evie started down the path with the belts.
“Hey, that doesn’t matter anymore,” Simone said.
But Evie was already searching the bushes—beating around them, Simone realized, chuckling despite herself.
Simone joined her friend. Evie turned to her and said, “It’s a beltway.”
Simone shook her head, but smiled. Without any other clues about which path they should take, she went along with it. She used Evie’s phone to send a message to her own. It went through, and she received the auto-response that she had programmed, “We’ve gone down the red path.”
“Found it!” Ten minutes after they started down the “beltway,” Evie held a belt up over her head in both hands as if it were a championship belt. She rushed over to Simone to retrieve her phone and check the belt against the picture her boss had sent her. Thunder rumbled in the distant sky.
They sent another message to Simone’s phone and confirmed it was still connected. Evie rolled up the belt carefully and put it in Simone’s bag, in a different section from the waters and granola bars.
“We can get all the others once we find Miss Moss,” Evie said.
“You want to keep going?”
Evie shrugged, then nodded. Finding that belt had turned her mood all the way around.
Simone pointed to the sky and turned her finger in a circle. “We still don’t know what all this is.”
“You don’t think it’s virtual reality anymore?”
“You’re going to make me say the word, aren’t you?”
Evie’s brow crumpled in confusion. “What word?”
Evie gaped. “You think so?”
“Maybe. Why not?”
“You think Miss Moss did it?”
“I don’t know. But you got the belt, and we’ve walked pretty far. I think we should go back now.”
“What if she’s in trouble?”
Simone rubbed her forehead. “You’re the one who called me, freaking out about this path, and now you want to go further?”
“Well, I’m not freaked out anymore now that you’re here.”
Simone frowned. “What if she was in trouble? How would we be any help to her?” She gestured with both hands to the path leading back to the closet. “We could help by getting help. Help from people who rescue people for a living.”
Evie pursed her lips. She looked down the road one way, then the other. Simone planted her feet and readied herself to force her friend to follow her back.
She didn’t have to.
“You’re right,” Evie said.
They started down the road back the way they’d come.
Soon, they came to a fork in the road. But there was something different about the paths ahead. Simone had expected to see two dirt paths bordered by barren dry earth, patches of dry grass, and the occasional tumbleweed. But both of these paths were bordered with vegetation. Thorny bushes with clusters of orange berries, weed flowers with white petals, green blades of grass with yellow speckles. Even trees, short ones with thin trunks, scattered the landscape.
The sky above them was gray and overcast. But the sky ahead was dark and roiling with storm clouds. But they should have left the storm behind. Simone turned her head to look back. There were no storm clouds behind them now. Simone was glad that Evie had let her grab the humblest looking simple black umbrella from the closet.
It seemed they would be needing it soon.
“Simone, look.” Evie pointed.
There was a structure along one of the paths, just visible through the trees.
“Is that a…house?”
As they drew closer, crept closer to the fork in the road, they saw the house more clearly. The wood of the house—the cabin really—was weathered and gray.
They heard singing coming from the cabin. It was echoing so much, Simone couldn’t make out any words.
“We’re taking the other path, right?” Evie said.
As they walked down the path that didn’t have the creepy cabin, Evie tried calling her boss again.
The call didn’t go through. Neither did the message to Simone’s phone.
“I was measuring the distance, with your phone, and counting steps,” Simone said. “The fork was pretty much where I expected it to be, but it’s making me a little nervous that it doesn’t look the same.”
“Maybe this is supposed to happen?”
If they were on the correct path, Simone expected to start seeing the archway with the hazy border that looked into Frannie Moss’s walk-in closet within fifteen to twenty minutes.
But after walking that long, they didn’t see anything ahead but more path.
More path below. And gray storm clouds above.
Every now and then, Evie would yelp or cry out, because she thought she felt a bug on her. Each time made Simone jump too. Only she wasn’t worried about bugs. She hadn’t see any bugs. Or birds. Or any kind of animal. There were flowers, but no bees or butterflies gathering nectar. No ants marching along branches.
“Should we be seeing the closet entrance by now?” Evie asked.
Simone didn’t answer at first. She was trying to push down some insistent and unpleasant feeling that kept trying to rise into her chest. Panic, probably. She took her own advice and forced herself to take a few slow, deep breaths.
“I thought so,” she said. “But I could be off by a little. Let’s keep going for maybe ten minutes.”
“What do we do if we don’t see the doorway by then?”
Again, Simone didn’t answer.
It was Evie who broke the silence. “We can’t just keep walking forever and ever.”
“Maybe we should go back and try that house? Maybe that voice singing was Miss Moss. We could have just looked in the windows.”
Simone felt the flush of heat in her face. She’d been so sure that the house was trouble. That voice hadn’t sounded like someone singing in person, but more like a recording that was being played. And the one window they saw looked sound. No cracks or broken glass. Doubt hit her like a bucket of cold water. She wasn’t so sure anymore.
“We could leave the path,” she said.
Evie answered right away, as if she’d been considering it too. “I don’t think we should.”
Simone sighed. “Yeah, me neither.”
Ten minutes later, they came upon another house.
“Or…the same one?” Evie asked as they slowed their pace.
It was a cabin, with the same weathered gray wood. But it was on the other side of the path now, and they didn’t see the front door. The cabin was facing away from the path.
“Even creepier,” Simone said.
They heard a song again, a haunting song, but not the same one they heard before. Echoing and whispery. Evie shivered and said it sounded backwards.
Simone shook her head. “This is my fault.”
“You called me for help. I was supposed to come and be the voice of reason. I walked us right into this, this trap.”
“Well, it seemed reasonable at first, didn’t it?” Evie asked.
Simone dropped their bag of supplies on the side of the road, and dropped to her knees beside it. “Reasonable? No, I was curious. I wanted to see. I wanted to figure it out.” She glanced over at the bag. “And all I thought to bring was granola bars and water.” She rubbed her forehead with the tips of her fingers.
Evie lowered herself down to sit beside her. “I should have let you bring her coats,” she offered.
Thunder boomed in the distance.
Simone rose to feet. “Stay here. I’ll go over and peek through the window.”
“But we’ll have to leave to path,” Evie said, also rising.
“No, you stay here. I’ll be quick.”
“We need to stay together,” Evie said. “That’s reasonable. If this place keeps changing, then if we get too far apart, it might change around us, and we’ll lose each other.” She was bobbing up and down slightly on the balls of her feet. “We’re safe on the path,” she said.
“Not if we can’t ever get off the path.”
“Let’s walk over back to back then,” Evie said. “I can keep an eye on the path, and you peek in the window. If something happens to the path, like it starts vanishing or something, I’ll call out, and we can run back to it.”
Simone’s mind started to summon the words that she would say to convince Evie to stay on the path. But she couldn’t summon the energy or the will to say them. She agreed to Evie’s idea, hoping she wasn’t making another reckless mistake.
The cabin was sitting on a slight incline. The dirt was soft, and Simone stepped carefully. The singing grew louder, but the words were no clearer. They still sounded ghostly somehow.
The window was just at the level of Simone’s head. She peered inside from one corner. Even before her eyes adjusted to the brightness inside, her nose had caught the scent of mint and orange.
“You’re not going believe this,” Simone said. She had widened her eyes and kept them open so long, they began to water. She was afraid of blinking. She gazed at the racks of color-coded business suits, a slightly open drawer full of finger rings lying on velvet, her phone sitting just out of reach.
“What is it?” Evie whispered.
Simone could feel Evie’s upper body trembling, and she realized that the actual words she’d spoken were not as comforting as she’d thought.
“It’s the closet, Evie. The inside of this shack is the closet. I can even see my phone from here.”
“Do you believe your own eyes?” Evie asked.
“Fair,” Simone said. “Could be an illusion. We could go around to the front door, and it’ll open to something completely different, like a murder dungeon.” She tried to chuckle, but it sounded like a little whimper.
“Do you want to climb in through the window?” Simone asked. “We’ll either end up back in the closet, or face whatever else happens together.”
Simone started to raise the window. It slid open in little jerks, but it didn’t get stuck at any point. She kept her eye on the inside of the cabin—or the closet—the whole time, watching for any nasty surprises. And she noticed one.
One of the nearby racks was lined with designer handbags. She spotted one of them with the designer’s name on it, only the name was reversed, as if it were a reflection.
Simone halted Evie, and told her to keep her eyes on the path. She explained what she was seeing.
“Omigosh,” Evie said. “Do you think it’s like our universe, only reflected? Like the mirror—”
“Don’t say it.”
“What do we do now? Do we still climb in? If it’s wrong, we’ll just come back.”
Simone felt a sinking in her stomach. “Reflections,” she said. “This place is full of reflections and reversals. That song that’s playing now that you said sounded backwards. The cabin. Even the forks in the road. It’s like we saw the original first, and then we’re seeing reflections. Evie, that means the first cabin we passed probably led back to the closet, the real closet.”
If she’d only looked through that first cabin’s window, she might have seen the real closet, with the text on that designer back reading correctly. They would be back by now. Instead, she had just brought them deeper into a trap that now seemed like it was reflecting back on itself, maybe endlessly.
Thunder clapped. Simone hitched a breath. Tears formed in her eyes. She blinked them back, breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth. If she cried, then Evie would most certainly cry.
“Evie, I’m sorry,” she said, hoping her voice sounded steady. “I’m kind of scared right now, and I need a minute to get it together.”
Pretending everything was under control was useless. Admitting she was scared might scare Evie too, but Simone hoped that it wouldn’t last long, if Simone actually did manage to pull herself together.
They walked back to the path.
Evie rummaged in Simone’s bag and pulled out that belt she’d been sent to fetch.
“What are you doing?” Simone asked.
“Seeing if there’s any writing on it, and if it’s backwards or forwards.”
Simone again didn’t have the energy or will to tell Evie to leave the belt alone. At least Evie was doing something. In her dismay, she too looked at the belt. It was covered in clusters of rhinestones in two or three different colors. There was a branching path where the colors of the stones separated, and branched again. Interrupting the stream of rhinestones were little squares made of polished stone. One of them was gray and carved with what looked like a door and window. Just before the buckle was a polished blue stone, slate blue, like the inside of the walk-in closet.
“Is this a map?” Simone asked, tracing her fingers along the belt.
If the belt was indeed a map, then it suggested the only way back to the blue stone was to turn back. But that’s just what they had done, and they didn’t seem to be on their way back.
“Wait…” Evie wrapped the belt around herself, weaving it through the loops of her pants.
There was another polished stone square between the gray one that seemed to represent the cabin and the blue stone that seemed to represent the walk-in closet. This third stone was also gray, but a dark gray, carved with slashes of bright blinding gold in jagged shards. That stone represented the storm that had been hounding them all day. The storm that hovered close by but hadn’t yet descended on them. Even as they looked at the belt, the forks they’d chose seem to vanish, the rhinestones shifting color until they were all the same shade.
“This suggests that we can’t go back the way we came, because that way has been…erased?” Simone said. “The only way to get back to the beginning is to pass through the storm.”
“But haven’t you noticed? That storm has been coming this whole time.”
“But it never gets here,” Simone said, nodding. “So how can we go through it?”
“Maybe the belt can do something?” Evie asked, tracing her fingers over the rhinestone. She stopped at the cabin, wiggling the stone, and then pressing it down. She gasped and looked up at Simone.
Simone held out her hands. “What? Are you okay?”
Evie’s gaze shifted away from her, and Simone turned her head to follow it. She was looking at the cabin.
“It clicked,” Evie said, “like a button. I think it did something.”
They didn’t bother with trying to keep an eye on the path this time. They both made their way to the front door, and found it wide open. They could see the inside of the cabin. It was not the inside of the walk-in closet. The floor was made of the same weathered wooden planks. And there seemed to be a few pieces of furniture inside.
“You’re kidding,” Simone said. “That thing is a remote control door-opener?”
“This is good, right? If we find where the doorway to the closet, we can just click the blue stone and it’ll open. But how do we know where the door is?”
Simone turned to her and looked down at the belt. “It’s just past the storm.” She looked up at Evie. “And I think I know how to get the storm to come.”
They went inside the cabin, still hearing that haunting song. They looked for anything that might help make it through a storm without getting struck by lightning, pelted by hail, or knocked around by high winds. Simone was hoping for rain slickers and boots.
But what they found in the cabin was something that looked like a small booth made out of clear plastic, covering all sides except the bottom.
“Is it me, or does it smell like mint and orange inside this thing?” Evie asked.
“Maybe this is what those ‘essential oils’ are actually for?” Simone said.
There was no label on the booth. There were no instructions. But it was the only thing they found in their search of the cabin that seemed as if it would give any kind of protection if they were walking outside in a storm.
“What if we call the storm while we’re in here?” Evie suggested. “And we hunker down. And when it passes, we just go outside and get back on the path.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“But then again, maybe we need to be on the path? The cabin is supposed to be behind the storm, if we’re going by the orientation on the belt.”
Simone shrugged. “If we make it through, we can try it both ways.”
“Assuming it’ll work twice.”
“If we do it twice, we might end up getting a reflection of the storm the second time.”
“What does that mean? The rain will fall upward?”
“No idea,” Simone said with a sigh. “But maybe it’s a good call to stay in here and see how bad it gets before we try to walk through it.”
Evie nodded. When they were ready, she clicked the button on the belt that undoubtedly represented the storm.
Within minutes, the already gloomy sky darkened so much that Evie turned on the flashlight on her phone. Her battery was getting low. But she couldn’t get a connection anyway, so she kept the light on.
Lightning flashed. Thunder cracked. The rain fell harder, coming in at a slant that pelted the cabin’s window.
Simone noticed that some kind of bluish mist was wisping off the plastic booth, and the clear floppy sides were turning solid. She called Evie over. They went outside and quickly positioned the booth over themselves.
In the cabin, they’d heard the rain drumming on the wooden planks, and the planks vibrating, straining as if they’d crack any minute. But inside the clear booth, all they heard was a distant patter. They could see the tree branches flailing in the high winds. But inside the clear booth, they were standing steady. They’d been freezing inside the cabin. But inside the clear booth, they were comfortable.
“Should we get on the path?” Evie asked, a little too loudly, as if she’d expected to have to shout to be heard.
“Let’s do it,” Simone said.
With the two of them sharing the booth, the walk was a bit slow and clumsy, but they got used to it. They made their way down to the path. The clear booth didn’t extend all the way to their feet. So their shoes got wet and their feet got cold as they walked through puddles and mud.
Simone didn’t measure the time or the distance. She had lost track of both anyway.
They just decided that if either one of them got tired, they would both rest, kneeling down and trying to stay inside the clear booth.
A few minutes after they started shuffling down the path, the rained eased. They stopped seeing flashes of lightning. The clouds receded, curling away and up, brightening from dark gray to misty gray to white. The last sprinkles of rain gave way to a shaft of sunlight.
Simone and Evie kept walking, and they stayed in the clear booth even when the white clouds began to part, until the sides of the booth began to soften, and it flopped all around them.
They remove the booth. Simone put a hand over her eyes to shield them from the glare of the sun as she gazed ahead. In the middle of the path, she spotted a stone archway about fifty feet from where they stood. The wet stones glistened in the sunlight.
“Evie, get the belt ready.”
Evie tugged at her shoulder, and Simone turned. There on the side of the path was the cabin. The door was facing the path again. The wood was not weathered and gray, but smooth and blue-gray.
They walked forward, toward the arch, and so they walked past this new cabin. And they heard someone singing. Not echoing, ghostly song. Not haunting or creepy. This was just a person singing by the side of the cabin. When she came into view, Evie let out a breath.
“Is that her?” Simone asked.
The woman was dressed in muddy green overalls, wearing gardening gloves, and a sunhat. She was kneeling on the ground, digging with a hand shovel, surrounded by pots of flowers and plants.
“I’ve only seen her a few times before, but I think so.”
The woman must have heard them, or caught their movement. She looked over at the path. Her eyes went wide and she stood up. She pointed her shovel at them. Simone tensed.
“How did you get in here!” the woman cried. She was Evie’s missing executive, Frannie Moss.
She noticed the crumpled plastic booth in Simone’s arms, and then she spotted the belt around Evie’s waist, the rhinestones glimmering in the crisp sunlight. She glanced between the two friends and the fierce frown on her face faded.
“I brought your belt that you asked for, Miss Moss,” Evie said. She clicked on the blue stone.
Simone glanced over to the stone archway and saw the stones melt away, as the view into Frannie Moss’s walk-in closet appeared. She blew out a breath, not quite relieved yet, and she turned back to the woman in the garden.
“Oh boy,” Frannie Moss said, glancing at the archway and back to Evie and Simone. She propped her gloved fists at her hips and sighed. “This is going to require some explanation.”
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel