“We can’t separate,” Sarah said, “it’s suicide.”
“Maybe that’s what these people- or these things, or whoever- want, to kill us,” John accompanied his thought with a look that suggested he was fresh out of ideas.
“I don’t think so,” Sarah was more patient, “If they did, they would have just zapped us to death when they sucked us through that wormhole portal thing that happened in your kitchen.”
John laughed out loud, with sincerity, for the first time in a while.
“I have an idea,” Sarah spoke up after a moment, “What if we ripped the paper right down the middle?”
“The message said to ‘part’. What if we did just that? That way each of us can still read whatever else may appear and no one gets left without a guide if we decide to separate.”
“Nicely done, neighbor,” John put a hand on her shoulder, “You suggested it. I guess you should do the honors.” He handed her the page, now blank. It looked as plain as anything, except for its antiquity.
“It’s old enough,” Sarah observed, “It should rip easily.”
She folded the paper over to make an even crease across the center. She placed her fingers at the top of the fold and twisted.
“What the?” she pulled at the paper with all her might, to no avail.
“Let me try,” John said, “Maybe you just have to hold your mouth right.”
Sarah didn’t seem to appreciate the humor, passing him the blank page. John glanced at her and took the paper. With one swift motion, he ripped the blank page perfectly in half.
“That doesn’t—how did–?”
“Who knows? I’ve decided to stop trying to explain how things work around here. How’s the bum foot?”
“Better, I guess? But I’d like to find somewhere to sit- somewhere that isn’t a forest floor.”
“Fair enough. I think I see smoke in the distance, maybe there’s a house there– with a large family full of very charitable people living inside.” John said, trying to maintain at least a veneer of optimism. He had hoped- in vain- to make Sarah laugh. She had not smiled for many hours. It made John weary.
“What’s going to happen if we both go the same direction- are we going to break something in the fabric of whatever universe this is?” Sarah was half afraid, half irritated.
“We could always try to find food and a place to rest, and then come back to this spot and part ways later.” John said, his suggestion curling up into a question.
“The path will disappear, we won’t be able to find our way back.”
John looked in one direction, then another, as if he was hoping help of some kind would fall from the sky or hop out from behind a tree. Given his experiences so far, he did not consider that an entirely unreasonable thought. He sighed.
“Look,” he said, “We’re both hungry, and tired, and you need to get off that foot. Let’s stick together for now.”
Sarah nodded. John followed close to her, slowly, in case she became unsteady. Walking for so long on an injured foot was beginning to weaken her.
The path had become fixed beneath their feet, no longer emerging before them as they walked. They arrived after a while at the center of a small village. The smoke they had seen was rising from the chimney of a building that appeared to be a tavern. Since dusk was settling in, most of the villagers appeared to be there, enjoying their evening food and drink.
The smell of food, mingled with beer and tobacco, reminded John and Sarah of their home, a place so far away that it seemed nothing more than a dream. With all the lively chatter, they were not immediately noticed. Looking around for a place to sit, they found a long table. A man was sitting alone at one end with a small bowl of soup, occasionally sipping from a large mug. Even in the dim light of the tavern, one could tell his mind was busy.
“I beg your pardon,” Sarah said, “May we share your table?”
The man looked up and into her eyes, “Of course.” He stood, walking quickly to the chair nearest where Sarah was standing. He pulled it out from beneath the table for her. She thanked him and sat down. John glanced at the stranger as he pushed the chair gently back in.
“Thank you,” John said. His stomach was beginning to throb.
“May I buy the two of you some food and drink,” the stranger asked, “You both appear in need of it, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“We would be most grateful,” Sarah looked at the stranger in a way that told him they would have no way to repay him for his kindness.
“Think nothing of it,” he said dismissively, “It has always been my custom to do such thing for visitors.”
The stranger left the table to order food and drink for John and Sarah at the bar. They said nothing to one another at first.
Sarah looked at her neighbor’s face in the dim light. His eyes were tired and frightened. She touched his arm with the tips of her fingers.
“Don’t be afraid,” was all she could think to say.
“I’m sorry,” he said. And he smiled at her.
“For what?” she asked.
“That I didn’t know you before. I mean, really know you. I should have been a better neighbor- a better friend- to you.”
He sighed and looked at his hands, resting there in front of him on the wooden table.
“You couldn’t be a better friend to me than you have been,” she said, “And now it seems you’re the only friend I have.”
His cheeks burned. He looked away toward the bar, pretending to be searching for the stranger. Their benefactor was still there, but a crowd had formed around him; John and Sarah were not the only hungry and thirsty patrons, after all.
“I’m not all you have,” John reassured her, “You have friends at home.”
Sarah made a sound between a scoff and a laugh, “My work friends? They don’t even remember my name half the time.”
John nodded, in complete understanding. A bar maid arrived and put a plate of steaming hot food in front of each of them. Following that with two mugs, full to the brim with beer. Before they could thank her, she had left to attend to another table. So they glanced in the direction of the heavens instead, offering their gratitude in a fleeting moment. Their hunger could not allow much more decorum than that.
The food was hot and delicious, and the beer cold as ice. Sarah remembered her manners and her company after a moment or two of reckless gnawing and gulping.
The stranger, still on the other side of the room, appeared to be preoccupied. Apparently having found friends, he was now seated with them, deep in the throes of conversation.
“What about you?” Sarah said, “Friends? Family?”
“Nah, not really. I’m kind of a loner,“ John was explaining this between bites and sips, “Been on my own as long as I could remember. Got acquaintances at work, of course. But not really any family.”
“No family?” Sarah was puzzled, and cautious.
“Unless you count the Sisters,” John said, with a little smile.
Sarah waited for him to continue; unsure of what to say, and wondering whether or not she should have kept her mouth shut.
“Saint Nick’s, in the city, there’s an orphanage there- one of the Sisters opened the door late one night and found me there- in a basket, on the front steps. There was a note in the basket that said ‘Protect our John.’”
The stranger was making his way back across the tavern. Sarah was at a loss for words. So John pressed on.
“I lived with the Sisters till I was eighteen. They made sure I found a steady job and gave me some money, to help me get started on the right foot. I go visit them once or twice a year; I make sure to call every now and then. They worry, you know.”
He smiled. It was as if he wanted her to know she did not have to feel sorry for him.
“I trust everything is to your liking, new friends?”
The stranger’s voice broke the stillness. They looked at one another and remembered where they were, where they were not.
“We cannot thank you enough, sir,” John realized as he said this that he and Sarah had polished off the food and drink completely, “To whom do we owe our thanks?”
“You may call me Malcolm.” His voice was one with the soft tones of the familiar. The bar maid had returned with another tray that appeared to be for the three of them. Assuming correctly that everyone wanted bread pudding, the bar maid placed a bowl in front of each of them. The two neighbors introduced themselves to the man called Malcolm between mouthfuls.
“You are in Hitherland,” he said matter-of factly, “but not of it, I expect?”
Thankfully his inquiry was hushed enough as not to draw attention to Sarah and John, who stared blankly at Malcolm for a moment, in silence. They were nodding mechanically; each of their faces had the look of a child whose mischief had finally been found out.
“We are from—“ John began, but was uncertain if he should continue.
“The Other Side, naturally. It is a vast place, of course. So that name is the simplest for us here in Hitherland.” Malcolm smiled. He was handsome, but unassuming. He had light eyes and hair the color of sand. His beard was a shade darker, with stray silver hairs.
“Our worlds are separate, but at times they touch one another as time passes between them. Rarely do we have cause to disturb one another.”
“And if you do?” Sarah wondered aloud.
“If there is passage between Hitherland and the Other Side, it can only be assumed that there is a grave danger to our people; some great injustice. A cry for help is being made. When no help can be found here, we reach out to your world.”
“You need our help—to save your people?” Disbelief spilled out of John’s mouth and on to his face.
“Precisely,” said Malcolm. “I will explain everything, or as much as I can. But we must not risk being seen by the wrong eyes. In the meantime, I insist upon you staying at my home for the night. My wife will be happy to prepare a warm bed and a strong cup of tea for each of you.”
Sarah looked at John, then back to Malcolm, whose eyes were eager, but not unsettling. John gave a small nod, appearing to agree that they had nothing to lose. Sarah spoke up.
“My friend and I would be much obliged by your hospitality, Malcolm. Not to mention any explanation you may be able to offer us on what exactly it is we are doing here.”
Malcolm looked to both of them with the smile of a man who had found something he had once thought was long lost. He grasped one of John’s hands in his right, and one of Sarah’s in his left. “Shall we go?” he asked.
And, along with his words, they vanished, all at once, into the air.