With an effort, he blinked his eyes open, getting his first blurry glimpse of the forest floor. Followed by a tangle of roots and vines binding him. Unable to move his head, he had to strain his peripheral vision, almost to the point of seeing spots, to see Max and Justin similarly bound.
A vaguely familiar, delicious, welcoming aroma crowded out the smell of the Woods, feeling totally out of place in such remote surroundings as these.
Justin lolled his head as far as he could, mumbling, “Breakfast, man…”
The sudden jolt of vines shaking him…
Then he woke up for real.
“Come on, man, you’re gonna miss breakfast,” Justin told him again as he threw on freshly washed clothes to go get it while it was still hot.
Shades rolled over, stumbling toward the bathroom. Realized, now that he was more awake, that that was breakfast he was smelling. Even so, he still couldn’t shake off that image, and the insidious question it left him with.
Was that just a dream, or a glimpse of truth? he pondered as he splashed his face. It didn’t come as any surprise that he wanted that creepy experience to just be all a dream, but also feared they might still be out in the Woods, and this might all just be some sort of hallucination caused by some foul species of lotus-eater plant. Couldn’t help the grim certainty that this was also Kelly’s fate, and it chilled him to the bone to even think it. Not being able to tell was making his eyes dart around the room, questioning everything around him with a degree of paranoia he would have found ridiculous yesterday.
He splashed his face again, practically slapping himself as he did so.
The sensation certainly felt real enough to him, but he also knew he had experienced pain in dreams before, so that wasn’t good enough. At least it calmed him out of his near-panic state, and in questioning, he found himself recalling his talks with fellow Zero Hunter Roulette, Rod, back in the Isle of Castaways. About how ‘shared’ dreams only seemed to happen deeper down, and he hoped he could remember to ask his friends about their experiences out there, to see if there was any consistency to their experiences together. Of how, back in No Man’s Land, one of the most fiendish traps the Zeroes laid was tricking him into thinking he woke up, so he would let his guard down while still on the dreamplane.
Closing his eyes, he remembered the details of the room, then opened them again. Seeing the room unchanged, he jumped in place, feeling gravity drop his feet solidly on the floor a second later. Stared hard at the mirror, but knowing that he had seen clear reflections in his own dreams before left him with no confidence in that test.
Two for three, he headed downstairs to eat.
Found Max was already finishing up, in no small hurry to get going. In his dreams, he came upon the Albatross, still on the beach. Old and weathered, sun-bleached and sandblasted, rusting in a couple dozen different places. As if she had lain there for years, rather than days.
But when he reached for the rust-pitted cargo door handle, dreading what he was already certain he would find, that was when he woke up.
Justin, meanwhile, dug in, trying not to dwell on his own creepy dreams. Of waking to find the inn long-abandoned and decaying. All alone in a filthy room, but hearing strange chittering sounds somewhere beyond his door. As well as a creepy, fishy smell he also tried not to recall as he ate.
In the end, fresh-cooked breakfast won out, and he chowed down.
Shades took his place and tried to do more than just poke at his food as he grappled with this existential puzzle. After all, Moira had whipped up a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, toast, even bacon, and he suspected most of this stuff was at a premium out here. True to her word, Lorna had washed their clothes as well as could be while they slept, and Shelby had made some preparations of his own. Thus he very much wanted these things to be real as much as he wanted that dire dilemma from earlier to be just a dream.
Even so, he feared that desire alone might be enough to sustain a convincing illusion, so he scowled at the table as he shoveled food. Found himself tracing the patterns in the wood grains, blinking to find them unchanged. Encouraged by this, he pressed his palm into the tabletop, tried to push through it, finding it solid and unyielding.
Shades tried willing Roger and Bandit to appear before them, as well as willing random people in the lobby to disappear, even tried to will his eggs to turn into pancakes, to no avail, further establishing the immutability of the world around him.
Glanced at the map Shelby scrounged up the night before, further heartened to see the letters and words remain the same from one moment to the next.
Remembering another trick Rod mentioned, he started adding and subtracting spontaneously chosen numbers in his head, relieved that he was getting mathematically sound results.
“Shades,” Max piped up, noting the expressions on his face throughout breakfast, “you look intense. What’s on your mind?”
“What was the first thing I said to you when we first met?” Shades asked point-blank.
“Um, somethin’ about fries being bad for Bandit, right?” Max frowned, taking several seconds to answer. “Somethin’ about him having a… heart attack, wasn’t it?”
“Justin,” Shades turned, trying to move even half as fast as he was thinking, “What’s the capital of the Triangle State?”
“Crawford…” Justin blurted, then paused for a moment, staring at his friend. “Are you alright, man?”
Max also looked at him with growing concern.
“Yeah, I think I’m alright now,” Shades replied. “I just had a really bad dream, and wanted to be sure I wasn’t still having it.”
Both of them nodded, making him wish he could find the words to ask them about the matter without alarming their hosts. And he was sure talking about the things they found out there right now would definitely make for a most unwelcome conversation topic at this table. Still, Rod had told him his own definition of ‘dreaming’ was blind acceptance, so he took heart from his own sustained questioning of his current experiences.
Feeling much better, he focused on the taste of his breakfast, regaining his appetite in the process. By the time he finished eating, their supplies were already packed and ready to go, as the first hint of daylight was starting to appear on the horizon. Moira saw them off, as the Edwards led them to the harbor.
“I wouldn’t trust to hope,” Moira advised them. “It died a long time ago out there… Just… come back alive, please.”
It didn’t take a detective to see that neither of them got much more sleep than themselves, but their expressions showed a solemn determination to see this through.
The early morning streets of Pickford were nearly deserted. Lorna explained that, wall or no wall, most folks didn’t like to be out after dark, and seldom walked alone if they had to be. Many people had gradually drifted up the coast, to the port town of Hawthorne and parts beyond. Even periodic Town Hall talk of just packing up the whole town, but such proposals always met with resistance, both from within and from without.
The economy upshore wasn’t doing all that much better, so there was no shortage of opposition to anyone else moving in.
By the time they reached the docks, the sun was just peeking over the watery horizon, and a small gathering had shown up to say their farewells, or likely pay their last respects. Much as Shelby expected, a decided shortage of volunteers for what most saw as a suicide mission. Thus they would see him off with a mixture of respect, dismay and pity.
Even several men who appeared to be his regular fishing crew looked at him as if he was about to embark on a voyage over the edge of the earth.
When Shelby apologized, Max simply told him, “We’ll be your crew on this voyage.”
As they prepared to embark, Lorna held Shelby tight, whispering, “Please make it back…”
“We’ll be home by sundown,” he assured her, though there was no mistaking his lapse of confidence as he spoke.
Lorna then turned to them, saying, “I hope you have better luck finding your friends.”
“Thank you,” Max nodded, both of his friends welcoming her blessing.
With that, they boarded the Shorewind, a fishing boat of similar design to most of those that remained in Pickford’s sparse harbor.
After grueling days of trudging through hostile territory, it felt almost surreal to be back out at sea, but also very natural. Enough to dispel the lingering traces of that feeling of being trapped in some insidious web of illusion. Feeling the waves rolling under him, smelling the brisk sea air, helped shake the remaining cobwebs from Shades’ head, which suited him just fine; they would need him fully focused if he was going to be any good to them out here.