And Then Things Got Weird

One time in high school I tried to describe my novel to a friend.

“It’s about a girl who wakes up in a weird town with no memory. She meets this strange boy…”

“Ah,” said my friend, “I know where this is going.”

I smiled. “No, you don’t. You really don’t.”

So, for anyone who has read the first three chapters of HTDC and already thinks they know where it is going, here is a bonus excerpt from where things start to get a little weirder.

***

 

The world tilted. Lycia felt like she was falling even though the ground was still beneath her feet. She pushed against what she thought was the trapdoor above her head, only to find herself stumbling sideways through a heavy door. Aster and Meg burst out behind her and almost pushed her down the long, straight stairwell that they now stood at the top of.

They stared down into the shadows, clinging to each other to keep from falling. The door behind them slammed shut.

“What just happened?” Meg whispered.

“I have no idea,” Aster whispered back.

“Are we still in Greenwood?”

Aster pushed past the two girls and walked down the stairs. “Let’s hope not.”

They came to the base of the stairs and stepped onto floorboards the color of dried blood. The planks of polished wood were placed in a pattern that spiraled into the center of a vast circular ballroom. High above them was a domed ceiling, covered in dripping strands of illuminated crystals. They glimmered and glittered in a kaleidoscope of colors, casting woozy, uneven patterns across the room. The walls appeared to ripple as the colors danced over them. The contrast with Greenwood could not have been starker.

The room was ringed by a raised platform, where dozens of tables sat draped in moth-eaten green tablecloths. In the center of each vacant table was a flickering blue lantern. In the middle of the room was a round stage, the edge fringed with golden lights. On the stage was an enormous grand piano, and over it stooped a tiny man dressed in a gray pinstripe suit. His entire body was covered in brown hair that protruded from the ends of his sleeves and trouser legs. He looked like a dead animal that had been stuffed into a suit and propped up on a stool, only he was very much alive, and playing a gentle melody on the piano.

“I’m dreaming,” Lycia murmured.

“Don’t say that,” Aster said, gazing hungrily at the luminescent ceiling. “If you say that you’ll make it go away.”

“I think I want it to go away,” said Meg, her voice small in the giant room.

“No! This is amazing!” Aster cried. “I feel like I’ve dreamt of this place. I belong here.”

“I don’t know, Aster. This feels wrong,” said Lycia.

Aster grabbed Lycia by her arms. “But you did this,” he said, his eyes shining with crazed excitement. “You’re the one who made this happen. We’re out of Greenwood! If it weren’t for you we’d still be stuck there, but now we’ve escaped to somewhere else, somewhere better. You did this, Lycia. You got us out of there!”

Lycia wrenched herself out of Aster’s grip and backed away from him. “What’s gotten into you? We don’t know where we are or what’s going on. We don’t even know if this is real. All I did was open a door. Even if we are out of Greenwood, what about our parents? What about Dottie? Are you just going to abandon them?”

Aster was breathing hard, a hint of color in his usually pale face. “Of course not,” he conceded.

Lycia studied him warily. At the back of her mind something was eating away at her. Morgan had given her the key. If they had truly escaped Greenwood, then it was Morgan who had allowed it to happen. Lycia knew Morgan wouldn’t just let them leave. There was some other motive here. She wanted to spill her thoughts to Aster before he got too carried away, but thinking of Morgan only reminded her of the kiss she had been told to pass on, so she held her tongue.

“We’re not open yet!” a thundering voice bellowed. To the right of the stage was a bar with an enormous man squeezed in behind it. At his back were rows of brightly colored bottles and glasses stacked high on rickety shelves.

“Sorry,” called Aster. “We didn’t know. We just, uh… ended up here.”

The man sniffed the air, as if analyzing their scent. “Ah, you’re new,” he grumbled. “That explains it. Well, I’ll let it slide this time seeing as we’re opening soon anyways. But don’t be making a habit of it.” He took a filthy rag and commenced wiping down the bar top.

Aster, Meg and Lycia recovered from their shock and tentatively moved down the steps toward the bar. The grotesque details of the bartender came into view. His proportions were so unusual that he barely seemed human. His abnormally large head was perched on a short, tree trunk-like neck that expanded out into broad shoulders and thick, flabby arms. He wore a long-sleeved tunic made from a patchwork of rags and old leather. Around his broad waist was a wide leather belt that held various bottle openers and vials sealed with tiny corks. Aster, Meg and Lycia each sat down on a rickety bar stool, looking up in awe at the bartender’s revolting face. His eyes and half of his mouth had been stitched closed with thick, rough thread.

The bartender wiped his pus-encrusted eyes on the sleeve of his tunic and leaned over Aster. “What do you want?” the bartender asked through the unstitched corner of his mouth.

Aster was unable to answer because he was holding his breath against the sickening stench oozing from the body of the bartender. Meg delicately placed her hand over her nose. Lycia’s eyes watered but she managed to ask, “What have you got? Mr…”

The bartender shuffled around to face her. He leaned close to her as he had done to Aster, sniffing with his wide, hairy nostrils. He peered through his stitches and smiled lopsidedly, a string of saliva jiggling on the edge of his meaty lip. “The name’s Roland,” he said. “And we’ve got whatever you want. But then, most people don’t know what they want. They think they do, but in truth they don’t have the slightest idea. If you can find what it is you truly desire, it will be yours.”

Aster smirked. “That’s a very philosophical thing to say about buying a drink.”

Roland threw back his massive head and laughed, spraying great dollops of spit all over the bar counter. “I wasn’t talking about drinks. But since you mentioned it, would you like one?”

“Uh, alright then,” said Aster.

Roland twisted his arm unnaturally around behind his back to reach a bottle. He placed a glass in front of Aster and poured what appeared to be thick, steaming mud into it.

Lycia raised an eyebrow, looking down into the contents of the glass “So, is that what he truly desires?”

“Perhaps,” said Roland.

Aster looked first to Lycia, who shrugged, then to Meg, who meekly stared back. Lifting the glass to his lips, and looking like he was fighting the urge to retch, Aster took a gulp of the thick brown liquid.

Lycia and Meg watched with concern as Aster placed the glass carefully on the counter. His eyes closed as he swayed from side to side. Then he sighed happily and fell backward off the bar stool. Lycia and Meg leapt up with a cry to try and catch him, but he hovered serenely in midair for a second, before floating gently to the ground like a feather, landing softly on his back without a sound.

Meg crouched over Aster, shaking him gently to wake him. Aster’s eyes snapped open. He stared directly at Meg and said, “I wanna do that again!” Then he burst into an uncontrollable fit of giggles.

Roland removed the drink from the bar. “I think that one’s a bit too strong for you, actually.”

Lycia and Meg pulled Aster to his feet. The room fell silent. The hirsute pianist stopped playing and turned to the bar.

“It’s time to open, Roland,” the pianist called out.

Roland nodded, and knocked twice on the counter with a giant, gnarled knuckle. “Here we go,” he said wearily.

At first, only a scattering of strangely dressed patrons sauntered down the stairs, but within minutes there was an avalanche of people—and things that clearly weren’t people—scrambling and slithering down into the great circular room. A raging river of colorful creatures filled the room with fur and frills, suits and satin dresses. There were giant reptilian humanoids, bird-like women covered in feathers, beastly men with tusks and hooves. There were creatures that did not appear to be made of solid matter, which floated like mist, crackled and flickered like flames, or splashed and rippled like water. The patrons hooted and howled with glee, raising a twisted assortment of appendages in the air. The crowd surged in an ocean of tones and hues that Aster, Meg and Lycia had not even known existed.

“Welcome to Bassisha,” Roland said to the wide-eyed trio.

As the patrons milled around the stage, the pianist tapped on the lid of his piano, and four more hairy men climbed out, each holding different instruments of unrecognizable design. They struck up an eerie blues tune that was both familiar and otherworldly. The patrons either began to dance hypnotically or sat at the round tables, buzzing loudly with babbling conversations.

Aster, Lycia and Meg stood at the bar and watched the colorful cavalcade with their mouths hanging open.

“We’re definitely not in Greenwood,” said Lycia.

All Aster and Meg could do was nod.

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