The wind had finally died down. Sandy wasn’t sure what she’d have done if it kept up. Frozen to death, probably, or begun to lose skin and extremities to frostbite. Certainly she’d lost herself, but in the midst of downtown Rochester, how far could she have wandered? There were no cars on the street, not even a plow. The storm had come up suddenly – a light snowfall, the sort appropriate for Christmas Eve, had been picturesquely falling as she stepped out of the library to walk home. By the time she crossed Court by the Blue Cross building, the wind had picked up; by the time she reached Monroe, she couldn’t see a foot in front of her. She’d kept walking forward, figuring that holding still was risking being turned into a Popsicle. And now the wind had died down, and she could see… …nothing. Nothing but trees, and snow, and a lamp-post flickering its gaslight. She was SO going to be late for dinner.
Sandy took a deep breath, the thought of diner gnawing on her empty stomach. She’d gotten turned around. What could she do?
Well, all she could do was keep going forward or turn around and head back, since standing here would get her nowhere. The trees laden with snow looked like nothing she’d ever seen in the middle of the city before, even in its sparse parks. She turned slowly counter-clockwise, looking all around her. Tree-lined hills. Densely-packed pine forest. A narrow path, barely more than a deer track, through the trees. More forest, with a steep hillside in the distance. And the gaslight lantern again, looking fresh and new. Some sort of gentrification project, maybe?
The snow was thin, fluffy stuff, but it had settled in drifts nearly to her hips. Glad for the sensible boots and the nice synthetic pants, she waded forward. The lamppost, as she closed, held two signposts. The arrow pointing towards the cliffs read Away; the one further into the woods: Home.
Home sounded wonderful. Her feet were cold, her nose was frozen, and there were snowflakes crusted on her eyelashes. She wanted to be warm again, she wanted to eat dinner, and she wanted, more than any of that, to sit down.
She trudged into the woods, following the vague outline of a path under a canopy of creaking trees, thinking about Home. The half-a-house off in college-student housing that she shared with five other people was a home by sheer force of will – her bedroom was her sanctum, and no-one best bother with it – but she missed the feeling of a real home, something like she’d had in childhood, where she belonged. Somewhere in the back of her mind, her parents’ cozy house would always be Home.
She doubted a signpost had that level of distinction; she doubted it cared about her home at all. Gaslamps weren’t know for their empathy. With any luck, the path would lead her somewhere that could get her back to Rochester; that would have to suffice.
The snow lessened the deeper into the forest she got, the path clearing under the heavy roof of boughs overhead; many of them, Sandy noted in some confusion, still had a full head of leaves on them. That couldn’t be safe, if all the snow started to freeze. She sped up, hurrying from gaslight to gaslight down the smooth path, trying to ignore the gnawing rumbling pain in her stomach. Home, the sign had said; it had to be nearby, right? Maybe not her home, but someone’s home. As the impatient thought was born, the light ahead brightened and swelled, as if she was coming over the edge of a hill into a city. Her pace picked up, and up again as the lights brightened and she was certain she could make out the edges of buildings, and again, as she heard a train whistle. Civilization! She bounded down the hill, driven on by visions of a thick mocha latte drowned in whipped cream.
She skidded to a halt halfway down the hill, tripped, tumbled, and landed on her back in a snowdrift. “No, no, no.” She shook her head, staring at the grey, starless sky. If she didn’t move, she didn’t have to look down at the little Dickensian scene below, didn’t have to acknowledge what she’d seen. There was a train. If she didn’t move, she wouldn’t get to the train. And the snow down the back of her neck was melting into a thin trickle of unpleasant coldness.
She levered herself to her feet, refusing to look up at the village just yet. The path was nice, predictable, something normal in this middle of this mess. She put one foot in front of the other, trying not to worry that they’d burn her as a witch before she could get to the train.
At least, she mused, looking unwillingly up at the black-and-sepia-garbed villagers in their nineteenth-century-finery, if they burned her as a witch, she’d be warm.
Warmth. The place might look archaic, but she could hear the train. The train had to get her someplace warm, assuming she could afford a ticket. Sandy wondered, faintly, if they’d take Visa.
She walked slowly now, keeping her eyes on the gaslights flickering down the street, the train station at the end of the road looking like something out of the miniature village set her roommate Cathleen had set up in the living room, the whole town having that posed-and-designed sense to it, right down to the spruce garlands.
The Victorian-clothed townsfolk didn’t seem inclined to burn her at the stake; they barely seemed aware of her existence. She hurried, still; she didn’t want to miss the train.
The ticket-seller at the station noticed her, at least. “One ticket, sir?”
Close enough. “One ticket, please.” She didn’t even care that there were no destinations listed on the board behind his head, just departure times.
“That’ll be one tech, sir.” He held out his hand.
Tech. Sir. There were at least two things wrong with that sentence, but she blamed the “sir” on the pants. “I’m sorry,” Sandy asked, wondering if the cold was ruining her hearing. “One what?”
The man looked impatient. “One tech, sir, or move aside.”
There was no-one behind her, no reason for him to get all that snippy with her. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what a tech is.”
“Then you won’t be taking the train, now will you? Get out of the way and let the paying passengers through!”
“What… okay.” She melted under his glare and shuffled aside, defeated. She didn’t know where she was, and the train had been her last, however irrational, hope at getting home, or at least someplace warm and civilized. And she didn’t have any of the local currency. If she couldn’t buy a train ticket, she probably couldn’t buy a room or even any food.
“A tech,” piped a voice somewhere near her knee, “is just that. Technology.”
At this point, Sandy wasn’t sure things could get stranger, but she was still very slow about looking down towards the high-pitched voice. There was a good chance she was going insane, she realized, but that didn’t mean she had to go without a fight.
“Usually,” the voice continued, “something like a cell-yoo-lur phone works, although something as simple as a flashy-light will do. The more gizmo-like, the better.”
If her imaginary friend was going to keep talking, eventually she’d have to look. Slowly, Sandy looked downward, while trying to frame an intelligent question.
“Why?” is all she managed, and then, in a squeak that sounded completely undignified, “what?”
She rubbed her eyes, much to the amusement of the person (or thing) at her knee. It – probably he – was standing, smirking at her, wearing a little red wool cap, which he tipped at Sandy cheerfully.
“What’s the matter?” the creature teased, smiling with a mouth full of shark teeth. “Never seen a gnome before?”
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