His mother took his hand and they headed toward the ticket booth. The carnie on staff took a look at them.
“How old is he?”
“He’ll be thirteen in two weeks.” His mother responded.
The carnie took a look at him, giving him a real up and down once over. “He still looks fairly young. We’ll give him the children’s rate. Next year, he’ll have to pay the adult fee, though.”
“Oh, thank you!” His mother turned to him. “Hear that Alexander? We saved a bit of money! I can get you a corndog and a sno cone now.”
Alexander was thrilled. He normally had to choose between the two-today he could have both. The day was already looking up.
His mother had taken him to the carnival every year for his birthday. He got pancakes for breakfast with a small present every year. He usually asked for a book as he knew his mother didn’t have a lot of money. That was okay, though, as books were what he craved. He read books the same way people breathed air.
Going to the carnival was what he looked forward to every year, though. It was the only time he felt free, other than reading books. Watching his mother get to act like a child for a bit, as if life wasn’t keeping her down, was worth a hundred books for his birthday though. She seemed so carefree during the whole day at the carnival that it was as much a gift for him as it was for her.
Clutching his mother’s hand, they went into the park grounds. Normally, they went to the carnival on his birthday, but it came early this year. His mother had booked the day off work especially for him.
When they entered, the first thing Alexander did was look for The Gravitron. It was his favourite ride, but not for the reasons that everyone else loved it. The ride was shaped like a flying saucer and you stood against a wall. There was a man at the control booth in the centre and he played music like some kind of manic DJ. The ride spun to the point where it was going so fast, gravity pulled you against the wall. You could even crawl up the wall, its force was so strong.
Alexander loved the ride, not for the weightlessness, but for what he saw when he was riding it. He was pretty sure that no one else could see what he did, that the rides secret was revealed only to him. Every year he rode it, when the ride started to spin, some kind of window would open up above the DJ booth.
One year it showed, a meadow, filled with flowers. The next year, he could see a tall castle stretching towards the sun. The year after that, he was shown a wasteland, as if the world itself had been blown apart. Last year, he had witnessed animals in a forest, filled with thick green trees.
He remembered how he had taken a shocked breath when something had flown out of the window the Gravitron created. A small blue bird had shot out and had tried to fly out of the Gravitron, but couldn’t find an exit. Alexander had watched the bird, stuck to the wall and unable to move after it.
When the ride ended, he had found it dead in front of the DJ booth in the centre. He showed it to the carnie who had made a sad sound. “Must have gotten in before we started the ride, poor thing.”
Only, Alexander knew the truth. The bird had come from the window. He wondered why the bird had chosen to leave what looked like a beautiful and wonderful place. Maybe the bird was like him: always curious about what lay beyond the portal.
The Gravitron was right there, at the front of the carnival when people came in, waiting for him. It looked even more shiny than it had before, as if it were covered in sparkles, enticing him to go ride it and to discover. That would come later though.
First, his mother wanted to go try her hand at a game or two and have a sno cone. They always got one when they first came into the park. It was a tradition that they had observed every year when his mother brought him to the carnival. She said it gave them the much needed energy to get through the day at the park. Plus, she said, it just made her more cheerful. Nothing started an adventure off better than a sno cone.
They went right to the stand and ordered. Alexander got a cherry one and his mother a lemon flavoured one. They sat down on the benches in the warm sun and looked at all the people milling about, enjoying the day.
“I’m sorry Alex.” His mother said.
He looked at her. She looked sad all of a sudden. “What are you sad for?”
She sighed. “Well, you deserve more. I know you wanted a new bike for your birthday, or that NEP gaming system.”
“NES, that’s what I said. You’re such a great kid and you deserve more than I can give you. You know how much I wanted to get you the bike, right?”
It was true. Alexander had been hoping to get a new bike but he knew that it was a long shot and a wish in the sand. There was no way that his mother could afford it. Occasionally, it rankled him that they had no money. He was still wearing clothes from three years ago, his glasses were two years old and they often had to go to the food bank to get food when money ran out.
He knew that other kids his age didn’t have to worry about where they were going to get tomorrows lunch from or that their shoes were coming apart at the soles. However, he put a brave face on for his mother and smiled.
“It’s okay, Mom. I have everything I could want.” His insides twisted a little bit at lying to his mother.
Perhaps she saw the lie in his eyes because she ruffled his hair and said softly “Such a good kid.”
She wiped a tear away from her eye and smiled. “Come on, let’s finish our sno cones and go on some rides. What do you say, kiddo?”
He gave his mother a huge smile and took her hand. They rode the Tilt-a-Whirl, three different roller coasters and even rode on some bumper cars where his mother backed him into a corner and kept bumping his car, laughing the entire time.
They took a brief break for a corn dog and then played a few games. His mother won him a huge stuffed unicorn playing darts. He won her a large teddy bear playing with the water guns. It really was an amazing day, but the real treat for Alexander came last.
Finally, his mother looked at him and said: “Ready to go into space, champ?”
They headed back toward the Gravitron. Alexander’s heart began to speed up and he tried to calm his excitement, but there was nothing he could do. This time, he was going to see what was on the other side of the window, regardless of what it showed him.
His mother handed over the last of the tickets and hugged him quickly. “Journey safely, my brave astronaut.” Alexander knew that she was teasing him. The entire ride looked like a UFO. He hugged her back and said he would.
Then he was inside.
Each time, it was like he actually did step onto a spaceship. There was nothing but the rounded glass booth in the centre and the walls were covered in red mats that moved up and down along the wall and matching red carpet that ran in strips along the floor of the ride.
The music was already pumping and releasing a heady, hypnotic beat. He felt the music reverberate inside his body as he made his way forward and chose a spot along the wall. Tons of other kids and adults were doing the same, each choosing a place to stand.
Alexander waited with anticipation for the ride to start. He breathed slowly and tried to calm his nerves. When the music started, a heavy rock anthem by ACDC. As the doors started to close, he saw his mother for the last time. She waved to him and then she was gone. The doors were closed and the Gravitron started to spin.
The vibrations thrummed through him, running through his whole body. Alexander watched the other children, some wearing expressions of terror, some of glee. The DJ spoke from the centre of the ride:
“Okay, boys and girls! Who’s ready to ride the lightning?”
I am, Alexander thought. I’m so ready. He seemed to be speaking directly to him.
ACDC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” gave way to one of his favourite tracks. As “Thunderstruck” began to play, the music flowed through him, mixing with the vibrations, until his body was almost floating.
Alexander looked up at the roof of the Gravitron above the DJ booth. Nothing was happening, there was no opening into the beyond. Alexander wasn’t worried, he remembered from years past that nothing happened until the DJ made the ride spin faster, until you could climb on the walls and the forces of gravity grabbed hold of you.
“All right boys and girls! Who wants to go faster?”
Everyone screamed, some with fear some with joy. Alexander let out a loud yes.
“I can’t hear you!”
Alexander screamed louder along with everyone else in the Gravitron. Finally, he could feel the speed gaining, could feel the forces of gravity grabbing him and pulling him against the red wall. His skin began to tighten and he could feel the electric current running behind his back.
This is it, he thought. Any time now.
Looking up, he saw it: a flash of blue electricity that snaked across the ceiling. Only a flash at first, but then it was joined by more blue electric snakes that moved and slithered. As more blue snakes appeared, the electricity began to eat away at the red carpet covering the ceiling.
Smoke was floating away from the opening and Alexander watched it grow bigger with anticipation. He wondered where the portal would open to this time? A mythical world? A dystopian landscape? A lost paradise? It didn’t matter what it showed him, he would cross the barrier.
More of the ceiling burnt away, electric snakes eating a bigger and bigger hole. Then the smoke cleared and he saw…a kitchen.
Not at all what he was expecting. He kept watching, waiting to see what else it would show him. He saw someone at the oven and though he couldn’t hear it, he knew they were humming a song. It was a woman, he could see that much. He wondered who it was.
“Who wants to go faster?!” The DJ yelled above the music.
As the Gravitron spun even more quickly, Alexander knew it was now or never. He turned around, pulling his body off the mat as if it were stuck to it with glue. As he moved his body up the red mat, it was as if the glue was giving away, only to suck him back to the surface.
He pulled through the glue of gravity and kept going. He was half way up the wall now. Alexander couldn’t back down now, couldn’t turn away. He turned his head and looked at the hole in the ceiling. There was light streaming through and he could almost smell the scent of ginger cookies. He was all the way up the wall when he realized that he had run into a problem.
There was no way Alexander could get to the portal. There was no way to reach the ceiling. The gravity would keep him pulled against the wall. Letting out a wail of frustration, he pulled his arm free from the glue of the red mat and reached for the hole, stretching his arm out. It was so close!
There was the sound of electricity as the blue snakes appeared again and began to eat away more of the ceiling. Almost as if it heard his need, the hole grew bigger and stretched towards Alexander, leaving smoke and more tongues of electricity in its wake.
So close! It was above him now and he could see deeper into the world through the portal. The woman there was calling out to someone. He wondered if she would find who she was looking for. He stretched his arm out further and touched the edge of the portal.
Alexander heard the sound of thunder over the music and there was a flash of lightning and the sound of screaming. Alexander felt the electric snakes grab hold of him, as if the portal was as hungry for him as he was for it.
Then, for a time, there was only blackness.
When the blackness cleared, there was only light.
His eyes were momentarily blinded by the sun. Blinking, he sat up and looked around him. Alexander was on the floor of a forest. He could see the roots of trees to his left and he was laying on a bed of leaves and needles.
Alexander could hear the soft sound of birdsong. He sat up, took another look around him and gasped: The trees around him looked okay half way down the tree to the roots. Above that line there was only burnt husks of trunks and branches devoid of any leaves. It looked like they had all died. Alexander wondered why the portal had sent him to a forest filled with dead trees.
Standing, he was careful on shaky legs. He reached out to a tree to support himself. He felt something move into him and something else move out of him. It was as if some of the tree that had died moved into him while something else entirely seemed to slide out of him. It was as if water was pouring from his fingers.
He heard a popping sound. Looking up, Alexander marvelled at the changes in the tree taking place before him: where the bark had been dead and grey like ash, it now glowed with a dark golden hue that seemed to shine from an internal light.
Leaves sprung up along all the branches, buds at first, then growing faster than normal into fully fledged leaves. Some of the branches sprouted flowers, white buds that would let go and rain down on him, covering him in petals that floated like snow to the ground.
Alexander held out his hands to catch some of the petals as they fell and he watched as they melted in his hand. A soft breeze flew through the glade and the trees that were still bare shook their branches, sounding like the clattering of teeth.
When the clattering of the branches stilled, a voice said behind him: “You came.”
Turning, Alexander saw a woman standing before him. She looked as if she were made of the trees themselves. Leaves made her dress and her arms and face was made of bark. Her eyes were like two shining black onyx stones and her lips looked as if they were painted on. Indeed, when she spoke next, the lips did not move. “I did not know if you would come.”
Alexander almost bowed. Instead, he said: “You’ve been waiting for me?”
“For eons, it seems. However, time moves more slowly here.”
“Where is ‘here’, exactly?”
“Where did you want to go when you saw the entrance? It is whatever each person wishes to go to, individual to the person who makes that wish, but it always leads to the same place though the locale may be different. But we have been watching you. Hoping for you. We require your help.”
“My sisters and myself.” She gestured at the other trees around them. “We have not been doing well as you can see. I am all that remains. My sisters waited with me for your return, but the thunder came and the lightning took them. Then there was only me but the lightning took me as well, until you revived me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Nor should you, but I will try to explain what I can.” She held out her arm for him and he took it, linking it in his. It felt brittle but he knew that was because she was made of wooden sticks and branches.
They walked on a little ways until she spoke again. As they walked, he looked at each of the trees and thought of each of the women that were trapped within.
“We are an ancient race. We’ve been called Ladies of the Mist, Dryads, Muses and more. But the world moves on around us and beyond us. As each person stops believing, another part of our once large country would die out. We are left with this forest to call our home, but even that is being taken from us.”
“What can I do to help?”
“You have the soul of an artist in you. Tell me, do you paint? Sing? Do you draw?”
Alexander looked around him. “I like to write.” He whispered. He had never told anyone this before. He had always done it in secret, scribbling in journals and on pieces of paper.
The Tree Woman smiled, her mouth curing into a line. “I thought as much, how else could you have brought me back into my body?”
“I did that?”
“Surely you did. You took some of the darkness and in return, poured some of your spirit into me. It’s what all artists do. Their spirit lives on in all of their works.”
“Then let me do that for the other trees. It’s the least I can do for you.”
Alexander reached out to touch another tree. Again, it came to life with the deep golden glow and they watched as the tree came to life, leaves and buds growing on the branches, this time a deep gorgeous red. A breeze picked up around the trees again and when the chattering of the branches ended, another woman made of leaves, this one covered with white leaves instead of golden brown, stood before them.
“Sister!” she said. To Alexander, she curtsied. “I owe you my thanks.”
“We both do. You’ve given us life and we have nothing to give you in return.”
“But I can bring you all back!” Alexander said. “I know I can.”
“Perhaps you could, but you face two problems. One, there are not enough people that believe, not enough people that know in their heart of hearts that magic exists. Two, you wouldn’t have enough time.”
“What do you mean?”
“You wouldn’t have enough time before we all became Thunderstruck once more.”
The other Woman of Leaves let out a soft hiss. “Thunderstruck.”
“What do you mean?” Alexander asked.
Instead of answering right away, she looked up into the sky above them. Clouds were rolling in and the light became shrouded in darkness. “Watch.”
The clouds darkened further until they were black and thick with smoke and air. “What’s happening?”
The Woman of Leaves put a hand on his arm, the bark hot and dry on his skin. “Watch.”
The clouds continued to thicken and then came the thunder, loud and booming. It shook the ground around them. The branches of the dead trees shook and it no longer sounded like chattering teeth. Instead it now sounded like something shivering in the trees. The birdsong that had been there was now gone and the whole forest was silent, all except the noise of the gathering storm.
More thunder shook the ground and trees and then there was a split second where the hair on Alexander’s hair stood on end and the air around them was still and quiet. Then the sky around them erupted with brilliant, bright tongues of electricity.
They arched down from the sky with the speed and precision. The tree that the second woman of leaves had come from, the one with the hair of white leaves, was struck and once more turned a deep blue black. The woman of leaves faded away before their eyes.
There was more thunder, but it was not as threatening as before. Then it, too, faded away and the skies were blue once more. The woman of leaves turned to face him. “See?”
“Does that always happen?”
“It does. We are at war with disbelief and non-believers.”
“But I can help you. I can bring the trees to life again, you know I can.”
“How do you propose to get rid of the lightning and the thunder? How do you propose to keep it away?”
Alexander thought about it. An idea had occurred to him: What did all writers or artists do but sacrifice something? Did they not put all of their soul, their blood, sweat and tears into what they created? Was his idea, as mad as it was, any crazier than that?
“I have an idea. When the lighting comes, I’ll take care of it.”
“How?” Her voice was like the wind itself. “We can’t stand against it.”
“You can’t. But I can.”
He stepped away from her and ran through the forest, putting his soul into as many of the trees as he could, letting his body fill up with the blackness of burning fill him. The forest came alive around them, filling the air with a golden light brighter than any star.
He stopped when he could not go on any longer. There were countless Women of Leaves around him and they all looked at him with reverence. They all curtsied to him and the forest around them was filled with the sound of the wind through the leaves.
The sky seemed to respond to the growing number of them by growing dark and ominous. The woman of leaves came to him again. “I can’t let you do what you are about to do.”
“I have to do this. You’re the spark of light in my imagination. You represent imagination and creativity. That has to survive. When I get back, I’ll write more stories that will help people to believe in the impossible again.” He took her hand, its roughness calming in his grasp. “Please.”
She watched him, her wise eyes dark and deep as the deepest pool of water. Finally, she said: “My name is Audrey.”
“Nice to meet you Audrey.”
“When you write your next story, name a character after me won’t you? That way, we will meet again.”
Alexander nodded and was surprised when a tear fell from his right eye. He went to wipe it away when Audrey stopped him. “Do not be ashamed of your tears, Alexander. They are the breath and water of life.”
He nodded and stilled when the air went quiet around them. The Women of Leaves around him all started to whisper. “Thunderstruck, thunderstruck, thunderstruck…” They said, again and again until it was the sound of wind that ran through the leaves that made them.
Alexander had a split second to trace the arc of the path of lighting when it struck. He threw himself in front of the tree it was about to strike and let it strike him instead. It was as if his entire body sang in a language that he didn’t know the words for.
As the electricity continued to roll through him, the forest and the Women of Leaves started to fade. The last thing he saw was Audrey’s face. “Thank you.” She said. “Remember your promise.”
From within the electric charge that filled him, Alexander whispered “I will.”
Then there was blackness once more.
When Alexander awoke, it was to find his mother looking down at him. She let out a strangled cry and threw her arms around him.
“Oh Alexander! I was so worried!”
She let out a cry and he felt the tears from her eyes wetting his shoulder. “They are the breath of water and life…”
“Mom, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
She pulled back from him and looked at him, her face tear streaked and her eyes wide. “They don’t know what happened. The ride never did that before, they have no idea what blew the electricity but when you were hit with the charge of current, they were worried you wouldn’t wake up, that you had died…” She let out another sob and got control of herself.
“Oh my little man. I’m so glad you’re all right. I was so afraid. When they stopped the ride and took you out from it on a stretcher, I thought my heart would stop.” She took his hands in hers. “You’re my heart, Alexander. You hear me? You’re my heart and I would be lost without you.”
“Mom, it’s okay…where are we anyways?”
“The hospital. They wanted to make sure everything was okay, that you were all right. We have to spend the night here.” She let out a long breath. “This hasn’t been the greatest of birthdays, has it? I can’t even afford to get you a gift.”
“It’s been a great birthday and you’re my gift, Mom. You’re all the gift I need.”
“Name me anything you want Alexander, anything at all and it’s yours, I don’t care how much it costs me. I’m sorry I can’t get you everything you want, sorrier than you’ll ever know.”
Alexander looked at his mother and realized then how much he loved her. “You have nothing to be sorry about. Your love is a gift to me. Can I have a journal and a pen? I have a story I want to write out and want to get all the details right before I forget them.”
His Mom’s look of surprise changed to one of pleasure. “Of course! I don’t have anything here, but I can run down to the gift shop and see if they have anything nice. I can see if they have cake or something at the gift shop. I’ll go see about that cake, too!”
“Okay. Can I have some paper and a pen from your purse while I wait? I don’t want to lose the idea.”
“My little writer. You’re always writing something.” His mom said, handing him a few receipts and a pen from her purse. She kissed him once more and went to the door. She turned around at the last second though. “When did you become such a man, Alexander?”
“Sometimes, these things just happen, Mom.”
She let out a laugh and said “I’ll be right back.”
When she was gone, he picked up the pen and started writing: He was nervous as he approached the entrance. What would it show him now?
The pen shot out a tongue of lightning and it made the piece of paper glow a deep golden brown.
He smiled, thought of Audrey, and kept writing.