Lance held an irresistible attraction to adventure. Curious of the world beyond his tiny hamlet, he did not possess the fears that regularly took hold of others. The Locals, as they are commonly known. For when he stumbled on Ashe, lying in the grass, he knew what she was, and he was fascinated. She wasn't just an outsider. She was something else. Something much more.
"This is a dream," Ashe said with the utmost certainty.
"A dream?" asked Lance. "What is that?" He'd never even heard of the word.
"A dream. It all makes sense now. I can't believe I'm actually hearing myself say this, but I'm dreaming. Right now. I'm not from here, I'm from somewhere else. Somewhere that's nothing like this."
Then Lance knew, without a shadow of a doubt.
"You're an Otherworlder!"
The Otherworlders. Those mysterious visitors said to be from another world - the Otherworld. Just like Locals in all but their peculiar behavior. They are often quite confused and incoherent, seeming almost lost and dazed, and are quick to turn flighty and panicked in their delusion. Though these are regarded as simply tales and superstition by most. As a Local, you either believe in the existence of Otherworlders from a far away place, or you don't. Lance was a firm believer, but never imagined in all his life that he might actually befriend one.
"Other-worlder?" Ashe asked.
"Yes!" Lance beamed excitedly. "I knew it all along! It was why you disappeared yesterday. Otherworlders just disappear at any time, back to the Otherworld. But they always return to Ferryman's Crossing. Not you though, you've been coming back right here to Treeful Village. I wonder why ... Wow, wow …" He uttered it over and over to himself in sheer amazement, as if having seen a myth made real before his eyes. "I had a hunch when I first saw you," he continued. "But then, I wasn't sure. Otherworlders are always pretty confused, and jumpy. I've heard they're hard to talk to. But you're normal, sort of. I mean look at you, you're just like a Local!"
"But ... then how do I know if any of this is ... real?" Ashe asked him worriedly.
"What are you talking about? Of course this is real! And if it makes any difference, most people don't think Otherworlders are real. Here, I tell you what. I want you to meet Tess and Gage, before you disappear on me again. Just let me do the talking. Otherworlders aren't particularly well-liked, but you should pass for a Local just fine."
Ashe followed Lance as they abandoned the main road and meandered through course, gravel pathways, eventually arriving at glade defined by rows of elegant step-like terraces. Two youths - a boy and a girl - sat on the terrace steps conversing, dappled by the sunlight. They turned their attention to Lance as he approached.
"What do you want?"
It was Gage who spoke first. With his unkempt, chestnut hair and rough, sage-colored eyes, Gage was the extreme picture of a typical Local – ill-tempered, cynical, and distrustful of outsiders. But it was his eyes that caught Ashe's attention. Hard, deep-set eyes that harbored a grim shadow. For Gage was witness to many things. Terrible things. And only Gage was alone to remember them. He looked at Lance with a sour disdain.
"Hey Gage, you still working on that project, aren't you?" Lance asked as he planted himself on one of the upper terraces, a wily smirk across his lips. Ashe placed herself awkwardly beside him.
"What ... project?" Gage replied suspiciously.
The Vehicle. Gage's truck - a mint-colored 1968 Chevy C10 - was perhaps one of the last Vehicles in the world, a lost relic of a bygone age. Long ago, Locals had them, though even then, they were uncommon. It was a symbol of Gage's fear and terror, an object of desperation; a crying need to flee. But the truck no longer ran. For years, Gage had tried to get it working again, and only he, Tess, and Lance knew of its existence. Try as he might however, Gage lacked the skill and knowledge to fix the doomed Vehicle, and it now sat in an old, tin-roofed wooden shed, obscured by shrubs and green. It was hope lost, and Gage never spoke of it again. Lance's very mention of the word "project" struck in him a very bitter nerve.
"Really, Lance? Do you even know how long it's been since I actually took a look at that thing?"
"It's been like a year, I know," Lance answered with a nod.
"I mean, you do realize there's not a thing I can do to get that piece of crap off the ground?"
Lance could feel the tension rising like heat on a stove, but he was not about to let the subject go south.
"Hey I have a friend here that might - just might - be able to look—"
"I spent five years on her, Lance. In case you forgot. Five years. And there's not a damn thing that you, or your friend here, or anyone else can possibly do to fix it. So no, I don't really appreciate you dragging all this crap back up. Because it's just gonna piss me off, like you have right now. Not that I'd actually expect you to remember why it even meant anything in the first place, seeing as how life is just one big peach for you now—"
"Please, just stop."
It was Tess, who gave Gage an angry glare.
Lance's smirk was gone, and could only shamefully look away from him, his pitiful response almost more than he could bear. It was obvious that Gage had been deeply troubled by some harrowing experience that pervaded his mind.
But this was not so of Tess.
"Who's this?" she inquired, looking directly at Ashe. Her eyes were dark and deep, like a warm cup of mellowy-smooth espresso. Likewise her hair, long and silky-soft, was a smokey, velvet cocoa. Occasionally it would spill forth from her shoulder, where she would pull it back behind.
Though Tess was more good-natured and relaxed than her cantankerous friend Gage, she eyed Ashe with skepticism, who had remained silent. The odd piece who did not belong.
"Ashe, I'd like you to meet the ever-lovely Tess and ..." Lance hesitated for a moment with a wistful sigh. "... and of course, Gage. My cousin."
Gage responded with an unamused stare.
"Where'd she come up from?" Tess asked probingly, though trying to diffuse the tension between them. In her hand was a pencil, which she twiddled in her delicate fingers.
"Oh, um ... out of town," Lance answered quickly. "Visiting family, that sort of thing. She's just here for the weekend."
There was now an uncomfortable silence between them. Ashe could only look down at her hands, for when she tried looking elsewhere, it would stray to Tess or Gage, who would always look right back. She felt intimidated, almost threatened. Tess and Gage were not like Lance. They were cold and stolid, and she wondered if they suspected what she was. An "Otherworlder" as Lance had so eloquently put it.
It was then that Gage rose up and left them dejectedly, without so much as a single word. Tess's darkened eyes followed him, then with what looked to be indifference, she reached down at her side for a sketchpad, and continued on a piece that she had started prior. Lance caught sight of it and peered at it curiously. They were landscape plans.
"Oh, what have you drawn up this time?" he asked her.
"I wanted to try something with water for a change." Tess continued to sketch as she spoke. "Something like a minimalist pool, to add some tranquility and ambience. I've just about overdone it with flowers and trees. Maybe add undertones of wood and pebbles. Or perhaps stone. I also had a stone feature in mind. Big, tall ones. Have you ever heard of a rock garden? I've always wanted to do one of those."
"Tess here is an artist," Lance told Ashe. "She's the one responsible for everything you see here in Treeful Village. She designed it."
"Designed it?" Ashe asked in surprise. They were the first words she'd spoken among them.
"The landscaping, the trees, everything down to the last shrub. It all started on paper, just like this. Even these terraces."
"That was my last contribution," Tess added. "That was ... about a year ago? I don't design near as much as I used to. Mostly little things here and there. I have to be in just the right frame of mind."
Tess had hardly lifted her eyes from her sketchpad, and Lance realized that she had most likely sought the solitude until she was joined by Gage. And with Gage gone, Ashe's unease began to subside. Secretly eyeing her, Lance noticed that Ashe now seemed more relaxed, and was no longer desperately gripping the edge of the step as if for dear life.
Suddenly he remembered - Ashe's time limit.
The passage of time flowed differently in this place. What might be six hours of sleep for Ashe was perhaps no more than three here, but that was all but lost on Lance. All he knew was that Ashe only lasted a few hours before she disappeared previously, and though he did not have the exact time, he feared it had been long enough. He hated to imagine the horror of Ashe disappearing right before Tess's eyes. It would indeed be the moment she'd look up from her sketchpad.
"Look, I hate to be running off so soon," Lance shot in. "But I almost forgot - I have to get Ashe somewhere. Like right now." He motioned to Ashe with an anxious glance, and albeit looking confused, she rose up with him.
"Oh really?" replied Tess, still focused on her sketching. "Well, don't let me keep you—"
She looked up then, only to find that she was now beside herself, the two already gone and out of earshot before she could finish.
By now Lance was running - with Ashe in tow - if only to be out of Tess's sight. Ashe, who was as quiet as any typical Otherworlder, had barely spoken a single word, and Lance now worried she might go at any moment. He came to an abrupt stop.
"I don't think you have much time left," he said, turning to Ashe and catching his breath. "How do you feel?"
She tried to process this. "Maybe a little faint? Like my mind is ... distant."
"Like you're not really here?" he added.
"Something like that. It's ... it's as if I'm just floating."
Lance understood this. He gently took both her hands into his, and looked her in the eyes, his expression a strange mixture of happiness and sorrow. He attempted a smile, but it was small and wistful.
"Come back, okay? I want to show you everything in Treeful."
"I'll try," Ashe replied doubtfully. "But I don't think I have any control over that."
"You've been coming back the last few times. You have to. That's all we can hope for. I'll wait for you, okay? I'll be right here. Right where we're standing."
Ashe's mind was heavily fogged, and it grew more unconscious by second, though Lance's presence provided a focal point, and the more they were together, the clearer the world became. But even now, she felt as though she were being pulled away. She tried to speak, but the words would not come out.
And it was then, in that instant, with the blink of an eye, she vanished.
Lance was all at once by himself, his hands now holding nothing. He took a step back, almost in shock. Before, she disappeared when he wasn't looking. Now he'd actually witnessed it.
At that point, Lance suddenly burst into laughter aloud. He skipped in the air, almost danced, then threw himself down in the grass, a beaming smile of sheer joy and euphoria across his face. He would wait for her here, however long it took, it didn't matter. No one else may have believed in Otherworlders, or liked them even, but that was just fine.
He was all that she had in this world, and she would be his.