Winner of our 2020 book contest
The Other Realm will be released on September 1, 2021.
You can preorder the book at our store: amazon.com/stonesoup
The mind of Azalea Morroe’s father was coming apart. Gradually, and only at the seams, but coming apart all the same—and that was where the adventure began.
Henry Morroe was not terribly old, nor terribly unhealthy. A researcher in an astronomical laboratory, he was both fervently passionate about his work and blissfully oblivious to his unpopularity at the place. Henry had always been of an eccentric manner, and because of this, no one really noticed that anything was wrong. For what was now out of order in his mind was assumed to have always been that way. Eccentricity was not a welcome or valued trait in Montero; the little family spent most of their time shut up in the little flat they shared, except for when Azalea went to school over the hill and her father to work—when he went to work. Lately, it had not been so.
Lately, Henry Morroe was in his study from sunrise till sunset, combing over maps and taking notes from books, sticking tabs of paper to the walls, and perpetually adding to the jumbo fold-out poster board that was to save him from being laid off. In truth, it was more of a firing than a layoff, because the research company had never been a fan of Henry Morroe—although he did good work, they were much more preoccupied with their image than the accuracy of their research. They had finally found someone better—rather, someone much wealthier and more popular—to analyze and compare the data collected by the many enormous telescopes in the lab. Sure, the results might be sorely lacking in accuracy, but the image the lab projected onto the astronomical research industry would be brightened tenfold. It was a worthy switch.
However, Henry Morroe had heard of this plan some weeks back—listening with an antique ear trumpet pressed to the keyhole of his supervisor’s office—and the news had derailed any other train of thought completely. They had granted him a temporary leave while they set the other guy up in Henry’s office, and Azalea’s father had taken that time to formulate a plan guaranteed to get his job back.
This plan revolved around the information concealed in a dusty old volume, one that Azalea was reading while she stood in front of the bathroom mirror brushing her teeth. All About the Two Realms, by Dr. Arnold Colton, was a book with a history deeper than most. Eccentricity did not prompt celebration in Montero, and Dr. Arnold Colton had written a very eccentric book.
All About the Two Realms introduced the concept that there was more than one realm in existence, that there was another realm below the one in which Montero sprawled, made up of people similar to humans but not entirely the same. This was possibly the detail that sank the idea—no one in Montero was ready to welcome an alien race to their city. According to Dr. Colton, if you believed in both realms, it was possible to travel between them when a black moon coincided with a low tide—and in the lower realm, it was common knowledge that the upper one existed.
Dr. Arnold Colton and his book were banned from Montero and the surrounding region almost immediately after its release, the publishers pulled out of their contract with the city’s library, and most anyone who had previously been fascinated by this new worldview stowed the book hastily somewhere dark and never spoke of their infatuation with it again—but Henry Morroe felt no shame in taking instruction from a banned book, and neither did his daughter.
It was said that this realm held an island that provided the perfect star-charting vantage point, with spectacular views of a few planets not yet known to the people of Montero. The sleek black rock rose up out of the water and gave way quickly to dense forest—not a grain of sand to be found, despite the vast desert that stretched out across the strait. Apparently, this enclave was no tropical vacation spot but the trade capital of the realm and abuzz with all nature of activities. People of all shapes and sizes flocked to the isle to sell a variety of colorful, extraordinary goods, and many of them liked it so much that they simply stayed. The capital city loomed not far from the harbor, and beyond that green hills, interrupted only by the occasional tiny hamlet, ambled along, grasses swaying. Not many people lived around there, and the sky was pitch black—that, Dr. Colton claimed, was the place where you could see the stars with your naked eye.
Henry was certain that if he were to bring information from this wonderland to his lab, they would surely take him back. And Azalea, wishing to bring her father happiness in any way possible, agreed.
Although Azalea Morroe was no longer a child, she had not yet discerned the difference between insanity and sanity, had not yet realized that her father was edging closer and closer to the former.
Although Azalea Morroe was no longer a child, she had not yet discerned the difference between insanity and sanity, had not yet realized that her father was edging closer and closer to the former. She still took his word for truth without a second thought, looking to him for guidance as a flower to the sun— unaware that he too relied on her.
Most of the time, the two lived contentedly together in their little flat, and for the fifteen years that Azalea had been alive, the occupancy of the place had never exceeded two people. Her mother had run off as soon as Azalea was born, but she was missed as often as father and daughter fought. There were no photographs of her, and Azalea often wondered if her mother had given her the hair like coffee grounds that kinked tightly when it was braided, or the shortness of her figure—Henry was straight-haired, previously blond, and tall. But for the size of their home, the number of inhabitants was plenty. There was one bathroom at the end of the hall, then the study, then Henry’s room, then Azalea’s across from it, and finally the tiny kitchen and the living room. Books and papers covered every available surface. If you looked out the living room window, you could see one of Montero’s cobblestone streets below, and the window box of the family who lived in the flat beneath them filled to the brim with hardy flowers. The Morroes had filled their window box with books.
Across the street was another row of rather paltry apartments, and over their horizontal gray rooftops the desert unfurled, shining like gold in the sunrise. Recently, the perpetual haze blanketing the landscape had thickened into swirling sand, a subtle indicator of the tumult to come.
Though it had not yet happened in Azalea’s lifetime, everyone in Montero knew that a long, harsh drought like this one meant a sandstorm was coming. It always began slowly like this—the haze thickening, grasses dying, sand sweeping up into the elevated town as the tempest gained intensity to the breaking point. Then, what felt like half of the desert would rush over them, shattering any windows that had not been boarded up, tearing off any pieces of flimsy apartment roof that had not been battened down, and wrecking anyone who had failed to stay inside. But for now, Montero’s residents had only an abundance of sand as evidence of this phenomenon, and the grains could be found lining windowsills, creeping under doors, in everyone’s hair, and settling in little drifts anywhere the broom couldn’t reach, which was most everywhere—at least in the Morroe household.
Over the years, the apartment had fallen into a state of mild disrepair. One set of the living room lights had stopped working nearly ten years ago, but no one had bothered to replace them because the room was so small that it hardly mattered. The study windows refused to open, but that also didn’t matter because large bookshelves smothered them. When it rained—however scarcely that happened in such a place—the doors swelled in their frames and had to be shoved in order to get into the next room, and the front door only occasionally locked (no one ever came calling at the Morroes’, so that didn’t matter either). Sometimes the floorboards in the hallway went shaky and creaked when you stepped on them, but neither Henry nor Azalea noticed when crossing the floor in dim light anymore. Azalea only noticed this time because— and thankfully she didn’t still have her toothbrush in her mouth—the wood sank away, and she fell straight through the floor into the dark.
The inky blackness swirling around Azalea lifted almost as quickly as it had fallen. The world spun as her feet slammed into hard, dry earth, the impact forcing her to her knees. The first thing Azalea noticed was that All About the Two Realms was gone; she must have dropped it while falling through the floor. But she had not fallen to the floor below her Montero apartment. No—when she looked up, this was not Montero at all. Azalea was crouched on the hard, dry ground of an expansive desert, the air hazy and landscape painted in muted hues. She was not alone here—a line of rather bedraggled people was making its way into a rectangular building through wide double doors, a sign over which read “Cambelt Refugee Shelter,” and to the left of it, a yellowing field was packed with multicolored tents, more disheveled families bustling into, out of, and around them. Azalea knew the word “Cambelt” from somewhere, surely—but who knew where. The sight of the crowd extinguished any belief she might’ve had that she was anywhere familiar, for Montero didn’t have any sort of refugee shelter, and no one ever crossed their desert on foot.
“Come in, come in, refugees! It’s alright. You’ll be safe here.” A plump, rosy-cheeked woman was beckoning Azalea and a few others who had not yet joined the line toward her, a small smile on her face. Her brown cotton dress with peach-colored polka dots was wrinkled and the white apron she tied over it stained with dirt, but she looked to be in charge, so Azalea straightened and made her way through the queueing people to her.
“Excuse me, but where is this? Where am I? I’m from Montero, and I need to get home.”
The woman laid a warm hand onto Azalea’s upper arm. She continued to smile and spoke not unkindly, but up close her expression seemed strangely emotionless; her eyes seemed to have next to nothing behind them. “Here, hon. Come in. I’ll get you a blanket, some water . . .”
Azalea pulled her arm away, and her heart began to pound. She schooled herself—calm down, you aren’t in danger yet, don’t be silly, this woman thinks you’re someone else, that’s all—but it wasn’t much use, and the helper’s taciturn manner did her no favors. “No, I want to know where I am. I’m not from Cambelt. I don’t even know where that is—”
“You’re in Ambergard, honey. You’ll be safe here, warm and dry.”
“I-I’m sorry, I think this is a mistake—I’m completely fine. I don’t need blankets or water or anything. I’m not from Cambelt. I’m from Montero, and I want to go home.” Azalea was fighting to keep the childish edge out of her voice, trying to suppress the panic bubbling in her stomach. But even as she protested, the woman took hold of her arm again and led her into the building.
Was she in another realm? The other realm?
It was like an enormous school gymnasium, with cots folded out in long rows to the right and an impromptu food bar set up on the left. Plastic chairs lined each wall. Exhausted and dirty people crowded the place, families sitting together on the beds or single men and women slumped on the sidelines. No one seemed injured, only gravely fatigued and overcrowded. People were crying and some were sitting on the floor between the beds and in the walkways, for in most places there was no room left for dignity.
What was happening in Cambelt? A war? A natural disaster? Where was Cambelt, and what was it anyway?
But Azalea realized she could now answer the last question for herself. Cambelt was the astronomical wonderland mentioned in Arnold Colton’s book, and it was the very place her father wished to travel to and gather information from. Cambelt was supposedly somewhere in the realm that sat below the human one.
Was she in another realm? The other realm?
“Sit down here, honey.” The rosy-cheeked woman derailed her train of thought, gesturing to a plastic chair.
Dazed, Azalea sat watching silently as the helper was swallowed up by the crowd. If she had somehow landed herself in the other realm, then these people were not human. They looked human. Would they believe in another realm? Could they, or would they, help her return home? She almost laughed. Just a few hours ago she had been wishing to get out of the world she was currently in, to a place where there was a job for her father and no dust storm on the horizon. Now that she might actually be there, the only thing she wanted was to return to her cramped apartment.
“Here you go, hon.” The rosy-cheeked woman was back, carrying a heavy woolen blanket and a chipped coffee mug full of water, her voice jerking Azalea from her speculations again.
Azalea accepted the mug but shook her head at the blanket, interjecting, “I’m not from Cambelt. I’ve already told you. I’m from Montero, and I haven’t suffered through anything. I just want to go home to my father.”
“Honey, you’re safe here. I’m sure you’re exhausted after such a long journey, but there aren’t any beds open now. If I see one, I’ll let you know.” The woman still seemed oddly disconnected and cool, as though she wasn’t really absorbing what Azalea was telling her, or like she didn’t actually care.
“No, I haven’t taken any sort of journey! I’m completely fine! I’m from Montero, not Cambelt.”
“Just rest now, alright? The island has many other cities. You need not live in the capital to receive shelter here.”
Azalea could feel her heart thundering in her chest again, panic rising like bile in her throat. “I don’t live on an island! I swear I don’t even know where Cambelt is—”
But the woman had shoved the blanket in her lap, patted her on the shoulder, and disappeared again into the throng.
Sunny had left hastily for work that morning, eager to be out of the claustrophobic house and blanketing noise. She hadn’t cared that she would end up in a place noisier and more crowded, nor that her breath sparkled in the dawn chill. No, she had only cared for the walk. Rucksack tightly secured and thumbs hooked in her pockets, she could gaze out over the ridge and into the desert below. These fifteen early morning minutes were of complete, solitary peace—something rare as rain in this time and place.
It had not rained in Ambergard for 471 days, the longest stretch recorded for more than a century. There was nothing to temper the dust or the heat, and yet the other extreme was being reached just across the strait. In Cambelt, annual floods were worse than they had been in over a century, affecting not only the rural communities but some of the hamlets too, and the refugees that trekked across the desert to seek shelter in Ambergard—usually filling the recreational field with a tent city— had overflowed into the community building and were sucking away what little resources her desert town possessed.
But Sunny could push thoughts of this out of her head during the walk. She did not have to dwell on how pale little Theodore had become, how skinny Addi was, or how tired Eli always appeared to be. Her mother was trying her hardest, but it wasn’t enough for them. Theo was only six months old, and the attention Mama bestowed upon him in a desperate attempt to salvage his health was attention stolen from four-year-old Addi, nine-year-old Eli, and fifteen-year-old Sunny herself. And now her mother wanted Sunny to leave them all.
Though Mama wanted Sunny to leave “only for the health of the rest of the family,” even in the words with which she justified her wish she planted seeds of doubt in her daughter’s mind. Was there really another reason she wanted Sunny gone? In times of such scarce resources, was her eldest daughter the one she would let go of? Even the reason behind her impending journey was centered upon someone else: she was to travel to Cambelt and hunt down her older brother, Jamone, to convince him to return home and repair the water systems of Ambergard.
Jamone was Mama’s first child, a dark-haired boy of curiosity and goodwill. She’d done as much as she could for him, but Jamone had grown impatient with the lack of opportunity that Ambergard presented to him. A tiny desert-bordered town known only as a travelers’ stop gave him no way to follow his long-nurtured dream of becoming a marine geologist. When he was fifteen, he ran away to Cambelt, where he wished to study. No one in Ambergard had any idea whether he had done it, or heard from him since.
This was the only side that Sunny had seen of him, a bitter one her mother had shared only as a cautionary tale of ungratefulness. At least, it was the only one she trusted. Sunny seemed to remember times with Jamone on the ridge where she now walked, crouching just off the road. He would trace patterns in the dust, kindly explaining about erosion and water currents. But her mother’s negative and bold recollections had long since stamped her own pleasant and misty ones to ash, and the only thing she felt now when confronted with seeing him again was a kind of dull resentment. He was an undeserving, deceitful boy hiding behind pleasantries and charlatanry from his family and his home—at least, that was what her mother wished her to think.
As much as she hated the idea, worried sick of something happening in her absence, Sunny knew that Mama had already won the battle. She had never been one to lose a fight, the only one she had ever lost being Jamone’s running away—yet another reason for Sunny to despise her brother. But as far as Sunny could tell, as much as Mama urged her to leave, she didn’t actually have any idea how she would get her daughter across the desert. Either that, or her mother didn’t want her to go.
They were washing the dishes after dinner when Sunny had broached the subject again, a few days after Mama had pitched the plan that had left her daughter’s stomach sour and roiling.
“Mama, um, about the plan to find Jamone—uh, well, how am I gonna get to Cambelt? I mean, I can’t really walk all the way there, and even if I could, I can’t swim, and I don’t know how to use a boat. I’d be stuck on the coast.”
Her mother had given a small sigh and turned her face away, twisting the cold-water handle around as far as it would go—hot had stopped working years ago. What had been a feeble but relatively steady stream of dirty water from the tap became a sputtering explosion of brown, spattering them both with muddiness. Sunny had reached across the metal basin to turn down the flow, but with a rattling noise somewhere in the innards of the piping, followed by the gush of roaring water, a clot of sand shot from the faucet and slid down the drain, dissolving as soon as the murky flow from the now-cleared faucet hit it. The harsh noise of the water flooding the sink had made Mama shudder, and Sunny had seen for the umpteenth time that day how tired she looked, face graying, like her hair, with exhaustion and pools of shadow beneath her eyes that gave her whole face a deflated look. Suddenly she had been struck with a pang of guilt, knowing she had done something to make her mother’s life harder, to make her even more fatigued than she had been since her husband left last year.
She shook her head. “Never mind, Mama. We’ll talk about it later. I can finish this. You go take a rest, ’kay?”
Her mother had nodded gratefully at this and murmured her thanks, wiping her hands dry on her dress and leaving Sunny standing there with a sponge and a greasy plate, staring blankly out the grimy window at the sunset with no less of a sick stomach than before.
Thinking that this was just a one-time situation, she had tried to discuss the trip again when her mother seemed in better spirits, but to no avail. Each time Sunny had been stopped by a “Honey, I’ve got to go nurse Theo now. We can talk some other time,” or Addi needed to be dressed for bed, or the tap needed to be turned on high enough to mask noise, or dinner needed to be cooked, or she needed to focus on the entirely silent and mindless task of ironing lest one of Eli’s shirts get a hole burnt through. In any case, Sunny was realizing that Mama didn’t want to know when she was leaving, for one reason or the other, and so she stopped trying and started hoping that the day for her trip would just never come around.
* * *
The sun had risen entirely above the horizon now, flooding the sand with golden light. The low-built community center came into view down the slight incline, and as Sunny watched, the lights came on, their glare muted by the thick panes of the high windows.
The sparse grass that used to line the edge of the road here had died away with the rain, replaced with yet more of the sand that was gritted into every nook and cranny these days. The avenue ran from dirt to worn asphalt, growing hot beneath the soles of Sunny’s sandals as they slapped the pavement leading to the low building’s side door.
She slid in behind the food bar, quick to exchange her bag for a pile of blankets and head toward the public entranceway.
“Sunny!” Miss Genevieve was hurrying toward her, arms outstretched and looking hassled. “Here, give me one of those—there’s a girl I just brought in delirious with dehydration and exhaustion—and go watch the door, will you? New arrivals are coming this way. I could see them on the horizon.”
“I’m on it, Miss Genevieve.”
She was used to the hectic, no-pleasantries-involved nature of the volunteer center by now, and the often strained, no-nonsense demands of her boss. It was only on weekends that she caught glimpses of the other side of Miss Genevieve as she bustled into her office for more supplies, letting down her guard a little, smiling and humming along with the radio. The weekday shift of volunteers organized files in her office on weekends and got paid for it, many of them—Sunny included—fulfilling their role as sole breadwinner for their families. But they could only be paid on Saturdays and Sundays if they agreed to volunteer with the refugees for the rest of the week, something Sunny was glad to do anyway since it gave her an excuse to get away. The weekend shifts had many more hands because numbers were bolstered by the kids lucky enough to still be going to school, and there were a lot more of them than the breadwinners. Miss Genevieve could relax on the weekends, and so could the school kids—their load wasn’t stretched so thin. Sunny found envy in the pit of her stomach at this, but then she thought of Mama’s face every time she brought home her paycheck and smiled a little instead.
Anyway, sitting on the desk in a relatively cool, dim room and filing papers with some people she had a bit of common ground with, humming along with the tunes on the radio and remembering the clinks of the coins that she was earning, beat sitting in a dark house, hot and cramped, and singing Addi to sleep, getting nothing in return but more time to gaze at her mother’s sorry face.
The glare of the sun shimmered into mirages against the sand, but Sunny had no time to watch them rise. The group her boss had mentioned was drawing closer, a small one lurching along in laborious, stilted steps. Sunny had arrived just in time to see them stumble and barely avoid collapse, pushing forward through the murk of exhaustion.
She hurried forward, tightening her grip on the blankets and squinting her eyes against the sun’s brilliant light. Ahead of the party walked another figure, dressed in the brown traveling cloak so many of the refugees arrived in. She strode purposefully toward the building, and Sunny slowed to watch her—so unusual was her gait compared to the other refugees’. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, and it was only when she drew closer that this woman’s fatigue became apparent. Her face was smudged with dust, and though she was quite tall and looked commanding from a distance, Sunny could see now how she trembled slightly and pulled the government-issued garment tight around her thin shoulders. Her hair was long and wavy, but the chocolate strands were matted and looked damp and dull.
“Excuse me. Do you need help?”
It was only now that she seemed to notice Sunny and turned to look her up and down—that was when Sunny first saw her eyes. They were hazel, and much brighter than normal. They also seemed to be burning holes straight into Sunny’s soul, and she took a step back, hugging the blankets to her chest like a shield, suddenly all too conscious of the old, worn overalls and stained plaid flannel she had pulled on this morning without a second thought. But this last self-judgement was quickly rationalized— it wasn’t like she had anything else. Sunny looked away, and the woman spoke.
“No, I’m alright. I go through those doors?”
“Yeah, um, in there someone can get you water, a blanket, and some soup.”
She was not unkind, but all the same it was a relief when she turned away to continue into the building. Sunny continued to the weakened group of refugees with her blankets, blinking away the image of the woman’s hazel eyes.
Back inside, having safely delivered two exhausted men to the soup kitchen, Sunny caught a glimpse of the woman again, cloak hood down and her unkempt hair completely exposed. She was arguing with a distressed-looking girl in a white sweater with a wide green stripe across the front.
The fire in her eyes had been doused, and now she just looked lost, desperate.
The woman was not holding a blanket, a mug of water, or a bowl of today’s soup. Sometimes they arrived like this: emaciated and sapped of energy, yet for no apparent reason refusing help. In these cases, it was a volunteer’s job to talk them into submission—and today it would be no easy task. Sunny sighed and began to push her way through the crowd, shimmying between rows of beds and stepping over legs and arms until she reached the girl in the green-and-white striped sweater—and her apparent opponent.
The girl was evidently attempting to give the woman with the hazel eyes her bed. The woman—against all reason—would not take it. Sunny stood between the refugees for a moment, watching the argument like a sports game and attempting to interject.
“I swear, you must keep your bed. You are young and precious—”
“I’m young and resilient. Plus, I don’t even need this stupid bed! I’m not hurt!”
The girl’s eyes were blazing, but the woman Sunny had met outside refused to drop her gaze, and eventually the younger one faltered— in her stare, not her argument.
“Excuse me—” Sunny began.
“You must keep it for exhaustion. I will take a chair. Your family is not with you? Stay in one place so they can find you again!”
“I haven’t got any family with me. Now please take the bed! I haven’t got any use for it, but you certainly do!”
“Rubbish.” The suggestion of weakness seemed to have sparked something in her, and what had been an argument rooted in generosity was now quickly evolving into one of strength. This woman was ready to end it, and Sunny opened her mouth to try again, but to no avail.
“I will leave this bed to you and find a chair. I am fine.”
She swept her brown cloak about her again and stalked off.
The girl in the green-and-white striped sweater groaned, covering her face with her hands and flopping back onto the white sheets. That was the way Sunny felt, but she was working, and it wasn’t even lunch break. The girl looked to be about the same age as Sunny herself, with frizzy, dark-brown hair kinked into braids and a smattering of freckles bridging her nose.
“Er . . . can I help you?”
“I don’t even know.” The girl pulled herself up into a sitting position rather more laboriously than seemed necessary, but if there was one thing Sunny had learned on this job, it was not to judge. “Would you just listen for a minute?”
“Um . . . alright.”
“Okay.” The fire in her eyes had been doused, and now she just looked lost, desperate. “Well. So. So, I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but I swear I’m not from Cambelt. Not anywhere near there either, because I have no idea where it is or how to get to it. And also, I have no idea how I got here, none at all. I mean, I know it doesn’t really make sense, but I was walking down the hallway in my apartment and I sort of fell through the floor? I swear it’s true! I’m not delirious or anything!”
The color had risen into her cheeks now, and she wrung her hands in her lap. “My father’s back there, where I live, and I need to get back to him. I’ve got to. I don’t know what’s happening that’s sending all these refugees here, but it hasn’t happened to me. I’m totally fine, really, but I think I maybe come from another—another realm?”
Sunny stared at the girl, struggling to absorb the fast-moving information, until she remembered something Miss Genevieve had told her when she first volunteered here: “Relay any information the people give you back to them. Make sure you’ve got it correct and solid.”
“Um, okay. So, you’re from somewhere not around here, maybe the other realm, surely not Cambelt or anywhere near it, and you left your father back home where . . . you fell through the floor before ending up here. You want to get home.”
“And you are?”
“Okay, I’m Sunny. But, um, Azalea, I don’t really know . . . I mean, I’m not sure how to get you home. I’m sorry.”
“Oh. Okay.” She sat still now and stared Sunny straight in the face, but her lip quivered the tiniest bit as Sunny patted her shoulder and stood up.
“You could talk to my boss, Miss Genevieve? She’s wearing a brown dress today. If you find her, she might be able to help you.”
“I already did. She didn’t believe me.” The next words seemed to spill out of Azalea’s mouth almost as if she couldn’t help herself. “She was kind of cold, um, like she didn’t really want to help me. Is that normal? I mean, uh, could you say?”
So this was the girl her boss had mentioned earlier, who was supposedly delirious with exhaustion and could not be trusted, though she didn’t seem out of her mind. Sunny frowned, spotting her boss several beds down. She could feel Azalea following her gaze to see Miss Genevieve cradling a baby in her arms, soothing its cries and whispering sweetly into its ear. She seemed perfectly warm and motherly just now.
“Um, I dunno, Azalea. Usually she’s alright. I’m sorry she couldn’t help you, though.”
The girl nodded, allowing Sunny to make her way back through the crowd. This was not entirely a new scenario—refugees arrived here desperate to find loved ones and begged the volunteers to assist in a search for them rather frequently— but something about the girl’s face made Sunny’s chest squeeze, as if someone had encircled it with a rubber band.
Azalea stared after the volunteer as she disappeared among the refugees. Dismay was settling about her like mist, distorting every other perception she had of this place. The sun was burning overhead now. Surely her father was sick with worry—maybe the administration at school had sent out an alert and the whole of Montero was on the lookout for her. But they would not find her, Azalea was certain now—certain that she had fallen into the other realm. She had not missed Sunny’s choice of words: not another realm, but the other realm. She knew of the theory, regardless of whether or not she believed in Azalea’s story.
There. She knew of something Azalea knew of too: they shared a common interest. She could definitely work from that, right? Persuade someone else that she really was from the other realm and get them to show her how to get back there? That could work. Right?
But even in her own head the conviction sounded hollow and shaky. She had already attempted to talk someone into this and the woman had basically tuned her out—seeming to think that adding “honey” to every sentence could trick Azalea into believing she cared, though the reason why she didn’t was unclear.
And yet Azalea Morroe was not one to sit and wait for rescue. She was stuck here, but she had been struck with an idea: Her father was stuck in Montero, about to lose his job. She was here, so near to the place that his job-saving plan revolved around.
Why not make herself useful?
“Go on home early, Sunny.”
Miss Genevieve’s chocolate hair had come loose from its bun, and the dark circles beneath her eyes had bolded tenfold, but she had the capacity for grace and was certainly compassionate and empathetic enough to sense her helper’s exhaustion.
“Early, Miss? But—”
Miss Genevieve dismissed the feeble protestation with a wave of her hand and a little white lie. “Not many new arrivals just now. Take off while you can.”
“I insist.” Seeing that Sunny was about to protest, Miss Genevieve added, “And don’t come in tomorrow, either.”
“Flood season’ll be over just next week so hardly anyone’s coming in anymore; you need a rest, and I can take it from here.”
“Just go, Sunny.”
“Good.” A little smile flitted across Miss Genevieve’s face.
But when she had started here, Sunny had been firmly informed that she had an obligation to make sure everyone was acting with compassion, even those who worked above her. “Um, Miss?”
“Yes, Sunny. What do you need now?”
“Well, I, uh, I heard from a refugee today that you didn’t treat her with
compassion. And you told me when I started here that I should make sure everyone was helping out to the best of their abilities regardless of status, so . . .” She trailed off, heart suddenly thundering in her chest. Miss Genevieve had never been cold to her, but now it looked like that might change.
“And who was this girl?”
“She was wearing a sweater with a green stripe across the front? Her name’s—”
Her boss’s face suddenly darkened. “She is the one I brought in this morning. You heard me say that she was delirious with hunger and exhaustion, did you not?”
“Well, yes, but she didn’t—”
“And you believe me, do you not?”
“Well, Miss, with all due respect, she didn’t seem to be—” Sunny had never seen Miss Genevieve like this, and could hardly believe her boldness, but something about that girl’s face, which looked so much like Addi’s, was urging her forward.
“Listen to me, Sunny. What else did she tell you?”
“What? I’m sorry, I don’t—”
“Before she told you that I had not treated her with compassion, did she tell you any other lies?”
“Well, I’m not sure they were lies, Miss, but she did say that she had come from somewhere that was . . . not Cambelt.”
“The other realm, perhaps?”
“What? I mean, uh, yes, actually. She did say that.”
“Sunny, listen carefully. Between you and me, I did not treat this girl with compassion because she deserves none.”
“What? That can’t be right. When I first came here, you told me eve—”
“No. This is different. This girl, Sunny, or anyone who comes to you and tells you they are from the other realm and doesn’t seem to be joking, they deserve no compassion. They are dangerous and do not mean well, and they should not be here. So stay out of their way.”
“Go home now, Sunny.” Miss Genevieve’s face had softened a little, her exhaustion evident again. It was clear this conversation was over, and Sunny swallowed her further arguments and turned to leave.
But whatever her boss said, she could have her own opinions. And unlike Miss Genevieve, she wasn’t planning on forcing anyone to believe them.
* * *
It barely took ten seconds for the restful times Genevieve had promised to Sunny to crash down around her ears. She had slung her bag back over her shoulder and was pushing open the side door when the girl in the green-and-white striped sweater who had insisted she was from the other realm came stumbling through the crowd.
“Hey! Hey, wait up!”
“Um—” Sunny seemed to have spent her entire day being cut off in the middle of a sentence.
“Listen, do you know how to get to Cambelt?”
The inquiry yanked Sunny roughly back into reality, one she usually didn’t have to reenter until she’d gone back over the ridge toward home. The reality of Theo and Addi and Eli and Mama, of Jamone and her impending journey across the desert.
“I thought you wanted to go home? And Cambelt isn’t your home?”
Azalea barely broke her stride. “Well. I’ve changed my mind, and Cambelt’s where I need to be now. Do you know how to get there?”
“In theory, yes.” Sunny knew the next question before it left the girl’s tongue and winced.
“Could you take me?” Azalea seemed to realize what a tall order it was as soon as she said it, but Sunny’s mouth seemed to have disconnected entirely from her brain and was talking away.
“Er—yeah. Yeah, I could—I’m actually heading there now. Is now a good time?”
It was Azalea’s turn to look taken aback.
“I mean, I don’t know how we’ll get there,” Sunny could hear herself saying. “But I’d be happy to take you, once we find a way.”
“Do you have a car?”
“Do you have a car?”
“Do I have a what?”
“Uh, a car.” Seeing the blank and confused expression, Azalea added, “It’s a machine, that you drive, with four wheels?”
And then something clicked, a slow smile spreading across Sunny’s face. This girl was joking!
“Oh, I get it! You mean an automobile!”
“I, um . . .” Azalea sighed. “Uh, yes. I do mean an automobile.”
Sunny grinned wider than ever. Some demon was possessing her, one that was whispering in her ear, No time like the present. Mama didn’t want you to warn her, did she? and she did have a spare shirt folded in her rucksack, one she always brought to work in case of spilled soup or being called on to care for a baby. Maybe it was partly in rebellion against her boss’ strangely xenophobic views, but the determination clicked in her head. “No, I haven’t got a car.”
“Well, there’s one over there.” And before Sunny could do anything but nod, her new friend strode over to the vehicle, picked up a large sand-colored rock from the edge of the lot, pulled herself up onto the automobile’s top, and with a tremendous shattering of glass lobbed the rock right through the sunroof.
“Oh my god. What are you doing?!” Sunny’s voice had risen nearly an octave, all the color draining from her face.
The start of this adventure, like the start of all adventures, was intoxicating. A fire had ignited in the pit of Azalea’s stomach, and she wasn’t anywhere close to stopping what she’d just started. Her father had taught her two things about cars before they’d driven their ancient yellow buggy to the dump and walked home near midnight, making sure no one saw them (and thus ridding themselves of any tracking devices that Henry’s work had tried to pin them with): how to hotwire with starter cables and how to fill the gas tank without a pump. This was in case they needed to steal a car or make a quick escape of some sort.
A fire had ignited in the pit of Azalea’s stomach, and she wasn’t anywhere close to stopping what she’d just started.
“I’ve got us a car—an automobile, I mean.”
With the red-painted metal mechanical cover open and the glass sunroof gleaming and exposed, the job had been easy. Once Azalea had seen the supplies—food, water, and gas—through the back windshield, she’d acted faster than even she had expected but didn’t regret it in the slightest.
“I . . . are you . . .” Sunny sputtered, goggling at the battered red sedan. “Are you going to steal it?”
“Well, you haven’t got any better ideas, have you? Besides, it’s no longer in good shape.”
“Only because . . . I can’t believe . . .” She ran a hand up her face, gripping her hair exasperatedly in her fingers.
“Do you know how to drive?”
This was something that Azalea always did, a skill she had learned at school and carried with her ever since—plowing forward with reckless abandon, high on the jitters of opportunity, drunk on the chance to give in to her impulses for once while also hiding vulnerability—two birds with one stone, and she was wired that way.
“Azalea, do you know how to drive?”
She glanced away, smiling rather sheepishly. “Well, no. But I know the theory . . .”
“Oh, come on!”
But Azalea was quick to gloss over the flaw in her plan. “Listen. Here’s what we’ll do: help me clear the glass and that big rock off the sunroof cover, then I’ll slide it away and crawl into the car . . . er, automobile. That way, I can let you in from the inside and we can figure out how to drive this thing.”
“I . . . oh, alright.”
* * *
But it turned out that Azalea Morroe was too short to see clearly over the steering wheel in their new ride— they found that out after she pried the now slightly dented beige interior cover open with her fingers and tumbled as elegantly as possible into the seats below, checking for stray shards of glass in her hair. Sunny was taller but had never ridden in an automobile before in her life.
“Just press the pedal—yeah, that one—and turn the wheel the way you want to go—yeah, just like that— and we’re off! There’re a few other components, but we can improvise as we go along. It’s perfect! I can drive sometimes, but don’t expect the smoothest ride then!”
“Aren’t there keys, or something? And what about fuel? Automobiles run on gasoline, right?”
“Yeah, well, I’m gonna hotwire the car—it doesn’t really work yet—and then there’s gas in the trunk we can fill the car with when it runs out.”
“Uh, okay, but . . . is that safe?”
“Yeah, my dad taught me how.”
And so Sunny stood, staring out over the ridge and at the tiny trickle of refugees, wrapped in thick brown cloaks and looking like ants in the glaring sun, which was now high in the sky, as they made their way along the foot of the mountains west of the creek toward Ambergard. Azalea had popped the hood of the sedan and was working diligently inside it, fiddling with a screwdriver and both jumper cables at once. But Sunny wasn’t interested in the mechanics of this endeavor—she was trying to stop the writhing in her stomach and the constricting sensation like an enormous rubber band around her chest.
Sunny was beginning to have doubts about her split-second decision-making skills. The demon had disappeared, and letting her mother stop her from making any plans was starting to look like a grave mistake— not like she would’ve won that battle anyway, but still. This was not exactly the most polished arrangement, and Azalea did not seem to have the most logical bent. Agreeing to do this had been the demon’s last laugh. Theo, Addi, Eli, and Mama all needed her, and she was about to drive away from them—with barely any idea how—in a car along with the maniac who’d broken its sunroof.
“Alright, Sunny! The sun’s gonna set soon, so we’d better get going!”
Azalea was abnormally cheerful and—though this was an entirely foreign land to her—seemed quite at home. Sunny was barely out her front door but too petrified at the prospect of this journey to move from the spot where she stood. The demon had taken her courage and signed her up for this, and she couldn’t back out now—the look on Azalea’s face was too much like Addi’s for that. The sand stretched endlessly before them, haze filling the air and shadowy shapes in the distance marking the mountains they would be forced to pass over on their way to the coast and the strait.
“Sunny, ready?” Azalea stood next to the passenger door, hands resting on the red metal roof.
Sunny bit her lip and swallowed hard. She wouldn’t look back at Ambergard, not now. “Uh, yeah . . .”
Azalea beamed, disappearing into the automobile.
“Yeah. Let’s go before I lose my nerve.”
Our annual book contest opens every spring and runs through the summer. This year, we will publish one winner in fiction and one in poetry.
The contest closes on August 16, 2021, you can read more about it at stonesoup.com/contests