A solemn string quartet massaged the autumn air. Hushed voices buzzed where once there had been bees and other hopeful creatures. White wooden chairs had been unfolded into neat rows and large, draping ribbons terminated into rounded bows fastened along a central pathway. The air was warm for this time of year. At some silent signal the musicians ceased. The seats were filled and only coughs and occasional whispers broke the stillness. In front were the family. A middle-aged woman wept into her handkerchief while a younger man patted her shoulder. A man with a head of hair like tufty weeds was impossible to ignore though he seemed to be hiding at the back. Tim stood facing the solemn audience from the raised platform, perspiring with the knowledge that it was his duty to speak and he hadn’t a clue what the occasion was.
“Welcome,” he said.
He felt their expectant gazes like buzzing flies on his cheeks.
“We were granted a lovely day to come together,” he said, stalling.
There were a few nods and smiles. His eyes searched the lawns. There was no sign of a bridal party or cemetery. Come to think of it, even if there were, why would he be officiating? Tim wasn’t ordained as anything. The most public speaking he had ever done was that open mic when he was out drinking with Darla and Chris. There was a reason for never repeating that experience.
Why had he accepted that it was up to him to speak? It must have been the suit. He glanced down at his suit, realizing that he’d never seen it before. The audience continued to stare. Their gazes felt like individual heaters. Truly, the day was unseasonably warm.
The crying woman blew her nose. It was a resounding honk and a few of the smiles in the audience twitched unkindly. A collision of embarrassments caught Tim in their crossfire. His personal discomfort was quickly swelling to full panic while now he worried that the obviously distraught woman would be left to the silent mockery beginning to whisper among the smirking rows if he didn’t think of something quickly to deflect attention away from her.
“If there is…” he stammered, “if there is anything anybody who wants to say anything…”
Tim frowned. His mind had failed to come up with a substantial thought but that wasn’t what bothered him now. The audience sat docilely, watching. Gears in Tim’s mind clicked into motion. Something was wrong with this whole experience.
Why was he standing up here? Where had he gotten the suit? How had he arrived at this place and who were these people to him? How had he known that it was the family who sat in front? Whose family?
And where were the buildings? They would have to be somewhere nearby. People wouldn’t have carted these chairs, this stage, the instruments and all the decorative ribbons out into the middle of nowhere. There were no tire tracks to speak of. No trees. No buildings. Just an endless lawn in every direction.
He did a full turn just to be sure. Nothing in sight. Had that been true a moment ago? He couldn’t recall.
Tim let out a nervous laugh and instantly regretted it. Several frowns surfaced. Passive stares transformed into something more intent and less indulgent.
“I, em, I don’t do this a lot,” Tim said with an apologetic smile and another nervous chuckle slipped out.
He could feel the hostility now. Glares sliced through him. The man with the weedy hair smiled with a satisfaction that set Tim’s teeth together. He was the key to this, somehow, and Tim felt a driving desire to keep that man from winning.
Tim took another steadying breath and pushed past the confusion and unsettled feelings brought on by public speaking. He focused his mind. He was standing there, saying nothing, staring at them stupidly. Why was their reaction anger? He saw it now, clear as day. They weren’t confused or gossiping, or even giving him smiles of encouragement to help him get through his stage fright. No, they were uniformly angry, apart from weedy man. Something was… off.
“I’m a fluffy bunny,” he announced. “A big, fluffy, nose twitching, carrot eating bunny.”
He didn’t know what he was expecting. An escalation to their anger perhaps, or someone to finally, mercifully, remove him from the stage. None of this happened.
A single pair of hands clapped. Tim wasn’t surprised to see that it was weedy man giving him his taunting applause. Tim and weedy man stared at each other across empty seats. He wondered if the audience had ever been there or if they had been part of an illusion. Distractedly, he wondered when the musicians had vanished. He felt like that was a detail he’d missed, and shouldn’t have.
Weedy man was all thin-lipped smile. He finally stopped clapping and dropped his hands to his lap.
“I have to admit, you arrived at it far sooner than I had wagered,” he said. “I do savor a strong will. Very well, I give you round one.”
“Where am I?” Tim asked.
Weedy man’s smile flickered. Not a downturn of the mouth, no. It was as if the smile had been superimposed over something else and the mirage had slipped for a second revealing something vicious and hungry.
“You are in my hall,” weedy man said, and by his tone, it was clear that this was an unpleasant thing.
A foggy recollection was starting to form in Tim’s mind. There had been a park bench and trees. Running and laughter. Darla’s face through pale light. Surprise. Other… creatures.
“I can leave,” Tim offered. If he was unwelcome, as it seemed from weedy man’s tone that he had to be, he was more than happy to remove himself from… whatever this was.
Weedy man chuckled.
“No,” he said, “you cannot.”
Tim heard the music again and wondered why he was surprised to find the musicians sawing away at their instruments. They must have been there all along. They were playing a waltz. He didn’t know how he could have looked past them, or neglected to hear the thrum thrum thrum of their tune. They filled a quarter of the hotel lobby, its gleaming floors reflecting their swaying movements almost perfectly so that even the space they did not occupy seemed filled with them. Dancers twirled in the distance. A ballroom? Yes, that was it.
This wasn’t a hotel, but a mansion of some kind. It was hard to tell how large or small it was with the light and reflections shifting the way they were. Weedy man continued to watch Tim speculatively.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “It’s my birthday after all, so I’m feeling generous. And,” he added, “you’ve been a good sport today. Say I did give you a chance to leave.”
Darla spun into view in the distance. It was just for a moment, but Tim recognized her immediately. He had a disjointed memory of watching her struggle against gnarled, root-like hands and calling out for him. That also was for just a moment, and though Tim fought to hold onto it, the memory dissolved like sand through fingers.
“My memories,” he said numbly. “What have you done to my memory?”
Weedy man’s eyes lit with glassy amusement.
“Ah,” he said. “You are strong-willed indeed. Who knew you’d turn out to be such a tasty morsel?” A quick tongue wetted his lips. “Here is the new game. You may have half of your memories, and should you win, you will be granted the rest. The challenge is simple. You have until midnight to discover and use my front door.”
Tim’s instincts told him that the odds in this game were stacked against him, but without the benefit of his memories he had little to go on in the way of negotiating his position on the game board. Weedy man was obviously waiting for his consent. That suggested that he had the power to set terms. His inability to grasp onto anything beyond the present though gave him no foothold on what those terms might be.
“I demand a guide,” he blurted, instantly confused at why that request had been the one to escape his lips. “And freedom, if I win. If I win, and walk out of here, I’m free of you forever.”
Weedy man’s glistening eyes seemed to reflect new candle flames. His smile was one of vicious delight.
“Anyone who leaves through the front door is free to go,” he said. He clapped his hands with decision. “Agreed,” he declared. Tim didn’t like weedy man’s hungry gaze.
Suddenly, a flood of memories filled his mind, as if expanding from a dried state now that rain had come. He held the memory of weedy man’s challenge, but beyond that, his next accessible memory was from when he was eleven.
“Half my memories,” he murmured wryly.
“What was that?”
Tim blinked. Darla stood before him, gazing up quizzically. She smiled her Darla smile when their eyes met. It held a host of emotions. Relief. Hope. Tenderness. Wisdom. Concern.
Another memory flitted past, barely substantial enough to grab hold of, but Tim clutched at it ruthlessly. It felt forbidden, like an unplanned cheat that the weedy man hadn’t foreseen. The memory was of Darla, turning to say something to Tim after having stood gazing out the window. Sunlight curved around her cheek like a caress and lit her eyes with dancing colors. She had a similar smile in the memory.
“Darla, we need to find a way out of here,” Tim whispered.
Darla’s smile faded. She nodded earnestly.
“You don’t know the half of it,” she whispered. “I know your memories are gone so let me catch you up. You’re his plaything. And he keeps stealing things from you. Some he returns, so you can play your games, but some he…” she shuddered.
“He what?” Tim asked.
“Some he eats,” she said in barely more than a breath.
Alarmed, Tim did a count of his extremities. Ten fingers. All of his toes responded from within his shoes. Darla seemed to guess at his project. She shook her head.
“No, the things he takes, they’re things like courage. Strength. Resilience. Memories. Love.” Her voice broke and she looked into the shadows of the long halls. “He’s hollowing you out,” she said, no longer meeting his gaze.
“And you?” Tim asked.
He couldn’t remember why, but it seemed like the answer to this question concerned him even more than the horror she had just revealed to him of his own fate.
Darla shrugged bleakly.
“He has other uses for me,” she said. Seeing Tim’s color rise, she added, “I dance in his horrible ballroom until it feels like I’ve been on my feet for a hundred years. Or the endless recitations of poetry that mean nothing to me. It’s all nonsensical. Drives me to madness sometimes. But the worst is when I have to watch him toying with you. Please, Tim, we have to get you out of here.”
“Not without you,” Tim whispered.
Though the hallways stretching away from them to eternity were empty, he had the sense that nothing they spoke aloud went unheard.
Darla gave him a heartbreaking smile.
“Sure,” she said without conviction. “Well,” she added, straightening into a businesslike pose, “the clock is running down. I’m your guide, so let’s find that door.”
“You’re my guide?” he asked, surprised, but Darla had already started walking purposefully down one of the identical endless corridors and he focused on catching up.
He was about to ask her a question but realized she seemed to be counting her steps. At thirty-nine she stopped and grabbed onto his wrists. She placed his hands on her shoulder and hip respectively, and a waltz swelled into being around them. Their feet began to move. Soon they spun amongst other couples in a magnificent ballroom. Pillars of rose bushes striped the long walls, their vines sprawling to the ceiling where they webbed together overhead, dangling sweet blooms and thorny spines above the dancers’ heads.
Tim caught glimpses of weedy man here and there. A flash of wet, excited eyes or a tuft of drifting hair. The sight was always jarring and drew Tim’s gaze. He wondered suddenly how long he and Darla had been spinning rotations around the ballroom. She seemed complacent in his arms, a faint dreamy smile playing at her lips and her gaze distant and light. With a jolt, he saw a great old clock obscured along the wall by two overgrown pillars of roses. It was after eleven!
Tim directed Darla out through the wide entrance to an enormous hall filled with sweeping stairs. It was dizzying trying to take them all in. At his side, Darla gasped and stepped away.
“Thank you,” she said. “I wasn’t much of a guide in there.”
Tim had a thought suddenly.
“Darla,” he said, “do you still have all of your memories?”
“Yes,” she said, leading him up a curving staircase and almost immediately down another to a hall that seemed the same as the one they’d left but wasn’t quite. “I remember every second,” she said darkly.
“Fill me in,” Tim said. “How did we get trapped in this place?”
“We were picnicking at the park,” she said with the saddest of smiles.
The bleakness of that small gesture of her lips filled Tim with a cold dread. That was the kind of smile that said time had already resolved most of the sharp edges off an old grief, until all that was left was a dull mourning for happiness lost.
“We were being silly,” she said, choosing another staircase and leading him down it decisively. “Playing in the forest. We were captured and taken here.”
Tim followed wordlessly, building up the courage to ask his next question.
“How long have we been here?” he asked.
Darla’s foot missed a step and Tim clutched at her, nearly overbalancing over a rail. They fell back together, sliding down several steps before coming to rest at the next landing. They sat still, their hearts and breathing punching staccato cracks into the silence of the great space.
“We need to hurry,” Darla said at last, rising to her feet and pulling at Tim until he rose.
They were running now. The stairs seemed endless and random but Darla chose them with such confidence that Tim was without doubt. It was little surprise when at last they came to a hall that differed significantly from the rest.
The floor was grown over with moss. The great pillars supporting the staircases seemed to be the trunks of great sturdy trees. Insects buzzed around their heads. Instead of walls, lines of trees stood clustered together, one growing into the next. Darla led Tim to a dark hollow in one of the larger tree trunks.
“Quickly,” she encouraged in a breathless whisper. “Go.”
“We go together,” Tim insisted, pulling her forward.
Darla resisted, shaking her head.
“Only one person can use this door to step outside each year,” she said. “On his birthday.”
“Then that person will be you.”
Darla shook her head again. The grief was back, in her eyes this time. Her sad, ancient eyes.
“Tim,” she said carefully, “I… can’t leave. You knew that once. You promised me, a long time ago, that if we ever made it to this door on the day, you’d be the one to go.”
“Why not?” he demanded.
“There isn’t time to explain,” she hissed, her eyes searching the shadows with desperation as she shoved him toward the opening. “Please,” she begged. “You promised. It’s important that I stay.”
Tim studied her eyes. He didn’t know how, but he knew she was holding something back. But what? And why? He had a sense that the time left to make a decision was nearly spent. He may or may not have been the kind of man who would make that promise to the woman he so obviously loved, but the man he was now, with only the memories of his childhood and a vague understanding of his adult self, saw things in a different light altogether. The right thing to do… no, the only thing to do, was to save her from this horrible place. He wrapped his arms around her. She softened, relaxing with relief.
“Goodbye,” she whispered.
“I’ll follow you as soon as I can,” he breathed into her ear.
He felt her tense but it was easy enough to push her through the opening. He heard her gasp, then she was gone.
A single pair of hands clapped from the shadows. Weedy man emerged, his eyes glistening with satiated glee.
“This has been the best birthday I can remember,” he said.
Tim drew himself up and faced his captor with what he hoped looked like steely resolve. Weedy man’s smile only widened.
“You won this round as well,” he said. “My congratulations to you. And now, your reward.”
Memories flooded in. The rest of Tim’s years toward adulthood. His friendship with Chris and Darla. How Chris had been with them that day when they picnicked in the park. Darker memories solidified. Chris, defiant to the end in his long endurance of weedy man’s games. How Darla and Tim had watched Chris become less of himself until nothing remained of the friend they had known. How they had told themselves in a way of consolation that when they no longer found Chris in the great shifting halls of weedy man’s palace, he must have found the door on the birthday.
Finding himself no longer in possession of a worthy plaything, weedy man’s focus then turned to Darla and Tim. The games he devised for Tim were much the same as those he had played with Chris. For Darla, though, it was much worse. Tim remembered with awful clarity the night Darla found him and confessed that she had been stung by one of the thorns in the ballroom.
“I feel it growing,” she’d cried. “A disease. Some horrid pestilence. Tim, I can never leave this place. If I were to go out into the world again…” She’d dissolved into sobs.
“That’s nonsense,” Tim had tried to say, but he had heard the rumors as well. The sicknesses of the world, it was said, had all been born in this foul court. From those damnable thorns hiding among the sweet blooms that gave such beauty to the ballroom. He saw the purple tracing of her veins. Anyone who had spent enough time here knew what that meant.
“Promise me,” she’d begged. “Promise me that if we find the door, that you’ll escape. You’ll live a good, long life and fall in love, and experience everything decent and wholesome about the world. Please promise me that.”
And he had made the promise.
“Now then,” weedy man said. “What should we play?”