There was movement ahead. It was a large creature; that much was certain. Twigs crunched loudly under its weight and a cluster of baby trees wriggled against it. I glanced around for a place to hide and had to settle for one of the ancient tree trunks.
A young man plunged through, twig-abused arms lifted to shield his head. He had large startled eyes set above a thin face ending in a fierce overbite, and enormous ears reached from either side of his head with aims for departure. He spotted me at once and a wide grin transformed his features into a face you couldn’t help but like. I stepped from behind the tree. He consulted writing on a swatch of paper.
“I think I’m here to fetch you,” he said. Lifting his page, he read, “write what you see and follow the ribbon back. If you find anyone, bring them.”
He gazed around for a moment before lifting a pencil to the paper. “Trees and a girl,” he said aloud as he wrote. After a scrutinizing frown at me, he added to his notes, “teenaged, I think.” He read through the paper, nodded with satisfaction, and glanced down at a pink ribbon tied around his waist. Both of our gazes trailed from the loop to the point where the ribbon disappeared into the stand of young trees. He lifted a gentlemanly arm. “Ladies first,” he said solemnly.
I crept through the spry branches cautiously, trying unsuccessfully to keep them from springing like whips at my companion the moment they were free. He bore the sharp slaps with patience, lifting his wide smile every time I peered back in apology. Finally through the worst of it, I took a moment to stretch while I waited for him to disentangle his ankle from a web of sticker vines. The pink ribbon attached to his waist continued its journey around a trunk to the left. Above our heads, another pink ribbon wound the same path, though attached to branches instead of people.
The way marked by the ribbons was surprisingly long, and I started to notice ribbons of other colors drifting along beside us until they terminated in a web of color suspended over a clearing. A man crouched beside a small fire at the center warming his hands. He was small in stature, with hair and eyes that blended with the trunks of the nearby trees. Only his blue shirt helped him stand out from the forest.
“Good!” he exclaimed, leaping to his feet to help my companion remove the lengths of pink ribbon. “You can call me Ric,” he called to me over his shoulder. “This is Simeon.”
Once he’d freed Simeon, Ric led his friend to a seat near the fire. He indicated a stump and I eased onto it, surprised at how weary I was. The fire felt nice against my legs. I slid down so that I was leaning against the stump instead of sitting on it and wriggled my toes as close as I dared to the fire as I studied the rainbow colored ribbons webbed above our heads.
“Do you remember anything about where you came from?” asked Ric, coiling the pink ribbon expertly.
I shook my head.
“Not surprised,” he shrugged. “That’s pink for you. White’s worse. We lost three people down white before we figured out they were falling asleep. The problem was that everyone we sent to find the others fell asleep, too. Had to throw ropes and drag them back by their feet. That’s why we tie off before we go in now.” He held up the pink ribbon. “It was tricky, but we got them all eventually.”
“What is this place?” I asked.
Ric shrugged again. “Woods. The ribbons mark the paths that are safe.”
“They don’t sound safe to me,” I scoffed.
“Those who go off the paths don’t come back at all,” said Ric.
“Maybe they fall asleep,” I suggested.
Ric and Simeon shared a dark glance. “Based on what noises we’ve heard,” Simeon said cautiously, “I think that’s… not what happened.”
“Mim, Sandwich and Alfred are down yellow,” said Ric after a pause.
“Again?” frowned Simeon. “They just did yellow. That’s the labyrinth,” he added toward me.
“They think they can get through this time,” said Ric. “They took the rest of the ribbon.”
Simeon snorted. “They’ll be back soon.”
“That was terrible!” exclaimed a small woman, stomping into the clearing with an armful of ribbons and two breathless men trailing in her footsteps. She threw the ribbons down and sighed, fists on hips. “We have a new one?” she added when her hazel gaze landed on me.
“Pink,” nodded Ric.
“I won’t ask your name then,” she chuckled. “I’m Mim. These are Alfred and Sandwich,” she added, thumbing toward the men behind her.
“It’s Reuben, actually,” grimaced the larger of the two men. Everything about him was as pale and oversized as the other man was dark and petite. “Mim thinks calling me Sandwich is funny,” he said, handing his section of ribbons to Ric and taking a seat.
“It is funny,” grinned Simeon. He failed to duck from the hail of small pebbles Reuben sent flying at his head.
“Have you eaten?” asked Alfred, handing me a pouch filled with berries.
“I don’t know,” I admitted, and figured I must not have after I popped the first one into my mouth and discovered myself ravenous.
“Help yourself,” he waved, taking a seat. “The labyrinth keeps you on your toes, but there’s plenty to eat.”
“You need to work on your notes, Simeon,” complained Ric, looking over a piece of paper.
“What’d I do?” asked Simeon.
“You went down pink today, but nothing new,” said Ric. He scratched at the paper. “I’m adding a note to add another length to the high ribbon next time so we can go farther. There has to be something there if we keep finding people. We just can’t remember what.”
A woman with long braids approached from the forest, unknotting a blue ribbon from her waist. “Blue’s impossible,” she sighed. She opened a pouch at her hip and sighed again. “I was sure I just picked the juiciest berries.” She turned the pouch over and a dribble of tiny stones trickled to the ground.
“Blue’s illusion,” Simeon explained, sliding closer to me.
“Where’s Dev?” the newcomer frowned. “I’m Elaine,” she added amiably when her gaze fell upon me.
I waved shyly, handing the berry pouch to Simeon, who’d been eyeing it with interest. He dove in with enthusiasm.
“Orange,” answered Ric, who rose to collect her blue ribbon and coil it neatly with the others.
Mim produced a limp rabbit from a pack at her back and Sandwich, er, Reuben helped her prepare it for the spit. Soon, sumptuous aromas flooded the wood.
“That smells delicious!” said a tiny man emerging from the orange path. His skin was lavender, as were his eyes and hair. He tossed the length of orange ribbon to the ground and worked at the knot at his waist. “Good thing I found these,” he grinned once free, tossing a lumpy sack beside the tangle of ribbon.
Alfred opened it and grinned. “Nice find,” he whistled, producing a handful of tubers. The others cheered and set to work clearing out a spot in the fire for them.
There was only enough rabbit for each of us to enjoy a small morsel or two, but it was mouthwatering. Much later, the tubers proved to be filling, if bitter. We watched the fire glow, and as night darkened the woods around us, stories bloomed from our lips, weaving together like the colorful ribbons above our heads. Sleep came, and went, and morning brought with it a little girl.
She stood at the edge of the circle, her wide brown eyes studying the smoldering fire and sleeping people with a gaze too calm and knowing to fit in a child’s face. When her eyes fell on me, she smiled. I waved, noticing that she stood under the pink ribbon. They’d said I came from pink, but my memory of it was fuzzy.
Simeon stirred first. “Hello,” he called to her, waking the others. “I’m Simeon.”
“Molly,” she replied, picking her way over the shifting figures of our companions to sit between me and Simeon. To my surprise, she took my hand.
“She didn’t come from pink then,” muttered Reuben, suppressing a yawn. “Yellow, maybe?”
“No one’s ever come from yellow,” sighed Ric.
“That we know of,” corrected Reuben, “but I swear I heard someone else in there the last few times. Could’ve been her.”
“I climbed up from the waterfall,” said Molly.
“None of the paths lead to a waterfall,” said Ric.
“We don’t know that,” said Dev, rubbing his eyes and rising to stretch. Molly stared openly at his lavender skin.
“I’ve read all of the notes, and none of them mention a waterfall,” insisted Ric. He reached behind a log to retrieve a thick stack of paper. “Not even a stream,” he muttered, leafing through with expert practice.
“Did you write all of those?” I asked.
Ric shook his head. “No one knows who started these, but we’ve been adding to them ever since. I only started reading them after Mica left.”
“Where did Mica go?” I asked. Ric hesitated, and based on the nervous shuffling coming from Simeon, I guessed that Mica was one of the ones who went off the paths. “Sorry,” I muttered.
“There’s no waterfall,” concluded Ric, finishing his perusal.
“Just because it isn’t written down doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” yawned Dev. “I believe you, little Molly,” he smiled.
“Where did you come from?” Molly asked him.
“My home,” he said. “My doorstep, in fact.”
“And then you were here?” Molly asked.
“And you?” she asked, turning to Simeon.
“I’m told I came from pink,” he shrugged, nodding toward the pink ribbon.
Molly gazed at each of the others, and their answers were the same. Pink. Through breakfast preparations Molly remained quiet and watchful. She kept her too-knowing gaze on all of us, and I had the funny sense of being someone’s experiment.
“Mim, you going back to yellow?” asked Ric, consulting his stack of notes.
“I saw more rabbits,” nodded Mim.
“Sandwich, I was hoping you’d be up for purple today,” said Ric. “You have longer strides. Maybe you can get to the other side of the fog. I’ll give you three lengths of rope.”
“It’s Reuben,” growled the tall fair man, but he took the coils of ribbon and tied the end of the red one around his waist.
“Dev, do you want to tackle pink today?”
Dev reached toward the pink ribbon but Molly grabbed his hand. “Please don’t go!” she begged, pearly tears rolling suddenly from her wide eyes. A glance of bewilderment sped between the rest of us.
“It’s okay, Molly,” said Ric, “I go into pink all the time.” Molly leveled an obstinate glare on Ric that seemed ill-suited for such a sweet face. “Should I go instead?” tried Ric. Reluctantly, Molly nodded. “Okay, settled,” said Ric. “I’ll take pink. Alfred?”
“Brave,” chuckled Ric. “Elaine?”
“That’s all of our rope,” sighed Ric. “Dev, Simeon…” he smiled wryly. “You get to watch the kids.”
Neither Simeon nor Dev seemed particularly upset by this, and in fact began scratching out some kind of playing board in the dirt near the fire pit. Molly waited until the others were out of sight before interrupting their efforts.
“We’re not safe here,” she announced.
“Oh, sure we are, honey,” assured Simeon, but Molly shook her head adamantly.
“Mim isn’t one of us,” she said. “She’s bad, like the old woman at the waterfall.”
“There isn’t a water…” began Simeon but Dev interrupted.
“Let her speak.”
“Dev, we have to go,” said Molly.
“I’ve tried every path,” Dev said gently. “There’s no way out.”
“There is,” she insisted. “It’s you.”
“No one escapes,” said Mim. She was leaning against the tree under the yellow ribbon. For a moment it looked like she had another shape, with a significantly larger jaw.
Molly clutched my wrist with one hand and Dev’s with another. At a sharp look, Simeon quickly grabbed Dev’s other hand.
“Wish it,” commanded Molly.
Mim pushed away from the tree, stalking toward us with a predatory gleam in her eye.
“Dev is the key,” said Molly. “Give your wish to Dev!”
“How do you know this’ll work?” asked Simeon.
Mim was nearly upon us. Her jaws seemed to be growing.
“That’s how he got here in the first place.” Molly sighed in exasperation as if she were stating the obvious.
She turned her gaze up and I had a strange sensation when our eyes met, as if I ought to remember something important. Mim’s gaping jaws were large enough to swallow us whole. Her breath, hot and rank, blew our hair against our cheeks.
“It’s alright,” she said quietly.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!