Cross Over: a short story

I need to tell you a story. I was born on the streets of a big, impervious city, to a woman of so little consequence that neither fact nor fiction has any record of her existence. My birth was likewise attended with neither joy nor ceremony, and I can only surmise that it took place, some fifteen or twenty years ago in that same city in which I found myself living, in my earliest memory. This memory is one of unremitting squalor, but, in its defence, it is told with the greatest attention to detail. Perhaps it was this attentiveness that finally saved my life. But let us begin at the beginning…

In a caliginous cellar near the river, a man and a woman are arguing.

“I told you, I won’t,” says the woman, stamping her foot. The clogs on her feet make a thump that is swallowed without echo by the damp walls. In the flickering rush-light the man’s face looks creased like an old prune, but whether in anger or through the misfortune of old age, it’s impossible to tell. Probably both, because it’s a sign of the times.

“Oh yes, you will,” he says, but without conviction. He uses an old book page as a spill to light his pipe. “Oi, you,” he snarls, and waves the pipe in a complicated luminal gesture which the small child sitting in the corner, hunched over some crude needlework, interprets as a summons. “Fetch me a bottle. No, I don’t have the coin for it. What’s the point of your needling if you can’t earn your keep? Get out with you and don’t come back until you’ve got me something strong.”

The child, knowing logic is useless, hurries out. No, she isn’t me. I’m still in the room, forgotten by man, woman, child and memory, having been shepherded into the scene with the other urchin for some unfathomable reason. I feel the meaningless cold, see the meaningless drops of humidity glint on the walls, hear the meaningless rasp and cough of the consumptive inhabitants, taste the meaningless aroma of hunger and bile, and smell the meaningless rank scent of… well, perhaps it’s best not to elaborate on that.

So much for my first introduction into the world. My captor then demands that I fulfil my role as a thief – “urban hunter” is the phrase he uses, I assume with the intention of elevating my occupation to one that is worthy of the story. Soon enough this story demands that I am caught and (another sign of the times) punished harshly for my meagre crime of stealing a freshly-baked apple pie which tempted me with its warm, spicy steam on a cold, hungry winter evening. No doubt you are full of sympathy for my plight. There follows a tedious examination and cross-examination by police and legal men, which is where, through the most inconsequential chance, my real story begins.

While the court was hearing the testimony of a bribed and imbibed passer-by, with frequent emendations by the pie-seller, I noticed a shoelace curled into the shape of a question mark on the floor near my left foot. With the instinct of a poor child who sees value in every piece of rubbish, I bent down to pick it up, stealthily, but I was perplexed to find that as much as I pulled and pulled at it, and kept feeding it into my pocket, the shoelace never ended. I glanced down and saw that it snaked away from the stand, towards the wall behind the judge. I knelt, and while everyone’s attention was fixed on the pie-seller, who was now arguing loudly with the passer-by, crawled past the guard’s legs, still following the trail of the shoelace. When it reached the wall, it suddenly began climbing vertically. I looked around to make sure no one was watching, and gave the make-shift rope a tug. It seemed strong, so I surrendered my full weight to it. Still it held. Hand over hand I began making my way up the shoelace. The people didn’t notice me soaring above them like a tiny spider, turning lazily as a breeze caught the rope.

I don’t remember much about my first jump after that; I think I must have been dizzy with spinning around on the shoelace, and with the elation of my escape. At the time I knew no more of reading than I did of fakirs, so as I rose, the lines of text looked to me like the bars of a flimsy cage that blew in the wind and cast fleeting shadows across the courtroom floor, and the bald heads of the tiny men who were still engaged in their meaningless debate, their arms and legs flailing in an attempt to agitate or articulate, I wasn’t sure.  I can only imagine the horrors that my captor had in store for me had I stayed until the end of my trial – I have since met pirates with more sense and conscience than those men…

I do remember standing at the top of the world and leaning over the black parapet to look out into the Great Gap. There was just enough light for me to see the far side, before the sun fled the scene. I heard rumours afterwards that a tightrope walker had carried me on his back, having slung the shoelace across to the next book. I think it more likely that I managed to swing myself across and slammed into the soft, puffy pages. I must have fallen asleep after that, or perhaps I knocked myself out. When I woke up, an inspector from Scotland Yard was bending over me.

“Where did you come from, then?” he asked. His name was Marsh. I told him, but after I’d finished my narrative I could see that he didn’t believe me. “Where’s the proof?” he asked. “It’s hard for me to believe you without proof.”

I looked around for the shoelace but couldn’t see it. I was lying on a soft bank of snow in what looked like a large park. I’d never seen so many trees, or so much open space.

“Gypsy, probably,” said a man behind Mr. Marsh. “She looks a bit addled if you ask me.”

“Yes, but what are we to do with her?” asked Mr. Marsh. “She doesn’t seem to know where she came from, or won’t tell us. You know you can trust us to treat you fairly,” he said, turning towards me to try once more. “No matter what your parents told you to say to the police, we’ll look after you. So why don’t you tell me where your folks are, eh?”

“I told you, I don’t have any parents,” I said. “Please believe me.”

“Alright, alright,” said Mr. Marsh, soothingly. “There’s nothing for it but to take her up to the house and hope that the servants can look after her for a few days. We can’t get her down to the orphanage until the roads clear up.”

So began my stay at the Manor. The officers were there to investigate a murder – a guest staying at the house had been found dead in his room with the door locked from the inside and a strange gold bullet lodged in his brain. Luckily for me (unluckily for the victim), the incident left little time for the police to further explore The Curious Case of the Little Orphan Found in a Deep Snow Drift Without a Single Footprint for Miles Around. We so often miss the larger mysteries as we investigate the lesser ones.

The household were generally too busy keeping secrets to pay much attention to me, but I did make friends with one young man. He was the son of the owner of the house, and the murdered guest had been his schoolmate. He spent time with me because it took his mind off the guilt he felt at having invited his friend to stay. He taught me to play checkers, and chess, and patience, and told me stories about his travels and the people he’d met.

“You know, you’re lucky you don’t have parents,” he said one day, walking into the library very red-faced. “You can go anywhere and do anything you like.”

“So can you!” I exclaimed.

He gave a derisive snort. “Perhaps when this dreadful business is cleared up I can go abroad, but I’ll never be rid of the responsibility of maintaining this old pile, or of dealing with all the petty details at the bank. If only I could be free of it all! And the worst of it is that they think I bumped off poor Fatty because he was stealing my customers. It’s like a nightmare. I don’t know how my glove came to be in the bushes under the window or where the missing pistol is, but everyone is so suspicious.”

I wanted to tell him that being an orphan was no better nor worse than being born in a wealthy manor, but I was too young and inexperienced to articulate any of it. And when I walked into the library the next morning and found him standing over the dead body of his sister-in-law, holding a bloody knife in his hand, all I could think of was to try to get him away. I knew he was innocent, just as I had been innocent in my book. I grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the corner. His eyes were open wide in horror, but he couldn’t see anything other than his own guilt. I wrenched the knife from his hand.

“This way. Come on, I can help you,” I said, pulling him closer step by step. With my other hand, I sliced through the pages. They fell apart with a rustle like thunder. “Through here! Please, you need to trust me,” I begged. “Everything will look different from the outside.”

I stepped out into the cool, bright day, but he was still rooted to the spot. I tried to reach between the pages and pull him out, but even as my hand brushed his sleeve, he turned back to look at the dead body, and the sheets began to push against me. I managed to free my arm just in time before the whole book toppled over and slammed into the ground with an explosion of dusty air that sent me flying backwards.

I returned to that story several times but no matter how hard I tried I could never pull my friend through. He held onto the knife as a sign of his own culpability, never as a way out. I don’t know if he was framed for the murders of his friend and of his sister-in-law; it became unbearable for me to watch him marching inevitably towards ruin without making any effort to escape.

“You can’t keep running away from difficult situations,” someone once told me. I know that, of course I do. You can’t outrun the consequences, but neither can you deal with them until you step outside of the story that created them in the first place. And to do that you can follow any clue, no matter how small. A shoelace, a knife, a spade… that was what I used to dig my way out of a particularly sticky situation involving a space pirate and a cargo of rare flowers. That’s another story for another time, but when I emerged from the ground, looking a bit like a flower myself, I came face to face with the only other Outsider that I’ve ever met. In return for an Ongandian fire rose, she told me about a commune of Outsiders who lived on the far slope of a mountain. I could see it in the distance, rising in uneven steppes, daunting but at the same time silently challenging.

“There is a wise person who lives at the top of that mountain,” she said. “If you make it up there, they will tell you which book you belong in.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know which book I belonged in, or even that I belonged in just one book, but I thanked her and headed for the mountain. As I drew near, I realised its immensity; one could spend a lifetime scaling it and not reach the top. Around the base was a thick forest of papers with razor-sharp edges. I’m sure many a traveller must have perished before they reached even the first book. I wasn’t certain of my strength or my abilities either, but I took a deep breath and remembered all the times that I had succeeded in escaping the conditions of an uncongenial story, and how it was often the lowliest hero who was the one to complete the quest. As I concentrated, first one sheet and then another folded itself inwards from its contorted shape and flapped up in a great white flock. The way was suddenly clear.

The first book plunged me straight into a medieval adventure. Threatened princes followed fast on the heels of dragons, squabbling barons, tournaments, supernatural knights, hunts and triumphal feasts. I felt that if only I could stop to think for a moment, I would be able to remember what I was in this story to accomplish, but years rolled by in rapid succession before one day, utterly exhausted, I sat by a stream to clean my wounds. I didn’t hear him creep up behind me until he picked up my lance and I felt its cold point against my neck.

“Rise, fair lady,” he said.

I turned to face him. He was dressed in armour, as I had been, but his stern look melted when he saw that I was hurt.

“How did one so young and slight become such an accomplished adventurer?” he asked, lowering the lance. “I have heard many tales of your valour.”

“Practice,” I replied simply. “I’m sure the greatest knight was young and slight once.”

He smiled. “I suppose so. Yet not every young and slight page will become a great knight.”

It was then I felt the change in the air around us. I searched for a rent in the story, but all I could see was the stream trickling nearby and the sheltering trees.

“Do you sense something?” he asked, looking around like me.

“Yes,” I said, “this has never happened before.” I was sure that I had entered another story. While before the world had pushed me to action, now it was too calm to be an adventure. The motion had moved within me; it made my heart race for no reason and filled me with the strangest feeling of heady, uncertain joy.

“I feel it too,” he murmured. “So the old prophecies are true.”

“What prophecies?”

“It is said that the waters of this stream will heal any wound, no matter how grave, but that all who are cured by it will die ere long of a broken heart.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I demanded, clutching at my heart. It ached, suddenly, as if it had been overworked.

“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” he said, kicking a stone into the water. “The king and the queen tried to keep me away and you see what effect their ministrations had. One cannot escape fate.”

“Nonsense,” I said. I was beginning to miss the adventure. What kind of story was this, anyway?

It had been a long time since I had last tried to save anyone, but his dejectedness affected me so keenly that I felt I had to act before this sinister story took complete hold of me. I walked around until he was between me and the stream, then, with as much force as I could muster, I pushed both of us into the water. The current was stronger than I’d imagined. It dragged us along at a fast pace down the blue ribbon, and though I tried to cling tight, his armour was slippery and weighed him down, and it was I and I alone who slid, dripping and coughing along the last length of the marking ribbon and landed in a heap outside the book. I had failed once again.

Except my heart still ached. I wondered whether this was a different sort of story; one that crept up on you when you weren’t seeking it, and wouldn’t let you go once you had finished with it. I realised that I had to reach the top of the mountain and find out from the wise person how to save the other knight. As I ran around the narrow path that led upwards, I came across something I hadn’t noticed before. A great chain linked the books to one another, with massive hoops that pierced each spine. Whether this was to protect them or to keep them tethered, I couldn’t tell, but I saw that it led all the way up the side of the mountain, so I began climbing, placing one foot inside a link and hauling myself up to the next one. On and on I climbed until time and thought escaped me and all that was left was the shadow of the chain and the shadow of my tiny body struggling alongside it.

At last I crested the top. The sinking sun blinded me for a moment, but it didn’t take long to realise that I was alone on top of that mountain. There was no wise person, only a cold and weary urchin with an aching heart. I put my head in my hands and wept. How was I ever going to save my knight now, when I had no idea what to do?

“Don’t cry,” said a gentle voice.

I spun around, looking to find who had spoken, but I couldn’t see anyone in the twilight.

“You know what to do,” she said.

“No, I don’t,” I wailed. “I don’t know what to do, and I’m all alone.”

“No you’re not, and you know what to do,” she insisted.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am the one who answers. Ask me a question.”

I was skeptical, but also a little curious. I dried my tears. “Alright. How can I rescue my knight from a tragedy?” I asked.

“You know how,” she said instantly.

“That’s no answer,” I said, feeling stupid and annoyed that I had fallen for her trick. “Why would I ask if I knew the answer?”

“Because without the question, there is no answer.”

“How can I save him? How can I save him?

“You can’t.”

I sit down on the mossy river-bank and wait. My armour glints in the sun flicking through the leaves, and when he comes, he lays his own down alongside it.

“I have searched through all the kingdoms for you, and I find you just where I first met you,” he says, sitting down beside me.

I smile; it eases my heart to see him again. This is important. This is what I’m here for. I take his hand and pull him towards me, and whisper in his ear: “I need to tell you a story…

Defeat Your Dragons

This is your call to adventure. Pick up!

Did you enjoy the story? I do hope so! I know there’s room for improvement, so please leave me any feedback here.

Cross Over is the first story in a new writing challenge I started for several reasons:

  1. I miss live writing!
  2. I feel like I haven’t shared much fiction in a while. Sorry about that! :(
  3. I want to level up on my story-telling skills.
  4. I want to give some working examples of how I use the One Page Novel Plot Formula when writing and editing.
  5. I want to try and document my writing process in as much detail as I possibly can, with the hope that it will help other writers solve problems they might encounter.
  6. I want to challenge myself, and encourage you to challenge yourself (and your friends too, as you’ll see)!
  7. IT’S FUN!

Writing Challenge