Part Two: Alternate Reality or Reality TV?
Molding a proper hero…this is a process that takes some time.
This particular story’s new protagonist has potential. He couldn’t have walked through the door without it. But there’s an arrogance inside of him that’s hard to reconcile with the archetype needed to reach Happily Ever After, a hardness that just doesn’t mesh with the narrative’s goal. It needs to soften him. It needs to make him feel…suggestible. The new reality must become the only reality, and that transition has driven more than a few potential heroes and heroines mad. The story needs to take him back to a time when he feels more resigned to his fate, when the way forward is the way that was made for him, not the way he forged by himself. A place with no questions, only duties. Possibly it can even blend that with his own preconceptions of what the narrative should be. That sort of symbiosis is always handy when you’re breaking in your hero.
Of course, it just figures that his preconceptions should revolve around the cartoon version of the fairy tale. So many modern protagonists’ do these days.
For the first time in months, Asher dreams of his little sister.
Cassie had a predictable cycle. Every day of the week after school was a different Disney film. She would meet Asher outside; he had to walk to pick her up from the middle school and it took about a half an hour, but she’d just sit and play with her dolls and wait outside if the weather was good. If it was bad she might be anywhere, but usually the library or the gym. They’d walk home together, and she would talk non-stop about her day, what she learned in school and how it all related to her secret identity as a fairy princess. It was stupid, but Asher forgave her. Cassie was only six.
They’d get home and Cassie would dump her backpack by the front door and run into the living room. There were two televisions in the house, one in the living room and one in the rec room. The rec room TV was the one hooked up to the video game system, but usually Howard and Kyle and however many of their friends were with them that day laid claim to that one, and Asher and Cassie would just get kicked off of it if the big kids wanted it when they got home. Sometimes they’d offer to let Asher play with them, but then Cassie would cry. She hated being left alone.
So they took the TV in the living room. It was smaller but it had all the VHS tapes next to it, and Cassie would rummage through the oversize cases until she found the one she was looking for. Monday was The Little Mermaid, Tuesday was Sleeping Beauty, Wednesday was Aladdin, Thursday was Cinderella and Friday was Beauty and the Beast. Every day was a new princess, and each new princess had her own ritual. Mondays they had to bring the fishbowl into the room. Asher would put it down on the coffee table and Cassie would look from their two goldfish to the screen and back again, like she was trying to make it all work together in her head.
For Cinderella, Cassie had to change into a dress she’d made by cutting holes for her head and arms in one of her old pink pillowcases, and she would clutch her stuffed hamster in her hands, which was the closest stuffed animal analog to a mouse that she had. Asher would have to pause the movie when the fairy godmother showed up so Cassie could change into her church dress, which was made of blue velvet and had a white sash around the middle. She did the same thing every week, until Asher knew the movies front to back and could tune them out while he did his homework.
“I want to go to a ball.”
“They don’t have those anymore,” Asher told her.
“They do too! Princes have balls. I bet they have them all the time. How else do they meet princesses?”
“There aren’t any princesses here. We live in Oakland.”
“I bet there are,” she told him, “and you just don’t know ‘cause you don’t see them around. Because they’re in disguise.”
“Oh yeah?” Asher looked over at his little sister, five years younger than him and so much more innocent. Their brothers left her alone, mostly, and so did their dad, even when he was drinking. Their mom looked out for Cassie when she was home from work, and Asher looked out for her the rest of the time, because Cassie was special.
“Yeah. And I’m gonna be one.”
The words “that’s stupid” quivered at the tip of his tongue, a sign of his rapidly developing jerkish streak, but instead Asher said, “Okay.” And Cassie smiled and hugged him, and he forgot for a second about how shitty their house was and how lousy dinner was going to be and what assholes his older brothers were, because Cassie was happy.
Everything is cold.
Asher’s hips ache from lying on his side on the stone floor. He blinks muzzily, staring into a pile of gray and black, and tries to push back from it, but his hand just sinks into the stuff. It comes away sooty. Ashes…the house. Right.
Well, there’s daylight coming in now, which means Ty is probably at school which means Asher can go home and clean up without having to deal with the third degree. He sits up and looks around. He freezes in place, dumbfounded, and looks again.
The room has changed. Instead of an empty shell there are tables in here, and shelves, and pots and pans and baskets of food. There’s an oven beside the fireplace, a really old-fashioned one, the kind you see in stupidly upscale pizza restaurants. There are old vegetable peelings here and there, and an ancient broom in the corner.
There’s also a mouse on the floor by one of the table legs. It’s staring at Asher. Apart from some twitchy whiskers, it isn’t moving.
“Dude,” Asher mutters, “not sanitary.” He flicks a cinder towards it. It startles and runs under one of the nearby shelves. Asher watches it go, then shakes his head. “Okay, time to wake up.” He closes his eyes, then opens them again. Everything is the same. He shuts his eyes again, squeezes them shut hard this time, then looks again. Tiny white stars dance at the edge of his vision, but apart from that the room looks the same.
“What the hell?” He pinches his leg, a pinch with a twist at the end that leaves him wincing from the burn, but nothing changes. He throws off the ratty blanket and forces himself to stand. The floor is so cold under hit feet…wait, feet? He was only missing one shoe. Asher looks down and sees that his left foot is wearing not a sneaker, but some kind of strange, thin slipper. It looks like it’s made of leather, and is tied loosely together on top. His other foot is still bare, and the pressure of the floor against his cuts stings like fire. His clothes have changed. What were jeans is now a pair of scratchy woolen pants held up with a string, and his shirt has become some kind of…what, tunic? Is that what these things are called? Whatever it is, it’s shapeless and poorly made, and hangs off his shoulders like a sack.
Panic rises. Asher grabs the edge of the nearest table, feels the pain as his fingers press into the rough hardness of it, and he pushes the fear down. Fear just gets you in trouble. Okay. So this seems really, really real. Maybe it is, maybe some sick fuck drugged him last night and brought all this stuff in. Maybe the owner of the house gets off on watching people struggle with reality. Well, fuck you very much, but Asher knows exactly who he is and where he should be, and this shit can all go to hell. He peers into the corners of the room, looking for cameras. He can’t see any, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. He stabs his middle fingers into the air, then stalks off towards the exit. He’s through with this.
The floor is smooth under his feet now, no longer gritty. Someone took the time to sweep the hall. Distantly Asher hears voices, the murmurs of other people starting to move around, but he’s not interested in asking questions or demanding answers. He just needs to get out of here. He goes to the big front door, throws it open—
And steps out into a land that defies every expectation of his brain. This is wrong. He should be seeing fencing, metal fencing, and beyond it pavement and cars and houses. People should be walking dogs, people should be going to work. It shouldn’t be…this. A long gravel avenue stretches away from the door, bracketed on either side by evenly-spaced oak trees and overgrown lawns. Asher takes a step forward, and hisses slightly when the gravel digs into his foot. It definitely feels real. The air is very fresh, cool and crisp on his face. The sky is clear like you never get in San Francisco at this time of year.
“Fuck,” Asher mutters. Because it’s one thing to assume he’s been drugged, it’s another to figure he’s also been kidnapped and transported to some country chalet that’s surrounded by springtime instead of fall.
There has to be some other explanation for this. Some kind of hallucination, a really vivid one, or maybe he’s in some kind of virtual reality simulator. Because, yeah, why not? It makes more sense than…than whatever this is. Time travel or some shit. SCA freaks gone totally overboard. Whatever.
So the thing to do is figure out how to get out of this. Part of Asher is still hoping this is all just a dream, but even when his dreams have been at their worst he’s never felt them like this, so real that he can feel every square inch of skin that itches beneath the coarse clothes, so real that he can make out the smeared drops of his own blood on the stone stairs.
“Boy!” a voice yells, loudly. “Boy!” Heavy footsteps clomp towards him, and a moment later Asher is staring at a huge, round figure of a…a woman? Is it a woman? Her body fills the doorway, and she’s got the curves to support the female hypothesis, but this person looks strange. Exaggerated. Like someone took a picture of a woman and then put it into one of those weird apps, the ones where you can morph the person’s face. Her scowl is so blatant it could be carved, her ears protrude to the side, and her hair is a tight, slicked-back gray bun. Her hands are on her hips, fingers fat like bratwurst, and her stance is hips-forward aggressive. She looks like a cartoon character overlaid with human skin, real and yet not-real.
Her hand on his wrist as she stalks down the steps and grabs him is definitely real, though. It’s so real that he knows it’ll leave bruises.
She shakes his arm. “You let the fire go out, stupid boy. Now the ladies’ bread will be late for breakfast. Idiot!”
Asher pulls back, trying to jerk his hand from her grip. He should be able to do this, he’s done it with guys twice his size, but she keeps a hold of him like it’s nothing at all. “Fucking let go of me already!”
She slaps him with her free hand. It feels like he’s been hit with a brick, thankfully on the side of his face that isn’t already swollen, but still. Jesus. He reels to the side, kept on his feet only by her iron grip. “Keep a respectful tongue in your head, boy,” the woman sneers. “You lost your privileges when your father died. I thought you’d remember that, by now. Come.” She pulls him back into the house and down the main hall. “You have chores to do.”
They end up in the kitchen, where she passes Asher a bucket of scraps that’s a lot heavier than it looks and a pair of poorly-made sandals. “These will have to do for you, Mistress won’t buy you another pair of good shoes if you’re just going to be careless with them. Now go feed the pigs.”
There are other people moving around in the kitchen, dressed not dissimilar to him, but they studiously avoid making eye contact. Apparently Asher is to be ignored. They all have that same look, too, like their skin doesn’t really fit, like their colors are too bright to be human. Asher looks down at his own hands numbly, but they look the same as they always have. Real. Normal.
The woman—Asher assumes she’s the cook—aims a kick at him, which he dodges out of habit. “Get on with you! More’s to be done when you get back.”
Asher slips off the single leather shoe and gets into the wooden sandals, which are exactly as comfortable as he thought they’d be, picks up the bucket and follows another servant into the hall. He takes a right, because he’s not gone that way before, and a second later he hits a door which opens onto a wide expanse of muddy ground. There are chickens—real live chickens—running around, but they look even more bizarre than the people do. None of their feathers are delineated; it’s like watching puffy bits of cloud dart about, clucking and pecking at the ground. Asher looks at them and shudders slightly. Pigs. He should be feeding the pigs.
It isn’t hard to find the pigpen, the smell is as realistic as the breeze in the air. The pigs might look slightly cuboid, all the same nauseating color of Pepto Bismol pink, but they’re grunting like real pigs, and they’re loud as hell. Hungry, probably. Asher lifts the bucket of scraps and tosses it into the enclosure, and the pigs are on it immediately.
Asher needs to think. He just has to—to think for a second. He shuts his eyes and runs through what he knows. This just seems too real, even with the weird people and animals. Everything smells right, it feels authentic. But how could it possibly be?
“If you eliminate the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth.”
Asher laughed and threw a handful of popcorn at Ty. “Thanks, trekkie boy, I’ll keep that in mind.”
Ty rolled his eyes and gestured towards the TV, where a fight was just breaking out in a gambling hall. “You know, Sherlock Holmes said it first.”
“Either way you’re a geek.”
“Whatever.” Ty picked up a piece of the scattered popcorn and ate it, then swiftly grabbed one of the couch cushions and smacked Asher in the face with it. Popcorn scattered everywhere as the bowl went flying. They got into an epic pillow beatdown and had to start the movie over, but neither of them cared.
“Okay, fine.” Fine. So it is real. Ish. Real-ish. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a way out of this. Asher just has to find it. He lifts a tentative hand to his throbbing cheek. Preferably a way out that doesn’t involve him getting hit anymore, because shit that hurt. For a second it had made him want to say, “Sorry, sir,” an impulse he thought died when he left home. No, direct opposition isn’t an option, and neither is curling into a little ball and waiting for it all to go away.
The only thing to do right now is let it play out and see what happens. Unsatisfying, but it’s true. Asher hoists the empty bucket over his shoulder and makes his way back into the fray.