In the morning, Phillip fixed us some more fish. That’s all he seemed to eat, but it was delicious nonetheless. I asked him how we were going to get home, and he said he had heard of a guy in the city who knew more about these things.
So we set off toward the east, toward the city on the horizon.
“It’s about time I go to the city,” he said. “I’ve needed to restock some things for a while now, but I kept putting it off. It’s probably a good thing you kids came along, or I would have lazed myself away.”
“What’s the city like?” I asked, after we had been walking for a while. The sand had given way to long grasses that waved like an ocean of its own in the wind.
“See how gray it looks from afar?”
“It’s no more colorful when we get there. You can tell you’re approaching an Edge when things start to lose color. When the larger part of our line separated from this part, it cut the city right down the middle. Don’t drive too far on Main street or you’ll fall right off.” Phillip’s expression was grim.
Bibi looked up at him, wide-eyed. “Why don’t they just move out here to the ocean? It’s beautiful here.”
“Because most of them are stuck in their ways and they like to believe they haven’t been harmed at all by The Split.”
The rest of the journey was taken in silence. The grasses became scattered trees, which gave way to a thick forest. At the very edge of the forest, a skyscraper jutted up, dwarfing the trees. It was an abrupt start to a strange city. Phillip had been right. Everything there was various shades of gray. It looked like one of those old movies before they were able to film in color. The street would have been deserted if not for the cars—all silver—zipping by at a speed too fast to really see. Phillip had us cross at a crosswalk.
“How can they tell whether to stop or go if the colors are gone?” asked Bibi, staring with wonder at the traffic signal.
“I have a friend up here who says that he can see the different nuances of gray, and their corresponding colors. He says that life doesn’t seem gray for him. Just when I come to visit with my “vibrant hues” or so he calls them.” Phillip sounded scornful. I was about to respond when we got the signal to cross.
When we reached the downtown area, there were more people walking down the street. They were gray, but not in an unnatural way. They just looked like they had had the color sucked right out of them. Their faces were ashen, but not sickly so, and their eyes… their eyes were all turned toward us, drinking in our color.
“Don’t mind them,” Phillip whispered. “They don’t mean to be rude, but color this rich is such a rare sight for them.”
I looked at what I was wearing: a yellow t-shirt and blue jeans. And Bibi was wearing her favorite pink dress. Phillip was dressed in more earthy tones, but there wasn’t a patch of gray on him. I figured it was a self-respecting sort of choice.
Soon we reached a building that looked no different from the rest. Phillip pushed the door open to reveal a large atrium, with a fountain in the middle. The water trickled down the sides of seven bowls before pooling into a holding tank at the bottom in which fish swam. They could have been goldfish. I couldn’t tell. We waited for the elevator, Phillip shifting from foot to foot.
“Are you nervous?” I asked.
“Good eye kid. Yes, I can’t say I’m the calmest man inside this world. The man we’re going to see is supposedly the wisest man on our little line. He was the wisest even when the other part was attached. It’s a little frightening thinking of what he might know.”
“Are you really scared of a smart person?” Bibi asked, earning a little elbow jab from me. “It’s okay that you’re scared. People are scared of lots of different things! But I’ve never heard of someone that was scared of a smart person. They’re very helpful. Phillip, I think you’re a smart person, and you shouldn’t be afraid of yourself.”
Phillip didn’t say anything for a long moment, then he cracked a grin and said, “I s’pose you’re right.” The elevator door chimed, and we climbed in. There was no one else in the elevator, so we went straight up to our floor: 171.
“It’s amazing how many huge buildings there are here,” I said, as the elevator began its ascent.
“Yes. In its day, this city was known for its architectural feats,” Phillip responded. “Now it’s just a sad shadow of the past.”
“I know what you mean. The town around where I live is just like this. Except it’s not gray.”
Phillip turned to look at me with a funny expression. “Y’know, I have never thought of that. Of course there are no gray areas on The Outside, because there’re no Edges! Sounds like heaven.”
“Well it’s true that there are no gray places, but it’s far from heaven.” And then the door opened to reveal yet another drab room.
A secretary looked up from her desk. Surprise registered on her face, followed by a look of subdued bliss, then finally suspicion. “What do you want?”
“We’d like to see the Mister,” answered Phillip.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Of course not. If he’s busy, we’ll come back later.”
The secretary sighed then motioned us forward. “His office is down the left hall, first door to the right.”
It wasn’t very hard to find his office. There was only one hallway, and one door in it. Phillip was about to knock when Bibi tugged at his shirt. “Can I do it?” she asked. He hesitated, then nodded. Bibi knocked her ‘secret knock.’ She knocked twice, then thrice, then once.
A tired voice floated out of the room. “Come in, it’s not like it’s ever locked.”
I pulled open the door. On a wooden chair sat a man. He didn’t look like the all-knowing man that I had somehow pictured him to be, with a beard down to his ankles, levitating in full-lotus position. No, his beard was trimmed neatly, and he held his head like he had a headache. We waited by the door, but he gestured us in, not even looking at us.
“What would you like to know, eh? Tomorrow’s lottery ticket? Sorry, I can’t read the future. Now, go away.”
“Is there a law here that no one can give a polite welcome?” I mumbled to Bibi. She giggled, and the man looked up.
“Oh my. Well aren’t you lot colorful?” He spoke quietly, almost like he was speaking to himself. “And here I thought you were here to look at my eyes.”
“What’s so special about your eyes?” Bibi asked. I elbowed her again, a little harder this time.
“They say they’re the greenest thing in town,” he said. I examined his eyes as best I could from a distance, but they didn’t look any greener than the rest of the town. He seemed to see that I couldn’t tell their hue. “Though I suppose you’ve been blinded with all the color you’ve been around and you can’t see it.” I shook my head. “Ah well, no matter,” he went on, “Who are you?”
“I’m Marina,” I said, “and this is my sister Bibi.”
“Nice to meet you all,” the old man said, putting on a pair of round-rimmed glasses. “You may call me Mister. Now, why are you here?”
“Well you see-” Phillip started.
“We wanna go home!” Bibi interrupted.
“I’m sure that can be arranged. Where do you live? Gabelstown? The Six Bricks?”
“No. But I keep hearing those towns. Phillip, what are those places?”
“There are about four other towns on this fragment of the world. They aren’t gray like The City, so I assumed since you weren’t gray, you had to be from one of those towns. I’m sure Mister here has done the same. Mister, they’re from The Outside.”
Mister’s eyebrows shot up, and he moved his glasses from the end of his nose to the top of his head. “Really? I didn’t know there were any connections… I say. This is marvelous!”
My heart fell. He didn’t know? He was supposed to know everything about this. I thought back to home. Mom was probably hysterical with worry.
“Tell me, by what means you travel here?” Mister leaned back in his chair, ready for a story.
So I explained about the scents, the monolithic building and the door.
Mister rubbed his chin when I finished. “So it disappeared. And we don’t know where to look for it, or if it will ever come back, or if it needs to be opened from your side to appear at all…”
“No, we don’t know that,” I said miserably.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you much then,” Mister said with an air of finality. “Although I can offer you an apartment in The City…”
I had become so used to panic and dread that they were now a part of my heart beat. “Can’t we at least try to find another way back? Maybe the door isn’t the only way.”
“My dear, if there was another way, we would have found it already.” He shook his head as if I was somewhat daft.
I didn’t see what was so wise about this guy. He didn’t seem that great to me. Phillip appeared to feel the same way. “Thank you,” he said tersely. “We should go now though.” He herded Bibi and me out through the singular door in the only hallway on floor 171.
When we had left Mister’s building, Phillip turned to us. “There’s a park across the street. You can wait there while I run my errands.”
Bibi pouted. “But we want to come with you! Right Marina?”
I hesitated, thinking it through. “Well, we don’t really know our way back to the beach. We wouldn’t want to get lost. So if something happened to you-”
“If something happened to me, you’d never get back anyway. My errands are going to be very boring anyway. And it’s a parade day today, if I remember correctly. There should be some floats passing this way. I’ll be quick, I promise.”
“Yeah, that sounds okay. Bibi, we should stay here so we can stay out of Phillip’s way. He’s been so nice to us, let’s let him get his jobs done.” I breathed a sigh of relief when Bibi nodded.
“I want to see the floats,” she said.
Phillip cracked a smile. “Good. I’ll be right back.” Then he hurried away, down Main Street.
Bibi and I sat in the park, awaiting the parade. There’s something pitiful about flowers that are all gray. I tried not to look at them.
“Marina?” Bibi asked carefully.
“Floats have ice cream, right?”
I laughed. “Those are root beer floats. These will be parade floats. They’ll have interesting designs, and flowers, and happy people waving.”
“Oh.” She looked deflated. “I wanted some ice cream.”
I smiled sadly, then I noticed some slow-moving vehicles making their way down Main. They were the parade floats. “Look!” I said to Bibi to get her mind off of the ice cream. “That float is made of flowers.”
Bibi sniffed like she was still upset. Then she made a puzzled face and sniffed again, like she had caught whiff of some freshly-baked cookies. “Flowers,” she murmured. “They smell like the flowers from the field I visited through the door last time.”
I looked at her in wonder. “Are you sure? If the door was there with the flowers before, maybe it’ll be there again!”
“Let’s get on the flower car!” she exclaimed.
“Yes,” I agreed. “But first let’s write a note to Phillip in case he comes back soon.” I fished a scrap of paper and a pencil out of my jeans’ pocket. I wrote: Went to take a closer look at the floats. –Marina
I pierced the scrap of paper on a branch of a nearby tree and prayed that Phillip would find it should he come looking. Then Bibi and I headed off toward the float.
Next to the flower float walked a girl that I’m sure would have been beautiful had her color all been there. She smiled as we walked up and asked, “Come to add a little color to our parade? I wouldn’t say no.”
I nodded, thinking this was the perfect excuse to get closer to the float. We walked with the parade, acting our part, as it wove its way down Main Street.
We had been walking for quite some time when Bibi shouted, “Maybe the door’s at the top of the float!” She scampered up.
“Wait Bibi! You’re not supposed to go up there!” I chased after her.
“What are you-” the girl started, turning back to watch us. “Get down! That’s dangerous!” she yelled.
“It’s fine,” I called back, “I’m just gabbing my sister!”
“You don’t understand! I can’t stop the float!” the girl protested, but I stopped listening.
The float was shaped like a layer cake, and Bibi was on the highest “layer,” pretending to be a flower princess. I climbed up after her. When I reached the top, I looked out in front of our float and saw… nothing.
The girl’s yells came clear as a bell now. “You’re going to fall off the Edge!”
The last thing my eyes could focus on was Phillip’s face. He wore an expression of the uttermost horror, and in his hand he clutched a scrap of paper…
Parade floats fell past us. It must have been a tradition to send parade floats plummeting into the void. Or maybe it was the stubbornness of the people, like Phillip had said, maintaining their traditions even after The Split. Maybe before, they had sent the floats all the way down Main and to the other side of the city. The other side that had been lost.
Whatever the reason, the floats were now sent off, spiraling into the unknown. As we fell, I grabbed for Bibi’s small hands. I caught her and held her close.
Once the floats had disappeared, falling so fast and far that I couldn’t see them anymore, it was almost like we weren’t falling at all, but hanging suspended. Although we could breathe, no air rushed around us. The only thing we could see was a flat gray expanse. I don’t know how long we fell. I would rather not think about that experience. Bibi was much too frightened to cry.
Suddenly a dot poked into our vision. It grew and grew, and suddenly it was taking up the whole sky. Or ground, depending on your perspective. It was gray around the edges, like everything else, but the middle was a lush green. We plummeted straight for the middle.
As we fell closer, I could see a sheen of red among the green. Then things were getting too big too quickly.
I barely had time to notice three things before we landed.
We hit a stone step like we had no more than tripped. We tumbled down onto the sidewalk, and Bibi finally found her lungs to cry. The street was scented with an odd mix of springtime flowers and fall leaves. I looked behind us, and the door was firmly closed. I had a feeling that no amount of jiggling the doorknob would convince it to open again.
I gathered Bibi up in my arms and began the walk home.
I cracked open the front door to see Mom sitting at the kitchen table. She was staring at the wall, but seemed to be looking beyond it. She looked hollow and lost. Another stab of guilt ripped its way through me. What had it been like, waiting for us? She must have had no idea where we were. Bibi pushed the door open a little bit more so she could see inside too. The door creaked, which broke Mom’s trance. She looked over at us. At first her face registered only incomprehension, but then the realization dawned that we were home, and she smiled, tears in her eyes. Bibi rushed into the room and clung to Mom’s leg before she could even gather the strength to stand up. I followed close behind and gave her a long hug.
We remained there, hugging as a family until Mom finally managed to say something. “You were gone for days and I didn’t know where you were. I was so worried. And I thought I had lost you too…” Her voice cut off there. “Where have you even been?” she cried.
“It’s a long story…”
Mom seemed to regain her motherly composure. “We have no time for long stories! Look at the time. You have to get up for school tomorrow no matter where you’ve been. You can tell me your story tomorrow, but right now you two are getting some sleep!”
That night, in the moments before I fell asleep, I wondered to myself about Mom’s blank look. Then something Phillip had said echoed in my head: Because most of them are stuck in their ways and they like to believe they haven’t been harmed at all by The Split.
That summer our parents had divorced. Mom had pretended like life was better because of it, but I could see stress had been pulling her down the last couple months, wearing her ragged. Our disappearance must have been the frosting on the whole dreadful cake
But even this worrying thought couldn’t shake the exhaustion that had collected under my eyes, and I soon fell deep asleep, the scents of drying laundry and the ocean tickling my dreams.