Sunday, January 9, 2011

Chapter 10 (begun)

In the Swamp

When he woke up, Johnny felt he ought to feel disoriented, but he didn’t.  In fact, it was practically disorienting how utterly oriented he felt, despite the fact that he was waking up in what might be the strangest place he’d ever woken.

Forget the fact that he’d arrived by means of an impossible black door in the side of a sewer pipe he’d phased into while fleeing from a mythological creature and a lycanthrope.  He was, at present, in the middle of a swamp.  There was just no other way to describe it.  The ground just here wasn’t too mushy, but his boots bore the muddy battle scars of what they’d had to trudge through to get here.  Larissa, in her much thinner black and white sneakers, had been reduced to riding on his back a couple of times.  Now they were surrounded by grass, and bushes, and reeds and bulrushes and cattails and what Larissa identified as papyrus.  The surface of all the water they’d seen so far was green with duckweed and water lillies.  There were lots of ferns.  And moss ... everywhere moss.  There were no trees nearby, but he could see some in the distance, and he knew they were willows and cypresses and mangroves.  The only animals they’d seen so far were dragonflies—huge blue and green dragonflies that were beautiful but also frightening in the way they divebombed you—and mosquitoes.  The mosquitoes were ferocious.  Johnny had thought he was used to mosquitoes by this point—after all, much of the greater metropolitan area where he’d spent his entire life had originally been wetlands of some sort or other—but these were a whole different sort.  In fact, the bugs were the only reason they’d built the fire, whose guttering remains were still glowing closeby; it certainly hadn’t been for the heat.  Heat they had plenty of, and humidity as well.

So he was waking up in a swamp that somehow existed underneath the nation’s capital, attached to its sewer system, and it was hot as July there despite it being September, and it was populated with plants that did not, as far as he knew, geographically co-exist in what he still persisted in thinking of as the real world.  But none of this was the strangest part.  The strangest part was the light.  It was exactly the quality of fading daylight, when the sun is perhaps halfway down below the horizon.  Perhaps there was a mildly greenish cast to it, but that could have just been from the overwhelming quantity of green vegetation.  No, the problem with the light wasn’t its quantity or its character.  The problem was that it had been this light when they had arrived, it had been this light when they had tired of walking and built their fire, it had been this light when they had drifted off to sleep, and it was still this light now that Johnny was awake again.  And he could tell himself all he liked that the sun must just be out of sight behind those trees off in the distance, but somehow he knew the truth: there was no sun.  Not here.  Light, yes, but no sun.

So all in all Johnny should have been more than disoriented.  He should have been downright freaked out.  But he wasn’t.  He was, in fact, smiling.  His pants were dry, for the most part, although at this point all his clothes were sticky with sweat.  He knew there was food to be had—quite good food at that—and fire to be made if it was necessary.  And he knew beyond doubt, although he couldn’t say how, that if anyone else were to lay their hand on that door, it wouldn’t open.  And that’s assuming that anyone else could even see the door, which Johnny wasn’t sure they could.  So, lost in an impossible swamp they might be, but at least they were safe from whatever had been chasing them.

And, wasn’t this some sort of adventure?  Wasn’t this, if nothing else, something ... different?

There was a weird bird-like cry, and a large bat shape soared overhead.

Johnny was still staring at the fading shadowy form when he heard Larissa speak.  “Bats can’t soar.”  He looked back down at her; she was now sitting up, looking in the same direction as he.

“Looked like a bat,” he said, still smiling for no discernable reason.

“Probably a frigatebird.  Their silhouettes can look very batlike.”

It occurred to Johnny that he couldn’t remember Larissa ever using the word “probably.”

“So!” he said cheerfully.  “What do you think we should do now?”

Larissa stared at him.

“Yeah, good point: this was my idea, wasn’t it?”  He turned around and looked.  The insects were getting braver as the fire sputtered out.  The mosquitoes, of course, had never entirely given up, but they were starting to come back in force, and a yellow and red dragonfly longer than his hand buzzed his head.  “Interesting colors on the dragonflies here, eh?”  He waited for her to comment that the common Indonesian dragonfly or somesuch had coloring like that, but she said nothing.  “And these damned mosquitoes ...”  He punctuated this by slapping one on his forearm.  To his surprise (and mild disquiet), the mosquito picked itself up and shook out its crushed wings.  It was colored almost exactly like a tiger, with the orange and black motif extending down its arched legs.  As Johnny stared, it took off and made a beeline for the trees.

He half-chuckled, half-gulped.  “Well, that one won’t be bothering us again, eh?”

Larissa said nothing.

“Um ... yeah.  So, hey, let’s just walk and see where we get to, eh?”

Larissa looked around for a moment.  “Which way?” she asked.

Johnny considered.  The door was long out of sight, of course, but he knew he could find it again if they needed to.  With no sun and no stars, there was no hope of figuring out which direction was north.  If “north” was even a concept that applied here.  There were the distant trees on one side, and in the other directions just bushes and more plants, and some intermittent mist.  He tried feeling with his strange new sense, but, other than the rough direction where the door lay, it told him nothing.  He listened: there were chirpings and chitterings, but almost all were far away, perhaps past the treeline.  Most sounded like birds, or maybe rodents.  He sniffed: generally it was loamy and damp and reminiscent of a compost, but in a pleasant way.  There was something else though ... was it water?  He thought it might be.  Toward the place where the treeline curved around to get in front of them and then just stopped.

“That way,” he said, pointing.  He turned back around.  “You want to eat first?”

She shook her head.

“Nah, me neither.  Let’s just snack on the way.”  He was still grinning slightly.


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