First Place Winner: Journey by Catherine Ma
The kid is waiting on the side of the road when I pick them up. They’ve got their thumb stuck out, a snapback cap pulled low over their eyes. I pat the velvet seat beside me; the kid gets in. Hefting my whip, I crack the leather against nothing at all.
Wheels creak, then turn. We’re off.
“Where are we headed?” they ask, tapping their fingers against the metal carriage side, a tappity-tap that slows and speeds as we move.
“Next town,” I say.
“And if I don’t like it?”
“Then we’ll head to the one after that.”
The kid nods, satisfied. They spend a moment with their head leaned back, fingertips going tappity-tap and eyelids drooping, before they blink and sit up, craning their head to look directly before us. “Where are the horses?”
They frown. “Gone where?”
Poor kid. I’ve met their type before: throat full of questions, head like a mirror maze. There are too many of them wandering out of town.
“Gone wherever horses go,” I tell the kid, and that’s that.
The first town we visit is a jungle of glass. The buildings curve like vines, climbing through empty air towards the sun. The wheels of my carriage leave ugly, brown stripes down the bleached streets. There are a few pedestrians in skintight clothes strolling inches above the sidewalk, arms swinging like pendulums at their sides. The kid shakes their head at me, so I strike nothing and let it pull us onwards.
The second town is dark as nighttime, a few skinny metal lamps bathing the cobbled streets in sodium orange. I pull up at a stout, brick-walled building, the rusted sign dangling in front rendered illegible by lack of light.
“This might be it,” the kid says, squinting at the shadowed storefronts nearby.
I knock twice before entering. It’s past dinner time, but the inn is aglow with crackling flames from a hearth carved into its wall. The owner, a plump man in a tunic with rolled-up sleeves, stirs a cauldron over the fire.
“We need a room,” I tell him.
He doesn’t look up from the roiling substance below him. “You need one, you’ll have one,” he says, gesturing towards rickety stairs. There’s a dead-end at the top. Another bust.
The third town is a riot of colour tucked in the maw of a red-rock canyon. There are dwellings in jewel-bright hues like blown-up construction paper houses from an elementary classroom. Emerging from thick clouds of wind-whipped sand are villagers in crimson and cobalt and sunflower-petal cloaks. The kid laughs, delighted.
We’re greeted by what starts as an emerald blur and turns into a stick-thin woman with skin like tanned leather and eyes like obsidian glass. I swallow down my heart, which seems stuck in my throat.
The kid shoots me a pleading look. I can almost hear them begging me to make a good impression. I make no promises. I don’t like anyone who gives me false hope.
“It’s been a while since we’ve received outsiders,” she says. “Come. There’s a wyrm to kill.”
The wyrm is scaled and legless, a giant serpent that treats canyon rock like sand, breaking through a cliff face to knock over indigo walls and saffron roofs. The emerald-cloaked woman retrieves a lemon-yellow rifle and shoots a fuschia bullet through the wyrm’s thrashing head. It hits the ground with a dull thump. Sticky, indigo blood pools from the hole in its skull.
“Help prepare the meat and you may stay for the meal,” the emerald woman offers.
The kid smiles bright and wide. “Can I borrow a knife?”
We feast on skewered meat tasting of venison and dollar-store licorice. The kid watches our hosts clink porcelain teacups full of strong-smelling liquor, then steals a sip from my cup before spitting it back up. They grin despite their watering eyes.
It’s past sunset when we, along with the emerald woman, return to the carriage. “This place is ridiculously awesome,” the kid gushes. “Like Middle-earth got stranded in the Sahara while high on rainbow Sharpies.”
“I’m glad you like it,” she says. “I profess some disappointment that you will not stay.”
The kid blinks. “Stay? Stay here?”
“From your astonishment, I assume that was not a prospect you considered,” the emerald woman says drily.
“No,” admits the kid. “I need to go home.”
“Home can change,” she says.
The kid shakes their head. “Mine hasn’t.”
“So be it,” says the emerald woman. “I wish you the best on your journey.”
The kid hops into the carriage just as the woman pulls me aside. “Forgive me if I speak out of turn, but I fear you’ve wandered astray.”
I scowl, try to look road-toughened. “I haven’t.”
The emerald woman gives me a look with those hard, black eyes. “You'll find no peace on these roads, yet you persist in looking.”
“I’ll find peace when I find her,” I say.
There’s frustration in the set of her jaw as she says, “Therein lies your problem.”
The fourth, fifth, and sixth towns are no better. The seventh is a bustling oceanside resort with cream-pale sandbars stretched as far as I can see. Vacationers splash in the crystalline water and lounge in sunlight made faint and rosy by pink parasols.
It’s a paradoxical place—meant for excitement, children shrieking in the waves; meant for relaxation, work-weary forty-somethings sipping pina coladas and reading paperbacks. I’d envy its inhabitants if not for the sudden memory of her voice: “Darling, there’s a reason they’re called resorts—beach resort, last resort, Mommy-and-Daddy-want-to-save-their-marriage resort—”
“I went somewhere like this when I was younger,” the kid says. “I got in trouble ‘cause I wouldn’t wear my swimsuit.”
They shrug. “Can’t remember. Wasn’t comfortable, I guess. I wanted swim trunks like my brother.”
We stand there for a while. I can tell that this place is making the kid— not happy, per se. Wistful, maybe. They lean down to scoop a palmful of white sand, spreading their fingers to let the fine grains slip to the ground in silken streams.
“The problem,” they say, watching the sand fall, “is that I’ve forgotten too much. I’d have an easier time if I hadn’t forgotten almost everything.”
“You’ve forgotten your home?” I ask.
“I know it sounds stupid, but it’s true,” the kid insists. “I can’t remember the name of my street, but I know there’s always a sprinkler going ch-ch-ch in the summer. I can’t describe my school, but I know that, two blocks away, there’s a red swing set. I used to wonder if it’d taste like cherry sours.”
The kid sighs. “No idea.”
It’s like a dam has broken loose. After that, the kid seems intent on recounting every half-forgotten detail of home, wherever that is. They say, “There was this August afternoon when rain came down in sheets and the air was practically liquid.” They say, “My brother got caught playing with my Barbies once. I never liked them, but he did. He cried so hard when my dad threw them out.” They say, “There was a bird that nested on our porch one spring. It was a sparrow—a robin—no, it was… It had a pink throat…”
When we arrive in the twelfth town, the kid bolts upright, nearly falling out of the carriage. “I think this is it,” they say.
Before us is a straight asphalt road, smooth and dark as if newly-paved. On either side are blocky houses, differentiated only by the colour of their brick faces, ranging from grey to brown to grey-brown-red. Before each residence is a well-kempt lawn; on each lawn is a watering device that sits silent and dead.
“Which one should I stop at?” I ask.
“I’ll know when I see it,” they answer.
They’re wrong. A minor eon passes as we move down the rows of houses, each prim and shuttered, windows blocked by curtains and front doors shut tight. There’s nobody outside to ask for directions. Above us, the sky's the bright and cloudless blue of a summer afternoon, but the air is stale and cold. The kid shivers.
“The houses are looping,” I note.
“Just keep going.”
I’m experienced enough to know that won’t work. Instead, I hop out the wagon, ignoring the kid’s bewildered protests, and cut across a verdant lawn towards an unlit porch. The front door is a tasteful green-grey. I knock.
“The doorbell works better,” says the kid, peering over my shoulder. I don’t comment on how they’re hiding behind my back.
Nobody answers when I ring the doorbell. I twist the doorknob, which freezes up. Locked. It’s the same for the next house, and the house after that. The kid gives up on timidity and dashes across the road. We move in tandem from house to house, knocking, ringing, twisting.
I give up when the kid does. An indeterminate span of time—hours, days—passes before they turn around, shoulders slumped with defeat. “I don’t understand,” they say. “This is the place. I know it.”
“You know, but it doesn’t,” I say.
They’re silent as I approach them. It’s only after we start walking back the way we came that they speak.
Thinly, the kid says, “I think my parents were mad at me.”
“They told you to leave?”
“I don’t remember,” they snap. Then, softer: “They couldn’t have, could they?”
“I can’t answer that.”
The kid sighs. “Why are you doing this?” they ask. “What are you looking for?”
“Home,” I say.
“Your home—what’s it like?”
“She,” I correct, then admit, “I don’t remember.”
“You gotta remember something.”
I’m tempted to say no and leave it at that. The kid looks interested, though, lips pursed and eyes narrowed.
“I call her my lady in green,” I say. “I remember—she wore it sometime important.” I’d say it was our wedding, but no—she’d chosen a suit to match my dress, which had been mourning dove grey. Maybe our first meeting, which I can’t recall. Maybe our last, which I remember a hell of a lot better.
“How long have you been looking for her?” the kid asks.
“Long,” I say.
“How much longer will you look?”
“Until I find her.”
“And if you don’t?”
“I’ll keep looking.”
The kid bites their lip contemplatively. “What if she doesn’t want to be found?”
“Then I won’t find her.”
“You don’t mind wasting your life looking for someone who doesn’t want you.” For once, it’s not a question. I nod anyway.
The carriage, when we get to it, gleams beautifully under the cold sunlight, black paint unscratched despite an eternity on the road. I swing into the driver’s side, then help the kid up.
“Drop me off at the next town,” they say.
The thirteenth town is a range of grassy hills populated by spotted quadrupeds that squawk like chickens and squat, feathery creatures that low, deep and sorrowful, like cows. Built into the hillsides are mossy, stone doors adorned with strips of cloth in faded purple-reds.
“Hobbits or mole people,” the kid concludes. “Cool.”
They disembark at a door flanked by overflowing pots of geraniums. “You’re sure?” I check. “After I leave, I won’t come back.”
“I’m sure,” they say. “Thanks for the ride.” Then, with the grace of a Victorian gentleman, they tip their snapback at me.
I return to the carriage, keeping an eye on the kid as they work up the courage to knock. Their knuckles make contact with stone just as I clamber into my seat. By the time I look back, the kid is gone.
I turn to the crooked, overgrown path before me. In the distance, shimmering like a mirage, is a figure sitting on the weedy curb, arm outstretched, thumb sticking up.
So life goes on: I crack my whip at nothing and let it pull me onwards.