Trail Mix: AmoebaPiers Anthony
Trail Mix, Volume One
Tod Timmins paused, blinking. Of course he hadn’t just seen an odd trail leading away from the warehouse. This was the city; there were streets here, not trails. He marched on into the warehouse, ready for his day of manual labor.
But it bothered him. His job was dull, good for the body, but a waste of mind. He would like something more intellectually challenging, but in this day a man was lucky to have a job, any job, that paid his way. He simply could not afford to be choosy. Maybe if he had a loyal wife at home, or a lovely rich girlfriend, he would be more satisfied. But as it was, his job was virtually the whole of his life, and it wasn’t enough.
Well, he did have his private vice. When alone he would take out his little polished wooden ocarina and tootle on it. It was a kind of closed recorder with eight finger holes on top and two thumb holes on the bottom, and played mellow notes. Over the years he had become reasonably skilled with it, though he was no musician, and could play any melody he heard by ear. This gave him pleasure, easing his boredom and tension. But neither was this enough, in itself; it merely diverted him from the deadly overall dullness of his existence. He wished there could be just one person he could play for who would truly appreciate it. But he had never dared even inquire, fearing ridicule. A man who could heave heavy crates around, tootling on what looked like a toy whistle?
So when he saw the path again, this time leading from the corner of the parking lot, Tod shrugged and followed it. What the hell; maybe it simply led to the next warehouse, satisfying his errant curiosity.
It did not. It wound through the city, along a street without actually intersecting it; Tod saw cars crossing it without quite being there. It was as if this were an overhead bypass, though it was at ground level. He began to feel dizzy trying to get the perspective right, and decided to leave that for another time. He focused on the trail, and the cars seemed to fade out, replaced by vegetation. This was one unusual experience.
Suddenly he was in a forest. He stopped, looking back. Had he been walking through a park and not noticing? Maybe he had been thinking instead of observing, but this was strange. He had never before been this absent-minded.
He walked back the way he had come. The forest faded and the street appeared, along with the local vegetation. There was no transition; it just happened, like a scene shift in a movie. How could this be?
Tod stepped back and forth several times, verifying it. Forward one step put him in the forest; backward returned him to the city. The trail continued forward, but ended backward, where he had taken it. Weird!
Curious, he experimented. He found the exact spot the change occurred, and moved his head with clock-like slowness, watching. Now he saw that the change was gradual, the trail proceeding through the city, out to the country, and into the forest. All at accelerated speed, so that when he walked normally it was as if he were racing at a hundred miles an hour or faster, condensing the shift. The trail itself did not race, merely the cityscape beyond it, in an enhanced perspective, as if it were a projected background picture being rapidly scanned. Fascinating!
So this was definitely not a natural path. It was something supernatural, appearing where it should not be, and operating in a revved-up manner. It seemed to be no accident that he had found it, but rather an offering. Here am I, your special trail; take me.
Did he want to? Tod was bored with his life, but not foolish. He had no idea where the trail led. Did he really want to risk it? It could be dangerous, luring him in and conveying him to some soul-eating monster. Or to some marvelous fantasy fairyland where his fondest dreams would come true. It was surely a considerable gamble, either way. He would have to think about this.
Well, no time like the present. He stood there and brought out his ocarina. Music loosened his mind, enabling him to perceive alternative perspectives. He played a simple melody, serenading the limited landscape. Would his music make it fade?
It did not. The outline of the path seemed to intensify, and the foliage brightened, seeming almost to orient the leaves to better receive the tune. Maybe he was just imagining it, but this seemed like genuine appreciation. This trail liked his playing!
Or more likely he was so eager for applause that his eye conjured reactions that were not there. That way lay insanity. He put away the ocarina.
He walked back to the parking lot and off the end of the trail. He had no trouble doing this, despite a certain background apprehension. Some situations were easier to get into than out of. It seemed that this was entirely voluntary.
Tod drove home. And there was the trail, leading up to his house. It was definitely courting him.
He pondered for an hour before recognizing that he was hooked. The trail was a puzzle: where did it lead? Why was it offering itself to him? Did it really like his simple music? Tod was good at puzzles, and did them constantly in his off hours. There were hardly any he did not eventually solve. He would be unable to rest until he solved this one. He also liked nature, and that forest was nature. The way the trail changed, there was surely something else beyond the forest. He wanted to see it. He could not be sure how long it would wait for him; if he delayed too long, it might fade out and his chance would be forever lost.
The weekend was coming up. He packed a knapsack with supplies, then dug out his hiking clothing, compass, and walking staff. He was ready for a two day camp-out. That should at least satisfy his curiosity, and at most—who knew what he might find?
He got a good night’s sleep, ate a good breakfast, closed the house, and set off down the trail. He was exhilarated; for good or for ill, he had made this much of a commitment.
In a moment he was in the low foliage with the street becoming unreal, then the forest. Soon he saw that the landscape was changing further; the trees were becoming larger, and their colors were changing. Not in the manner of fall, but more like an alien terrain. Some of the trunks were green, some blue, and the leaves ranged from black and white to rainbow hues. This was no longer anything local.
Yet the air was good, and the gravity normal, and the temperature was perfect for light exercise. He liked this environment very well so far.
Still, there had to be a kicker. What was it?
He came to a stream that crossed the trail. It came from somewhere in the forest, and returned there, with some moss on its banks and small fish darting around. There was no bridge, so he took off his hiking boots and socks and waded through it. The water was cold but not uncomfortably so. He paused to scoop out a handful and taste it: clear and potable. No pollution. This was definitely a pristine realm.
The forest disappeared, replaced by rolling hills covered with brightly colored plants: red, green, blue, yellow, white, black. Many of them bore berries or fruits. They looked tempting, but Tod was cautious.
Then he came to a shape on the trail. He gripped his staff firmly; it could be used for self-defense if necessary. That was part of its purpose, though normally intended to dissuade poisonous snakes or poke suspicious mounds.
It turned out to be a woman, garbed in a brown smock. She was hunched over, trying to heave her guts out. Vomit was spattered across the trail and on her smock.
Tod was not sure what to do. Obviously she was no threat to him, unless she had a contagious disease. More likely she had eaten something that made her sick. How could he help her?
“Hello,” he said, sounding a bit inane in his own ears. He wasn’t sure she spoke his language; she did not look like a local woman. Her skin was swarthy as if she haled from the tropics, and her proportions seemed odd, though that could be the clothing.
She heard him and glanced up. “Go away.” The
n, after a pause, “Please.”
“I just want to help, if I can.”
“Make me unsick!” she flared.
Tod almost smiled. “I’ll try. What did you eat?”
She made a couple of dry heaves, then lifted her upper body and pointed. “Blue berries. I thought they—” She paused to heave again. “Were good. I ate many.”
So the appealing blue berries were poisonous. “Maybe water, to clear them out of your stomach. I have some.” He brought out his canteen and proffered it.
She just looked at it. “A rock?”
Oh. Definitely not from his culture. “A canteen.” He unscrewed the cap, then tilted it to pour a few drops of water. He brought it to his mouth and drank a sip, demonstrating. Then he wiped it off and proffered it again. “Water.”
“Water,” she repeated. She took the canteen and sipped from it as he had done.
“More. Drink enough so it dilutes the poison and you can puke it out.”
“Ah.” She drank more deeply. Then in a moment she heaved once more, expelling bluish water.
“Again,” he said. “Get it clear.”
She drank again, vomited again, but looked more comfortable. “Thank you,” she said, returning the canteen to him. “I feel less worse.”
“You’re welcome.” He was relieved that it had worked. “I am Tod Timmins, of America.”
She remained kneeling on the ground. “I am Veee.”
“Veee,” she said firmly, extending the vowel sound.
“Veee,” he agreed, getting it at last. He had never heard of such a name, but it only confirmed she was from another culture.
“I will try to stand now.”
“May I help you?”
“Yes, of course.” She took his proffered arm and hauled herself to her feet. She was a solid woman, not fat but far from lean, almost as tall as he was, with a mat of brown hair to her waist. Her smock was more than spattered with vomit; in fact it was soaked in front.
Tod stepped back. “Are you all right now?”
Veee took a step, wavered, caught herself, and stood unsteadily. “No.” Then she heaved out more water.
“You had better sit down, or lie down for a while,” Tod said. “Until you recover.”
“Yes.” But she didn’t move.
“What is it?”
“Can you walk?”
“No. I will fall.”
“You need to get cleaned up.”
She glanced at herself. “Yes.”
“There’s a stream not far back. You could rinse your clothing.”
“Yes. I will do it when I get the strength.”
“Or I could do it for you.”
“Do what?” she asked with seeming resignation.
What did she think? “Rinse your smock. Fetch more water.”
“Oh. Yes. I am not normally so helpless. This illness embarrasses me. I will let you do it.” She started to remove her smock.
Tod turned away.
“Why do you avert your gaze?” Veee asked.
“To spare you further embarrassment from exposure.”
“You are not like the men I have known.”
“Thank you, I think. In my land, women do not go naked, and do not like to have strange men see them that way.”
“In my land, we have no choice.” That might explain something: she thought a man would routinely take advantage of an ill woman. “Here is my garment.”
Tod put his hand back and took it. Then he thought of something else. “Are you cold?”
What could he do? He removed knapsack and set it aside. Then his hiking jacket, and his shirt. “Put these on,” he said, handing them back.
There was a rustle as she worked with what was evidently unfamiliar clothing. “They do not cover my legs.”
Tod removed his heavy hiking boots, and trousers and handed the last back too. Now he stood in trunks and T-shirt. He put his boots back on.
“You are a handsome man,” Veee remarked, evidently appreciating his backside.
Tod found himself flattered. He did not regard himself as handsome, but he did have his heavy-lifting muscles and was in reasonable shape. “Thank you. I will wash your clothing now.” He walked away without looking at her, uncertain how well she was covered.
He followed the curving trail through the brush to the stream and rinsed her smock as well as he could. It seemed to be made from some kind of animal hide, light but strong. The blue vomit stains washed right out.
He wrung it as dry as he could, then carried it back to where Veee sat, along with his refilled canteen. She now wore his shirt, jacket, and trousers and looked relatively western. Her breasts and hips strained against clothing that was made for a man. But she did not look well. She was pale and hunched over. Even her luxuriant hair looked tangled.
“How are you doing?” he asked her.
“Your apparel helps, but I remain weak and cold. I fear my illness has not yet run its course.”
Tod made a decision. “My home is not far away. Let me carry you there. Then you can rest, and I’ll call a doctor.”
“Yes, if you wish.” Again that assumption that the man’s will governed.
He approached her, handed her her damp smock, then put his forearms behind her back and knees, and heaved her up. She was less solid than he had feared, weighing perhaps a hundred and fifty pounds, and she cooperated by putting an arm around his neck. He was accustomed to toting heavy boxes, and could handle this.
He tramped along the trail. Soon the scenery changed, becoming the forest, and then his yard and house. Veee’s eyes widened in evident amazement, but she did not speak. He carried her to the door, set her carefully on her feet, dug out his key from the pocket of the pants she wore, opened the door, then carried her inside. Like a marriage, he thought, taking his bride across the threshold. But this was far from that.
He laid her down on his living room couch. She was shivering; she must be starting to run a fever. The poison remaining in her system was still running its course, as she had surmised.
He fetched a thick blanket and was about to put it over her, but she shook her head no, not trusting it. He set it still folded on the armrest beyond her feet. Meanwhile her shivering only worsened. “I’m worried about you,” he said. “Let me call a neighbor. She’s a nurse, and will know better than I do what you need.”
She looked at him, surprised, then spoke a stream of sheer gibberish. It was evidently a language, but like none he had heard before.
“I don’t understand you,” he said. “Why the change?”
She spoke again, seeming as perplexed as he was. Then she looked at the door.
This he understood. “The trail! We understood each other on the trail, but now it’s all Greek!”
She nodded agreement, responding to his tone. They were indeed of different cultures, and somehow the trail had made them understand each other. Probably she had been speaking her language all the time, and he had heard it as his own, and vice versa for her.
Still, she needed help. He picked up the phone and called the neighbor. “Meg, Tod here, I have a situation, a woman needs help. Can you come over?”
She had known him since he was a child, and had sometimes babysat him. “Sure Tod.”
Belatedly he realized he remained in T-shirt, undershorts, and boots. He hastily dug out and donned new shirt and pants. His wallet remained in the pants Veee wore.
Soon she arrived, a heavyset older woman who exuded competence in her specialty. Tod showed her to the living room, where Veee lay shivering on the couch.
“Where is the woman?” Meg asked.
“Right there.” He gestured to the couch.
Was she suddenly blind? “Right here,” he said, resting a hand on Veee’s shivering shoulder.
“Mr. Timmins, I have not
thought of you as a jokester. That is an empty couch except for a blanket.” Her use of his formal name was significant; she was annoyed.
“You really can’t see her?” he asked incredulously.
“Are you on medication?”
Tod smiled. “You think I’m hallucinating?”
“You tell me: do you really think there is a woman on that couch?”
Something truly strange was happening here. “Yes. I found her outside, sick and shivering. I brought her in and called you to try to help her. I don’t know why you can’t see her. Here, maybe if you touch her hand.” He lifted Veee’s hand. “Here.”
Meg came and touched where Tod held up the hand. Her hand passed through it and came up against his own hand below.
Tod stared, stunned. So did Veee. She had no substance here! Not for anyone except Tod. She was in effect a ghost.
“Satisfied?” Meg inquired gently.
“I—I guess I saw a ghost,” Tod said. “Maybe I haven’t gotten enough sleep. I—I’m sorry to have bothered you for nothing, Meg.”
She nodded grimly. “Whatever your new meds are, get off them,” she said, and departed.
He was not on any meds, but could hardly blame her. He was having enough trouble grasping what he had seen, and appreciated her skepticism.
Tod proffered the blanket again, and this time Veee accepted it. He laid it carefully on her—and watched it sink through her body, clothing and all, and come to rest on the couch. Veee was real only to Tod. Maybe she had some fractional substance, like fog, so that she didn’t sink through the couch, but she could not support anything above her.
But she was wearing his clothing. How could that be ghostly?
The question brought the likely answer: she had donned the clothing on the trail. Now it associated with her, and shared her attributes. Probably if he put it back on, while on the trail, it would resume association with him and return to reality in his world. More was happening on the trail than what was immediately apparent.
“Veee, I’m sorry,” Tod said. “You can’t be in my realm.”
She nodded agreement, reacting to his tone and what they both had seen.
“I’ll take you back to the trail. I’ll help you there.” He reached below her and picked her up. Now he realized that she was lighter than she had been, and her body barely dented the couch.