Manitou Island: Part 110
Every Dream Ends
CHARMIAN LIFTED HER head when a hand grasped her own, preventing her from falling back into Crack-in-the-Island. At first she expected to see Red Bird or Drake or one of the others who had been with her below, but she was surprised to discover it wasn't any of them at all.
Stick-In-The-Dirt clasped her hand instead. As soon as he saw her looking at him, he smiled. Charmian smiled back--the expression merely swept across her face without her being able or willing to control it--and she grasped his hand back, letting him pull her up.
As soon as her feet were upon solid ground again she looked around herself. All of the others who had been down in the Gemfields with her were here, except for Ocryx--he must have returned to Devil's Lake and to Shadow Water, she thought--and most of the GeeBees, who must have found it too uncomfortable to be around so many who disliked them. Stick-In-The-Dirt let go of Charmian's hand and stepped in front of her, gesturing upwards.
"The sky," he said; she looked up as well, and noticed that it was bright blue and daytime. She took a deep breath, as if she could taste the color. "Is it..." Stick-In-The-Dirt started, and she looked at him. "Is it true...?"
Charmian smiled. "Ocryana's gone...she won't bother you anymore."
The medicine man's eyes widened. "You mean...the Island is safe?"
She nodded. The open astonishment and hope in his eyes gave her a good feeling. "You don't have to worry anymore. It's safe." She frowned now with puzzlement. "But how did you know where I was...?"
He stepped aside now and gestured behind him. Charmian craned her neck and saw Silver Eagle Feather. She stood near Mani, pressing some moss to his wound; as if feeling Charmian's stare, she lifted her head to look at her, then finished applying the moss and came her way. Charmian's smile grew and Silver Eagle Feather smiled in return.
"I am sorry I was too late to join you," she said.
"That's okay!" Charmian exclaimed, then blushed. "I mean, everything turned out all right anyway. And all of you guys did help me!"
Stick-In-The-Dirt looked confused but Silver Eagle Feather waved at him to remain silent. "And so she is trapped again," she said, and glanced skyward as Charmian had. "I could tell when the sky changed color. You did this yourself?"
"Not really," Charmian said, growing redder, just as Drake pressed forward and grabbed her arm, lifting it up.
"She's lying," he declared. "Maybe everybody helped but she did the tough stuff all on her own!"
Charmian would have rebuked him if a sharp pain hadn't lanced up her arm, and she winced. Drake blinked and let go; Charmian pressed a hand to her wound and bit her lip.
"I kind of forgot about that," she whispered weakly. Silver Eagle Feather looked down as if just noticing it and knelt in front of her, pressing more moss to it. Charmian chewed on her lip even harder.
"When we return it can be properly attended to. It looks serious, but I know you've been through worse."
For some reason, Charmian knew this was a compliment. She smiled a bit through the haze of tears that had started to form, and felt a little embarrassed.
She lifted her head to see Chepi hurry daintily forward, wings fluttering. "Charmian!" she exclaimed breathlessly. "I never did get to thank you for your small part in helping the Island--a small part, yes, but an important part nonetheless--I will make certain never to forget you, well, at least not to forget your name, since your face is rather plain and forgettable and thus--"
This cut off with an "OOF!" when Augwak hopped forward, pushing her violently out of the way so she fell to the ground. He landed in front of Charmian and shook his fist, baring his teeth.
"You owe me, fleshling! You made a promise!"
Silver Eagle Feather blinked. Charmian grimaced and reached into her pouch.
"I know, I know...I was going to give it back before I go. You don't have to be so pushy just because I'm practically on my deathbed."
"No excuses! Hand it over! The moment I'm out from under your thumb is the moment I breathe freely again!"
Charmian made a face at him but pulled out the little splinter of crystal just the same. No sooner had she held it out than Augwak had snatched it away, almost taking her fingers with it. He hopped back, as if expecting her to renege on their deal, glancing from left to right and hissing at anyone who looked at him. He turned back to Charmian and gave her an ugly look.
"Whatever help I gave you was only because I did not want that wolf-bitch to win out, either! Don't think I did this out of any liking for you!"
"Whatever," Charmian grumbled. "I know the only thing YOU like about fleshlings is how they taste with a side order of fries!"
Augwak bared his teeth again but said nothing. Instead he leapt into the air, vanishing in a puff of wind which swept through the leaves and disappeared. Stick-In-The-Dirt rubbed at his head with a confused look.
"A Wendigo helping a human," he murmured. "I never thought that I would see this day."
"We should take you back to the other side of the Island," Silver Eagle Feather said. "Before you grow any weaker."
Charmian nodded. Already she felt like falling over. She was in a half daze, but still lucid enough to be grateful that Drake and Stick-In-The-Dirt helped her atop X'aaru's back. She leaned over him so her wounded shoulder pressed against his own, and used her other hand to hold on as they turned and started off through the woods, back toward the long trail that would lead them from Crack-in-the-Island.
Stick-In-The-Dirt plied Drake with questions the entire way there, and Drake happily answered, though Charmian did wish he wouldn't tell the story with such gusto. Once in a while X'aaru would pipe up as well and Charmian was glad that her face was hidden from them, as it must have been turning red by now. She wondered why the medicine man wasn't questioning Manabozho; when she lifted her head just enough to look behind her, where he had been before, she saw only the other Ocryxes and Red Bird, plus a few straggling manitous and firelings. She frowned in confusion--where could he and Chepi have gone off to so quickly? They'd been there just a moment ago...
"Charmian?" Silver Eagle Feather asked, and Charmian turned to look down at her. The woman gave her a questioning look.
"What are you looking for?"
Charmian paused. "Nothing," she finally said, and laid her head down again. "I just thought I heard something," she murmured, and spoke no more the rest of the way.
She had started to doze off by the time they reached Stick-In-The-Dirt's tribe, and the people there gathered around chattering excitedly and pointing skyward. She assumed they must have noticed the change as well, but didn't speak to any of them. Silver Eagle Feather left for a moment to talk to Black Elk Horn, and Stick-In-The-Dirt jogged off into the woods. Silver Eagle Feather returned and the small group, plus Stick-In-The-Dirt's daughters, headed in the opposite direction.
"Where are we going? What's he doing?" Charmian asked, confused.
"We will go down to the shore. He will call some help for you."
"The shore?" Charmian echoed. Drake looked up at her.
"Yeah. That's where we landed, wasn't it?"
"Oh...you mean where the ferry left us." The sadness seeped through her again and she sighed. She glanced over her shoulder to take one more look at Stick-In-The-Dirt's camp and was surprised to see that Black Elk Horn stood at the end of the trail leading into the clearing, watching them go. He didn't make any gesture and she decided not to, either. The fact that he'd paid their departure any attention at all was good enough for her.
She dozed off again and when she came to, Stick-In-The-Dirt's daughters were helping her down from X'aaru's back. She lifted her head when she felt a cool breeze wash across her face, and saw the vast stretch of Lake Huron lying before her. She looked over her shoulder to see the bluff behind her, and recognized the spot where she and Drake had landed so long ago. She blinked when she noticed the crowd gathering on the shore--Silver Eagle Feather and the other three women, Red Bird and the Ocryxes, and Mani and Drake, but they were not the only ones here now. She rubbed her eyes when she realized she must have been allowed to nap longer than she'd thought. Stick-In-The-Dirt had returned by now, and along with them on the beach were Justin and Francois and Marcott, with Old Mother Manitou and Pakwa arriving from down the trail, the GeeBee hopping along behind. She blushed a little on seeing the concern in Justin's eyes when he noticed her wound. He stopped and knelt down before her as Silver Eagle Feather had, pressing his hand to her shoulder.
"I will not even ask how you got this," he said so only she could hear, "but I know the other party got far worse."
Charmian smiled shyly. Justin's hand glowed and she let out her breath to feel the pain disappear, the torn skin mending itself. He tended to the rest of her injuries as Old Mother Manitou came forward and looked her over with what appeared to be mild disapproval.
"Hmph," she muttered. "Going off and fighting a demon all alone...foolish, I say, but that's the way of mainlanders."
"How come I didn't see either of you two there?" Charmian demanded, glaring at her and at Pakwa. Pakwa twisted his head upside-down at almost a 180-degree angle and the old woman waved dismissively.
"We were there--you just don't pay close enough attention to things. How you defeated that creature is beyond me! 'S not as if you did it completely unassisted, though...I suppose you have at least a little bit of sense for knowing to ask for help when you need it..."
She turned and hobbled away, muttering and swatting at Francois so he jumped out of her way. Justin rose and moved aside when Pakwa hopped up before Charmian, giving her a bland look. She smiled and reached out to pull one of the barbels on his chin.
"I'll miss you, Pakwa. You're pretty weird...but at least you never tried to eat me."
The GeeBee blinked, but his blank expression didn't change. He sniffed a little bit and Charmian felt around in her other pouch, grimacing as she drew out the gooey remains of an old candy bar.
"Yeah, I think I meant to give this to you...like a few months ago...but not like it matters to you anyway. Here you go. A parting gift."
Pakwa sniffed at the pathetic wrapper, then took it and tore it open, scraping the melted contents into his mouth. He crouched licking his fingers and Charmian turned to Stick-In-The-Dirt, who hovered anxiously nearby. She smiled at him and now he blinked in surprise.
"It looks like we have to get going now," she said, and her smile faded a little. The medicine man looked awkwardly to the side and rubbed at his neck. Charmian forced her smile to return, for his sake, at least. "I hope you don't have any more trouble with anything. I like it here; I can't stand the thought of somebody trying to destroy it all."
Stick-In-The-Dirt's eyes met hers again. "Thank you for coming here," he murmured. "I know that I never would have been able to protect us all as you did."
Charmian didn't know what to say in response, but his daughters solved that dilemma by surrounding her and smothering her in hugs, all of them chattering and weeping at the same time. Little Dove was by far the loudest, and held onto Charmian the longest, even after the other two had let go; they had to pull her back as she rubbed at her streaming eyes, sniffling and crying, and Charmian was surprised that they were so upset at all.
"Goodbye, Charmian," she cried as the other two dragged her away from the teenager. "I wish that you could stay longer! I'll miss you here!"
Charmian flushed and nodded. When White Deer and Lily Flower let go of their younger sister, she launched herself at Drake and hugged him instead. Charmian had to hide her face; she'd never seen his eyes goggle so far out of his head. She found herself looking at X'aaru and Mani, who stood side by side several yards away, their heads hanging and their eyes glimmering. Charmian bit the inside of her mouth and went over to them, putting her arms around Mani's neck. She felt the manitou's muzzle, soft against her own neck, and heard him give a low whistle.
"Bye, Mani," she whispered. "Thank you for everything you did. And for understanding."
Goodbye, Red Land One. Never forget you.
Charmian pulled away from him, her eyes already welling up. X'aaru whimpered; she hugged him next and he burrowed his head against her shoulder.
"I'll miss you," he whined. "You gave me a name and everything. No one's ever been as kind to me as you have."
Charmian scratched behind his ear before pulling back, rubbing at one eye. "Remember," she said. "Every time you start thinking you're a coward, stop. Because you're one of the bravest people I've ever met. I saw your dream. That wasn't just a dream. That's who you are and what you can be. Remember that, will you?"
X'aaru's eyes lit up and his breast swelled with pleasure. He nodded vigorously. "I will! I promise!"
Charmian gave a watery smile and turned away from him. She moved to Dakh and Sikt next, and hugged them both, without saying a word. She felt she didn't have to, as they could read her mind so well. She could tell that they had when she drew away, their eyes meeting hers briefly before they nodded their thank yous and farewells. Tal Natha stood near them and she burrowed her face into the coarse fur of his ruff when she embraced him. He lightly placed his hand upon her back and she squeezed her eyes shut to try to keep the tears inside.
"Goodbye," she said, her voice muffled by his fur. "Tal Natha."
I will not forget all you've done for us, Charmian. You have made me proud to know you. You bring hope to the mainland, and take a part of the Island away with you. You will always have a name here.
Charmian lifted her head, sniffling and looking up into the demon's face. "You'll call me back if there's ever any more trouble, won't you?" she asked anxiously. "If you need me?"
Tal Natha smiled. Of course. He bent down to nuzzle at her cheek. "Farewell, Mainlander. I am grateful I saw your dream."
Charmian let go of him, rubbing her eyes again. She hugged Silver Eagle Feather, and found the scent of her somehow comforting. Silver Eagle Feather smiled and touched her head as Charmian released her. She turned around and looked up at Justin, who smiled at her also, just slightly.
"Goodbye, Charmian," he said quietly. He knelt down in front of her and took her hand so she felt her ears grow warm. "I'm honored to have met someone as intelligent and as courageous as you." And before she could say anything, he kissed her on the cheek and stood up again. Charmian gasped in surprise, feeling her entire face go red; she pressed her hand to her cheek and had to untie her tongue to respond, Justin's smile growing.
"Th-thanks," she managed to stammer, in barely more than a whisper. She was grateful he didn't say anything else, as she felt too embarrassed and giddy to reply further. She took a few hurried steps away from him and nearly ran into Red Bird, who stood a little ways away, wringing her hands. Charmian had nearly forgotten about her, she was so quiet. They looked up at each other, and the way Red Bird's eyes brimmed made Charmian's own start to well up even worse. She felt her lip quivering and saw Red Bird's do the same; they stared at each other for a moment or two before rushing forward, embracing tightly. Red Bird started weeping aloud and Charmian couldn't stop her own tears from pouring out of her eyes. Everyone else stood in silence and watched them as they hugged and cried.
"I wish you didn't have to go," Red Bird wept. "I understand why, but I still wish you didn't."
"I wish I didn't either," Charmian sniffled.
"I'll miss you so much! Please promise you'll come back someday!"
"I will! I promise! I'll miss you too!"
Red Bird started sobbing, and they probably would have stayed like that for hours had not Tal Natha approached and taken the fringe of Charmian's top in his teeth, tugging on it gently. She and Red Bird gradually separated from each other and started wiping at their eyes now that their arms had nothing to do. Charmian didn't even have the sense of mind to feel foolish for blubbering so much in public; everybody else was smiling at them as if in understanding, though she didn't care.
"You promise you'll come back," Red Bird choked, brushing her damp hair back from her face and rubbing furiously at her red eyes. "I mean it!"
"I will," Charmian promised again. She somehow managed to work a quavery smile onto her face, despite her tears. "You too, you know. Like I told X'aaru. You don't give yourself enough credit. Remember what you did down there and never be ashamed of it!"
Red Bird nodded, then her mouth quivered and her eyes filled up again. She let out a sob and hugged Charmian once more, letting go of her quickly and putting her arms around Tal Natha's neck instead. She wept into his fur and Charmian had to turn away before she could break down. If she stayed here much longer, she'd never get off of the Island.
Marcott and Francois were the only ones left. As she trudged past Marcott, Drake following behind her, the Englishman tilted his head in a nod; "Thank you," was all he said, but Charmian still had to force herself to nod in return. She was still fighting back her own tears when she stopped before Francois, who gave her a kind smile. She saw his canoe pulled up onto the shore behind him, and knew that this was the way she and Drake would be returning home. The thought made her choke even harder, and she couldn't even look at him anymore. Now she did feel like an idiot, standing on the beach in front of everyone and crying her eyes out, but couldn't help it. Now that it was time to leave she didn't want to.
Francois stood and waited patiently until she brought her tears under control, at least, as much as she could. She wiped her eyes and sniffled as he spoke.
"Ready to go, ma chère?" he said quietly. Charmian nodded and sniffled again, still unable to look up at him. When he said nothing else, and made no move to push off the canoe, she lifted her head, the taste of salt heavy in her mouth. She hadn't even noticed it before, but there was a fog far out over the water, and this made her heart sting. Francois looked at her, then nodded at something behind her.
"I believe you've forgotten someone."
Charmian stared at him for a moment, uncertain what he meant. She'd already said goodbye to everybody on the beach. When he continued staring up the slope, she slowly turned to look over her shoulder, in the direction everyone else was now looking. She sucked in a breath at what--or rather who--she saw.
Standing a ways up the slope, almost hidden from view in the shade of the trees, was Shadow Water. She stood with her hands folded in front of her and an uncertain look on her face. Her injuries didn't look as bad as they had been before; Charmian remembered that both Ocryx and Silver Eagle Feather must have tended to them since she last saw her. She was a little relieved to know she was at least able to walk on her own now.
Shadow Water noticed everyone's stares upon her, and her eyes widened and she started to retreat. Charmian turned and took several steps toward her across the grass. Shadow Water saw her now and froze, but when Charmian tried to get closer she started backing away again. Charmian stopped and the two of them stared at each other in silence. Charmian couldn't believe how different the other woman looked now, like a frightened deer. She almost had to remind herself that this was the tawny Ocryx who had filled her with so much fear, before. The two didn't even look remotely alike.
Shadow Water bit her lip and fidgeted, one foot creeping behind her. Charmian sensed she would not remain here much longer and spoke up before she could flee.
"Shadow Water," she called out, and Shadow Water's eyes grew again, her foot falling still. Charmian paused, trying to figure out the right words, before realizing that not many were needed after all. Sometimes the simplest things made the most sense.
"Thank you," she said, and she meant it.
Shadow Water stared at her a moment more. Her mouth opened, but no words came out. Charmian saw her eyes well up, and her breast rose and fell more quickly. Just as the first tears started trickling from her eyes, she turned and fled, disappearing into the woods. Charmian watched the trail for a while but she didn't return. For some reason, despite Shadow Water's reaction, her heart told her she had nothing to feel bad about.
She turned back to Francois. "I'm ready to go now," she said, and though her eyes weren't dry, no more tears fell.
Francois nodded and turned to his canoe, stepping into the water and pulling it out behind him. Charmian and Drake followed, and some of the others on the shore started waving and calling out their farewells. Drake grinned and waved back, yelling, "Bye, guys! It was loads of fun! See ya again!" But Charmian was silent as she pushed on the other end of the canoe until it floated out into open water, climbing into it while Francois held it steady for her. Drake clambered in, and Francois followed, settling behind them and pulling out the paddle. He steered the canoe around in a circle, and Charmian tossed a desperate glance back at the Island as they started to pull away.
The Islanders they'd left behind wandered down to the water's edge, some of them still waving, some merely watching. Drake waved again but though Charmian wanted to wave, or yell goodbye, she found her limbs frozen and her throat stuck. She simply stared at them instead as they drifted further into the distance, her eyes stinging. She realized that if she said goodbye again, it would just feel too final.
The sadness came over her once more--so heavy and smothering that she wanted nothing more than to jump out of the canoe and swim back to them, and swear off the mainland forever--but before she could command her muscles to obey what her heart was ordering them to do, she felt something squeeze her hand, and turned to see Drake looking at her.
"C'mon, Charm," he said softly. "You know you'll see them again."
Charmian's heart ached and her eyes blurred, but her tensed muscles relaxed. She sat back, and she and Drake watched in silence as Manitou Island slowly faded from view.
After a while Charmian lowered her head and rubbed at her eyes. "Stupid fog," she murmured, her voice cracking a bit.
"You must be exhausted, ma chère," Francois said, switching the paddle to the other side and sliding it into the water. "Why do you not take a rest on the way? It will take a while for us to get there, and you need your sleep before returning home."
Charmian lifted her head and sniffled. "You promise you'll wake me up?" she said, and both Francois and Drake nodded. Drake grinned.
"Don't worry, Charm. I'll keep an eye on things! You know I wouldn't leave you stranded on the beach in somebody else's canoe!"
"Yeah, but I know some other dumb things you'd probably do," Charmian murmured, but settled back into the canoe anyway, sighing and letting her eyes drift shut. For a long time all she could hear was the rippling of the water all around them, and the soft hollow thumping of it against the canoe's underside, Francois's paddle slipping through the waves and propelling them along. A cool damp breeze fanned over her face and ruffled her hair, and she could have sworn she smelled the spicy scent of rain upon rotting leaves. But it was summer on the Island, and she shouldn't have been smelling that.
Before she could ponder this much further, Charmian slipped into a deep sleep, free of dreams, although that spicy scent lingered always in the back of her mind as she slumbered. And far into her rest, despite the fact that she was unconscious, she did still hear Francois's voice, faint and faraway, as he reassured her.
"Do not worry, ma chère...the Island will be all right, and so will the mainland. You did far more than your share. And the mainland needs you much more than the Island does now...I'm certain your family must miss you very much...miss you very much...miss you...miss..."
His voice faded into echo. Charmian started to settle deeper into her slumber, but the echo didn't die away. If anything it began to grow louder, closer by, the voice changing; she frowned in her sleep, puzzled by the change. Francois had never sounded like a woman...
"...miss you...miss...miss...Miss...Miss, are you awake? Miss?"
Charmian frowned and tried to fight off wakefulness, but someone began to lightly shake her arm. Her eyes dragged open in protest and she blinked at the sudden light. Sunlight. It wasn't Francois's face that greeted her, but a woman's, a stranger's. She gave Charmian a curious look. Upon her shirt was the word Shepler's.
Charmian blinked again in confusion, then gasped and sat upright so abruptly she almost knocked the young woman in the head. The woman kept her hand upon Charmian's shoulder as if expecting her to fall, although she was seated; she looked around herself and saw rows of empty metal seats. But--canoes didn't have metal seats.
"Miss?" the woman said again, and Charmian looked back up at her. "Are you okay?"
Okay? Not all right. Charmian stared at her a moment, then again looked down at her clothing. It wasn't native clothing, or even antiquated. She was dressed in shorts as Charmian was, and the familiar shirt Charmian had seen before. A Shepler's Ferry employee.
But they don't have ferries on Manitou Island!
And shorts? Charmian finally looked down at herself. She was wearing her shorts and pocketed vest, just as she had been...over a year ago...
The woman smiled. She must have been in her late teens or early twenties. "You must have had a busy day over there. I could hardly even wake you up."
"Over there--?" Charmian glanced up at her again and the woman nodded.
"Mackinac Island." She frowned and pressed her hand to Charmian's forehead. "Are you sure you're feeling okay, Miss? Maybe you spent too much time in the heat...?"
Charmian carefully brushed her hand away. "Yeah, I'm--I'm okay. I just--Drake!" She jumped to her feet now with a gasp, and her pack--which had been leaning against her leg--fell to the deck. The woman reached to pick it up and steadied her as the ground seemed to sway.
"If you mean your friend, he's already disembarked."
A nod, then a gesture. "He's waiting for you down there on the dock."
Dock? Charmian turned and craned her neck to look over the edge of the boat. She could finally see the Shepler's dock now, with people--regular people, wearing modern clothes--wandering this way and that, pushing bikes, carrying backpacks, eating fudge. In the midst of it all stood Drake, his own pack slung over his shoulder; he grinned and waved up at her.
Charmian pulled back and turned to look to the left. Parking lots full of cars. She turned to the right and saw the vast expanse of Lake Huron, clear and blue under the late sunlight; the vague shape of Mackinac Island floated in the distance, the Grand Hotel visible even from here.
"Miss?" Charmian turned back slowly when the woman addressed her. There was a concerned look on her face. "Everyone else has disembarked; do you think you might need some medical attention?"
"No, I'm...I'm okay." Charmian blushed and took her backpack from the woman's hand, slinging it over her arm. The woman stepped aside and she made her way to the stairs. There were still a few employees on the lower level, ushering out bikes and baggage; she made her way around them and walked down the ramp to the dock. Drake came over to greet her; she couldn't help but glance over at the lake again. Another ferry, its roostertail dwarfing it, was visible in the distance. Judging by the angle of the sunlight, and by the diminished numbers of people remaining, she could tell it was late afternoon or early evening. A few were lined up to take the final ferry back to the island, but everyone else was heading home.
"Hey Charm!" Drake greeted cheerily, waving as if she couldn't see him. She blinked at him a few times when he stopped before her with a huge smile. "Man, you must not be used to exercising. You slept the whole way back! If you weren't breathing I'd've thought you were dead!"
"Back...?" Charmian continued looking around herself in dazed confusion. "How long did it take us to get here?" she asked, putting a hand to her head.
"Huh? How long? Not that long. Wow, you really were knocked out." He pulled something from his pocket and started clicking buttons. Charmian saw it was the digital camera. "Man, I can't wait to get a look at these pictures..."
"Pictures?" Charmian's brow furrowed. But we never took any pictures! She would have reached for the camera just to see what could be on it, but Drake saw the look on her face and shut it off, tucking it away with a look of concern.
"Hey, are you okay? Your face is all white."
Charmian nodded and grasped his arm. He looked down at her hand in surprise. "Yeah--I'm fine. Drake, what...what did we do all day? How did we keep busy?"
"What did we DO all day?" he said, loud enough for a few tourists to glance their way. Charmian cringed and waved at him to lower his voice. His own brow furrowed now and he tilted his head. "You don't even remember what we did?"
"Yeah, I remember; it's just...my head's a little foggy. I...uh...had this wonko dream and..."
"Ooohhhhh." He smiled. "You mean you're not awake yet! I hear ya! We walked around the island all day! Well, and ran around, and fell over and climbed things and stuff..."
His mouth twitched. "Yeah, Charm...Mackinac Island. Wow, did you hit your head on the doorframe on the way off the boat or something...?"
"Mackinac Island..." Charmian's voice trailed off and she looked once more out at Lake Huron, the island shimmering in the distance. Everything...everything was different now, yet the same, exactly the same as it had been before they left. The ferries, the docks, the tourists and the cars...no wolves, no demons or cannibals or crystals or anything...
Did I...could I have dreamed all that up? Every bit of it? But...it was all so real...and how come I can't remember what Drake does...?
Drake touched her shoulder. "Charm?" His voice was quiet now, but concerned. "Really...are you okay?"
Charmian blinked, then turned back to him. She forced a smile that she didn't feel.
"Yeah, I'm okay. Just a little heat exhaustion or something. We ate a lot of fudge, didn't we?"
Drake's shoulders relaxed and he grinned. "Yeah," he agreed. "You're probably gonna be sick in the morning!" And he laughed.
Charmian laughed also, though it wasn't a real laugh. Drake waved at her. "C'mon! Your mom's waiting in the lot, isn't she? I bet she's gonna wanna see these pictures. I think we're lucky that fog lifted after all! Do you think maybe she'll stop at McDonald's on the way back...?"
Charmian followed him, murmuring a word or two here and there, just enough to keep him from questioning her further. On the way back to the Shepler's parking lot she continued glancing over her shoulder at Lake Huron and the island far away, but it never changed; or rather, it always stayed the same.
On Monday, Charmian went back to school, with her books, her bookbag, her lunch, and everything that she had always carried before. She sat through three hours of classes, sat in the cafeteria and ate her lunch, then sat through three more hours of classes just like she always had. Only she found herself staring out the window at the trees and the distant water a lot more.
After school, she would walk out to stare over Lake Michigan, and wonder if there was anything dwelling beneath its surface. Then she would head home, greet her dog and scratch his ears, and wonder if he was ever trying to talk to her but she just couldn't understand it. Sometimes she sat still and tried to listen, but all he would do was stick out his tongue and pant and remind her that he was only a dog, after all.
In the evenings she would do her homework in her room, though it would take longer than it used to, as she would stare out the window at the trees, and wonder if spirits lived in any of them. A few times she would concentrate, and even whisper, "Wood," but nothing ever happened. Then she would try to focus even harder on her algebra and get it done, so she could watch TV and eat dinner.
Watching TV, she often found she could barely remember what she'd even seen on the screen as her mind had been somewhere else, miles away, across the water.
At dinner, she would eat what little she could and pick at the rest until being excused. She wondered if Francois was cooking dinner in his own cabin at the same time that she ate, or if he might be out checking his traps. When her parents asked her what was on her mind, she would tell them about some school project, and wander off to her room.
When brushing her teeth before bed she would pause and stare at herself in the mirror and search for scars on her face, from anything left after Justin had healed her...but he must have done too good of a job to leave any scars behind. There wasn't even one across her belly, where Tal Natha had first clawed her so long ago.
She dug in her pockets every night, just to make sure she had really given Augwak back his spirit stone, but never found anything, not even a melted candy bar. Of course, these had not been the same clothes she'd been wearing there...
And lying in her bed at night, she would stare up at the ceiling, or out the window at the moon, and would wonder if anyone else was preparing for sleep at this moment--in the wild, in a cave, in a cabin, upon furs, in an antique bed in a Victorian house--and though she would eventually close her eyes, and sleep, and even dream, none of those dreams were of Tal Natha, and none of those dreams took her back to Manitou Island.
At school in the morning, when she met Drake again, she would occasionally and vaguely hint at what they had been through, but every time she did, he would begin to babble cheerfully about the day they had spent on Mackinac Island...and so she stopped bringing it up. Apparently she was the only one who even remembered it, by now.
And so a week passed, and Charmian began to wonder if she had really made up the entire adventure after all. She had not a shred remaining of everything that had happened there, except her dreams and her memories...and dreams were fickle things, easily deceitful...had she really replaced a memory of walking around Mackinac Island, with everything that had happened in that year on Manitou Island?
I can't have imagined it all, she thought one afternoon as she slowly walked home from school. I've never made up or dreamed anything like that before...so why would I now? It was all so real...it had to have been real...right?...
Today the sun was shining and the air was unseasonably warm yet again. Charmian cut through the park and watched as a small brown rabbit raced by a little way before her. It paused in its rush and stood upright, staring at her; she stared back, and it wiggled its nose.
"Manabozho?" Charmian called, hopefully.
The rabbit's ear flicked. It hunched down and bounded off, disappearing beneath a bush. Charmian's shoulders sank and she continued on her way.
Eventually she reached the street and stepped out onto the sidewalk, her gaze on the pavement as she trudged along. Her bookbag felt so heavy; why did it weigh her down so much? Surely she'd gotten much stronger after her time spent on Manitou Island...if she'd even been there at all. If she'd really been there, would a mere bookbag have been bothering her so much? She'd faced so much worse--raging wolf demons, angry cannibal giants, agonizing spirit stealing--than the weight of too many textbooks...
She lifted her head and immediately froze in her tracks. Her eyes widened when she saw what lay ahead of her, just down the street.
The antiques store.
Charmian felt her heart rise. Suddenly, her bookbag didn't seem so heavy anymore. She slung it over her shoulder and started walking, then trotting, then jogging down the sidewalk, keeping her eyes focused on the little store ahead.
She'll remember! She can tell me if it really happened or not!
Charmian ran along the sidewalk, her spirits soaring, and forced herself to slow down as she came up before the plate-glass windows of the store. She had to stop and catch her breath as she finally caught sight of herself in the glass, a few stray leaves pasted against it from a recent rain. She moved toward the door and that was when all her hopes were dashed.
Out of the corner of her eye, she finally saw it, a sign posted in the window. She paused to look down at it more carefully. It took a few tries for the scripted words to finally register in her brain, but her spirits were sinking the whole time.
Thank You Very Much For Shopping
Charmian's shoulders sank as she stared at the sign. Her bookbag fell to the sidewalk, but she didn't even notice. She didn't know if she had ever felt so miserable, yet so numb, both at once.
Only now did she notice a tiny bit more writing in the bottom right corner, partially obscured by one of the sticking leaves. Beneath it she could see "Miss A. N..." The rest of the surname was covered up. It just occurred to her now that, in all the time she'd known Miss Anne, she'd never even learned her last name.
Suddenly overcome by curiosity, Charmian reached out and peeled the leaf aside, letting it flutter away in the breeze. She leaned forward to get a better look at the name and her heart froze in her chest.
Charmian's mouth slowly fell open. She stared at the name as long as she could before her vision started swimming, then she blinked, but it remained the same.
"No way," she whispered in disbelief.
Charmian gasped and jerked upright. She turned to the side to see Drake running toward her, and when he wasn't too far away he nearly tripped over his own foot. She got a distinct feeling of déjà vu. He came up before her, panting, and grimaced at the store window.
"Don't tell me you're gonna spend all day in that stuffy old store again!"
"No," Charmian said. "It's...closed early."
"Great! That means you can come to Burger King with me and get something to eat!"
Charmian blinked. "You're inviting me?" she asked, and for the first time felt actual surprise for the offer. Drake just grinned widely.
"Yeah! It's gotta be better than hanging out in a moldy old store. And you can help me with my algebra too!"
Almost immediately all earlier feelings of loss and disappointment fled Charmian, and she turned away from the store. "Yeah, right," she said in a sarcastic tone, hiding a smile. "More like answer rather than help."
"I never said that! I just know you're better at the stuff because you're the school brain."
"So what does that make you?"
"Jeez, Charm, you don't always have to be such a snit..."
Together, Charmian and Drake turned away from the old antiques store and made their way up the sidewalk, chattering and arguing the whole way. It felt good to actually hold a real conversation in the real world for once, something Charmian admittedly wasn't used to. And by the time they reached the intersection, when a warm gust of wind picked up some scattered leaves and spun them in a crazy chittering whirlwind across the pavement just ahead of them, she was so much in the real world that she paid it no mind.