This confounded rain. I scowl at the sky, but it doesn’t listen, just like everyone else. Droplets splatter against my glasses and hinder my already-dim vision. The rain gathers in bothersome puddles that soak my shoes and set my bones aching. Should’ve brought an umbrella, but I had to be stubborn, didn’t I.
Oh well. I can handle a bit of rain.
I shuffle along the sidewalk, moving my walker slowly and carefully, supporting myself with each step. I can almost hear Greg’s voice in my head telling me that it isn’t safe for me to go out by myself, that everyone gets old, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, that Spring Meadows Retirement Home would take good care of me.
I snort. The only way I’m leaving my house is if I’m dead.
He thinks I don’t know what he’s up to, but I’m old, not blind. He’s tired of his dingy apartment and thinks his dear sweet mother will hand over her house like a docile old woman. Preposterous. If he keeps this nonsense up, I’ll write him out of my will. He never even gave me grandchildren.
The smoke-clogged air finally gets to me, and I cough, practically knocking my glasses from their precarious position on my nose. Pushing my glasses to a more settled position, I glare at the factory chimneys as they pump more of that nasty stuff into my air. Unfortunately, my glasses aren’t fogged enough to keep me from seeing those dreadful black clouds.
When I was a girl, the air was nice and clean. But now––
Even my walker isn’t enough to keep me from tripping. The puddle and my face meet, but instead of slamming into hard concrete, I am swallowed by water.
Water surrounds me, dragging me down, down, down. I can’t seem to move, to swim out of this––whatever it is. Blueness everywhere––to my right, to my left, above and below me. Oh dear. Did anyone see an old lady disappear into a puddle? I hope they’re calling the police. They had better come get me before––
No. This is ridiculous. I hit my head, and I’m dreaming. I’ll probably wake up in the ER. Not another hospital. Oh, if Greg uses this to send me to the home––
My lungs are starting to burn as I keep falling and falling, surrounded by blue and desperate for air. This is an odd, vivid dream. I hope it’s not one that I remember.
My head is pounding. I need oxygen. I wish I could just get out of this dream. Oh, that’s odd; something is approaching below me––squiggles in darker shades of blue, almost like buildings. Am I falling into––?
Something zips toward me, long and thin, and wraps around my waist before I can do anything, stopping my descent. I must’ve lost my walker at some point during the fall, if one could call it that; otherwise, I would whack this thing over its strange, serpentine head––a serpent? Sweet heavens, how did my brain create an underwater serpent?
I open my mouth to speak, and water floods in, filling my lungs instead of oxygen. My chest burns, and I flail. The creature grunts, and a bubble forms around my body, pushing away the water and drenching me in oxygen. I cough and gasp, spewing water into my bubble prison. My whole body is trembling, but at least I can breathe again.
“Now, you explain what is going on, you––” Whatever it is. I can’t believe I’m talking to this thing, but I can’t control what happens in dreams.
“Talk later,” says the creature in a high-pitched squeak.
How odd. I was expecting a voice that was much more . . . intimidating. Greg always did say I was crazy. Looking at this dream, I suppose I’ll have to admit he’s right––but only this once!
Then the creature dives, taking me with it. My stomach leaps into my throat, and I clamp my lips shut. It could’ve descended slower! How reckless! We rush closer and closer to the ground at such a speed that my bones will crack. This is the end. I let out a high-pitched warble that’s supposed to be a scream.
We halt just inches above the ground. I collapse. The bubble is a barrier between me and my surroundings, but that doesn’t mean I can’t feel the ground––bluish pebbles, almost like the ones you see for decoration. Ground, sweet ground!
I lift my head, squinting at the rest of my surroundings. My glasses must’ve been torn from my nose during the pre-bubble fall. How aggravating. But I can see enough––buildings made of navy blue stone rise around me, their walls curved and weathered.
Where on earth am I? What is this place? And what on earth is this serpentine thing?
I poke the bubble with my bony fingers; it stretches but refuses to break. “Get me out of this bubble!”
The sea serpent floats above the ground, its long, slender body swaying with the movement of the water. Then it nudges the bubble with its nose, and my transportation rolls forward. I slide with it on the floor of the bubble.
“Hello!” I shout. “Do you hear me? I want out! I want to go home!” Before Greg takes the only thing I have left.
“. . . please . . . quieter?” the squeaky serpent says, so softly I can barely understand it. “. . . trying . . . save . . . life, portal creature.”
I must’ve heard it wrong. “Speak up, young one.”
Its words fade in and out. “. . . speaking . . . normal tone. The oxygen capsule . . . for those . . . not breathe water.”
“I said speak up!” What an odd dream. If I’m understanding the creature correctly, it seems I need the bubble. I do seem to remember not being able to breathe until it enclosed me in this strange, flimsy thing that I can’t break.
“. . . acts . . . translator.” The serpent keeps the bubble moving forward. The rustling of the pebbles beneath me make it even harder to hear. “. . . assume . . . Ormri . . . not good?”
I blink, momentarily derailed from my train of thought. “Are you making up words, young––?” I was going to say man, but I suppose that doesn’t work. I also don’t even know if it’s a male or female. “Young . . . serpent?”
“No . . . Ormri . . . our language.” The spaces in between the words are populated with an irritating thrumming sound.
“You’re an animal. You don’t have a language. And you really need to speak up!”
It speaks a little louder, but only a little. “All creatures . . . languages. Just because . . . can’t understand . . . doesn’t mean . . . not real.”
What an impertinent creature. “I know what is and what isn’t, mister. I’ve been on this earth for eighty years”––if this is even earth––“so don’t you tell me what’s real and what’s not. Why, you’re probably not more than twenty!” Not that I can tell a serpent’s age. Maybe serpents don’t count age. Oh, what am I thinking? It’s an animal.
“Please,” it says, “quiet.”
“You’re the one that’s being quiet here!” I glare at the serpent. “Now why don’t you tell me where I’m going, then, kidnapper?”
“. . . not kidnapping . . .” The serpent pauses for a long moment but without the thrumming or the moving of the great jaw, telling me I’m not missing words. “. . . saving your life.”
What’s that supposed to mean? “I––”
It pushes me forward again. The bubble rolls, and I slide along with it. We roll and roll until my brain is muddled and I can’t even think. Still, despite my blurry vision, I notice that the buildings are fifty times my height. Do they have multiple levels, or do the serpents swim all the way up to the ceiling?
Oh, silly me. It’s a dream. Maybe I did knock my head pretty hard. Any moment now, I’ll wake up in the hospital with some doctor telling me I cracked my head on the concrete. Greg had better not use that as an excuse to take my house away from me.
I touch my ear out of habit to adjust my hearing aid and find emptiness. Oh dear! This must be why I couldn’t hear the serpent. No glasses, no walker, no hearing aid. And I can’t take my medicine either. This is quite a pickle.
I could apologize to the serpent for blaming my hearing misfortunes on it. But I won’t. I have more dignity than that. The creature probably doesn’t even know what a hearing aid is.
The world dims, turning almost to black. My eyes flash wide. I should’ve been paying closer attention to what that serpent was doing. “What’s going on, young serpent? Is this some sort of trick?”
The sound of heavy breathing sends chills through my bones. I knew it. I shouldn’t have trusted this confounded creature. I should have tried harder to escape the bubble. The rest of the light snuffs out. “I will scream,” I say. “You don’t want that, do you?”
No answer, just the sound of more breathing. Then, a pale blue light appears, some sort of glowing orb, and I can see a serpent’s long snout and gleaming eyes. Surely it doesn’t want to eat me! I’m nothing but a bag of bones!
“. . . block . . . windows.” It’s speaking a little louder so that there’s less thrumming and more words being understood. “. . . don’t want . . . seeing into my home.”
Am I inside its house? I squint at my surroundings. The darkness obscures my vision, though I don’t think I would’ve been able to see much better in the light. Pebbles press against my feet through the filmy material of the bubble. It must be one of those enormous buildings I saw on the way over. “You must not have paid the electric bill this month, reckless young serpent!”
“The electric bill?”
I let out a huff. “I can’t see!”
There are breathing sounds again, and another light pops up. Without my glasses, I can still barely see anything, but it’s a start.
I stare at the strange, irregularly-shaped light, pulsing with a blue glow, and realize it’s not your typical lightbulb. “Good heavens! What is that?” And why haven’t I woken up yet?
“These . . . ljos lights.” The serpent cocks its head. “. . . charge them with your breath . . . eventually die . . . recharge them . . . don’t have those . . . ?”
I haul myself to my feet. I can’t stop shaking. I wish I had my walker. “No, we kill our world by draining the life from it. Oh, yes, speaking of that––how are you going to get me home?”
“Ah––” The serpent coughs. “About that––”
A ray of blue light almost blinds me, as if I wasn’t blind enough already, and I almost spit out my dentures. Something is moving––a boulder––and behind it is blue sea. Is the stone a door? The serpent must’ve moved it into place while I was threatening to scream. But who is moving it now?
“Eirikur, you wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had––” A new sea serpent, speaking loud enough even for my aid-less ears, stops mid-sentence at the sight of me.
My stomach twists into little knots.
“Ah, Brynhildur.” Eirikur pauses. “Hello, dear.”
“That’s what you’re giving me? ‘Hello’? When you brought––?” Brynhildur shakes its head violently, disturbing the water, and then starts pushing the stone back with its nose.
I try to haul myself to my feet, but apparently the strain has taken more out of me than I’d care to admit. This Brynhildur doesn’t seem to like me, and I can’t say I like it either. If only I could get out of this dream.
“It’s so clumsy and awkward and wrinkled.” Brynhildur, now done with locking us inside the house, stares at me in the dim light. I almost wish it spoke softer so I wouldn’t have to hear its insults. “I thought portal creatures were more appealing, more appetizing.”
Lord Almighty, help me! I’m going to be fish food! “How dare you! I am quite appealing in my own right. You didn’t see me when I was a young woman! Oh, how the boys would trip over themselves trying to ask me to dance.”
Those were the days. But then I married Harold and had Greg, and, well, things changed. Harold was a good man, but my son . . .
“What is it doing here?” Brynhildur says.
Maybe Brynhildur is the lady serpent and Eirikur is the man serpent. They don’t look very different to me without my glasses, but their interactions seem to fit a normal human couple. Is Brynhildur Eirikur’s wife? Or is it the opposite?
I’ll just settle on Eirikur being the man and Brynhildur the woman. It’ll make it easier for my old brain to process what’s going on.
“This is, ah . . .” Eirikur clears his throat with a hiss. I don’t mind his speaking louder, allowing me to hear him better; he’s been at least slightly cordial to me. The fact that I’ll soon be in his stomach does dampen our relationship, though. “What was your name, gray one?”
I might as well die with dignity. “Adelaide Firth.” I tilt my chin upward. At least the term “gray one” is more dignified than “old lady.”
“This is Adelaide,” he says. “I found her falling from the portal.”
“Do you want Kalfr to kill us?” Brynhildur says.
Eirikur shifts, sending waves toward my bubble. “But Adelaide––”
“You know the code.”
Eirikur doesn’t answer.
I peer around the still-dark room. All I can see are stone walls, an impassable boulder, and two dangerous sea serpents.
“He hates portal creatures. He isn’t going to let you off easy for this.”
“I wasn’t going to leave her to die.”
Does this mean they’re not going to eat me? Oh, praise the Lord, hallelujah! I would get up and dance if my stomach wasn’t so darn queasy.
“I can’t believe you brought this upon us. You are so selfish!”
Brynhildur is scowling at Eirikur with her great scaly mouth. It’s not a good look for her, though she wasn’t exactly a beauty in the first place.
“. . . the quiet hour.”
Oh no, Eirikur has started speaking softly again. I need to hear him so I can make sure they’re not planning to eat me.
“Everyone . . . hunting rather than swimming . . . No one saw, dear.”
“Speak up for the old lady,” I say.
Brynhildur lets out a huff. That scaly mouth hides sharp teeth. “That doesn’t change the fact that now we have to figure out what to do with it.”
“I am a human being, thank you very much. You can also refer to me as Adelaide or ‘she’ or ‘her’––any of the appropriate pronouns. Anything other than ‘it.’”
The lights are fading so that, combined with my lack of glasses, I can barely see their faces. I don’t particularly enjoy staring at a scaly maw, but I’d also like to know if they make any aggressive moves. I can see Brynhildur’s pale eyes, though, fixed straight on her husband as if she’d like to skewer him.
“Are all portal creatures this irritating?” she says.
He shifts, stirring the water. “Ah . . . well . . .”
I cock my head. “Are you implying that more people like me have fallen through that darn hole?”
“Yes, you stupid creature,” Brynhildur says.
“Excuse you, missy! I am not––”
“We don’t have time for your arguing.” Eirikur lets out a loud puff of air, and the lights brighten again.
There, much better. Well, perhaps not better. I would rather not see Brynhildur’s glaring face.
“Adelaide, what I was going to say before my mate arrived is that the portal is much more difficult to leave than to enter.”
“You mean the puddle?” The way he’s talking . . . does he actually want me to go back? After all, I’ve been here for ages without ending up in someone’s stomach, so maybe that isn’t their intent. Hallelujah! I’m saved!
“Yes.” Brynhildur’s scales are shifting, almost like they’re poking outward. “Why would you ask such a ridiculous––?”
“Bryn!” Eirikur clears his throat with a hiss. “Please.”
Her scales start to flatten again, and she dips her head. “Fine. What he means is that no one has ever successfully exited back into what we presume is your world.”
“You mean to tell me that I can’t go back?” I frown. “But if you can go in, you can go out. That’s how doors work, you silly creatures.”
“My dear miss Adelaide, portals are different,” Eirikur says.
“But I need to be home.”
He gives me a sort of patronizing glance. I didn’t know serpents could do that. “Patience, gray one.”
“You don’t understand.” My heartbeat quickens. Where is my medicine when I need it? “I need to go home. My son is trying to take my house. I have to stop him.”
The two serpents stare at me with their beady eyes.
“He wants me in a home.”
“I thought you said he was taking your home,” Brynhildur squeaks.
“No, a retirement home. That’s where they send old people they don’t want to deal with anymore.”
Both gape at me for a moment. Then, from Eirikur, “That seems like an odd thing to do. You portal creatures have strange customs.”
“Why don’t they just take care of their kin?” Brynhildur says.
“Because all they care about is themselves.” He wants to claim that I’m senile and can’t take care of what’s mine, and the court just might believe him. He doesn’t even have a family to take care of! He doesn’t need my house! I need my house!
“. . . sounds . . . lonely life,” Eirikur says.
I don’t bother telling him he’s softened his voice again. “It most certainly is.”
“Why . . . want . . . go back . . . ?”
I stare at him. “I don’t belong here. I can’t breathe water, and you seem to think there is someone here who wants to kill me. I am going to live out my years in peace, thank you very much!”
I guess at some point I started believing that this was real. I know that’s absurd, but either it’s real or it’s the most vivid dream I’ve ever had. Admittedly, I like the idea of worlds completely different from my own. Maybe the people––or creatures or whatever you want to call them––can run things right. Humans have certainly made a mess of things.
Eirikur and Brynhildur look at each other for a long moment. Then Eirikur says, “. . . don’t know . . . get you back through.”
“That’s okay.” I square my shoulders. “I need to go home.”
Though there aren’t many people left that I care about. Harold’s been gone a long time, and Essie passed three years ago. All I’ve got left is Greg, and I doubt he even cares if I’m gone. He might even welcome it. My house is his in the will, at least for now.
I need to make things right––to make sure Greg knows that this is my house. My life. He doesn’t get to decide what I do, and he certainly has no right to mooch off me. For goodness’ sake, he’s fifty years old!
The building shakes. I can feel it all the way through the bubble, see the water rippling around me. The door-stone starts to shift, letting rays of light inside. My hands are numb, and it’s not just because the oxygen isn’t flowing well.
Another serpent has arrived.
“One Way” isn’t over yet. Read on in Part 2!
Also, if you want to see a different interpretation of the prompt, my friend Laura wrote a story “Through the Puddle” about someone who was never the same after their fall.