The Rough Country
Mike and Callie saw fewer and fewer houses as they drove, till there were none; just flat land as far as they could see. They reached a sign on the side of the road and slowed down to read it. It was an ancient plank of sun-toasted wood, with red painted letters cracked with age.
It read: THE RUF K NTRY.
“Not sure if that’s rustic or just plain illiterate.” Mike said.
“According to Friq,” Callie said, “This used to be THE RUFUS KANTRY ROAD, way back in the olden days. Some of the letters peeled off the board, and no one ever got around to repainting it. It’s been called ‘The Rough Country’ ever since.”
“So who was Rufus Kantry?”
“Some guy who did something important here once, long time ago; Friq didn’t say what.”
“So they named a road in a barren waste after him?”
“It wasn’t a barren waste at the time. It once held towns and farms and fields. Then something bad happened.”
“Evidently.” Mike said.
It was a desolate place.
A place of dry cracked earth and weeds. The occasional trees they saw were twisted things that looked too wretched to hold anything heavier than a poojee bird upon their brittle branches. Yet many held aloft the black carrion birds known as wullarks.
“Are we in any danger from those things, Mike?” Callie asked.
“I don’t know. I think we’re okay as long as we stay in the wagon.”
To their left, numerous rock outcroppings arose in the distance.
“See those, Mike?” Callie asked, “That’s where the gallanashes and cwarnas live. They come out of their caves at night to hunt.”
“Wow, someone’s an almanac today.” Mike said.
“Well, I am the smart one.” Callie replied.
About three hours in, something began to bother Mike, but he was unsure what.
As usual, Callie cut to the heart of the matter with a simple question.
“Shouldn’t we be able to see civilization or something by now?”
“You’re right, Cal.” Mike said, “It’s been three hours and the frikking scenery hasn’t changed.”
“Maybe the map people just underestimated the drive.”
“I guess. Let’s just hope not by much.”
“You look tired, Mike. You want to eat something?”
“A burger and a soda would be nice. I can eat and drive.”
“Just watch out for traffic.” Callie said with a snort, “You know, one of these days you’re gonna hafta teach me how to drive this thing, so we can take turns.”
“I’ll take it into consideration.” Mike replied.
Callie brought out two of the burgers Jahu Friq had made for them. She gave one to Mike, and reached for the sodas from the cooler in the back. She popped their tops and put one on the cupholder for Mike.
They ate their lunch.
Bother turned to worry as another hour clock by with no apparent change in the forward horizon. Worry turned to unspoken panic, as yet another hour passed without progress.
Mike stopped the wagon.
“Something is wrong.” he said, “No way we should still be here.”
“How could the map be this wrong?” Callie asked.
“I don’t think it’s the map.” Mike said, “Call me crazy, but it’s like…” he struggled a moment to find a metaphor, “It’s like a play, where they create the illusion of motion by moving a loop of scenery-painted fabric around and around behind the actors. It looks like they’re moving, but no one’s actually getting anywhere. That’s what this feels like---like we’re not really moving. Does that sound nuts?”
“Well, yes.” Callie said, “But what is really happening here? It isn’t like we’re lost, there’s only a single stretch of road for gosh sakes.”
Mike thought for a moment.
“There’s a pair of binoculars in the glove compartment, Cal.”
Callie opened the glove compartment and took out a small pair of plastic binoculars. She handed them to him.
“Not exactly professional grade.” she said, “Didn’t you win that at the coin toss last county fair?”
“No, the duck pond.”
“The duck pond?” Callie smirked. “Isn’t that, like, for kids?”
“Now is not the time for that discussion.” Mike said. He opened his door and walked outside. Callie followed suit.
Mike climbed to the roof of the wagon, and glanced about with his binoculars, while Callie walked ahead of the wagon to stretch her legs.
Far off in the distance ahead of them, Mike spied a black dot; then another, smaller dot.
“We might just get an answer after all,” Mike said, “Someone is coming this way.”
“Well that’s a relief.” Callie called out, still striding ahead like she intended to walk to Metromax, “Maybe they know what’s---“
Callie disappeared mid-sentence.
Mike dropped the binoculars; they clattered and broke upon hitting the pavement.
“What the hell?!” he said, not believing his eyes, “Callie?”
She was gone.
Mike climbed down the front of the wagon and jumped off. He ran to the spot where Callie had stood before she blinked out of existence.
“CALLIE!!” he shouted and nearly ran into her as she suddenly reappeared.
“---IKE!!” she finished saying.
“What the hell happened to you?!!” Mike cried out, “Where did you go?”
“What the hell happened to YOU?! And the wagon?!!” she replied, “When I turned back, nothing was there!”
“You disappeared!” Mike said, flailing his arms spastically.
Callie noticed something, and grabbed his arm.
Mike did, and saw that his arm, the one pointing at the spot where Callie had disappeared, was missing a hand. He withdrew the arm quickly, and the hand returned. Callie moved her arms into this space and they too disappeared.
“Look Mike!” she said and stepped ahead, disappeared; stepped back, and reappeared.
“Stop that!” Mike said, “What’s it like on the other side?”
“It looks exactly like this,” Callie gestured to the scenery around them, “Only you and the wagon aren’t there.”
“That’s it then.” Mike said, “That’s the answer.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it.” Mike said, “Imagine two of these…whatever they are, spaced a few miles apart, in the center of the Rough Country. You drive past site A, no problem. You pass site B, and it sends you through site A again. You don't even notice cause it all looks the same.”
Callie’s eyes widened. “Holy Gloeis! That would explain why we haven’t gotten anywhere after hours and hours! But what if we just turn around and go back through the first one?”
“But you just did that. Twice. Where did it send you?”
“Oh, that’s right. It just brought me back here.” she said, “The doors must only swing one way. You can come in from outside, but once inside, you’re stuck in a closed loop. But if you’re right, and I think you are, we’re talking magic here. The real kind.”
“Someone went through a lot of trouble to get us stuck here.”
“But who? Why?”
“We'll find out soon enough. Someone is coming this way.”