Chapter 57

Mary was in the woods. These weren’t just any random cluster of trees though, these were her woods. She tread along the small path, one that had been carved by her own feet through the years, and breathed deep of the clean air and silence. She’d forgotten how quiet her woods were, how peaceful they made her feel. This wasn’t just a telepathic silence, either; that one she could now achieve on her own. This was a world without car horns and buzzing electric lines and humming air conditioners. This was a place of peace. Well... almost. Every now and then Mary caught a sound from another direction, something like the sound her parents’ change had made when she’d knocked it from the counter as a child. Mary didn’t know why that memory crystallized so clearly; she’d barely been three at the time. For a moment she could swear she saw that toddler version of herself peeking back from behind a tall oak, but then she blinked and it was gone.

The rogue sound persisted. It came in snippets, always out of sight, but always from the same direction. It was off to the east. Mary didn’t know what it could be; in that direction was a small lake that she’d splashed about in when the sun grew oppressively hot. It wasn’t lake weather today: it was a perfect temperature, the kind where she could have lounged among the leaves until sunset. The noise didn’t want to let her; however, it insisted upon intruding in her woods, poaching her precious peace with its chittering tones.

It came again and Mary adjusted her direction. She would attend to whatever it was and then resume her day. She hadn’t been home for a long time, and even if she couldn’t remember how she’d come to be here, Mary was going to damned well enjoy herself. As she walked, it seemed like the light slipping through the trees was changing. It had been a slightly overcast but bright day when she was on her path, now the sun was glowing a hot yellow overhead. The canopy began to thicken, the leaves turning from their emerald green to a steadily deepening autumn red. A curiosity splashed against the bulwark of Mary’s peace. Why were the leaves changing? It wasn’t the right season for that, was it? Mary began to realize she didn’t know what season it was, or what day it was. With every step she was becoming increasingly aware of how little sense this all made. How had she even gotten back here? Hadn’t she been somewhere... doing something... with some people? The memories were resisting her, but Mary was becoming more dogged in her insistence that they appear.

She glanced around and realized the canopy had turned into a red ceiling, dozens of mini-suns glaring down at her from its crimson heights. No, not suns. Light bulbs; it was a ceiling with seemingly endless recessed lights. The trees were no longer very tree-shaped either. They’d thinned out and taken on a silver shimmer. Each had only a single branch, angled upward at its side like an arm raised to answer a question. The fronts seemed to have strange symbols on them; Mary stared closely at one before realizing it looked like a crude drawing of a lemon. A tickle in the back of her mind insisted she knew this peculiar shape, but she just couldn’t access it. Instead she plodded onward, making note of what changed as she did. The trees were shrinking; the tallest ones now stood only around seven feet tall. They were getting boxier, too. As she moved forward, Mary noticed mushrooms in front of the trees were growing tall, with wider red tops and black stems. She brushed the tops of one and found it soft, yet the stem was cold and hard.

“Stools,” Mary said softly. She didn’t understand why it wouldn’t come earlier; that was obviously what the mushrooms were changing in to. Maybe it was because in her forest there were no stools, so such knowledge in this place served no purpose. This wasn’t her forest anymore; it hadn’t been for nearly half a mile. Mary rolled that thought around in her brain. She knew how far she’d walked, but her feet weren’t sore at all, and despite her brisk pace she’d never once taken a ragged breath. This wasn’t right at all.

Mary began to run forward, the silver box trees whipping by her in an increasingly swift blur. She never could have moved this quickly before, why was it so effortless now? The world slipped past her, the trees and mushrooms seeming to move like a flip book, each passing one becoming identical with the others around it. All at once Mary burst forth from the trees and found herself standing in a room that positively dripped with the tinkling sound she’d heard in the woods. Now it was no longer a gentle annoyance, it was an overbearing anthem encasing her. It was the sound of coins cascading onto metal, and an electronic mimic was being blared by every slot machine in the room, of which there were hundreds.

“Slot machines.” That’s what the trees had been turning into, why couldn’t she see that before? Mary stood on the threshold of the lobby, a row of slots to her back and a beautiful marble floor only one step away. Upon it were tables lined with green felt, bars set up strategically at key intervals, and nothing even close to resembling a window to the outside. There were people, too: big men in striped suits, older couples rhythmically tugging the arms of machines that refused to pay out, tall women in skimpy clothes carting drinks to the cheerful gamblers. Mary had heard about places like this, she’d seen them featured in movies, but never in her life had she actually been to a casino. Given the high emotion and packed population, it would have been an indescribable hell in her Powered days. She wondered how such a place had manifested in her woods, and without thinking, she took that final step onto the main floor.

Mary nearly doubled over at the bursting sensation that ripped through her head as soon as her foot made contact with the polished marble. It all came flooding back, everything that existed outside her forest. Lander, Alice, George, the match, Halloween, the look in Rich’s eye as he’d stared at them... and then it all made sense.

Mary picked herself up slowly, making sure there weren’t going to be any aftershocks from that mental dam breaking. Everything seemed to be responding appropriately so she started to venture forward. She’d nearly forgotten Rich could induce paralyzing illusions in people’s minds. It seemed she had something of a travel visa; at least this certainly didn’t seem like her mind anymore. That would explain why she was aware of her predicament, perhaps. As her sneakers trod across the ground, she made sure to take in as many details as possible. Unless Alice had a gambling problem she’d hidden exceptionally well for the past year, Mary had a strong hunch of just whose brain she was taking a tour of and this was not an opportunity to be squandered.