Jenna’s eyes fluttered open. So bright. It felt as if she’d just gone to sleep. How could it be morning already? Her eyes focused on the sky above her. The sky?
She sat up, gasping. Her hands dug into the lush, green grass underneath her. She was on the edge of a forest. Two narrow, roughshod paths started a short distance away from her.
She slowly stood, looking about her as she went. This definitely wasn’t her bedroom, was it? She brushed self-consciously at her backside. She felt denim. So somehow she’d managed to get dressed, too.
Jenna jumped at a sudden flash of gray movement in the grass before her. The gray lump stopped abruptly and looked upwards. It was a mouse. It grinned at her. “Hello, there! Welcome to our world.”
The young lady first gasped, then grimaced. “Oh, no… Not again!”
“Not again, she says.” The mouse crossed its tiny arms. “So rude!”
“Look, it’s nothing personal. This isn’t the first time I’ve been here, and it’s always a pain in the ass to get home, and…”
“Such language, too!” The mouse harrumphed.
Jenna clucked. “Yeah, well… That’s me.” She brushed an errant lock of hair from her face. She surveyed the two different paths. “Let me guess, one of these will lead me home.”
“Nope!” Jenna frowned. “Both of them will lead you home.” The mouse beamed.
“Of course they will,” she mumbled to herself. She turned back to her new friend. “So which one gets me there quicker? Hmm?”
“Well that would be the left one, but I really don’t think…”
“Thanks!” Jenna strode past the startled mouse and stepped onto the left pathway. She turned, smiling. “See you ar-OOF!” She found herself plastered against a very sudden, very solid brick wall.
The mouse winced. “I told you that wasn’t a very good idea.”
Jenna gasped. “You did not!”
The mouse’s eyes narrowed. “I certainly tried.”
“I suppose you did…” Jenna sighed. She turned back to the wall. “Well, every wall has a corner.” She turned to her left and was greeted by an adjacent wall. She cried out in disgust.
“Well, there’s the corner then, eh?” The mouse grinned. Jenna shot him a death glare. He shrunk back. “You could always try the other path, you know.”
Jenna rubbed her temples. She slowly shook her head. “Fine. Sure. Why not? It’ll be fun.”
The mouse beamed. “Of course it will be fun! This is after all the land of…”
“Yeah, yeah, I know! Just… Let’s go.”
“How did you ever manage to get here with such a terrible attitude?”
Jenna rolled her eyes. “Just call me lucky.”
“Maybe one of us,” the mouse mumbled.
“Right this way, milady!” The mouse shot forward down the path to the right.
Jenna plodded along behind the mouse, a dour look on her face. It softened as she took in the forest around her. The midday sun was pouring through the treetops, making vibrant, dancing shadows on the forest floor. It certainly was beautiful, here.
Jenna blinked. “I’m sorry?”
The mouse stopped, turning around. “You’re remembering, from before. Surely your last visit here couldn’t have been so bad?”
She sighed. “Well… Not all of it, no.” Her hand subconsciously moved to the keloid scar on her upper arm. “I never asked to come back, though.”
“Right, well…” The mouse pointed. “Here’s another split for you, then. The left path is shorter again but I’d strongly suggest going to the right.”
“Left it is.” The mouse groaned, holding his shaking head. She peered down that direction. The ground appeared a little dampish, but otherwise the way was clear. “Don’t be silly. It looks fine.”
“As you will.” The mouse turned down the right path and bounded away without another peep.
“That’s more like it.” Jenna smiled, turning down the left path.
The trees surrounding her slowly pulled away from the roughshod path she walked. They were replaced instead with tall, flowing grass. The ground grew increasingly damp to the point of standing water in places. Mosquitoes of alarming size and volume flew lazily about them.
A boggy pond came into view as she rounded a muddy corner. She grimaced, immediately regretting her decision. She turned around to return from the direction she had come, but it was too late.
A mud-covered, eight-foot-tall man stood before her. His sloping brow stuck out farther as he considered her. An ogre. His mouth stretched into a wide, toothy grin. “Well hello there, lovely! Haw haw!”
Jenna smiled hollowly. “An ogre! Okay! How lovely! Yes, well… I’m just wanting to go back the way I came, so if you don’t mind…”
“P’raps I do mind, then!” He crossed his log-like arms.
“If I’m on your property, I apologize. I’m just passing through.”
The ogre shrugged. “I’ll let you pass…” Jenna relaxed slightly. “If you give me what I want. Heh!”
Jenna shot him an incredulous look. “I am not that kind of lady!”
“Hold on to your garters there, miss. If I wanted your flower I’d pluck it, sure as the sun hangs high. I just want a kiss. On my forehead.” The grin returned. “Or is that too charged for you, eh?”
She sighed. “Well… I guess that’s not too terrible.”
“Less terrible than me tossing ya into yonder bog for being a pest, hmm? Haw!”
“Yes…” She stared absently at the path behind the ogre. “Yeah… Alright, I guess. Bend over so I can reach it.
“That’s the spirit!” He did as she asked and looked at her expectantly.
“Oh! No peeking now! That wouldn’t be very proper, you know.”
The ogre snorted. “Oh do pardon me, ma’am!” He closed his eyes and waited.
Jenna quietly tip-toed to one side of the ogre before making a run for it. She dashed past, brushing past him in an attempt to stay out of the boggy earth beside the path. It was a mistake that would cost her.
The ogre roared loud enough to shake the trees. He spun about and charged at her. He caught up with her in two strides and grasped the back of her shirt. She made a choking sound as her momentum pulled the neck of her blouse taut against her throat.
He lifted her clear off the ground by the garment. He held her at arm’s length, a smirk on his face. “We look slow, don’t we? But we ain’t! Haw! Not a bit, love.”
Jenna stared at the giant with wide, pleading eyes. “What… What are you gonna do with me? I’m sorry. I…”
“You’ll be sorry, right. What am I going to do with you?” He flashed a sinister look. “I’m gonna do just what I promised!” He started spinning around as he finished the sentence.
Faster and faster they spun around. Finally, he threw her with all his strength and a mighty roar that sent the birds fleeing from their perches. Jenna soared through the air, mewling and flailing as she went.
She fell back to earth in the center of the bog. She struggled to her feet, soaked in tepid water and rotting vegetation. She let out an exasperated scream.
The ogre boomed laughter. His mighty voice easily reached her ears. “Maybe next time you’ll just take your medicine like a good lass!” He swung one mighty hand in dismissal and pounded back the way he’d come.
Jenna fought back the urge to cry. She started dragging her way through the mud towards the other side of the bog. A familiar gray shape came into view as she neared the edge.
“You!” She flung out a muck-covered hand, pointing. Mud flew through the air and landed to one side of the mouse. The poor creature jumped, peeping in surprise. “How!”
The mouse’s eyes narrowed. “How? I took the path I told you to take. Funny how I’m here nice and dry while you’ve been tossed in the wash.”
Jenna growled but said no more. She pulled herself onto the dry path near the mouse with a tired grunt. She sat down, turned back the way she had come from. She looked at her clothes and groaned.
“I tried to tell you to take the other path.”
Jenna sighed. “Yes, you did.” She pushed her way to her feet, absently shaking her arms as she stood.
“Right, well…” The mouse gestured towards the path. “Shall we?”
“Sure. Why not?” The mouse was all too happy to skitter away from the look on the young woman’s face.
A short walk later, and the unlikely duo found themselves standing at another fork in the road. Jenna’s misery deepened. “Great. Another fork.”
“Well it would be odd if it were a spoon, wouldn’t it?” The mouse tittered at its own joke. Jenna did not. The mouse nervously cleared his throat.
“Let me guess. I should take the right path.” The mouse shook his head. “So the left path, then.” The mouse shook his head once more. Jenna frowned. “Well I have to take one path or the other!”
“Yes, you do… Just not at the moment.”
Jenna growled. The mouse took an uneasy step backwards. “Yes at this moment! I want to go home!”
“Well right now you should go up.” The mouse nodded at the tree behind him.
“Up.” The mouse nodded. “You’re insane!” Jenna pounded past the mouse onto the left path. The mouse looked nervously on, then thought better and took his own advice. He watched her progress from a slightly higher vantage point.
Jenna plodded down the path, raising dust and dropping mud from her soaked clothing. “Go up… I’ve had enough of this place. I loved this place! Such absurdity…”
She suddenly looked up. “What…” There came a loud rustling from further down the trail. She paused, listening. The sound subsided. “Just the wind.” She huffed and continued walking.
The rustling sound started again. She slowed. The rustling grew louder. “I uh… Maybe I should try the other path.” Jenna turned around and started back the way she had come.
The rustling did not subside. It instead grew louder, more consistent. She walked quicker. Was the ground rumbling? She slowed and ventured a look over her shoulder.
Her mouth formed into an “O” at the sight of the massive dust cloud rising in the distance. The rumbling grew in intensity. “Oh sh…” She turned and ran. “Mister Mouse! Mister Mouse!”
A wild group of galloping ostriches clawed and leaped their way through the forest. The mouse’s tree was just ahead! She spared a look behind her and paid dearly for it.
The toe of her shoe caught fast on a root in the ground and sent her stumbling to the ground. She was quick to her feet, but the ostriches were even quicker. Jenna turned to see them bearing down on her.
The ostriches hissed and scratched and kicked as they scrambled around her. Jenna’s screams were quickly lost in the stampede that surrounded her. The crowd finally began to thin out. Jenna, shaking, collapsed against a tree and began to weep.
She stood wearily a short while later. She looked down and fought not to cry again. A quiet rustling came from behind her. She jumped, quietly crying out. It was the mouse.
“Pardon!” He looked at her from head to toe. “Oh… Oh, my. I dare say, you’ve been tarred and feathered, haven’t you?”
Jenna looked down again. The thick, sticky mud had clung to the loose feathers of the ostriches as they streamed by. It was an apt description. She sniffled, nodding slightly. “I just want to go home,” she said in a small voice.
The mouse sighed, nodding. “Best thing for you, perhaps. Maybe you’ll follow my advice now?” Jenna nodded numbly. “Right! This way, then! This path would have taken you straight to the Razorhides.” Jenna did not recall the Razorhides, but shuddered all the same.
They rounded the tree that the kindly mouse had scrambled up a short while ago and took the path to the right. It slowly arced in a semi-circle back in the direction of the left path. One path eventually crossed over the other via a gracefully arched stone bridge. The mysterious Razorhides could be heard howling somewhere in the distance.
They emerged from the forest back into the brilliantly shining sun. The mouse sighed contentedly. Jenna frowned as the mess on her slowly dried in the heat. Tarred and feathered, indeed.
The mouse turned to face Jenna at the end of the path a short time later. “I’ve two things to show you, young lady. First, please follow me.” Jenna did as requested.
They ventured to the left a short distance through the grass. Soon they stood at the edge of a seemingly bottomless pit. The mouse turned to Jenna. “Not one person to fall in there has ever returned.”
Jenna shrugged. “That’s too bad? I won’t jump in there?”
The mouse smiled slyly. “You tried to!” He turned and pointed at a short cliff on the far side of the pit. “Up there… That’s the end of the path you tried to take at the beginning of this little adventure.”
“So that wall wasn’t trying to keep me from going home, it was trying to keep me out of the pit?”
“Looks that way, doesn’t it?” The mouse winked. “This way, please.” He skittered back the way they had come.
A short walk later and they stood before a round pool. Jenna ran a hand along the top of the slate wall that formed its sides and leaned over the edge. Her own gently rippling reflection stared back up at her.
Looking closer she saw something beneath the surface. Buildings and people were vaguely visible. Did she hear the drone of distant traffic? She spun around, smiling. “It’s the way home!”
The mouse jumped out of the way of a flying chunk of feathery mud, frowning. “Yes, I suppose it is, isn’t it? Perhaps you’ll be a bit cleaner on the other side of things…”
“Yes…” She looked down at her ruined clothes. “Still…” She looked back out across the fields before them. Maybe I could stay a while longer? I… Well, I missed being here.”
The mouse raised a furry eyebrow. “Fancy that, with you rushing for the exit so swiftly, hmm?”
It was Jenna’s turn to frown. “Yes, well… I suppose I haven’t been a very nice person…” The mouse nodded enthusiastically. “But perhaps if you gave me another chance…”
“Nope!” The ogre loomed up from around the far side of the pool and pounded towards her.
“What? How? I don’t…” Jenna’s head whipped back and forth between the petite mouse and the mammoth ogre.
“Yep, you don’t. Haw!” He hoisted her up and dumped her unceremoniously headfirst into the pool. “Heh! The end, eh Mouse?”
The mouse shook his head. “Quite! What a figure…”
Somewhere on the far side of that pool, in a city far away from the peace and tranquility of the other-world, Jenna rocketed out of a public fountain. The pigeons that had been sitting quietly about it screamed their defiance and fluttered into the air as she splashed back down. Jenna popped back out of the water, gasping. She spit out water, shaking her hands in front of her.
A police officer that had been leaning on the side of his cruiser stood up, eyebrows rising markedly. He shook his head and pushed on the bridge of his mirrored sunglasses. He walked towards her, talking quietly into his radio as he went.
“Hello, officer!” Jenna smiled innocently and waved. A chunk of mud flew through the air, just missing the officer. The man flinched reflexively backwards. “Oh… Sorry!”
The officer smirked. “Ma’am, I’m gonna have to ask you to step out of the fountain, please.”
“Oh, boy…” Jenna did as she was asked.
“So what’s your story? Take a wrong turn, or something?”
Jenna’s cheeks flushed. “Yeah, you could say that.”