Of the many words she had learned over the years—and there had been many—this one was by far, her favorite.
There were only three books in her home. She didn’t know where they had come from. Like everything in The Place, they had no origin story. They just were. She knew them by heart.
One: a dictionary.
Two: a volume of poetry.
Three: a cookbook.
Each word came with a memory. A splash of color, a peal of laughter. Voices. They filled her head. This one coated her tongue with buttery sweetness.
She loved these words. They were her future and past. They were her life. But they were also her windows to another life. Another place.
A place called Minnesota.
She didn’t know where it was. She only knew the name—and that it had to be better than The Place. She had learned it from her books, as she learned everything. They had taught her the language she could never speak.
Minnesota. She loved how it sounded in her head. She could imagine herself saying it to someone else. Not the rocks that lined the path that wrapped around her house, though she had come to appreciate their company. Another person.
If she was even a person herself.
Her house was surrounded by dry, empty land, stretching for miles and miles in every direction. The sky above was a pale, sickly yellow, empty of clouds and breezes, with no sounds anywhere but the sound of her own movements. Sometimes, on days when she could no longer simply sit and stare at the same place on the wall for hours, she would run, away from her house and her books and her rocks. She would run until her feet ached and her breathing came in short, ragged gasps, never slowing down. But always, at the very moment she could run no longer and was suddenly longing for her small, quiet home, it would appear, sitting on the horizon like a dog waiting loyally for his owner. When this happened, she would scream, no noise escaping her mouth, scream silently until she could scream no longer. There was never any response.
Soon, she stopped running altogether.
Then came the day when, much like before, she could not take the quiet any longer. She burst outside, landing hard on her hands and knees on the dusty earth. Ignoring the stinging pain, she glared at the dull landscape surrounding her. She wanted to leave—wanted it more than she ever had, her whole life. Her whole existence.
Ocean. That was what she needed. An ocean. She would leave—sailing away, on a boat. But there was no ocean to be found—just an endless, empty plain staring back at her. Ocean. The word danced in front of her, glimmering in the light. Just out of reach. She stabbed her fingers into the earth, carving it again and again. Her hands ached, her fingertips stung, but she would not stop. She couldn’t. She wished for it to appear, to seep into her shoes, and wash away the dusty landscape, deep and cold and…
Her fingertips were wet.
Slowly she looked up, as a sudden salty breeze blew the hair away from her face. Seagulls cried as she stared at the wide ocean, waves lapping over her feet. They washed the words that she had written on the ground away. The ground under her feet had turned into a sandy beach. The water had appeared so suddenly, it had seemed to come out of the desert itself.
A slow smile spread across her face.
She left that same day.
Had anyone visited her home later—had it been possible for anyone to—they would have found everything in the exact place it had always been. Nothing seemed to have changed.
Except for one thing.
This thing was a rock. The nineteenth rock from her house, to be precise. For when the ocean appeared, the memories had come back. Not all of them—but enough.
The rock had been moved out of the perfect arrangement of the pathway, and underneath it, there was a small hole. It was empty, but it had not always been. There were three things underneath it when the girl first uncovered it: a compass, a map, and a plane ticket.
The slow lapping of the water was what entered her mind first. Then the feeling spread to her fingers and the rough wooden planks beneath her returned. Her eyes cracked open, filtering in the bright sunlight… Then she remembered where she was and sat straight up with a start.
It was her third day at sea.
The landscape remained empty.
Nothing around but sky, sea and boat.
She gazed around the small raft, as it drifting on the slow, lapping waves. She had found it on the beach the day she left—just lying there, as if it were waiting for her. She had felt excited then, but now… she just felt bored.
What was the point of the ocean, then? What was the point of the compass, the map, the ticket, if she was just going to float around on the silent sea? Was it all just a cruel joke? Was she going to wake up one morning in her house, with the ocean having completely disappeared?
But just as she pondered these awful thoughts, something did change. For a while, she had decided that the scene would stay forever the same—the sea had other ideas.
She had just enough time to open her mouth in horror at the towering wave before it crashed over her head and pulled her under.
That was all there was, everywhere.
She tried to suck air into her lungs but couldn’t. She couldn’t move. She panicked as she began losing consciousness… Then daylight flared up everywhere and she found herself sitting on a metal chair in a completely alien world.
Sliding to the ground on her knees, she took a long, shuddering breath. Had the wave brought her onto an island? She hadn’t seen any land anywhere, but that was the only possible explanation for what had just happened. Trying to take in her surroundings, she slowly got to her feet and then immediately fell back onto the chair as the words from her books returned, crashing into her harder than the wave. Then suddenly, her vision cleared and she could see where she was for the first time.
The chair she was sitting on was positioned near a glass table on the sidewalk outside a small restaurant. Cars sped by on the street, and people rushed past, talking and laughing. She had never seen anything like it before, but she recalled the words she had collected and slowly relaxed. She had made it.
Just then, a tap on her shoulder made her jump. She spun around to the young waiter standing behind her. He shrank back at her hostile expression, and remembering to be polite, she searched her brain for what to do next. Stop glaring! Smile! Judging from his wide-eyed expression, she had not been incredibly successful.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” he said quietly, looking like he was seriously regretting his choice of profession. Had she really been scowling that hard? Talking to other people was going to be tough.
“You have been sitting here for over an hour,” the man said slowly, as if she were a wild animal that could bite his head off at any moment. “You have not touched your food.”
“I—” she started, then immediately stopped. Her mouth dropped open, her face mirroring the waiter’s, who had taken a step back. But she could consider this turn of events later—she had no interest in explaining why she had never spoken a word before in her life. Act casual!
“I just got here,” she told the man, forcing the unnatural words out of her mouth. “I came from the ocean. Didn’t you see the—” The word wave died in her throat as she turned to gesture indignantly at the very solid, very dry, very decidedly-not-ocean landscape behind her. A choking gasp came out of her mouth, utterly terrifying the waiter, who gave an incredibly high-pitched squeaking noise and rushed back into the safety of the crowded cafe, nearly knocking over a pair of customers holding trays piled with food.
The girl began to piece together the situation. She didn’t need to find an airport. She was already there. Minnesota. Sure enough, as she felt around inside the pocket of her coat—her completely dry coat, she was just now realizing. She could tell that her ticket was gone. As for the details—how no one had seen her appear out of nowhere at a random table in the cafe, why the waiter had been convinced that she had been sitting there for so long—she had no idea. But she didn’t really care. Not anymore.
She sat down on the hard metal chair, running her fingers over the swirling design cut into the back. Staring cautiously at the contents of a plate that had apparently been sitting in front of her for at least an hour now, she attempted to mimic the careful way the surrounding customers held their utensils. When that didn’t work, she looked around twice and then tore off a piece of the waffle and stuffed it in her mouth. It was the first time she had ever eaten food, and although it was cold—and slightly dry—it still tasted better than it had in her books. In fact, everything here was better than it was in her books. Or at least, more. More bright, more loud—more alive.
As she contemplated these things, in her chair as the entire world flew past as if late for an incredibly important meeting, she thought of the house that she had left. She had never—not for a moment—expected to miss it, and really, she still didn’t. But in some strange way, she felt a little prick of sadness at leaving it behind. She shouldn’t, she knew, and tried to remind herself, but some part of her knew that in leaving the house, she was leaving her peaceful, solitary life. There was, as unlikely as it seemed and as harshly as she would have denied it just a few days ago, a certain comfort in having only rocks for company. A comfort that, she now realized, she would never have again. Not in her whole life.
Then again—this place had waffles. And what could compete with that?!
The sadness left. In its place, utter excitement set in. She wanted to do something now. Something like—going to every single place that sold waffles in the city!
She was going to have so much fun.
“Where did you come from?”
She turned around, surprised by the voice. It was slightly high-pitched, like that of a young child. Sure enough, the owner of the voice was a small boy—he couldn’t have been more than eight years old—giving her a stern and slightly incredulous look from underneath a dirty baseball cap. He pulled the hat off, revealing a head of bright red hair and freckles that stood out against his pale face. He frowned at her silence.
“Well? I know everyone who lives on this block –everyone-” He stretched his arms out for emphasis. “-but I don’t know you.”
“I moved here. From… “ She couldn’t think of an answer fast enough. He jumped on her pause. “See? You couldn’t even think of a good lie! You need to come up with one before anyone asks you! Whenever I want to break a rule—” he stopped, rethinking his sentence. “Never mind. That isn’t important. I just want to know where you came here from.”
The girl considered her next words. She could make up something fast, right now—but no, she couldn’t think of anything, and besides, the boy had already shown that he could see through any lie she would tell him. The only option would be to tell him the truth.
Only… what was the truth? That she had lived in a house by herself for who knows how long before an ocean had appeared and she had sailed away and ended up here?
“I don’t know,” she said.
The boy’s frown deepened. “You don’t know?! What do you mean, you don’t know? Is that even possible?”
She struggled for words to explain it. “I’m sorry. It’s just… it’s been a weird day.” What day in her life hadn’t been a bit out of the ordinary? Still, this one was by far the strangest.
Surprisingly, the boy’s frown had turned into a slightly thoughtful look at these words. “I guess I understand that. Sometimes I have weird days too. One time, we were out of orange juice for breakfast. Breakfast just isn’t the same without orange juice.”
“That’s… Okay. You know what? Sure. It was like that,” she replied. She didn’t want to have to explain that it was more like the orange juice had jumped out of the refrigerator, done a little dance, turned into a racoon in a cowboy hat, and disappeared. Also, why was she thinking in orange juice metaphors all of a sudden? “Those… orange-juice-less days, not much you can do about them.”
“Well, I don’t think that’s true,” said the boy. “You could buy orange juice.”
“But… Wait, what are we even talking about? Do you even care about the answer to your question, or not?”
“Never mind,” she said, sensing another long conversation about unrelated things approaching.
“You don’t need to tell me,” the boy said anyway. Before she could ask why they were having this conversation in the first place, he went on. “Some days, there just aren’t a lot of things going your way.”
“Actually, I think the problem this time is that too many things are going my way.”
“You mean… you’re happy that you’re out of orange—it was a joke! Sorry!”
She glared at him.
“But… I don’t really understand. Why is that a problem?”
“I guess I just don’t really know what to do now.” After doing virtually nothing her entire life, that was probably going to be a challenge. “Or where to go.” Really, until now, she hadn’t even considered this small problem. Where was she going to live?
“Oh,” said the boy. “I assumed you were going to your house.”
“My… what? Sorry?”
“Your house. Seriously, you’ve lived here for at least a week. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten where your house is.” He made a grand gesture toward a small purple house with a red door, which looked like it had been shoved between the two much bigger buildings beside it.
“Uh—right. My house.” From her position on the street, she could see the doorknob. It’s probably locked, she realized. Her heart sank. “Hey, actually, what’s your name?”
“Daniel.” He said it almost like a question.
“Daniel, you don’t happen to know where the spare key for the door is, do you? I… forgot.”
“Under the plant on the left,” he said abruptly, then turned slightly pink. “I… I kind of… sorry,” he mumbled under his breath.
“That’s okay,” she said. She would have to change the hiding spot pretty soon, she noted. “Thanks.”
“Yeah. And…about your problem. I think that, maybe… you just need to find something you love doing. Like a hobby, I guess. It might help.”
“You might actually be right about that,” she replied. “Well, goodbye. I—” She turned around to thank him again, but he was gone. Completely. Almost as if he had been a figment of her imagination.
The house was dark and sparsely decorated when she pushed the door open. There was a bathroom, a kitchen, and a bedroom through doorways visible from the living room, which was at the end of the short hallway she had entered through. It was furnished with a few antique-looking dressers and cabinets, a shiny wooden table, and an old purple sofa. The walls were covered with peeling wallpaper, a thin carpet lay underneath her feet, and a loud dripping from the kitchen sink echoed through the air. But there was somehow, underneath the creaking wooden floor, a distinctly happy feel to the atmosphere.
She loved it immediately.
It would take some time to get settled in, she knew. Many things needed to be bought or replaced. The light switch in the hallway would not turn on. The only thing on the kitchen counter was a wooden spoon. There was nothing, not even a bar of soap, in the bathroom. But she looked at the large wooden grandfather clock, and knew that it would all have to wait until morning. It was time to go to sleep.
The sun, streaming through the gaps in the curtains, was what woke her. For a moment, she thought that she was back at sea, but it was blankets, not wooden boards, beneath her fingers. She lay there for a minute, and then got out of bed and turned on the lights. She had a lot to do.
But first, she needed breakfast.
The store on the corner of the street had nearly everything, so she took the money she found in the dresser and bought a wide variety of supplies. She dumped it on the kitchen table. Potato chips, hot sauce, three bars of chocolate… orange juice. Okay, back to the store. This time, she got slightly more useful things. Pulling out a recipe book she had found, she gathered her ingredients. After fifteen minutes, she had made a stack of slightly burnt and lopsided pancakes.
She tried them.
“Oh well,” she told the kitchen sink. “Good first try, right?”
It dripped in what she thought seemed like an agreeable way.
“I’ll try again tomorrow,” she informed it. Then she left to buy soap.
Many years later, the city had changed. The cafe was gone, as were many other shops and houses. But some things were the same. The grocery store, the post office, and a little purple house.
Inside the house lived an old woman. For a long time, she had worked at the most popular restaurant in town, so nearly everyone knew her, even now when she no longer went there every day. The smallest children called her Grandmother, the figure most of the town now saw her as, and in response she would laugh and tell them that she wasn’t that old. But she had never told anyone how old she actually was, or her real name. So whenever anyone saw her, in one of the shops or walking down the street, they settled for giving her a friendly wave.
Every Saturday morning, she would get up and go to the place where she had worked for so long, and order the same thing—waffles and a cup of tea. She would watch the pigeons and the occasional dove roaming the sidewalk, pecking at the crumbs tossed to them by toddlers and their parents. She would watch people walking past on the sidewalk, lights coming on and doors opening and closing in the surrounding houses, clouds moving across the sky and the sun slowly rising. If you saw her, sitting at her table and watching, you would notice several things. One, that she had a kind smile and knew the names of most of the people that passed. Two, most of the people that passed knew her. You could also tell what her favorite color was—her coat, boots, and purse all matched her house.
But the most obvious thing about her—the one that people usually noticed first—was that she seemed happy.