This story is from Stepping Through … a collection of Fantasy Portals short stories.
Renae hiked up the dirt road, keeping her steps low to the ground to keep from raising more of the brown dust. She could see a curve to the right up ahead, bounded on both sides by what looked like giant round marbles made of yellowing grasses. The area was rocky and barren except for a few trees that were shedding their dying leaves.
She was searching for two trees – distinct ones. The folks in town had told her she couldn’t miss them – one had limbs only on one side, all of which were bent over as if the tree was trying to reach down and pick up something. The other was short and squat with a few limbs that reached up and through the other one. She’d find both were so brown as to look black.
As she rounded the bend, Renae halted to wipe the sweat from her brow, sweeping her short black bangs to the side. Up ahead, she could see what she thought might be the two trees from her directions. She welcomed a cool wind that had come up with the setting of the brilliant sun that was blinding at times.
A small lake glistened in the sunlight and provided a bit of moisture to the air. The air’s earthiness reminded her of the Virginia mountains, where dried leaves and branches mixed with the dwellings of the smaller creatures that made their homes within the steamy compost. She’d lived there all her adult life.
The land here was flatter, allowing her to walk each day, even though her range was getting shorter as the end of her trip neared. She was tired, but that was to be expected at her age and in her condition, the doctor had said. Still, she pushed on, fighting back against her body that had rebelled, leaving her with less and less energy.
Her light jacket was tied around her waist, not yet needed but pulled from her backpack on an earlier stop. She’d made good time and hoped to reach the Two Trees Tavern before the sun was completely gone. There was supposed to be an old church nearby as well, but she’d decided to save that for another day, if she had time on her trip and felt up to it.
For now, the old stone tavern was where she could sit and drink a cool one while watching the aurora australis, or southern, lights. Seeing them was on her bucket list, and what better place to do that than in New Zealand, where some of the darkest skies in the world would be the backdrop for the lights?
She’d long wanted to see some of the country and its neighbor, Australia, but on her terms. The outback and less crowded areas with brief stints in the cities to visit the museums and get a sense of the people.
Out alone on the trail, however, was her first love, despite the dust and lack of restaurants or comfy beds to lay her head on at night. Having the stars overhead and the scavenging sounds of animals on their nightly rounds were company enough. She quite liked making sure she had the supplies to get from one place to another, chatting up locals in the villages and towns along the way who were quite helpful.
Hiking further along, the bending outline of the trees told Renae she was in the right location. She kept moving at a steady pace, one booted foot in front of the other.
The land had turned even more barren as she moved inland with fewer trees and more scrub brush, brown and brittle. As she approached the trees, she looked to her left and saw the tavern sitting on a small hill. Steps had been chiseled out of the hill, each one almost four feet wide and two feet deep, with grayish-white rocks on each end to hold the dirt in place.
Renae counted thirteen steps to reach the entrance. Who would go to the trouble of building the steps when walking up the incline was almost as easy? Or was that meant as a welcome to visitors?
She walked to the entrance, a wooden double door, twice her height and three times her width. It was surrounded by a mosaic of stones of yellowish-orange, brown, and tans in all shapes and sizes, as if the builder had decided to create a giant puzzle with pieces of whatever he found nearby. The black slate roof created a framework under which the stone walls rose to meet it.
She stopped for a moment, wondering if this was the entrance and if she could open the door, which looked heavy. A bronze-colored nameplate to the right side of the door read Two Trees Tavern.
Renae looked around. The townsfolk had said there were night tours for seeing the lights, but there were no other people and no sounds were coming from the tavern. Was she early? Or the only one venturing out to see the lights? None of this made sense.
She breathed in a deep breath and reached for the knob.
The door swung open easily, almost as if her touch had activated some mechanism.
Dim light poured out, and the faint notes of a bluesy country instrumental song wrapped around her.
Renae relaxed, recognizing the music as sounds she’d heard all through her travels.
She stepped inside and allowed her eyes to adjust to the darkened room. The door behind her closed with a click, taking with it the rays of sunlight from the early sunset.
It was mostly a square room with wooden walls with various doors leading to rooms between the center room Renae was in and what must have been sleeping quarters or storage areas along the building’s perimeter. A fireplace assembled from more of the stones that created the building’s exterior wall was in the far-right corner.
Behind the bar, glass reflected the bit of light from the metal chandeliers of lighted, glass candles. Shelving distorted the glows, with brown and clear bottles, some with long slender necks, some with short, all blocking the flickering images. It was almost as if she had stepped into a medieval tavern, but one with electricity and hopefully a few other modern conveniences like running water.
A bored-looking blond woman sat on a stool behind the bar.
Renae wove her way through the mixture of empty round wooden tables and chairs to the bar. She pulled off her backpack and leaned it up against the bar. She took a seat on a padded bar stool with woven blue and green plaid that had torn in several areas. The air was a bit musty and edged with smoke and a perfumed fragrance she didn’t recognize but without any of the scent of spilled liquor on the floor or sweat from people having been in the room.
With a distracted look, the barkeep stood up and asked, “Want some grog?”
Renae had to think twice as to what grog was. All she could remember was that it related to sailing ships and pirates from a much earlier time. Rum and water, maybe?
“No, I’d like a beer. You have Speight’s?”
The woman wiped down the bar with a rag as she shook her head.
“Nope. Grog or nothing.”
Renae stared at her. Speight’s was the beer of New Zealand. Why wouldn’t this bar have it? And why only grog?
“I don’t understand. Do you have coffee or maybe Lemon and Paeroa?”
With the tavern being so far off the beaten track, maybe they didn’t have a liquor license for anything else.
“Sorry, the only drink is grog here.”
“That’s kinda weird. Why nothing else?”
For the first time, the woman looked up to stare at Renae with dead brown eyes.
“Just the way it is. You don’t like it; you can sit a while or leave.”
Renae was a bit taken aback at the unfriendliness, which was so unlike everyone else she’d met on the trail and in the small villages. She figured she’d stay and see the lights, then hit the road.
“This is the right place to see the aurora australis, right?”
The woman sighed.
“The southern lights. Not even the northern ones. Not even someplace lots of folks want to come to. Wish I’d never seen this place.”
“Do you own it? Why don’t you leave?”
The woman’s face shone for a moment.
“In a manner of speaking. Why? You interested in taking it over?”
Renae leaned back against the stool’s fabric cushion.
“No, I just wondered since you don’t seem very happy.”
The woman turned back to reach for two glasses on a shelf. She mixed up a drink and sat back down on her stool. She tilted the drink and swallowed half of it in a couple of gulps.
“I’ve been here sixty years today. My only wish is to be shed of this place.”
Renae tried to keep the shock off her face. She would have guessed the woman was no older than forty.
“Why don’t you close up and leave for a while? See the world and come back when you’re ready to retire.”
The woman laughed.
“Retire? It doesn’t work that way here. I’m stuck until another takes over.”
“Why don’t you tell me about it? I am a good listener.”
The woman pointed to her glass, and Renae nodded. She’d take a sip to be polite. She might even be able to collect the woman’s story to add to the ones she’d already heard if she bought the drink.
After mixing the drink and adding some additional rum to her own, the woman set the glass in front of Renae.
“A toast – to new friends.”
Renae lifted the glass and took a sip of the lemony rum drink, and almost coughed. It was much more potent than she had expected.
The sound of doors opening caught her attention, and she turned to the right.
Along the wall.
Three, to be exact.
A wrinkled-faced woman, her hair wrapped up in a turban, sat in a narrow closet-size room. Colorful pictures crowded every inch of the walls. The square table in front of her was covered with a flowery cloth. On top sat a crystal ball.
The second was a room with silvery walls as if they were papered with aluminum. A blond-haired girl sat smiling at her, her reflection bouncing off the walls so that her smile seemed to be coming at Renae from all directions.
The third was a wooden room, with a wizened older man seated at a small square wooden table. A pair of red and white dice laid in waiting.
Renae turned back to the woman with a question on her face.
“What’s going on?”
The woman laid a gold doubloon on the counter in front of Renae.
“Comes with the drink. On the house. Pick one, any one. You’ll need this.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It goes with the pirate and grog theme,” the woman said with a shrug.
Renae laughed. The woman jerked her head sharply at the sound.
“Sorry. It was just so dramatic and unreal. It caught me by surprise.”
The woman relaxed a bit.
“I had the same reaction. Go check them out. You can pick one or none. Each room is different as you can see, and each has something different to give you.”
Renae sipped her grog. The second taste was no better than the first sip, and she pushed it away. The rooms were intriguing. She got up and walked over to the one where the older woman sat waiting.
“Hello Renae,” the woman said. “Come in and have a seat.”
Renae started, wondering how she knew her name. She looked down and saw that a wooden chair had materialized in front of her. She looked around, searching for anything else that had been hidden from her.
“There is no need to worry. You can leave this room at any time. The chair was for your comfort. You can stand if you wish.”
Renae moved to the chair and sat.
“What is all this? Are you a psychic or fortune-teller?”
A deep throaty laugh rang out.
“I suppose you could call me that. Or much more. I am here to make you an offer for your gold coin.”
Renae remained silent, trying to take it all in.
“I can give you your past to relive again. Or rather, you can go back to any moment in your past and change it. Then continue living your old life with that change in it. I warn you that changing your past can have unintended consequences, so beware of what you decide.”
As she began to think of the many times she might have made other choices, Renae saw images filling the crystal ball. She leaned forward to get a better look.
What Renae was seeing were in fact memories.
“Yes, my dear. All of those times and more are available to you. Just say the word and pass me the coin. I’ll send you off on a glorious adventure.”
Renae looked up from the crystal ball.
“Will it change my health issues?”
The woman frowned.
“I am not able to see what effect any change might do, but in this as in all endeavors, some things cannot be changed.”
Renae considered the woman’s words. There was no underlying deceit that she could detect. She rose.
“Thank you. I have much to think about and two more rooms to visit.”
The woman nodded.
“I’ll be here if you chose to relive your life in a different way.”
Renae rose and left the room. She turned left and walked a few feet to the second door.
As she entered, the little girl clapped her hands.
“Come in. Come in. I’ve been waiting so long. I have so much to tell you.”
Renae smiled in spite of herself. The girl’s excitement was infectious.
“And who are you?”
“My name does not matter. What I can do is offer you a way to live in your future. Would you like that? Doesn’t that sound good?”
Renae had to agree it did. All the things she wouldn’t be able to do like see her grandchild grow up, know that her daughter was well and happy, and see what changes happened in the world.
“It does. Is the cost here the gold coin as well?”
“Oh yes. I love gold. Can I have yours? Do you want to go with me on this journey?”
Renae wanted to say yes, if only to spend time with this young girl. Her heart felt lighter just being in her presence. She was tempted.
“If I go to the future, what would that mean for my daughter? Would I be able to see her? Will I be able to find a cure for my disease?”
The girl frowned.
“I don’t know the answers. Those are in the future, and I cannot see that far. You would have to find out for yourself.”
Renae considered her words.
“I will think about it.”
“I hope you do. I’ll be waiting for you.”
Renae turned and walked out of the room. She turned left yet again, and a few steps later found herself in front of the small wooden room, unadorned with any pictures or mirrors. The wizened man sat in front of the round table with the dice.
“Come in, my dear. I’ve been waiting for you. Have a seat.”
Once again, a chair had materialized in front of Renae. She moved to it and sat.
“I supposed you’re the ghost of the present,” she said.
The man giggled, and Renae laughed with him.
“Ahh, you know Dickens. It does my heart good. How is the old fellow these days?”
She stared at him, realizing that time meant something entirely different to him if he didn’t know that centuries had passed.
“Charles Dickens died long ago. Are you saying he came here to visit New Zealand?”
The man waved his hand as if what she said didn’t matter.
Renae sat up a bit straighter.
“I thought his trip was canceled. He was supposed to come but then didn’t. The Christmas Carol was published in 1843. I don’t know why you are trying to deceive me, but the two can’t be related.”
The man raised a finger and pointed toward the other two rooms.
“And if he had been here and chose to relive his life from a moment in his past?”
Renae sucked in a breath.
“No, that can’t be.”
She shook her head, unable to make sense of what the older man was implying. And yet, he had given her a clear example of how the first room might work. Was it real? Did it matter? It was mind-boggling at best.
“That would mean the woman’s words were true.”
The older man tilted his head to one side.
Renae took a moment to quiet her thoughts. That would mean all three of these offers might be real. But she still had not heard what the older man had to offer.
“Why are you here? What does this room mean? Assuming I am right and it is the present part of this trio of propositions.”
“You are correct. This is the present. And will be the present for as long as you stay here.”
Renae struggled to understand what he was saying.
“And how long would that be?”
“Only the tavern knows. You are here because it may be time for our current caretaker to move forward in her life. And leave.”
Renae considered the words. She leaned forward.
“I would be stuck here, inside, for as long as I remain here?”
“That is mostly true. There will be visitors, of course. Tourists in the high season with lots more of the stories you have been collecting. You are free to go outside to see the southern lights as often as you please. You will be able to remake the tavern over in some ways, but there are restrictions. You’ve seen some of that in the tavern’s only drink being grog. That was an early mistake of the barkeep.”
Renae sat back and watched the man.
“But I can’t leave to go to town or exploring anywhere else? How will I survive without supplies”?
“This was your last adventure anyway, wasn’t it? You can hike within a certain distance of the tavern, returning each day. You can even camp outside if you wish, as long as you return each day. You will be supplied with whatever you need to live.”
Renae was dying anyway. Would she go stir crazy if she stayed here?
“And my health issues? Will I die here?”
The man’s face softened.
“It will always be the present day for you here. The world will pass you by in time, although you can access information from your laptop of what is going on and follow your family’s activities on social media. They could even come here, but they will not recognize you. And your illness will not worsen unless you leave the tavern permanently.”
Renae felt stuck to her chair. The choices were overwhelming in their implications. Then there was the last choice which was to do nothing and simply live out her life and say goodbye to her daughter when the time came.
“And the dice? What are they for? Do I roll them to see if I stay or not?”
The man shook his head.
“If you decide to stay, you roll them to determine the name of the tavern and what rights you have to make changes. The lower the roll, the less you can change. The higher, the more.”
Renae wasn’t sure that made sense.
“And what did the bartender roll?”
“Double threes. We call that Two Trees. If you roll something other than a double, then you aren’t meant to be here.”
The man closed his eyes and crossed his arms on his chest.
Renae took that as a sign he wouldn’t tell her anything more.
“Thank you. I have a lot to consider.”
The man grunted. Renae walked absentmindedly back to the counter where the bartender sat. She wanted a real drink to wash away the acidic taste in her mouth.
She reached inside her backpack and pulled out her water bottle, taking a sip so that her tongue no longer felt glued to the bottom of her mouth. Renae turned to the bartender.
“Would you do this again?”
The woman’s smile turned sad.
“I had no family to speak of when I came here. I was young and naïve. I thought having the power to remake this place and get anything I wanted was worth it. And it was for a while. I’d be glad to have you take my place so that I can live out my life somewhere else.”
Renae considered her words. Her daughter had a family and was happy. They had all spent time together, knowing that Renae had a few months to live, and she wanted to live them on her terms. She would have loved to spent them with her daughter and new baby, loved to have seen the child grow up, but that wasn’t going to happen. Could she instead give the woman behind the bar her life back? Was that the right turn in this trail of life?
The lure of hearing more travelers’ tales was strong. And she could write those down for others to enjoy and discover. Or she could go to the future where she might be cured, or they might use her illness to save others.
What did she want? To live more? To serve?
That was truly why she had come on this journey – to a place where she could find the solitude of understanding the meaning of her life. Now she was offered a choice that would answer that question.
Renae looked down at the coin in her hand.
She’d lived a good life. If she relived a part of it, then she could lose the joy of motherhood, even as she would lose the struggles from it. She ruled that option out.
If she couldn’t spend time with her family, some unknown future made no sense. She ruled that out as well.
The present – well, if Dickens went on to write his stories, so could she. With her laptop, she’d be able to type them up and send them out to the world for others to enjoy.
Or she could get back on the trail and see where it took her, free from any obligation to anyone.
Renae stood and put on her backpack.
“Good-bye. Thanks for the drink. I won’t forget you.”
Renae watched tears began to fall. She wasn’t sure if the woman was crying because she thought Renae was leaving or relieved the decision was made, but Renae didn’t stop to find out.
She moved to the rooms on the sidewall, thanking the woman and girl for their offers, and headed toward the older man. She heard the doors close as she moved away.
She entered the third room and put down her backpack.
“I’d like to roll the dice.”
He opened his eyes and smiled.
“It’s a good choice.”
Renae set down the coin, holding onto it for a moment, then sliding it over. The man took it and reached for the dice. He placed them in Renae’s hand.
She shook them. Then with a laugh, she blew on them.
“For good luck,” she said as she rolled them.
Two sixes came up.
“A midnight roll,” the man said. “Excellent.”
Renae smiled and looked back at the bar, but it was empty. She turned to stare at the man.
“She’s already on her way. The tavern is now yours. If you want to make a change, simply roll the dice and make the wish.”
“I wish I heard more of her story. Will I see you again?”
“Only when it is time for you to leave.”
Renae stood up and grabbed her backpack. She walked past the first two rooms as the third door closed. She moved behind the bar, setting her gear in the corner. There was time to discover what was behind the many doors of the tavern. For now, she needed a beer and to see the southern lights.
She rolled the dice, wishing for a fully stocked bar including Speights and the other drinks of New Zealand.
In a flash, the shelves’ contents were replaced with bottles of vodka, gin, and other liquors, as well as soft drinks. A small refrigerator under the bar opened, inviting Renae to take a cold drink from its contents.
With a beer in hand, Renae headed to the front door.
As she opened it, her eyes feasted on a glorious display of yellows, oranges, and blues – the southern lights welcoming her.
She watched for a while until the lights began to dim and then turned to go inside.
Looking to the right, she reached out to touch the bronze faceplate which now read: The Midnight Tavern.
As she walked inside, the door clicked shut behind her. She couldn’t wait to see who her first guest would be and what story they had to tell.