Karen stood on her garden path looking at the smiling man in disbelief. In front of her, where her gate usually stood was a shimmering rectangle of blue sky.
"Taa daa!" said the smiling man with a theatrical swoosh of his hand.
"JD, what on earth is that?" she asked with a nervous tremor in her voice.
"It's a portal," he said as though it was the most ordinary thing in the world. "We can't get to Beyond without it, especially if we want to make it to The Well of Good Intentions with our resolutions by sunset.”
JD reached out his hand and she reluctantly took it. "Why does this feel like an episode of Doctor Who, with you as the Doctor and me as the hapless companion about to be deleted by an army of Cybermen?
JD laughed. "Allons-y," he yelled and unceremoniously pulled her through the portal.
Beyond was not how she had imagined it at all. They found themselves in a cobbled alley at the edge of a medieval town square and it appeared to be market day. Looking around, it seemed they were not the only visitors to Beyond. Several distinctly non-human beings were perusing the stalls in front of them.
They stopped at a stall laden with curious fruits, grapes that exploded into droplets of wine as they touched your tongue and sighing strawberries, so sweet it was impossible not to let out an exhalation of delight as you ate them.
"As tempting as it is to linger, we have to locate the path to The Well", said JD looking at his watch. "It's a long walk and time is tickety ticking on". He approached an elderly lady selling loaves of crusty fresh bread. "Excuse me; we’re looking for the path to The Well Of Good Intentions".
The old lady looked at him with a horrified expression. "The Well? You don't want to be going there, dearie. Or is it that you don’t realise the path takes you through The Forest Of Lost Dreams?"
JD and Karen exchanged glances, "Is that a bad thing?” they asked in unison.
The old lady gestured them near with a gnarled finger and whispered...
"Beware gentle strangers
the starless night is cruel
the wraiths have souls to gather
amid the darkling wood.
Sorrow's voice will find you
as it lulls your heart to sleep
you'll be lost forever
your dreams theirs' to keep".
The words had barely left the old crone’s mouth when the sound of a flipping coin caught their attention. Both Karen and JD looked in the direction of the noise and saw a large cat dressed in sailor clothes leaning against an alley wall. He had a peppermint candy cane in his mouth and a sailor’s accent to go with his clothes.
“Ye wanna see tha well, ye come with. Ye wanna have delicious bread, ye talk to ‘er.”
“And who might you be?” asked Karen taking a defensive posture quite unlike her kind vegan nature would lead one to believe she was capable of.
The cat meowed a giggle and gave his coin a toss and snatched it from the air and put it on the back of his paw. With another meow, the cat giggled as its skin seemed to melt and morph into a fox that spoke with a sexy female French accent. “Moi, Je suis Flip. And I am ze ideal guide to ‘elp you croz ze forezt.”
JD and Karen looked at each other, baffled at the Deus ex Machina moment though choosing to go with it. It’s not like they expected Beyond to be anything that could be described as familiar.
“And your fee?” asked Karen.
“Catnip and quail croquettes as sold by the lovely Madame Croquette over yonder.” Flip was pointing to the right and when they were finally able to look beyond the crowd, they saw the sign indicating the Madame’s booth. The crowd was as raucous as they could ever imagine making it clear that the croquettes were in high demand. Looking back at the now foxy Flip, the smile showed her intentions. “You do the line and I won’t even make you pay.”
Karen looked at JD. JD looked at Karen. Both looked at Flip and spoke simultaneously, “Deal!”
“Fantastic!” said the fox as she flipped her coin in a manner as graceful as her corset and dress would allow.
She made a beeline straight to a heavy brush next to the market and spoke to it. “Let me pass, I have business in the forest.”
The shrubbery hissed and shook and giggled too if such a thing can be done by plants. It then spoke in at least 4 voices of varying tone, volume, and tenor. “You know the rule. Say it.”
“Say what?” asked Flip a bit bored at their request.
“Say the thing,” said the shrubs in their whisper giggle.
“What thing?” asked the fox annoyed at their insistence.
“What did the fox say?” said a solitary voice before the other voices broke out in huge laughter.
“Seriously? You’re going to be that way?”
The laughing continued and at least two of the voices were able to speak while the other 3 or 4 couldn’t stop laughing. “Thems are the rules, Flippety Flip Flip.”
The fox continued to flip her coin though not pleased at all at the demands. “Fine. Ask the question again.”
The laughter had rendered 3 of the voices unable to say a thing. The two remaining voices spoke in tandem: “What did the fox say?”
Explosions of laughter scattered from the bushes as they finally parted to open the way to them. Flip snatched the coin from the air and put it on the back of her paw again. “Damn… still a fox. Shall we?”
JD and Karen looked at each other, shrugged and went into the forest with their Fox guide.
The forest path immediately plunged them into an eerie twilight world of rustling leaves, creaking branches and unidentifiable sounds. Karen peered cautiously around her while JD smiled broadly into the darkness.
"This is great!" he said. "I promised you an adventure and here we are!"
Flip let out a decidedly foxy yip of laughter. "Be careful what you wish for, JD."
No sooner had she spoken when a figure appeared on the path in front of them. A curious creature made of mist and shadows. It drifted towards them with silent determination and made a beeline for JD.
As they drew nearer they saw a beautiful woman, dark eyed and luscious lipped, but as Karen looked closer she realised there were two layers to the creature. Below the perfect surface swam a gnarled, wizened apparition, cruel eyed and slack jawed.
Karen looked at Flip. "Is that what I think it is?"
Flip leaned against a tree and casually tossed her coin from paw to paw, her tail swishing in a lazy arc. She let out a smug sigh… "Yep"
Karen turned back to JD and was horrified to see him gazing adoringly into the wraith’s eyes.
"Do something!" she screamed.
Flip laughed, "he's your friend, you do something."
Karen glared at her furiously and made a grab for JD's arm. He pulled away with a frown.
"JD… wraith!" she yelled, tugging at him urgently. It was no use; he was completely under its spell. A curious pale blue light was slowly seeping out of his skin and drifting skyward.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and with a look of sheer determination Karen kicked JD in the shin as hard as she could.
"Owww… what the hell?"
Karen pointed at the now angry shadow creature and bellowed "WRAITH!"
JD windmilled backwards knocking Karen off her feet. Flip clapped her paws in delight and chuckled. With one swift motion she sent the coin in her paw sailing through the air, gracefully arcing through the wraith in a spinning motion. The wraith shimmered and the beautiful disguise slipped away. With a voiceless scream it made its escape.
Retrieving her coin from the ground Flip let out a throaty chuckle. "Forget the catnip quail croquettes, this trip's on me! I haven't laughed this much in years!"
JD and Karen glared at her, watching as the wraith disappeared into the trees, a faint glow of blue from JD's life energy still floating behind it. The two friends exchanged worried glances.
"Are you ok?" Karen whispered, her hand on JD's arm.
His answer froze on his lips, as out of the gloom came a low, rumbling growl.
Growls turned to barking, and if a voiceless scream had escaped the wraith before, some pain laced voiceless yelping was now coming from the bushes. From the same place the wraith had escaped into the bushes, it now came screaming and burning a trail on the ground but without the life energy following it.
All three of them had been left staring at the wraith running, a piece of its essence clearly missing from the rear side of its glowing tunic. Looking back into the bushes, two dark brown eyes peered back at them with that disarming kindness only one creature could possess.
“Bailey!” said JD and ran to meet the basset hound in the clearing.
“Ick!” said Flip at the sight of the caramel-eyed dog.
JD knelt and took the full brunt of the basset tackle that sent them both rolling to the ground. Tears of joy flowed freely and even hitting the perfect scratch spot that sent the dogs legs bicycling from here to forever, the dog known as Bailey still managed to gratuitously lick at his friend’s face. With each lick, strands of JD’s life essence coiled around the young man, binding to his skin and melting back into him. He felt warmth and joy return and could care less about the mess.
“That’s a good boy. Yes it is. Such a good boy.”
Having his fill of cuddling, JD got up, covered in dog hair and smiles.
“Are you done?” asked Flip a little disgusted at the young man.
“Yeah, I think so. You want a hug?” JD said cheekily.
Without losing a beat, Flip flared her coat and drew two pet hair rollers and before he could even mumble a complaint, was as clean and the two rollers looked like pet hair versions of candyfloss. Flip threw them behind her head and kept leading the way.
“I hope we don’t have to walk too much longer,” said Karen while kneeling down and scratching at the kind basset hound. “You did really good, Bailey.”
“As you can see, he’s a bit of a floozy and will go to any kind person willing to properly scratch and love him.”
Flip drew another pet hair roller, “Do I have to use another of these?”
JD knelt back down and met the dog’s piercing gaze. “Thank you, papa. Now you know where you have to go. I’ll meet you there in a bit. We have a daydream to share soon.”
As he’d done thousands of times before, Bailey gave a slow nod of his head and stamped his cold nose on JD’s cheek. Afterwards, he bounded back into the bushes.
“Nice pal you have there, JD,” said Karen smiling at the sight of the dog.
“He was the best,” said JD a look of longing clinging onto the last sight of his dog.
“Touching sentiments, now care to walk long enough to get to the Well of Good Intentions?” Flip said almost indignant at being ignored over a dog.
Karen looked at the fox and shook her head. “I will never grasp how someone can avoid being a dog person.”
“Right?” said JD with a look of confusion on his face.
“Well of Good Intentions? Ring a bell?” said Flip defensively.
“Let me guess, we still have to walk miles,” Karen said.
“Actually, it’s just around the corner… literally.”
The fox pointed and Karen and JD followed the finger to a little slope that went down a bit into a clearing where the edge of a building stood there, surrounded by a canal of glowing water.
“So it really IS just around the corner,” said Karen.
They walked down the slope and a happy hum came off the glowing water. Next to the canal, little plants grew with bulrushes made of little crisp looking cookies.
“What are those?” asked Karen.
“Those are wish wafers,” said Flip. “How else do you think you will make a wish at the well of good intentions?”
JD knelt down and picked one for him and one for Karen. “Milady,” he said handing her the wafer.
“Wow, I have no idea what to wish for…” she said.
Flip gave a smile at both of them. “That’s a good thing actually. Good intentions need not be specific, just good.”
Looking at JD, she gave a shrug nod accepting that such a thought made all the sense in the world. JD put his arm over his friend’s shoulder and smiled. “So what say you, Miss Ohren? Got any good vibrations to send into the Aether?”
Her smile was kind, sincere, and warm, as were her good intention. With those in mind and heart, they both took a bite out of the wish wafers and sent the soul of a warm smile into the Aether and onto the world.