I never meant for this to happen.
Everyone dreams of that one event—that one encounter that sparks something extraordinary into motion. Some people even think their dream will someday turn into a much sought-after reality. I, on the other hand, was not one of those people. I knew my life was a series of boring events after boring events—of small town customs and schoolwork and familial outings. Never did I expect anything to change. But I suppose that’s the purpose of a surprise; it hits you when you’re least prepared and takes you on a journey that maybe you wished to go on and maybe you didn’t. And if at first you were unwilling, when the day is done, it is possible that you realize just how good of a ride it was.
At least that’s how it went for me.
My story began on a midsummer’s day—a day when the sky was clear and the warm air was permeated only by the slightest of breezes. I was sitting under the shade of a yew tree that must’ve been as old as the village itself, for its trunk was thicker than any other I had seen and its boughs drooped down and formed a sort of wall, obstructing my field of vision. Surrounding the tree was a field of daisies, their little yellow faces smiling up at the sun, and a short distance behind was the church, built hundreds of years ago in the red sandstone distinctive to the area. I had come here too many times to count in the short sixteen years of my life, and I could not help but think of this tree as my tree, this churchyard as my churchyard, and these daisies as the ones that I ran amongst when I was a child.
One time, my sister made me a daisy chain for me to put in my hair, and I wore it the entire day, feeling as if I were a princess and I ruled every flower in the land. For some reason, that memory returned to me now, and I felt tempted to ask my sister, Alexandra, to create another headdress for me. She sat beside me, absorbed in a thick text book that she brought home with her for the summer holidays. Years had passed since she first gathered those daisies, and now she was a graduate student at Oxford, studying history and planning on becoming a teacher once she finished her studies. She was not afraid of leaving university; rather, she was eager to enter the real world, as she called it, for she felt that it would be the true test of her capability.
If I was in her position, I would have been quivering with fear. I was thankful for the shelter that accompanied the time before adulthood; I was so nearsighted that I could not imagine what I would be doing in five years. There was the real world, and then there was my world, where I swore to myself that I would stay for as long as possible. At some point, I knew I must leave, but I tried my best not to think about that. I lived in the present, reminisced the past, and did my best to ignore the future.
Which was why it annoyed me whenever my sister brought it up.
“Alice,” she said presently. “Don’t you think you should be doing something a little more useful than watching the clouds drift by?”
“I can’t see the clouds; the branches are blocking my view,” I replied.
She sighed, and I glanced over at her. She was beautiful—far more beautiful than I. Her eyes were a striking shade of yellow-green, and her delicate features—along with her slender body—gave her a dainty look that sharply contrasted against my clumsiness. I was not tall, but I was taller than she, and my twig-sized legs made the difference seem drastic. I was gawky while she had the grace of a ballerina. The only similarity between us was our hair, which was the same color black as our mother’s. Alexandra’s hair was shorter than mine, however, and her side fringe swept prettily across her forehead.
“You’re not going to get anywhere in life if you never do anything productive,” she said as if she were disciplining a student. “Don’t you have a book to read or something?”
I scoffed. “It’s the summer. I’m taking a break.”
“Albert’s not taking a break, and he’s younger than you,” she said. “I saw him studying his Latin yesterday.”
Albert was our little brother. He was only thirteen—ten years younger than Alexandra. Sometimes I wondered if he was an accident, or if my parents planned on having him because they knew he would make me look bad. He was a rising scholar; he had the top notes in his class and seemed to be a walking dictionary—of English and Latin words.
I obviously wasn’t the brightest one in the family.
“Well, he’s Albert, and he has more brains than anyone else in Cheshire,” I said, rising to my feet. “I’m Alice, and I suppose the only thing I’m useful for is picking daisies. I would ask if you’d like to come with me, but I know you’re too busy with that dreadful book of yours.”
She shook her head disapprovingly and returned her eyes to the miniscule text on the page. Not always had she been like this. When she was younger, she had been just as carefree as I—frolicking through the flowers and daydreaming about impossible things—things like magic and colorful castles and a world of nonsense. Now she was more practical: a realist, as she put it, whereas my head was always so far up in the clouds that not even an airplane could find it.
I pulled the low-hanging branches of the yew tree away so that I could form a gap large enough for me to step out of. The sea of daisies was immense, rolling down into a valley beside the narrow lane that led to the church. Hardly any cars ever passed by; most people used the main road to reach the building. I descended the little hill, for it was a sunny day and the trees by the lane offered plenty of shade. It was pleasantly cool here, and the boughs under which my sister sat were out of sight. I crouched down and picked a handful of flowers before I was startled by a sudden cry.
“Oh dear, I’m late!”
I looked up and saw an old man hurrying along the lane, his cheeks pink with exertion. He was humorously small, with stooped shoulders and wisps of white hair that grew on the crown of his head and near his ears. His clothes were elegant and reminiscent of a previous time; he wore white gloves and carried a fan. In his other hand was a pocket watch, which he kept glancing at nervously. He was so preoccupied that he did not notice me when he approached, and he resumed talking to himself as though no one else was there to listen.
“The Queen will not be happy—not happy indeed!” he said, and I noticed that his two front teeth were abnormally large and bucked. “Oh dear, oh dear, how late I am!”
I stood and cleared my throat. Surprised, he turned to gawk at me through his oversized, round spectacles. From this close a distance I could see that his eyes were puffy and pink, and his nose twitched every few seconds as if he were about to sneeze.
“You work for the Queen?” I asked.
“Yes, yes,” he said quickly. “But you see, I don’t have time for—”
“Then what are you doing all the way in Cheshire?” I interrupted. “I hear the Queen is in Scotland this time of year.”
He cocked his head for a second; then, realization dawned on his leporine face. “No, no, no—not that Queen. A different Queen.” I opened my mouth to speak, but he immediately stopped me by adding, “Now is not the time for questions, mind you. I am terribly late, and the Queen—my Queen, not yours, yet I suppose your Queen would be my Queen as well, for I am English myself”—he checked his pocket watch once again—“Oh dear, I shall be much too late!”
He rushed to the center of the lane and glanced back at me. “You must look away; this is of the utmost secrecy,” he said gravely. “If you choose to pry, you will gain nothing but trouble. As they say, curiosity killed the cat—although there is one very much living cat whose curiosity unfortunately has not managed to kill him yet.”
“You wish for a cat to die?” I asked, appalled. I had a cat of my own; her name was Diane, and she was my favorite member of the family.
He made an impatient sound and waved the subject away with a gesture. “No matter. Just look away!”
I did as I was told—for the briefest of moments. When I took a glimpse at him, he was crouching on the ground, too engrossed in whatever it was he was doing to make sure I was following his orders. He tapped his fan twice against the asphalt, and after a few seconds, a gap large enough for a man to fit in appeared. In one swift movement, he sprung into the hole with an agility that belonged more to a creature than a human.
I gasped and ran toward where he had jumped. He was gone—the gap was dark and so deep that I could not see to the bottom. “One massive pothole,” I mused aloud. “I wonder where it leads to.”
If curiosity was able to kill the cat, which had nine lives, it would certainly do worse to me. But I could not resist. I followed the old man down.
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