|The Transformation Story Archive||The Paradise Saga|
Paradise is a Mudhole (1)
Aaron shifted around in the seat, trying to find a uncrushed spot of padding under the worn vinyl. The MG was OK for around-town driving, but after 6 hours it was 1,500 lb. torture machine.
The radio was useless, thanks to the only slightly muffled drone of the exhaust. And cold drafts from leaky wind seals took no notice of what British Leyland laughably called a heater. He shivered a bit, cursing the frigid mountain air, the darkness, and most of all, himself. He'd left his 2 year-old Honda sitting in the driveway, thinking that the MG would be more 'fun'. Climate control systems, automatic transmissions, and stereo CD radios were for old folks, right? Well, pass the Geritol and toss him a cane.
Of course, the reason for the trip was just as infuriating as the mode of transportation. He was the third-string backup to deliver a contract proposal by 2 p.m. tomorrow. Today, he corrected himself after looking at the dashboard clock. Dammit, he was an illustrator, not a special courier.
After 20 years of being the principal artist for the company, Aaron was suddenly playing second fiddle to a snot-nosed computer geek. Lawrence ("I really hate being called Larry") Talbot had started out as a real blessing, taking on a lot of the nuisance work that Aaron hated. And the kid's work wasn't bad. Maybe a little sterile, lacking in imagination, but the customers seemed to be satisfied.
That's what grated on Aaron's nerves the most. He took the time to create real art, ink on vellum. They always came to him when something special was needed. Yet more and more of the projects were asking for Lawrence. The kid could turn out a complete design in an hour using the computer. Sure, it was cookie-cutter crap, but nobody seemed to care that he was using clip art and standard fonts. The bottom line was cost, not quality.
Now the company wanted to send Aaron off to classes so he could start putting out cookie-cutter crap on his own computer. Wouldn't that be fun? Sitting in a classroom full of kids, listening to some geek half his age trying to tell him how to draw. If he was younger, he'd have quit. Of course, if he was younger, he probably wouldn't mind the classes.
A slight lurch interrupted his bout of self-pity, and he looked over the gauges. Nothing wrong that he could see. Then the panel lights flickered, and the engine faltered again. What the Hell? Headlights were dimming now, and the engine started to sputter. He down-shifted, looking frantically for a place to pull off the dark, two-lane road. Just before the engine died, he spotted a dirt road angling sharply off to the right. Pushing in the clutch, he coasted onto the rough driveway. The fading headlights flickered just long enough to reveal a sudden drop-off before they went out.
"SHIT!" Aaron slammed on the brakes as the car's nose abruptly pointed down. His effort was mostly wasted, for the locked wheels simply slid over the loose dirt under them. There was enough moonlight to see the edges of the path, and he concentrated on keeping on it. The car finally bounced to a stop at the bottom, though it took a few minutes for his hands to unclench from the wheel.
He turned the ignition off and fumbled with the hood latch. Then he threw the door open and extricated himself from the cockpit. He was a little big for the car, and the years hadn't made getting in and out any easier. Outside, he looked back towards the road and felt his knees get weak.
What he had thought was a driveway was little more than a dirt roller-coaster ramp which plummeted almost straight down into the small clearing. He doubted even a four-wheel drive truck could get up that incline, much less a tired British sports car.
"Damnation!" Aaron opened the trunk and pulled out a battered flashlight. He circled the car, and then crouched down to check the underside. At least nothing seemed damaged. Not that it made any difference. Even if he could fix it, he'd probably have to get winched out of this bottomless pit, anyway.
He looked at the steep path again. Quite a climb. And there was no traffic at all this time of night. Naturally, he'd decided to take the scenic route instead of the highway. It was at least ten miles back to the last house he'd seen, and he wasn't in much shape for a long hike. Shit! He hated being stuck here. He hated his job. He hated his whole damn life.
As he wallowed in bitter self-pity, Aaron noticed a faint glow in the woods ahead of him. Didn't seem bright enough to be a building. Maybe a campfire. With his luck, it was probably a bunch of moonshiners who'd shoot him on sight. Right now, even that might be an improvement.
The trees were far enough apart that he could move pretty easily. Thick foliage overhead blocked out most of the moonlight, and he stumbled a few times on roots and fallen branches. The glow was close now, and had an odd, multi-colored look.
"Hello?" There was no response to his shout. "My car broke down. Is anybody there?" Then he pushed through the last clump of brush and froze.
A swirl of light hovered in mid air, shimmering with soft pinks and blues. It was almost like a window made of luminous clouds. The glow seemed bright, but he realized it was only the absolute darkness that made it look that way. Bewildered, he walked slowly around the apparition. Straight-on, it seemed to be a soft rectangle, vanishing when viewed from the sides. Aaron blinked, and rubbed his eyes. The glow remained.
There were noises now. Laughing? Children laughing. What the hell? He moved away and listened again. The sounds were definitely coming from the strange window. He picked up a small branch and leaned forward, putting the end of the stick into the light. At first, there was no reaction. Then something grabbed the other end and yanked. Caught by surprise, Aaron lost his balance and pitched forward into the glow. There was the oddest sensation of being pushed through a strainer. Then he sprawled onto thick grass.
His eyes watered at sudden brightness, and he clenched them shut. It was 2 a.m. in the morning. The sun couldn't be up. Yet he could feel the warmth, and even shut eyelids didn't block out all the light. There were birds chirping close by, and he could feel a gentle breeze against his face. Then a soft giggle popped his eyes open.
Aaron blinked, this time in surprise. The woods were gone, replaced by a rolling field of flowers and grass. And a large clear lake shimmered invitingly where his car should have been. He shook his head in confusion, causing a few more giggles. As his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he stared at his audience.
Kids. Naked, dirty kids. Most were about 5 or 6 years old. The oldest was an 11 or 12 year-old Asian boy who was holding a familiar-looking stick. One of the smaller children, a blonde-haired girl, squatted in front of him and reached out to touch his foot. She squealed in delight and then ran to hide behind the older boy. Aaron counted more than 30 kids in a wide assortment of coloring.
"Uh.. Where ...?" He stopped, startled by the unfamiliar sound of his own voice. And he suddenly realized that the little girl had touched his foot, not a shoe. He was as naked as they were, but that wasn't the biggest shock. Thirty years had disappeared with his clothing, for the skinny body he was staring at was not much older than the Asian boy's.
His stomach knotted, and he clenched his eyes shut. God, he was going crazy! Small fingers stroked his arm, and he jerked away instinctively. The contact felt awfully solid to be part of a hallucination. He opened his eyes again, and stared at himself.
The small pink nub of a penis between those skinny legs looked pre-pubescent, and body hair and whiskers had been replaced with a faint golden fuzz. His face felt rounder, and his nose had almost disappeared. A shock of blonde hair dangled in front of his eyes, and hung in a tangled mop that reached almost down to his shoulders. The feel of it was oddly familiar, even though he hadn't worn his hair like that since he was a... kid.
If this was some sort of mental breakdown in progress, he'd certainly made it detailed. It was more than just the smooth skin and long hair. He felt different. After a moment, he realized that the difference was things he wasn't feeling. The dull ache of arthritis in his right shoulder and both knees was absent. So was the sensation of heaviness caused by too many snacks and a job where he sat most of the time. God, he felt wonderful!
Ok. So he was having a pleasant nervous breakdown. Unless this was a dream. Maybe he'd fallen asleep at the wheel. A painful jerk on his hair abolished that idea, and he twisted around to see a little red-haired boy grinning at him. The kid suddenly threw a handful of mud square in his face.
"Hey!" He scrambled up, wiping the stuff off. His attacker laughed and ran towards the lake. Aaron fought an urge to chase after him, and turned back to the older kids in confusion.
"Where am I?" No answer. "Please. Somebody talk to me. Who are you?" He directed the last to the Asian boy, who gave him an odd look and answered in what was probably Japanese. A couple of the other older children looked confused for a moment, as if they were trying to remember something. Then they started chattering excitedly.
And chatter it was. Totally meaningless noise, at least to Aaron. It didn't even sound like a foreign language. Where the hell was he? It was a beautiful day, sunny and clear. He could see for miles around. And that only made things worse. There weren't any buildings anywhere. There also were no mountains, no roads, and no forests.
Some of the older children took his hands, and started pulling him towards the water. He followed along blindly, trying to figure things out. The scenery didn't match anyplace he could remember, and none of the kids looked familiar. If all of this was being created by his mind, shouldn't there be something recognizable?
They reached the edge of the lake, and some of the children started splashing around in the water. It was more like a large pond, shallow and crystal blue. Two of the youngest kids started a mud fight, giggling as they pelted each other with brown goo. Then they suddenly started throwing mud at him.
"Stop it!" Aaron tried to shield his face from the bombardment, only to have the other children join in. Attacked from all sides, he didn't know what to do. His first reaction was anger, but the silliness of the situation broke through even his fear, and he started laughing and throwing mud back them.
The battle didn't stop until everyone, including him, was covered with mud from head to toe. Cleaning up was easy enough. The mud fight simply became a water fight, with kids splashing around in the pond. The water was warm, and the activity was so exhilarating that Aaron almost forgot how bizarre this was.
He didn't lose interest in the game until he caught his reflection in the rippling surface. Moving to another part of the lake, he was able to get a better look at his face. The image was familiar - he'd seen it a couple of weeks ago on his mother's wall. Not in a mirror, but in one of the old school pictures that charted his growth from first grade all the way up to a brief stint in the Army.
That was the sixth grade staring back at him now. Twelve, or just thirteen. Aaron grinned suddenly, making a face. Bewilderment and fear were still there, but they couldn't wipe out the growing delight in his new-found youth. All of this looked, sounded, and felt real. Either he was locked up in a padded cell somewhere, or... What? In some strange place where everyone was a kid? If he was crazy, well, there was nothing he could do about it anyway. So he might as well assume it was real. Ok. The next question was how the hell had he gotten here?
The glowing window. It was like some sort of doorway that he'd fallen through. What about the other kids? He winced inwardly at the automatic 'other.' Were they also victims of the strange glowing cloud? None of them seemed to be upset or unhappy. He looked around. A couple of the older children were chasing each other around in the tall grass, obviously playing some form of tag. Two boys were wrestling, and some of the other kids were splashing around in the lake. Playing. All of them were just playing.
There was a splashing behind him. The Asian boy touched his shoulder and dashed back to join the older kids. There was no mistaking the action. Aaron was 'It.' The urge to join them battled with the need to figure things out. Then he surrendered completely to the intoxication of youth, and chased after them with a shout.
He woke lying in mud, and sat up groggily. The other kids were scattered in groups around the lake, still asleep. Funny. The sun was still shining. He dimly remembered falling asleep after hours of playing, but it hadn't been getting dark.
The other kids were getting up now, a few already starting mud fights and silly games. There was a strange satisfaction in just lying here. Contentment greater than he could remember filled his entire being. Then the Asian boy leaped on him with a happy shout, and he was caught in a tangle of arms and legs as they wrestled in the mud.
The wrestling broke up, and they ran through the grass, sometimes racing, sometimes chasing each other. After what seemed like hours, they plopped on the ground to rest. Aaron noticed that the kids seemed to stay in two groups, divided by age. There were a lot more in the younger group, easily triple the number of older children.
He wondered about that. What determined the age here? Assuming of course that this was a place, and not some fabrication of his mind. Looking around, he realized that even the Asian boy wasn't as old as he'd first thought, certainly not more than 9. That made Aaron the oldest by a good 3 years. He was surprised that there wasn't more physical difference between them.
His thoughts were interrupted by another flying tackle, this time from the Puerto-Rican boy. The Asian boy joined in, and they started a second round of wild antics that lasted until they all collapsed together in the mud and fell asleep.
Bleh. Aaron's mouth was full of dirt. He came partially awake, wrinkling his nose at the gritty thumb firmly planted in his mouth. What the...? Startled, he spit the grimy digit out and sat up. His companions were nearby, also just getting up.
There was something wrong with the picture. The Asian boy next to him looked 7 or 8, definitely younger. And the Puerto-Rican boy was gone. Aaron looked around, and spotted him over with the mass of first-graders. Even from a distance, it was obvious the dark-haired child was now the same age as his new companions.
Realization prompted a quick inspection of himself. His arms and legs weren't quite so long, and his tummy was rounder. He poked at his navel, giggling a bit as sucked his stomach in and out. What? Aaron shook his head. This was serious. Pulling himself up out of the muck, he staggered on uncertain legs towards the edge of the pond.
The face in the water still belonged on his mother's wall, but had shifted several frames to the left. Third grade. Maybe even Second. He'd gotten 3 years younger in... The little boy in the water frowned. How long had he been here? There were vague memories of playing with the others, and waking in the mud. How many times?
The sun was still high in the sky. That puzzled him. It didn't look like it had moved at all. He'd been here a long time now. Didn't it ever get dark? Come to think of it, shouldn't he be hungry? He hadn't eaten anything since dinner.... when? Last night? Last week? About all he'd put in his mouth was mud and his thumb.
Speaking of that.. Aaron pulled the pink digit from his mouth with a sudden jerk of his arm, and stared at the glistening flesh. A glimmer of fear pushed through the contentment. What was happening to him?
This wasn't the first time he'd woken up like this, or even the second. Why wasn't he hungry? None of the other kids had eaten anything, at least that he saw. He hadn't had to go potty, either. Go potty? Aaron thought furiously, knowing the word was right, just not what he would have used before. Before what?
He was confused again, and confusion made him sleepy. He started to lie back down for another nap, but jerked upright. No! There was more than this, somewhere. He wasn't a little boy, not really. Furious concentration finally cleared his thoughts, and memories flooded back.
He was Aaron James Fitzpatrick, graphic illustrator for Bingamton Industries. And what else? No family, except for the mother he saw once a month. And a few friends. Not much to show for his life, at least so far. Why should he care about it? It was so nice just to run and play. Perfect childhood, without hunger, fear, worry. It was the answer to all his problems.
God! Aaron's eyes went wide. He'd wondered what had brought him here. Standing out there in the woods, hating his job, his life, his body. That frustrated longing had somehow opened a portal to a place where all those worries were gone. Paradise was a mud hole and some kids to share it with?
Maybe. He couldn't remember being happier. But then, he couldn't remember a lot of things unless he really tried. Perfect childhood didn't need memories. Apparently, it didn't need food or toilets, either. Just mindless games and mud fights.
The price for this eternal innocence was eternal ignorance. It was already hard to concentrate. The longer he stayed here, the closer he came to being just another empty-headed little boy. And without his memories, would that boy really be him?
Sure, there were lots of things he wouldn't mind forgetting. But not his art. He was pretty sure the skills were still there. But for how long? How long before he started drawing stick figures in the mud, not even knowing the difference? And it wasn't just a question of whether or not he wanted to leave. Did he have a choice?
Some sort of portal had brought him here. Maybe he could find another one to take him back. He looked around, trying to remember where he had first appeared. If the portal had responded to his subconscious desires, maybe he could open it again using his conscious wishes. He concentrated on forming the glowing cloud. Nothing happened. Again, this time trying to create a clear picture of the pink and blue light. And again, nothing.
He looked back towards the lake, getting frustrated. None of the children were paying any attention to him. That figured. They didn't worry about anything, including each other. Yet even as he thought that, he felt a growing need to go back to them. He had to struggle to maintain concentration, and control was slipping. If he was going to leave this place, it had to be soon.
What had opened the first portal? Wishing for someplace where he could escape? That was it. Maybe he had to think of the place he wanted to be. Aaron tried to remember everything about the woods, the valley where he'd left his car. A tiny spark of light flashed in front of him, becoming a purplish-gray spot in mid-air. That was it! He built the dark forest in his mind, remembering the fallen branches, the damp earth.
The spot enlarged suddenly, becoming a rolling thundercloud. Unlike the soft colors of the first portal, this one was dark and ominous. A warning? He hesitated, and the portal shrank suddenly. Renewed concentration restored it, but he could feel control slipping away. Was this the right place? There was only one way to find out.
It was dark, except for the beam of a flashlight lying on the ground. Aaron recognized the battered case immediately. He was back! The doorway was still pink and blue on this side, though it was now a sharp rectangle instead of the soft misty circle. He picked up the flashlight, fumbling awkwardly with both hands. It was heavy and oversized for an 8 year-old. He froze, staring down at himself. The portal had brought him back - but that was all. Joy and despair battled with each other. It was wonderful to be young again, but what the hell was he supposed to do? He sure couldn't go to work like this. And even if the shock didn't kill her, his mother's retirement community didn't allow kids.
The portal started shrinking, and he felt a twinge of longing for the simple joy it offered. The memory of the pond was crystal clear in his mind, and as he pictured it, the opening was suddenly full size again. Apparently, all he had to do was think about where he wanted to be, and the doorway appeared. He could go back if he wanted to. But back to what? Eternal childhood? Maybe that's what his subconscious wanted, but he wasn't ready for that yet. What other choices did he have?
If the portals were triggered by simple desire, there might not be any limit to the possibilities. Perhaps there were worlds to match every conceivable dream, every fantasy. His mind was filled with the possibilities. Someplace where creatures of mythology still lived. Or where he could fly like a bird.
The forest grew brighter, and he stepped back in surprise as glowing shapes began to appear around him. Some were faint, others better defined, and each pulsated with different colors. It was like a blind man suddenly able to see. His mind had been altered along with his body, and he knew he could will the portals into existence now simply by thinking of what he wanted. But where did they lead?
Somehow, it didn't really matter. There was nothing on this Earth for him now. And he knew the way back if he ever wanted to return. Taking a deep breath, he picked a portal and stepped through.
Paradise is a Mudhole (1) copyright 1996 by Bob Stein.
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