Freebie Mondays: The Time Between Times

Freebie Mondays: The Time Between Times

Since we had two blog weeks in a row, it’s only fair to have two free fiction weeks in a row!

This is another random picture prompt. I wasn’t sure where this one would go when I sat down to work on it, but it came to me the instant my fingers started to move. And I already have plans for a follow up!
. . .

On the outskirts of Meilani’s hometown, just on the edge of the border between the suburb and the city, there was an old, abandoned warehouse. The floor tiles were peeling. The ceiling had been stripped down to the beams. And large swaths of paint were missing, revealing the cracked, original drywall beneath. Up and coming artists had visited the site many times to leave their marks, leaving a series of bright bubble letters along the bases of the walls the sun had faded over time. The windows, miraculously, had survived intact.

Meilani liked to sit under them with her back pressed to the peeling, painted wall while she doodled in her sketchbook. Sometimes she wrote words that came into her head in looping script. Sometimes she sketched faces, though she always spent most of her time on the eyes. Meilani loved drawing eyes. There was an intensity to the human gaze that was difficult to match on paper. So she traced the outline edges until they gained depth, trying to match the glossy, smoky vitality of her favorite gazes.

Once, this portion of the city had been full of industrial complexes, buzzing and sputtering smoke at all hours of the day. But now it served as a buffer between those who lived in the heart of a city that never slept, and those who wanted to be close enough to dabble but not be swallowed by the city’s sound and glory. Now this abandoned warehouse was quiet, filled with the distant chitter of crickets and the occasional roar of a big truck chugging down a side road.

It was the perfect place for creativity to flow.

Meilani first found it in seventh grade while she was looking for a place to hide from her brothers. She had four – three older, one younger. They were loud and boisterous and nothing got her in more trouble than trying to make them shut up for ten minutes.

Her brothers didn’t like this abandoned stretch of industrial strip. They said it was because broken glass and jagged metal littered the ground, a poor environment for the kind of wrestling they enjoyed with their friends. But Meilani had overheard them talking about bad juju, the kind that made them feel like someone was watching constantly over their shoulders.

Meilani’s reaction had been to laugh, then draw herself peeking out one of her favorite hiding place’s windows at her brothers far below.

Now a senior in high school Meilani visited her warehouse haven almost every day. She was tempted to spend all her non-school, non-home chore time here, but she made a decision to ban homework in her happy place. This was a place for creative freedom, not the humdrum authority drilled into her by the school teachers.

Meilani wasn’t a fan of the normal things that excited the rest of her peers. She didn’t care about football on Fridays. She didn’t care about pep rallies, weekend getaways, dances or even marching band – though she was fond of the chorus. She could sing until her throat went raw (although her teacher said that was bad). Meilani didn’t care about  straight A’s – though she got them so her parents would keep off her back – or that time the high school science lab caught on fire because someone didn’t properly measure their chemicals before activating a Bunsen burner.

Meilani cared about art and adventure. Meilani cared about mystery and intrigue.

That was why she decided to sneak out of the house the night of prom. And instead of going to the stupid fancy dance, like all her school mates planned, she slipped out to the warehouse. She wasn’t sure what she planned to do. The camping lanterns she stole from her dad’s stash in the garage would only provide a few hours of light. But she also didn’t care. If she was in a place of creativity, adventure would come. Perhaps she’d finally sketch the perfect eyes. And even if she didn’t, it would still be time much better spent than drinking fancy – and only potentially spiked – punch, chatting about which sports teams were going to win which trophies, and fluttering her eyelashes at boys she didn’t like anyway.

She nearly cackled with glee as she stole beyond the small cul de sac that held her house and skittered down the back alley that eventually led to the abandoned lot. Behind her, young men were emerging from limos to knock on doors and present fancy flowers to young women in flowing, lacy dresses. Hair styles had been worked on all day. Makeup was caked thick to faces. Awkward smiles were being exchanged.

But she left it all behind. She skidded down one hill, then charged up the next, crawling the last few feet on hands and knees while she rebalanced the backpack bearing her stolen supplies.

Failing old street lamps cast an oddly greenish-yellow glow on her favorite hiding spot when she approached it. She had never seen it in the dark before. It was the kind of thing she’d expect to see in a horror movie. She swept the windows with a keen gaze, expecting to see a shadowy, rotting figure moving through the darkness but, to her eternal disappointment, there was none.

She kept a careful eye out as she skirted the wall, looking for the thin crack that had been widened by time and curious children until it allowed one body to pass through the barrier into the warehouse. All the doors were still held closed by thick padlocks, so one had to risk muddy knees and torn jeans in order to get inside. Not a problem for Meilani, who liked her jeans to be worn and tattered in the first place.

She pressed her tongue against the inside of her lips as she slid the last few inches through the crack. Entering had been much easier when she was a young slip of a thing. Now her shoulders and hips nearly got stuck in the widest section of the entry, but she had learned to twist just so.

She allowed herself a small chuckle of triumph when she made her way through, and she paused to run her fingers through her long, dark curls to make certain no plaster or paint got caught there.

She could leave no trace of her night excursion on her person, lest her parents ask uncomfortable questions in the morning.

It wasn’t until she rose to her feet that she noticed the inside of her haven was different than she left it.

For one, the walls weren’t cracked, the floors weren’t peeling, and the ceiling was lined with a series of light fixtures she had never seen. The warehouse was still shrouded in shadow, but bright lights illuminated certain portions in bright, pastel colors. Music hit her ears, loud, pulsing, the base so powerful it reverberated through her chest.

Her jaw fell open as she surveyed her surroundings. Tables had been set at seemingly random places throughout the warehouse. They held food of all kinds from tiny cut finger sandwiches to what looked like a succulent roast. There was also a table filled with drinks and what Meilani guessed was dry ice; a steady stream of mist poured from portions of the table, obscuring its legs and the legs of those gathered around it. One of the tables held music equipment the likes of which she had never seen and a pair of men bounced back and forth between the knobs and buttons, controlling the music that permeated the space.

Meilani was trying to figure out how the entire warehouse could be perfectly refinished when she had just occupied its crumbling mass the day before, when a soft grunt close to her ankle caught her attention.

“I say, my dear,” a man with a heavy British accent huffed, “could you please step out of the way? You’re blocking the entrance, and I’m afraid I don’t have much time to make my passage.”

Still numb with shock, Meilani stepped back and watched as a wriggling mass pulled itself through the same crack she used to enter. The man’s leg seemed to stick at the last, so Meilani reached down and offered her hand, helping to pull him the last few feet.

When he was through, the man stood and brushed the dust from his fancy coat and slacks. He pulled a tiny glass circle from one pocket and set it over one of his eyes. Then he squinted at Meilani and offered her a grin.

“Is this your first time?” he asked with a grin. “I can’t say I recognize you. Oh, but then again, it isn’t as if these things always happen in order. Do make sure you have a good time, my dear girl. And, uh, do let me know if you need anything.” He patted her on the shoulder, then continued into the crowd gathered beneath the bright lights and music. As he passed beneath a bright blue light, Meilani noticed that he looked like someone straight out of a period drama with fancy pins on his coat and a gleaming pocket watch peeking from the pocket of his pants.

He stopped next to a woman who was wrapped in fancy white linen. She wore a gleaming golden headdress and her face was painted with bright blue eye shadow, outlined with thick, dark eyeliner. Cleopatra, Meilani’s mind screamed. She recognized the look from a play they watched in school. Antony and Cleopatra, if she remembered right.

But it had to be a costume.

Next to her was a man who came straight out of Greek myth. Across the room, a tight knot of men and women in pristine white clothing chatted in low voices. Their clothing was cut in a way Meilani would have described as bizarre and, as the light shifted shades above the, she caught hints of images that seemed to flicker like holograms across the white surface.

Women in unimaginably fancy dresses mingled with men who wore faded t-shirts and torn jeans, while men in top hats and fancy goggles greeted women who might have been wearing pajamas. Meilani was glad she spotted these last because she was beginning to feel she was woefully underdressed for whatever she had stumbled into.

“Aren’t you going to participate?” a low baritone voice drifted from behind Meilani, startling her so badly her heart leapt into her throat.

She spun to see a man who looked like he came from the Victorian era, except there was something like an apple watch strapped to his wrist. Its dull glow illuminated the rivets and embroidery of his outfit, causing them to glow and seem to spin.

“First time?” he added when Meilani didn’t respond. A grin split his lips and he set a light hand against her elbow. “It’s all right. It startles us all when we first find it.”

“It?” Meilani managed to gasp. “People keep mentioning the first time, as if this is normal. As if it happens all the time.”

“Normal?” Her companion snorted. “Hardly. But all the time? That’s not a bad description. Technically the Rave is always happening.”

“The Rave?” Meilani repeated, skeptical of the emphasis provided to the name.

A loud cheer sounded behind her and the music grew louder, it’s pulse seeming to shake the floor. Several of the groups which had been conversing in low voices gave up their positions and surged into the open space between tables to bounce in time with the music. Glowsticks, flashing lights and objects Meilani couldn’t even begin to name appeared in hands and waved above heads as the party was joined in earnest.

Her new companion tugged her arm gently, guiding her away from the crack in the wall, past a few of the whooping dancers, toward the table filled with smoke and liquid. “Some people call it that,” he said as he motioned for her to help herself to a drink. “It has other names though, of course. Some people merely refer to it as the Gathering. Others never speak of it. It’s considered quite a secret.”

“Why do you say it’s always happening?” Meilani pressed. She eyed the selection of drinks on the table. Half of them were dark liquids, amber or crimson. The other half were bright colors – shimmering blue, blazing pink, a shade of yellow she’d never put near her lips. One drink even contained a soft, pastel rainbow that never seemed to mix.

“Go on,” her guide insisted, waving at the table again. Meilani could tell from the expectant look on his face she wasn’t going to get any answers until she decided to participate in the party.

“I’m underage,” she insisted.

Her new friend laughed. “That doesn’t mean anything here. Help yourself to anything you like.”

After another suspicious glance at the table, Meilani settled on the pastel rainbow. A soft mist flowed from the rim as she lifted it toward her lips. The glass contained no ice, but was cold to the touch. And when she let the first sip slide tentatively past her lips it was as icy as if it had just come from the freezer. But it was also pleasant. It tasted of strawberry, blueberry, pineapple and some other sweet flavors she simply couldn’t name. She held it up after she sipped from it, expecting the rainbow to be ruined, but it had merely formed a gentle swirl instead.

“The Rave happens between times,” her self-appointed guide explained as they stepped away from the drink table and closer to the refreshments. “Normally, it is always the present, never quite the future and just about the past. But here, time has no meaning. Everything has happened and, yet, can still be rewritten. That means nothing is impossible. Only the cleverest and most adventurous of minds ever make their way into this space.”

Meilani allowed herself a moment to preen. She might not be among the cleverest, but she fancied herself adventurous for certain. “And who might you be?” she pressed when he stopped speaking. If she was going to spend a night – or an eternity – in this man’s company, she might as well know who he was.

“You can call me Darrow,” he said with a grin and a small nod.

“And I am-“

“Meilani,” he interrupted, speaking her name with such odd fondness that it threw her for a loop.

“How did you-“

But before she could finish the question, loud exclamations erupted behind her, causing her to turn. It was a good thing she did because the man dressed like a Greek warrior nearly careened into her, and only the brief warning allowed her to step aside so that he bumped the food table instead.

The contents of the table shook, threatening to spill, and several of the nearby onlookers grabbed corners and plates to steady everything, all the while commenting on the ruckus. When the hubbub faded, the man dressed like a Greek myth bowed in Meilani’s direction.

“Apologies,” he said, his voice heavily accented. “I did not mean to get in your way.”

“Alexander and Nefertiti have a bit of an ongoing bet,” Darrow explained, suddenly melting out of the shadows at Meilani’s side again.”

“Nefertiti?” Meilani repeated, rolling the odd name across her tongue. Not Cleopatra then.

Darrow chuckled. “Alexander has a great military mind but, somehow, Nefertiti always bests him.”

Meilani was about to ask how the elegant Egyptian woman bested the Greek commander – she definitely didn’t believe it was actually either of those people standing near her – when the woman Darrow identified as Nefertiti motioned for Meilani to come forward.

“Eat,” she commanded gently, her regal voice carrying easily above the blaring music in the background. “Do not let this Alexander and his antics dissuade you from enjoying the festivities. We all come here to escape the rigors of the regular world, after all.”

Meilani was so entranced by the woman’s grace and poise, she felt compelled to comply. She reached for one of the tiny finger sandwich squares and popped it into her mouth before she even realized she had moved.

She turned to Darrow while she was chewing, a mystified look on her face. “How do I understand everyone if they come from different times and places?”

“It’s part of how the rift works,” Darrow replied with a shrug. “While we occupy this non-time, everything equalizes. The Rave lasts forever, but takes only a moment. What happens within can shape the world outside, but only if you choose to make it so. Many save the Rave for the Rave to keep it from touching their outside life.”

“So what are we supposed to do here?” she demanded around another sip of her pastel rainbow. It never seemed to grow warmer; despite her warm hands cupping the glass, each sip was as icy cold as the first had been.

Darrow shrugged. “Whatever you like. You can talk to the greatest minds of any generation. Experience the fashion and musical trends of any era, mingle with the crowd, make new friends.”

Or she could draw everything. Which was exactly what she did.

She started with Nefertiti. Perched on the window sill with her drink balanced carefully beside her, Milani spent what felt like hours perfectly capturing the woman’s graceful form mid-motion. Then, just for good measure, she flipped to a fresh page and drew the Egyptian queen’s eyes, focusing so carefully she felt she almost brought the drawing to life.

Though Meilani felt certain that single drawing would take the entirety of the evening, she found herself in possession of plenty of time after. So she flipped to a fresh page and drew Alexander. As soon as he caught wise to her activities, he began to strike the most comical of poses. By the time Meilani finished her drawing, half the Rave seemed to have gathered in anticipation of the reveal. Alexander was so thrilled with her rendition, he begged her to draw another than he could take with him.

By the time that commission was finished, participants had lined up for a chance to earn their own drawing. All they had to do in exchange was entertain Meilani while her pencil flew across her pages. When the graphite rubbed down too far to be useful, new pencils were produced. Some were plain and familiar, others were so fancy Meilani feared what might happen if she tried to take them home with her.

Her history teacher would have been proud. She drew such historical figures as Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein. Then there were unfamiliar figures with unfamiliar names like Glortblia and Athylhat.

In between drawings Meilani laughed and chatted with her would-be subjects. Darrow brought her a steady stream of different colored drinks, and she even paused to indulge in the buffet, eating so much she was sure she’d never be able to fit back through the crack that took her home.

The party may have lasted for a day or it might have lasted for a year. It was hard to say. The crowd shifted as old faces vanished and new faces appeared. Everyone was friendly, though there was more than one apparent rivalry. Conversations moved in odd circles, referencing things that were yet to happen that clearly lay in some people’s pasts.

Meilani basked in the warmth of it, in the flash of the bright lights and the pounding thump of the music. She even danced with Darrow when the DJs decided to change the pace and play slow music that matched a more classical theme.

When she passed back through the crack, disappointed but determined it was time to return home, she made certain she didn’t carry any of the futuristic trinkets she encountered with her – not even a single one of the fantastic pencils. The only sign she had ever been with others, aside from the sketches tucked in her book, was a bright pink splash across one of her drawings. Alexander had tripped near her bench perch, spilling one of the blazing pink drinks all down the wall and leaving the drops in the corner of the sketch.

It was still early when Meilani snuck back into her house. She spent the evening admiring her handiwork, wondering when she could meet with the participants of the Rave again. If it happened every night, she could drop by before bed, bask for a few hours in the glory of the company and entertainment, then sleep soundly knowing no one would ever guess her secret.

*   *   *

It was three days before Meilani had another opportunity to slip beneath her parent’s notice after darkness fell. One of her brothers was in trouble over breaking decorations on the neighbor’s lawn, which meant the rest of her siblings were laying low. Meilani paused only long enough to grab one of the lanterns out of her father’s stash before she swept down the road, into the back alley, down and up the hill, then practically raced across the lot to her secret haven.

She shimmied through the crack with all speed, this time shooting out of the way in case someone should happen to come after her. But when she stood, she found herself in total darkness. There were no flashing lights. There was no pumping music. And there certainly weren’t tables filled with refreshments.

She thought at first that she had simply come to early, but she remembered what Darrow said: the Rave was always happening. So it should have been here before she arrived.

Meilani activated her lamp and surveyed her surroundings. The floor tiles were peeling, the paint was stripped and the walls were marked with big, bubble letters left by up and coming artists.

She lingered most of an hour, looking for other cracks she could crawl through before she slunk home, disappointed and shockingly bereft. She laid in bed that night, staring at the glow in the dark stars splattered across her ceiling and remembered the witty banter she shared with figures from the future and past. She even turned on a flashlight so she could admire the drawings she had pinned to the bulletin board beside her desk.

Had she imagined it all?

But she couldn’t have. She could still see Darrow’s grin and smell the soft lavender and honeysuckle scent that seemed to follow him during their dance. She might have imagined everything else, but she couldn’t have imagined him.

She waited two nights more and then snuck back, determined to find an answer to her conundrum. Her haven remained as she remembered it, blighted by time and neglect. But she did manage to find the pink stain caused by Alexander’s spill. It must have seeped into the wood beneath the paint because it still retained some of its brightness.

And Meilani was sure she had never seen it before, despite examining every inch of her secret haven for interesting details.

As her senior year drew to a close Meilani’s thoughts turned to the conversations she shared the night of the Rave. The stain proved her experience hadn’t been a hallucination. So if she wanted to get back to the Rave she needed to remember what had happened within.

Darrow specifically said that the Rave was always happening.

But maybe it wasn’t always the same Rave. Maybe those pockets of between time existed in different places. Perhaps once she left one, she couldn’t get back. So she’d have to make sure she really stayed as long as she liked the next time. No slinking home so she’d be well-rested for school the next day.

It took a few weeks to remember the British man who followed her through the crack. Or more specifically, what he said.

These things don’t always happen in order.

That might explain how Darrow knew her name. Perhaps he had already met her. If he had, that meant she must find a way back into one of these Raves.

And she absolutely had to find her way back into one of those Raves because it would drive her mad forever if she didn’t. There had to be other portals somewhere. It was simply a matter of finding them.

Most high school seniors graduated with dreams of post-secondary education. They had their careers all lined up. Some even had engagement rings on their fingers.

Not Meilani.

Once her parents had her high school diploma in their grasp, she washed her hands of all things mundane. Adventure awaited, and she intended to answer the call.

She packed a backpack with supplies, sketchbooks and as many pencils as would fit. Then she set off to discover more lost places with hidden cracks that would lead her between times.

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