Welcome to the Neighborhood

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Hi, there neighbor. I’m swinging by to welcome you to the subdivision. So is it just you and your spouse? Partner, good good. And kids? That’s great! There’s lots of kids in the neighborhood. Besides welcoming you, there are some things I need to discuss with you. Can we go inside and sit down? What? No, this isn’t about the HOA and I’m not trying to recruit you into a cult. Cult recruiting happens at the monthly mixers. I’m kidding! Please, I do have some neighborhood regulations and safety rules to go over with you and your partner.

Most are common sense, wearing helmets while biking, no loud music after 11 pm Sunday through Thursday, no fireworks. I know technically we’re outside the city limits until they resurvey and redraw the lines but some of our neighbors are sensitive to sudden loud noises so they’ve been banned within the subdivision and surrounding area. If you give me your email, I can send you a complete list and sign you up for the weekly newsletter.

There is one rule I have to go over in detail. It’s more of an advisory really. Between the start of sunset and one hour after, you are advised to stay indoors. It’s not a curfew. You can go outside afterwards and no one will stop you from going out during but we don’t suggest you do so. You aren’t really going to believe me, I didn’t believe until I saw it, but I’ll lay it out for you.

We call it The Stranger. About once a week a woman, a man, a person or sometimes a child appears in the neighborhood and wanders around for an hour and disappears. It isn’t anyone in the neighborhood. When it first started appearing we tried to keep watch around the subdivision. Eventually, we tracked it back to the empty lots. So we started staking out the lots but it just appears on the sidewalk and starts walking. At the end of the hour, it disappears mid-step. Like a ghost but it’s not a ghost.

If no one engages The Stranger, it leaves on its own after an hour. It doesn’t take much to catch its attention, a nod of the head, a wave of the hand, a smile, even just brief eye contact might do it. Once you’ve engaged it, it will approach you and ask for help finding an address. The address will be close by, usually just around the corner. You can refuse or just ignore it but The Stranger will follow you for the rest of the hour yelling or screaming or crying. It will beg for you to “play the game right” or to “please help me get home” or curse at you. This is annoying or upsetting or potentially traumatic but at the end of its hour, it will disappear as normal with no other side effects.

However, if you lead The Stranger to his, her, their, destination something else happens. When you arrive at the correct address, you are strongly advised not to take them to the wrong address, we’ve already had two disappearances and don’t want any more, they will ask you inside for a refreshment. Accept and they walk to the front door, unlock it and lead you inside. The inside of the house will not match the outside. It will be bigger or smaller than you expect and the interior design will be odd. We’ve had people report Victoria townhouses, log cabins, Gothic mansions, and single room apartments. The Stranger may offer you various sodas or liquors or juices but your safest option is to ask for plain water. Drink it quickly but don’t be rude and gulp it down. They will lead you to a door other than the one you entered through, exit through it and you will be on the sidewalk somewhere in the subdivision. From there you can just walk home.

Should you refuse The Stranger’s offer, they will walk to the front door, unlock it, and enter alone. When you turn to walk back, the neighborhood will be changed. Instead of the modest two-story houses in the subdivision, there may be sparkling geodesic domes, Brutalist concrete cubes, or giant redwoods with doors and windows carved through their sides. Start walking at slow even pace. Don’t loiter in one place too long or the locals may become hostile. If no one approaches or talks to you, after an hour you will find yourself in another different neighborhood. This will continue for no less than three neighborhoods but no more than eight. Four is the average. Sooner or later you will wander back into our neighborhood. Once you are certain you are in familiar territory you may return home.

Should someone approach or talk to you, ask them to take you to your home address. If they refuse, it is advisable to simply walk away and leave them alone. If they agree to help you, follow them. The house they lead you to will not look like your house but your key will unlock the front door regardless. Offer them a refreshment. If they refuse, leave them on the sidewalk and enter the house. When you enter the house you will find your home inside and the subdivision outside.

If they accept your offer, lead them inside the house where you will find your house but different. No one will be home, the lights will seem dimmed, sounds will be muffled. Provide your helper with their choice of drink. Once they are done lead them to the back door or the garage door, just not the front door. Allow them to exit and close the door. When you turn around you will be in your home properly.

So that’s about it. If you just stay indoors from sunset to an hour after you won’t have to deal with any of that though.

The Edge of the Map

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The map is not a relic of the past. Take careful note of the plotted course. Once you have your bearing, follow it as straight and true as possible. When your compass becomes useless, you’re close. When the sun never sets, just hangs high above, you’re closer. When you’ve sailed as far as you dare, you’re right there. Just a little further, you’re off the map now, and the edge of the world awaits.

Here the sea does not drain down into the void. It soars up and flows toward the sky becoming another sea with another world within it. Sailing from one sea to the other is difficult. The transition is a delicate balance as up and sideways turn around each other. Many ships have drowned or tipped or flipped. Get your speed up, race along the edge, turn into and up the wall of water. A good captain may still wet her sails on the bend.

Once past the edge, a world like, but unlike, your own awaits. Tropical islands, snow-covered islands, sandbars, vast coastlines of forests, deserts, swamps, mountains, and more. These lands are not for the taking. The people are friendly no matter how startling their appearance. In less than a day, you will forget about their third eye. In less than a week, you will overlook their fifth and sixth arms. In less than a month, you will be used to their armored skin. In less than a year, their claws will seem no different than your own fingernails.

Be cautious in the harbor cities you visit. Be wary if traveling over land for any distance. Thieves and pirates live on both sides of the bend. To be marooned here is to cast your fate into the sand. Native ships do not cross to your world. None from these lands will risk it. Your ship could make the return voyage if you can make the transition again.

But why would you leave? This world is a glory to behold. A captain could sail her whole life on this sea and gaze upon only a fraction of it all.

For the more adventurous, you need only remember a map has four edges.

Homeward Bound

The woman drives on back roads through the night. The only light comes from the headlights of the car. It’s a good car but old. Long flat lines, a solid frame, and power steering. Not a classic by any standard but it suits her needs. At the crossroads, she stops to check her map and notes. The paper map has been unfolded and refolded so many times it doesn’t remember how to lay flat. She unfolds a section and then another and a third before finding the crossroads. So far from where she thought she was and farther still from where she wants to be.

The classic rock from the radio ends and local news begins. The radio like the car is from an earlier era. No digital tuning or LCD displays, not even a cassette deck. Just two knobs and a row of mechanical preset buttons. She hears a name, Mr. Prescott. She knew a Mr. Prescott when she was younger. Could it be the same Mr. Prescott? A city name is mentioned. She makes a note and checks her map. It’s not far. The leads she gets are never far.

She just wants to go home but it alludes her. After high school, she left the small town she grew up in and hasn’t been back. Now she can’t seem to find her way there. The roads seem to twist and turn away from where she wants to go. Every turn she makes is the wrong one.

She turns left at the crossroads and the radio signal grows weak. She presses the preset buttons until a new station comes through clearly. Country music fills several hours of driving until another local news broadcast breaks in. Another name: Mrs. Garcia. Did she know a Mrs. Garcia? Was she the old lady on the corner? She mowed her lawn in the summers for ten dollars. The news ended with a bumper ad for the station. She makes a note of the town’s name.

The sky lightens and the back road blends into a two lane highway. She slows as she enters a town and cuts off the radio. The gas stations, the fast food restaurants, the local diner, the motel, and the signs to historic downtown. It all looks familiar but not quite right. A lot could have changed in the years since she had left, so she will take the day to drive downtown and around a few blocks. This isn’t home, she feels, but she has to check.

In the evening, she will drive out of town and turn onto a back road. She will turn on the radio and listen for something to lead her home.