The field around me was tall grass, with several varieties of wildflowers. I hesitated once or twice to check them for smell, but none seemed perfumed. Insects fluttered around but none landed on me. The air smelled clean and healthy and when I did a mental comparison to home after the pandemic settled in, the difference was stunning.
Finally after about and hour, I stopped and sat on a boulder ate an MRE, a Rubin without bread, I’d packed when assembling my go pack. It was salty, but nourishing and filling. A long drink from my canteen and I felt better than I thought I would before stopping.
I climbed onto the rock and looked around. Not far off I saw a small boat with oars that had been dragged onto the shore and had a rope tied to a sawn tree trunk.
So someone lives here, I thought and smiled. Jerk. It wasn’t long before I reached where the blue painted boat sat in the sandy soil. I climbed in and sat, wondering if I dared borrow it to cross the lake. I didn’t hear anyone approaching until a male voice said not unkindly, “I do hope you’re not planning on taking my boat today.”
I jerked back and stood, which caused the boat to rock and me to lose my balance. I tripped and stumbled, grabbed for the side of the boat, and then felt strong hands on my arms.
“Steady as you go, lad.”
I looked up half-smiling with an image in my mind of how ridiculous I must’ve looked and said, “No sir, although truthfully I did wonder on it.”
“Would make my life a bit difficult if you did.”
I finally stood on the earth next to him. “No, I would never take it without asking first and then not if you told me so.”
My companion stood a good four, or five inches taller then me, had thick red hair caught in a long braid. His eyes were pale blue, he needed a shave, had what could only be termed a barrel chest of taut muscles, wide shoulders and word faded jeans, a red and white checked shirt and bare feet.
“I’m Stanton,” I said as calmly as possible.
“William,” he replied and held out his massive hand.
“I’m trying to get to the mountains on the other side of the lake.”
He nodded thoughtfully and looked back the way I’d come into his land. “Used to be more like you, but something happened back there I suppose and now, well you’re the first in several weeks.”
I leaned my head to the side and, filled with a deep curiosity, asked, “Back there?”
He chuckled, deep in his chest. “The gateway.” His thumb jammed at the forest where I entered. “That’s my job here. I’m the greeter or the bouncer.”
“You’re confusing me.”
“Perhaps you may want me to think such, but there is nothing about you that would fit in here.” He waved at the valley that included the lake and forests beyond.”
“Where do they go from here?”
His bushy red eyebrows rose as his eyes widened. “Not my place to know only to keep those who would cause harm from passing beyond here.” He pointed to a white two-story house set back from the lake. “Come, we will have a beer and talk.”
The idea of a cold beer made my mouth water. So I followed, sat in a white wood rocker on the porch and accepted the bottle from him. It went down smooth and felt like life was renewed.
“Now lad, do tell me what brought you though my gateway.”
I was suddenly wary of explaining about the pandemic, so said, “I met a woman Attrea, she helped me find a portal to escape people who wanted me dead.”
He frowned. “You’re a criminal then?”
“No I did nothing wrong.” Except refuse to die to save dozens, I lectured myself. “Surely you’ve met others who tired of the life they lived there and desired, or badly needed a new start.”
“Some, about half I turned back. But I know of this woman Attrea. She still has her brown owl?”
“White with golden eyes,” I corrected.
He nodded and smiled. “Come.” He stood and walked around the house, entered a small outbuilding and held the door for me. Inside I saw a device like those used to detect metal weapons. “Pass though.” He pointed.