Well, it's time to meet our OTHER protagonist...
I snapped the computer case shut and locked down the screws. "All set."
"Thanks, Erik." Lisa said with a tired smile. "You didn't have to –"
"No, I didn't, but it wasn't a big deal and you need that thing running tomorrow. Don't we finish the next big volume for State Legal this week?"
"Yes, you're right. But –"
"No buts." I was actually exhausted myself – repairing three machines that had chosen to, as an English acquaintance of mine used to say, go "tits up" all at once was a pain in the butt. And not, technically, my job, though at Pinebush Publishing I sort of got all the technical jobs that weren't technically mine, whenever I was around. But the exhaustion probably contributed to my being honest. "You're some of the few people I managed to keep from offending at one point or another, so it's worth it."
Lisa blinked at me in surprise. She was a very pretty, very tall young woman – 30, which I suppose wouldn't be young for some, but was for me – with hazel eyes and short brown-blond hair. "You've muttered things like that a couple of times before, Erik, but I honestly can't understand why. You've almost never said anything offensive in all the years you've been here."
I sighed and sat down. "Maybe offended isn't the right word for a lot of it. But…" I glanced at her, purse in her hand. "Do you really want to hear the answer, or do you want to get home?"
"Is it really that long?"
"That's a rather personal question, sir!" I said in a Monty Python voice, and she gave a rather unladylike snorting chuckle in response. "There's the Reader's Digest version, I guess. When I came here I had just started… growing up. Yeah, I know, I was 30 and now I'm staring at the big Five-O. Only relationship I'd had for any length of time had blown up just a bit before. I had about twenty years of being a rebellious angsty teenager before I decided to reach my 20s, so I actually never figured out what the hell I wanted to do with my life – so I didn't do anything." I didn't want to go into the details – it would sound like self-pitying whining. Probably would be self-pitying whining. Might even be already.
"You? Angsty? Erik, I've known you since I started working here six years ago and one thing I admire about you is that I didn't think angst and you even knew each other."
"Okay," I amended, "Not usually angsty, at least not where other people could see it. But interested more in having fun – of the pretty quiet geeky kind – than doing Serious Work, and…" I shook my head. "Ahhhh, never mind. I wouldn't have said anything about it if I wasn't so tired. I don't want to complain about my life; for everything bad, I've ended up with at least as much good. And what's the point of stewing over it anyway? If you don't believe in things basically working out, you'd have a pretty bleak life, I'd think. I don't understand people who walk around thinking 'the world is a dark and lonely place', to quote something you won't know."
Lisa shook her head. "You're right, I don't, but at least let me tell you that whatever anyone else thought you should've done, everyone here is damn glad you ended up working here."
"An opinion I intend to keep earning by doing the work I can do whenever I'm around. Now get going. I'll lock up."
"All right. Will you be in tomorrow?"
"I don't think you'll need me as long as these little monsters stay fixed. See you on Friday."
She waved as she left; I grinned back and then went to wash up.
The conversation had stirred up some of my old, rare regrets. Well, no, not rare, but rarely indulged. I generally didn't see the point in regretting things that were past, or at least of agonizing over them. Changing the past wasn't possible, and so going back over what I should have said, or not have said, or done, was… well, like picking a scab off. There might be some strange fascination in it, but in the end you were just hurting yourself and interfering with the healing process.
I locked up the offices and went out to my car. Which didn't help, because it used to be my father's car, which reminded me of the whole conversation again. My dad had died not too disappointed in me – at least he'd seen I had a stable job and a reasonable chance at living out my life on my own – but my mom hadn't seen enough to know that I'd started to turn things around before she'd died – during a routine examination. My brother was married, had kids, a real career, and I hadn't really managed to do anything of significance even on the family scale, despite having been the genius of the family. Not even a steady girlfriend. Or these days not even an unsteady one; all the female possibilities in my small circle of friends had already paired up, and I had no experience of how to look – and a general, gut-level aversion to LOOKING, in that sense.
"Oh, bah. Cut this crap out," I said out loud to myself as I pulled out of the parking lot onto the Washington Avenue Extension and turned right. "You did finally get your own life, and a job you like, which is more than a lot of people manage. You don't have to work all that much because you've got a big cushion you inherited – which even fewer people have."
I managed a smile, which stopped feeling pasted on as I noticed the magnificent view dead ahead of me: three immense thunderheads towering over Albany. I love storms, always have, and these looked like they might be delivering a doozy to the Capital Region.
And, I continued to myself, you may not ever have achieved your pipe dream of being a writer, but you still give people some fun through your imagination as a gamer. Which, again, is more than a lot of people manage.
A part of me would always feel I was a failure, I knew, but I wasn't going to let that part dominate. I had a decent life, and it was stupid and nonproductive – and ultimately self-destructive – to insist to myself that I should have Done Something Special. Especially since THAT part of me wouldn't even be satisfied if I'd done everything my parents had hoped for; no, that part of me was the part that never finished growing up and wanted to change the world in the kind of way that simply didn't happen.
"There isn't any magic in the real world." I reminded myself, and then with a sudden grin, corrected myself. "Except that."
"That" was one of the most magnificent rainbows I had ever seen, now looming over the city in the almost-setting summer sunshine slanting over the city. Rainbows were pure magic to me, whispering in my mind of the Bifrost Bridge and Hermes on his messenger duties, of promises of gods and leprechauns and other things, some very near to my heart. And this was an amazing rainbow, fairly blazing against the dark undersides of the clouds beyond, a second, nearly as intense bow paralleling it, a hint of a third visible at points. One end looked as though it came down in Watervliet, the other much nearer, not far from the side of I-90 – somewhere around Westgate Plaza. I drove homeward towards that brilliant arch, pretending that I would be driving under it.
Then I almost drove off the road as I realized two things:
The setting sun was ahead of me… and so was the rainbow. And the rainbow was getting closer.
Impossible, I thought to myself, staring even as I forced myself back into one of the driving lanes. Rainbows are only visible with the light behind you! They're products of light reflected back at you. They're an illusion, they can't ever be caught up to! If the rain got more intense, it might make a rainbow look like it was getting closer for a few moments… but look at that thing!
The mighty rainbow's arch now rose so high that I had to crane my neck to see it – while constantly glancing back down to make sure I didn't hit anyone – and the colors were so strong and real that they obscured even the brilliant white of the thunderclouds' tops behind them. It's impossible, but I'm seeing it.
And I found myself passing under the rainbow, one end disappearing in trees to the left, the other coming down not half a mile off… My God, it is in Westgate!
I took the Everett Road exit at a dangerously high speed considering the wet pavement, but the little Subaru only skidded a bit. More dangerous were the other gawkers. Most people might not understand why the rainbow can't get closer, or why it's only visible with the sun over your shoulder, but most people do know it can't happen, and there were quite a few people following this same route to find out what was going on.
The end of the bow was off to the right now, huge as the Golden Gate Bridge and awesome as Niagara Falls, stretching up into the infinite sky. I was at Central Avenue, turning, but now the bow was fading. "No, no, no, no, NO!" I shouted hopelessly, as I saw it lifting, dwindling, disappearing, gone. I was at the entrance to the Plaza, but the rainbow had disappeared, leaving everything once more dull and ordinary and the same.
No, wait, not quite. There was a ring of people gathered in the middle of the parking lot – I couldn't even imagine what it must have been like to be standing around the rainbow's end – and…
I skidded the car to a stop, sitting across two spaces diagonally, and practically leaped out. There was something or someone in the middle of that circle. I couldn't make it out, but…
"Excuse me… sorry… Let me through!" I muttered as I bulled my way into the ring of spectators, which seemed to be at least five or six people deep by now. Whoever it was in the middle – it was a person – they were not very big… moving around a lot, rhythmically, almost dancing –
No. It can't be.
I felt a terrible chill of awe and joy, and terror that I might be utterly insane, that only grew worse as I drove through the crowd, now not even hearing the protests around me, drawn forward. It simply wasn't possible…
But there was a flash of violet-blue eyes as she spun, laughing, answering some question, a face seen in that moment of such beauty that I could not even imagine words to describe it, golden hair drifting like rays of sunshine around a gauzy-veiled body I didn't dare look at, hair bound only by a simple black cap, and delicate feet dancing, moving, following a phantom music that seemed in turn to follow her own motions.
I slowed and stopped at the edge of the crowd, unable to approach closer for fear that to approach would shatter the impossibility into the dull awakening moments of morning. But the feelings could not be restrained, and I heard myself speak, my voice strained with wonder, and awe, and a pure incredulous joy:
I saw a radiant smile dawning on her face as she turned towards me. Then her gaze reached me, and the smile… faltered. It did not… quite… go away, but it was clear that she'd been expecting someone, and that someone wasn't me. Well, big surprise there. Of course she wasn't expecting some overpadded over-the-hill Oz fanboy.
The real question – assuming that I wasn't dreaming or totally nuts – was what the hell she was doing here at all. I couldn't remember any instance of Polychrome showing up outside of Faerie at all.
She took a step forward, towards me, and even though the fading of the smile had thrown a little cold water on my original dizzying elation, just that motion brought a lot of it back. "Sir? Do you … know me?"
"As surely as I know Dorothy and Ozma and Button-Bright, Lady Polychrome," I answered, feeling that some faux-formality would at least allow me to keep from babbling like a loon.
Her lovely brow wrinkled — just a touch – as though she were thinking, trying to work something out. Then her face smoothed out, and I caught a tiny movement of her shoulders, a shrug. "Then I must speak with you, sir. Might I know your name?"
The crowd was starting to look at me, too. Oh-oh. And there's a cop getting out of his car to see what's going on.
"In a moment – for now, I think we need to go somewhere quieter!" I prayed she'd understand.
Fortunately, her quick gaze showed she was already thinking along those lines. "Surely, sir."
Suddenly her hand was in mine; I felt my heart stop as it prepared to leap out of my chest, but then I forgot that as I found myself leaping for real, carried by a spectacular jump that cleared most of the crowd. I landed slightly off and stumbled, but recovered. I realized she was just going to run, and pulled back; given how easily she'd seemed to lift and carry me, I was startled by how suddenly she jolted to a halt, as though I'd been stopping a toddler. "Not that way – here!"
She blinked at the car – Of course, she probably never saw one in her entire life – but when she saw me yank open the door on my side, she simply nodded and leapt to the other side, pulling the door open and sliding into the passenger seat in a single fluid motion like a leaf settling to the ground. Thank god I cleaned the car this weekend. It's still kinda messy, but at least there's room in the passenger seat.
I started the engine and put the car in gear. The crowd had started to follow but none of them seemed inclined to get in the way, and the cop was just running around the side of the crowd…
I pulled out fast, heading for the main exit. For once, I was lucky with this light; it was pure green, and I went straight through. I could get into a maze of streets in that direction pretty quick, and this wasn't something I wanted to explain to anyone. I heard Polychrome give a delighted laugh as we accelerated, apparently enjoying the novel sensation of a self-propelled vehicle. Glancing in the rearview, I could see that there were no cars following me.
With the immediate crisis over, it finally began to sink in. What the hell have I just gotten into?