I had not realized I had been gaping at the stranger for many long minutes until Miles poked me. “Honey?”
The panic in my husband’s voice mirrored my own fear. What was this stranger doing in our home, and how much did he know about my characters? I looked to my characters for an explanation, but the group that just moments before had been creating an uproar, everyone trying to shout over each other in their eagerness to share their tale, now stood silent, shoulders slumped, feet shuffling, eyes darting back and forth.
I turned back to the man who had identified himself as Chester and tried to think of something to say. The man beat me to it.
His voice was terse, and his face harsh. “Like I said, I don’t know how I got here. I don’t even know where here is. And I don’t know any of you . . . do I?” Chester folded his arms across his chest and squinted at us through his thick glasses.
I gulped, and I could feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead. “Ahhh . . . Well, I’m not sure if we’ve ever met. You say your name is Chester? Where do you come from, Chester?”
He turned his attention to me and squinted harder, his eyebrows squishing together as he studied me. “I’m from Minnesota. Creekside. Where am I now? How did I get here? Who are all of you?” He sounded agitated as he barked out the staccato questions.
Dragon, in her assumed identity of the delicate and exotic maiden, Dray, stepped forward, tugging cleric along with her. She touched Chester on the arm and spoke soothingly to him. “Do you not remember, sir? My sister, Clara, and I were walking along and saw you wandering around by the side of the road. You appeared quite befuddled. You could not tell us your name, or if you were sick or injured. Since neither Clara nor I had a . . .” Dragon thought hard and almost stumbled over the term. “Since neither of us had a cell phone, we brought you home with us. We thought to call the authorities so they can make sure you are well, and help you find your way home.”
The man calling himself Chester stared at Dragon, studying her for a long time. Finally, he shook his head and declared emphatically, “No! No, I don’t remember that. Are you sure about it?”
Dragon nodded. “Quite sure, sir.”
Cleric added, “Forsooth! My sister and I were quite concerned when we encountered you. You really did not seem quite yourself.”
Chester scrunched up his face and stared at Cleric. “Huh! How would you know if I was quite myself or not? You don’t know me. And forsooth? Who uses words like forsooth?”
As Chester continued his tirade, I noticed Dragon making strange and intricate gestures behind her back. Then she mumbled something and touched Chester’s arm again. The man froze mid-sentence and stood as stiff and still as a mannequin.
My eyes almost popped out of my head. “What did you do to him?”
“Do not be alarmed.” Dragon gave me a reassuring look. “I have not harmed him. My fellow magic users and I must cast a spell on him to determine if he is a real person or an illusory being, and it would be best were he not awake to witness it. The others will explain.”
While Dragon and her four magical colleagues worked together to determine Chester’s true nature and makeup, my other characters detailed their adventures in the illusory world for Miles and me.
My Foreman told of the illusory world, of the magnificent horses he had seen, and of his encounter with the Boss and the stable hand. “The Boss was smug, cocky, and cruel. The way he treated the stable hand made me feel sorry for the lad. I understood the lad only attacked me because he feared the consequences of disobeying the Boss. When I suggested the Boss might have become the Boss only recently, the lad found the courage to defy the man. That saved me another lump on my head.” My Foreman reached up and gently touched the spot on the back of his head where the stable lad had walloped him with a lead pipe.
When my Foreman had finished his portion of the tale, my Young Hero, my Bounty Hunter, and my Old Dwarf amused us with their portrayal of Sangree – the grinning fool as my Bounty Hunter dubbed him – and their account of their journey through the region called the Changes.
My Young Hero rolled his eyes as he spoke of the pathfinder. “The ever jovial Sangree proclaimed himself the best guide in the town, but it seemed for a while that he could not guide us ten feet in any direction without getting lost.”
My Bounty Hunter nodded. “Of course, that was only due to the phenomenon of the changing landscape. One moment, we might be walking along the road past lush pasturelands, and suddenly we might find ourselves deep in a forest, or knee-deep in a swamp, or on a beach. At one point, we were even walking along some railroad tracks. And things were just as confusing once we found the stable and the Foreman.”
My Young Hero and my Bounty Hunter explained the apparent dual nature of the man they knew as the Boss, the man who now called himself Chester. My Young Hero shrugged. “The spell showed him to be illusory, the same as Sangree and the stable hand, but it also showed him to be real. Dragon thought it best to bring him back here to the real world in order to study the matter further.”
“An’ ye shoulda been seein’ tha beastie, lass! She been changin’ back ta her true self, an’ then been turnin’ blue and been dribblin’ smoke bubbles from ’er snout when thet fool guide, Sangree, be tellin’ ’er he dinna be knowin’ how ta be gittin’ back ta tha town!” My Old Dwarf slapped his knee and doubled over with laughter.
As we laughed over that image, the magic users returned, their task accomplished.
“Chester is completely real. Whatever part of him was illusory must not have been able to enter into the real world.” Dragon frowned. “Now we must find out where Chester belongs, and figure out how to get him there and erase any memory he might have of our encounter.”
I scratched my head. “How do you propose to do that?”
Dragon rubbed her jaw, raised her eyebrows, and sighed. “Well, he said he is from a place called Creekside here in Minnesota. Are you familiar with that town?”
I shook my head. “Never heard of it. What about you, Miles? You’re a Minnesota native. You ever hear of Creekside?”
Miles furrowed his brow. “Nope. Maybe you could check it on the computer.”
I nodded. “Okay, while I do that, why don’t you take everyone, including Chester, upstairs and get them something to eat?”
A half hour later, I pushed my chair back from the desk and frowned, convinced there was no such place as Creekside in Minnesota.
As I entered the dining room, I overheard Chester complimenting Miles on the food. “This is the best stew I’ve had in a coon’s age.” The huge smile on his face faded as he muttered, “Can’t get vittles like this at Creekside!”
A lightbulb went on in my brain. Creekside must be a retirement home or apartment complex, somewhere that served meals. “Where is Creekside, Chester? I can’t seem to find it on a map.” I sat down next to the man and waited for him to refill his bowl with the thick, savory stew.
“Creekside’s where I live. I told ya that.” He scowled.
I smiled sweetly. “Yes, I remember you telling me that, but I can’t find Creekside on a map. Is it near here?”
Chester glared at me while he finished chewing a mouthful of stew. “I told ya before, I don’t even know where here is, so how would I know if Creekside is near here?”
I ducked my head and smiled sheepishly. “Well, here is Waconia. Does that help?”
“Waconia, huh?” He ate another mouthful of stew before answering. “Yeah, I know Waconia. Got people there. My daughter and grandkids. But Waconia’s nowhere near Creekside.”
Dragon interrupted. “Clara and I found you here in Waconia. Had you been visiting your daughter’s family?”
Chester rubbed his chin and furrowed his brow. “I can’t remember. Mighta been. What street was I on when you found me?”
Dragon blushed. “I have not resided in this town long enough to have learned the street names.” She paused, narrowing her eyes as she thought. “It was quite near the market, though.”
“Bet I was going shopping. Those kids never have enough milk and good food in the house. Soda, chips, junk food, yeah, they got plenty of that. I always stock the pantry when I visit.” Chester frowned. “But if I was going shopping, I shoulda had my car. Why did you find me wandering the side of the road? What happened to me? Why can’t I remember?”
Dragon shrugged. “I do not know.”
“Should I call your daughter?” I did not know how to explain to his daughter how Chester had come to be at my house, but I did not know what else to do.
I saw Dragon making the same strange gestures she had made previously, and before Chester could reply, Dragon mumbled something and touched his arm. Once again, the man was as still and stiff as a mannequin.
Dragon rounded on me. “What do you propose to tell his daughter?”
I raked my hand through my hair and sighed. “I don’t know, but what else can we do? We can’t just open the front door and kick him out on the street.”
“Let me handle this, Mistress. If he believes he was going shopping, that is the best place to start. My fellow magic users and I will take him to the market and see if he can find his vehicle.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What if he was wrong? What if he wasn’t going shopping? What if he doesn’t find his car in the supermarket parking lot?”
Dragon chewed on her lower lip. “Then we see if he can find his way to his daughter’s house. If he was somehow caught up in the magic as we cast the spell creating the illusory world, he must have been close by. So, it should not take long for him to find something – either his vehicle or his daughter’s house – that will bring back his memory of where he was and what he was doing before the magic entangled him.”
I started pacing, thinking of the myriad ways this could go horribly wrong. “What about his memories of the illusory world, and of being the Boss?”
Dragon shrugged. “He seems to have no memory of that, but we can make certain that if he does, those memories will have no chance of surfacing at a later time.”
I heaved a huge sigh and nodded. It was, in my opinion, an imperfect solution, but I saw no alternative.
Twenty minutes after they left the house with Chester, Dragon and her companions returned.
“Well?” I was impatient to hear how they had fared.
“Well, as soon as we left the house, Chester knew where he was. His daughter lives just a few streets over, on the same street as Marisol and Bastina.” Dragon smiled. “As we walked him to his daughter’s house, part of Chester’s memory returned. He had been out walking his daughter’s dog – a rather large and unruly beast as he tells it – when the animal spotted a squirrel and gave chase. Chester lost his grip on the leash and was racing after the dog, who pursued the squirrel into our yard.”
My Gypsy chuckled. “That is the last memory he had before finding himself in the conference room with all of us. We speculate Chester was right next to the conference room window when we cast the spell, and he got ensnared by the magic. We had no trouble, though, convincing him he must have tripped and hit his head on a tree or something and that is why Clara and Dray found him wandering around with no memory.”
“Once he was ensnared by the magic, he somehow melded with one of the illusory beings, and that is why he appeared both real and illusory.” My Arrogant One shook his head. “Of course, he has no memory of that, and we ensured that he never will.” The elf chuckled. “As Sangree would say, piece of cake.”
I sighed in relief. “So, does this mean my Foreman will be able to return to the illusory world?”
“We magic users will have to inspect the threads of the magic weave from both outside the illusory world and within. If all appears undisturbed, he will, indeed, be able to return. We all will.” Dragon grinned. “Perhaps you and Master Miles might even be able to join us.”
I smiled. “I’ll give that some thought.” I’m fairly sure Dragon did not see my hand behind my back, with my fingers crossed.
Be sure to come back next week and see what’s in store next for my little band of displaced characters. I’ll leave the porch light on for you.