Midlands - Scene 1

“You aren’t listening, are you?”

Winnie didn’t bother answering. There were times she felt like dueling with this voice and times, like now, when she had better things to do. She knew, of course, this would only bring the other voice into the mix.

“She never listens to us,” the second voice said. The second speaker was female, had no name any more than the first speaker had a name, and whined a lot.

“You whining again?” Winnie thought.

“Not whining. Stating fact. You never listen.”

“Say something worth listening to and I’ll listen. Talking when I’m trying to think don’t help me and I don’t appreciate it.”

“You can’t think this one out, girl,” the first voice said. Male and arrogant, that’s how Winnie thought of it.

“I suppose you think you can,” Winnie thought back.

“We’re not here to solve your problems,” the female said.

“That’s a damned good thing,” Winnie thought, “’cause you never do.”

“Aren’t you the haughty one?” the female snapped.

“Shut up for a minute or ten, okay?” Winnie thought. “I need to figure this and I need to figure it now.”

“Thinks she’s going to Midlands, doesn’t she?” the male said, completely ignoring her ordering silence.

“Thinks she’s smart enough to do it, too.” the female said.

“Am smart enough,” Winnie thought. “If you just let me alone long enough to do some decent thinking, I’d be there by now.”

The voices kibitzed from the side but they seemed content to afford her a small window to work on the problem. Here she was, riding shotgun on an eighteen-wheeler just now clearing Kansas City, heading west on I-40. The skies above her threatened snow, the land around her showed enough snow for three or four winters, and the damned driver threatened conversation. He had the right; he was giving her transportation. Hell, he had all the rights and he had exercised them, everyone of them, for two days now, ever since St. Louis.

“Kansas, Toto.” The thought made her smile. When you’re looking for a magic place, you can do worse than look in Kansas. Hell, there’s nothing else in Kansas so there might as well be magic.

Everything about finding Midlands and crossing into it was hidden. The rumors flew across the truck stops but no one was willing to put money on any of the ideas they carried. Most of the drivers wanted to avoid the place, wanted to stay in the real world and get business done. This one on the seat beside her, in particular, wanted no part of magic. He’d made that clear, emphatically clear, when she’d brought the topic up. He’d asked her if that’s where she thought she was going. When she said yes, he’d laughed. He’d show her some magic, he said, but he hadn’t. His clutching, grabbing, sweating and hooting hadn’t done anything magical and much that was ugly.

Winnie was 20 years old, a veteran of more than  two years hitching rides back and forth across the continent. Hadn’t needed to join the army, she’d seen the world in the cab of a truck. She met and lost a hundred men and missed not a one. She’d asked and listened to a thousand drivers, two thousand girls living like she was living, hundreds of derelicts lying in the gutters of every city on the Interstates. Everyone she asked gave her an opinion but none gave her an answer.

She’d have to do this herself.

What she knew was that Midlands was close to a state of mind. Close but not. Since the magic came back five decades ago, folk had found their way there; some tourists from the other side had come through, but all that traffic left the road just as confused as it had always been.

“You know,” she thought, “if you guys were trying to be of use to me, you could tell me how you got in my head in the first place. Maybe that would tell me how to get you out and teach me much about the way my consciousness works. Did you ever think of that? Huh?

“No, of course not. You’d rather try to be my momma and nag me to death.”

But, then, she gasped aloud causing the driver to jerk a look at her. “You okay,” he asked.

Winnie laughed, a self-deprecating laugh that grated her nerves. Why couldn’t she laugh like a real woman? Why did she snigger so?

“I’m fine, she said. Just thought of something funny, that’s all.”

“What’s that?”

“Getting where you want to go is a matter of bull-headedness. You just set your sights and plow on through.”

“Nothing particular brilliant about that.”

“Didn’t say it was brilliant, Jim. Was just laughing at how obvious it is.”

The driver shook his head and went back to driving, silent as the snow threatening the night.

The male voice took his place: “Yeah, sure, you just plow ahead, girl. Go ahead. Plow.”

“That will surely do it,” the female voice agreed.

“Watch me,” Winnie said and put her mind on Midlands. She thought about Trolls, that noble, arrogant breed from the far side of Midlands. She thought of the half-breeds now rumored to be filling the only town in Midlands and the runaways like her and the full time residents who just seemed to have arrived there. It wasn’t heaven. She knew that but maybe there was a chance it wasn’t hell either.

This was hell, riding trucks because they made a home, a shelter from the world around her. The trucks got her fed and a place to sleep. The cost was ugly but bearable. It was damned sight better than fending off the do-gooders who wanted to “help” her lose her voices, lead a normal life. Hell, how did they know having voices in your head wasn’t normal? Maybe the solitary confinement the rest of the world seemed to endure was the abnormal. Maybe that was crazy and explained all the crazy things that loners did.

Winnie was never alone, could never remember a time when she’d been alone. As far back as she could remember, voices kept her company. Over the years, specific voices came and went, but there were always voices at home in her head.

No, having voices in your head wasn’t normal. She was pretty convinced of that. They yammered; they yelled, they critiqued her more than those parents she once had had ever been able to do. Winnie couldn’t shut them off so she’d learned to ignore them, most of the time. But, having them along for the ride was hell. She’d dearly love just one day with no company. Just one day.

That’s where Midlands came in. In Midlands, she’d heard, the magic changed people. Folk with no talent could discover some. Folks with great talent could lose some. From everything she’d heard, in Midlands, the rules for magic seemed variable, strange, unpredictable but anyone who went there changed..

“So, now we’re a talent,” the female voice said.

“No,” Winnie thought, “you’re a curse but cursing is magical, too. Maybe in Midlands I can get the hex removed.”

“We’re going to be with you always, girl,” the male said. “Midlands or anywhere. We’re part of you and you can’t slough off part of you like you can your clothes.”

“Why can’t you accept us, girl, for who we are? Just say to yourself that you are different than other folk, unique, and then live with that thought?”

Winnie shrugged off the female’s question, concentrated on her image of Midlands. Shining golden towers shimmering in a warm, gentle mist, emanating goodness. Roads paved in velvet that transformed your step into a dance as you glided down the road. Music playing in the ambience, soft guitars and gentle tambourines. Smiles on everyone’s faces.

No trucks.

Just people walking and laughing, greeting and hugging, enjoying being alive.

“That’s heaven, girl, and we know Midlands is not heaven.”

Winnie continued to ignore the female. She thought of the feel of that velvet road on her bare feet, the caress of the mist on her skin. She laughed.

The driver, Jim, cursed. The cloud cover had suddenly dropped, enveloping the cab, limiting visibility to a few feet, forcing him to brake the rig, slow it down to feel his way through.

“What the fuck is this?” he snarled. “Where did this come from?” His questions were rhetorical. He had no time to devote to idle chatter. Fully loaded, his rig slowed but not as quickly as he’d like. He needed every bit of his concentration on the road he couldn’t see ahead of him. The speedometer spun down reflecting how well the big rig responded to Jim’s efforts. After a moment, he could hold it at 15 mph. Creeping along, he glowered ahead at the road playing out of the mist.

“Wonder how long this will last?” he grumbled, his grip on the steering wheel whiter than his face, pale from the blood draining as he fought to slow his truck. The fact he’d made the adjustment without damage did little to mollify his anger at the weather and at the fear he’d felt.

Winnie grinned the biggest grin she’d made since the day since she left home, leaving those parents behind, confident in her ability to make a new life. She knew then as she knew now she was destined for a better life, a life with no doctors asking stupid questions, without nurses injecting stupid medicines, without parents begging her to cooperate with the medical professional idiots who had no clue what was happening to her. On her eighteenth birthday she had walked, just as she had promised she would.

And now she knew where she was walking to. She was going to Midlands. No, she wasn’t walking; she was riding high in the cab of this 18-wheeler but she was on her way to Midlands. That was certain.

In the fog ahead, lights appeared, growing brighter as the truck approached. The lights surrounded a gate, an ugly, cast iron gate, bedecked with carvings of fearsome creatures the world had never seen. Monsters with wings, monsters with multiple heads – sort of like me, Winnie thought – monsters with a dozen legs, and monsters with no legs at all, like fish on land. In the center of the cross-arch of that gate rested a sign. “Midlands” was writ in English on one line half way down the sign. Another line above this notification, announced something else but who could tell? The script was Trollish, at least it resembled the script Winnie had seen in trucks stops that folks said was Trollish.

“You did this, bitch,” Jim snarled. “You did this and I told you I ain’t interested in going there. I’m going to make you….”

Winnie didn’t hear what he was going to make her do. She was out of the cab and running for the gate long before Jim’s reflexes operated. By the time he was out of the cab, Winnie was through the gate. Jim ran in pursuit but stopped at the gate.  The other side was darker than this side. He could not make her out, had no clue which direction she had gone once through the gate.

He seemed to hear a chorus of competing voices warning him he did not want to pass through this gate. He wasn’t sure but he thought it was the gate – no, the creatures carved on the gate – that were telling him what he already knew.  He cursed again because it felt good to do so. Then, he turned to walk back to his truck. It was then he saw the roundabout, the road making it easy to go back the way he’d come.

Ten minutes later, he found himself emerging from the mist. He picked up speed as visibility improved. He was glad to see the mile markers and the I-40 signs come rushing to meet him. He was even happier when he verified he was heading west on I-40.

“Stupid bitch,” he said, but he was already forgetting her.

 

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