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Swallowed Whole

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Night falls slowly. Methodically it blankets the Earth, intended to end the day and provide rest. Darkness descends like oozing molasses on the west coast of California, forcing artificial lights to come out with the stars. A lone traveler, anything but slow, becomes a moving point of light as night settles over the continent. This traveler is unhindered by the dark, continuing on his journey. Alex Miller’s olive green Jeep slices through the thick, humid air as it hurtles over the smooth pavement of Interstate Five. Driving north from Sacramento, Alex wants to reach Seattle before morning, where an important business meeting will take place with or without him. Now only halfway through Oregon, Alex knows he must tack on more hours of driving to the full day he’s already had. Rolling the windows down to stay awake, he enters the most isolated and forested part of Oregon. The stars, shining bright, are the only witnesses to Alex Miller’s last road trip.
Alex is going 80 miles per hour when the headlights catch a deer standing on the edge of the road, on both the shoulder and the lane. The deer, a buck, is frozen in place by the blinding metal tin tearing towards it. The car’s left side smashes into the deer, killing it instantly. The Jeep spins out of control, carried by momentum across the road, narrowly missing the two other cars also on the interstate. The car is abruptly halted when the passenger side slams into a tree, knocking Alex out.

Alex wakes to find sunlight streaming through the shattered windshield. He remembers the crash the night before and assesses the damage. The entire passenger side of the Jeep is crumpled around the tree. Amazingly, Alex is largely unharmed: he has a few gashes and many ugly bruises from the windows shattering when the car hit the tree, but nothing is broken. His throbbing head worries him that he might have a concussion. He reaches up and touches his hair; it is sticky with blood from a small gash on the side of his head. Weary and still in shock, he crawls out of the mangled steel frame that used to be his car. Alex finds his suitcase a few feet from the wreck; it must’ve flown out on impact. It is open and his clothes are strewn through the dirt by the slight breeze. Digging out his phone, Alex checks the time – 7:23 am – and tries to call the police but discovers there’s no cell signal. Alex collapses against a tree and assesses his situation. Unable to call for help, without food or water, stranded in the middle of nowhere, and in need of medical attention, the situation doesn’t look good. Preoccupied with those problems, Alex doesn’t think of what’s missing: why no one has stopped to help him or why he hasn’t seen a single car zoom by on one of the busiest highways in America.

April, a girl of 12 years, sets out from her home an hour after sunrise. The newly risen sun shines just over the tops of the trees of the forest that April makes her way toward. She greets the new day with a nod, grateful for the bright rays of sun warming her face. A well-worn trail cuts through the trees, a track of packed dirt that guides April’s feet to her destination: a small stream a short distance away. Her long, simple dress drags on the ground slightly as she walks among the trees. She can hear the quiet babble of the stream as she nears it, but she can’t quite see it yet. The path turns sharply to the left and the trees drop away, bowing to the water that pushes its way through the land. April slips her small, worn shoes off and sits on the bank, letting her feet dangle in the clear water. A rustling in the trees across the stream catches her attention and she looks up, hoping to see a deer or a similar animal. Instead, a young man emerges from the forest about twenty yards downstream. He has various cuts down his arms and his shirt is torn all the way around the bottom, which April can see he used to wrap around a gash on the left side of his head. She stares this unfamiliar creature for a few seconds as he sinks to his knees next to the stream, still without noticing her. Then, overcome by curiosity, she raises her voice in greeting:

“Hello?”

Startled, Alex looks up and sees April. “Hi,” he says, relieved to talk to another human after the hours he’s just spent wandering through the woods looking for water.

“Where did you come from? Do you need help? You look in ill health,” says April.

“Um…well, I’m from Sacramento. I guess I am pretty scraped up, huh?” replies Alex, looking in dismay at the cuts on his arms. “But what are you doing here, especially alone? There’s nothing but trees around for miles. How did you get here, anyway? You look too young to drive.”

April looks confusedly at Alex and wonders what faraway place Sacramento is to produce such strange people. “I live in the village. I do not understand your other questions but I can lead you back to my home and we will help you feel better,” she says, eager to show her friends such a peculiar person that seemingly dropped from the sky.

“Uh, okay. I guess that’s fine,” says Alex. Though he is apprehensive about meeting this weird and obviously confused girl alone in the forest, he decides to follow her anyway because he really does need medical attention. Great, he thinks, we’re probably going to some obscure cult or something. With really no other option, Alex follows behind April as they slowly make their way through the forest, returning to the village on the small, hard-packed trail.

Many of the villagers are outside and working when April and Alex step from the forest. April quickens her pace to reach her home and periodically looks back to make sure Alex is still behind. Alex looks around as he walks, surveying the small cluster of ramshackle homes in the middle of this sprawling forest. He feels like he just walked onto the set of a period romance; the buildings are made of wood and straw, the people are dressed like pilgrims. The villagers Alex passes stop and stare at him in wonder, making him even more uneasy. He’s starting to regret his decision to follow the strange, innocent girl in the forest. Of course it’s okay to listen to the weird girl alone in the forest, thinks Alex, cursing himself. She’s probably totally sane and not going to lead you to a freaky pilgrim village in the middle of nowhere! Once they reach April’s home, Alex stands outside and looks around as she goes in.

Shortly April returns with her father. He is a big, rugged man, at least six inches taller than Alex and very intimidating. He and April stop outside their home and April’s father looks Alex up and down.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Alex. Um…I was going to Seattle last night when I hit a deer. I guess…can you help me? I just need this cutbandageed up and then I’ll be on my way.”

April’s father stares at Alex incomprehensively for a few seconds, then leans to examine Alex’s injuries closer. The makeshiftbandagee – his ripped T-shirt – wrapped around Alex’s head is bloodstained and tattered. Though he doesn’t trust Alex, April’s father decides to help him because he’s obviously hurt and needs medical care. He calls to his wife and has Alex sit down on a nearby tree stump. April’s mother comes outside and stops short upon seeing Alex.
“Who is he?” she asks, nodding toward Alex.
“April found him in the woods. I do not know where he came from, but he doesn’t look good. I’ve decided to help him,” answers April’s father.
“You are too kind. Nobody else would help such a stranger,” she says. She shoots an unsure glance at Alex, then shrugs and turns back to the house to get thebandagees and medicine she keeps for emergencies. April, who has been standing nearby, runs inside to help her mother.
April’s father turns to Alex, who is still sitting on the tree stump. “What is your name again?”
“Alex Miller.”
“And how did you get here?”
“Well, it’s kind of complicated. You see, I live in Sacramento, but I was driving up to Seattle last night to get to a business meeting that I’m supposed to be in right now. I ran into a deer last night on the highway and totaled my car. That’s how I got this,” he says, gesturing to his head. “I went into the woods to look for water, which, in hindsight, was really stupid. I don’t know why I didn’t just walk along the highway. But I walked for about twenty minutes along the deer trail and found the stream, where April was. So, yeah, that’s my story. I guess I have a lot of questions for you, too, like why are you all dressed like pilgrims? Is this one of those weird reality shows or something?”
April’s father stares at Alex, brow furrowed. Before he has a chance to answer, his wife and daughter come back out of their home. April’s mother has a few squares of white cloth and a bowl of yellowish paste, followed by April, who’s carrying a wooden bucket. April’s mother kneels next to Alex, motioning for April to give her the bucket. She takes a cloth and dips it into the bucket, getting it wet and wringing it out. Gently she uses the cloth to wipe the blood from Alex’s head. Then she uses her fingers to wipe the paste onto the gash. She takes another clean cloth and wraps it around his head once more. When she’s done she silently gathers the medical supplies and heads back into the house. April and her father are still standing there staring at him. Alex looks around and notices the entire village has gathered around to watch the scene in awe.
“Well, I’d better get going. Thank you for your help. Do you know if there’s a faster way to the road than the way I came, or, even better, a gas station or something nearby?” asks Alex, grateful but ready to get away from this weird village.
“I do not think you understand. We are the only people for miles. There is only forest outside of this village. I do not know of the road to which you refer. That is why it is a mystery to us as to where you are from, because we are the only settlers here, besides the natives, which you are not. So tell us, from where did you truly come?” says April’s father, his eyes narrowed, his look of generosity and kindness replaced with distrust. Alex becomes aware of whispering amongst the villagers, baffled by the impossible man standing in their midst. He ponders the words he has just heard. Nothing that has happened to him in the past few hours has made any sense. For the first time, Alex really looks at the villagers, scrutinizing the way they dress, talk, and act. It’s like they really believe they are pilgrims. This is no reality show. A gnawing fear starts to grow in the pit of Alex’s stomach as he realizes what’s going on. It’s not possible, he tells himself. No. That’s not what happened. To know the truth, he asks:
“Tell me, what year is it?”
The reply sends Alex reeling back onto the tree stump: “Why, the year of our lord 1719.”



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