Like most afternoons in Twoson, it was sunny, and it was quiet. And Paula, having just read to the preschoolers from a picture book, to wind them down for their 2PM nap, now lay on her bed upstairs, reading to herself. She figured that it was probably one of the better ways to kill time while waiting for the children to wake up, since unlike chores, Paula really enjoyed reading. She enjoyed any activity she could do alone.
Which is why she couldn’t help feel a little bugged when she heard her father’s voice calling her from downstairs. Her parents knew not to disrupt her when she was reading, so she didn’t have to ask to know that yet another stranger had dropped by to interrupt and waste her time. Reluctantly, she folded the top corner of the page she was on, slid the book under her pillow, and scuffled down the stairwell.
Downstairs, her father stood next to a short boy, just about her height, if not a little shorter. “So sorry to bother you, Paula,” her father said, “but you have a visitor.” He gestured to the boy. “Er… …umh... …oh, I’m sorry, what was your name again?”
“Porky, sir,” said the boy, tucking a thumb under the band of his overalls. “I hope I’m not bothering you or anything.”
Paula wasn’t sure if that last part was directed at her father, or at her, but she thought it was probably better if she answered, seeing as she was the one this Porky kid had come to see in the first place. “Of course not,” she said, smiling cordially. “I’m not really busy right now, so…” She shrugged and trailed off.
“Paula, I just told Porky that I’m about to dart out to the shops. Did you need me to get you anything?”
“I think I’ll be fine. Thanks, Dad.”
“All right. Well, I should be back in about fifteen minutes. Make sure to make Porky feel welcome, won’t you?” And with that, he left.
Paula stared after the door before turning to Porky, who had taken the liberty of sitting down at their table. This boy, Porky… …well, unlike all the other visitors she’d had in the past few months, he didn’t look like he’d come to ask her to perform a trick with her special powers. …So, who on earth was he? Not someone Paula had ever seen around Twoson before, actually. Maybe he was from some less tidy neighboring town? He sure looked like it. Paula, in all her thirteen years alive, had never seen such a greasy mop of blond hair. Long enough, also, that it hung over his eyes, hiding them completely. Paula wondered how he put up with it. He needed a haircut, she thought. Not to mention a very long shower.
“Do you have anything to drink?” Porky asked. His tummy muffined out over the top of his overalls as he leaned back into the chair.
“We have some orange juice, I think.”
Porky’s lips stretched into a grin. “If it’s not too much trouble? Please?”
Paula sighed to herself. After pouring the drink into a glass, and placing it on a coaster in front of Porky, she dragged another chair out and sat down herself. Porky faced the glass, before turning his snoutish nose up at her. “Aren’t you gonna have any?”
“I’m not that thirsty,” she replied, dismissively. She did have questions, though. If this boy wasn’t here to beg for her to do a magic trick, well then, what was he here for? She wondered if this boy’s sudden appearance possibly had something to do with that black-haired boy… …Ness… …whom she’d glimpsed in that strange dream she had a few nights ago. Before she asked Porky anything, though, she waited for him to finish downing his drink. He smacked his lips and broke into a grin again, placing the now empty glass back on the table.
“So…” She fiddled with her badge, pinned proudly on the collar of her dress. “Where are you from? I don’t remember seeing you around here before.”
Porky rubbed his nose. “You wouldn’t have. I’m from Onett.”
“Oh. That’s the town up north, right? I’ve never been there.”
“You know, it’s very small. It’s kind of a drip, when you think about it. Not that I think this place is much of an improvement.”
“Huh.” Paula shifted in her seat. “…So… …then…” She figured now was a good time to ask. “…What did you come here for?”
Porky chuckled, but it came out wrong and sounded more like a snort. “I’m not sightseeing or anything, if that’s what you were thinking. It’s not actually Twoson I’m here to see. Really, I heard you’ve been having incredibly weird dreams.”
Paula felt her spine prickle, and she creased her brows, eyeing Porky. How did this Porky kid know about those? Pretty much nobody knew about those. She’d felt brave enough to tell her mother and father about the dreams, but not anyone else… and she definitely hadn’t dreamed about anyone but the black-haired kid, the one the lonely echoing voice had introduced to her as “Ness…”. Maybe Porky knew something else about this Ness. Maybe Porky didn’t. Or maybe some preschooler had heard Paula confess to her parents, told Porky, and Porky had come here intending to draw more secrets from her. Or maybe not. Maybe Porky had been having weird dreams, too. Or--
Paula decided it was probably a better idea not to keep quiet.
“Yeah,” she admitted, finally. “I think they started around two weeks ago. At first, they were filled with these strange, hazy waves. Like, you know the static you get on a dead T.V. channel? Like that, but wavy, and I think the lines might have been colorful, not gray. But I can’t really remember.”
Porky didn’t say anything. Paula couldn’t tell what he was thinking (if he was even thinking at all), not with that grimy hair covering his eyes.
Regardless, she continued. “So that was all I would dream, for a while. Then, just the other night, I had the exact same dream… …well, okay, it started out exactly the same, but then the face of this boy with black hair appeared… …and there was this unusual voice echoing in my head, saying--”
“The voice said the name, “Ness,” didn’t it?” Porky interrupted, his smile looking strangely upside-down.
Paula’s eyes widened. “…Yeah! …How did you know that?”
“Because I know Ness,” said Porky, folding his arms over his tummy. “Ness is my friend over in Onett. Ness told me that I had to come and get you, since you were important or something.”
Paula, of course, was amazed to hear that Ness had been this close… …and there she’d been, thinking that maybe he was some kid from someplace overseas, where she’d never be able to find him… And, did Porky say important? “So, wait… …important, how?”
“Beats me,” Porky said, a little quietly, before hacking up a cough. “But, uh… …I was told-- I mean, Ness told me he needed you urgently, so I came here in his place. Ness is too important, you know, to come and busy himself with these things.”
“Sure, I’ll come with,” Paula agreed. Not that she’d had a choice, really, since “important” meant important… …and she was kind of curious about exactly what Ness needed her for. Aside from the kids at Polestar Preschool, and maybe her parents, Paula hadn’t really been urgently needed by anyone, ever, least of all some boy from Onett she hadn’t met before. Actually, it felt really cool. But she didn’t say as much to Porky. “I might just quickly grab my backpack.” She pushed her chair in and started towards the stairs. “Did Ness tell you what I should bring with me?”
“Nope. …Oh, no, I mean, he did tell me. He said you wouldn’t need to bring anything. Knowing Ness, he’ll probably already have everything anyway.” Porky sniffed, and rubbed his nose again.
“Right.” Paula nodded. “I should probably leave a note, though. My dad might get worried if he comes back here and I’ve suddenly disappeared without a trace.”
Porky grumbled. “Not necessary. We’ve really gotta get going, pronto!” He reached for Paula’s hand.
“But--” Paula uttered, kind of flustered, and disgusted by the stickiness of Porky’s hand. “I really think my dad will panic. Can’t I just write a note real quickly?”
Porky was adamant. “No time!” he exclaimed, and hurried Paula through the preschool and out the door.
Had Paula not been distracted with wondering why Ness needed her so urgently -- and why Porky couldn’t sympathize enough to spare a minute or two to let her scribble a note and pin it on the fridge -- she would have been more cautious of her surroundings. Certainly, she would have noticed that someone was following after them as they paced, and she definitely would have whipped around in time to see this someone lunge at them-- no, at her. But, she hadn’t noticed. In the span of a few utterly frightening seconds, a bag was pulled over her head, alarming her far too much to put up a struggle.
She did once her shock eased, though, despite the fact that she couldn’t see anything but vague light through the fabric. She kicked with both legs, and tried punching wildly; until she felt two coarse hands grip her flailing arm, twisting the skin in a Chinese burn. Paula let out a pained cry. Those hands belonged to someone else. The person who had jumped her from behind, she realized.
“Shush! …Otherwise, we’ll make sure you spend the rest of your few precious days preparing to be sacrificed!” taunted a voice. Was that Porky? Paula’s knees wobbled. Porky and the other person held her still, spun her around four times (or, for what felt like four times), before continuing to drag her after them, off the grass, and onto uneven earth. Paula sensed that they’d entered one of the forests on the outskirts of Twoson. Her stomach churned. She hoped she wouldn’t retch.
“Mind your step from here on, or you’ll probably trip and fall and spill your brains!” It was Porky. He yanked on her arm. Despite the warning, Paula stumbled over what felt like a root, and her back brushed against what was then, probably, a branch.
“Hey! Didn’t I tell you to watch where you’re stepping?”
“I can’t even see where I’m stepping!” exclaimed Paula, her voice muffled beneath the bag.
Porky snickered. “Through the forest, can’t you tell?”
“Just knowing that doesn’t mean I won’t still trip over!” Her throat tightened, and she clamped her lips shut, trying to breathe through her nose as slowly as she could. …What did these two want from her? She didn’t see how being held for ransom would benefit Porky -- not when her family obviously weren't rich. Maybe if she knew who his accomplice was (or at least, what they looked like), this whole kidnap caper would make much more sense. Except, she didn’t, and she was still very much both figuratively, and, well, literally, in the dark about everything. She tried not to let a frustrated sob escape her.
It really, really didn’t help that her head felt foggy. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to clear her thoughts. Here, on her right, stood Porky, who had showed up at her door, had known about the dreams she’d been having. Promised to take her to the very Ness she had dreamed about, even. Well, he’d lied to her, and she had been stupid enough to believe him. Of course he wasn’t taking her to Ness, because why would he go through the trouble of blinding her, when she had agreed to go with him? Obviously, he had planned to take her someplace else from the beginning… but where? And why? None of it made a lick of sense. Even more confusing was the presence of the stranger on her left, the one who had actually done the blinding. And had given her a Chinese burn. Her arm still stung a little from that.
There was no telling how much time they spent inching through the depths of the forest, but eventually the space around them opened up, and what little light Paula could sense through the bag suddenly dimmed.
“Where are we?” Paula asked, anxiously stilling. “I’m not going in there.”
“What, are you afraid of the dark?” jeered Porky, finishing with a snicker. “Suck it up! We’re not gonna be in there for too long!”
In spite of the darkness, Paula squeezed her eyes shut, breathed in through her nose, and out through her mouth. She found herself instinctively thinking about her father, who would probably have returned home by now. She thought about what he might say to her mother, to the preschoolers. They were going to wake up and, for once, not find her there -- possibly they’d cry then, she thought. Paula bowed her head. And what about Ness?
The darkness only lasted so long, thankfully. Once some semblance of light started to seep through again, Paula unscrunched her eyes, finishing the prayer she had been silently whispering to herself.
A few more steps. Then, three raised steps. Paula heard something like a door open in front of her. Porky -- well, she thought it was Porky -- pushed her forwards. The hands gripping her arms removed, there were footsteps, a heavy metallic groan, then more footsteps, and finally, the unmistakable sound of the door slamming far behind her.
“Go on, use your witch powers or something! See if Ness can reach you now! But don’t be surprised when you realize he can’t!” came Porky’s voice from outside. Footsteps again, then silence.
…Even as the silence continued, it would be some time until she felt ready to take the bag off her head.