“You see, this is the kind of experience to invigorate the brain and stir the senses! Visual stimulation at its finest,” Walter said firmly, practically bouncing in the back seat of the car. How he managed to maintain his enthusiasm, Olivia still didn’t know. Even a milkshake wasn’t enough for her to keep up with him some days.
“I didn’t think leaf-peeping was that much of a thing for you, Walter,” Peter said, eyes flicking up to meet Walter’s in the rearview mirror.
“I rather missed them,” Walter said, his tone softening with regret.
“Well, they’re pretty good this year,” Olivia said, tilting her head to get a good look at the cascade of red and gold leaves decorating the trees outside the window. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually done this before…”
“All residents of New England would be embarrassed to do what the tourists do. So you’re covered,” Peter said, smiling as he guided the car down one curving stretch of highway after another. “Speaking of tourists, looks like we have another tourist trap town coming up. Anyone need a pit stop?”
Walter raised his hand, and Peter nodded in acknowledgement as they passed the town limits for Storybrooke, Maine.
“Peter, look out!” Olivia yelled suddenly, and Peter swerved instinctively as a massive dark cloud full of lightning poured out of the trees lining the road and engulfed everything in its path.
“She’s coming out of it.”
Olivia slowly swam back to consciousness, blinking to bring the world into focus. A drop-tile ceiling above her, slightly coarse sheets beneath her, antiseptic smell in the air, and repetitive beeps filling her ears. Hospital. Another hard blink and she struggled to sit upright.
“They’re all right, ma’am, ma’am please lay down. Dr. Whale? She’s awake.” The nurse that had been hovering over Olivia vanished from view to be replaced by a slightly harried-looking blond man who looked her over distractedly.
“You took a bit of a blow to the head when your car went into the ditch. But I don’t think it’s serious. How many fingers?” he said, waving his hand at her. Olivia quickly looked around the room and spied Peter lying in the bed next to her, eyes closed, and Walter on the other side, thoroughly engrossed in a pudding cup for the moment. Olivia was certain that wouldn’t last long though.
“Three. What about the… storm?” she asked, not quite sure what to call what she’d just seen. The only thing she could compare it to was the fragmented memories of her trips to the other side, the brief instant when she was neither here nor there.
Dr. Whale paused, and Olivia watched something almost akin to guilt cross his face. “Storm?” he repeated, a little louder than was strictly necessary.
Olivia looked over the man’s shoulder, struck by the odd aura of tension in the hospital ward. Storybrooke couldn’t have been that big of a town, but there were a strange number of people here, all of them not quite meeting her eyes, but trying to sneak looks at her when they thought her attention was elsewhere. A bearded man in a janitor’s jumpsuit, two nuns, a grandmotherly woman and a strikingly pretty young woman with dark hair were all hanging around conspicuously. Across the ward a woman in a leather jacket was hovering over the bed of a boy, her back just unloading its stiffness as she ruffled his hair. Bracketing her was a doting couple her own age, who kissed her on the forehead like loving parents.
Olivia could feel the awkwardness of everything around her, like the first time she’d seen the other side – things superficially the same, but so, so different once you’d looked around a little. But she wasn’t there. She knew the other side too well to be fooled again.
“Yes,” Olivia said firmly, not letting him squirm out of whatever he knew. “The storm came right through the forest, no forecast, no warning-.”
“The electromagnetic interference must have been incredible,” Walter said, setting down his spoon decisively. “It matches no natural phenomenon I’ve ever seen. No unnatural one either, and I dare say I’ve seen quite a bit.”
Dr. Whale looked back and forth between them, growing more and more uncomfortable by the minute.
“Doctor?” the woman in the leather jacket spoke up as she walked towards them. There were dark circles under her eyes from sleepless nights, and lines around the corners of her eyes and mouth that bespoke of too much stress in her life. More than a little out-of-character for someone in this little town. “I’ve got this.”
Dr. Whale looked entirely relieved and made himself scarce as the woman took his place by Olivia’s bedside. As she moved, Olivia could see the badge crowed to her belt and flicked an eyebrow at Peter, who had woken up as Olivia had been talking.
“Sherriff Emma Swan,” the woman said in greeting. “Look, I’m sorry you got caught up in that. I know this place doesn’t look like much, but we sometimes get really crazy weather out in the woods. Something about the lake and the air coming up from the old mines. You aren’t the first people that have gotten caught, but it was a really bad storm this time.”
“A ground-rolling electrical storm?” Peter asked, a little sarcasm bleeding into his tone. Olivia knew he’d recognized something about it too.
Swan shrugged casually. “I told you, we get crazy weather. That’s why we don’t get as many tourists as other towns.”
Swan looked as calm as was possible, every expression telling Olivia she was telling the truth, or at least the truth as she knew it. The only nervous tic about her was the way her eyes kept sliding over to the boy in the bed.
“Yours?” Olivia asked, willing to let things go for a moment. Vulnerable and exposed in a hospital bed was not exactly the best time to go challenging the state of the universe.
Swan’s expression softened. “Yeah. He is. Scared me to death yesterday by eating something he shouldn’t have… but he’s going to be all right.” She looked back at Olivia. “Your car took some damage, so I had it towed. Michael said he could get it fixed by this afternoon, so I think you’re taking a little forced vacation in Storybrooke until then. Granny?”
The grandmotherly woman walked up to Olivia’s bedside, her dark-haired… granddaughter, had to be granddaughter, right at her side.
“Granny has the best café in Storybrooke. Once Dr. Whale lets you out, you should head over there. Enjoy your stay.” Swan was gone again before Olivia had a chance to say anything else, the set of her shoulders and the tenseness around her eyes speaking of having too much to do and too little time to do it in. Olivia was sure she’d looked that way more than once over the past few years.
“She’s just worried about Henry,” Granny said softly. “You come right on by when you all are ready. Best hot chocolate in town.”
“Any more weather going to come through?” Peter asked. Walter was watching, fascinated, from the other bed.
Granny held his gaze steadily, but her granddaughter blushed slightly.
“No, young man, I doubt there will be any more weather coming through anytime soon.”
Olivia kept silent as the Granny and her granddaughter left, pausing to exchange a word with the loving couple that had been near Swan’s son. They both… Olivia kept her eyes half-averted so she wouldn’t show surprise as they both curtsied before the couple.
And under the vague murmur of everyone else in the ward, Olivia heard them say, “Your Majesties,” before leaving the room.
The harried Dr. Whale had all but thrown them out of the hospital, clearly eager the see the last of them in a way that might have worried Olivia, if she hadn’t been nearly as eager to get out herself. She had nothing more than a vague headache to mark the car crash, and it didn’t look like Peter and Walter had even that much.
“Crazy weather my ass,” Peter muttered as the doors shut behind them.
“Did you see what I saw?” Olivia asked. “It was almost like-.”
“Right when we crossed over,” Peter finished.
“Highly unlikely,” Walter said, shaking his head. “The phenomenon was too widespread, too unusual. Perhaps something unleashed by accident, though for what purpose, I’m not yet sure…”
“And by whom,” Peter said. “Unless someone’s got a mad scientist in the basement, this place doesn’t really strike me as the center of inexplicable experiments.”
“Have you really looked?” Olivia said, and Peter and Walter turned away from each other and looked around at what Olivia was seeing.
The village architecture was… odd. Some was pure New England, with quaint little shops on Main Street and large colonial homes down the side streets. But parts of it had a heavier, almost gothic feel. Medieval. Charming flagstone giving way to inexplicable granite blocks on some buildings, with carved stone and arched windows showing up where they really had no business being. The forest seemed to encroach upon the town square, the huge trees seemingly marching along the streets like soldiers occupying a city. And yet it seemed as if they’d always been there. But why would someone have built a home so close to a tree that large? And how would they even have gotten some of these homes built, considering the density of the woods around them? And why did the town hall have a moat around it?
In places Olivia was irresistibly reminded of a theme park or a movie set, some place at more than one remove from reality. This was reminding her less of the other side and more of something from a dream. Why hadn’t she heard about this place before, supposedly crazy weather or not? There were dozens of quaint New England towns competing for tourist dollars, so why hadn’t this one capitalized on its unique flavor? There should have been signs along the road trying to lure people in. Instead, nothing. No hint of the place until they’d practically been on top of it.
Peter was right. “Crazy weather” indeed.
Granny’s Café was possibly the only place to eat in town, serving as not only a diner, but a bar as well, with people on stools at the counter drinking their troubles away next to kissing couples at tables flirting over milkshakes.
That may have been just as strange, if not stranger, than the inexplicable medieval architecture.
“And what can I get you guys?”
The granddaughter was back, her red-streaked dark hair falling all the way down her back. She wore an intricate red shawl over her shoulders, the ends tucked securely into her belt. A nametag proclaimed her to be “Ruby.”
“A strawberry malt, my dear, and a bit of explanation, if you’d be so kind,” Walter said immediately.
She looked at Walter a little oddly, caught Olivia and Peter’s interested stare, and finally nodded. “One strawberry malt, coming right up.”
The malt was in Walter’s hands in a few moments, and Ruby slid into the unoccupied space in the booth with blithe disregard for the daggers her grandmother was staring at her behind the counter.
“Crazy weather?” Peter prompted.
“The craziest,” she said, nodding.
“Ridiculous. A widespread electromagnetic anomaly, and no natural one at that,” Walter said, and took a large slurp of his shake. “Very tasty.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Ruby said, laughing slightly.
Olivia smiled slightly. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you what I did, either. I’ve seen dozens of things I can’t explain, or at least not very well.”
Ruby looked at her challengingly. “Like what?”
Olivia exchanged a look with her friends and nodded. Ruby might or might not believe them, but it took a little give-and-take to get people who’d experienced the impossible to open up. And if they were truly off-base, well, they’d be out of here in a few hours with only a little embarrassment to show for it.
“Telepathy,” Peter said.
“Dream-sharing,” Olivia added.
“Human genetic modification and mutation,” Walter put in. “And quite a bit more, I assure you.”
Ruby went pale as Walter spoke, and Olivia kept right on her. “People vibrating molecules to walk through walls, targeted viruses, time travel, people being trapped in amber, shapeshifters, and alternate universes.”
“Alternate universes?” she repeated softly. “Really?”
“What’s going on around here, Ruby?” Olivia asked.
Ruby swallowed hard and ran her thumb along the embroidered edge of her shawl. “You aren’t from around here. Not at all.”
“Boston,” Peter said. “And other points unknown. Some pretty far.” Walter ducked his head at that, and Peter put a comforting hand on his arm.
Ruby looked up at them. “Maybe Emma would have been better for you guys to talk to… But if she can believe, I can try.” She shook her head as Olivia started to say something. “You guys just came here at the wrong time. Everything we forgot came back, and then everything else too. Things are… going back to the way they should have been.”
“And we just happened to come along when you had your big revival?” Peter asked.
Ruby bit her lip. “I don’t think there are coincidences. That’s what Henry would say. Was it frightening? The other universe?”
“Sometimes,” Olivia said quietly. “Mostly it was just different.”
“Yeah,” Ruby said. “It’s going to be different around here all right.” She stood up abruptly. “I should get back to work.”
“Hang on, we need to know-.”
“I think…” Ruby hesitated. “It’s better if you don’t? Please? People don’t come here very often for a reason.” She took a deep breath. “Look, it’s going to be dark soon, and it’s a full moon, so you’d probably better be on your way, all right? Michael’s station is right down the block.” She stood up nervously and tucked her shawl around her again. “I gotta go.”
“Hey, just in case,” Olivia said, “If you see someone who looks like us, but different? Be careful, all right?”
Ruby swallowed hard. “Likewise.”
Peter kept squinting into the darkness of the encroaching trees as they passed the sign for Storybooke, half-wondering if another lightning-filled cloud was going to descend upon them all. Nothing worse happened than a wolf howling far behind them, an oddly fitting send-off for the darkly quaint little town.
“Walter, do you have any theories about what the hell Ruby was talking about?” Peter asked.
“One. Clarke’s third law,” Walter said positively.
“‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?’” Peter asked.
“The same. Also, quite possibly, considering the evidence, the lovely young lady may have been a werewolf. Heavy eyebrows, you know.”
Peter looked over at Olivia, expecting to find her shaking her head, or getting ready to pry some proper sense out of Walter, only to find her nodding.
“You’re seriously considering that?” Peter asked her, raising an eyebrow.
“After what we’ve seen? I think we could handle a little magic,” Olivia said with a smile, looking thoughtful as they traveled through the woods and out again.