Today was one of those days for Josie. One of those long, long days. Every day was a long day to her, at least since she moved to this city. Well, the more she thought about it, her entire life. Days are long when nobody sees you.
At least that’s the way she felt.
A little mouse of a thing, Josie stood a whole 5 feet tall, well below most people’s eye level. Her boyish figure, drab brown bobbed hair, eyeglasses, and plain wardrobe really didn’t help matters. She knew her style wasn’t popular and that it didn’t attract people’s attention, but she just felt so comfortable in her plain brown slacks and white button-up blouse with the brown V-neck sweater on top.
They didn’t have to be so pointed about it, though. Usually shy and withdrawn, whenever she did speak up, or try to go up to someone, they’d just look right past her like she wasn’t even there. She found it frustrating, and demeaning, and it made her feel oh so small and insignificant. But every now and then, she’d work up the courage to try, only to have them turn the other way, or, worse, smile and then walk right past her to greet someone else.
Today had started like many other days – she woke up early in the morning so she could get straight in the shower and wash her hair. She needed plenty of time for it to dry before she headed off to work, even if it wasn’t all that long. Then after a routine of breakfast, alone, and a little bit of early morning television for company, she’d head out on her walk to the bus stop, and thence to work.
Today she decided to sit next to someone on the bus. Usually she’d find a seat on her own, preferably one of those single seats against the window near the door, so no one could sit next to her. But she just felt so lonely today she had to sit next to someone.
He was a rather well-dressed businessman, in a seemingly expensive navy blue business suit that looked like it might be made of cashmere. His heavy cheek-bones, clean-shaven face, and sharply-cut black hair gave him quite the air of authority. He sat reading a fully opened New York Times, clearly opened to the business section. A Wall-Street Journal lay crisply folded atop the brown leather, bronze clasped briefcase which lay flatly on his lap.
She thought to herself that she might strike up a conversation with this man. This once, just this once, someone would finally notice her, and actually talk with her like a normal human being. Just like everyone else. She settled into the seat next to him, primly placed her hand one atop the other in her lap, and surreptitiously attempted to sneak a peek at just what it was he was reading. All she got for her effort was a side view of illegible seemingly smeared-together text.
Well, that didn’t work, she thought to herself. Better just to bite the bullet and say hello to the man. Maybe he’d even respond. She took a deep breath, and steeled herself to do just that.
“Hi,” she said, barely audibly, in a little squeak of a voice.
No response. Nothing. He kept reading his paper as if nothing had happened, no one had addressed him.
A little shaken, she nonetheless tried again, a little louder this time.
Still no response. He turned a page.
“I said hello there,” she tried a third time, even louder. Surely he had to hear her that time.
He frowned, shifted a bit in his seat, and pulled his paper closer, effectively creating a wall of black and white print between them. As he did so, a brightly coloured flier fell from between the pages and fluttered to the floor between their feet.
She stared at it, distracted from the pointed blow-off she’d just received. On a plain black background, the brilliant electric-blue wording leapt out at her, boldly: “The Wonderland Bar”. And, below that, in finer silver print, she barely made out: “Where your dreams come alive.” She wondered what that could possibly mean. After a moment, she decided it must be one of those singles bars. She hated those places – such meat markets.
Pushing the flyer out of her thoughts, she came back to the fact that she’d just been completely and purposefully ignore. Huffing, she folded her arms across her chest and pouted, to herself, “if only SOMEONE would take notice of me. Anyone!”
Just then, a horrible grinding noise came from the direction of the engine in the rear of the bus, which began to lurch most dreadfully. It shuddered and groaned then came to a complete dead stop. A great hissing and moaning escaped the engine compartment, accompanied by a most acrid odor like burning rubber and over-heated metal.
After a few minutes of the driver’s curses filling the air, the bus doors in the center and front swung open.
“Well, everyone, it looks like this boat’s not going anywhere anytime soon, so may as well all hoof it the rest of the way. Another bus will be along in about 15 or 20 minutes if any of you feel like waiting, though,” the driver announced.
“20 minutes!” She worried silently, “I’ll be late if I stay here! Best to walk the rest of the way.”
She got up and worked her way to the front of the bus. It seemed most the other passengers were content to wait. When she got to the exit, she saw why, and couldn’t for the life of her reason out why she hadn’t noticed before, but it was pouring down rain outside. The heavy clouds above completely blocked out the sunlight, making it dismally dark as she stepped off the commuter. She was drenched almost instantly as she hadn’t brought a raincoat or umbrella. And, much to her dismay, before she could so much as spin around to step back on the bus, the doors slammed shut, and the infernal thing roared away! She almost ran after it, but quickly realized the futility, and turned her back to the street. She then saw that the bus had halted in front of an alley. What she saw down that alley stopped her in her tracks.
Buzzing and crackling in the rain, surrounded in a blue nimbus of reflected light, a neon sign boldly announced “Wonderland.” As if with minds of their own, her feet hurried her in its direction. She couldn’t get down the three steps to the door and through into the deep blue haze within fast enough. She paused just inside the doorway, dripping, and let her eyes adapt to the gloom and oddities she saw within.
Everyone seemed to be gathered in groups of three, everyone except the bartender, that is. And from the looks of them, Josie quite quickly came to the conclusion she must have stepped into some bizarre costume party.
Around the pool table, busily clack-clacking the multi-coloured balls across the green felt (she swore cue balls weren’t supposed to have an iridescent sheen like that!) were three men with obsidian oil-slicked hair and wearing over their plain white wife-beaters , black leather jackets with old ‘50s script red lettering “In Infinitio” on the back. Hanging on each greaser’s shoulder was a girl in perfect ‘50’s rockabilly poodle skirt, white cardigan sweaters with blue flowers above their right breasts, their lips cherry-red red and shiny black hair perfectly coiffed in Betty Page style.
Around a broad, low table surrounded by worn black leather couches, three men who looked like they’d just stepped out of Pride and Prejudice played cards with three other men wearing brown bomber jackets and brown leather flight caps with goggles atop. Behind them various tall tables with three bar stools a piece were occupied by various other oddities – from what she guessed was some African tribal garb to togas to… space suits?
After some minutes of gawking and dripping, her gaze finally finished sweeping around the room and landed on simultaneously the most normal looking individual in the bar, and the strangest – the bartender. A short, stocky, heavily-muscled dwarf, he stood a mere four and a half feet tall, at most (shorter than Josie!), and his shoulders were nearly as broad, it seemed. A tight crimson t-shirt stenciled in black gothic script with the words “In Infinitio” clung to him like a second skin, accentuating his burly physique. His short, spiky hair was found its green, purple, and black colours reflected in the iridescent snake tattooed in coils around his right arm. Chewing on a stub of a cigar, he leaned against the bar, lazily swabbing it with a grey-yellow cloth that had clearly seen more than its share of beer. He rubbed at some unseen spot for a moment, then, seemingly satisfied, looked up in her direction, gave her a toothy, almost predatory grin, and waved her over.
“Well, don’t just stand thar gawping like a damned fool, come on in an’ take a load off, darlin’,” his gravelly baritone carried across the room. Foolishly, Josie looked around as if he were speaking to someone else, then pointed her finger to her chest and mouthed “me?”
“ ‘course I’m talkin’ to ya, babe. Who else would I be talkin’ ta, Genghis Khan over thar?” He abruptly lifted his chin up and over an inch, indicating a mongoloid individual in rough furs and a onion-shaped fur-lined metal hat, who dismissively waved his arm in annoyance at the barkeep.
Timidly, Josie crossed the room and sat down atop an aging red vinyl barstool. She leaned forward over the bar, and in a low conspiratorial tone, she whispered, “I really don’t know what I’m doing here. I was heading to work. Then the bus broke down. I got off, and was going to get back on because it’s raining so hard, but it just drove right away! Then I came in here, and I really don’t know why,” she looked around the room and continued, “and I feel so… underdressed and out of place.”
“Eh, don’t worry ‘bout yer duds, doll. T’ each ‘is own ‘round here. Now just let me try an’ figger out what it is yer lookin’ fer.” He reached up and pulled a large clear mug from a hook and shoved it under a brass tap, then pulled down on the wooden handle. As a dark brown fluid poured into the mug, he continued, “Aside from ya bein’ a drowned rat, yer a whisp o’ a gal, an’ ya dress a bit drably thar. Librarian glasses and mousy hair. Ya prob’ly haven’t been laid in ages, am I right?” He turned and plopped the mug down in front of her, sploshing foamy beverage all over the counter, and almost on Josie.
Taken aback by his forwardness, she shook her head to and fro and started to get off the stool.
“Now, don’t take no off-fence at ol’ me, babe. I just speak ‘em as I see ‘em. Sit back down an’ have a brew. Dat’s some good qual’ty Guinness I jus’ poured for ya,” she calmed down as he spoke and settled back on the seat with a leathery scrunch-squeak.
“So, then, I hit the nail on the head w’ that last one, so I’ll furder wager dat ya don’t get out much, an’ dat ya don’t get much comp’ny at home, eider,” He paused to wipe the counter with the dingy rag he still had in his hand. “So,then, I’ll betcha a drink from this here bottle,” he reached below the counter and flipped up into the air an unlabeled, slender, opaque hunter green bottle, “dat the real reason yer payin’ a visit t’ th’ol’ Wonderland Bar here, is that yer lonelier ‘n a dog in the desert. Am I right, or am I right?”
Reluctantly, she nodded, “Oh, you don’t know the half of it. Just *no one* will talk to me, like, ever. I tried to talk to this amazingly handsome guy on the bus, and, well, he just flat ignored me. That’s what it’s like for me all the time. I just wish *somebody* would talk to me.”
“I’m talkin’ to ya,” the dwarf pointed out.
“Oh, you don’t count, you *have* to talk to me. You’re the bartender. It’s your job,” she waved emphatically as she spoke.
The burly man grimaced, “Is dat so, huh. Well, then. I was right, and a bet’s a bet, so yer gonna half to down a swig o’ this here eee-lix-ur,” he slapped a shot glass on the counter directly in front of Josie, stabbed a spigot through the cork of the slender bottle and began to pour as he spoke. What came out was the same green as the bottle and fruity smelling. It almost looked like he was pouring the bottle itself, and, in fact, she could almost swear that the flagon was indeed shrinking as the liquid tumbled into the tiny glass.
Her gaze went from the shot to him and back again, then right back to him. He grunted and nodded his head towards the tiny cup. Hesitantly, she reached for it, “What is it?”
“Oh, don’t ya worry yer pretty little head o’er it. Dat right thar will change everything, I promise ya. People’ll notice ya, all right.”
With that reassurance, she took a cautious sip, found it to be deliciously fruity, and downed the rest, “another, please.”
“Oh, ya want ta be careful with dat stuff. Mighty powerful, dat is.”
He poured another shot for her anyway, and she drank it, then, much to his surprise, she quickly snatched the bottle and upended it down her gullet! And, sure enough, she was right, the bottle really was shrinking as it drained, and soon there was nothing left to hold onto – no bottle, no beverage, nothing, she had drunk it all.
That’s when the lights went out.
She panicked. She started flailing her arms around, trying to find purchase on something to feel her way to the door. At first she found nothing but air, but soon her hands slapped into forgiving leather. She grabbed ahold, and the lights came back on.
And she was surrounded. Everyone in the bar had all come to her side. And they were all trying to talk at once. So many bodies pressing in from all sides, she found it quite overwhelming. A rising babble of incoherence hammered her as everyone clamored for her immediate attention. Hands started to reach for her and she futilely tried to bat them away.
This was far too much! It wasn’t at all what Josie had in mind!
“Get away!” She screamed as she pushed as hard as she could to make room for herself, to get through the suffocating mob. Their cries for her grew louder and more jumbled, and she began to cry and scream herself and she flailed her arms against the nearest person in front of her.
And then, somehow, she broke through, and she had a momentary clear path for the door. She ran for it, with the mass of people right on her heals, hands outstretched to clutch for her. She barely escaped them and reached the door. She grabbed the old worn brass handle and yanked the door open, then leapt through. It slammed shut behind her.
Suddenly, all was quiet. There were no city sounds, no cars, no buses, no clamoring crowd. Just a chirping of birds.
She stood in utter shock as she saw that she was, in fact, not in the city anymore.
She was in the middle of a very primeval looking forest, and was now surrounded by tall, strong, broad, ancient-looking oak trees. She whirled about, realizing her dreadful mistake, but the door had already shut, and, in fact, there was no door in front of her. She faced a small cliff side cut out of a rocky hillock. There was absolutely no portal to be found, just bare stone with a few roots showing through. She desperately threw herself at the escarpment and ran her hands along it, seeking the cracks of the aperture she knew *had* to be there.
It was not.
Presently she fell to her knees and began to weep.