CH 1 - Anywhere But Here

The beginning of the journey for Meike and their future friends.

CH 1 - Anywhere But Here
Photo by Sara Ferreira / Unsplash

Meike had been out of college for all of two months, and already their parents were making plans to renovate. Not that they blamed them; the room was going to be vacant until at least the end of the year, possibly more. It all depended on whether Meike could tolerate working on a farm. If not, there was always horticulture.

They knelt before their bookcase, an old hand-me-down that once belonged to their mother. Solid wood and towered a good six feet above them. Heavy, and heavier still, with a collection of fiction books and a smattering of encyclopedias and dictionaries.

They’d collected a ton of knickknacks and toys over the years, the bulk of which they discarded without a second thought. But even with their e-reader, it was hard to just toss books. There was something special about the weight and feel of a book, and the satisfying sound of pages turning.

“Meike. Meike.”

They turned from the looming shelf to meet their mother’s stern gaze. “Always got your heads in the clouds,” she said, exasperated. “I asked you to sort this out a month ago.” She didn’t so much as ask than demanded, as they recalled. But they knew better than to talk back.

“I had a good idea of what I want to keep and donate. It’ll only take thirty minutes.”

Thirty minutes to box up their whole life and move across the country. The host family supposedly had a small shelf set up for them, but Meike intended to pack light. Two suitcases and a backpack for their electronics would suffice.

Meanwhile, their bedroom for the past ten years was almost entirely stripped of character. Their desk was the first to go, dresser second, and old band and movie posters tossed, leaving faint imprints of what once was. All that remained was the bed and tv.

“You know you don’t have to do this,” she said. “You can stay here. I’m sure they’ll give you your job back if you explain the situation.”

“Can, don’t want to.” They’d given up on selling botany as a science to family; it always came back to retail gardens and floral shops. And they didn’t want to be stuck in the same job they started in high school forty years later.

“Gabby, are you out your mind? We just got rid of the boys.”

Meike was glad to have the heat taken off of them, but dad was…overly enthusiastic about them leaving, to put it lightly.

“I wasn’t happy about that either.”

He shooed her off to the side, a tape measure in hand. “We got you a sewing room, and I’m getting my man cave.”

“Thanks, dad,” they said flatly. He could at least pretend to care, but dad was never one to pull his punches, even with his kids.

“When are you leaving again? Two days?”

“Two weeks.”

Dad raised an eyebrow. “… How much is it gonna take to get you out of here in a week?”

“Darius!” Mom rounded on him, a deep scowl on her face.

“I’ve never gotten to ride on an actual train before,” they said before mom could squash the offer. Or any train, really.

Their hometown didn’t have a subway system or any form of public transit. Cars were king here, though there was a tiny airport that could fly you to a real one in the neighboring city.

“What, Amtrak?” Dad pretended to think it over. “It’s a slow ride, and you may be stuck there for two or three days, but…” He rubbed his chin, making Meike sweat for it. “I can work with that.”

“Thanks, dad!”

“No problem, pumpkin.”

“Darius! Stop running our children off,” mom snapped.

Ignoring her, he turned to face the room. “I’m gonna put the 50 inch right here,” he gestured to the spot currently occupied by the bed. “And my recliner right over here.”

Meike pulled an encyclopedia from the shelf. “What even is a man cave?”

“A place where a man is free to be himself,” he said. “Could be a game room, private theater, or a place to store his impressive comic book and gun collection.”

“This fool just wants to play video games,” mom huffed. “Which is fine by me. I need to be able to watch my programs.”

They picked up a game guide to a jrpg they hadn’t played in years. Most of the game took place in dungeons, the only reprieve being excursions into settlements to stock up on supplies and recruit new characters when the others eventually died.

The whole point of the game was to map out new areas and explore the range of classes while doing so. Could prove for an excellent time sink, though they were hoping to sneak in time to play their favorite MMO.

The latest expansion was announced a few months ago, one boasting an array of new classes and unexplored terrain. And, naturally, the release date was when Meike started work—on an organic farm with an “emergency” internet connection. Their host, Hakeem, essentially bragged about his kids being free from the influence of social media and television.

Meike sighed and placed the guide in the keep pile. They were going to be horribly under-leveled by the time they had a steady internet connection, but volunteering would look good on their resume.

They moved past the haphazardly stacked game guides to their reference books—plants to avoid, herbal remedies, and a comprehensive book on mushroom hunting. This latter book was dog-eared and falling apart, but Meike sorted it into the keep pile. Were there better and newer editions? Yes. But it was theirs, a gift and part of their initiation to the local mushroom society.

‘A month isn’t nearly enough,’ they thought, glancing once more at the shelf, the sound of bickering in their ears.


“We’re going to miss you, Capsule!”

“Have fun, Capsule!”

All early cries of farewell, all addressed to the avatar they piloted in the game; a spellcaster named Capsule, who provided heals, supportive skills, and offense in the form of familiars.

‘They don’t even know your name,’ Meike thought, with a touch of bitterness. And not for a lack of interest; it just never came up. They considered the people in the group chat to be allies and acquaintances, but the word “friend” never came into consideration.

So to “EagerReaver” and “prostate_milk” they were simply “Capsule”.

They sent a half-hearted assurance that they wouldn’t be entirely off the grid. In a pinch, they could connect via hotspot, though it wasn’t optimal for anything other than crafting and gathering. And all their social interaction came from raids…

Meike sighed and closed out of the app, their appetite for idle conversation lost. Just them, the train, and the other passengers, deeply engrossed in their smartphones and laptops. An odd person or two held a tablet or e-reader in their hands.

It was comforting, in a way, to be surrounded by people who didn’t know their name or recent diagnosis. People who would assume they were merely shy or introverted. Meike tried telling someone they once saw as the closest thing to a friend, and her response was lukewarm at best.

The conversation quickly changed to the best place to farm mugwort, or some other middling herb. It was a better response than the one they feared, but left them feeling just as hollow.

‘You’re overthinking it, is all,’ they tried to tell themself. That was the default stance for when things got to be too much, a brief stop on the road to a full shut down.

It was a bit late for regrets, but sometimes they wondered if this gig was even a good idea. Staying with a family they didn’t know, for essentially free labor—“We’ll pay you in experience!”—World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms or “WWOOF” would look good on their resume.

Meike curled up on their window seat to admire the passing scenery. They loved road trips as a kid; seeing rows of green, horses, livestock, and the occasional body of water made the pain of confinement bearable. More so when they had a good book or music to occupy themself. And they wanted to enjoy every second, before retiring to their private room (dad was generous).

If they closed their eyes and tried to focus on the soft thunks of the train on track, they could almost feel themself slipping away into a light sleep.

The inevitable jolt came from the person a few seats away, a woman with long, white blonde hair. She’d let out an ear piercing laugh and drawn the ire from other passengers. Meike was mildly curious, but happy to stay in their own lane. Aside from staff, they were the only black person on board and didn’t want to risk drawing attention to themself.

Things quieted down shortly after, and they diverted their attention back to the view outside. An endless stream of trees passed them by, but they spied hints they were in the Carolinas: Magnolia trees, Palmettos, the invasive kudzu species…But also home to Dionaea muscipula, or Venus flytraps. Difficult to care for, but a delight to observe.

Meike snapped a few pictures, wincing at the soft clicks of confirmation. They silenced their phone and resumed taking pictures, both of the plants and local wildlife. Folks in the group chat might enjoy it, or at least pretend to.

They were angling for a quick shot of a peculiar formation when the train hit a rough patch. In the midst of a cacophony of screams, Meike felt themselves knocked off their chair and plunged into a world of blackness. The last photo they took was a circle of yellow mushrooms.

Continue reading here:

CH 2 - Reality Bites
Meike meets a fellow traveler, and a strange dog.