One positive fact about the bare layout of Harmonia was that my line of sight was virtually unobstructed. If anything came after us, odds were I’d see it long before it got to us. Not that I knew what I’d do if faced with a sudden adversary. I had nothing on me, no weapons of any kind, and there was nothing lying around that I could use either. We’d probably just run like crazy.
I tried not to think about that, though. My imagination was already leaving me quite spooked enough. I kept hearing sounds or seeing movement out of the corner of my eyes that wasn’t actually there. All the same, I was sure there were nasty, terrifying creatures around waiting to waylay unsuspecting travelers.
Just ahead of me, Alyson skipped along between the two staff lines, her long brown hair swaying side to side. She at least was enjoying herself. If anything happened to her, I’d never forgive myself.
“Alyson, stay close!” I called when she was too far away for my liking.
She skidded to a stop and looked over her shoulder, waiting for me to catch up.
“Do you think they’ll have food for humans at the inn?” Alyson asked. As if in response, her stomach growled loudly.
“I don’t know,” I said. Food had been the last thing on my mind, but now that she mentioned it, I could do with some sustenance myself. “We can ask when we get there.”
“Oh, good!” We carried on, and this time Alyson walked alongside me. “Ms. Stephanie?”
“I was just thinking, do you remember back at the lesson, before we came here, when we were talking about rests?”
“Sure. You described them as the ‘unpopular kids’ in school,” I replied with a grin.
“Yeah.” Alyson lowered her head and suddenly looked quite ashamed of herself. I wondered if it was something I said, although I had only been joking. “When I was playing with the note children at recess, most of them were really nice and we had a fun time, but the rests seemed to get left out of all the games. It was like no one paid any attention to them.” She sighed and added softly, “I felt sorry for them.”
“Me too,” I said, wrapping one arm around her shoulders.
“From now on,” Alyson announced with conviction, “I won’t ignore the rests in my songs ever again! Somebody should pay attention to them.”
I couldn’t help but grin just a little. “That’s an excellent idea, Alyson. I’m sure they could use a good friend. They’re just a little shy, that’s all.”
She smiled back at me.
“Look!” Alyson said after awhile, pointing straight ahead.
Startled out of my thoughts, I stopped dead and looked wildly around for signs of danger, while kicking myself for not being more watchful.
“What? Where?” I cried.
Looking in the direction of Alyson’s finger, I relaxed a little. There was nothing coming toward us, no immediate danger that I could see. Just a smudge of green in the distance.
That was rather odd, considering nearly everything else in that place was black and white.
“What is it?” asked Alyson.
If I didn’t know any better, I would have said it looked like trees. Of course, I wasn’t going to say that out loud and be made to look like a fool if I was wrong.
“I don’t know,” I said instead. “I guess we’ll find out.”
As it turned out, I wasn’t a fool after all. They were in fact trees. And from the looks of it, they made up a small forest. Maestro had mentioned there being a forest next to the inn, but for some reason seeing it in person was another matter. Of all the absurd things, that was almost too much to bear. How on earth–or rather, how in Harmonia–were trees growing in solid white ground, with no dirt of any kind? Yet there was no mistaking them.
Perhaps just as unsettling was how quickly we were approaching the forest. What had been a smudge on the horizon at one moment had turned into solid, recognizable trees a few minutes later. And when I glanced over my shoulder, then looked forward again, they were suddenly even closer.
I noticed a faint cloud of smoke rising over the treetops, and my first thought was they must be on fire. But as we drew near, I realized it was just smoke coming from the chimney of a small brown building nestled at the edge of the forest.
When we reached the building, a wooden sign posted beside the Staff Road informed us that it was the Half Rest Inn.
“We made it!” said Alyson, jumping up and down.
I hesitated. Maestro hadn’t mentioned how to get to the inn, but he had specifically warned us not to walk in the other spaces on the Staff Road. There was no way to get to the inn though without crossing the C and E spaces. What would happen if we did? Would we be magically transported to some remote land with no way to return? Would half of our bodies stay behind while the other half ended up somewhere else?
“Come on, Ms. Stephanie!” Alyson grabbed my hand and tried to pull me forward.
“Wait!” I said firmly. “I want you to stay right here on this spot. Don’t move, do you understand?”
Alyson looked confused, but nodded anyway. “Okay.”
Turning back to the sign, I gathered my courage. If there was any danger, I wasn’t going to involve Alyson in it. I looked both ways, out of habit I suppose–it wasn’t like there was any traffic. Then I took a long, deep breath and, praying the whole time, slowly lifted one foot and stepped over the first line.
Rather than feeling relieved, my initial reaction was irritation. It was too easy. Someone had to be messing with me, waiting for me to let my guard down. Cautiously, I stepped over the next line.
I was now inside the E space, the last space in the Staff Road. One more step and I found myself outside the Road, alive and in one piece. With great reluctance, I turned back to Alyson, who was staring at me with wide eyes.
“Can I come now?” She whispered.
“Yes. Let’s get inside,” I said, still shaking.
Alyson hopped over the lines one at a time and landed next to me.
Before we even opened the door to the inn, we could hear the buzz of conversation. I grasped the handle and, shielding Alyson with my body, pushed the door open. It swung inward with a loud creek.
A crowd of music notes sat around tables, chatting with each other over drinks. They were mostly adults I assumed, since they were larger than the children we met before. As their eyes fell upon me one after the other, they stopped talking and stared in surprise. A wave of silence washed over the entire room until the only thing I could hear was the clatter of dishes from the kitchen.
This was a bad idea, I thought. Changing my mind, I started to back up. We’d wait for Maestro outside.
“Well I’ll be, what’s got your tongues knotted up all sudden like?” an eighth note exclaimed as she flitted across the room with a tray of glasses in one hand. She stopped short when she saw me.
“Who might you be?” she asked.
“Er…I…” my mouth had suddenly become dry and swollen, and my brain forgot how to form words. Why were they all staring at me? I swallowed hard and forced an answer out. “We’re…just passing through.”
The waitress put her free hand on her hip. “Well, sure, but you’re human, ain’t you?”
“Is that bad?” I asked a little defensively.
“Not necessarily. As long as you’re not bad.”
She seemed to mean this as a joke, but I didn’t laugh. After an awkward pause, she said, “Just can’t remember the last time I seen one of your kind, is all.”
“Can we come in?”
Part of me hoped she’d say no.
“Of course you can! All folk are welcome here!” she replied. “Come in, come in!”
I shuffled through the doorway, and Alyson followed right behind me.
“You got a name or what?” the waitress pressed me. She was as tall as me, which was a little disconcerting. Music notes were supposed to be small.
“Stephanie,” I said. “And this is Alyson.”
Alyson poked her head around me and waved politely.
A gasp broke out among the notes nearest us, and they whispered to their neighbors. The message was carried to the very back of the room, until the voices rose in volume.
“A child! A human child!”
“Hush!” the waitress yelled at them. “Manners, please! What’s wrong with all of you? Of all the superstitious hullabaloo!”
She turned back to us. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Stephanie and Alyson. I’m Gloria. Would you like a table?”
“Yes, please,” I said with a wary glance at the crowd. Then, remembering Maestro’s instructions, I added, “Near a window, if possible.” Gloria gave me a curious look, so before she could ask questions I said, “we’d like to enjoy the view.”
This answer seemed to amuse her, but she shrugged and led us over to a small table under a window, the wings on her heels fluttering all the while. The rest of the guests slowly returned to their conversations as if nothing had happened.
“What can I getcha?” Gloria said as we took our seats.
“Um…” Alyson and I exchanged blank looks.
“What do you serve?” I asked.
Gloria shrugged again. “The usual. Water, coffee, tea, milk, sandwiches, soup, salads–”
“You have normal food?” I interrupted.
“What else would we serve?” Gloria said, looking affronted.
“I’m sorry. I just meant–I don’t know what music notes eat.”
“We eat ‘normal food,’ apparently,” she replied.
“But…where do you get the food?” I asked in disbelief. There didn’t seem to be any land around for growing it.
Gloria leaned in and whispered confidentially, “Magic.”
Alyson’s eyes grew wider. “Magic?”
“Yep.” Gloria nodded. “We have these special places where food just appears every day, and we can go get it whenever we want.”
“What sort of places exactly?” I asked, not bothering to hide my skepticism.
“Oh, they’re amazing places! Maybe you’ve heard of them?” Gloria lowered her voice even more. “They’re called…grocery stores.”
Alyson and I blinked up at her. Finally, Gloria’s face cracked into a smile and she started giggling uncontrollably.
“You really are a funny little thing,” she said to me, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. “Where do we get our food? Really?”
I was in no mood to put up with the sarcasm of others, human or otherwise.
“Just bring two glasses of water,” I said shortly.
Gloria stopped abruptly, realizing no one else was amused by her joke. “Will that be all?”
“No, I’ll also have a salad. What do you want, Alyson?”
“Comin’ right up,” said Gloria, and she fluttered away still giggling to herself.
As we ate our meals, I kept careful watch out the window. Hopefully Maestro would come soon. I was ready to be home. Ready to escape this strange place. Ready for music notes to stop staring at us…actually, they seemed mostly to stare at Alyson, as if a human child was the rarest thing in the world. It made me uncomfortable.
“How was it?” Gloria asked when she returned to collect our empty dishes.
“Delicious, thank you,” I said. Then, a sudden realization hitting me, I gaped up at her. “I–I’m so sorry. I just realized I don’t have any money. What currency do you use here, anyway?”
“Blood,” said the waitress in a low, deep voice. She gazed down at me solemnly.
I stared back in horror.
“Relax, I’m only jokin’!” she laughed. “All currency is good here. But don’t worry about it. This one’s on the house.”
“Because, it’s not every day I get to serve humans!” Gloria replied with a wink.
My eyes shot to our empty dishes. I hadn’t even questioned the food or its trustworthiness.
Gloria seemed to read my mind. “It’s not poisoned,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Well…thanks,” I muttered.
“You’re quite welcome!”
Gloria bustled away again and left us to ourselves.
Alyson smiled at me. “I like Gloria. She’s funny.”
“Yeah, hilarious,” I said dully.
I glanced out the window, only to jump in shock. A black unicorn with a white horn and chest was standing just feet away, its eyes fixed on me.
As soon as I noticed him, he trotted away toward the forest.
“Should we follow him?” asked Alyson.
“Not yet. He wants us to wait a few minutes so we don’t draw attention.”
I stared at the second hand of my watch with growing anxiety. One minute…two minutes…five minutes…seven minutes and fifteen seconds…thirty seconds…close enough.
“Come on, let’s go,” I said.
As we walked to the door, Gloria called out to us.
“Bye, dears! Come back soon!”
“Bye, and thanks!” Alyson waved back.
Coming soon: the conclusion to our first adventure in Harmonia. Will Alyson and I make it home??