FIVE YEARS AFTER
What Presto really wanted was a cigarette, but the others would be here soon and he was desperate not to let them smell it on him. For the past couple of minutes he'd been taking the pack from his black leather jacket, twirling it longingly in his fingers, the putting it back in his pocket.
He was standing on an anonymous suburban road in the outskirts of a town that could have been anywhere in America. Nothing about the scene suggested it was his hometown. To his left and right, the black road stretched away, lonely and straight. Across the road was an overgrown field hedged in by gnarled trees, barren for winter, crooked branches bare in the moonlight. If he stared into the centre of the field, it was easy to forget there was any Earthly civilisation here at all; the only reminder, other than the road, was the harsh neon glare from the diner behind him, and the hum of the customers within.
A yellow spot appeared far away down the road on his right, and grew slowly bigger; Presto turned to face it expectantly. Involuntarily, his mind raced, and his fingers toyed with the cigarette packet in his pocket. What was the first thing you were supposed to say?
The car slowed down as it came level with the diner, then pulled across the oncoming lane into the parking lot. As it passed Presto - a gleaming, spaceshuttle-like artifice in the glare from the diner windows - it honked at him, and Presto raised a hand sheepishly. Finding a vacant spot, the shuttle glided effortlessly into position and the door swam open. Eric stepped out the car with one hand already raised in greeting.
Taking a deep breath, Presto walked over to him. He still couldn't think what to say, but he was glad it was Eric who'd arrived first.
"Long time, no see." said Eric.
"Yeah, it has been," said Presto gratefully, "nice car."
Eric grinned. "It's a Mazda RX-7. Brand new. My dad says if the company goes well, I can get a Porsche to go with it."
"Wow, a Porsche… I mean, is that even an upgrade?" Presto chuckled nervously, although Eric's words meant absolutely nothing to him.
"It's not an upgrade, it's a bonus." Eric looked like he was standing a little taller already; there's something about being around me, thought Presto amused. Seeing how at ease Eric was already made him feel better.
"I can't even imagine the insurance, Cavalier."
Eric closed the Mazda's door with a smooth click. "Let's just say it's more than you ever pulled out of that hat of yours, Magician."
Bounding round the car, he embraced Presto in a hug. "Good to see you, Presto! How you been?"
After a few seconds Eric pulled away, and assessed Presto with the triumphant air of an older brother who's sibling has just aced an exam. "You look different, buddy. Did you lose your glassses?"
"I'm wearing contacts."
"I like the jacket too."
"Thanks! I'm actually trying to dress cooler," he added pathetically.
"Oh yeah?" Presto wandered if he detected the hint of a sneer. His last comment felt especially stupid having said it to Eric, who was dressed head to toe in designer fashion labels. Presto knew if even he could tell it was designer, it must be halfway fashionable.
At that moment they both spotted another yellow dot, this time coming up from the left. It approached at a more cautious pace than Eric's sleek entrance, and when it turned into the parking lot Presto was thankful to see that the car Shiela and Bobby drove was almost as battered as his own box-like vehicle.
Bobby and Shiela jumped out of the car and walked eagerly towards them. Presto's heart swelled; they both looked delighted to see them. And of course they would be! He told himself. He and Eric rushed to meet them halfway, and the four companions shared a joyful hug.
Bobby's taut arms were thrown around Presto's back; although he was still only 13 or 14, he was almost as tall as Presto. But his smile, when he drew back, was still as boyish and sincere as ever. Both he and Shiela still called him 'Presto'.
"Have you guys heard from Hank and Diana?" asked Shiela, once they'd all said their hellos. "I didn't know if they were coming."
"Diana couldn't make it," said Eric sagely. "She's at the state gymnastics comp. She's favourite to win, don't you know."
The other three gasped. "That's insane!"
"That's our Diana!" said Bobby, with as much enthusiasm as if he'd been cheering her right from the front row. "We should have known!"
Shiela frowned. "We should have gone to support her!"
Eric shook his head. "Don't worry, it's on the other side of the state. Diana understands. There'll be other chances!"
"I guess... And Hank?"
"I think he's coming…"
"I heard he was coming too," added Presto, almost anxiously. Why do I feel so nervous? He berated himself.
Shiela frowned. "Shall we wait for him, or…"
"Let's go in!" Bobby declared. "Hank can catch us inside. It's cold out here and anyway, I'm starving!"
Bobby's suggestion met with general agreement, so as a four they made their way around the back of the diner to the entrance. They naturally fell into pairs, Eric and him in front, Shiela and Bobby behind; Presto heard Shiela whispering to Bobby to get his school bag out the car.
"Really, sis? You want me to lug that inside?" Bobby's crackling teenage voice was as loud and brash as ever, even if it did crack now and again.
"Just to be safe, Bobby." Whereas Shiela's voice, Presto thought, had somehow softened even more. It was so strange, he thought, trying to compare them to back then…
"It's great to see you, Eric. Really," he said impulsively. Eric looked momentarily taken aback, but then gave his familiar wry, lopsided, half-committed smile. "You too, buddy. I was almost starting to miss you guys - almost!"
There it is, thought Presto happily. The same old Eric.
They took a red-leather-seated booth by the window. A waitress poured them black coffee and said she'd be round again in a bit to take their orders.
"This one's on me," announced Eric proudly. "Cavalier's treat."
Bobby laughed. "Thanks Eric, but I'm gonna make you regret that!" Presto nodded in agreement - he was starving - but nobody noticed, and he hurriedly turned his enthusiasm into reaching for his coffee mug.
Some time between their sitting down and the waitress pouring the coffee, a current had passed around the table. Presto thought, they all felt it. The same realization. We did it. We made it here. We still have it.
"Let's not start until Hank gets here," said Shiela suddenly. "It wouldn't feel right us all catching up without him."
There were general murmurs of agreement, although Eric pursed his lips. "Ok, but I'm ordering for him! I can't wait for my food a second longer."
Eric called the waitress back over. Collectively they ordered enough food for a small banquet. Eric ordered a triple cheeseburger, double bacon and extra fries, and a side of mac n cheese. Shiela ordered a hot dog and the 'instant heart-attack' chocolate fudge milkshake. Presto went for fried bread, bacon, sausage, a massive omelette loaded with cheese, and a burger. Bobby, following up on his promise to Eric, ordered half the kitchen with everything on the side, plus several ice creams and another round of coffee.
Silence returned, and with it, Presto's nervousness. He raised his coffee mug, realised it was already empty, and carefully lowered it back to the table. He instinctively knew - they all did, he thought - that when Hank arrived the spell would be broken, but he didn't know what would happen next. It'd been three years since he'd even seen Hank... how would he appear to the Ranger now? The more he imagined Hank walking through the diner door, the more uncertain and threatening the anaemic walls and harsh light seemed.
Focus, he told himself. Don't retreat into your thoughts. You need to be in the moment here.
Food began arriving, pretty soon engulfing every square inch on the table.
"This is good," said Eric, nodding thoughtfully as the table filled up. "Yes. This feels right."
"Race yah, Eric!" Bobby cheered, pouncing on his first piled-up plate with a vengeance.
In the same moment Bobby was biting into his first half of a pancake, it hit Presto that he didn't feel hungry. In fact, he was almost feverish. His hands shook. To calm himself down, he looked at the familiar faces around the table with him; faces he hadn't seen for so long, yet which still seemed so accepting and sincere, it was as if he'd been with them every day of his life.
All three of them had changed. Maybe more than him. Eric's face was sharper, more angular, and his gaze more assured; Bobby the teenager was already looking like he'd be a giant one day, the first glimpses were there; and Shiela had already grown up, was a proper woman now, only 19 but making them all look like kids by comparison.
He took a deep breath. He felt sure of it now, that underneath growing up, it was still them, still his same old friends from the Realm. Now it just had to be seen with Hank.
"He's late," said Eric, between mouthfuls. "So much for leading from the front!"
"Maybe he's not coming," said Shiela quietly.
Presto shook his head, doing his best to look assured. "He'll be here. Hank wouldn't miss this."
They all paused at once, like cars arriving at a crossroads.
Finally: "It's been two years…" Shiela ventured.
"It'll be different," said Presto firmly. "It'll be like starting afresh. Really guys, I have a - a - a good feeling about this."
Of all the times, why did I have to stammer now, Presto wondered.
At that moment the black gulf of the outside world was lit up by a new pair of headlights; the deep hum of and crackle of the engine, and wheels on tarmac, sidled past the diner to the parking lot. Hanks's headlights flashed past the window, momentarily shining on Presto and Shiela's faces; then the road and the field beyond plunged back into the gloom.
A car door opened and thudded closed. Presto felt adrenaline flood his system. After all this time he didn't feel prepared. He looked around to try and get his bearings. Eric, Shiela and Bobby were already standing, eyes fixed on the door, waiting to rush over. Desperate not to be left behind, Presto forced himself to stand, but it was actually scary to picture the moment Hank's silhouette would round the diner, passing the windows, come up to the glass door, and with only a gentle push, break the barrier between this cozy world and the dark night outside.
This story came to me as I thought about the lives the children would have to go through if they ever did escape the Realm. After they escaped, there are two things they might have found out - firstly, that years had passed and everyone they knew had given up looking for them or hoping they might be alive. Secondly - and this is implied in the show more than once - time moves more slowly in the Realm, and even if they escaped after years in that world, it'd be like they'd never left on Earth.
In some ways the second option is far worse: imagine going through all those adventures as a group, and no one else ever believing anything happened to you at all. Overnight, you'd be a completely different kid to the one your classmates and your family thought you were. And the world itself would seem impossibly different to you. That's a whole lot of childhood memories and adventures to keep in a closed box, only five other people ever knowing that they happened at all.