This morning, it was a city. Now, I've been to all sorts of cities in my life, but I could tell this was a special city.
"Where have you taken me now?" I asked softly, clucking my tongue. Ren curled up in my arms, dozing off. I patted him fondly before sighing.
It was definitely on the brink of winter. The cold wind nipped at my bare skin and everyone walking by me wore heavy clothes, their thick scarves and coats brushing against me. Few people gave me cursory glances—first at my thin shawl and dress, then at Ren—and hurried on.
"It seems everyone is busy here. How oddly they dress. It certainly reminds me of Goldenrod," I remarked. Ren, fast asleep, did not answer. Following the tide of people, I started walking.
"Money for the poor, money for the poor," someone called out. I stopped at the sound of a few coins jangling in a tin can. A man sat cross-legged next to a building. Sheets of grimy newspapers were spread out under him. Noticing my gaze, he quickly held the can up to me, muddy brown eyes pleading.
"Oh dear," I said, sighing. "Oh dear." Carefully balancing Ren with one arm, I reached into the pocket of my dress, rummaging around for a few coins.
"Will this do?" I asked kindly, dropping the coins in his can.
The man peered into the can and pulled out the coins.
"Lady, are you shitting me?"
He held up the three coins on his palm and violently tossed them across the sidewalks. This drew some bystanders' attention.
"You think this is a joke, lady? You think it's fun messing with the homeless man? You think I'm that dumb? That I have no fucking pride left?"
I could tell the man was getting angry. I clutched Ren tighter, confused. He stood up, wobbling on his steps. The air around him reeked of onions and alcohol. By now, more people were stopping around the little unfolding scene.
"You think I'm dumb, huh? Every last one of you think so, too!" he yelled, swinging his arm. We were fully surrounded by people. "Think it's funny, lady? Giving me toy money?" he spat, glaring at me.
"I don't understand, sir. Toy money?" I took a step back right as he took a step forward. I was holding Ren not only to support him, but because I was afraid I would collapse out of fear if I didn't. Some of the onlookers pulled out their phones.
'Please wake up,' I begged to myself.
The man slowly inched toward me, reaching into his pocket. Why wasn't anyone stopping him? Ren stirred in my arms.
"Yeah, you must be laughing. Real funny, huh? Don't worry, I'll show you real funny..."
"And that's what happened," I recalled, taking another sip of hot tea. "Luckily, Ren woke up just in time."
"Fascinating," Seth whispered, circling the now sleeping Ren. "Absolutely fascinating. It's a phenomenon, really." He straightened up, facing me. "You must have been terrified out of your mind."
I chuckled, responding, "Oh, maybe it was just a bit too exciting for an old woman like me." I set the cup down, turning to Ren. "So you don't know what's causing it?"
Seth shook his head. He took a seat across from me, helping himself to some tea.
"I'm afraid not. I've never heard of such an unusual case. Erratic, rogue teleportation. Not only that, but..." He raised an eye. "This city you've described to me."
"I admit, of all the things that disturb me, it's where you ended up this time. Laila," he said, crossing his legs. "Are you sure you still want to keep Ren? You know your secret is safe with me, but given your last encounter, I can't help thinking if staying with Ren is the best thing to do."
Before I could speak, Seth held up a hand.
"Wait. Let me finish. Even here, should Ren's secret ever be found out, you can bet he'll be whisked off to some facility in the middle of nowhere. And the city. Laila, the city." Seth shook his head. "I've travelled a fair bit myself, and I can assure you there is no place on earth like the city you've described. The clothes, the stores, the signs, the 'toy money'—nothing adds up."
"What are you implying, Seth?" I asked nervously.
"I'm not implying anything, Laila. Quite frankly, I think Ren has taken you some place not on this earth, this time. In this world, even."
I sat for a moment, stunned. Seth finished his cup of tea and let out a long, weary sigh.
"Of course, I'm your friend. You know I'd never turn you or Ren in. But I'm just concerned for your safety. Think about it carefully, Laila. You might not get off so lucky next time. As for Ren, well..." He trailed off, gesturing to the table where Ren was beginning to wake up. "I won't say anything. But please," he said, grabbing my arms as I stood up, "just be careful."
Staring into the eyes of my only childhood friend of so many years, I couldn't help but cave in, nodding.
I took the small Abra in my arms, wrapped both of us in my shawl, and left Seth's house just as the sun began to set.
"I promise," I said quietly.