I took one last great deep breath as the bus shuddered and halted to a stop, quavering nearly as much as I was. The bright spring sun was beginning its descent to the west, and the sky was a brilliant watercolor painting of pink, orange, and blue.
But I wasn't paying attention to any of this, mainly because I was lifting my iPhone as high as my painfully short arms could reach in a pitiful attempt to get cell phone service.
"Don't try," the old, stocky driver said gruffly. "Ain't no one in these parts who knows what that chunk o' metal even is, I reckon."
My jaw dropped. "It's the twenty-first century!" I exclaimed.
"Not here, it ain't," he smiled. I winced at his lack of teeth. "Why's a city gal like you even visiting this ol' place?" he asked curiously as he began to unload my overstuffed bags from the small bus, which resembled something like a tin-can on wheels. "And why'd ya pack so much? This place ain't nothin' special."
"I don't believe that's any of your business," I mumbled, handing him a crumpled fifty dollar bill from my pocket. "Thanks for the ride."
"I ain't ever seen this much money in my life!" he smiled. I winced once more.
"Well, enjoy it. How do I get to civilization from here?" I asked, looking around at the luscious green flora. Fields of tall-grass and flowers and trees extended in all directions. I could see misty mountains in the distance and hear the rush of a waterfall. Birds were chirping loudly and crickets buzzing. I felt like I was in a nature movie. I breathed in deeply. The air was oddly sweet. I was used to smelling smoke or sewer water with each breath I took. I grinned with childish delight until I remembered my phone.
"Rutger and Ina'll be here any minute, missus. Now if ya don't mind, I got some business to take care of back in Battery City. G'bye, now," he said, re-entering the croaking vehicle.
"Goodbye," I said nervously. I was afraid of the dark and of isolation, and this place seemed to contain plenty of both. "Thank you."
"My pleasure, ma'am," he said, and drove off, back up the bumpy road we came from.
I tried once more to get service, even restarting the phone. "Come on, AT&T, don't fail me now!" I hissed angrily.
"Are you okay?" a woman's voice asked.
Looking up abruptly, I saw a middle-aged Asian woman with porcelain skin and ebony hair, clad in crimson silk robes. She had a puzzled look on her face.
"I'm sorry. It's nothing," I insisted quickly.
"What's going on, Ina?" an elder man asked crossly from a few yards back. He had a perfectly waxed mustache and balding blonde hair underneath a green cap. His piercing blue eyes looked as confused as Ina's onyx eyes.
"It's the girl we've been told about, Rutger," Ina called to him, sounding slightly annoyed.
Rutger approached, followed by a beautiful white horse, the kind I've only seen on the Internet.
"I'm Lillian," I said rather anxiously, extending my hand. Ina and Rutger shook it, equally firmly. Ina seemed very strong, and it scared me. Were all the women that strong here?
"If you're trying to get a phone to work, don't bother," Rutger laughed, taking it from my hand and throwing it into the forest.
"We don't have phone service here. Never saw a need for it. We have an efficient postal service," Ina explained when she saw my beyond-shocked expression. My jaw dropped so greatly it felt as though it had unhinged.
"Sorry, Lillian," Rutger said, still smiling. Let's get your things to Bluebell, then?" he asked casually, looking at my leather suitcases and raising an eyebrow.
"Oh, no you don't, Rutger," Ina almost shouted, her thin lips curved into a frown. It was completely dark now, but her skin was seemingly glowing. "Let's give her the full story and then let her choose! It's the only fair way, and you know it!"
"Fine," Rutger grumbled. "I'll give you the honors."
"Lillian," Ina began rather smugly, "Hundreds of years ago, there was an argument between two peoples that resided in this area. One group lived in the village of Bluebell, and the other in the neighboring village of Konohana. The two villages were connected by a tunnel, and were formerly very close and neighborly. But this argument, they could not get past. The tunnel is now closed off, though you can still travel from one village to another by traveling across the mountain."
"What was the argument about?" I asked curiously. I was right; it is like a movie. Too bad movies end in two hours, and then I can go back on Facebook.
"Food," Rutger and Ina said simultaneously.
I laughed. They scowled.
"You can't be serious. Food's just food," I said, stifling another bout of giggles.
"Not here," Rutger said seriously.
"Bluebell was crazy enough to think that their food was better than ours!" Ina said.
"We have fresh animal products daily! All you have are leaves and flowers. Where's the taste in that?" Rutger growled.
"Just because we're a crop-centered town and you're a livestock-centered town doesn't mean your food's better than ours!" Ina shouted.
"Let's not get started. We in Bluebell know we're the best, and that shows in our cooking festival results," Rutger said arrogantly.
"It's getting late," Ina grumbled. "Just let Lillian chose where she would like to live."
They looked at me expectantly.
I thought for a moment. I liked Rutger. He was quick-witted and funny and competitive and reminded me of my grandfather, God rest his soul. Ina was a bit too intimidating for my liking. On top of that, I was great with animals. My parents were veterinarians, so I figured I'd be more comfortable in a livestock-oriented town. I was afraid Ina would punch me once I announced my choice in town.
The crickets made the awkward silence even more pronounced, and the feeling of anxiety between everyone was nearly tangible.
"Er... I'd like to stay in, um, Bluebell for now," I announced, the words crawling out unevenly, like the squeaks of the birds.
"Aha! I knew it," Rutger said, smiling and patting my bag. "I even brought a pony for you, to begin your life as a farmer in Bluebell!"
Ina looked disappointed, which was worse than anger, and made me feel thoroughly uneasy. I felt chills echo through my body, though it was quite warm out, and I was wearing a thick woolen cardigan. Once she regained her composure, she spoke in her proud, mature tone, "Just wait, Rutger. She'll move to Konohana by the end of the season. You didn't even mention the calendar differences between here and most of civilization."
"What?" I asked, expecting the worst. This was such a primitive little place, especially for a sixteen year old like me. It was something I'd read about in history books.
"We don't have twelve months to split up the year; instead, we use the seasons to cut it up," Ina explained before Rutger had a chance to.
"What is this place? Where am I?" I asked, not intending to be rude, just curious.
"Your parents didn't tell you?" Rutger asked, astonished.
"No. In fact, they went amazingly out of their way to keep it from me," I said, blushing. They must have thought that I was some sort of delinquent for being shipped off here.
"Well, I won't spoil the fun," Rutger said with a wink. Before I could answer, he continued. "Let's go to your cottage. Jessica's waiting with a cow and a chicken for you to start out with. Eileen just renovated everything. We've got a fresh change of clothes for you, because, well, you won't exactly fit in wearing sneakers and torn jeans. You do know how to care for animals, right?"
I nodded, and we began our walk to the village. He helped me mount the horse, which I named Luna, and taught me how to ride it.
It was so much to take in. I'd be starting a new life. A clean slate. It was overwhelming but relaxing at the same time. I could start from scratch here! I could define myself!
"You were really confident that I'd choose Bluebell over Konohana," I noted as we approached the village.
"Well, I can't help but be confident about Bluebell. It's such an amazing little town. Bluebell produces only the best products from the best artisans. You'll do just fine, I'm sure," he declared proudly.
"I hope so," I said, not so surely.
"Help is always offered if anyone should need it," Rutger said, a twinkle in his eye. "We're quite a tight-knit group. There are, after all, only a handful of permanent residents in Bluebell..."
My eyes widened. "How many people? Fifty? One hundred? I'm from a city of millions. Millions!" I stressed. "I'm not a small town girl!"
Rutger chuckled uncomfortably. "You'll fit in just fine. You'll see, Lillian. Right now, you should get some rest. We've reached your cottage. It's been a long journey, but it's only the beginning," he said, and walked down the dirt-and-cobblestone path towards the heart of Bluebell.