Quick note from the author: Rainbow Rumpus! is shifting its focus from random rants to actual short stories! I hope you’ll have as much fun reading these silly stories as you did reading about flaming public toilets.
11:30 a.m. 106
Summer showers came and went frequently at the mountaintop village. Big bloated thunderheads swept in and the rain fell for hours, or just a few minutes. The streams gurgled, the stone pathways shimmered with puddles, the wind sighed in the treetops, and the air grew cooler.
Willow awoke by the old broken bridge just as the sun fell in shafts through the forest canopy. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and saw pools of gold, green, and flecks of yellow sunlight against the trunks. She became aware of the raincoat she was wearing, and the umbrella and picnic tarp too, and wondered where they came from. Before it rained, she had gone to play by the old bridge with just her exploration team (two rag dolls and a plastic strawberry-poison-dart frog). She was a fearless explorer sent by the kingdom of Cirrus on an expedition to a mythical hidden country that lay just beyond an ancient mossy bridge. Willow assembled her men, packed a backpack full of equipment and rations and set off. The rainclouds covered the sun when she left, but she paid them no mind. And then…she was here, waking up from a nap, dry from the rain.
Taped to one of the ragdolls was a note: “It seems you forgot some equipment, brave explorer. Be sure to remember them next time, and be more careful. Also, hurry back to Mom now. She needs your help. ~From Dad”
Willow gathered up her things and headed back the way she came. She ran down a dirt path, shoes squelching through the mud, ran past the old waterfall shrine, up the stone steps running alongside the waterfall, and down the stone path to Cirrus Village. The sun slipped out from behind the thick-piled clouds and made the village square glow white. Willow ducked down a shaded side street beside a canal and waited for her eyes to get used to the cool dimness as the blue-green afterglow slowly disappeared.
Wedged between a musty tea shop and an often empty gelato store was the Song Apothecary. It was a three-storied, slightly lopsided building with fading dark-green paint and mossy roof tiles. The second-floor windows were always open and held flower boxes beneath them, but the third-floor windows were drawn with Venetian blinds. Willow looked in through the storefront window and saw her mother weighing liongrass roots and slices of lingzhi mushroom on the glass counter. Mrs. Song looked up and beckoned Willow to come to her.
“Where have you been?” asked Mrs. Song. “It was pouring this morning right after you left to play. I was worried, Willow. I told you to wait until the afternoon.”
“Sorry,” Willow mumbled. “I’m okay, though. I fell asleep and Dad brought me a raincoat and umbrella.”
Mrs. Song tsked and shook her head. “He could’ve just brought you home. Seriously, the things he gets up to sometimes.”
“Are you talking about the watch?” asked Willow.
“Speaking of the watch, I’d like you to go get it for me from the workshop and deliver it to Dad later,” Mrs. Song said. “Tell him I lengthened the amount of time a user can go back. It’s on the desk in front of the blueprint board. Go get it, Willow.”
Willow stopped by her own bedroom on the second floor first, dumping her things onto the fluffy cornflower rug. Then she ran up a flight of creaky wooden stairs, lifted the trapdoor, and pulled the cord to turn on the light. The pocket watch was a heavy disc of bronze with a crystal face. It had two crowns instead of just one, and Willow had seen what had happened when her father pulled and turned the second crown.
The minute hand would turn back a few numbers and stop. Her father would press the crown down again, look blank for several minutes, and then explain to Willow with a smile, “Welcome to a new timeline, Willow. Did you notice anything different?”
Of course, nothing significant could be changed simply by traveling twenty minutes back in time. Mr. Song was an engineer who worked with a team of daring inventors that included, among others, Mrs. Song. They were determined to build a functioning time machine, and they spent years blending magic with clockmaking. The result was the pocket watch resting on the table. Willow took it and admired the little black roman numerals, the delicate hands, and the visible spinning of the gears beneath the face. It flashed and sparkled with subtle bursts of magic.
Willow helped her mother until noon. She stayed in the dim back room while Mrs. Song managed the apothecary in the main store. Willow was thankful to be in the back room, for it was cool and breezy compared to the stifling apothecary. It smelled slightly better too, with the scent of fresh water and air, instead of the dusty bitterness of the herbs and medicines in the storefront. She was told to replace the sea cucumbers’ water, which wasn’t especially difficult, but as she tipped the stagnant water from the tubs, she noticed how blindingly bright the backyard looked from behind the old lace curtain on the window. Socks, the black kitten, was playing in the grass, batting at tiny yellow butterflies. The old queen Mistletoe sat on the lid of the compost heap and watched him play.
“Mom, can I go play later?” asked Willow as she finished her lunch at 12:15.
“Only after you deliver Dad’s lunch to him, as well as the watch,” said Mrs. Song. She scooped steaming hot rice out of a cooker and packed it into a lunchbox. Then she added fried mackerel and snapped the lid on. In another lunchbox she put in a salad made of homegrown garden greens and cherry tomatoes. She wrapped both boxes in a cloth and handed them to Willow.
“Dad should still be at the Waterfall Shrine with his colleagues for their meeting,” said Mrs. Song. “If they aren’t there, head to the second workshop, okay?”
“Okay.” Willow took the bundle and asked, “Mom, why don’t you and Dad have a regular office place to build your time machine in?”
Mrs. Song thought for a while before answering. “Why, huh? Well, it would be nice to have one. But we need funding for that, and besides, if we told everyone we were inventing a time machine, that would put us in a bit of a dangerous situation, wouldn’t it?”
“How is it dangerous?”
“Because then everybody would want the time machine so they could use it to solve all their problems without thinking of the consequences,” explained Mrs. Song. “We don’t even know all that’s going on ourselves.”
Willow pondered her mother’s explanation as she walked to the shrine. Her parents were explorers too, but instead of riding dogsleds into the frozen Arctic tundra, or diving to the darkest depths of the sea, they explored time itself. Timeline explorers, her father told her once. She still wondered what that really meant.
Willow’s father wasn’t at the Waterfall Shrine. No one at the stone benches beneath the huge camphor tree. No one on the wickerwork chairs by the ice cream cooler in front of the shrine gift shop. No one stood by the altar. The only person there was one of the shrinekeepers, a tall old woman in nondescript gray robes. She was sweeping the floor and smiled as Willow approached her.
Out of habit, Willow bowed before the goddess of the altar, a lady holding a giant lotus blossom while regarding the world with a tranquil, detached gaze. Then she turned to the shrinekeeper and asked, “Have you seen my father?”
“You just missed him, Willow,” said the shrine keeper. “He was here about five minutes ago with a group of men and women. You didn’t see him on your way over here?”
“No,” said Willow. She sighed and clutched the lunch boxes close to her chest. “Now I’ll have to go all the way to the second workshop.”
“Be careful on your way back,” said the shrine keeper. “It looks like it’s about to rain again.”
It was true. To Willow’s dismay, as she stood talking to the shrine keeper, the thick gray clouds descended and cast a shadow over them. The wind rustled and sighed through the treetops. She could smell the rain on the wind, the unmistakable cool scent of fresh air and water. Willow walked swiftly away from the shrine and down the path, but she heard the first drops fall into the stream beside her and felt a fat raindrop splash over her nose. She broke into a run as the rain cascaded all around her. The forest hissed and gurgled, and the waterfall sent up white mist.
Willow tried tucking the lunch boxes under her shirt so they wouldn’t get wet, but the cloth was already soaked. She dashed up the slick stone steps, but her foot slipped and twisted beneath her. Willow fell on her face and the lunch boxes went flying. Winded and dazed, she got to her knees and wiped her dirty hands on her shorts. Her heart sank to her toes as she spotted the lunch boxes. The lids had popped off, and rice and fish and salad were scattered everywhere on the stairs.
Willow bit her lip, trying to fight back the horrible stinging in her nose and eyes. If only she had gone to the second workshop across town and waited for her father there! That would have saved a lot of trouble. Willow stood up shakily and picked up the boxes. Her knees were badly scraped and her forehead stung as well. Wincing, Willow sat down again and gingerly brushed away the grit from her scrapes.
Through the damp canvas of her shorts, Willow felt something cold against her leg. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the watch, dangling it by its chain. It was still intact, without the faintest scratch, and the clockwork ran smoothly. She watched the flicker of magic between the gears and cogwheels, and an idea entered her mind.
Part two of three coming soon.
Written by Serina Fang