“For once, I’d like to eat something that wasn’t charred black!”
“Why do I always have to cook? If you don’t like what I serve, do it yourself!”
Meghan could hear her parents argue from the other end of the campground. She wondered why they even went camping when all they did was argue, just like at home.
“Come on, Noodles,” she called to her tiny wire-haired dog, who was busy sniffing every deposit in the dog run. Noodles looked up, his black eyes shining, and trotted back over to the entry gate. Meghan clipped on his leash and closed the gate. She walked over to the worn wooden stairs that led down to the beach. After looking in the direction of her parents’ trailer, she sighed and started down the three flights of stairs.
A battered sign announced that dogs were not allowed on the beach, but during the week they’d camped there, the ten-year old had noticed that in the mornings dogs accompanied people on the beach with no consequence. Before the lifeguards set up on their towers, of course.
Camping was supposed to bring families closer together, she thought as she descended the creaking stairs. But the tension that hovered over her parents followed them wherever they went. At least she could get away from it on the beach for a while. At the bottom of the stairs, she jumped down onto the sand which had eroded into a large gap. Noodles jumped down with her and stopped, waiting for her to unleash him.
“Here you go,” she said as she unhooked him. The black and white dog sped away onto the beach, looped around and headed back to her. He would repeat this pattern during their walk, never leaving her sight. Meghan tied back her shoulder length ash hair with a pony tail, slipped off her flip flops, and wallowed through the dry sand to the water line. She started walking down the shoreline on the wet, firm sand.
The crashing waves, hissing foam, and the early morning mist made her forget about her volatile home life. The sky and sea blended together in tones of grey, the horizon a mere smudge in the distance. She took a deep breath, suddenly realizing that she had been holding it. Noodles barked at a sea gull and chased it, the bird waiting for the last possible minute to launch into the sky. Meghan smiled for the first time that day.
Noodles continued his pursuit of sea gulls which led him close to the cliffs that rimmed the beach. A small ground squirrel poked its head out of some dried seaweed, and the dog changed his direction. The squirrel raced for the shelter of the cliffs with Noodles in pursuit. With the small creature almost in reach of his barking jaws, the dog entered the cave.
“Noodles, get out of there!” Meghan cried, fearful that her dog would uncover a snake or something worse. She slipped on her flip flops and followed him into the cave.
Damp coolness made her shiver, in spite of her warm hoodie and jeans. The walls of the cave were smooth from the tide and slanted back far beneath the cliff. Years of pounding waves had carved out a larger space than the entrance indicated. Other than large flat rocks, the cave was empty.
“Noodles!” she cried. “Noodles, Noodles.” The cave echoed back to her. She looked behind every rock but there was no sign of him.
She sat down on a rock, tears springing to her eyes. She pushed them away, for she would not cry. Her parents’ endless drama had drained her of emotion. Her dog had to be here somewhere. She took a deep breath and looked around.
From her seated position, she could see a large gap under the rock in front of her. It was large enough for a person to crawl through, and definitely large enough for a small dog. She got up and inspected it, discovering familiar paw prints. There’s where he went!
Thoughts of snakes and rabid squirrels forgotten, she crawled through the hole. Suddenly she fell to soft sand in darkness. Meghan took out her smart phone and turned on the flashlight. This cavern was not as tall as the one above it, but it was wider, and she heard water trickling nearby. Next to her on the sand she could see a dog-sized impression and paw prints going away.
What am I doing? How am I going to get out of here? The flashlight revealed that the hole she fell through was at least ten feet above her. The smooth walls gave no hope of climbing. Sighing, she turned to follow Noodle’s trail. She hoped there was another way out somewhere.
The cave split into several tunnels at one end, but the paw prints led her the right way. Fortunately the tunnel was tall enough for her to walk standing up. The ground was sandy but to her right a trickle of slimy water flowed, draining from somewhere.
“Noodles!” she called. “Noodles, Noodles, Noodles,” the cave echoed. No answering bark. She continued to follow his trail. Her flashlight gave her glimpses of green mossy dripping walls, but thankfully no large bugs. Her heart pounded anyway with the thought that there had to be other creatures down here.
After what seemed an eternity of listening to her own breath and walking in the dark, she saw a light ahead. Afraid to hope, she trudged toward it. The tunnel made a dog leg right turn, which was where the light originated. When she made the bend, another large cavern was revealed, circular with natural ledges sticking out like balconies. The light came from a large hole in the roof, shining down in a beam to the ground.
A joyful bark announced the wet dog circling her ankles, and Meghan scooped him up, pressing his matted down fur to her face. “Noodles, Noodles,” was all she could say. “Noodles, Noodles, Noodles, Noodles,” the cavern agreed.
Now that she had found her dog, Meghan turned her thoughts toward getting back up on top of the ground. She walked around the edges of the cavern, but she found no other tunnels. Then she walked into the center of the room to stand in the beam of light. She squinted as she looked up to the ceiling. The hole was large enough for her to get out, if she could just find a way up to it.
Suddenly, she heard a rumbling from the side of the room she faced. Looking down, she could see the edges of a dull metal plate under the sand she was standing on. She bent down and wiped away the sand. It was a dark metallic disk with no markings on it. It looked almost as ancient as the cave. The sound intensified as the huge rock that she had assumed was part of the wall slid aside. With Noodles in her arms, she entered the new room.
Another hole in the ceiling filled the room with light, and Meghan couldn’t believe what it revealed. The surrounding walls were covered with tapestries in bright red, green, and blue. Their patterns were of trees, flowers, and fruit. The room was filled with antique wooden furniture, including chairs, tables, and small sofas. Then she realized that she and Noodles were not alone.
“Welcome to the Carlsbad Portal, young miss,” announced a thin, dark-haired man dressed in dark green tunic and pants. “Where might you be traveling today?”
“What? What are you talking about?” Meghan asked, with her arms clenched around her dog.
“This is part of the Faerie Portal System, miss,” he explained patiently. “From this station, you can visit Summer or Spring Courts. Which would be your destination?”
Meghan stared at the man, suddenly noticing his bright green eyes and slender, pointed ears. “Are you an elf, like in that hobbit movie?” She looked behind her. “Where are the cameras and the director? You’re shooting a movie, right?”
The man cocked his head to one side, and looked at her carefully. “I understand. You’re not fae. Not to worry, miss. I have visas here. You can visit on a day pass.” He went over to a small desk, and took some paperwork and pen out of a drawer. “All you have to do is fill in your true name and your family homeland, and you can be on your way. The weather at the Spring Court is lovely today.”
Realizing that he was serious, Meghan stood there speechless.
“The price for a day pass is only a song. We’re running a special this month,” the man continued, motioning for her to join him at the desk.
“A song? What do you mean?” she said, her curiosity overruling her unbelief. She set Noodles on the ground and firmly clipped on his leash. Then she walked to over to see the paperwork.
“Any song will do, miss,” the man explained, “but lullabies are preferred. Come, fill this in, then you can sing, and you’ll be off.”
Meghan looked at the paper on the desk. It was a printed ticket titled “Day Pass, Mortal Use Only,” and had a rather large paragraph of fine print. At the bottom was a blank line for her name and her hometown. Convinced now that somewhere in the tunnel she had hit her head and blacked out, and this was her dream, she decided to go along with it. She signed her name and Riverside and handed the pen back to the man.
“You want me to sing now?” she asked. The man nodded, and took her paperwork. He stamped it and handed it to her.
“Okay, here I go,” she said. She sang the only lullaby she knew, even though as she grew older she understood it had a grim ending:
Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will fall baby, cradle and all.
“Very good, miss, that will do nicely,” the man said. “Now step into the portal. Don’t lose your ticket. You’ll need it to get back.” He gestured toward a metal disk directly below the skylight.
Meghan took another look around the strange room. Is this real? Am I really traveling through a portal into Faerie? Her worried parents’ faces flashed through her mind, but she shook her head. They were too busy fighting to even notice that she would be gone.
Even if this is not real, only a dream in my head, why shouldn’t I go on an adventure?
“Thank you, sir.” she said with a nod, and she stepped onto the disk. The bright light blinded her as the room around her disappeared.