If you've read my Sawyer Jackson books, you'll immediately recognize 8-Ball—the Akashic Sphere who is the sum total of all knowledge in the Omni. He also happens to be best buds with Xander Travel, and eventually Sawyer Jackson himself.
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It never occurred to me to ask how a cargo container ended up in the middle of the woods, 10 miles or so from an actual train track. The trees surrounding it were thick and tall, and pressing in from all sides. There was clearance for the door to slide open, but you couldn't walk around the perimeter of the container without detouring around various trees. That should have seemed odd.
But then, I was twelve.
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Today's flash fiction features a character I've developed over the past few years. This marks his official public debut, and I'm curious to see how people will react. Feel free to comment here (or Facebook or Twitter or aloud to an audience hanging on your every word) and let me know what you think! And have fun.
Xander Travel and the Floating Button
It was like it was just stuck, in mid air. When Kendal found it, at first he thought it might be hanging from a piece of fishing line. But it didn't sway, even in the breeze. As the leaves rustled and moved all around him, here in the clearing in the woods behind his parents' house, he was pretty sure it should move. Was it tied top and bottom? Was it on a a rigid wire? A sheet of glass?
But it was just a button.
It was small and brown, with a sort of marbling through it, a darker brown or light black. Possibly from a shirt or a coat. Four holes where thread would be sewn through it, to hold it to fabric. But there was no fabric. There was no shirt or coat, and no fishing line or wire or glass. Just a button. In mid-air.
Kendal had found it while out for a hike, back to the clearing where he'd spent a lot of years playing and pretending and being whoever and whatever he'd wanted to be. In his clearing, near his house, he'd been Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker and Spider-man. He'd been a cowboy and a superhero and a pirate. He'd been a lot of things here, and thought up all kinds of stories that kept him busy and entertained, all by himself. His closest friends lived miles away, too far for a bike. And his little brother ... well, he had his own thing. He had friends who lived close. He had their parents. Kendal liked being alone anyway.
He'd only come out here to relive some of that childhood. Finals were last week, and they were brutal. College hadn't been as much fun as movies and TV had led him to believe. It was hard work, especially when Kendall had to hold down two jobs on top of his class schedule. College and work and life were all much harder than Kendall had expected, and all he really wanted was to come back to this clearing, where he was anything he wanted to be, and he never had to worry about whether he was getting everything right.
He reached out to touch the button.
"I wouldn't touch that," a voice came from behind.
Kendall turned and saw the man. Or the boy. Wait, was he young or old? When Kendall looked at him, he saw someone who might be his age, but who felt older. The man was dressed pretty much like Kendall was dressed, in jeans and a button-up shirt, untucked, and a brown leather jacket that looked vintage.
"Timmy!" the stranger said, flinging his arms out wide like he was hugging Kendall from across the clearing.
Kendall shook his head, confused. "No, I'm Kendall."
"Oh! Kendall!" and the man repeated the gesture.
"Wait, who are you?"
"I'm Xander," the man said, striding across the clearing and sticking out a hand for a shake. "Xander Travel. Nice to meet you, Kendall!"
Kendall took the hand on instinct and shook, and looked confused. "But you acted like you knew me?"
"Oh, that? Pff. I do that. If I'd asked 'what's your name' you would have asked 'who's asking?' or similar, and then we'd be going back and forth about it, with you being all paranoid about stranger danger, etcetera. But if I get your name wrong right off, you just correct me and we move on. Isn't that nice? Now we know each other, and we can talk like old pals. So, what do we have here, a button?" He leaned in close to inspect it.
Kendall blinked, but nodded, and then turned and looked at the button floating in mid-air, with Xander Travel standing beside him, and more than a few questions tickling the inside of his skull.
But best of all, the feeling.
He felt it, somehow in the center of his chest and in his stomach and in that space behind his eyes. It felt like coming home, just like he'd hoped he'd feel when he'd walked out into the clearing in the woods behind his house, early in the morning. He felt like himself again, all of a sudden.
"Yep, that's a button alright," Xander said.
"How is it floating like that? There's no string or anything."
"It's done up," Xander said.
Kendall looked at him. "Huh?"
Xander made a motion with his hands, like buttoning a shirt or a coat. "Done up. It's buttoned, holding a flap closed."
Xander waved. "You'll get it, don't worry. Smart kid like you. Just give it time, the story practically tells itself."
"Wait, but ..."
"Smart? Because here you are, standing in a clearing in the woods, looking at a button floating in mid-air, and you've already figured out all thing things it isn't. Plus, just being here in the first place, in first light. The 'magic hour.' That takes some thought. You had to have thought about this place. There aren't any trails. You've been here before, probably when you were young, and you knew the way. And you're up early. Really early, for a college kid. Especially a male. Shouldn't you be sleeping 'til noon and eating everything your parents have in the house? No, you have other things on your mind, I can see that"
"That was a lot."
"I talk a lot when I'm thinking. Now, button. All done up. Connecting the two worlds. That's always a good find."
"This world, Earth Prime we'll say. And another world, the Long Land. That's a nice spot. I'm not technically allowed there anymore, but I go all the time. You should come with me."
Kendall wasn't sure what to say, or what to think. He just felt something inside of himself let go. Like feeling a tense and cramped muscle finally release. Like feeling blood rush back into a sleeping foot or hand. He felt fresh. He felt ready to go.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Done that. Past that. Now we're talking about this button. And ..." he dug in one of the pockets of his coat and pulled out a spool of thread. "There we go. OK, you hold this," he said, handing Kendall the spool while taking hold of the thread. "Spool that out for me as I go, OK?"
Xander pulled the thread as he walked up to and around the button, eyeing it. Then he stuck the end of the thread in his mouth, wet it, and held it up, pinched between his forefinger and thumb, holding it in front of the button as he squinted one eye. Then, in a quick jab, his hand darted forward. When he pulled it away, the thread dangled from one of the button holes.
Xander quickly reached out and tied the loose and dangling end to the strand stretching from the button to the spool in Kendall's hand. He tugged on it, cinched it, and then stood back to admire his work.
Kendall stood there with the spool in his hand, not sure what to do next.
"Done," Xander said.
He turned and looked at Kendall, and laughed a little. "It's just a spool of thread, Kendall. It won't bite."
"OK," Kendall said, relaxing a big. "So ... I have no idea what's happening right now."
Xander smiled. "But you like it."
It was a heartbeat. A bare moment in time. Just a pulse, like the click of a dial or the first beat of a song. The moment ... the moment ... before it all starts. "Yeah," Kendall said next.
"Then let's see what we can unbutton today," Xander said, and then wrapped his hand with the thread and gave it a yank.
The button popped out of the space where it had hung and fell to the ground. Xander quickly reeled it in and then reached back to grab the spool from Kendall's hand. He wound the thread around the spool quickly, faster than Kendall could follow, and dropped spool and thread and button into his pocket. All this, while a small gap formed in the air in front of them.
It was like a curtain open and fall away. The air split into shimmering waves on either side of a scene, like seeing something through a part in a waterfall. And the scene beyond was amazing.
Kendall could see a valley that stretched on forever. It was a strip of land, filled with trees and rivers and lakes, mountains in the distance, birds in the air. It was lush and green and untouched. And on either side of it was an ocean. It was like looking at a perfect ribbon of a continent, separating two oceans from each other. It had to be miles and miles across, and stretching on to infinity, but Kendall could see it as if from a high vantage point.
"The Long Land," Xander said quietly from beside him. "Home of the Exemplars. Source of all good stories and myths. Destination for anyone who has the right button." He smiled at this last bit. "Or some other funny object. It's amazing the items that can get you there these days."
As Kendall stared at the scene, a little dazed, a lot confused, Xander turned to him and smiled. "So, Kendall ... what do you think? You want to tag along? I can't stay there for too long. They start to notice. But it'd be a chance to visit for a while, maybe chat with some old friends. Then we can pop right back here and I'll be on to the next thing. The fun never stops. Hasn't for almost four thousand years, so why start now?"
"But ... I don't even know you. And ..." he looked at the scene, the Long Land. "What is that place?"
"The beginning," Xander said, and for once he had a bit of awe and quiet in his voice. "That's where it starts."
Kendall looked at it, and looked Xander Travel, and then looked within himself.
He felt it. That buzz and tingle. That giddy excitement, that the world had more to offer than he could imagine. He'd felt it as a kid, here in his clearing, but hadn't felt it for a very, very long time since. And now, here it was. Old friend.
"Let's go," Kendall said.
Xander smiled. "Button up," he told him, and then the two of them stepped through to the Long Land.