by Graham Cotter
The Tea Party
The Topher had had no special time in mind when he invited the girls for “tea”. As far as he was concerned, that might be at any time. He woke with the birds every morning, swam in the river, did his meditations, and some reading and writing, and had meals or tea whenever the mood came upon him. But the girls were still in the afternoon tradition, and were quite clear about that.
Nevertheless, they left home shortly after lunch, and took a short-cut through back concessions to get to the meeting place as quickly as possible.
When they had reached the fence and had to leave their bicycles, they debated whether they should take the walkie-talkie with them. Linda finally insisted that they should. Though she trusted the young man, what was the point of having the walkie-talkie for safety purposes if you didn’t take it with you? So she put it in her shoulder bag and off they went.
They found the Topher in more conventional dress and more or less ready for them. He expected it would be afternoon when they came, and he was just gathering sticks for his fire when they came along. Now he was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and his hair was both beautifully brushed and gathered in a ponytail at the back. He received them courteously.
“Ladies, you are more than welcome to my humble home.”
“Sir, it is our pleasure!”
After these mock formalities were over they settled down to helping their host. He was preparing tea from dried mint leaves, and had more Mayapples, some rather young and small local nuts, butternut, and hickory nuts, and some roots they did not know, which had been dried in the sun and were now apparently going to be toasted. Meanwhile the Topher went about his preparations quietly, and Debbie babbled on.
Then in the middle of something else, she asked,
“Why were you standing on your head yesterday?”
“I do that quite often when I want to be peaceful.”
“Is it more peaceful than standing on your feet?” asked Linda skeptically.
“Much more. Standing on your feet you want to move and go somewhere. You can’t walk on your head, so you are still.”
“Silly, I think,” said Debbie.
“Yes, silly. But do you know what silly means?”
“No, not foolish, empty. And that’s what I try to make my head. Empty.”
There was a silence. Debbie could not understand why anyone would want to make his head empty or to stay still. She liked to fill up all the spaces with activity, and where other activity was lacking, her tongue took up its task of making the sound waves move. Linda was more attentive to what the Topher was trying to say, though she didn’t have much idea what it was all about.
“Is it something religious?” she said.
“Some people would call it that, but others wouldn’t. I just do it because I want to.”
They relapsed into silence. The fire was rising, and the water beginning to boil. For a moment Linda caught Debbie’s eye, and at that moment, something happened. She saw alarm in her sister’s face, and she seemed to be looking over Linda’s shoulder toward the trees behind. A half cry came from Debbie. Linda looked behind her.
The trees had changed entirely. There were no cedars in sight, and she looked around at a huge pine forest. The smells were different too. There was no smoke, and when she looked back at Debbie, who remained squatting, there was no sign of the Topher or any of his things. Linda’s heart missed a beat, and then Debbie screamed.
Debbie’s screams were a specialty. There was no one in Percy Township who could match her scream. She was endowed with a large mouth to start with, and when she screamed it seemed to open her entire head for inspection. You could count all the teeth and look far down the red lane. You expected to be able to see the vibrating vocal chords, but the tongue was in the way. She was also endowed with good lungs, and her breath seemed endless. The scream rose, shattering the air. Birds darted from their roosts, woodchucks froze, looking out from above their holes, and cows stopped chewing their cud.
This particular scream was one of the best. With a scream like that, there was little need for a walkie-talkie, thought Linda, her own terror eclipsed for a moment. Then her eyes shut as the scream produced a pang of pain in her head. In that instant, everything was changed, and Linda opened her eyes to see the Topher jump up and go over to shake her sister.
“Here!” he said, “What’s wrong with you? Did you see a snake or something?”
He began to wonder if a tea party for little girls wasn’t a bit more than he had bargained for.
“No-o-o!” said Debbie. “It was a ghost!”
Linda had found her tongue. She took Debbie’s hand and said,
“I know what frightened you, Deb. It frightened me too. But your scream sent it away.”
“Then maybe …my screams .. aren’t so bad,” sobbed Debbie.
“What do you mean – you both saw a ghost?”
“Well Topher, maybe we’d better tell you. Some funny things have happened to us, and they’ve happened together. This time, you disappeared, and these trees, and we were in a big pine forest.”
“And you were go-o-ne,” wailed Debbie, grabbing at the Topher. “I thought we’d lost you.”
“Debbie, were you in a pine forest too?”
“Yep, and the trees were ever so high, and the air was cold.”
The Topher reflected. Perhaps the girls were playing a trick on him. But that scream had not been faked. Who would want to fake pain like that? Certainly not this normally happy teasing child.
“Tell me more about it.”
“Well, there’s hardly more to tell you. This time it was so quick. All of a sudden, you weren’t there. Your things weren’t, the fire, anything. And the trees were all different…”
“You had an experience like this before?”
“Last week, over at Drumlin Hill. We were biking along a side road we know quite well, when suddenly the road turned to rough corduroy.”
“Real corduroy? Logs and mud?”
“Logs and dried mud. And the hill itself, which is bare fields, was mostly forest. The Wright’s house was logs, not siding and a man in black with a big horse came galloping along.”
“Did he say anything to you?”
“He didn’t see us. But the horse nearly threw him when he got to us, and snorted, and for a moment refused to go any further.”
“We heard him talking to his horse. And we saw someone a way off pulling stones off a field.”
“How did it end?”
“Debbie saw a hydro pole appear out of nowhere, and then everything was the way it usually is.”
“Did she scream that time too?”
“You silly boy,” Debbie swatted him with her hand. “I don’t scream all the time.”
“Just as well for our sakes. Let’s go on with our tea and talk about it more.”
“I don’t wanna talk about it,” said Debbie. “It’s scary.”
“Maybe if we talk about it, it won’t be scary.”
“I’m scared,” Debbie said pouting.
The Topher poured boiling water into some metal cups in which he had already put mint leaves.
“Now, those have to steep for a few minutes. Tell me Linda, did you have any other experiences?”
“Well the same day we saw some strange Shapes up at Burnley rising out of the lawn by the river. But they didn’t disappear. They were still there when we biked away.”
“Were there any people in that?”
“No. Just us.”
There was another silence. Debbie looked around her nervously. She didn’t like these silences, when her sister and their new friend started thinking, because it had been just such a silence which produced the last strange episode. Then a thought occurred to her.
“Topher,” she said in a slightly wheedling voice.
There was something a little condescending in his manner, as if Linda were the only intelligent person to talk with.
“Did you ever have… anything happen to you like that?”
“No, not exactly.”
“I thought… maybe, when you stand on your head and stay quiet for so long.. then maybe… you’d have the same thing happen.”
“No. Not to me. Though I have had some strange dreams I’ll tell you about sometime. But you girls seem to be able to move about .. in time.”
“Sounds like something out of a story, or from TV,” said Linda, feeling a bit superior even to her own experience.
“There are stories on TV, but they are based on people’s real experiences. There are people who spend their whole lives trying to find out what these experiences mean.”
“I don’t need my whole life … They mean I’m scared.” said Debbie.
“Do you mean what they call ESP?” said Linda.
“Yes, Extra Sensory Perception.”
“That’s a silly name. What’s it mean?” said Debbie.
“It means seeing or being aware of something without using your eyes or your ears or your sense of touch.”
“What happened to us wasn’t ESP,” said Linda, “because we felt the bumps on the corduroy, we heard the man on the horse, and saw them, and saw the log house and all sorts of things.”
“It might have been hallucination, or self-hypnotism.”
“What’s ‘lucination?” asked Debbie.
“Seeing things that aren’t there, but just in your mind.”
“Then it was in both our minds together,” said Linda, “because it happened to both of us.”
“Yes, it happened to both of you, but you have a family link. Notice that just now it happened to both of you together, but it left me out.”
The Topher was beginning to form a theory about these two girls. They were linked by their hallucinations, like being in one another’s dreams. Still, he didn’t think everything just fitted.
“Do you remember,” he went on, “if there was anything in the Drumlin Hill incident you might have read in a book?”
“Yes,” said Linda. “I knew about corduroy. But Debbie didn’t.”
“Still, there could have been some kind of suggestion going from your consciousness to Debbie’s which would make her believe she was on a bumpy road just as you believed it.”
Linda looked at him skeptically. He was trying to pull their story apart.
“Don’t you believe our story?” she said, bristling.
“Oh, yes, I do,” he said hastily, “but I’m trying to fit it into my own experience.”
There was an awkward silence. Suddenly, an electronic beep sounded from the walkie-talkie in Linda’s bag, now lying on the ground. The Topher leapt to his feet in alarm.
“What was that?”, he said, his eyes as round as his glasses, his voice a hoarse whisper.
Debbie screeched with laughter and rolled on the ground. Linda, grinning, reached over to the bag and drew out the little two way radio. She switched it on.
“Where are you girls?”
“Oh, we’re near the hidden field, in the woods.”
“Is everything okay?”
Linda suppressed a giggle as the Topher, having been posed in a figure of alarm, his hands out like claws, subsided to the ground, realizing what had scared him.
“What are you doing?”
“Funny thing to do in the woods.”
Debbie rolled over to the microphone and called,
“We’re playing Mad Hatter’s tea party in the woods, Mummy!”
“Okay, be back in about an hour. Nancy and Out.”
“Nancy and Out.”
Both girls relaxed and laughed. The Topher looked at them sheepishly, and growled,
“Since when do girls keep in radio contact with their mothers?”
“Since this June,” Linda replied. “We were lost, and so we got fixed up with walkie-talkies.”
The Topher reflected for a moment.
“Doesn’t your mother trust you?”
“Of course. But she can’t let what happened in June happen again.”
“Lindy and I fell asleep for a whole day and a night, and had lovely dreams. But nobody knew where we were. Mum and Dad thought we were kidnapped or dead.”
“And there was a big explosion of water, and my brother Kevin got covered with mud. Served him right, the brat.”
“Don’t be ungrateful. He rescued us.”
“So did Brian.”
“You have two brothers then?”
“How old are they?”
“Thirteen and twelve. Just.”
The Topher took this in. He had recovered enough to toast some more roots and offer mayapples. In all the excitement everyone had regained an appetite. Then he went on to question the girls.
“How come you slept so long?”
“Don’t know. Nobody knows. The doctor couldn’t explain it. He said there was nothing wrong with us.”
“Silly doctor. I know what happened to us.”
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to Debbie.”
“I’m not so nuts!” Debbie put on her angry act. “You’re just jealous ’cause you don’t really know what happened. You slept all the time ‘cause you ate too much. But I was bewitched. I was enchanted!”
She jumped and danced around, pinched at Linda and the Topher as she passed them, singing,
“Chanted, Chanted, I was enchanted!”
The Topher laughed at her antics.
“What was the dream all about?”
“We seemed to be in front of a big mountain, running towards a beautiful light at the back of it. And the sky kept changing colours, from day to night, ever so quickly.”
“And the sun was going from West to East, West to East, West to East.”
“It was, and ever so quickly.”
“Have you any idea what the dream meant?”
“No, but it was very lovely. We were very happy.”
“Did you both have the same dream?”
“We think so. We both seemed to know about it.”
“Was it like the Drumlin Hill thing?”
“No, it was a dream. The Drumlin Hill thing was real, wasn’t it Deb?”
“Have you any proof it was real?”
“Well… you know the walkie-talkie?”
“Well, we used the walkie-talkie from Drumlin Hill when everything was different.”
“And you talked to your Mum?”
“Yes, and we called her, and talked to her and it was after that that the hydro pole appeared and everything changed back to … now.”
“Was what you saw at Drumlin Hill something from the past?”
“I suppose so. It must have been, with the corduroy, and the way the man was dressed. Yes, it was Drumlin Hill maybe a hundred years ago.”
The Topher was getting quite excited.
“Do you know what you’re telling me? It means that you are saying that you have been right into the past and back again!”
Linda didn’t know what he was getting so excited about.
“And what happened here a few minutes ago could have been the same thing?”
“Yes. Though I don’t know why that would be the past. It hardly seemed to be the same place.”
“What about the silly shapes in Burnley? Were they long ago?”
Debbie put in.
“They might be. Or they might be future. The shapes you described do not seem old-fashioned. And you said the river and the lawn remained the same.”
“Same as last time we saw them.”
“But the dream was not the same. Still it seemed to have something to do with time.”
“Still think we were enchanted. That’s why it was so scary.”
The Topher turned to Debbie.
“You think you were scared. How do you suppose the poor horse felt?”
“What poor horse?”
“The one the man was riding.”
“Why was the horse scared?”
Debbie’s mouth was hanging open.
“Because you and Linda were not seeing ghosts. You were the ghosts, ghosts of the future, and the horse knew you were there, though the man didn’t.”
Debbie rushed over and hugged her sister.
“I’m no silly ghost! I’m not dead!”
She was clearly upset, and Linda had to pet her a bit to prevent another scream.
The Topher continued to look at them both intently.
“Interesting, what you say,” said Linda. “Kinda’ fun, being that kind of ghost. Haunting people. I wish I’d known. So not all ghosts are dead?”
“Some people think that if there are ghosts, they are not dead at all.
Just people in a different time. Never mind, Debbie.”
“We’ll have to go now anyway.”
“Oh, not when the conversation was just getting interesting!”
“Silly boy,” said Debbie. “You were doing most of the conversation yourself!”
The Topher blushed, and then went on.
“I want to talk with you girls more about this. Can I come to visit you? I’d like to meet your mother.”
Linda paused. She was not sure whether she wanted her mother to know they had been meeting this handsome young man. She did not, in fact, want to share him.
“Okay, ” she said hesitantly. “What about Saturday morning?”
“Not till then?”
“Aw, come tomorrow, we’ll be home tomorrow, Lindy!”
“Okay, tomorrow then. But you don’t know where we live.”
So they told him.