“This god of yours, how powerful is he?”
The tree I was talking to blinked. I had sort of convinced it to help me, but I hadn’t set out my plan. Mainly because I didn’t have one. Whatever I did come up with, I was sure the forest would make its decision to join me in my atheistic ambitions, or not, based on how feasible it sounded. So I was keeping mum.
“He is a god. All powerful.”
“Are you sure? Because gods don’t tend to hide away in the middle of nowhere to play silly buggers.
“He bores easily.”
Not often you come across an apologist tree. Not very tasty fruit, I bet. “I think there’s more to it than that. Can he hear us out here, by the way?”
“He is aware of all things in his garden.”
“Is there anywhere in the forest he can’t get to? Somewhere he can’t see what’s going on?”
There was a pause. “No.”
Sounded like a yes to me. “Where is it? Can you take me there? How long will it take?”
Have you ever regretted something? That wash of self-revulsion when you realise you’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake that was only made possible by your actions?
If you have, then you’re probably aware of the most popular ways you can respond to this gut-inverting feeling.
You can pretend it was somebody else’s fault. Pointing the finger helps identify the real culprit, and has the added bonus of getting people to not look in your direction.
Or, you can convince yourself it’s okay because you won’t make that mistake again. We all make mistakes. You shouldn’t be singled out for yours. No need to own up to anything. Even a little covering up is acceptable, just as long as you’ve fully learned your lesson.
Or, you can get angry at yourself and use self-loathing the way it was meant to be used. As an excellent tool to make sure you never interact with people or things or places. There are traps everywhere, stay at home and avoid them all.
Of course, there are healthy, mature ways to deal with emotionally tricky situations, I just don’t know what they are. I know for certain owning up and taking responsibility isn’t one of them, even though your Dr Phils and Oprahs will advocate that sort of thing. You won’t get a slap on the back for manning up. That would require you to be surrounded by other mature-types who can recognise and appreciate honest, sincere repentance. How many people like that do you know? What you’ll get is identified as a problem and treated like a scapegoat.
Personally, I’ve always been a fan of the third option. If you don’t give life the opportunity to let you fuck up, how can you?
Unfortunately, as a great man once said, life will find a way. Although that man was Jeff Goldblum, and he’s a fucking weirdo.
You have to remember life works both ways. If life gives dinosaurs the impetus to fight and survive, it also gives people stupid enough to go to a theme park with living dinosaurs the ability to run away. Or at least the good looking ones.
All this is a roundabout way of saying I didn’t like being proactive. If I try to do things, they don’t turn out very well. If I try to avoid doing things, they still don’t turn out very well, but it’s got nothing to do with me. And that’s how I like it.
That changed when I came to this world.
It was a lot easier to take a step back and let others do what they wanted when I was back home because they were all better at it than I was. And I can use ‘it’ here without giving a concrete example because whatever you think ‘it’ might be, you’re right.
When four guys pick up a heavy sofa to move it to the top floor, and one corner is lower than the others, everyone knows who’s letting the team down. There’s no hiding it. You can still get the sofa up the stairs, but everyone knows who’s in last place. Not only is he not helping, he’s going to try so hard (to no great effect) that he’ll fuck up his back for the rest of the week, letting down a bunch of other people, too.
That’s a horrible feeling. Again, there are ways to handle it, some healthy, some not, but it pushes you into not wanting to participate in activities that identify you as lowest rung on the ladder.
I was Guy no.4 for most of my life. Then I came here, and I was still that guy. But slowly, I’ve changed. Not just because I picked up some special abilities—I’d gladly go the pay-2-win route if I could—but rather because nobody in this world has invented giant leather sofas that don’t fit around the turn in a split-level staircase.
The problems of 21st century earthlings weren’t how you were judged here. Your six pack abs, your flash car, your job that moved numbers around inside a computer and made you rich (somehow) weren’t important. Not getting eaten to death was. It changed the calculations for how you judged who was at the top of the charts.
You might think the guy who went to the gym and didn’t miss leg day would do well here. Not if he couldn’t think his way out of a fight with an ogre.
The rich guy who ran a hedge fund, barking out orders to a pack of wild fuccbois every day and went home to shag his model girlfriend wouldn’t establish his status by wearing a $5000 Italian suit. Not unless the inside lining was chainmail.
Cutthroat takes on a new meaning, which is actually the old meaning, when someone’s literally trying to cut your throat.
Which isn’t to say I was better at any of the things this world threw at me than they would be. My advantage, though, was in not thinking I had to do what was expected of me. Kill the dragon, rescue the princess, pull the sword out of the stone. Fuck the quest.
“I’m going to go deeper into the forest. Alone.”
“Why?” asked Maurice.
“To get good. You know, like the scene when the young martial artist meditates on a mountain and works out his memory of his grandmother is the power he needs to use Buddha’s palm strike.”
“You know kung-fu?” asked Dudley.
“Not yet. But you never know.”
“Are you coming back?” asked Maurice.
“Yes, of course. It’ll only be a couple of days.”
“Are you really coming back?” asked Dudley. They were both starting to get on my nerves.
“I’m not running away, you cretins. I’d like my girlfriend back, too. It’d be ecologically irresponsible to chuck her out when she’s still got plenty of use left in her.” I stood up and brushed the grass off my trouser. My fish breakfast was a small pile of skin and bones. “I just need to think things through in an appropriate setting.”
“What kind of setting?” asked Maurice, still with an attitude of this possibly being the last time he would see me.
“I don’t know. The forest refused to tell me where we’re going.”
“You are going with the forest?” asked the Elder who was standing with the frogmen crowded around him. All eyes were on me. And they were big, googly eyes, so it was very disconcerting.
“Yes. Me and my new best friend, the third guardian. We’re going to have a chat, sort things out.”
“What about the One True Whatsit?” asked Maurice.
“What about the girls?” added Dudley, looking up at the sky like they might fall out of it.
“It’ll be a day or two, that’s all. The fact you’re still here will show him we haven’t run off.”
“It’ll show him we haven’t run off,” said Maurice. He aggressively pushed his glasses up his nose, hurting himself a little in the process.
“Same thing. Hey, Pogo!” I shouted up at the giant frog idling in the pond. “I’m going away for a bit. I’ll be back, okay?” An okay from Pogo would help put everyone at ease.
The frog turned its head just enough to make eye contact with one of his enormous eyes and shot a jet of water at me.
I instinctively raised a hand and the water vapourised leaving a trail of stream in the air. Pogo didn’t have eyebrows, but I think he raised them on the inside.
“See? I’m getting better already.” I hadn’t really meant to do that, but it did show some improvement. Shame the One True God wasn’t made out of highly flammable material.
There was some general murmuring around me. I wouldn’t call it positive, exactly, more like mild surprise that maybe I wouldn’t die instantly.
“Right, don’t wait up.” I turned around and faced the forest. “Which way?”
The trees ahead of me leaned away from each other to reveal a path. I pointed to show them I hadn’t been lying.
Nabbo came up to me and put out a webbed hand. I shook it, hoping that’s what he meant me to do.
“Good luck, Colin. It’s been nice knowing you.”
I was about to have a go at him when I felt something in my palm. A little bundle wrapped in leaf.
“Don’t come back till you get good.” He smiled and I couldn’t really do anything other than smile back. Some people don’t let you down, as long as your expectations are reasonable.
The trip through the forest was much easier with the forest helping. This was truly the only way to travel through a jungle. Rotting trunks rolled out of the way, vines parted like curtains, holes and ditches closed up so I wouldn’t trip. Eight out of eight, would not machete.
I had no idea where we were going, and I certainly would never be able to find my way back on my own, but I was all in.
There’s the other kind of regret, the kind when you choose a line at the checkout and the other line moves a lot faster while a woman at the front catches up on old times with the cashier. You wish you’d chosen the other line, but you know it was just a coin flip you lost. Irritating, but nothing you can do. If you had picked that line, this one would have moved quicker.
The One True God would beat me in a fair fight. I didn’t have any way to cheat, though. I challenged him to a one on one, but only to buy some time.
Time to do what?
Hadn’t got to that point, yet.
There was no point convincing myself there was an answer waiting for me, a magic dagger specially made for killing gods. Highly unlikely.
I also didn’t think there was any point in giving up and running for it. Yet.
I walked for a few hours, occasionally hearing noises of wildlife, but not seeing any. I assumed the forest was keeping them away. Fine by me.
At one point I stumbled onto a large plastic curtain, or that’s what it looked like. It was semi-transparent and felt a bit rubbery. I slowly realised what it was—a giant snakeskin. I didn’t fancy bumping into its previous owner. Judging by its shed skin, it was the size of a train.
My plan was to keep going until the path led somewhere, or stopped at a cliff. This path stopped at a cliff. With an opening.
It led to a very nice little grotto with light coming from a hole high above. There was a pool with a small waterfall. The ground was sandy and there were trees, but unlike the ones outside, these had large fronds, like palm trees.
It was like being in someone’s office and one wall was painted with a view of the beach. It gave off a ‘don’t want to be here’ vibe.
Eyes opened all around me. The trees, the walls, the toadstools growing in the shadows. “This place is special. Tread carefully.”
“What’s so special about it?” I asked. I didn’t mean it to come out all obnoxious like that, but that goes for pretty much everything that comes out of my mouth.
“It is mine,” said one of the trees. “Mine alone.”
“Okay. So we won’t be overheard?”
A breeze rustled the palm trees, which I’d never heard before. Big, flappy sound.
“What is it you think I can tell you? He is a god. He created me, gave me life. And he can take it away.”
“Yes, he’s a regular Doctor Frankenstein. You’re all one under the soil, right? So you can see and feel what’s under us?”
“Good. Draw me a map of the forest.”
I spent the next ten minutes explaining what a map was. Forests don’t have much use for them, apparently.
The sand under my feet began to shift and lines appeared. It slowly took shape.
“Where are the frogs right now?”
A circle appeared.
“And the castle?”
Four oblongs appeared.
“And the giant snake? Where’s he?” Not really relevant, but I just wanted a heads up. A squiggly line appeared some way away.
“Okay. Now, draw me a blueprint of the castle, all the rooms under the soil.”
I spent another ten minutes explaining what a blueprint was.
The outline appeared on another section of sand. It was a dozen rooms of various sizes, but it had a familiar shape to it. Not a castle, something else.
“Are there any more floors deeper down?”
More rooms appeared. This whole ‘under the soil’ business was really coming in handy.
“Can you sense where the three girls are?”
Three dots appeared in one of the rooms. So far so good. I was starting to get a sense of what I was up against. I sat down and looked at the drawings around me.
A good leader needs more than strength or influence. Money and people to do your bidding are all very well, but you need to know what to do with them. You need clarity.
I was in a world where I no longer had to be separate from others to feel comfortable. But getting away from everyone still helped sometimes. I was starting to get an idea of what to do.
People say there’s no point regretting the things you’ve done, they’re what led you to being you. To which I’d say, “Exactly!” How great would it be to not be that person? But there is one truth to that way of thinking. Regretful things teach you actions can have terrible consequences and how awful a person you can be, even when you don’t intend it. And how even worse you can be when you do. You never know when something like that can come in handy.