Joe

No answer. Mitzu glanced him over, his eyes filled with fear and rising panic, and turned back to the newcomer, moving on, moving away, as their little caravan relentlessly continued on, the outline of the city rising in the distance, and no one noticed, Tsaa patted his shoulder but Joe was frozen, and they didn't notice, and they all passed him by, thinking he was following along, fascinated by what was coming up in the distance, no concern for what they were leaving behind, who they were leaving behind, and Joe's feet felt like lead, his heartbeat was filling his entire head, a thudding louder than a steam engine, his eyes burned and he gripped the silvery watch so tight his knuckles were white and he feared he might break the device, and he couldn't speak, he couldn't call them back, and they didn't notice, they trod on and they turned a corner and they were gone, and Joe was alone.

He expected a second wave of panic to grip him as he realized he was now alone in a jungle. Instead, he found his heartbeat slowed. His panic had stemmed from everyone else going one direction, while every fiber of his being told him to go back. Now that the others had, unbeknownst to them, left him behind, he was no longer torn.

Joe turned around and began to run. Low plants whipped at his feet, staining his colorful new clothes. His footfalls were soft and light, his breath quick but steady. He tried to calculate in his mind whether he could make it back before nightfall. If he couldn't, he resolved to keep running. The vegetation along the path blurred together, a green stream flecked with streaks of yellow and red.

His mind pounded with the rhythm of his heartbeat. Sofi Sofi. Sofi Sofi. He slipped the watch on his wrist and felt a familiar flutter in his stomach even as it clenched with dread for what might have happened to her. His flight seemed to stretch the world around him. This world was thin and becoming thinner. The walls of reality were as fragile as wet paper, he could feel it. He'd been in dreams more solidly composed than the smoke and mirrors of this world. With every other step he expected to fall through.

The wind whipping at his face was drying his tears before they could obscure his vision, yet it seemed the jungle grew dimmer. Still he pedaled forth, leaping over a fallen tree, splashing through a puddle. Sofi Sofi. Sofi Sofi. He envisioned finding her safe and sound, surprised but pleased at his reappearance, perhaps angry at the risk he'd taken to run all the way back. He could see her smile, smell her sweet scent like flowers on a cool spring day, feel her soft hair between his fingers. He pictured her not quite almond shaped, hazel eyes, sparkling with joy and life and love.

And then there was nothing. He stopped abruptly, self preservation instinct kicking in as he reeled back from the nothing that was the path ahead. Reality, such as it was in these dreamlands, had stretched too far. It had snapped like a rubber band. Perhaps it would knit itself back together in due time, but that was time Joe dare not waste. Angry and frustrated, he looked for a way around the nothing, but although he could see where it began, there did not seem to be a boundary to the nothing. It did not have a color, no inky black or blinding white or heavenly blue or hellish red. It simply was not.

Unless...

Joe stepped closer, until the nothing filled his vision. All seemed silent, more silent than the grave where the worms and the living above were still deafening by comparison. And yet he heard a tinkle of laughter. He thought he caught a glimpse of almost but not quite almond eyes. Hazel.

Was it his mind tricking him? Did he simply long to see her so much that when confronted with absolute nothingness, it conjured her essence to fill the hole? He felt soft vibrations against his wrist. His heart sank and rose and was torn in two. Of course, he'd known that this had happened. Sofi had slipped through the cracks of the world to get here, and it was how she had left. He knew it the moment it had happened. His mind simply refused to accept it.

So it no longer mattered what would happen. Maybe his brain was tricking him, or the nothingness was using his own memories of her to lure him in, if nothing had a consciousness. Maybe he would disappear forever, or be torn to pieces. Maybe nothing would happen and he'd step through and back onto the path and he'd continue his hopeless flight to look for the girl who he now knew was no longer in this world.

Or maybe... Maybe he would find her in the nothing. Maybe they could find their way through together.

Joe stepped forward, and as the nothing engulfed him and the jungle disappeared forever, he thought he could smell something. A sweet scent, like flowers on a cool spring day.

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