Milo woke up one morning in a different bed than the one he had gone to sleep in. Even so, the bed he was in now was still his own. He looked up at the ceiling and saw patterns there that he had never seen before and yet he knew they would be there. Sunlight slanted through the window in a line different from what he had expected.
He spent the rest of the late morning wandering through the house. It was full of knick-knacks from places he was sure he had been. Every thing that he found there was his. Every thing that he found there was new to him.
In a daze, he sat down at the kitchen table. His mind was running, but it was buzzing, too. He couldn't keep his thoughts straight or even pick them out of the eternal hum. It was as if his mind was deliberately keeping him from thinking too much.
Outside he found a garden, full of plants he loved. Down a path he found a bench around a huge oak tree. He suddenly had a vague memory of having planted it, but that could not be possible. He sat down on the bench and leaned against the tree, feeling the bark press into his back, watching a lone ant trudge along the bench beside him.
Where was he? He answered himself. He already knew he was home.
Not far from where he was, Milo could see a road. It appeared to be the only road. Across it, there were a lot of trees, through which he could just barely see another house. It was too far away for him to tell what it looked like.
He heard rustling grass and felt someone sit beside him. He turned his head, bits of tree bark getting stuck in his curly blond hair.
"Daisey," he said, without know how he knew her name.
She smiled at him, her hands clasped in her lap. She wore a summer dress of soft yellow, brilliant against her mocha coloured skin. Her black hair curled gently around her shoulders.
"Hello, Milo," she said.
The instant she said his name, he knew he loved her, though he was sure he was seeing her for the first time. Her large black eyes, her delicate fingernails, her dimpled smile. He knew it all, taking it in as he watched her.
"I came to welcome you," she said.
She laughed. It sounded like a trill of wind chimes. "Oh, but you've always been here," she said. "But before, you were somewhere else, too. Now you're all here, you see."
"I know you, don't I?" he asked.
She only smiled at him.
He looked away and watched the grass moving in the breeze. The garden was full of the drone of bees. He seemed to think about snow, but it was clearly summer. The poppies and tulips bent slightly, sunlight glimmering on their petals. All the colours he saw were rich and heavy, the air was warm and dry, the sky mostly clear with a few puffed clouds.
The unpaved and empty road seemed like a dark blight on the beauty around him.
Daisey touched his hand gently. He felt his skin tingle. "You will come tomorrow." It wasn't a question.
"Yes." He knew where he was going. He would walk down the road with everybody else. "Will you be there?"
"Of course," she said. "Though you might not see me."
Milo watched her as she stood up from the bench. Her movements were light and airy, like a butterfly rising from a flower. She began to walk and in what seemed like two steps, she was gone. She disappeared behind his garden.
He stared at the spot he had last seen her for a long time, the bees and flowers glowing around him, the birds singing above him and the road, silent beside him.
Milo woke to find the sun rising, as though it had been waiting for him. He noticed right away the wild wind that rushed around his house. He saw leaves and petals soaring past his window, heard the heavy sound compressed around him.
He looked for Daisey as he went down the road, pushed by the wind along with the small crowd that had gathered there. All he saw were blank faces that seemed dull compared to hers.
It wasn't long before the wind shoved them through the heavy doors of the church. It was simple and small, yet it had the perfect number of seats. There was no cross, no stained glass, no scriptures, no hymns. Only pews and the pulpit.
Every one in the church was silent. A man stepped up to the pulpit and looked at them with a single eye. He was an older, grizzled man who wore a pure black suit. His eye roamed over them. He was the Pastor.
"Winds carry you to my house again," he said. His voice was old and leathery, but not booming or too loud. He did not sound frightening.
Milo noticed the Pastor did not say "God's house".
"Do we hide?" the Pastor asked. "Do we keep to ourselves, in our own little houses, only interacting here? And even here, we do not speak to each other. Only listen as I ramble on. My friends, I seek a change."
When the congregation began to mumble uncertainly, the Pastor smiled.
"I know!" he said, raising his hands. "I know we don't like change. But we live in a vibrant place, full of colour and music. Why should it be void of interaction as well? I ask you all - this week, reach out to a neighbour you've yet to talk to. Maybe walk down the road and find someone else. We are all in this together."
Milo began to think a little. What was "this" that they were in?
He knew that nobody else had that answer and two feelings flooded him as the Pastor's words turned into a vague mumble. He felt peace - here among the people like him. And he felt dead - a spirit, a soul, a lingering ghost. Together, these feelings were restful and good, if he didn't think about them too much.
He noticed the buzzing that had been his mind all this time became more pronounced and anything else the Pastor said went unheard by him. He didn't notice when everyone left the church. He didn't notice when the Pastor came up to him. He didn't notice the first few times the Pastor said his name.
He felt himself shaking and realised the Pastor's hand was on his shoulder. He was surprised as he looked at him. Close up, the Pastor had a kind face and there was a glimmer of something cheerful in his only eye.
"If ever there is anything you need that somehow the road does not provide, simply come to me, my friend," he said.
"How did I get here?"
"Nobody knows," the Pastor said. "Some folks think we're dead. Others think we've been cursed by some unknown magic. Me, I believe that God brought us here. So now all I do is try to bring everyone together."
"Were you the first?"
"No. There were a few here before I came along. Though, of course, they already knew me and were waiting."
Milo tried to think again, tried to come up with a way to explain to the Pastor how he was feeling, what he was feeling, but the constant noise in his mind had taken over and only easy, surface thoughts seemed available to him.
"Thank you, sir," he said.
The Pastor grinned and waved as Milo left the church.
For a long time, Milo remained unburdened by deeper thoughts. They were always covered by the constant static sounds. Time seemed to always be changing, swiftly passing him around from hour to hour.
It didn't seem unusual when he woke up with Daisey beside him. They had become married in spirit, perhaps, for their love was the only thing that kept him from penetrating that wall of sound. She was his world, everything. He didn't want to lose her. She knew him better than he seemed to know himself.
He found that Daisey changed with the seasons. In winter, she was warm and motherly, cooking and baking all day. In the summer, she was bright and adventurous, dragging him around to other gardens, pointing out constellations at night. In the spring, she was flighty and unpredictable. She'd leave him for days at a time. In the fall, she was tired and frightened, she would cling to him all night.
Milo loved every season of Daisey. He always felt he was seeing just another side of her that she couldn't suppress. He wondered if she had the same buzz in her mind.
It was during an autumn season that the wall broke.
He was standing beside the oak tree, Daisey was sitting on the bench. The sky was gloomy and a clap of thunder had sent Daisey into an episode of fear. He had been trying to calm her down, when he looked out to the road.
Whenever Daisey was scared, he felt the road's presence more heavily than ever.
The sun chose that moment to burst through a cloud. It touched a red leaf on a tree across the road. It was blazing like a terrible fire before him.
He cried out and fell to his knees. Images of leaping flames flashed behind his eyes. He saw burning, ashes, smoke. It filled his lungs, he felt the red hot fire consuming everything.
He could hear Daisey screaming. Her hands on his shoulders caused him to wrench his eyes open. He found his vision was blurry - his eyes were streaming with tears. He could see Daisey's mouth moving frantically, he could see terror in her eyes, but he couldn't hear what she was saying.
Milo shoved himself away from her, saw her kneeling on the ground. She was crying now, terrified. He turned away and went inside the house. He locked the door.
There was too much noise in his head. It was screaming, ringing, singing, banging, and howling all at the same time. He felt he was caught in a sound tornado, but he knew it was all in his own mind, his own racing thoughts, his own swirling loss of control. He didn't know what it was, but he knew what had triggered it.
In the mass of tangled sounds, he managed to clear a space for the memory. It was a vivid, terrible memory with no details and no explanations. All he could see was fire. He thought he could feel its heat, smell burning things, the light raging against his eyes.
That one moment of clarity - that single glimpse into a life he must have had before, but could only barely remember - it had brought his mind back again. Where had it gone? And why couldn't he tame it now?
Milo crouched on his knees, holding his head between his hands. It didn't hurt. There was no ache. It was only confusing, rushing, stumbling, hiding, and lunging all at once, all these thoughts, ideas, and vague memories. He wanted to grab them, to hang onto them, file them away neatly so he could peruse them carefully.
Milo forced himself to breathe heavily. Large, heaving, steady breaths. He focused on a single word and chanted it in his mind over and over again, letting it smooth out the turbulence, calm the rage.
He wasn't sure how long he stayed that way, but eventually he found that he could open his eyes. That he could use his mind without being bombarded with wayward thoughts.
He stopped chanting and realised the word he'd chosen was "Daisey".
"Daisey," he said, out loud, remembering where he had left her.
Outside, the storm had broken. Rain was heaving against the house, pounding and fighting. He ran out of the house, ignoring his lack of shoes or a proper coat. He began yelling her name into the wind - she wasn't by the tree anymore.
He had to find her. She was the only thing that kept him sane here, the only thing he truly cared about.
Milo ran through the garden, his bare feet sending the mud flying with every heavy step. He was drenched already, his hair stringing down into his eyes. He pushed it back, still yelling her name.
When he finally found her, she was soaked and full of mud. More disturbing, she was digging. It was as though she had gone crazy. On her knees, she dug at the mud that kept falling back into the small hole she had made.
"Daisey," he said, falling beside her.
She jumped and looked at him. "Milo!" she cried and flung her hands around his neck. She sobbed into his wet shirt.
Grimly, Milo picked her up and carried her back to the house.
When Milo got to the church, the Pastor seemed to be waiting for him. He had obtained shoes, a coat, and an umbrella, so he came into the church somewhat dry. Another blast of thunder made him cringe, for Daisey's sake.
Milo tramped down the aisle to where the Pastor was sitting in the front pew.
"Pastor," he began, but stopped when the Pastor held up a hand.
"You're concerned about Daisey, aren't you?" the Pastor asked.
Milo nodded. He had never seen the Pastor so gloomy. It was as though the storm was reflected in his face.
"She won't talk to me. I couldn't get her to come with me."
"Sit down," the Pastor said.
Milo sat down.
"I'm going to tell you a story, Milo," the Pastor said. He hadn't looked at Milo once. His eye as fixed on a point somewhere else, far away. "Daisey arrived with here with her sister. It's unusual for people to come together and even more unusual for them to be related. But Nadene was here with Daisey. They were always together. It was during an autumn storm such as this that Nadene hung herself from these rafters."
The Pastor pointed to the ceiling of the church. Milo's heart sunk heavily.
"Later, Daisey told me that Nadene had begun to act strangely. She was asking Daisey so many questions about where we were and why no one would ever try to leave the road. Daisey told me that Nadene did try, but found that the farther she went from the road, the more pain she suddenly received."
Milo was shocked. Pain? If he tried to leave the road, he would feel pain?
"It seems dark and forboding. And it is. Daisey has never been the same. It's why she is often frightened during this season. Was she digging?"
"How did you-"
"She digs in fall, when she's scared. She's digging to find Nadene. We buried her, you see. Don't worry. Once this storm is over, it will pass."
"Terrible? Yes. But it's the only incident we've ever had. The people here are content. This place is beautiful, even in the stormy weather. To this day, we don't know why Nadene tried to leave. She was the only one who ever did. Everyone else has been happy here. They have everything they need."
Milo couldn't find any words to say to the Pastor. He suddenly felt that the old man was not on his side.
The rest of that autumn season, Milo spent taking care of Daisey. As soon as it was over, she changed, as she always did, and so he spent the winter season thinking.
Daisey never asked him what had happened that day and he never told her. He kept his clear mind to himself, kept his thoughts to himself. He didn't want to upset her and he felt that he couldn't tell anybody else.
He often had dreams about Nadene. The version of her his mind produced for this purpose was simply an older Daisey, though he hadn't known that Nadene was older. These dreams often ended with him entering the church to find Daisey had quit this place the same way her sister had. He would wake up in a cold sweat and find her sleeping peacefully beside him.
But more often his thoughts were on the idea that Nadene had had: leaving. Why had no one else tried to leave? The Pastor was right when he said that this place was beautiful, but now that Milo had his mind back, he could remember a different kind of place. It was a vast place, with many cultures, many ideas, many things to see. He could remember different kinds of food and drink, different kinds of people with different ways of doing things. He remembered different ways of worship, none of which seemed to even creep vaguely into the Pastor's "sermons".
Were all these things gone? Had he lost them forever? Was he doomed to stay in this place where the seasons were the only things that changed?
As time passed, Milo found himself wanting more and more to find that other place that he remembered. He wasn't content here, not like everyone else. He wondered how much of that was due to the buzz and if those people had that same barrier that he had had. He wondered if they would ever break it.
There was one thing that nagged at him as he thought these things. If he even managed to find a way to leave, what about Daisey? Would she come with him or would he have to leave her behind? How could he do that, when he loved her so much?
Milo would be thinking these things to himself in the comfort of their home. He would look up to see Daisey curled up beside the fireplace, happily reading a book she'd probably read many times already. The slight smile on her lips always scattered his thoughts.
When the summer finally arrived, Milo had decided. He had found a hill, a place where the road turned a little and there were no houses. He would climb that hill and then he would leave the road. He would keep going through that endless grass until he couldn't go anymore.
And yet the days rolled by and he had not gone. He would think of doing and then he would see Daisey and he would change his mind.
What he didn't know then was that Daisey knew his thoughts. She always seemed to know them before, but he thought that perhaps now was different.
"Milo," she said one day as they sat beneath the oak tree. "I know you want to leave."
He blinked. "What?"
"I know your thoughts," she said. "You don't go because of me."
"And you aren't...?"
"Scared?" She laughed and his stomach fluttered. "I don't know. Sometimes. But you haven't gone yet."
"You could come with me," he said.
"No." She said it so bluntly, he knew there was no way he could argue with her about it. "I can't leave. Nadene is here."
He began to say something, but she cut him off.
"I know the Pastor told you about her," she said. "I can't leave as long as my sister is trapped here."
"That's why you would..."
"Dig for her." Daisey's voice was so quiet he barely heard her. She was frowning now and she seemed to sag with weight.
Milo felt her pain like an arrow through his chest. He leaned back against the oak tree and closed his eyes.
"But just because I can't leave, doesn't mean you can't."
He sat up straight again and stared at her. She was looking carefully at the ground, but he could still see the tears in her eyes.
"My sister wanted to be free. You want to be free. I don't know why, but... I want one of you to be free. And it's too late for Nadene."
Milo took her hands, made her look at him. "But I love you."
"I love you, too, Milo," she said. She buried her face in his chest and he felt his heart breaking. Now that she had given him permission, he knew he couldn't hold himself back anymore. And somehow, he knew that she knew it, too.
It was a golden afternoon. The dusky rays of the sun shone across the grass and the trees, lending a glow to everything. Milo stood at the base of the hill. Daisey was beside him, wearing the same dress she had worn when he first came.
He could not look at her. He could not look back.
Slowly, he climbed the hill. At the top, he was only a few feet from the road.
It was the Pastor, yelling his name from somewhere behind him.
Many voices, now, he thought maybe the whole crowd had come. He wouldn't look back.
"Milo! Don't do this!" the Pastor yelled. "You'll die if you leave! You'll die!"
A fear gripped Milo's gut. He turned to look back, he thought maybe to run back. Everyone was there, at the bottom of the hill. They were crying. All of them were crying. They were crying for him.
Maybe he should go back. After all, why did he need to leave?
He was surprised to see Daisey forcing her way out of the crowd. She ran halfway up the hill, the sunlight glinting her beautiful hair.
"Don't listen to them! Go!" she yelled at him. "Go!"
A flash of fire ran through his mind. The memory, the one that had brought him back to himself. The one that had started all of this. He thought he could see the flames in Daisey's eyes.
He turned and ran. He ran and he ran and the pain burst into his chest and down his spine and through every vein and every muscle. His heart hammered and his eyes streamed and sweat poured down his body. He thought he might be dying, he thought he might not make it, but he didn't care. He just knew that he had to go, that now he wasn't just doing it for the memories of the place he'd left behind. He was doing this for Daisey and for Nadene. He fell to his knees, the pain too much to bear. He forced himself forward, crawling in the dirt, every inch full of agony. There was a light, like a rising sun, and then there was only darkness.