Normally when I’m anxious I calm myself by feeding the ducks at the park at the end of the street. So when I found I couldn’t sleep, I went to the park. The only problem was that there are no ducks to feed at 2am, so I just sat on a bench and watched the lake. It was a calming sight, the smooth surface reflecting the starry sky. 

I imagined slipping down into that lake and finding myself in some strange new world. It was better than thinking about today’s conversation. “New York,” Robbie had said. “It’s a great opportunity. They’re providing the accommodation, and the pay will be almost double what I make here. I leave in month.”

We’d both agreed that long distance wasn’t going to cut it. Either we both stayed, we both went, or we ended it. The first, apparently, wasn’t an option. Robbie was shocked to even think I was considering anything but the second. 

“New York, Carly! It’d be an adventure! When was the last time you saw someplace new?”

That was it. Someplace new. I liked it here. I liked my job, my family, my friends, the fact that I lived close to the park. Were there ducks to feed in New York? Probably. But maybe they weren’t like the ones here. Maybe we wouldn’t be living near a park like this. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to be thrown into a new place without an anchor. But the alternative was letting Robbie go.

A rustle in the bushes interrupted my agonised indecision. I turned to see a figure emerge. 

“Please, lady, help me!”

There was something odd about his accent. I couldn’t place it. The man was dressed in the strangest clothes — a tattered tunic and leggings, like he come from a Robin Hood costume party or something. I couldn’t tell what colour they were in the dark.

“Are you lost?”

“I am being pursued. Please, help me evade my would-be captors.” He turned and gestured to two figures at the other end of the street. As they walked under a streetlight, I saw their uniforms.

“Those are cops. I’m not going to help shelter a criminal.”

“I am no criminal, and those are not cops. They have stolen the clothes of your people. They are from my land.”

“Your land?”

“I am from Alvancia, beyond the hills.”

“Never heard of it.”

“It is not of this world. I journeyed here through a mirror.”

I frowned at him. He didn’t smell of alcohol or anything. He looked at me steadily, earnestly, as though it was perfectly normal to have journeyed through a mirror.

“And what do those supposedly-not-cops want with you?”

“They are the servants of Sorcerer Dunswain, who seeks dominion over our people. I left to search for the star of the gods, which would give us power against his magic. They have been sent to stop me, to kill the last hope of my land. You must help, please.”

He had to be out of his mind. But he didn’t seem violent, just strange. When was the last time you saw someplace new? When was the last time I had taken a chance?

“Come with me.” I turned and went to the alley that would lead home. It was a shortcut, a path between fences that nobody seemed to take but me, and overgrown with grass. He followed silently, and in a few minutes we were both in my house. 

“What’s your name?” I asked him, once we were inside.

He peered through the curtains. “They may search this street, but I doubt they will search all the houses.” He closed the curtains and turned round. “I am Lantel.” Now I could see his clothes were dark green, he looked even more like Robin Hood. He had a narrow face, and sharp black eyes.

“I’m Carly. Nice to meet you.”

“It is an honour. I owe you my life.”

“Um. Do you want some tea?”

“What is tea?”

“A hot drink. Keeps you awake.” I put the kettle on without waiting for an answer. I wanted tea.

“Is it magic?”

I raised my brows. “There’s no such thing as magic.”

He stared at me. “Of course there is. That is how I came to be here.”

“Well.” I’d let him in my house, I couldn’t tell him I thought he was crazy. “Not in this world.”

“It is less common in this world, that is true, but it exists. I have travelled many miles here searching for the star of the gods, and I have seen traces of magic in every place I visited. That magic helped me evade capture.” He frowned at me. “If you do not believe in magic, how did you see me?”

“Um, you came out of the bushes and asked for help.”

“I have spoken to many of your people, and they have not seen me as I am. That is part of my own magic. But you have the true sight. You see what is there, no matter how strange it be. That is a magic you own.”

I laughed. “I’m not magic. I’m completely ordinary.” Ordinary girl in an ordinary job living an ordinary life. Looking at this odd man from a fairytale on an adventure, I wondered if that was what I really wanted. I pushed his tea across the table.

He shook his head but said nothing, accepting the tea. He sipped. “This is good.”

“Not magic,” I said, “but close.”

“I must leave soon,” he said. “I must return to the lake.”

“Why?”

“It is a mirror, a portal. I think I could pass through to another world there. The star of the gods is not here, and Dunswain’s men are too close. I must leave.” He took another sip. “Once I have finished this.”

As we drank, I found myself telling him about Robbie, about the choice I had to make. He seemed confused. “Do you love him?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Then surely you must aid him in his quest.”

A quest. It had been the only way to explain a job to him. In a way, Robbie was on a quest, searching for ways to prove himself. At some point, I’d given up on questing. On adventure.

“Come on,” I said. Our cups were empty. “Those men should have moved on by now.”

“Yes,” he said, and we walked back to the park. The lake was still, a perfect mirror. I watched as he stepped up to the edge of the water and stretched out his hand.

At first nothing seemed to happen. Then, one of the stars in the reflection brightened. As I watched, the water rippled and whirled and shifted until it formed a tunnel, a steep tunnel that obviously went deeper than the lake should be.

He turned back to me. “Would you like to come with me?”

I shook my head. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I hadn’t believed him before, not really, not until now. 

He nodded. “You have your own path to walk. I wish you well. Perhaps we may meet again.” He walked down into the tunnel of water. His feet stayed on the water’s surface. When he was gone, the water rippled and became still again, reflecting the sky, as though nothing had happened.

I walked back in the dark, looking up at the sky, thinking of the many worlds that might exist beyond ours, and whether I would regret seeing them. 

When I got home, I turned on the computer and started looking up flights to New York.