Sloe did not follow his mother up the stairs of the Clock Tower to its lofted quarters. He rounded the hallway at the base of the staircase and passed by the family’s shower room. The door to his bedroom was open, revealing an unmade bed and posters of worlds beyond his own. At least that’s how it was meant to look.
He halted before the doorway and pressed his hand to an invisible barrier. It glimmered and warped at his touch, blurring the scene of the unmade bed and posters. He smiled when he heard a bolt unhitch, the classic kind that signals the unlocking of a door—completely unnecessary for the technology but satisfying to hear.
He entered a room that had very little resemblance to the scene on the illusory door.
Sloe’s bed, positioned in the room’s center, was not only made, it was pristine with perfectly cornered sheets and blanket crafted in dark shades of green. A labyrinth of shelves, black and white Aborealian trunks, and writing desks surrounded the bed and branched outward to the walls of the room.
The wall farthest from the door curved in a half circle, following the interior curvature of the Clock Tower. The walls were bare, except for the strips of light that glowed along the upper angles that met the ceiling.
Sloe opened one of the trunks and pulled out a sweater and an old pair of dress slacks that were faded and worn. He folded the black and gold funeral robe and dropped it, along with his used shirt and slacks, in a basket next to the trunk.
He combed his fingers through his hair and would have considered adding a dab of cologne if he’d had any left. He’d used the rest of it last time he’d visited Raven. Since asking his mother for more would have spiraled into another awkward conversation about dating, he made a mental note to himself to bring it up later with his father.
After shaking the tension from his hands, he turned to leave the room. From this side, there was a space on the wall that looked like an entrance to an unlit tunnel. Sloe pressed his hand to the space and stepped through.
He exited the Clock Tower before beginning the climb, up along its exterior surface. Timepieces glowed as he touched them and faded when he moved on. He stepped over light bulbs and electrical wires, and dodged gears and other fixtures that stuck out from the tower.
Sloe stopped in front of an hourglass. The Clock Tower had many versions of this timepiece, but only one of them represented the world of Aboreal. His hand landed on an hourglass with alternating streams of black and white sand. The glass between the two metal ends of the timepiece glowed brightly, spraying beams of light across the purple sky.
Crackling and popping sounds filled his ears as fingers of electricity wriggled across his hand. He pressed forward, letting the currents absorb him and pull him through, into a tunnel filled with blue and purple light.
When the crackling subsided, he stepped into a world with a violet-blue sky that had no moon or stars. Without a sun to orbit, there was no day or night. The sky swallowed and reflected back light from the vegetation below. Lights from streets and homes added to the world’s brightness.
Sloe breathed in the air and smiled up at the violet-blue sky. In a way that had always made him uncomfortable, this world felt similar to home.
He followed a path toward a horizon of green grasses and trees, colors absent from the Clock Tower’s landscape. Felines roamed the street, mewing and licking themselves clean. Rabbits and other lapine creatures hopped along the grasses, some stopping to eye him curiously before springing forward and scurrying away. Each animal’s fur was either the darkest of night or the brightest of snow, with no shades in between.
The path widened as Sloe reached a village. Though this was not his first trip to Aboreal, he marveled at the likeness of the homes. They were constructed with different building materials, in a range of sizes, but they all had the same basic shapes, with defined tops and bottoms. Pointed roofs sat upon rectangular bases, all houses that looked nothing like the mangled mess of the Clock Tower where he lived. Compared to homes like Raven’s, he often wondered at how his parents had considered it livable.
Sloe reached a house made of brick and stone, built twice as tall as it was wide. A brassy beam ran along the edges of its pointed roof tiled with a material that had been cut from Aborealian trees.
He bounced in place and shook his hands again to release the edge from his nerves, then knocked on the door.
When the door opened, a lump formed in his throat.
Light from inside the home haloed a young woman wearing a fluffy purple hoody and matching sweatpants. Her glossy black hair was gathered in a loop at the top of her head and set in place with a comb of glittering flowers. Shining black eyes, the color of onyx, opened widely with recognition. “Sloe!”
“Hey, Raven.” He scratched the back of his head. “That, um, funeral thing finished sooner than I expected. Want to hang out?”
“Of course. I’ll be right out. I’ll just let my parents know I’ll be gone for a while. Do you know where we’re going, in case they ask?”
“Oh, um.” Sloe frowned, thinking. “I hadn’t planned that far ahead. We can go wherever you like.”
Raven leaned a shoulder against the doorframe. “So, basically, you want me to tell them it’s a surprise?”
“Sure.” He grinned. “That would work.”
“I doubt it,” she said, lowering her voice. “If they knew we left Aboreal as often as we do, we wouldn’t be seeing each other again.”
Sloe swallowed. “Then we’ll stay here, maybe hang out with your parents. We could play cards or something.”
“Oh no, anything but that. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” She spun around, leaving the door open with Sloe standing outside.
He smirked at not being invited inside. The last time he visited Raven and her parents, he felt like he was on a date with Raven’s father. Like he was interviewing for a position to be the man’s best friend. That was the last time Raven let him physically enter the house. She’d made sure they’d gone out ever since.
“Okay, we’re good.” Raven returned smiling and slightly out of breath. “They’re helping Snow with his lessons. That should give us plenty of time.”
She slipped her arm through his. “Ready?”
Sloe smiled as they walked together to the exit portal that led back to the Clock Tower.
“Where’d you tell your parents we were going?”
“They didn’t ask, specifically. So I said I was going out with you and that I’d be back to help clean up whatever mess they were making with Snow’s lessons.”
Sloe laughed. Technology and calculations had changed so much since his parents last had lessons, too. The worlds were different and in a constant stage of discovery and change.
“Well, in that case,” he said, “let’s try someplace new.”
He memorized Raven’s grin, and the way the crackling purple sparks framed her face, as he accessed the portal and pulled them through.
Moments later they were still arm-in-arm, holding on to the Aborealian hourglass attached to the Clock Tower.
Raven smiled up at the purple sky. “This world doesn’t look much different than Aboreal,” she teased. “Should we ground?”
Sloe shook his head. “Not if we leave fast enough. The rumbling will still happen here without us.”
“You don’t want to tell your parents where we’re going either?”
He shrugged. “If we don’t like it, we can come right back and try someplace else. What’s the point of wasting time in between?”
Raven nodded slowly.
“We can always go back to that world with the air balloons,” he said. “You liked that one. But if we do, we might miss out on something better.”
“Then how do we choose?”
“I don’t know. But we’ll have to hurry before the impact of our arrival hits and knocks us off the tower.”
“Which one looks interesting to you?” said Sloe.
Her eyes flashed to a sundial with a clear gnomon—a triangular blade sticking up from the center—with a matching crystal rim along the dial plate. She twisted her body to where she could reach out and touch it. But it did nothing in response.
Sloe placed his hand above hers. The sundial began to glow.
“Where does it go?” whispered Raven.
“I don’t know, but I feel it singing to me. It will be easy to unlock.”
“What kind of world do you think it will be?”
“I really can’t say.” He grinned. “Let’s find out.”
His words faded as the crackling heightened and waves of electricity allowed them to pass through.