The story lived in a prison full of other stories. Its cell had iron bars and a cold stone floor. Sometimes guards patrolled the prison. The story could hear their boots on the stone floor outside, but it could not see them through the grid of iron bars, for the prison was entirely dark. Sometimes at night the story heard other stories weaping with misery or loneliness. It was a forlorn sound that kept the story awake many a night.
One day a set of guard’s footsteps paused outside the door of the story’s cell. A key grated in the lock that had not been opened as long as the story could remember. The door screeched open with the sound of tortured metal. A deep rough voice bid the story stand and come out of its cell. The story got up from its tiny hard cot and walked on unsteady legs out of its cell. The door slammed behind it. And all around the prison, other doors slammed.
The guard began to walk down the long prison corridor. The story followed, guided by the sound of the guard’s echoing footsteps. Other footsteps walked along the corridor, other guards guiding their prisoners down the long hall, until they came to the entrance of the prison where the chief warden was waiting.
There was a pool of red light around the chief warden, cast by a great iron stove. All the stories blinked and put hands up to shield their sensitive eyes.
“Now,” said the warden, and he had the same voice as the guard who had released the story from its cell, rough and deep. “Each of you,” he said. “Take a torch.” He lit torches and passed one to each of them.
“Take a bag of collecting,” he said. And lifted from a box by his side armfuls of rough dusty burlap sacks, passing one to each of them.
And he said, “An hour glass for each of you.” From his box he took tiny crystal vials full of a thin, blue dust, like crushed sapphires. “Mind,” he said, “the sand in these falls but one way. The sand will begin to fall when you leave this place.”
None of the stories said a word. They were not certain they knew how to use their tongues. It had been so many years. As their eyes were used to darkness, their tongues were used to silence.
“Finally,” the warden said. “Your last gift from this place, your place of birth, are your secrets. We took these from you when you came here. And now we return them to you, pristine as the day you came.”
And each story took back their secret in the form of a piece of paper inside a cookie. Then, the doors of the story prison were flung back, letting in the air of the world.
The stories walked out into a snowy field, surrounded by a forest of brooding pines. Ravens screeched and cawed from the forest. Wolves howled like demons. A smell of rot and decay gusted to them on the wind. It was bitterly cold. There was no sun in the sky, only a dim glowing grayness. There was one road going from the field into the forest. The deep track of a slay lay in the snow along the road.
The doors of the prison slammed shut behind the stories with a great jarring crash. They turned, but the prison had vanished. They were alone but for one another, their torches, their bags of collecting, their hourglasses, and their secrets.
From the direction of the road they heard the wolves again. Then a scream shattered the air, followed by the report of a gun.
The howling did not end. The ravens rose up from the surrounding trees and flapped away in the direction from which the scream had come.
Kate stopped talking. We all stayed quiet hanging on the edge of her last words. We thought we had heard the gunshot, felt icy wind, seen that bleak sky.
Kate stood up and went to the door. “Everything is just out here,” she said. “If you want to come out one at a time. I’ll give you your torch, your bag of collecting, and your hour glass.” She gave a rye smile. “I’m afraid I don’t know any of your secrets. You’ll have to bring those yourself. But I do have cookies.”
She opened the door, stepped out, closed it behind her.
No one moved to follow. A minute slid by. You could eat the tension in the room with a spoon. Finally, I walked across the room and pulled open the door and stepped out. Kate was waiting.
“I didn’t know if anyone was going to come,” she beamed a smile at me. “I thought maybe I’d overplayed it.”
I shook my head. “I think we were a bit caught off guard.”
She nodded. “yeah. That’s what I mean. Sometimes I get too into character and you guys aren’t ready for that yet.”
“Don’t stop,” I said. “It’s really cool. It’s really…I don’t know. Exciting.”
“Great,” she said. “Well here’s your stuff.” She opened a box that reminded me unpleasantly of the one Albert had been in. She pulled out a plastic shopping bag and handed it to me. “You’re going to have to make it your own. Make it magical, right?”
“Right,” I said. Inside the bag was a tiny plastic hourglass and a little flashlight.
“They leave a lot to be desired right now,” Kate said. “I don’t have a budget or anything. But feel free to decorate or get your own props.” She popped the lid off of a plastic dish of cookies that smelled gorgeous. “There’s no peanuts or anything. There just chocolate chip.”
“Did you make them?”
I immediately grabbed one.
“You can have two,” she said. I took two.
“We won’t start the first adventure until next week. You can go if you want.”
I took a bite of the first cookie. It was rich and chocolaty, a little chewy. The door opened. Ash stuck her head out.
“Come on,” Kate said.
“She has cookies,” I said. “They’re really good.”