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[Sooted Star, Part 1] Dimension 4 — The Portal Festival

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

5:55. Nine hours before the disappearance.

The box of donuts Uncle Jim had told Kiri to buy became her one excuse to feel like she belonged here in some way. Even if she had shown up five minutes early to the meeting place like a loser while there wasn’t a single other college student in sight. Even if she would end up no different than a bur stuck to the tail feathers of a chicken.

She stood in front of Riverwood Bookstore, which was near the end of the most “interesting” part of Goldtown—a street lined with small shops and restaurants meant to attract the tourists who had no choice but to pass through this town and stay a night before the long drive to an actually interesting place. It was also the street where the annual “Portal Festival” took place, when the local vendors set up their food stands and side-hobby art and jewelry tents and the police set up the temporary gates to designate the parade area. It was the one excuse the town used to “distinguish” its culture when most of the year it had nothing to pride itself on besides some food and retail chain businesses covering 90 percent of the town, (or maybe a few interesting houses remaining from before the Home Owners Association decided to nuke anything different from their “lawn-and-one-tree-maximum” standard).

She clutched onto the box of donuts, tonight’s hypothetical conversation with Gabe running through her head. She would say, “Hi, how are you?” No, that was too formal. Maybe something like, “Hey, what’s up?” A little more casual. Then maybe she would mention the donuts, like, “By the way, I just picked these up, but you’re welcome to take some—” But wait, did he even like donuts? Would offering them be too forward? What if this? What if that?

As she stood there mulling over the possibilities and beginning to sweat, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She let out a loud yelp as she swung around to face her assailant and the box of donuts slipped out of her hand. She reacted so fast that she caught the box between her fist and her knee, crushing the contents inside while some spilled out onto the ground. She could feel her heart slump down to her stomach just like the crushed donuts to the floor.

Standing behind her was the eternally grinning Gabe and, of course, some of his friends that Kiri recognized from various places in Goldtown over the years, with one exception. The exception, who Kiri hadn’t seen until last year, was a red-headed girl with a resting expression like she gave zero craps about anything. Another was a blond jock with a dizzyingly broad “chad jaw” and he seemed to like feathering it to emphasize just how big it was. The third was a girl even shorter than Kiri (and Kiri was already 5’2” short), but this girl was much louder and more outspoken than she was while she chortled with Gabe about his recent lacrosse triumph.

The moment Gabe had tapped Kiri, his friends’ gazes shot toward her. She held her crushed box of donuts between her fist and her knee and froze in that position, feeling their eyes scanning her like hazard lasers. Of all the moments she had to be caught in…

She could see Gabe’s smiling expression turn confused as he glanced between her and the box of donuts. He puffed out a small laugh. “Hey, Kiri. You good, there?”

Kiri awkwardly twisted herself to grab the box with her free hand. “Yeah,” she mumbled and averted her gaze down as her vision glazed over. “I, uh—well these were supposed to be for my uncle, but I guess I’ll go get a new batch and these can be for all of us…” She pointed behind her with her thumb in the general direction of the donut shop. Nice save, she thought. For once, her babbling was coherent and she made a decent excuse to give Gabe the donuts, even if they were the ruined batch.

Her small triumph didn’t last long, though. She accidentally made eye contact with Zero Craps girl, Blond Jock, and Miss Outspoken, who were probably confused about why Gabe Hartman was talking to the shit-stain at the bottom of Goldtown. She retreated backward, holding out the box to Gabe. “Um, you can have as many of these as you want. I’ll be right back…” she said, attempting a smile.

“Wait!” Gabe said, his smile returning to his face. “Let’s all go when everyone gets here! I’m totally up to get a fuuuuuck ton of donuts to have at the party.”

Zero Craps girl clicked her tongue and cut in, “I knew it. You just want any excuse to get those donuts every single time you're downtown.”

Gabe grinned and made the peace symbol with his hand. “Look, I need them to keep up my bulk, you know? Lacrosse is no joke.”

Eventually—meaning about an hour after Kiri had arrived, the other college students arrived lackadaisically in front of Riverwood Bookstore. With every person who joined the amoeba of sweaty, excited young college students, Kiri felt like some foreign invader being pushed to the outer edges of the culture. In a sense, it was a relief that she didn’t have to talk to anyone as they talked amongst themselves. But in the same breath, she could feel people noticing her occasionally and it felt worse to stand there with no purpose. She considered browsing her phone, but she had forgotten to charge it earlier and she could only use its remaining 20 percent battery for emergencies.

Finally, the group began to move. At least she had the excuse to look at the items in the tents and the shop windows. They strolled and the smell of weed trailed behind them just like Kiri did. She tried to linger behind without being too far away. Tried to seem engaged in the conversations without really being a part of them. She wondered why she was even trying.

They moved loudly through the evening as the wind whisked over the tops of the trees and the sun left tiny lines of light dancing in tandem with the leaves. The thought crossed Kiri’s mind that maybe staying in this town wasn’t so bad. It was comfortable, even if no one her age really granted her a meaningful connection. It was peaceful despite her silly inner turmoil and she knew she shouldn’t take that for granted. She watched the backs of Gabe and his friends for a while feeling for the first time tonight that this wasn’t so bad. She could live with this dynamic.

The group eventually stopped by a tent somewhere in the middle of the block. The ultimate community college heartthrob, Dadrien Stajner sat at the center of it, perfectly framed in the colorful wheel of fortune they would put up every year during the portal festival. His medium-length, flowing, blond hair and sparkling blue eyes looked almost comical to Kiri. She just didn’t see the appeal, but apparently, he had something going for him as the group of partygoers flocked around him, chiming sweet little nothings at him as he joked and drew out laughs from the crowd. Whatever he had was so powerful it even seemed to subdue Gabe, the class clown himself, and he just stood there grinning disingenuously.

Zero Craps girl released a snarky laugh through her nose. “So you’re the psychic, now?” she asked Dadrien, who tilted up his head like a wise old wizard preparing to amaze the young’uns with news about their true destinies.

“And what of it, young lass?” he replied with a terrible fake British accent.

“His grandma’s out drinking with the chicken farm folks,” Miss Outspoken blurted.

Kiri felt her insides twist when she sensed Gabe and a few others glance at her. She wasn’t wearing her usual chicken farm uniform, but she might as well have been. She wanted to curl into a ball and die in an alley.

Dadrien leaned back in his grandma’s fancy puffy pink armchair and smirked. “Bingo. Besides, this is gonna be my last festival anyway before I hit the coast!”

“Aw, we’re really gonna miss you, Day-day!” Miss Outspoken said with a little pout.

The banter went on for a while until finally, Dadrien became mysterious. “Now, now… Everybody must be silent and let me do my psychic-ing,” he said, waving his fingers and bugging out his eyeballs. “First of all, I sense we have some newcomers in my humble abode.” He nodded upwards at Zero Craps girl and flashed her a flirtatious grin. She rolled her eyes but still blushed. He continued, “You. Alicia. You foolish child! I cannot believe you haven’t heard the lore about the day that is today, the mighty Portal Festival!”

Somehow, Gabe had managed to slip quietly through the crowd and appear next to Kiri. When he tapped her arm, she nearly jumped out of her skin, almost subjecting the donuts to a second bad fate. He grinned at her. “You know the lore, right?” he asked.

Kiri shook her head, keeping her eyes focused on the wheel of fortune. That was a lie, actually. Uncle Jim had told her the lore many times. It was her go-to bedtime story as a child. It was the source of many fictional spinoff stories she’d written for escapism. She wasn’t sure why she lied. But it came so naturally that it scared her.

Gabe looked confused, but it didn’t last long and he smiled dumbly. “Oh really?” he asked, though it sounded less like a question and more like a skeptical musing. “Even though you’ve lived here all your life? Well, you’ll really enjoy this.”

Something about those words stung. She attempted to laugh it off. Added a little shrug to hammer home just how much she didn’t care despite her heart feeling like it was racing straight into its death.

Dadrien clapped his hands together. Most of the crowd fell silent while the background noises of the festival continued. Dusk slowly fell above everyone and the strands of lights lining the street flickered on. Dadrien began the story.

“Okay so… This is the legend of the carriage in the plains.” He gestured out as if pointing to a fast expanse. “They say that far into the Eastern plains, there is a broken-down carriage that appears every once in a while at random times. However, no one has been able to find it for a very long time—at least not yet. So the story goes that a long time ago before this town was officially a town, a crazy old man called Roland ran away from the settlement. The police were chasing him, okay? He had murdered his wife. He was a rich tradesman and somehow he’d gotten caught up in trouble with authorities. He began to go crazy because of it and it is assumed that he was so paranoid that he thought his wife would rat him out.

“Because he was relatively well-off, he owned his own carriage. After doing the unthinkable to his wife, he harnessed his horses up and rode far into the plains. The plains are really damn big as you know, so he decided to camp out for a night. However, something was strange about these plains.

“He set up camp and as the night fell, his horses got spooked and ran away. ‘Cause he saw nothing, he kind of just shrugged it off and went to sleep.”

Dadrien paused for a moment and clapped his hands together. Looked sinisterly into the tacky purple crystal ball in front of him, then continued slowly. “But over that night, something strange did happen. When the police who’d been tracking him arrived at where the tracks stopped the next day, both Roland and the carriage had disappeared. All that was left was a blanket, a makeshift fireplace, and a mug.

“They were really puzzled. I mean, they’d seen his horses running off on their own earlier. But still, they never found that carriage nor him. For several years after that, people scrutinized these plains, looking for the lost carriage and man, but to no avail. The citizens of this town believed the plains to be haunted.

“After several generations passed, people began to be less paranoid about the plains, however, this story remained as the local legend. That is, until about 50 years later when a traveler spotted what looked like remnants of a carriage in the plains. When news got around, people had many theories about what could’ve happened. My personal favorite is that it was transported into a parallel universe. But anyway, when people went to look for it the next day, it was gone again. Still, no one knows why until this day…”

Kiri barely listened to the story. She was too preoccupied with noticing the little details around her. In particular, two oval mirrors stood on either side of the wheel of fortune. They were there every year. The old woman who ran this tent, whom she had just learned was this guy’s grandmother apparently, always said the same thing about them: that they were the portals that could show one’s “true form.” Kiri had always asked when they would show her true form, but the old woman had always told her that she “wasn’t ready” or “seeing one’s true form takes immense strength.” Probably around early middle school Kiri called bullcrap, but seeing the mirrors now was at least a pleasant nostalgia.

But something was different about them this year. Was it because they were painted silver this time instead of gold? Sure, but there was something else.

Dadrien’s voice suddenly pierced through the mire of Kiri’s thoughts. When she redirected her attention to him, she saw him staring straight at her, which was odd. Just like Gabe, he’d never once looked at her. He probably had a one-up on Gabe, too, because she was pretty sure he didn’t even know she existed until now. But something about the way he stared at her was unnerving, almost like he knew her, and he was staring straight into her mind. It was almost like he was an entirely different person.

Still locking eyes with her, he said, “Supposedly, the stars can predict when the portal will next arrive, and one’s true fate can be found through it should they be lucky enough to find it. My grandmother says that tonight is an especially lucky time.” Something about his voice changed, too. It seemed calmer. More certain of itself, like none of this was just a silly legend.

Kiri couldn’t stand Dadrien’s gaze on her. She averted her eyes. Looked back at the mirrors. Wait. Who was that in the mirror? She couldn’t see the full person through the back of the chair, but he was sitting exactly where Dadrien should’ve been. What should’ve been Dadrien’s medium blonde hair had become long and silver. What little she could see of the face in the mirror was hollow and ghastly. The body had become brittle and wiry under Dadrien’s large shirt made to fit his once broad shoulders.

Kiri blinked. What the hell? she thought. Am I seeing things? Is the secondhand weed smoke affecting me?

Dadrien concluded the story by clapping his hands twice and standing up abruptly as he blurted, “The end!”

Kiri jolted as her eyes shot back at him. He was no longer looking at her. Nor did he look like the old man. She realized he had, in fact, never changed in reality. She looked around at the cluster of college students and searched for any indication they had seen something like she did. But they looked around at each other as if emerging from a trance, then immediately resumed laughing and conversing together like normal. Kiri briefly looked back at the mirror. It had turned back to normal, showing nothing more than Dadrien’s back as it should’ve been.

Alicia chuckled sarcastically while offering him a slow clap. “Wow. That was so anticlimactic.”

Miss Outspoken nudged her. “Oh, come on! Don’t be a killjoy.”

“Yeah! I worked sooo hard on that story! I’m so hurt!” Dadrien laughed and dramatically clutched his chest like he’d been shot. Laughs rippled through the crowd.

As reality resumed, Kiri kept a watchful eye on Dadrien. She still wasn’t sure what to make of that weird exchange. Could she even call it an exchange? Maybe she was overthinking just because some popular guy had looked at her for once. As the night went on, she began to doubt it had even happened. He didn’t look back at her even once. But she just couldn’t shake the feeling of seeing the old man that had replaced Dadrien in the mirror.

* * *

As the college students headed back in the direction they came, Gabe gave Kiri a light slap on the shoulder, yet again making Kiri jump and nearly drop not only her first box of donuts but also her fresh second batch. Fortunately, she had a bag to fit both this time.

“You—” she hissed through her teeth. However, she refrained from losing her temper. She couldn’t afford to let herself be noticed, let alone in a negative light.

Gabe didn’t seem to notice her obvious annoyed reaction and blurted, “Sooo, is that your crush?”


“Dadrien, obviously! I totally saw you staring after he told the story. You must’ve really liked it.” He laughed, carefree, which annoyed Kiri even more.

She could feel the eyes of Gabe’s friends, mainly Alicia, Blond Jock, Miss Outspoken, and some other folks land on her briefly. None of them said anything, but she could still feel her heart constricting like it was about to burst. Stop it, she wanted to say. Why are you even talking to me? Why does it have to be me?

“No, I—don’t like him at all,” she said. Her face darkened. “In fact, I don’t like people like him.” Not even a second passed before she wanted to slap herself across the face. You idiot! she thought. Stop saying presumptuous stuff like that!

Gabe’s grin broke. “People… like that? I don’t get it. No one’s like anyone, in my honest opinion.”

The truth in Gabe’s words cut like a knife. Kiri hated the fact she had to hear it from the person who hardly gave her the time of day throughout her entire life. She attempted to backtrack. “I mean—I don’t mean that he’s not unique, but sometimes, statistically, you know—” she rambled. She glanced up cautiously at the people walking parallel to her, but they seemed distracted in their own conversations. Did no one else really hear her say such a shitty thing? She could feel the tears welling in her eyes again.

Gabe shrugged. “I guess I get what you mean,” he said, glancing dreamily at the red and orange sky. “I mean, it’s true that I probably wouldn’t have talked to you because I don’t usually talk to quiet, shy types, but I learned that you’re a cool dragon lady, so counts for something, right?” He grinned genuinely.

His words cut through like a cool, fresh wind. Why are you being so nice to me? she wanted to ask. Why, after she’d done next to nothing to earn his respect? She quickly turned her head away. Used her sleeve to wipe away some runaway tears. “Yeah,” she said softly. “And you’re cool lacrosse guy.”

Gabe chuckled. He stretched his arms upward in a relieved sort of way. “I’m happy you think that,” he said. “We should hang out more.”

Some concept art from the chapter. Made with watercolor, colored pencils, and metallic markers.

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