Story by Joanna McLeod

Where do I start to tell this story? Five minutes to five thirty p.m.? That morning? The night before? Maybe I should start it on the midnight ferry, where we sat in a corner, near a mob of bikers, and I lowered my voice to read Douglas Coupland aloud. The bikers still listened in, some laughing, others annoyed at my encroachment on their territory. Later I laid down on the floor, the boat gently rocking, engines vibrating and humming beneath me, my head on my bag, and I slept.

The way I tell it, makes me seem like I was alone, some traveler on a pilgrimage. I wasn't alone - but I guess it was a journey of discovery. Me and my two sisters were going to the Gathering - a massive rave outdoors down near Nelson, over New Years Eve, 1997-98. Queuing for the ferry, our van lined up with so many other cars, we were laughing, munching chocolate. Two lines over, a boy racer car boom boom boomed as the people in the car behind us laughed at my antics retrieving tapes from the bottom of the boot. It was easy to spot fellow Gatherers - they were the ones crammed into old rusting v-dubs, and any other vehicle that was old enough to be cool. Us, we were driving the suburban mobile, a 1991 Toyota van, but that was okay. It wasn't ours, AND the parents had given us a full tank of gas. The advantage of being good friends with your older sisters was that three united was an imposing front against parents. I'd been to the Gathering the year before, and had loved it - nothing was going to keep me from it this year. Especially considering I had an added incentive to go.

Maybe that's where I should start, not with the jovial but nervous atmosphere of the docks late at night, where the Cool rubbed shoulders with sleepy kids and stressed parents off for their Post-Xmas holiday. Him. He was the reason for me going to the Gathering. Actually, he can't have been - I'd made up my mind long before he came along that I wanted to go. But he was going to be there too. And we were going to meet there. That was the thing. We'd never met before. Can I call it a nineties sort of relationship? Okay, fine. I fell in love over the Internet.

Weird weird times. I stayed up till 6am the day he told me that it was more than a friendship. We watched the sun rise from two different cities - him in Christchurch, me in Wellington, talking to each other, but not being together. Typing, not talking, if you want to get technical. It was crazy, and we both knew it. That's why it wouldn't be anything definite until after we'd met. And then it might not be anything at all. So that was why I was counting down the hours. We boarded the ferry at 12.30am - 17 hours until M hour. Matt Hour was 5.30pm. I chose the place - the bottom corner of the food tent, so that he'd have to choose the time, setting the scene for the whole three days.

The tall car deck echoed and clanged, petrol fumes and childhood flashbacks. I hadn't been on the ferry since I was ten, but it'd been a regular winter institution before then - skiing every year down south. Stairwells were crammed with people clambering to get seats, set themselves up for the three hour journey. There was a general attitude of love, and the young people were smiling, identifying each other as Gatherers. The vibe had started already. We found seats that were set around in a large circle that we shared with the bikers, and more Gatherers. Such a vast assortment of characters - most smiled benevolently at me when I said it was like a make-over episode of Sally Jessy Raphael. Then there was the reading episode. I was nervous as hell, and babbling from over-tiredness.

Four am, thirteen and a half hours to go, we stopped to pick up two more friends from a backpackers in Picton. They piled into the van, fresh from a kayaking trip, their packs adding to the huge amount of luggage that we were already carrying. And Matt was supposed to be returning with us, coming to stay with me for a few days before embarking on a tour of the north island. That was our guarantee, the reason we'd have to get on well. The back up plan. I was petrified. I had met other people off the Internet before, but never anyone that I'd been intense with. In fact, I'd never been more intense in my life. The whole van knew I was meeting Matt, and they were idly curious, but sick and tired of my stressings. I was so envious of them, holding me in a higher esteem than I held myself.

Despite the early hour, or maybe because of it, we were all in hyperactive moods, singing, shouting, laughing, as we sped through the darkness, a faun coloured rocket bound for another world. I sat on the front seat navigating for Anji, my oldest sister, counting roadkill to keep me sane. The Marlbourgh countryside lit by the first streaks of dawn was beautiful, Colin Macahon was right. Around six, the sky was glowing pink - red sky in the morning. We stopped to look at a stream that swam ten metres below a narrow bridge and I took over the driving. Reaching Nelson, we went mad in a Star Mart, strangely excited by civilisation. The five of us peed in clean bathrooms and paid for beverages by eftpos, knowing that we'd be missing these things over the next three days.

Karen, the other sister took a turn at the wheel so I clambered into the back seat, hitting my friend Katy in excitement and nervousness. She knew the whole Matt story in more detail than Anji and Jen - her older sister, because I kept her updated by email, and being more social than Karen, she sympathised more. I clutched a pillow and tried to sleep a little, but the mood was too good to allow me to close my eyes. We reached Takaka, the closest township to Canaan Downs, where the Gathering is held. It was only eight am, but the streets were hustling and bustling in a once a year kind of way, Gatherers dominating every shop and every vehicle. A convoy of love was beginning. We were the Electronic Hippies, the trendy AND the genuine believers combined for the one event.

Under strict orders from the parents to let Anji - the only one old enough to fit into the Insurance policy - drive the hard bits, we stopped to change drivers, and to slide my cask of red wine deep under the seat, so as to not infringe on the Gathering's No Alcohol rule. The road wound up and up the Takaka hill, but at least it wasn't completely foggy and dark like the year before. At last year's Gathering, I'd been with drink-driving strangers, but I'd still managed to have an amazing time. I was anticipating an even better trip this year. Stopping at a lookout point, I discovered that my camera was broken. Once again, my only souvenirs would be memories. And my take-home man. Maybe.

We came to the Gate and had the van quickly searched. Five smiley, moderately attractive clean young lasses - no worries. The track going down to the Gathering site was dirt, and even at nine am - eight and a half hours to go - traffic was moving very slowly. We were all forced to take deep breaths at the sheer beauty of the lichen covered rocks, and sparse trees. We'd left Earth far behind, this was a fairy kingdom. I knew that once we got down to the glades, where the decorations had been set up, the landscape would become even more dreamlike. Stuck behind a wagon for fifteen minutes, we were surprised as we finally go to pass that it was pulled by a tractor, not a donkey. At the bottom of the hill, trundling over cattle-stops, our van was directed to the right - further away from the dance zones than I wanted to camp. We chose our spot, trying to leave enough room for Anji and Jen's friends who would be joining us later. Three tents were pitched with a lot of fuss, as I sat around basically useless. We'd never really been a camping family, preferring the comforts of indoor plumbing, but for the Gathering, any sacrifice was worth it. Smiles on all the people around us warmed up the dewy grass, while the sun put us all in a good mood.

Having made our camp, the idea of sleep in stuffy hot tents was abandoned. Jen and I pulled out our vast stocks of nail polish and we all sat down to create artworks. It was all so surreal - sitting there in the sun, that even at seven and half hours till M was baking down. As we sat, layering colour over colour, a girl wandered up to us, and sat down. "Mind if I use some?" she asked? We told her to go right ahead. "I'm in that tent over there," she explained, pointing, "and it just looked like such fun over here". My nails ended up dark purple, with iridescent hologram sparkles over the top. I couldn't wait to see them under strobes and chemicals.

The Gathering didn't officially start until twelve p.m., so none of the stalls were open, and the dance areas were still cordoned off. A new feature this year were formal looking security guards, in crisp white shirts with walky-talkies and everything. Given the size of the event though, they were probably essential. 8000 people - but only one person there that I hadn't met mattered. We'd each seen only one photo of each other, so every face I passed as I explored could potentially have been him. God, what was going to happen? How would the meeting go? Would we hug? Kiss? Or just nothing? "As far as I'm concerned, if stuff happens, it happens, and if not - you're still an awesome friend" he'd promised me. At the time it'd had seemed so reassuring. Now though, when there were only six hours left to go, my whole stomach was jittery. He was somewhere around, I knew, probably stoned. But was he thinking about me?

Back at the tent circle, we lazed around in the sun, relaxing and preparing for the long night ahead. I pulled out my Coupland again, and told Jen and Katy my favourite story out of it, a fantastical fairy tale set on a planet stuck in 1972. I loved to read aloud, although I often worried that my voice might be grating, or that I speak too quickly. Katy told me about all the people from Onslow - the school I'd just finished at - she'd seen on her travels. I didn't want to see them. Apparently the 'Cool' people were out in force, as well as other people I didn't like. How dare they come here, to my special world? I wanted the Gathering to be distant, completely isolated from my other life. But as it happened, I got a special blast from the past. Crawling out from my tent, I came across two 'friends' crossing through our camp site. Following behind them was Demi, a guy I had nearly fucked on one of their lawns. He stared straight through me as I stood, unfocusing my eyes in a hope to look like I was already on a different plane. I'd never thought I'd see him again. Damn he was short! I laughed as soon as they were gone, and told the others who he was. I'd coped fine with that emotionless situation - how would I cope with the upcoming situation that was only emotions? There was a story I could tell Matt. If he was at all worthwhile, he'd remember me telling him about Demi.

The day moved along as slowly as a plot in a low rating day time soap opera; dragging on forever and ever and never getting anywhere until BAM - the action kicks in. Hopefully. With two and a half hours left to go, I decided to start in on the red wine. My sisters and I had nearly identical plastic goblets with fish motifs that I'd bought us all for Christmas from the warehouse, distinguishing our personalities/dress sense with the colour. Karen had green, to match her Youngcoporatewomanwhoactuallyworksinabookshopbutmakesallherownclothes / eightpairsofthesamepatternofbootlegpants style. I had blue to match my Grungechickstilllivingingthepasttryingtoberetrobutbasicallybeingtoogodddamfattofitintoany / truelycoolclothes look. And Anji the waitresswhomostlyjustworeglassonsclothing / butlookedamazinginanythingduetothefactthatshehasagorgeousfigure / andanevenbetterpersonality girl got pink - mostly because that was the leftover colour. Jen and Katy had plastic mugs that didn't inspire new adjectives. I figured I'd get a rosy red wine kind of glow happening before I went to meet Matt, in order to soften the uncomfortable silences that I knew would happen. Part of me just wanted to get roaringly drunk so that I could throw myself at him. But the part of me that lived in the real world figured that would probably just scare him off. As luck had it, I couldn't even drink the wine anyway. It tasted too much like cordial, which I guess is an appropriate punishment for being three years underage and therefore not wanting to spend a whole lot of time in the liquor store choosing. And it was too early in the day to start drinking Baccardi. I wasn't that depraved.

Tick tick tick went the watches that I made people frequently consult. Four Forty Five finally arrived dragging its heels like I tried to make Matt stay the last time I'd talked to him on the Internet - a full four days ago. I wanted to make sure that I was early to the meeting place, so that he'd have to approach me. That would make it a tiny smidgen easier. Or at least, I was hoping it'd be easier to wait for him rather than having to search for him. If my stomach had felt queasy before, now it could have whipped egg whites to meringue in seconds flat. I changed from a ratty sleep-crushed long skirt and T-shirt into a black T-shirt, brown flares, and the ultimately stupid fashion, a short black skirt over the top. My hair was a little lank and greasy - Matt defiantly would not be seeing me at my best, I knew, as I applied my makeup. But in reality, I knew it didn't make any difference. He'd either want me just because of my online self, or he wouldn't want me at all. Lipstick, eye shadow, mascara, moisturiser... none of it would make any difference. Yet I applied it all. It was getting close to five. Half an hour till M.

Karen practically had to drag me down to the food tent. I'd told him to come alone so I'd have to send her away too, to be fair. There was no way I wanted to meet him at the same time as his best friend that I'd talked to a couple of times before. No distractions. No place to hide. More than anything, I wanted to stand him up. I didn't want to have the awkwardness and nerves and the polite small talk. I wished that he could just turn up at my house three days later, and instantly know me, without the meeting. I tried to set myself up for disappointment, knowing it'd be better that way because I was less likely to get hurt. But there'd still been a month of me creating scenarios in my head, us meeting, letting the Gathering and the wilderness and the drugs take over deep in the forest. If I ever imagine something, it will never turn out that way, so I'd tried to fill my head with all bad stories, but none would surface. With ten minutes to go, I was freaking out. The Gathering was now second fiddle to this mysterious guy from Christchurch.

The food tent was bigger than I remembered, and had tables set out at the bottom corner where we were supposed to meet. I took a good look around the scene, and plonked myself down in the grass. My sunglasses hid my eyes as they raked over every single passer by. Would I recognize him? Would he recognize me? Would he even show up? What if he got to the scene, and saw the fat girl in brown, picking her split ends in a nervous habit, and decided he'd been totally wrong? Time seemed to drift by slowly. I started to worry a little, thinking maybe he wasn't going to show up. I kept a smile plastered on my face and laughed a little - I wasn't worried, honest I wasn't. But then he was there, walking up to me, closing in and it was too late to worry about anything because he was standing right in front of me and I had to jump up. "Joanna?" he asked.

So I stood up, smiling, trying not to show how shaken I was, trying not to stare. My height, lean to the point of skinny, baggy jeans, skanky hair, bleary red eyes. I was right about him being stoned. Maybe I knew him too well. We didn't fall instantly into each others arms. No kiss, no hug - we didn't even shake hands. Physical contact probably was the last thing on his mind once he saw me, and it would have weirded me out too much. Although perhaps it would have made me feel slightly more comfortable. Falling in step we walked for five minutes making small talk before either of us realised we had no destination in mind. We decided to just find a place where we could sit and talk, so I followed him down a faerie trail before we settled on a rock in the outskirts of the wood. It was secluded, but the rock overlooked the back path down to the camping ground so we were guaranteed the distraction of people walking past. Perfect. We? Me and Matt it would probably be better to say. 'We' would imply that we weren't both nervous, and that I wasn't feeling awkward about the exact definition of our relationship at that stage.

He did most of the talking, of course. I don't remember all that he said. Endless babble about dope and mushrooms and more dope and the flat he used to live in. He'd done a lot more drugs than me, lived a lot more of a life than me. I was enchanted and fascinated by his stories, and I wanted to experience those unknown worlds with him. Neither of us mentioned that he'd said "I want to run off into the woods with you when we're tripping". Neither of us made any hint or mention of what had transpired two weeks earlier - a declaration of "wait and see". At one stage I jumped off the rock to go and talk to a Cool person I knew who was passing by. I smiled to myself back on the rock knowing she was probably dying to know who Matt was, and exactly what I was doing with him. She wasn't the only one who wanted to know what was going on. The only sparks that flew came from my lighter that I fished out of my bag for Matt to light his endless self-rolled cigarettes.

We must have talked for about two hours, because eventually it grew to be dusky and I started to shiver a little - which would have been a good cue for him to put his arms around me, but he didn't. So together we walked down the path back to the tents, and we tried to tell each other where exactly in the Escaped Hippy Refuge Camp we could be found. So we parted, saying we'd catch up with each other later. I was so confused. What did I feel? I don't think there was a flat out sexual attraction there, but maybe there was a spiritual bond. I mean, I wasn't about to throw out the hundreds of hours we'd spent talking. I definitely felt something for him, but what exactly? And what feelings did he have toward me, if any? Later that night we'd both be drugged up to our eyeballs - maybe that'd be the perfect time to approach him about it - if I could find him.

I picked my way through tents and webs of guy ropes, orientating myself by our large faun coloured van. Standing on the van roof, supported by the radio aerial I saw a pink inflatable Mr. Blobby. It was a perfect signpost back to base camp, although I had no idea how I'd find my way in the dark. In the two hours (two hours, or two months of confusion) that I'd been gone, the tents had multiplied like rabbits until there were hardly any gaps or ground to walk upon. Two more tents belonging to Anji's friends had been crammed in next to ours, forming a circle. There was no room for them to park their car beside ours, so they trudged back and forth with their belongings. The Mr. Blobby had come from them. I already knew Anji's flatmate Daegal, and his girlfriend Power Jenn, and accompanying them, and I was introduced to Andrew and Gareth. As well as those who were in our tent circle, there were more guys gathered around, Brad and Mark - who I instantly spotted as being madly in love with Jen. Still, they were both cute, so that was okay. More men. Yay. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be saving myself for Matt. He hadn't said so, so if any other windows of opportunity came up, I'd open them.

Of course they all asked me questions about how it went, and I had no real answers to give them. "He had really red eyes" I said, mad at him for being slightly out of it while I was conscious and painfully aware of all that was going on. I didn't think that I loved him, or anything like that, so I told them that we'd be great friends. Great friends, not star crossed lovers. I could hardly believe that the initial ordeal was over that easily. It hadn't been lust-at-first-sight but he hadn't hated me, and we had managed to talk without it being too awkward. Whatever real life relationship we were destined to have would evidently be built up as slowly as our virtual relationship.

I went for a bit of a wander to find myself something to eat from the trendy-cool food stalls and on my return found everyone was getting ready to go dancing, since the Dusky Grey was turning into Dark Blue. Daegal, Andrew and Gareth had decked themselves out in white painters suits and gas masks, bringing back memories of the previous Gathering. "Your costumes scared the shit out of me last year," I accused, to peals of laughter. Glitter pots circulated, and silver safety blankets were shredded to make hair accessories. Anji gave me the tab I'd asked her to get - it had a loveheart on it and was wrapped in plastic. Funny how such a small piece of cardboard could cost so much, and yet be so much fun. We decided to synchronize our trips and take them at 10.30pm. Of course, the lads in white were straight edge, and Karen was just a little drunk. I took No Doze to give me extra oomph.

Dance zones blurred into each other as we whirled through them all. The Drum & Bass tent, where I'd spent hours the year before, marveling at my shadow, was mostly empty when we'd ventured in. Despite palm fronds, giant tusks and mist transforming the white pavilion into the land before time, the music was bad, not deep and sexy like it should have been. Of course I was looking for Matt, knowing that Drum & Bass was his favourite genre, but I didn't spot him. Just outside of that tent were the probing searchlights - like eighties niteclub relics - of the Hardcore Tent. Inside, we had to clamber through a rusty iron framework or cage to get into the main dancing area. This too was suprisingly empty. Rainbow lasers, strobes and smoke all ticked along merrily, doing their best to encourage the dancers, but the music was too fast. The beat threatened to spilt my heart apart.

Ten thirty p.m. found us all perched precariously on a steep pine needled bank overlooking the Tribal Zone. People beat upon an assortment of percussion instruments, including a massive Taiko drum. The beat pulsated, and I could feel my own heartbeat adjust to thump along in time. If our trips were going to take an hour to kick in, taking them now would give us a good thirty minutes to warm up before Midnight. Here, where smoke rose up from a bonfire while dancers twirled their fire poi and staffs, was the perfect place. I pulled out my tab, admiring the heart in the firelight, as Katy, Anji and Jen did the same. Karen looked away, excluded by choice. Anji offered me scissors, but I'd already decided to take the whole tab at once. After all, this was the Gathering. Also, if I was going to see Matt again that night, I wanted to be as out of it as possible. In sync, we moved the drug to our mouths. I felt my tongue curl back in welcome, ready to push the stray trip back if it crept out from under my tongue. Whenever I trip, I can't help but speak with a lisp.

The fire dancers seemed to blur instantly, although I knew that wasn't chemically possible. When I shut my eyes, I could still see the fiery trails that the spinning poi left, blazed into my eyelids. The drums pounded incessantly. I wanted to dance.

Giggling, or in my case, lisping, we made our way up the faerie path Matt and I had watched earlier in the day. Now in the darkness it was lit with strings of coloured light bulbs. The light bulbs were the kind that would best suit a late 1970s pseudo-Mexican outdoor cocktail party. Here, in the wilderness, they glowed with a new inspiration.

A walk across a misty plain that had increased a thousand fold in size since daylight brought me to the House tent. I was skeptical, because it wasn't a genre I knew at all, but Anji and Jen, our clubbers, dragged us straight in. It was beautiful - a wedding pavilion crossed with a glow worm cave. Drapery and pillars were entwined with vines of tiny lights, and mirror balls spun around, their reflections washing over the dancers. We swan through the crowd, out towards the back of the tent. I could feel chemicals flowing through my limbs as I started to dance. Positioned in front of speakers, the music took control. I smiled at everyone that I made eye contact with. The cardboard under my tongue was almost completely dissolved, but I didn't swallow it. My friends spun off somewhere in the crowd, drifting back and forth like the tides. Jen and Katy returned, babbling something about a trampoline, but I couldn't see it. I was focused on two stilt walkers, dressed in King and Queen costumes. At first glance, I thought they were dancing on a platform, but after a while I realised that the guy and girl, who were dancing with far more energy and movement than I was, were doing so on top of two and a half metre stilts. I was enthralled by their artistry and grace. I could hardly take my eyes off them. In and out of people, over the bumpy grass, they wove their legs intricately, supporting themselves on four metre tridents. It was exquisite.

But eventually, it was too hot to stay in the house tent. The night air was chilling, but it was filled with more happy revellers, wandering to and fro, lit by glow sticks and smiles. I pulled sparklers out of my bag of tricks, and Karen, Katy and I stood trying to light them as they crumbled, and went out in the wind. Any sparklers that lit were greeted with bouts of cheering, as we waved them around, frantically trying to write our names before they spluttered out. Running after my friends on the central prairie, I was stopped by a guy who came from nowhere. "Spot you?" he asked? I shook my head, confused "No thanks. Thanks, I've got to go". Running off, I finally clicked to the fact that he was offering me drugs, and I instantly regretted rejecting his friendly offer.

Plunging into the Trance Zone, nothing else mattered but the pulse and sight of thousands of people dancing as one. The massive area was hemmed in on three sides by trees, and sloped up and down around a huge central tower. The tower itself contained the DJ booth, and screens on which computer generated visuals swirled around and around, above small stages where the more extroverted danced. Laser projected shapes skimmed the edges of the trees, reflected in the silver foil statues that encircled the dance area. Around to the side of the DJ booth, we watched a glowing figure emerge from the woods and climb onto the stage. Dressed in a skirt layered with different ultraviolet colours, she balanced a sword and performed a belly dance. It was hard to believe she was real, so dramatic was her entrance and her dance. I was still looking for Matt, wanting more than anything to be with him at the midnight hour, but I couldn't see him anywhere. Searching while dancing, I dragged Katy and Karen all through the area until we settled on the other side of the tower, because we'd found Anji and Jen and everyone else.

The cardboard was long gone by now, but it was working beautifully. I danced, laughing at my arms flailing in front of my eyes, smiling at everyone, staring at the visual screens and lasers. All of a sudden the screens started a countdown. 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. People looked at their watches in confusion - apparently there was another ten minutes to go. Where was Matt? Couldn't we have this moment together? The countdown happened again, and this time everyone hugged and screamed, but there was no old long sigh. Yet another reason why the Gathering is so separate, and so much better than the real world. We danced again, all the crowd moving together, but it was too repetitive, so Karen and I decided to go elsewhere. I had no idea how to leave the trance area. There were so many people surrounding us, and the beat held me captive. Karen had to grab my arm and drag me out of the throng. She was Moses, parting the Red Sea. I walked backwards, staring at the eyes of all the dancers, sparkling black chips of stone. They weren't people, they were machines.

Back in the purgatory area between zones, we tried to light our sparklers, but we realised then that Katy had my lighter. We went back to look for her, but couldn't find her anywhere in the trance area, or anywhere else for that matter. Red Bull did nothing to perk Karen up, so I decided I'd take her back to our tents, where I could also grab something warmer to wear. Since I wasn't dancing, I was getting cold.

We walked down the road, giggling. I was talking loudly, as I normally do whenever I'm with her, showing off in public. I had no idea where our tents were, only that they were past the second set of portaloos, and then somewhere in the middle of thousands of other tents. Karen claimed she knew how to get there, so I accepted her guidance. Then I spotted Him. I'd been hoping to see his face all night long, and then all of a sudden, I walked straight past. Matt looked even more out of it than he had that afternoon. He was with a large group of people, so I wasn't keen to approach him. Who would I be to them? Who was I to him? I only had a split second to decide whether or not to speak to him, and I'd wimped out. I knew that I'd regret it. But he was so zonked out, and I was afraid. I kept walking, turning around to watch him stumble out of my sight.

Walking was easy as long as we kept to the road, but once we stepped off it, it was crazy. I kept stumbling and tripping over tents and guyropes in the dark. "If I step on someone, just scream" I called out in a half apology. Tents all around me came alive with people screaming, taking the piss. I laughed along, but the fact remained that the journey was like a mine field. Finally we found our tent, and I waited while Karen settled down for the night, grabbing a thin long sleeved shirt - the warmest item I had for packing so foolishly. I'd even forgotten my sleeping bag, and wasn't looking forward to going to bed with only a blanket to keep me warm. The temperature had soared to nearly thirty in the day, baking in the sun, but now it was frosty. I could see my breath coming out in clouds.

The huge sky gleamed with thousands of stars that I'd never seen before, soaring up and surrounding me. It was like the sky in Titanic, a film I'd seen only a few days before, something that had freaked me out a little on the ferry ride. So if the situation was titanic, I was a lifeboat, picking my way through the tents in silence like so many frozen bodies. The Gathering should have been the most beautiful environment in the world, but now, lost and alone, I was terrified. There were so many tents with ropes splayed out in all directions like icebergs. I traveled slowly, not entirely sure which way I should be heading to get back to the road. The road would take care of me. It was a long way, but I knew it would guide me back to the thriving, colourful seas of dancers. I was aware that I was hallucinating, chemicals triggering my imagination, but the coldness of the air and the fact that I am completely alone did nothing to reassure me. When I finally found the road, two huge shadows walked on either side of me, Jim Henson creatures from The Dark Crystal. I was not afraid of the people I passed, but still the mystical creatures comforted me. If magic exists anywhere, surely it exists here on Canaan Downs on New Years Eve.

My guardians vanished once I came close enough to hear the music. I searched desperately for Anji, Katy, my friends, their friends, anyone. I didn't want to be alone. Dancing by myself in the trance area, I couldn't find the beat to slip mindlessly into. Instead, I swam through the crowd around the DJ totem, hoping to see Daegal and all in their white suits, figuring their glowing figures under the UV lights would be easier to spot than Anji. But I couldn't find them either. I wandered out to the house tent, and searched by the trampoline and in the woods behind. A mirror ball strung up in the trees cast beautiful lights in front of my eyes, making the forest come alive. It was all so beautiful, but by then, because I wasn't dancing, I was half frozen, and lost, and unspeakably lonely.

I made my way down to the Fire Pit, deciding to warm myself for a while before figuring out my next move. I knew I'd never be able to spot my tent in the dark, and besides, I couldn't face the icebergs and bodies again. I didn't see anyone I know by the firepit, so I sat down alone. I had a look of stupidity plastered over my face, the unwanted kitten in a pet shop hoping desperatly that someone will adopt me. I needed someone to talk to. As the smoke stung my eyes and one side of me toasted in the fire, I realised that I'd lost my voice. I'd gone so long alone that even if someone did adopt me, I wouldn't be able to respond to them by talking. I saw visions of myself in the future, forced to carry around paper and pen to make myself understood. It was a frightening thought, more scary than anything else the acid had made. Just as I was about to go into full panic mode, someone pushed past me, and stepped on my foot. Instantly, without thinking, I apologised. The realisation hit me then that it hadn't been my fault, but more importantly, I was still able to talk. That was a happy feeling. Now all I needed was someone to talk to.

But there wasn't anyone. I sat, cold, alone, wishing that I wasn't lost. This had happened to me the year before, too. Why wasn't anyone adopting me? Wasn't I loveable? The fire and the people around me slowly became sharper, like binoculars focusing. I was coming down. Then I saw it - a flash of white flesh, tummy poking out between jeans and too short a top, and a silver streamer woven into hair. I called out hesitatingly "Katy?". She turned around and rushed up to me, hugging me, almost bowling me over in her enthusiasm. Anji and Jen were there too, and they surround me, warming me. We sat huddled up together and they fed me Dutch donuts and hot chocolate. I couldn't help it, I started crying in happiness. I had been found.

Joanna McLeod -
A gatherer

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