A memory: I am newly four, standing in my father's garage. He has an upright tool box. It's designed to roll, with little wheels that he has locked in place, braced with a board. Everything is labeled with shaky labels made using a stolen label-maker that he, with his rough workman's hands, was never quite comfortable holding.
I can't read the labels yet. That will come later. I know how things are organized, though. What I want is in a bottom drawer -- a lightweight hammer, just the right size for my hand. I steal it, leaving the drawer open, and dart away.
Dad won't care that I've taken a hammer, but I don't want to take any chances -- he won't, but my mother will, and I don't want a lecture today.
I remember taking the hammer, and one of the bricks from the garage, stealing away to a sheltered corner under the eaves of the house, and banging away at the brick with a hammer, with no particular thought other than, "I will make something out of this."
It is one of the happiest days of my childhood.
Growing up marred by trauma, it is one of the few good memories I have: a brick, a hammer, an inexplicable desire to make something, and the knowledge that I will.
I want to think that I learned from moments like this, that they are what has gone into the kit that helps me deal with the good with the bad, that makes me take a deep breath and go, "I am going to be all right," but it's hard to say.
"You look for meaning in everything," says my therapist, and I understand what he's implying.
I have an idea, what home looks like.
Home is a little yellow house, with the wheat fields behind it, apple trees in the back yard and a dilapidated shed, no neighbors.
Home is a hill full of violets, a backyard lined with roses, Dad's garage with the faint oily scent of car parts, morning glories out the back door, and a room painted pale pink with the gigantic dresser that I never did manage to fill -- the good things.
Home is not what came later -- the brick house and all its assorted bad memories.
Home is the before of my own personal before and after. Before my mother became the terrifying entity that she would remain throughout my adolescence, never someone I could trust; before my sister became sick and nearly died, before I was shunted off to my grandparents, who would raise me until I was seventeen.
Home is the tool box, from which I stole the hammer I loved, the place in which I banged away at bricks in hope of creating art.
"Home is where the heart is," or so the saying goes. I filed it away with the other old adages, and never gave it much thought.
By the time I met you, "home" was fifteen years gone. The tool box was somewhere, in the garage of what I still referred to as my parents' "new" house (moved into when I was ten), and the roses were there, but there were no more violets, no more pale pink room to call my own, and no more trying to create art.
"I've always wanted to live in the Pacific Northwest," I say, when you ask me where I'm from, originally, the first time we meet. "I grew up in the Rockies, so."
Home, to you, means where the mountains are. The valley you grew up in, ringed by the Rockies, spitting distance from the Canadian border.
"Home is where the heart is," I repeat, after a moment. "I think."
I don't talk about my childhood house, because I don't talk about my childhood. It's uncharted territory. Here There Be Dragons. How can I explain everything that has happened, every painful thing, without watching you turn from being my friend to being someone who pities me? It's not a shift I want to make, and so we dance around it: for all you know, I might have appeared overnight on someone's lawn, sprouted like one of the Shaggy Manes you find on the mulch pile behind your house, absent one day and present the next, fully formed and ready to sass you.
I talk about other things, instead. What I'm doing with my life. What I want to be doing with my life. We don't talk about my partner, because he's one of the difficult things, but we talk about music. I find out that you love the same bands that I do, and I perk up -- here is someone who loves what I love -- and we bond over that.
We become friends. I want to say "slowly but surely", but neither of us does anything by halves, and within three months of meeting, I am telling everyone, beaming as I do, that you are my best friend.
You might make faces, but you agree, and you are one of the few easy things in a life that has never been easy. You're my ace in the hole, the trick up my sleeve, the tiny hammer in the tool kit I have put together to face everything else, and I don't let myself think about what I would do without you.
"I want to say that everything happens for a reason," I tell my therapist, during one of our sessions -- well after he has told me I try to find meaning and connection in everything; that I make myself mildly neurotic in doing so. "But I can't find a reason for..."
I can't find a reason for why things have happened the way they have.
I can't find a reason for why my mother didn't love me.
I can't find a reason for why my grandparents stepped up when she stepped down, nothing beyond "familial obligation", and that doesn't describe the bond we had.
I can't find a reason for why you keep hanging around me, even though I'm a mess; even though I'm not always kind or smart or funny; why you insist on being my friend when you've seen me at what I morosely call my "bestworst": overworked and overwhelmed, and struggling to be positive.
"Sometimes there's not a reason," says my therapist. "Sometimes things just happen, and you have to accept that."
I lean into it, and I accept that you're my best friend, and I try not to find meaning in that, beyond the obvious: I am happy we are friends.
Another memory, a good one:
We are driving back from a concert in a different city. It's late and we're both amped up. We're excited, because the concert was good, and we're talking about the band. I tell you that listening to music always makes me want to sing; that it's tempting to turn up the radio in your car and howl along with the radio.
"Do it," you tell me, and so I pick a song, something we both know the words to, put it on the stereo and turn it up high.
"Fine, but you have to sing, too."
The song itself doesn't matter -- something silly and irreverent about growing up -- but the look on your face, when you realize I'm serious, when you smile shyly and begin to sing, softly at first, then louder -- sparks something in me, brings up a feeling I had long thought gone, though I cannot place what it is.
We're friends, good friends.
You're in my life when I finally begin to figure things out.
I break up with my long-term partner, because he hits me.
I start therapy, because it seems like the logical next step.
You encourage me to keep going, and we talk about what happens in the sessions, because I need someone to talk to.
Somewhere in there, I give up, and I tell you all about my childhood trauma, why I ended up in therapy to begin with, and you listen without judging me, without saying anything until I am done, then telling me: "That's fucked up, but you've made a good life anyway", and this, more than anything, lets me begin to heal.
When I can't cope -- when everything is too much, because I am overwhelmed, overworked and overcome with emotion, trying to work even in the face of one of the worst things that can happen to a person -- I call you.
I don't know when I realize I love you, just that I do.
We're on our way out to the woods, when I tell you the story of the hammer, of the tool box, of the little yellow house.
"Home is..." I start, because you have just finished talking about your childhood, how happy you were, as we head into the mountains.
Home is a little yellow house that has since been painted blue. Home is a memory of a feeling I carry around inside myself. Home is what drives me -- the desire to find that again; the desire to be something other than the laundry list of traumas that has happened to me, more than a collection of letters, a label that doesn't adequately explain who I am, only where I have been.
"That's home," I finish, lamely, because I am not sure what else to say. I am offering you myself, and I don't know that you will understand the significance of it.
You smile at me, when I finish. "Thank you."
With those two words, I know, though I cannot say it, that you love me, too.
I tell you that night, once dinner is over. The fire is dying down, and we're staring into the coals -- you drowsily; me, wondering if now is the time, if I should say something...
"Look," I start. "I..."
I love you, I tell you. I have for a long time. I don't know how long. It took me a while to figure it out. Therapy helped, but you are you, and you have been so good, that I didn't want to wreck everything by saying the wrong thing, by telling you I love you if I wasn't sure I meant it.
"You're my best friend, and I love you."
You look up from the embers, meet my eyes. "You're my best friend," you say, and I prepare myself for the worst. "You know it already, but -- "
You are safe, and I know you will be gentle, when you let me down. "You don't have to -- "
"I love you. I love you."
There is only a moment of hesitancy. "You mean..."
"You're supposed to marry your best friend, right?" -- and I understand, suddenly, what you are trying to tell me.
Our friendship doesn't change much, after that. We're still best friends. We still tell each other everything.
There are differences. I can tell you I love you, now. I'm able to lean over and kiss you, if the mood strikes me. I can reach for your hand, and you can reach for mine. The boundaries have shifted, and it's all right to touch one another, now.
"I feel like we cheated, somehow," I tell you drowsily, one night, as we are dozing on my bed. "It's too easy."
You laugh a little, gently. "We've been friends for years. The hard parts are all done now."
It's when you say that, the hard parts are all done, that I make a sudden realization.
We're driving back from a trip to the coast, when I remind you about the time you sang along with me. You put Sleigh Bells on your playlist for me, along with a few other things you know I love to sing; I know you did it, because I asked you about it, and it sparks the memory.
"Do you remember...?"
I recount the story: the song, the quirk of your eyebrow when I told you I wanted you to sing along; the way we'd both sung along at the top of our lungs.
"That's one of my favorite memories with you."
You smile and take my hand. "They're all good memories, with you."
"Yes, but -- that one stands out."
That's when I realized that home is not a place, I want to say. That's when I realized it's a person.
I make the connection then, between opening the tool box and removing the hammer, the feeling of possibility, ambition and determination, self-satisfaction and wholeness, and the feeling I have whenever I see you.
I am not only a collection of traumas, when I see you.
"He sees me completely," I tell my therapist, and he nods. "We're best friends."
"There's a lot of trust there," says the therapist. "And a lot of love. And meaning?"
I take a deep breath. "A lot of meaning, though not everything is meaningful."
"Good," he says. "You're learning."
"We have world enough and time," you say, frequently. You're paraphrasing something else I said, a lopsided mangling of Marvell.
I smile every time you say it, echo back: "We have all the time in the world."
"We'll build a good life together," you tell me, and for the first time, I believe that it's possible; that I can grow beyond my childhood trauma.
"I love you," I say, because I do not know what other words so perfectly express what I want to say to you.
I have not told you yet, that you have given home back to me yet. I'm waiting for the future -- the no longer terrifying future, unknown and unknowable.
I have you.
I have a plan.
I have a little yellow house I carry around in my heart, the sound of a drawer sliding open, my father's tool box and the hammer, the feeling of sun on my face as I set to work -- something I never thought I would recover.
I have all the time in the world.
I wanted to write a companion piece to the other, the light to its dark.
[content warning]CW: contains non-graphic descriptions of domestic violence.
I haven't seen Jack in over a year, when he asks if I want to meet for dinner.
I hesitate a little, before accepting the invitation, but ultimately I do.
"I just want us to catch up," is how he puts it, pleasantly. "I want to know..."
I already know what it is he wants to know.
I don't want to answer the questions I'm sure he has.
I don't want to do anything, but it's not an option, and so I accept, and prepare for the worst.
When did I admit that it was abuse? Did I ever?
When you cried, whenever I wanted to leave the house without you -- when you said I deserved a better partner, someone who would not do the things that you did -- was that when I began wondering? Or did it start earlier, when you made a point of reminding me that you were so much larger than I was; that you could easily physically overpower me, hold me down -- as a joke, you said, as you held me against my will, as I tried to leave the bedroom, to get up and use the toilet. "You could break free, if you really wanted to" -- but you knew I wouldn't, because I didn't want to hurt you, and it would have required physical harm to get you to stop.
Did I think, this is abuse? Or did I accept it, as a quirk about you.
I explained it away to friends: "Oh, he's trying to be funny," when I talked about how you wouldn't let me up.
I didn't tell them about the times we fought, how you'd physically block me in the room.
Did they really need to know?
You weren't as bad as my first partner, and so I thought, this must be all right.
I agree to meet Jack at a restaurant downtown, somewhere we'd both liked, before he picked up and moved to LA. We agree on 7; I arrive at 6:58 and find him there, sitting at a table.
"Hey," he says, and stands to give me a hug. "How you been?"
We both know the answer to this, already.
"I've had better months," I say, pressing my lips together in a thin smile. "I'm hanging in there, though. How's California?"
We make small talk, about what he loves, and what he doesn't, about his new job. I note the small differences in his appearance -- he's lost weight and his hair is longer than when I last saw him, brushing the tops of his shoulders. He's tanned, lean; he doesn't look like the neurotic man I knew last year.
"Things are good," he finishes. "I'm seeing someone nice. How about you?"
"I'm all right," I say. I repeat: "I've had better months."
Jack hesitates. "Why don't I buy you a beer?" he says, after a moment. "I..."
"Beer is great," I say. "IPA. RPM, if they have it on tap. Thanks."
He nods, and ducks out to go stand at the bar, get both of our beers; gives me a moment to collect my thoughts.
I don't know when it stopped feeling like a relationship, and began feeling like a millstone around my neck.
I tried to do things without you. You would let me, but then make it unbearable to go alone, texting and harassing me most of the night.
"I hope you miss me," your texts said. "I miss you."
Sometimes you would call, and I'd hear my phone, set to vibrate, rattling away in the bottom of my bag, buzzing angrily.
"It's not what it looks like," I explained to friends, when I texted you pictures of where I was, who I was with. "He gets anxious; he's afraid..."
That I'm cheating on him, I thought. That I've managed to escape.
"That something bad's happened, when I don't answer my phone. That I'm dead in a ditch somewhere."
The quiet lie, so much easier than the truth: you'd isolate me completely, if you thought you could get away with it -- that's why you're such a dick to all my friends.
When did the shift occur?
I tell people, he didn't used to be like this, it was only the last couple of years he changed, but I'm not sure that's the truth anymore.
Jack returns from the bar, sets a pint glass down in front of me. Little bubbles rise from the bottom and chase up the sides, merrily. I stare at them, will myself to be anywhere but here.
"So," he says, clearing his throat. "There were some things I wanted to ask you about..."
"Ask away," I say, keeping my voice as level as I can. I don't want to let on how scared I am; how much I don't want to be here. "I'm asuming it's something unpleasant, or you wouldn't try to ply me with beer."
He winces, a little. "It's about 2013."
"Oh," I say, as calmly as I can.
In 2013, you broke my wrist.
There is more leading up to that story; more that I never talked about, in an attempt to protect you; to rewrite my own story and make it possible to live in the same house with you, let alone the same world.
If I start at the beginning, in 2013, you thought there was someone else.
It must have certainly looked like it, mustn't it? I was suddenly talking to this mystery person all the time; was keen for you to meet them.
You even, you'd insist to everyone, walked in on me in bed with them.
It's the last part I have the hardest time with: that you'd walked in on me in bed with someone else; as though people were supposed to believe that.
"I walked in, and..."
What you neglect to mention: it was our extra bedroom, where I kept all my books.
I wasn't in the bed, only on it -- sitting on it, explaining why he should read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
He wasn't on or in the bed, only standing beside it, talking with me.
Still, that was enough for you to lose your temper, slam me into a wall, and pin me to the sofa by my wrists, fracturing one of them in the process, wasn't it?
That was 2013.
"I know that you broke up," says Jack, as I take a long pull of beer. "He told me you moved out without giving notice, and..."
I listen to the rest of the story.
That I left without giving notice.
That I owed him money.
That I had been cheating on him, and had left him for the one I was cheating with.
"The guy," finishes Jack. "The one from 2013."
"I haven't talked to him since 2013," I reply, keeping my voice level. "Would make it a bit hard to keep cheating on him with the same guy, wouldn't it? Especially when I never fucked him in the first place."
"I didn't think..." starts Jack.
"No," I say. "I don't think most people believe his story."
You always did have to be the victim, didn't you? The wronged party, in every situation.
"I've never been the one to end a relationship," you said. "I've always been dumped", as though that was something to pity you for.
(How many of the others, I wonder, did you injure? Can you really count it as them ending the relationship, when you hurt them?)
I didn't say anything about you, when we broke up. I didn't know what I could say.
I didn't want to ruin your life. You'd only hurt me, I thought, and no one else. There wasn't any point in telling people, this is what he did to me.
I thought if I were fair, you would be, too.
I finish dinner with Jack, and go home. He hugs me goodbye, tells me not to be a stranger.
"I'll do my best."
"And -- " he starts. He hesitates again.
"I know," I say. "I think anyone who knows me -- doesn't believe the stories."
His shoulders slump in relief.
"Yeah," he says. "That."
It's only with the clarity of having left that I can see the truth, now: that you were abusive.
There is a name for what was wrong with you, and it was not I have anxiety.
There is a name for what was wrong with you, and it was not, I have depression.
You have a name, and I can use it now, when I recount your behavior in therapy, when I relate how you are still trying to control the narrative, even now -- flip it and make it all about how I hurt you.
I go home, after I see Jack.
My new partner is waiting up for me.
"How'd it go?" he asks, and I smile.
"Not as bad as I thought it would. He asked about 2013..."
He laughs a little, gently. "Have you even seen that guy, since then?"
"Not since my ex chased him out of the house shouting about how he knew we were fucking, no," I say, and the corners of my mouth quirk up in a smile -- it's a story that is ridiculous in retrospect.
"God," he says. "You'd think that he'd at least pick a story that makes sense."
"Eh," I say. "That's not the point."
And I know it's not.
In your narrative, I don't have arthritis in my wrist, because you never broke it.
In your narrative, you never tried to overdose as a way of controlling me. You never made yourself vomit, then lied to the police, only calling poison control when I didn't return, asking for help, what do I need to do now?
In your narrative, I figure prominently: I am the villain; I am the one spoken of in stories; you have to spread terrible rumors about me so that people will know and can defend themselves against my evil.
How sad, then, that you are only a background figure in mine -- something bad that happened once, and has since been overcome.
I split from my physically abusive ex several months ago.
In the months that have followed, I have not told anyone except my therapist about the abuse, because my ex has been (supposedly) seeking therapy.
I recently learned that he has been telling everyone that the reason for the breakup is that I left him for the man he broke my wrist over in 2013.
We're driving somewhere through Idaho when my phone buzzes gently, telling me I've got a message. I'm in the passenger seat, a friend is driving, and there's another friend in the back of the car. I'm in the middle of a story, talking about that one time, in that one place, when we did that one thing -- something funny that ends with mistaken identity; a slight albeit humorous misfortune that befalls me; what makes it right. "And then he said..."
My phone vibrates again. A call, this time.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I have to take this, it's -- "
There are few things in my life that are complicated, these days.
You are one of the complicated things.
"She doesn't treat you well," go the various messages. "She..."
I know the score: how many times you've flaked on me, how many times you've broken plans; how you'll tell me, later, that you're sorry you did it, but you weren't up to seeing everyone, you only want to see me, just me.
How many times I fall for it. How I let you reel me in.
"I..." I start, every time it comes up. "You don't know her. Our friendship is -- weird."
You're my ex, or you would be, if we'd ever gotten around to dating.
You're my best friend, or you would be, if you answered my calls.
You're someone I'd cut out, if I weren't so patient, too forgiving.
"I love her," I finish, feebly. "It's not something I'm really up for talking about."
And everyone else lets it slide.
"Hello?" I answer.
"Hey," you say, and I can tell from the tone of your voice what's coming. "I'm sorry, I..."
"You have to cancel," I start. "Okay."
"Okay?" Your voice is hopeful. "You understand?"
No, I want to say, I don't, but I keep my voice level.
"Yes," I tell you. "I get it. You're busy."
What I don't tell you: do you remember, we said in December, we said...
I'm traveling to Seattle, ostensibly for a concert, but actually because I'm hoping to see you. We don't live in the same place, anymore, and it's an opportunity, to see you...
"I've gotten caught up work, and you have to understand..."
And I do, though I don't like it.
There are conflicting stories, about how we met.
There's mine -- that you reached out to me; that you chased me, and having hooked my interest, you withdrew. You had what you wanted; the rest was up to me, to make it work.
"I never see you unless I make plans," I told you, at one point, after you'd confessed that you had feelings for me.
"How can you say that?" you said. "I..."
You gave a long list of reasons as to how I was to know that you liked me, that you were into me. I had only recently come out; I wasn't sure what the new realm of dating was supposed to look like -- but even then, I'd like to think I didn't believe you. The reasons you listed were spurious: you would occasionally text me first. Sometimes you called me first. Sometimes, rarely, you would let me know that you were going to be at our favorite bar at a certain time -- never with an invitation attached, but it was implied, you said.
You were the Cool Girl. Everyone wanted to date you. I listened, and let myself be mollified.
Your version is different. It starts with me, being too needy, too demanding -- but somehow winning you over anyway.
"You told me you were into me first, remember?" you said. "You said..."
Because you told me that you were jealous of the other date I was going on, I think. Because you said you were sick of watching me go out with other people, when I should have been going out with you.
In your narrative, I am diminished -- less attractive, somehow; needier, less patient, less kind, more obsessed. You go out with me out of pity, or some other misplaced emotion.
I do, and I don't.
We never actually dated.
We went on one date. At the end of it, you kissed me gently on the cheek, and told me that there was someone else.
"I think that it's serious, with her," you said. "So..."
So you had to let me go. So you had to cut ties.
"Okay," I said, as if we could pretend it was. "Okay."
You kept me dangling, though.
"Maybe, if things don't work out with her..." you texted me. "I mean, Tricia is great, but if it doesn't work out, then..."
It could be you, the texts said. If you're patient.
I wasn't patient. I tried to date other people, but there was always the ghost of you, in the back of my mind. I'd go out with someone and find myself comparing them to you. The girl that I'd met for coffee had hair that was cut in the same style as yours. The woman I met for a paint and wine class had your love for the Elizabethan poets. Tracy -- whom I'd date for six months -- could have answered to your description, in how you both treated me.
I ended it with her around the same time you broke up with Tricia.
"Maybe..." you said, when I told you, casually, that I too was single, that things had ended fairly amicably and I was already thinking about dating again. "We could..."
I was learning, by then, just what that meant. You could, might have been the better way to put it, because it fell on me to organize everything we did.
"If you want to go out, just tell me," I said. "You know how I feel about you."
You blanched, when I said it, and canceled the carefully-made plans we'd organized, a month in advance, to see one another for dinner.
"Busy," your text said. "Sorry."
You didn't offer to reschedule. I asked about availability, and you made some quiet noise about how you'd get back to me.
I put a note in my calendar to call you in a week, when you hadn't called me, and reschedule then.
By the time I called you, you were head over heels for someone new.
I want to say, I don't know what I saw in you, except I know what I did, because I still do.
You were a great friend, when you were dating someone.
When you were dating someone, when I was not a threat, it was easy. You didn't have to worry about posturing; could refer to me as one of your best friends, let your guard down, relax. Flirting would be inappropriate, so you didn't do it. You didn't try to get me into bed, or drop hints about how we should date -- hints that I only picked up on after the fact, long after I'd resigned myself to the corner of "unrequited feelings". We spent time together, with or without your girlfriend, and nothing ever happened. When I needed to talk about work, or who I was dating, or how things with family were going, there you were. When you needed to ask for advice -- honest and raw, coming to me with an admittance that you weren't good at this -- meaning, dating, or maybe, loving people -- I could give it.
"I'm probably closer to you than to anyone else in the world," you said.
I had no reason to doubt you.
It should have gotten easier, after you moved away.
When you picked up and moved to Everett, I wanted to think that this was it -- that we could go back to being just friends, without any of the lingering oddness.
Instead, you told me you loved me.
"I always have," said the letter you wrote -- three sheets of creamy white paper, outlining in no uncertain terms how you felt. "I know I've never been good to you, but if you still think about..."
It was the admission, that you'd never been good to me -- that gave me pause.
"You've always been fine," I emailed. "A little weird about dating, but who isn't?"
Even as I typed it, I knew it wasn't true.
You didn't respond, and I didn't press for answers.
We became friends again, better than we had been in a long time. I took to calling you again, regularly. We made plans to meet, when you were back in our home state over the summer.
"I'll take you to Jim's," I said. "We can get those gross fries you love," and you just laughed.
"You've always known me better than anyone."
I told you, come see me, you can sleep in my guest room, we'll go hiking while you're out here, and you booked your flights.
I thought, everything is fine now, there's nothing to worry about, and I started dating someone new.
I told you, when things got serious with her, because we were ostensibly friends, and it would have been strange not to, to have you find out through someone else.
"You're making a mistake," you told me. "I don't think she's right for you."
You couldn't give me reasons why, but I trusted your judgment, and when it came down to it -- when you said, I don't think this is healthy, you listed very good reasons as to why you didn't think it was.
I didn't consider our shared history. I thought you had my best interests in mind.
I examined the relationship, how things were going with my new girlfriend, and I broke it off.
"It's because of her, isn't it?" she asked, when I told her that it wasn't working out.
"No," I lied. "I just..."
"You're making the wrong decision," she said, and shook her head. "Not -- I mean, okay, if you think that things aren't working out, fine. But you've got to stop listening to her. She's got inside your head and she's just going to keep pulling all the little strings when it's convenient for her."
She didn't say anything else. There weren't any impassioned pleas. She picked up her things and left, and that was the end of it.
I told you, when I broke up with her, and that's when you told me that something had come up, and you had to cancel your flights.
"But it's okay," you said. "I know you're going to be out here in September anyway -- come see me then. We'll do dinner, and..."
"Okay," I said, reeling. "Um. That's -- fine, okay."
"Love you," you said, to end the phone call. You rarely told me that you did.
I thought about all of this, and I wondered if I'd made the wrong choice, after all.
When my phone rings in the car, when I realize that it's you, bailing on me yet again, I am faced with a choice: I can continue things the way that they have gone, or I can withdraw. I can decide to keep following the same pattern, or I can try to do better.
"You have to understand," you say, and I lower the phone to my lap for a moment, consider what to say.
"Yes," I respond, finally. "I do."
I know I am supposed to suggest an alternate time here, wedge myself into your life, chase you and make you give me the answers I want -- but I can't do it. I can't bring myself to.
One of us has to break the pattern.
One of us has to admit: this isn't working, and I'm tired of pretending we're friends.
There's a beat of silence, where I am supposed to say something -- where I am supposed to interject, "oh, but I can meet you..." and suggest another time.
I don't, though.
"You know, if you want..." you start. "We could..."
I know what invitation will be offered next: let's meet for dinner, then go back to my place, and...
"Sorry," I say, breezily, though it is anything but. "I'm pretty booked. The only time I had free was what I offered you."
"I could postpone work," you start. "I could..."
"It's fine," I say, though we both know it's not. "I know you're busy. Don't worry about it. There's always next time."
"Yeah," you say, and your voice is full of false relief. "I'm glad you understand. Love you."
You hang up, after I don't respond.
We'll pretend to be friendly, the next three months, but when you don't make the reach -- when it becomes clear that it will always be me, asking you, and never you asking me, I let go.
"Some things aren't meant to be," you told me, in reference to my ex. "You have to learn to be all right with that."
I'm not, but I can pretend until I am.
Mostly fiction, though I have had friends like this, and have had to make similar choices.
Your father died of cancer, when you were in your thirties.
I'm not sure what kind. I just know how it affected you -- how you watched him waste away; go from being the loving father and grandfather that doted on his kids and grandkids alike, to being in a hospital bed, body little more than skin stretched over the bones, gone; how cancer ate him from the inside out and left him wailing in pain, asking for a relief that you could not give.
"I don't want to die like that," you must have said, at some point. "If I..."
You were afraid, afraid of what it could do to you.
That must have been where it started.
When your sister died of breast cancer, in much the same way -- when you watched her go through chemotherapy late, much too late, lose all her hair as well as both breasts, and still rot from the inside anyway -- did that solidify your fear? There were other deaths, by then -- you'd watched other members of the family die; sat with them as they did, helped where you could. You were always soft, kind-hearted -- when someone asked for help, you couldn't say no, and so yours was the bedside vigil, the nursing in lieu of hospice that couldn't be afforded.
You were with her when she died, or so the family legend goes.
That must have solidified your fear.
There were others, other deaths.
When your daughter worked in an oncologist's office as a physician's assistant, did you tell her not to tell you, about the patients, the ones that died, especially not the pediatric patients? Or did you pretend that it was fine, fine, everything is fine?
You told me about all the family, everyone that you'd loved. I heard all the stories -- about the time the dog was left at the rest stop ("they must have followed us up the highway for five miles, hollering and pointing at him sitting in the front seat, his tail wagging"), the island and how you'd loved life out there, picking salmonberries and telling the kids not to eat the mushrooms they found, my mom and uncles all together. The cockatiel that had loved you and only you, the irises in the backyard and rebuilding the root cellar at your mother's house, after the roof caved in. The good stories, and the bad. You taught me how to embroider, and you told me, quietly, as we sat working on what would eventually become pillowcases, how you'd almost had another child -- how you'd miscarried, "but it was the 60s, we didn't talk about it, but I still wonder..."; my uncle's divorce that had nearly ripped the family apart; the neighbor's daughter who had shot herself, how her mother had been the one to find her, and you were the one to comfort her.
We talked about the good, and the bad, but I never heard you talk about your father, your sister.
I didn't know how he died.
I didn't know you'd had a sister.
We talked about the good and the bad, both together, "because you can't have life without pain, it's getting through that pain that defines you" -- but we couldn't talk about them.
We couldn't talk about your fear.
When my great aunt Beth died of cancer, in 2004, I saw how you reacted. I saw the brittle way you told everyone that she had passed, saying that you thought it was from grief. Her husband had died the year before; she'd been diagnosed a year or so after his passing, and succumbed quickly.
I remember you telling me, the day you found out: "Beth has cancer," the way you crumpled, because you knew it was a death sentence, and what an unpleasant death.
"I want to go in my sleep," you said, around then. "I want to go to sleep and never wake up again. I don't want to suffer."
You were thinking of Beth, when you said it -- of the other cancer deaths. I could see it in your eyes.
I don't know when you first got sick, just that you did.
It used to be that it was Grandpa, who'd get sick after every meal, who had what we thought (fearfully) were the signs of stomach cancer. He made a production out of it; it wasn' t unusual to see him bent over in the bathroom, complaining of pain after eating anything at all.
"GERD," said the doctors, when he finally went in. "Eat smaller meals, spaced out through the day, and avoid eating the foods that give you heartburn."
Did you mention to them, then, that you had been struggling with symptoms for years? Did you mention your own private distress -- bleeding from areas you weren't supposed to bleed from; the constant stomach upset, the phantom pains you were assured were nothing important?
"Gallbladder," said one doctor. "We should think removing it" -- but he forgot, between one appointment and the next, and you, relieved to know that it was something as minor as that, not the phantom of cancer, a bad death -- you didn't bring it up again, did you?
How long were you sick? How long did you suffer?
These are questions we don't have the answers for.
I know my mom went to see you, and you were so sick you couldn't get out of bed.
I know she had a difficult time convincing you to get out of bed: we need you to stand up so we can take you to the emergency room, met with, I'm fine. I don't want to go until I've showered and done my hair. I don't want to go.
Somehow, she convinced you.
"Gallbladder," they said, at the hospital. "It needs to come out. This happens all the time; don't be afraid."
But you were, weren't you?
I wonder if you knew, when they put you under, just what you were up against.
I want to think you didn't. I want to believe that you thought it was routine; that there was nothing to worry about.
I know better, but I still want to believe.
They brought you out less than an hour after they'd put you under, and we all knew.
"Tell me," said my mom. "What are we looking at?"
Metastatic cancer. No idea how far it had spread or how bad it was.
"Six months to a year," said the oncologist. "At best, and that would involve chemotherapy."
A pause, then: "You don't have to make a choice now."
We waited for you to stablize, after surgery, and then we made the only choice we could: to take you home.
"Should we tell her...?" was the running question of the night.
Do we have to? -- unspoken, but there, all the same.
The type of cancer you had was supposed to be largely painless. You were disoriented, after surgery -- we didn't want to make it worse.
We all knew, just what you were afraid of.
We opted not to tell you; to carry on and press ahead as though nothing was wrong. To do otherwise would have meant revisiting the past, acknowledging your fear -- and we couldn't imagine doing that to you.
The last time I saw you, I sat with you for two hours. I held your hands and talked to you about what you would do, once you were better. I did what I had been told to do: kept the conversation light; talked to you about what the neighbors were up to, what I had been doing for work, what I was looking forward to doing, how pretty your garden looked, with all the flowers in bloom.
We talked about the future, and you hesitated, when you said that you had plans for the fall.
I think I knew, then, that you were aware: that you were dying; that despite our best efforts not to tell you, you knew.
I squeezed your hands and told you, I'll be all right, I love you, I'll carry on.
That was the last conversation we had.
The night you died, the family was with you.
You were in pain -- something we hadn't been told to expect -- but you were brave about it.
You didn't want to give in. You didn't want to ask for pain medication. You wanted to be brave.
My mother gave you morphine, given to her by the hospice people, and you fell asleep.
"It's okay to go," she told you. "I'll take care of Dad," and that is when you passed.
I have so many questions now, which will never be answered, not by you. This is the great unfairness of death -- the unfinished conversations; the things that we wanted to say and did not get a chance to.
I want to know, how long did you know? The kind of cancer you had is usually not found until it is too late; even in its early stages, the prognosis is poor, and it is difficult to operate on.
I want to know, how long did you know?, so I can ask: were you afraid?
I think you must have known for a long time. You'd had symptoms for years, after all. You must have known, on some level, what the score was.
I don't know why you didn't tell us.
I know what you were working against, the fear. When you knew, you had a choice to make: give in to that fear, your terror of your own death, or continue to push forward and live as though nothing was wrong.
This is an intersection with fodschwazzle. His piece is here. The pieces may be read in either order.
The gate opens when the ice melts. We can feel the shift, a day or two before it happens, down in the village -- a warming of the air, and the quiet creaking of the ice in the mountains, under its load.
"That time of year again," say the wise-women who congregate in the village square. "Time to prepare for flooding."
They don't talk about the gate, but they don't have to -- we all know.
A gate. An entrance to another world, through a crack in the mountains. Inaccessible most of the time, only open for seven days, when the ice melts, closing to become nothing but a cave when the seven days have passed.
None of us talk about it much, but we've all passed through it at least once.
The first time I went, I was eight. I was tending sheep, in the mountains with my father, and he told me about the gate, invited me to step through with him.
"It's open," he said. "It'll be open for another day or two. I asked your mother -- if you want to go, it's all right by her."
I remember the cave was cold and damp. It should have been dark, but there was light, spilling from the other side, dimly.
"Go ahead," he said. "I'll be right behind you. Step on through."
I was hesitant -- who would watch the sheep -- but he pointed out that Tam, our neighbor's son, was tending to the flock while we went poking about in dark corners.
"He went last year," said Dad. "I watched the sheep while he went with his father. He won't mind."
So I stepped on through.
I expected something profound -- some huge sense of change, as though there were something very different about the other world, but there was -- nothing. I stepped through, half-expecting that as I did so, I'd be stepping through a physical veil, hands in front of my face to push anything away -- but there was nothing.
"Huh!" I said, once Dad was through. "This is..."
"It's similar," said Dad, smiling. "But it's not our world. Here -- look."
We walked out of the other cave, into the sunlight, and he picked up a rock.
"Say the words," he said. "Make it fly."
I said the charm, the first one I'd ever learned, to make something float, glide through the air, and threw the rock up.
It landed with a gentle "thump" on the ground near my feet.
"I don't understand," I said. "It always works. Everyone can do that."
Dad smiled. "Here," he said. "I'll try."
He picked up the rock, said the words, threw it in the air -- and, thud.
I looked at him quizzically. "Why didn't it work, Dad?"
"Magic here is different," he said, carefully. "It works different. Our charms don't work here. I've never learned why. I went down into their village at one point" -- and he nodded at the village below us, the tidy row of little white thatched houses we could just see from the mountain -- "and asked, but when they learned I was asking about magic, they went pale and wouldn't talk to me. When they learned I was from our world, they pretended that they couldn't see me at all. Magic here is something else, something dark, not to be trifled with -- it's not useful, the way it is back home."
"No friendly magic?"
"None," said Dad. "I figure, all they've got are curses or the like -- spells to hurt people, nothing to help."
I shivered. I couldn't help it. "Let's go home," I said. "I don't want to stay here anymore."
"Back through the gate," he said, cheerful. "All right -- you lead."
We walked back through the door, to where Tam was waiting with the sheep, and I cast the flying charm, to make sure it worked, and was reassured when it did.
I didn't ask any more questions about the gate, and Dad didn't offer any other answers.
The year I was ten was the year we had the visitor from the other side.
A boy -- he said his name was Will, and he'd been following a lost goat. Tam was the one who found him, and brought him to the village wise-women, for the gate had closed, shortly after he'd walked through, and there was no way to get him home.
"I was following her because if I lose her, Da will shout at me," he snuffled. "I didn't mean to come here, so please don't eat me."
"Eat you?" said my mother. "Why in the lady's name would we do that?"
"'s what you do, isn't it?" asked Will. "You eat people. It's how you do your -- spells."
Mom laughed. "Is that what they tell you?"
"No." Will shivered. "It's how it's done, on our side. Sacrifice, Da says, and Ma tells him not to fill my head with such things, but she don't -- doesn't -- call it nonsense, either."
I saw Mom and Dad exchange a look, over the top of his head.
"Will," said Mom gently. "Why don't you go play with our daughter? Her name is Wil, too -- short for Willow."
"I'm William," he said, and wiped his nose with a handkerchief fished from the pocket of his trousers. "I was named for my Da's da."
"I was named after my aunt," I said, proudly. "Because we both have such dark brown hair. It's lovely to meet you, William."
"It's nice to meet you, Willow," he said.
"Let me show you our sheep," I said, and I led him off by the hand. "Mom will yell when they've figured out how to get you home."
"Get me home?" he asked. "You're not going to -- "
I laughed. "We're not going to eat you. She needs to get people together to do the spell and open the gate," I explained. "At least, I think that's what she's doing. You're not the first person to get stuck on our side, and they always have to get together a big group of the grownups to fix things. It takes too much magic for one person to do it alone."
He shivered again. "Magic," he said. "You don't -- does your family -- you all do magic? Anyone can do it?"
"Everyone does," I said. "We learn it in school, along with how to read and write and sing and draw and do math."
I wanted to ask, you don't?, but I remembered the rock that hadn't flown, what Dad had said, and I didn't say anything.
"No one -- nice -- does magic, where I'm from," said Will, after a long pause. "You have to -- in order to do it, you have to be willing to sacrifice something, every time. The bigger the need, the larger the sacrifice. It's never -- friendly. You only do magic to hurt people. It's not like that, here?"
I found myself feeling suddenly sorry for him, for the world he lived in, which was so different from mine.
"No," I said. "I suppose you could use it to hurt people, and we have campfire stories, about people who use it for bad ends, but we don't -- mostly, if you try to use it for harm, it goes wrong somehow. It has a mind of its own, Mom says, and you have to respect that it's for helping, not for hurting."
"Anyone can do it?" Will repeated. "Even me?"
I grinned. "Do you want to try?"
He looked stunned. "I -- "
"Here," I said. I stooped and picked up a rock off the trail, handed it to him. "Say these words -- " I taught him the charm -- "and throw it up. Watch what happens."
Will turned the rock over and over in his fingers. "I..."
"Say the words," I urged.
He said them, and threw the rock.
It hovered in the air above us, a foot or so above our heads.
"How...?" he started, a look of wonder, of happiness, on his face.
"Magic," I said simply. "That's the first charm anyone learns."
"Thank you," he said, simply.
"To let it go, you just say the same words again. It's easy, see, and it's not likely to hurt anyone."
He said the words, and the rock gently tumbled to the ground.
"Thank you," he repeated, his voice reverent, and in that moment, I felt something -- some spark between us.
We share a secret now, I thought, giddy, and I might have said something, except --
"Wil!" came my mom's voice, from the village square.
"Time to go," I said. "It was lovely to meet you."
"You, too," he said. "If -- if I come through the gate again, next year, will I find you here?"
"Probably," I said, and laughed. "I can teach you more."
"I'd like that."
Mom yelled again, and I gave him a gentle push down the path. "Run back, the same way you came -- they're waiting for you!"
That was the first time.
I thought I'd see him the next year, or maybe the year after, but the winters were hard, those years, and the gate never opened.
"I wonder what happened to him?" I asked Mom, at one point.
She smiled. "He went home," she said. "He's back there now with his family, probably."
"His family and their terrible magic," I said. I made a face. "Couldn't he have stayed here?"
"His mother and father would have missed him," she said. "Just as you do, but more -- because they've known him longer."
I begrudgingly admitted that she had a point -- "although I still think the magic in their world is awful."
She stopped smiling. "Yes," she said softly. "He told us a little, as we were opening the gate to send him back -- marveling that we didn't have to hurt anyone or anything, to send him through; that magic could be that friendly, that benign. It's not, in their world."
"You have to be willing to sacrifice something, every time," I said, remembering Will's words. "He said -- you can only use it to harm, not help."
My mother hesitated. "Yes," she said, finally. "He told us more, but -- yes, Willow."
"I still wish he could have stayed," I said.
"Perhaps you'll see him again," said Mom. "You never know."
"Only if the snow melts and the gate opens," I said, and made a face.
"Someday," I repeated. "But not this year, and maybe not the next."
"Be patient," advised Mom. "You're always rushing -- it's why the sheep are afraid of you, now, and why none of your charms have been working. Be patient, Wil."
"Fine," I grumbled. "But I hope you know how very taxing it is."
Mom just laughed.
The gate didn't open again until I was seventeen and had nearly forgotten about Will -- nearly, but not quite.
I dreamed of him, the dreams I knew were true dreams, every now and then. How he'd helped with his father's farm, aiding in the transition from his father to his elder brother when both of his parents were killed in an accident, the year we were both fourteen (the details of which the dream left out, for which I was grateful); how he'd given up on his own hopes and dreams of studying in the city, to raise goats again.
How he checked the gate, every year, when the snow melted, to see if it was open on our side.
I dreamed of him, the night before the gate finally opened, casually telling his brother that, since the weather had warmed, he was going up to the mountains for a day or two. I couldn't catch the thread of their conversation, only that it was unhappy, but Will had declared he was going to do it anyway.
I woke from the dream and knew that I had to meet him, that he was waiting to see me.
I walked to the gate in my best dress. I'd cast a quick charm, of course, to keep it from getting dirty or wrinkled on the walk up the mountain, and I'd told my mother where I was going and who I was hoping to find -- "I had a dream about him, a true one" -- and she laughed.
"Take your dad with you," she said. "He needs the exercise, and the sheep would enjoy an excursion."
I made a face. "I can't meet him wearing my best dress and surrounded by sheep, Mom."
"Stay away from the sheep, then," she advised. "Meet him in the cave."
"Fine," I sighed.
"You're not sweet on him, are you?" she asked. "Wearing your best dress, not wanting to be surrounded by sheep..."
I blushed. "No!" I said hotly. "I just -- his impression of our village last time could have been better. What does he think of us?"
"Why's he coming back, more like," said my mother, and laughed. "If he was so scared of us, why can't he stay away?"
"Because he misses the magic," I said firmly. "And..."
"And he's never forgotten you," filled in my mother. "So you want to see..."
I tried to ignore how hot my face felt, how red I knew I must be. "It's nothing like that. I just want to give him a proper welcome."
"Fine then," said Mom. "I'll tell your dad to stay back, let you have some space, when he comes through."
"You're welcome," said my mother, and hesitated a moment, before adding: "For what it's worth, you look very nice."
I nodded, to acknowledge I'd heard her, and walked out of the house before I lost my nerve.
I met him in the cave where the gate was. I was there, the instant he came through.
"Will!" I said. "It's me, Willow -- the other Wil! You came back!"
He blinked at me. "You -- you remember me?"
"Of course," I said. "I -- I'm the one that taught you the charm, to make rocks fly. Do you remember me?"
He picked up a rock off the floor of the cave, said the right words, and tossed it.
It hung in the air above our heads like a promise.
"Of course," he echoed. "You're the one that taught me magic."
He came to stay with us, my parents and I, down in the village. "Just for a week," he said. "I have to go back -- before the gate closes. I can't -- I have things to attend to."
I thought of his brother, his parents' farm, and I didn't say anything.
"You're welcome to stay as long as you wish," said Dad. "You can sleep in the extra room -- you may have to kick Charles off the bed, but he won't mind."
"Charles?" Will asked, confused.
"Our cat," said Dad, smiling. "Wil's familiar."
"He is not," I said quickly. "He just likes me best, that's all. Even if he won't sleep on my bed."
"Because you snore," said Dad, and winked. "Loud enough to wake the neighbors -- thank the lady for silencing charms!"
"Dad!" I wailed.
"Silencing charms?" said Will. "I like cats -- I won't kick Charles off the bed. But -- charms?"
"There is so much to teach you," I said quickly. "Here -- there's still an hour before dinner, and I have so many things to show you..."
I grabbed his hand, without thinking, and led him into the yard.
I felt another spark, as I grabbed it, and I thought of how tall he'd grown, how kind his eyes were, how green. "I want to teach you..." I said, and hesitated.
"Teach me," he said, locking eyes with me. "Show me -- everything."
I taught him everything I could think of, all the simple spells.
We worked from dawn til dusk, each of the seven days he was there.
On the seventh, he kissed me, and I felt the magic shift a bit, as he did -- the promise that this was something real.
"Oh," I said, after he did. "I..."
"Did you not like it?" he asked. "I've never -- I've never kissed anyone before."
"No, I -- did you feel that?" I asked. "The shift..."
Will nodded slowly.
"That's the magic -- telling us we're meant to -- it's meant to be. No matter what, remember that."
"I will," he said, and he kissed me again.
When he left on the seventh day, it was with a promise that he would return when the snow melted again -- "as soon as I'm able to. I have things to do, but I want to -- I want to see you again," he said.
I thought about what this would mean, the space between us, what my own feelings meant. "Stay, next time," I said. "If you can."
"I'll stay," he said, as he put one foot through the gate. "If I can."
It shouldn't have lasted, maybe, except I'd felt that spark, that shift, and I knew he'd felt it as well.
"A crush," said my mother. "A fleeting fancy. Don't dwell on it."
She meant well. It was her advice, how to get over things, how to keep from moping, after he'd gone.
"It's not -- " I started, before I realized I didn't have the words to explain.
"Don't dwell on it," she repeated.
I tried not to.
When the gate didn't open, the year after that -- I didn't despair.
Hold the faith, the magic might have said. Don't dwell on the distance.
I wondered, how it was that I could have known him for only eight days, still feel as though I loved him, or -- I tried to reason with myself -- could love him.
I cast a spell once, to find out where he was, what was happening.
I saw him, standing in the cave, where the gate was supposed to be.
"Willow," he said. "Willow -- if you can -- if your magic will let you hear this, I'm sorry."
I let the spell go. I didn't want to know what came next.
I put my fingers to my lips, remembered the feeling of his mouth on mine.
"A handful of kisses," I said, to no one. "A promise he would return. Is that enough? Does that..."
I felt the tingle of magic. Don't dwell on the distance, they seemed to say. Think of the future and what it holds.
"I don't know what the future holds!" I snapped, frustrated. "I don't know anything!"
I dreamed of him again that night, the rest of what he had said, after telling me he was sorry.
" -- sorry the gate hasn't opened, sorry I can't open it, sorry for what we've done to stop it opening, I love you and I'm sorry -- "
I had no way of knowing if it was a true dream or not. I couldn't tell.
The gate opened again, the year I was 20.
I spent the week in the mountains, waiting for him to come through, waiting for some sign, some message.
Nothing came, and at the end of the seven days, I walked home alone.
I did not see him again until I was 22.
My father had died, the year before, and I had taken over caring for the sheep, their little tinkling bells. I had been furious at the magic, when he did, furious at my own inability to save him from the wasting disease that almost seemed to eat him from the inside out, but he told me not to be:
"Everything is fated, Willow," he said, and squeezed my hand in his bony fingers. "I'm not in any pain, thanks to your mother's work -- what's important for you to do is live your life as best you can. Don't wait forever."
Don't wait forever, I thought, when I heard that the gate had opened again, finally.
"Are you going up to the mountains?" asked my mother, when news of its opening reached us.
"No," I said quietly. "I'm going to take the sheep down to the valley today."
She hesitated, upon hearing my words, as though she wanted to say something, but she didn't.
"Fine," she said finally. "That's fine."
I was in the valley, with the sheep, when one of the village boys came running to find me.
"Willow!" he said, breathless. "Your mom needs you back home -- something important, she says. I'm supposed to tend the sheep til you can come back and get them."
"Important?" I asked. "Important like -- is someone hurt?"
"Important," he repeated. "I don't know. Go!"
He was standing in the kitchen of the house, when I pushed the door open and ran inside.
"Willow," he said. "You didn't -- you weren't -- "
"The gate opened," I said, "and you never came. I waited out the entire week, and you never came."
"My brother," he started. "The village..."
There was pain in his voice, hesitancy in what he said, and I knew he was speaking the truth.
"They tried to stop you coming," I said.
He relaxed. "Yes," he said. "But I came anyway -- the charm you taught me..."
"Magic doesn't work that way, in your world, you said," I told him. "What -- you didn't..."
"It worked," he said, simply. "I don't know how, but it did, but now I'm here to stay -- permanently, if you'll have me."
"If I'll have you," I echoed. "I..."
I could not find the words, and so I did the only thing that made sense: I crossed the gap and kissed him, hard, in front of my mother.
We wed that summer.
I am still teaching him all the magic I know.
The spark is there, the feeling of rightness -- but the distance has closed.
"The magic requires it," you intoned, when the other players asked us why we couldn't do matinees, like every other act they'd toured with. "We can't perform proper illusions unless it's after dusk, when the world is softer, and souls are kinder."
The reality of the situation was, I worked during the day, and without me, you had no act, but no one needed to know that.
After all, you were the magician, and I was only the beautiful assistant.
We met when you were 24 and I was 19. You'd placed an ad in the newspaper at the magician's college, asking for anyone who was looking to "make money on the side" to help you develop your own illusions.
"I've got the showmanship," you said, when I called you, "and I'm good at sleight-of-hand, but I can't manage to hold an actual illusion for more than a few seconds. All of my skill is in transmutation, enchanting -- the less showy stuff. If you're good with illusions, then we should talk."
"I am," I said, and that was the extent of the interview. When I met you at coffee, you told me, sheepishly, that no one else had answered, so if I wanted the gig, it was mine.
"Fine," I said. "What do you need me to do?"
"What can you do?" you asked. "I want anything you can do."
That was the start of it.
At the beginning, it was fair. The posters all billed us together, and I wasn't your assistant, but the opener. I started every show, warming up the audience -- doing small sleight-of-hand (benefited by actual magic), moving into the more impressive illusions that I could do before handing off the show to you. You had a few tricks of your own, up your sleeve -- turning lead into gold, at the start, making a pigeon into a dove, doing summoning spells, and turning dust into flowers that would rain down on the heads of the audience (and last, if they took them home, for a week before fading and turning back into dust). The gigs were small, but the show itself was good, and we got good billing, good reviews. We went from doing one show every few months to two shows a week, Friday and Saturday nights, at one of the bigger venues in town.
"Brilliant," you said, and it was -- some of the best times of both of our lives. We made enough money that I was able to quit the other jobs I had, pay my bills solely with the revenue earned from selling tickets, my cut of the profits.
Somewhere in there, I fell in love with you.
I told you, because I have never been good at hiding my feelings. "Look, I -- I know it's awkward, but I've got feelings for you, and if you don't return them, that's fine, but I'll need some space and time to process, and I might have to take a few shows off. I have someone else tapped to open for you -- we can say that I've been ill or something, and it'll be fine."
"No," you said, hesitant. "I -- "
You didn't tell me, I have feelings for you, too, which would have sent me over the moon, or I'm sorry, but I don't feel the same way, which would have been painful, but fair -- the right thing to do.
"I need some time to think," you said.
That should have been my warning, but it wasn't.
"Fine," I said, trying to be an adult. "We don't have practice again until Tuesday -- I'll see you then?"
"Yeah," you said. "See you then."
At that practice, that was when you told me, "I think I love you, too."
That's where the trouble started, if I'm being honest.
We started dating, if you could call it that. I still didn't see you very often -- mostly at practices and shows -- but we made an effort to have dinner together, once a week, and you introduced me to people as your girlfriend. Never to your friends, I noticed, but I reasoned that they already knew. To strangers, mainly, ones that we wouldn't see again.
"This is Kirsten," you would say. "My girlfriend. She does the show with me."
She does the show with me eventually fell away to, she opens for me, but while I noticed, I didn't care. It was the truth, wasn't it?
You had the posters changed, then, too -- your name appearing much larger than mine, billing yourself as being an heir of Merlin himself.
"That's not true, is it?" I asked, laughing, when I saw the new design. "You can't possibly be -- there are only a handful of descendants, and none of them have any magical ability."
You shrugged and smiled. It didn't quite reach your eyes. "Tell the people what they want to hear, Kirsten."
I trusted you. You had better showmanship than I did, and the gigs had always been your idea.
"Fine," I said, my smile never faltering. "We can play off it. Who shall we say I'm related to?"
You shrugged. "I don't know that it much matters, for you -- you're not the one they're coming to see."
I stared at you, stunned. "What?"
"I'm the headliner," you said smoothly. "You're the opener. I'm the one that lands us all the good gigs -- I handle all the back end stuff. You know that."
I thought about the people I'd talked to, over the last few months -- the event organizers and the venue heads I'd had to meet with, the different work I'd put in with the stage managers and tech crews. "You handle all the back end stuff?"
"I make sure we get paid," you said tersely.
You handled the money. You always had.
"Fine," I said, pretending my feelings weren't hurt. "I understand," even though I didn't.
"I knew you would," you said. "Good girl."
We had offers to take the show touring.
I dropped out of the magician's college, at the end of my junior year, and spent all of the savings I had to buy us a van, something reliable we could load props into, sleep in the back of if we needed to.
I took care of all of the details, the day to day stuff, including where we would be performing and where we'd stay, how we'd get from point A to point B.
"You've got a knack for it," you said -- but you didn't pay me fairly.
I saw some of the invoices you sent, how much you were charging per show, and I noticed that I was getting perhaps a quarter of what we were bringing in.
When I brought it up, you told me, calm as ever, that I was overreacting: "You're not considering the overhead -- the costs associated with performing away from home. Things are more expensive because we're on the road. We have to be fair."
"Fair," I said. "Fine."
I believed you, because I loved you -- because you told me you loved me.
When you changed all the billing to remove my name entirely, I protested again.
"I open for you! I do all of the illusory work at the beginning -- I get them warmed up and excited to see real magic. You can't remove me!"
"Audiences aren't responding well to you," you said. "Look -- it's not personal; I just get a lot of questions asking why you're mentioned so prominently when you're pretty clearly my assistant."
"From who, though?"
"From people in the audience, when they come by afterward, to get autographs. Be realistic, Kirsten. When was the last time anyone asked for your autograph?"
Bitterly, I conceded the point.
"I'll come on stage, you can pretend to assist me, and you'll do the actual magic. We'll make it clear that you're an integral part of the act -- we'll have you come on with me in the second half, too."
"Fine," I said. "But only because you're right -- they prefer you."
"Of course, as my assistant..."
I rolled my eyes. I knew what was coming. "I can't take more of a pay cut, or I won't be able to pay my bills. I still have loans I'm trying to pay off, from the program? They won't let me defer them, because I'm not a student, and I am employed..."
"We're not on stage all the time," you said. "And the expenses...you have no idea how much being on the road costs."
"I still want at least a fifth of your gross proceeds," I said. "And I want to see the invoices, to see how much you're charging them."
"Fine," you said. "I'll draw up the invoices tonight."
You didn't, not until I reminded you, a week or so later. "Right -- I'll leave them on the table in your dressing room."
The amounts were lower than I remembered, lower than before, per show -- but I thought it was something to do with the venue; where we were performing that week.
I never thought you would lie to me, use your own magic to modify the invoices, make them say something else.
I loved you.
I never thought you'd lie.
I started advertising for freelance clients. I wasn't as good as you were, at enchanting and the like, but I could still do whatever bits of magic most laypeople needed. There were websites you could sign up on, to connect with non-magical people who needed simple things done. People rated you, and once your ratings were high enough, you began getting steady work. It was demeaning -- those of us providing the services were called terrible names by the 'real' magicians that looked down on us, from their positions with accredited companies that provided the same services -- but it paid well, and it was something I could do when we weren't performing. I dedicated the days to it, and I let you have the nights. Not that you took many of these, any more -- after performing, you told me you were tired. "I'm sorry -- I don't know that I want to get dinner. Forgive me? I'll make it up to you later."
I stopped keeping track of how many meals you owed me, how many dates you'd broken. We were touring. We were both tired. You still loved me -- you told me every time you had to break a date, how much you regretted it. "I love you, I'm sorry, I'll do better..."
I loved you, too. I thought that was enough.
We'd been performing for six years, had built a moderate following, had been by all metrics successful, when you told me that you wanted the change the way we did the act.
"I think it would be better, maybe, if you weren't on stage for the second half." You hesitated for a moment, after saying this, then barreled on: "There's too much focus on you, during the parts that don't involve you. I think..."
I listened, as you told me all the reasons why it had to be you and you alone, up there on that stage.
I didn't believe any of them, but I thought this was my own insecurities, not anything you were doing.
"Fine," I said, after you finished. "Okay, yeah. Fine."
"And I want to start using some of your enchantments in the latter half of the show," you said. "The one with the creeping vines that you were telling me about -- that you put together for that gardener? I think it'll go well. We can use potted ivy..."
"I can teach you how to do it," I said, and shrugged. "That's fine."
"Actually," you said. "Since you need to be fairly close to the ivy when you're casting, I thought we'd just build a partition, have you backstage, hiding behind it, close to the vines. You can cast it while I engage the audience, pretend to do it..."
"You want to take credit for my work," I said, slowly. "You want me to do the lift, while you get the admiration from the audience."
You hesitated. "That's not how I'd put it," you said. "I think..."
"All right," I said. "Fine. Okay."
"You don't mind?"
I shrugged. "I don't see that I get much of a choice, do I?"
You sighed. "No, I'm afraid not."
You sounded so torn up about it, I was hesitant not to believe you.
I let you take the credit, first with the vines, then with the other parts of the act. Things that had previously been clearly delineated as my magic suddenly became yours. I was relegated to the back of the stage, casting for all I was worth, while you lapped up the approval from the audience.
"Because I have better showmanship," you said. "I'm the one they come out to see, the famed descendant of Merlin."
I wanted to point out that it was only a lie you'd ever put down, but you seemed almost to believe it yourself, by that point, and so I didn't.
I might have stayed with you, unhappy but unsure of where to go, what to do, had I not overheard a conversation between you and one of the tech people, as I was doing a sound check.
It was one of the things you were supposed to do -- the things I was supposed to have been relieved of, along with my cut in pay and my demotion to the woman behind the curtain -- but somehow, over the last few months, you'd been mysteriously harried, unable to do it, so I'd taken over.
It wasn't your mike that I picked up -- you were too clever by half for that.
It was one of the other tech people, who was looped into the same sound system I was, and had left hers on so she could talk to the people behind the scenes.
" -- thought you were with Kirsten," said the stage manager's voice. "I was surprised to see you at that party last night with Tracey."
"Kirsten's just," you said, and you mumbled something I couldn't quite hear. "We have an agreement. She knows what she gets, and because she loves me, she endures it."
"Ah," said the stage manager. "I thought -- "
"I don't love her," you said, bluntly. "But she loves me, and since we do the show together -- it's a way of being close. It's enough for her, always has been. She knows what the score is, though. She knows I'm never going to marry her."
"So Tracey -- " started the stage manager, and I ripped the headset off, afraid to hear more.
I checked the invoices, after that. A simple revealing spell showed what you'd been obscuring -- you never were a very strong magician. While I'd been struggling to pay all of my bills, had seriously considered whether or not I wanted to be on the road with you, I found out that you were earning ten times what I thought you were, per performance.
I thought about confronting you, about bringing all of the unobscured invoices out, yelling at you in front of everyone we performed with -- and then I thought better of it.
I made a few phone calls -- to my parents, to ask if I could come stay with them for a week or two, long enough to find a place back in my home city; to your parents, reminding them that the show we were putting on that night was going to be televised for the first time, and advising them to tune in, and then to the network airing the show, asking them if it was possible to change some of the billing.
"There's going to be a surprise twist, during tomorrow night's show," I said. "A staged duel."
The network executives -- the ones I'd had to talk to, busy as you were with all your other commitments, "overtired" -- loved the idea.
"We've never shown full human transformation on live television before," they gushed. "Do you think you could include something like that? Of course, we understand if it's too difficult..."
"No," I said. "It's not too difficult. I'm sure I can pull it off."
"Fantastic," they said. "We'll update the ads to include a tagline about that."
I might have worried, but I knew you wouldn't watch. You never did care about your own coverage, only the reviews that came afterward, the positive press and the money.
We did our practice run that night. I asked you, afterward, if you wanted to do dinner.
"No," you said. "I'm tired, and..."
"I understand," I said, and feigned disappointment. "Maybe the day after tomorrow?"
"Sure," you said. "Try not to be so sad -- we'll take a break here soon, so we can really spend some quality time together."
"I'd love that," I lied.
"That's my girl," you said.
"Always," I said, even as I knew that had changed.
The night of the show, I wore all black, the way I was supposed to, to better blend in behind the scenery. I didn't dare wear anything else, or you'd know that the game was up.
You came to meet me in my dressing room.
"Hey," you started. "I was thinking -- I want to include a special guest this week. There's a woman -- one of the gifted students from the local magician's college here in the city, a woman named Tracey Atkins. She's a big fan of our act, and she wants to be the one that you pretend to turn into a dove, during the finale. I think it could be a good element -- you know, the magician transforms and then immediately returns the beautiful young woman to her natural state, and she can help out during the flower fall scene right before intermission."
"Fine," I said, and I forced myself to smile. "That'll be fine."
"I knew you'd understand," you said, smiling back. "That's my girl."
I couldn't help but think, as you walked out, that once upon a time, you would have at least told me I love you.
I didn't dwell on it.
I finished my preparations, and when the call came, I was already in place on stage.
I let the first half of the show go off without a hitch. Tracey participated -- I could feel the thread of her magic, running underneath mine, as we transformed the dust in the air of the theater into live flowers.
After the intermission, I began letting tricks fail. You would wave your hands and say you were ready to play with fire, to shape it and bend it to your will, only for the audience to laugh uproariously as you were instead drenched by the water you'd summoned falling over your head, instead. The flowers that you tried to "summon" wilted as soon as you touched them, and the vine trick you'd had me perfect, the one you'd had multiple people ask you for the magic behind, failed -- the vines waggling themselves away from where you pointed them, growing anywhere but where they were supposed to, almost seeming to admonish you, shaking their ends slowly as you told them what to do.
You plowed on through anyway, ignoring all of the tricks going wrong -- the vanishing lady who refused to vanish (usually an audience member, but tonight you used Tracey -- and I subdued her own magic enough to keep her from turning invisible), the golden ball that refused to follow your commands but instead sat, stubbornly, upon the stage, until you told it to stay put and prepared to move onto the next trick, at which point it rolled merrily away from you, following the opposite of all of your instructions.
"It seems someone has cursed me tonight," you told the audience, apologetic. You glared back at where I was supposed to be standing. "Perhaps..."
I transported myself out onto the stage, just as I'd alerted the stage manager I would, switched on the mike the techs had given me after I'd informed them of the changes to the act -- changes that you didn't know about, because you always left the double-checking to me. "Perhaps it's because you've been lying to the audience, Edward."
You tried. To your credit, you tried.
"Ladies and gentlemen," you started. "This is my lovely assistant, Kirsten -- "
"I'm not your assistant, Edward," I said pleasantly. "Why don't you tell them who I really am?"
"My lovely assistant," you continued. "Kirsten Pe -- "
"Your partner," I said, smiling at the audience. "And the true heir of Merlin."
Silence fell, across the room. I could see the audience members stirring in their seats, wondering what was happening. Across the stage, Tracey mouthed, what's going on? at you.
"Tell me, Edward," I said, casually directing the golden ball that had refused to behave for you, running it through the tricks it was supposed to have done. "If you are the true heir of Merlin, what's the secret to all your tricks?"
You licked your lips nervously. "Well," you said. "That's not something I usually share with the audience -- "
"The technicalities, no," I said, and smiled at everyone. "But the details don't matter. People want to know, for instance, how it is that you manage to do -- this!"
I did my fire summoning trick, forcing it to bend to my will, creating huge fiery pinwheels that burned in the darkness above our heads. The lighting tech, who I'd warned ahead of time, dimmed the lights and let me do it.
"I -- " you started.
You tried to summon your own fire, then, but I subverted your magic just as easily as I'd subverted Tracey's. You never were a very good magician, after all. It had taken me six years to learn that, but I finally had, and now that I knew, I wasn't going to save you. I'd do what I could to thwart you, hurt your reputation, just as you'd tried to hurt mine.
You were never a very good magician, and you hadn't done any actual magic in well over a year. All the tricks in the show were mine, done with my magic, while you waved your hands and pretended to concentrate on the magic, to actually do it.
I'd been practicing, hadn't I? Every day, twice a day, for six years -- and there was all the magic I did in my spare time, the little pieces of enchantment and trickery I did for people who had no talent of their own. I'd discovered how deep my own ran, how shallow yours was -- and I wasn't about to let you succeed.
"I challenge you," I said, "to a duel."
"I..." you said.
"There's no backing out without losing honor," I said. "We won't duel to kill. We'll duel to impress. The audience will act as our judges. We get one trick each. The one who gets the most applause wins. Shall we?"
"Yes," you said, your face suddenly grim.
"The challenger traditionally goes first," I said, "but I'll give you a chance to defend yourself."
I stepped back, into the shadows.
"Ladies and gentlemen," you said. "Our final trick -- we, um, transform a willing audience member into a dove and back. I shall perform that for you, now."
Transformation had once been your strong suit, but that had been six years before, and you'd never actually tried to turn anyone into a dove. It had always been illusion, and you'd let me handle it.
I watched, interested, wondering what you would do.
"On the count of three," you said. "One, two..."
I felt the spark, saw what you were trying to do.
I thought about snuffing it out, the way I'd snuffed the others, decided not to.
There was a banging sound, and then --
Tracey stood upon the stage, her hair streaked with white, but otherwise unchanged.
There was no applause.
I stepped forward again, waved my hand and returned her hair to its rightful color.
"May I have a volunteer from the audience, please?" I asked, my voice pleasant. "Preferably someone who is not afraid of flying -- yes, fine, the gentleman in the third row, wearing the blue suit. Stand, please."
The stranger stood.
"Now -- what's your name?" I asked, casting a spell that would amplify his voice.
"Jack," he said. "Jack Voss."
"Hello Jack," I said. "I'm going to turn you into a bird and have you fly around the auditorium three times before landing back in your seat, at which point I'll change you back, unharmed. What kind of bird would you like to be?"
"A bluebird," he said, awkwardly. "They're my wife's favorite."
"A bluebird," I said. "Fine."
"Don't you need him to come to the stage?" asked Tracey. "You need proximity..."
"No," I said calmly, and waving my hands, I turned my volunteer into a bluebird.
There was no noise. As with all good magic, it was silent and instantaneous. My volunteer was standing, and then, suddenly, he was not -- and there was a bluebird flying around the auditorium.
He flew three times, and I turned him back, all without a sound.
Silence, for a moment, and then --
"I -- thank you," said Jack Voss. "I've never -- that was one of the best moments of my life."
They gave me a standing ovation. You left the stage, somewhere in there, and that was it.
They gave me the full fee, what they were going to pay to you.
"It doesn't feel right to pay him," said the woman who had organized everything. "Not when it turns out that you've been doing all of the magic. I doubt he's been paying you fairly, since he's said he was thinking about removing you from the show entirely, since you weren't pulling your own weight..."
It was a check for over two hundred thousand, more than what you owed me in back pay.
"If you decide you want to tour again..."
"I might," I said, quietly. "Tonight was supposed to be our last show. I'll let you know."
If things had been different -- if I hadn't humiliated you, exposed you for a fraud, if I'd been quiet and accepted the modified invoices and unfair wages as a harsh life lesson, maybe there would have been something to salvage, between you and I. Perhaps you could have apologized to me; perhaps we could have made it right.
I didn't hear from you, after that show was over. I knew our relationship, professional and otherwise, was done, and I didn't need further acknowledgment of that.
Tracey was the one to reach out to me.
"He's told me all about you," came the email. "About how you manipulated him, how you set him up for failure..."
I sent her proof of the modified invoices, an accounting of what work I had done, the contract you'd made me sign, midway through our fifth year, stipulating that I would do all the magic while you handled the 'showmanship'.
I didn't hear from her after that, either.
I still tour, today. I do performances a few times a year.
The rest of the time, I work on magic -- developing solutions for unique problems. I have my own firm now, despite the lack of degree. I was able to turn the publicity from that event into a well-paying job, working for myself and solving problems, the way I enjoyed.
I'm asked, sometimes, what became of you, and I have to admit that I don't know. Articles pop up, every now and then, on the internet -- asking what became of the "rising star" of a magician, Edward Pierce, but they turn up no leads.
When people do not ask about you, they ask about whether I can be happy, living the life I do, not performing all the time. "Don't you miss it? Is this really enough?"
I knew, on our first date, that I was going to marry you someday.
We were both newly out of relationships that had failed -- you, with the ex you'd go on to refer to, somewhat jokingly, as "the bitch"; me, with a brief fling I'd met through work that had turned into something murkier, darker.
"I'm tired of fucking around," you said. "I'm sorry if that's too forward -- it's the truth. I just..."
"You want the real thing," I said. "No more being fucked around on."
"Exactly," you said, and you laughed a little, gently.
It was the sound of your laugh that did it for me -- less as though I'd been hit by lightning, the way it had been with the ex, and more the feeling of something sliding into place.
That was the start of it, where my life changed in an instant.
I introduced you to my parents after our fourth date. You moved in after we'd been together three months. Everyone made the typical jokes at us -- things about U-Hauls, and the like -- but we knew.
I proposed to you, and that's when I met your parents.
It wasn't that I was a woman -- they didn't care about that. It was that you came from money, and I didn't, and they didn't recognize my name.
"What are your plans for our daughter?" was how they put it. "What are your designs on her?"
"I have none," I said, honestly. "I want to marry her. I love her. I want to be with her for the rest of our lives. Isn't that enough?"
Your father looked at me over the top of his glasses as though I was a petulant child. "Just how are you planning to support her? Or is she supposed to support you? She's told us you work in a kitchen -- how well does that pay?"
I thought about the restaurant -- my restaurant, which I'd built from the ground up, scraping by until we'd managed to get good reviews, making money now, slowly becoming known, respected. "I'm the -- I own my own space. It pays well. I have staff, I --"
You were well-educated, well-brought-up. I wasn't. That was never a point of contention between us, but I saw your father turn over my answer in his head, over and over again, fumbling with it and enjoying how uncomfortable he made me.
"Fine," he said, finally.
"I'm sure your restaurant is very nice," said your mother gently, in a way that told me she didn't believe that it was.
You saved the day. You changed the subject, kept us on safe territory.
Your parents never grew to love me, but they could at least respect me, and that was enough.
When we got married, I made our wedding cake, all four tiers of it, and strong-armed my friends into making dinner for everyone. It was a small event -- only fifteen of us, in total -- and the food was up to even your mother's exacting standards.
You wore a dress. I thought about wearing my chef's whites, with the restaurant name embroidered over the pocket, what I wore for photo ops and no other reason, showing everyone who I was, why I was good enough for you, but I didn't. I wore a suit instead, my hair pinned up.
We danced together, after the ceremony, and I ignored comments from your parents that it wouldn't last.
We looked at houses. We thought about adopting, about having a child of our own. We looked at dogs, when we found out what the wait was like for adoption, avoided all the jokes about becoming cat ladies.
It wasn't perfect. We fought a lot, at the beginning -- about money, about time, about how much the restaurant ate into my free time, how much you missed me, during Culinary Week, when I was working twenty hours a day, trying to keep the doors open and food going out, trying to keep people happy to drum up business.
We made it work anyway.
We celebrated one year of marriage, then three, then five -- stacked together solidly, building a foundation for whatever would come next. We weathered everything.
In another story, there would have been someone else. You would have met someone else, or I would have, and it would have ended that way. Something neat and tidy: a conventional beginning, middle, and then an end, ragged and painful, but still providing closure.
Instead, I came home one day, midway through our sixth year of marriage, and you weren't there.
I tried to call you once, twice, three times, twenty -- every fifteen minutes, like clockwork.
It went to voicemail every time.
"I'm worried," I said, to your messages. "Where are you? Call me."
I spent that night alone in our bed, listening to rain on the windows, wondering where I'd gone wrong, what I'd done to drive you away.
I couldn't think of anything. We were happy, weren't we? We loved each other, didn't we?
I turned the questions over and over in my mind, wondering just what it was that I had done, what it was that I was supposed to do.
I never considered a darker possibility.
I think, if necessity had not forced their hand, your parents would never have told me. They would have let me go on, thinking I had been left, your coffee mug with lipstick stain on the table, a Post-It on the fridge reminding me to buy milk, take out the garbage; another note on the calendar about how you had a doctor's appointment on Friday.
They had to tell me, though. The authorities reached them first, slammed as I was, at work. They called when they knew I would be off shift.
"An accident," they explained, swiftly. "She..."
They told me you'd died, and I thought it was a strange joke.
You'd lost control of the car, ended up in a drainage ditch.
You'd probably lost consciousness, when you slid into the ditch.
"It was quick," offered the coroner, when we had to talk to him. "She probably didn't feel anything."
It had taken them hours to find you, more time to get your belongings out of the car, find out who you belonged to.
"You should have called the police," said your mother, as we were leaving. None of us were crying -- we were too numb to cry -- and it must have been the first thing to come to mind.
I was too stunned to come up with a good reply.
When I'd first met you, my life had changed in that instant.
Now, in another, you were gone, and it had changed again.
"I thought she'd left," I said, finally. "I thought, I missed the signs, and she's left me. I never thought..."
"None of us could have," said your father, and I was almost grateful to him, for that.
I gave your parents all your things, after the funeral. They wanted them; I didn't.
"At least it was quick," offered your father lamely, repeating what the coroner had said. "There are worse ways to die."
I wanted to howl, to yell at him about how there was no at least, not when half my life had been ripped away from me, but I couldn't find the words.
"If you want anything of hers..." your mother started. "You have our number."
"I don't, actually," and I laughed until I cried. "We've never -- after the wedding, I thought -- she always handled everything, with you."
She sniffed derisively; wrote it down on a napkin. "Well, now you have it. Put it in your phone. If you need us, call us."
"If I need you," I said, trying to pull myself together, "I will call."
A year passed. I nearly lost the restaurant, but I recognized the signs, the quick plummet that would have meant our end, and I pulled it together.
"Take time off," urged my sous, but I knew she couldn't carry everything herself.
"You're working too hard," said the front of house manager. "You're going to end up in the grave, yourself."
I flinched, when she said it. "You're not wrong, but..."
"If I'm working," I said, "I don't think about her."
They didn't badger me, after that.
Another year passed, then two, a gray blur. The restaurant succeeded. We earned more accolades, more awards. All the reviews talked about how "innovative" we were, how creative.
I went home every night, exhausted, and fell into bed to sleep without dreaming. I lived for work, nothing else.
In a different story, this would have been it: I would have fallen into the pit of substance abuse, starting with the pot that I knew all the servers smoked once they were off-shift, moving to the harder drugs one of the bartenders knew a guy for.
I avoided that.
Instead, three years after you died, I met someone.
When I met her, it didn't feel like being hit by lightning, or like something clicking into place.
She was a blind date, a friend of a friend, newly single, "not looking for anything serious, and seriously, Jane, you should be going out more. Give her a chance."
I nearly texted her to cancel, when I saw her walking into the coffee shop.
She didn't look anything like you, and that made it all right.
I told her about you, about how it felt when we met, like puzzle pieces clicking into place, or something settling -- how it was right.
"And then I lost her, and I lost that feeling. It was like -- in an instant, my life was over, too."
"But you're still here," she said, placing her hand over mine. "It can't really be over."
I felt it, then -- not the pieces clicking together, not the feeling of being hit by lightning, but a different feeling, something warm and familiar, like kicking off my clogs at the end of a long day, settling in my favorite chair.
We met when we were children, being taught how to read by one of the village wisewomen.
"I already know my alphabet," she said, and the wisewoman dolloped honey onto her tongue, a reward after she recited it. "All of it, even backward."
I didn't know mine yet. She taught me.
We were like that, her and I. What I didn't know, she taught me, and what she didn't know, she learned from me.
After she taught me to read, we were inseparable. We slept in each others' beds, braided each others' hair, and each of us helped the other dress in the mornings, doing the buttons up the back of our daily wear.
"Joined at the hip," our parents said, and shook their heads. "Some girls are like that. They'll grow out of it."
Friendships from childhood tended to dissolve, once you were formally prenticed. The wisewomen of the village would tell you where you were to go, having watched you all your life, and it was rare that more than one child was sent to any prenticeship. Once you began learning your trade, there was little enough time for play, and friendships tended to dissolve, after this. You made new friends, and the ones from childhood were left behind.
When our turn came, we were both prenticed to the apothecary.
"You have to be together," said the wisewomen. "We've foreseen it..."
They wouldn't tell us what it was they'd foreseen, only that there was something, and so we had to be together, prenticed to the same woman, learning her herbcraft, how to soothe a feverish child, set a broken leg, cure the croup when it came around the village in the winter.
We both grew to be good at what we did, and we both loved it. She was better at it than I was, but that was no matter. Together, we could heal most anything. People came from other villages, from miles around, to have us cure them. Whatever their village healers could not touch, we could, her and I.
"We're good at what we do, aren't we, Jo?" she said to me, at different points, always smiling. "We're helping people, aren't we?"
"Yes," I said, every time, because it was what she wanted to hear. "Yes, we are."
I don't know when I realized I loved her. It must have been a gradual thing.
The summer we were seventeen, her brother married. He was only nineteen, scarcely older than us, and his bride was someone from the neighboring village.
"It should have been you," she said, elbowing me halfway through the simple ceremony. "Then we really could have been sisters."
I stayed silent. That was my way, then. I didn't talk unless I needed to, and anyway, I had thoughts of my own. Thoughts of how she looked, in her blue dress, how her eyes caught the light, the roses in her cheeks during the dances, later.
"You're beautiful," I told her, bold, after our parents let us have a cup of wine each.
She laughed. "It's a wedding," she said. "You're only saying that because I'm in my finery. You look nice, too, though not yourself, not at all."
It was custom, in our village, that the unmarried siblings of the bride and groom would dance together, after the wedding-feast, during the revels. The bride had an unmarried brother, and she was Paul's only sister, so they danced together.
I watched them and thought, that should be me, not him, and that was when I knew, I think, that I was in trouble, because I loved her, and I did not think she loved me.
I told her on my eighteen birthday.
"There's something I need to share with you," I told her, at the end of the birthday dinner my mother had fixed. "Privately."
"The old apple orchard?" she suggested. "Down the lane, we can tell your parents you're walking me home..."
"They'll expect it," I said. "And if we talk too long, they'll assume I'm dawdling, talking to your parents."
"Perfect," she said, beaming at me.
I fidgeted through dinner, barely touched my plate. After we'd had cake (something heavily spiced, made with dried fruit, for it was early spring and there was no fruit out yet), I said I'd walk her home, and my parents had just exchanged glances, smiled at one another.
"Fine, Joanna," said my mother. "Take a lantern and flint with you, in case you're not home until after dark."
I gathered the lantern and flint, pulled on a cloak, and walked out the door with her, out of the warm pool of light cast by the windows, into the cool spring twilight, down the lane to the orchard. The few trees that still bore fruit were in bloom, their branches covered in white and pink blossoms, stark against the gold and blue of the sky, and I thought, this is it, glumly, as I set the unlit lantern down.
"So," she said, standing across from me. "What is it you needed to tell me?"
"I..." I started.
"Because I have something to tell you, too," she said, and that's when she kissed me.
I needed the lantern, getting home that night.
That's where it really started, all of it.
We told our parents, and the village wisewomen, together.
Our parents sighed and remarked on the lack of grandchildren.
The village wisewomen nodded and said that everything had gone according to plan.
We planned to wed a year and a day from the announcement.
Eight months after we'd told everyone, in the coldest part of the year, she took suddenly ill.
"A fever," I said. "Not uncommon, this time of year, and she was just caring for a sick child..."
I mixed different tinctures. We'd just finished our prenticeship; I should have been able to cure her.
Instead, she grew worse.
"I do not know what to do," I admitted at last, that final, horrible night.
I sat by her bed, holding her hands in mine, as she tossed and turned with fever, moaning softly as she wandered through strange dreams.
"There must be something we can do," I murmured, watching her.
"Should we fetch the priestess?" asked her mother, watching from the door. "Jo?"
I didn't know what to tell them.
"Yes," said the apothecary I had been prenticed to, when they sent for her.
I fell in on myself, in the first few days after she died. I went through the motions, grieving appropriately, watching her be interred in the crypt til the ground thawed enough to bury her, watching what happened without participating.
I didn't speak, at the service. I sat through it and said nothing, watched as her parents and brother said what I should have, watched as they walked her body into the crypt and sealed the door.
"You'll find another," said her brother, trying to be kind, and I slapped him, hard, across the face.
That was the only reaction I had.
The wisewomen came to me. I did not come to them. That's something I've heard told wrong, in every version of our story I have come across -- that I sought them out, out of need or desperation, when it was not so. I performed no rituals, said no spells to bring them to me, to find the answer to end my pain.
The three eldest of them showed up at our house, two days after the funeral, and asked what I knew of magic.
"Nothing," I said, because it was true.
The very oldest of them nodded, satisfied.
"So," she said. "You know nothing of raising the dead."
"Only that there are stories that say it can be done, but they all end..."
"Badly," supplied one of the women. She gave the others a meaningful look. "I warned them against this, but..."
"Your path together was not meant to diverge," said the very eldest, simply. "There is a need, and a great one, for her to return."
"But there is a price," said the wisewoman who had given the warning. "The way is not easy, and -- even if you succeed, there will be a cost."
"What cost?" I said, because I loved her, but I knew it would be futile if I were dead and she were not.
"Clever," said the wisewoman who had not spoken yet. "Good. You'll need cleverness, in the lands of the dead."
"If you succeed," said the very eldest, "your beloved -- her name will never be remembered or spoken again. Names have power, and the Lord of the Dead will take the power from hers."
"If you fail," said the youngest, "then you will never see one another again, even in death."
"Do you accept the price?" asked the middle of the three.
I touched my unbraided hair, thought of her face, the way that she smelled, how it had felt to kiss her -- how it had felt, in the brief space since her death, that there was no way I could go on without her.
"I accept," I said. "What do I need to do?"
"Nothing," said the wisewomen, as one.
"We've told you the price," said the eldest.
"You've accepted," said the youngest.
"Now we open the path, and you will have to go on your own," said the middle. "We will open a path to the lands of the dead. You must walk the path, ask for her back from the Lord of the Dead. When he asks what you will pay, to have her back, tell him: 'I give you her true name', and speak it."
"Beware, though," said the youngest. "He will accept the name-price, and once he does, she will begin to follow you. You must trust that she follows. She will make no sound, not a sigh, not a footfall, for she is a shade until you have crossed back into the land of the living. If you do not trust, if you look to see if she is behind you, you will be ripped apart forever, and will never find each other even in death. You must hope against all hope that she will come back with you, even as they try to tear you asunder."
"Remember," said the eldest. "There is no hope in the lands of the dead. Hope belongs to the living, for there can be none where only death remains. Hold the faith, and do not doubt that she loves you."
"I won't," I said. "When will you open the path?"
"Now," said the youngest, and they shoved me forward, wild-eyed with hair escaping its braid, into the lands of the dead.
I do not remember much of the lands of the dead. I do know that, contrary to what we are always told, by the priests and priestesses, it was a beautiful place. The colors there would have made your heart ache -- the sky blue above, bluer than it ever is in life, and the grass green and gold underfoot. By rights, it should have felt like a midsummer day, a late and lazy afternoon, where time seems to slow to a crawl -- but it felt nothing like this. There was a chill in the air, that reminded me where I was, a pull toward the center, where the color was the most intense.
"The Lord of the Dead," I murmured, and the words fell away from my lips, dry as dust, as soon as I said them. "I must find him."
There was a path. I followed it. I know that much. It led me past wonder after wonder -- buildings that could not possibly exist, paintings that did not exist in our world, pieces of art -- things I did not recognize. There was much I could have learned, if I'd had more time, or perhaps had something of my own with which to pay the Lord of the Dead, but I had no time, and I had nothing He would have wanted or recognized as precious, himself.
The further I went, into the lands of the dead, the more futile my task felt. What was I doing, going back to rescue someone to whom I had not even been wed? What was I doing, why did I think I could succeed?
I held the faith, the way the wisewomen taught me. I clung to the feeling of her lips on mine, the way her eyes sparkled whenever she teased me.
I thought of life, in the sunlit lands above, what our life together would be like, the feeling of her hands in my hair.
I thought of her, and I kept walking.
I found the Lord of the Dead all too soon.
He was not sitting on a dark throne, as I might have thought.
Instead, he was in a garden, relaxing on a stone bench.
I recognized him regardless. There was no need for pretense; he had the look of someone who could control a room with little more than the quirk of an eyebrow.
"Joanna," he said, greeting me as though I were an old friend. "I suppose you have come for...?"
"I have," I said.
"What will you give me, to take her back?" he asked.
"Her true name," I said. "Names have power, and..."
He nodded. "Tell me."
I gave it to him.
He smiled at me. He had a nice smile. I cannot remember much else of his face, but he had a nice smile. When he smiled, I could tell that he was kind, and whatever fears I had of my own death dissipated.
"A good name," he said. "You love her? Don't fail."
He said nothing else. The path unfurled before me, and I knew which way to walk.
I learned from her, and she learned from me. That was the way our lives had been, how we had always managed. If I learned more from her than she learned from me, well -- who was keeping track, really?
Something she had never learned from me, that I could have taught her, was patience, perseverance.
How long had I loved her? How long had I gone on loving her, without telling her, without needing a sign that she loved me back?
Had I ever needed much, in the way of hope, to keep going?
I followed the path out of the lands of the dead.
I never heard her footsteps behind me, never heard her say a word, but I didn't worry. The wisewomen had been right about so much else; I knew they would be right about this.
The Lord of the Dead had been kind, when he smiled at me. I knew he would honor his part of the bargain, if I honored mine.
I kept walking.
I didn't look back, and I didn't try to talk to her, not until the gold and green and blue of the lands of the dead gave way to the white and black and brown of my own wintry mortal world, not until I was sure that I was nearly home.
I didn't look back until I heard the sound of footsteps behind mine, crunching in the snow.
"Did I succeed?" I asked the listening air, stopping in my tracks. "Have you come back with me?"
"You gave away my name," she said. I could almost hear the face she made. "What are we to do, now?"
"Share mine," I said, turning to face her. "The way we've shared everything else, all our lives. There's two names there, anyway. I will be Jo, and you can be Anna."
She laughed. "Anna," she said. "Fine."
I knew, when I heard the sound of her laugh, that I'd succeeded.
When I kissed her, and found her warm and pliant, I knew that our victory was complete.
I've heard our story told elsewhere. I am a man, in some versions, someone named Johan. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I do not. Usually, in the stories where I am a man, I do not.
"Unnatural," say some, about both her return and our wedding. "Two women, it's not right", or else, "what dark arts did she resort to, to bring her back?"
I hear, and I pay no mind.
The two of us, together, are still the best healers in the land.
It has been five years since I brought her back from the land of the dead.
I dream, sometimes, about the Lord of the Dead's smile, what he must have known.
"That you were destined for greatness," say the wisewomen, though they will not say what form that greatness will take. "That the two of you were important; that he had to let her go, after taking her name, because there was need of her in life."
"He knew that you loved me," said Anna, the only time I ever asked. "Else he never would have let me go. What does the Lord of the Dead care of life?"
"What does the Lord of the Dead care of love?" I retorted.
"Love is the only thing to transcend death," she said, quietly. "Everything else fades, but love -- that remains. All the old hurts, the old pains, vanish -- but you remember being loved. That remains."
That, I think, is what we were meant to bring back.
[explanation, if it's not clear enough.]I'm not sure how many people are familiar with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. I took some liberties here -- mostly changing the penalty for failure and changing the cost -- but the idea is the same: that you can travel to the land of the dead (Hades, in that case) and rescue your beloved, if you loved them truly, and most importantly, if you do not give up hope.
If you give up hope and look back, you lose them forever. If you trust that they love you, they return with you and they stay.
I have never read a version of this story in which they succeeded. All of the stories I've read have featured heterosexual romances. I don't think this is a coincidence -- as a woman, it has always occurred to me that the relationships I've had with women have been more tenacious, more stubbornly clinging to hope, because we're already in such a strange space, socially speaking. To love someone of the same gender as you is to be brave and hope against hope already. I feel that if Orpheus had also been a woman, the story wouldn't have hung around as long as it has, just because it would not be nearly as interesting: fairytale redemption, sure, but none of the tragedy that drives the original.
When Maddie is born, her granddad is the one to name her.
She's heard the story hundreds of times: that her parents didn't know what to name her, but as soon as her granddad saw her, he knew who she was. "Madeline. We'll call her Maddie, for short." Her mom had liked the name, and her dad thought it was nice, too, and so they stuck with it, "easy-peasy," as Granddad says. "We knew exactly who you were, and why that was the perfect name for you."
Her childhood is shaped by her granddad. He takes care of her on Friday nights, letting her sleep over on the pullout sofa he keeps in the little one bedroom cottage he owns, a quarter mile from the beach.
"I'd live on the water," he says, as they walk down to watch the sunset, every Friday evening. "But your mom wants me nearby."
This is true -- Maddie's mom has always worried about Granddad, about his health. He broke his hip in two places, the year Maddie turned two, and that was when he sold his boat and everything on her to buy the house down by the beach, twenty minutes away from where Maddie and her parents live.
"I won't give up the water entirely, Lucy," goes the refrain to a familiar fight. "I'm still independent, I still..."
Maddie usually tunes out, around then. She knows Granddad is old, knows that his health is far from perfect. She's noticed the gray in his hair and beard, the way his glasses have gotten thicker, as she's grown up, how he's taken to walking with a cane, when the temperature drops in winter. She notices everything.
Cane or no, glasses or no, though, he's still her granddad, and Maddie knows that some things about him will never change.
His stories are one of those things.
When they walk down to the shore, Granddad tells stories about his time at sea, the strange things that live under the water.
"I was a Navy man," he might start, "and one night, when I was on watch..."
He has lots of stories, some real and some that Maddie knows, even from the time she's very little, must be what her mom calls embroidered. His Navy stories are mostly true. The others he tells largely aren't, and Maddie knows this, but she tries to believe them anyway.
Most of the latter stories, the ones that aren't true, are about mermaids.
"Now then," Granddad might start, as they walk along the shore. "Have I ever told you...", and he'll launch into any one of his myriad mermaid stories: why the sea is salty (there's a mermaid down there, still shedding tears over her granddad's refusal to go below with her), the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen (the same mermaid that supposedly cries over him), the closest he'd ever come to drowning (a mermaid saved him), the kingdom that lies beneath the waves...
"That's where I want to go," he says, sometimes, looking out at the water, the sun setting over the waves. "The kingdom below..."
"But you need to offer up a gift, before the road will open and let you below," Maddie finishes. "I know. So what are you going to offer?"
This is their game, what they play on Friday nights as they watch the waves. Sometimes Granddad is serious, and sometimes he's not, in what he says he'll offer.
"Gold," he says, or, "that green curry from the Thai place your mom loves," or else, "a half-completed crossword from the Sunday paper."
Maddie always giggles and tells him that his offering isn't nearly enough. Per his own stories, all they want is his heart's desire.
"Ah, but I won't give them that," says Granddad, and reaches out to put a hand on her shoulder. "You and your Mom, and your Dad, I'm not giving you to them."
After he says that, they head home, every time.
Maddie is ten when Granddad begins forgetting things.
It starts small. Granddad, always sharp, suddenly can't remember where he left his keys or his glasses or the cellphone that Maddie's mom has started insisting he carry with him everywhere, so she can keep tabs on him, much to his disgust.
"I was a Navy man, Lucy," he grumbled, when she gave it to him. "I know how to take care of myself."
He does, too, or he did. He used to keep everything in his house "shipshape", as he put it.
"A place for everything, and everything in its place," he tells Maddie, when they wash the dishes together, the nights he watches her, when Mom and Dad go out for "adult time", away from her. "Now, where do the forks go?"
It's a little game they play. Everything does have its own place, neatly labeled in the kitchen. Silverware here, plates here, pans here, and then the gloves and dishcloth neatly folded and put away in their spot once everything is washed.
It's a sign that something is wrong, when she goes to Granddad's and the kitchen is untidy.
Her mom, who has been so bad about noticing the other things that have gone off, notices this right away.
"Should we hire you a housekeeper?" Maddie's mom teases, and Granddad scowls.
"I can take care of myself," he grumbles. "I don't need anyone to clean up after me. I raised you alone, didn't I, and did a damn fine job of it. I don't want you to hire anyone."
Her mom lets it drop, then, but she and Maddie's dad talk about it on the way home: what does it mean and should we take him to the doctor.
"He was a Navy man," says Maddie, from the backseat. "He says everything has a place, but he's been forgetting where things go. He forgot where his glasses were again, Mom. He never used to do that."
"Perils of getting old," says her dad, turning in his seat and smiling at her. "But we'll keep an eye on him, anyway."
Whatever keeping an eye on him means, one thing becomes painfully clear, right away: there are no more special Friday nights spent together. After the last visit, when the kitchen is a mess and Granddad can't find his glasses, Maddie's parents begin making alternate arrangements, taking her to a friend's house or hiring a sitter for their Friday nights out, never letting her stay overnight alone with Granddad again.
It's three or four months after the last visit when Maddie's parents begin talking about doctor's appointments and Alzheimer's, what comes next and how best to help him maintain his independence.
"Maddie," says her mom, after a series of long conversations. "How would you feel about having Granddad come live with us?"
She doesn't have to think very hard about her answer: "Let's do it."
"He's not going to be the same," her mom adds, slowly. "He's not in the best of health, Maddie. He's not the same granddad that used to take you to the beach all the time when you were growing up. He's..."
"I know," she says. "He's sick."
"Yes," says her mom. She hesitates. "So we're going to take care of him, at least for now. Is that okay?"
"He's not going to like not living near the beach," Maddie starts, and her mom interrupts:
"I know, and you're going to have to help him adjust. There are plenty of places to see, around here, plenty of places to go walking. There's the lake, and the nice nature trail through the park..."
"It's not the same, Mom."
Her mother hesitates a moment. "I know, hon, but he can't live alone anymore. We'll take him back to his old haunts once a week. We can go on Saturdays. It'll be fine."
Maddie doesn't think it will be fine, but she knows she doesn't get a say, not really.
It takes a few weeks, but Granddad eventually moves in with the three of them. He needs a room on the ground floor, thanks to his bad hip, and so Maddie moves out of her bedroom and into the spare room upstairs. Mom helps her paint it, which is a nice gesture, but nothing can change the fact that it's not her bedroom.
"I'm not having an easy time adjusting either," says Granddad, in the odd, affected way that has come to take over his speech patterns in the last few months, with pauses between each of the words. "I mean, it's pink. I'm almost 80, and I'm sleeping in a pink bedroom."
"It's not pink anymore," Maddie corrects. "We repainted it. It's white now."
Granddad looks surprised at this, stops and corrects himself. "I meant, it's still pink underneath. I can feel it. It's your room, Maddie, not mine."
They'd repainted it two years ago, when nine-year-old Maddie, in a fit of pique, had decided that she was done with pink and wanted a grown-up room. Granddad had been the one to help her pick out the paint, put down the primer. He'd slept over on their couch, while they did the repainting.
"This is the longest I've seen you stay away from home in a decade, Dad," Mom had teased him. "Don't you miss the sound of the sea?"
Granddad had only grinned and rubbed his back. "No, but I miss sleeping in my own bed. That pullout sofa is unkind."
Maddie doesn't remind him of this story.
"Yeah," she says, after a moment. "You're right, it must still feel like my room."
They adjust. It takes a while, but eventually they fall into a new routine. Granddad lives with them. Mom takes him to the senior center during the day, where he can do whatever he likes, and at night, he stays in and does crossword puzzles or else reads a book.
If Mom and Dad ever notice that he reads the same page over and over again, they don't say anything. Maddie notices, too, but she doesn't point it out. This is the new normal.
"We'll all adjust," Mom says, over and over, her litany of reassurance. "We'll be fine."
She says it whenever Granddad looks out the window as though he's looking out to the sea, as though he's lost somewhere out there and trying to find his way back to land.
"We can go to the beach this weekend, Dad," she promises him, usually after she's said they'll adjust. "We'll go out on Saturday, all right?"
Granddad doesn't usually say anything to this, just nods, if he heard at all.
One thing that doesn't change is the mermaid stories. It's as though, with losing his true stories, Granddad is filling the gaps with more fairytales.
"You know why the ocean is so salty, Madeline?" he asks Maddie, at different points. He's taken to calling her Madeline for reasons that aren't quite clear to her, but which are important to him. "It's the mermaids..."
"They're still crying because you didn't let them drown you," Maddie finishes. "You've told me before. What were their names?"
"Oh, nothing pronouncable in the air. You'd have to go underwater to understand what their names were. Stick your head in the ocean and yell, and it'll sound right." He imitates a gurgling noise. "That's what their names sound like in the air, but underwater..."
He gets a faraway look on his face, one that Maddie has come to associate with lapses in memory.
"But underwater?" she prompts.
"Underwater, their names sound like music," says Granddad, and changes the subject to what Mom is fixing for dinner.
Time passes. Granddad doesn't get any better, but he doesn't get much worse, either, and Mom says that the drugs are working, that they've found therapy that can slow it down before he loses all of his memories.
"So he's still Dad," she says.
Maddie's in high school, by this point, and Granddad has been living with them for five, almost six years. She's grown past the point where she believes the mermaid stories, past the point where she wants to spend her Friday nights with Granddad. They've taken to spending Saturday mornings together, instead: getting coffee at the place a few blocks away from the house before Maddie carefully drives them down to the harbor so Granddad can take a morning walk along the pier.
She tries to stay patient with him. It's difficult, because while he's stayed mostly the same, there are some things that are different, and his temper is one of them. He hasn't grown to become unkind, the way that some patients do (or so she's been told), but he doesn't have the patience he once had, and he forgets his own limitations, sometimes. He'll want to go walking down on the beach proper, with all the rocks and sand and other obstacles he can't really cover now, with his shuffling gait, and it takes all of her patience not to say anything when he teases her about "only" wanting to spend time on the pier.
"It's not really the ocean," he says each time, as they walk along the weathered gray boards. "You're never going to see a mermaid here."
Maddie doesn't say anything. There's nothing she can say.
Granddad's health starts to decline the summer after Maddie graduates.
"We're going to have to put him into assisted living," frets her mother. "I just hope..."
Assisted living: the fancy way of saying, "we're putting him in a nursing home."
Maddie doesn't say anything.
Her dad finds a nice facility only a few blocks away, somewhere they can afford and which they can all visit Granddad at, fairly frequently.
"A good compromise," says her mom, hopefully. "Somewhere he can get the care he needs, and..."
Where someone can keep an eye on him all the time, thinks Maddie, because she's watched both of her parents struggle with this, over the years: how to keep him safe while letting him maintain his independence.
"He'll start in July," says Mom. "July 15th move-in date. It's a Saturday, so your dad and I can move everything in. You and Granddad can go on one last ramble together."
"Fine," says Maddie. "I'll keep him occupied while you get the room ready."
"That's my girl," says Mom.
The Friday night that will be his last at home, Granddad is lucid and wants to go out. Her parents are out, having dinner with their married friends. Maddie was supposed to have plans, but they fell through, and so she volunteers to stay home with him, instead of letting her parents call one of the senior companions.
"I don't mind," she says, when her mother protests. "I mean, it's his last full night here, so..."
"Fine," says Mom. "I've left you money for dinner. It's on the table, or you can have sandwiches."
"We'll be just fine, Lucy," says Granddad. "Tonight is an excellent night."
It must be, too: he's walking around the house without a cane, he remembers clearly where he is, and he almost seems like himself again, like the Granddad Maddie remembers from childhood, with his stories about the Navy and his little house on the shore, their Friday nights together.
"Fine," Mom repeats. "You two have a good night."
She hugs them both, and then she and Dad are out the door.
"So," says Granddad, as soon as their car has pulled out of the driveway. "Maddie. I need a favor from you."
It's the first time he's called her Maddie in years.
"I want to go for a walk along the beach," says Granddad. He hesitates a moment. "The real beach, not the pier. You remember where we used to walk?"
"Yes," says Maddie. "You want to go while you can move without your cane?"
"Okay," she says. "Let's go."
They drive down to the beach in silence. Granddad stares out the window, as they go.
As they're parking, he asks her: "Do you remember the stories I used to tell you, about mermaids?"
"Yeah," Maddie says, and smiles. "That the ocean is salty because they're still crying about you..."
"Not that," he interrupts. "The other stories, about the kingdom beneath the waves."
"Your heart's desire," says Maddie. "The game. I remember."
Granddad gazes out the window. "I have always had my heart's desire," he murmurs. "And now..."
"Tell your mother," he says clearly, "that I love her. I love both of you."
He pops open the door and steps out of the car before Maddie can so much as unbuckle. He's moving faster than she would have thought possible, like a man sixty years younger, running toward the beach, as though his hip had never been broken, as though he has never been ill a day in his life.
"Granddad!" she yells, and scrambles after him.
She ran track, in high school. Cross-country. She's fast, when she wants to be, even over uneven ground. Running on the sand is hard, and her feet keep slipping out from underneath her. She can see her granddad, see him running ahead of her, fifty yards off, untroubled by the sand, the uneven terrain.
"Granddad!" she yells again, and the wind whips the word away from her. There's a storm coming up. "Granddad, wait!"
He turns to face her. He can't have heard her, but he turns and faces her anyway. She starts crying in relief, as he does.
"Wait!" she yells again. "Granddad!"
She keeps running toward him, watching as he kicks his shoes off, carefully rolls his pants up and wades into the tide.
"Wait!" Maddie screams, afraid of what comes next, but then --
A woman stands suddenly, out of the waves. She's dressed all in white and green finery, obviously wet but designed for it, somehow, as if...
Maddie is still too far away, but she sees her granddad smile, watches as his mouth moves. He's greeting her like an old friend, whomever she is, and almost Maddie imagines she can hear music, when he says her name, and it's all too sudden, but there they are, standing in the tide, laughing and embracing like old friends, and then --
The woman extends her hand. Granddad bows, says something, and takes it. Together, they step down, and for a moment Maddie thinks she can almost see stairs, beneath the waves.
Granddad turns and looks back at her, still standing on the beach, fifty yards away, and waves.
"Wait for me!" Maddie says, and it is only then she realizes she must be crying, because her mouth is suddenly full of salt, the tears running down her cheeks and mingling with the spray of the tide.
He takes another step down, hesitates.
The woman standing beside him says something, and he nods and steps again. The water is waist-high around him now, and Maddie thinks, crazily, that this shouldn't be possible. The tide is out, and it was only up to his ankles a moment ago...
She keeps running, comes to a stop, panting, on the sand a few feet away from him.
"Granddad," she says, her voice thick. "What are you doing?"
"Remember what I always said, Maddie?" he asks her, his voice warm. "About the mermaids, and why the sea is salty..."
"The kingdom beneath the waves," she finishes for him. "Your heart's desire is your path."
He smiles at her. "I've found my path down," he says. "And I have a promise to keep..."
The woman standing beside him nods and says something in a language Maddie does not recognize. Her voice is like music.
"This is the next adventure," he says. "Tell your mother I love her. I love you, too, Madeline, my Maddie. This..."
"This is what you've always wanted," supplies Maddie. "This is -- this is it."
Granddad hesitates. "Yes."
She squeezes her eyes shut against the tears that are still flowing, mixing with the saltwater on her face. "I'll tell Mom what happened. I don't think she'll believe me. This is going to hurt."
"She will believe you," says the woman in white. Her voice is oddly accented. "If you tell her that Anaitis says hello. Your father will believe you, too, but we must go now, before the pathway closes."
"Go," says Maddie.
"We will meet again," says the woman in white. "Your heart's desire will lead you here, too."
"Someday," she says. "Not yet."
"Not yet," agrees the woman. "Now..."
Maddie sloshes her way into the water, hugs her granddad fiercely. "Be good," she says, and "don't forget about us."
"As if I could," he says. "Be good. I love you", and he steps the rest of the way down.
As his head disappears under the waves, it begins to rain.
"I will," says Maddie, to no one. "I love you, too."
She stands and watches the ocean in the rain, until the sun sets and the rain clears and the moon can be seen, half-hazy behind the clouds.
When no one emerges, when the moonlight does not make a path atop the waves that she can follow after him, then and only then does she walk back to the car.
They come out just after sunset, before twilight, when the last light of the day has gone, but the stars have not come out yet, when the entire world has gone from being rose and gold to softer shades of blue. Them.
Mary doesn't know what their names are. She asked, once.
“I’m Mary,” she said. “Mary Frances Callahan. What are your names?”
It was the way she’d been taught to introduce herself, the way her mother had shown her, smiling at her as they practiced, together.
"Names have power," one of Them said, after she introduced herself to Them. They smiled, showing too many teeth. "But we don't have much power, here."
She didn’t question it, at the time. There were other things she could call them.
She names one of them John, after her dad explains what John Doe means, as a name. Another, Bob (“but a girl Bob,” she says eagerly, when asked. “Short for Roberta,” because Roberta is her grandma’s name, and she thinks it’s beautiful).
There are others, of Them, but John and Bob are the ones she sees most frequently, plays with the most, in that magical space of time right before dinner, when they appear gently in the bottom of the garden, almost seeming to glow, their mouths smiling with too many teeth.
She’s never afraid of Them. They’ve never given her reason to be.
“You’re one of us,” John says, when they play together. “You gave us your name,” and she believes him, understands why this must be so.
They play odd games together, in the few minutes she has before her mother calls her in to dinner, different twisty little games. Time seems to flow differently around Them, slower somehow, and she can't ever remember what it is that they play together. Things with dancing, mostly, or Kings and Queens (she is never the king or the queen, but sometimes, if They're in the right mood, they'll let her be a princess). Lots of games of pretend, though she can't recall what it is they're pretending about. Everything feels very serious, when they do it, very real.
"It is real," John reassures her. "It's all very real, and very important."
She would believe him, except it involves magic, and who believes in real magic, after all? She's seen the specials on television, where they say they do real magic, then show how it's done. It's all tricks, illusions. She's seen it. She knows better, and anyway, They never do anything interesting in front of her.
She asked Bob once, why they didn't, and she only smiled at her, in the infuriating way that grownups did, and said that They did magic all the time, only that Mary didn't recognize it as being magic.
"So what am I supposed to believe?" she asked, disgusted, and she shrugged.
"Believe what you want to," she said. "We know what we're doing."
Mom usually called her inside, before those arguments could get too heated, and They would never bring it up again, the next time she saw Them.
Eventually she stopped seeing them, stopped going into the garden just before twilight, or else had other things to do. They moved, the year she was nine, after her parents divorced and she stopped believing in magic, even a little bit. That was the year she stopped reading Narnia and instead picked up all of Scott O'Dell, trying to find her way back into her own world, starting with the past and moving forward, into independence and an understanding of what had happened with her parents.
"It's not that we don't love you," her dad said, and she would only recognize it as the cliche it was years later. "We just..."
"Dad's been seeing someone else," said her mother, all matter-of-fact. "And Mom doesn't care. So."
"It's true, isn't it, Daniel?"
He gritted his teeth, tried to tell her anyway, but she only buried her face deeper in her book, hoping that Caspian would take her away with him, that she would find herself called into Narnia, and that was how the books were ruined.
Island of the Blue Dolphins was a gift, a, "we're sorry about the fight we had in front of you". She recognized this, but loved it for what it was, and that was what started the historical fiction bent.
She chose her mother, over her father, when the choice was presented to her, for no reason other than her mother had always packed her better lunches (even if her dinners usually involved the dreaded green and leafy vegetables, when Dad sensibly opted for peas or carrots or parsnips instead, recognizing that she liked these best), and they both moved out of the house with its garden, found instead a condo with a park across the road.
"I'll take you all the time," Mom promised, but she didn’t often have the time, not that it really mattered, because there was after school care, with the playground, and friends there, who also had divorced parents and could offer insights as to what to expect.
With real friends, she didn’t need Them, and she never went out into the little patch of grass that passed for the condo’s yard, in the space between sunset and full dark.
She didn’t forget about Them, not at first.
There were little things. They had always promised that she was marked as one of Theirs, belonging to Them in the same way that They belonged to each other, and that meant good luck, at least according to John.
She saw this, in small ways. The day they were supposed to run the mile, in seventh grade, they had a sub instead, who made them play dodgeball.
In eighth grade, the geography test she hadn’t studied for was delayed by a day.
In tenth, when she was supposed to be taking her driver’s test, the instructor became distracted when she was parallel parking, and passed her even though she’d clipped one of the cones.
She chalked these small things up to Them, at least at first, thanking Them for whatever help she’d been given.
“Thanks, John,” she’d murmur.
As she grew up, she gradually forgot, but she at least started off thanking Them, remembering the special space between sunset and full evening that they’d shared.
There are other things that should tip her off, maybe, but it never occurs to her just what they mean.
When she misses the flight that crashes, she considers it lucky that she had forgotten her passport, needed to back and get it and subsequently got caught in traffic, on the way to the airport. She doesn’t thank Them, but by that point, she thinks that They are only a fancy she had in childhood, that John and the rest of them were her imaginary friends. She catches another flight to Paris, and doesn’t fret about it.
The car crash that should have killed her, maybe, where she finds herself standing on the side of the road (having wrestled her way out of her seatbelt before the car caught fire) should be another sign, perhaps, but again, she thinks only of her own luck, and doesn’t say anything to Them, one way or another.
“Things always seem to work out for me,” she finds herself explaining to a roommate, after they’re robbed but her laptop (sitting out on her desk, in plain view) is somehow left behind, when the thieves have stripped the place of anything else valuable. “I don’t know why.”
In the back of her mind, she might think of Them, but if she does, she doesn’t acknowledge it out loud. She had imaginary friends. What child didn’t? There’s nothing unusual about that.
It’s not until she’s almost thirty that she realizes that perhaps there’s more to her luck than she knows, that maybe she has forgotten something important.
She’s at a bar, drinking with friends and celebrating the a huge promotion at work. She’s a project manager, now, and they’re all out crowing out about that fact.
“You’ve made it, Mary!” says one of her friends, and she grins and buys a round of shots for everyone.
It’s around that time that someone catches her eye, from across the bar. She grins at him (she’s in a good mood, after all), and he smiles back at her and heads her way.
“Hey,” he says, above the din of the bar, the low roar of the patrons surrounding them, the shitty four-piece band that’s on stage. “What are you drinking?”
“I’ll have what you’re having,” she says, and grins at him. “I’m Mary, by the way. You are…?”
He says something she can’t hear, above the noise.
He slides up beside her. “I said, do you want to dance?”
The band is some shitty local gig the bar had booked at the last minute, after the previous act had bailed for a better venue, but they can at least do decent covers of whatever classic rock the crowd calls out, so she dances with him to a weird variety of music, everything from the Beatles to Prince and back again, all weird but at least recognizable as music, as covers of whatever they’re supposed to be covering.
It’s not until the band’s lead singer, glowering and pushing his hair out of his eyes, announces that they’ve almost run out of their allotted time and will be leaving after the next song, that she realizes her friends have gone, that she’s been dancing for close to an hour and a half.
“Relax,” says the man she’s dancing with, pulling her close. “I can give you a lift home. It’s not a problem.”
“Fine,” she says, and relaxes, resumes dancing with him as soon as the music starts again.
The set ends, and before she knows it, the bar is about to close. They’re doing last call. Time has flown by, and she’s not sure what’s supposed to come next. There’s something strange about the way the hours are flying by (is she drunk? Is it something else?), but she’s enjoying the company of the man she’s standing beside, the man, called…
“I’m sorry,” she blurts, as they’re leaving the bar together. “I don’t even know your name…”
They’re outside the bar, by then. She’s sure she’s agreed to go home with him, though she’s not sure how or when that conversation happened.
“It’s simple,” he says, right in her ear. “It’s…” and he says something incomprehensible again.
“I’m sorry,” Mary says again. “I didn’t catch that?”
He smiles grimly. “Well, it’s not important, is it? We both know what this is.”
“I’m not sure I do,” she says carefully, taking a step back from him.
He reaches out, grabs her arm, and she wants to protest, but--
There’s a pained noise from the alley they’re standing next to (and when had they moved farther than the front of the bar?). “Ugh, I think I drank too much,” then the sound and smell of vomit, and--
“God, I’m sorry, dude,” slurs a man. “Like, let’s exchange numbers, so I can…”
The man she’s left the bar with, the nameless one, recoils in disgust. The front of his jacket is covered in vomit.
“Idiot,” he seethes, and stalks off into the night.
Mary thinks about following him for half a moment, but a touch on her arm stops her.
“Don’t,” says the drunk, suddenly no longer slurring. “You don’t want to go home with that one, Mary Frances Callahan.”
She blinks a little, at the use of her full name. No one calls her Mary Frances anymore except her grandmother, and even then it’s not common.
“I’m sorry,” she says slowly. “Do I know you?”
He meets her gaze. “You knew me, once.”
“Oh, God. Did we go to high school together, or…?”
“My name’s John,” he says, and there’s an odd note of pride in the way he says it. “You named me, and we named you one of ours.”
“I’m sorry,” she starts, “I don’t know a John,” and then she remembers.
The corner of his mouth crooks up in a smile.
“We knew you’d recall, someday,” he says gently. “You’re still one of ours, and we’ll still watch out for you and yours, Mary Frances.”
“Then that man,” she says. “He was…?”
“Someone who knows about us,” says John. “He knows about you, and what you mean to us. He would have done you ill.”
She shivers a little, at the thought, remembers the way that time had suddenly seemed to speed up, when she was dancing with him. “He’s...one of you.”
“From the other side,” John says. “Or close to it. That’s not the point, though. The point is…”
“What is the point?” she asks, and the smile on his face widens into a grin.
“Everything. Nothing. I guess there is no point,” he says.
He leans in and kisses her cheek. His lips are hot, hot enough that she expects there to be a mark, and while she is preoccupied with this, he disappears, back down the alley he’d stumbled out of initially.
She knows better than to follow. It’s a blind end -- she’s familiar with it, from the few times her friends have gone out to smoke -- and he wouldn’t be there, anyway.
“John,” she says, and she remembers, the space between sunset and full dark, the way the shadows lengthened and They would come out, how she’d named them all…
“I’m still drunk,” she says aloud, after a moment. “That must be it.”
She takes a taxi home, texts her coworkers that she’s just fine, she just lost track of time, and tries not to think about it again.
It’s years before Mary thinks of Them again.
She’s married by that point and has a daughter of her own, Laura.
Laura is seven and allowed to play in the fenced backyard of their house, until the stars begin coming out, at which point it is time to come inside and get ready for bed.
“Do I have to, Mom?” she asks, every night, to which Mary gently says yes, she must, unless she wants to be tired the next day. “I was in the middle of something.”
This is the excuse her father has taught her, the polite way of saying, “I’m not ready to come in yet,” instead of whining and throwing a tantrum. It’s worked since she was five.
“What were you in the middle of?” she asks her daughter.
“I made a friend,” says Laura. “He says to call him John, and he says he knows you.”
She freezes. She tries not to show it, but she still does. “John?”
“Yes,” says Laura happily. “He says he used to play with you, when you were a little girl, and he can only come out at a certain time of day. Please Mom, can I go play with him more?”
“Tomorrow,” she manages. “John will be there tomorrow,” and Laura, thankfully, does not put up too much of a fuss.
She goes out to the garden herself, after Laura is in bed, when it is no longer blue almost-twilight but deep black night. It’s October. Most of the plants are dead or dormant, and the thin cardigan she’s wearing isn’t enough to stave off the cold. She can see her breath when she exhales, but still…
“John?” she says, experimentally.
There’s a twinkling light, somewhere down at the end of the garden.
“Watch over her,” she continues, her voice steady. “I don’t know if she’s given you her full name, but...watch over her, as you’ve watched over me.”
Silence, in response.
She waits a moment, watches the lights at the bottom of the garden (fireflies, her brain says stubbornly, though it is too late in the season for fireflies), then, when there is no answer, turns to head inside.
We’ll always watch out for you and yours, Mary Frances Allen, says a voice, gentle in her ear, as she steps onto the lawn.
It’s a familiar voice, and she trusts him implicitly.