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The Life You Left Behind

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The life you left behind you is no life at all.

~John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things

 

Dani was eight years old and being sent to her room, yet again. She wasn’t sure what she did this time, she only knew her mother was angry, her sour breath hitting Dani’s face with every roar. When it finally stopped she climbed the stairs, closed the door, and wept silent tears on her bed. And then, the whispers began, like they had so many times before. 

They came from her bookshelves, the home of her most cherished treasures lining one wall. Old hardcovers with Grimm’s fairy tales, Huckleberry Finn, and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Her eyes traced them as she lay on her side, trying to figure out where the whispers were coming from today. What adventures lie within those pages, promising an escape from the outraged voice downstairs.

She could travel there now, if she wanted to. But where… when… 

Dani noticed a dark green spine uneven with the rest. The cover peaking out sported a dragon’s eye, outlined in gold, staring back at her. A library book she had yet to touch, but it called to her now, caressing her mind, hypnotizing her into a deep sleep, or so it seemed. Her last coherent thoughts were piecemeal and mottled. I don’t feel my bed anymore. It’s gotten colder. I don’t know where I am. 

She smelled dampness and unwashed linens. A fresh breeze passed her face bringing relief, but she wanted more of it. She tried to move toward it in her mind, but the closer she got to the sounds of chirping birds outside, the less she felt the breeze. She opened her eyes and realized why.

Dani was standing in front of a dark grey stone wall. Peering up she noted a small window above her head. She stood on her tiptoes and placed her fingers on the cold surface to see an entire kingdom. Towers shot up from a castle beyond and thatched roofs dotted the ground. She felt dizzy when she realized how far she was from the ground below. 

“Oh. Hello.”

She turned at the young man’s voice and took in the cold damp room. A single bed was against the wall with no other furnishings. A young man with long stringy blond hair was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to an extravagant doll house. A little girl sat next to him, cloth napkins in her lap, long nightshirt pulled down over her knees. Her curly brown hair was sleep-tousled and she looked wary of Dani’s sudden presence.

“I’m Peter,” the young man said. As if it wasn’t at all uncommon to have visitors in this room with a door and no handle to let him leave. 

“I’m Danielle. Dani.”

“Hello Dani. Would you like to join us?”

Dani nodded and walked forward, her feet chilling with every step on the cold floor. She sat between them in a small open space, and Peter handed her a pile of hay. 

“To sit on, and for your feet. It will help with the cold.”

“Thank you.”

She made herself as comfortable as she could, and kept sneaking glances at the curly-haired girl, who avoided her gaze as she methodically stripped fibers from her napkin. 

“What are you guys doing?” 

Peter leaned in to whisper, eyes glancing at the solid wood door. “We’re making a rope to escape the tower, of course.”

“Why d’you need to escape? Are you in trouble?”

His face dropped into a sad smile. “Yes, but not like you’re thinking. I was put here by a crooked man who has poisoned my brother’s mind.”

“Where’s your brother?” Dani leaned forward, matching his whisper.

“He’s in the castle. A king! But I was supposed to be, I’m older.”

“Are you mad at him for being king?”

Peter shook his head. “Not at all, I’m worried for him. I can’t sleep but for the worry I feel.” As he spoke he reached into the doll house, feeding silk fibers onto a tiny loom. 

“Are you scared he’ll get in trouble too?”

“I am. So I must get out of here to help him before he does. Would you like to help?”

Dani nodded, and the other girl handed her a napkin. 

“You have ta be careful. They’ll know if we take too many bits. They check.”

Dani watched her as she demonstrated, her small fingernails scratching at the fine cloth until a single thread came loose. She picked at it until it was free, laying it down in a small pile for Peter to take and weave into a thin rope.

“How many is too many?” Dani asked, worried she’d get into trouble herself and be locked away in her own cold tower. 

The other girl looked to Peter, a question on her face.

“I used to only take one or two, but they haven’t noticed. It’s okay to take four or five now, Jamie.”

The girl nodded and went back to her task. 

“Jamie? That’s your name?”

She nodded again as she continued picking. 

Dani picked up her napkin and got to work. “Are you Story or Real?”

Jamie glanced up briefly. “What d’ya think? Do I look real?”

Dani reached out and touched her forearm but Jamie flinched away, her shirt sleeve uncovering a rainbow of bruises before she could tug it back down. 

“I’m sorry. You feel real, though.” Dani hesitated. “Did you fall down? On your arm?”

Jamie wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Yeah, sure. Fell.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Not as much now.”

Dani nodded and they worked long into the night, until they lost all light to see the fibers. 

But Peter was counting lengths of rope with the stretch of his wingspan, and grinning maniacally. “Girls, look. I think it’s long enough.”

Jamie stood with him, her voice nervous and stilted. “Y’sure? We can do more.”

Peter was shaking his head. “It’s dangerous to wait any longer. Let’s test it again.”

He wrapped the thin rope over a wooden beam crossing over his bed and hung from it, swaying from side to side as he broke out into laughter. 

“Shhh.” Jamie warned him, glancing nervously at the door. 

Peter took the long spool of rope to the window, dropping it to the floor. The girls helped him drag his bed over to give him a step for the opening. He tied the rope to the iron bars on the window, the gap far wide enough to allow his skinny body to fit through. 

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Dani didn’t know what to do with her hands, so she reached out to grip Jamie’s, who squeezed her back.

Peter turned to her, legs straddling the opening as he dropped the rope out the window.

“Well, no. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.”

Without another word, Peter was gone. Dani and Jamie leapt onto the bed to watch him descend, as he sent a triumphant grin up to them. 

As they watched, Dani heard a deep groan behind her. There was a crack growing in the wall, spreading slowly until it was taller and wider than her. A warm breeze spun around the room, smelling of the candles on her bedside table. Pumpkin spice and apple. 

Their hair was covering their faces, a cloud of brown and blonde, and they both reached up to shield their eyes from flying dust. 

“I think it’s time to go now.” Dani spoke into Jamie’s ear so she could be heard over the now roaring wind. 

Jamie nodded, but her eyes were tearing up.

Dani tugged her off the bed, hands still tangled together, their bare feet slapping the floor before moving to the lightless opening. 

When Dani stepped forward she felt Jamie release her. She turned back to see her standing several feet away. 

“Aren’t you coming? You can’t stay unless you’re Story.”

Jamie nodded, hands at her side, clenched in fists. “I’m right behind ya.”

She hesitated, her hand clasping the edge of the stone. 

Jamie waved her forward. “Go ahead. Only room for one at a time, anyway.”

Dani turned to the darkness but paused, sparing one more glance backwards. “I hope I see you again.”

Jamie reached out to her briefly, dropping her hand almost as quickly as she lifted it. “Me, too.”

And then Dani was through, the warmth of her bed welcoming her as the whispers quieted. She sat up and looked at the bookcase, realizing it was nighttime now. She turned on her lamp and looked at her nightgown and feet, both stained dark from black dirt. Mom will be so mad

Dani quickly changed and put on socks, climbed back into bed and turned off the light. She dreamed of dark towers and adventures with a curly-haired girl. 

She told her father about her adventure the next day. He was attentive as always, for he always understood how stories could take hold, root inside a person and create an entire universe. His patient understanding was a warm blanket for Dani when her mother screamed, slurred words and biting rebukes filling their rooms. 

He would ask all about Jamie, who became a regular fixture in her stories over the years. And she’d excitedly describe her every time. Her smile. Her quick mind. Everything about her that ignited a spark of joy in Dani’s chest. How they would always reach for each other, wherever they met, a consistent comfort in unknown worlds. And at the end of their time, she would always insist Dani go on first. I’m right behind ya.  

Her father would say, “She must be special, if she can find you in so many stories.” 

It made Dani feel warm in a way she didn’t quite understand.  

That is, until a poison took hold of her father, and he began wasting away in front of her very eyes. Cancer , the doctors whispered. We need to keep him comfortable

Soon, the only times he smiled were when she told him of her adventures, of far off lands with princesses and battles, myths and legends, romance and intrigue. 

“Don’t grow up and forget the magic, Dani.” He’d say. When she thinks back on their time together years later, it’s those words she remembers most. 

Before she was ready, Dani was alone with her stories, left behind with a raging mother. The older she got, the less she journeyed, for the magic was slowly fading with every year that passed. She became preoccupied with reality, how to be good, how to be right. 

Eventually, she stopped remembering her adventures as anything but dreams. A flash of memory here and there would remind her of what once was, but could never be again. Not in this world, where stories stayed locked away and silent. 

That curly-haired girl became an old imaginary friend, someone who probably never existed in the first place. “Just your imagination,” her mother would say. She said it enough that Dani started believing it. 

It was better that way, Dani decided. Since she’d never be seeing her again except in the vague familiarity of a passing stranger. Their profile would nudge a memory before they turned, and they quickly became yet another ghost from a long forgotten past. 

Until one day, when Dani would find just a little bit of magic, right when she needed it most...