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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 as they moved 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 a memory, 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...

 

Chapter Text

Most people come back here...in the end.

~ John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things

 

Dani returned to her childhood home at the age of twenty four. The porch swing where she used to spend her summers reading was in dear need of a coat of paint. She ran her finger along the arm rest. She could almost hear her father calling her in at sunset, the scent of pot roast and cherry pies wafting through the open window. 

Even later, evenings sitting here with Eddie, her head on his shoulder, the only comfort she felt for miles. Dani spun the ring around her finger, squeezing until the diamond nearly cut into her palm. A reminder that the simple times were long gone, and an entire life stretched out in front of her. Her stomach rolled at the permanence of that thought. 

Dani used her spare key to let herself in, dropping her suitcases at the bottom of the stairs.

Mom? ” 

Only silence and long forgotten scents assaulted her, her mother’s favorite perfume, and Murphy’s oil soap from the shining wood floors. Dani dragged her things up and into her bedroom, dumping her bags onto the single bed. The mattress creaked as she sat, her movement bouncing her carry-on off and onto the floor. Her back already hurt at the thought of sleeping here for even one night.

Her bulletin board hung on the wall, bearing swim team ribbons and old sketches on yellowed paper. Two poorly drawn girls rode horses in a flowering field, carrying swords into a battle. She walked over and traced the figures, and something tickled her brain at the familiarity. 

A sense of melancholy washed over her, increasingly common these days, when the size of her world left her feeling claustrophobic and lost. It would pass, she knew. It always did. 

Dani smiled as she walked over to her bookshelves, surprised to find a smattering of clean unbroken spines amongst her old collection. New York Times’ bestsellers from over the years filled an entire shelf. She touched the spines delicately before moving to unpack her wardrobe for the week. She hung her pink sundress, Eddie’s favorite, in the closet next to an old letter jacket and neglected Christmas sweaters. 

Dani pulled the rest of her clothes from her suitcase. She separated them into several drawers in the crooked white dresser along the wall. The top drawer refused to close, still requiring a hip check to get past the last few inches. She tossed the book she'd been reading on the trip home onto the bed, and nudged her shoes until they were aligned just inside the door. She looked around and nodded. It was starting to feel familiar again.

“Dani ?” Her mother’s voice rang out from downstairs.

“I’m up here!” 

Dani sighed, mentally preparing herself for awkward banter and endless excuses. She scrunched her shoulders up to her ears, held them, and loosened. I can do this . She walked out her door and down the stairs. She found her mother in the kitchen, heating water for tea.

“Hey, mom.”

“Dani!” Karen Clayton turned, a tremulous smile on her face, hair longer than Dani was used to. She came over to engulf her in a hug, and Dani hesitated before returning the embrace. 

Several seconds passed as Dani forced her muscles to relax one by one. She clenched her teeth and began to pull away. Karen squeezed tighter at the last moment before they separated. 

“I hope decaf is okay, it’s all I have left.”

“It’s fine.” She took a seat as Karen busied herself with tea bags and a drizzle of honey for each mug. 

Karen brought both over to the table, spilling some onto both placemats. “Wait. I’ll get a towel.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“It’ll just take a second.” Karen wiped at her forehead and hurried over to the oven, taking a red checkered tea towel from it’s handle. She avoided Dani’s gaze as she wiped up the mess. 

“Mom, you got it.”

“Oh! I almost forgot. I made poundcake.”

Dani narrowed her eyes. “You… baked ?”

Karen paused before cutting two thick slices. “My sponsor suggested it, a new hobby to keep me busy. I’ve actually gotten pretty good at it.”

She grabbed two forks and joined Dani at the table, hands shuffling together as her eyes darted around the table. “I hope you like it.”

Dani took a taste, letting the rich flavors explode on her tongue. “It’s great. Really. Just, not what I’m used to.”

Karen grimaced a bit, covering it quickly with a forced smile.

The clock on the wall ticked through the ensuing silence.

“Are we gonna talk about it?”

Her chair creaked as Karen leaned forward, her forearms pressing onto the worn linoleum of the table top. “I don’t even know where to start.”

Dani put down her fork and leaned back. She crossed her arms and nodded. “How about when the Millers found you blacked out behind their house. Maybe let’s start there.”

Karen’s knuckles whitened as her fingers twined together. 

“Or we could talk about how I didn’t find that out until you left rehab last week. Dealer’s choice.”

Karen’s fingers shook as she pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. Her cheeks reddened and her chin quivered. “I thought I could do this.” Her lips puckered open as she took in staggering breaths. 

Dani sat, silent, rhythmically squeezing the diamond from her ring into the tender skin of her palm.

“I didn’t know they would call you, I’m sorry about that.”

Dani’s nostrils flared. “You would’ve preferred I not hear about it at all?”

Karen dropped her hands to the table, spreading her fingers out on the surface. Her eyes were red-rimmed when she glanced up. “That’s not what I meant. Fuck, I’m already ruining this, aren’t I.”

“Ruining what?”

“I’m trying to explain.”

“And I’m waiting.”

Karen’s legs kept brushing hers as she adjusted and readjusted in her seat. The tea sloshed in their cups as she began tapping her foot, with her knee continuously bumping the table legs.

“I couldn’t let you see me like that. Like I was. Having my stomach pumped. Hooked up to IV’s. I was embarrassed. I’m supposed to be the parent here, and I’m just… I’ve never been that to you. Not really.”

Dani nodded, swallowing past a lump in her throat as her eyes welled with tears. 

“And after… I didn’t want you to know I was in rehab. Not because I didn’t need or want you. Never that. But I couldn’t stand it if I tried and failed. I wanted to be strong for once.”

Dani chose her next words carefully, using every ounce of will in her possession to hold her expression neutral. “It takes a very strong person to ask for help. That’s something Dad understood really well. So I am glad you did that, even if it was on your own. I would like to make a request, though.”

Karen nodded, and wiped her red cheeks dry. “Anything.”

“That in the future you communicate with me when you almost die or even have a bad cold. I know we’ve never been particularly close, but you’re still my mom. I still love you. But we’ll never be close unless you let me in.”

Karen started nodding before she finished speaking. “I do. I can promise you that. That I’ll try.”

“That’s all I ask.”

Dani reached for her cold mug, the tea having lost any and all warmth over the course of their conversation. “Let me freshen these up.” 

She squeezed her mother’s shoulder as she reached for her mug. Karen placed her hand over hers and held it there for several seconds, giving it a light pat before releasing her. It was a step for them, no matter how small.

Dani opened the window as she reheated the kettle, allowing the fresh Spring breeze in. She closed her eyes and let the scent of freshly cut grass overwhelm her before turning to lean her back against the counter. “Are you doing okay though? With everything.”

“I don’t really know how to answer that.” She was breaking her poundcake into increasingly smaller pieces with a fork, then smashing them flat instead of eating any. “It’s been hard, I guess. Not just stopping drinking, or all the work in rehab. But coming back here, where there are so many memories. I had vodka hidden all over the house. Took me days to find it all and trash it. I almost slipped so many times.”

“And did you ever? Slip, I mean.”

Karen shook her head. “Almost. Last night, actually. Knowing you were coming here, that we’d have this conversation. I spent four hours on the phone with my sponsor. But I didn’t drink. Pretty proud of that. Even though it’s a small victory in the scheme of things.”

Dani tossed the used tea bags and brought their drinks back to the table. She pulled her chair a little closer to her mother and sat. 

“That’s not a small thing at all, though.” She reached over and took her mother’s hand in hers. “You say you want to be strong, but that takes a lot to face your demons, and not give in. To not reach for that familiar crutch when you’re really low.”

Karen gave a tremulous smile, and her eyes sparkled with a bit of pride. “That wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest was facing how I’d been. With you. With your dad.”

Dani squeezed her hand and rubbed her knuckles with her thumb. 

“It breaks my heart that I can never make it up to him. Give him all the patience and love he deserved. But I was too busy feeling sorry for myself.”

Karen turned her hand over and started tracing the lines on Dani’s palm. The skin was tender where her diamond had pressed earlier. 

“I was thinking, though. Hoping, really. Maybe it’s not too late with you? We could try making something new. Something healthy for the both of us.”

A warm tingle permeated her skin where Karen touched her. It unlocked memories long since buried under bitterness and resentment. Of her mother, smiling up at her, kissing her scraped knee before lifting her high into the sky. Her arms wrapped tight around her, pointing out red pandas at the zoo. Her hair tickling Dani’s chin as she blew raspberries on her neck. 

The deep fissure in Dani’s heart slowly began to knit itself together again. “I’d like that.”

“Good. I’m glad.” Karen pressed Dani’s palm between her own. “I wish there was a  roadmap for this. I feel like I’m trying to put a puzzle together but all the pieces are blank. And I don’t even know what parts are missing yet, does that make sense?”

Dani nodded as she swallowed. An uncomfortable familiarity was crawling up the back of her throat. “It does.”

“Maybe we could help each other out with that, if you’re comfortable with it. I’m gonna fuck up a lot as I go, but…” Karen gave her a light squeeze. “Do me a favor? I might not deserve to ask this, but try to be gentle when I do?”

Dani’s voice was soft, but sure. She clasped her mother’s forearm. She rubbed the inside of her wrist with her thumb. She could feel the age in her paper-thin skin. “Everybody deserves a second chance, mom.”

Karen let out a sob and covered her mouth, nodding her head as her tears fell free. “Thank you.”

Dani leaned forward to kiss her mom on the cheek, and they both had to dry their eyes with napkins from the table, each giving watery laughs.

“I swear I’ve cried more in the past few months than I have in my entire life.”

“I like a good cry. The salt is good for the skin, or something like that.”

Karen laughed. “That sounds like a lie your father would say.”

“He did. Many times.”

Karen nodded, then pressed her chapped lips to Dani’s knuckles. “I think of you a lot, you know.”

“Really?”

Karen nodded as she tapped her fingers on the ceramic mug. “Whenever I’m out, if I see a book I think you might like, I bring it home. Thinking someday you might come back, read on the porch like you used to. Under better circumstances, hopefully.” 

“I saw them up there, was wondering where they came from.”

“I realized at some point I have no idea what you read these days, but I figure you can donate whatever you don’t want. I’m aiming for a good one out of twenty.”

Dani took a sip of her tea. “You did great. I spied a few up there that have been on my to-read list for a while. You might know me better than you thought.”

Karen’s smile lit up the room, all teeth and scrunched eyes. Her shoulders lowered a bit, and her back settled deeper into her chair.

“Now. Finish your tea before it gets cold again and catch me up on everything in your life.”

“I’m here all week, I’m sure I could spread it out.”

Karen waved her off. “Nonsense. I’m a little desperate for news that isn’t remotely about me.”

Dani spun her ring around her finger. The diamond scratched her pinky with every turn. “Well, I’ve only been teaching at the elementary school for six months or so.”

“And? How is it?” Karen sipped at her tea. The redness in her eyes was fading. An intense attentiveness was left behind that Dani wasn’t used to.

“Good I guess? Overwhelming. There’s so many kids, and some of them need so much help.” Dani rested her chin in her hand.

“Your aunt Rosalie always said the same about teaching. She was getting pulled into thirty different directions for decades. She was always so patient though. You remind me of her.”

“Really? I never knew that. Never really knew her.”

“She was a great woman. Kind. I wish she had lived long enough to see you follow in her footsteps, she’d have loved that.” Karen paused to bite her lower lip. “She got all of our mother’s best parts, and it warms my heart to see them in you.”

Dani reached for a fresh napkin. “Oh my god you have to stop making me cry.”

Karen clapped her hands. “Enough crying. Tell me all about the school. How’s the principal? And your kids.”

Dani settled her arms on the table, hands cupping her elbows. “They’re really great. The classes are so overloaded, like everywhere, but nothing I can really do about that right now. But I feel supported there, like I can make a safe space for anyone that might need it.”

Karen leaned forward a bit. “If that doesn’t scream you I don’t know what does.”

“You sound like Eddie.” Dani squeezed her elbows, her heart racing a bit when the ring pressed into her flesh.

“How is Eddie?” Karen’s gaze flicked down to the round diamond. 

“Good! He’s good. He said he’d stop by later this week if we need anything, I’m sure you’ll see him.”

Karen nodded a bit, and Dani could practically feel the path her eyes blazed across her face. As if she was decoding every gesture, every micro expression, every averted gaze. She cleared her throat and shifted focus.

“Anyway, the school district has better funding than what I expected, which is great. Not sure it’ll continue after this year, but I’ve been really fortunate to end up there.”

Dani spent the next hour filling her mother in, the conversation serving as a balm to the raw wounds they’d opened that afternoon. It was bittersweet, this new closeness. Something Dani had always wanted with her mother, that she feared couldn’t last. 

 

***

 

What followed was three days of a tremulous connection. They had taken to having coffee in the mornings, curled up under a blanket on the porch. They would watch the sunrise together in a comfortable silence. It was difficult to let go of the past completely. There were still snide remarks and passive aggressive digs. A plate Dani hadn’t washed enough, a book left on a tabletop, shoes left on the living room floor. But instead of falling into the comfort of punishing silences, apologies were promptly given, and accepted. 

Every misstep Dani feared would lead to instability, but at the end of each night there was a warm embrace, a kiss on her forehead, a hand on her shoulder. Two steps forward, one step back, it still felt like progress.

Halfway through her Spring Break, there was a knock on the wall next to the open garage door. Dani wiped the sweat from her forehead and looked up to see Eddie, smiling, carrying a beautiful bouquet of lilies. Her favorite. 

She forced a smile on her face as she walked over, accepting his kiss before being pulled into a tight hug. “I’m all sweaty.”

He pressed another kiss to her hair. “I don’t mind. Here. For you and your mom.”

Dani accepted the flowers, crisp white petals with baby’s breath and shining green leaves. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her nose into a bloom. “They’re beautiful, thank you.”

He rubbed her back but she pulled away, using the excuse “I need to get these in some water. I’ll be right back.” 

Dani escaped into the house, and took a clear vase down from the cabinet over the fridge. She carefully cut the stems at the sink while she took deep breaths to calm her racing heart. Her nostrils flared and her teeth clenched. Once the flowers were arranged and set on the windowsill to catch the sun, she pressed her hands onto the countertop on either side of the sink, arms straight, head bowed. It’s just Eddie .

“Dani?” His voice rang out from the garage.

“Coming!” Dani wiped her hands on a towel and checked her face in the hallway mirror on the way back. She pressed her chilled damp hands against her cheeks to cool them.

When she returned, Eddie was inspecting her progress, hands on his hips, proud grin on his face. “You’ve done a lot!”

Dani pressed some loose tendrils back into her ponytail. “Yeah. I wanted to get all this stuff organized before I left again.” 

A dozen labeled rubbermaid containers were stacked against the back wall. Formerly haphazard gardening tools and Christmas decorations now lined brand new metal shelving. 

“I can’t believe how much space there is in here now.”

“I know, you could even use this thing for a car some day. Imagine that.”

Eddie barked out a laugh and came over to her, rubbing his hand up and down her arm. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah, doing great.” Dani evaded his gaze, focusing instead on the piles of donations she had yet to organize in the corner. 

“Are you sure? You seem a little… tense.” He squeezed her tight shoulders before she stepped out of his grip. “Is it your mom?”

“No, nothing like that. She’s been pretty great, actually.”

“That’s amazing. My mom said she’s been doing so much better. Even went over for Sunday dinner last week.”

“Hmm.”

“Hey, talk to me.” He pulled out two folding chairs from where they hung on the wall and patted a seat for her.

Dani slouched back into the seat and crossed her legs. “Everything’s fine, just… a lot going on.”

Eddie leaned forward, the old metal groaned as he adjusted to rest his forearms on his knees. “You don’t have to do this alone, you know. I can stay here with you. The rest of the week if you want.”

The hair stood up on the back of Dani’s neck at the thought. “No, it’s fine really. Things are still a bit tense, but she really is trying.”

“Well if you change your mind, text me. Send a 911 and I’ll know what to do. I’d be here in twenty with a calvary. Well, just with mom’s meatloaf, but still.”

Dani laughed. “I appreciate that.”

“Oh shit, that reminds me! Something my mom wanted you to have, hang on.” 

He jogged out of the garage, and in the brief moments he was gone her chest felt less tight. The air lighter. Sooner than she was ready he returned, a long white box in his arms.

“What’s all this?”

He brought it to a table in the corner and set it down gingerly, lifting the lid with a triumphant grin.

A beautiful lace veil sat within white tissue paper. Small white pearls spread like confetti throughout. Dani’s eyes burned as she looked at it.

“Mom remembered how much you always admired it in her wedding photos. She thought you might want it for the wedding. But it’s totally okay if you don’t want it, or don’t want a veil, even.”

Dani’s mouth was dry, and she forced her next words through an aching throat. “That’s so thoughtful of her. Really. I don’t know what to say.”

He kissed her on the temple and closed the box again. “You don’t need to say anything or even make any decisions, but it’s here if you want it.” 

Dani kept her hands clenched, tucking them deep into her pockets. “No, of course. Tell her thank you for me?”

“I will. She’d love to see you, though I get it if you guys want to be alone this week.”

Dani’s stomach twisted at the hope in his eyes. “That would be best, I think. The alone part. I think we need that.”

Eddie frowned for a brief second before he tugged her into another hug. 

She settled her face into his neck, breathing in his familiar clean scent. He began to move, hand coming up to her cheek. She could feel her shoulders tightening, her entire body going rigid in anticipation. He pressed a kiss to her closed lips. She turned away after only a second, pretending to busy herself with the shelving she had already organized.

“Alright, I’ll get out of your hair. Make sure you call me if you need absolutely anything.” 

Dani glanced over her shoulder, guilt prickling at the back of her mind at his tentative smile. “I will. Love you.”

His eyes softened in the late afternoon sun. “Love you, too.”

And then, she was alone again, the tight band across her chest loosening with every second. Without a thought she wiped at her lips with her opened palm. 

“Eddie looks good.” 

Dani jumped. “Jesus! Mom. I didn’t know you were still here.”

Karen stood at the door to the house, her gaze flicking to the box and back to Dani. She walked across the garage and took Eddie’s empty seat. 

“I still have a little bit of time, thought I’d see if you needed more help with all this.” She gestured at the pile in the corner.

Dani leaned back against the table, her hip inches from the white box. She gripped the edge until the metal of her ring pressed hard into her knuckle.

“How is he doing? I realized you haven’t mentioned him much.”

Dani crossed her arms, rubbing at her bicep when she felt a sudden chill. “He’s good. Great, really. He started as a CPA at a new firm in town, so he’s excited.”

Karen nodded and crossed her legs. She opened her mouth once but closed it quickly, her brow furrowing before she tried again. “And are you excited? About the engagement, I mean. It’s a very pretty ring.” She motioned to Dani’s arm, where the stone refracted the overhead light.

Dani tucked it away in her fist. “Yeah, of course. This was his grandmothers, so it means a lot to him. That I wear it.”

Karen tapped her nails on the metal of her chair. 

Dani squared up her shoulders. “Did you have something to say about that?”

Karen shook her head. “I love Eddie. You know that.”

“I do.” Dani started picking at the side of her thumb.

“He was always there for you, when I wasn’t, and that means a lot.”

“And Judy, both of them. They were a second family to me growing up. And after Dad… I think I needed that.”

“You did. And I’m so thankful to them for giving you that. I just…” Her mouth hung slightly open, chin quivering.

Dani cleared her throat and she waved her hand at her mother. “Go ahead. Let’s hear it.”

Karen’s mouth set into a pained smile. “I always knew you loved Eddie. How could you not, really. He’s become such a kind man. Gentle. Thoughtful.”

“He is all of those things. He’s special.” Dani’s voice had hardened. She was so used to defending her choices it had become second nature.

Karen nodded and said, “But you’ve never seemed in love with him.”

“Huh.” Dani gripped the back of her neck with both hands. “Well, you haven’t really been around us that much as adults, in all honesty.”

“That’s true, of course. And that’s my fault completely.” Karen leaned slightly forward, head tilting. “But in all the years you’ve been dancing around a future together, you’ve never seemed excited. About any of it.”

Every muscle in her body went rigid. “Sure I’m excited. Who wouldn’t be?”

Karen’s hands splayed wide. “I know I don’t have any business saying any of this. It’s your life, and I will be happy for you no matter what you do.” She paused for several weighted moments. “But is there any part of you that thinks you could be doing this for him and not for yourself?”

Something heavy settled in Dani’s stomach. A souring weight that made her feel ill. 

“Please don’t take this as any sort of judgment. You’ve always given so much of yourself, for everyone around you. And that’s beautiful.” Karen stood and walked over to her, fingers grazing the edge of the white box. “But are you sure you’re happy?”

Dani couldn’t speak. Her nostrils flared as she tried to take in enough of the stale garage air in small panting breaths.

“That’s what your father and I had. For so long. You probably don’t remember, you were too young. But when he was healthy, and I wasn’t drinking, there was no one in this world that could make me laugh like he could.” Her voice cracked. “He was my best friend. And the love of my life. And it destroyed me when I lost him.”

Dani’s voice was small and brittle. “It destroyed me too.”

“You deserve that kind of love, is all I’m saying. And if that’s with Eddie, then I will stand at your side with a proud smile on my face at your wedding. I’ll toss all the birdseed and ruin my makeup crying.”

Dani hummed.

“But if it isn’t him...” Karen reached over and brushed a thumb across her jaw, then pressed her palm against her warm cheek. “That would be okay. And you would be okay.”

Karen pulled away and softened her voice. “You have all the time in the world, either way. I hope you know that.”

Dani couldn’t force any words out, so just nodded her agreement, trying to swallow past the ache in her throat.

“Okay. I’ll be at my meeting for a few hours, but there’s leftovers in the fridge if you get hungry.” Karen walked away, turning back once more at the garage door. “I love you, you know.”

Dani nodded, and she reached up to her hair back on her forehead. “Love you, too.”

She stayed there long after her mother was gone, her ring a lead weight on her finger. Mentally exhausted, she took the box upstairs to her room, carefully setting it onto her small desk in the corner. She sat on the bed, digging her fingers into the edge of the mattress until she felt her short nails bend. She tasted the salt of tears when she licked her dry lips. 

The sun lowered in the sky as she sat, purples and reds filling her room from the single window. There was a strange but familiar scent in the air, something she couldn’t quite place. She closed her eyes and breathed it in.

Dani blinked when she thought she heard someone say her name. She narrowed her gaze, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. Her familiar desk was against the wall, her overnight bag open on the floor. There was nothing to trigger the goosebumps rising across her skin.

She shivered, and laid down on her back, her body automatically rolling into the dip in the center. Her eyes dried as she stared at the ceiling, where old glow-in-the-dark stars spread across in a galaxy she created when she was ten. When her back started to ache, she rolled onto her side, folding up the flattened pillow to cradle her face.

Her eyes grew heavy as silence blanketed the room. It wasn’t long before she let her exhaustion take her into a dream.

In it a warm glow reached her from across the room. Silver sparkles danced around her, and she reached out for them, surprised when they tickled her skin. They wrapped around her where she lay, before lifting her into the air. 

Dani was shrinking in space, floating through her room towards a thin book that stood out among the rest on a shelf. A cream white cover with playing cards floated across its spine. The air around it vibrated. 

And then she was shrouded in darkness, her body spinning head over foot. She felt dizzy, and couldn’t slow her body until she was suddenly dropped onto lush green grass, large foreign trees surrounding her, thick vines criss-crossing their trunks. Mushrooms towered over her, shining purple tops and tan stems. She stepped away from one and tripped over a root. Or so she thought, until it grumbled at her.

“Christ, watch it, some of us are sleepin’ here.”

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry.”

The lump on the ground was covered in a green cape, camouflaging them to the surrounding environment, until dark hair popped out from below. 

“You could try lookin’ where you’re goin’ sometimes.”

Dani felt a tingle of familiarity at the girl’s voice. 

“To be fair, you were hidden under that thing.” She gestured at the cape.

“That’s the point, so people will leave me alone.”

“Well, I’m sorry but it doesn’t really work. If you’re on the ground. Where people could, you know, walk.” 

The woman stood, wiping grass and leaves off her body as she kept her head down. “Worked fine til you came along.” She started walking away and Dani followed close behind.

“I didn’t choose to come along, I was just plopped here.” 

The woman moved a branch out of her way. Dani had to duck to avoid it snapping back into her face.

“Well plop yourself somewhere else, then.”

Dani groaned. “If you could just wait a second, and tell me where I am?”

The woman waved at the mushrooms surrounding them. “These not givin’ you the hint?”

“Clearly not.”

The woman turned and Dani was struck silent. Hazel eyes stared back at her, framed by curly brown hair that had haunted her dreams for so many years. She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move.

Jamie?

Chapter Text

It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.

~Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

 

 

“How d’you know my name?” Jamie narrowed her eyes and stepped back.

Dani shook herself out of her trance and reached to grab her arm.

Jamie put her hands up. “Whoa hands off, if ya don’t mind.” 

“I’m sorry, I just… you don’t remember me?” 

Jamie’s face was a blank mask. 

“I know you. Or I knew you, I think. It’s me. Dani.” She pressed her hand to her chest. 

A roar sounded and Jamie grabbed her, clamping her hand over Dani’s mouth before bringing her finger up to shush her. She pointed above the treeline, where a dark creature sprouting black wings streaked across the moonlit sky. 

Dani was pulled below a tall mushroom as it swept past, it’s voice screeching loudly. Her heart pounded and her hands were clammy. What the fuck.

Jamie leaned over and whispered into her ear. “It’s a Jabberwock. Best to keep out of it’s way.”

“Jabberwock?!”

“Shh!”

Dani grimaced and waited for the creature to pass, while sneaking looks at Jamie. She was chewing at her bottom lip, jaw tensing rhythmically as her eyes tracked the creature's movements. Her tan button-up was grass-stained with damp patches mottling it’s surface. Her woven green cape was clasped at her throat by a shiny metal leaf. She wore dark grey work pants, her side pockets bulging. 

When Dani looked back up, Jamie was watching her, lips pressed thinly together. Dani turned away as her cheeks warmed. 

A few moments later, Jamie cautiously stepped out from under cover, lifting her hand up to keep Dani in place. Her head tilted as she walked, dark red work boots barely making a sound in the undergrowth.

Dani looked down, realizing she was still in the dark jeans and the maroon v-neck t-shirt she drifted to sleep in earlier. Her red converse were vibrant against grass that was far too bright and perfect to be real. She nudged at some longer blades with her toe, and they curled around her shoe briefly before releasing her. What. The. Fuck. 

She shivered and rubbed her bare arms, where goosebumps erupted across her skin. 

“‘S gone now, you can come out.”

Dani stepped out from under the mushroom cap to where Jamie stood, hands resting on her hips.

“A jabberwock?” Dani pointed at the sky. 

“That’s what I said, yeah.”

Dani waved at the surrounding forest. “Does that mean… are we…” Her voice wavered and she clenched her fists to steady herself.

“‘S Wonderland. Don’t eat anything.” Jamie turned and started walking away, weaving in and out of hanging purple vines. 

Dani hurried to follow her, dodging when Jamie pushed a branch out of her way, only to have it snap back into place almost in Dani’s face. “Hang on, how are you even here?”

Jamie’s eyebrow was arched when she tossed a glance over her shoulder. “What kinda question is that?”

Dani reached forward and pinched her on the bicep. 

Jamie jerked her arm away. “What the… y’can’t just go around pinchin’ people. What’s the matter with you?” She rubbed at the spot on her arm.

“Are you real?”

“Do I not look real?” The pitch of her voice was getting higher.

Dani gestured at the purple vines. “ None of this looks real. You, least of all.”

“I think I’m insulted.”

Dani sighed and rubbed her eyes. “I just don’t get it. I was in bed. Falling asleep. And now I'm dreaming? I think? But you’re an adult .”

Jamie looked down at herself. “Last I checked.”

“But I knew you. When you were…” Dani pointed at Jamie, then herself. “When we were kids.”

Her eyes narrowed and she stepped cautiously forward. Dani stayed still as Jamie circled, her eyes tracking every inch of her. 

When she was back in front of her, Jamie shook her head. “Not possible. Can’t be her.”

“Uh, I think I can be. Cause I am.”

Her head tilted and she leaned forward. “No. You’re not.”

Dani grabbed her sleeve before she could turn away again. “This is ridiculous. I don’t know how to prove to you that I am myself.

Jamie shrugged, her mouth turned down in a frown. “Don’t bother, then.”

“Oh my god.”

“Look, you’re the one obsessin’ over it.”

“I’m not , I just… I don’t understand how you’re here, in my dream, after all these years. And you’re old .”

Jamie stepped back, eyebrow creeping up to her hairline. “Why do you think this is a dream?”

“It’s not real if we’re in Wonderland .” Dani waved around at the trees, their bright purples and blues catching the light of the full moon above. 

“Pretty close-minded if you ask me, thinkin’ such a place couldn’t be real.” Jamie leaned forward. “Especially when we’re standin’ in it.”

Dani matched her stance, bringing their faces inches apart. “In a dream .”

“Whatever. I had been dreamin’, before you stepped on me.” 

Dani rubbed at her forehead and sighed. “You looked like the ground.”

“That’s the point!”

“Wait. How did you do that anyway, do you have magic?”

“Don’t be daft.” Jamie tugged at the edge of her cape. “This thing is fancy. It camouflages me.”

Dani rubbed the woven fabric between her fingers before Jamie slapped her hand away.

“Christ, you’re grabby.”

“Sorry, it looks weirdly familiar to me.”

“I nicked it from some pointy-eared bloke in a tree. Go get your own.”

“Where, here?”

Jamie scoffed and looked at her out of the corner of her eye. “There aren’t elves here.”

“Right. As if that’s an insane question about a place with bright blue trees.”

“If you were really Dani, you’d already know this shite.”

“What does that mean ?”

They were interrupted when a cloud of white smoke filled the space around them. They both coughed and waved it away.

“Who. Are. You.”

Another cloud blew around them. 

“Who. Are . You.”

“Fuck’s sakes, Clarence, we did this yesterday .” 

When the smoke cleared, there was a caterpillar as long as Dani was tall atop a nearby mushroom. He was tapping a pipe against his lip and stretched his neck over the edge of his pedestal. 

“Who. Are…”

“Shut it!” Jamie walked over and clapped her hands right in front of his face. “If I told you once, I told you fifty times. Lay off the hookah, mate, it’s scrambled your brains.”

He took a long puff and exhaled directly into Jamie’s face. He slowly turned around on the mushroom cap, his hundreds of little legs scurried while the bulk of his body glided in place. He didn’t stop until his back flicked at Jamie, and he settled with a groan. 

“He doesn’t remember you?”

“He doesn’t remember anybody even after five minutes. Nobody ever does though, once you leave a place and come back to it”

“What do you mean, come back to it?”

“If you went on a whole adventure here, had tea with the Mad Hatter…” She pointed at Dani. “which I don’t recommend by the way, it’s a shit show. If you did the whole bloody story before leavin’. And even if you came back here the very next day, you’d remember everythin’, but no one here would.” 

“Huh. That’s kind of sad.”

“Is it?” Jamie picked up a stone from the ground, and tossed it haphazardly at a tree.

“You don’t think so?”

“I dunno.” She shrugged her shoulder. “It’s nice gettin’ a clean slate every time. Can always fix a thing. Make different choices. Nothin’s ever permanent that way.”

“That sounds kinda lonely to me.”

Jamie wouldn’t meet her gaze as she batted at vines hanging from a nearby tree. “Spoken like someone with a world of amazin’ options at their feet.”

Dani furrowed her brow, and she let out a strained laugh. “You don’t know anything about me.”

Jamie turned to her. Her eyes were narrowed, hands shoved deep into the pockets of her pants. “I know that if you are Dani, then you haven’t come back here for who knows how many years. That’s cause you haven’t needed to.” She tipped her head to the side. “Seems like you got a pretty decent life, if you ask me.”

Dani’s mouth turned down, her lips thinned and she let out a noncommittal sound. “Looks like you have me all figured out.”

Jamie looked her up and down, pausing for several moments to stare at Dani’s hand. She closed it into a fist and tucked it into the crook of her elbow and crossed her arms.

“You’re clean. Pretty. Clothes aren’t secondhand. Hair’s done up nice. Got a big rock on your finger there.” She nodded to it and quirked up an eyebrow. “I’d say you’re drownin’ in privilege. Takin’ a little trip down memory lane here. Slummin’ with us ne'er do wells. But you? You’d never belong here. Not anymore.”

Dani gritted her teeth until her cheeks hurt. “I remember you being a lot nicer.”

Jamie leaned forward. “Now I know you’re not her. Cause I’ve never been anythin’ but this.”

Dani’s cheeks warmed and her nostrils flared with every intake of breath. Her shoulders were tense and neither stepped back as they stared each other down. A cool breeze blew and Dani shivered. She blinked several times, and the moment was broken.

“Right. Well, this was fun.” Dani waved at her. “How about you just go ahead and be miserable elsewhere.”

Jamie bowed so low her face almost touched her knees, her arms spread wide. When she stood back up she gave Dani a salute. “Don’t mind if I do.” Without another word, she left her there, her green cape disappearing as soon as she passed some tall shrubs. 

A few more steps and Dani couldn’t even hear the rustle of branches, the snap of twigs underfoot. She turned around as strange howls sounded from a distance away. She shivered and rubbed her bare arms. 

She turned in every direction, and tried to figure out which direction she should head. Jamie went that way, so that’s a no . She chewed at her lip as she weighed her options. One way seemed particularly dark, another full of shrubs with inch-long thorns. One way didn’t look too menacing, and fireflies occasionally illuminated the path. Dani took a deep breath and headed down the path, convinced that eventually she’d snap herself awake. 

 

***

 

Hours passed and Dani was falling asleep on her feet. She could swear she passed the same cluster of trees three times, but she sighed and kept walking anyway. By the fourth time, she couldn’t hold back a sob. Her feet ached, her stomach growled, and her eyes felt like they were filled with sand. 

Dani was dreadfully, hopelessly lost. Not that that seemed to matter, she doubted she could pick a way out of this hellscape if her life depended on it. Her shoulders dropped and she sighed, deciding once and for all to give up for the night and to just find a spot to tuck in for a little sleep. 

She was kicking some branches off of some soft-looking moss when she smelled something delectable . Roasted vegetables and meats, gravy and mashed potatoes. Her mouth watered and her stomach grumbled loudly. 

Dani followed the scent off the trail into a flowering field that was bursting with fireflies. She breathed deeply through her open mouth and let the flavors coat her tongue. A golden dusting was in the air. When she reached up to touch it, it was much warmer than the surrounding area. 

She stepped into a fog of warm light. All her senses dulled except her hunger, which only intensified.  Her stomach cramped as if it had been days since she’d tasted any food. Her peripheral vision was dimming, and lightheadedness made it difficult to focus. She swayed on her feet but the aromas in the air drew her forward on shaky legs. There was an itch traveling over her skin, never settling in one place. 

Dani didn’t stop until she reached a table full to bursting with all her favorite comfort foods. Roasts and mashed potatoes, casseroles and cakes. She fell to her knees several feet away, overwhelmed at her body’s response. Her skin prickled and her eyes devoured every inch of the banquet before her. She crawled forward on hands and knees, for she had no confidence in her legs’ ability to hold her upright until she could feast

When she finally reached the table, Dani bypassed the silverware to take a slab of juicy beef with her bare hand. When she touched it, her fingertips burned. She jerked back, noting her skin had turned pink where the scalding sensation remained. But still, her hunger raged inside, turning her stomach with nausea, her heart pounding loud in her ears. She ignored the pain and reached again, with both hands this time. Her eyes were wide and her pupils were dilated when she caught a glimpse of herself in a silver pitcher. 

Dani barely paused her movements until something smacked her hands away just as soon as she made contact yet again. She screamed at the intrusion, wanting nothing more than that burn to fill her mouth, her throat, every vein in her body. 

Someone collided with her back as she howled out her fury, and her name was whispered like a chant against her ear. Her hands were clasped together against her chest, arms constricting her from behind until she settled into pained gasps. Water was pouring over her hands now, and the coolness of it was like flaming hot needles. 

Minutes felt like hours as they lay there. Dani was surrounded by soothing words as she was rocked gently in a secure grasp. Eventually, her heart rate settled and she realized her body was shaking uncontrollably. 

Her teeth chattered and her voice was raspy when she asked, “What happened?”

Jamie’s face popped up from behind. Her eyes traced Dani’s face as she pressed her cool palm against a feverish cheek. Dani felt a shiver travel down her spine at the touch. 

“Fuck Dani, you okay?”

She cleared her throat. “So now you believe me.”

Jamie shook her head, stood, and reached down to pull Dani up. “Only you would end up at the same hallucinogen party twice.”

Dani’s vision wavered when she got to her feet, and her lightheadedness returned. “Whoa.”

“Hey, I gotcha. Hang on.” Jamie grabbed her by the shoulders, steadying her until she could stand on her own. “Y’alright?”

“Hallucinogen what now?”

Jamie smirked. “When we were kids, first time you came here, you took the same path. Fortunately for you, you didn’t eat anythin’ this time. You puked for two hours straight back then. Wouldn’t stop talkin’ about pink elephants and melting trees.”

“Christ, I think I need to sit down.” She started doing just that, folding into herself, but Jamie stopped her.

“Wait, let’s get you away from this first, it’ll just make you crazy bein’ near it.” Jamie nodded toward the table.

Except it wasn’t a table. There were no roasts or candies or cakes. It was a slab of granite covered in fungi, shooting spores into the air every few seconds. A gelatinous mass undulated on the surface, and Dani felt nauseous knowing she almost ate that.

“Can you walk?” 

She turned back to Jamie and nodded, allowing her to swing Dani’s arm over her shoulder. Her arm was around her waist as she took some of Dani’s weight and walked them out of the clearing. The farther they retreated down the trail, the more Dani’s hunger subsided.

They reached a small spring with water clear enough to see the rock bottom. Jamie helped her sit on a mossy stone that hung over the pool. She joined her and pulled off her boots and socks to hang her feet in the water. 

“Is it… safe to do that?” Dani pointed at her feet. 

“Yeah. I know just about everything in this place. I used to come here a lot back in the day.”

Dani pulled off her own shoes and gasped at the warmth of the water when she settled in herself. “Oh my god, that feels amazing.”

“This is one of my favorite spots. You can drink it too. I promise it won’t poison you or make you see weird shit.”

They swung their feet back and forth. Dani kicked up a bit, enjoying the spray from it when it hit her face. She dug her fingers into the moss and chanced a glance over at Jamie, who was staring into the clear blue pool.

“That felt real. All that back there. I can still feel the burn on my fingers, but I don’t understand how that’s possible.”

“It probably wouldn’t be, if you were in a dream. But that’s not what that is, not that you believe it.”

Dani sighed. “I might be starting to, honestly. I don’t get how, but are we actually in Alice in Wonderland?”

Jamie peeked at her through wayward curls with a smirk on her face. “Told you we were.”

“Hang on.” Dani leaned towards her. “Why are there hallucinogens in a children’s book?”

Jamie let out a bark of laughter. “That’s a good question. But it’s chock full of em. ‘S why I told you not to eat anything in here.”

Dani rubbed at her temple, she had a residual headache from earlier. “I honestly didn’t want to. At least at first. It was so weird, like there was nothing in my life I needed more than to eat whatever that stuff was right then .”

“Yeah a lot of stuff here does that. Preys on you, really. Tries to get at you when you’re feelin’ the weakest.”

“But you used to come here a lot? Kind of a crazy drug trap to hang out in.”

Jamie’s smile fell from her face. She shrugged and turned back to continue staring into the pool. “Sometimes you wanna forget things. I spent a lot of years wishin’ I could. Made a lot of choices I wouldn’t necessarily make now.”

“What kind of choices? If that’s okay to ask.”

“If it stops you from doin’ this shit again, I might as well tell you.”

Dani pulled her feet out of the water and hugged her bent legs to her chest, resting her cheek on her knees as she watched Jamie pick at a clump of moss.

“We used to know each other. Kind of weird havin’ to tell you about me again.”

Dani nodded at her but kept silent. Crickets were the only sounds for several minutes as she waited.

“I didn’t have the best home life. No home at all, really. Seemed a better use of my time hangin’ out in stories instead. At some point, when I got a bit older, I was angry. At most everyone and everything. For the life I had, and the life I didn’t. That stuff can wear on ya. I didn’t wanna go back so I just… stayed here. To forget who I was for a time.”

A sense of unease filled Dani’s stomach, picturing a young Jamie in the field they just left, burning hands and dilated eyes, her belly filled with dangerous substances. “Did it ever help?”

Jamie tossed the piece of moss and wiped her hands on her pants. “Nah. That stuff never does, really. But sometimes it’s better than letting yourself feel everything, even for a little bit.”

Dani swallowed past a lump in her throat. “I think I get that.”

“Anyway, I know what’s safe here, and what’s not. So do me a favor and trust me when I tell you what to look out for.”

“I will. Thank you.”

Jamie looked over at her. “For what?”

“For telling me all that.”

Jamie shrugged. “Not a big deal, really.”

“Thanks anyway.” 

They stared at each other for several long moments. The moonlight reflected off the water into Jamie’s eyes. She could see flecks of green around her irises. She was pretty, really, when she wasn’t looking at her with annoyance etching every feature. Her hair was just as she remembered. Dani knew if she reached out it would be as soft as satin. She remembered doing so, many years ago. Feeling it curl around her fingers, and the brilliant smile that would overtake Jamie’s face when she did. Butterflies were fluttering in her stomach.

“We should get some rest.”

Dani jerked up. “Right! Yeah, we should. Sorry, you were sleeping before all this.” Dani glanced at her naked wrist. “I don’t even know what time it is. I didn’t put on my watch today.”

Jamie stood up and picked up her boots. Dani followed suit.

“Wouldn’t matter if you did. Wonderland does crazy shit to them anyway. Makes ‘em pretty useless.”

“Right. Of course it does.”

“Come on, I know a good spot where we can get some sleep.”

Dani followed her to an outcrop not far away. She lay next to Jamie on a bare spot on the ground. “Is this okay? I don’t have a blanket or anything.”

“‘S alright, you can share mine.”

She draped her cape over them both and Dani pressed against her side to steal Jamie’s heat. Her eyes were heavy as the night caught up to her. Her voice was quiet and a bit slurred when she spoke. “Thanks for following me, even though you were pretending you hated me.”

Jamie scoffed at her. “Didn’t follow you. Just happened to be walkin’ through at the right time.”

Dani smiled and rolled onto her side. She pressed her nose to Jamie’s shoulder, inhaling her clean scent. She smelled like lavender and pine. “Hmm. That’s very believable, what you just said there.”

“Whatever. Stop talkin’ so I can sleep.”

Jamie’s warmth and the sound of her even breathing lulled her into a deep sleep. 

 

***

 

Dani woke the next morning curled up against Jamie’s back. Her hands were tucked between them and her nose was nuzzled amongst soft dark curls. She groaned and stretched as she rolled onto her back. She opened one eye to see Jamie peering at her from over her shoulder.

“You’re still here.”

Jamie turned to face her fully. “Where’d you think I’d go?”

“I thought I’d wake up alone in my bedroom again.”

Jamie grunted. “That’s not really how it works.”

Dani sat up, letting the cape fall to her side and yawned, rubbing her eyes free of sleep while the sun streamed in through the canopy above. She spoke through the end of a loud yawn. “How does it work?”

Jamie was pulling a small beige cake out of her pocket. She broke it in half and handed it to Dani. 

Dani sniffed at it. It smelled a bit like oatmeal. She took a small bite and had to force it down her throat. “What’s this?”

Jamie’s shoulder pressed against hers as she shrugged. “Oatcakes. I learned to make 'em along the way, I forget where though. But they last a good long while so they’re handy in these parts.”

Dani coughed a few times, as she continued nibbling at the smallest bites possible. She was starting to wonder if it would be so terrible to eat things in Wonderland after all. “Mmm. It’s good.”

Jamie laughed. “You’re a terrible fuckin’ liar.”

Dani couldn’t hold back a grin. She stared down at her oatcake as she picked at it. “How does it work though? Going home. If this isn’t really a dream, I mean.”

“You gotta want to go back more than anything. That’s the only way out of any story.” Jamie’s mouth quirked up on one side. “Looks to me like you don’t wanna go home yet.” 

Dani’s head shot up. “Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?” Her heart rate picked up. She felt the ring on her finger, the metal cold and unforgiving against her sensitive skin.

“If that were really true, there’d be an opening poppin’ up on that tree right there, ready to bring you back to your happy little life.” She gestured at the nearest blue trunk. “But here you are, eatin’ a shitty breakfast with yours truly.”

“It’s not that shitty.” 

Jamie pressed a hand against her chest. “Your words are like a sweet caress.”

“Stop it.” Dani smacked her on the arm.

“Christ! Were you always so violent when we were kids?” Jamie winced and rubbed at her upper arm.

Dani laughed. “I actually don’t remember. Maybe? There’s something about you, just makes me want to smack you around a bit.”

“Blimey.”

“Oh my god, I didn’t mean like that .”

“Listen, I don’t know what you’re into back in the real world .”

“You’re the worst.” Dani’s cheeks hurt from grinning. “Where are you going from here?”

“Hadn’t decided, really. Could hang out a bit, fuck with the queen’s roses. Or bugger off to somewhere else.”

“Why are you fucking with her roses?”

“Every time I’m here, her lackeys are frantically paintin’ white roses red, cause they fucked up and planted the wrong ones. She’s the sort that’ll go mental if her flowers don’t match her, so I like to fuck with her paint stash. Gives me a little thrill.” Her shoulders scrunched up and a look of glee crossed her face. “Wanna help?”

She looked around them, realizing she didn’t actually have anywhere else to go. “You sure you want to burden yourself with me for any longer?” 

Jamie rocked back on her heels. “I’d be racked with guilt if you ended up in another jam. Seein’ as you can’t seem to keep yourself out of ‘em…”

“Ha ha.”

“So what d’ya say? Wanna keep me company?”

“Sure. Why not?”

Jamie grinned and stood, reaching down a hand for her to take. Dani hesitated for several moments before sliding their palms together. A familiar tingle traveled up her arm at the contact. 

Something was niggling at the back of her mind. A memory of Jamie taking her by the hand, her nails dirty from climbing trees and picking at bark, forming pieces into small animal shapes to make Dani laugh. Her heart warmed at the thought, and for a brief second she remembered what it was like to feel pure joy.

They pulled apart as soon as Dani was standing. Jamie cleared her throat and tucked her hands into her pockets. “Right. Ready for an adventure?”

Dani saluted her. “Lead on, Cap’n.”

 

Chapter Text

Curiouser and curiouser.

~Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

 

The longer they walked, the less sure Dani felt about her strange surroundings, and she couldn’t stop fidgeting. She picked at a loose thread in her jeans pocket, and bit at her thumbnail until she was down to the quick. 

“Christ. I can hear you thinking all the way over here.”

Jamie was ducking under a branch, brushing past golden leaves that shone in the sun. When Dani poked one as she passed, a glittering dust burst into a cloud and something squeaked.

“They don’t like that. Best to leave them be or they get pissy.”

Dani blinked and looked at the leaf as it settled on the branch. A golden hue was spreading onto its surface from within. “Oh. I’m sorry, little guy.”

Jamie scoffed. “Did you just apologize to a leaf?”

“Yes?” 

Jamie covered her mouth and turned away. Her shoulders shook as she dodged low-hanging branches.

“What?” Dani hurried to follow.

“Nothin’.” Jamie’s voice was strained, and a giggle escaped before she cleared her throat.

“You’re laughing at me.”

“A wee bit, maybe.”

When she caught up to her, Dani saw her reddened face, her eyes sparkling with mirth. 

“It’s just a leaf, Dani. The squeak was from the slug you stepped on back there.” She gestured at the path behind them with her thumb.

Dani’s eyes widened. “Well now I feel bad.”

Jamie waved her off. “Nah, slugs here are armored. He’s fine, just bitchy.” She broke off a twig from a tree they passed, and began breaking it apart into little bits. The core of the twig was iridescent, the glow increasing slightly at every snap with her fingers. 

Dani pointed at the bits of twig as they fell to the ground. “I just have a really hard time convincing myself that’s not a figment of my imagination.” 

“Isn’t everything you imagine real in some way? If you believe in it, isn’t it real for you?” She was looking at the last bit of twig in her hand before she tossed it for Dani to catch.

Dani grabbed it, and felt the vestiges of warmth from Jamie’s grasp on the piece of wood. She turned it over in her hand and watched the sun catch the purples, pinks, and blues in its core. She pressed her finger to the swirling colors, expecting to feel something sharp and strange. But it was like any other twig, coarse and cool to the touch. She pocketed it, but kept pressing her finger against the sharp edge. A talisman to remind herself that something here could feel real.

“I guess.” She caught up with Jamie and said, “Tell me about them. The stories.”

“What about them?”

“How do they work? Do you ever go in one and get stuck? And have to stay til the very end?”

“Ah, fuck no. That would be so boring. Imagine hopping into War and Peace and having to wait eight million pages before you could leave.”

“Okay, yeah, that does sound awful.”

“Christ, you’d spend years of your life in that one. I went to it once, though. Spent about ten minutes there before I was bored out of my skull and hopped right back out.”

Dani nodded, the corner of her mouth tugging up in a smile. “Can I tell you a secret?” 

Jamie nodded and Dani leaned in closer to whisper, “I might get fired for saying this, but most classics bore me to tears. I’ve sat and tried to read A Tale of Two Cities so many times.”

It was the best of times, it was... pretty lame, honestly. I’d hop outta that pronto. A bit too filthy and sad in there for my taste.”

“So filthy. So sad.”

Jamie batted at a branch, golden powder bursting into the air from the disturbance. “Why would you get fired for that?”

“I teach English, and I’m supposed to love the classics, but I hate them.”

Jamie put her hand over her heart. “I swear to you, I won’t tell ‘em.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Silly anyway, bein’ stuck on those old stories by all those old white men. When there’s so many good ones out there. I would know, with how many I go between.”

“How do you do that, by the way? Go between stories?”

Jamie shrugged. “Same as leaving one. Gotta really want to go. Takes a lot more practice though, moving between them. Getting to where you wanna go. I went into some random shit before I got used to it.”

“You’ve practiced a lot?” 

“Sure, tons of times, when I was a kid.” She nudged Dani’s shoulder. “Back when you still believed in shit. I’d just visit. Mess around, live a bit, then head out of there. Kind of happened accidentally at first, when I’d want a few more adventures before I’d have to go home.”

“Until you just… stopped? Going back to the real world, I mean.”

A silence fell between them for several long moments. Dani pressed her finger against the twig’s edge in her pocket while she waited for Jamie to speak.

Her voice was quiet when she answered. “It got harder and harder for me to leave. Not like emotionally or anythin’.” She dug her hands deep into her pockets. “I  would just sit there, starin’ at a wall, or a tree, tryin’ to force myself to want to go back enough. Sometimes I could still do it, and it would stick for a while.” She shrugged her shoulders up to her ears then dropped them. “But then I’d remember what it was like outside of here. I’d start thinkin’ about other stories. Ones I read the backs of, wondered about. The more I did that, the more I kept hoppin’. Wishin’ myself into those places, those adventures. Anything I found was leagues better than what I had at home anyway. After a while, I stopped being able to leave at all. And I’ve been hoppin’ ever since.”

Dani kicked loose pebbles on the ground, and watched them bounce against roots before rolling to a stop. “Do you think you’d ever go back?”

She watched Jamie’s profile as she looked off into the distance. Dark lashes fluttered against her pale cheek. “There’s nothin’ for me back there anymore. Just a library I used to hide in. If it’s even still there.”

Dani rolled the next words around her mind, her skin prickling at the thought of such a lonely life. “It doesn’t bother you though? That none of this is real, that it refreshes every time. So there’s nothing that stays with you?”

“Got this nice cape, haven’t I?” She spread her arms and looked down at her outfit. 

Dani noted the shift in tone and allowed their serious conversation to end for now. She rolled her eyes and her mouth turned up in a smile. “I’m sure that’s worth everything right there.”

Mumbled voices sounded in the distance, and Jamie turned in that direction. She held up her hand, signaling for quiet. 

When she turned back, her eyes held a mischievous glint, and a sly grin slowly overtook her face. “Time for some shenanigans.”

Jamie ducked down and moved into some tall grasses. Dani followed suit, taking extra care to avoid branches and dried leaves on the ground. They stayed low until they approached a wall of shrubs at least ten feet tall. 

Jamie waved her forward as she stood, staying close to the greenery as they crept along. Dani matched her movements until they reached a gap in the wall, not quite as wide as their shoulders. She followed Jamie through, turning sideways to avoid snagging any branches. 

Lines of blindingly white roses greeted them on the other side. Jamie tilted her head towards the other end of the garden, where a small stone building stood sentry in a dark corner. 

They approached the end of a hedge, and Jamie tugged her to a stop by a shirt sleeve. She quietly peeked around the corner before nodding at Dani and waving her forward. When they reached the shed, Jamie reached for the top of the door jamb, feeling around until she brought down a key. 

“Not particularly secure, is it?” 

Jamie shook her head. “Lucky for us, they’re morons.” She fiddled with the padlock on the door until it sprung open and fell to the ground below. 

Dani followed her into the dark and closed the door behind them. She couldn’t make anything out in the pitch black room, until Jamie lit a match, and lit a small oil lamp on a table in the corner. 

She adjusted the wick until the room was filled with a warm glow. The wall to their left was lined with paint cans, red drips having dried on the outside of several near the door. Shelves of gardening tools filled the rest of the space.

She looked from the cans back to Jamie and asked, “Now what?”

Jamie wiggled her eyebrows. “Mischief.” She pulled a folding blade out of her back pocket and went to the back of the shed, opening cans until she found two with white paint inside. “Perfect.” She handed Dani one after she tapped the lid back on. “You take this one and one of those brushes on the table, let’s get to it.”

Dani whispered, “Get to what ?”

Jamie just grinned and passed her on the way outside, her own can bumping against her thigh as she walked. “Almost forgot.” She paused and set her items on a bench, taking off her green hooded cape to drape it over the remaining cans.

Dani’s jaw dropped as they disappeared in front of her eyes, leaving nothing behind but cracked grey flooring. She reached down and felt around the space until she touched the soft material of the now invisible cape. She could feel hard metal below it, and she let her fingers trail along the grooves of a lid. 

“See? Told you it was fancy.” 

Dani stood back up and Jamie was picking up her discarded can and heading out into the sun, a paint brush sticking out of her back pocket. 

“You’re just gonna leave it there?” Dani gestured back toward the cape, the motion useless since Jamie was paying her no mind as she peered around every hedge row. 

“Yeah.”

Dani lowered her voice to match Jamie’s. “But it’s so nice you don’t care if you lose it?”

She shrugged and turned left, bypassing several white rose bushes as she went. Dani followed close behind. 

“Not a big deal. I can get another one if I want, same place. Besides, I won’t need it where I’m goin’ next.” 

She held up her hand when the crack of a branch sounded to their left. A white rabbit half Dani’s height leapt from behind another hedge row. His blue waistcoat flapped from his frantic movements, and a gold pocket watch dangled from a chain, the sun glinting off its lustrous surface. He ran past them and into a small break in the greenery, mumbling to himself. Something about time and late but Dani couldn’t make out anything else as he scurried past.

Jamie kept walking, paying no mind to the large bespectacled hare.

Dani rubbed at her temple as a headache started to grow. Dueling realities were battling inside her brain. 

“You’re leaving here?”

“Sure, after I fuck with her majesty.”

“Where are you going after?”

“A nice beach, where I can dip my toes in the sea.”

“That actually does sound really…”

“Shh!” Jamie had paused, her knuckles clenching Dani’s shirtsleeve as they waited in silence. 

More rustling sounds came from ahead. Dani leaned forward a bit and tried to make out the noises. Two grumbling voices, barely discernible as they faded away. 

Before Jamie could set off again, Dani stopped her with a hand on her forearm. “How can you tell where you’re going, this place is like a maze.”

She sighed and her eyebrow rose in an expression Dani was starting to associate with Annoyed Jamie

“It is a maze. I’ve just learnt it over the years.”

Oh . Carry on, then.”

Jamie looked down where Dani’s fingers still clasped her arm. Dani pulled away and formed a tight fist until her nails bit into the soft skin of her palm.

They made several more careful turns, always checking for unwanted company, until they were greeted by rows and rows of glistening red blossoms. Red paint was still dripping from some, leaving thick puddles on the grass below. 

“Looks like a murder scene.”

“Kind of is.”

Dani reached toward the closest bloom, feeling the unnatural texture of dried paint. The petals trapped within its garish hue were stiff and unyielding. “This is sadder than I expected. I feel like they’re suffocating in this.”

Jamie came up behind her. “They are. Can’t breathe under that nonsense. Quite a shitty death cage they get, just so they can match her holy twatness.”

“Her who?”

Jamie shook her head and put her paint can down. She popped open the lid again and dipped her brush into the bright white paint, then scraped the excess away. “Surely you remember the Red Queen. Huge head, loud mouth, zero sense.”

“Right! Her . Her royal…”

“Twatness.”

“Yes, that.” Dani’s cheeks were starting to hurt from her frequent grinning.

Jamie started painting the red rose, pausing when Dani interrupted her.

“Are you sure you want to do that? Won’t more paint kill it?”

“They’re already dead. Or close enough to it, anyway. Might as well make the bitch pay before I bugger off. Besides, it’s fun to watch the steam come outta her ears.” 

The red disappeared more with every swipe of her brush. The sun reflected off the shining wet surface in the midday heat. 

“You’re getting it everywhere,” Dani said, heading to the next rose bush and loading her brush up with too much paint. 

Jamie pointed at the leaves, where white was slowly dripping down. “Didn’t you ever color as a kid? Goin’ nuts and usin’ the lines as suggestions? Go ahead and live a little. Promise it’s more fun to be a mess sometimes.”

Dani looked down at her brush before swiping it intentionally across some dangling leaves. She did it again, a broad stroke across red petals, thorns, and stems. She held up the brush after, letting the thick paint fall onto the grass below. 

“Okay. I can see why you do this.”

Jamie’s face broke into a grin. They worked together, quickly getting through half the roses before Dani felt something cold smack into the center of her back. She tugged at her shirt and saw where Jamie had swiped with her brush.

“You’re kidding me. This is the only shirt I have, you know.”

Jamie let out a cackle and hurried to duck behind a rose bush.

“You’re deranged, do you know that?” Dani calmly set her brush down and pulled an elastic band out of her back pocket, using it to tie her hair into a ponytail. She loaded up her brush once again, locked eyes with an amused Jamie, and flicked paint directly into her face. 

Jamie’s mouth dropped open and she swiped her shirtsleeve across her face, leaving behind white smears on her cheek and forehead. “That’s it.”  

Dani ran and an epic battle commenced. She dodged blobs of paint and ducked behind flowers between targeted attacks. They giggled and chased each other as their bodies became a galaxy of white specks. 

Their laughter swelled and their chase became increasingly clumsy. Jamie tried to dodge a swipe and tripped on Dani’s paint can, spilling its contents across the ground. Dani doubled over in laughter and couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this light. This happy

That is, until a short irate woman appeared seemingly out of nowhere and screamed “ My roses! Idiots! ” A line of armored men surrounded her, their spears and swords pointed directly at them.

Jamie slowly stood, and the color drained from her face as she mouthed Run

They dropped their brushes and Dani ran around Jamie, who was tossing the rest of her can’s contents over the remaining red bushes, splattering the guards as well as the furious Red Queen. 

“Off with their heads!”

Dani needed no more encouragement as she pumped her legs, trying to retrace their steps through the maze as quickly as she could. Each time she slowed down, a hand would push her forward, with an insistent move when she didn’t go fast enough to please Jamie.

Dani must have run right past the break in the hedges, as a sharp tug on her shirt stopped her short. She turned as Jamie disappeared into the greenery. Dani tried to follow, but a large man gripped her arm and pulled her back. She tried to get out of his firm grasp, but pain radiated up into her shoulder as her skin was pinched and twisted. Her back hit the hedge wall and a blade pressed against her neck.

Wait. ” 

The queen’s piercing voice grated on Dani’s ears. 

“Where is that dirty looking friend of yours?”

Dani swallowed and stared into crazed eyes. “What friend?” She whined as the blade pressed deeper into her flesh and she froze in terror.

“Idiot!”

Dani squeezed her eyes shut as rotten breath invaded her nostrils. 

“Take her to the dungeon, the knave will make her talk.” The queen turned swiftly and left them, several guards following as she continued to bark out orders. Get me my racket. Where’s the ball. It’s my turn to play, you imbeciles .

Dani’s arms were pinned behind her back, and her wrists were tied tightly with twine. It scraped at her sensitive skin with every movement. Her shoulder burned from the rough handling, and her eyes filled with unshed tears. 

“Don’t forget about me, you gits.”

Jamie appeared at the hole in the hedge, her hands held high in the air. 

Another guard pointed a spear at her face. “Hang on. We’re supposed to get that one to tell us where you are.” He pointed back at Dani, who was still being held in place.

“Wasn’t me, was the bloke that was with us. You’re supposed to make us tell you where he is, you pillock. Weren’t you listenin’?” She gave a barely perceptible nod, her eyes begging Dani to play along.

The guard lowered his spear and he scratched at the side of his head.

Dani cleared her throat. “She’s right. The queen wanted our other friend. And we won’t tell you where he went.”

Jamie shrugged. “‘Fraid we can’t be doin’ that. Gonna have to toss us both in the clink, you stupid fuckin’ cowards.”

He used the flat of his spear to shove Jamie into the hedge before tying her hands behind her back. 

They were dragged through gardens while branches and thorns snagged at their clothes. One dug into Dani’s arm, making her yelp. A spot of blood appeared on her sleeve and her shoulders burned when the guard pushed her forward. 

They were half dragged/half pushed toward a windowless structure of dark stone. Jamie’s guard left his spear against the wall as he pulled open the thick wood and steel door. Rusted metal joints shrieked as it swung open. 

They were taken down a curving staircase, only occasionally lit by a candle sconce. Dani tripped several times in the darkness, only to be violently pulled to her feet each time. 

Their hands were freed briefly before they were tossed into two cells at the bottom. A loud slam sounded before deadbolts slid into place. The guards left them sprawled on the ground without another word as they trudged back up to the surface. 

Dani sat up, groaning as she tried to roll the stiffness out of her shoulders. 

“You sound awful.”

Jamie sat leaning against the wall, arms casually slung on her bent knees. 

“Well you look like you’re not remotely worried about getting your head chopped off by a maniac and her cronies.”

Jamie shrugged. “Cause I’m not.”

Dani stood and stretched, her back popping when she pressed her fists into her lower back. She wiped at a wet feeling on her cheek and noted a smear of blood on her fingers. “After the woods and this, I’m starting to think you can actually get hurt here. And not, like, fake hurt.”

“Oh no, if you get your head chopped off in a story, I assure you, it’ll stay chopped off.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah.”

“I can die here?”

“Course you can.”

“Oh god.” Dani’s heart was racing and white spots invaded her vision as she swayed in place. “I think I need to sit down.” She walked to a small bench along the wall on wobbly legs. She sat and rested her pounding head between her knees. She took deep breaths to try and stave off the encroaching panic attack, but her stomach was twisting painfully.

“Calm down, you’re not gonna die.”

“You are annoyingly certain for someone trapped in a steel cell with no key.”

“We both have keys.” 

Her voice was closer now. Dani looked up once her breathing evened out and Jamie was leaning her forearms on the bars that separated them, her ankles crossed casually.

“What do you mean?”

“If there’s anything that’ll make you really really want to go home, it’s the possibility of dyin’. So just wish for it hard enough and make your door right there.” Jamie pointed at the stone wall next to Dani.

A tenuous thread of hope gave her a renewed sense of purpose. She stood, clenched her fists at her side, and chewed at her bottom lip. “Right, so just…” She waved her hand back and forth.

Jamie stared into her eyes for several seconds. “ Want it, Dani. You gotta want it.”

A tingle ran down Dani’s back and she shivered. She had to force her eyes away to stare at the stones, willing them to open up into some form of doorway. She squeezed her eyes shut when nothing happened and thought of her bedroom at home. The smell of books on her shelves. Her mother’s perfume. The drier sheets in the laundry room. Eddie’s cologne. Her lips pressed hard together and she wished to go home with everything she had. 

But when she looked again, there was nothing but a solid wall. She kicked at the unyielding stones and let out a desperate sob as she rested her forehead against their cool surface. The skin of her knuckles cracked as she pressed her fists hard against the rough texture.

“Jesus. You really don’t wanna go home, do ya.”

Dani let out a pained laugh and slid to the floor. She sat cross-legged and wiped tears away from her eyes. “I thought I did,” she said with a shrug.

“No worries, it’ll be fine.”

A roaring groan sounded and a cool breeze circled them, ruffling Dani’s hair. A dark chasm opened on the wall of Jamie’s cell and Dani jumped up and shook at the bars. “You’re leaving me?”

“Sure. How else am I supposed to get out? You hidin’ a blowtorch in those pants?” She was walking to the opening, her pace casual and sure. She looked back at Dani with her hand pressed to the edge. Her mouth was turned up in a smirk. “Relax. You’ll be fine.” 

With a wink she was gone and Dani was all alone, the opening disappearing as soon as the darkness swallowed Jamie whole. Dani gripped the bars and kicked at them until her toes ached. She paced the small cell and pulled at her hair until her scalp burned.

She kept trying. Wishing, wanting, begging to be taken from this place. But nothing heard her. Nothing changed, except the slowly dying candle light. 

After another hour in that cold desolate place, she curled up on the floor and hugged her knees against her chest. Her head throbbed and the chill from the floor permeated her aching joints. Eventually even the last flickers of light died away, and her world became a void of shifting shadows. Her burning eyes drifted closed and exhaustion pulled her into a fitful sleep.

 

***

 

Dani

DANI

A bright light almost blinded her as she was shaken awake. She scrambled away from whoever was manhandling her and pressed herself against the wall. Her hand blocked the… flashlight ? What?!

“Oh, sorry bout that.” 

The beam pointed at the ground and Dani blinked the dark spots out of her eyes. She could make out a familiar profile once her eyes began adjusting to the light. “Jamie?”

“Course. Who else would it be?”

Dani was being dragged up to stand and her mind was having trouble catching up to reality.

“But you left. You left me here.”

“I came back, told you you’d be fine. Here, brought you somethin’.” Jamie tucked the flashlight into her armpit and she wrapped a dark wool coat around Dani’s shoulders. 

It was lined with soft flannel and Dani wrapped it tightly around herself, sighing as she basked in its warmth. She rubbed her cheek against the collar but her teeth still chattered when she spoke. “Where did this come from?”

“Had it tucked away somewhere safe. Sorry it took me a while, I always start so far away from here. Got here quick as I could.” Jamie’s eyes were tracing Dani’s form while she rubbed vigorously at her arms through the coat. “Aside from bein’ a block of ice, you don’t seem too worse for wear. Clarence says hi, by the way.”

Dani rolled her eyes. “Sure he does.”

“Right, let's get you outta here before those piece of shite guards remember you’re down here.” 

She handed her the flashlight, and Dani shone it on the open cell door. “How did you break in?”

Jamie nodded toward the stairs, where an empty hook hung from the wall. “They always leave the key right there. Idiots.” She rubbed her hands together and her face lit up with a grin. “Ready to go?”

“I already tried, remember? I’m stuck here.”

You’re stuck but I’m not. So just come with me.” 

Jamie reached out a hand to her as a warm breeze picked up around them. Dani was inundated with the unmistakable scent of sea air. She touched her tongue to her lip and could taste salt. A break in the wall appeared again, this time right next to her. She looked back and forth from Jamie’s open palm to the black void.

“C’mon, Dan. Trust me.”

A memory flashed of a young Jamie astride a pearly white dragon’s back, her hand reaching down to pull Dani up with her. They were at a cliff’s edge and a battle raged below them, lights exploding and screams echoing all around them. C’mon, Dan. Trust me.

This time, just like so long ago, she took Jamie’s warm hand in hers, and leapt.