By Marlaina Gray
17 May 2010
What puzzles them, I can tell, is my control.
I sit poised in my pew. No screaming or wailing. Black jacket, black skirt, white blouse, bobbed brown hair perfectly sleek; very Jackie O, this Jackie. The mourners around me give me sideways glances or just stare. The girl lost everyone in a car wreck, but she sits so still.
The woman behind me, whoever she is, whispers about sedatives. But I don't need drugs. I know something they don't: I know where my family went.
I'm not grieving. I'm livid.
We walk out of the church, toward the cemetery. I look straight ahead, ignoring the coffins. A boy touches me on the arm: Chris Something from school, friend of a friend of my roommate's. "Are you all right?" he asks.
"Fine," I snap. "Just feeling a little unwanted."
He glances around. "But there's all these people—"
"My family. They didn't take me with them. They left me here."
He drops his mouth open and shuts it again. I don't have time for his discomfort. I push ahead of him as we walk through the iron gates. "Excuse me," I mutter. "I have to get this sham over with."
My parents discovered the gateway first, when they were young; it was a hot day, the small pond beckoned, and they emerged in another world. There was an evil sorcerer and a great battle, and my parents were saviors. When they first saw each other in royal clothing, the fine robes and shining crowns for their coronation, that was when they fell in love.
They told us that later, after they remembered it. They'd ruled for some years, defending the land against invaders, building a peaceful kingdom, then went to sleep in their soft bed one night and woke up on the hillside above the gateway. Unaged, of course. They had to finish growing up all over again so they could get married in our world. "I loved your mother so much I married her twice," Dad liked to joke.
The pond was filled in, shortly after their return, to make way for an apartment complex. So they got jobs and had us, and forgot about that other world, the way you always forget a dream after you've been awake awhile. They didn't remember until after my sister, the youngest, discovered the new gateway in the garden behind the library.
My sister and I inspected it, then ran through together. Two weeks later, after we'd met the true queen and agreed to help her recover her throne, we went back through the gate to find our brother; he was on the library steps where we'd left him, fiddling with his skateboard. We knew he wouldn't want to be left out. And he didn't, once he finally believed us.
So we all became the land's new saviors. Sort of.
My brother learned warcraft. My sister learned magic. I was awful at both. The sword was too heavy; it fell from my hands. Not a single arrow I shot ever went anywhere useful, although I did nearly impale my centaur teacher a few times. As for magic, I never produced anything from those dusty spellbooks but sneezes, and the enchanted herbs just made my hair stink.
The queen's men put me in charge of the healing potions, but the troops complained; I never got the proportions right, and the wounded leg would be unchanged while the other felt twice as strong. They put me with the generals and seers, in the hidden tent that served as the war room, but strategizing was beyond me. I didn't want to put anyone in danger, couldn't send anyone to get hurt—because if they did, I thought guiltily, I couldn't heal them.
My little brother smiled at me through his dragon-forged armor. "Don't sweat it, Jackie. Everyone loves you anyway."
That was true. The knights begged for favors before going to battle (I ran out of scarves and ribbons and pieces of hats, and had to resort to strips of apron). Wizards constantly left little gifts outside my tent, like tiny roses that exploded into great bursts of color in my hands—not my favorite, given the shock factor. A young poet, later to become the queen's own bard, composed an ode to my eyes. After the war, as we were being named nobles of the land, I complained to my siblings: "I'm like a Kardashian. Famous for being pretty."
"Shh," said my sister. "I want to hear the speech."
We went home the next day, unexpectedly, back at the library in an eyeblink. But the gate stayed open this time, and we returned over and over, with our parents' permission, more or less. "Be careful with those swords!" my mother would call after us, not much thrilled with the adventure business now that it was our turn. My father would watch us go, his elbows wrinkling the stack of book reports he was supposed to be grading.
My sister rooted out corruption in the Wizarding Schools, cured the blight that was sickening the elves. My brother slew one dragon and befriended another, and together they rescued the queen's son from kidnappers. I smiled politely in the queen's court and fended off hundreds of marriage proposals. And then my sibs had to rescue me from kidnappers.
And yet I couldn't stay away. I loved the world despite myself.
Eventually I went to college, an hour's drive away. And the others went through the gateway—without me. Repeatedly.
I overheard them discussing it during one of my weekend laundry trips. When I confronted them, they admitted to three visits in the past month, and another planned soon. I made quite a scene.
"The prince was in trouble," my brother explained sheepishly.
My sister shrugged. "There's been a conspiracy to steal the throne. You were pledging your sorority. Or with your boyfriend or I don't even know what else you do. We couldn't wait for you."
"I'm a part of that world too!" I snapped. "I have just as much right to be there as you do!"
My sister rolled her eyes; my brother looked away. "Check your email," he muttered.
"Whatever!" I grabbed my laundry and stomped out, still seething as I drove back to campus.
I came back from class a few days later to find a policeman at my dorm, sitting with my roommate. My family had gone on a car trip. The roads were wet.
"They took Mom and Dad?" I said dumbly, over and over, as my roommate cried. "They took Mom and Dad, but they wouldn't take me?"
I walk around and around the carved stone gates to the library garden. It's all I have left to do. My parents left their personal affairs suspiciously in order, down to the name and number of a realtor on a note taped to the fridge. (My sister, too; the pink sweater that had disappeared years ago, the one she'd sworn she didn't have, was folded neatly on my bed.) My professors aren't expecting me back anytime soon. All our neighbors insist on bringing me food. I'm never hungry anyway.
All I have left to do is wander around the gateway and wonder why it isn't working.
"Hi," someone says, and I jump a little. Chris Something is smiling at me uncertainly.
"What are you doing here?" I ask, annoyed at the interruption.
"So, uh, weird coincidence," he stutters out, "your neighbor's cousin actually works with my uncle, and she invited us to a picnic, and so we just happened to be in the area, and . . ." I cross my arms and stare at him until he crumbles. "Okay, look, nobody at school had heard from you, so I drove out here, and I kinda followed you here from your house. I'm not stalking you, I swear, I just thought you might need someone to talk to."
"What I need is a way to make this gateway work." I walk through the gates again. Still nothing.
I look back; he's still staring at me. ". . . Gateway?" he asks.
"To the other world. To where they are."
The world has no name. How can I describe it? The sky is sapphire and the stars are diamonds. The knights are gallant and the ladies are fair—and frequently gallant. There are creatures with pointed ears that sing the most beautiful songs. There are horses that fly and eagles that talk like men. "It's magic," I say.
He'd begun to follow me through the gates. Instead he watches me, frozen in mid-stride. "You, um, want to be where your family is?"
I realize what he's afraid of. "Not Heaven," I say. "The other world. They're not dead. They're probably saving the kingdom again. They just decided this time they wouldn't come back."
He stares at the ground, studies me from the corners of his eyes. "So you're telling me," he says carefully, "that your family didn't die? That they're in some fairy world and you're trying to join them?"
"Yes!" I say exasperatedly.
He heaves a sigh. "You know, that's almost a relief? I thought you were suicidal. Now I know you're just crazy."
I throw my hands up. "Oh, don't be an idiot."
"Wait, where are you going?" he calls as I stalk off.
"The gate is gone. I have to try something else."
I sit in my parents' living room, ringed by potions and crystals and spellbooks. The magic shops on this side are no good, my sister always said, either fake or tainted with money-stink. But maybe she was wrong.
After five hours I've managed to conjure a headache and a stain on the carpet. She was right. Or I'm incompetent as usual.
I glare up at the family photos on the mantel, over the fireplace. Their smiles seem smug. I grab a sweet-scented bottle and hurl it at them. "How could you do this to me!" The pink liquid drips down the photos, off the shelf, onto the floor. I hurl a few more bottles after the first one, then the books after the bottles.
I'm doing this wrong. Think.
"I can't think!" I wail. "I'm the stupid pretty one." I stare dully at the fireplace.
The stone fireplace.
I blink. Stone has great power, my sister once said. But it depends on the stone.
There's no real magic in this world, she said. But there are places where it touches the other world.
"Oh," I whisper. "The graveyard."
I feel, perversely, like it should be raining, but it's a perfectly clear dark sky. The stars shine on, still less bright than in the other world. I walk through the graveyard entrance, but it's wrought iron—nothing there. The gravestone?
I walk along the skinny paths up to the long piece of granite that marks the remains of my parents, my brother, my sister. Or what looks like their remains. I don't know how my sister did it—and it must've been her doing—but I know they're not in those coffins. I walk over the freshly filled-in graves, sneakers sinking into the soft dirt. I walk into the stone—
And thud against it. Nothing.
"No. No, no, that should work!" I stomp around the gravestone, then kick it. Still nothing, except a dull pain and a perverse satisfaction, so I kick it again. I beat on the top of it with my fists. I scoop up rocks from the dirt and throw them at it. "Here, here's your stone, here's your magic, let me in, let me in, dammit!" I grab onto the slab with bloody hands and sway back and forth, trying to knock it loose. This isn't my sister's way anymore; it's my brother's. Maybe this will work. "It isn't fair, you can't just leave me here. . . ." I can't see through the tears.
I shove forward one more time and, incredibly, the slab comes loose, and I tumble forward over it, caught in my own momentum. I slide downhill, thwack into the tree that marks the boundary of the next plot. The gravestone follows, slides down over me; I feel it scraping my arms. It's too heavy to lift; it's pressing me face-first into the ground.
I can't breathe. . . .
I can't. . . .
The family's receiving room isn't quite what I remember. They've changed the tapestries around, and added bookcases (likely my father's doing) as well as two extra mahogany chairs. The red velvety rugs and pillows have been changed to blue and gold—our high school's colors. A few of my sister's stuffed animals perch on the smallest chair on the left. I lean forward to pick one up, except that I can't. I can't move at all.
Where am I? To the left of the thrones, near the window. Oh, no, I'm in the Conjurion—the marble basin my sister uses to talk to other wizards, or to travel long distances. I'm a cloud of dust. I can't stay like this, I'll dissipate or suffocate or—"Mom! Dad! Hello?" No one answers.
The great wooden doors swing open, and my brother and father come into my line of sight. I call out to them, but they don't respond. ". . . never realized how boring it is here when there's nothing to fight," my brother is saying. The war is over, then, for good maybe, and I've missed it all.
"That's not a healthy attitude," says my father, settling into one of the chairs. "Me, I always wanted to know what the place was like when we weren't busy trying to save it."
"You sound like Jackie," my brother replies, and I notice his broad face is pale under the tan. "She'd go, 'What kind of music do they like, why don't the wizards ever smile, shouldn't the knights get sick leave?' We'd be trying to destroy the Dragon's Orb or prevent the prince's assassination and she'd be drowning us in these stupid little details."
"Stupid?" I say furiously as my mother enters. She's pale, too, and her eyes are red.
"Don't say that," she tells him gently. "It wasn't stupid. It was empathy. That's why she was so beloved by the people."
"Don't say was." I can hear my sister, but I can't see her; I can't turn my head. "She's not dead. We could still see her."
"No, we can't." My father, graying but dignified in his red robes, looks right through me to the window, proving his point. "The borders between the worlds are shut. You know that."
I didn't. Why didn't they tell me the borders were closing—oh. They might have. Maybe. But I had midterms, and I was breaking up with my boyfriend, and I was getting three hours of sleep a night and I didn't have time to deal with the kingdom's problems. Plus I didn't want my roommate to hear the phone conversations. She'd think I was crazy. "Look, email whatever it is to me and I'll get caught up later," I'd tell them, but they never did it. They were always offended.
"We should have brought her," my sister says. "I could have made her magic enough. I could have enchanted her."
"We've been over this," my father says, sounding tired. "You barely got the rest of us here in time. And Jackie could never have stayed. She didn't fit. She never would have been happy."
My mother studies her hands, clasped together in her lap. "It must have been so hard on her. Going to our funerals."
My brother cleans his fingernails with one of his throwing daggers. (Did he always do that? It's disgusting.) "She knows it wasn't real. She knows where we are."
If the borders are closed, then I have no way of crossing over completely. How do I get back? What happens if my body is crushed—do I float in limbo forever, listening to my family tell each other not to feel guilty? It's nauseating.
I feel lightheaded. No, I feel unreal. Am I fading? Oh, Lord, this is worse than dying. "Help me!" I scream at them, and they don't flinch.
My sister is sobbing from behind me. "She believed me. You didn't"—I know she means my brother—"and you didn't remember"—this to my parents—"but when I found the gateway, she believed me. Instantly! And we went through it together."
"And you spent the next five years bitching about her because she was never useful on adventures," my brother points out.
My sister throws a firebolt at him. Her eyes must be blurry; normally her aim's better. He scoots out of the way anyway, then heaves a sigh as he looks at what's left of his chair. My parents glare at her; then my mother holds out her arms. My sister stumbles past me, dropping her wand, and cries into her lap. "We'll never see her again."
"We didn't fit in that world, honey," my mother tells her. "Any more than Jackie fit here. It's all for the best."
My sister lifts her head to get a gulp of air, pushing her mess of brown curls out of the way. Her eyes focus on the window—no, on me. She sees me. "Jackie?" she whispers.
I'm fading too fast. I have no strength. "I love you," I mouth before I disappear into—what?
Then the sound of my own breathing, almost a wheezing. The night breeze is on my face and body. My body. I hug myself tightly. It feels so good. "Sweet Jesus," says a voice. "And Allah and whoever else is listening." Chris Something.
I manage a giggle in between wheezes. "You're funny. I . . . never noticed . . . that before."
His face peers anxiously into mine. "Don't talk. Save your breath while you still have some. Jesus." He's even paler than my family was. It's oddly funny. Everything's funny.
I lie still for a minute until I can breathe normally, then stretch my arms out to prop myself up. He grabs my shoulders, carefully helps. "You rescued me," I tell him.
"Apparently," he agrees, still looking dazed.
Suddenly the giddiness is gone, and I stare at the ground. "I always need someone to rescue me."
"So what?" he says, and the shrug in his voice makes me look up at him. This surprises him somehow; he's quiet at first. Then he says, "You can rescue me next time. Deal?"
He's made me smile again. "Okay."
Chris lifts me to my feet. "Great. Good. Now we should get you to a doctor. Check for dead brain cells or something." I lean on him as we move to the main path. "How did that happen, anyway?"
"I tried to do a spell," I say, conscious of my bloody hands. My face feels scraped too. "To see my family."
"Did it work?"
"Is that what all that stuff at your house was for?"
The potions, the spellbooks. I glance at him. "You were at my house?"
"The realtor wanted to talk to you," he explains, very carefully watching the path. "You didn't return her calls, so she called your roomie, who panicked and called me. I talked to your neighbor, they had an extra key, we saw the living room, they called the cops. But I remembered what you said. And I figured, if you needed to get where your family was, you'd probably try the graveyard. So I'm looking all over for you, and then I see the gravestone's missing, and I look down . . . and wow, you scared the hell out of me. You're not going to do that again, are you?"
"No," I assure him. "Never again." I can't help but feel a pang.
"Well, good. My car's down there." We start down the hill toward the entranceway. "Hey," he says suddenly. "I talked it over with my mom, and she doesn't have a big place, but there's a spare room, and she's really nice. If you want someplace to go for a while . . . you just shouldn't be alone."
I think of my family's conversation. "I've been alone for a long time," I say softly. "I just didn't know it."
"Well, so you shouldn't be now." He eases me into the passenger side of his car, then lopes around to the other door.
"Chris?" I study him as he starts the car. Shaggy brown hair, worn jeans, black-rimmed glasses. He's not half bad looking, something close to one of the knights who proposed to me, but more thoughtful around the eyes. "Why do you like me?"
He doesn't try to bluster around it; he considers his answer as the car turns onto the main road. "You make people happy just being around you. I've never met anyone who could do that before." He gives me a slightly wicked grin. "It's kind of like magic."
I smile back. "Good enough."