When I was five years old, my best friend was a little girl who had leukemia. She loved fantasy, princesses and dwarves and elves, pirates and angels and handsome princes. Before her death, she was approached by the Wish-Givers, who asked her what her one true wish was in the world. She didn’t say that she wanted to go to Disneyland, no, she didn’t say she wanted to go to Hawaii. What she wanted most in the world was to fly upon a dragon and see the world from up high.
Of course, when the school bully caught hold, he laughed at my friend for weeks. “Why would you want to fly on a dragon?” he would mock. “Dragons aren’t even real.”
Actually, they are.
I flew in that afternoon, purple suitcase in hand, to find Sam waiting for me in the airport. He smiled at me and not for the first time, I realized how foreign he was to me. My little brother, seventeen, with close-cropped hair and a cocksure stride. He had grown since Thanksgiving, he was taller than I was, and the jeans he was wearing were slightly too short, showing a few inches of Vermont-pale leg before ending in green Vans.
“Mom’s at work, but she says to give her love,” he told me, as we walked through the airport. “I don’t get on break until next week. I’m jealous of you, Ives. You’ve got a whole week off that I have to suffer in school!”
I laughed, lightly, airily. “Like you can complain. You’ve only got half a year left, and then you’re off too! You can survive another six months, can’t you?”
“I’m dying, Ives,” he whined, over McDonald’s later. “Dying.”
When my mother swept in from work that night, she shook the snow from her boots and rushed into the kitchen to bundle me into a hug. “Dear, I’m so glad you made it home safely. Did you hear? They’ve closed all the airports in New York because of a monster storm. I was hoping it didn’t hit you too.”
“Mom, I’m literally going to college in California. I’m on the complete other side of the country from New York.”
She fussed over me for a moment more, smoothing my dark hair down, before she let me go and sat down on the front rug to take her boots off. I rummaged through the fridge while she did, reading the sticky-notes on the freezer door. Buy milk. Sam basketball game Saturday. Lunch with Aimee next week. Hungry as I was, nothing at all looked appealing, and so I closed the fridge with a sigh. “You look exhausted, darling. Go and take a nap.” That was my mother, again, boots off and sitting down on one of the dining room chairs.
There was no arguing with my mother.
My bedroom was the only room on the top floor of our old house. When I pushed open the door and breathed in the smell of dust and the sadly neglected blueberry plant in my window, I almost cried. Most of my stuff was gone, shipped away to my apartment over the few years I’d lived there. A box of books here, a few wall-hangings there. My old and dusty Berkeley apartment was basically my home now, all that was really left in my childhood room was a bed and a shelf of childhood awards. Welcome home, I thought, even though it wasn’t. The conversation I’d had with my brother came rushing back. I was almost gone, too. While he would be starting college, I’d be ending it. Half a term and then I would graduate too, I’d be a twenty-two year old with a bachelor’s in Cultural Relations, two cats, no boyfriend, and a crap-ton of student loans. I had the rest of my life ahead of me and no idea what to do with it.
Would I become a surfer, move to Long Beach? A government job in D.C? The next great photographer? Hell, if I really stretched my imagination, I could see owning a coffee shop someday.
I yanked my boots off and tossed them in the corner before collapsing on my bed. Originally, I had good intentions of putting on pajamas and saying hello to my father, maybe petting a cat, closing the curtains. No. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I fell asleep.
The dream hit me like a bullet train. One minute, I wasn’t dreaming, the next, I was. I was standing in a forest. The night stars gleamed in the sky, the pale moon sending uneven splinters of light through the trees to illuminate pine needles, branches. A sharp bit of rock pricked my foot and I looked down to see that I was dressed in the same clothes I had gone to sleep in, a ratty Berkeley Debate tee and grey sweatpants. My bare feet were a stark white against the dark ground and I took a moment to study the faded pink polish on my toenails before I heard it.
As I listened, I could hear branches being broken somewhere in the forest behind me as the crashing sounds got louder and louder.
I’d like to say I stayed to see what the creature was, but I didn’t. Instead I pelted in the other direction, as fast as I could.
The beast behind me was gaining, the sounds growing closer. I ran. Faster, faster, faster. I flew through the forest. My bare feet screamed in agony as they struck rocks and sticks, but I kept running. All the years of track I did in high school were finally paying off.
It seemed like hours that I sprinted through the forest.My lungs were pumping, my head was spinning, and still the monster grew closer. What kind of nightmare is this? Wake up, idiot, wake up! For a moment, I thought that staying and seeing whatever horrifying creature it was would frighten me enough to wake me up. However, my feet refused this command and so I kept on. When’s the fear gonna kick in? When am I going to wake up in a cold sweat? I never did. Crashing through branches and weaving around trees, I kept running, and running.
After what seemed like forever, I heard a great roaring from behind me, like a lion in a megaphone, and then the crashing sounds stopped. I was so surprised that I tripped over a branch and fell on my face, making an undignified shriek as I tumbled to the dirt. Scrambling up as soon as I could, I prepared to begin running again, but the sounds were gone. Was the beast creeping up on me? Was it in the trees behind me, preparing to strike? I glanced up through the canopy of trees, and, for an instant, I saw something swoop through the sky, like a giant bird, blocking out the moon and filling the forest with darkness for an instant before it winged on. Whatever it was, it was gone.
My body stubbornly refused to wake up, and so I continued on through the forest. After only a few minutes, the dark trees began to thin and then vanished entirely, dumping me out near the edge of a cliff. Sharp black rocks stabbed my feet, and I cursed, stepping as lightly as I could.
The landscape around me would have been beautiful, were I not barefooted and freezing in a sudden biting wind that smelled of salty sea air. The black cliffs extended along the shoreline as far as I could see, dropping off steeply to the ocean. I could hear the waves slapping the rocks below. It was very dark, but the very first rays of sunshine were starting to peek over the ocean, far, far away.
Voices carried to my ears and I turned to see that at the very tip of the cliff upon which I was standing were two people and one of the large birds that had pursued me in the forest. I shrank back instantly, my feet sending loose rocks skittering. What was going on? Had the animal taken the people captive? They appeared to be talking calmly, but perhaps the creature had brainwashed them. And what was it? How had such a monster been created?
Neither of them seemed to notice me, but their voices had faded. I had a sudden urge to see what they were saying, and so I crept forward, keeping my eyes on them. As I grew closer, I began to see that this was a very strange dream indeed. Not only was the large bird covered in scales like a lizard, but the two people were wrapped in blankets that had hoods. Capes, my addled brain supplied. (I had a high school boyfriend who adored fantasy.) They were shouting at each other, one of them was crying and I recognized the higher tones of a woman.
“You can’t go now,” she said. “This is when we need you the most! You can’t just fly away on some mission of your own!”
“I’m sorry, darling, really, but I have to find his old fortress. Maybe it will give us some answers on where he’s gone.”
The lady sighed, but it sounded more world-weary, more tired. “I don’t like this, Storm.”
“Neither do I, love.” They hugged each other, holding tightly, and when they let go, one of them climbed atop the large bird as if it were a horse and waved at the other, before the bird creature took off and the two flew off of the cliff and into the night.
When I turned around to walk away, I tripped over a rock and swore, falling to the ground. The girl turned towards me and I began to scramble away. “Wait,” she called to me. I turned around slowly, to see her advancing toward me, cape flowing about her shoulders, hood covering her head. She was dressed in strange garb, a flowing grey tunic and supple pants tucked into faded black boots. “Who are you?” I asked. She laughed, mouth opening wide, a sound like bells tinkling. “Who are you?” I repeated, once more.
The girl smiled at me and it was a ghostly affair, because underneath the shadows of her cape’s hood, all I could see were her perfect white teeth. “My, my. I had forgotten how young you are when we meet.”
“Excuse me? We haven’t met, unless I have some mental disorder no one’s informed me of,” I told her.
She laughed again. “Don’t you see, Ivy Whitehall? We’ve met before. You’ve known me your whole life.” Suddenly, she threw off the hood of her cape and I gaped in surprise, mouth falling open.
The woman standing in front of me was me. At least, a perfect lookalike. She had my dark hair, pulled back with expert grace. She had my green eyes, my curved nose. And as I stared at her longer, I began to see things no one but I knew. The fact that I only had a dimple in my left cheek. One of my eyes, slightly higher than the other. The tiny spray of freckles spotting my nose. Mouth poised in a little smile, one that I had worn on my face hundreds of times. Those eyes, the ones I had seen staring from the mirror for years, grey-green and cool, staring with an untamed ferocity I had only ever seen in myself.
“Do you understand now, Ivy?” she, I, asked.
“I’m dreaming, anything is possible,” I replied, knowing she would be displeased. Her eyebrows furrowed in the way mine did when I was angry, the corners of her mouth turned down.
“I can see that you are not yet ready to understand, Ivy, but I will give you one piece of advice.”
“I don’t need advice from a dream,” I muttered, and the woman raised an eyebrow, cool yet angry.
“Do not forget what you are, Ivy. Soon, things will happen that will be beyond your control to fix, but never forget what you are.” She leaned forward, out of the blue, and hissed one word in my ear. “Fateturner.”
“What?” I asked, confused and stubborn. “What’s a Fateturner?”
She smiled, but this grin wasn’t a thing of beauty, it was a cold and harsh thing that, much as I hated, I knew well. “You are,” she said. Then, she turned around and began to sprint toward the cliff face, fast as she could.
I woke just as she leaped off the edge, laughing all the way.
Mornings in the Whitehall household go something like this:
“Sam! Out of bed! You’ll be late for school!”
“Mom, it’s 6:30!”
“You need to get gas! Get up!”
“Do you want waffles?”
This last comment was mostly directed at me, sitting bleary-eyed at the faded wooden table in the kitchen, drinking scalding coffee from a chipped blue mug. I’m not really a morning person, but my mother’s racket and my brother’s complaining never cease to get me out of bed.
I turned my eyes towards my dad, at the stove. He was large, and bald, and an addictions counselor, and wearing a stained apron that read Stand Back! Dad’s Cooking in large red print. “I haven’t even said hello to you, yet, Dad.” I realized, suddenly, staring guiltily at my coffee.
He smiled back at me from the stove. “I’m glad you’re back, Ivy.”
My dad’s waffles are really good.
After everyone left, to school or work or somewhere else, I went upstairs to my room. My feet were hurting, and when I looked down, to my ultimate surprise, they were covered in cuts and scratches. Something was embedded in the sole of my right foot, and when I pulled it out I saw it was a piece of black rock, sharp as a nail. Remember what you are. The words of the dream jangled in my mind like unwanted change. I bounced the shard of dark rock in my hand, remembering just how my bare feet had stung as I stood on the cliff. It was just a dream. Just a stupid dream my brain made up.
I dug an old winter coat out from the closet and stuffed my sore feet into a pair of winter boots. Braiding my hair back in the mirror, I examined my reflection. How had that dream felt so real? That other woman, staring back at me with my own eyes, grey and green and harsh. Remember what you are.
My camera was packed neatly in my suitcase and I had to paw through my underwear and socks to get it out. At some point, one of my cats, Ansel, sauntered in and helped me strew the rest of my clothes on the floor. I scratched him under the chin as I sat on the old wooden floor, surrounded by t-shirts and jeans. “Did you know that after I graduate, you and Dorothea are moving in with me?” I asked him, stroking his black head. “Even though I won’t see you for a few months, I’m stealing you away forever pretty soon.” We sat there in companionable silence for another minute or so, me calmly petting the cat, the cat calmly taking it. Ansel soon lost interest in me and jumped onto my windowsill, neatly threading around the blueberry plant and plopping down to stare out the window. I left him there and took my camera and an old backpack downstairs, heading outside and locking the door behind me.
The sunlight glinting off the snow never ceased to blind me, and I shielded my eyes before setting off down the road. I wasn’t sure where I was going. Away, maybe. It was strange how after living away for a few years, my childhood house in Chester, Vermont ceased to feel like home. Though I knew the streets like the back of my hand, could count every tree with my eyes closed, the love and majesty that I used to hold for the little town had faded in the hot California sunshine.
Past the main street and past the houses was the Chester Town Forest, a place which I had made my kingdom as a child. My best friends and I had ventured deep into the woods, building forts and playing war games under the trees. As I stepped onto the trail leading into the woods, breathed in the sweet air, it felt final, somehow, like the last time I would ever come to the forest. It came in the feeling of a prickle down the spine, an unexpected breeze, my mind, on the dream, don’t forget what you are.
The wood was oddly quiet that day. I didn’t see any of the usual forest walkers, no old couples or young women running with their dogs. Fresh snow covered the trail, with no footprints but mine to mar the perfect white. I snapped a few shots of the pristine trail as I walked, my hands tingling in the cold as I pressed the buttons on my camera.
It was interesting, just how natural my fingers felt snapping photos, even after months away. Much as I hated to, I had left the camera sitting on a shelf in my apartment, making myself concentrate instead on my degree, only my degree. It irked me how many missed opportunities I had to take pictures, like light hitting the lake just right or my friends laughing, arms around each other. It had been the hardest thing in the world to convince myself that my photography would never get anywhere, that I wouldn’t be the next Ansel Adams. I loved photography more than anyone else in the world, hell, I had the cross-section of a camera lens tattooed on my forearm when I was nineteen, but it would never get me anywhere. Much as I loved it, much as I had a talent for it, I would never be anything other than another girl, snapping photos of street-signs.
About a mile down the trail was my childhood hideout, a fort built in a small clearing beside a stream. It was off the path, hidden and secret, and peaceful. When I got to the tree that marked my way, I turned off the trail and tramped a fresh path through the white snow, through the trees and down a road only I and a few friends had ever known. I doubted they would mind me taking a photo of the spot. They were gone by then too, gone to Florida or Montana or somewhere else. They had no use for the clearing any more, and really, neither did I. I just needed one picture, a Polaroid, maybe, to remind myself in thirty years that my childhood was something tangible and real. It really hit me then, that this visit to Vermont really was the end of my innocence. I was moving out of my parents’ home, for good.
Someone had taken our fort down, but the stream was still there, frozen under a crust of ice. My finger hovered over the trigger button and I walked around the edge of the clearing for a moment before something caught my eye. Under the ice of the stream was something green and glistening. It shone in the light of the winter sun and glittered under the ice.
I shrugged my dark blue coat off with one hand and dropped it in the snow, neatly setting my camera on top of it, before bending down. Cautious, I broke the ice with the toe of one Sorel boot, revealing quietly burbling water underneath. It was only a few inches deep- I knew that from stepping in it one too many times, and in the winter, it was very cold. I broke a bit more ice, glancing down into the water. Sitting at the bottom of the stream, untouched and beautiful, was a shining green stone.
It looked to be marble, and a deep green that brought to mind summer days under the canopy of a great forest. Whatever it was, it didn’t belong in the forest. Damn my mother, imparting her environmental concerns on me! I breathed in once, deeply, before plunging my hand into the icy water and reaching for it, but as soon as I touched it, I jerked my hand away because it was warm, like an oven. I cautiously reached down and touched it, cold fingers wrapping around it. When I yanked it from the water, both it and my fingers were completely dry. What is it? Did someone leave it here? I stuck it in my bag for further inspection and put on my coat, shivering.
After taking a few shots of the clearing, I stuffed my hands in my pockets and tramped back towards the trail. My breath froze in the air as I shivered. I was glad there was no paper in my bag because I could feel the heat of the strange rock through the bag and my coat, burning into my side. I was almost tempted to throw it back into the snow, but for some reason, I didn’t.
When I arrived back at the trail, it was beginning to snow. I headed towards home quickly, not wishing to be caught outside in a Vermont snowstorm. I had a friend in middle school who had gone missing in one of the famous snow storms, never to be seen again. It had always struck me how easily that could happen to anyone.
Within a few minutes, I could barely see anything through the heavy snow. My speed increased as the snow did, and I pulled up my hood, nearly running through the increasing white. The trail seemed long and winding, and though I had walked it a hundred times, I was still afraid of wandering off and getting hopelessly lost. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the forest began to thin and I saw the town lights glimmering comfortingly ahead. Finally. I broke into a run, my hood flying off and my bag swinging behind me.
All of a sudden, I saw him.
He was standing directly in my path, in the very center of the trail, a strange red cape whipping around him. Why is everyone wearing capes these days? I stopped a few feet from him, pulling my hood up once more. He was an old man, with white hair and a short, well kept beard. He seemed kindly enough, with crinkles around his eyes and a mouth made for smiling. He seemed sort of like another version of Santa Claus, until I noticed the sword hanging at his side. It was long, and unsheathed, a gruesome black blade with a serrated edge made for hacking. When he noticed me looking and smiled, it seemed that I was wrong. His smile was a sneer, lips twisted upward in a grotesque manner. His eyes followed me, and for the first time, I noticed that they were completely black, like chunks of obsidian. That was what really unnerved me.
I stepped to the side of him, but he blocked my way smoothly, hand dropping to the handle of his sword. I may not have paid much attention in my required Middle Ages History class, but I knew that most modern citizens didn’t wear flashy capes and carry naked steel around with them. I knew a few kids that would go to conventions every summer dressed something like the man before me, but it wasn’t convention season and the nearest one would probably be over a hundred miles away. My mind began to race, and I could feel my heart leaping to my throat. I swallowed once, hard, trying to cover my fear, before saying carefully: “What do you want with me?”
He smiled again, and stepped neatly out of my way. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, young one. I was just wondering if you had found a rock in the woods. It’s rather smooth, and green, and very valuable. I would be much indebted to you if you gave it to me.”
For a moment, I debated on whether or not to tell him the truth. I had always been someone who liked to stay in my own corner of the world, not causing too much trouble, not making too many waves. All I had ever wanted to do was take pictures and hide in my apartment with my cats, maybe a boyfriend or two. I had an inkling that the little green rock burning into my side would get me into a whole mess of trouble if I kept it. I looked up at the strange man, staring at me with black holes for eyes… A sinking feeling overtook me. At that moment, staring at his eyes and staring at his sword, I knew that whoever he was, nothing good would come of him getting the rock in my bag.
I straightened up, looked him in the eye. “Sorry, haven’t seen anything like that. And besides, you probably won’t find anything until this storm clears up.”
The man stared at me as if I was a piece of meat he’d very much like to barbeque. I glared back at him. “Are you certain?” he asked, eyes narrowed.
I nodded. “If I had seen a green stone, I’d remember it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get home before this storm gets too bad.”
The man glared at me for a second more, before stepping out of my way. “Fine. I will look for it myself.” I stared at him, nodded, before walking on. I kept a slow pace, trying not to speed up. After less than five steps, I glanced behind me. The snow was slackening, and I could see almost twenty feet, but the man in red was gone.
I turned around and ran the rest of the way home.