by Mary E. Lowd
Before they were all the way past the village, Beverly realized she’d traded screaming pain in her feet for splitting pain in her thighs and behind. She wasn’t used to riding horses, and she wasn’t at all sure she liked it. But at least they were moving at a good clip.
The scattered buildings on the fringe of the village passed swiftly by, and the black mare carried Beverly and knight up a craggy passage to the first of several fields of poppies. Beverly looked at the flowers, passing by in a blur, and half expected them to release a dizzying fog that would put her, the knight, and the horse all to sleep, as if they were merely characters in The Wizard of Oz. In that metaphor, who would be the wicked witch? Was it Queen Hazel? Or was she the wizard?
No matter — the poppies didn’t put the horse to sleep, so Beverly knew she wasn’t Dorothy. Sadly, that probably meant clicking her heels together and wishing wouldn’t carry her home. Even if it would, though, she was now close enough to the end of her journey, she might as well see it through… not that she wouldn’t take a portal home right now, if one happened to open up in front of her.
One field of flowers — yellow blossoms blowing in the breeze like fluttering flocks of butterflies — passed after another while the castle grew larger and closer. Beverly’s anticipation grew in measure. She kept trying to imagine what Princess Hazy would look like now — how her face might have thinned and grown more angular, her expression more serious and severe.
Beverly kept imagining how she’d feel when she saw her friend… or else, how she’d feel when she saw this tyrant who ruled this alien world in such a haphazard, careless way. She pictured herself running to Hazy, throwing her arms around her, and the two of them dissolving into shared joy and laughter, suddenly remembered in-jokes, and secrets that passed between them like water flowing in a river.
Or maybe Queen Hazel would stand from her throne, still and tall as a statue. Maybe she wouldn’t acknowledge Beverly at all. Maybe she’d throw her in a dungeon and keep looking for the little girl Beverly had left behind, without wanting to or meaning to or having any say in the matter. Her arms and legs had gotten longer. Her face had rounded out, making her look more like her Grand-Annie than she had as a child. She hadn’t tried to grow up, but it had happened to her anyway.
Remembering Grand-Annie, Beverly’s thumb strayed, automatically, to the white gold wedding ring, still on her index finger. The rest of her fingers continued to cling to the knight’s metal waist, but her thumb rubbed the bumpy, textured surface of the ring — the three small diamonds and the metal flowers surrounding them. The sensation grounded her. She hadn’t thought about the ring, or that it was still on her finger, since entering this world. But the way she was clinging to the knight’s armor made the wedding ring pinch her finger, and maybe, that was what had caused her thoughts to turn to Grand-Annie and her beautiful, creased, kind, rounded face.
Beverly hadn’t thought about Grand-Annie, and how much she missed her, until now either. She’d been too busy helping prepare Grand-Annie’s house for sale. And maybe, just maybe, she hadn’t been able to face that Grand-Annie was really gone, or even really understand it, while in her house, surrounded by all the things that had been her. And then…
Well, she’d been transported here.
And everything here, in this fantasy world, had been too overwhelming from the moment she’d entered it, almost overwriting the entire life and whole self she’d left behind as soon as Rocky had pulled her through the TV screen.
Like the John Denver song — “Annie’s Song” — this world filled up Beverly’s senses. But unlike the song, she wasn’t sure she wanted it to. She didn’t want to block off the pain of losing her grandmother to old age. She didn’t want to block out those memories and overwrite them. She wanted to go home and finish packing up Grand-Annie’s house, saying goodbye to her grandmother with every knick-knack and piece of junk she packed up in a box or tossed in the trash.
Beverly didn’t want to be here anymore. She wasn’t sure she’d ever wanted to be here — all she’d wanted was to watch one of her favorite memories — one from her childhood when Grand-Annie had been larger than life, just in the next room, talking to her parents and probably preparing to sneak her an extra bowl of ice cream. She’d wanted to watch that memory from a distance while it was safely stored inside a box — the TV — where it couldn’t actually reach out and touch her, let alone ensconce her in an entirely different way of being.
If she was going to be pulled into a video on her Grand-Annie’s ancient TV, why couldn’t it have been an episode of Star Trek with replicators and transporters and all kinds of high-tech goodness? Maybe a rerun of The X-Files where she could hang out with Scully and Mulder, not quite solving mysteries. Or even some kind of cheesy rom-com or Christmas movie set in a fakey version of the modern day, where it’s always the holidays and everyone always ends up happy, and they have coffee shops and indoor plumbing? Why had it had it had to be here?
Deep in her heart, or maybe just in the back of her mind, Beverly heard an answer float through the chaos of thoughts churning inside her: because this is the world you needed. Maybe it was just because she was still rubbing her thumb against the nubbly setting of her grandmother’s ring, but the answer sounded like it was spoken in Grand-Annie’s voice.
“Wait,” Beverly said, wondering if it would be foolish to knock on the knight’s metal armor to get her attention. “I… want to ask some questions before we get to the castle.”
“Too late,” the knight answered. “It’s just ahead.”
And it was, but Beverly wasn’t ready. Something was turning in her head, pieces clicking together, and she wasn’t ready to face her old friend Hazy right now.
“Just… just turn back and do a loop around a meadow, or stop here… I… I need a few minutes.”
The knight didn’t slow the horse or change their course. When she answered, her voice was as hard as the stones of the rapidly approaching castle wall ahead of them, “You have news for my queen. I’m bound to bring you to my queen.”
“But… just… wait,” Beverly said, the words sad and limp, falling from her lips like a dying thing. “I need more time.” Her words had no power; she knew she couldn’t stop the knight from dragging her in front of Queen Hazel now, no more than she could have saved herself from the knight who’d tried to attack her and had injured Ginny instead.
The world wouldn’t stop because she asked it to. Neither this one, nor the one she’d left on the other side of Grand-Annie’s TV screen.
And Grand-Annie wasn’t on either side.
She wasn’t anywhere.
She didn’t exist anymore, except in memories, and memories are strange, slippery things that morph and alter when you look at them too closely. They’re like the old, yellowing pages of an ancient book that grow a little darker, the ink a little fainter, every time it’s exposed to the light. Maybe you can copy the words down, save them in a computer document, and remember what the book said before the pages crumble to dust…
But it’s not the same as reading the book. Feeling those pages turn under your fingers. Seeing Grand-Annie’s face for real.
It’s the difference between watching something for the first time… and reruns, just seeing the same things happen, over and over again. Always the same. You can watch reruns of your favorite shows as many times as you want, but they never feel as much alive as the first time. They’re part of the past after that first viewing. And somehow, Grand-Annie was part of the past now too.
The horse slowed, circled, and stopped. They were at the castle now, and more knights emerged from a stone arch entryway in the castle’s wall. Beverly was surrounded by knights, clad in metal armor and armed with gleaming broadswords which they’d already drawn; no matter how much she wanted more time to think and process and prepare… she was here now, and the knights would drag her in front of Princess Hazy — or rather, who she’d become — whether Beverly wanted them to or not.
While she’d been traveling through the countryside of this strange, fantasy world, every moment seemed to drag on forever. The ground was hard when she’d tried to sleep on it; the food too scarce, leaving her stomach cramped with hunger. It had taken so much longer to get to the castle than she had wanted to spend here. But now that the castle stood right in front of her — close enough for her to reach out and lay a hand on the granite blocks it was built from — the seconds seemed to be racing by, faster and faster, and speeding her heart rate with them. She felt like she would have given anything to back in the forest with Rocky and Ginny, surrounded by mice with tiny glowing torches that made them look like they belonged in a fairy tale.
“Who is this?” one of the approaching knights asked, voice brusque.
“This woman has news for the queen.” The knight who’d brought Beverly to the castle dismounted the black mare they’d been riding together. She offered a hand to Beverly to help her down, and saw the disapproval in Beverly’s eyes as she accepted the help. The knight added, “News for the queen, and only for the queen.”
It wasn’t what Beverly wanted — time, time to make everything stop — but it was something. The way the knight stressed those words — only for the queen — seemed to do the trick. The other knights lowered their swords, nodded, and fell in place, ready to guard and escort Beverly, without trying to interrogate her.
Beverly had experienced panic attacks before, and she knew a few tricks to keep them from getting out of control. So, as the knights led her through the stone archway and into the castle, she continued rubbing her thumb against Grand-Annie’s ring, pressing hard enough that the metal flowers bit into the pad of her thumb, creating a sharp, clear sensation to focus on, and in her head, she recited the lyrics to “Rocky Raccoon,” as if thinking those words could substitute for actually having a talking raccoon named Rocky beside her.
By the time Beverly had made it to the third verse, her heart was slowing to a reasonable pace. As she started the song over again, the echoey memory of Paul McCartney’s exaggerated vocals was replaced by the memory Grand-Annie’s voice, and Beverly realized: “Rocky Raccoon” had always been Grand-Annie’s favorite song. She’d found the lyrics hilarious and would dance around the kitchen, baking cookies and singing about a fictional shootout.
Beverly almost stopped walking, she was so startled by her realization, especially because it was shortly followed by a second one: Grand-Annie’s favorite book had always been Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own. A slim little tome, slipped between much thicker novels. She’d said it was why she always insisted on having her own room for crafts and noodling around. It was one of the rooms — the one with the electronic keyboard that Beverly couldn’t ever remember Grand-Annie playing — that she’d been cleaning out back when this whole adventure had begun, just before she’d found the box of old video tapes.
If there hadn’t been knights armed with swords on either side of Beverly to make sure she kept walking, she would have sat down right there in the middle of the stone floor of the long hall they were leading her through.
Rocky the raccoon and Ginny the wolf.
They weren’t random talking animals in a fantasy world Beverly had fallen into. Somehow, they were representations of Grand-Annie.
And yet, this whole place was still so real. She was still trapped here.
The long hallway ended in a pair of heavy wooden doors, guarded by yet more knights. The knights at the doors opened them, not in response to Beverly, but in response to the other knights escorting her.
Beyond the doors lay the throne room Beverly had been picturing every time she tried to imagine her friend Hazy as a queen. It wasn’t exactly like how she pictured it — the room was wider and shallower; the floor was plain gray stone with deep purple carpets laid over it, instead of patterned with big squares of black and white tiling, which Beverly now realized was an image she’d drawn from her favorite ice cream parlor as a child, not any sort of castle at all. The throne was gold and silver, ornately patterned with twisting metal vines and flowers that looked oddly similar to the little metal flowers surrounding the three tiny specks of diamond on Grand-Annie’s ring.
The throne was both an object so extremely specific that Beverly could never have truly, accurately pictured it without seeing it… and yet, strangely exactly what she had imagined, just sharper. In her mind, it had been a blurry idea of a thing. And now, here it was, solid and real, with a beautiful woman seated in it, dressed in blue silk that matched her icy blue eyes and wearing a gold crown that matched her shining golden hair. A queen. Perhaps, the platonic ideal of a queen.
Before the queen, a young man knelt. He didn’t wear armor like the knights, but he held himself the same way as them. His shoulders back, his head high. A certain intensity. And in the way he looked at the queen on her throne… fanatical devotion.
“I swear my fealty to your highness,” the young man said, his voice echoing through the wide hall. “My life to your any whim. My sword and soul to the execution of your noble quest.”
Noble quest? Filling a world with crazed knights to seek her didn’t seem noble to Beverly.
“You will seek the lost girl,” the queen said, her voice both haughty and tremulous. She knew her place here, and it was above everyone else around her. Everyone else she saw. Everyone else she knew. There was no one to hold her in check, no one to ground her.
This was who Hazy had become. Queen Hazel in the flesh.
The man lowered his head and said, “Yes, your highness. I will seek the girl.”
Queen Hazel stood, lifted a sword that was much narrower and more decorative than the ones the knights wielded, and touched it lightly to each of the young man’s shoulders. She seated herself again and said, “You may rise, Sir Odegaard.”
Once the young man had risen, beaming like a child on their birthday, Queen Hazel gestured to a small table beside her throne. On the table sat a candy dish. “Take as much as you need to help you in my service.” She said the words with a weariness, like she’d done this many, many times before and it had never helped, but she didn’t know what else to try.
Instead of trying something new, she lived her life like a rerun, playing out this scene over and over, each time with a new knight. And each knight roamed off into the world to repeat the same unfinishable quest. Over and over again. Trading their lives, one iteration of the quest at a time, for meaningless candies. All of them were reruns. A whole world, stuck in reruns.
This knight, newly minted and still grinning, lifted the lid from the candy dish and gleefully helped himself to several fistfuls of the insidious candy inside which he shoved into a pouch attached to his belt.
When he was done raiding the candy dish, another knight stepped forward and led the new, young knight away, explaining that he’d be shown to the armory and stables to outfit himself properly.
Queen Hazel sighed, watching the young knight leave. Then her gaze passed over the room and fell on Beverly, waiting to be noticed. Her eyes narrowed quizzically at this strangely dressed woman who’d been brought before her throne, and the knight who’d brought Beverly to the castle stepped forward, raised her voice into a tone of royal proclamation, and said, “This woman has traveled far, bearing news of the lost girl. News she would share only with you.”
Continue on to Part VIII…