by Mary E. Lowd
When Beverly lay on the floor, hands clasped behind her head, the pose always brought her back to a moment from her childhood when she’d lain in the same position, staring up at the skylight in her best friend’s house, watching the clouds drift by.
There was no skylight here. No view of the clouds. Only the splotchy, off-white ceiling with its rumpled cottage-cheese texture.
A fortress of cardboard boxes surrounded Beverly, half-packed, precariously stacked, and poorly labeled. She was doing a terrible job of packing up her dead grandmother’s house. But then, she didn’t want to be here. She’d only wanted to get away from her own life:
Small apartment. Blank walls, except for mass-produced posters of crumbling castles in Europe that she’d never see in person. A laptop balanced on a rickety TV tray beside a lumpy couch instead of a real desk. Mattress on the floor. Cheap. Temporary. A college student’s dorm room. Except, she’d graduated from college ten years ago, and had been living in the same one-room apartment since.
Grand-Annie’s house in contrast was crammed full of heavily framed works of… art? Does black velvet with pins stuck into it, sporting a sailboat inscribed by threads woven between the pins really count as art? It reminded Beverly of crafts she’d done in middle school but fancier. The furniture was old and dented, but made from real, heavy wood instead of particle board. And some of it was simply confusing — why would a desk need an accordion-style cover built into it? And what was up with the ancient, electric keyboard covered in obscure sheet music? Beverly had certainly never seen her grandmother play it.
Everywhere, inside of every drawer, covering every surface, were old papers, photographs, knick-knacks, knitted and crocheted textiles that had clearly taken years to create. Beverly had watched her grandmother knitting, so at least those she understood.
It was all a complicated mixture of memories and junk. The threads that had held Grand-Annie’s life together.
Beverly had been dividing most of it into piles for recycling, donating, or dumping. The furniture would have to be hauled away. Beverly couldn’t afford a place big enough to fit most of it, and her parents weren’t interested. Besides, what does one do with a glass-fronted cabinet with shelves too shallow for paperback books? Put glass figurines in it, apparently. Those Beverly would try to sell online. Some of them might be worth something.
From all of the junk and knick-knacks, a few small treasures stood out.
Grand-Annie’s white gold wedding ring with its three tiny diamonds, embellished with a metal flower, had gone straight onto Beverly’s own hand. The metal band had been enlarged so many times as Grand-Annie’s aged hands had gnarled into knotty twists like old, weather-worn tree branches that Beverly had to wear it on her index finger for it to be tight enough to keep from slipping around until the diamond was on the wrong side.
Beverly also thought she’d keep Grand-Annie’s limited collection of books, at least for a while. She remembered a number of the picture books fondly, and the other ones — classic novels by authors like George Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf — were at least intriguing. Maybe Beverly would read some of them before dumping them at a Goodwill.
And then there was the chunky old TV in the closet of the guest bedroom with its pile of dusty VHS tapes, toppled over beside it.
When Beverly found the TV, she hauled it out of the closet and into the living room, where all the boxes were stacked. She shoved the stacks of VHS tapes into one of the remaining, empty cardboard boxes and placed it beside the TV. Those were for the dump. Who would want old tapes of random episodes of 21 Jump Street and Clarissa Explains It All? Why, they even came complete with all the old, vintage commercials! Bubblegum, cars, whatever nonsense they had advertised back then.
Beverly could probably stream those old shows over one of the video services her parents paid for now. Except…
A string of memory between Beverly’s childhood and the box of tapes beside her snapped taut.
Suddenly, Beverly sat up from where she’d been lying beside the fortress of boxes. She started digging through the box of tapes, searching the faded, scrawled writing in ballpoint pen on the white stickers along the front of each cassette. Most of the tapes said things like, “21 Jump Street 6 episodes,” but some had movies on them. Finally she found the words she was looking for, scrawled on a single sticker, jammed between the words “The Last Starfighter (commercials blipped!)” and “Splash (second half)“:
“The Princess and the Racoon (pilot?)”
A sense of warmth and relief washed over Beverly as she held the VHS tape in her hands and stared at those words. She had begun to doubt the show — or movie? — had ever really existed. She’d searched the internet dozens of times over the years, but she’d never been able to find any evidence that the video she remembered, about a young princess and her pet raccoon, had ever existed. Occasionally, she’d find a stray comment on an abandoned message board by someone else searching for a similar show, but the details were never quite right. Maybe theirs had been about a prince and badger, or an adventuring girl and an ocelot…
Always, the posts described dimly remembered glimpses from the posters’ own childhoods, and invariably, they’d watched the video alone, late at night, discovered on a random channel. And no one else they knew remembered it at all.
Yet, here it was, in her hands: The Princess and the Racoon (pilot?)
Beverly uncoiled the same power cord for the TV that she’d carefully coiled up earlier and stretched it across the room toward the nearest outlet. The cord didn’t quite reach, and she had to skootch the heavy cathode-ray tube across the carpet a few feet until it was close enough. It left a trail on the floor where the carpet swooshed a different way, like a slime trail from a slug. Once the TV was plugged in — it was one of those TV/VCR bundle dealies — she shoved the tape into it. The screen crackled to life.
Madison, the mermaid from Splash, appeared on the screen with her wavy, blonde tresses, looking serious and gorgeous. Beverly pressed rewind. The VCR made the characteristic mechanical hum of an actual physical tape spinning its wheels, rewinding its ribbon, that Beverly hadn’t heard in years. The sound itself took her back to her childhood, hiding out in Grand-Annie’s guest room, playing with the few weird stuffed animals that lived on the bed, while the adults were out in the living room being boring.
Moments in time. Stitched together.
Beverly knelt on the carpet and pressed the play button on the front of the TV (she didn’t know if it had ever had a remote, but she certainly hadn’t seen one) and the tape stopped rewinding. Deep inside the mechanical box, hidden from Beverly’s eyes, dark auburn ribbon changed directions from racing backward to walking forward. And the close-up image of a raccoon face, whiskers twitching and nose sniffing, appeared on the screen.
Beverly gasped with joy. This was the racoon she remembered! Quickly, she punched the rewind button again. She wanted to get to the beginning and watch the video all the way through. As the tape inside the TV/VCR whirred, she tried to remember everything she could: the castle with turrets and spires, the princess with her braids hanging in intricate loops, and… She didn’t remember.
Like all the other people who had posted on the internet, looking for this show, her memories were dim. Mostly, she remembered loving the princess with all of her heart.
The princess had been a little girl, just like her, but with a racoon friend — she couldn’t remember if they’d used a real, trained raccoon, like the animals in Benji movies, or some kind of Jim Henson puppet. But the princess and her raccoon had lived in a giant castle, full of hidden passages and secret rooms to explore, grand tables laid out with lavish feasts and stables filled with beautiful, friendly, talking horses. Everything a little kid dreams of. And that was the problem — Beverly didn’t know how much of it she’d dreamed up, after the fact.
Beyond all of those fun trappings, though, the princess had simply been so real. She was a little girl like Beverly had been — scared of growing up, excited about learning, and delighted by little things like funny new bugs or mysterious books with words she couldn’t read. Watching The Princess and the Raccoon had felt more like having a slumber party with a new best friend than passively watching a video. It had been that engaging. At least, that was how Beverly remembered it.
Beverly pressed play again. This time, she’d overshot, and the teenage stars of The Last Starfighter were just climbing aboard the alien spaceship to fly away from their small town and into the depths of space at the end of the movie. Beverly let the credits play — credits had been shorter back in the 80s, and it was easier to wait than to jump back and forth haphazardly, trying to pinpoint the right spot on the tape with fast forward and rewind.
Besides, Grand-Annie had never cared much for credits, and halfway through, she must have stopped recording because the picture changed.
The racoon was back. But this time, the fuzzy fellow was farther away, hunched over, back turned to the screen.
“This isn’t right…” Beverly said, muttering to herself. “Where’s the castle?”
There should have been a title screen in a scripty font, hanging in front of the castle. It would say something like The Princess and the Raccoon, but maybe something fancier and hard for a little girl to remember… Or had Beverly fabricated that memory? At any rate, a raccoon shuffling around in a strange, dark cave lit only by weird flickering gemstones was no way to start a movie or TV show.
“Maybe Grand-Annie missed the beginning?” Beverly wondered aloud to herself. Though, as she said the words, she realized that young Beverly, herself, must have taped this program. No one had watched it with her. So, sure, she probably had missed the beginning before realizing she was watching something special and shoving a tape in to record it. Even so, she didn’t remember this cave. For all she could tell, this was footage from a random nature documentary with hidden cameras in a raccoon den, and she’d imagined the princess entirely.
Beverly groaned. This was almost worse than not finding the video tape in the first place.
The raccoon on the screen straightened up. Turned her way, eyes flashing, head tilting. Its eyes looked especially bright surrounded by the dark fur of its mask.
“Little girl?” the raccoon called in a high-pitched but melodic voice.
Beverly’s heart quickened. This was more like it! The princess would appear any moment now, and she could relive those fleeting, happy moments of her youth that had stayed bottled and fresh in this old movie she hadn’t watched in years.
A stitch pulled tight.
Beverly had a whole collection of music that she’d loved in college that she doled out to herself now, one song at a time, so that the freshness of the melody and beat would pull the thread between now and those carefree days tight.
The raccoon shuffled toward the screen. Beverly tried to remember the name of the princess. Harriet? Harmony? How old would she be — eight? Ten? Twelve? Beverly would have been somewhere in that range when she’d seen it, and they’d been about the same age.
The raccoon pressed its black nose so close to the screen that its fuzzy face blocked out everything else. The bands of white fur over its dark mask looked like heavy eyebrows. “You’re not a little girl.”
“Where’s the little girl?” the raccoon asked.
“I was wondering the same thing,” Beverly muttered.
The raccoon blinked. “Even so, you are her, aren’t you?”
Beverly’s frown deepened.
“You’re the little girl that the queen is looking for.”
Ah, a queen! That was more like it. The princess must have run away, and her racoon companion was looking for her. The dark cave must be a dungeon under the castle. Beverly smiled, crossed her legs, and settled down to enjoy the movie. She loved the way that the raccoon talked right to the screen, just like Steve in Blue’s Clues, drawing the viewer right in, except aimed at an older stage of childhood. No wonder she’d found this video so engaging.
“Seriously,” the racoon said, “are you the little girl that Queen Hazel has been looking for? She’s been sending knights and warriors to the ends of the world in search of you for years. But… I was certain from my own memories that the girl she remembered wasn’t in our world, and the knights would never find her. So I’ve been searching here. And there you are.” The raccoon placed a tiny hand-like paw with mottled black-and-pink skin on the screen. “But you aged. Just like the queen.”
Beverly was sitting so close to the screen, and there was something so welcoming about the raccoon’s paw — like it was beckoning her to come into that imaginary world — that she reached out to touch it.
The light in Grand-Annie’s house flickered like a snowstorm of static on an old TV. The glass screen felt soft against Beverly’s hand, and suddenly, the carpet beneath her felt hard. She looked down, and she was sitting on bare rock. She looked up… and the raccoon stood in front of her, paw reached out to hand, actually touching. The racoon’s paw was fuzzy and warm.
“I was certain the alternate worlds in the soul mines moved through time differently than our own world, but I guess, not all of them. At least, not yours.” The racoon lifted her other paw and grasped Beverly’s hands with both of her tiny paws. “I have been looking for you… we have all been looking for you, for years.”
On a television screen, it wasn’t strange to see a raccoon talk. But without a glass pane between her and the impossible, everything came unhinged for Beverly. The air itself felt cold and different. The light here flickered like candles everywhere, except it came from flat spots on the rock walls, like screens or gemstones. As she watched, sometimes, images flickered in the faces of the gemstones. She recognized some of them — old black and white cowboy movies, NASA footage, Fred Astaire dancing — but most were scenes that Beverly had never seen before.
Many of the images didn’t look like they’d come from Earth or the real world at all — riotous chaotic colors, faces that weren’t quite human but weren’t quite strange enough to imply special effects had been used. Uneven eyes, noses that fluttered like small wings, and lips that twisted into expressions Beverly had never seen on a human face.
“Where am I?” Beverly asked, though the words were more an involuntary utterance in response to the strangeness of her surroundings than a question she expected to be answered. The only one here to answer her question was a raccoon. “I’ve stepped inside the TV…”
“You’re in Queen Hazel’s land,” the raccoon said.
The thread holding Beverly’s life together fell slack and tangled on the metaphorical floor.
Continue on to Part II…