by Mary E. Lowd
Beverly stared at the raccoon — the talking raccoon — trying to figure out if this was a dream. She’d had very life-like dreams before. Usually, they were about finding her calico cat who’d gone missing a few years ago, or else all of her teeth crumbled inside her mouth, while she tried valiantly to keep them from falling out. Those two dreams had happened to her so many times she’d learned to recognize she was dreaming if Patches came home, and she tried to simply enjoy it until she woke up. Same thing if her teeth started crumbling, except less happy… she simply had to wait it out, and when she woke up, her teeth would be fine.
This didn’t feel like a dream, but then she supposed, dreams never did feel like dreams while they were happening. And even wondering if she was dreaming didn’t prove anything — she’d had a nightmare once where she’d made it all the way to the hospital, explaining to nurses through the crumbled gravel of tooth bits in her mouth that she knew she was dreaming, because her teeth only crumbled in dreams, before she finally, thankfully woke up.
Beverly supposed she had no choice but to do the same thing here — go along with it, until she woke up. Even if she didn’t feel like she was dreaming at all.
“Wait,” Beverly said, realizing something hadn’t made sense. “If the princess grew up to be a queen… why is she looking for a little girl? Why wouldn’t she assume I’d grown up too?”
The raccoon stuck her fists on her hips, as much as her straight waist had hips, and said petulantly, “That’s exactly what Ginny has been saying. But the last time we saw you, all those years ago, you froze in place. Mid-sentence even, with your mouth half-open and a hand twisting in your hair.”
Beverly reached for her hair now, as if her hand recognized the memory and wanted to relive it.
“Yes, like that. You looked like a mirror trick, or a projection in a crystal ball. If we touched you, the image wavered and flickered.” The raccoon’s words slowed down as she recalled the memory; she looked haunted by it. “The image of you stayed there, in the princess’s chambers for nearly a year, like an ethereal statue, growing more and more faded with every month, before finally vanishing. Queen Hazel was convinced the image — which didn’t change at all, and so certainly didn’t age — meant you’d been cursed by a witch or fallen under an evil spell, freezing you in time, stuck in childhood forever. I thought you must simply be from another world — a world where time passes more slowly, and the connection between our worlds had grown thin again.”
Beverly nodded. The raccoon’s explanation almost made sense, if she lived in a fantasy novel. At least, it made more sense than a talking raccoon.
And truth be told, living in the real world didn’t always feel that different from living in a dystopian fantasy or having fallen under an evil spell, and being a millennial definitely felt like being stuck in childhood forever. It wasn’t always clear what being an adult even meant these days.
Beverly wasn’t sure how she felt about learning that a woman she’d met briefly as a child had been searching for her for years. But then, hadn’t she been searching for the princess too? It’s just that in her world, searching meant typing a few words into a web browser, and she’d thought the princess was frozen as a young girl in the form of a rerun on an old VHS tape. Was that so different from being cursed by a witch?
“Can you take me to… Queen Hazel?” Beverly asked. Her voice caught on the words, snagged by an overpowering emotion that she didn’t understand. Maybe it was all too overpowering. Dreams could be like that.
“That’s why I’m here!” the raccoon exclaimed happily. Her high-pitched voice and delighted smile made her seem more like a cartoon than anything real. “My name’s Raquel Rigby. Call me Rocky.” She stuck out a paw for Beverly to shake.
Beverly gingerly reached down and lightly took hold of the raccoon’s paw. It felt real — warm, coarse, furry on the back, sinewy underneath — just like any real animal paw that she’d ever touched. The fingers were longer and wrapped more dexterously around the edge her hand than a dog’s paw would, but somehow, that only made the paw feel more real.
“It’s nice to meet you, Rocky. Or meet you again, I guess.” She hadn’t remembered the raccoon’s name being a Beatles’ song reference, but she supposed when she’d been a kid, the reference would have gone right over her head. She didn’t get into oldies rock music until her late teens, nearly a decade after she’d have watched The Princess and the Raccoon.
The raccoon withdrew her paw, nodded briskly, and said, “Right, let’s get out of these caves. Ginny’s waiting for us.”
“Ginny?” Beverly asked. “I thought you said the princess’s name… I mean, the queen’s name was Hazel.” She vaguely remembered calling the princess Hazy, and Hazy had called her Bev. Ever since then, she’d stared blankly at anyone who tried to shorten her name like that until they fumbled an apology and used her full name. Beverly. It wasn’t that she disliked the shortening… but it had never sounded right coming from anyone’s mouth but Hazy’s.
How did she remember the princess in a movie calling her by any name at all? That didn’t make sense. Except, now that she’d remembered it, Beverly could hardly believe she’d forgotten for all those years. It hadn’t felt like the princess was her best friend because the character onscreen had been so likable and relatable… Beverly and Hazel had actually talked to each other. They’d stayed up all night talking. She’d told Hazy secrets that she’d never told anyone else.
“The queen’s in her castle,” Rocky said. “Where a queen has to be. Ginny is my friend and will be our traveling companion.”
Beverly blinked and then looked around the strange cave filled with flickering pools of light embedded in all the walls. “This isn’t part of the castle?” She’d assumed they were in a basement or dungeon. Whatever type of room they keep deep underneath a castle, where they stored weird things like the glowing screens or rocks or whatever they were in these walls.
“No, unfortunately, the castle is several days travel from here.” As she spoke, Rocky trundled across the cave, beckoning for Beverly to follow. She walked on her hind feet like a little person. A little fuzzy person. “These are the soul mines.”
“What’s a soul mine?” Beverly asked, following Rocky. “It sounds creepy.”
“It used to be,” Rocky agreed. “When this world was still ruled by Queen Hazel’s mother — the late Queen Emily — miners worked here, all day, every day.” The raccoon sauntered close enough to one of the stone walls to gently lay a paw on one of the flickering pools of light. She trailed her paw along the wall, over one flickering pool after another, while she walked. “They drained a kind of spectral essence from these gemstones embedded in the rock. Queen Emily stored the essence in a staff and worked magic with it. Horrible magic.”
Beverly felt entranced by Rocky’s story. She wanted to know more about the horrible magic, and if this were a movie, she was sure Rocky would go on to describe it. Maybe there’d even be a flashback, showing the dead queen when she’d been young. But Beverly had stepped into the movie, and that changed everything.
Rocky didn’t seem inclined to explain further without prompting. Yet, Beverly hesitated to prompt Rocky.
The raccoon sounded genuinely haunted by whatever horrible magic the former queen had wrought during her reign. In real life, Beverly wouldn’t poke at a friend or acquaintance — especially a new acquaintance who she’d just met — to keep talking about something that so obviously bothered her. Were the rules different here? Was it like being in a video game where you could ask the characters the same question over and over again, as many times as you wanted to, hearing the lore about their world to your heart’s content?
Beverly didn’t think so. This felt too real. And she couldn’t bring herself to ask Rocky to explain further.
“Shutting down the mines was one of the first things Queen Hazel did after her mother died and she ascended to the throne.” Rocky’s voice sounded reverent, perhaps proud, but also tempered by a more complicated feeling.
Beverly followed Rocky into a narrower passageway where the glowing patches on the walls were spread further apart. The passageway twisted and turned, rising steadily upward.
“If Queen Hazel hadn’t shut the mines down, perhaps we’d have found you much sooner,” Rocky said, almost speaking to herself. She didn’t look back through the passageway at Beverly, though her pointy ears turned backward, listening for footsteps on the stone ground that showed she was still following. “Or perhaps… the connection between our worlds would have been severed permanently, and I would have never found you. Our world lost connections to many other worlds during Queen Emily’s reign.”
They walked until the cave walls went completely dark. No more gemstones. But the passageway was still lit with a soft glow, coming from up ahead. They must be close to the surface.
When Rocky reached the entrance to the cave, soft twilight silhouetting her, she turned back to Beverly and said, “Many of the gemstones went dark — whole caves went dark — back when they were being mined. Queen Emily wanted the magic drawn from the mines faster than it would come without the miners forcing it. For a while, they even chipped the gemstones out of the cave walls with pickaxes, shattered their crystalline structures, and tried to use the powder directly. It didn’t work. The magic came from the other side of the gemstones. They’re merely portals to other worlds, not magical themself. So much natural magic was lost before she died… So many worlds drained dry.”
Rocky’s voice had gone hauntingly cold. Beverly didn’t know what to say, but she stepped into the mouth of the cave beside Rocky. Together, silently, they looked at the twilight sky. Pale lavender swirled with melted butter yellow and touches of robin’s egg blue in a spectacular sunset — or was it sunrise?
Beverly didn’t know the time of day in this foreign, impossible world she’d stepped into. She didn’t even know if the sun rose and set in the same way here. She didn’t know if there was a literal sun — a distant star, orbited by a planet that held Queen Hazel’s lands or something very different. For all she knew, Queen Hazel’s lands were stretched across the shell of a giant tortoise, walking slowly across a black sand beach that stood in place of the star-studded cosmos in her own universe.
“Wait,” Beverly said, turning back to look at the dark cave behind her. “You said the castle is several days travel from here? And time travels the same here as in my world?”
“Yes,” Rocky agreed. “It will take at least two days to get from here to the castle, and that’s not accounting for dodging the crazed knights searching for you.”
“Crazed knights?” Beverly didn’t like the sound of that at all. Retreading her path through the dark cave behind her and returning to her Grand-Annie’s empty house was sounding more and more appealing.
“And as far as I can tell, yes, you’ve aged the same amount as my queen.”
A new voice, deeper and huskier than Rocky’s said, “Don’t let the crazed knights worry you. They’re much more afraid of me than you should be of them.”
When Beverly turned to see the source of the voice, she found herself staring down into the face of a large wolf. The creature stood on all fours, unlike Rocky, and her fur was a paler gray with touches of russet around the edges. Even on all fours, she came nearly to the height of Beverly’s waist.
Beverly thought she could ride this wolf if she had to. If the wolf would let her. Or if the wolf wanted her to.
Beverly thought she should be afraid, staring into the face of a giant wolf, and her heart had certainly started racing. But the wolf held so still, stood so steadily, that somehow her presence felt comforting more than threatening.
“I don’t know if I should be gone from my world for several days…” Beverly said uncertainly. Though, her parents wouldn’t notice she was gone before the weekend, surely. Her boss would get really irritable if she stopped submitting updates to the websites she was supposed to be building, but all he’d really do was send more and more whiny emails her way. He wouldn’t fire her — just dock her pay.
Even so, Beverly didn’t like the idea of traveling for several days away from the only path she knew that might take her home. Dream or not, she wasn’t sure what to make of this world, and she didn’t want to accidentally trap herself into living in it forever. Or dying in it. This world seemed potentially much more dangerous than her own.
As if the raccoon could read her mind, Rocky said, “You want to go back through the gemstone portal in the soul mine. Back to your world.”
“Maybe,” Beverly admitted. The things she’d learned about this world troubled her — queens doing horrible magic, crazed knights, and who knew what else awaited discovery if she stayed longer. Maybe it was time to wake up.
Except she couldn’t wake up. She didn’t have that phantom feeling of a second body, lying asleep, eyes closed, just waiting for her to find her way back into it. The only body she had was standing in the mouth of a cave, shivering a little in the twilight breeze. And if this world was real, then that made it especially important that she not stray too far from her path home.
“I’m sorry, Bev, but you can’t go back to your world that way.” Rocky clasped her little hands together, twisting her fingers nervously. She clearly felt bad about the news she was delivering. “You have to stay here, whether you come with Ginny and me to the castle or not. We’d like it if you came. And so would the queen.”
The wolf harumphed. “Like she has a choice. There are knights combing this land for you. You’re better off with us, Bev, than with any of them.”
Beverly stared at the raccoon and wolf. She blinked. Their words were a lot to absorb. But one of them was harder to absorb than the others: “You called me Bev.”
“That’s right,” Rocky agreed.
“No one calls me Bev.”
“I’m sorry?” Rocky asked. “I thought that was your name… you know, when you visited the castle so long ago.”
Beverly chewed her lower lip, nodding absently, and weighing her options. There didn’t seem to be a lot of them. But she wanted to feel like she was making her own choice, like she was going on an adventure because it was something she wanted to do, and not simply an overwhelming situation that had swept her up like a bit of driftwood caught in the swells of an undercurrent, just offshore, pulled and pushed, away and back again, over and over, with no control.
The threads of her life lay at her feet in a tangled mess, but they were her threads. She would pick them up, wind them around her hands, and make sense of them again.
“You were there with us,” Beverly said, “with Hazy and me. That’s why you know me as Bev. It’s short for Beverly, actually.”
Rocky’s expression brightened. “Beverly is a lovely name. Is that what you go by now?”
“Thank you, and yes.” It was what she’d always gone by. Except for that one night with Hazy. “But… I need… I don’t know, proof. Do you remember the secret I told Hazy? I know it was a long time ago…”
Rocky turned somber. “Queen Hazel keeps her secrets. If you told her one, it’s safe with her. I can’t give it back to you as proof.”
Beverly blushed. “It wasn’t a very good secret…” Only that she’d been in love with another girl in school with her. She’d fallen in love with a number of girls over the years, but somehow she’d only dated boys. She supposed it had always seemed easier. Beverly might be a millennial, but she was one of the older ones. Right on the cusp of Gen X. If she’d been a few years younger, maybe she’d have thought of herself as non-binary and bi. As it was, everyone assumed she was straight and cis. Even herself, most of the time.
“Nonetheless,” Rocky stated, “Queen Hazel will have kept it faithfully.”
Beverly felt a rush of warmth. She wasn’t used to her words being taken so seriously.
It was always small things. But they added up.
Usually, Beverly had to tell her boss twenty times in different ways that he wasn’t giving her the information she needed to do her job or that what he was asking her to do wouldn’t actually lead to the result he wanted. Boyfriends ignored her pleas to hang coats up instead of draping them over the backs of chairs. Small things.
Her parents laughed when she said she would run errands for them or visit at specific times. They didn’t mean to hurt her, and it was true that she had an unfortunate tendency to forget the errands or cancel planned visits at the last minute.
But maybe she wouldn’t, if they didn’t expect her to. Maybe she was just meeting their dismally low expectations.
And yet, years ago, Beverly had told Hazy to keep a secret, and Queen Hazel had kept it — as if it mattered that one girl had a crush on another girl. All those years, a queen had kept her secret. A queen in another world was the only person who knew that Beverly sometimes fell in love with other girls, and the queen had protected the knowledge she had of that aspect of Beverly’s self.
Maybe, maybe it did matter.
Or maybe she hadn’t shared the secret, because it had never been worth mentioning. Because it was too small and insignificant. Maybe it didn’t matter at all.
“Come on,” Rocky said. “We don’t want to be out here when daylight strikes.”
The wolf lowered her head closer to the ground and mumbled, “Right. I’ll clear up my work.” Then Ginny turned away, stood up on her hind legs — making her taller than Beverly — and stretched her forepaws toward the sky.
Ginny’s tail wagged like a dog’s, swishing back and forth, as her forepaws waved. At first, Beverly thought she was dancing, or perhaps waving at the few black birds flying in the distance, close to the horizon. Then the colors of the sky started to move, matching the waving motions of Ginny’s paws. The lavender and yellow swirls tightened, spiraling, closer and closer to the wolf’s paws, and the touches of robin’s egg blue pulled close to her too, like tufts of fur that she was brushing out of the sky. The sky was her tapestry, and she pulled the colors out of it, thread by thread, until all that was left was an inky, pinkish-gray, dappled with halfhearted starlight.
Beverly was stunned by the beautiful display she’d just witnessed, but Ginny returned her forepaws to the ground, grinned wolfishly, and acted like nothing unusual had happened. Nothing unusual at all.
“Can you ride?” Rocky asked.
Although Beverly had been pondering the fact that Ginny was large enough to ride, she could hardly imagine she was being invited to ride a talking animal. It seemed disrespectful, at such a deep level that it just didn’t occur to her. So, Beverly answered the simple question with another question, almost automatically: “Ride what?”
Yet there were so many more questions she would have rather asked, if only she could find the words. Simple words like: what just happened? How could a wolf paint the sky with her paws? Why had Rocky made daylight sound dangerous? And again, what was up with the mention of crazed knights?
But she couldn’t find any of those words. Her mind was filled with colors, all the colors that had been in the sky. She kept picturing the lavender and yellow, thinking about the blue, and running her mind over their swirling shades like one might run one’s fingers over the shape of a beach rock.
“Ride me,” Ginny answered. “I can move much faster on all fours than either of you.”
“I’ll try,” Beverly said. She climbed onto the wolf’s furry back, and once she was fully astride, she clutched her hands into the thick fur. Rocky climbed up in front of her, and once the two of them were settled, Ginny began loping forward.
Continue on to Part III…