by Mary E. Lowd
Queen Hazel and Beverly looked at each other without speaking for a long time. Silence rang through the throne room like an old song that you can’t quite remember the words to, but the melody haunts you.
Queen Hazel and Beverly stared at each other long enough that the present melted away, the years fell aside, and they were no longer women in their thirties, weighed down by decades of life. They were two young girls who had just discovered someone who understood them.
Queen Hazel and Beverly became Princess Hazy and her beloved Bev.
Beverly knew it. She knew for sure that Hazy recognized her, and yet, Queen Hazel said in her imperious, royal tone, “You bring news?”
Beverly shook her head, only slightly, barely perceptibly. She was unwilling to answer to a queen. She hadn’t come here to bow before a queen. She’d rewound that video tape and touched her hand to the CRT screen looking for her friend, Hazy.
Something changed in Queen Hazel’s face, and she said, in a voice that lacked all her previous airs, “How?” Simply, “How? After all these years, how?”
“Rocky found me,” Beverly said. “The raccoon. And her friend, Ginny the wolf.” The words felt like a bad joke, leaving her mouth, now that Beverly understood where those names had come from. Neither creature was real. They were nothing but manifestations of Beverly’s festering grief for Grand-Annie. But then, Beverly saw the reaction on Hazy’s face. The sudden crease between her eyes; the worried downturn of her mouth.
Maybe Rocky and Ginny weren’t real in some kind of cosmic sense… maybe all of this was a fevered hallucination… but Beverly was here, and they were clearly real to Hazel.
“They’re not with you,” Hazel said, a carefully controlled touch of concern coloring her voice. She was a queen now, and couldn’t afford to break down in front of her knights. So many knights. “Why aren’t they with you? I know Rocky would never have left your side after finding you… unless…” The touch of concern in Hazy’s voice cracked, turning from a dab or color to the entire palette. But her face was too controlled to betray the feelings Beverly could read in her. They were still connected by whatever profound sympathy that had made them fast friends, so quickly, so many years ago. “What happened to them?”
“Rocky’s fine,” Beverly said, quickly, wanting to instantly allay her friend’s fears. “Ginny’s leg was injured though, and she couldn’t travel anymore. Rocky wouldn’t leave her behind–”
“No, she wouldn’t,” Queen Hazel interjected. Was there jealousy in her voice? Jealousy of her animal companion’s chosen companion?
“–so we parted ways just before the last village before the castle.”
A subtle change in the posture and breathing of every knight in the room showed how strange it was for someone to speak through one of Queen Hazel’s interjections, but Beverly wouldn’t be cowed by a new crown on her friend’s head. She remembered Hazy’s heart — quick to love, quick to hate, and desperately in need of someone outside her to help provide balance to her mercurial but passionately kind ways.
Queen Hazel nodded, looking deeply relieved, and said, “I’ll send my best knights to fetch them, and they’ll be here by sundown, ready for whatever medical treatment my nurses provide.”
With a mere wave of Queen Hazel’s regal hand, the knights flanking Beverly turned and left the throne room, apparently already clear on their orders. Beverly wasn’t sure how well they’d fare trying to fetch Rocky and Ginny, as the raccoon and fierce, injured wolf clearly had no love for the knights. However, perhaps their relationship would be less strained without Beverly there, needing their protection.
With another wave of Queen Hazel’s hand, every other knight followed, and Beverly found herself alone, looking at a queen.
But seeing a princess.
Beverly approached the throne, and Queen Hazel stepped down from it. They met in the middle of the throne room.
“I looked for you,” Hazy said, her voice small and gentle, a little shy, nothing like the voice she’d used for speaking to the new, young knight.
“I…” Beverly didn’t know how to tell her friend anything but the truth. “I didn’t know you were real.”
Hazel’s eyes narrowed, and her head tilted. It was a horrible thing to say to a person who’d spent decades turning an entire world upside down searching for her, but it was also true.
And yet… The more Beverly thought about it, there was another side to that truth. She’d also looked for Hazy. She’d looked in her own way, the real-world way, searching on the internet, trying to track down the video she’d seen late at night, alone in Grand-Annie’s craft room.
“But even though I didn’t know you were real,” Beverly admitted, “I looked for you too.”
Hazel’s face broke into a smile that could have melted a continent’s worth of ice, and suddenly, the two women were in each other’s arms, holding on as tight as they could to the friend each had been unwilling to ever, completely leave behind.
When Beverly and Hazel managed to pull apart from each other enough to look each other in the face again, they both started laughing, as some kind of exhausted, quasi-hysterical relief set in. They had each reached the end of an arduous journey searching for the other, even if those journeys had been of very different sorts.
“Here, come with me,” Hazel said, taking Beverly by the hand. Her whole demeanor had changed from a woman bearing the weight of her responsibilities like a scaffolding that both held her up and trapped her to a child leading her friend away to a place where they could hide and share secrets, away from the pressures of the outside world.
Hazel led Beverly through corridors and hallways and back passages, past confused-looking knights, up winding spiral stairwells, and finally to a room Hazel actually remembered. The small but lush bedroom with the four-poster bed with gauzy canopies draped over it where they’d hidden and talked before.
“Is this still your room?” Beverly asked.
The bed was too small for an adult, but Hazel climbed onto it anyway. Beverly followed her, and the two women sat cross-legged on the velvety bedspread, hidden inside the pink swoops of the canopy.
“They’re all my rooms now,” Hazel said. “But no, I don’t sleep here. I just… come here when I think of you.”
Beverly blushed. She’d been looking for Hazy too, but she hadn’t let her life be consumed by the search. She hadn’t known there was another realm — real, imagined, whatever this was — where another person was consumed by missing her, let alone a queen with the power to turn her whole world upside down with that grief.
Grief is a powerful force. Beverly shuddered, thinking about the realizations that had struck her so shortly before the sight of Hazy had anchored her in this world again and washed them all away.
If all of this world was Beverly’s grief for Grand-Annie manifest, shouldn’t Hazel look like her grandmother? Maybe a younger version? A chance for Beverly to connect with her lost grandmother without the difference of their lived years between them? But she didn’t. Grand-Annie looked a lot like Beverly — the bend of her nose, the distance between her eyes, all familiar every time Beverly looked in a mirror now that she’d grown up enough to look like herself and not just an unformed baby version of herself.
Hazel looked entirely different. She was her own person, just the way Beverly remembered her from the one night long ago in Grand-Annie’s house. Only more so. Because people grow into their faces as they age.
“What do you mean, you didn’t know if I was real?” Hazy asked.
So, Beverly explained television sets and movies, which led to computers and internet, and then phones and how all those technologies had kept changing throughout her life, leaving her on shifting ground and unsure of her memories from a single late night as a young child. The words poured out in a rush, as if she couldn’t possibly catch her friend up fast enough.
Then Hazy told her story about the way Beverly had frozen in place, like a glitchy Star Wars hologram — not her words — and how every step she’d taken in her world had involved gaining power at the same time as losing love, security, or any sense she was actually connected to the world she now ruled. She’d become her mother’s second-in-command when her father died. When her mother died, she’d become queen. When the last of her mother’s old guard had died… she’d become reliant on knights she’d drafted into service herself. People didn’t seem to live as long in this world as Beverly’s, at least according to Hazy’s stories.
The two friends talked for hours, just as they had before. Pouring out their hearts, because they knew — they could sense without hesitation or doubt — that the other one was a perfect vessel for containing the gooey liquid feelings that sloshed around inside them all the time, being too much, always threatening to bubble over and overflow, only subsiding and simmering down when shared with someone who could understand.
Once again, they shared secrets. They lay back on the small child’s bed, heads almost touching as they each stared upward at the gauzy folds of canopy, not seeing the fabric above them but instead picturing the other’s words, imagining the other’s life.
When they’d finally poured their memories and feelings back and forth enough times to equalize them, calibrating themselves properly to where they each were now, after so many years had passed, the speed and intensity of their conversation finally slowed.
“You should have listened to Ginny and Rocky,” Beverly said, gently but it was still a rebuke. “They were right about me, that I was aging in my own world, same as you, that I was on the other side of… what was that place? Some sort of mine?”
“The soul mines.” Hazy had grown pensive.
“If you’d listened to Rocky…” Beverly just didn’t see how Rocky could ever have sanctioned the way Hazy had treated their world, filling it with knights with no real purpose beyond looking for a lost piece of her past. But she didn’t have to press the point; she could see in Hazy’s eyes that it had already been made. Beverly could see the shame there.
“I never wanted to be queen,” Hazy said. “I just wanted to run free and wild. With you.”
Beverly smiled. She missed being a kid too. “I wish I could bring you back with me to my world. I’d show you so many things.”
Hazy bristled. “My world is good too.”
Beverly didn’t really think so. She loved Hazy, and reconnecting with her had been more magical than any of the actual magic she’d seen in this fantasy world, or even the existence of this world itself. But she couldn’t imagine staying here. For Beverly, this world was a waypoint — a bridge from one side of her grief over Grand-Annie to the other. Only it was a bridge she didn’t know how to cross — either literally or metaphorically. Every time Beverly thought of her Grand-Annie now, it hurt.
As Beverly had gotten older, she’d gone from seeing Grand-Annie every day, when she’d babysat her as a toddler, to every week as a young child. Then every few weeks or months as school had gotten busier. She’d gone off to college, and suddenly, Beverly only saw her Grand-Annie a couple times a year, during family get-togethers that happened during her summer and winter vacations. And at those times, she’d been busy, distracted by looming schoolwork and a complicated social life, fraught with the drama of young adults flailing through the world on their own terms for the first time.
After college, for a while, Beverly had seen Grand-Annie every day for a while again, when she’d moved in with her. It was a good, temporary solution to Grand-Annie’s loneliness after Grandpa Morris died, and it gave Beverly some time to get on her feet before finding a place she could afford on her own. Living with her grandmother had been a way to feel more independent than if she’d moved back home with her parents, but still, basically coddled and safe.
Once Beverly had gotten her own place, the time between their visits had started stretching farther and farther apart again.
When Grand-Annie had died, it hadn’t been a surprise, except in the way that death is always a surprise. She’d been old and weak, a little weaker every time Beverly had seen her. Her death wasn’t a tragedy, except in the way that death is always a tragedy.
And somewhere deep in Beverly’s brain, she didn’t understand the idea that she’d really never see Grand-Annie again. Grand-Annie would never share a sly look with her, make her laugh, or say her name. Her face would never be real and moving, breathing, and alive. She was pictures now. Pictures and memories. The fabric Grand-Annie and Beverly had woven together was unravelling, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop that.
The time between Beverly and Grand-Annie’s visits together had kept growing longer, so at some level, it just felt like they were between visits right now. The idea that this time between visits would stretch out to forever… Beverly couldn’t hold onto that idea. She couldn’t conceive of forever. Who can? She could say the words forever, eternity, always, over — but they were all abstract ideas. Not real. And yet, now, she was already living inside of them. Those abstract ideas surrounded Beverly like unknowable cosmic tentacles of horror that belonged to some Cthulhu monster devouring us all, all the time, even as we live our lives.
How can you keep living your life once you see the tentacles tearing the universe apart, breaking down one piece of everything at a time, until eventually, everything you know will be gone, including you?
“Hey,” Hazy said, shaking Beverly by the shoulder. “What’s going on in there?” She sat up and poked Beverly’s forehead.
“Too much,” Beverly said. “Always too much.” She closed her eyes and rolled her head over, shoving her face into the velvety coverlet.
Hazy began stroking her hair, and crooning, “Poor Bev. Poor, poor Bev. Traveled too far and wore herself out.”
Hearing the nickname that she’d rejected from every other person who’d ever tried to use it reminded Beverly of all the silly little names Grand-Annie used to call her, names no one else ever had or possibly ever would again: Precious One, usually when she was sleepy and needed to go to bed; Stubborn Dear, anytime she was being difficult; and maybe her favorite, Library Girl, which had started when she was in kindergarten and always wanted to stop at the library before going home from school, every single day, but had somehow stuck for years.
Hot tears sprang to Beverly’s eyes, wetting the velvet crushed under her face. Hazy must have heard the change in her breathing, but she didn’t say anything. She just kept stroking Beverly’s hair.
The tears felt like they lasted a long time, but eventually, Beverly’s eyes dried. She fell asleep, curled up on the small bed. Even though it was too small, it was much more comfortable than the places she’d slept the last few nights, and she slept soundly for many hours.
When Beverly awoke, Hazy was still there, sitting beside her, drowsing in and out of a half-sleep herself.
“Don’t you have a kingdom to run?” Beverly asked, rubbing the bleariness from her eyes.
“I don’t care about it as much as I care about you.”
Beverly knew that was a horribly selfish thing for a ruler to say — there were so many people in this world, and Queen Hazel had been neglecting and hassling them with misguided knights for far too long. Even so, it warmed Beverly’s heart, knowing she meant more to Hazy than an entire world.
Maybe Hazy was a little like Grand-Annie. They didn’t look alike, but they loved her the same. And they understood her in a way no one else ever had. Beverly might never have told her secret about getting crushes on other girls to anyone but Hazy, but thinking about Grand-Annie… she’d known. Grand-Annie could always see right through Beverly, without having to explain a single thing.
It broke Beverly’s heart that Grand-Annie wasn’t back in the real world waiting for her. Even if she hadn’t planned to spend all her time with Grand-Annie, it had helped just knowing she was out there.
But maybe, now, when she went home, she’d know Hazy was back here. Loving her, thinking of her, understanding her. Making her feel seen. Even if they only actually saw each other every twenty years. A thread to hold onto, when others had gone slack.
“I don’t know how to get home,” Beverly said.
“Rocky was here,” Hazy said, “while you slept, and said–”
“Is Ginny okay?” Beverly asked, cutting Hazy off.
Hazel’s expression showed how little she was used to being interrupted these days, but also, she seemed to kind of like it. “Yes, Ginny’s fine. Her leg will heal in a few weeks.”
“What did Rocky say?”
“She had an idea about how to get you home.”
Beverly sat up in the bed beside Hazy, her insides all roiled up with complicated feelings. She wanted to get home, but she was also afraid of this moment — this shared moment with her friend — slipping through her fingers and disappearing into the past.
It’s hard to let go. Moments fly by, and some of them, you wish you could catch and hold trapped in your cupped hands forever. But you’d tire of holding a moment in your hands like a trapped firefly.
Fireflies are happier and prettier when you let them twinkle through the sky.
“What’s the idea?”
“My mother used to keep trophies from the soul mines,” Hazy said. “There’s a whole hallway built from the dead stones her miners extracted from there. She kept their magic in a staff and used the prettiest of the remaining stones as building materials.”
“The link to my world, though, is back in the cave…” Several days travel away. But maybe the travel would be faster, going back.
Hazy shook her head. “Rocky told me the light from your world flickered out after you came through. I don’t think you can go back that way. But I used to spend hours staring at the frozen images on the faces of the dead stones, imagining things about the worlds that had once been behind them. And I think…” Hazy paused. She wasn’t ready to let her friend go. But also, for all of how she’d treated the world that was in her care, she wouldn’t try to stop her friend from leaving. She might not have respected her world or the people in it, but she respected Beverly. “I think some of them look like they could connect back to your world.”
“But they’re dead?” Beverly asked, confused and upset by possibly losing a path home she’d only just learned about. She’d learned of it in nearly the same breath as losing it.
“Ah, but I still have their magic,” Hazy said. “I have my mother’s staff.”
Hazel convinced Beverly to eat breakfast first, and then visit Rocky and Ginny in the castle’s infirmary. Knights eerily watched their every move. But all the while, Beverly’s mind was buzzing, reaching forward and trying to figure out if Hazel’s plan would work, wondering if she’d really been able to identify more portals to the real world.
Wondering if, maybe, she shouldn’t go back to the real world. Maybe she and Hazel should run away, use the staff to open up an entirely different world, and become explorers together.
When faced with a hallway full of portals to other worlds, was it really the right choice to play it safe and go home?
And yet, as much as Beverly had always loved watching space shows like Star Trek, she’d never actually wanted to be an astronaut. Space was terrifying and deadly. Potentially, so were all the worlds connected through gemstone pathways to the soul mines.
Queen Hazel’s world had been exhausting enough. It had forced Beverly to face her feelings about Grand-Annie. What other sort of horrifying therapeutic experiences might another magical fantasy world foist on her?
When Hazel and Beverly arrived at the hallway of dead soul stones, they stood together for a long time, just looking at the still pictures on the walls. A mosaic of other worlds, captured in a single snapshot.
“Where are the ones you think lead to my world?” Beverly asked, finally breaking the moment. Finally freeing the trapped firefly.
“Over here is one.” Hazy pointed with one hand; her other hand held Queen Emily’s staff. It was a simple metal shaft, but the orb at its top swirled and glowed with exactly the kind of light that looked like it had been stolen from a thousand other worlds.
Beverly followed the direction of Hazy’s pointing hand to a stone close to the floor. She crouched down to look at it, and immediately, she felt like Alice in Wonderland, crouching down to look at a tiny door she couldn’t possibly fit through.
The stone showed an image of The Beatles on stage — John, Paul, and George with their guitars and Ringo behind them on the drums. It looked like a still shot from the Ed Sullivan Show or something else that very much predated Beverly’s life. “Uh… how old are the stones in this wall?”
“Some of this hall is older than me. My mother began building it before I was born. Well, having knights build it for her.”
“There are way too many knights in this world,” Beverly grumbled. Mostly, though, she was troubled by the idea that this stone — if it could be brought back to life — might take her back in time. She didn’t want to live through the decades that had happened before she was born. If she was going to go home and leave Hazy behind, she wanted to see her parents — at their normal ages — and finish watching the TV shows she’d been in the middle of bingeing and have access to the internet. “How did you know this was from my world?”
“I remembered seeing those same four boys in a picture on the wall behind you, before you and your world faded away.”
“Fair enough,” Beverly admitted. Grand-Annie had indeed kept a poster of The Beatles in her craft room back then. Though, Beverly hadn’t thought of it in years, and it had since been replaced with a painting she’d done herself in middle school. It wasn’t a great painting — just a red barn surrounded by a grassy field with a row of trees in the distance — but Grand-Annie had acted like it was the most beautiful work of art ever made. “So… now what?” She might have reservations, but she wasn’t ready to give up on this plan entirely.
Reluctantly, Hazy swung the tip of Queen Emily’s staff down until the swirling orb at its apex gently bumped against the dead piece of stone.
The stone lit up, exactly like the flickering light of the gemstones back in the soul mines. More importantly, the image on it flickered, zipping and zooming through a dizzying array of scenes, like an old black and white video on fast forward. Beverly’s heart raced along in pace with it, and she let out her breath — which she hadn’t realized she’d been holding — in a ragged gasp of relief when the image settled down to single still scene. A time and place she recognized.
Grand-Annie’s craft room, exactly as she’d left it, halfway packed up in boxes.
“Oh no,” Hazel said, shifting her grip on the staff. “Did it die again?”
“No,” Beverly said. “That’s where I was when Rocky found me.” She looked up at Hazy and saw tears in her friend’s eyes.
“You don’t have to go,” Hazy said.
“I do,” Beverly responded. For all that she’d wavered on whether this world was real or not when she’d first arrived, in this moment, it didn’t matter. Real or hallucination, it wasn’t her home.
Her home was on the other side of the glowing gemstone inserted in this wall of ghosts.
“But maybe,” Beverly allowed, “this time I can come back sooner.”
“I’ll make it better for you,” Hazy said. It was the pledge of a child to her favorite friend, begging her not to move away. But then, she squared her shoulders, straightened her back, and became a queen once again. “The next time you come, everything will be better here.”
“No more candy-crazed knights?” Beverly heckled. They’d already covered that ground.
“Everything will be better,” Queen Hazel insisted.
“I believe in you,” Beverly said. Then she put her hand to the image on the wall. The glowing panel in the rock flickered again, this time alternating its usual pale, gray light with a dark, rich shade of slightly translucent amber, exactly the same mottled color as the ribbon of the film in a VHS tape.
The rock felt cool under Beverly’s hand; then it felt like nothing at all. She was struck with a sudden dizziness and the sensation of falling. She closed her eyes against the spinning, and once again, she thought of Alice in Wonderland — this time falling through the white rabbit’s tunnel.
A screeching sound assailed her ears, and she opened her eyes to see the combined TV/VCR in front of her. The screech was the sound it made when it reached the end of a tape and automatically began to rewind.
A thread pulled too taut, snapping back.
Beverly pressed the eject button before the VCR could finish rewinding and the little black box with white wheels in it popped out. She flipped up the back of the tape and looked at the ribbon inside. With the sound the VCR had made, she’d afraid the ribbon had gotten all snarled up. But it was fine. Ready to be watched again.
With nothing in the VCR, the screen on the TV had gone dark. The VHS tape was a little warm in her hands from playing for so long.
Beverly would have to check her phone to see how much time had passed. She thought, probably, she’d left it on the kitchen table in the other room. That had been days ago.
Beverly wasn’t sure she wanted to know. For the moment, she lived in an in-between space where she wasn’t sure whether what had happened had been real. She cradled the VHS tape against her chest, as if it were the most precious thing she owned. Maybe she would keep this old TV/VCR. Maybe in a few days… or maybe a little longer… she’d try watching the tape again. For now, she was busy convincing herself that — regardless of how much time had passed — it was possible Queen Hazel was in another world thinking of her, waiting for her, and making that world better for her.
Because who was to say the magical soul stone had fast-forwarded to exactly the right moment in time? Even if no time had passed, maybe that was simply an artifact of the soul stone waking back up after having been dead in that wall, set to a moment in the 1960s for over half a century.
Meanwhile, if Hazy was busy making her world better, setting her knights to more useful tasks and trying to deserve the role she’d been given, maybe Beverly should do the same. She wasn’t a queen, but she lived in a magical world, filled with enough books, movies, and music to construct entire other realms, filled with their own strange magic. Ginny could paint the sky, but the lifetime of memories Beverly and Grand-Annie had shared in this house could paint an entire world.
How much more was there to discover? How many more worlds could Beverly construct from the memories she had yet to make? She had so many more books to read, movies to watch, and music to listen to. Perhaps she’d start with Grand-Annie’s shelf of old favorites, but eventually, she’d move on to pieces Grand-Annie would never get to see. Beverly would have to experience them for her.
The time Beverly and Grand-Annie had spent together was all sewn up and over, but the tapestry of Beverly’s own life was still in progress. Ragged edges, loose threads, and all.
Beverly got back to packing boxes, but this time, she tried to let the feelings sink in, instead of hiding from them. She let herself feel the moments passing by, washing over her, an endless stream of waves that knocks over the sandcastles we build, leaving room for building ever more sandcastles, ruled by ever more queens. It was easier to handle the buffeting of the waves now. Visiting with Queen Hazel had given Beverly a tether — an unbreakable thread — to hold onto, leading back to her childhood, back to the time when Grand-Annie was just in the next room, talking to her parents while she watched The Princess and the Raccoon on TV.
Beverly’s childhood was over, but also, it lived on, deep inside her and always would. Grand-Annie might be gone, but she’d shaped the way Beverly saw the world and that would never change.
Finally, Beverly accepted the fact that she wasn’t just deconstructing a house full of Grand-Annie’s old things… she was saying goodbye.