Important Disclaimer Stuff: Dungeons and Dragons the Cartoon, were originally copyright TSR/Marvel Productions, and then Saban Entertainment, BCI Eclipse, and rumor has it, Disney. Copyrighted characters are being used without permission, but with love and the best of intentions. All other characters are straight out of the Author's somewhat warped imagination. I am not making any money from the writing or publication of this story. (I wish!) Is that enough for the Lawyers?
Thank yous: When this story was first written in 2001, I had so much help and so many good ideas from my beta reader, Cole del Tigre, that I should really credit him as my co-author. Ten years later I'd learned so much more about writing that I decided to rewrite this story, and in that rewrite, I must also thank my friend John S. for the encouragement and for being my second beta reader (making him a delta reader, I suppose). Also, a very special thank you goes to Model Builder, whose insights from the perspective of a caseworker have helped me to paint what I believe is a more realistic picture in the first couple of chapters.
In the Hands of a Child
A typical spring day such as this could have happened anywhere. Freshly blooming flowers and green, vibrant grasses lent their delicate scents to the afternoon air, already perfumed by a refreshing rain. Overhead, birds chirped and warbled their happiness now that the brief shower had passed and the clouds were parting. Prism-like droplets of rain sparkled in rainbow hues as they hung from the edges of leaves budding on trees lining a quiet street in this small town.
Thirty seconds after the sound of the school bus pulled away from the curb, the front door flung open with a bang, and into the house bounced an exuberant, freckled six-year-old who had been missing her front teeth for two weeks now, her dark-blondish pigtails swinging as she skipped into the living room. "Mommy!" she called, flinging her Tigger backpack onto the couch, scattering the accent pillows, and heading for the kitchen where she knew her after-school milk and cookies would be waiting.
"There you are, sweetheart," her mother exclaimed, sweeping the little girl up in a big hug before she had the chance to pounce on the Oreos. "How was school today?" she asked, adjusting the phone book "booster seat" as her daughter climbed into her favorite bar stool at the kitchen counter.
"Mthth. Winchell made uth practith our capitalth and lower cathe letterth," the girl explained with difficulty, since it was hard to talk when one was missing two front teeth, and even worse when one's mouth was stuffed full of milk and Oreos. "Then we did our pluth and minuthes and we did crayoning," she said, spluttering cookie crumbs everywhere in her excitement to talk about her day. It seemed like her mother's admonitions about not talking with her mouth full just weren't getting drilled into her cute little head. "And Billy Carroll threw part of his sandwich at me at lunch so I pushed him in the mud at recess!"
"Caitlin!" her mother said in surprise.
"It's okay, Mommy, I sneaked up on him and he didn't see me 'cause I ran away before he got up," the girl called Caitlin explained with six-year-old confidence and with a mouth that was, thankfully, not full of cookies for the first time in the conversation.
Her mother groaned slightly.
Caitlin seemed to understand that her mother was less than pleased with the news. "'Just wait 'til Daddy gets home?'" she parroted, obviously having heard that phrase on more than one similar occasion in her young life. It always seemed to fall to Daddy to mete out punishment in these situations.
Her mother shook her head. "I have a feeling Daddy's only going to laugh at that one," she sighed. Of course he'd laugh. Caitlin was a bit of a tomboy, that was certain, and though he'd never admit it, her father was secretly proud of that fact. But still, tomboy or no, they'd have to have a stern talk with their daughter later. "Finish your cookies, and I'm going to go change my clothes. Then show me what you did at school today."
By the time her mother had changed out of her nurse's aide's uniform that she wore while working part time while her daughter was in school, Caitlin had polished off the last of her milk and was now rummaging through her backpack. "See, Mommy? These are my plusses and minuses and I got ten out of twelve right!" she said proudly, handing her mother a scribbled-on and slightly wadded sheet of paper. "And Mrs. Winchell read us a fairy tale and then she told us to draw a knight or a princess or a monster or a castle, and I crayoned this!" she said with excitement, holding up the next art project for the refrigerator. "And this is my letters, I did the whole alphabet in capitals and lower cases."
RRRRRRIP went the piece of paper as it caught on something in the backpack.
"Um, can you glue that?" Caitlin asked sheepishly.
"I'll get some tape, honey," her mother said absently. The sound of the tearing paper had barely caught her attention. At the moment, all she could do was stare, dumbstruck, at the crayon drawing that the child had handed her. No. This wasn't possible.
"Wait 'til Daddy gets home, indeed," she muttered to herself.
As usual, Daddy was home just a couple hours later. "I'm home-" he began to call out as he stepped in the front door, a call which quickly turned into, "OOOF!" as Caitlin, seemingly appearing from out of nowhere, exuberantly launched herself squarely into his stomach with a gleeful, "Daddy!" This greeting was a nightly ritual which often was much worse on her father when she was a little shorter.
"And how's my little Katie today?" her father asked once he'd caught his breath again, scooping her up in his arms and giving her a big kiss on the cheek.
Caitlin immediately commenced with the Billy Carroll story again, though it became decidedly more embellished with this telling. As she jabbered on, her father carried her into the dining room, where her mother was finishing setting the table for dinner. He was indeed snickering at the story as he leaned over to give his wife a kiss on the cheek.
"I'm glad you're home," she said with some degree of urgency. He immediately registered the concern in his wife's voice as she interrupted the story to instruct their daughter, "Caitlin, honey, go wash your hands, dinner's almost ready."
"Okay!" Caitlin agreed, bouncing out of the room with as much energy as a small tornado.
As soon as Caitlin was out of earshot, her father asked, "Something wrong?"
"I want you to look at something," her mother explained, picking up the piece of kid-art from the top of the refrigerator. "Their teacher told them to draw something from a fairy tale today. She did this."
Though it was done in a childish hand, the crayon depiction of a winged, lizard-like body was clearly that of a dragon. A dragon with five colorful heads sprouting from its red body: a red head, a black one, an outlined one that was probably supposed to be white, a blue one, and a green one.
Hank looked at Sheila in alarm. "You don't think she remembers, do you?"
Two days later, first grade teacher Mrs. Winchell had a parent-teacher conference immediately after school with Mrs. Grayson, the mother of Caitlin, the sweet, if overly energetic, little girl who sat in the third row, two desks back. The little girl in question was now sprawled on the floor in the play area of the otherwise deserted classroom, cheerfully running over the Barbie dolls with the Tonka Dump Truck as she waited for her mother to show up for the conference. Mrs. Winchell frowned slightly as she glanced at her student, wondering what this meeting would be about. Caitlin was a good student, reasonably bright, and though she was a constant explosion of energy, she had no real discipline problems that were out of the ordinary. No one habitually picked on Caitlin that she knew of, and Mrs. Winchell was usually very aware of conflicts between her students. To her knowledge, nothing was wrong with Caitlin's overall school experience. She couldn't fathom the urgency with which Mrs. Grayson had phoned her yesterday to schedule a conference.
A slight tap at the open door made Mrs. Winchell flinch. The old hallway was perfect for echoing even the slightest footsteps, but she could have sworn that she hadn't heard a sound of anyone approaching. And yet there was a slim, petite figure standing in the door that proved to the teacher that maybe it was time for a hearing checkup.
"Mrs. Winchell? I'm Sheila Grayson."
"Mommy!" Caitlin exclaimed, tossing Barbie head-first into the Tonka Cement Mixer and jumping up to run to her mother as if she hadn't seen her in years.
"Hi, sweetheart," Sheila greeted her daughter, before gently disentangling her leg from the big bear-hug that Caitlin was giving it. "Okay, honey, let go ... there." Succeeding in prying the girl off, Sheila knelt down eye-level with her and asked, "Will you go back and play with the dolls again for a few minutes? Mrs. Winchell and I need to talk. Then we'll get ice cream and go home, okay?"
"Okay!" Caitlin sang happily. Such a reward was every child's dream, especially when all she had to do to earn it was go play! Bouncing back to the play area, she flopped down and immediately wreaked bodily havoc on Barbie with a dozen or so building blocks.
As this happened, an amused Mrs. Winchell quietly sized Mrs. Grayson up, trying to determine what kind of parent she was, as she naturally did whenever she met one of her students' family. She had encountered Mrs. Grayson and her husband only once before, during new student orientation at the beginning of the year. It struck her now, as it had then, that she was rather young to have a six-year-old daughter. Mrs. Grayson could not have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four at the most, meaning that she was probably still in high school when she'd had Caitlin. Sadly, that happened with alarming frequency these days, but to the Graysons' credit, they were lovingly raising their daughter remarkably well, and from what Caitlin said when she talked about her mommy and daddy, they seemed absolutely devoted to her.
The Graysons, a child born to too-young parents ... wait a second. Now Mrs. Winchell was beginning to put two and two together. Upon reflecting for a moment, she thought she remembered hearing a rumor from some of her colleagues in the high school district, a rumor about something that had happened the year before she had been hired on by the elementary school. She was certain about the part that had made national news: several children from their area had mysteriously disappeared a few years ago, and that little tickle at the back of her brain was telling her that one of them had the last name of Grayson, or something similar. Trying hard to remember, she vaguely recalled hearing whispers that when the children, now mostly adults, had reappeared, the unsolved mystery pointed to a mysterious kidnapping by an elusive cult. The students were abducted, taken somewhere in Canada with drug-induced amnesia, and brainwashed for years by the cult leader, and, in the middle of this all, a child - Caitlin? - was born.
Unfortunately, she'd overheard the rumors only once or twice before, and until now had no reason to associate it with Caitlin's parents. Mrs. Winchell had only bits and pieces, and was fairly certain she did not know the whole story. She had to admit that she was not even sure this was the same Grayson that had been mentioned in the news.
What mattered at the moment, though, was the fact that a parent was very concerned about her child. "What can I do for you, Mrs. Grayson?"
"For starters, call me Sheila," the slim redhead smiled, taking the chair that the teacher gestured to. "I came here because I was wondering if you could tell me anything about this?" Opening a folder that she had carried in, Sheila showed the teacher the picture that Caitlin had brought home two days ago.
"This?" Mrs. Winchell echoed, faintly surprised as she glanced over the picture of the dragon. She had remembered telling Caitlin how realistic it looked. What about it was upsetting Caitlin's mother? Once before, a parent had reacted badly to a child's drawing of a dragon, coming to a parent-teacher conference with near-hysterical fears that her boy was either mentally deranged, or possessed by devils. That didn't seem to be what was concerning Mrs. Grayson, but just in case, Mrs. Winchell proceeded carefully, "It's nothing to be overly alarmed about, Mrs. Gr – I mean, Sheila. The assignment was to draw something from the fairy tales we were reading, and this is the dragon that Caitlin came up with."
"That's what she told me," Sheila agreed, putting the paper back in the folder. Even with that admission, though, the concern was not gone from her blue-green eyes. "But, doesn't a five-headed dragon seem a bit bizarre to you?"
Though the teacher got the distinct impression that Caitlin's mother was dancing around an issue that she would not voice, she began to relax. This wasn't a crisis, just a minor, easily remedied misunderstanding. "Your daughter has a vibrant and very active imagination, as I'm sure you know. Just last week she was telling the other children about a giant lobster that no one else can see, which lives under her bed. It's standard stuff for children her age. They'll outgrow it."
Sheila smiled, having heard the story about the lobster, too. That was Caitlin's version of the Monster That Lived Under Every Kid's Bed. In truth, Sheila even suspected it stemmed from a very early mispronunciation of the word "monster." It seemed perfectly normal, the way Mrs. Winchell put it.
"I wouldn't be concerned -" the teacher continued, but was interrupted when a freckled, red-haired Midge doll was shoved in her face.
"See!" Caitlin bubbled. "I told you Mommy looks like Midge does!"
"Yes, I see that," Mrs. Winchell agreed, gently pushing Barbie's friend to the side. "But your mother and I are still talking, so you just play for a little longer, all right?"
"Okay!" Caitlin obediently skipped back to where she had been playing, sat down and started dressing Midge in Barbie's hot pink party dress.
"So, she doesn't do stuff like this often?" Sheila asked hopefully as her daughter distracted herself, tapping the folder which contained the unmistakable likeness of Tiamat.
"Well, I wouldn't say that," Mrs. Winchell admitted. "She's quite the storyteller. I wouldn't be concerned, though. As I was saying, most of it is quite normal for a child her age. But I might recommend having a little talk with her about exaggerating," she added after a moment.
"How so?" Sheila asked with a frown.
"Well, for instance," Mrs. Winchell began, thinking of a few appropriate examples of some of the rather tall tales that Caitlin had regaled her classmates with. As the teacher related them, most seemed like standard fare for children who were trying to impress their peers so much that a few points would take on an extremely high polish, such as the secret 'pirate cave' loaded with treasure that she had discovered at the beach last summer, which, upon further questioning, turned out to be just a twenty-foot round hollow in a rock just above the high-tide line. The treasure, of course, had been nothing more than a pocket full of quartz-veined granite.
Just when Sheila was finally relaxing in her seat, as if she had admitted to herself that there really was nothing out of the ordinary with her daughter, Mrs. Winchell concluded with one last example. "Then a few weeks ago, I read to them the story of Robin Hood," she explained. "Later, I heard her telling some of the other children that her father was better with the bow and arrow than Robin Hood was, and he always shot arrows that were on fire. I asked her if she was telling the truth, and she promised she was. It seemed, well, a bit of an exaggeration, and usually I can get her to admit it when it is, but this time she was adamant about it being the truth. So I'm curious, is it true, Mrs. Grayson? Is your husband into archery or something?"
Sheila turned several degrees of pale at this revelation.
"He ... he used to be," she finally managed. The description was somewhat inaccurate, but it was more than obvious what Caitlin was remembering. Trying to invent a logical explanation, despite how stunned she was, Sheila came up with, "He used to ... to do trick archery before she was born and when she was still very little. I The flaming arrows and all I'm surprised she remembers."
"You'd be surprised at the memory on some children," Mrs. Winchell began, but before she could finish her sentence, she was again interrupted by Caitlin and the Midge doll.
"Look!" Caitlin insisted, displaying a doll that was now dressed not only in Barbie's short, pink party dress, but also Barbie's equestrian riding boots. In Caitlin's other hand was the purple scarf that she had somehow snitched from around the collar of Mrs. Winchell's coat that was draped over the back of her chair. "Watch!" she said, tossing the scarf over Midge. In a six-year-old's attempt at being sneaky, she slid the doll out from under the scarf before lifting the rectangle of silk again. "Midge can disappear! Just like Mommy!"
"Just like Mommy?" the teacher repeated, looking at Sheila curiously while putting her hand out to Caitlin. "Well ... that's a very good trick. Now would you give me my scarf back, please?"
Sheila did not immediately answer. All the color had drained from her face, leaving her freckles standing out in stark contrast with her sudden whiteness. For a moment, all she could do was stare at the purple scarf that the teacher was patiently trying to reclaim from her student. "Uh ..." she stammered, thinking as fast as humanly possible, considering the shock. "A friend of ours does magic tricks. He he did some for her birthday. I um ... I was his assistant and he made me disappear."
"I see," Mrs. Winchell nodded while gazing intently at Sheila. Clearly, something was very wrong, something that she knew Sheila was lying about in a poor but desperate attempt to cover, but what in the world that could be, she hadn't a clue. Before she could ask, Sheila was on her feet and taking her daughter by the hand.
"Come on, sweetheart, grab your backpack, we need to get home before Daddy does," she babbled hastily. "Mrs. Winchell, thank you for your time!" With her child in tow, she ducked out of the room before another word could be said.
"I want chocolate chip!" echoed Caitlin's voice in the hallway, determined to not let her mother forget for a second that she'd been promised ice cream.
At exactly four minutes past Caitlin's bedtime that evening, Sheila emerged from her daughter's bedroom and said, "She's conked out." As usual, by the end of the day, their little whirlwind of a daughter sorely needed to recharge her batteries and was fast asleep by the time Sheila had read the first few pages of her bedtime story. Caitlin probably knew the beginning part to a hundred or so different stories, but Sheila seriously doubted her daughter had a clue how any of them actually ended.
"Okay, good," was the half-aware answer to her announcement.
Sitting down on the sofa, Sheila noticed Hank's thoughtful, concerned expression as he mulled over a clearly weighty issue. There could be no doubt what that issue was, since he'd been like this from the moment she'd told him about the parent-teacher conference earlier that afternoon. She waited quietly for him to tell her what conclusions he was arriving at, if any.
A few silent minutes passed. When Sheila finally decided that Hank was so lost in his thoughts that he was going to need prompting if there was to be a conversation, she asked, "Which is worse? Knowing that Caitlin remembers the Realm, or thinking that we had our heads in the sand and missed this altogether?"
Hank looked up quickly, obviously disturbed by the implication that they hadn't been paying close attention to their own child. "I honestly don't think she's ever let on that she remembered before, at least not in front of us," he said after a moment, sounding as if he was asking Sheila to confirm this. That very question had wracked both their minds this entire evening: Had she exhibited these memories at any time before, and they just missed it? "Because if she had, I don't think for a second that either of us would have just laughed it off and hoped that if we ignored it, it would go away. I mean, look at all the alarm bells this is setting off now! There's no doubt in my mind that we would've picked up even the slightest hint that she remembered, and we sure wouldn't have let it slide if we had!"
"But it's pretty clear she remembers, and I know she wasn't purposely hiding it," Sheila answered, shrugging helplessly. "If she had been, she would have never shown me that drawing like that, don't you think? I just don't know how we could have missed this."
Sheila leaned quietly against Hank's shoulder as they turned over a few possibilities in their minds. Why did this have to happen now? They were just getting their lives back in order and finally writing off their experiences in the Realm as a closed, locked, and sealed chapter in their lives. These past years had been a more strenuous blur than surviving in the Realm: trying to explain their over three year absence as a complicated kidnapping plot, while misdirecting the police so that the "case" would eventually be tossed to the bottom of a filing drawer as unsolvable; reacquainting themselves with their parents who understandably tried to probe into the past of the children they had believed to be dead; explaining Caitlin's presence; getting their GED's and then the training to find real jobs in the real world to become normal, productive citizens and care for their child as best they could, as if nothing were wrong.
Of course, it hadn't been all stress and lies since their return, not by a long shot. Being back on Earth put them back in a familiar environment where they weren't constantly on the run, always looking over their shoulders to avoid being blasted, eaten, captured, roasted, poisoned, or frozen. Still, it was intense culture shock, going from their positions of helping govern Khadish as legitimate and accepted heirs to Rahmoud's kingdom, to being little more than high-school dropouts with limited prospects of a future. After that very rough transition back, in which Hank and Sheila had nearly split up more than once, things eventually started going their way again. Hank had the wherewithal and the nearly incalculable luck to land an on-site handyman position in a townhouse complex, a job which offered an adequate paycheck and, more importantly, extremely affordable housing. Sheila had fought her way into college and was now only a couple dozen credit hours away from getting her Nursing certificate. They were finally living fairly well and relatively happily, given the circumstances, and they both knew it was a combination of hard work, sheer luck, stubborn determination, more hard work, and maybe a little divine providence that had gotten them to this point. It wasn't impossible, but they both knew the odds against a pair of teenaged parents sticking together and making it work this successfully were more than a thousand to one.
Once their lives started falling into place, they were finally able to have a real wedding to make things official and legitimate in the eyes of their families and the law, despite the fact that they had already been married in the eyes of Rahmoud and the Realm since a few months before Caitlin was born. They knew they had friends here they could rely on, all of whom shared the same experiences during "that time." Even though they had to keep the Realm a secret from the world, they still had people they could talk to. Plus, on top of it all, Caitlin was the sweetest, smartest, most wonderful child they could have ever dreamed of having. She made everything else worth the struggle.
But why did she have to remember the fact that she was not born here on Earth?
Sighing in resignation, Hank finally patted Sheila's leg and said, "The funny thing is, she could have been telling her classmates everything she remembered about the Realm all last year, and we never knew because the kindergarten teacher might have just laughed the whole thing off as so many kid's stories. How's that for crazy?" He shook his head in disbelief, while Sheila managed a wan smile at the thought. "But whether we missed it before or not, that's beside the point now. I can't even begin to understand how she remembers, I mean, she wasn't even two when we got out of there! But I guess what it comes down to is, what do we do about it?"
"Telling her not to talk about it would only make the problem worse," Sheila offered as one thing not to do, whether she was talking about Caitlin or any other six-year-old in existence. "Because then it would be a secret, and you know how long secrets last around first-graders!"
Chuckling, Hank nodded once. Half the neighborhood would hear all the details within two days if they told Caitlin to keep it secret. So that idea was out. But what could they do that would have some effect?
Absently stroking Sheila's long red hair as she rested her head tiredly on his shoulder, Hank finally admitted, "I'm drawing a total blank. But let's face it, this is too big for just us."
Sheila nodded. It had been agreed, several years ago, that if any issues arose involving the Realm, they were to be solved by a group effort. So that was the next step. "War council protocols?" she asked with a faint smile.
"Yep," Hank agreed. Reaching for the cordless phone that rested on the end table next to the sofa, he hit the first number on the speed dial. "I'm going to make some calls."
A major falling out had happened between Eric and Hank when Sheila had first explained to the rest of the group that she was pregnant. This news, in Eric's mind, had been completely unforgivable. After having taken a short time to digest all the ramifications of her announcement, Eric had ripped into Hank in a scathing diatribe that was far more vicious than anything that had ever been heard before from the Cavalier's mouth. In that entire tirade, he barely even touched on the irresponsibility of the acts that had led to Sheila's unexpected condition, and didn't even mention the overwhelming enormity of the task of teenagers trying to raise a child in such an insane and deadly place as the Realm. Nor did he particularly need to, either, since Hank was doing a spectacular job of beating himself up over those very issues. Hank had just sat there contritely and listened as Eric berated him about this being the ultimate screw-up that would almost certainly ensure that they would never get home again.
Eric had been right in his arguments even if his fury was beyond measure. How would Sheila be able to continue with them as they quested for a way home? Unless they found a portal very soon, Sheila would soon be far too awkward to walk miles a day or run from a horde of orcs. (Eric had actually used the word "fat," causing Sheila to burst into tears, which was the only time that Hank stood up to him during this one-sided argument.) And what about after the baby was born? There was simply no way they could ever hope to fight Venger while lugging around a squirming bundle and a diaper bag! No, they were stuck now, stranded away from their homes and their families forever, and Eric loudly and angrily made damn sure they all knew whose fault that was.
His anger was so irrational that Eric had gone so far as to try to leave the group over this. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed when Diana intervened. Though she was none too happy about the situation herself, the Acrobat had forcibly dragged Eric to the side and, though no one to this day knew what she had said in that agonizingly long conversation, she had managed to convince Eric that adventuring by himself would earn him a worse fate than sticking with them. What she did not succeed in doing was getting an apology out of Eric. He had meant every word he said. It was days before he spoke directly to either Hank or Sheila.
It was several weeks later when Sheila had finally started showing, which meant their time to search for the way home was coming to an end. By that point, the group consensus was that, if it came down to still being stranded in the Realm with Sheila unable to continue on, there was one safe and friendly place they could, and ultimately, did go.
When they arrived in Khadish, Rahmoud had lovingly welcomed them into his kingdom with open arms, with all the honors that were due his "children."
Perhaps it was the fact that they had found something of a safe haven in Khadish, something that they could at least call home, with people who loved them, where they could settle down and attempt to lead normal lives without having to scrounge for berries and look behind them every other step. Or perhaps it was because Eric, now the "son" of the King of the East, found he could get used to being waited on hand and foot by lovely maidens bearing gilded platters of the finest delicacies this exotic land had to offer. Either way, his dour outlook on being stuck in the Realm eventually softened, and along with that, his sullen attitude toward Hank slowly began to thaw.
When Caitlin was finally born, Eric had grudgingly admitted that the baby was "kind of cute." By the time she was one year old, the Cavalier had been caught playing peek-a-boo with her several times, and often said emphatically to anyone that asked that she was "really cute." And when, long after they had all given up on ever finding their way back to Earth, an unexpected portal whisked them all home when Caitlin was almost two, Eric told her parents almost daily that she was "adorable."
Now, that adorable little girl was seated on her Uncle Eric's lap, telling him all about the perilous travail in Art class that had led to the paper cut on her little finger and the really cool Scooby-Doo bandage that covered it. And Eric, who once described a baby as "wad of disgusting bodily functions," listened with all due seriousness and even kissed her finger better.
Diana, seated across the table in the Graysons' dining room, smiled into her cup of tea and said nothing. Sheila noticed the expression and grinned back at her best friend. My, how Eric had changed since they'd first met him.
Hank got up to answer the doorbell when it rang a minute or two later. It was still a bit early; they had all agreed to meet here at 7:30 that Friday evening. As usual, Diana had arrived almost half an hour ago, mainly to sit down with Sheila and chat over a cup of after-dinner chamomile tea. Eric had gotten here about five minutes ago, at about a quarter after, and was instantly monopolized by Caitlin, who hadn't noticeably stopped for a breath since she started jabbering Uncle Eric's ears off. Since it was still before the appointed time, Hank had a pretty good idea who was at the door.
"Hey, Presto!" he said as he opened the door. The old nickname was something they hadn't given up using, despite its direct connotations with the Realm. Though he went by "Al" in what they had deemed the "real world," the group still felt comfortable calling him by the only thing they had ever really called him in the Realm. "Presto" was a pun on his middle name, Preston, and technically, the origin of the nickname was not from his role in the Realm at all, but had been earned in Junior High through his semi-successful card tricks in the cafeteria.
"Hey, yourself!" Presto answered, his still-wiry though taller frame slipping through the door. "I got your message. How's the munchkin?" He looked past Hank, getting in a half-crouch just in case Caitlin came charging at him the way she did last time.
"Uncle Pesto!" Caitlin squealed, brandishing her bandaged pinky in the air from Eric's lap. She didn't come charging at him like a pigtailed bull in a china shop, only because Eric had a firm hold of the straps on her overalls to keep her from launching herself off his lap in her excitement. "Look! I got a Scooby-Doo Band-Aid 'cause I got a paper cut 'cause Mrs. Winchell gave us construction paper and Jamie Meyers wanted a purple piece and I had the only purple piece and so he pulled it out of my hand ..."
Caitlin continued to chatter away, oblivious to the reasons behind why her favorite aunts and uncles were meeting this evening. Sheila served up tea for everyone who wanted a cup, and they joked about the comments made on last night's Tonight Show as 7:30 came and went. A friendly argument had broken out about which Chinese restaurant had the best Szechuan chicken in town when the clock clicked to 7:43. Diana was holding out for the Red Wok while Eric extolled the virtues of the Jade Dragon, though Presto insisted they were both wrong and needed to go try the excellent dish at the Bamboo Garden. Right about then, in the parking lot outside the open window, the sound of an older engine in definite need of a tune-up and quite possibly a new muffler interrupted the conversation.
Glancing at the clock, Sheila muttered, "I told you we should have told him we were meeting at 7:15, then he'd be here right on time!"
Outside, the engine cut off with a sharp backfire, the car doors slammed, and fifteen seconds later, the doorbell rang.
"Come on in, Rob!" Sheila called just before Hank could cross the room to answer the bell, and almost immediately, the door swung open to reveal her little brother.
Perhaps "little" was a misnomer. Though he had been a scrawny kid at ten, at age eighteen he was nearly as tall as Hank was now and every bit as muscular and athletic. Being the star of the high school baseball team had seen to that. Technically, Bobby, or "Rob" as he liked to be called now, was only in his Junior year at school. Though he had studied hard and taken special courses to make up for the missed years, he just had too much lost time to make up for, and had to be held back a year. Not that it bothered him much, as long as he kept his grades up, that just meant another year on the baseball team!
"Sorry, guys," he began, knowing by the undisguised glances that his friends made towards the clock that he was late yet again. "Practice went over and I couldn't get away - hey, it's the Living Whirlwind!" he exclaimed as Caitlin shrieked happily and this time managed to squirm deftly out of Eric's grip to run to another of her favorite uncles. He scooped his niece up and swung her into the air, eliciting a squeal of pure delight.
"And then I couldn't get off work right on time, so it's not really his fault that we're late," came a voice from behind Rob. The voice belonged to a striking, raven-haired young woman who had entered the house with him. Though her uniform proclaimed her to be a checker at Whizzy's Market, her ethereal, mysterious aura transcended the embroidered polo shirt and name tag and made her brief nineteen years seem like a lie. Hank well remembered that same, knowing expression shining in her deep brown eyes from the first day he'd met her, years ago in another world: She Knew. She mysteriously, inexplicably knew things about a person or place or event that no one had the right to possibly know.
"But you knew that was going to happen, right?" Eric called out to her with a faintly sarcastic smile.
"Of course I did!" Terri replied calmly, finding an empty seat at the already crowded dining table. "Although anyone could have told you the same thing. I've been late getting off every afternoon this week!" She grabbed a butter cookie from the half-empty plate and declined a cup of tea. "So what's up? There's usually a pretty good reason when we call the war council like this."
"Let me go put Caitlin in the other room," Sheila replied, taking her daughter from Rob, "and then we'll show you. Caitlin, honey, you want to go watch some cartoons while we have a grown-up talk in here?"
"Aladdin!" Caitlin demanded, bouncing happily beside Sheila as her mother shepherded her into the family room. "I wanna watch Aladdin!"
Hank groaned inwardly at Caitlin's choice of cartoon. The fact that the Arabian tale with djinnis and magic and vast deserts sands was one of her favorites had abruptly taken a whole new significance. Did she really remember Khadish, the magnificent Eastern Kingdom where she had spent the first twenty-one months of her life in the pampered existence of the great King's first 'granddaughter?'
"You don't look so good," Diana informed Hank, setting down her teacup and placing a concerned hand on his shoulder. "Is something wrong?"
"You tell me," Hank replied. As he heard the sound of the television coming on in the other room, he stood to retrieve the folder from the kitchen counter. "Caitlin seems to be a budding artist," he explained, placing her drawing in the middle of the table for everyone to see. "Take a look at what she did in class this week."
Ten seconds passed in stunned silence before anyone moved. No one even noticed when Sheila quietly slipped back into the dining room. Everyone's attention was completely focused on the drawing of the Dragon Queen as it was quickly passed around the table so they all could get a good look. Presto, the last to look at it, handed it back to Hank and summed everyone's thoughts up in one simple phrase. "Uh, oh."
"Yeah, exactly," Hank agreed. "She remembers."
"Are you serious?" Eric gasped. "How long has this been going on?"
"Apparently longer than we'd like to think," Sheila answered. "She did that drawing earlier this week. I went to talk with her teacher and found out all sorts of things." Reclaiming her chair, Sheila related every detail of the parent-teacher conference, from the Robin Hood comparison that Mrs. Winchell said that Caitlin made, right down to the disappearing Midge doll trick. By the time she had finished, grim expressions had settled on every face around the table.
Diana was first to break the brooding silence. "Well, we can't have this. What happens if she tells the wrong people about everything she remembers? There's only so much we can cover up."
"And what do we say when she starts asking us about it?" Hank continued. "What if she asks about Grandpa Rahmoud or wants us to explain why there are no lizard-men here? What in the world are we supposed to tell her?"
"Well, I suppose telling her not to talk about it won't work?" Rob suggested, leaning back and casually putting his arm on the back of Terri's chair. Mainly the gesture was a signal that he was hoping that Terri could come up with a better suggestion; he adored his niece but quite frankly he really didn't know much about children. He'd been in way over his head on the few times he'd tried to baby-sit her, and from that experience, he certainly couldn't imagine ever wanting to be a father. At least, not at his age. But then he glanced at Hank and reminded himself that his brother-in-law hadn't been much older than he was now when Sheila got pregnant. Hank hadn't exactly wanted to be a father at that age either, and yet he'd managed to make a pretty darn good one. Then again, that was just Hank, who somehow always brought out his best no matter what the situation. But it certainly had taught Rob a thing or two about what chances a young guy probably shouldn't take with his girlfriend.
"Not in a million years would that work," Terri confirmed Rob's question. She had two younger siblings and from that, knew just what little kids could be like when they were sworn to a secret. "But let me ask you guys something, okay? Is this really a crisis?"
"Terri," Hank began, "I don't think you-"
"No, hold on, I wasn't saying anything about letting the whole world know about the Realm," Terri interrupted, waving her hands to take back control of the conversation. "What I'm saying is, every kid I know has some sort of make-believe world when they're young. Most of them just grow out of it at some point. I think any adults that hear her talking about the Realm are going to pretty much shrug it off as kid stuff."
"Well then, let me turn it around and ask you something," Sheila responded seriously. "Did you have your own make-believe world when you were a kid?"
"Yeah," Terri nodded with a vague smile. "I had a dozen talking teddy bears for imaginary friends."
"I've met talking teddy bears," Sheila answered. "And when I was little, I had my own make-believe world with unicorns and flying horses. I've met those in real life, too. I know the difference between what was real and what was imaginary. Deep down, I always did even as a kid, so I think my point is that Caitlin might too, no matter what an adult might call it. I know she wasn't even two when we finally got home, but don't you think that there might be a chance she can sort out the difference like we can?"
Frowning as she gave it due consideration, Terri finally mused, "You know, I really can't give you an honest answer there. I don't think I have any memories at all from before I was two. Actually, I don't think too many people remember much before kindergarten, at least not all that clearly anyway. But it looks like Caitlin does. Which you're saying means you'll never convince her that it didn't happen because it sounds like she remembers everything too clearly."
"Drops of rain and twigs of elm, Caitlin can't remember the Realm!" Presto chanted in response, twiddling his fingers grandiosely. Though his magic had no effect here on Earth, at least his bogus incantation had the effect of lightening the mood somewhat. Especially when Eric frantically slid under the table and yelped, "Look out! He's at it again!"
Everyone laughed as Eric peeked over the edge of the table a moment later. "Is it safe?" he asked with mock anxiety, climbing back into his chair and straightening his sweater. "No flaming bowling balls or anything?"
Glad for the brief respite of laughter, the group settled back into pondering what to do about the fact that Caitlin remembered the one place they were trying so hard to forget. Finally, Diana suggested, "Okay, so let's not try the 'it never happened' approach. What if we told her that yes, she remembers something, but we were able to convince her that she just remembers wrong?"
Hank and Sheila frowned curiously at one another. Convincing their daughter that she was wrong about a firmly held belief was difficult at best to outright impossible. "How so?" Sheila finally asked.
"Well," Diana drawled, "call me crazy, but what if we could make her believe that everything she remembers was from movies that she saw when she was really little? Like Aladdin in there - we might be able to convince her that those are her memories of Khadish, if she has any." She began warming up to the possibilities, and was now ticking the suggestions off on her long fingers as she came up with them. Obviously she did not make the connection that the Aladdin/Khadish comparison was what had upset Hank earlier. "And maybe we could say the dragon memories came from, I don't know, a fairy tale play at the children's theater? Or Presto can put on a few 'magic' shows and then show her how the tricks are done so she starts thinking of all magic as just a bunch of sleight of hand? Or maybe, maybe Hank, if you started goofing around with an archery set in the back yard, then maybe she'd begin to believe that you just had a regular bow and arrow all along?"
The others seemed to like this idea, and when Diana paused to think of some other alternatives, they quickly jumped in with their own suggestions. "I think I've got Dragonslayer and Clash of the Titans, the first one, on video somewhere," Rob added. Somewhere in that frightening mess he called a bedroom. "We can let her watch those!"
"And how about we take her to the amusement park?" Eric suggested. "We could show her all those animatronic monsters on the ride and explain that they're only robots, not the real thing."
This brought a moment of uneasy silence. In all the time they had been back, only Eric had made a pilgrimage to the amusement park, to find closure in watching the ride that had shattered their lives by thrusting them into a portal to another world; watching as smiling, giggling children jumped in the car at the beginning of the ride, watching as they came out the other side, safe and sound, a little wobbly from the inertia of the roller coaster but smiling and giggling nonetheless. It was not whisking helpless victims into a world stranger and more surreal than a Salvador Dali painting. No, it was just a ride.
The others had not been able to bring themselves to go back to that fateful park. Perhaps they didn't want to actively seek out a reminder of that closed chapter of the past, or at least in Rob's case, deep down they were afraid of what would happen if they got too near that accursed roller coaster. But when Eric suggested it, they all had to laugh at their own concerns. He was right. It was just an amusement park attraction, nothing more. If kids continued to disappear from it, the thing would have closed long ago. The portal that had torn them away from their home world and into the Realm had been a fluke. Maybe they all needed to see that.
"Yeah," Hank said slowly, looking to Sheila for her nod of agreement. "That just might be a good start. How about tomorrow afternoon? Sheila's got some homework and I've got some yard maintenance to take care of in the morning, but after that, we're free."
"Surprisingly enough, I don't coach this Saturday," Diana said. "I can make it."
"Yeah, my weekends are my own," Eric added, checking the calendar app on his iPhone. "Name the time and I can be there."
"Um, I've got some test results I need to finish writing up, but I think I can get it done tonight," Presto said after giving consideration to the size of the project he was interning on. "Tomorrow I should be free in the afternoon."
"I have a short day tomorrow, I get off work at noon," Terri told them, and thought about it for a second. "I'll actually be getting out of there at about 12:15. So if we make it after 1:00, I can be there."
"Sure, I can pick her up and we'll meet you there!" Rob added enthusiastically. Though he didn't care for the Dungeons and Dragons ride any more, he'd jump for any chance to go to the amusement park just because he loved the midway's cotton candy.
"Sounds like a plan, then," Sheila agreed, getting up from her chair. "I'll go tell Caitlin." Going into the other room, she could be heard saying, "Katie, honey, do you want to go to the amusement park tomorrow and go on all the rides? Caitlin, how did you get those cookies? Oh, great, that's just what I need, a kid on a sugar high at bedtime! It's not like you're energetic enough as it is!" The sound of the television clicked off as Caitlin giggled her excited agreement about going to the park. "Well, then, it's all settled," Sheila said as she walked back into the dining room with her bouncing daughter, placing the uneaten cookies back on the plate where Caitlin must have swiped them. It was like mother, like daughter in many ways, and now it seemed like Caitlin was already earning her mother's title of 'Thief.' Was this yet another thing that the little girl inexplicably remembered from the Realm?
"One o'clock, then is that agreed?" Diana confirmed.
"Looks like it," Eric said, tapping his iPhone with a flourish, then slipping it into one pocket while removing his carved leather wallet from another. Waving it emphatically, he said, "And just to prove my point and show you that I'm right, as always, we're now all going to The Jade Dragon for the best Szechuan chicken you've ever tasted. On me."