For the eighth time in as many years, Sarah stood in front of her house, getting up the courage to try to open the door. It wasn't that she was a coward, not by any means, it was just that... Well, she just didn't like heavy things falling on her toes.
Eventually, though, she knew that she had no choice. She took a deep breath and carefully walked up the porch steps, sheer luck letting her avoid a catastrophe. Balancing, she gingerly reached a hand towards the doorknob, afraid to even breathe. She never made, it though. Just as her hand was almost to the shiny doorknob, her other hand, grown sweaty in the heat, slipped, and then it was too late.
When her younger brother Toby opened the door, having heard the ruckus outside, he viewed what he saw with great amusement: his older sister, sitting dazed in a large pile of heavy books.
"Sarah?" He smirked. "I always knew that Mom and Dad should have gone in for those ballet lessons."
"Quit being a brat and help me up."
Sarah cursed under her breath, wiggling the toes a particularly heavy book had landed on. Toby did help her up without another word, but went back inside and flopped down onto the couch, his eyes quickly glazing over as he stared at the TV. Outside, Sarah grumbled under her breath as she picked up the heavy books again, one by one, and attempted to balance them.
She dreaded the thought of attempting to lug them all up to her room, and knew that she wouldn't be staying forever anyway, so instead, she merely made her way to the kitchen. With a sigh of relief, she opened her arms and let the books spill onto the table, mindless of any bent pages.
Ruefully rubbing her sore spots, Sarah walked into the family room where Toby sat, blissfully unconscious of the world around him. He was sprawled out on the couch, his limbs recently grown lanky with a growth spurt.
"How was your day, Toby?" she asked.
He didn't even look away from the TV. "Fine."
"Did you do anything fun?"
Toby's voice sounded slightly irritated, but his eyes never left the screen. "Sarah, I'm trying to watch here."
She tightened her lips. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she said in an exaggerated tone. "I was unaware that the king was busy. I do hope you'll forgive me, highness." Sarah sketched a sarcastic bow and turned to leave the room.
"No, wait, Sarah." She paused as he seemed to search for the right words. "It's just...you're no fun to be around since you started grad school."
Sarah tried not to let her hurt show on her face, but she had never been good at hiding her feelings. They were always right there for the entire world to see. "I'm not fun? I may be working a lot of the time, but I'm still me, aren't I?"
Toby sighed, frustrated, his blue eyes finally leaving the TV screen. "Either you're working on your thesis thing, or you ask me questions that sound just like my mom. You never just sit and watch TV with me anymore, or even tell me stories."
Sarah brushed wisps of her hair that had escaped from her braid out of her eyes as she walked over to the couch to sit with him. "I thought you were getting a little old for my stories," she said gently. "You're going to be thirteen soon. What thirteen year old boy wants bedtime stories from his big sister?" Toby was sullenly silent. If he said he did, it would make him seem like a baby, but he couldn't say he didn't, since he'd brought them up in the first place.
"It's just..." he finally tried. "Well, I mean, your stories were good. Dragons and cunning knights and... I mean, good stuff. Stuff that I wish..." he trailed off, a blush creeping up his neck.
Sarah stared straight ahead, giving him time to compose himself. It felt like this was as honest as he'd been with her since he had turned ten and decided that he was too cool for his big sister. After a minute, she asked, "How's school? I mean, really, how's school?"
"It's fine," he said stiffly, slamming up his defenses again.
He was lying and they both knew it, but Sarah didn't call him on it. Instead she merely sighed and hoisted herself to her feet. "Right, Toby. It's fine. Enjoy your TV."
As she walked from the room, he muttered something unintelligible about old battleaxes. She didn't rise to the occasion – he'd inherited their father's temper too, and arguing with him was like slamming up against a brick wall – but she did a little muttering of her own.
"Ungrateful little wretch. After all I did for you." And it had been a lot. She tried not to think too deeply about her experience in the Labyrinth these days, but it wasn't easy. It had been twelve years since she had rescued Toby, and though she had tried many times to convince herself that it hadn't really happened, she had never been able to. Even her choices in life seemed to reflect what had happened to her: she had majored in psychology, and the thesis that ate up most of her time these days was on the role of fantasy in adolescent life. Sarah tried not to let her own experiences color it, and thus far she had been successful.
In fact, she had never told anyone about the Labyrinth and all the creatures she had met inside it. All these years, she had kept them locked close to her heart, especially Jareth. Even though she had fought against him, he had been her first real crush, and she had thought about him a lot in the years that had followed, wondering what he had really been offering her; wondering if, perhaps, she should have taken him up on his offer.
But the Labyrinth had changed her, no doubt about that. She had learned about, well, everything, really. Her father and her stepmother had remarked more than once after that night how mature she had grown, how calm and caring, how unselfish. The changes wrought in her had been viewed happily by all, but Sarah hadn't been so happy.
For once she stepped out of the Labyrinth, she knew that her only true adventure was over, her hopes were dead, and all that was left for her to do was to become a sensible, productive member of society and lead an utterly normal life. There was no room in this world for the unbridled craziness and shiftiness of the Labyrinth. Here, if you turned a corner into a different room, the same room would still be waiting for you when you came back. Heads here stayed firmly attached to bodies, and even punishments were less interesting, for surely nothing could rival The Bog of Eternal Stench.
She had cried at night a few times within the months following, inwardly miserable. Then she had started wearing makeup and going to the mall with other girls from school, and Will from the football team had asked her out, and her fantasies of old had been lost to the world of jewelry and music and late-night make-out sessions in Will's parents' basement. She had become utterly normal, as much as anyone could ever have hoped... or feared. The only trace of the old Sarah that was left was in the bedtime stories she had told her little brother as he became a toddler, than a child. Though she had wanted to, she never told him the story of the Labyrinth.
Sarah stepped into her room and closed the door. Every time she came home, she knew what she would find in her room, but she didn't particularly like it. Gone were the M.C. Escher prints she had loved, gone were the music boxes and the children's books and all of her stuffed animals. She had thrown all of that into boxes when she was sixteen and had done a full redecoration of her room. Instead, the walls were graced with pictures of her favorite rock stars at the time, teen idols, and the room was overflowing with makeup, the closet crammed with loud, daring clothes.
In fact, she could only think of one of her cherished possessions that had escaped the ignominious fate of being banished to a cardboard box or a garbage bag: Sir Lancelot. A small smile touched her lips when she remembered giving it to Toby, how little and vulnerable he had been, and really, how cute. As it had been one of her prized belongings, so it became one of his. In fact, unless she remembered incorrectly, he still slept with Sir Lancelot, though he would likely hotly deny it. It had been close to a whole year since she had spent any substantial time at home, and much could have changed in that time.
Suddenly seized with an urge to see the good old bear again, she quietly opened her door and snuck down the hall to Toby's room. Her lip curled involuntarily at the sight of his room. It appeared that he had not escaped the family tendency to be a bit of a sloppy packrat. His floor was littered with dirty clothes, books, even plates, his desk with old papers written in messy handwriting and pens with no ink left, half of his posters were falling off the walls, and his blankets were little more than a crumpled mass. Hoping that nothing would bite her, she plunged her hands into the covers and felt around for Sir Lancelot's soft, plush body.
Aha! Her groping hands closed around something solid. Sarah quickly pulled her hands out of Toby's blankets, feeling unaccountably guilty. However, what she held tightly wasn't Sir Lancelot. It was a small book with a leather cover and a pen tucked into the pages. The cover was embossed with a picture of a knight charging a dragon as a magician with a crystal ball cackled in the background.
Clearly, it was something personal, and Sarah knew very well that she should put it back. She started to push it back in between the covers, then paused, remembering the story she had written when she was just a little older than Toby in a book not too different from this one: a tale of a princess on a quest to retrieve a stolen child from the King of the Goblins. Her prose had been purple, but how she had loved that story: "Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here, to the castle that lies beyond the Goblin city, to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great... You have no power over me..." She had been so proud when she finished that story, desperately wanting someone to show it to, but knowing that her stepmother would only look at her strangely and her father didn't have time. Sarah had hoped, knowing that it never could, that something like that would happen to her. And then it had.
Not even quite sure why, she cautiously flipped through the pages, not actually reading any of it. They were covered with a beautiful, flowing, almost feminine hand, so different than the handwriting on all of his homework papers. The book turned out to be three-fourths full of the flowing hand, covering each side of each page.
She paused on the last page that had writing on it. It was dated two days before, and the handwriting was not quite as flowing as it had been. It was smaller, cramped, shakier. Almost against her will, Sarah began to read.
They found me after school again. This time it was Tom and Eddie and Max and Jack. They pushed me into an alley, and three of them held me down while Eddie hit me and called me a fairy. Just because I like to write and read about stuff that doesn't exist doesn't make me a fairy, right? I haven't even done that at school in a long time, not in a year or two. They never forget, even though I try to act like I'm like them. But I couldn't get away from them, and now I've got a black eye. I'm wondering how much longer it's going to take before Mom notices that some of her makeup is missing. Not that I want to wear makeup, that just makes things worse, but it keeps Mom and Dad from noticing the bruises. Anyway, I think that maybe I should take a break from all this. It's all a fantasy, and it's not getting me any friends. Maybe I'll watch some sports. Other guys like sports—
Sarah's head snapped up guiltily, to face Toby, who was standing in the doorway, looking stricken.
"Toby," she said, ashamed, quickly dropping the book.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"I came in here to find Sir Lancelot..." Idiot excuses. She hung her head.
"You came in here for a teddy bear and ended up reading my personal stuff!"
"I'm sorry," Sarah said. "You're right, there's no excuse, I'm sorry."
As she hung there, feeling horrible, knowing that she had betrayed her little brother's trust, Toby dove to the ground and grabbed the book, clutching it to his chest. "You had no right," he whispered, sounding on the verge of tears. "You had no right."
"I know." Sarah sighed and sat down on the bed. He looked up at her, his lips quivering. She looked down at him as if seeing him for the first time: the long limbs that seemed to be growing faster than he was, the uncontrollable reddish curls, the light blue eyes, and the face that, while longer and thinner, was not all that different than the round baby-face she had jumped off a ledge for.
Remembering what she had read of his thoughts, Sarah stretched out a hesitant hand and touched the skin beneath one of his eyes. He sucked in a pained breath and attempted to pull away, but not before she had wiped away concealer, revealing part of a bluish bruise.
"Sarah!" he cried out, sounding truly outraged this time. "Stop it!"
She didn't bother to apologize. "So school's going fine, is it?"
"Get out of my room!" he yelled, turning his head away from her.
Sarah didn't move. If there was one thing she remembered about being his age, it was that leaving someone alone to sulk usually only made things worse, as the offended went over the offense in his or her head and became more and more resentful.
"Look, Toby," she said, as calmly as she could, "While Mom and Dad are out of town, I'm the only person around here to talk to. I'm sorry that I read your book; I promise you I am. But you're getting beaten up in school, aren't you? Maybe I could help. I want to help, but I can't unless you let me."
Toby's only response was to reach under the bed and hand her an old and tattered Sir Lancelot. "Here's your damn bear," he whispered. "Now leave me alone."
He wiped a shaking arm across his face, making it obvious that he was literally about to start crying. "P—please?"
Sarah scooted down to the floor to sit next to him and placed Sir Lancelot on the floor. "What kind of a big sister would I be if I did that, huh?" She put her arms around him, half afraid that he'd slap her hands away, but he didn't. "Please tell me?"
That did it. Though he tried not to, though he tried to act tough, tears began to slide down his face: one, then another and another. Before long, he was sitting there, sobbing, with a small leather book grasped to his chest.
If only Merlin were still alive, Sarah wished. He'd hear the noise, come into the room, and start licking Toby's face, as the old sheepdog had always done for her. It was hard to stay truly unhappy with Merlin's big, sloppy, eager tongue all over her face. But Merlin had died about four years before, and she certainly couldn't start licking her brother's face.
Instead, she just sat there with him silently, hoping she was doing the right thing. It seemed like an eternity before the tears began to slow, though it had really probably only been a few minutes. He drew in a shuddering breath and again wiped his arm across his flushed face.
"It's...really your fault," he said breathlessly. "If you hadn't t—told me all of those stories, and made me want—want all of that stuff, I'd be just like all the r—rest of them."
"Toby," Sarah said, not wanting to be cruel, but knowing that if he didn't get straightened out quickly, he would be in for some trouble later on, "they were only stories. The dragons and wizards and unicorns? None of them were ever real."
"I know. B—but they should be," Toby replied fiercely. "And all the guys at school laugh at me, and, and, and they—"
"I know," Sarah said, gentler this time. "It's all right. You don't need to tell me. I think I understand what they do."
"She does too," he said quietly and quickly, almost as though he was hoping she hadn't heard it.
But, of course, she had. "She? Who's 'she'?"
"No one. Just a girl." He stared away.
"You brought it up, Toby." Sarah leaned her head against the mattress behind them.
"Anna," he said reluctantly, his flushed cheeks growing even more reddened. "She's, um, a girl from school." He looked at her as though hoping she wouldn't make him say anymore, but when he continued, it was of his own accord. "She's really pretty. She's got these big grey eyes and long hair. I told her something, and she's... she's acted like the rest of them ever since." He sniffled slightly.
"What did you tell her?" Sarah asked, curious, despite her attempts to simply let Toby talk.
"Something I never even told you." Toby struggled to his feet and looked at himself in the mirror above his dresser. "Just a, um, a dream I had, really."
"A dream?" she repeated, chagrined, pulling her arms away. "Uh, maybe Dad never told you this, but it's not a good thing to tell a girl about that kind of dream, especially a twelve-year-old girl."
"Huh?" he said, uncomprehendingly. "What are you—Ohhh..." She wouldn't have thought it possible, but his face got even redder. "I wasn't talking about that kind of thing," he mumbled. "It was just this one dream that I've had a whole bunch of times." Sarah drew her knees up to her chest, relieved. She hadn't particularly wanted to discuss wet dreams with her little brother. "It's kind of a weird dream."
"Aren't they all?" The both of them giggled a bit nervously, but Toby sobered up quickly, and continued.
"In my dream, I'm in this castle – It's a huge castle, a really enormous place – and I'm crawling around this room. I don't know why I'm crawling, but I just am. Anyway, this room has staircases all over it—going up, going down, sideways, upside down, and I just crawl all over this room, going upside down and sideways, and all of it. There's a feeling of – like, 'hurry, hurry'. There are little crystal balls, and there are two huge people walking or running around the room. Anyway, that's what the whole dream is, just me crawling around, but somehow it's really scary. I've been having it for as long as I can remember."
Now it was Sarah's turn to stare fixedly at the floor. She knew exactly what his dream meant, because it wasn't a dream. It was a memory. The two huge people had been Jareth and herself, and Toby only thought they were huge because he had been so small at the time.
"How about that..." she whispered.
"I told Anna, and she just looked at me funny, and now she laughs at me with the rest of the guys." He hung his head.
"Why did you tell her?"
"Because I thought she was different than the rest of them. She was always nice to me. We were talking one day at recess about a social studies assignment, and I ran out of things to say, but I wanted to keep talking to her, you know?" He looked at her, almost pleadingly.
Sarah understood. "I wasn't your age all that long ago, Toby. I know what you mean. So you told her about your dream, and she didn't understand why a boy would talk about dreams when he's supposed to be tough?" She swallowed nervously, having suddenly noticed a white owl sitting quietly in a tree outside.
"Yeah. That's it exactly." He stared at the floor. "I had thought that she'd understand me. I wish—" Sarah's head snapped up.
"Toby—" she tried to warn.
"I wish that—"
"I wish that she would be in some sort of trouble, and I could save her, like a knight and a damsel," he blurted out.
This time, though, he had no time to blush, as a big flash of lightning illuminated the house. They both yelped and Sarah instinctively threw her arms around Toby protectively, wondering when on earth it had started raining. Before there was time to say anything, though, there was a crack of thunder that rattled the house in its foundations, the lights all went off, and the windows flew open with a bang.