Sarah couldn't remember another day nearly as cold as this one; she had taken a shower after gym class, as usual, but she sorely regretted it by the time she arrived at home fifteen minutes later, her long hair frozen into icy dreadlocks.
At the sight of her, her stepmother let out a gasp. "Oh, Sarah, you look ghastly!"
"Th—thanks for noticing," Sarah stuttered, her teeth chattering. At least she had made it home before the encroaching storm had time to take hold, though the sky was already ominously dark.
"Well, get upstairs and into a hot shower! Before you—"
"—catch my death of cold, I know," Sarah muttered under her breath, clomping towards the stairs.
With a cry of dismay, her stepmother grabbed Sarah's shoulder. "Take off your wet boots before you walk on the carpet!"
Sarah smiled lopsidedly, bending over and struggling with her heavy boots. "God forbid that it looks like anyone lives here, huh, Karen?"
The older woman sighed. "For heaven's sake, what fault could you possibly find with my trying to keep a clean house?"
"Nothing," Sarah replied distractedly, managing to slip one boot off. It fell to the ground with a thud, where it lay with a little pool of melting snow and dirt around it. "Sorry, it's been a long day."
"Anything you want to talk about, dear?"
"No, thanks," Sarah grunted, pulling off the other boot and sending it to lie besides its companion. It wasn't that she hated Karen; on the contrary, she'd grown to have a certain amount of appreciation for all of the juggling her stepmother had to do: between accounting, keeping house, taking care of a toddler, and keeping a husband and moody teenage stepdaughter happy, Sarah was sometimes surprised that Karen didn't just throw her hands in the air and give up. It was just that there were certain things that Karen couldn't understand, and Sarah had learned through experience that it was more worthwhile to go take a nap than to talk herself blue in the face trying to explain things.
"All right, well, have a good shower, and try not to wake Toby."
"No problem," Sarah waved a tired hand, trudging up the stairs. Even if Karen hadn't mentioned it, she would have tried not to wake Toby anyway. He was going through terrible twos and seemed to have a grand time running around screaming at the top of his little lungs.
Inside the bathroom, with the door closed and locked behind her, Sarah turned the bathtub faucet on all the way up and began pulling wet, cold clothes off. As warm steam began filling the small room, she sighed happily, feeling as though her bones were finally beginning to thaw.
So eager was she for the warmth, she climbed into the tub right away, letting the hot water grow deeper and deeper around her, rather than do what she usually did, which was to wait until the tub was full to brimming to climb in, so that she could saver it all at once.
As the water slowly crept up around her still-goose-pimpled flesh, she closed her eyes and let her mind wander. She hadn't been lying when she'd told Karen that it had been a long day. Nothing particularly bad had happened at school today, it was just that she hadn't managed to sleep a wink last night, and had spent the entire day struggling to keep her eyes open. Of course, her sadistic math teacher, Ms. James, had noticed, and had sharply asked Sarah up to the board to solve a particularly evil calculus problem. Normally, Sarah liked math: it was something about the way that each new thing she learned was just a step on the way to something much more immense and complicated. For some reason, mathematics reminded her of the Labyrinth. During those thirteen hours she had spent wandering though that world of goblins and magic, though she had been utterly focused on her task, hadn't been able to ignore that feeling deep inside her that she was on the edge of something entirely new and just beyond her understanding. That something had always just been over the next hill, behind the next wall. Whatever it was, she had been on the verge of something great.
Of course, she had rescued Toby and returned home and had never found what it was that she had felt. It had almost felt like she had been standing on the edge of a cliff, arms spread to fly, ready to jump once she knew that someone would catch her at the bottom. For the last two years, Sarah had had the unsettling feeling that she was still standing at the edge of that high cliff, the wind pushing at her from behind, and if she didn't find what she wanted, she would lose her balance and fall, whether there were strong arms waiting to catch her or not.
Ever since the Labyrinth, she had dedicated herself to secrets. She had tried religion and mysticism, she had tried science, wanting to expose the mysteries of the world around her and beyond, and she had tried psychology, hoping to delve into the secrets of the mind. Strangely enough, none of those had made her feel quite as much on the verge of a discovery as math had. So she had started study mathematics with a vigor that impressed both her parents and her teachers. Though she had always been an average student, she began to excel in math and as her grades in that class shot up, she was moved from one level to another until she was a top achiever in AP Calculus as a junior in high school.
Noticing that the tub was beginning to be overfull, she reached over to the spigot and turned it off, then sank down into the water with a groan, the last of the chill being banished from her body.
Sarah's mind flashed back to earlier that day. She had been standing at the chalkboard, dusty chalk in hand, yawning to herself and mentally working out the most efficient way to solve the problem. Ms. James had been standing right behind her, arms crossed, waiting for Sarah to make her first move. She had touched the chalk to the dark surface of the chalkboard, ready to write the first in a long string of equations, when suddenly she paused.
"What is it, Sarah?" Ms. James had asked, her vulture-like eyes catching the slightest hesitation. "Can't you do it?"
"That's not it," was Sarah's reply. "I can do it, but that's not it." As Ms. James watched in surprise, Sarah gently set down the chalk, walked back to her seat, and quietly sat down. The whole class had stared at her in disbelief, but Sarah simply stared straight forward and ignored them.
Though Ms. James had been quite put out, there was really no way that she could force Sarah to do the problem, so after a moment's angry silence, she had called someone else up to the board. Sarah had stayed very quiet for the rest of the day, her mind a confusing jumble, but her schedule too busy to sort anything out.
Now, lying quietly in the tub with nothing to do and nowhere to go, she was free to pick apart what had happened. Frankly, she was every bit as confused with herself as the rest of the class and Ms. James had been. What had happened?
Furrowing her brow, she thought back to that moment at the blackboard and tried to remember what had made her pause. Whatever it had been, it had to have been something important, she knew, but she just couldn't put her finger on it. It was like trying to grab a piece of wet soap: every time she thought she had it, it slipped away, as though it had never been there. She had the vaguest impression of a pair of haughty eyes, one brown, one blue, but she didn't know anyone with eyes like that, and couldn't imagine what possible bearing they could have on her situation.
With a sigh, Sarah pulled on the bathtub's stopper and climbed out. As she wrapped herself in a towel and vigorously rubbed at her long hair with another towel until it hung damply around her shoulders. One thing she did know, whatever the thought had been, it had whispered to her that math was not the answer. All of her number crunching and theorizing would all come to nothing, because what she was looking for was not within the capacity of the brain. As she had stood at the front of the class, thunderstruck, the certainty that math would not give her what she wanted reverberated within her, and a sudden sadness had descended over her. If that wasn't it, she had wanted to cry, then I'm utterly lost and without a clue!
Gathering up her damp clothes and opening the bathroom door, she snuck down the hall past Toby's room, stepping over the creaky spot under the carpet with the ease born of close to three years of experience.
Safely in her room with nary a protesting screech from her little brother, she closed the door with a quiet click and breathed a sigh of relief. Though she no longer battled with her father and Karen the way she used to, her room was still her refuge. It was no longer as chock-full of things as it used to be, but she had kept everything that really mattered to her. The Cats poster was gone, but the M.C. Escher print remained. Her stuffed animals had gone down into storage or into Toby's room, but the music box still held a place of honor on her shelf. And though she kept it carefully hidden, the little red book with the letters The Labyrinth embossed in gold on the cover was wrapped in a scarf and placed behind her mirror.
Sarah looked out the window and saw with a sigh that while she had been bathing and thawing her cold bones, the threatening storm had made itself at home, and snow was already blowing outside. At least it was a Friday and she didn't need to fight her way through the snow drifts to school the next day. Not caring that it was only just after five in the afternoon and she wouldn't be going to sleep for several more hours at least, she pulled the shade firmly down and pulled on her black flannel pajamas.
Sometimes she missed her vaguely gothic, filmy white nightgowns (that she only wore with her bedroom door locked, of course), but then other days, like today, she was quite happy for the soft, warm fuzziness of flannel. Though it felt like it had been close to forever, it really hadn't been all that long ago that she would have stubbornly put on one of those nightgowns, preferring to shiver all night and look like a princess in a tower than to wear something so androgynous.
She walked over to her desk and grabbed a black hair band, absent-mindedly twisting her hair up into a bun, grateful to have the damp weight off of the back of her neck. Looking at herself in the mirror, she sighed. She was almost seventeen, and while she knew that technically she was still quite young, sometimes she could almost feel herself getting older. Most of the time, she just went with the flow of life, but every so often – like now – she would step away and take a look at herself. At those times, it almost horrified her that she wasn't more saddened at the changes in herself. Though she still felt a deep yearning within herself to find the great secrets of life, whatever they might be, she found herself living much more in the same world that other people lived in. The world in her head was still there and still more interesting than most of daily life, but she just didn't have much time to go there anymore.
It had been months and months since she'd seen Hoggle, Ludo, and Didymus; she hadn't had time for them either, and part of her was starting to wonder if she'd ever really been able to call them to her, if, indeed, any of it had happened. She didn't like it, but she'd admitted to herself that it was entirely possible that she'd created them all out of her mind. When Sarah truly let herself get swept up in something, whether it was real or not, it would become real to her. If, indeed, this was what had happened with the Labyrinth, it wouldn't have been the first time she'd created memories for herself that hadn't really existed. As a child, she'd created happy memories of her real mother and repeated them to herself so often that she'd honestly come to believe that they were really true. Until her father had dragged her to a child psychologist and he'd helped her remember how things really were with her mother, she'd refused to even consider the chance that they were false memories.
Turning away from the mirror, no longer willing to look, she pulled the shades on her window back up, wanting nothing more than to turn the lights off, lie down, and watch the snow piling up outside by the soft light of the streetlamp.
Abruptly, Sarah let out a gasp. There was a face outside her window, looking in at her. Even as she instinctively recoiled, she laughed nervously, recognizing it.
It was the white owl.
Though she hadn't seen it in several weeks, it was a constant companion outside her window. It watched her while she read, it watched her while she listened to music and danced around her room, and she wouldn't have been surprised to learn that it watched her while she slept. Though she didn't know why the owl spent so much time outside her window, it always filled her with reassurance, as well as a strange sadness that she couldn't understand.
Feeling an odd kinship to the creature draped in white feathers outside her window, she smiled, a bit uncertainly, and gently touched her hand to the frosted glass of the window. It blinked back at her, its eyes round.
"Hello," Sarah said quietly, knowing that she was being ridiculous, that it couldn't possibly hear her through the glass, and even if it could, it wouldn't understand her.
The owl hooted softly as snowflakes caught in its soft feathers.
"How have you been?" Sarah asked, trying to banish the suspicion that she had gone utterly mad, to be talking to an owl as though it would talk back. "I haven't seen you around much."
Though the owl cocked its head curiously to the side, there was no response. Suddenly, Sarah wanted to laugh at herself. What were you expecting? she asked herself. A dissertation from an owl? Don't be absurd. With a final embarrassed smile, she took her hand off the glass, leaving a handprint with steamed glass around the outlines of where her fingers had been.
Turning away from the window and the owl, she walked over to her bed, her feet shuffling along the carpet, and tugged the down comforter down far enough to climb in. Before she could hop onto her bed, though, the owl hooted loudly outside her window, causing her head to swing around automatically as her eyes widened in surprise.
The bird had moved from the branch of the tree to sit on the sill just outside her window, but that was not what caught her attention. Her eyes were drawn to the window itself, where a second, larger handprint now rested beside her own.
Sarah swallowed hard, suddenly frightened. She couldn't fathom how the second handprint had gotten there, and since her handprint was already fading, it had to be fresh, made within the last several seconds. The only explanation she could think of was that there was someone out there... right outside her window.
Her first instinct was to scream as loud as she could and bring Karen running, but when she opened her mouth, her voice seemed to have died in the back of her throat, as all that emerged was a terrified squeak. Her second instinct was to either make a break for the door or hide under her covers and shiver, hoping that whoever it was would go away without hurting her. The bed being closest, it seemed like the best option.
She dove for the mattress and burrowed under the warm down, where she lay shaking and trying as hard as she could to pretend that she didn't exist, that the blanket was lying flat, as though no one was lying underneath it. Clapping her hands over her mouth, she tried to breathe quietly, but her constricted vocal cords only allowed loud, wheezing gasps out of her mouth.
This state of absolute panic continued for several minutes. However, it soon became extremely stifling under the comforter, and the fact that she hadn't heard so much as a sound, let alone the crashing of breaking glass, prompted Sarah to ever-so-slowly peek out from below the heavy weight of the down and pray that she wouldn't see some deranged lunatic leering down at her.
When a first quick scan of the room revealed nothing unusual, she swallowed and looked over to the window, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Though she had half been expecting to see some modern-day Jack the Ripper crouched outside her window, a glittering knife in his hand, she was relieved to see nothing more than the owl, who hadn't moved. The handprints had faded, as though they had never been.
Within her foggy mind, things began to clear and take shape again, letting coherent thoughts through. The first thing that Sarah realized was that if there was anyone nearby, the owl would have flown away; she had done some reading on owls a while ago, back when it had first started showing up outside her window, and she had learned that owls were notoriously shy and would fly away the second anyone approached.
"You would, wouldn't you?" she whispered past the lump in her throat. "You'd fly away. So...how did that handprint...? Did I just imagine it?"
For its part, the owl only blinked solemnly at her now tousled head, still just peeking out from under the bedspread.
Feeling as though something strange, something she wouldn't be able to explain was about to happen, she slowly eased herself out from under the comforter and approached the window, wishing fervently that her hopes of there being no homicidal maniac were not in vain. As she rested her hands against the sides of the window and scanned what she could see of the snowy vista, it seemed ever more likely that they weren't.
Inches away, on the other side of the glass, the owl regarded her and hooted again. Sarah looked at it closely for the very first time.
"You don't look so well," she said softly. Up close, she could see that the owl's feathers were tattered, that it was skinnier than it should have been, and though it had no expression on its round face, that it was far colder than any animal with a thick coat of feathers had a right to be.
As she looked at the owl, a crazy idea took hold in her head. It was a bad idea, extremely dangerous, probably wouldn't work anyway, and could get her the biggest punishment that her father and Karen could possibly devise. But on the other hand...
Telling herself firmly that the owl would startle and fly away the second she opened the window, Sarah lowered her hands to the window latch. However, she was once again surprised when, despite the window frame sticking at places, resulting in her slamming it open with a good deal more force than was needed, the owl didn't move. It just blinked at her with eyes that, now that she wasn't looking at them through a pane of glass, looked dull and glazed.
Although there was now a cold wind and a great deal of snow blowing into her bedroom, she ignored those and looked concernedly at the owl. "You can come in," she said.
It didn't move.
Sarah closed her eyes briefly, feeling stupid again. Of course it didn't move. It was an owl. Owls didn't speak English. That left her with only one recourse. It's going to bite and scratch and panic! the logical voice inside her cried. And you're going to wind up with all of your stuff broken! This can only end in tears.
Ignoring that voice for all she was worth, Sarah held her breath and reached out to gather up the owl in her arms. Though her muscles tensed in anticipation of resistance, the owl, which was heavier than it looked, meekly allowed her to pick it up and bring it inside the room.
"You're shivering," Sarah said unhappily, hugging the owl's soft body tightly, trying to warm it up. She carried it over to her bed and gently deposited it on top of the rumpled comforter, then dashed back to the window and closed it. The room immediately began to reheat. When she glanced at the owl, it was moving slowly, lowering its head and pulling at the blanket, clearly trying to accomplish something.
Sarah watched in confusion for a moment, then laughed. "Oh," she said, "you're trying to climb under the covers. Here, let me help you with that." She sat down on the bed and held up a corner of the blanket so that the owl could scurry under it, which it did. Watching the lump that was the owl stumble around under the heavy comforter, hooting softly to itself, she had to laugh again. "It's okay," she said reassuringly. "You're safe now. Unless you want to, you don't have to go outside again until the snow's stopped."
The owl made a sound that had a distinctly relieved edge to it. Suddenly suspicious, she lifted up the blanket till she could see its face. Though Sarah squinted, its eyes remained no more than black circles in its white face. Just an owl. She didn't know why it seemed to understand her, why it hadn't flown away, why it had allowed her to pick it up, but it had to be just an owl. Allowing the blanket to drop again, she sat down next to the bed.
After the excitement of the last several minutes, Sarah was beginning to feel distinctly sleepy. She leaned her head back against the mattress and spoke drowsily to the owl. "I wish I knew why it seems like you can understand me, but I don't suppose that I ever will." A tired smile played on her features. "I sure hope you stay quiet. Karen would kill me if she knew that I let a wild animal into the house."
"Wild animal or no, I have no desire to make much noise," a clipped voice answered behind her.
Sarah's head snapped up with a gasp as she twisted her head around and frantically scooted away from the bed. As her back pressed against the wall next to her desk, the owner of the voice shoved the blanket to the side and rose to his feet.
He was the most unusual looking man she'd ever seen: he was tall and slender. His blond hair was several different lengths; at its longest, it reached his elbows. The clothes he wore were like something out of some Renaissance Faire. Mostly a mix between faded white and cream, his blouse and tight pants were covered with a cape of feathers and bones. His face could only be described as "sharp": though it was pale and drawn, his mouth was firm, his teeth pointed, his nose aquiline, his cheekbones harsh, and his eyes... Beneath deeply tilted eyebrows, his eyes burned with a feverish light, one blue, one brown.
Stumbling to her feet, Sarah stared at him with a sudden jolt of recognition. "You..." she breathed. "I've seen you before, haven't I?"
He smiled arrogantly, though weariness lurked not far beneath the surface. "Considering the nature of the favors I performed for you, I should say so, yes."
She held a hand to her head, a sudden flash of dizziness making her blink hard. "It was your eyes, wasn't it? That I saw today during class."
"I haven't the foggiest idea."
"And you're...the owl?"
He snorted. "Yes, Sarah. I am 'the owl.'"
As she clutched the desk, a wave of disjointed memories flickered in front of her eyes. Unsteadily, she said again, "I've seen you before. I saw you in... in the Labyrinth. How could I have forgotten?" He shrugged smoothly, the bones of his shoulders showing through the top of his cape. "You're...you're Jareth!" she said triumphantly as something finally clicked. "You're Jareth," she repeated slowly, now remembering more about him than his name. "Jareth, the Goblin King."
Jareth bowed elegantly, his smile showing his pointed teeth. "The same." Sarah's glance darted nervously towards the door. Seeing the direction of her gaze and correctly interpreting it, he said, "There is no need to worry. Your little brother is quite safe. Even if you were to wish him gone again, I could not take him."
As she gazed at him questioningly, whatever reserves of strength had been holding him upright seemed to disappear, causing him to blink several times, looking almost surprised, and collapse backwards onto the bed, where he lay silently.