Disclaimer: So, so, so not mine. And if you're in here - well, you know who you are. (wink)
Part 1 of 3. Happy Holidays, everyone!
My True Love Gave to Me
Merlin was dead, to begin with.
It had proved a sad precursor to a melancholy Christmas, ten years back; but now Merlin the Second was beating his tail wildly against the linoleum, begging for scraps in a way so similar to Merlin the First that Sarah had that strange, haunting, falling sense of reordered time.
"Not," she muttered, "that anyone can do that. Ever."
She pounded the dough into the countertop with one fist. Thwack. "The world stays right-side-up." Thwack. "There are twenty-four hours in a day." Thwack. "And gravity still applies - right?" She held up the dough, then let it fall.
"Right!" Thwack. "And nothing -" Thwack! "NOTHING I dream will ever make it otherwise!" THWACK!
"Ouch!" She had clipped a fingernail on the counter. Sarah stuck the digit in her mouth and tried not to scream.
It was the dreams. All the fault of those stupid stupid dreams that were not real but that she had been having since Christmas -
"Stupid dreams," she hissed. "You'd think that he could pile them all into one night and get them over with!"
Gritting her teeth, Sarah looked at the printout. "Knead until smooth and elastic." She glared at the dough, then rolled it into a ball with impatient fingers and snatched a bowl from the cupboard beneath the counter.
"Relax ..." she muttered, greasing the bowl. "Chill. Zone out. Zen. What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
Sarah practically jumped out of her skin at Toby's voice.
Her younger brother stood behind her, showing his missing front teeth in a wide grin. He opened and shut one hand with a fwip-fwip-fwip-fwip-
"What?" Sarah snapped.
"The sound of one hand clapping!"Fwip-fwip. Fwip. Fwip. At her glower, Toby pointed to his palm. "This!"
"Oh, quit it." She made a half-hearted grab for his hand; he dodged it and snatched at the dough. Sarah swatted his knuckles.
"To-BY!" she mimicked. "Don't you dare! I just finished kneading that, and you'll spoil your appetite." She scooped up the dough and threw it into the bowl.
Her brother moaned and rolled his eyes. "One little taste is not gonna matter, even if it is a fancy-schmancy restaurant -"
"Tobias Robert, don't use that tone of voice." Karen Williams stepped into the kitchen, fastening an earring. "Sarah, put on an apron. And have either of you seen my stockings?"
Sarah wiped her hands on a towel and headed for the pantry. "Which ones?"
"Grey silk, with pink embroidered rosettes - I picked them up in Antwerp, when your father and I -"
Tuning her out, Sarah grabbed an apron embroidered with a grinning lobster, and set to unpicking a knot in its strings. The tangle came out relatively quickly; she tied the apron strings around her waist, and turned just in time to see Toby scooping out a fingerful of dough -
"Toby, don't do that - there's so much egg in there that you'll give salmonella to the whole cast -"
"Toby!" Karen said, crossly. "Listen to your sister. And Sarah - I'll wear my heels for now, but while we're gone, would you please look for my stockings? I can't think of where they might have disappeared to -"
"Yeah," Sarah mumbled.
"Thank you, dear." Her stepmother squeezed her shoulder; Sarah smiled tightly at her as she called up the stairs. "Robert? Ro-BERT! Are you ready?"
"Getting there! But honey - have you seen my socks?"
"Oh, for goodness' sake -" Karen disappeared up the steps, and Sarah let out a sigh she didn't know she had been holding. Draping a damp cloth over the bowl, she tucked in its edges and glanced up - only to see Toby looking at her, gravely.
Sarah blinked. "What is it, dude?"
Her brother grimaced. "Are you sure you're O.K. with staying home?"
"Oh, Tobe -" she sighed, and half-laughed. "Of course. You have your play, and mom and dad want to take you out to that fancy-schmancy restaurant -" she waggled her eyebrows - "and I've got lots of stuff to do. Including -" and she brushed flour off her fingers - "finishing your cake."
Toby smiled a shy smile. "Thanks."
"No prob." Sarah shrugged. "I haven't baked for a while, so it's fun."
"But -" the boy soldiered on over her airy voice - "it just seems like you're Cinderella, if we're going to have a nice time, and Mom asked you to clean the house -"
"It's only the living room, which I did leave kind of messy, and I'm having a perfectly nice time making your cake." She grinned at him. "Besides, this way I get to eat as much dough as I want."
"Sa-rah - we need it to hide the bean -" Toby whined.
"I know, I know." She moved to the sink. "Tell me about that again, why don't you?"
Toby brightened. "So the guys down in Mardi Gras or wherever it was had this cool idea that they'd make a cake for the Twelve Days of Christmas, and they called it the King Cake, for the three wise men, and they hid a coffee bean in the cake and whoever got it would -"
"It's New Orleans. Mardi Gras is a holiday."
"- whoever got the bean would be the King, or the Queen, and would have to bring the cake next year -"
"Mm-hmm." Sarah watched the water cascade over her fingers, and only dimly registered Toby chattering away. She scrubbed away the flour, and traces of dough, and wiped her hands on her apron. Then she grabbed a dishcloth and began wiping down the counter.
Toby was still going strong. "But what I don't get is why they don't have it up here - I mean, just because it's kind of cold in February or March or whatever doesn't mean we can't have a party, too - I mean, they get costumes and a parade and dancing and everything -"
She blinked. "Are you talking about Mardi Gras, now, or are you still on Twelfth Night?"
He shrugged, and began to carol: "On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to mee-e-e-e-e - twelve drummers drumming, 'leven pipers piping, ten lords a-leaping, nine - nine -" Toby broke off. "Dad? What's nine??"
Robert Williams had walked into the kitchen. "Nine ladies dancing, kiddo. Sarah, have you seen my socks?"
"No, Dad - sorry."
Her father ran one hand through his graying hair. "And I just got some for Christmas - I swear, I'll have to go with the ones your grandma knit -"
"Couldn't find 'em," Toby said, matter-of-fact. "Not mine, neither - but I don't care, 'cause you said Grandma would give me Everquest, and instead she gave me socks, so ... so what if I can't find 'em -"
The older man did a double take and stared at his son's bare feet. "Toby! Don't you have any socks??"
"I - couldn't - find - them -" Toby enunciated. "But I get to wear my costume for the play, and they'll have socks there." He held up one foot. "I just have my shoes - see?"
"Fine, fine - tell you what." Robert furrowed his brow. "You go practice your song, and see if you can find the socks that Grandma knit for me, O.K.?"
"Sure!" And the boy ran off. "Nine ladies dancing, eight maids a-milking, seven -"
Sarah turned to look at her father. "Yeah?"
"Are you sure you're O.K., with staying at home?"
"FI-I-IVE - GOL-DEN - R-I-I-I-I-INGS!"
Sarah winced. "Yeah - I'm fine ... in fact, I can feel a bit of a headache coming on, so it's for the best."
"Right." The older man gave her a hug with one arm. "You're very kind, to make this cake for Toby - and I really appreciate your coming home to visit." He smiled. "Even if you do trash the living room every once in a while."
She smiled back, weakly. "Right."
"Robert -" Karen clip-clopped into the kitchen, in stiletto heels. "Are you ready?"
"Sure, I just need to grab my shoes - but honey," he gave her heels a dubious look, "Will those be all right if it snows?"
Karen sniffed. "The weather channel said only three inches tonight - and besides, we should be home before ten. They said it would pick up at midnight." She turned to her stepdaughter. "Now, Sarah, you have my cell number - and we'll be at church first, for Toby's play; and then we have reservations at eight-thirty at the Castle -"
Sarah twitched. "Yep."
Her father smiled at her again. "But we'll leave room for coffee and that great cake when we get home."
Karen cut in. "Ten-thirty at the latest."
And then the kitchen was full, in a bustle of people and movement, as Toby ran through trailing two socks that he had snatched from the hamper ("Robert, you are not wearing those - they're not washed!" "What other option do we have?"), and then empty, as Karen hustled them out the door ("Don't forget the living room, dear,") and then Sarah watched from the front step as Robert backed the minivan out of the driveway, through a sudden flurry of snow ("and a partri-idge in a pear treee-e-e-e-e!!")
The car lights disappeared into the darkness. She shivered in the cold.
Missing socks. Strange dreams. Herself, twitching at every unexpected noise.
And - Sarah hissed in frustration. Trashing the living room? How old did her parents think she was?
She was twenty-four years old - old enough to know how to keep track of socks, to know how to greet the unexpected with calm, and to know how to throw a party without knocking over the fucking Christmas tree. No, Sarah knew what was to blame.
Who was to blame.
She went inside, and slammed the front door behind her.
She refused to think about the dreams.
Sarah glared down at the recipe. The dough had to rise "in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size," the printout blandly informed her.
"Fine." She picked up the bowl, and set it on the stove with a thump. "And stay put. I mean it!" She raised her voice. "This is for my brother, and if a single thing happens to his cake, I'm going to track you down and make you pay!"
Was that a snicker?
No. Sarah crossed her arms over her chest. It couldn't be a snicker, because there was nobody else in the house. She refused to believe it.
She strode into the living room and surveyed the damage. Magazines lay strewn across the floor, the Christmas tree rested against the television set, and dirt had been tracked into the carpet. She had happened upon the mess after a trip to the post office, and had stared in disbelief, until she had heard the minivan with her stepmother and Toby in it pulling up the driveway. Sarah had made up a glib excuse on the spot, about a few friends "from way back" coming in for a snack after caroling - and who carols in the middle of the day? and twelve days after Christmas? - but Karen had bought it, and had instructed her to "clean it up, young lady," with nothing more than a disappointed shaking of her head.
Setting her jaw, Sarah went to the front closet for the vacuum cleaner.
Recycling the magazines and righting the tree took no time at all. She ran the vacuum up and down, up and down the carpet, focusing on staying calm. In and out. Breathe in, breathe out. Think Zen.
A few streaks of dirt had to be removed with cleaner, but soon enough the task was done. Sarah gave the room a quick brush with the feather duster, and then stood in place, frowning.
The house seemed quiet. Too quiet.
She resolved to make herself a nice cup of hot chocolate.
All too soon, the drink was steaming in a cheerful Christmas mug. Sarah looked into it, and sighed. She could either make herself a ridiculous garnish, or go grab the bourbon from where her father hid it in his desk. "No contest there -" She found the bourbon and poured a generous dollop into the chocolate - and then sat down on the recliner.
It was still quiet.
Almost as quiet as -
Sarah shook her head, angrily, and yelped as the hot chocolate sloshed onto her sweater. "Ouch!" She blinked back tears, and took a long sip, trying to calm down.
All of her dreams had started out so ... so quietly ...
She stared at her fingers, clenched around the cup.
They had all been frightening - for their intensity, their vivid color and shade - light and dark - each of her senses quivering as new images - tastes - sounds and scents and textures - had crept up her tightly strung nerves -
The dreams had started after that stupid block party.
Karen had invited the neighbors over the day after Christmas, and had insisted on Sarah circulating with hors d'oeuvres. "It will be so nice for you, dear, to meet some new people!"
Never mind that she had all the friends she needed, back where she belonged, in her friendly cubicle in her oh-so-friendly office job -
"Here!" Karen had gushed. "Let me introduce you to the new girls in the college house - hel-lo, ladies!" she had trilled - and a group of young women had glanced up with identical expressions of deer caught in headlights. Whoop-de-fucking-doo, Sarah had thought, sourly. They had all been younger than she was - college kids -
"And she is in graduate school, and you know that Chelsea McPherson got married, right? Well, she sang at her wedding - and when I had leaves caught in the gutter all she had to do was reach up, and -"
Graduate school, then, and older - maybe. Sarah had looked the (very) tall brunette up and down, refusing to be jolted out of her grumpy mood. The girl had returned her gaze with a look of -
Sarah had blinked. Was that - guilt?
The brunette had flicked her eyes away.
"And this young lady plays the French horn, and this young lady here does art on commission -"
"Nice to meet you," Sarah had nodded.
"And this girl is a poet, and this girl once babysat for Toby - she likes - what was it, dear?"
"Mmmnuyasha -" the girl had mumbled around a mouthful of cookie.
"Inuyasha?" Sarah had asked, tiredly. "Cool."
"And these two are exchange students - one makes videos and this one studies art and she -" Karen's voice had reached a peak of ecstasy - "is from France!"
"Well." Her own voice had been blank. "Nice to meet you all, then."
"Have fun, dear!" Karen had called, from a ways away, because she "had to circulate, you know -"
Sarah had glanced at her watch. "Look, guys, I'd like to talk, but I - um -" She hadn't been able to think of a good excuse, and had settled on: "I have to go."
She surely hadn't imagined the strange tension humming through the cluster of women, all of whom had seemed somehow relieved to see her leave the room.
Staring ahead with narrowed eyes, ignoring her cooling drink, Sarah thought back. She had been nibbling on a crab cake as she had watched from the window - as the girls returned to their house on the corner, moving in a knot - having an argument?
Who knew? Sarah sighed. All she knew is that the dreams had started that night - and that one of those bitches had brought the crab cakes, and was thus to blame - since the vivid, moving-painting, oily quality of the images in her sleep could only be due to lingering food poisoning.
The worst part was ... that all the dreams had been about -
She took a gulp of hot (well, lukewarm) chocolate and swallowed past the knot in her throat, and fought past the quivering in her stomach.
"Oooh, I'm really scared," Sarah growled. "Jareth. Jar-eth. J-A-R-E-T-H - His Royal Majesty, King of the Fucking Goblins, who looks like the rave-party offspring of Titania and Heathcliff on heroin mixed with crack!"
She waited. Nothing happened.
"You can't scare me, featherhead."
The house was silent. Except - and Sarah stiffened. Had that been a giggle?
No - it was quiet ...
All her dreams had begun quietly. The first - she hissed in a breath. She had walked down a long hallway, somehow pulsing with light - and then she had turned a corner and had seen him blaze to life in her mind - his face as beautiful as it had ever been, yet somehow starting to burn her, even as he began to smile, and extended a hand with a silver snake coiled around it - and the air around him had caught on fire -
She had woken up gasping from that one. In fear - nothing else. Sarah shook her head, fiercely. Nothing else.
The rest had been similar in intensity.
Jareth, a black cape swirling around him like smoke, holding a crystal, his face taut with anger - ready to unleash a seething horde of red and orange-eyed goblins -
Jareth, strewn across a throne, wearing leather, his eyes rimmed in black and shining like glass as he smiled at her, lazily, through the dust filtering down through the air, as he turned a crystal into ash on his knee -
Jareth, in a cloak with a high collar, his gloved fingers clotted with jewels, caressing a crystal coffin and staring greedily at the girl in an ornate dress who lay suffocating inside -
Jareth, his face twisted with lust, holding out his hands to let two black birds fly into the air as he walked towards her where she lay caught, somehow, in a bed of thorns -
And Jareth as pale as death, his shadowed eyes gazing at her in a crystal - devouring the image of herself rail-thin and dirty, stuffing food into her mouth until she retched -
Sarah had woken up from each of those dreams gasping for air - alternately shaking, shuddering, or almost crying -
He was messing with her mind - food poisoning or no food poisoning. The bastard. He was sending the goblins to torment her. Although - and Sarah frowned - you'd think they would have better ways of doing so than messing up the living room and stealing socks -
Beep - beep – beep –
Her digital watch went off. Sarah glanced at the time, and sighed. Spending all this time woolgathering was not about to yield results -
She went to the kitchen, retrieved the bowl, and punched down the dough. She would have results. Sarah read the instructions, and began to braid the dough into a ring, her eyes narrow and her teeth set.
She'd make this cake. She'd find those socks. And she'd show the Goblin King that he could not screw around with her and hope to get away with it - dreams or no dreams.
To be continued ... Please review!!
Meep! Public service announcement -
Of the six dreams that Sarah has had, only one is of my creation. The others all have their provenance in the fiction, or artwork, of (in no particular order):
Mercuralis - on deviantart only,
I'll post the specifics at the end of this piece. Hope that clears things up!