The Chapters of Life
Chapter One: In My Defense
In my defense what is there to say
All the mistakes we made must be faced today
It's not easy now knowing where to start
While the world we love tears itself apart…
Queen, In My Defense.
She didn't know, at first.
In her defense, looking back, there weren't many reasons for her to have known. A little hint here and there, the vaguest feeling of a possibility – things that might be noticed in hindsight, but too easily overlooked at the time.
Sarah gave a soft sigh and buried her face in her hands. She was leaning against the window sill of her room, her elbows numb from leaning on them for so long and her nose half-frozen in the cold. On the window sill beside her elbows lay an innocent-looking book, a bookmark slipped in somewhere between the last two pages. She was constantly worrying that the book might fall out the window, and that she might have to sneak out at this late hour to retrieve it. But she was too afraid to touch the book, even to put it far away from her, and so she stood there, agonizing… and remembering.
It wasn't until her sixteenth birthday that she could have noticed that something was up. Sure, even before that, she could now think of a dozen of clue: the white barn owl that she assumed must have nested by her window, for it appeared so often; the strange, even paranoid feeling she sometimes felt before switching on the light that she was being watched; a dark figure disappearing from the corner of her eyes as she quickly turned. But there was always a rational reason that could explain such things away. It wasn't, after all, that uncommon for birds to be nesting close to the house, and she might very well get paranoid when she was stressed out or tired. The human imagination was a volatile thing.
It was also very believable – didn't she know all about that! What was it that Caesar had said? "Men in general are quick to believe that which they wish to be true." It was certainly easy for her to believe such explanations. So she continued to live a normal life. She grew. Toby grew. She became friends with him and his mother. She still had hissy fits and raging quarrels with both. She went to school. She tried out for plays. She read.
She celebrated, on her sixteenth birthday. It was like any other normal birthday. She ran downstairs in the morning, was hugged by her father and step-mother, talked on the phone briefly with her mother, ate breakfast, and gave Toby a peck on the cheek before she ran out to greet her friends. They went through the usual routine of squealing and giggling in classes with teachers being more lenient because of her birthday, went out for movie and ice cream afterwards, and came home for a nice, cozy birthday party, complete with homemade cake and heartfelt presents.
Presents. Sarah shivered slightly, recalling that memory. Again, it was the usual horde that day. The requisite books that were passed around the circle, a few girlish stuff they cooed over, money to be spent however she wished, and a number of packages that had started arriving days before.
Her mother had sent one, of course. Other relatives and old-time friends who lived far away had been kind enough to send a few, as well. She resolved to and did phone the senders after the party to thank them for their kindness.
One of them, however, had had no name on it, and she had not been able to figure out who had sent such a gift – at least not for a long, long time…
"Another one for the birthday girl," Katherine, one of her best friends, sang as she threw a small box wrapped in brown paper at Sarah, who instinctively caught the thing.
"Any names?" her father asked, looking over her shoulder.
Sarah shook her head. "Nope." She turned it over a couple of times just to make sure. "No name. Why wouldn't anyone let me know that they're sending a gift?"
"Secret admirer," Francine, the girl who had only come to her school two months previously but had become fast friends with her, nodded earnestly. "You just wait. It's going to be something personal."
Her father looked amused, while others giggled. Sarah, blushing just the slightest bit, slowly ripped the brown paper away to reveal a nice, rounded square box, the velvety kind that usually held jewelry.
"I think you just might be right," Katherine told Francine as the rest of the girls inched closer, curious, to see what it was. Suddenly feeling rather self-conscious, Sarah ran her finger down the smooth surface of the box before opening it almost reluctantly.
Instantly, a gasp of "oooh" and "ahhh", half in admiration and half in joking manner, spread throughout the room. Surprised herself, mouth slightly open in shock and eyes widening, Sarah slowly took out the content of the box and held it up to the light.
It was a golden bracelet, one that was extremely intricate. Complicated patterns were woven throughout the entire jewelry, with small rings and pieces of gold connecting to each other seemingly endlessly. With the tiny gems embedded, the bracelet looked both delicate and beautiful in its indescribable intricacy.
"Told you," Francine said, sounding both smug and rather breathless.
Sarah could not take her eyes away from the golden bracelet, glittering in the light. "But who could it from?" she asked, slightly taken aback at the beauty of the surprise gift.
"Put it on," Katherine urged. She sounded just as excited. "And wear it to school tomorrow – it's probably someone from school, right? He'll probably approach you soon, after seeing you wear it."
"Now hold on. I'm not sure I should allow any young man to approach my daughter without my permission," Sarah's dad began in a humourous voice, earning a light slap on the shoulder by Karen, Sarah's step-mother.
"Oh come now," Karen said. "She's sixteen, Robert. She's allowed to have boyfriends."
Robert gave an amused shake. "I know. But one that buys her such gifts without saying anything? That thing does look quite expensive."
"Well, she can't return it if she doesn't know who gave it to her," reasoned Katherine, who knew Sarah's parents well enough to comfortably cut in between their conversation. She turned back to the girls, who were now passing it around and exclaiming about the details. "Come on, Sarah," she urged her friend again. "Put it on!"
"All right, all right, I will," Sarah answered finally, getting the bracelet back from one of the girls. She frowned for a moment, trying to find where the clasp might be. "I can't…" Ah, there it was. She found a clasp that was hooked onto the biggest ring of the chain, and unfastened it before putting the bracelet around her and hooking it back on. It felt nice, slightly cold on her wrist, and again, speculation began as they began to coo over the glistening chain…
Remembering that first time, Sarah took her face out of her hands. The bracelet still glistened from her wrist, and she absent-mindedly turned it around and around, a habit that told any observer that she had worn it many times. In truth, she had rarely taken it off, though it had not worn at all during the two years since; even now a close inspection would not reveal a scratch, though the intricate pattern still amazed her, so complicated, so beautiful, so… labyrinthine.
What could be noticed under close inspection now took her breath away. The largest ring that served as the clasp had a tiny ornament in the shape of a heart dangling from it. At the corner of that little heart was an inscription – or rather, a carved initial.
There were, of course, as always, a rational explanation. Well, perhaps the name of the bracelet's designer started with a J, and he or she carved it into every piece completed. Or perhaps the name of the boy who had so thoughtfully sent her the gift started with a J.
But days passed, and nobody stepped up to claim the gift. No blushing classmate from school asked to talk to Sarah after class, and no nervous phone calls were made.
Did that mean the gift sender was not from school? That was entirely possible as well. And she accepted that answer, and moved on. Maybe that person had lost interest. Maybe it wasn't from a secret admirer after all, but a very good friend, or someone who felt he or she owed something to her. Maybe something unexpected had come up – maybe that boy had to move out of town or something, and felt that it was futile to claim the gift as his.
She absolutely refused to believe that it might be from someone from outside the town… outside the country… outside the damn world that she lived in. She did not even consider such a possibility. After all, she had talked to Hoggle and her other friends from the Underground that day and had received hugs and little gifts for her sixteenth birthday, hadn't she? And no goblin would be able to create such a beautiful masterpiece or think to give her a present anyways.
And there was no one else, she told herself firmly, not one person who could send her a gift from the Underground. So no, this wasn't a supernatural gift at all. It was just a nice little bracelet from an unknown sender, from her own world. There was nothing else to it.
She told herself so firmly, she nearly believed it herself.
And she lived that way for the year after that. Looking back now, she almost didn't know why she was just so firmly against the idea that he – they, not he, they, the goblins, might come back into her world. Certainly she'd kept in touch with her other friends, the dear Hoggle, Sir Didymus, and Ludo. So why not others from the Underground?
After her seventeenth birthday, when she had to admit to the fact that there was something in her life that wasn't quite normal, besides her adventure and knowledge of the Underground, she'd told herself that it was fear, it was denial. She was too afraid to believe that something bad may happen again, that she may have to live through another terrifying thirteen hours – for exciting as it was, the fear of losing had left a scar – and thus she denied that there was anything wrong. Sticking head into sand, so to speak.
But when she became seventeen, she'd had to acknowledge the disorder in her life. There were many factors; the white barn owl that had up till now been satisfied flitting in and out of her sight now followed her at night when she went for walks. Many times, she was sure that she had heard her name, a whisper that was closer to a sigh gently carried to her by the wind. Even more often, she caught sight of a shadow that looked all too similar to a goblin scurrying away from her when she turned to investigate, whether in her house, at the park, at the school, or out shopping.
She could still have clung to the illusion of safety, perhaps. But by then, she didn't want to. The shiver that went down her spine was fear no more, but rather excitement. Life was once more becoming enriched by magic. She didn't want to lose it again.
And of course, there was the matter of yet another anonymous gift presented to her on her seventeenth birthday…
This time, it was a rather quieter affair. There was still cake, still presents, still friends and movies and ice cream.
But Toby had grown so much, and demanded so much time. Karen just didn't have time and energy to hold a huge party for her.
"That's all right," Sarah had said when Karen apologized to her several days in advance, the words of acceptance surprising both herself and her step-mother. Before, Sarah thought - and was sure Karen was thinking as well -, before she would have screamed and stomped and yelled at her for favouring her own child, the son of the family, over her step-daughter. Before, she would have gone weeping into her room.
Before, she would have wished Toby away.
"I'm too old to be having parties like that now, anyways," Sarah had gone on. "I'll just have a nice girl's night with my friends in my room, and for dinner we can go out."
Karen had thanked her.
So it was a smaller affair. Sarah found that she still had fun anyways, the teasing and giggling between her friends, sneaking downstairs to grab midnight snacks. Yes, it was still fun, and though the activities had changed, it was still normal, still average, still teenaged fun.
She didn't call her friends from the Underground that day. Though they still kept in touch with each other, it was becoming more and more difficult for all four of them to meet at the same time. Often she spent time with just Hoggle, or Didymus and Ambrosius, or Ludo. They were still very good friends, and Sarah felt sure that she would never grow up too much to lose them; but though she could stop growing up, she couldn't help growing apart as time went on.
She'd arrange for a meeting for all four of them, she'd decided as she fell asleep between human friends. So what if it was a few days late? It was time for them to meet again. Maybe in about a week, she promised herself. Her birthday, if a bit different, would still remain normal.
It all seemed normal enough when she woke up at two past noon on her birthday, having stayed up all night before with her friends. It felt normal enough as she stretched, yawned, and pondered sleeping just a few minutes more. It was normal enough for her to decide to grab a book to read in bed instead.
Then she saw what lay on the table beside her, and suddenly it didn't feel so normal or safe any more.
Sarah glanced at the book. Now, just minutes before her eighteenth birthday, she still had not finished the book, though it wasn't very long.
She wasn't meant to finish the book until today.
The book, bound in olive green leather, was new when she received it, but it appeared worn out and old even then. The words in it were in elegant script, almost as if it was written by hand, like the books from old ages when each book had to be copied and decorated by hand, before the printing press.
And each of the "chapters" began with a date, though it was not a journal. It was more of a… memoir.
The first chapter had the date of the day after her birthday, the day she found the book on her bedside table, on it. The second chapter had the date after that day. The third chapter the date after, and the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth…
And so on it ran for three hundred sixty five chapters, three hundred sixty six days.
What made her read the chapters in order, according the dates written on it? What made her, Sarah Williams, follow the rules and commands of others?
Actually, there were no instructions. She was not told to read them in order, nor was she told that there would consequences if she read ahead. And Sarah wasn't the type to be afraid of any punishments from arbitrary rules and magic in any case.
It was more the fact that she was scared to death of the book, that it took extreme courage for her to even pick it up at night before going to sleep every day.
The content the chapters contained wasn't horrifying or filled with gore or anything. It didn't exactly tell a story, in fact. It more told the feelings and thoughts of a "character" as he experienced events that affected him greatly.
It was just that the events that were implied in the stories were so familiar to her. Though there wasn't a dialogue, specifically, sometimes the narrator would agonize over a word that someone had said to him or that he had said – words that sounded so strangely familiar to her, as if she had spoken or heard them. Though he never described what had happened step by step, some events that she could gleam from the book were chillingly familiar, as if she had already read them in a book long time ago and recited the lines from it – or as if she had lived through the events herself.
Now she had one chapter left to read.
She leaned back from the window. Took a couple of deep breaths.
Finally, she reached for the book.
Opening the book to where it had been marked, she glanced down at the last chapter of the book. She was surprised to find that there were only two lines on the page.
You know who I am, it read. On your eighteenth birthday, the day you've hopefully finished this book, call my name.
If you wish to.
Somewhere, behind her, the clock struck twelve. It was her eighteenth birthday.
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