Disclaimer: Don't own
Rated: M for bad language, disturbing imagery, violence, and underage squick. If you are underage, turn back ... turn back before it's too late ...
Chapters 2 and 3 were written as a whole, once upon a time.
Then read on ...
Thrice Upon a Time
By the time she saw the figure on its knees in the center of – my kitchen – it was too late to stop. Sarah tripped, yelled, and falls hard on the linoleum.
"Ow – ow –" She clambers to her knees. Sorry – I'm sorry, I didn't see where I was going –"
There is no one else there.
Sarah turns slowly in place, eyes wide. "Hello?"
Bewildered, she looks down. There is nothing but a bucket, full of suds, and a sponge clutched in her own hand. Her skin feels tight, as if she has been using bleach.
And she knows, somehow, that she has to clean the floor.
Sarah dips the sponge in the bucket and sets to work. She scrubs and scrubs, until the suds turn a foaming brown-gray and one swathe of linoleum is considerably lighter.
Panting, she gets to her feet and looks in dismay at the wide expanse of floor still black with dirt. But – "I can do this." She hoists the bucket and lugs it to the sink. "Piece of cake."
She empties the bucket,and turns the water on to run as hot as it can go. After a generous dollop of cleanser, though, and after rinsing out the sponge twice, she is still waiting for the water to turn warm.
"Come on," Sarah mutters. "Hurry up." She flicks her fingers through the water – cold – and glares at the faucet. "Hurry up, hurry up –"
A crash outside her apartment door makes her jump.
"Williams!" a hoarse voice shouts. "Open up!"
"Who is it?"
A curse. "Who is it – who is it – it's your landlord, Williams, and I wanted you gone this morning!"
Sarah looks frantically for a clock. There is one with a dingy face, half hidden behind a pile of old newspapers on the kitchen table. She grabs it – seven thirty-four – and panics. "But I'm cleaning!"
"Bullshit!" the voice snarls. "I want you to pack up and leave – you understand?"
"Wait – wait –" she cries. "I just need one more minute!"
The water is still cold – she runs it into the bucket anyway and watches the cleanser froth up. She looks down the hall, at the door, sees the light at the peephole wink out – someone's looking in – and hears a jangle of keys.
Sarah flings the sponge on the floor and scrubs as hard as she can, as the door slams open and a tall, obese man stomps inside.
He glares at her and jerks a meaty thumb. "Out."
"Mr. Gallagher," – that's his name – "Mr. Gallagher, I'll have it clean for you as soon as I can, I promise –"
A bark of laughter. "That's what you said three months ago, Williams, and I've got your neighbors complaining, and the health department breathing down my neck –"
"The health department?" Her voice cracks. "Why?"
"Pawloski next door – she called 'em."
Sarah sputters. "That's only because I complained about her dog barking all the damn time! That's not fair!"
"News flash, Williams – she's right! Look at this!" He flings open a cupboard and greasy take-out cartons spill onto the counter. Sarah winces, bends to pick up a packet of soy sauce.
It squirms in her hand – she shrieks and drops it – it is a cockroach and it scuttles away as soon as it hits the floor.
"Nice." Her landlord looks at her, his heavy features twisted in contempt. "Pack your bags and get out, or I'm calling the cops."
"Go ahead!" she snarls. "And I want my deposit back! This place was dirtier when I moved in – it took me a week to clean it, and –"
Sarah feels a wave of vertigo. She has cleaned it – it had been pristine – and there should be a rug in front of the refrigerator, covering a tear in the linoleum – there should be two plants on the windowsill – there should be a red cloth on the table –
– but there is no rug, there are no plants, and everything is filthy.
"Yeah?" The man sneers. "You got pictures?"
She blinks hard. "No."
A derisive laugh. "No pictures, no proof – and no rent! You haven't paid your goddamn rent for three months and you're bitching about your deposit?" He pulls an awful face, and shrills in falsetto. "'We're not gonna pay – last year's rent! This year's rent! Next year's rent!' You Broadway wannabes are all the same – too dumb to write a check, too dumb to buy a stamp –" Spit flies from his mouth. "You're so dumb you probably bring your johns here and wonder why they want their money back!"
"I work at a museum!" Sarah cries. "And I have paystubs to prove it!"
She grabs a rusty cookie tin from on top of the freezer, wrenches it open and shakes it at him.
Her landlord howls and falls back as a mass of silverfish falls out of the tin, comes apart and cascades to the floor, and then the bugs run off in all directions –
Sarah drops the cookie tin; it clanks and rolls away into a corner. More insects stream out of it – dozens, hundreds –
"No," she whimpers. "No – make them stop –"
"That's it!" Furious, the man shoves himself up from the floor. "Get out!"
"But I –"
"Out!" he bellows. "Out!" His mouth gapes, wider and wider – black and huge –
– a cockroach falls out of it –
Sarah claps her hands over her own mouth, as he drops to his knees, choking and gurgling – and then he spews cockroaches all over the floor.
She screams, as waves of roaches and silverfish pour out of his mouth, but the man cannot hear her – even as she leaped out of the other Sarah, still screaming, and pelted towards the door – the real door – the train door –
She whirled around, her fingers clawing for the handle and saw herself in the middle of the kitchen, shrieking, as her landlord's huge stomach swelled and swelled, until a geyser of insects and filth exploded from it –
Sarah forced the door open, ran through and slammed it shut before she could see any more.
Gagging, she doubled over and fell to her knees. "Oh god, oh my god –"
It took a long moment for Sarah to wrench her head back up, and stare at the door in front of her – wait –
"Oh …" She heard her own high-pitched laughter, near hysterical. "The pivot – this is the pivot, and there's the door to –"
What next? Still fighting dry heaves, she racked her brain and then remembered: "The dentist – the dentist, oh no …"
Biting down hard on one knuckle, Sarah fought for control. "Just a dream, just a bad dream …" With her free hand, trembling violently, she pulled her cell phone from her coat pocket. "Seven forty-one – oh, I've got to go in there –"
She stood up, and took a deep breath. "Just a nightmare –
Prove yourself stronger than your nightmares –
"– and I've survived worse. OK. OK."
Slowly, carefully, she pushed open the next door.
Goosebumps prickled up and down her arms and her back as she saw the dentist's chair, silver-grey in the magical light, with someone lying down in it.
Sarah took another deep breath, swallowing a gush of bile. "It's just the dentist."
She walked forward and peered at the prone body. Its face was difficult to see in the weird light – she stretched out a hand –
– and Sarah finds herself staring up at the bright ceiling, shivering in a flimsy paper gown, conscious of the sharp smell of rubbing alcohol and a sting on the back of her left hand.
"Right, Ms. Williams, that's the I.V." A deep voice speaks and a white-haired man comes into her field of vision, smiling. "You'll be out when I start, and it might be a few minutes, but Dr. Gregor here will be here the entire time."
A much younger man leans in, grinning shyly. "Hey."
"Hey –" Sarah tries to say, but her mouth feels stuffed full of cotton wool – and then her vision blurs, the faces fade, and blackness threads in front of her eyes. – What's going on? is what she wants to say, but it's too late. Her tongue is frozen, and everything is black.
"Run an instrument check."
She hears the older doctor's voice, clear as a bell, and curt. "I'll be back in ten minutes."
Footsteps sound, first loud and then softer; a door opens and shuts.
Then all she can hear is the clink of metal and off-key whistling, as the younger man – Dr. Gregor – does something – what – what is he doing? –
Long moments of dark nothing pass. Nothing but her own breath and the whistling.
This had better not be my wisdom teeth, Sarah thinks. All four impacted – that was the worst weekend ever –
The door squeaks open and she wonders if it's the older doctor, but, "Sam-my!" she hears, and "Hey, what's up?" Gregor – Sammy? – replies.
"Nothing much." Gum snaps. "Pretty boring day. When do you get off?"
"You up for pool at Rigley's?"
"Great." She hears a yawn, and then, "So, who's the chick?"
"Uh –" She hears riffling pages. "Caucasian, forty years old – oh, here – Sarah Lynne Williams. I didn't know her middle name was Lynne."
"Did she do anything cool?"
Dr. Gregor – Sammy – sounds young as he replies, "I think she was in that one movie – you know, that long one all in a coffee shop –"
"– and all they're doing is smoking cigarettes and talking about philosophy –"
"Yeah, whatever." The gum snaps again, closer. "Not bad for forty."
She can almost hear the shrug in Sammy's voice. "I guess not – hey!"
what is it? – she wants to say, but she can't move her tongue, can't even gasp as gum snaps above her head and a finger pokes at her left breast.
"Are these for real?"
"Shit, man! You'll get us in so much trouble –"
"Aw come on, I'm just asking …" Another poke and then a squeeze. "You're not going to tell on me, are you?"
"Pete, quit it!" The young doctor's voice spirals upward.
"Then tell me – are they real?"
Another rustle of pages. Then Sammy's voice wobbles: "Yeah. Or, at least, she didn't get them done here."
Gum Snapper – Pete – whistles. "Da-yum. Not bad at all for forty."
Sarah has been trying to shout, to scream – she wants to kick the bastard where it would kill him, but she can't even twitch –
"I don't know why she wants this." The young voice is plaintive. "I liked that movie – the coffee shop one – and I liked that weird sci-fi one. She was really pretty in both of them. I just don't get –"
"Man, she's forty. You gotta do what you gotta do when you hit that rut."
"I guess … wait – shit! Pete!"
"Put that away!"
put what away? – Sarah wants to move, to get up, but she can't –
"You'll get us both fired!"
A laugh. "I'm a lab tech, dude – I can get a job anywhere. And if I get something for these, we'll go even, O.K.?"
Sarah hears a rustle of paper – feels cold air on her skin –
– hears the click of a camera.
"Yeah." Pete's voice is hoarse. "Damn good for forty." Another click.
"Dammit, put that away," Sammy quavers.
"C'mon man – look at this shot –" click – click – click – "See what the light does, there?"
Then Sarah hears Sammy croak. "Yeah."
"Yeah, baby," Pete laughs. "I wanted to do cinema-tah-graphy once, you know – wait – move her arm a bit." Sammy does; the other man pops his gum again. "Nice. She ever do a skin flick?"
Sammy's voice cracks. "How the hell should I know? –" and then Sarah hears him gasp. "Shit, shit, he's coming – cover her, quick!"
Paper crackles, and she hears footsteps.
"Half and half," Pete mumbles, and then: "Hey, Dr. Morgan."
"Good morning, Peter," an older voice returns.
it's the other doctor – stop them – stop him! – get the camera, the camera –
Sarah's eyes and mouth are closed and her body is still – but somehow she hears herself shouting, feels herself thrashing –
"All set?" the older doctor – Morgan – says. A door closes. "Good. Mark seven fifty-two, and starting. What's this one again?"
A brief swish of cloth, and then:
Sarah hears a metallic clink –
– and then screams as a blade cuts down the side of her nose – screams with no sound, for her mouth is closed and she can't tell them that she's awake, awake –
"Now, Dr. Gregor, the first step is to peel up the skin to make room for the next incisions –"
The voices ring in and out of Sarah's ears, echoing with the thunder of her pulse as pain radiates out from her nose into her skull, into her brain – stop, stop – I'm awake! I can feel everything –
"And they must be securely fastened, before we proceed to the cartilage. Now – normally, one uses which instrument to break the nasal dorsum?"
"The osteotome, sir."
"Correct. But as the record shows, more drastic measures have been requested, so –"
Sarah hears a high-pitched, electric squeal and shrieks, louder than she has, louder than she ever has before, and, rolling, fell out of the other Sarah and ran as fast as she could from the chair.
She did not look back, but smelled charred, burning bone, and saw blood reflected in the next door, her own blood, red and glistening -
- as she wrenched that same door open and shut it as fast as she could.
She was gasping for breath with her face pressed against something cool, and bumpy.
Just a bad dream, just a nightmare. You're OK – you're OK ... Just breathe. Breathe …
Sarah stared at the door that she had slammed. Carefully rising to her knees and then to her feet, she looked long at the heavy, polished wood – how it was carved in a pattern of leaves, but leaves with metal spikes jutting out in place of flowers. The handle was hinged and made of silver studded with jewels.
She felt her skin prickle. This is the one with the bed in it …
Closing her eyes, Sarah leaned forward and rested her forehead against the wood.
– Just don't panic. Breathe. Don't panic. You'll get through – whatever this is.
She still took another moment to open her eyes, turn, and squint in the silvery light.
There were two figures, blurred in her sight, sitting on the bed.
With a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, Sarah walked forward, doing her best to keep her distance …
But despite herself, her feet slowed as she glanced back over her shoulder and saw … what looked like ropes of diamonds, emeralds, and pearls, scattered on a table next to the bed. That table was insubstantial in the silvery light, much as everything else had been at first – before some dream reality kicks in, or something, I don't know – but the jewels … Even with the magic, the jewels shone and sparkled …
Sarah eased around the side of the massive bed and stared at the glittering heap.
She wouldn't touch, wouldn't even get too close, but – I just want to look –
Then a ghostly limb stretched in front of her eyes; she gasped and recoiled, throwing out a hand to catch her balance –
And she feels nimble fingers doing something to her hair – weaving it in and out, twisting it around something that is a substantial weight on her neck.
"What is it?" she whispers.
There is silence for a moment, though the fingers do not stop their work. Then she feels a breath of laughter on her back. Goosebumps rush over her flesh, and the laughter turns audible.
"Patience, pet …"
Sarah's mouth goes dry. She knows that voice –
– but before she can move away, she feels something even heavier settling on her forehead, around her temples, on the back of her skull. She moves her head cautiously and hears something clink.
"Would you like to see?" the same voice drawls.
"Yes, please," she whispers. – What is it? –
A rich chuckle. "That's my polite girl. Now, look."
Candles flare around the room, and dappled light seems to slide over the velvets and silks on the bed. Branches of them flanking the mirror crackle to life as well. Sarah sees her reflection.
Oh, I'm so young …
The girl in the mirror lifts a small, pale hand to a jeweled diadem circling her head. Brown strands of hair are caught in it; she tries to tug them free and notices –
There should be a scar at my hairline by the left – I fell from my bike, Sarah thinks, my new bike, the day after I turned fifteen, and three months to the day after I ran the Labyrinth …
The diadem has a finely wrought symbol at its center, lying at the mystical third eye. The metal looks like horns and an infinity sign somehow twisted together.
The Labyrinth … oh my god, I never left the Labyrinth – and that must mean –
"There, you see?" That voice – it accompanies a face that swims into focus behind her left shoulder.
The Goblin King gives her a lopsided grin.
"Pretty as a picture."
Wait ... is that really him?
The older Sarah stares out of her younger self's eyes. It is the Goblin King, but as she hardly remembers him. His eyes are heavily rimmed with kohl and his mouth is a crimson slash, and –
I never did see him with his shirt off, did I?
Yes, she had, Sarah realizes. The second contest – he had lain in her bed to warm it and smiled up at her – his white-gold skin almost glowing … but here ... he is different.
Her Jareth – my Jareth? – had been beautiful, yes, but almost painfully thin – sternum, shoulder bones, and ribs all plain as day. But in this dream (nightmare) the Goblin King has a sleek, visible strength. Corded muscles stand out and flex as he shifts closer to her, stretches his arms around her, plants one hand next to each of her thighs.
Perhaps Sarah shivers, or squeaks, because the grin turns from lopsided into a full display of sharp, crooked teeth. He leans even closer, rests his chin on her shoulder. He scrapes those teeth over the side of her neck and bites –
Sarah hears herself whimper and then sucks in a breath; somehow, she knows that she should not –
The Goblin King's eyes, narrowed, meet hers in the mirror. "What have I told you time and again, Sarah mine?"
She sees her thin throat ripple as she swallows. "Mustn't do that."
"Exactly. And what do you say now?"
Her eyes are huge, grey-green in her white face. "I'm sorry."
A laugh. "I forgive you. And here now ..." He trails a finger over her skin. "I am afraid that will bruise – so do let me cover it for you, my darling girl."
She stares at the red mark on her neck – a mark that disappears beneath a rope of pearl circling once, twice, three times – but the coils slide down, so he unlocks a net of silver and sapphires, drapes it around her throat higher up, and flicks the lock shut. "There. What do you think?"
What do I think?
Sarah feels goosebumps spread down her arms; she trembles.
"Chilly, my dear?" The Goblin King unfolds his legs and tugs her backwards into the warm line of his body. Sarah only just registers what he is wearing – that black leather – I remember that – and then he places his hands over hers and murmurs into her ear. "Is this better?"
She is about to nod, but then she sees herself in the mirror –
Oh my god –
Golden strands flickering with diamonds twine around her arms. Pearls on leather cords drape over her hips. An ornate amber pendant lies between her breasts.
She is wearing jewelry, and nothing else.
Sarah feels the laugh building in the Goblin King's chest before she hears it.
"Aren't we the staring fawn today … Little pet –" he shakes her, lightly, and kisses her cheek. "Why the wide eyes?"
Oh no, please, please let him not –
"Are you staring at how beautiful you are, little one?" His voice roughens. "Do you see what I see?"
Her stomach churns as he bends his head and flicks his tongue through openings in the net of silver on her neck, as he traces the lines of skin between the pearls, and as he runs his hands up her arms and cups her breasts –
– no, no no I'm fourteen you bastard –
He digs his fingers into her flesh, and she forgets and yelps in pain.
He jerks his head backwards and hisses into her ear, his breath hot. "What have I told you, girl? Have you forgotten?"
Sarah pulls her knees up and buries her face between them as she feels tears threaten. She hears a clock in the room, quietly chiming the hour – eight – something is important, but the King has asked her a question and she must answer. Her voice is thick. "No ..."
"I haven't forgotten …"
"Then why squeal so, pretty?" He slides one hand from her chest and gives one of her thighs a stinging slap. She cries out. "Why this whimpering?"
"I – I –"
The Goblin King's other hand twists in her hair and in the diadem, and tightens. "Why, Sarah?"
She gulps. "I don't – I don't –" Tears spill over, running down her face. "It hurts – why do you make it hurt so much?"
His hand loosens and both his arms go around her.
"Ah, princess. My princess. Shhh …" He kisses her cheek. "Stop crying and I will explain. Shhh – hush now. Listen …"
Sarah hiccups as she sobs – so young, god I'm so young – as he moves her so that she faces him. He frames her face with his hands. "Sweet …" He kisses her other cheek, lingering on her tears. "My sweet princess. It only hurts because I have such passion for you … such an overwhelming desire for you …"
The sobs turn into sniffles. "I don't understand."
The Goblin King favors her with a gentle smile. "This is part of passion, pet. When a lover," he points to his chest, "desires his lady above all things," he flicks a finger against her cheekbone, "of course he's going to hurt her. The more he wants her, the more he hurts her. And I want you, sweet … so very, very much …"
In her thoughts, the older Sarah howls. The younger blinks, starts to scrub her eyes with the back of one hand, and winces at the diamond bite of the rings on her fingers. "I still don't –"
"My dear." His smile widens. "Just think of your mother and father. You remember what happened with them, don't you?"
A blush spreads across her face. She looks away.
"You remember how you heard them, that one night. How your mother was crying out so loudly that you were afraid. And then the next morning you asked her what had happened, and she said …"
Sarah drops her chin to avoid his arched eyebrow.
"She said," he murmurs, "that what you heard was … Mommy and Daddy's business. Weren't those her words?" His eyes glint. "But then you were so curious, weren't you, pet? What was mommy and daddy's business? What could it be? And then your mother moved to a separate room and all the noise stopped, and then she left you, didn't she?"
Miserably, Sarah nods.
"Oh, but then ..." The Goblin King leans in close and whispers hot against her ear. "Then your father married again and you were still so curious – curious if father and stepmother had the same business as mommy and daddy. You listened at the door, didn't you? You wanted so much to know, didn't you?"
She nods again, squeezing her eyes shut.
"Then that little brat of a boy was born, and you found your father's magazines, and you began to get so angry, my fine girl. So angry, and so confused, because you wanted something – you wanted something and you didn't know what it was. Until …"
The Goblin King turns her in his lap – she opens her eyes and sees her tearstained, flushed face in the mirror.
He holds her close. "Until you came to me – and those things that you didn't even understand … those things you wanted – you wanted them desperately." He bites at her ear. "Didn't you?"
"… Yes." Her breath hitches as his hands begin to move again.
"I gave you what you wanted, pet. I gave you what you wished for …" He smiles at her, a baring of crooked, gleaming teeth in the mirror. "Now you understand, don't you? Don't you see how much I desire you, since I do these things for you?"
He rakes sharp nails up her thighs; she flinches, but recovers to give him a shaky smile. "I think so."
His eyes narrow. "You only think so, Sarah?"
She feels her heart pounding in her chest. Sarah looks through her younger self's eyes, into the mirror, and sees veins pulsing blue beneath the paper-white skin at her temples. She sees the dark rings around her eyes – almost as black as the kohl round his, but from sleeplessness –
"Sarah … Sa-rah …" The Goblin King's mouth is twitching. "Have you forgotten your name again, my Sarah?"
She feels dizzy. "No."
But he is amused and does not stop. "You forget your name, you forget your poor parents, you forget how much I adore you and cherish you … now why is that?"
Her lower lip is trembling. "Sometimes …"
She sees him brush a kiss across her temple. "Yes?"
"Sometimes my head just hurts."
"I see." He tilts his head back and runs his tongue across the jagged tips of his teeth. "Poor princess. My poor little princess … Let me help you. Here."
The Goblin King slowly lifts one hand, palm down. When he turns his palm up, with a flourish, his fingers are suddenly circled round a jeweled goblet. "Drink."
Sarah tries to hold back, but she sees her own hands – one thin one, then both – take the goblet. The worked metal is almost too heavy, and strangely hot to her touch. She parts her lips and then tastes something rich and spicy – wine – and strange.
"What –" but she cannot finish, for the Goblin King has curled his fingers around the base and tilted the drink into her mouth.
The wine is powerfully alcoholic. And with a lower body weight … Sarah tries not to swallow, but he presses the goblet on her, against her mouth, tipping it until liquid runs over her chin and down her neck and she has to drink to keep from choking. She swallows, more and more, until her throat clenches and she coughs –
"There now." He takes the goblet away; she dimly hears the clink of metal on the bedside table. "Doesn't that feel better?"
Sarah tries to speak, but the room sloshes from side to side around her, and she has to slump back against his chest. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror; the dark wine on her skin makes it looks as though her throat has been cut.
Then she can only lie still in his arms, as he licks the wine from her skin – as he looks down, eyes half-closed, and bends to trace a red rivulet to where it drips off one of her breasts. The Goblin King takes a nipple into his mouth and starts doing things to it with his tongue; she raises one hand – so heavy – and places it on his hair, to push him away –
– please don't let him do this – don't let him – she shudders – let me wake up, please god let me wake up –
"Sarah," he rasps, his breath hot against her flesh, and cool where he had licked her - she shudders. "You see how I worship you, how I desire you – how I want you … But what I want to know is this: do you want me?" He kisses up to her neck; she can hardly breathe. "Or have you forgotten that, too?"
The older Sarah is crashing against the walls of her prison, trying to break out – wake up wake up get out get out – but the younger one only watches her hand fall from his hair, down to her waist and then onto the bed.
"I want you." Her voice is dull.
"Very good," he purrs. "Ah, princess, you remember the important things … You remember that you want me – you remember what pleases me. And you want to please me. You want me so very desperately, don't you, my dear?"
She is quiet for a long moment, thin shoulders hunched. Then she nods.
"Well, then." The Goblin King shifts behind her. "Show me, Sarah." He runs a caressing hand over her hair. "Show me how much you want me."
She mumbles, her chin almost at her chest. "Do I have to?"
"Why, no …" he croons. "You want to. You want to please me – you want to show me how much you love me, don't you? Don't you?"
From a place somehow removed, Sarah sees how her younger self has curled up in the King's lap, curled up into a ball.
"Yes …" The reply is indistinct, because she is sucking her thumb.
She hears the smile in his voice. "Right thought, my dear." He plucks her hand from her mouth. "Wrong place."
He laces his fingers through hers and moves their entwined hands lower, until she feels smooth leather. "Now – show me."
Sarah awkwardly turns in his lap. She looks up into his eyes and tries a wobbly smile. Then she takes an uneven breath, bends her head, and kisses his chest. His hands stroke her hair as she kisses lower, then lower, pausing to draw her tongue over the lines of muscle in his abdomen.
She hears him groan, and she moves her hand the way she knows he wants her to, because she wants him to make that sound again – she wants to stop and look at the way the wine on her lips has left pretty traces on his white skin, but she can't, because she's trying too hard to remember how to undo his belt and keep kissing at the same time –
The older Sarah is screaming.
Nobody can hear her. Nobody knows she is there. And only she knows about the horror and fear, and sickness, roiling up from her gut, even when she flew out of the younger Sarah and landed on the stone floor, sobbing.
She pushed herself to her feet with both hands, then shook where she stood, hyperventilating, feeling too numb to cover her ears. And so she heard a scrape of metal and looked over her shoulder to see – somehow the worst thing of all – the Goblin King picking up the goblet in a languid hand and bringing it to his mouth, taking a sip of wine with his eyes closed, with his other hand coiled in her younger self's hair – and her hair was longer than it had ever been ...
Then he tilted his head back – Sarah saw the stark line of his jaw gleam like ivory in the candlelight – and he let the goblet fall onto the bed. She heard him hiss through his teeth, but she couldn't take her eyes off the last of the wine – spreading, staining the silk, darker even than the purple velvet. Until she heard him whisper: "Like that. Yes."
She saw him trace the diadem on her younger self's brow and brush a thumb over the symbol of the Labyrinth. Then the rasp of his voice: "Precious thing …"
"No …" Sarah mumbled, backing away, averting her eyes from the sight of her younger self – "No. I want to get out of here – I need to get out, please please let me out –"
She reached the door, only saying: "Out – out, please," in a voice hoarse from her protests of before –
The door swung outward so easily that she half fell – half fell and turned –
– and had one last glimpse – the Goblin King's eyes flashing down at her bowed head as he snarled, clawed through her hair, clawed and yanked –
The door closed.
Sarah slid to her knees and covered her face with her hands. "Oh, god – I can't – can't …"
She felt her own tears, trickling down her face. It was too much – she couldn't go on ... She couldn't believe he would do something like that, to her – to her when she was so young, a child ... Even knowing about her Gran – even the rest of this nightmare – that had been nothing compared to –
It took a long moment for Sarah to lift her head. The motion made her stomach churn. "That bastard – he'll regret this. He'll live to regret this – I'll make him pay –"
The words seemed to echo, strangely …
She heard a distant scraping sound.
Sarah pulled her coat tighter, then looked to one side. The scraping wasn't coming from anything she could see, except …
Then she remembered, and raised the crystal. She didn't scream – but did inhale in a rattle as the massive, twisted face of a False Alarm stared at her, mica eyes gleaming in the nightmare light.
Then it blinked, and she screamed after all.
"Yeah, I got the message." Her mouth tasted like bile; she swallowed once, twice. "Pass one on for me, this time: he'll be sorry for this –" she spat – "he'll pay – I'll make that rat bastard of a Goblin King pay –"
We hear …
She turned on her knees to see the other False Alarm. Its eyes glittered at her – and it had teeth made of mica, too. They looked sharp.
… and witness …
Its voice rumbled – and was that a rock, or a snake with stone scales, darting out of its mouth as it licked its chops?
"Oh no," Sarah choked and scrambled to her feet, the dry heaves returning with a vengeance.
Don't go …
"No – no, I have go – I have to keep going –" She heard a rattle – were those stones? – and then a louder grating, crunching sound as she fumbled for the handle.
Don't go on …
The door opened with a click that she felt rather than heard. Sarah darted into the next car and slammed the door behind her – She heard the screech of stone against metal – the door shuddered at her back, as though rocks had crashed against it.
It sounded as if the rocks were screaming. But she didn't know why.
Sarah hunched over where she stood, trying to breathe. "What did they – what was that?" They didn't just want to stop her, although she felt that, the don't go on, their hunger … they had listened …
And now she had the twisted, jagged grey images of the False Alarms between her thoughts and the memory of Jareth and her younger self – no, not going to think about that – her mind was careening round and round – she could hardly see when she opened her eyes.
But then her vision focused, and beige paneling and a dull brown carpet shimmered into being in front of her. Memory – the carpet, the panels – both took her back so many years, as did the musty smell of plastic, old bills and damp waits in line …
Sarah was standing in her childhood bank.
"Why …" she mumbled. "Why this? Why?"
Gazing around the drab waiting area, silver-edged and wavering in the magic's light, Sarah focused on the glass doors directly opposite. They led to a small anteroom, and the bank's main door.
"OK." She exhaled, teeth chattering. "How about I try just walking across, straight across, and not – touching – anything …"
Sarah took a careful step forward, then another, and then quickened her pace – until she saw a silhouette open the bank door, walk through the anteroom, and lean against the glass door to enter the lobby –
She tried to turn around, to run. The figure came towards her, closer and closer, reached her, walked into her –
And then Sarah winds her way through the old velvet cords that guide the customers in line, and waits her turn near its head. There are orange and black streamers fluttering from the posts. A dish on a nearby table contains a clump of candy corn and a few Starbursts. Her legs ache from standing and her arms twinge from holding the baby, but she has walked all the way here, and she didn't want to take the stroller out into the early snow …
… the baby?
A strange half-squeak, half-chirp focuses her attention on the infant. Its eyelashes flutter, but it does not wake. It is dressed in a knit sweater that lies over a white sleeper; wrapped in a coat of plush red – rather, a coat once plush, now carefully mended, but still looking warm enough –
Staring, she joggles the baby once. It is plump, but somehow so light …
How is this a nightmare?
The baby yawns.
Sarah looks ahead, trying to think ... She had never wanted a child, never felt the need for one that so many of her circle of friends felt, in college – and then she had left those friends behind, moved to the city, deleted emails about baby showers and christenings …
She looks down at the infant in her arms. Dark lashes lie on rosy cheeks and a whorl of auburn hair moves softly with Sarah's own breath.
"Next!" a voice barks.
Carefully, with one thumb, she touches the soft spot on the baby's head.
"Hey, lady, that's you," a gruff voice says.
Sarah glances up into the rheumy eyes of an older man, stooped and with white hair, in line behind her. "Oh –" She holds the baby closer and says, "Thank you," as she walks up to the counter.
"Hello!" An older woman, wearing a hat with a feather in it, smiles at her through thick glasses. "Happy Halloween – arrrrr –" She tips her head and Sarah sees the black plastic eyepatch she is wearing. "And sorry about Luke –" she gestures at an overgrown, sullen man stuffed into a uniform. "He's always a little cranky this late."
This late …
Sarah frowns at the clock on the teller's side of the counter, next to a photo of the older woman embracing a woolly dog – strange … It is almost eight fifteen. What kind of bank is open this late? – but the teller is saying something.
"What can I do for you?"
For a moment, Sarah feels blank. Then she takes one hand from around the baby and reaches into one pocket – a hole – and then into the other – an envelope. She draws it out, and reads "Mortgage," written in an uneven hand.
"Oh, a deposit?"
Sarah shakes her head, remembering. "A payment."
The baby sighs in its – another memory wisps through her mind – her sleep.
Keys click at the computer and something beeps. The teller's brow furrows. She glances from the screen to Sarah and then back again.
"Hm. Miss – Ms. Williams, could I just ask you to hold on here, one second?"
"Good." The teller gives her a bright smile. "I'll be right back." She quickly walks away.
And Sarah looks back down at the child – my child, this is my child …
"Look at you," she whispers. "Look at you … Ten fingers, ten pretty fingers …" She runs her own index finger across the baby's ten – tiny and seashell pink. "Little girl …"
"Someone will be with you in a moment, if you have the time to talk with her about your mortgage." The teller, returning, speaks the words so quickly that Sarah almost doesn't catch her final – "Follow me, please." And the plumed hat bobs off from behind the counter, through the lobby, and to a row of dingy plastic chairs. "Just sit here with – oh …"
The baby has waved a fist in her sleep, and stuck it into her mouth.
"Oh," the teller breathes. "What's her name?"
Sarah thinks, remembers. "May."
"Beautiful." The other woman smiles at the baby and rises. "I have to get back, but someone will be right with you."
Watching her go, Sarah is caught off guard by a sudden weight of fatigue that settles around her shoulders. Her jaw cracks in a yawn and her stomach growls.
"Wow." She looks down and half-laughs to the baby: "That was a big one, wasn't it? I'm exhausted …"
Something brushes the back of her mind – something important …
But she is content to sit. To rest. To wait …
Why is this a nightmare?
Sarah must have dozed off, for when she opens her eyes again, a woman her age is standing in front of her.
Another yawn cracks her jaw; she speaks through it. "Yes?"
"I need to speak to you, but our offices are full – will you come with me, please?"
Obediently, Sarah follows her to a shadowy corner of the lobby. The sounds of customers and the security guard, the shuffle of feet and clicks of keyboards, the ring of registers and the clock ticking – everything fades away.
The woman is wearing trousers, a blouse and a vest with embroidered trim. Her dark hair falls past her shoulders. Her hazel eyes are cool, impersonal.
"Ms. Williams," she says, quietly. "I regret to be the bearer of bad news. But your payment is insufficient for this month and does not begin to cover what is past due – so we have no choice but to foreclose on your home."
Sarah gasps. "What?"
"As I said, we have no choice but to foreclose on your home."
"No –" Her voice catches. "Please – you can't!"
"Ms. Williams –" The other tips her head slightly, raises her eyebrows. "This bank will foreclose on your house within the week, so please make alternate arrangements for yourself." She turns to leave.
"Wait – wait," Sarah chokes. "Wait – It's my family home – I moved back here to take care of it after the accident, and I didn't know that my father had refinanced –" She sucks in a breath and speaks more urgently, desperately. "I've sold my car, I'm working third shift – I've pared every expense to the bone and I've made an extra payment every month." Tears spring to her eyes. "Everything you have wanted, I have done!"
The woman pauses.
Then she turns back, and speaks.
Her hair is dark, so dark … Sarah cannot look away from her eyes – her eyes, which glow with triumph.
The woman smiles, and says: "Give me the child."
Sarah gasps, clutches the baby – May – tightly to her body. "No!"
The smile is pitiless. "Yes."
"No!" Sarah cries, and she turns, runs, and shoves the glass lobby door open –
– but there is no other door, only a sandstone wall, and the entryway is freezing cold, a cold that grasps her limbs and pulls down as she sways on her feet.
freezing cold – it's only Halloween …
… no, it's May …
"May," she slurs. Sarah holds the baby close and slumps to the floor – and kicks the door shut, just before the other woman can follow her.
That woman looks down from her height through the glass, smiles, and taps her watch.
The baby is crying.
"Oh," Sarah says, "oh honey, oh May, I'm sorry –" for she knows that cry – "I know you're hungry, I know – but I don't have anything …"
Digging in her pockets, she pulls out a baby bottle. It falls with a hollow clank and rolls away. Then another, and another – all empty …
"May," she croaks. "There's nothing left …"
A crack makes her look up. The woman is running one long fingernail across the glass – leaving a fracture in its wake –
Sarah sobs, and then looks back at May. The child's face is white, eyes sunken, eyelids and lips blue –
"No, baby girl –" Sarah opens her coat and shirt, hugs the child inside next to her skin, trying to warm her – trying to get her to nurse – but something is wrong and she stares down –
– and sees blood, pulsing from a gaping wound between her breasts.
"Ah." Her jaw sags. "My heart …"
Splintering glass makes her loll her head and look – the woman is clawing her way through, and there is blood on her hands as she says – give me the child –
Then Sarah remembers.
She licks her lips, tries to breathe. "Goblin King –"
The glass door has shattered completely and the woman is on the far side of the entryway, bloodied hands outstretched.
"Goblin King," Sarah whispers, "Goblin King …" – forgetting the line –
damn I always forget that line –
"Goblin King," she sobs. The other woman is moving slowly, so slowly in the cold, but coming closer. "Wherever you – ah –" Blood is everywhere and the baby shudders against her and stills. "Oh, my heart – Jareth – Jareth –"
And she sees his image, silvered, insubstantial, coalesce before her – he kneels to look into her eyes and his face has a terrible emotion written on it as clear as day –
The other door, Sarah –
She can hardly see past her tears. "Jareth, please –"
The other door, the last door – behind you, Sarah – his face is so close to hers – behind you –
Sarah holds out the baby. "Take – from me –"
Jareth stares – but only for a split second. Then his features are lost in a sweep of silver light as he picks up the child and whirls onto his feet in one motion –
The door, Sarah!
The tattered cloak swirls with his movement, the other woman recoils as it sweeps over her – its silvered edge catches Sarah's face as the Goblin King vanishes – she falls backwards – back, and the woman grabs at the ankle of the other Sarah – the other Sarah, who dissolved into thin air with a flurry of rags and dust, as she herself fell back –
– back through the open door –
– which she could only kick shut, as the other screamed in rage, with what felt like the last of her strength.
Sarah lay in darkness.
She felt sand, and stones, cool and rough on the side of her face, as she brought her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them.
It was so quiet, so dark, and when she closed her eyes, she could not tell any difference from when they were wide open and staring.
She exhaled, then coughed, raggedly and heard the words slip from her, almost beyond her control.
"I can't do this."
Dust and sand turned her teeth gritty as she clenched them together, and sat up. "I can't – I can't do this –"
I'm in the oubliette …
"The oubliette," Sarah mumbled. "I can't go on – I can't – I want to forget. God, I want to forget it all …" A tear ran down her cheek; she wiped it away, even knowing her face would be muddy – and then she buried her head in her hands and sobbed. "I want to forget – I don't want to remember – I wish …"
… wish …
"What?" She scrubbed at her eyes. "… Hello?"
No response. Maybe it was an echo …
But then Sarah saw an image blossom out of the darkness: herself – there she was, in her linen dress at the museum; no, in a blue dress onstage – no, in a black dress, on a swing … and there was Jareth –
… wish …
The back of her neck prickled. "Wish?"Her voice was a croak. "Wish for what?"
A handsome figure stood in her memory, in jeans and scuffed shoes and a jacket, head tilted to one side – he was saying something, his lips were moving, and the words were like honey: Sarah – Sarah – kiss me and all of your dreams and your wishes will come true – But there was another voice, rough and halting, as if wrenched in pain from the Goblin King's heart: I hate you – I love you – my love –
She shuddered in the cold dark. "No – I don't want to remember." She choked, "I wish –"
Make a wish …
And into her mind flashes once upon a time fee fie foe fum three sisters twelve princesses Goblin King Goblin King glass slippers let down your hair nibble nibble like a mouse give me your voice give me your child give me your word your love your hand happily ever after –
Sarah covered her ears. "Stop."
Make a wish …
And there is ballroom full of whirling dancers, men and women dazzling in their finery, moving to music she cannot hear – but all their masks have eyes, and those eyes stare at her at her from every side, glittering – where have you gone, why are you gone? And they dance faster, into a whirl of color and light that spins her away – where she does not have to think, or do, or say … only dance …
"No dancing," she gritted out between her teeth. "I don't want –"
And there are her friends – Ludo and Sir Didymus and Hoggle, and everyone else, playing in her room – and there are her parents, and, and Gran – smiling at the raucous party in her room, but Toby is there too and crowing victory in a duel, taking a spangled sword from a vanquished and chortling Sir Didymus – and she is happy, they are all laughing and nothing … nothing can ever take that happiness from her …
"Oh." Sarah stared into the darkness. The oubliette was so cold, but her tears were warm; she gasped and coughed. "Please – please make it –"
Stop, she thought, weeping. Let me forget, but –
Wish, she heard a gentle voice whisper. Except there was another voice – lower and rougher, whispering: My love …
"No, Jareth, please," she choked against the oubliette's dust, "I –"
Sarah, she hears – and his voice is dark with secrets – except there are no secrets, because she knows him, and there is no darkness, because he looks at her with all the light of the all the worlds in his eyes, and he says, My love – Sarah, my only love … The wings of his feathered cloak wrap around her; he holds her to his heart. And then Jareth kisses her and it's like everything, everything she's ever wanted, and desired, and wished for … She takes him in her arms – she feels the wild bird struggling of his heart against her breast and he whispers against her lips: My precious thing – my only love – how I love you, Sarah, forever …
"Please, god, Jareth, just let me be – let me," Sarah twisted her hands into her hair and bent double where she sat, dragging in a breath. "I want to forget – and – I'll say the words –"
Make a wish … the gentle voice hissed.
"I wish …" She leaned backwards against one rough wall, and coughed, "I wish –" but then winced as something dug into her back. Sarah reached behind her, still crying, and grabbed whatever it was –
what is it?
But she felt carefully, and knew almost immediately. Three smooth spirals, which she felt as bumps. It would be white and pink and gold – a seashell, which she had found at the beach. Her father had taken her there, that day. He had told her that her mother was leaving, but that they both loved her very much.
And although she had been a child, something had broken in her, then – or in the days, months, years after. Perhaps it had been her child's faith in the rightness of the world; perhaps her belief that happiness could never disappear. Or perhaps, though she had been a child … perhaps it had been her heart.
"My heart …" She held the seashell to one cheek, against her tears. "I want to forget …" She had found the shell and had run back with it to her father. He had tried to smile, but then had said I have something to tell you –
I have something to tell you –
Sarah's skin prickled. She heard a whisper, close to her ear – something to tell you – ladies and gentlemen –
"What?" she croaked. She squinted into the darkness – nothing – and turned her head –
– which brought her ear right against the seashell, and she heard a distant voice say
Briarwood, last stop –
Sarah blinked, and remembered.
Briarwood, last stop –
She remembered everything.
Briarwood, last stop, all for Briarwood. Please check for all your bags before leaving the train.
"The train," she whispered. "My bags …"
Sarah could see nothing but darkness, but she remembered …
She heard a gibbering, howling scream of rage, somewhere far away. Or the brakes – it's the train, she thought. Has it stopped?
Sarah got to her feet and took a careful step forward. "I have to get off the train, with my bags –" meet me at your grandmother's house before the stroke of thirteen – "Ow –"
She had barked her shin, and she bit her lip hard as her eyes watered with pain – but I'm not crying anymore …
"I need light." She heard the words bounce off the oubliette's walls. "Where can I get some light – ah –" Remembering, she pulled her cell phone from her pocket with the hand that did not hold the shell. She flicked the phone open.
A cold, blue light showed her dark rocks, dark shapes that might have been bones on the floor, and a long rectangle in front of her, edged in silver …
Sarah held up the phone, and saw a closed coffin.
She felt frozen to the spot – I can't go on – but then she saw the phone's digital display – 8:26 –
Briarwood, last stop. End of the line – the voice from the shell whispered.
Sarah remembered his eyes, and his voice – prove yourself stronger than your nightmares –
"Yes," she said, voice low, and she walked forward and laid one hand on the coffin's lid.
It dissolved – she felt fear seize her heart – but then it turned into something else – sorrow – as she saw her grandmother's face, smooth and peaceful in death.
"Oh, Gran …"
Her grandmother's hair, white, edged with the silver of magic, but tinged with blue in the light of the phone – Sarah laid one hand against that hair, and bent to kiss her cheek.
It was soft, and warm.
Sarah jerked back, eyes wide. She remembered - I will save your grandmother, Sarah –
"Yes, yes," she breathed. "Hold on, Gran. I'm coming. I haven't forgotten …"
It was hard, so hard, to wrest her eyes away from her grandmother's face, but she did. Sarah ran to the corner of the oubliette – there it is, there – stuffed the shell into her coat pocket, and grasped the handle of her suitcase.
"Where's my purse? Where –"
She held the phone up and looked around, wildly, and saw her purse, hanging with some coats and a scarf on a hook, on the door.
Sarah dashed to the door, grabbed the purse's strap, and began to untangle it from the mass of dark hair as quickly as she could –
dark hair …
She gasped, and yanked her hands away.
What she thought a scarf was hair; what she thought were coats was one coat – her coat.
It was her body – dead – hanging from the hook on the door. Oh god oh god, if I touch her – me – I'll be dead – I'll die –
Sarah did not have to listen to the shell to hear – end of the line – end of the line.
your mortal track comes to its end, precious thing …
She looked at the time. 8:29.
And then Sarah gazed at herself, at the closed eyes deep in their sockets, at the white and dead features, framed by black hair.
She squared her shoulders.
"I'm stronger than my nightmares. I've come this far, and this is not the end. I remember …"
The words came to her mind so easily that she sighed, half in sorrow for what had been her own pain, half in hope for herself – for Gran ...
"They worked on him; they'll work on you."
Sarah looked her worst nightmare in the face.
"You have no power over me."
Then she stepped forward, took her purse and held her suitcase close, opened the door, walked out of the oubliette –
– and stepped down from the train, onto the solid stone of the station platform.
It felt surreal to watch the train pull out of the station, trundling to its resting track – but Sarah did so, sitting on her suitcase with her back against a metal beam. Then she closed her eyes. She felt too tired to stand.
"I did it," she whispered to herself. "Everything he said, everything …"
Fetch me that crystal, precious thing …
Sarah's eyes opened. The crystal. She had forgotten the crystal.
Before, she would have screamed, sobbed, cursed. But she had seen her worst nightmare and walked away … so Sarah waited, resting, trusting. Then she fell into a doze.
"Hey, lady –"
Sarah jerked awake. She saw the blonde girl from the train standing in front of her, holding out the red umbrella.
"You left this on the train."
Sarah smiled and took it from her. "Thanks, kid."
"No prob." And the girl jogged off to her grandmother, picked up the older woman's suitcase – a voice, scolding, floated across the platform to Sarah – "you do not just say "lady" – use "ma'am," or "miss," young lady –"
"Young lady!" The girl laughed and took her grandmother's hand.
Sarah watched them walk away. She turned her head back and looked up at the stars, clear and bright in the dark sky.
She held up the umbrella and shook it. "At least it's not raining."
The umbrella turned into a crystal in her hand.
She looked at it for a long minute. I'm not afraid … "To think that I forgot – and I thought I remembered everything." She quirked her mouth in a wry smile. "Some fairy tale heroine I make …"
Then she put the crystal in her pocket, stood, and gave her suitcase handle an experimental tug.
"Well … come on, feet."
Sarah looked down the station platform, to the dark line of road disappearing in the distant woods.
"To grandmother's house we go."