What's Past is Prologue
Lost and Lonely
"Dad, I'm fine."
"You've been saying that for the past year, sweetie. It's been your answer to everything."
A heavy pause and she knew what would come next.
"Are you sure you're okay?" her father asked, right on cue. "You haven't been sleepwalking again, have you? I hate to think of you out there all by yourself wandering around."
Sleepwalking, she had been told, was a byproduct of high levels of stress or anxiety. And Sarah Williams had had plenty of both in the past year.
"No, no sleepwalking," Sarah told her father, trying not to sigh. "I swear I'm fine."
"I could come down, stay with you for awhile."
"No, Dad, you don't have to do that," Sarah said, shaking her head, forgetting he couldn't see it. "Besides, I think this will be good for me. I'll fix up the house, get it ready to sell and then get out of here."
"Where will you go? You know you're always welcome to stay with us until you figure something out."
Sarah rested her chin in her hand and gazed blankly ahead of her. The overhead lights rimmed the arching chrome facet of the sink with gleaming white-gold highlights. "I don't know," she sighed. "Maybe I'll go out to the west coast...or China."
Yeah, China sounds good...where nothing is familiar...where I can lose myself in a sea of billions of people...eat raw food and watch sumo wrestling...no, wait, that's Japan...
"—so dramatic, sweetheart, ever since you were a little girl," Sarah's father was saying, a slight chuckle in his voice. "All right, all right, I'll stop pestering you. But you call me again soon, okay? And let me know when you're ready to get that house on the market. I'll come down and help you out."
"I'll call you tomorrow," Sarah promised. And then, for some inexplicable reason, a lump formed in her throat. "Thanks, Daddy."
"Anything for my little girl," her father told her, voice laced with paternal warmth. "Good night, Sarah. I love you."
"You, too. Give Karen and Toby my love. Bye, Dad."
Sarah sighed as she set her cell phone down in front of her. She contemplated the smooth wood of the counter with the tips of her fingers, raised her head and looked around the kitchen. Small puddles of golden light spilled onto the speckled granite counters, gleamed from the glass panes in the cabinet doors. During the day, sunlight poured through the large skylights, making the room warm and homey. It was a beautiful kitchen. The kind someone would love to cook in; the kind people gathered in for warm drinks on cool evenings.
The kind of kitchen he always wanted...
The sun had been shining through the windows that morning...remember? He was already awake, his forlorn gaze directed at a plate of black squares while the toaster smoked behind him. He looked up and his shoulders drooped.
"I was trying to..." he trailed off, shrugged dejectedly.
He had burned the toast he had tried to make for breakfast...the eggs hadn't been cooked long enough and were runny...
"It's okay. We can just scrape the toast off."
It had been hard to contain the laughter as the black stuff had been scraped into the sink. And it was, without a doubt, the worst toast ever.
"It's really bad, isn't it?" he asked.
"It's not bad..." Doubt lingered in the lines around his mouth as he frowned. "Okay, it's terrible."
Sarah shied away from the memory. Pushed away from the counter and made her way out of the kitchen. She stood in the wide foyer for a moment, staring at the shadowy stretch of stairs leading to the second level. She was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to sleep, but she dreaded the thought of walking into that bedroom.
"It's been a year, Williams," she muttered.
Which was so much easier to say, she realized, as she crawled into the large bed by herself.
This afternoon, she'd sat in front of the house for nearly an hour, just staring at it before she could work up the nerve to step onto the porch, to push her way inside. Cottage was too small a word for the place—although, with its Queen Anne architecture and Tudorbethan details, that was the most accurate description. Chocolate colored gingerbread contrasted sharply with creamy wood siding, adorned every inch of the steep gables. A deep, shadowy porch wrapped from the front and around one side. Trees crowded around the house, hovered like rigid sentries grudgingly letting the sunlight dapple against the slate roof.
The house looked like something out of a fairy tale.
Sarah snorted softly at the ceiling above her bed. If one believes in fairy tales and magic, she mused sardonically.
Sarah Williams had believed.
Before her trials in the Labyrinth, Sarah had been an angst-ridden teenager, who thought her parents were the enemy, her baby brother was her personal ball and chain, and who said things like, "It's not fair!" Her world was only big enough for herself, and she had been continuously lost in dreams, wishing she was more than she was and somewhere other than her dreary small town.
After the magical adventure, she stepped back into her world—still fifteen, but she had...grown up. She left behind the selfish, whiny brat of a girl she'd been. She started taking responsibility, became excited to babysit her little brother. She helped around the house, formed a healthy relationship with her stepmother, and even managed not to resent her own mother during the sporadic phone calls she received.
Sarah realized, later, what a rare thing she'd been given; a lesson on just how powerful words could be, the chance to start over, to appreciate what she had. And the gift of knowing her dreams weren't just silly musing created by a silly girl and her overactive imagination.
Staring up at the white ceiling, Sarah felt a bittersweet longing cut sharply through her. She quickly tried to squash it, to bury it deep down where it wouldn't touch her heart.
Because strange things began to happen when she thought about that place for any length of time. Sometimes only little things—a rose bush suddenly blooming with pure blue flowers, a sparkle just at the corner of her eyes leading her to something she'd lost. Sometimes it was bigger things. Freak thunderstorms on an otherwise sunny day. Reflections of people and places that couldn't possibly exist in mirrors, store windows or a particularly shiny pot. Trying to explain why she had a peculiar fascination with her silverware had become almost second nature for her when she was younger.
Sarah believed, with every fiber of her being. She had welcomed the golden shimmers at the edges of her vision (especially when she couldn't find her keys). She made sure to take an umbrella with her everywhere she went. And if people thought she was prone to daydreaming as she stared at the beautiful places and strange beings she saw beyond her reflection, well that was okay. The memories of her adventure didn't fade. She refused to let them go, continued to be grateful for the magic injected into her life.
Sarah rolled over and stared at the empty place next to her. She reached out to touch unused pillows, smoothed her fingers down the unwrinkled sheet, stared at the nightstand, bare except for a stained-glass lamp whose soldered edges gleamed silver. An ache rose in her throat as it did every night she lay in bed, alone.
He was supposed to be there, had said he would be there through everything. They would get married and have children, he'd told her, children with his sunny blond curls and her sparkling green eyes. They would grow old together, he promised, and he would buy them a matching set of rocking chairs for the large, wrap-around porch. And they would sip mint juleps in the cool shade and watch their grandchildren play on the swingset he'd build.
It had been a beautiful dream he had given her.
She should have known better than to believe it would come true.
Before the phone call, her life had been a bright study in contentment. Before, her future had promised laughter and love and smiling days. She had been happy, truly happy.
After the phone call, the sunshine dimmed and shadows began to creep along the edges. After was when she finally stopped believing in the magic and fairy tales, when she woke up from the dream and entered the harsh nightmare of reality.
Because one day she came home and he wasn't there. It hadn't been completely unusual; he went for walks sometimes in the late afternoon to clear his head. It got too crowded in there, he told her. Too many ideas running rampant. Too many characters vying for his attention, trying to make their voices heard, he had joked, as though the people he wrote about were real. And sometimes when he told her a story or talked about what he was working on, Sarah believed they were.
He loved her ability to see the people and places he envisioned.
She loved his vivid imagination because it was such a perfect compliment to her own.
With only one exception, she remembered the events of that day more clearly than any in her life. She had come home, smiling as she pulled into the driveway. Golden sunlight poured around her as she opened the front door, set the cherry wood floors ablaze, made the apple-green walls glow warmly. She'd called his name as she walked into the kitchen, dropped the groceries heavily on the counter, unconcerned when he didn't answer. He always left a note on the small chalkboard next to the refrigerator…
But, "'Journeys end in lovers meeting.' Until we meet again, have a good day, my love. ~J" was still scrawled across the board; the message he'd left her that morning.
Worry had jerked through her stomach.
She had pushed it aside and began putting the groceries away.
Any moment, he would walk through the kitchen door, golden hair tousled from the wind, sunshine still glittering in his sky blue eyes. He would smile and laugh like a boy caught stealing cookies. And she would shake her head at him with playful sternness, unable to keep a smile from touching her lips. Get lost again? she would ask. He wouldn't answer, he never did. He would just cross the room, fold her into his embrace, bury his face in the crook of her neck as though he was more delighted to find her standing in the kitchen today than he had been yesterday or the day before. You're going to have to start carrying pebbles in your pocket, she'd tease. And his lips would find the corner of her mouth, would press a sweet promise there before he reluctantly stepped away.
But none of that had ever happened.
It had been a jogger who found him—no. Not him, Sarah kept reminding herself. His body. Whatever Jake Furst had been, the inanimate shell found stuffed beneath the hawthorn, his blood soaking into the dirt like lurid fertilizer, had not been him. The police couldn't come up with a motive—Jake never carried anything except his ID and his house keys when out walking, and both had still been in his pockets.
A random act of violence, people had said, shaking their heads sympathetically. Couldn't have predicted such a tragedy.
So here she was, widowed before thirty, left with a bleeding hole inside her chest as though a thorn from the bush Jake had been found under had stabbed through her heart. She tried her best not to turn into a shadow of herself, to keep her chin up and the tears private. Other people had made it through this and so would she.
But memories drifted through the house like phantoms, seizing her in their diaphanous grip at unexpected moments, the sticky filaments of nostalgia clinging like spider silk. And as the days turned into months and the months slowly stretched into a year, she still sometimes felt as though she would never find a way to staunch the wound in her chest. Even now, she sometimes found herself saying things like, "We would love to come to dinner," thinking things like, I can't wait to tell Jake about…
"It's not fair," she whispered into the silence of the bedroom
You say that so often…
A grim smile touched her lips as the offhanded reply flitted through her mind. "Well, I suppose I have my basis for comparison now, don't I?" she muttered at the shadowy ceiling.
The answering silence only made her sigh and roll over. She punched a more comfortable hollow into her pillow, laid her head back down and closed her eyes, desperately trying to ignore the void behind her, inside of her. And the emptiness of the large house nestled along the edges of a dark forest.
She had loved Jake with all her heart, but she wasn't blind to the fact he thought just because he had loved the place, she would too.
Isn't it wonderful? Jake had asked when he had first shown it to her. Can't you just see Little Red skipping out from between the trees?
Honestly? She thought it was kind of creepy.
And being here alone…Sarah was more inclined to think she would come across a wolf before a girl and her basket of treats. The house was quiet, now—too quiet, eerily quiet, a different sort of quiet than when Jake went into town and she'd been home by herself. The house was just…empty…a place for shadows to loom. Even the sunlight dappling down through the windows felt sinister, gave a false sense of safety during the day. Night just made everything worse, made everything feel more...threatening...
The sound of a dog frantically barking drifted through the night. An owl hooted its displeasure, trees rustled in agitation. The house creaked and groaned softly like an old man as it shifted and settled on its foundation. Something scratched insistently at the window screen, eagerly trying to get inside—
Sarah's body went rigid, completely still. Except for her eyes, which flew open and widened to let in as much available light as possible, and her heart, which slammed up toward her throat in an attempt to jump out of her mouth. She strained to hear something, anything that would tell her how close the danger was, how much time she had before it crawled across the room and got her!
But all she heard was the blood roaring through her ears, desperately trying to make every limb in her body ready for flight, and the sound of her shallow pants.
A tree, she told her racing heart. Branches scraping against the window. Have to get those trimmed. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Closed her eyes and relaxed one muscle at a time. A hint of cool air kissed the light sheen of leftover fear on Sarah's skin. A low rumble sounded in the distance.
A storm was coming.
Disclaimer: There isn't much in this story that belongs to me—I can't even take credit for the chapter titles—except the order of the words and the idea. Other than that, all characters (unless otherwise mentioned) belong to their respective creators and I make no profit from this story. Also, this disclaimer applies to all subsequent chapters, because I'm too lazy to keep repeating myself :)
Chapter Title: "It's only forever/Not long at all/Lost and lonely/That's underground/Underground..." Underground, David Bowie