A/N: This is from the perspective of Courtney's father.
I remember the first time I came to this place. Mom was in the hospital for leukemia, and Dad had to take care of her and still find time to work 52-hour weeks (I never knew anyone to work as hard as my father, and I doubt I ever will), so a neighbor drove my sister Mandy and me out here. Uncle Al came out on the porch when we pulled up, but he didn't come to meet us. We had to drag our luggage up to him. God, that man's tall. He just looms over everyone and stares them down with his pale, pale eyes. We were petrified.
He offered us hot chocolate, even though it was the middle of July, and he seemed a little perplexed when we said no thank you. Knowing him, I bet it was the only thing he could think of to feed kids. In the end, we just had ice-water and saltines. The crackers were stale, but the water was the best I'd ever tasted; I guess because it came from a well and not the city pipes.
Uncle Al obviously didn't know what to do with us, aside from feed us, make us sleep at appropriate times, and check to make sure we were doing our summer reading. Mandy couldn't stand him. She cried on the phone every night to Dad, asking when we could come home. Well, she was littler than I was, and a girl; boys weren't allowed to cry back then. Me, I didn't mind him so much. He liked to read; so did I. I finished up my summer homework pretty quickly and started scrounging for more books. To be honest, I think I was a little desperate for distraction. Worrying about Mom was really hard on me. I guess it would have been on any ten-year-old. Uncle Al was furious when he caught me in his library. For just a second, I thought he was going to hit me. But he didn't; instead, he pulled out a book of old folktales and sat me down with it.
It was the most fascinating book, full of heroes and fairies and goblins and unicorns and things I'd never even heard of before. And it never seemed to end. It was only about an inch thick, but the paper must have been really fine, or else my memory's shot, because I swear I spent the better part of a month on it, reading story after story and never rereading a single one. I read some of them to Mandy. Don't know why, but she never seemed to be able to stay awake through a whole chapter. Just as well, I suppose. She was worried about Mom, too. Needed the rest.
I had this funny dream once, too, while we were here. I dreamed I got out of bed in the middle of the night and heard a voice, half-singing, half-speaking. It was low and a little rough, but pleasant, and I found myself following it. I dreamed that I went up to the third floor and there was a fire burning in Uncle Al's study. He was there, bent over the book, my book, and talking softly. The firelight shone in his hair. I said his name, and he looked up, startled. Then the dream ended.
That's sort of what it felt like when the summer was over. Just when there was something warm and bright within my reach, everything stopped. Dad came to take us home. I wanted to take the book with me, but Uncle Al wouldn't let it go. He said I could come visit it, but that it couldn't leave the premises. It was probably very old and valuable. I've looked for it ever since, in every rare bookstore I could find. I don't know the title, or the author, but I remember the cover was butter-colored leather, and the pages were edged in red, and it smelt like nutmeg and catnip and dust.
Decades later, and I'm living with Uncle Al again, only this time with a wife and a kid of my own. I asked him, when we first came here, if he still had that book. He gave me a long, unreadable look and said he was sorry, but he hadn't seen it in years and feared it was lost. I almost cried. It was the weirdest thing. But all I said was that it was a damned shame, because Courtney probably would have loved it. She likes those fairy-tale kinds of things; unicorns and such. And I didn't think much more of it, until now.
There's a look that passes between them, like they're two people in one big conspiracy. They make one another smile. She spends most of her free time in his study, and I'm pretty sure they both think I haven't noticed. I have. I don't understand, but I have noticed.
I wanted to give Courtney the things I never had growing up; pretty clothes, a nice place to live, dolls and books and the kinds of things little girls are supposed to like. Someone out there must be laughing at me, because she doesn't seem to want any part of it. She's an incredibly difficult child; always has been. Uncle Al is an incredibly difficult adult; I'm guessing he always has been, too. I'd have expected them to butt heads, not clasp hands over the breakfast table, like two people who want to hug but are too embarrassed to do so in front of an audience. Somehow, he's found a way to give her what she's been missing. I'm a little jealous. I might even be angry, if not for the book-that-no-longer-exists. But I haven't forgotten, Uncle Al. Sometimes I give my daughter a hug, and her hair has the same spicy-dusty smell I remember.
Then she pulls away, and the dream is over again, but only for me. I'm pretty sure she lives there, now.