"Sarah? Earth to Sarah. Hellooooo? Hey, Sarah!"
Sarah Williams blinked away the daydream fantasy. When her vision came back into focus, she saw her friend Ashlie sitting across the cafe table, watching her with a perplexed gaze. She had met Ashlie at college in one of her tedious general education courses. Ashlie had been sitting in the back on the first day of the class, the expression on her face an open window to how she was feeling about the course. Sarah felt the same and took the open seat next to her. During the first ten minutes of the professor covering the syllabus for the semester, Ashlie and Sarah had shared several of the same looks with one another. They didn't even need words to express their disinterest.
Once the class had been dismissed, they introduced themselves to one another and made plans to get coffee before their boring Calculus class the next morning. It didn't take long for Sarah to find in Ashlie a kindred spirit. They had a lot in common and also a lot of different opinions, but it worked. Their friendship seemed to click in place almost instantly. At the conclusion of the semester when they had both surprisingly passed Calculus, they decided to enroll in the remainder of their general education credits together and continued their morning coffee ritual.
Ashlie was pursuing a communications degree, but writing was not her strong point. She preferred to speak her mind. More than once, Sarah had recommended a career in politics, but Ashlie had strong opinions against politicians. She wanted to use her degree to join a PR firm that represented non-profit organizations. She was vocal about her beliefs and she thought the passion she could exhibit would help the companies who needed it the most. It had taken Sarah several months before she found out why Ashlie was so driven.
Ashlie had never known her family. She had been left at a hospital with her twin brother after they had been born. In a way she was lucky because Sarah had seen stories on the news for alternative methods of dealing with an unwanted child and she preferred the hospital scenario. Ashlie had grown up in foster care. Sometimes she was with her brother and other times she was alone. It had made her a strong person. She had learned to endure disappointment, poverty, and indifference at an early age. It wasn't much of a childhood. However, she was far more mature than many of the other girls Sarah had encountered at Hamilton. Ashlie had a way about seeing the silver lining in things. On the other hand, she had no problem with pointing out the flaws either, but she didn't complain. She campaigned.
During their final year at Hamilton, Ashlie had beat out eleven male peers for a highly coveted internship at Edelman in New York City. She had been able to work in one of their offices closer to the college, but once a month, she made the long drive into the city to be in their corporate headquaters. It was an elite group of people that she surrounded herself with, but she never gave up her morning coffee runs with Sarah. Even if they only had ten minutes before Ashlie had to take off, they managed to catch up and keep their friendship thriving. It had been no surprise to Sarah that a month before graduation, Ashlie had been extended an offer to join the prestigious firm. She had turned it down. After gaining the experience she desired, she made the decision to join a much smaller, lesser known firm in Brooklyn that focused on fair trade clients and local healthcare clinics.
It was by fate's pure design they had both come to New York. Even though, they had graduated two months earlier, Sarah still felt like a college student. Her schedule was more relaxed than the average working class American and she did not have any college debt like a vast majority of students, but she didn't feel like an adult. She was currently dressed in her favorite pair of dark jeans with an emerald V-neck T-shirt and a beige cardigan sweater. The choice was more mature and stylish than items she had doned in high school, but if she looked out the window she knew she would see the same outfit on several other actress/model/singer wannabes passing by on their way to waitress.
Ashlie had both her hands wrapped around an enormous ceramic mug of steaming tea and her platinum blonde hair was pulled back into two identical braids hanging down in front of each of her shoulders. Her blue-gray eyes were partially hidden behind thick, black framed glasses, the kind off-the-set movie stars liked to wear to appear cool and intelligent. She was still in her work clothes, a pair of plain black suit pants and printed blouse. She didn't usually wear a suit jacket unless it was an important client meeting.
"Where do you go?" Ashlie asked with a grin.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, where have you been? I've been trying to get you to help me with number 32 across for the last ten minutes, but you aren't here. You are far away again. Did you decide on a new plot twist?"
Ashlie was referring to Sarah's career of choice. After her character-defining journey through the Labryrinth, her plans of being a great actress changed. She still loved the world of fantasy and adventure, but she didn't want to be the heroine in someone else's story. She wanted to continue writing her own. And that was what she had done. During her next year in high school, she enrolled in a creative writing course. It was a rough start in the beginning, but by the close of her senior year, she had been accepted into NYU and also Columbia University. After visiting the campuses, she decided the city wasn't for her and opted to go to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. It was still in New York, but nowhere near the city.
During her years laboring to earn her degree and ignore her parents' constant comments of disapproval, she began her first manuscript. One of her professors came across an excerpt that she submitted to the college's literary magazine and showed it to their department head. It was pure chance that the woman had a friend in publishing. He asked Sarah for permission to read the manuscript in its entirety and eighteen months later, "Basis for Comparison" was being sold in most retail bookstores.
She had never expected the piece to be published, so when the publisher came back to her to give her the news that they were going to be running it next quarter she was stunned. After the book's huge success, he came back to her again and offered her an advance on her next novel and a bonus if she made it into a series. Sarah had been floored.
"Basis for Comparison" was not entirely a work of fiction. Unknown to the avid readers, who were mostly teenaged girls, the main character Jared was based off the one man Sarah could never forget and never wanted to. With his charismatic air and piercing, mismatched eyes he was an attractive and mature improvement over the hormone-ridden teenaged boys she had dealt with in the past. Those were the same qualities that made him the perfect distraction for her young readers. In fact, Jared had become so sought after that Sarah had been called away from her final year at Hamilton to do a book tour. She completed readings, autographed copies of her novel, and took pictures with many of her fans. It was a surreal experience, though not as surreal as the inspiration for her story. And at its core, it was her story.
The female main character was loosely based on herself, though she made her wiser and more mature than she had been when she was fifteen and entering a deal with the Goblin King. Her character Sonia refused to trapped by Jared like other women. She was level-headed and calm, but a little proud. She successfully completed test after test until she had convinced Jared to return her to her world. Once Sonia had returned safely to her home, she realized how the journey had changed her and Jared. At the close of the novel, she tried to go back to see him, but could not leave her world.
Sarah had not included her half-brother Toby in the novel. Though he had only been a baby when he had been taken, she did not want any dormant memories resurfacing. Toby had enough on his plate. He was too young for that kind of pressure. Besides, her parents made sure since she had failed in their eyes, Toby was going to be the golden star in their books. They had him enrolled in an elite academy and several after-school programs. His grade point average had gone from below a 3.2 to a 4.0 in less than a year and he had mastered the piano. Now they had added private guitar lessons and baseball league as well. Toby was going to be eight next month. Sarah believed it was too much for a child to handle at one time, but then again when she had been eight, her mother had been alive and things were different.
"So?" Ashlie's voice brought Sarah back to the artsy café.
"32 across is Welles," Sarah responded off-hand. "Orson Welles gave dramatic life to War of the Worlds over live radio back in 1938. That's what set people in a pre-Halloween panic."
Ashlie glanced down at her crossword, then back up at Sarah. "How do you know these things?" she laughed, penning in the answer and shaking her head.
Sarah shrugged. "I just do."
"So," Ashlie leaned forward on the table. "Have you decided what the next installment will be about? Will Sonia get to see Jared again?"
With a roll of her eyes, Sarah took a sip of her own beverage, a chai latte. "I haven't gotten past the first chapter yet," she admitted. "I don't know how to bring them back together."
"Well you better figure it out fast. Ralph isn't going to give you another deadline extension."
Ashlie had a good point. After the success of the first book and the tour, Sarah had told her publisher that she wanted to finish her degree before writing the next novel. She made him think it was because her studies were too important and she didn't want to be distracted, but that was only part of the reason. The real problem was the fame. The book had sold very well. It was becoming a best seller and now there were talks of possibly making it into a movie. Although Sarah was pleased so many people could connect with her through her characters, she wasn't thrilled with the idea of living and breathing her main characters every day. It made the reality of her fictional story, particularly the end details, very painful. It was a constant reminder of how she ended things and how she never found out what (if anything) had been between her and the Goblin King.
It had been over seven years since she had saved Toby from her own selfish impulse. It had been over seven years since she had banished the man she loved from her life. It was strange to realize that. It had taken a few years to realize her true feelings. At first, she tried to ignore it. She went on dates in high school and even a few in college, but it never lasted. There was always something not right about them. They were too childish, too nice, too uncoordinated or just weird. There wasn't one guy who had asked her out that was charming, but cold; strange, but sophisticated; dominant, but not demanding. She had finally decided her standards were set too high because her heart was already taken.
Once she had officially graduated, her publisher had persuaded her to move to New York City. It wasn't the direction she wanted to go in, but when they offered to purchase a loft for her to give her a quiet, peaceful writing space, she found few reasons to refuse. The apartment had become home for her and once she had moved all of her personal belongings in, she found it wasn't as hard as she had predicted to live in the city. The noise became more of a background soundtrack than an annoyance after the first few weeks. She had no reason to worry about parking or traffic, since she had never owned a car. The only place she needed to go on a regular basis was the coffee place a few blocks away and her publisher's office.
"I have nine months left," Sarah groaned, taking another long sip of her latte, "and all I have is the introduction and a few paragraphs."
"If you go by your last book, that means you need to write approximately 3 or 4 chapters a month, "Ashlie replied. "And you better put Jared in most of them." Her face broke into a wide grin.
"Why do you like him so much?" Sarah half-asked, half-teased. "He's not even your type."
"My type? And what is my type exactly?"
"Ben." Sarah stated simply.
Ashlie's brother's roommate Ben was smitten with Ashlie and everyone could see it...except Ben and Ashlie. Her brother, Aidan had often remarked to Sarah how bluntly honest his sister could be. Apparently that trait only worked on others because Ashlie denied Ben's obvious attraction to her. That didn't stop her from crashing at Aidan's every time she was in between apartments or just needed to get away from her roommates. Sarah had offered to let Ashlie stay at her loft free of charge numerous times, but Ashlie refused to take any charity.
Sarah had no idea why. Ben was tall, toned and a complete gentleman. He was the type that still opened doors for ladies, offered to get you something if he was going to the store, and put the toilet seat down when he and Aidan had female company. Finding a man like that in New York City was a rare commodity. Ben was attractive looking as well. He had a light brown head of hair with hazel eyes. He had grown up in a farming community out in Ohio and still loved wearing jeans and plaid shirts, but with his natural coloring (also a rare find in the Big Apple) it worked. Along with his positive traits, there was one flaw. Ben was shy. Paired with Ashlie's denial, it was the perfect anti-date chemistry.
"Please," Ashlie rolled her eyes. "There is nothing going on there. Really."
"And you think there would be something going on between you and Jared, if he was real?"
"Who wouldn't want something to happen with that man?" Ashlie winked at Sarah. "Speaking of, have you seen anyone since David?"
"No." David had been the last in a long line of date failures at Hamilton. Sarah had only gone out with him a hand full of times, but that had been months ago. After graduation, she had preoccupied herself with the move to the city and setting up her apartment. She hadn't been interested in the bar scene or going clubbing to try to meet someone.
"Sarah," Ashlie's voice got soft. "You have to get out there and meet some body. You are a novelist. It's not like you have to report to an office at 9am each morning. You make your own schedule and your own life. You can't turn away every man. And I won't let you turn into one of those artsy cat ladies who only comes out during the full moon." Though she ended her brief rant with a joke, Sarah could tell she was serious. It wasn't that Ashlie thought David or any of the other men Sarah had dated was "the one", but she was concerned with Sarah's lack of interest in finding that special person.
"I'll go on a date once the book is done."
"Don't use your impending deadline as an excuse!"
"It's not an excuse, I'm serious. I just need to-," Sarah stopped mid-sentence, as she saw a man walk by the cafe window over Ashlie's shoulder.
Sarah felt her throat constrict. She had only caught a small glimpse of him, but the man who had strolled by was wearing a long, navy band jacket, black jeans, and his hair and been a striking white-blonde. Before she knew was she was doing, she had gotten up and was out the front door of the cafe. She stared down the street, her eyes searching frantically through the huge masses of people charging by her. She looked over all the bobbing heads, but the man she had seen was gone. She looked down the other direction. Nothing. For a moment, she stood there, trying to consider the possibilty of him being here after all these years. As her mind raced with reasons, the cafe door swung open and Ashlie came barreling out.
"Are you ok?" She looked genuinely worried. She had both their purses on her arm and she was starring at Sarah, waiting for her to explain.
"I'm sorry. I thought I saw someone I knew from-," she paused, swallowing the painful feeling that was still stuck in her throat, "home."