by BD Wilson
(originally appeared in Fictitious Force #6, in February 2009)
Narrated by Bob Eccles
Arthur sat on the airplane, looking out at the endless expanse of sun-kissed clouds, and remembered a time when he would have walked upon them. The memory was faint, buried beneath years of education, responsibility, and rational thought, but it was still there. When he was a child, he had taken his first flight, and ceaseless pleading had earned him the window seat. From there he had left the plane to play hide and seek among the plush dunes, chased by sylphs and living sunbeams.
They had danced to the song of far away stars and eaten cookies dipped in the Milky Way. He had wandered so far from the airplane that the sun’s chariot had been required to rush him back before it vanished through the clouds and left him trapped there forever.
His mother, when he told her of his playmates, had frowned, worried lines forming around her eyes. Still, she had praised his wonderful storytelling. It was many years before he realised she did not mean only his delivery of the tale, but the creation of it.
Now, travelling alone to the house of his full-grown son, he could feel the pull of the cloud dunes, and yearned for the taste of starlight milk. The window before him remained firm, however. No doorway opened in the side of the airplane, no being lacking substance came to lead him through the solid metal. He remained in his seat, arthritic fingers clenched tight around the ends of the armrests.
In the window, he could see the ghost-like reflection of his sagging face. The white wisps of his remaining hair were lost in the fluffy landscape beyond, but his eyes were dark-chestnut holes in the scenery. His eyes, which had seen fauns in the woods of his childhood home, gremlins in the laboratory of his school, winking eyes in the marble fountain at the heart of the city. His eyes, which had taken in golden seas and a castle beyond compare. His eyes, which he’d closed to such things so long ago that he could no longer reach them.
“Would you like a drink, sir?”
He blinked, feeling for the first time the sandpaper dryness underneath his lids, and turned to the pretty stewardess awaiting his answer. She was a young thing, too young for his son even, and her gaze was innocent yet veiled in the way all adult eyes seemed to be.
“Sir? Would you like something to drink?” Her nose wrinkled in the characteristic expression of young people afraid they would be forced to shout to some old coot.
“Just water, please,” Arthur answered, and watched the relief appear. She prepared a flimsy plastic cup full of water and ice before moving on to the next passenger. He sighed, took a sip and looked back at his reflection. The empty holes in his wrinkled face looked back, taunting him with the force of a locked gate.
Landing and leaving the airplane was a slow process, but everything after that seemed to move rapidly. Jon met him at the gate, there were hugs of genuine affection, and then they were moving. They waited at the carousel for his luggage, which Jon refused to allow him to carry, and then they were moving. They settled into his son’s sporty car, which he drove too fast, and then they were moving. When they stopped, he looked out the window to see the cheerful two-storey house waiting for them.
“Welcome home, Dad,” Jon said with a grin while pulling the luggage from the car. “It’s pretty late, so Sarah probably put Molly to bed already.”
Arthur nodded, tried to keep the twinge of disappointment off his face. After all, he lived here now. He would see his granddaughter every day, and what was one more night after five years? Five years at opposite ends of the country, of phone calls and photographs, but none of the shared moments that truly made a family. He could wait one more day.
“Come on,” his son said, taking his arm, “I’ll get you settled.”
His feet were heavy, his legs stiff, and he allowed himself to be led up the smooth pavement of the walkway. The flowers on either side appeared silver in the moonlight, but were likely white by day. The grass was a dark ocean, the kind he would have sailed on as a boy, finding a pirate crew of groundhogs to search for buried tulip wine.
In the crisp night air, in the shimmering light, he thought he tasted the salty smell of cut grass and saw the trimmed waves roll. When Jon turned on the porch light, the lawn was a lawn again. As it must be.
The door opened and he followed his son into a nice, tiny entranceway. There was a cedar bench with a mirrored back that doubled as a hat rack. He sat down, took a breath, and bent over to untie his shoes. His back popped, his hips creaked, and his fingers fumbled with the laces. When he heaved himself up again, he found Jon watching him, lip trapped between white teeth. There was a moment where their eyes met, where he saw concern and love and worry, and then his son turned away.
He toed his shoes off. Looking over his shoulder at the hat rack, he remembered the one he’d made for his house. It too was cedar, but instead of geometric designs it was carved to look like a tree, with tiny branches reaching out for scarves, mittens, and hats. It had sold for $300 at the yard sale. Using the arm of the bench, he forced himself to his feet and shuffled along in his socks. They reached the living room, and Jon’s face lit with a bright smile.
“Looks like someone waited up for you, Dad.”
He turned the corner and smiled. She had sleepy blue eyes and was wearing pink footie pyjamas, but Molly had indeed waited up for him.
“Papa!” she said, running across the hardwood floor, her steps whisper swishes.
He bent over to pick her up without a thought. His back did not pop; his hips did not creak. He lifted her as though she were full of feathers.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she whispered in his ear as she hugged his neck. “They said you’d come to play with me.”
“Now, honey,” Jon said, reaching out to take her from him, “don’t tire your grandpa out. He just got off a long flight.” She let her father put her on the floor and looked up with a grin.
“We’ll play tomorrow,” Arthur promised her. She nodded, and then Sarah took her down the hall to put her to bed.
“She’s a darling,” he said, and Jon beamed with the same proud smile Arthur remembered seeing in his mirror so long ago.
“She is. She’ll run you ragged, though. Her imagination’s amazing. You wouldn’t believe the stories she tells.”
Arthur felt a little shiver up his back, and smiled. “I might.”
He slept that night in the new bed they’d bought for his suite. The mattress was just as hard as he liked it. The sheets were strong cotton. The blanket was the very same one his wife had made for their first shared bed. He could not sleep. It was a strange room, with unfamiliar sounds.
He woke to the scent of bacon and the sound of chatter from the kitchen. For a moment, he thought he was some thirty years ago, his wife in the kitchen, his son telling her of dreams from the night before. He felt a rush of warm gratitude for her allowing him to sleep in like this. He opened his eyes, took in the unfamiliar ceiling, and the warmth bled out into grief, familiar but still painful. The routine of his morning absolutions eased the sting of his awakening. By the time he was prepared to go to breakfast, he felt nothing but the pleasant joy of being around family.
It was Molly chattering away, of course, but she was indeed recounting a dream from the night before. “… and then, we went up, up, up the hill to where the castle was waiting. I wanted to be a princess, but Pherenza said I had to earn it.”
Her words continued, but he could not hear them over the sound of the blood rushing wildly in his veins. Had he heard her right? Surely it was a coincidence.
“And then we came back, and I went to sleep until I woke up,” she was saying when he could hear her again.
“It’s a wonder you got any rest at all,” Sarah said, with the bemused smile of an adult humouring a young child.
“Who is Pherenza?” Arthur asked as he took his place at the table.
Molly smiled up at him. “Our friend, the sprite, remember?” She leaned over and added in an exaggerated whisper. “She’s one of the ones who told me you were coming.”
“All right,” her mother said, bringing the plates over to the table, “time to eat now. The stories can wait until later.”
Arthur sat back, his heart pounding in his chest. His hands were clammy, shaking with electric excitement. He would have feared a heart attack, except . . . she had known the sprite’s name.
The bacon was crisp, just the way he liked it, but his distracted mind barely noticed. It focused on half-remembered days at the Castle of Tanlorin. You reached the majestic edifice by crossing the stream behind his childhood house, closing your eyes, and spinning in a circle until you fell down. When he’d done so, he would open his eyes again to find the trees above whirling in a circle. They would stop with a strange lurch and Pherenza would be looking down on him with a Cheshire grin and wild hair of different colours.
A coffee cup landed beside his plate, and he looked up to find Jon smiling at him.
“Lost in thought, Dad?”
“Yes, but pleasant ones.” He looked around him, found his plate empty and all the others cleared. “Where did Molly go?”
“She’s gone to pack the bags for your expedition.” His son sighed, giving a very adult shake of his head. “Don’t let her exhaust you today. Apparently she’s got big plans, all of them nonsense. Like I said, she’s an imaginative child. Sometimes too much.”
“So was I.” Arthur smiled. “And so were you.” He finished his coffee, listened to Jon and Sarah talk about plans for the house and repairs in the yard, but dreamt of golden shores beside an amber ocean, with the great castle looming on the cliff above.
He met Molly in the back hall and found she’d prepared a bag for herself, and one for him. It was filled with everything they might need: three colours of yarn, a baseball, a broken top, a stuffed bear, white school glue, a sheet of heart stickers, and a bag of marbles. Hoisting the tiny pack gave his back a twinge, but he barely felt it.
Molly took his hand and led him into the backyard, out the gate, and down a small bicycle path that led into a wood. His heart was racing, his breath coming in gasps, and he welcomed it. He could feel the almost forgotten pin-prick tickle of places with power, the ones he had ignored for so many years now.
“Are you excited?” Molly asked, her eyes bright.
“Yes,” Arthur answered, feeling the truth of it pull a grin across his face.
“Me too,” she confided, and pulled harder on his hand to hurry his steps.
He heard the singing of the creek before he saw it, before he felt the dancing drops of water on his face. Molly tugged him to the bank and he looked for the stones he knew would be there: two straight ahead, one to the left, another far to the right, and the last hugging the opposite shore.
“Mom and Dad are always afraid I’ll fall in,” Molly said, stepping out onto the first stone.
“Parents have to worry about things like that,” he told her, feeling the truth of that as well. As she moved to the next stone, he stepped out onto the first, as light and fearless as he had at her age. The weight of those parental fears and adult responsibilities fell away, and he almost floated on the freedom. The two of them made the jump to the far right stone in turn, without faltering, without care.
“Do you remember what to do?” Molly asked as they reached the far shore.
He felt the pull again, as he had on the airplane, but different this time. There he had been trapped, his eyes still closed, though wanting. That was no longer the case. Now that he was here, he could answer the call. “I remember.”
Molly laughed, the sound tinkling away to join the music of the creek. She flung her arms out to her sides and began to turn in place. First slowly, then growing in speed until she was a blur of movement. He took one look back across the water at the trees that now seemed bright and vibrant in a way he hadn’t seen in years. He added his own laughter to the song, spread his arms, and spun.
BIO: BD Wilson is a writer from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada whose work has appeared in the anthology Dark Pages from Blade Red press, Fictitious Force, and Niteblade Fantasy and Horror Magazine among others. A firm believer in a virtual existence, BD’s home on the Web is located at http://www.bdwilson.ca