Emily scrambles out of the school building with her notebook and pencil in hand and backpack unzipped. She runs and runs as if she is being hunted by all the other students. In reality, they stare at her with unsettled apprehension or disconcerted surprise as they carry on their own way. Emily boards the bus, using her student ID to get a free pass, and begins putting away her notebook and pencil. When she zips her bag she makes eye contact with the guy across from her. She can tell what he’s thinking; why would you run out of class without putting anything away? Are you some kind of psycho? She begins fidgeting with her hair, clothes, and bag as she feels his gaze on her. Of course, he’s not thinking any such thing. He’s watching her tuck her luscious, blonde hair behind her ear, and pull her skirt over her long, thin, porcelain legs. As he tilts his head in contemplation he wonders why someone so pretty would look so nervous. When she looks up again he smiles at her. She smiles back.
* * *
I shrink further into the dugout to avoid the thundering overhead. The dragons swarm together. Some fly low, some fly high, others alternate as they twist and turn around the others, but they’re all looking for any sign of human life.
“Little hart,” my mother whispers, “you’re too far out.”
I slink to the back wall and place my hand on my sword, just in case. The dragons begin conversing, their language is gravelly and guttural. They’re snarling and growling in a refined, salient and royal manner. I roll my eyes. Even a dragon’s language is haughty.
Silently cursing myself for never learning their language, I brace myself for any sudden movements or attacks. My mother does the same. Two of them land just a few yards from the dugout. Their low voices become clearer with each passing second. I look to my mother and she looks back at me, but neither of us says a word or moves a muscle. I wish I could. If these are our last moments together, then I want to make them count or at least say a proper thank you. Instead, we stand in excruciating silence.
They step ever closer as we watch in horror. I try to find the words I would tell my mother if I could muster the courage to speak. Thank you for giving me a chance, and raising me to seize it. You gave me the world, and, even though it’s a war-torn world, you gave me everything it had to offer. I experienced new cultures and travelled the world, all because of you. I try to tell her this with my eyes, but she just stares blankly back at me.
I draw my sword, and begin stepping out of the dugout. My mother reaches for me, but refusing to let her stop me, I press forward. Nodding my head and breathing deeply, I ready myself for the fight. A blast of air nearly knocks me off my feet. I steady myself, raise my sword, and look up in time to see the dragons flying away. We’re safe. For now.
* * *
Emily stumbles into the library with books in hand. She hands them to the librarian, who smiles at her. She’s known Emily since she was a little girl, and she appreciates that, despite her klutziness, she tries her best at everything.
“What’s the rush?” The librarian chuckles as she takes the books.
“No rush.” Emily responds, taking herself too seriously. “I was just really excited to read them and now I’m really excited to read something else.”
Emily leaves the librarian to her work, and scours the bookshelves. Her eyes land on a fantasy novel she’s never seen or heard of before. She strokes the spine with her finger, then pulls it off the shelf. It’s a story about a chosen one who travels his barren, war-filled world to reunite humans, elves, dwarves, dragons, orcs, and dire wolves to peace. Thinking that she’s met people in her life like all of those creatures, Emily decides to give it a try.
* * *
“Zephyr, you need to drink.”
“I’m alright mom.”
I take a small sip from her canteen, then hand it back to her. She frowns at me disapprovingly, but doesn’t say anything more. The silence is killing me, yet I continue to maintain it. Now’s my chance to genuinely talk to my mother. Even though there have been plenty of chances all through my life this is the one that mutely screams at me to say something. We’re on a journey to the edge of the world, if I don’t say something now I may never get the chance again.
I take a deep breath. The world lurches. My stomach drops. My mother forces me to the ground. The whole thing lasts maybe five seconds but we stay on the ground for at least a minute afterwards. We know what this means. Well, we don’t know what it means, but we do know that for an indefinite amount of time the world is going to shake every two to three minutes.
* * *
Emily closes the book and sighs with satisfaction. Who doesn’t love a book that sucks you right into the world? As she finishes her homework and eats dinner in an awkward silence with her parents she thinks about curling up in her bed and reading until she can’t keep her eyes open anymore. Her parents look at each other and try to telecommunicate that they don’t know how to reach their daughter. Emily eats quickly. Her parents eat slowly.
* * *
My mother and I run to the caves, unsure of when the next earthquakes are going to hit. They’re steep and slippery from the sand. My mother missteps and begins plunging towards a bottomless pit. I dive for her and my body slams brutally into rock as I catch her hand with mine. The sharp edge nicks my cheek, but I ignore the pain and blood even as it drips across my face. I haul my mother up until she gets to a place where she can pull herself up. We’re both breathless and I’m covered in lacerations, but we get up and keep moving anyway.
The edge of the world is different than I imagined it. It looks like the sky if the sky were always the dead of night and the stars flickered on and off like fireflies. My mother walks to the edge to read the ancient inscription carved into the stone. I step closer to the edge, and reach out my hand. The sky has never been close enough to touch before. I’m an inch away when my mother grabs my arm and yanks me away. Stumbling, I sputter at her in indignation. She just stares back at me. I go silent.
“Only one of us can go through.”
“Only one of us.” She looks at the arm she’s still holding. “We have to wait for the edge to turn white, and then one of us can go through.”
I stare at her in horror. In my heart I know that this is the moment when I’m supposed to tell my mother everything I never said to her, but my mouth refuses to open. We stand in silence in the same way we always have since I was a little girl. I think I’ve forgotten how to breath. My mother’s grip tightens as if she never plans to let me go. I fiercely screw my eyes shut as if I can pretend none of this is happening if I can’t see it.
* * *
Emily clears her dishes and dashes upstairs before her parents can say anything. She closes the door and pulls the book off her dresser. Only three chapters in, she feels a lure like she’s never felt before. It’s like she could see herself living in this world. Her own world is peaceful and sympathetic but also lonely and harsh. Nothing exciting ever happens in her world. Everyday is exactly the same in her world. She lazes in her bed, and smiles to herself as she reads. If she closes her eyes she can see the story playing out before her.
* * *
The world trembles and the moment it does, the edge bursts into a pillar of white fire. My mother and I are still staring at each other. We’ve stumbled but we haven’t fallen. Not yet.
I love you. I would do anything for you, just like you would for me. I don’t want to leave you here, and I don’t want to be left here. There’s so much to say and no time to say it. It’s funny how people always wait until the last second to say what they really mean. Before now I had all the time in the world to talk to you, and now I have maybe a few minutes. And I just don’t know what to say.
There’s a cacophony of sound all around us, and I can hear the rumble of dragons outside. If I could just get the words out then everything would be okay. Except that words don’t make the world better. Words can’t change the fact that only one of us is getting out of here. Words can’t stop time or bring back lost time. Words are only going to hurt now.
“We’re out of time.” My mother cups my cheeks in her hands. “If one of us is going, she has to go now.”
I nod. “I’m going.”
Her eyes mist over, and she swallows the lump in her throat. I step away from her hands, but she doesn’t try to reach for me again. It’s what you’d want. Isn’t it?
“We don’t know when it will change back. You need to go now.”
I walk towards the edge again, but something stops me. I turn around, and look her in the eyes. “This is what you want, right?”
“Why would I want this?”
“Because you want me to live.” I look at her incredulously. “I’m your child, don’t you want me to have a second chance at life?”
“I wanted us to have a second chance.” She turns away from me. “But I can tell that you’re perfectly happy to go on your own.”
“In what world am I happy right now?” I shriek at her. “I didn’t want to have to make this choice.”
“But you did.” She whispers so quietly I barely hear her. “And now you’re out . . . of time.”
* * *
The book in Emily’s hands begins emitting a blinding light. The room feels like fire. She’s lost all sense. She wants to touch, taste, smell, hear, or see something, but there’s only nothing. Emily tries to move, scream, and let go of the book, but she can’t do anything except close her eyes. When she opens them again, she’s on the ground. Not her bedroom floor, but a sandy, rocky, desolate ground. Aurelia grabs her by the arms and hauls her up.
“Zephyr! Are you hurt?” She looks over Emily with great concern.
Emily stares at her in overwhelmed confusion. “I’m not-”
“That’s a relief. Something must have gone wrong, but we don’t have time to figure out what.”
“Come on, little hart.” She grabs Emily’s hand. “Let’s get past those dragons and go home.”
* * *
I end up in a bed. Not the kind of bed back home, but a luxurious padded bed. The clothes I’m wearing are unlike any I’ve seen or felt before, but I never want to take them off. I lay back and let my head press into the soft pillow. With my eyes closed, I can easily imagine I’m in Heaven. I turn my head and see a closed book next to me. Curious, I flip it over and read the description. It doesn’t take me long to realize what has happened. There’s a knock on the door.
“Hey, sweetheart.” The man at the door mutters in a subdued manner.
I simply stare at him.
He comes further into the room and sits on the bed next to me. “Emily, we really need to talk.”
“I’ve . . . had a really hard time for a really long time, but I’m ready.” I smile and hug him. He responds by holding me close. “I’m back, dad. I’m home.”