Once upon a time, there was a father and a girl who did not want to go to sleep. So, the father rubbed her back as she curled up next to him and he told her a story.
She liked the ones of other worlds best, of worlds inside puddles, of little girls walking under snowy lampposts. Of great quiet people who could bottle starlight. Of little people with tails who carried needles as rapiers.
And the girl would listen, eyes closing so she could see it better. See the mocking mirror crackling and the shards tumbling with the snow to land in a poor boy’s eye. The silhouette of a woman spinning stories amid a sultan’s silks to save her sister’s neck. A frightened boy amid howling tombs curled about against a purring divine lion. A great king wounded by the treachery of past mistakes, waiting on a mysterious island, to come again. Brave knights dodging fire and flashing steel as they fought dragons. A weary fisherman who married a turtle princess and could never return home again.
And then the father would close the book, and the girl would protest and ask for one more. “Tomorrow,” he would say and tuck her under yellow flower covers as he prayed the same blessing he did every night.
Tomorrow was never good enough. The stories would keep buzzing in her head. She needed them now. She watched the sliver of light under the door for footsteps, crawled next to the bookshelves, jumping back into bed with her finger between pages, ears twitching, heart beating.
Sometimes, though, her raids were canceled. Instead, she just lay there and think. She called it her game, trying to imagine what would happen next, how she would be in the next chapter.
So, it grew, from listening, to thinking, to dreaming.
She looked carefully at puddles and rings, always stepped through arched trees with a thrill of anticipation.
Her father told her stories he did not write, of places he had never been. One day, she told him, she would write stories of her own.
One day, though, the stories came true for her. One day, she was chosen. One day, she stepped through. To a world where dragons twisted like living gold, where the trees listened. She didn’t have any special powers. The sword was heavy in her hand and her feet were slow. But she had stories they had never heard.
She didn’t expect to stay. It was just supposed to be an adventure and then tumble out the wardrobe door for lunch. But there was a war, and then there was a boy, and his hand felt warm in hers.
Once upon a time, there was a mother and a boy who did not want to go to sleep.
He wanted to stay outside watching the stars. He was studying star-maps. The Sandwanderer was teaching him so he, too, could cross the great desert and not be confused by the glass trails of the ancient dragons. He pointed out the red star, Azora, the constant guide.
She tried to tell him of how Azora the warrior came down and pulled arrows from the sun when her own quiver was empty. But it was his own legend and he had already heard it.
He told her how one day, he would go up to the caves and fight dragons, blade flashing, like his father before him.
She tried to tell him the stories she told before, of brave warriors and laughing monsters, but he had already heard them so instead she told stories of her own world. Of great buildings full of books. Of machines that kept voices, of lakes greater than countries, of plastics brighter than jewels. Of pictures that moved. Of carts without horses, of silver birds that brought people across continents. Of an invisible ocean of knowledge called the internet. Of hot showers and lights without smoke. And that all this was so very ordinary that no one paid attention anymore.
It was a strange world she had come from.
And one day, the boy thought himself a man and went to go find dragons. He did not pay attention to the puddles. And he slipped through, fell into a land of cars, cheap luxuries, Stars and Stripes, and Wal-Marts.
Sitting under the strange sky, he leaned against the girl he met in the library and they watched city lights shoving the night away. Stars died in neon signs.
“I want to go back,” he said, “back to where I know the stars.”
“Oh,” she said, “I don’t really notice them.”
“I know,” he said, “You can’t even see them here.”
She nodded, “It’s because of all the lights. You could go to the country. They’re really pretty out there.”
He appreciated her suggestion, but she did not understand. He has seen stars, vastly spread above Colorado prairie skies, Kansas, and New Mexican plateaus, and they are beautiful, but they do not belong to him. He’s probably seen more of her country than she has. For her, they are only distant sparkles. But for him, they used to be signposts that showed him his place. But now they are a map he can’t read.
He doesn’t want to go back yet but the absence of Azora the red star torments him like a loose tooth. He wants to know that he can, that he is not lost out here.
She must know what he’s thinking. Her cool fingers curl around his, a delicate knot to keep him on Earth.
And he doesn’t leave.
They have two daughters, both beautiful, one wild. Lila is happy. Her friends like her. But Jade, her heart beats fast and she catches him looking for dragons.
Once upon a time, there was a father and a girl who did not want to go to sleep. So, the father rubbed her back as she curled up next to him and he told her a story. Of another world that also belongs to her.
She says that one day she will go back there and fight dragons.