Lord Rivenwend of the North Star and Lady Siverstay of the Sun’s Dawning
Request the honor of your presence at the marriage of their son
Lord Creythwin the Dawn Star
Teresa the Fair of the Cleaved Land
Windsday, the 39th of Harvest
To attend, jump through a puddle of still water during the next full moon
P.S. Please come, Katie. I don’t think I can face this without you. Love, T.
Please come. Teresa made it sound so simple. As if more than fifteen years, and that last bitter fight, could be swept away like soap bubbles on the wind. As if one world were just as good as the next.
Kate set the invitation down on top of the pile of more conventional mail she’d been sorting. Bills, pre-approved credit cards, coupon mailers. All the simple, mundane business of the world she’d chosen. Teresa probably had her mail delivered by helpful woodland creatures. Which was fine for her, but Kate preferred her mail without tooth marks and urine stains.
Please come. Just like that. Not even an apology. No recognition of what’d come after, what it’d been like to be the one who came back. What did Teresa think happened, when you entered the woods with your best friend, and returned, days later, alone and dressed in velvet rags?
Kate picked up the invitation again, noting the elegant pearlescence of the paper, the way it seemed to glow. Then she tore it into tiny, gleaming squares, wrapped it in coupons, and threw it in the trash.
If Teresa couldn’t face marrying whiny, clingy Crey alone, maybe she should call off the wedding.
“Sorry, Teresa,” she said aloud, remembering how they used to spy on their parents through magic mirrors. “I’m busy.”
Leaving the bills for later, she turned her attention to the window. Charlotte was on the porch, driving a toy truck through a crowd of plastic houses. Such a practical girl, these days. The princess tantrums had been hard, but they’d gotten through it. Charlotte understood better now, how foolish such things were. No lies about Santa, no creepy voyeuristic elves. Instead of slipping coins under Charlotte’s pillow, Kate had sat her daughter down, and they’d worked out a fair market value for baby teeth.
It had been harder, before Tom left. He’d insisted on whimsy. Such fights they’d had. He’d refused to understand, and she hadn’t been able to explain.
There were doors out there. Doors waiting for Charlotte, just like they’d waited for Kate. If they didn’t teach her to scorn the dreams those doors promised, they could lose her to one. At best she’d come back a different child, with a lifetime behind her eyes. At worst… well, not all children came back.
But Kate hadn’t been able to explain all that. Hadn’t been able to tell Tom that in her nightmares, Charlotte wandered down an endless hallway, each door opening as she passed.
In the end, divorce had felt like the only option. Sometimes, children required sacrifice.
Charlotte was late coming down for breakfast the next morning. Kate found her sitting in her room, piecing the invitation back together. She’d almost finished, and the note gleamed in front of her, the horse along the border running as far as it could along the broken line of its track.
“Look!” Charlotte stared up at her, all smiles. “Isn’t it pretty?”
“Where’d you find that?” The words came out sharper than Kate intended, and Charlotte’s smile fell.
“Here,” she said. “I just sorta found it.”
“Your cereal’s getting soggy.” Kate nodded toward the door. “Get downstairs. I’ll clean this up.”
“Fine.” Charlotte’s tone, and the way she stomped to the door, merited further discussion, but Kate let it pass.
Kneeling to pick up the scraps, she saw that they’d already begun to knit themselves back together. Only a few pieces, along the top edge, were still missing. She scanned the invitation out of habit, eyes coming to rest on the P.S.
P.S. Katie, please. You promised. I’m scared. T
Teresa, the bold one. Teresa, who ran through doors to other worlds, dragging Kate behind her. Teresa who swore she would never return, no matter what. Who left Kate to stumble back alone, through the darkness, with no words to explain what had happened to them.
What did Kate care if she was scared? And still, her shoulders tensed when she read the words, bracing as if to protect someone from a blow.
“Mommy!” Charlotte called, from downstairs.
Kate fitted the last few pieces of the invitation into their place, and watched it stitch itself whole. Then she folded it neatly and slid it into the back pocket of her jeans.
How could she even think of going? It wasn’t like she could leave Charlotte alone while she went chasing old pain through moonlit pools.
And to take her? Make truth of every nightmare? Ridiculous.
But the idea lingered. Despite her best efforts, the lure of the otherside, of an open door, still felt inevitable. And the more Charlotte grew, the less she could protect her. But if she could go with her, maybe she could make it safe. Guide her attention to the pathetic falseness of it all.
Charlotte was a practical girl, when she was home. Less so, around her father. And who knew what she might be like, if she wandered alone through an open door. But if Kate were with her? Well.
It was three days until the full moon. She had time to decide.
“But what about Rosy?” Charlotte asked, tugging at Kate’s hand as they walked toward the local park.
It was well past sunset, but the suburban streetlights were mostly blocking the stars, leaving the moon, full and round, to light the sky.
“Rosy will be fine,” Kate answered, not for the first time. She’d already arranged for the neighbors to check in on the little pug. She’d promised to be back in a few days, a week at most. Surely, it wouldn’t take longer than that. It hadn’t been, last time. Taking Charlotte to an old friend’s wedding, she’d told them. True enough. It was a wedding, at least.
“And we’re going to see horses?”
“Oh, yes. Horses until you want to scream.” They’d reached the edge of the park; Kate could see the fountain’s pool shining in the moonlight. “Things are very different where my friend lives. You understand?”
“Try foods. Don’t call things weird. No faces.” Charlotte ticked the usual rules off on her fingers, and Kate freed her hand to smooth her daughter’s dark curls.
“I want you to see this, because—”
Because there would always be the risk of doors, in Charlotte’s life. Always be the chance that she’d hear some distant music and find herself dancing, dreamlike, across a threshold. Despite all Kate’s best attempts, Charlotte still doodled fairies in the corners of her schoolwork. There was still a danger.
But this way, she could turn the otherside into just another boring errand, robbed of all its forbidden, escapist charm. Charlotte could be level-headed and practical, with the right sort of guidance. With Kate beside her, she would see all the bright whimsy for the shallow artifice it was.
“Mommy?” Charlotte tugged at her sleeve. “Because why?”
“I don’t know, hon. Just because.”
The fountain was only a handbreadth away now. The spray of it filled the air, misting gently down on them. Kate adjusted her bag and stared down into the basin, where the ripples settled under her attention, the reflected moon coming clear. Full and round and opening before them like the door. She could hear laughter and the sweet, sharp music of the otherside. Charlotte tried to pull away from her, yearning toward the sound, while Kate stood rooted in place.
This was it.
Gripping Charlotte more tightly, Kate squared her shoulders and stepped forward, into the bright portal of the moon. She didn’t even feel the water, just a rushing, silver coolness and the warmth of Charlotte’s hand, as the world went bright.
“Katie!” Teresa’s voice was just as Kate remembered, all low, soft sweetness. “Oh, Katie, thank god!”
The world came back into focus. Well, not the world so much as a world. The otherside, all dressed for autumn, with endless rolling hills of copper fire. The palace like a Disney dream in the field beyond. And there was Teresa, looking no older than she’d been when Kate left, just barely twenty. The age Kate had left behind when she returned home and found herself shedding years like dreams.
She hadn’t known, in going back, that she’d have to live the years from 12 to 20 again. It had been harder, the second time. One more thing this place had done to her.
Teresa stood in her filmy, silken gown, shifting nervously from foot to foot, watching Kate with a helpless sort of hope.
Kate had run through what happened next dozens of times. She’d rehearsed her words, won imaginary arguments, and considered how to say ‘I forgive you’ in a sufficiently magnanimous and superior fashion.
Her mouth was dry, and she could remember none of it.
“Mom?” Charlotte was coming out of the trance of otherside’s music, her eyes wide as she took in the lush, impossible beauty of the landscape. A herd of horses, with snow-white hides and manes like flame, were running past along the hills, and Charlotte’s eyes followed them with naked longing. “Mommy where are they going? Will we get to pet them?”
“Maybe later,” Kate managed to say. “Say hello to my friend. This is Miss Teresa.”
“But you didn’t say hi.”
“Hi, Teresa,” she said, forcing a smile. “It’s been a long time.”
“I’m Charlotte,” said Charlotte.
“A kid?” Teresa asked. “We never— you always said—”
“You’re marrying Crey.” Kate stood a little straighter, meeting Teresa’s gaze as fiercely as she could. “So I don’t think you can talk.”
Kate braced herself for one of Teresa’s clever, sharp-edged retorts.
Instead, Teresa flinched, and lowered her eyes. “Yeah. Things change. Even here.”
That old urge, the product of a shared childhood and a secret lifetime, almost pulled Kate forward, to comfort and question and try to fix. But she’d already tried to save Teresa, had opened the way back and asked her to follow. It hadn’t worked.
“Why am I here?” she asked, tightening her grip on Charlotte’s hand.
Teresa smiled, bright and untroubled, and the moment’s tension faded. “You’re my maid of honor. We can hardly have the wedding without you.”
The dress Teresa wanted Kate to wear was exactly the sort of faux-princess monstrosity that she and Teresa would have imagined as children. Layers of velvet and satin, wide, trailing sleeves, and all of it in the deepest of gem tones, dark blues and purples that shimmered even by candlelight.
It took three people just to get her in it. They stood around her, cooing and complimenting, all of them beautiful and soft-voiced and alike in that strange, unsettling way that defined the otherside.
“Mommy, you’re a princess,” said Charlotte, as measurements were made and pins were pinned. “Will I get to be a princess too?”
“I’m not a princess,” Kate corrected immediately. “Just your mom, in a fancy dress. And yes, you get to wear one too. It’ll probably be scratchy and hot, just like this one.”
“That’s okay.” Charlotte sounded unintimidated by the threat of discomfort, which just went to show that the otherside was working its magic. Most days, it was hard to get her to so much as agree to a sweater.
“If you could raise your arm,” said the blonde-haired, angelic-faced woman on Charlotte’s right. “We’re almost done.”
Kate lifted her arm, twisting to face her. Their eyes met. The woman’s, an unusual blue-green, caught and held hers. Teresa’s sister had those same eyes. Growing up, they’d always been jealous of her, had tried to wish their eyes to a new shade, staring endlessly at pictures of Teresa’s sister and hoping, hoping, hoping.
The woman started pinning again, and Kate looked away.
“She’s with her fiancé, ma’am,” one of the other women answered immediately. “Would you like me to send for her?”
“That’s not necessary.”
In the old days, it wouldn’t have been. If she’d wanted Teresa, she could have looked in any mirror, and found her. In the old days, she’d have known where Teresa was the same way she knew the beating of her own heart. Now, closing her eyes, she felt nothing. The otherside was Teresa’s, no longer a shared magic. It was surely the better for it.
Kate’s memories of her last year in the otherside were still uncomfortably vivid. Claustrophobic and restless, exhausted by the endless sameness, and longing for home, she’d soured on everything she’d once admired. Ever obliging, the world had twisted, growing crueler and closer to reflect her sense of it.
“Can I play with your phone?” Charlotte asked. She’d clearly tired of the scraps of ribbon that the women had given her to entertain herself.
“It’s in my purse, hon. But most of the games won’t work. They don’t have Wi-Fi here.” There was no harm in letting Charlotte use it until it ran down. It wasn’t like they’d be making any calls. “And we can’t charge it either.”
“Why not?” Charlotte asked.
“No electricity.” It seemed a good time to push the point. “No TV, no video games. No phones.”
“But how do they—” Charlotte paused, overwhelmed by the enormity of the lack. “How do they do anything?”
“They don’t. Pretty boring, huh?”
Charlotte looked from the phone to the ridiculous dress the women were constructing around Kate. “Yeah,” she said hesitantly. “Pretty boring.”
“Would you like me to take her down to the menagerie, ma’am?” The woman who’d given Charlotte the ribbons asked. She looked a little older than the others, about Kate’s age. A 12-year-old’s idea of all grown up.
“No thanks.” But despite herself, Kate flashed the woman a grateful smile. It was always nice to have someone willing to pitch in. “I’ll take her down later. Maybe with Teresa.”
“I’m sure she’d enjoy that.” The woman stepped close to her, pitching her voice in that low, quiet way that spoke of secrets, or worry. “Ma’am?”
Kate let her arm drop as the one with the familiar eyes finished pinning. “Hmm?”
“This is your second visit. You—” The woman paused, looking away. “You still remember, don’t you? What it was like, the last time?”
“More than I’d like to.”
“You should go back to the old places. The ones you remember best. It would be nice, don’t you think? To visit the shadow gardens again. To show your daughter the silver lakes and the forest of songs.”
The words felt like an old wound, reopened. Kate had curated her memories of the otherside, clinging to the worst of it, to those last painful months. The places the woman spoke of, well, it wasn’t that she’d forgotten. But she tried not to think of them. She didn’t want to see the shadow gardens again, didn’t want to swim in the sweet, glittering waters of the silver lakes. She wanted to wear an itchy, tacky dress, glare at Crey, and go home. She wanted to collect a new list of reasons to hate this place, and she wanted Charlotte to languish in boredom, longing for television and her friends.
“I’m not sure there’ll be time,” she said.
The woman turned away from the window. “Of course,” she said, with a forced, helpless brightness. “I didn’t mean to impose on your time, ma’am. I only thought the little girl might like to see where her mother grew up.”
“Mommy grew up in Ohio,” Charlotte said. “We go there for Christmas. It’s boring. Grandma doesn’t let us bring Rosy.”
“Grandma’s allergic,” Kate put in firmly. “Is your game working?”
“Yeah. When do we pet the horses?”
“After we’re done here, hon.”
“Could you stand a little straighter?” The older woman knelt, ready with pins of her own. Her tone was neutral, and she didn’t look up as she spoke.
Kate straightened, pushing down a flash of unexpected guilt. Could you really be said to have hurt something from the otherside? Perhaps, in the same way Charlotte could worry over the feelings of her stuffed animals, rotating them out nightly so that none felt left out.
“What’s to see at the silver lakes?” she asked.
The woman was silent for long enough that Kate assumed she wasn’t going to answer. One of the others began to sing, and while the words were strange, the tune was familiar.
“I couldn’t say, ma’am,” the woman said at last. “No one much goes down there, anymore.”
No one? In Kate’s memory, the shores were bright with people. They’d gone out on little boats, had picnics in the center of the lake. Dived deep, and come out gleaming.
Something felt wrong. The woman’s voice. Or the idea of the shining lakes gone silent. The palace, so much less grand than she remembered. Hollowed out.
“Maybe I will pay them a visit,” she said.
“But horses,” Charlotte objected.
“The horses can wait, Charlotte. Besides, I’m a little allergic to horses. You don’t want me all itchy and sneezy, do you?” Of course, an otherside horse was about as likely to trigger a reaction as a My Little Pony, but Charlotte didn’t need to know that.
“But you promised!” The sharp hint of a whine entered Charlotte’s words. It was comforting, almost. If she could throw a fit here, clearly the otherside’s glamour hadn’t penetrated too deeply.
“And we will see them. After we go to the lakes.”
“Charlotte, if you keep this up, we can go home right now.” Well, eventually. The moon wasn’t up. Kate only knew the route by moonlight.
“Ma’am, I could take her down to the stables, if you like.” The woman who’d spoken of the lakes offered. “While you enjoy the water.”
“That’s very kind, umm—”
“Verita, I appreciate the offer, but I have no intention of letting my daughter out of my sight.”
“The horses are quite tame.”
Kate looked down at Charlotte, that hopeful, hungry expression on her face. “That’s not the danger I’m concerned about. I’ll take her to the stables myself.”
“We’ll really go?” Charlotte asked. “You don’t have to pet them if you’re allergic.”
“We’ll go. But first, we have to meet Teresa for lunch. After that, we’ll go down to the lakes, and then the horses.”
“Fine.” Charlotte sat back down with a huff, placated if not exactly happy. “This isn’t as fun as you said it’d be.”
Kate found herself smiling. “Charlotte, hon, I didn’t say it’d be fun at all.”
Kate had expected Teresa to hold their lunch in the formal dining room. Long, dark wood tables, soft-voiced servants, perhaps someone playing a half-remembered pop song on a lute. She’d imagined their voices echoing across a ridiculously long table, any real conversation rendered impossible.
Instead, the man who came to fetch them led the way to the kitchen gardens, a close, cozy area, the air sweet with herbs. Teresa was sitting on a blanket under a red-leafed maple tree, Crey at her side.
Like Teresa, he looked much the same as he had when she left. Recklessly handsome, with dark eyes and the feathered hair of an 80s dreamboat. The eyes were softer, though. The lopsided smile, dopey but warm.
“There you are!” He rushed forward, pulling her into a hug before she could object, ever the over-excited sidekick, too eager for affection. “I knew you would come. Didn’t I say? I did. You’ll stay, won’t you? We’ve missed you so!”
“Just until the wedding,” Kate and Teresa said, both at once, in the same, long-suffering tones. Teresa smiled though, patting the spot next to her. When he sat down, he kissed her cheek.
“How was the fitting?” Teresa asked, as she unpacked a basket full of cakes and tarts and pies and, well, everything Kate would ordinarily tell Charlotte was ‘sometimes food’.
“Is that really lunch?” Charlotte tugged Kate forward, eyes wide and hopeful.
“I’m afraid so,” Kate replied, settling on the blanket. “Don’t eat yourself sick.”
They made small talk for a while. Dresses. Flowers. Crey’s new passion for cooking. (It was always something. Often, whatever could best get him into trouble. Mermaids, dragon’s eggs, phoenix watching. Cooking seemed a safe, even charmingly domestic, hobby. In some ways, perhaps, Teresa was growing up.) Charlotte soon grew bored and lay stretched out on the grass, drowsily making daisy chains and ignoring them.
“And of course, there will be dancing!” Crey was saying, with inexhaustible enthusiasm. “You remember the balls we used to have, don’t you Katie? Like the one where the wyverns attacked, and I—”
“I remember.” Kate admitted, carefully keeping her tone neutral. They had been fun, of course. Ridiculous dresses, jeweled masks, and always the right dash of adventure, anytime the experience grew dull. “We don’t have many dances, back home.”
“You must miss it,” he said, and she wasn’t sure whether his tone was wistful or wheedling.
She had, at first. Despite her desperate need to escape and the inevitable pain of return. She’d spent those early months of therapy longing for her lost friend, her lost world. With time, the want grew bitter.
“Eventually, you have to let things go,” she said.
“That’s giving up,” Teresa replied, meeting her gaze.
The same argument they’d fought again and again, with increasing urgency, in the days before Kate finally left. She’d begged Teresa to come with her. Threatened. Made impossible promises. And Teresa had done the same, trying to keep her.
At least now, they could simply sketch the shape of the old battles, without fighting them again.
“I missed you,” Kate said, meaning, it’s not you I gave up on.
“I’m sure you made new friends,” Teresa replied. Meaning what? That she, alone on the otherside, could not do the same?
“Eventually,” Kate admitted. “I didn’t talk to many people at first. My parents thought I’d been kidnapped. They kept me home. Brought in a therapist.”
“I saw.” Teresa’s voice was soft. “I’m sorry.”
And wasn’t that what she’d been waiting to hear? But Kate couldn’t find the words to reply, not with recrimination or acceptance. She watched Teresa stare at her hands, and all she wanted to do was hold them in her own, take the hurt from her eyes. Make it better.
But she didn’t even belong to the same world. Not anymore.
“I promised we’d go for a walk after lunch,” she said, tugging at Charlotte’s shoe to get her attention. “I’ll see you both at dinner.”
It was easier to leave than risk more fighting. It always had been.
The walk to the silver lakes was so uneventful that Kate felt nearly as bored as Charlotte, who stomped along at her side. The woods were quiet, and the autumn leaves drifted around them as they walked, a dry rain of red and gold. She’d never seen the otherside in autumn before. In her memory, there were endless summer days and winter snows, but no new budding flowers or falling leaves. She couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of it all, and wonder, a little, at what it might mean. Why autumn now, for Teresa’s wedding? Why not blooming roses and baby animals?
“Where are the birds?” Charlotte asked. “And the squirrels?”
“I don’t know, hon. They used to be everywhere.”
The walk was shorter than Kate remembered. Within half an hour, they’d almost reached the lakes. The trees were thinning, though the woods stayed silent, no distant sounds of people or waterfowl. The ground grew rocky underfoot, as they pushed through the last of the trees. That, at least, was familiar. The lakes had always appeared like a surprise, between one bend and the next.
The lakes were gone.
Not merely dry, but missing, replaced by a vast stretch of parched, flat land. The shores had gleamed once, stones like gems and silver sand. Nothing now. Just an expanse of gray rocks.
“Mommy, are we almost there?” Charlotte asked.
And Kate, staring out across where the water wasn’t, couldn’t find an answer. What had happened? How could the lakes just stop being?
She let go of Charlotte’s hand and sat down on the rocks. She wanted to close her eyes, to shut it all out. Forgetting the lakes was one thing. Losing them, like this, was something else. They had been so happy here, once.
“Mommy?” Charlotte’s hand was warm on her shoulder. “Mommy, what’s wrong? Are we lost? Do we need to call a police officer? I didn’t use all the phone.”
“We’re not lost.” Kate’s voice shook a little. She took a slow breath before trying again. “I’m just tired. I’m going to sit for a bit. Stay where I can see you. Then we can go see the horses.”
Charlotte sat nearby, humming to herself and stacking stones while Kate stared, helpless, out at the absence of the lakes.
“I didn’t come here anymore, after you left.” Teresa’s voice startled her out of her mourning. She jumped to her feet, turning to see Verita leading a black horse down the path. Teresa sat on the horse’s back, in a fine blue riding dress.
Kate stood silent, hunting for words. No use asking how Teresa had found her. Even without Verita’s help, she’d always know where Kate, and everyone, was.
“Mommy, a horse!” Charlotte said, jumping to her feet. She ran straight at the animal, who lowered its head and nuzzled her in immediate affection.
Horses on the otherside were like that. Unless you didn’t want them to be.
“This is Winterwind,” said Teresa, sliding off the horse’s back. “She could be your horse, if you like, Charlotte.”
“Oh, Mommy, could we? Could I please?”
“And are you going to shovel the poop and ride it every day and go out at five in the morning to feed it before school?”
“I could.” Charlotte sat a little straighter. “Mommy, you never let anything be fun.”
“That’s not true.”
Teresa laughed, not kindly. “Your mom’s always been very serious.”
Not always. She’d helped make this place, once.
“We’ll talk about the horse later,” Kate said at last. Now wasn’t the time for that argument.
“I can ride her though, right?”
“I suppose. With help.”
“Verita, why don’t you take Charlotte around the clearing?” Teresa asked. “Winterwind will appreciate the exercise.”
“Stay where I can see you,” Kate said. “Teresa and I will talk.”
Verita helped Charlotte onto the horse, then climbed on behind her. Kate watched as the horse made its gentle, ambling way, its tail streaming out behind it with more drama than its pace really required. Charlotte’s laughter filled the air, sweet as the birds that weren’t singing.
“We used to ride here,” Teresa said, coming to stand closer to Kate.
“We used to do a lot of things.” Kate kept her gaze locked on the empty expanse where the lake wasn’t. “What happened here, Teresa?”
“Nothing.” Teresa threw a stone, and it fell dead in the dust beside one of the shrubs, shaking free a few dry leaves. “Nothing happened here, after you left. And eventually there wasn’t a here anymore.”
“But we loved the lakes.” Kate hated the sorrow in her words, but the grief wouldn’t be buried. There’d been a time when she really believed that she and Teresa would live forever in the otherside, sister queens ruling over a land that bent to suit their every whim.
“It’s not just here,” Teresa said, playing nervously with the hem of her shirt. “The shadow gardens are gone. The forest of songs is still there, but the trees only sing the same song, over and over again. I don’t think they’ll last much longer. Sometimes, the servants all have the same face. And they all look like me. I can’t keep it all in my head, Katie. I can’t care about all of it, all the time.”
She might have closed the space between them, then. Might have pulled Teresa close, let her cry, even cried with her. Friends did that sort of thing.
“You had to know this was coming,” she said. “This isn’t a place you stay, Teresa. You can’t have a life here. Not a real life.”
“I could. If you stayed. You and Charlotte both.”
Charlotte and Verita were finishing their first circuit of the missing lake. The horse came trotting toward them, and for a moment, Kate couldn’t tear her eyes away. Had she ever seen her daughter so ecstatic?
“Mommy, look! Mommy, I’m riding!”
“I see you, hon,” Kate called back. “You’re doing great.”
“She’d be happy, here,” Teresa said, after the horse had passed.
“You know we’re not staying.” At last, Kate turned to look at Teresa.
Teresa’s eyes were bright with the threat of tears, but she stood, back straight, trying to smile. “I know. But I had to ask.”
“You could come back with us.” Though what that meant, Kate wasn’t sure. Would Teresa be 12 again, as Kate had been? Would she return to the past? How could she, when Kate had already lived those years alone?
“And what would happen to this place, if I left?”
“It’s not real.”
“Of course it—” Teresa’s words were just on the edge of shouting, but she cut herself off, biting her lip and staring at her feet. “Maybe we made them. Maybe we made all of it. But that doesn’t mean they’re not real. They have feelings. Good days and bad days. They die. They mourn. They are real, Katie. And they’re our— they’re my responsibility. If I leave, it all falls into ruin. I can’t do that to them.”
“You said they’re already fading.”
“That’s why I have to save the ones I can.” She glanced back up, offering a watery smile. “I guess I thought, if you saw what it’d come to here, you might want to help.”
Kate held out her arm, and Teresa stepped close. She was shaking, and for a second, Kate loved her as much as she ever had. Her best friend. The two of them lost, hurt, and ready to take on the world together. To make a world together, if that’s what it took to feel safe. Kate hiding from her mother’s anger and her father’s absence. Teresa washing away under an endless list of expectations, a bar that moved higher every time her fingers brushed it. And then a door, and a song, and a lifetime.
She’d left Teresa. She’d had to leave her. When the world grew poisoned with her own restless bitterness, when the fruit rotted and the servants grew snide. When, suddenly, there was horse shit in the stables, and Crey, always amusingly obnoxious, grew menacing. What choice was there, then?
“I’m sorry, Teri.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Teresa asked. Despite her shaking, her voice was steady.
Come back, Kate wanted to say. Come with me. I’ll protect you. You’ll be Charlotte’s big sister. We’ll be best friends. Whatever you owe this place, you don’t owe it this.
She stroked her friend’s arm, leaning so her cheek rested against her hair.
“Keep fighting. And I’ll come again. If it helps. If you want to see me.”
“I can’t open the door often,” Teresa replied. “I don’t know what’ll be left, next time. It might just be me.”
“Then we’ll go back together.”
Charlotte and Verita came round again, and Teresa stepped away, brushing at her dress. “Your daughter’s lovely, you know. She reminds me of you. Her father?”
“No one you know. We’re divorced.”
“Oh. I— sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Kate said. “Sometimes, people just aren’t meant to stay together, you know?”
Teresa laughed. “Oh, yeah. I get that.”
“You and Crey?” Kate asked.
Teresa’s smile didn’t fade, though she shook her head in helpless, amused denial. “He’s Crey, you know? Our perpetual fanboy. Everything that ever irritated us, just so we’d have someone to be irritated with.”
“From experience, I can’t say that’s the best basis for a marriage.”
“He’s the realest one here, Katie. The one we paid the most attention to. Half our adventures, he was with us. The other half, we were trying to save him. I guess I’m still trying to save him.”
The horse had reached them again, and this time, Verita slowed it to a stop. Kate stepped forward, and Charlotte slipped off into her arms.
“Don’t you want to ride, Mommy?”
“Sorry, hon.” Kate ran her fingers through her daughter’s wind-tangled hair, trying to pat it back into order. “We’ve gotta help Aunt Teresa get ready for her wedding, ok?”
“More itchy dresses?”
“I’m sure they won’t be that itchy. And there’s a cake, and flowers, and I bet Aunt Teresa will even ride her horse Moonfall down the aisle.”
“And you’ll ride Everstar?” Teresa asked, rubbing at her eyes.
The wedding was everything it had to be. A fairytale impossibility, the bridal party on horses, doves singing the wedding march, and Teresa a confection of white, riding down an aisle that Charlotte had enthusiastically coated in scarlet petals. Even Crey did his part, strikingly handsome in his black suit and short cape.
Teresa said her vows, making a promise to protect Crey, to stand by his side, to serve the otherside for as long as she lived.
As long as it lived, Kate thought, and she let herself cry. Why not? Everyone wept at weddings.
In the celebration that followed, as Charlotte ran from table to table with giddy abandon, Kate sat alone, watching them all. The parents of the groom still held the sparks of stars, their skin gleaming under their wedding silks. Verita and the other servants exchanged toasts and stole bites of food from each other’s plates. Crey kept looking over at Teresa, awestruck. As if, even with the wedding over, he couldn’t quite believe that she’d picked him.
And they were all real. And they were none of them more than what Teresa needed them to be. No one stepped on her dress, or started messy, drunken fights. Only Charlotte, running with a plate full of cake, caused any sort of chaos.
Kate felt the old itch, the longing to get away from the otherside, with its patterns and its predictability. To go back to a world that didn’t care about her, if only to be surprised. She drank her wine, and she watched Teresa, and she waited for the moon.
The party had quieted, and Charlotte lay drowsing in Kate’s arms, when the moon finally reached its peak, and the silver path lay clear before her. Kate stood, cradling Charlotte close, and picked up the bag she’d tucked discreetly under the table. Teresa pulled away from where she’d been dancing with Crey and ran over, somehow managing not to trip on her layers of skirts.
They stared at each other for a second, then leaned together, Teresa hugging her as best she could around the sleeping Charlotte.
“I wish I could come,” she said.
“I wish you would,” Kate replied. “And I’m sorry that I can’t stay. This place, it’s not enough for me. I have to go back.”
“I know.” Teresa leaned down, and kissed Charlotte on the forehead. “I always knew you were the strong one, Kate. That you’d outgrow me.”
“I couldn’t,” Kate forced out, refusing to cry. She’d gotten that out of her system already. “We’re best friends, remember?”
“I’ll try to reach you again.” Teresa glanced back at the party. “If I can. If there’s anything left. I’ll try.”
“I’ll come,” Kate promised.
She walked backward down the silver path, keeping Teresa in view. With each step, the party grew a little more distant, a little more indistinct, until all she could see was Teresa, standing alone in a ridiculous white gown.
And then she was standing in a fountain, in a midnight park, and Charlotte was stirring in her arms.
“Where’d everyone go?” she asked, words slurred with sleep.
“We’re home, love.” Kate braced herself, not sure how Charlotte would take the news.
Silence. Kate kept walking, not looking back at the moon and the fountain and the world they’d left behind.
But Charlotte, shifting to peer over her shoulder: “It’s all gone.”
“That’s how it works.”
“Can we visit again?”
At first, Kate’s throat tightened. The old fear of doorways and forevers taking over. But then she looked back too, admiring the water, so silver in the moonlight, like the lakes Charlotte would never get to see.
“I hope so. I think Aunt Teresa would like it very much if we did.”
“And you too?”
“And me too.”
“Good.” Charlotte yawned and nuzzled against Kate’s chest. “Let’s go home, Mommy.”
Kate kissed her daughter’s curls, then swung her down to stand. “Lead the way. My arms are getting tired.”
After a few sleepy steps, Charlotte found her usual energy, and Kate let her run. The moon cast everything in silver, and Charlotte knew the way. There was nothing to be afraid of.
Kate looked back, one last time, smiling in case Teresa was watching. Then she turned and followed her daughter home.