Summary: Of hope and cats and unicorns.
The Near Side of Forever
It was as if the room had died somehow, leaving behind only an echo of what had been. Wendy smoothed the sheets, tucking pillows and stuffed animals back into place in unconscious habit. The bright sky blue comforter was still lying in a rumpled pile in the reading nook and she wondered, in the same numb voice that had dominated her thoughts since the accident, if Heather would remember how to read.
The doctors had explained, first in their normal medical babble and then in simpler terms, that head injuries were tricky things. In comforting tones a shade too close to patronizing they tempered her hope into something dry and tasteless. Because sometimes people woke up from comas and were fine, and sometimes they didn’t. And sometimes, Wendy sank onto the bed still holding one of her daughter’s stuffed unicorns, and sometimes they didn’t wake up at all.
It wasn’t the way the world was supposed to work. Twelve year old girls weren’t supposed to lie so horribly still, lost in hospital beds that seemed to swallow them up in a sea of white and green. They were supposed to be running through the garden singing made-up tunes and vanquishing imaginary dragons. In stories it was always parents who were meant to die, never children.
Wendy picked at a worn seam on the unicorn; who might have been Moonstar or Comet or Winterlight. She could never quite tell them apart.
“If only you were real,” because she remembered from Heather’s stories that one of the unicorns healed people, and one of them places, and one of the time, or something like time. If she could only turn back the clock and put things right again.
There was a rather hefty thump as Cat leapt up onto the bed, unexpectedly demanding his portion of lap. It was the first time since Wendy’d been home that the grey tabby had come near her. The cat was normally aloof, preferring Heather’s company or none at all, but here he was head-butting her hand and demanding attention. She scratched his ears and felt the first rumblings of the bone-deep purrs.
“So much for The Cat That Walks Alone,” and he turned his head to look at her, or maybe just so she could reach the spot just behind his ear, yellow eyes squinting in contentment. “She’ll be back you know,” and for the first time since she’d first passed on that hope to friends and family, it sounded like the truth, “so no need to butter me up.”
Cat sniffed, as if such petty motivations were beneath him, and delicately sprawled along her lap so she could rub his tummy. She wondered for a moment if she could smuggle him into the hospital somehow, but the tom was too massive to hide.
They sat for a while, Wendy soaking in the comforting feel of fur against fingers, and Cat becoming more and more boneless until he melted over her lap in a warm blanket of purrs. That was how Terri found them, stopping by to drop off a casserole and lend an ear or a shoulder, and she laughed which sent Wendy into sympathetic giggles, trying desperately to not jostle Cat who finally stalked off in a huff.
Wendy couldn’t stay in the house for long, there were too many memories crowed into too small a place. She wanted to be back at the hospital, waiting at Heather’s side, watching for that moment when everything would be right again, but they’d sent her home. Two weeks was long enough to put her life on hold, they’d said. She resented the implication that the petty day-to-day things were more important, but she’d seen the hospital’s grief councilor hovering nearby and the last thing she wanted was more time in that forcefully cheerful office defending her right to grieve.
So she went out into the garden instead.
At sometime in the house’s distant past, there had been a gardener. Distant enough that by the time they’d gotten the old home as a hand-me-down, left to David in his great aunt’s will, the garden had gone wild. But it was a comforting sort of wild, and David had loved the flavor of uncontrolled chaos in the riot of flowers and mismatched trees. There was still a path of sorts, winding through a forest that was half-orchard and half-oak, made of crushed stone and shells. One of the last remnants of the fortune the Bailey’s had whittled away over the generations.
When Heather was younger, they’d had picnics in the garden, David leading them on grand adventures made up as they went along. Long lazy afternoons spent in that five acre chunk of Somewhere Else. When David had died, Heather had taken his place as storyteller without a moment’s hesitation. Dragging her mother back out into the worlds they’d shared and putting her own spin on the magical lands of Velanon.
Wendy paused by the weathered apple tree, leaning back against the bark and looking up through sun-patterned leaves. The tree might have born fruit once, but there had never been apples as long as they’d lived in the house. They’d spun so many stories, finding a rainbow reasons for the lack.
Wendy had always preferred the tales where the tree took the place of the Wise Stranger, offering magic apples only to those who had passed his tests. Even David’s punny version of the Riddle Tree, who unlike the Sphinx was all bark and no bite, would have been a welcome alternative to the silence.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d sat there, surrounded by stories and memories, before she noticed Cat. The tabby was watching her from the path, with an intensity that perked her curiosity.
“Hey you,” she held out a hand and he only paused a moment before sauntering over to accept the offer. She still half expected him to bite her; the tom had been feral when Heather had first found him in the garden, a furry ball of claws and teeth and little else. They’d spent a lot of time together, wandering the man-made forest before Cat had lowered himself to coming inside the house. This was his feral little kingdom, and yet… She leaned backwards as he stretched forwards to sniff her face, then apparently satisfied, curled up in her lap for a nap.
At some point Wendy fell asleep, lulled by the wind and the sun and the purrs. In her dreams the tree peppered her with questions she couldn’t answer, holding the apple high above her head in leafy disapproval.
She was awoken less gently as Cat leapt from her lap, pausing to wash snow white paws, which were already immaculate, and then saunter off along the path, deeper into the woods. She watched him, bemused, until he turned a rowled at her. It was a gruff, demanding noise, the one he used when it was time for dinner, or he wanted out, or in, or when he wanted anything, really.
She stood, dusting off her jeans, and followed. The sun was still a good ways above the horizon and she had nothing else to do. Following a cat was at least novel, if nothing else.
He led her along the path, stopping to stalk unwary bugs, or chew a leaf, but always leading deeper. She wasn’t surprised when he stopped by the old stone wall, they’d fed him here before, on those picnic days. He rowled again, looking at her with an imperious gaze and she laughed.
“I’ve got nothing.” She held out empty hands and the cat blinked, turning to scratch at the stone of the gate and rowling again. Wanting something. Something– wanting in?
That thought seized her for a moment, absurd and childish, and she whispered the words that marked the beginning to the garden stories:
“In the land of Velanon, in the kingdom of Teravail, lies the fair city of Fenrith Lei…”
She was staring at the gate when she said it, caught up in the thundering rush of needing to be someplace else, anywhere else, and she watched as the world on the far side faded away.