When she was younger, she had nightmares. She doesn’t remember much about them, only that they were terrifying, and that she woke up afterwards screaming in a language she never learned, skin as gray as the scuffed soles of her favorite shoes. Her mother noticed, and after a while the nightmares stopped and the drinking began.
She was six. The only thing having her mother passed out on the couch meant to her was that she could stay out and swim a little later, and when she came home there was nobody to stop her from making peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches for dinner and not changing out of her swimsuit until the next morning. She could take her of herself, whether or not her mother was holed up in her room with a bottle of gin.
Here is a brief list of things Rose Lalonde had read about but never seen: computers, night, more than four people (including herself), snow, grass, cement roads, squirrels and unicorns.
She had lived for her entire life in a land of light and rain, a land of perpetual drifting buttery yellow clouds and light that stains the chalky beaches turquoise, plum, buttercup, like food coloring splattered on a perfectly good apron. Her house was white, too, a sprawling two-storey structure just off the edge of the shore, with balconies that jutted out above the multicolored water. She sat on the roof those days, as she always had, shielding her books with graphite-gray umbrellas edged in the exact pink of her mother’s lipstick. She used to run out and try to catch droplets of rain on her tongue when she was bored of her books, savoring the raspberry-icing sweetness of the cool water.
Once, when she was eight, she snuck down to the beach just in time to watch her mother board a black ship larger than her house. Rose was supposed to be asleep, and the curtains in her room were even drawn to keep the light out, but she had kept herself awake through the judicious application of orange-flavored Pepsi and the dregs of the coffee her mother had made that morning. Her shadow was dark against the stark white of the sand, but she kept out of her mother’s line of sight and her footsteps quiet, barely making an imprint on the sand, and remained undetected.
The ship was huge, a battle-ready behemoth floating two inches above the water. On the deck stood the third person and first man Rose had ever seen. He had a voluminous mustache and short hair, which was how she knew he was a man, and green eyes and guns holstered at his hips. He spoke to her mother in an urgent undertone that she couldn’t quite hear, gesticulating wildly—
“—isolating her—“ he said, stabbing the air with a finger.“I’m only keeping her safe,” her mother replied.
“God’s bones, even Egbert lets his talk to the Consorts!"
They moved below deck, voices fading even as Rose strained to hear them. She stayed beside the ship, though, trailing a hand over the windows. This was how she met the fourth person she ever saw.
She had paused over a particularly interesting window, a cargo hold, by the looks of it, but one that had been turned into a makeshift bedroom. There was a hammock hanging between two pillars, upon which was a mass of brightly colored soft toys, orange and purple and pink tiny, cute, Cthulu-analogues tangled around each other. A few crates lay around the hammock, presumably to keep up appearances, but even those were plastered with drawings of dogs and hummingbirds and trees laden with what looked like snow. Rose was leaning closer, trying to see if there was anyone inside, when—
Someone plastered a piece of paper over the window. On it was written, in green marker: hi!!! i’m a stowaway!
Rose tapped the window, and the paper slid down to reveal a girl about her age who had a wild mass of black hair and skin several shades darker than her own. Her eyes, which were green and as bright as one of the dolls behind her, were framed by huge, round glasses. She waved. Rose waved back, and gestured to the sand. With her foot, she wrote: Hello. I’m a prisoner.
It was a suitably romantic description of her current state, and it pleased the girl in the window to no end. She nodded, enthusiastically, like a bobble-head doll (which Rose had read about) and promptly fell over. The ship was moving, slowly shuddering with the immense effort it took to deny the law of gravity (which Rose had also read about) and sail upwards. The girl pressed one final paper to the window. She had written only one word on it: Jade.
Rose wrote her own name in large letters, so the girl could see it even meters up in the air. She craned her neck to look at the shadow the ship cast against the low-hanging clouds, and started, ruining the last curve of the e. Her mother was leaning over the deck, looking right back down at her.
She hasn’t seen the ship, or the girl, since.
Here is a brief excerpt from an interview Rose conducted with her mother:
Q: Why doesn’t it ever get dark here?
A: It’s complicated, Rose.
Q: Why is the only other person here you?
A: Is there something wrong with me?
Q: You’re drunk right now, aren’t you?
A: Nobody’s perfect, Rose.
Rose’s mother tried to be, though. She lavished gifts on her, stuffed ponies, life-sized wizard statues, the complete bound first edition collection of the works of H.P. Lovecraft--- passive aggressive attacks meant to prove familial superiority, meaningful only in their insincerity. Rose wrote that, in her diary, and leaves it open on the kitchen table for her mother to see.
She fought back, with sonnets devoted to her mother’s maternal glory, with elaborately composed thank-you notes and book reports written with her most complicated vocabulary and bluntest crayons.
Sometimes she even thought she was winning.
When Rose was eight, she went on a walk. This was not in the least unusual. What was unusual, though, was the rucksack she slung over her shoulder, packed with canned soup and sandwich bread. Her mother had gone down to the basement again, and, as always, would stay there for at least three days. She, at least, wouldn’t notice.
Rose walked due east, with the help of a compass she had found taped to a children’s geography textbook. It never spun, and, had sometime before it had fallen in Rose’s possession, been broken, and repaired with novelty tape. As a navigational device, it was most probably useless, but for keeping up the appearance of an intrepid adventurer, it was ideal.
She charted her progress, carefully, with a map she drew on graph paper in four different colors of pen. She shouldn’t have bothered. There was nothing but sand in all directions, sand and shallow waters that she was just tall enough to wade across, holding her knapsack above her head so she wouldn’t get it wet. She had a compass, and a map, and a fuchsia ribbon in her hair. She could take on anything.
Presently she spotted a magenta building on the horizon, so brightly purple that it verged on pink and perhaps three or four stories high. In the fifteen minutes it took for her to get to the first building, she saw another, and another, and still others more, until buildings filled her line of sight, and it became apparent to her that she was not looking at a building but at an entire city of them.
Standing in front of the city was a turtle, two-thirds her height and as pink as the peonies in her biology textbook. It was speaking in a flurry of clicks and snaps, but switched to English once Rose approached it.
“Hello—snapt—hello,” it said.
“Hello,” Rose said back, politely. The turtle snapped, loudly, and rocked back on its heels and spun.
“I’m the welcoming committee,” it said, importantly, “Would you like some fish?”
“I would,” said Rose, “Thank you.”
“You can’t have any,” said the turtle, then, contemplatively, “Welcome!”
“Why?” asked Rose. It seemed that the correct thing to do upon meeting a talking animal was to ask it questions. That was how it always went, anyway, in the books, and Rose was nothing if not devoted to the requirements of narrative.
“Because Cetus ate them,” said the turtle, popping its arms into its shell, “Oh, I wish, I wish, I wish I had some fish. I’ll guide you around the city if you’ll share some fish. I have to do it, anyway, I’m the welcoming committee, but if you’ll give me some fish I shall do it extra well.”
“I have cream-and-mackerel soup,” said Rose, digging around in her rucksack for it, “Will that do?”
“If it’s cream and fish, that means it’s only half fish,” the turtle said, “I shall guide you half extra well, then.” Rose opened the tin of soup for it. The turtle put the entire tin into its mouth, and three seconds later, took the tin, sans soup, out.
“This is the neck-warmer shop,” it said, pointing to the first building, “That is my house. In my house is the Welcoming Committee and in the neck-warmer shop is the Neck-Warming committee.”
“I’m Rose,” she said, “what’s your name?”
“Turtle,” said the turtle.
“Oh. Then—what’s his name?” she replied, pointing to another turtle across the street.
“Turtle,” it said, “And that’s Turtle, and that’s Turtle, and that’s Turtle too, and this”-- it gestured to Rose—“is Rose.”
“How can you tell which turtle is which?”
“Of course we can tell, Rose. We’re different turtles. Now, come with me, I must give you the rest of my half extra good tour.”
The turtle’s claw was cool, and its skin felt like wax paper. It took her hand as it guided her, pointing out the Really Wanting Fish Committee and the Temple Committee and the Enough with the Committees Already Committee. When they came upon a spot of rain, it waited patiently for Rose to take her umbrella out. Over the course of the tour, Rose learned a number of things. Turtles had no concept of gender, or family, or the alphabet. They wrote with a complex pictogram system that, according to her guide, one had to be “very clever” to understand.
The Guarding Committee and the Better Guarding Committee held fights every week. One offered to teach Rose some moves, even though she didn’t even have a shell. She would grow one, it said, once she was clever enough. They fought outside the fifteenth scarf store—neck-warmer shop, as the turtles would say—Rose’s guide had shown her.
“Rose, if you bring me a neck-warmer when you come back I shall guide you really excellently,” said the turtle when Rose prepared to leave the city, “Can you do that, Rose?”
“I’ll try,” she replied, and, with one final goodbye, turned and headed home.
When she got back, she took the knitting kit her mother had given her for her birthday, and, carefully following the instructions in the manual, started to make a neck-warmer of her very own.
Here is what Rose’s mother said to the turtles once she discovered Rose had been speaking to them:
“I won’t let you do this. She’s my daughter, she’s not going to play your goddamn game, she’s not going to be your hero. She won’t--- the game’s not gonna break her, it’s not gonna—It killed Jane, but Rose is going to live, understand? So go lick your own ass and leave her alone.”
Rose’s mother spoke in typos, slurring and swirling her words, letting them collide just to marvel at the interesting sounds they made. Her voice was resonant, loud and grating in all the right ways, like the lead singer in an old jazz record. Rose hated it, on principle.
It was Rose’s fifth visit to the turtles and her mother had determined that it would be her last. She’d dragged Rose home, snarling curses in elaborate metaphors and forbidding her to visit the turtles ever again.
The next day, Rose set out to visit the turtles again. Her mother was in the basement, and had probably forgotten all about yesterday’s events in her haze of alcohol. Rose walked, for ten minutes when—
Her mother was in front of her.
“Go back,” her mother said. They strifed. Rose lost. The same thing happened the next day, and the next, and the one day five months later when Rose felt absolutely certain that her mother had really forgotten.
When Rose was nine, she finally stopped trying. She spent most of her time in her room, now that she didn’t have the turtles for company, knitting furiously and reading psychology textbooks. She wrote fan fiction (about wizards) and, a touch more clandestinely, her own stories (about Jade).
By her purple-penned accounts, Jade was a pirate captain (who would come to kidnap Rose for ransom but eventually let her join her crew), in love with Rose (at first sight, and of course would come to ask for Rose’s hand in marriage and take her away), an undercover police officer (who would come to expose the illegality of Rose’s mother keeping her in a land of never-ending light and rain and take her away) and/or the adopted daughter of Rose’s father (and would therefore come to engineer a reconciliation between her father and mother and take her away). Jade was a lot of things. Here was not one of them.
Here is a list of things Rose found in a box at the bottom of her mother’s closet: a paper full of numbers and letters, entitled “captcha codes”, a pamphlet entitled “The Meteor Protection Act (SB 374) and How It Helps Americans Like YOU”, photographs labeled “Harley and Jade”, “Strider and Jade”, “Jane’s son and John” and “BFFSIES 4EVERZ”, an obituary for one Jane Crocker, killed by a meteor that crashed into her family joke shop, and a list:
VICTIMS OF SBURB
1. Prospitian carapaces, before Scratch
2. Dersite imps, before Scratch
3. Jake, before Scratch
4. Jane, before Scratch
5. Bro, before Scratch
6. Jane oh god no Jane
7. NOT EARTH
8. NOT ROSE
When Rose was thirteen, the imps came. Her mother had left a note on the kitchen counter:
ros rose am gone brb when I am were goiny going home stay safe kill anything u have 2 love you bunchis bunches bunchas mom
Knitting needles in hand, she walked outside. There was a huge, tall, building next to her house, normal for the first two floors until it ballooned into Escherian complexity. Rose ignored it in favor of the huge, white, two-headed Cyclops swinging a fist in her general direction. She jammed her needles into its eyes, took them out again from its still-cooling flesh, and started walking. The turtles would need protection, and, now that her mother had left, she could get some real exploring done.
Here is a list of things Rose Lalonde did for the turtles: knit scarves, killed imps, fetched a rare stone from the body of a white dragon-imp, resolved disputes, killed more imps, made the light brighter, made the light dimmer, retrieved stone tablets from an ancient temple, killed even more imps, bought fraymotifs to kill imps faster and stimulate the economy, knit bright, glowing, scarves from beams of light and drops of rain and brought all the fish and fish-derived foods from her house and the tower-house beside it to Turtle Town.
Now all she had to do was kill Cetus and bring back the fish. It shouldn’t be hard. Rose had learned how to slip through the cracks in the light to make herself invisible(it was like dodging raindrops, but easier). She had learned how to spindle light into yarn and knit it into nets and traps. She had learned to fill her eyes with light and see through walls, to gather light in her hands and throw it like a hand grenade, to play the light like she was playing the violin, or an electric guitar, fingers dancing over he beams. She had learned a lot of things. Among them was the location of Cetus: underwater.
She swathed herself in light, and dove.
When Rose Lalonde was somewhere between thirteen and fourteen (or so the story goes) she went to kill a snake-woman that lived at the bottom of the sea.
Cetus’s grotto was dark, with a pervasive smell of rotten fish and tears. It was littered with the remains of fish, scales and bones and nary a scrap of flesh in between. Never before had Rose been so grateful for her shoes.
Cetus herself took up have the cavern, a pink Jormungandr with the face of a beautiful woman. Rose woke her with a melody of light, and stood very still, a bright beacon in the dark water, as Cetus surrounded her in slow coils.
“It is your fault I am awake, seer,” she said, “I think you have an obligation to make it worth my while. I am passing fond of riddles. Shall we?”
“No,” said Rose.
“It was a rhetorical question, girl. Didn’t your mother ever teach you about those? Now:
“The burglar loves me, yet the prisoner hates me. A turn of my teeth will set you free. What am I?”
“A key,” said Rose, “And not one that can rhyme very well.”
“Snide, aren’t we, Seer?” said Cetus, in her terrible chipper susurrus of a voice, speaking as if a predatory hiss was a valid expression of mirth, “I am dust and I am solid sticks. Wherever I go, I trail myself behind. What am I?”
“Chalk,” said Rose, spinning on her heels to keep her face to Cetus. She tightened her hands around her needles, braced for attack. It came in the form of an arc of brilliant power, snapping towards her and leaving a trace of bubbles in the water. Rose extended a needle, like a lightning rod, and wrapped the white energy around it, weaving it together with her own light. Cetus smiled, a grotesque twist of her lips. It occurred to Rose that for her entire life she had been playing other people’s games, and that even though she had not needed to sleep since her mother left, she was very, very tired.
“I bring you down when you wish to Ascend, for seven of me separate you from the sky,” said Cetus, “What am I?”
“Dead,” said Rose, and lunged.
That was then.
This is now.
She’s going down to the basement, holding Cetus’s head, like a trophy, in her right hand and her needles in her left. She hasn’t touched the basement since her mother left—it seemed like a blasphemy of the worst sort. It doesn’t anymore.
The basement is extraordinarily pink, with wizard statues and pink moon-print cloth festooned everywhere. The carpet is pink, and, when Rose takes off her shoes, feels like what she imagines grass might. It smells like her mother, olives and perfume and alcohol. In a safe next to the largest wizard statue is a pile of journals, her mother’s journals.
Rose sits, blasts a hole in the safe, and, gingerly placing Cetus’s head next to her, begins to read:
i remember more on thursdays thrusdays tuesdais tuesday was when the game started
my consarts consorts were good ppl I shouldnt have let them die
the game killed them they dont understand undersad itd kill rose or warse worse shed have to scratch it she has to be safe ill keep her safe shes juts just a kid
light and rain and shit i hate this fuckeng fucking land
i put tem them on their quest beds it dint work I kised kissed them dint werk we shollda should’ve been god tier from teh the start
qust quest bed here
And this is where Rose stops. This is what she needs.
Her quest bed is a slab of stone with a pillar at every corner. In the middle of it is, etched in white, a sun. Rose stands on that sun, swaying slightly, and gathers all the light she can into the tips of her needles.
Her heart fails once the first tendril of devastating energy hits it.
She wakes in a purple replica of her own room, clad in yellow and orange and pure unadulterated fear. She sits up, and rubs her eyes. A girl with long dark hair and skin several shades tanner than Rose’s own is standing in the doorway, speaking so fast that her words almost become a howl of distress.
“Jack killed them, Grandpa and your mom John’s Dad and Dave’s Bro and I had to watch because I didn’t hide cause I thought I was badass and they died and he killed them and I’m gonna kick his stupid barf-brained ass and… and…” the girl says, faltering, a bit, and fiddling with her round glasses, “I saw you waking up, in the clouds. I guess seeing me here’s a bit weird, right?” She tugs at the edge of her golden shirt, and smiles.
“I’ve been expecting you,” replies Rose, slowly, so she says it right, “You must be Jade.”