“As in, Fox?”
Megan goes still, but her response is more out of surprise than anything else. Back home such a statement would’ve gotten an eye-roll or worse because the boys really didn’t know how to let a bad joke go, but from her new roommate’s lips it almost sounds like something new, maybe even something pithy and flattering, because this is a different place with different rules.
So Megan merely puts down her box and smiles. “I’m anything but foxy, I’m afraid.”
Her new roommate stands up, extending a hand in offering. “I’m Kim.”
Megan keeps her expression bland when she accepts the handshake. She can’t tell whether Kim notices the roughness of her hand: the product of years of being more hands-on at the ranch than her parents would’ve liked, tempered only a little by the delayed use of moisturizer. “Nice to meet you, Kim. To be frank, I think I’d be lousy as a brunette.”
“You might be right,” Kim says, looking her over speculatively. “If only because some girls would kill for that natural blonde shade.”
Megan laughs. “I am a natural blonde.”
“Obviously,” Kim says.
Megan’s a little thrown by the unnecessary sharpness of the response, but quickly files this away as something to get used to, because Kim wears faded jeans and well-worn sneakers, unlike the majority of the other girls in their dorm that look like they stepped out of the CW.
As far as roommates go, Megan could do far worse.
At first, Megan and her roommate don’t talk much beyond what’s necessary, but that doesn’t matter because there’s so much to do in their first few weeks. There’s orientation, breaking-in of classes, timetable decisions and the whole getting to know people as fast as you can before the cliques settle down. Megan knows that she’s not sophisticated enough to make it past the freshman trial period without stumbling, but that’s okay, that’s the point of traveling so far out of her comfort zone into a world she’s only read about and seen on TV.
One of the boys calls her ‘Cowgirl’ in first-year Biology. The intent is to annoy, but Megan smiles and says that she knows at least five ways to ride, causing the guy to blush and avoid eye contact with her for the rest of the class. As a bonus, Megan makes two new friends: Elaine and Pat, who are also from the Midwest and, after class is over, ask whether she’d be interested in starting a workout group. Megan explains that she doesn’t like gyms at all but is up for rock-climbing or paintball, and their faces light up because there’s already a club for those kinds of activities on campus and maybe they could check it out together.
All in all, the first couple of weeks, despite their dizziness and newness, are pretty good. Classes are warming up with the promise of interesting headaches, she has a couple of acquaintances that might turn into good friends, her roommate is a decent human being, and she has yet to be hit with homesickness.
Megan contemplates the quiet perfection of this new chapter of her life as she buys coffee one morning before heading for class. Despite the sneakers and lack of make-up, she almost feels like an adult.
Then, from the depths of her skinny cream-whip caramel macchiato, come the distorted lyrical echoes of: “Shoop-pe-doop, shoop-shoop-pe-doop.”
Megan loses a dollar fifty’s worth of caffeine to the pavement and, shaken, has to get another fresh cup. This time with chocolate sprinkles.
A couple of weeks in and Kim mentions that she’s adopted.
They’re both working on assignments at their respective desks until Megan takes out her scrapbook and curiosity compels Kim to draw her chair over to have a look. Megan takes the opportunity to talk about her family – about Mom and Dad, and Danny and Molly – when Kim just comes out and says it.
“My parents died when I was little,” she says. “But my mom – my birth mom – is blonde, like yours. I used to have fair hair when I was a kid, but it grew out.”
Megan’s from a small town. Her only understanding of adoption comes from the kids who were raised by their grandparents or aunts and uncles, so she doesn’t know what to say.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Kim says, rolling her eyes. “I’m one of the lucky ones. Not many want to adopt kids in pairs, let alone when they’re past the ‘sweet’ age. Jason and I, we got a good break.”
“What’s Jason like?” Megan asks.
Kim’s face goes soft at the question, and then it’s time for trading anecdotes on how annoying little brothers can be. It’s nice to have something in common.
“What’s Firefly?” Kim asks suddenly.
Megan starts. “What?”
“You talk sometimes in your sleep,” Kim says. “Nothing embarrassing, don’t worry. The other night you said firefly, and your hand went up like you were reaching for something.”
“Oh,” Megan says, face flushing. “Firefly was a… was a pony I had, a long time ago.”
Kim’s eyes light up with interest. “Back when you had a ranch?”
“Yeah,” Megan says, squirming a little from this unexpected turn.
But Kim’s a sharp one and lets it drop, the topic deviating easily to safer ground.
Megan knows the number by heart. After the first regular ring she finds herself being serenaded by Katy Perry, and has to wait until almost the end of the verse before Molly finally picks up with a cheerful, “Megan!”
“Hi, Molly,” she says.
Megan makes a point to call home at least once a week. Mom and Dad need updates to make sure their eldest is doing fine, after which the phone’s usually passed on to Molly. Sometimes Danny gets a turn if he’s around. This is the first time she’s called Molly’s cell directly, but they fall into the easy routine of Molly reporting what’s what at school while Megan tries to sympathize with teenage drama.
“I miss you!” Molly squeals.
“No, you don’t,” Megan teases. “You love having my room.”
Molly giggles. “Yeah.”
“Hey,” Megan says softly. “Do you ever think about the games we used to play when we were little?”
“Oh, Megan,” Molly says, her voice sweet and fond. “You’re supposed to make a whole bunch of new memories first. Then you’re allowed to be nostalgic.”
She changes the topic, smooth as anything, and Megan only remembers hours later the reason she’d called in the first place.
She sighs, deciding that calling back won’t achieve anything.
When Megan was ten, Molly found her sitting by the side of the stables, knees pulled up to her chest and smiling broadly at nothing in particular.
“Where have you been?” Molly demanded, petulant and hurt that Megan had had an adventure, for surely she had: the tears and dirt on her pants gave her away.
“Oh, Molly,” Megan said, reaching out to clutch her younger sister. Molly was, at the time, still small enough for Megan to hold in her lap, warm and soft. She was only just starting to understand that big girls didn’t do that, but on that day, she let Megan do it and even clutched back. Megan breathed against Molly’s hair. “Oh the story I’m going to tell you…”
Later, Danny found them stretched out on the grass, pointing up at the clouds and giggling.
“What’re you up to?” he asked, annoyed. “Is this some girlie secret?”
Megan tapped the grass next to her. “Why don’t you have a seat, Danny.”
Molly squealed at the invitation. “You’re not going to tell him, are you?”
“Of course I am,” Megan said sensibly. “It’s my story to tell, isn’t it?”
Danny stuck his tongue out at Molly as he sank down to the grass, tucking his feet beneath him. “So what’s this about?”
Molly didn’t complain about having to hear the tale again. Her eyes were already alight when Megan started on how it began when she heard a splash in the well.
One Saturday when Elaine’s spending time with her new boyfriend and Pat’s busy with an assignment, Megan decides to visit the beach.
And what better way to visit the beach than to sign up for surfing lessons?
Her teacher for the day is a tall, well-built woman named Rafe who makes Megan feel about two feet tall, but she’s patient and genuinely impressed by how seriously Megan takes this on-the-whim decision.
Megan doesn’t tell Rafe that until a few months ago she’d never even seen the ocean before; chances are that Rafe wouldn’t believe her. But this is what Megan loves: new things, new experiences, new sights and sounds. Very little fazes her, and after she belly-slides over her very first beach break, falling off the board and breaking the surface without a hint of finesse, she’s laughing and Rafe shakes her head in a reluctantly pleased sort of way.
“You have excellent balance,” Rafe says, bobbing next to her in the water. “And I don’t mean only for a beginner.”
“Thank you,” Megan says, pushing water out of her eyes.
It starts to rain around noon and Rafe calls it a day. They retreat to the beach and Megan pulls herself out of her rented wetsuit, rinsing salt and water off her hair.
She’s pulling her jeans on when she sees the rainbow break the sky.
It’s too bright, too sharp. Rainbows are supposed to be dull, hazy things that slip and slide under the human gaze. But this one is liquid color, spilling out of the clouds and diving into the ocean.
Real rainbows don’t do that.
Megan glances around, but no one seems to have noticed. When she looks back, the rainbow is gone. The grey sky is as it was before: normal and plain.
When Megan was thirteen, she came home from school one day to find Molly crying under the covers. Molly refused to come down for dinner, so Megan ended up bringing food up to their shared bedroom, where it didn’t take much to coax her little sister out so they could eat together.
Halfway through their pudding desert (special from Mom), Molly opened her mouth to say:
“They laughed at me.”
There was no need to ask who; she was referring the kids at school. Megan set the cutlery aside to reach out for her sister, holding her through the halting sobs.
It was a long while before Molly finally said, “They said I’m stupid.” Her voice was muffled against Megan’s shoulder. “Because I’m friends with talking ponies.”
“You’re not stupid,” Megan said gently.
“I just miss them so much,” Molly whispered. “All of them.”
“I know you do,” Megan said, and held her until she fell asleep.
“You shouldn’t encourage her,” Mom said afterwards, while they were doing the dishes together in the kitchen.
“It’s just a game,” Megan replied softly, though Molly could not hear it.
“Of course, dear,” Mom said, “But Molly… I think Molly really believes in your pony stories. She’ll be going to middle school next year, is it really appropriate for you to still be playing these games with her?”
“I’m sorry.” Megan bit her lip. “I’ll talk to her.”
She did. Mom was there, listening from the doorway, so Megan said exactly what she was supposed to say.
Megan and Kim have different classes and different friends, but it’s easy in their room, when it’s just the two of them.
“Jason and I ran away once,” Kim says. She’s lying on her bed, hands tucked behind her head. Gerard Way is singing faintly in Megan’s laptop, and Kim reaches over to adjust the volume. “Just before we got adopted. If we hadn’t returned when we did, we might not have gotten mom and dad.” Kim rolls over and looks at Megan. “What’s it like growing up in the country?”
“Everything felt bigger,” Megan says. “The skies bluer, the plains rolling on forever. Every slightest dip and change in the land was another adventure waiting to be had. It felt like forever. Sometimes I miss it so badly it hurts just to think about it.”
“Why did your parents sell the ranch?” Kim asks.
“We couldn’t afford to keep it,” Megan sighs. “There were some complications with my mother’s family – story’s too long to get into, trust me – and it just got too expensive to keep the place. It was horrible to leave it all behind. Horrible, but necessary.”
“Things weren’t the same after that, were they?” Kim says.
Megan looks up at Kim, whose childhood memories contain the heavy uncertainty of the orphanage. Megan’s own sadness for her too-bright childhood pales in comparison, and she can’t mourn its passing. “No, they weren’t.”
Calling Danny is out the question.
Megan was fourteen when they moved to the new house. Everyone had their own rooms there, and Megan was in the process of sorting through her boxes when Danny came in. Molly was in her own room; Megan could hear her humming through the connecting bathroom until Danny closed the door.
Megan looked at him, confusion and curiosity skyrocketing when, out of nowhere, he gave her a hug.
“You know that none of it is your fault,” he said after pulling away.
She frowned. “What are you talking about?”
Danny looked guilty, eyes dropping to the floor. “I see you looking to the skies sometimes.”
Megan flinched. “Danny, whatever you think—”
“I know what you were doing: making up stories to keep me and Molly occupied, all the way through the…” He swallowed. “…hard parts. What happened with mom and dad and the ranch sucks, but we can handle it now.”
“We love you, Megan,” he said quickly. “But you have to be with us here. Now.”
“I am,” Megan insisted.
“Molly doesn’t need your stories anymore,” Danny said. “I think you shouldn’t need them, either.”
“Danny, I don’t want to have this conversation,” Megan said firmly. She turned away, but still caught the sad look on her brother’s face, and it just made her feel worse.
“I think I’m seeing things,” Megan says softly one night.
Kim looks up from where she’s painting her toe nails. “What things?”
Megan studies Kim’s expression, open and interested across the space between their beds. It’s easier to talk at night, like the real world’s melted away and it’s just them and the stuff that’s been rattling around their heads.
Besides, there’s no one else Megan can talk to.
“Not just seeing things… I think I’m hearing things, too,” Megan confesses, her voice a low whisper.
Kim’s gaze is a patient, steady one. Megan focuses on it while she attempts to gather her thoughts.
“Today I was in the library. I was just browsing, taking out books and putting them back, when I heard a sound like… like twinkling.”
“Bell-like, you mean?” Kim asks.
No, like twinkling, Megan wants to say. Like the sound a unicorn makes when they materialize out of thin air, but when she’d looked around, there had only been other students in the tableau of normality: browsing and studying and passing notes.
“When I was younger,” Megan chooses her words carefully, “My siblings and I, we would have adventures with these… friends who came to visit us in the summer. We were very young at the time, I was eleven, almost twelve. It was the best fun we’d ever had, and I remember every single moment of it. But when we moved away, it was like it never happened.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” Megan whispers, throat suddenly tight. “I don’t know, it just… So many things happened after that summer – the ranch fell apart, Dad left us for a while… Then when it was all over and we left the ranch for good, I found out that Danny and Molly remembered that summer differently than I did.”
“It scares me.” Megan draws her blanket closer to her chin. “Sometimes I think I was given a great gift but I messed it up somehow, and they took it away from me. Other times I think that I just remembered it wrong on purpose.”
Kim is quiet. There is nothing judgmental in her gaze, and for that Megan is thankful.
“Sorry to bother you.” Megan tucks her head into her pillow. “Good night.”
Molly and Danny remember it one way.
Megan, on the other hand, remembers it like this:
They just stopped coming.
Megan’s in the middle of solving a particularly different trigonometry question when her cell goes off. She picks it up with one hand, the other still wrapped around a pen. “Hi, Brian, what’s up? Oh, yeah, I’m working on that now, but I can’t… No, I’m not in the library, I… Was that a scream?”
Indeed, it is a scream, but it’s not coming from the phone.
Megan gets out of her chair and goes to the window. The view below is of fellow students milling about campus, just as it should be, but there, at the edge, she can see a stream of people running. Towards something? Away from something?
“What’s up?” Kim steps into the room, hair wet and a towel around her neck.
“I don’t know, fire drill?” Megan asks. “Sorry, Brian, I’ll call back in a few.”
Kim opens the window, squinting as she tries to make out the drama in the distance. “I don’t get it, it’s like they’re panicking, or – oh my God!”
Something too huge to be a bird, too precise to be a meteorite and too white to be a weapon of immediate destruction is heading for their window. There’s an awful bang when it hits the outside wall, plaster shuddering at the impact.
“Ow,” comes a pained, sheepish voice.
Then there’s another one coming towards them, though this one’s blue and pink, and apparently has a better sense of self-preservation because it doesn’t hit the wall.
Instead, it stops just outside the plexiglass of their window, hovering.
“Wind Whistler!” Megan gasps.
“Megan!” Wind Whistler presses her hooves against the window, which gives easily. She tilts her head and draws her wings close to her body to squeeze through the opening. There’s a clop and a clatter when she lands on the floor, tail flicking out with what looks like satisfaction and relief. “Thank goodness we found you.”
Kim sounds like she’s choking.
Megan looks at the window. “Is that…?”
The other pony looks in, eyes wide with glee. “Hi, Megan, hi!”
“Paradise,” Megan says.
Paradise makes a happy noise, and is so excited that she gets stuck in the window, legs kicking helplessly. Wind Whistler sighs and helps pull her in, though once she’s inside, Paradise’s immediately laughing and dancing around Megan. “Gee, Megan, you got real pretty.”
Megan blinks rapidly. “Oh. Thank you.”
“Horses!” Kim shrieks. “Who talk!”
“I do object,” Wind Whistler says reproachfully. “Horses are a completely different species. Sometimes I don’t think we even belong in the same genus. Their brains are about the size of a grapefruit.”
“You know talking horses.” Kim sounds understandably unhinged.
Megan starts to say that she can explain, only, she really can’t.
Kim exhales heavily, “Thank God. I know talking bears.”
Megan stares at her. “Bears?”
“Bears,” Kim says, nodding frantically. “They live in the clouds. They have symbols, too, but on their tummies.”
“Oh, them,” Wind Whistler says. “Nosy bastards.”
Megan gasps. “Wind Whistler!” Behind her, Paradise is giggling.
“You’re older now.” Wind Whistler tosses her mane. Though her eyes sparkle with familiar mischief, the edges of her face are harder – more solid – now that Megan can study them up close. Wind Whistler clucks her tongue. “Surely you’ve learned some naughty words while we were away.”
That makes Megan scowl. “Why were you away? You guys disappeared for years!”
“Megan,” Wind Whistler sighs, sounding genuinely morose. “We’re sorry we couldn’t come before, but there were complications. We got here as soon as we could. Megan, we need you.”
“Oh, you need me now, do you?” Megan says sharply. She takes a deep breath and glares. “Fine. Why are you here?”
“Because we miss you,” Paradise says in a small voice, tentatively pushing her muzzle against Megan’s hand. “Oh, and because there’s a civil war and we need your help.”
“A civil what?”
Wind Whistler sighs. “It’s a rather long story.”
“Condense it, if you don’t mind.”
“It started when a new group of Ponies arrived in Dream Valley a few years ago,” Wind Whistler says. “They opened up the Friendship Gardens settlement, and it was fine until another wave of new Ponies followed them in and opened up Ponyville. By then it was crowded, we started squabbling over resources and one of the Ponyville Ponies suggested an election for someone to be in charge of Dream Valley. But they didn’t invite us to nominate a representative until well after we asked, after which there was a brou-ha-ha that the election was rigged – Magic Star will explain once we get there – and then someone stole the Rainbow of Light. So, yes, it’s pretty much gone to pot.”
“Megan,” Paradise says, “We need your help.”
“And your opposable thumbs,” Wind Whistler adds.
“I’ll go with you on one condition: we stop for Molly and Danny.” Megan is little nervous at the prospect, but still determined. “I don’t know if they’d want to come, but we have to ask.”
Wind Whistler and Paradise look at each other. “Yes, we can do that,” Wind Whistler says. “But we’ll need directions. It was difficult enough trying to find you. You won’t believe the amount of magic the unicorns had to use in order to pinpoint your location.”
“Okay, let’s do this,” Megan says, opening the door. “We can’t go out the window, so we’ll have to go to the roof. Come on, the fire escape is this way.”
“Hop on,” Wind Whistler says, lowering herself down in invitation.
All of Megan’s anxiety immediately disappears when she mounts, legs slotting easily into the place behind Wind Whistler’s wings. It feels so much like coming home that for a moment she can only sit there and breathe. “I missed you so much,” Megan says, her voice coming from a far off place. “I almost thought that… That none of it was real.”
“Seriously?” Wind Whistler sounds surprised. “I have to say that that hurts my feelings.”
“Yes, well,” Megan says. “It’s been a while.”
“I told you she’d be angry,” Paradise says to Wind Whistler.
“I’m not angry,” Megan says. It’s hard to stay angry when they’re looking at her so earnestly, just like Firefly had that day long ago when she’d fallen into the well. Megan nods, decision made. “Let’s go get Molly and Danny.”
“Wait, I’m coming with you,” Kim says, grabbing her backpack. “No way am I missing this.”
“Ooh, this is so exciting!” Paradise says, finally calming down enough to kneel and let Kim climb onto her back.
“I should warn you, though,” Wind Whistler says as they step out through the door, “Dream Valley isn’t exactly as you remember.”
Megan draws her fingers through Wind Whistler’s mane, marveling at its texture and weight. The threads aren’t at all like the light, cotton candy strands of her memories.
“That’s okay,” Megan says. “I’m not exactly the person you remember, either.”
Wind Whistler nods, once, like maybe she knows precisely what Megan means. “Let’s fly!”