Coming home for a holiday mostly reminded Sarah of why she had stayed away for so long. Her father and stepmother were both individually polite but the house was stiff with hostility and angry looks. She knew that second marriages were far last likely to last – indeed, as a teenager there was a time when she’d taken pleasure in that. She just hadn’t expected that when it did fall down it would all feel so horribly familiar.
Escaping to the garden was necessary just to breathe air which didn’t feel filled with someone else’s fury. Besides, she wanted to find Toby.
Something made her keep quiet when she did sight him, over by the garden wall. Something made her creep closer on quiet feet, trying to hear what he was muttering so intently.
“I wish the goblins would take me a-”
Sarah had never moved so fast; not when he was two and headed towards the open oven door, not when he was four and had escaped the safety of her hand to sprint for the road. The distance between them seemed like nothing, and she slapped her hand over his mouth before the words could be completed.
“What the hell are you doing?” she demanded in a whisper-shout, afraid to raise her voice in case someone inside noticed. “You don’t play that! You never play around with that! I told you!” Again and again, from the time when he was a toddler old enough to grasp the simplest stories, because someone needed to teach him the danger of careless words.
He pulled away from her – when had he gotten strong enough to do that? How could he look so big, so defiant and yet so vulnerable?
“I wasn’t playing!” he snarled back at her, her baby Toby all grown up and learning to resent people. “And – and it doesn’t work anyway. It’s just a stupid story for kids.”
His shoulders slumped on that last sentence and Sarah stared at him, caught between heartbreak and terror as she wondered how many times he’d stood out here like this, willing another world to come snatch him away.
“It’s not just a story,” she said quietly. “I told you that; I wouldn’t lie to you. But Toby, do you know how lucky you are that it didn’t work?”
“Lucky?” He stared at her disbelievingly. “There’s a world full of fairies and magic, and you don’t think it would be better than this?” He cast a scornful look back towards the house. “Just about anything would be better than this. If I could get the goblins to take me, I wouldn’t ever come back.”
Sarah swallowed around the lump in her throat. It didn’t take much to remember how it was when you were young and the adults you loved most in the world suddenly hated each other. But that didn’t mean it was safe or practical, any more than her plan for running away as a child had been. “You don’t understand what you’re asking.”
“Don’t I?” Toby demanded. “They argue, and when they don’t argue they just don’t speak at all. Anything I ask for is an argument – if I want to go on a school trip it’s either perfectly necessary for my education according to Mom or a sign that I’m incredibly spoilt according to Dad. Then the next week I need something else and they switch sides on which of them thinks it’s reasonable. I’m nine, it’s not my fault I can’t pay for things myself!”
“Of course it’s not,” Sarah said soothingly, automatically.
“And the only one who listens is you, and you never visit!” Toby said accusingly. “I don’t want to be here any more! If I was older I could move out but I’m not so.” He shrugged, defiant and miserable. “I thought that at least the goblins wanted me. They used to, anyway.”
“Oh Toby.” If he’d been younger she might have hugged him, but Toby had been resisting such attempts for a few years now. “Toby, you don’t want that, not the way they wanted you. They would have – I don’t know what they would have done to you, but it wouldn’t have been pleasant.”
“And you think this is?” He met her eyes for a moment challengingly. “I don’t want to be here any more.” He bit his lip, suddenly hopeful. “Couldn’t I come and live with you?”
For a heartbeat Sarah seriously considered it, but no. Her house-mate was resistant enough to the idea of getting a cat; she was never going to be keen on the idea of a stray child taking up residence on their couch. It wasn’t as though Sarah’s wage was likely to stretch to moving out in the next decade or so either, not unless the economy improved. Regretfully she shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “If I could manage it…”
“It’s not fair!” Even in this situation, the phrase was so absurdly familiar that she would have laughed had Toby not looked as though he were fighting tears.
“Someone once told me that I said that so often that he wondered what my basis for comparison was,” she told him instead, and risked slipping an arm around his shoulders. Today, for a wonder, he didn’t shrug her off. “Toby, it sucks right now – I know, I remember how it sucks. But they won’t fight forever and even if they did, you grow up and you leave. I promise you, it gets better.”
“Easy for you to say,” he muttered. “You had magic helping you.”
“Yes, but I had magic against me too,” she pointed out. “And I wouldn’t have faced any of it at all if I didn’t have to in order to get you back.” Her baby brother, not such a baby any more, but still just as vulnerable to being stolen away. She smoothed his hair, still inwardly shuddering at the thought. “And if they had taken you, I’d have done it again, however many times I had to go through the labyrinth.”
It had been his favourite story when he was smaller, and even now he glanced up at her as though half-wanting to hear it again. “Even if you had to go through the Bog of Eternal Stench?”
“Even then,” she promised. “Even if I had to bathe in it.” If she had known he was there, if she had guessed why he had vanished from the garden, if she hadn’t taken the more pedestrian route of calling the police. “But, luckily for us both, they weren’t listening.” Maybe Toby was too big to be of interest now, or perhaps Jareth had only ever been truly interested in Sarah. Whichever it was, she was grateful. “Come on now, let’s go back inside.” And later she would try talking to her father and working out a solution to make Toby’s life more bearable – one that didn’t involve him being stolen away by goblins.
The shadow that passed overhead as they headed in was enough to make her glance up and shiver, drawing the boy more tightly to her side. Of course it was only a stray pigeon, nothing to worry about at all.
It was entirely the wrong time of day for owls.