Mary awoke with a start.
She didn’t know why. The room was immersed in darkness and silence, and outside, she could only hear the faint sound of a passing car. For the past months she had been sleeping quite well for a night owl. She had stopped drinking coffee at night and she couldn’t remember the last time she had a nightmare. What was it, then?, she thought, what had woken her up with such urgency? She felt completely awake, not one ounce of sleep in her mind.
Until she heard it, or rather, sensed it: “Finally”.
She looked at her windowsill, and there, perched with her head slightly to one side, half of her black-feathered body illuminated by the street lights, was Päivykkä, staring at her human’s eyes intently. “What is it?”
Vykkä opened her wings and batted them, but didn’t fly from her spot. “It’s today”.
“What is…? Oh.” she paused, and looked at her bedside clock. The clock didn’t tell her the day of the week or of the month, but as a reflex, she looked at it anyway. It was 1:22am and it was the 24th of June. Midsummer day. Now she remembered.
She had planned to wake very early so she could drop by the lab and be able to get off to the Botanic Garden just after her lunch, at 1pm, to pick up Will. But it seemed like Vykkä had other plans for them. Mary snapped out of it. “Is Will alright?”
“He has left some time ago”.
“At this hour?”
“He didn’t seem himself.”
“How do you know that?”
Mary sighed. Her daemon could be very monosyllabic.
She got up and went to check on Will’s room. She wrapped herself in a dark blue robe and padded down the hallway, feeling Vykkä’s gaze on her back. Her eyes weren’t uncomfortable, but rather, soothing. Mary didn’t need to go much further to find Will’s bedroom door ajar and his bedside lamp on, something that he usually didn’t do. Will Parry was the neatest teenage boy Mary had ever met. Possibly the neatest human being, to be true.
When Will moved in, the woman was afraid she’d have to deal with a teen’s mess, but rather, she found out she was much messier than him. He was actually the one cleaning the house, even though Mary protested. “It’s the least I can do”, he’d say, but still, Mary was uncomfortable. The boy had spent enough of his years caring for other people. Mary wished she could care for him just for a change, but with Will, it was difficult.
The boy never let his guard down, he was always ahead of her: before she could clean her dishes, organize her bills, fold her laundry, Will would beat her every time to those house chores. As the years passed, and under Mary’s insistence, Will stopped cleaning the house so thoroughly. “Look, think of us as roommates. So half the chores are mine, okay? And you shouldn’t worry about them. It’s good practice for you, someday you’ll be leaving for college and you won’t want to become a slave of your roommates”. Will agreed. Talking about college always cheered him up. He was a very curious and intelligent boy, something that Mary loved about him. He’d be just fine in college.
Splitting the house chores meant, of course, that all of Mary’s were left either half-done or completely abandoned. Will never said anything about it though, and Mary was glad.
She looked around his room: stacks of books on the floor, even though Mary had bought him a nice bookshelf, that was already overwhelmed with books and crooked in the middle due to their weight. Will was a bookworm, and it was fun to see how organized he was with the house and how messy he could get with his books. But leaving his door open and his lamp on weren’t something that he usually did. Neither sneaking out in the middle of the night, of course, it didn’t matter if he was 18 and ready for college.
The boy had been acting weird for the past semester or so. With college approaching, Will had become more and more stressed. He didn’t really talk to her about this in particular, but Mary could sense that all his nervousness had to do with something other than college. Something much deeper, and much more important.
She bit her lower lip, worried, and turned to Vykkä, still perched on the windowsill inside her bedroom. “You’re right. Let’s find him”.
After that talk about being roommates, Will liked to call Mary “roomie”. They’d both laugh at that, but sometimes, Mary wondered if he really thought of her as a roommate. Because she didn’t feel like one.
Roommates didn’t take you to eat ice cream in the park or to buy new clothes when you had outgrown your old ones, or even to shop for school supplies. Roommates didn’t go to school meetings and cheered on you on your graduation speech. And roommates definitely didn’t help you with your ill mom and paying for her treatment in a decent institution where you could visit her every day or so.
No, Mary really didn’t feel like a roommate to Will. And having him vanish in the middle of the night was driving her more and more worried.
“He’ll be fine”, whispered Vykkä to her, as Mary drove nervously around the neighborhood.
“Unlike me”, replied Mary, not regretting her vitriol tone.
“You know where he is, why are you driving around?”
Mary sighed. Yes, she knew. There were only three places Will would go: the institution where his mother lived (which was closed for visits at this time), the library (which was also closed) and the Botanic Garden… Which yes, was closed, but you could get around to it if you tried.
But Mary didn’t want to try. She also didn’t know what was happening, or why Will left in the middle of the night. She was also half afraid he had slipped through a crack between the worlds and completely vanished from her grip.
The last thought sent a wave of panic to her stomach. “Okay, we’re going there”.
The streets were empty at that time, only the occasional car crossing hers, and soon enough they arrived at the entrance of the Botanic Garden.
As expected, it was very much closed. Fortunately, Will wasn’t the only constant visitor there.
Ever since Mary donated the wheel-tree seeds to Dr. Donna Atwood, the Garden’s head of botanical diversity, they had become close friends, and Mary would constantly visit the woman at the Botanic Garden. Their first meetings were about Dr. Atwood trying to squeeze out of Mary the origin of those beautiful, unique specimen, but after a while, the encounters became casual and, soon, a friendship started to grow between the two women.
Mary knew her way around the Botanic Garden. She also knew about the security cameras. “Vykkä, can you take a look for me?”
The bird-daemon had been perched on the hood of her car, but under her request, she opened her dark wings and flew over the garden’s entrance, just enough so Mary could feel the pull between them being stretched. “He’s there alright”, she said, this time perched on her human’s shoulder.
“Of course he is”, thought Mary, in a mix of relief and exasperation. Of course he didn’t “fall” into another world. What a nonsense.
Vykkä looked sideways at Mary. “Are we going to break into the Botanic Garden in the middle of the night?”
“If Donna finds out about this, she’s going to hate us forever”, Vykkä said, warningly.
“Don’t be silly, of course not”.
“She’s never going to speak to us again because otherwise she’ll be fired for conspiring with the enemy”.
“Stop being so dramatic and tell me what you see”.
“He is there, alright”, said the daemon, going down and perching on her shoulder again. “And I think Kirjava saw me”.
“Is he going to run?”
“I don’t know”.
When they arrived at the bench, Will was sitting quietly in his place, staring down at his own shoes, with Kirjava on his lap. Mary couldn’t see his face, but in contrast, Kirjava’s eyes followed her every movement.
Mary feared Will was feeling a kind of pain she would never be able to help him with, and that hurt her too.
“I’m sorry”, said the boy in a low voice, as she approached. “I didn’t mean to worry you or… To make you come here. I was already heading back home”.
“You disappeared in the middle of the night” Mary couldn’t help but say it. “Of course I would worry.”
“Like I said, I didn’t…”
“… mean to, I know”, she offered to complete the sentence for him. “May I?” and Mary signaled to the bench.
Will rubbed his face. Mary still couldn’t see him. “Sure”.
They sat in silence for a full minute. She wanted him to start the conversation, because she felt like she was already prying enough.
Finally, Will took a deep breath and spoke. “I’m going to college in September”.
“And things are going to change”.
“And maybe from now on I will not be able to come here every year as we agreed”.
Mary hesitated. “Maybe, yes.” She didn’t want to lie to him. As soon as he joined university, he would have a lot of other activities and seminars and events and errands to run, more than a schoolboy. His time wouldn’t be his own anymore. And maybe, he wouldn’t always get around to be here on June 24th. She had thought about this, but it never occurred to her that he would too.
“That’s not fair!” he said, and Mary could hear the anger in his voice. Kirjava looked once more at Mary before jumping down Will’s lap to greet Vykkä, perched on a low branch of a nearby tree.
Slowly, she inched closer to him until she could embrace his figure. He had grown taller than her and stronger too. However, when she hugged him, she felt he was nothing but a scared twelve year old.
He was crying. He was desperate. That day, that hour in the Botanic Garden – it was all those two had. It was all they could ever had. How could Mary help? Who was she, to say everything would be fine? Who was she to say she’d help him? How could she possibly help him? How could anyone?
“I’m sorry, honey. I’m so, so sorry”, she didn’t realize she had started to cry too. “It really isn’t fair”, it was all she could offer him. A watered down comfort, that didn’t comfort at all, but rather left a hollow feeling on the pit of her stomach.
She let him cry his sorrows for a while, until he whispered: “Maybe I shouldn’t go to college. I could find a job around here. I could find a job in here. I could always be here, waiting for our day”.
Mary felt a lump in her throat. Oh, why must love hurt this much?, she thought. “And would you be happy like that?”
“It doesn’t matter”.
“Of course it does”.
“We are what matter. Every atom of us, she said”. He wasn’t crying any more.
Mary sighed and let go of the embrace. It was her turn to stare at her shoes, and in that moment, Vykkä fluttered her wings and came to be beside her. Kirjava followed the bird, silently. “A few months ago I had a dream. I dreamt Lyra walked into my lab again, the same eleven year old kid, but into this new lab, not my old one. She said she missed me, and asked where I had been, why hadn’t I looked for her anymore.” She paused, and confessed: “I felt incredibly guilty”, Mary cleared her throat. “I dream of her constantly, Will. The dreams are always different, but the guilt I feel in them is always the same”.
“You never told me that”, Will said, turning slightly to her, surprised.
“But that’s the thing, Will”, said Mary. “Why would I? It’s was a dream. I won’t be able to look for her, as much as you won’t be able to always keep your promise. I’ll always dream of her. You’ll always love her and think of her and long for her. You’ll spend your whole life longing for her, Will. You could spend your eternity here, in this very bench… And still, you’re worlds away.”
“This is not helping”, he said, suddenly becoming stiff and turning away from her.
“I’m afraid… Will, I’m afraid I have nothing to offer you”. That brought on tears to his eyes again. “And I’m sorry”.
Vykkä pecked at Mary’s hand and looked down at Kirjava, who had curled in Will’s feet, rubbing her face against his shin. She looked as in pain as he was. “She has”, Mary heard Vykkä’s voice in her head.
She freezed, stunned, and stared intently at Kirjava. Yes, she has.
“Will” whispered Mary, still processsing the idea in her head, and the boy forced himself to look at her, his eyes overflown with heartbreaking pain. “I think… there’s another way. That you could be here on Midsummer Day, every year, it didn’t matter what”.
The boy wiped off his face. “How?” asked him, desperation ringing in his voice. He looked like someone willing to cling to any kind of flimsy hope they could find.
Mary and Vykkä both looked down at Kirjava. “Kirjava, would you come? Would come even if Will couldn’t, to meet Lyra?”
Will and Kirjava weren’t only special for the part they played in the grand scheme of things – they were special because they had an ability that no one in this world had. An ability so unique, in Lyra’s world it was associated with sorcery and long-lived beings known as witches.
If someone could be in two places at once, that person was Will – through Kirjava.
The daemon cat looked up at Will. “I could, Will. We know I could”.
Will’s face dawned with realization. “Yes… You could. We could!” Mary smiled down at the daemon, and without warning, Will hugged her tightly. “She will!”
“Every atom of you two, Will”, Mary smiled in the embrace. “Every atom of you will be together, like she said. If two universes can’t tear you completely apart, nothing can”.
“We crossed to the land of the dead together… to remain so”, he said, letting go of Mary. “We can do this”.
“You can do this”, repeated Mary.
Will had the brightest smile on his face – not even the night could cast a shadow on it. “And when the day comes, Mary, we’ll cling together.”
“Like she said”, added Mary. She heard those words before, only one time, a few years ago, when Will couldn’t sleep.
“Like she said”, echoed Will, and he looked up at the stars.