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Once and Ever After

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You spot him right off.

He’s a grade above you—skipped up a year, he’s supposed to be smart.  Smart and talented and weird in that way where even the alienation by most of his older classmates is tinted with a kind of appalled admiration.  So you knew of him in that distant way you know about minor characters in TV shows you don’t watch, a general knowledge with no bearing on your life.

Except today he’s different, and when you see him across the schoolyard you spot it immediately.  He’s in the middle of milling group of departing schoolmates, the crowd flowing around him as they make for buses and car rides, and—he’s not just apart, he’s separate.  He stands out from the world like he’s a piece from a completely different puzzle, like his edges are formed in ways not shaped to connect to the people around him.  He watches the other students go by and there’s a brittle, shell-shocked quality to his stillness that you recognize intimately.

As the boisterous after-school throng dwindles and disperses he shakes himself free, reaching up to slip on a pair of pointed sunglasses.  He starts acrossed the paved schoolyard with intent, heading for an isolated area away from the car line and the remaining clusters of people.  You notice he looks up, often, at the empty blue sky.  His hand drops several times to his side like he’s looking for something that isn’t there.  Each time he doesn’t find it his hand clenches into a fist and his gait grows a little more stilted, a little more rapid.  

He’s almost-not-quite running when he reaches the empty play area, the one nobody uses because it gets too much sun.  He collapses onto a swing and sits there by himself, hanging onto the chain like it’s a lifeline.

You grab your book bags and cross the pavement, plunking down onto the swing next to him.  

You can’t tell if he looks at you, behind the shades, but his shoulders tense slightly.  One hand tightens on the swing chain, the other crosses to his side again.  Searching and not finding.

Sword, you think, and you’re almost sure.  You’re not certain but…

—but in the last year you’ve gotten way more comfortable taking crazy chances.  You’ve only your dignity to lose.  What’s that but a kind of shared delusion?  The world is full of strange and ridiculous unrealities that people accept every day.

"Hi," you say.  "I’m Jane.  Last year I fell through a mirror and into an upside-down world full of sentient playing cards where I overthrew the evil queen.  And if you even think of laughing or pretending you don’t believe me I am going to stab you with a fork."

He lifts his head.  He’s facing you full on, now. Staring.

"Well?" you say.  "What was yours?"

He’s still staring.  You smile, wider and stubborn-er, and refuse to look away.

"Magical pony adventure," he says finally.  His voice is nice—a little strained but kind of dry and ironic.  He doesn’t laugh, but you think if he did it would be sharp and quick and cut towards himself.

"Were they talking ponies?" you ask him politely.

"I—yes.  They were fucking talking ponies with wings and magical powers and they picked me to save the world.”  Once he starts it comes out in a tumble, like the words have been bottled up just waiting to escape.  “And I freed an enslaved race and rescued a pony princess and hatched a baby dragon and I earned a boon from the sea ponies.”  He finishes on a flat note, chin up, defiant.

"That’s good that they could talk, though," you say and kick your swing out a little.  "A lot of the things I met couldn’t talk.  Although even the ones that did talk didn’t have much to say of sense.  Very contrary sort of place."  You lean the side of your face on your hand and raise your eyebrows at him.  "I met some talking flowers once but they didn’t like me very much."

He makes a funny, almost laughing sound that ends in a choke.  ”Really.”

Your grin turns prim.  ”Yes, they were very rude.  No manners at all.”

He twists his swing in your direction and leans forward, his lips pressed together.  He nods solemnly.  ”Posies be hating.”

It makes you laugh.  Hoot, really, and your glasses slide down your nose.

His lips quirk up, the first hint of a smile you’ve seen from him. Almost as quickly as it arises the humor vanishes from his face.  That brittle look is back.  ”If you’re just having a go at me…If I find out this is some kind of prank—”

You don’t make him finish the thought.  ”It’s not.  I’m not.”  You look him dead on and say the words you most needed to hear, last year, after, when you were reeling and lost and suddenly alone.  ”It’s real.  It was real.”

He sucks in one quick breath and goes very still.  You watch the flickering of muscles along his jaw and temples, the clench of his fist by his side, almost white knuckled before he releases the pressure.  His breath streams out again and he tips his head down.  Blond hair falls across his shades as he nods shortly, once.  ”Yeah.”  He picks his heels out of the sand and lets his swing untwist,  spinning back around the front.  ”Yeah, it was real.”  

He turns his face back towards you, half a smirk curving his mouth.  ”Hi, I’m Dirk.  One time I found a magic sword and freed a land of talking ponies from a demon lord.”  He offers his hand, very mature.  

You grin and hold out your nearer hand to shake wrong-handed.  ”Pleased to meet you, Dirk.  How do you do?”  

“Oh, you know,” he says, “Typical Monday. Long weekend, lotta irons on the fire, and I up and forgot my homework in another dimension.”

“I hate when that happens.”  You’ve still got his hand and you wind up hanging onto it, just because you can.

Dirk allows it.  After a moment he laces his fingers through your own, hanging on back.  When you kick your swing into motion you swing together.  You feel better than you have in a long time, and it’s funny, because you thought you were fine.  Maybe you needed a puzzle piece to fit with your own remade edges, after all.

“This sort of thing is only supposed to happen in books, you know,” Dirk says, after a while.

“Right, like in fairy tales.  It’s like the end part of a movie, isn’t it?”

“Like there’s supposed to be credits scrolling and happily ever after and a moral and shit.  But it doesn’t play out the way they say at all.”

"I learned important lessons about imagination,” you say brightly.  Your grin is mostly teeth.  "And then they sent me back here where nothing fit and people thought I was making up stories and I had to learn it all over again. Except all by myself this time."

"I learned about the power of friendship," Dirk says.

"Oh, harsh."

"Pretty much.  …I’m not going to see any of them again, am I?" he adds, and his tone’s going distant and mechanical again.  Removed.  “We can’t tell anyone and I’m always going to have this big, crazy secret and we’re never going to go back.”

You tug his hand.  ”I don’t know.  Would you want to?”

“…I don’t know.”  His grip tightens before he drops your hand.  His expression is turned inwards.

You leave the distance alone even though your hand feels empty now.  He’s still right there and you haven’t forgotten how this feels, the way it can ambush you.  Can’t be rushed, can’t be forced.  Just hurts until it doesn’t so much or until you learn to put it away.  Memory makes your voice fierce.  ”Well, anyway, I’m done crying.  It never did me any good, there or here.  Just filled up lakes and lakes.  The fish liked it, I guess, but that’s not much reason for it.”  People can drown in tears.  That’s another lesson you learned.

The two of you swing some more while Dirk thinks about that or maybe just pokes at his own demons.  “Jane,” he says finally, and his voice has dropped very low and tight and careful.  ”How do you know we’re not crazy?”

"Oh, we’re all crazy,” you say immediately.  You manage, just, to not start laughing madly.  You don’t think it would be helpful and he doesn’t know the joke, anyways.  You suspect your grin has gone a bit cracked.  ”So what if we are?”

“So what?” Dirk echoes, and he sounds offended, like you’ve questioned the fundamental nature of gravity or suggested that the difference between down and up might not be all that important.

Mirror world, you think and you wonder if he’ll be able to understand.  “So what!” you repeat.  You’re flippant, but it’s a stubborn, defiant kind of flippancy.  You earned the right to take things lightly.  “Everybody’s crazy and everybody plays pretend.  That’s what I figured out.  It took me ages and ages to realize though, because I kept thinking ‘this is the real world and everything’s different now.’  But it’s not, not really.  It’s just as made up as the other one.  The only hard part’s figuring out what kind of world you want to make believe you’re in.  And what kind of world other people are pretending about.  A lot of people want to make believe they’re sane.”

Dirk shakes his head at you, his eyebrows up, but you can see his eyes crinkle at at the edge of his shades.  “You know, I think you’re right,” he says slowly.  “You are kind of bent.  I am getting definite mad girl vibes over here.”  He nudges your foot with his own as he says it, though, the smile creeping from his eyes onto the edges of his lips.  It’s just a bit off kilter, like he’s out of practice.  “Imagination, huh.”

“You should try it,” you say primly.  “I recommend it highly.  And I’ll have you know I am excellent at pretending to be normal.  Pretending to be normal is one of my favorite things to do.  It makes it much more surprising for people when I do something interesting.”

“Do you think you might have gotten that imagination lesson slotted in backwards?” he asks mildly, “Or on overdrive?”

“Dirk!  I take this very seriously.  This is serious business.”  You put on your most serious face in demonstration, pretending to stroke an imaginary mustache.  You had the best mustache, once upon a time, for about two hours.  They were glorious hours.  When you are a grown woman you are going to acquire one again.  You will probably need to steal one.

“Wait—were you the one that got the every item in the home ec room turned upside down and attached to the ceiling a few months back?”  Dirk asks you.

You continue to stroke your imaginary mustache and maybe twirl it just a little.  “I am a professional.  I apply my skills sparingly but with great precision.  Any rumors can be neither confirmed nor denied.”

“Even the dishwasher,” he goes on.  “And the stove.  And a whole baking sheet with cookies glued on.  No one could figure out how it was managed.  All the little spice jars.  Mr. Slick just about murdered two grade levels trying to figure out who’d done it.”

“I imagine it was someone was very handy with a hammer.  And other assorted kitchen utensils.  It was egg whites for the glue you know.”

“Keeping things edible,” Dirk says and he’s doing this not-quite grin thing at you.  His lips hardly move but his face is lit with amusement.  It’s rather devilish.

“Of course.  Food should always be what it appears to be.  Contaminated food makes me quite tetchy.”  You’ve gotten to the point where you can eat foods you didn’t prepare with your own hands again, but there’s a lingering sense of vertigo to the act, like your might find yourself changing in ways you did not choose.  You’re fanatical about labels.  Really, it’s easier and more soothing to cook for yourself most days.  

Your dad joins you in your baking more often than not and that’s… also nice.  It’s a way you still understand each other.  A point of connection.

Dirk is watching you and you don’t know what he sees but the next thing he says is, “We’re the only ones?”

“Far as I know.  It seems like there’s got to be more, but I never met any of them.”

“So you were alone.” 

You blink and shrug because you don’t know what to say to that, and his voice has just a little too much knowledge in it.  

“That sucks majorly.”

You shrug again and kick your swing into motion, pump your legs to gain momentum.  “Oh, not so much,” you say, when you’re moving, and the world is going backwards and forwards and you can remember how ridiculous everything is.  “I like the space.  Gave me lots of time to figure things out.”  The air whips your words away, spins them in cheerful eddies.

Dirk just watches you, his head tilted slightly to the side.  “Hyeah, okay.”  It’s that dry, understated irony, like the first time he spoke.  A minute later his own swing is moving again.  In a half dozen beats he’s on tempo with you, synchronized, and you kick higher just to see if he’ll follow.  He does.

He looks over at you as you swing together, and there’s determination in the set of his jaw and the upward curve of his mouth.  “You should come over for dinner,” he announces, like it’s a statement of fact.

You laugh, letting the wind grab the sound.  “Shouldn’t you ask your parents first?”

“Bro won’t care.  He’s going to be hella late anyway.  You should come over.  We’ll make nachos.  You can paint my nails.  I’ll do your homework for free.”

“I can do my own homework.”  You press your lips together and try very hard to stop smiling.  “Fine.  If my dad says it’s okay.”

“Nope, too late, I heard a yes.  I’mma kidnap you.  For nefarious hang out purposes.”  Dirk pitches his voice up, like a smaller child.  “Come play with me, Jane.  Forever and ever and ever.”

“I wasn’t kidding about sticking a fork in you,” you warn him.  But you’re smiling.  “So.  Power of friendship, huh?”

“Could be.”

“Do you think you might have that a little twisted?”

“Nah,” he says, and his voice is deadpan but his smirk is wry and self-mocking .  “Pretty sure I am the friendship prince.”

You shove his swing to make him spin and flail and it sets you spinning crazily too, and you almost wind up tangled up before you get yourselves back to rights.

You fall back into rhythm naturally.

“It’s like flying,” Dirk tells you, a little later.  “Wingbeats.  Up and down.”  His voice is so careful, like he’s sharing something precious and dangerous and fragile with you, and you wind up telling him how when you tilt your head back and swing as high as you can go you can feel yourself falling and see the world flip upside down, and it’s terrifying and exhilarating and familiar all at once.

He listens, and he talks, and you tell your stories piece by fractured piece, and you find that in this moment you’re happy and it’s the beginning.