The scrambled eggs were congealed on the plate in front of her. The first few bites had been delicious, hot and fluffy and nothing at all like the dorm cafeteria food that she hadn't quite gotten used to yet. But then the "family discussion" had started, and the eggs had been left to cool and crust over, uneaten. Karen was washing dishes at the sink, a constant clinking underscore to the stormy feud. Sarah and her father were staring daggers at one another across the breakfast table, while Toby had fled to his room upstairs.
"Sarah," her father was saying exasperatedly, and for the third or fourth time since The Talk had begun, "we understand that you're just starting to get into the swing of college, and that there are a lot of things there that really interest you. But you are not there to engage in glorified daydreaming; you are there to build the foundation for your future. " His voice grew clipped and harsh as he spoke the next words. "Mythology majors. Do. Not. Get. Jobs."
Karen spoke over the noise of the sink, cajolingly. "Honey, there have got to be drama or writing clubs on campus where you can pursue these interests of yours in your free time, but you have to think about how to be productive with your coursework. We aren't going to be paying your way forever." (Sarah thought that was a bit rich, as she had received almost a full scholarship from the university – for her creative writing, no less – which meant her father and stepmother were paying only a few thousand dollars a semester to make up the difference.)
Sarah opened her mouth to say as much, but her father cut her off again. "Now, you've got a good head for numbers, and you really enjoyed that economics class you took in high school, didn't you? Why don't you put some consideration to studying something like that?"
"Dad, the econ class was like a club or extracurricular to me! You know, something I did to supplement what I really cared about. Swapping my real interests for a side hobby doesn't work; just because I liked one class doesn't mean that's what I want to do with my life." Besides, she thought, half the fun of that class was the wonderful, quirky woman who had taught it. Ms. Chandler would always somehow manage to connect the lecture topic to a story…
"Be that as it may, one way or another, you have got to make ends' meet, and a degree in faerie tales is… it's worse than art!" Mr. Williams' brow was furrowed, and his knuckles white as his hands clenched to knotted fists against the pale green of the tablecloth. "And as much fun as you have with your writing, that is not going to be a living for you, either."
"The hell it –"
"Sarah, language! And stop yelling, your brother's upstairs," Karen cut in.
Sarah tried again, in a furiously exaggerated whisper. "The heck it isn't. I'm GOOD at it, or have you forgotten why I got my scholarship in the first place?"
"Sweetheart, a scholarship is one thing, but the real world won't give you an A for effort and idealism. You must understand that. Now, this conversation has gone on long enough, I think. You still have a week to change your classes, right?" He raised an eyebrow in prompt as Sarah stayed quiet. "Sarah…?"
She nodded, her lips pressed together and bloodless, her eyes nearly shooting sparks.
"Good. This week, you need to make a plan for more constructive studies. Talk to an academic adviser if you're not sure what classes to take. Economics sounds like it may be the best fit for your interests and abilities, but as long as you aim for something practical you can choose something else. And no, psychology and English are not practical. Keep the math class, of course, and you can stay in one of the others as an elective. But the rest need to be oriented toward a reasonable goal as of the end of registration. Are we clear?"
"But Dad – "
"Sarah. This topic is no longer open for debate. We've been here two hours, and Karen and I have things to do. Are we clear?"
Sarah nodded again, and shoved her chair back from the table, almost shaking with anger. She left the forlorn pile of eggs on her plate and stalked out of the kitchen just before the tears collecting in her eyes could fall.
Her room in her family's house felt bare, unwelcoming; it looked like Karen had packed away all the belongings she had left behind when she moved into her freshman dorm for orientation two weeks ago, save for the clothes she had not liked enough to bring with her. Sarah wondered why in the world she had thought it would be a good idea to come back home this weekend, and lamented that her father had her university web account information to make the tiny tuition payments she still owed. College orientation and dorm life had been a shock, but not an entirely unpleasant one. Her roommate was a track athlete and so aside from the early-morning workout alarms was rarely around to intrude on Sarah's existence. Not knowing anyone there prior to orientation was at once fascinating and terrifying; Sarah had alternated drastically between being attending social events at a rapid pace to meet people, and secluding herself in her room to shut out the world. The hour-long drive home had been undertaken this weekend out of a sense of "why not," and a hope for food that hadn't been sitting under a heating lamp for Powers-knew-how-long prior to making it onto her plate.
Well, the first five minutes of brunch had been good, at least.
Sarah sighed. It seemed silly to leave so soon after arriving, but thanks to the argument, she had no desire to stay. In fact, she was pretty sure she would rather be anywhere but here, so back to campus it would be.
She unplugged her laptop and slipped it back in her backpack, put on her shoes, and picked up the unopened overnight bag she had brought in anticipation of staying until Sunday evening. On the way down the hall toward the staircase, she paused at the closed door of Toby's room, hesitated, then knocked softly.
"Whoosit?" Her little brother's muffled voice came through the door.
"It's Sarah. Can I come in for a sec?"
The door opened, and Toby looked up at her with a very serious expression for a six-year-old. Noticing her bags, he asked plaintively, "you're not leaving, are you, Sarah? You just got here!"
Setting her bags aside, Sarah knelt and hugged him gently. "I know, but I think I'll get more done this weekend if I go back to school instead of staying. I also think if I don't leave I'll fight with Dad again, and that will just make me angry."
A single frown line creased Toby's high forehead. "Why were they yelling at you? Did you do something bad?"
"Well, I don't think I did. But they want me to study something different in school from what I want to study, and they think that I won't be able to be a writer like I want to be."
"That's stuuuuuuupid," he announced, dramatically. "You tell the best stories in the whole world!"
Despite herself, Sarah smiled crookedly. "Well, I'm really glad you think so, squirt. Maybe you can tell them that someday, eh? Anyway, you have fun this weekend, and I'll see you later, okay?"
Toby squeezed around her neck and nodded. "You'll come back again, won't you?"
"Of course I will. They can't stay grumpy forever." She kissed his blonde curls and stood before gathering her bags and continuing to the stairs, feeling a bit better.
Her appearance downstairs with bags packed drew raised eyebrows from her father and stepmother, and she glared, daring them to try to suggest she stay at home. Finally, Karen spoke. "A bit of a quick turnaround, you sure you don't want to stay for dinner, Sarah?"
Sarah smiled as brightly as she could manage, and answered with sugared venom. "Well, you two gave me quite the project for the next week, you know, completely re-planning my academic career in the span of a few days. I figured I might as well get started immediately – no point in me wasting my time here, is there?"
"Sarah," her father began in warning tone, but she had had quite enough, and cut him off.
"Nope, don't even start. I'm going to do what you said, but I don't have to like it, and I don't want to be here anymore this weekend. So goodbye, and I hope you're satisfied with your plans for my future."
She promptly walked out the door, threw her bags in her small Toyota, and began the boring drive back to campus. It mildly surprised her that she had managed to leave with those words. Past experiences had made her leery of angry partings, but she had not said anything she regretted, not in the least. In fact, she was still incensed, and no small bit hurt, by her father and stepmother's attitude toward her interests and the accomplishments she had already made. Her misadventure in the strange world of the Underground years before could easily have frightened her into shunning the paths of her imagination that led to the fey and unknown, yet it had done the opposite. She had become more cautious, surely, but her love of tales of other worlds and their denizens had only grown more and more intense as the years passed, and that fascination had begun to spill over into bouts of fitful, feverish creativity. She had published a single short story in her school literary magazine that first year, and was sending off portfolios of them to national contests by the spring of the next.
By the time she was starting college applications, Sarah had won several awards, and her stories had been featured in two country-wide youth publications. The next summer, she had begun a novel.
No one knew about that, yet. She was uncharacteristically self-conscious about it, at least in as early stages as it currently lay.
There had been a Spring Break trip to a small, nearby medieval faire, and a troupe of singers that entertained the passerby. Sarah had stopped to listen, and the song they'd been singing had not left her mind since.
Janet asks, "Tam Lin, my love,
Why is it in these woods you hide?"
"The Queen of Faeries stole me hence,
Alas, when I was but a child."
The ballad told the tale of Janet, whose lover was a human captive of the faeries, and how she rescued him on Halloween night, right from under the Queen's nose. Sarah had generally stayed away from the stories of child-snatching fae after her experience with a certain Goblin King, but that song had sent her wading through legends and folktales, suddenly fascinated by the themes that had emerged across cultures and centuries.
The story of Janet and Tam Lin had seemed full to bursting with possibilities for other viewpoints, other threads to the tale, and almost despite herself Sarah had begun to collect the ideas and weave them together. When they had taken enough shape that she knew no short story would be able to hold the whole tapestry, she'd resolved to finish it as a novel and try to get it picked up by a publisher.
And now here she was, on the road back to school with firm orders to get her head out of the clouds and into something her father's altogether-too-traditional mind considered "practical." Sarah wanted to scream.
Months passed, and Sarah soldiered ahead with her altered schedule, utterly miserable.
She tried to do as Karen had suggested, to treat her writing as a hobby to fill her spare time. It had certainly worked in high school, and for the first couple of weeks she had been optimistic that she could still make progress on her novel in addition to the "practical" regime her father was imposing.
Within a month, however, she had come to the rude realization that her ability to coast through classwork did not quite translate to university courses. She wasn't having difficulty, per se, but the papers and problem sets and projects were a full-time job, and one she resented constantly because the material had long since gone beyond her interest in the subject. Her one writing class that she had meant to use as a haven became its own tangled knot of problems as her ability to relax and focus on her creative instincts dwindled, leaving Sarah more and more frustrated even in the time that she set aside to write.
Worst of all, her dreams had changed.
Sarah had always had vivid, nearly crystal-clear dreams, and they had only intensified after her journey through the Labyrinth. They were the source of many of her ideas for stories, and they served as an escape from a world that never seemed quite as colorful as it should be. The dreams had begun to dim the weekend she had fought with her father and stepmother; now, they were muted and muddled, and the subject matter completely mundane. Not once in high school had Sarah dreamed of classes or homework, but that had become the norm, as if her father's ruling was determined to invade every facet of her life.
Visits home were infrequent and tense. The first weekend Sarah had visited after she changed her courses, she had been prepared to let the subject of her dissatisfaction lie, and to try to enjoy the time with her family. Her father, however, insisted on talking about her new classes, and was almost comically disappointed when Sarah responded flatly and tried to change the subject. (Or it would have been comical, had it not made her so angry.) Every time she visited, the situation was similar, and the unpleasantness of it quickly overrode even Sarah's longing for real food and desire to see her brother.
When Thanksgiving break rolled around, along with a pointed reminder that she had not called or visited in an entire month, Sarah resignedly returned. Her father and Karen mercifully set aside the talk of school for the holiday, though nothing pleasant filled the silent void of conversation, either. Toby's excitement to see her was her consolation – Sarah spent many hours reading to him, and playing energetic games of Knights-Tourney with cardboard lances.
The night before her return to school, however, he asked her for a story.
Sarah fished around in her brain for one of her short stories to tell him, but after several attempts that were met with "Saaaarah! I know that one already!" she was at a loss. She hadn't written anything new that she considered remotely worthwhile all semester, and the realization nearly brought her to tears.
She's come to the roses growing wild;
She's pulled a single one…
The lines of the tale drifted through her memory, like a whiff of perfume left in a room long after the wearer has exited. Her novel was stalled, barely touched in months, but she could still give him the traditional version of Tam Lin. And so Sarah half-spoke, half-sung her favorite incarnation of the old ballad, which had cemented itself in her memory over dozens of read-throughs the previous summer. She had to answer a lot of questions about the words –though the version she gave Toby was a fairly young one, it still had its share of archaic language – but he listened raptly otherwise.
"Is that one of yours, Sarah?" He asked when she had finished.
"No, not that one. That's an old, old story that has been retold for hundreds of years. I was… writing my own version of it, last summer, but I've stopped and I don't think I'll be able to get going on it again…" Sarah's voice trailed off, sadly.
Toby's face lit up when she mentioned her writing, and just as quickly drew into a serious frown at the last part of her statement. "Why not?"
"Well, squirt, I don't have much time these days. And when I do have time to write, it just… doesn't want to work. I think I cram so many other things in my head that don't matter to me, they shove all the stories out."
"But that's horrible! I want to hear more about the faerie queen – don't let the stories get pushed out!" Toby was looking almost as upset in his six-year-old way as Sarah felt.
She answered quietly. "I- I'm trying. Maybe they'll come back to me, if I just get used to things."
The solution was perfectly obvious to Toby, and he made that clear. "Well, try harder!"
The following week of classes was a grueling one, but on Friday night, Sarah found herself with a few waking hours to spare, and she did try harder.
To absolutely no avail.
Words meant to paint a scene of an enchanted forest under liquid moonlight fell like soot-covered bricks on the page, clunky and depressing. Every line of dialogue Sarah wrote seemed to come out as a string of tired clichés, and every inadequate descriptive sentence was a battle to construct. After three hours, she gave up and went to bed without even bothering to take down her hair or undress.
Twice more over the following week, Sarah tried again to work on her novel. Both sessions were spectacular failures, and left her even more drained and frustrated than the mild, work-induced sleep deprivation had done. The Friday morning seven days after her first attempt (and a night of fitful sleep after her third), when Sarah's alarm clock woke her from a long, involved mathematical analysis of supply and demand in newly-industrialized nations, she simply burst into tears.
Some detached part of her mind observed that it was terribly silly to cry over a dream as innocuous as that, but to the rest of Sarah, this was insult added to injury.
She managed to compose herself enough to dress and drag herself through the day's classes, but her mind was trapped in turmoil even as she absently took notes.
Would it be better, easier, to just give it up entirely? Stop this thought of writing and actually accept the path I'm on now? She was sick of fighting, sick of caring, sick of reaching for inspiration that seemed to have completely abandoned her. Something had to give, and she was afraid to answer the question of what that would be.
After her final class, Sarah left the building and just kept walking. She paced the sidewalks between the academic buildings, wandered distractedly past the sports fields, and wove between the dorms. An hour or more passed in this way, before tired feet (clad in shoes fit for walking to class, but not an extended hike all over campus) and a stiff back from carrying her knapsack finally brought her back to her own door.
Somewhere over the course of the trek, she had decided to shelve the novel, probably for good, and the choice made her sick inside, but she did not see a better option. It would hurt less if she stopped trying than it did to attempt to wring the words out of herself when there were plainly none to be had.
Sarah shuffled in, noting absently that her roommate was out for an away competition, and tossing her load of books to the floor with a relieved sigh. She picked her way over a few other piles of textbooks, and around the paper screen that sectioned off her "bedroom" part of the large, one-room dorm –
– and stopped short, heart suddenly pounding in a way that the mild exercise had not evoked, staring at her dresser.
Her reflection in the small mirror above it registered her shock, as well as her disheveled exhaustion.
Just in front of the mirror, perfectly centered on the top of the dresser, lay a flawless, spherical crystal the size of a pool ball, and a single snowy owl feather.