It happened every time another man broke her heart.
She was fifteen, only a few months after everything, and a boy who'd teased her for the past five years had asked her to Homecoming. She was nodding, breathless, when his face twisted and he laughed: "Oh, wait, sorry Sarah! I forgot, I already have a date!" She's trying not to cry in the hallway, spinning to run for the relative privacy of the bathroom, and a mocking voice sounds in her ears: "Such a pity." Oddly, it makes her feel better, and she's too relieved to worry that it shouldn't have helped.
After her night in the Labyrinth—her dream of the Labyrinth—change had come slowly. Not in how she felt about Toby, no: but though that night she imagined herself surrounded by her fairy-tale friends, it didn't take long before the image faded. Seeing a fantasy become real, terrifyingly, viscerally real, took away the joy and safety of her fantasies, prompting her to leave them slowly behind.
She was sixteen, her first boyfriend; he held her and demanded everything from her and left angry when she told him no, she wasn't ready. On the bench in her favorite park, crying, hating herself for missing him even as she's glad she didn't give in; a barn owl ghosts across the field. She blinks, and he flares against her eyelids. She's so startled, she forgets to be miserable, but later, she can't remember why.
She hadn't immediately been sure it was a dream. When she woke that night to hear the clock chiming twelve, twelve, not thirteen, she'd been certain it was real. But it couldn't be. As much as she immersed herself in fantasy, deadly dangerous villains with strange, silly minions did not really pop into your window and steal your baby brother, nor did they give you a chance to take it back... or if they did, if they were really as all-powerful as he'd seemed, they didn't give you Hoggle and Ludo and Sir Didymus and everyone else who'd been at least neutral rather than openly antagonistic during her journey. No, it was a dream. It had to be. And the way she remembered that final confrontation, the other spins on it in the visions she was absolutely sure were only dreams... she wasn't ready for those to be real, wasn't ready to confront what else he might have offered or what else she might want from him, if the stakes were other than a defenseless child. And even those dreams had faded, with time.
She was eighteen and in love, and this time she did give him everything he asked for and more, three glorious months, until the day she found him asking everything of her roommate in the girls' showers. Standing naked in front of her mirror, examining every flaw, blaming herself: Why doesn't he want me? Why am I not enough? Eyes down, cupping still-growing breasts, glancing back to the mirror and he is there behind her, one gloved hand reaching for her, eyes burning with lust. She turns on the spot, but she is alone.
There were feelings she hadn't quite understood in that fantasy-in-the-fantasy, in the dream ballroom where he'd held her close and whispered words of love and she'd almost believed him. Had believed him, even, or at least, had wanted to. "...Had fallen in love with the girl," wasn't that part of the story? Wasn't it necessary? But it fit oddly with his terrible promise: "Fear me, love me, and I will be your slave." An offer of servitude shouldn't sound so ominous; putting herself in his power shouldn't sound so thrillingly tempting. During that first year after, she'd often listened to her music box, the song's promise echoing that chilling, haunting, beautiful, dangerous phrase; but since, she'd learned what it really was between a man and a woman and that spell was mostly broken. Real men never lived up to fantasy and he wouldn't either.
She was nineteen and afraid. Though she gave her body freely, there was more held back; if she didn't give everything, neither could he take everything. He was kind, loving, sweet: he should have been everything. But after a year of looking into her eyes and seeing affection so shallow compared to the depth of his love, he tore himself away; only then did she realize what she had denied herself. On the hilltop at sunset, leaning on a railing, lost and empty; and then feeling his arms around her, gloved hands covering hers, breath on the back of her neck, the smell and creak of leather. He feels so solid; she moves to grip his hands but it's like holding smoke, and he's gone. Was that real?
She decided to study psychology. If you turn it this way, and look into it, it will show you your dreams. Understanding, as well as she could, the workings of the mind would give her power. She must understand the mind, must understand her own mind, understand these dreams and why every man in the end, brought her back to him, or she'd run mad. Or she'd never be happy, never be free.
The Goblin King. Just a dream, once; but such a dream that when she woke, she was no longer a little girl. It had been an experience to mold and shape her, but only a dream. Jareth, her perfect adversary, flirtatious and cruel, unkind and unforgiving, then—dream within a dream—romantic and powerful, begging for her love even as he threatened her with his strength, taunting her with his "generosity" even as he moved to take the thing she most cared about, the brother she hadn't realized she loved.
You have no power over me. It was true, and yet untrue: he could not keep her, he could not keep Toby, she would never be his prisoner... and yet every thought circled back to him, eventually. Not right away; sometimes it was days, even months, but always she remembered the journey: the fear, the triumph, the longing, the strength. Standing with him as the Castle crashed down around them, time and space inverted as she claimed her prize and he fell defeated at her feet.
But in studying the mind, she learned the tricks to shape and mold her own. Jareth, she told herself, had been a manifestation of her growing sexuality, transformed into something to conquer, to comprehend. He was a symbol of letting go of childhood, the guardian of the gates of her adult self. That was why his image came to her when she was afraid of her womanhood; as she needed it, he became encouragement, comfort, and desirability. The villain of her nightmare, become terrifying comfort. Every time she had seen him—no, that was far too much like his being real—every time she had unconsciously imagined him, she felt better after, even though it made no sense, even though he still frightened her. At twenty-two, graduating from college, she told herself it was time to leave him behind. She was headed for a PhD, and nothing of childhood remained to her. Driving away from her undergraduate institution for the last time, she imagined him, deliberately pictured him, standing on that hill where once she'd felt his arms around her, and did her best to leave him there in her past. You have no power over me.
She was in control of her life. She lived alone, and though she dated casually, it was always she who left, always she who decided it was over, and if she occasionally saw a flicker of Jareth in a window as she passed, she told herself she was only seeing things. She didn't need him anymore. She was her own woman. The Goblin King was a child's fantastic dream.
At twenty-three, her dedication to her studies would see her graduated and done in another four years. Child psychology. Her colleagues teased her about her interest in dreams, but she maintained that they held power, especially for children. Her work on the varieties of imaginary friends, invented by children with and without other problems, was already drawing attention. A few people had asked about the archetypes she proposed—a cuddly monster, a ridiculous (though chivalrous) knight, others of that type—but she was impassive, maintaining that they were only constructs found throughout imaginary literature and children's imaginations: the monsters of Where the Wild Things Are, Falkor of The Neverending Story, Tumnus the Faun and Aslan himself in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Dorothy's Tin Man and Lucy's Reepicheep. And then, of course, Prince Charming. He never had much personality; only a fine hero at the end of a long road. Every girl wants to meet Prince Charming. Every girl waits to be swept off her feet, every young girl wants to be loved... never mind that Prince Charming hadn't figured in her own fantasy life since the age of fifteen. She'd put away childish things, and others should too, in their own time. Fantasies filled holes real life couldn't reach; once you understood what was missing, you could go get it or learn to live without it.
When she was twenty-four, she met Ben, and it was as though the Prince Charming story finally made sense. She giggled like a schoolgirl—actually, she'd never giggled like that, as a schoolgirl—and danced like she'd won the lottery and two months later when his lease was up she asked him to move in with her before she even really thought about it. It took another four months before she realized that she hadn't seen Jareth hiding in the corner of her eye ever since they'd started dating, and in another year she'd pretty much convinced herself she hadn't seen him before then, either, not since college, anyway, but that was all to the good. Who needed a dream when reality exceeded expectations? Her work expanded, too: she was able to examine Prince Charmings and dark seducers without imagining that he was watching her.
It was her twenty-sixth birthday, and Ben had taken her to dinner, and she had never been so sure of anything in her life as she was that she'd leave this restaurant with her fiancé instead of her boyfriend. He'd been oddly quiet, tonight; it was probably nerves.
"Sarah," he began, as they lingered over dessert. "Sarah, there's something we need to talk about."
That was an ominous way to start a proposal. She swallowed carefully, put down her fork, and looked at him.
"What is it?"
"Sarah... I'm sorry to tell you this today, but I need to tell you sometime and the timing isn't getting better." Her breath caught in her throat. "This... I'm sorry, Sarah. You're a great girl. But this isn't working anymore."
"The—this—but Ben, I thought..." Her brain was shutting down.
"I know. I'm sorry. I'm not ready to settle down, Sarah. I'm not ready for forever. As much as I care about you, I'm not even sure I want it with you. And the longer I stay, knowing you want that, the longer I'm cheating you out of finding it. I'm sorry." He stood. She hadn't moved. "I'll take care of the bill, and I'll stay at Eddie's tonight. I'll be by tomorrow for my things." He stopped, touched her cheek, tilting her face up until she was forced to meet his eyes, and she blinked, trying to deny that she was on the verge of tears. "I'm sorry, Sarah."
"Miss?" The maître d' was leaning slightly over the table, a hint of concern behind his professional demeanor. "I'm sorry, miss... Can I call you a cab?" Ben must have paid the staff extra, to ensure she could have the table as long as she needed, but every restaurant closes eventually. She wasn't sure how long she'd sat, staring at nothing, but the restaurant was dark and quiet and empty, and the ice cream that had topped her forgotten dessert had become a sad, warm, squishy puddle. She hadn't cried or made a scene, just processed the hurt, tears that never fell pricking the corners of her eyes.
"No... no, thank you." She closed her eyes, swallowed. "It's not far. I'd rather walk." He gave her a little bow, then stepped back to pull out her chair as she stood.
The cold night air was stinging on her face, raising tears in her eyes with its bite, and yes those were just the result of the wind, of course they were, nothing else to see here, don't think about where you're going, what you're going home to, what you're not going home to. All too soon she was standing at her front door and without anywhere else to go, she opened the door, closed it, locked it, put down her things... and there resolve failed her. Stumbling in the dark, she kicked off her shoes, threw herself into bed fully clothed, buried her face in a pillow that still smelled of Ben, and sobbed.
She was still there, having at some point drifted off to sleep, when he showed up the next day. He seemed startled and sad to see her confidence so reduced, her eyes puffy from tears, her clothes wrinkled, her manner guarded and fearful. He'd planned to show up when she was still in class, but apparently school wasn't even on her radar, today. "I, Sarah I..." He stopped. There was nothing he could say. "I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd be here."
"Don't worry," she snapped, sorrow and fear turning to cold anger, "I'll get out of your way." She stalked over to her dresser, grabbed the first thing out of the top drawer, and disappeared into the bathroom. Five minutes later, as he was still trying to collect himself to say something, or even pack, the door slammed: she was gone.
Sarah didn't know where she was going, she just let her feet go, walking off her anger and her grief. Nothing mattered, not life, not school, not work; everything was ended in the wake of his declaration. She'd been in control, she'd been so sure she knew where her life was headed, and now, derailed, all paths obscured, she wasn't even sure what street she was on or how far she'd traveled. Finally, exhausted, her feet slowed down and her shoulder came to rest against a window which, she realized after a few minutes of blank staring, was full of beautiful old leather-bound books. Embossed across the window near her shoulder were two simple words: "Used Books."
A bell tinkled in a back room as she slipped into the shop, but no proprietor appeared; no matter, she was more inclined to browse. It was an older building, absolutely stuffed with books; shelves filled every space and books were even stacked on the narrow, twisting stairs leading upwards into, she guessed, even more rooms of the same kind above. Gently, she reached out and ran her fingers along the nearest shelf, not looking at the titles, simply closing her eyes to enjoy the soft feel and sweet, close smell of supple leather bindings and old, dusty pages. She inhaled slowly and then exhaled, without a hint of the choking sobs that had haunted her breathing since the night before. She moved forward slowly, enjoying a game she'd played in the dark hallways at the back of her university library. Close your eyes, run your hand down the row in some unknown stack, open at random and see where you land.
Her fingers dipped into a gap, a cavity between two larger books, and she paused, startled, and opened her eyes. Sunk in the gloom, she could see there was a book there, a small book, bound in red leather. A slim volume, and shorter than its compatriots, but familiar under her hand, and she drew it gently forth. The title was stamped on the cover in slightly peeling gold leaf: Labyrinth. Her fingers traced over the familiar corners, hefted the familiar weight, then, with a sudden decisive movement, she moved to the counter, which was still empty, and rang the bell.
It had taken a quite a while to find herself, and longer to plot a route home; she'd wandered more than five miles in her haze. Finding and purchasing the book had grounded her: she stopped at a corner store to pick up dinner, and now home was a little less than half a mile away. Unfortunately, the sky looked rather ominously like rain. Sure enough, less than five minutes from her door, the sky opened like a bucket being poured out, and she was soaked to the skin in seconds. Too wet to bother hiding from the storm, she merely hurried towards home.
The apartment was dark and silent; this made it easier to ignore the empty spaces: Ben's desk, gone, his clothes, gone, even the few kitchen items he'd brought into her home had vanished. She'd kicked something as she came in; looking back, she saw a plain white envelope, which probably contained his key. At least she wouldn't need to see him again.
She made herself sit at the table and eat, made herself turn on her computer and email her professors with apologies for missing class: she'd "Come down with something" and would be "Back on Monday, I promise." Today was Thursday, but she was sure she wouldn't feel up to normal life tomorrow, either. Similar promises went to her research advisor; fortunately, she was in a data-crunching step of her research, so there were no study participants to put off or make time for. She made herself shower, and put on comfortable pants, and finally chose a camisole when she realized she wouldn't be sleeping in one of Ben's old t-shirts. Finally, she turned to her closet, and pulled the box of mementos from the top shelf. Inside, along with a few pictures of her high school and college friends and newspaper clippings of her mother, was her music box. She set it on the nightstand. Only then did she turn to the book resting in her purse.
She'd wrapped it in plastic when she'd felt the approaching storm, and now unwrapped it, settling down into her pillows as she had so often as a girl. And, now, looking at it more carefully in the strong light of her bedside lamp, she realized the book was more than familiar, it was intimately so. This wasn't simply another copy of the same edition of her book. The bent corners, the peeling lettering, the fraying red ribbon, the water damage from when she'd been caught in another summer storm all those years ago… this was her book. She gave the ribbon a light tug, and the book fell open to a well-remembered, oft-read passage. "Through dangers unknown, and hardships unnumbered…"
Karen must have gotten rid of it, she mused. When they moved; when they cleaned out my room. I never asked. How it had come to a tiny, dusty used book store three states away she couldn't fathom, but the coincidence was oddly comforting. She opened to the beginning, traced the words of the poem on the inside front cover. It's only forever; that's not long at all. Well, forever was too long for Ben. She sighed.
It had been so long since she had read fantasy for pleasure, rather than as a part of her work, that she'd forgotten what it felt like to lose herself in her imagination. She laughed aloud at the words to call the Goblin King: "Goblin King, Goblin King, wherever you may be, take this child of mine far away from me!" So overblown—and yet, in her dream, that hadn't quite been it… had it? She shook her head, setting aside the unwelcome impression, and focused on the story. By the time she made it to those well-worn last pages, she had laughed and cried, and the whole experience was settling over like a comforting hug, these old friends returning to her mind as though she hadn't spent the last so many years pushing them away into neat little boxes. She propped the book open to the page with the final monologue, the one she'd practiced so many times, reached over, and turned on her music box.
"Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the Castle beyond the Goblin City, to take back the child that you have stolen." She was mouthing along with the familiar words, despite feeling that something was missing, a counterpoint: didn't she remember that the Goblin King would speak? But he was silent, impassive and stern before the heroine. "For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great." He took a few steps forward, held up a hand, conjured a crystal, but stayed silent. "You have no power over me!"
She closed her eyes. The book was done, but her memory was coming back, the dream so vivid she could almost feel again her fear and triumph. His words, too, returned full force: "Look, Sarah, look what I'm offering you. Your dreams! I ask for so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything you want. Fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave!" He'd sung it too: How you turn my world, you precious thing. You starve and near-exhaust me. Everything I've done, I've done for you. I move the stars for no one. Tears were coming again now, not for that heroine, but for herself. She'd been so sure of herself, on that long-ago day; she'd discounted his promises like they were nothing. She couldn't have given up her brother, of course, but she hadn't even been tempted. Had she been too young to hear the promise, too much a child to desire him then? The music box played on, and she remembered the words he'd sung to her deep in that ballroom fantasy: I will be there for you, as the world falls down. And he'd been there before, hadn't he, every time her heart was breaking? When she'd been hurt, even a little, by another man? And now, more broken than she'd ever been, she hadn't even managed to conjure up a fantasy of strong arms or deep desire or even scorn. Career, she tried to remind herself. That's what you wanted, isn't it? To understand the mind, to help people, to control your own destiny? To take control of your fantasy, to make it submit? But her attempts at control had gotten her nothing but an empty bed and a broken heart, and a set of letters after her name didn't mean much if she was alone.
The music box melody ground to a halt, and she hid her head in the pillow, eyes squeezed shut. "I wish… I wish…." She swallowed hard. "Goblin King, Jareth, I wish you were real."
Lightning flashed, thunder boomed, and all the lights went out. She rolled onto her back, suddenly nervous. The window rattled, loudly, then blew open in a gust of wind and rain and blowing curtains; a barn owl swooped in, circled the room once and then, as her eyes widened in fear, resolved into the form of the Goblin King, every inch exactly as she had first seen him.
"Why Sarah," he said softly, his mouth smiling but his voice full of dangerous warning, "I thought you'd never ask."