When John is young, before he goes to school or is old enough to realize that most people sleep through the whole night and don’t get up at four in the morning to eat toast, his mother tells him stories in the dark. They lie curled together on John’s bed, foreheads almost touching, breathing at each other the scents of butter and strawberry jam and crumbs, and John closes his eyes and listens as his mother paints pictures with her voice.
“Once upon a time,” she says, sounding for a moment as if she might laugh, “In a place no one remembers any more, there was an ocean. And in the middle of that ocean was a city, the most beautiful city ever seen, full of scholars and magicians who were the loveliest that ever lived.” And John imagines a city that looks like a sand castle, and people that look just like his mother, because there is no one prettier.
She tells him stories about the people who lived in the city, people with strange names that eventually become as familiar to him as his own: Moros, Oma Desala, Janus, Ganos Lal, Anantha. Sometimes they do good things, sometimes foolish things. Occasionally they are wise. They break rules to save people, and often escape unscathed. Often, but not always.
“There are always consequences,” she reminds John when he protests Moros’s exile. “He knew that when he chose to act.” And John subsides into mutinous silence because he both does and doesn’t want to hear how it ends. He’s learned a little of how unfair life can be, has grown used to being the odd one out, has had to say goodbye too many times.
As he grows older the stories spill over into the books he reads for school. Moros becomes Merlin, and John comes close to tears when Arthur’s kingdom, Merlin’s dream, falls apart. He clutches the promise of REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS to him like a talisman, and every morning, in the bleak hours before the bus arrives, his mother tells him stories of heroes rescued even from death.
The kids at school talk about Batman and Superman, Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, and he picks up enough to fake his way through the conversations—there’s never money for him to buy comic books of his own, but sometimes he manages to wheedle Bobby into lending him old issues. Batman is pretty cool, though not as inventive as Janus, and now sometimes it’s John telling tales in the dark. They never sound as good out loud as in his head, but his mother always listens in flattering silence.
Once he learns the trick of being friendly without actually being friends, school is a lot easier—it’s almost too easy, sometimes, but his family moves often enough that he never has time to get bored. It’s a little lonely, but he’s never really known anything else.
And then his mother falls ill.
One morning he wakes up and she isn’t there. There’s no smell of toast, no noise of her in the kitchen. He doesn’t panic—after all, she doesn’t always wake him in the mornings, just mostly. Usually. Almost always. But when he finally gets out of bed and goes through the house, she’s not anywhere.
He almost doesn’t think of his parents’ bedroom, since that’s strictly off-limits until his father’s up (“On his own, John, it doesn’t count if you slam the door to wake him.”), and that won’t happen for hours. It’s a rule he hasn’t broken for years, but it’s almost time for him to go to school, and he needs a lunch and someone to say goodbye to.
Both his parents are still in bed, covers kicked down and twined about their legs. His father has one arm draped over John’s mother’s stomach, and is breathing slow and steady, obviously still asleep. But John’s mother’s eyes are open and her face gray in the morning shadows, her smile all wrong.
“’Morning, Iohannes.” Her voice cracks partway through the first word. “What are you doing in here?”
“I need lunch,” he tells her, half wanting to creep out of the room, half desperate to press his face against her side. His stomach groans at him. “And breakfast.” She looks at him for a moment, then turns her head so she can see the clock. When she speaks again, she sounds almost the way she should.
“Go get yourself some cereal. I’ll be out in a minute to make you lunch.”
But she isn’t. Instead, John’s father comes to kitchen, shirtless, hair sticking up and red creases down his cheek. He sticks two pieces of bread together with honey and peanut butter and grabs a handful of carrot sticks from the fridge, and has John out the door in time to meet the bus. He doesn’t answer John’s questions about why he’s making lunch instead of John’s mother.
The sandwich and carrots aren’t enough, and John spends his afternoon classes miserably hungry and worried about his mother.
When he leaves school, stomach still complaining, there’s an airman waiting for him with a car, and that’s when he knows something really is wrong. The airman came to John’s house once, played catch with him, ate an impressive number of hot dogs, laughed at all John’s mother’s jokes even when no one else did. Now, though, his expression is pinched, and the first thing he says to John is “I’m sorry.”
John doesn’t ask what for, just climbs into the car without prompting. He can feel everyone in the school yard staring at him, at the soldier shutting the door behind him. They all think they know what it means that someone in uniform’s come to the school to collect John.
They don’t, though.
John spends the next three evenings at the hospital, sitting beside his mother’s bed, pretending he cares about his homework. The only stories he hears are those he tells himself, and most of them fall to pieces partway through, unable to hold together in the near-silence. Eventually he gives up and listens as his father talks to the doctors, their voices muffled by the door and the sound of John’s mother breathing, the steady beep of the heart monitor.
“Wake up,” he says to her once, on Thursday, but he says it too quietly for anyone to hear it but himself, and her eyes stay closed.
Friday, her eyes are open, and when she smiles at John, she almost looks the way she should. John thinks he’s never felt so happy. But when he asks her if this means she can come home now, her smile fades.
“John,” she says, and he already knows what’s coming. “Let me tell you a story.” She takes his hand in hers, and he lets her, because a story is better than the alternative. “Once upon a time,” she says, sounding for a moment like she might cry, “In a town too small for anyone to remember, there lived a boy whose mother loved him very much.” Her voice breaks on the last word, the way it had the morning everything went wrong, and this is when John remembers that not all stories have happy endings.
So he says, “I know that story. Tell me another one. One you haven’t told me before,” and doesn’t look at her face for fear of what he’ll see there.
Her grip on his hand tightens, as though she might pull him down on top of her—or pull herself out of the bed using him for rope—but then she lets go and smooths down the blankets covering her legs. (They keep piling more on and she keeps on shivering and when John helped her put on an extra pair of socks her feet were as cold as stones in the shade.)
“Very well,” she says, and he pretends that’s not disappointment in her voice. “Romance or adventure?”
“Tell me one that’s true,” he says, because he needs something to hold onto, and with a glance at the door to make sure no nurses are watching, he climbs onto the bed beside her and curls up as best he can. Everything smells wrong, but if he closes his eyes he can still half-pretend that they’re actually at home, on his bed, and that the day is just beginning, not ending.
This is the story John’s mother tells him: “Anantha, after the city was hidden and fled, went to the Old Lands with the others. And with the others she turned herself into stardust, so that she would never die. But unlike the others, she did not leave to wander through the heavens until the ending of all things. Instead, she stayed, and watched the cities of men rise and fall and rise again through bravery and malice and small acts of kindness.
“She watched as all manner of men lived and bled and returned to dust, and she thought nothing of it. Nothing, that is, until the day she saw a young man with summer-bleached hair and a smile like the sun after storms, and eyes that held only the sky.
“And she, who was older than human memory, who had locked away her heart for safe-keeping, she felt something give way within her at the sight of those eyes. Without thought or care, she cast away her immortal form and took again the shape of a woman, so that she might speak with him. ‘What is your name?’ she asked him, although she already knew it. ‘Robin,’ he told her, and wondered at the thrill of joy he felt when he heard her voice.
Here John’s mother stops, coughing, and John’s arm tightens around her waist.
“And they fell in love and got married and lived happily ever after,” he says for her, the words muffled against her side.
“Well,” she says once she has breath enough again. “They lived, that’s true, and fell in love, and were happy. But Robin was mortal, and Anantha—Anantha loved him.” And John’s heard other stories like this before.
“I know what you’re trying to tell me,” he says.
“I know you know.” His mother’s fingers brush against his cheek, chill as the air in November. “Or that you think you do, but I suspect you will understand better in time.”
John wants to bristle at this, but there’s some emotion in his mother’s voice that he can’t identify, and she smells wrong, like the hospital, and the words won’t form on his tongue. So instead he says, “I thought you were going to tell me a true story.”
And suddenly John realizes that he’s crying, that they’re both crying, in vast, silent shudders, and neither of them wants the other to know. “Please don’t die,” he whispers into the hospital sheets. Please, please don’t die.
But all John’s mother says is, “I’m sorry, John. I’m so very sorry,” and the more tightly he clutches her, the more she seems to fade away, like in some nightmare he can’t wake from. She’s sorry, he’s sorry, and all the world, too, but that doesn’t make anything better.
And so—oh, and so—John finds himself standing in a cemetery, holding his father’s hand with no thought to his age or the onlookers or anything beyond the rough fingers clenched around his own.
“Tell me a story,” he asks his father, after the minister’s done speaking and the dirt’s been sprinkled, and they’ve been left alone again, the silence creeping up around them like the tide, their fingers still locked together as though around a rope. For a long moment John’s father remains quiet, and John thinks he might drown, here on dry ground, beside the freshly-dug grave.
“Once upon a time,” his father finally says, voice as bleak as their surroundings, “a boy named Rob met a beautiful girl named Ana.”
And that is something, but it’s not enough.