January 2, 2011, 12:57 AM
"I'm coming! I'm coming! God, hold your fucking horses. It's one in the morning!"
Toby yanked the door open, with some annoyance. It was never a good sign when someone was banging on your door after midnight. On his front step stood a young woman, something like his own age, wearing a bulky coat and carrying two huge duffel bags. She was also wearing way too much eye makeup.
"Toby!" she said. "Oh thank God." She pushed past him, into the apartment, and he moved back automatically. Who was she? "I'm so sorry I couldn't make it for Christmas. I got Above, but not to America."
"Christmas?" He blinked, a bit stupidly, and then he realized. A week ago, he'd spent seven hours standing around in the cold, in the park, and nothing had happened. "You're her, aren't you? You're my sister Sarah?" She looked far too young, maybe a year his senior, if that, but hadn't he thought on his own that that might happen?
"And I needed to be at your place, now, anyway, not your parents'," she went on, as though she hadn't heard. "You're the only one who might understand."
"Understand what? You're not making any sense. Are you Sarah?"
"What? Yes. I'm Sarah." She had dropped the bags, and she looked up at him again. There was something very strange about her eyes, in addition to the makeup; he couldn't quite put a finger on it. "Look, I'm sorry to just barge in here like this but I need—"
A strangled, quiet cry came from beneath her coat, and she unbuttoned it swiftly, shrugging it off to let it drop to the floor.
"Sssh, precious," she whispered, "I've got you." He saw that she had a baby strapped to her chest, young by the look of it, maybe six months old? He wasn't a very good judge. She was holding it in one of those sling things. She let the child grip her hand, stroking one finger down its cheek. "I know I'm not mama, little one, but you're safe with me." She closed her eyes, swallowed. "You're safe with me."
"Okay, what the fuck—" She glared at him, over the child's head, and he tried again. "Seriously, what are you doing here?"
She sighed. "I don't have anywhere else to go." She looked away. "Jareth... he can do this thing where people just accept him, just go along with it, even without money. I don't know how he does it. I can't just make people give me things up here. And I had to come all the way from Crete, with the baby. That's why it took me so long. I can 'port, and pictures work well enough, but it's exhausting. By the end I would've given someone their dreams for a plane ticket, if I could."
"From... what? Where? Look, I know you wrote that you were in Fairyland or something, but Crete? And who's Jareth?"
"Shit," she said, which he found rather hypocritical, since she'd glared at him for swearing. "Don't say his name. Call him... I don't know. I'll come up with something later. Hell, we can call him 'that rat.'" She sighed. "Hoggle would like that. Anyway. He's... my... partner."
"Your partner?" This was just getting more and more confusing. "Your partner in what? In crime? Did you steal that baby?"
She blinked at him, like a deer in headlights, and he started edging his hand towards his pocket, for his phone. Maybe he should call 911.
"Don't," she said, when his hand disappeared. "No, I didn't steal her… at least, not from her mom or her family. Listen, I told you where I've been. You got the letter. You read the book. You went to the park. I felt it. And even if you hadn't, the money was real, right? Tell me you didn't waste it."
"I—I haven't spent it, yet," he said. This conversation had just taken a very strange turn; he'd been on the offensive, but somehow she had regained authority. "I was waiting for something important."
She smiled. "Good for you." The baby, who had quieted under her earlier touch, began to cry, again. "I need to feed her," she said. "I stole some formula. It's in the bag. Can we get that ready? Then I promise I'll answer your questions. I know this is all a bit strange to you."
In the kitchen, she dumped out one of the bags, which seemed to contain nothing but baby supplies, some of which were labeled in foreign languages. Practiced hands measured formula, heated water.
"I used to do this for you," she said, testing the temperature on her wrist before offering the bottle to the infant.
"About that," he replied, slowly. "Why don't I remember?"
"Because I gave it up. All of me. When I chose to go Underground. I didn't even know if you'd get the money. I'm glad that worked—I had to put it in your name, not leave anything of me on the account."
"The letter stayed."
"Yeah, I imagine my thesis is around somewhere too, but no one reads it. Pity, I worked hard on that." She shrugged. "Well, I worked hard on most of it." Without an invitation, she walked out of the kitchen, settling herself on his small couch. He followed, determined to get some answers. At least she seemed talkative.
"So… who's the kid? You said you didn't steal her from her mom or her family… and I'll trust you on that... but who did you steal her from?"
"Caught that, did you?" she chuckled. "Always knew you'd be a smart one. I stole her from my partner."
"Don't!" She shot him a warning glance, both hands still occupied with the baby. "He might hear you. He can do that. And yeah, him."
"You call him your partner," he said, slowly. "Your partner in… what?"
She laughed, a little bitterly. "Not crime, Toby. I picked that word because… well, he's not my husband—we aren't married—and he hasn't been my lover for some time. But I'm still… his." She sighed, and smiled, somewhere between wistful and resigned. "And he's mine, I suppose."
"So... you stole a baby... from your ex-lover who..." Suddenly, Toby felt very, very slow. He knew who she'd gone away with, and he'd read the little red book. "Your ex-lover who steals babies for a living."
"Not so much steal as..." She shrugged. "It's a long story. But it's not stealing. And yeah, that's about it."
"So someone wished that kid away?"
Looking sober, she nodded. "Yes. Her mother. Poor kid was only sixteen... her family kicked her out when she got pregnant, and then the father bailed on her too." She lifted the child to her shoulder and began to pat her back. "She actually tried the Labyrinth, despite all her troubles with the kid, but she didn't make it. I guess she's back in her perfect teenage life, now." The baby gave a little burp, and Sarah lowered her to her chest, rocking her gently. "Almost makes me miss high school. God, never thought I'd say that."
"Gossip is a bit simpler than real life, that kind of thing?" Toby laughed; he'd felt that way too, a few times. He missed college even more. "Even though it felt like the end of the world at the time."
"I'm sorry I missed that for you, Toby," she said, quietly.
"Ahh, don't—look, I don't remember you being around ever, so don't worry about it, okay? It seems like you had... something else to do. Though you haven't got around to explaining why you are stealing babies from your baby-stealing ex-lover."
"Can—can you stop calling him that? It's not as simple as you're making it sound, and it—I mean, I—nevermind. Just. Partner, okay?"
"Sure, whatever." He yawned, then; a wide, jaw-cracking motion, and scrubbed his hand across his face. The adrenaline from the door-knocking was wearing off. "Listen... Sarah... You said you don't have anywhere else to go?" Mutely, she shook her head. "'Cause you're on the run or some shit. Right. Okay. I only got the one bed, but I can make up the couch for you. You got somewhere in that giant bag to stash the kid?"
"No... but hang on, maybe I can..." She frowned for a moment, and closed her eyes, concentrating, and then flicked her hand down and back up, like she had a yo-yo. She opened her eyes and looked at her empty hand. "Damn. One more try. He makes it look so easy." She made the flicking motion again, and this time, in her hand, she held a small, clear, glass ball. Sleight of hand? "Not enough for a full crib," she said, holding it up to the light. "But I think I can..." She flipped it off her fingers and a simple, small bassinet appeared on the living room floor. "There." She sounded satisfied. "She'll be too old for it as soon as she rolls over, but I should be able to focus up something bigger in a few days."
Holy fuck. She made a glass ball into a bassinet.
"You can do—magic?"
"Yeah." She smiled, a bit sheepish. "I was expecting more of a reaction, actually."
"I think I'm a bit too tired. And a bit too stunned." He blinked again, shaking his head. "We can talk about this... tomorrow. All of it." He got a blanket from the hall closet and a pillow from his bed, and handed them over. "Bathroom's down the hall. Good night... sis."
Toby flopped back into his bed. In the other room, he could hear the girl—Sarah—puttering around a little bit, but after a while, the noises stopped.
Sarah. The girl from the letter was here, in his apartment. Here, in his apartment, and doing magic, with a baby she had stolen from the Goblin King.
How had his life gotten so weird, so quickly? Then again, if he was going to trust Sarah, his life had been a bit weird practically from the start. The weirdness had just been pushed aside, awaiting an opportunity to pop back up and bite him in the ass.
She looked... strange. Not quite human. Also smoking hot, which was probably not something he should be thinking considering the relationship she claimed, but damn, and you can't condemn a guy for noticing. Then again, maybe some of the strangeness was the makeup, though why she would take time to apply extravagant black and silver eye makeup when she was running all over the world with a baby and stolen goods, he didn't know. Maybe she wanted to make a good impression? Not that it had; it was more just... weird. Maybe it was in fashion back when she disappeared? He didn't really remember… that would have been… 1998? He hadn't noticed girls much, back then. Certainly he didn't remember makeup.
Whatever. She'd answer his questions, all his questions, tomorrow, or she could find a new place to go. Even if it meant… okay, damn, he couldn't put a baby out on the street in January. That wouldn't be fair to the kid. Well, he'd keep the kid—call the police or something—get her adopted by a good family—and Sarah could go on her merry way, back to her goblin lover. Ex-lover. Partner. Whatever.
He spared a moment to wonder if maybe she was just a fucking crazy person, but no. There was no way. This was way too complicated to be a delusion. She had to be telling the truth. And the money had been real.
He rolled over, and pulled out the shoebox of little items he kept under his bed. He had meant to buy some sort of table to put next to the bed, but he hadn't yet taken the time. Inside the box, along with some childhood mementos, he found the letter she'd written him.
He read it through, and then read it again. The letter wasn't very detailed, but as far as it went, her story matched. The story in the letter didn't quite match the red book, but she'd told him that she'd read the book herself, so that made sense. It would be rather circular if the book she'd read as a girl told her story. Then again, she'd just turned a fucking glass ball into a bassinet… but did that mean she could re-order time?
His only concept of magic came from Harry Potter, which was made up and she was real, but it made sense that just like in Harry Potter, Transfiguration, or whatever-the-fuck she'd done with the glass ball, was easier than time travel. She probably couldn't travel through time.
He turned out the light, and lay back, absently flicking on his iPhone to check Facebook, in search of some sort of distraction. He scrolled through status updates, but the most interesting ones concerned nothing more than a detailed description of a New Year's hangover. Long lost sister showed up on doorstep, he thought. That was the kind of thing you usually posted a status about, but he didn't. Not even a vague one. Mom would see, and then there would be questions, and it would all go to shit.
Today was Sunday—well, it was Sunday now that midnight had passed. Dad would be in town for business next week, and they were planning to come down Friday evening, expecting to spend the weekend with him. They'd want to talk about work, and when was he coming home again, and was there a girl in his life, and was he really happy here, in the city? It would make no difference that they'd seen him at Christmas and barely two weeks would have passed. He was still working for an accounting firm and studying for the CPA exam, a job that he didn't particularly care about but at least it made decent money and would make more; he wasn't coming home again until there was a major holiday or they forced him; he hadn't had a girlfriend since Erin left him to go to school in California; and his job was here, his friends were here, his life was here, so no, he didn't want to move back to the suburbs, thank you so very much.
But as hard as it is when your only relationship with your parents consists of either the sort of small talk you'd make with strangers, or intense prying into your personal life, that was nothing compared to the insanity that would ensue if they showed up, without warning, to find him living with a girl who looked his age and had a baby. His mother would have his head. His father would ask why he hadn't done right by her.
If they tried to pass off some version of the truth—that they had met because Sarah was Linda Williams' daughter—that would raise other questions. And Mom… Mom hated Linda Williams. She might not notice, without the connection being spelled out, but if they tried that… Sarah looked very much like Linda, once you got past her weirdness.
He flicked off the phone and rolled over, yawning. Maybe she could be a friend of a friend? Whatever. It was too late—too early—for more of this. Tomorrow. The bullshit would resume tomorrow.
A baby was crying. Why the fuck was a baby crying? The neighbors didn't have kids. A baby was crying and it was fucking loud, like it was coming from the living room.
Toby rolled over, so that he could see the clock. Six AM. He could hear movement in the other room, along with crying. Right. Baby. Sarah was in there, with the baby.
He jammed the pillow over his head, trying to drown out the noise, but it was like fingernails on a chalkboard; nothing could keep it out. After a few minutes passed with no change, he gave up. So much for sleeping in on Sunday. Hell, so much for getting more than four hours.
"Sssh, oh honey hush, please." Sarah was pacing back and forth in front of the television, rocking the baby against her shoulder. "Hush, precious, you're going to wake Uncle Toby, please, go to sleep."
"Uncle Toby?" he asked, a little annoyed. "Since when am I 'Uncle Toby?'"
"Since you're my brother, and she's mine," Sarah snapped back, and then something in her face softened. "I'm sorry. Maybe I should have asked. And I didn't mean for her to wake you." She looked at the child again, and frowned. "She's clean and fed and not cold and… I don't know what she needs."
"Maybe she needs her mother." Sarah recoiled from him when he said it, and glared, but he wasn't going to feel bad about it. It was probably true.
"Well, she can't have her mother. She has me." She shifted the baby to her other arm, and stopped pacing, settling for rocking back and forth. Thankfully, the wailing had settled down into a quieter, fussy sort of whine; irritating, but at least they could hear each other. One little fist scrubbed at her eyes. Sarah shushed her again.
"She could. Couldn't you give her back?"
"No." For a moment, she seemed disinclined to go on, but she caught his disbelieving look. "I checked in on her mom this morning. She thinks she's dead." She frowned. "It's odd, actually, but there must be a reason."
"What? Odd? No! That's horrible! You have to go to her!" What kind of person was his sister, to keep a mother from her child?
"No. No, I really don't. I really shouldn't, either." The rocking seemed to be working; the child was only whimpering now. "Listen, Toby, I know this is a lot to take in, but you have to trust me, here." She eyed him, and he felt suddenly scruffy, standing there in his pajamas while she looked immaculate. How did she do that, anyway? Was she dressed differently than she had been the night before? He hadn't seen anything in the bags but baby stuff.
Whatever. "Trust you? I'm trying, since best as I can tell you do seem to be who you say you are, but you're really asking a lot, here. You alone would be enough to take. You and a stolen baby…." He covered a yawn. "Since I'm up, I'm going to make coffee, and you're going to give me some answers."
After a few minutes, she followed him into the kitchen, watching as he set the coffee maker dripping. The baby seemed to be asleep, finally, but as he watched, she whined again, and scrubbed her face against Sarah's chest. Sarah stood by the stove, continuing her rocking motion.
"You take sugar? Milk?" he asked, softly.
"Sugar, and cream if you have it," she answered, in the same tone.
"Just milk," he shrugged. "It's full fat, though."
They stood in silence while the coffee brewed, Sarah still rocking the baby, who wasn't moving. Truly asleep, then. He prayed she stayed that way, at least a few hours. When the coffee was done, he poured to mugs and sat down at the table, getting sugar from the cabinet and milk from the fridge. Sarah took her mug and sipped, thoughtfully, then doctored it carefully and raised it again. She took a long swallow, and closed her eyes, sighing with pleasure.
"You would not believe how long it's been since I've had good coffee," she said, catching his eye as she lowered her mug.
"You can't just… magic it up?" He reminded himself to keep his voice low; he did not want more crying baby this morning.
She sighed. "No. I'm not strong enough for that; everything I make tastes like dishwater and sawdust, and has about the same nutritional value. He can make the most amazing things, but he doesn't like coffee, so it all comes out just tasting like ground dirt and bitterness." She laughed, almost fondly, and took another sip. "And you don't really need caffeine, so much, in the Underground. But you don't really care about his failings as a barista."
"Well, it's funny, but no." He leaned forward, placing both elbows on the table, his mug held between both hands. He'd caught the emphasis on the masculine, the way she said it like a proper noun. Goblin King. Jareth. Partner.
"So, what do you want to know?" She sat back, mug in one hand; the other still supported the baby, who was now so asleep that her arms and legs dangled, completely limp.
"Everything?" He tried to laugh, but it still sounded like a demand. "I read your letter, yeah, but it was pretty vague, all that 'once upon a time.' So why don't you just start at the beginning."