Foolish Wishes, Fairy Kisses
Josh stared up at Grandma's house. The cement under the open carport was riddled with more cracks than he remembered and the gate guarding the path down the steep slope to the ocean was missing but otherwise the house had aged well.
He was later than he had intended; the ferry having been delayed. Still he hesitated at the bottom of the staircase leading to the front door. There was no aroma of fresh baking in the air nor did he hear the love-basted bickering of the elderly couple. Those absences stung. The Alders, both of Haidan ancestry, had been Grandpa and Grandma to all of the kids on the island. It had not mattered that most were white, had moved here with their parents for the fishing and the logging. Every afternoon, Josh had ridden his bike from town to this place.
A tin can fell over below the stairs, a flash of fur rushing into the small pile of wood stacked inside the carport. Josh smiled, seeing that Grandma still set out her offerings. The Alders loved nature; feeders of birds and squirrels and they kept the busiest gnome garden on the island. They even scattered cake crumbs and filled thimbles with apple cider.
"It is you."
Startled, Josh looked up. Grandma Alder was holding the screen door open. She seemed smaller and her hair was undone, hanging like a gray-white shawl. Her face was pinched, her eyes sad. Today she would bury her husband.
Josh hurried up the stairs but she backed away, into the house. What had he expected? To be greeted with hugs and kisses? Not after what he had done.
"You hungry, Joshua?" Grandma asked, already moving towards the kitchen.
"No thanks. And it's Josh now."
"No matter what you thought of your father, he named you Joshua. That will always be your name," she said, pulling a couple slices of bread onto a brown saucer before continuing, "You okay?"
"I'm great." This was going wrong. He was supposed to be asking her questions. Comforting her.
"Don't you lie to me Joshua. I always know."
He sighed. "Marie and I, we're... divorcing."
"I am sorry. Is that why you're drinking?"
Josh looked down at the floor. How had she noticed? He flashed her a grin and said, "Just trying to forget. I've done some stupid things, Grandma, but I'm moving on and growing up."
She eyed him, her smile tight as she said, "That's good. But remember not to grow up all the way. Keep some fun in your life, like your drawings."
Josh bit his lip. "I haven't done that since high school."
"A shame. You were good," Grandma Alder said, studying him with grief-reddened eyes. "Your things might still be out there, you know. In the treehouse."
"I'll take a look, after..." he paused, just now noticing how bare the walls were, "Where are all the pictures?"
Grandma gestured with a trembling hand to a stack of photos underneath the microwave stand.
"All of them were ruined, happened the night Sue drowned."
The photos used to hang on the brown-board walls, protected by the wooden frames that Grandpa had carved. Some photos were only of Sue, those formal school compositions where the student sat still while their classmates ran around making monkey faces. Grandma had taken the others, snapping photos, catching the kids unaware.
Sue's face was blurred in all of them.
In the bottom-most photo was a shot of Josh holding hands with a faceless Sue. He glanced up. Grandma's wet eyes and her lost look told him she had no answer to explain the vandalism. Josh wiped at his own tears. Ignoring the uneasiness between them he pulled Grandma into a hug and she did not push him away.
"You are a big man now," she said, "but not much liked here on Forlorn Island." The way she said it he could tell that she still liked him, or at least wanted to. "Wish I remembered what my Sue looked like."
"Like you and Grandpa," Josh said. Grandma laughed and pulled out of the hug.
"If that's what you remember, your mind is as worn as mine. We never had any children." Grandma turned to grab the plate of sandwiches and handed it to him. They sat at the old driftwood table to eat. "Maybe that's why Sue was left outside our door. Grandpa used to joke that it was the spirits that brought her to us."
"Sue never talked about that." Josh felt foolish. Of course Sue, with her pale white skin and red hair, couldn't be the child of two Haidan parents. Why had he never realized that before? He should have but like so much about this strange family, their differences had never registered. More important that they were a joyful family, stark contrast to his own.
Grandma nodded. "She was happy with us, Joshua. Maybe her past never bothered her or maybe she was scared to learn the truth."
"Sue wasn't scared of anything."
Grandma pressed her lips together. "Not of much, that's true, but the ocean did frighten her. She'd never go to the mainland, remember? That night Joshua... why did she row out in that boat? No one has ever told me."
Her hands shook, almost spilling the tea she had picked up. Josh reached out, steadied them.
"It just happened is all," Josh said. He had barely talked to Sue that night because it had been his first real date with Marie. Looking up he noticed the clock. Almost time.
"I am sorry about Grandpa."
"He lived well, Joshua. The cancer almost took him years ago but he beat it, a real miracle. It was his time, this time."
A crowd of islanders jostled to grab Grandma into a hug or to stare at the grave. Many children wept but a few chased the small animals and birds that patrolled the periphery of the cemetery, at least until Grandma Alder stopped them, explaining that the animals had come to mourn too. Josh stood beside her, pretending not to notice the glares from his former neighbors.
Once the service ended Josh wandered towards his parent's grave site. Mother and father had been buried side by side. Had he come for his father's service he might have protested but Marie had persuaded him not to.
"You warned me against her, father," Josh whispered. They all had, and that was a rare thing, his father agreeing with the town. No one thought Josh and Marie belonged together--including Marie. She had only changed her mind the night of graduation. Had finally been won over. His father hadn't shared his son's joy and so Josh had packed his things and never spent another night under the family roof.
Looking up Josh realized how close to the edge of the cemetery he was. A wall of fir and hemlock draped itself down the low hills surrounding the valley below, a buffer between town and clear-cut.
"That's all you, Josh." The gruff voice startled him. Memories mingled, contrasting with the man he saw before him. Clint. Marie still talked about him -- Clint had been her high-school boyfriend -- and she had even bragged about how Clint had tried to stop Josh's company from logging the old forest. Contradictory bitch, given that the logging had been her idea. But if marriages had themes, contradiction was theirs.
"It was my father's land."
"And even that bastard left it alone. But not his son. You killed the town, the island."
"It was Marie-"
"Don't bring her into this. I love the Alders but one word about Marie, how you broke us up..."
Clint turned, walked away.
Josh spun but saw only the long grass swaying and a mouse scurrying away. But at his feet a pin had been thrust into a wild mushroom. It was almost a sewing needle, except it had a hilt, like a sword.
Sue paddled the small rowboat across the calm water. Some turned their backs to the party's bonfire and watched her while others hurried to the shoreline, shouting at her to come back. Marie and Josh, busy kissing, hardly noticed anything until the earth shook and the lighthouse toppled-
Josh woke and knocked over an empty can of beer, the treehouse rocking dangerously. There were several other empty beer cans scattered around the plywood floor and vaguely he remembered climbing into the Alder's treehouse last night. Sleeping here. Outside the sun was a sliver on the horizon and the yard had that dark, unpainted look he had loved as a child, the colors reminding him of his old sketches.
He glanced at his watch; he had missed another ferry. He leaned against the wall, the flowery wallpaper Sue had loved sagging, patches missing and full strips touching the floor in rotting lumps. Dead center in the treehouse, a single over-turned crate was the only remaining furniture. A vague memory chewed at him and he pushed the crate aside finding beneath it the seam where two pieces of plywood flooring met. He slid the tip of his finger into the crack and lifted the board, shoving his other hand under.
He felt the rustling of paper beneath his fingertips and pulled the sketchbook free. An outrageous pencil (an old twig it seemed, with a pencil lead in its middle) was still in the coiled binding of the book. Bold lettering on the book proclaimed:
Property of Joshua. Don't look. (Please).
Sue had written the words; she had given him both the book and pencil. He rolled the latter between his fingers and then flipped to the first page of the former. With thick strokes of lead he had captured a heart-faced girl, her wide, saucer eyes blue though the pencil scrawls told the story only in shades of gray. His memories painted the rest -- Sue's smile always full of eager enthusiasm but also sad, as if she had peered forward and foresaw her death.
He flipped through several more portraits. Tears filled his eyes as he remembered how much he had once loved sketching but his business and Marie had devoured his time. Sue had not been his only model. Tucker's covered bridge adorned several pages as did the pond behind the school. And many pages depicted a sprawling cedar tree, roots covering the ground, limbs grand enough to hold the sky. One sketch even showed Sue napping among its roots, the tree's face peering down with a proud smile.
Josh bit his lip. This particular sketch was labeled 'Toothless'. More tears stung his eyes and he ran his hand through his tangled hair. That tree had stood in the clear-cut -- one of many he had ordered cut down.
"Don't be an idiot," he muttered to himself, "just a tree." But why then, did the tears come and his gut clench with the memory? Why did he remember a rumbling voice, telling stories to the children curled up in his roots?
"This is foolishness," he whispered, wishing for another beer. There were more in the truck but he was certain if he left the treehouse he would never return. He was not quite ready for that.
Closing the sketchbook he stared up at the cobweb-covered ceiling. Was it odd to sit here lamenting a childhood friendship and barely caring about his cheating wife? Marie had clung to him, begging him not to abandon her. She had almost convinced him, as she had the other times, but whether it was the drink or an inner strength long forgotten, he had managed to leave her. Why did she make it so hard? It was as if she hated and loved him with equal intensity. Hell, the last time Josh had climbed into this treehouse had been because of Marie and her games.
She had pulled a cruel prank on him: convincing Josh that she wanted him to take her to the graduation dance. He had asked and she had accepted but then refused him when he arrived to pick her up. Clint, her boyfriend, had showed up and punched him in the nose. Bloodied it.
After that, all gangly arms and shaggy hair, Josh had brooded in the treehouse until Sue had arrived, climbing in with him even though she wore the party dress Grandma Alder had sewn for her. He remembered Sue smelled like peppermint -- she always did.
He closed his eyes.
Josh as slender as a willow and Sue, as delicate as Josh but not as tall, her hair tied back in a long, red ponytail. She released his hand and clasped hers together. Her blue eyes stared at him; drowning in fear, sadness and a wounded sort of love.
"What do you want?" Sue asked, whispering even though it was only the two of them.
"Marie," he said.
Sue flinched, said, "She's hurt you."
"I want her more than anything. I wish she would love me as deeply as I love her."
Sue stared at him a long time before saying, "You'll have your foolish wish Josh. I promise." Her eyes opened wide and she leaned forward, kissed him. And then she told him to leave.
He opened his eyes. What a self-absorbed jerk he had been. Why hadn't he noticed Sue's pain?
"Sue," he whispered. "You always believed in magic. Did you think, somehow, that you had caused this? Made Marie fall for me?"
Rain started falling against the roof, a percussive downpour that didn't drown out Grandma's call:
"Come on, Joshua. I've breakfast on the table for you."
"Find what you were looking for?"
Josh nodded; he was full of warm food and almost content. Grandma had not chided him for his drinking though had insisted he clear out all the empties. Didn't want to give the other kids any ideas. Now she sat across from him, their plates empty, and the sketchbook between them.
Grandma opened it to a sketch of Sue.
"This is Sue, our Sue," she said, her voice hitching.
Josh clasped Grandma's wrinkled hand.
"Must be some kind of magic that kept these safe," Grandma said. Picking up the gnarled pencil, he laughed nervously.
"Don't be quick to dismiss such things. Sue made your pencil from that tree you two always played under."
Grandma Alder smiled. "You still remember?"
Red faced, Josh nodded.
"I wish things were simpler, like when you were kids. Ever since Sue... too many terrible things have happened. Don't be defensive. The logging you done, Joshua, it ain't the worse of it."
Josh shuffled in his seat, asked, "What else?"
"The drownings. You probably saw it on the news. Only thing that gets mainlanders to pay attention to a place like Forlorn is bad news. Kids are always drowning now. More storms, than ever," she paused, gesturing outside to the rain, "Some say the island's sinking."
"I'm sure someone would have noticed that."
"Maybe, but things can sneak up on you, you know?" She was flipping ahead now, scanning the sketches. She stopped, clucking. "Well ain't that the ugliest thing."
Josh leaned over the table. The sketch showed a bulbous mass of writhing tentacles. He said, "We called that the Sea Witch."
"Sue told me about her. Said that's why the ocean terrified her."
"What's this, at the bottom?" he asked, trying to identify the small creature below the witch.
"A mouse," she said, turning the book to see it better. The small rodent was running along a tentacle, evading the plucking grasp of another. It wore a leather tunic studded with metal. Tufts of fur stuck out of the gaps in the armor. A pale splash of white decorated the mouse's forehead. The sword the mouse carried almost made him drop the book.
He blinked, shocked, but it matched the one he had found at the cemetery, the one he had slid into his breast pocket (a hesitant chest tapping confirming that it was still there).
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing, Grandma. Just memories," he said, glancing up at the clock. "The next ferry will arrive soon."
He rose, flipping the sketchbook to a picture of Sue, tearing it free. He slid it across the table to Grandma.
The empty beer cans jostled as the old truck surged along the rain-slick road. Josh rubbed red eyes, yawning and glancing at his watch. That momentary distraction sent the truck to sliding and he gently nudged it back to where it belonged.
The thought of returning to the mainland scared him but nothing remained here for him either.
"This is not the way."
His foot slammed down on the brake pedal and the truck's rear-end slid out. There was a flash of brown fur on the dash but Josh was too busy struggling to keep the truck from slipping over the drop off on the left. Yanking hard on the steering wheel brought the truck towards the center line, but he was too aggressive and it crossed the line, sliding into the ditch on the right. Pumping the brake Josh slowed, the tires chewing and spraying gravel. Finally the passenger side bounced against a tree, Josh's head rebounding off his side window, blacking out.
He woke to the engine hissing and he killed it, slipping the key into his jeans. Glancing in the rear view he saw the beginning of a bruise on his left temple. In the collision both doors had popped open. Tugging on the driver's side door made it shut with a satisfying click but when he leaned over the passenger seat to do the same for the other door he paused. He was not alone.
A mouse stood on the passenger seat, sword held in two hands.
Josh sprung back, slamming his head against the roof. He fumbled for the door handle and opened it, stumbling into the wet roadside bush as he tapped his pocket, found it empty.
Sucking in crisp air Josh struggled to sober himself as he looked at the truck but even as he despised the thought of another drink he still desired it. Anything to stop this madness.
He whispered, "This is impossible, this is not me."
"It certainly is, Sketcher," the mouse said, leaping gracefully from the truck and onto a small rock behind him. "And we do not have time for whining. Follow me. Now."
"I'm not following a mouse anywhere." Josh knelt, tapping it on the belly, his fingertips brushing against the leather tunic. The mouse hissed and stabbed his finger with its sword. He yelped, a thin bead of blood dripping down his finger.
"You touched me? You touched me! Why would you do that?"
Josh sucked on his finger. "To see if you're real."
"Real?" the mouse growled, "Lay hands upon me again and you shall feel my wrath in full. Take up your drawings and do not forget the pencil. That is still important."
Something about its stance made him gulp. It was just a mouse (and in general Josh felt he could best a mouse in a fight) but the moment you added talking and swordplay, it complicated the scenario.
The mouse walked away.
"Where are you going?" he called after what he hoped was a hallucination.
"I had hope that you would have traveled there yourself, Sketcher. But you did not and now I must lead you to the graveyard myself."
"I've been there already."
"Not that graveyard. The other, for the ones you killed."
Josh ran, his feet trampling the undergrowth as he struggled to keep pace with the mouse. His legs ached and his chest throbbed but still Josh almost laughed with the sheer joy of the run. And that frightened him.
The mouse leapt from stone to log to low-hanging branch with preternatural grace. It was leading him to the clear-cut and soon they would exit the narrow patch of remaining forest and step into the desolation Josh had birthed. Memories of Toothless and his wizened face came to mind. Josh had never wanted to cut the trees down but Marie had told him to.
What would she think of this? Certainly she would mock him -- he could almost imagine her walking up behind him now and saying something nasty. Her love for him had always been equally balanced with her hate... no that was not the right word. Disgust, maybe? It was like she always thought herself superior to him and that superiority had compelled her to crush all his dreams, snuffing out the joys of his life one by one. Through it all she had had this aura of wounded pride, as if she felt her cruelty justified, as if he had done something equally wrong to her.
A loud crack sent a jolt of adrenaline through him, clearing away the last of the alcohol-induced fogginess in his head. His nostrils flared as he took in a slow, deep breath and watched a cougar saunter into the small clearing, a couple meters away. Its muscles bunched. What had his father said about the large cats?
You'll only see them if they're about to attack...
The cougar lunged.
Josh tried retreating but fell instead, tripped by a root. As he collapsed on his butt he watched the large cat sail through the air. Halfway through its arc though the cougar was pushed violently to the side as if hit by a shotgun blast. But the valley did not echo with a gun's retort, just the hissing whimper of the frustrated cougar as it tumbled several times, the mouse racing like lightning across the cougar, stabbing it furiously.
Hissing and screaming the cougar fled.
The mouse jumped to the ground and picked up a discarded leaf to clean its blade before sheathing it.
"What the hell are you?" Josh asked, his hands shaking, as he stood up.
"I am Lady Val of the Vale," she said.
"Toothless named me--after Sue and you created me."
Josh's jaw dropped. "I just sketched you, is all. This is... I have so many questions."
"Forget them. I have the answers to the questions you should be asking but won't. Come. Toothless waits." Lady Val ran ahead and Josh followed again despite his weariness. The alcohol was gone now and he felt almost human, which made this all the scarier because if he was not drunk that meant this was really happening.
Light spilled across the clear-cut, ruddy new growth stretching desperately to soak in the sun. Josh crossed the devastated field, towards the massive stump dominating the valley. Ahead of him, Val climbed onto it, waiting for Josh.
Thunder rumbled on the horizon, the clouds darkening, and he hurried to her. Green sprouts surrounded Toothless's gray stump like faithful worshipers, the living giving praise and remembrance to the dead. Josh ran his fingers along the stump's dried contours and the thousands of tree rings covering it. Lady Val followed his circuit.
Why had he allowed this? This place had been a true shelter, protecting him during the many storms of adolescence.
Val's whiskers quivered. "The past must be the past, Sketcher. We all need to move on. Toothless was never the same after Sue disappeared. You may have killed him but he was dying already. I revealed myself to you because I think hope remains."
"For this forest? It'll take-"
"Not the forest. It will return in its own time. I speak of Sue," Val paused, seeing the confusion on his face, "You always saw the world through your sketches but never noticed how Sue looked at you. You hurt her and I need to know how, why."
Josh thought back to the night of grad and said, "I remember talking to Sue, wishing for Marie to love me as much as I loved her. And if Sue, well if Sue liked me, maybe that upset her. But she didn't say."
"Wishes ain't real," Josh said. The mouse stared up at him, whiskers trembling, and eyes wide in anger.
"Do not look away, Sketcher. There is no denying that I exist. And as she gave life to me, Sue must have given life to your wish. Marie loved you because a wish forced her to."
Josh bit his lip, looked away. The words curdled his blood as his mind replayed years of hate and obsession, whimpering apologies and cold hot rage.
"Are you a swaddling child to stand there whimpering? You embarrass yourself. Your misery would be better spent on Sue. You could... oh my..." Val trailed off as a series of lightning flashes illuminated the cloud darkened day.
Josh stared at the storm, barely paying attention to Val as she continued, "Why would she care? Unless... Sketcher, I need to know what happened, after the wish. Quickly!"
"Just a storm."
"It is never just a storm," Val said, "do you not remember Toothless? His stories?"
The memory of the tree's voice echoed in his head, like the thunder did now, and he nodded.
The mouse said, "He recorded everything. What the small animals told him, or things he saw through their eyes. And all of it is engraved, here, in his tree lines."
"That's not possible."
"Never you mind what is possible. Just take the pencil out."
Josh hesitated. From where they stood he could see the ocean and a black dot traveling on it, away from them. He had missed his ferry again but there would be another. He needed to drink himself sane. Maybe he already had, maybe he was sitting in the ferry and dreaming this all. Or maybe not.
He handed the pencil to her.
"No, Sketcher. This you must do. Take the pencil. Place it here, on this ring. Now, close your eyes. That is good. I am going to guide you and when I am done, when I release you, you sketch what you saw."
Val's small paws touched his hand, the pencil sliding backwards along Toothless's rings, vibrating like a chainsaw. A thousand images, colors so vivid they made Josh's eyes throb, others so dark he struggled to discern any details.
Tentacles reaching upwards and clasping the thick tree roots that emerged from beneath the island... Two massive, incomprehensible forms locked together in battle... Toothless gazing seaward... A doorstep, Grandma Alder smiling as she sets down the jug of cider to retrieve the sleeping child on her doorstep... Sue and Josh lying on their backs and looking up at Toothless... Sue leaning forward, kissing him his wish... Sue sitting in a small boat, the sea rocking...
The images ended with a jolting abruptness as Val lifted her hand from his. Without prompting he set the pencil against a blank page and sketched.
"With more haste," Lady Val said, "this is not art class. No demerits for a sloppy line or a smudge."
He obeyed and when he finished putting as much of what he remembered onto paper, he leaned back with the sketchbook in his lap. Val scrambled to his shoulder and peered at the cluttered page, the collage of memories. She hummed and hawed and he felt, despite what she had said, that she was judging his skill.
"Look there, the lighthouse, and Sue."
One of the last images showed Sue in her rowboat as the lighthouse toppled towards her.
"What's that, beneath her?" Josh asked.
Val leaned forward and he thought her about to fall when she said, "Tentacles... the Sea Witch below her. Taking her. I-"
And then abruptly Val was gone. A loud cracking noise brought Josh to his feet even as he scanned frantically for the mouse. Clint stood in front of him, hunting rifle looped across his back. A thin trail of rain drizzled down over them and Josh slid the sketchbook and pencil under his jacket, protecting them.
"I thought you might come. You like this mess you made?"
Josh raised his hand. "Clint, I am sorry. I... I was stupid, selfish. I let Marie-"
Clint's fist smashed into Josh's face and he staggered back. Warding the next blow, Josh pushed into the larger man, they both falling against the stump. Clint was quicker to his feet, lashing out with his steel-toed boots, a kick catching Josh under the jaw, sending him sprawling backwards as blood filled his mouth.
"I warned you. Now, get your ass off this island," Clint said.
But Clint was already readying the rifle. "You have any idea what you did? You stole Marie from me. I don't care what she says, about loving you. Nobody changes their feelings that fast," Clint paused, his eyes wide with anger, aiming the rifle, "Run now or I'll shoot."
Clint had trashed Josh's truck, smashing out the driver side window and cracking both taillights. The islander's vehicle, an orange Ford, was parked across the road.
Wiping away the dried blood from his face, Josh inspected the damage. His passenger seat was covered with empty beer cans and that told him everything he needed to know.
Josh, you are a drunk. There was no mouse, no talking tree. The wind hurled rain at him and that steady slap of reality helped Josh acknowledge it was time to move on. The ferry would bring him back to the real world.
"I get it," he said, "I'm gone. I'm gone." He climbed into the front seat, slipped the key in and drove away.
Ten minutes later the sign for the ferry terminal appeared. To Josh's right was the ocean. "I'm sorry, Sue," he said, "I'm going... back." He had been about to say 'going home', but he had no home. That part of his life needed starting over. Maybe he'd return, some day, to see Grandma. More likely he'd have her visit him.
And then he noticed the weathered foundation of the old lighthouse, a fractured concrete blob on the edge of the rocky beach. Clusters of trees blocked a full view but the pier still stood. He remembered Sue walking down it, to her death.
A side road meandered to the beach.
He had a few minutes to spare.
The rain slapped at the windshield and waves rolled over themselves to crash against the beach, as lightning illuminated the horizon. Josh was parked on the pier with the base of the lighthouse to his left.
He pulled out the sketchbook, corners-damp and disheveled but still serviceable. He flipped through the memories, stopping at the page he had drawn this morning.
Sue stared at him, smiling her sad smile as she bravely faced the tentacles emerging to snare her rowboat.
"I am sorry, Sue," he said to the girl he once had known. "I am sorry you loved me and I never knew. I am sorry I asked such a cruel thing of you."
He stared, disappointed.
What had he expected? Her rowboat to reappear magically from the mist? To see tentacles rise towards the surface, reach out for him? He leaned his head back, closed his eyes, like he used to do with Sue beneath Toothless's shade, the warmth of her body snuggled next to his, two kids, inseparable.
A castle hovered above him. A sad woman stood, framed by the window she leaned out of.
Josh's eyes popped open, images rushing through his mind, gnawing at him, begging for release and he grabbed the sketchbook, started sketching a broken lighthouse on the ocean floor. Shadowy forms flittered in the rubble. The viewer, the eye of the sketch, seemed to be standing inside the ruins and though the details were sparse Josh believed it to be the lantern room of the lighthouse.
His pencil stroked the paper and Sue's reflection appeared in the lantern room's window. Age had hardened her face but a younger Sue was still in the details, staring at him. Waiting. Josh bit his lip.
He was stone sober but that didn't stop him from sliding the truck into gear. His foot pressed against the gas pedal and the truck lurched forward.
And there was Lady Val, on the dash, crawling up from who-knew-where, sword in hand, triumphant. Josh lifted his foot and the truck slowed.
"You are real. I wasn't sure, not after you disappeared."
"And you were still willing to drive off this pier, for her? You are crazy!" Lady Val said, as if delighted.
Josh smiled. "I guess I was. I guess I am. For all I know I am still sitting in that treehouse behind the Alders, wishing that I had made different choices with my life. Or maybe it is all real and I am here, soaked, miserable and talking to a mouse."
Val said, "Long after the young boy you once were had fallen asleep, tucked into an unhappy bed, I was born in that treehouse, waking to Sue's kiss on the parchment upon which you still draw. I stepped out of yours and hers imaginations, alive. I exist because of magic. Sue's magic."
The rain hammered the truck, a bed of steam rising from the hood.
"Let's do this," he whispered and then before second thoughts convinced him otherwise he drove the truck off the pier.
It hit the water with a heavy splash and sank. Water trickled from the floor and within moments the trickle became a flood, the engine sputtering. Josh sucked in as much air as possible before they slipped below the surface, drifting down, Val clinging to the dash.
The water stung his eyes but Josh stared in dazed amazement at the crumbling lighthouse. The rubble had formed towers and walls and a small mountain of raised earth erupted from the back-end of the lantern room, the central keep, if one assumed the lantern room a gatehouse.
The lack of air burned his lungs and Josh fought the urge to open his mouth. Sue had done this... if she had survived, he must too. And so the truck drifted down, the window covered lantern room appearing ever closer.
Val drifted past him and he reached for her, his hand cupping the mouse as the truck hit the roof, smashing through, his head striking the steering wheel...
A braying woke Josh but the sound stopped when he lifted his head from the truck's horn.
Flickering green light illuminated the cab; Val was still in his hand, unconscious but her water soaked fur rose and fell in measured beats. He shoved the truck door open and a torrent of ocean water spilled out with him into a giant, circular chamber, light emanating from thousands of scurrying phosphorescent crabs, each no larger than a finger joint.
Josh's sketchbook was water soaked, pages clinging to the seat like moist towels. Only the pencil had survived the descent.
Above him, through the gaping hole in the ceiling the truck had made, was the ocean, the water held at bay by an invisible barrier. Schools of fish drifted in from above and a half dozen salmon floated past him, midair. He shook his head but he was done with not believing. If all this was possible it meant rescuing Sue was still possible too.
At the far end of the chamber a tunnel led into the central keep and he knew that was where he needed to go. This final part of his journey was over before it hardly begun; a twist to the left and then a counter twist to the right, the tunnel slithering into a large room that appeared at first to have been carved by a madman. A bone-white base was streaked with a pattern of brownish-orange lines and the roof and walls matched the floor.
It took Josh a few seconds to realize it was the insides of a shell and anchored against the far half of the room was a mass of twisting sea flesh, thousands of throbbing tentacles clumped into a quivering ball. The Sea Witch.
In the middle of it all Sue slumbered like a fairy tale princess, suspended above the floor by two tentacles, each wrapped around her waist, though from opposite sides. She still wore her graduation dress though the years had faded its once vibrant colors. Her bare feet pointed straight down and a wild coil of red hair dropped past her knees.
Josh rushed to her, grinning as he caught a whiff of peppermint strong enough to overwhelm the rank, fishy odor clinging to the chamber. He tugged on an oily tentacle but it was firm as steel.
"What is this?" Val whispered, waking and crawling up his arm, her tiny eyes growing wide.
"The Witch, she has our Sue!" Val proclaimed, pulling her sword free.
"Yes, we... no, Val... wait!" Josh's protest was ignored as Val leapt onto a tentacle and plunged her sword into it, triggering a geyser of black oil.
Sue shrieked, waking, her eyes cloudy pools of swirling ink. Val scrambled back to Josh's shoulder.
"Sue, I've come to-" he stopped because Sue's right hand snaked out, grasping his shoulder as a father might hold onto a traitorous son.
"A princess, a prince," Sue whispered. Josh squirmed but was unable to pull himself free. "Why would the nasty boy who tormented me so terribly be here now? Your wish I already granted."
Tentacles rose like smoke tendrils behind her and she leaned her head towards them. "They fear I will leave with you. But I shall not."
"You must," Val said and Josh joined her pleas. Sue silenced them with a glare.
She said, "Protest all you must. I did, curled up, pillow clutched to me in a way my Joshua never was. It does no good. My tears dried up the night I realized he was just like all the other boys."
"Sue, I was a kid. I never saw... saw what I should have."
Sue frowned and in that frown Josh's hope was renewed. A lesser person would have smirked but never Sue. He had a chance. "The wish worked but Marie never loved me. My infatuation was never meant to be reciprocated."
Val said, "The Sketcher sees again, Sue. He understands! Let us free you from this foul creature."
Sue hissed. "Now you're just being a rude little rodent. Did either of you dare to wonder how an orphan girl like me was blessed with such wonderful abilities? Only when I was in the rowboat did I at last understand the grand trick played upon me."
She paused and Josh trembled beneath her gaze.
"The tree, that tree, Toothless, the trickster, he told me, when I was but a girl, three wishes I would have. The first I used as any silly child might, to create you," Sue said, gesturing to Val, "and the second I used to cure Grandfather's cancer. The last, I spent most foolishly of all."
Her eyes hardened, the ink swirling thickly.
"Toothless always frightened me with stories of the deep and dangerous ocean but after that last wish was spent I realized that fool tree had told me scary stories not to terrify mebut to protect himself."
Val said, "Toothless was our guardian; for centuries he kept vigil over this island! And he loved you, Sue!"
"His love was my prison. But he's dead now, our Sketcher slew him. Better than the tree deserved."
"Do not say such things!"
Josh winced as Sue's grip tightened. What worried him most was that he was beginning to understand. He remembered that pride in Toothless's face but remembered too, now that Sue had mentioned it, a reservation, an almost-fear...
Oh no, not this Sue. Not this.
He whispered, "Val. You must take up your sword."
The mouse raised her sword as black tears snaked down Sue's cheeks.
"My Joshua now understands. In our last battle Toothless used magic to deceive me and forced me to forget myself. Then he delivered me to the Alders, undone, a mere whimpering babe; whispering nightmares to me so that I dreamed in terror of the Sea Witch."
Josh moaned and Val's arms trembled as if the sword had grown heavier.
"But I was, I am, she. The wishes were my test. Once I used them all my past flowed back into me and I was finally able to return home."
"This place is not your home," Josh said, "What of flowers or trees or treehouses? There is none of that here."
"And I miss it not at all."
"Then what about Grandma? For her you must return, to put her worries to rest. She never wronged you."
Sue's eyes cleared a measure but the tentacles slammed against the floor and shook the entire structure, clouding them again. Josh longed to pull Sue free but knew he couldn't. She had to decide this but he was not sure much of Sue remained inside the witch.
"All I wanted," Sue said, "was a fairy tale. Silly child that I was, I never thought to wish for a happy ending."
He forced himself to lean towards her, Sue's warm peppermint breath blowing across his face.
"Sitting there that night," she whispered, "all I wanted you to do was kiss me."
He had no choice. He had to right this and so he pressed his lips against hers. Her eyes widened, the clouds pushed aside by rivers of blue again-
-a tentacle slammed into his side and Josh collapsed. Val leapt onto the attacking tentacle, her sword a blur.
"Tremble witch of the sea, for Lady Val is upon you now!" The mouse rushed across the mass of tentacles, jabbing and slashing, the tentacles smashing one another in their clumsy attempts to catch her, the battle forcing them to release Sue. She fell beside Josh. The dress's fabric was eaten away and Sue's stomach covered with angry red welts. Josh reached for her but a tentacle lunged from the coils, wrapping about his chest and jerking him away.
He flailed as Sue struggled to her knees. The tentacles seemed to act of their own volition, mindless and destructive, their chaos shaking the chamber. Sue, the Sea Witch, was no longer in control.
Josh's world turned black as he struggled for breath and in desperation he reached into his coat, searching for a weapon but finding Toothless's pencil instead. It was all he had and he thrust with it, the tip tearing into rough skin, black fluid bubbling to the surface, spilling onto the floor. The tentacle unraveled and released him.
Gasping for breath Josh crawled across the hard floor and pulled Sue into his arms just as a rending noise rose above the sounds of battle; as the shell cracked across top and bottom, salty water rushing in.
"We have to go!" Josh cried but as he spoke a tentacle clipped Val and the mouse fell. Even as she struggled to stand another tentacle batted her across the room. Others snaked towards Josh and Sue.
"Save our Sue!" Val ordered as she regained her feet, jumping into a tangle of tentacles.
"No!" Josh cried but Val was lost to the violence, leaving him to haul Sue to her feet. He tugged her towards the lantern room but when they reached the tunnel tentacles clamored in from behind them and others tore through the walls ahead, showering them with earth, streams of water following them inside, trapping them.
Josh turned to Sue, propping her up.
"I could offer a thousand apologies," he said, "and never make this right but if you have two minds, two souls now, allow the gentler to prevail."
She stared back at him while the tentacles surrounding them paused; undulating and waiting. The pencil pulsed in his hand, warmer somehow. Sue was the Sea Witch. A creature born of magic. What might she be capable of?
He used the pencil against the wall, scratching four long lines. A rectangle.
Sue asked, "What is this?"
"Wherever you want, Sue."
"Did you not listen, my foolish Sketcher? Did you not listen to what I was?"
"Who says you must be evil? Maybe the Sue I knew, maybe that's who you really are. Open the door, find out."
"You can, Sue."
She shrugged but still leaned forward, lips touching the wall. They both gasped as the door shimmered, alive with her magic.
"Wherever I want?"
Josh nodded and Sue grasped his hand. The tentacles lunged but were too late, the boy and the girl were already tumbling away.
He woke in the treehouse. Outside the wind and rain had gentled, just a light, moist breeze kissing the trees. Sue stared at him with wide eyes. Red marks covered her arms and stomach, her clothing but rags. Josh touched her hair. It was bone white.
"I'm home," Sue whispered.
Together they climbed, Josh helping Sue down the ladder. As they walked towards the house they saw Grandma's light on in the window. Sue hesitated.
"Will she understand? Why I left? What I've done?"
"She doesn't need to. She'll love you anyways."
"I don't want to but I should call Marie, find out-"
Sue said, "She's free now too Josh."
He let out the last of his worry, that knot he had carried in his shoulders all these years, finally loosened. Marie's hatred, the bitter rivalry of their marriage, it all made sense now. He had wronged her, if inadvertently, and this, it didn't right the past but it seemed to him it did balance the future.
"Then I'd like to see this through, with you, Sue," Josh said, nervous now, staring at her, as she stared at him.
She grabbed his hand, squeezing, and he held her tight, leading her towards the house. As they moved past the staircase Josh wished for a brown mouse to scurry into view but it was not to be. All magic had its costs and Lady Val was no more. Still the smell of fresh baking warmed the air and the porch light was lit.
Josh locked eyes with Sue.
She was emaciated, her white hair unruly, her eyes red, her face covered with creases. He brushed his fingers across her pale, freckled cheek, stared into her full, blue eyes. How had he never noticed how wonderful she was?
"You ready, Sue?"
She nodded and smiled and they walked together up the stairs.