Somewhere, a dragon lunged.
With a roar like thunder, the monster opened its mouth and shot white-hot fire. Then it folded its wings against its gigantic body and dove toward its prey on the ground. The dragon bellowed, and the earth shook from the noise.
On the ground, the Emerald Enchantress stood with her sword at the ready. She held her ground, waiting patiently until the monster came close enough for her to speak the magic word . . .
Sarah sighed as she snapped out of her imaginary world. She was still in Dr. Goldberg’s office, and only five minutes had passed. She sat up straight in an overstuffed chair and ran her hands across the legs of her blue jeans. “What is it, Dr. Goldberg?” She batted her eyes innocently as she spoke.
“You weren’t listening to me at all, were you?”
“Of course I was.”
“Then what did I say?”
“Um . . . that I have problems telling the difference between fantasy and reality?”
Dr. Goldberg’s gray mustache twitched in irritation. “That was a lucky guess.”
He started scribbling something in his notepad. Sarah watched the top of his bald head redden as he concentrated. He looked like an old wizard . . . Merlin, maybe. She couldn’t help but imagine his gray-white tufts of hair and bushy mustache staring at her from underneath a tall, pointed wizard’s cap. She wondered if he knew any spells.
“There you go again,” said the doctor. “You’ve got that look in your eyes, like you’re a million miles away and not even listening to me.”
Sarah blinked and focused on Dr. Goldberg’s pale face. “If no one listens to what I have to say, why should I listen to them?”
“It’s not that no one’s listening, Sarah. We’re trying to help you. Your mother’s worried that ever since your father . . . well, you know . . . we’re just a little concerned that you’re losing touch with reality.”
“She’s the one who’s lost touch with reality,” said Sarah bitterly.
Dr. Goldberg slumped back in his chair and crossed his legs. “Why don’t you tell me again about your father’s accident? How did it make you feel?”
Sarah stared out the window. She watched the boring gray sky for a long time. “I’d rather tell stories,” she said.
“OK, then, try telling me a story.”
A wicked smile crossed Sarah’s face as she looked at the doctor. Her eyes lit up, and she tried to think of the wildest fairy tale she could imagine.
The horned ogre stood ten feet tall and breathed fire. It had long yellow teeth and skin as black as coal. It marched through the countryside on heavy goat-like hooves. Wherever it went, people fled.
The Emerald Enchantress never ran, though. She stood her ground as the red-eyed monster charged toward her. It stopped right in front of her and roared. She still didn’t move.
“I know what you want,” the Enchantress said through green-hued lips. “You want to go home.”
The monster screwed up its face in a look of confusion. Then it nodded.
“I know,” the Enchantress said. “The world can be a frightening place.”
She touched the ogre’s arm, and they both disappeared.
“Can we just go home?” asked Sarah from the passenger’s seat of the car. The gray sky had turned even darker. Now rain pelted against the windshield, leaving large wet splotches wherever it landed.
“I have to run errands,” said Sarah’s mom. She was tall and thin, with dark hair and pale blue eyes. She held the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles turned white. “Just because you wormed your way out of your doctor’s meeting early doesn’t mean I can rearrange my day.”
“It’s not my fault that boring old Doc Goldberg doesn’t have any imagination.” Sarah folded her arms against the seatbelt and pouted.
“Dr. Goldberg is trying to help you. That kind of help isn’t cheap, either.”
“What’s he trying to help? I didn’t have any problems until you decided to take me to see him every Saturday.”
Her mom stayed quiet until the car rolled to a stop in the parking lot of a drugstore. She turned the engine off and then looked into Sarah’s face.
“Sarah, sweetie, you’re a twelve-year-old girl. Someone like you should be playing outside, spending time with your friends, and thinking about boys. Instead, you spend all your time locked up in your room reading books and playing make-believe.”
“I thought reading was supposed to be a good thing.”
Her mom’s face flushed. Sarah had lured her into a trap. “It is, but you can have too much of a good thing. I’m proud that you’re creative, but I’m worried about you, too. You never used to be this sheltered.”
Sarah sighed and looked out the window. The rain was starting to come down hard. “You never used to be this boring,” she muttered.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing.” Sarah curled up, putting her knees against the dashboard of the car.
“I’m going to head inside. Are you coming with me or not?”
Sarah shook her head and kept looking at the rain. Her mom sighed.
“OK, then. Keep the doors locked and I’ll be right back.” She hesitated before opening the door. “I do love you, you know.”
Sarah didn’t answer.
In the darkest of nights, the Emerald Enchantress had no power. When the stars were covered by the clouds and the moon was dark, her magic became useless. She had only one trick left.
“Listen for the clock chimes in the Great City,” her master had told her. “When the clock strikes midnight, count the bells and make a wish. If the chime rings thirteen times instead of twelve, your wish will come true.”
She held her breath in the city streets, surrounded by thieves and assassins. They were almost upon her. Then the clock struck, and she made her wish.
Sarah kept the door of her room closed after dinner. She wanted to be locked away, safely out of arguing distance with her mom.
“Everyone thinks there’s something wrong with me,” she said to the walls.
Naturally, the room didn’t answer her.
“I just don’t want to be like everyone else. All the girls at school are giggly and stupid now. All they ever think about is growing up and kissing boys. I’m not an adult yet. I still get to be a kid for a little while, don’t I?”
She picked up a book out of a heavy stack in the corner and started reading on her bed. The stories inside brought her to new magical worlds—places where bad things didn’t happen to good people and where magic was something more than a figment of her imagination. That world was a place where even adults still believed in Santa Claus, where dragons flew through the sky, and where the heroes always beat the villains in the end.
Outside Sarah’s door, tired footsteps trudged their way up the stairs and toward her room. There was a knock, followed by her mom’s voice. “Sarah? Can I come in?”
The door opened before Sarah could answer. Her mom was already in her pajamas, with a fluffy green bathrobe pulled around her. She turned the light on, causing Sarah to flinch as the room filled with an unwanted yellow glow.
“You really need to leave the light on when you’re reading,” said Sarah’s mom. She sat down on the edge of the bed, like she was one of Sarah’s friends, and put her hand next to Sarah’s stocking feet.
“I can read just fine in the dark,” said Sarah, not looking up from her story.
“Right now you can, but wait until you get to be my age. If I had half the sense then that I have now, I wouldn’t need glasses the size of windows just to read the newspaper.”
From behind the cover of her book, Sarah smiled. Her mom’s pretty eyes always got so tiny when she wore her glasses. Sarah’s own eyes were a dull brown. If she ever needed glasses like that, someone might think two ants were sleeping on her face.
“Anyway,” said her mom, taking on a more serious tone, “I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier today.”
Sarah just shrugged. “I’m getting used to it.”
She didn’t see her mom frown, but she could hear the hurt in her voice. “I’m only trying to do what’s best for you, you know.”
Sarah turned the page, determined not to look at her mom. “Then stop taking me to see Dr. Goldberg.”
“I can’t do that. You need someone to talk to these days.”
“We’re talking right now, aren’t we?”
“Only technically. You’re not even looking at me. Except for meals and school, you’ve barely been out of your room for weeks. Your teachers are getting concerned, and so am I.”
Despite her best efforts, Sarah peered over the edge of her book so she could see her mom’s face. “I’m fine,” she said emphatically.
“You barely even talk to your friends these days,” continued her mom, as though she wasn’t even listening. “Whatever happened to Carrie or Beth or Julie?”
Sarah turned another page. “They’re boring these days. Everyone is.”
“What do you mean they’re boring? They’re your friends.”
“You’re a mom. You wouldn’t get it even if I explained it.”
Her mom sighed and threw up her hands. “You’re the one who’s boring, you know. You spend every free moment you have cooped up in here reading those fairy tales of yours.”
“You’re the one who got me into them,” defended Sarah. She felt a smile inside her when she remembered sitting on her dad’s lap while her mother told her tales of wizards and dragons, but the smile didn’t quite make its way out.
Sarah’s mom got a dreamy look on her face for a split second, too, but that look disappeared just as quickly as Sarah’s almost-smile had. “I told you those stories so they would spark your imagination and inspire you. The heroes I told you about went out and did things with their lives.”
“But fairy tales are more interesting than real life.”
Sarah lowered her book so her mom could clearly see her roll her eyes. “Because there aren’t any conversations like this in them.”
Shaking her head, her mom finally stood up and started to the door. “I miss your father, too. But you don’t see me hiding from the world.”
“I don’t see you in Dr. Goldberg’s office, either.”
“That’s different. I’m an adult. I know how I feel.”
“I know how I feel, too,” said Sarah, focusing her attention back on her book. “Just because you can’t figure it out doesn’t mean you have to torture me until you do.”
Sarah’s mom didn’t say anything else. She left the room silently and closed the door behind her. Even after her mom had left, though, Sarah kept shielding her face with the book. Even though there was no one to watch, she wanted to hide the tears in her eyes.
Sarah hardly said a word to her mother for the rest of the evening. That routine was becoming more and more normal lately. Eventually, they went to bed, each tucked away in their separate rooms, each alone in a house that seemed much too large for only two people.
Darkness came quickly that night. Shadows snuck into Sarah’s room so quietly they could have stolen her away. Black clouds covered the moon and stars. Pulling the blankets over her head, Sarah squeezed her eyes shut and listened to the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway. Usually, she counted the ticks of the gears inside the clock as a way to help her sleep. Tonight, it wasn’t working. No matter how long she listened, she didn’t get tired. She concentrated harder and harder, trying to force herself to go to sleep. But, as everyone knows, it’s nearly impossible to fall asleep when you’re actually trying to do so.
It wasn’t until midnight that Sarah finally started getting tired. The clock in the hallway whirred softly as it began to chime. Sarah closed her eyes as the bells rang.
One, two, three, four. Her body seemed to grow heavier.
Five, six, seven, eight. Her breathing slowed down. Her body felt warm and comfortable.
Nine, ten, eleven. She felt a snore start to rumble its way up from inside her.
Twelve. She smiled and let sleep take her. Her mind drifted away to another land—the land she wished she could be in all the time.
Another bell tolled—a thirteenth chime. That was odd, but Sarah let herself slip into the deep sleep that was calling to her. For a while, at least, she could dream and forget all her problems.
It would only be a momentary break from reality, though. In a few hours, she’d have to wake up and face another day that would be just as dreary as this one.
At least, that’s what she thought.
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Image by Sarah Brooks