All Stef could do was stare at the wardrobe doors. It had seemed like such a big thing, just to close them, as if it were different to any other time she’d closed the doors. She concentrated on the reality of the doors, the familiar doors that had stared across from her every day of her grown-up life…the life in which she‘d desperately avoided being a grown-up or pretending to have any semblance to the people who commuted, had home loans, bills and screaming matches with their spouses over the tiniest of things.
She pressed against the doors, where they met – It was still cold, the forest and the snow were still behind there. The snow like- She shook her head and forced away the false thoughts – rather separating the false thoughts away from the fictional thoughts, which were perfectly viable as real thoughts. Fiction, afterall, was just someone else’s reality, and, she realised, as she heard the swish of a velvet coat enter her bedroom, it was sometimes a part of your own.
‘The snow and the ice won’t disappear until I do,’ Hook said, ‘I’m the one who brought them here.’
‘I don’t need them,’ she choked, trying to hold onto a semblance of rational thought. Running away wasn’t going to solve the problem, running away was only going to- ‘I don’t need you.’
‘The world will always need Captain Hook,’ he said. ‘And so will you.’ A cold hook wrapped around her shoulder and pulled her around, and this time she couldn‘t resist the urge to look up at her not-so-imaginary friend. The hook moved away from her shoulder and touched her cheek – It was different to what she remembered – It had always been cold, but the point had been dull and rounded – she‘d never cut her hand on the hook when she had dragged the pirate on an adventure, small as the adventures had been. The hook against her cheek was sharp, more than capable of cutting the throat of a crowing annoyance.
‘I understand,’ she said, trying to retain control. ‘With children, failure is the only option because they don‘t want the heroes dead, they don’t want-’
The hook left her cheek and tapped her under the chin, and her eyes snapped up to look at him. ‘You aren’t my Captain,’ she said as she took in his visage. Her Hook, her childhood imaginary friend had been an older Hook, with a hooked nose that she could wrap her tiny hand around. He’d been a faded majesty, amazingly fancy clothes that always had just the edge of dust. He‘d been a safe villain, assuredly a dastardly pirate, but one that always had the kid gloves on. The perfect Hook for a tiny girl longing to escape to Neverland.
The Hook in front of her bore almost no resemblance to the one from her memory. The Captain in front of her seemed at least twenty years younger than her Captain, he was no longer a faded majesty. His red velvet coat was new, elegant and almost shining. He had seemingly undergone plastic surgery, as his nose was no longer hooked. His long black curls, which had been so long and thick that he had once joked that he could hide treasure in them were no longer that way; they‘d been trimmed to a fashionable length.
Dorian seemed so natural naked, as if he despised wearing clothes. The way he was able to stride around naked or half-naked spoke that it was as natural as breathing to him. The false Captain seemed to be just as naked, despite all of his regalia.
‘You’re not my Captain,’ she said as she withdrew from the hook. ‘You’re not my Captain, where’s my Captain, where’s my cow?’
He ignored her outburst. ‘The child needed a father,’ he said, speaking a simple truth, albeit one that she’d tried not to acknowledge. ‘The girl needs something else.’ He smiled. ‘Someone who will give you what you need, to treat you as you deserve and-’
‘You disappeared, Captain, you don’t know me anymore. I still need-’ she snapped her mouth shut. ‘If you’re saying that, you don’t know what I need.’
Blue eyes twinkled. ‘You need what you always needed, an escape.’
She backed up against the wardrobe, the cold wind beating against it and chilling her back. Behind the wardrobe doors, the wind screamed. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I can’t run away again, if I do, I don’t have a chance in hell that I’ll function in the real world.’ The wardrobe doors began to push against her hands, trying to open and pull her into the snow.
‘You don’t need the real world,’ he said. ‘Not everyone has to live in the real world. They make do with the normal, or to suffer the humdrum.’ She looked past him, trying to see Ryan, trying to ground herself in the world she thought she’d belonged in. The world she wanted to belong in. ‘Your angel will not be joining us, he agreed to give us a few moments alone.’
The doors blew open and she was pushed up against the Captain. ‘Time to go my dear,’ he said as he spun her and pushed her into the wardrobe. A panicked scream escaped her as snow crunched under her feet. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘the door will stay open. Your angel had time to convince you of his world, of the real and the humdrum, allow me to convince you of the world you already know and love, the world you belong in.’ She took a step back toward the door, snow leaking into her shoe and making her foot wet. ‘If you truly already know where you belong,’ he said. ‘You’ve got no reason to worry.’
‘Captain,’ she said. ‘You are a man of your word. Promise me that I am in no way stuck in this world, or I’m running now.’
‘The Lost do not keep the Found. Not usually, anyway.’
Her paranoia rose, and snow leapt into her other shoe. ‘That’s not what I wanted to hear.’
He reached for her hand and pointed toward the lamp post. ‘Why would you run from this?’
She couldn’t help but focus on the lamp post. It was nothing but a simple metal pole with a light on top. Broken into its constituent parts, it was absolutely unremarkable. Taken as its elements only, it was nothing, but as a whole it was something quite a lot more.
Everything else in the tiny world seemed to disappear. The Captain ceased to be, the light from beyond the wardrobe seemed to fade, and even the chill of the snow was gone. She took a small breath and walked toward it. The light it cast fell in a small circle around the bottom of it, and it seemed to brighten more than the winter world.
She touched a hand to it, half-expecting for it to go through it, for the lamp post not to be real, for the world around her to be nothing more than an illusion. Fiction could be real enough, but illusions were only ever there to deceive and to hurt. It was real. The metal was cold, with just a touch of frost on the surface.
Something inside her screamed to keep ahold of her rational thoughts, the semblances of responsibility and the harrows of being a grown-up. To keep a hold of everything she should be, but wasn’t.
Her left hand joined her right on the lamp post, the cold metal grounding her in unreality more than she could have imagined.
Something snapped deep inside and she ran into the forest, leaving the door to the real world, and her new and energised Captain behind. She was out of breath twenty metres into the wintry forest, but she kept going, running from the everything just so that she didn’t have to think.
She tripped over a tree root that was jutting up from the ground, and landed face-first in the snow. For a moment, she stayed there, breathing in the snow, feeling as cold as the mirror in her chest. She sat up and looked at the tree, half-expecting there to be a family of squirrels inside, slowly roasting chestnuts over an impossibly small but warm fire. There was just a tree root.
Something to her right exhaled breath and she looked up. A white stag, as white as the snow around her stared down at her, unsure of what she was, but not afraid enough to flee. She stood, but kept her distance, just wanting to watch it before it leaped away and again became the elusive quarry. It snorted out another breath and took a step closer, crunching the snow under its hooves. It wasn’t the stag as she had imagined it, as she’d never imaged that its eyes would be crackling with blue fire, burning hotly despite the snow around it.
She took a small breath, waiting for it to make its move – having no intention of making the first one. Seeing the stag this close was a pleasure that very few had, and even less saw the- She blinked and focussed on its antlers, unsure if she believed her eyes. The stag turned its head and caught the bright light of the winter world, and this time she was sure of it.
Runes had been carved into the antlers – though magic or mechanation, she didn’t know. She tried to focus on them to read them, but every time she did, they shifted under her gaze and reformed, forming a new pattern, a new word, a new spell, a new story.
The stag took a step toward her and she panicked, unsure as to whether or not she should back away. It lowered its head and stared at her.
‘Wh-what do you want from me?’ she asked it, afraid that the words would cause it to dart away. It knelt on one knee and snorted again. ‘No, you can’t mean-’ It merely snorted at her again and she slowly climbed up from the ground, expecting the beautiful animal to run away. She looked down at herself, then back at her path of footprints and wondered whether or not she was simply projecting onto the stag – that it was her who was flighty and wanted nothing more than to run away from everything, to become a blur of speed and a snatch of colour.
After another impatient snort, she climbed onto its back. There was no saddle, no bridle, not even a cord around its neck to hold onto, so she dug her hands as deeply as she could into its snow-encrusted fur and prayed to gods she knew weren’t listening that she wouldn’t fall.
The stag reared up onto its back legs, throwing off whatever sense of balance she’d had and ran into the forest. She leaned forward against its thick neck as trees and shrubs raced by, nothing more than patches of brown and snowed-under green.
She’d been horse riding when she had been younger – it had been a mandatory activity when visiting the family, and another set of lessons that her grandparents had paid for – along with her own horse – and though it had been more appealing than dancing, the precise order in which things needed to be done, never being allowed to take the pony past a canter, it had muted the whole experience.
The galloping stag beneath her was an entirely different animal to the carefully controlled thoroughbred that she’d ridden. There was no expensive tack, no stiff boots that pinched her feet, no hard hat crushing a carefully coiffed French braid. It was all she could do to hold on, but some part of her knew that even if she let go, she wouldn’t fall – despite the certainty, she held tight, afraid that letting go of the fur would mean letting go of more than she was prepared to lose.
With a great leap, the stag cleared a felled log and the forest. A frozen lake, surrounded by blue, snow-capped mountains filled the vista. She slipped off the stag as it knelt, and quickly found her feet.
All thoughts of the wardrobe and the door back to the real were gone now – there was a path in front of her, and so long as she could turn and run when she wanted, she wanted to know where it led. She turned back from the lake to look at the stag, but it had disappeared, perhaps gone back to the snow that it was surely made from.
She’d never seen a frozen lake before – the duck pond at her grandparents’ estate had frozen over during the winter, but there had always been someone on guard in those few rare times that the children had been allowed to play on it.
Exhaling a frozen breath she stepped onto the lake, the thick ice not making a sound as she did so. She spun, slipping on the ice a little – there was nothing but the forest behind her, and nothing but the mountains in front of her – no indication but the lake itself as to where she should go, or what she should do.
Her trusty sneakers squeaked as she tapped them on the ice – despite all of the ice, they were dirty, and with that small reality steadying her, she took another step onto the lake, then another, again and again until she reached the middle of the lake.
‘All right,’ she said to the world, ‘dazzle me.’
The ice beneath her cracked.
A long crack ran through the ice to her right, all the way to the edge of the lake, then a twin to the left joined it. She stumbled back a few paces as more and more of the ice broke away. Something slowly rose out of the ice – a crow’s nest. A crow’s nest made of ice.
In an act more athletic than anything she had achieved since quitting dance class, she leaped onto the crow’s nest as it rose past her. She stood up in the crow’s nest, a spyglass of made of ice clinking at her feet, and watched as the rest of the ice pirate ship rose up from the lake. The boat groaned – the same groan that wood under pressure made – and came to rest on the frozen surface of the lake.
Sails of ever-so-faintly tinted ice billowed with the ease of cloth and the clipper made its way across the lake, the icy surface giving as freely as water would. Overhead, gulls cried, and above them, the shadow of a dragon blocked the fuzzy sun for a moment before disappearing, its owner never showing itself.
She slid to the floor of the crow’s nest, clutching the cold spyglass.
‘Magic,’ she whispered as she stared at the distorted view of the world that the icy walls of the crow’s nest afforded her. Through the wood-grained-ice, a pirate crew was visible running ropes and swabbing the decks – all of the jobs she’d ever imagined or read about.
She stared up at the few lonely clouds, needing the space of the sky in order to breathe, and closed her eyes, trying to give herself a moment to deal with everything that had-
‘You’re the one who’s getting slow, my dear,’ Hook said as he swung onto the crow’s nest, standing astride the sides of the bucket, staring down at her. ‘You almost missed your ferry.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘On a not-so-grand adventure,’ he said, reaching a hand down to her. ‘The place of the hero and the nothing, the quiet place, the place where finding yourself often means becoming the Lost.’
She took his hand stood. They’d already crossed the lake, and were heading for the mountains. The peaks, that from far away were simply a postcard backdrop, now had a darker feeling to them – not an ominous one, just heavy and sombre. It wasn’t a joyful place, like the forest, this was a place of weighty decisions and choices that lasted for a lifetime. The Captain placed his hand, not his hook, on her shoulder and the trip continued without a word.
The clipper moored itself on a pile of rocks, and without warning, Hook wrapped one arm around a rope, the other around her, and swung her down to the deck. The gangplank was lowered and she walked down to the ground, the entrance to a cave becoming obvious as she descended. There was no need to ask – the world around her was a hair’s breath from being fiction, and in stories, the path was always clear. Afraid of repeating the stag’s disappearance, she kept her eyes forward and refused to look back at the iced Jolly Roger.
The cave was dry, even if it wasn’t overly dry. Torches and lamps lit the path through to a wide cliff overlooking a silver sea beneath a sky ribboned with an auroras. There was no way down the sheer mountainside, and no wings sprouted from her back, or were there to be glued on with wax, she turned back toward the tunnel, and found her next plot point.
Carved into the mountain walls were large frames, inside of which the rock had been polished smooth and images painted inside. Ignoring the rest, as with such things, they begin to the left, she walked across to the edge and, then looked up at the first one. The first painting was of a man in a suit holding a crying child, her tiny face in obvious pain, her shirt covered in blood. She ran her hand across the painting, and it shriveled and cracked under her hand, so she quickly yanked it away and said a silent apology.
The second painting was of a car, crushed beneath the burning wreck of a truck. Lying beside the small red car, a scythe lay abandoned. She experimentally touched the painting – this time, it didn’t shrivel, instead it changed. The paint ran away from the polished stone and pooled around her feet in a rainbow of muted colours. It slowly became a picture of the interior of the car. Visible at the front of the car was the unrecoverable wreck that the adult female passenger had become, her perfect hair was far from perfect, her precisely pressed clothes were splattered with blood and peppered with glass. The adult female passenger of the car wasn’t the focus of the painting though – the subject of the piece was a child, one barely alive.
The child was caught halfway between a horrified scream and the urge to lose consciousness. More blood covered her than she had been aware was inside of a human body and a large piece of metal skewered her middle. Glass from the back windscreen covered her like frosting, and it was so obvious that the child was dancing on the line of life and death.
It wasn’t until she looked at the figure behind the child that she realised exactly how close she’d been – she’d known that they’d, in the words of the doctor “nearly poured you out of that car, you poor thing”, but she’d never imagined that the reaper had been there with her. Death sat behind her in the picture, cradling her body as a mother would – at least those mothers that she’d read about in books – holding tightly onto the hand that wasn’t crushed beneath another twisted piece of metal.
The accident was nothing more than a skid, a scream, an impact and a lot of pain in her mind, but she remembered someone holding her hand, all the way into the operating room. She’d always assumed it had been one of the rescue team, making a small effort to keep her tied to the world. She pulled herself away from the painting and the memory, and looked to the next one.
The third painting was of her first night in her new apartment, cooking ramen on a hotplate, as the stove had been broken. A simple memory, the simple joy of real independence. The first time she’ d been allowed to be alone, the first time she’d been happy, free to be herself, whoever that was.
She willfully ignored the next painting, a crude rendering of a puking girl on a kitchen floor, crying her eyes out at being so broken, so frightened, and for too much of a coward just to end it.
The next was of Dorian, with his pocket watch, standing in her doorway, making the offer that would change her life.
The next painting starred the same man as in the first, but this time, his face was covered in shadow and the gun he wielded was something to fear. An ill-prepared hacker stood cowering in the foreground, no defense to her name but her words.
The painting after that was of the phoenix’s birth, the beautiful, violent birth that had rocked the world and signaled the death of another.
‘So close now,’ she whispered as she looked at the next painting.
The next painting was like the first – part of her life, part of her being, but not one that she was privy to the whole memory of. A girl lay dead on a rooftop, surrounded by the tool of her own demise, and the results of such. A large shard of a dead world stuck out from her chest, reflecting the moon in the sky above. The expression on the girl’s face was as she had suspected: surprised. There had been adrenaline, instinct, regret and then…nothing.
The mirror in the painting angered her, reminding her of the mistake she’d made and the mistake she’d have to live with, or rather, could hopefully live with.
The last painting was an optical illusion, as a couple of its brethren had been. It showed a girl in borrowed clothes and wet, dirty sneakers. Behind the girl stood a pirate, calmly awaiting a decision. She touched the painting, and her image moved with it.
‘It’s a mirror, my dear,’ Hook said as he moved up to her. She turned from it and looked to him – noticing that all of the other paintings had become mere blobs of paint on the ground.
‘I’ve had enough of mirrors,’ she said, nervously tucking some hair behind her ear. ‘And what was this supposed to mean? Stef, this is your life in brand-spanking new watercolour?’
‘It’s the contemplace,’ Hook answered. ‘Within the Lost anything is possible, but here, you can return to the world that turned its back on you.’
‘I think I may have turned my back first,’ she said honestly.
‘So what is your decision?’ he asked. ’Are you Lost or found?’
‘Captain, you knew your answer when you absconded with me.’
‘I was hoping,’ he said as he stared at himself in the mirror and adjusted his coat, ‘that you would change your mind; it is too hard to find good pirates these days.’
‘Floreat interwebs,’ she said. ‘I’m found.’ She turned for the nearest frame that had featured Ryan and ran for it. And hit the wall. ‘That,’ she said as she rubbed her head, ‘really should worked.’ Ryan appeared in the mirror and she shook her head. ‘Nope,’ she said, ‘not falling for that again.’
‘Well,’ the image of Ryan said, ‘you could just try turning around.’
She smirked and turned, then carefully approached the possible illusion and poked it in the chest. ‘Ok,’ she said, ‘you’re probably here. I’m found, right?’ she asked of the agent. ‘That means I can go home, right?’
‘So long as you understand the consequences.’
‘I do,’ she said, and fell unconscious.