Life dealt a bitter hand to Marian O. Macy, and the more cards she pulled from the draw pile, the more certain she became that life didn’t care for her—not even a little. Everything hurt. Merely breathing wearied her.
“Annabelle.” Marian’s dry throat crackled as she spoke.
Traces of a smile lingered in Annabelle’s teary eyes as she entered the bedroom. Marian’s brother had come over for the weekend, and, no matter the circumstance, he always made Annabelle laugh.
“What is it, Mom?”
“My laptop, please?”
Annabelle took the laptop from her mom’s desk and set it on the bed. With Annabelle’s assistance, Marian pushed her frail body into a sitting position.
Annabelle stood back to assess the situation, tucking her red hair behind her ears. “It’s cold.” Her hand, warm as sunshine, stroked Marian’s sallow face. “You need a hat. The strawberry one.” She grabbed a beanie from the closet and fit it over Marian’s hairless head.
“Thank you, honey. That’s all.”
“No. I’m fine.”
“A partridge in a pear tree?” Annabelle smirked.
“Brat. You know I prefer eleven lords a’leaping.”
Annabelle kissed Marian’s face and looked into her eyes. “Love you, Mom.”
With an aching heart, Marian watched her beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter leave the room. She would not see her grow, marry, or have children. Cancer had robbed her of many years of suffering, joy, and writing fodder. Still, Annabelle represented one of the few good cards life had dealt Marian. A card that always smelled of berry-vanilla body spray, quoted lines from Shakespeare, and spent last Halloween costumed as He Who Must Not Be Named. Marian was thankful for that.
Ever since the doctor suggested she end her treatments, Marian hadn’t the strength of heart to write. Nevertheless, her story needed to be put in order along with the rest of her affairs. She turned on the laptop and opened her incomplete novel, Days in the Sun. She’d worked on this for ten years, but no one else would ever know or love her dear characters or walk through the beautiful world she’d created. The thought grieved her heart.
When the story first came to her, she resisted writing it because she wrote political thrillers, not fantasy. Then the protagonist, Korban, showed up in her mind, fully formed and strong-willed. He charmed her with a blend of sweet, romantic lines and pectoral twitches until she relented and started writing his story. If she hadn’t, she was certain Korban had such a strong sense of who he was, he would’ve found a way to exist through a different writer.
He resisted any and all attempts to alter him. The day Marian tried to write him with blonde hair, he rubbed soot in it until she gave his dark locks back to him. A year later, when the princess expressed a distaste for beards, Marian attempted to shave off Korban’s bushy face beast. He refused to step outside of his home “looking like a wee lad-wench.” Somehow, any time she stepped over her boundaries, he ruined everything she wrote until she backed up and got out of his business. While frustrating at the time, his antics were chuckle-worthy now.
Marian scrolled to the end of the document. At this point, Korban fought for the king, determined to survive and look on the princess one last time before disappearing into the mountains to contemplate the state of his soul.
Marian rolled her eyes. So melodramatic.
Korban rarely accepted kindness from her, insisting on doing everything the hardest way possible. Sometimes it seemed he served as his own antagonist. But she wanted to do something for him before she left forever. I don’t have the energy to fuss with him, so he’d better just take it and like it.
She ended the war in her story and typed out Korban’s victory. The barbarian army fled to their ships, leaving the nation in peace. The king held a celebration to give joy to the living, honor the dead, and exalt the hero. The warriors feasted on mutton, pork, and beef, making merry with copious amounts of sweet mead and wine.
Considering how weak she felt, and how quickly she had to get this done, her prose came out half-decent by her own estimation. She smiled. Maybe she could give Korban just a bit more.
She continued typing: Korban’s true love, the king’s daughter—
The laptop froze and the fan motor whined with a high-pitched, overheated whir. The screen flashed a few times before the fan motor calmed down and everything went back to normal. The cursor blinked.
It started this way every time. Marian had hoped Korban wouldn’t show up today, but his muse-like behaviors could not be controlled.
Her heart sank as Korban’s voice rang in her mind. “What? Victory? Wine? Meat and . . . sweet mead? What happened to my usual fare of defeat with bread and parsnips, mistress?”
“You always blame me for having nothing, and yet you refuse every good thing I try to give you!” She grinned. “Don’t get sassy with me, Korban. Let me do you a favor.”
“Sassy. I don’t get sassy.” Korban snorted. “Wenches and lads are sassy. I’m no mere lad.”
“Korban, please, take the gift.”
“Wherefore? Something is amiss. What is it, dear lady?”
Marian hesitated. It would be cruel to tell him her woes and ruin the eternal bliss of meat and wine consumed at the king’s side. He deserved to enjoy himself.
“Because . . . Because I won’t be finishing the story.” She spat the words out in her mind and cringed.
He huffed, just as she knew he would. “The devil thou willst not!”
“I’ve started a new story. It stands a better chance of being published. You’re my labor of love, but you’ll never be printed, sir.”
The text cursor blinked several times. “Thou liest.” Korban’s quiet voice verged on a growl. “Thou wouldst never betray me in that way.”
Marian ran her fingers lightly over the keys of the laptop. “You’re right. I wouldn’t.”
“Do not spare me, oh, Great One. Give me the truth.”
“Again with the sass!” Marian scolded. “I was going to explain, but instead, maybe I ought to delete your hot night behind the palace stable with—”
“Nay!” he cried. “For the love of the prophets and all that is holy, forbear!”
Marian managed a weak laugh. “I wouldn’t. The truth is, dear friend . . . I’m dying.”
“N-a-a-a-a-y!” He roared with laughter. “I thought thou wast in earnest, good lady.”
“I’m serious, Korban. I’m dying.”
The text cursor froze. Marian clicked a few times, then pressed alt + ctrl + delete. Nothing happened. Click. Click. Click.
“Cease your hysterics, woman!” Korban hissed.
Marian sighed and laughed at herself, relieved.
“Thou didst surprise me, and I required a moment to gather my wits. Surely, thou art not dying suddenly. Thou hast been ill for a while?” His voice struggled with emotion. “I am disappointed thou didst not inform me, Marian. I thank thee for the wine and meat. I shall enjoy it, but I will mourn thine absence deeply.”
“I know. You’re the one who kept calling me back to finish the novel. You helped me through the horrible story revisions back in 2009. Do you remember that?”
His laugh rolled like golden thunder through her mind. “Dost thou refer to the revisions when thou didst change the lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth, to a page named Michael? Then thou didst fill a plot hole by giving the squire, Demetrius, a limp?”
“Yes, that’s it.” Marian smiled. “You took to calling him Gimpetrius. Shame on you.”
“Demetrius is still vexed with thee for that offense,” Korban answered in a low tone, as if Demetrius lurked somewhere nearby, waiting for the opportunity to exact his revenge.
“He can suck it up and be glad I gave him a limp instead of killing him off. He’s always causing trouble for me now.”
“Me, too,” Korban grumbled.
“One last thing, Korban.” Marian hesitated to tell him this, too. For ten years she wanted him to know how she felt, but it would’ve fed his arrogance too much. “You’ve always been my favorite.”
Without skipping a beat, Korban snickered. “Dost thou like me more than Mr. Darcy?”
Marian gasped. “Leave him out of this. I didn’t make Mr. Darcy anyway! I should close this laptop right now, you impertinent thing.”
Korban continued, “Mr. Darcy lives far from Luminesque, but I’ve met the gentleman—we all know each other, you understand—and while I believe thou wouldst get along splendidly, the best match for thee is Lord Volde—”
“Don’t say that name!” Marian laughed. “Shut up. You’re my favorite, dear fellow.”
Marian’s mind filled with the sound of wine pouring into a goblet, which Korban then raised to her. “Thou mayest give me defeat with bread and parsnips, but ‘tis obvious thou art especially fond of me.” He winked. “I wish I could see thy face the way thou seest mine, mistress. I had always hoped thou wouldst write thyself into the story so that I might see thee, but fate rarely offers the gifts we most desire.”
Marian smiled. “Goodbye, my friend,” she said aloud. “I wish I could share you with the world. I’d have you live in glory all the days of your life, feeling the hands of fascinated readers. But, as you said, fate rarely gives us the gifts we most desire. You’ve been a good friend, and I wish . . .” She shivered. A cloud must have been over the sun all this time because shafts of light now entered the room through the vertical blinds and streaked the wood floor.
The day was ending. She heaved a sigh and fell silent, saved the document, and turned off the laptop.
Over the past decade, Korban gave her friendship and inspiration when depression and loneliness might have become too much. He gave her strength to look up and live unashamed. He helped her form and express opinions that scared her. Tonight, simply being there for her as she fell asleep gave more than piles of tender, seasoned meat and rivers of wine in the palace were worth. Truly, Marian hadn’t given Korban anything, but Korban may well have given Marian a second lease on life.
If she let herself cry, the pain in her body would be unbearable, and she couldn’t let that happen. It was time to turn off her imagination and go to sleep. Annabelle didn’t need to see her mother in tears. Not now.
She laid down and breathed in the fresh-air scent of the line-dried cotton sheets. Even with the laptop off, Korban’s voice entered Marian’s mind as she drifted off to peace. “Marian, I will not let thee die.”
Several months after Marian’s death, Annabelle finally mustered up the strength to enter her mom’s room. The smell of dust and menthol lingered in the air. Her mom’s laptop rested on the rumpled sheets of the bed. Annabelle fluffed the pillow up to get rid of the indentation where her mom’s creative, bald head once rested. It hurt to look at it.
For as long as Annabelle could remember, her mom worked on Days in the Sun. She plugged away at other stories now and then, but Days in the Sun had her heart, though she never let anyone read it. Never. If she caught Annabelle sneaking around the story, she’d be grounded for days.
But mom wasn’t here now.
Annabelle grabbed the charger from the desk and plugged in the laptop. Sitting on a chair by the window, she drew in a deep breath and turned the laptop on to search for Days in the Sun.
All afternoon, Annabelle wrapped herself in the home-grown words. She laughed even as she shed tears, falling in love with her mom’s dream. The story contained her mother’s heart in a thousand different ways. Enthralled, Annabelle tore through the pages click after click until she reached the end where she read, “. . . mutton, pork, and beef with copious amounts of sweet mead and wine to honor the great hero: Korban. Korban’s true love, the king’s daughter—”
That was it?
Annabelle checked the date of the last time the document had been modified. She smiled and wiped a few tears from her eyes. Mom tried to wrap it up the day she died.
Poised to close the document, Annabelle clicked, but the laptop froze. She clicked again and again and prepared for a hard shut down just as the fan motor groaned with a high-pitched, overheated whir. She set it aside and jumped to her feet.
Annabelle froze and took a few steps back. The voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. Is it in my head?
“Marian, is it thou?”
Annabelle hesitated but could not help answering in her mind. “No.” Her heart throbbed against her sternum. Wiping the sweat of her palms on her jeans, she contemplated closing the laptop and smashing it with a meat hammer.
The voice in her mind came through so clear and rich, she couldn’t close it up and meat-hammer it. Instead, she said, “I’m Annabelle Macy.”
“What a lovely name. Where is Marian, Miss Annabelle?”
“Thank you.” She approached the laptop and wiggled the mouse. Not frozen anymore. “Marian is my mother. She’s dead.”
Silence. The text cursor blinked in and out several times. Somehow, it struck her as an invitation—almost as if the other speaker winked at her. Her mother had spoken of how the characters talked to her sometimes, and Annabelle had thought it meant her mother needed psychiatric help. Maybe she judged her mother too quickly.
“I’m Korban. Thy mother possessed many virtues, and my world is a darker place without her. Thou hast my sincerest condolences, Miss Annabelle Macy.”
“Thank you, Korban. I, uh, I see that Mom left you hanging a bit. Let me fix that.” She placed her fingers on the keyboard to type.
She pulled her hands in quickly. “I’m sorry! Why?”
“My deepest desire is to find thy mother. I made a vow, and my only wish is for her to join me in my ending.”
Annabelle frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I vowed that I would not let Marian die. I have thought on this a good deal, and I have a plan. Thy mother dwells in the afterlife, and I shall bring her into the story with me. In this manner, I will preserve her.”
Annabelle shivered with the thrill of this inspired idea. Writing was hard work, but she had taken a creative writing class and could manage to write a few pages for her mother, right? It didn’t have to be pretty. No one else would be reading it, after all.
“Do you need help, sir?” She rubbed the goose bumps prickling her skin.
“I need help, miss. Will you get me to her with honor? I refuse to have her given to me. I wish to work for it!”
“Then let’s not waste any time!”
Annabelle’s quick fingers typed Korban away from the king’s victory feast and out under the stars, where he looked up and thought upon his creator. He wondered where his creator was. Could he find and love that blessed creature that gave him victory over his enemies? Could he give it glory and express his thanks?
Annabelle sent him to a prophetess. With her, he learned that he must seek his maker in the afterlife. So, he journeyed over the twelve seas of Luminesque with Cazmarovian pirates until they reached the Wisterial islands. There, he sought, found, and gutted the dragon who kept the gate to the northern lands.
Entering the frosty desert of the north, Korban faced the cyclops who guarded the path to the afterlife. Driven by his passion and guided by the providence of Annabelle, he blinded the cyclops with his enchanted emerald dagger and journeyed into the snowy apex of Luminesque.
The afterlife waited beneath dark, icy waters. Charging forward, he—
“Thou art a more cruel taskmaster than thy mother,” Korban shouted. “Such work and hardship with no women, no beautiful descriptions of Luminesque. I may as well be blind, wandering in a watery pit, rife with supernatural horrors.”
Annabelle rolled her eyes. “Mom always said you refused to let her make things easy for you. Why are you whining?”
Korban sighed. “I never needed gifts from thy mother. She . . . she made the world beautiful enough to make my tasks feel like child’s play. I required no further ease in a world such as she created.”
Annabelle frowned. “I’m sorry, Korban. I’m not as good of a writer as my mom was. You were precious to her, and I’m trying to get you to her with honor, but without taking forever to do it. Is it worth it?”
The text cursor blinked. “Yes.”
“Trust me and jump into the water. It will be painful, but she will be there at the end of it.”
Annabelle wrote: For love and the honor of his maker, Korban leaped into the tumultuous waters of the frigid north and sank into its depths, inhaling the briny water, freezing his lungs—sinking, sinking—
Annabelle had gone too fast, eager to get Korban to her mother. Had she made a mistake?
“I killed him. Oh, my God.” Annabelle considered deleting the whole paragraph. Her finger hovered over the backspace key. “No,” she decided. “No, this is right.”
Annabelle woke Korban. He opened his eyes in the afterlife. The scent of violets filled his nostrils. His beard shimmered with a tint of shang-beetle-blue, and the warmth of the air had dried his clothes. The cloudless sky, radiant shades of gold and purple—
“Thou hast slain me!” he barked.
Annabelle tossed her hands into the air. “You wake up in a beautiful afterlife and complain about such a thing? I killed. . . and resurrected you. Suck it up.”
He spat. “Thou art like thy mother, child wench! Take me to her.”
Annabelle continued the story: The cloudless sky, a radiant shade of gold and purple, paled in comparison to his maker who approached in—
“Stay your writing, miss!” Korban whispered.
“The sky could not compare to his maker,” he said, breathless with awe, “approaching in a ragged nightgown with a bright, imaginative mind cascading from her hairless head—more beautiful than any strand of natural hair he’d ever seen. When he beheld the great one who created him, he took her hand, kissed it, and began eternity telling her of the bravery of the great maker beyond Luminesque, who made her own mother into a goddess.”
“A goddess? I made her into a goddess?” Annabelle laughed. “You’re a drama queen and a half, Korban! Is mom there?”
“Silence, child! Don’t ruin the moment,” he said. “Together, Marian and Korban embarked on a quest in search of Fitzwilliam Darcy, insulting each other in perfect bliss.”
“Her hair will grow back now,” Annabelle said, wiping a tear from her cheek. Is mom really there? He described her so well. Am I crazy? “Mom?”
The text cursor blinked out for a moment before letters appeared on the screen, one by one, gripping Annabelle’s heart. “Annabelle, you brat! You read my story! You’re grounded. Love, Mom.”
Sarah Joy Green-Hart
Photo by Ahmed Carter on Unsplash