by Will Shadbolt
This story begins in the age of myth. It was a time when demons haunted nights, mushrooms housed gnomes, and knights fought dragons. I wasn’t just Anthony, I was Sir Anthony.
* * *
I had just begun the fourth grade at a new elementary school. My dad drove me over in the morning, when he wasn’t too hung over and, after school, I walked home alone. I didn’t talk to many kids that year; I preferred having my head in the clouds to their company. One friend was all I had. Her name was Alison Macy.
In order to understand Alison, you need to understand her older brother, Max. He played baseball and took swim lessons. Alison made sure she was signed up for neither. Where he liked to roughhouse, she preferred to draw; where he was social, she was quiet. Rather than spending her time on physical activity or socializing, Alison whiled her time away daydreaming, honing her quirks, pretending to be a princess or some other golden fantasy.
I first saw her one day a few weeks into the year. I had been on an adventure, zooming around at recess on the perimeter of the playground. I came across her sitting by herself at a picnic table. I sat down next to her, and she looked at me and smiled. I knew her somewhat from class. After a moment she asked, “Want to go on an adventure, Anthony?” She looked up at the sky. “Let’s go to the sun!”
And that was how our saga began.
* * *
Alison and I don’t talk anymore. Last I heard, her family had moved to the west coast, by the beach, and she stayed in the area for college. Our only connection now was in our professions. We were both doctors, pediatricians; I’d seen her name come up at a few conferences.
I had wanted to be a pediatrician since before I can remember. At the time, it seemed that if I became a healer in our fantasies, I’d be fated to become one in real life. Alison chose to be a doctor around the time we stopped talking. Her family moved not too long after that.
* * *
When we played, she was always a princess of some sort, because Max had once told her only baby girls wanted to be princesses. She usually dragged me around the playground on the basis that the royalty should lead. A look of smugness would be painted on her face, soon replaced by laughter at her own austere, angelic tone of voice, and she’d run as fast as she could, pretending to go faster than light, with me struggling to keep up. We might pretend the monkey bars were a prison cell one day, the next a princess’s castle.
Occasionally we had play dates where we did more of the same. Alison liked to have them at her house, which suited me just fine, because I didn’t want her to see my father. No matter how many times I whacked him with my healing staff, he wouldn’t leave the beer and whiskey alone.
He worked from home while my mother commuted to the city and, over the course of the day, he liked to sip on a few bottles. By the time three o’clock rolled around, he was more than a little tipsy. On days when not even alcohol could make him happy, he locked himself in his study, drinking and murmuring memories of his own father and the old man’s ultimate fate. Grandpa had died when my father was still young; it was something to do with his liver. Dad never went into detail about it.
When I got home from school, Mom would still be driving back from work. Dad would grunt at me, and I’d grunt back at him. We’d keep grunting back and forth until he went and made me dinner — usually sloppily — and then we’d grunt some more.
* * *
There were no shouts or punches in my family, just lots of small inconveniences that piled into mountains. They were tiny things, at first glance of so little importance that magic is the only possible explanation I can remember for them.
“What was that about?” asked my dad.
The shriek of breaking glass had rung out. Mom looked down at the shards, all that remained of the cup she had knocked over.
“Typical. Can’t you keep anything in order?” he said. It was not a question.
“I’m sorry, I’ll go clean it up,” she said in a toneless voice.
“What’s the hold-up? Why don’t you have the broom already?”
She glared at him but said nothing.
Afterwards my father’s face looked like a balloon, red and inflated; and my mother’s was a deflated one.
* * *
One time, Alison did come over to my house. I tried to convince her to go to her house instead, but Max was having a friend over. She refused, and we walked to my house. It was a small white structure. Other than the attic and basement, which were used exclusively for storage, there was only one floor. A few bushes that occasionally flowered were all we had for a garden, but I could see Alison’s face light up in thought as we drew near.
We dropped off our backpacks inside near the door, and I wandered off to tell my dad I was home with a guest. He was in his study and already reeked of alcohol.
“Dad,” I said. He turned, staring. “Dad, I have a friend over. Alison.”
He nodded. “Have fun. Tell me if you need anything.” He was already looking back to his work by the time he reached “tell.”
I ran back out to Alison and we started playing. I tried to forget myself in our games, forget about the worries, and I did. We ran outside through the yard, between and inside bushes, crawling through the grass, purposely rubbing our knees against the sod so they’d be stained with green.
The backyard with its few large oak trees became a gigantic forest filled with elves. Out front, I could hear the car start: my father sometimes liked to go for drives when he was feeling especially stressed, no matter how much alcohol he had in his system. I ignored it and continued playing. Alison and I talked to a few of the elves we met before we realized where we had to go to solve our quest: the mines.
We ran inside, tearing off our shoes, and went downstairs into the basement. It was dark and drab, and food lined the shelves. To us, it was all gold. We carefully crept through the mines, on the lookout for whatever it was that was guarding these treasures. We were also careful not to touch any of the riches; who knows if jealous dwarves or other monsters had had them booby-trapped?
Eventually, Alison put out her arm to stop me. “Don’t you see, Sir Anthony, there isn’t any boss down here? And you know why? Because this isn’t where the real treasure is!” We both screamed and left the basement. Upstairs we wandered aimlessly for a little while before I looked up and realized the treasure we were after was up in the heavens. I grabbed at the hanging string. Noisily, the cover for the attic cover came down and a ladder slid out of it.
“Quick,” I said, “up there! That’s where the treasure is!”
Alison looked delighted and started to climb. She made it to the top, and I followed. I was halfway up when a voice boomed from in back of me.
“What the hell are you kids doing?” my father shouted, his voice slurring like he was trying to drink and speak at the same time. “Get the hell out of there. Jesus, Anthony, stay out of there.” He pulled me roughly off the ladder. “That’s it. Why would you think you go up there? Go play in the yard or something. Christ almighty.”
We slowly walked outside. Through the bushes we could hear the wind singing a melancholy tune. Alison looked at me and after a while I looked back at her. She said, “There’s an ogre attacking the elves.”
“Yeah! A big, tall, mean ogre. He breathes fire and won’t let the elves leave their houses.”
Looking at her, I knew she wouldn’t say anything about my dad; she understood. “Come on!” she yipped.
We were off.
* * *
It was towards the end of the school year when Alison told me why we were trying to get to the sun. “It’s so yellow. We’d be able to build the perfect sandcastle there for us to live in. We have to build it. We’re destined to!”
I nodded and went along with it; once she had said that, it felt as if every game we had played was building up to this. Fate is like that: after the fact everything seems as if it had to happen the way it happened, as if there were no other options. Looking back at medical school, twenty years later, I feel I could have never studied a single second and still passed every test: doctoring was my destiny.
Around the time Alison told me about the ogre and the elves, school closed for the summer, and the town pool opened. The “pool” was less a pool and more a lake, with the bottom and sides sand, not cement. Not all people liked it, but I did. It gave me ideas for adventures we could have over the summer.
Max was on the swim team that met there. Most days, I went along with the family. Around eleven or so, their mom came to pick me up and drive me over. After swim practice, they’d stay for another hour or two, their mom lounging around with a book in the sun as her children ran and shrieked. She offered me a ride home every time, but I never said yes. They had some music lessons they had to get to, and I said I was fine walking home, giving them more time to get ready. My dad was under stress at his job, meaning he was frequently locked in his study, and he didn’t care if I took my time getting home. So, I remained in my world.
Alison made sure we never swam, no matter the exploit we were engaged in. According to her, sand made for better makeshift seas than the pool. While her brother swirled and twisted through the grayish murk, we sat on the side, crafting sandcastles, the water only just kissing our feet.
Once every so often we’d take a break and look up to see how Max was doing. He wasn’t the fastest swimmer there — in fact, he was one of the slower ones — but he could hold his own in the longer events.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Will Shadbolt