Author’s Note: This story was one of two portfolio pieces which received the National YoungArts Merit Award for Short Fiction in 2009. It first appeared in print on FictionPress on Jan 5, 2016. This is another golden oldie, written during my senior year of high school.
She was a dreamer. If there was anything at all that was obvious about Ashlyn, it was the dew-on-a-cobweb quality of her violet eyes, the way she always appeared to look just past the things around her, like she could see something beyond. She herself seemed like a fragment of a dream, a remnant of the fey realm we mere humans are rarely lucky enough to glimpse. Her wild, wispy hair fell past her shoulders in a cascade of golden sunlight, and her nearly-translucent face held the delicate, fragile features of a nymph. She did not seem to be a part of this world, and I wonder still if she ever truly was.
Perhaps that was the reason the vision came to her, and not me.
It had been a long day, that Friday at school, and she had fully expected that night as she lay down to sleep the sleep of the dead. But sometime during the night, somewhere between the frigid hours of a September midnight and a brisk, clear autumn morning, she began to dream.
She was walking in the woods behind her house, the forest that had sheltered her from more than one storm when she’d stayed out too long before the rain. She headed down a path that she herself had worn down throughout the years, but when she turned a familiar corner, she found her feet leading her into unfamiliar territory. Despite her knowledge of the woods, she had no memory of this place, and it began to frighten her. In her dream she struggled to turn back. But she was drawn, or pulled, and her feet continued to follow the new path. She came at length to a small clearing, filled mostly by a pond.
The water was a strange, silvery color, and at first appeared to be so opaque as to clearly mirror the trees above it. But as Ashlyn drew closer to the pool, she saw that this was not so, for as she looked down into the unnervingly still surface, she could not spy her mirror-twin beneath her, and when she looked harder she saw that the trees in the reflection were of another kind – oaks rather than the maples looming over her – and the stars in the sky created constellations that were unmistakably different from the ones she knew so well. It’s not a mirror, she thought to herself, but a window.
She began to wonder what would happen if she opened that window to herself and climbed through to the other side – just for a little while, of course. And that, I think, is where it all began, that seemingly harmless wondering that had so much hidden potential to turn into something else, something far more powerful – needing.
But when Ashlyn told me all of this the next day as we sipped lemonade on her back porch, I couldn’t, or didn’t want, to see this foreshadowing, this signal of what was to come. All I saw was my best friend, more perfect than I could ever hope to be, with her dreamer’s eyes and her tangled-curly hair and her pixie’s face still lit up the glow of dreams. When she was done telling her tale, I smiled at her, my lips quivering with good-humored but disbelieving laughter. “This is the all-important vision you called me about this morning? A dream about a puddle of water? The way you were talking, I thought you’d witnessed a murder or something.”
But rather than share in my amusement as I’d expected, her porcelain brow drew together in a disapproving frown, and the laughter slowly died on my lips. “It’s not just a dream,” she insisted quietly, sipping her lemonade and staring out into the trees. “It was a vision.” She glanced at me, her violet eyes as sharp as carved amethyst. “And it wasn’t a puddle. It was a window.”
I arched an eyebrow at her, concerned but not yet convinced. “Ash. Even if you’re right – which you probably are,” I added quickly when I saw her frown deepen, “it’s still only a dream. What makes you think it was anything else?”
“Just a feeling, I guess,” she murmured, but I could tell from the crystalline gleam in her eyes it was more than that – more than she could express in words. I didn’t ask her to, and she didn’t try. We were silent for a few moments before she spoke again. “I’m going to find it,” she announced, setting her empty glass on the porch. She stood, back straight and shoulders squared with all the decisive authority of a brigadier general.
I choked on my drink. “What?” I spluttered, all but dropping my lemonade in my haste to follow her when she stepped off the porch and strode off into the woods.
“I said I’m going to find it,” she repeated, slanting a sly glance in my direction as I caught up to her. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
“Well, of course I’m coming,” I grumbled. Despite my skepticism, I was curious to see what would happen, whether the magical pool of Ashlyn’s dreams truly existed or not.
Ashlyn smiled at me as we walked through the green-filtered light of the forest. I could tell when our eyes met, though, that she wasn’t truly smiling at me, just in my general direction. She was no doubt still aware of my presence, but her attention was now entirely focused on the worn path beneath our feet. While I stumbled and faltered on the occasional sharp rock or protruding root, Ashlyn’s steps were sure and calm. Watching her gliding along like a phantom, I could almost believe in fairytales.
“We’re here,” she whispered suddenly, her voice breaking into my thoughts like the sunlight through the canopy above us.
I stumbled, caught by surprise. Surely there was no clearing, no magical lake – it was only a dream, wasn’t it? “Ash—”
“Look.” Beaming, she stepped aside and with a grand sweep of her arm took in what I had up until that moment believed to be impossible. “It’s here. I told you we would find it!” Her voice trembled with excitement, and she stood as still as a deer, ready to sprint for the meadow the instant I moved a muscle.
As for me, I hardly dared to blink, let alone move. It was beautiful beyond imagining. Though there was no physical manifestation of magic or anything similarly supernatural, it seemed somehow – different. The light coming down from between the leaves seemed brighter somehow, the air clearer. The trees themselves seemed to have a presence unlike anything I’d ever felt before; something that went far beyond the ordinary and into another realm of awareness I could never even begin to comprehend. “It’s real,” I finally managed, not knowing what else to say.
Ashlyn laughed, the sound of it like chimes in the wind. With a twirl, she all but danced towards the lake, the pale pink fabric of her dress fluttering around her feet like butterfly wings. Stunned, I followed after her slowly, clumsy in my obvious mortality. Not for the first time in my life, I found myself envying my friend’s grace and beauty as I watched her move ahead of me.
Hesitantly, I joined her, and looked down into the water. With a start, I realized the water’s surface did not reflect either of our faces. It was as Ashlyn had said – this was no mirror, no flat mimicry of reality. This was a window, a gateway… but to where, I did not know.
“I can’t believe…” I began, but my words were lost when I turned to see her face. She was entranced; I doubted she’d heard my voice at all as she gazed down into the pond. Slowly, she bent down to the pool, her lily-white hand outstretched towards the surface. Carefully, she brushed a single fingertip along the water. Not a single ripple issued from her contact with the pool; it was as if she was stroking glass.
Her face filled with wonder as she moved her finger along the surface in graceful little spirals and figure-eights. When she pulled her hand back out of the water, she stared at her fingertips like they were separate objects from her body, completely unattached to the rest of her. “It’s cold. It tingles.”
I felt something then, a strange sort of tickling feeling at the base of my neck. “I think we should be careful. We don’t know what that place is, or what it can do.” My voice sounded far away, and I barely knew what I was saying.
Ashlyn glanced at me, an unfamiliar coolness in her gaze. “Oh, come on, it can’t possibly be that dangerous. It’s only water, after all.” But we both knew it was more than that. Before I could protest further, she cupped some of the water in her hand and lifted it to her lips, drinking it even my hand reached out to stop her.
“Ashlyn, what are you doing?!”
She smiled at me, all warmth and friendliness again. “It tastes wonderful. Like a walk on the beach at sunset – or a dip in the pool on the hottest day of summer.”
I stared at her, one eyebrow arched incredulously. “Ash, how can—” My sentence was interrupted as she lifted her hand to my lips and poured some of the water into my own mouth. Against my own volition, I swallowed the liquid, and felt it slip smooth as cream down my throat. I marveled at the taste. Once again, she was right. Somehow, it was flavored with the taste of joy, of peace, of dreams. It wasn’t possible, but I could find no other words to describe it. It was intoxicating, and I found myself reaching my own hand down to retrieve some more. Ashlyn was already drinking another deep gulp. As I lifted my hand to my lips, I felt that strange, tickling sensation on the back of my neck again. This time, however, I was preoccupied with the taste of the water, and I chose to ignore it.
* * *
I awoke the next morning to the glare of the sun in my eyes. Groaning, I rolled away from the light and burrowed deep into the comforting darkness of my covers. My head felt weighed down. Not painful, just – heavy. My eyes seemed stuck together, and it was at least another half an hour before I stirred again, despite my inability to fall back asleep. With excruciating sluggishness, I crawled out of my bed like a bear emerging from long months in hibernation. Dimly, as I reached for a t-shirt and jeans, I wondered if this was how Rip Van Winkle had felt after his hundred-year slumber. Yesterday certainly seemed far away, the memory more like someone else’s than my own as I dragged a brush through my snarled hair.
We’d spent hours beside the pool, Ashlyn and I, drinking and laughing and daydreaming. It was nice to just enjoy the feel of the lush green grass beneath us, to see the brilliant blue of the sky peeking through the finger-like leaves of the trees above us, and – best of all – to taste the sweet, magical water of the pool. Everything seemed so perfect, and the day passed us by in a blur. It had been almost physically painful to drag ourselves back to our houses and away from that enchanted meadow as the sun began to set, silently promising each other to speak of this to no one else.
Now, the morning after, I smiled a little at my reflection in the mirror as I recalled the beautiful dreams I’d had, filled with waterfalls and flowers and sparkling diamonds and joy and smiles and… love. I sighed and walked out to the kitchen, my sight and mind still befogged by the wonders of the night before.
I jumped when a hand seized my shoulder, and whipped around to find my mother eyeing me with squinted eyes and a furrowed brow. “Sweetie, are you all right?”
“Oh, just a minor heart attack, that’s all.”
“Well, if you’d answered me in the first place…”
She cocked her head at me questioningly. “Honey, I’ve been talking to you for the past five minutes. I was standing right in the hallway. Didn’t you hear me?”
What remained of my mental cobwebs dusted away as I took in what she was saying. “No, I didn’t hear anything.”
My mother placed the cool palms of her hands on my cheeks. “Are you sure you’re all right, honey? You look so tired.”
I shook my head and pulled away. “I’m fine, Mom.” I’d felt wonderful, in fact, until just then. I shrugged it off and turned to pull a box of cereal from a nearby cabinet.
“You look a little pale,” she remarked, her eyes following me into the light of the kitchen window. “Are you sure you’re not sick?”
I rolled my eyes. “Mom. I’m fine.” I glanced over at her, taking note of her dress suit and smart black pumps. “Don’t you have to get going?”
She sighed. “That’s what I came in to tell you. I’ve got a lot to do today; I might not be home till late. So take care of yourself while I’m gone, all right?”
“Yes, Mom,” I murmured. She kissed my forehead and walked out the door. Working as the mayor’s secretary had its perks, but it had costs as well. One of them happened to be that she wasn’t around as much as either of us would’ve liked. Seeing as my dad lived across the Atlantic, that generally left me on my own – a fact of life that I’d gotten used to, with some help from Ashlyn. In fact, she was exactly the person I was planning to see once I’d finished my breakfast.
* * *
When Ashlyn opened her front door to greet me, I didn’t feel the warm rush of relief I’d been waiting for. I wasn’t sure how I felt, exactly. Concerned, confused, unsettled – they all sort of blended together. I hadn’t much paid attention to my mother’s fussing earlier, but now I saw the same thing in Ashlyn’s face that my mother had seen in mine. Though naturally pale, her usually healthy complexion seemed faded – like a bit of wax paper, translucent and delicate. Her eyes glittered crystalline in the sun, shining with a strange light I was sure I’d never seen before.
But what was I thinking? Pulling away from the disturbing observations, I leaned back mentally and took a good hard look at them with the sharp eye of a skeptic. You’re being stupid, I told myself, and smiled at her, embracing her as a best friend should.
Luckily for me, she didn’t notice my hesitation – nor did she seem unsettled by my own appearance. We went around the house to the back porch, our favorite chatting spot, and gazed out across her backyard at the trees of the forest. For a while, we talked with ease, as if the events of the day before had never occurred – indeed, in the light of the morning sun, they seemed nothing more than scraps of dreams slowly evaporating in the heat of the day.
But as the sun crawled across the sky towards noon, Ashlyn grew impatient, fidgeting at first, then getting up and pacing across the porch. At length, I relented. “All right, what is it?” The question was more of a topic-opener rather than a genuine inquiry; I knew full well what she wanted to do, because I felt exactly the same.
“Let’s go,” was all she bothered to say before hopping off the porch and heading into the woods. Startled by her abrupt response, it took me a moment to realize I needed to follow her. Though I knew the woods pretty well from all the times I’d come over, I had never been as close to them as she was. Adding this to her uncanny knowledge of the pool convinced me I would be lost without her, and I hurried to catch up.
“I wanted to talk about it,” I panted as we trudged (rather, I trudged and she glided) through the woods toward the mystical pond.
Her eyes never left the path, even as she spoke to me. “What’s there to talk about?”
“Well, for one, how the heck is there a magic pool in the first place? And I want to know exactly what that place is in the reflection. How can it show something that’s not there?”
“Not everything has to make sense, you know,” she replied evenly.
“Yes, but I’d feel a lot better if it did.”
I felt her peripheral gaze fall on me, despite her concentration on navigating us to the pool. I was bothering her, and she wanted to know why. “There’s no reason to feel uncomfortable,” she said, choosing her words carefully as she led the way. “I thought you liked our lake.”
Our lake? I began feeling that tingling sensation on the back of my neck again. “I do like it. What I don’t like is not knowing anything about it.” The more I spoke, the more I realized that what I was saying made a whole lot of sense. “Ash, I want to know what place that is on the other side.”
She stopped. We had reached the meadow. It looked, if possible, even more enticing than the day before, and it took far more willpower than it should have just to force myself to stay put. Ashlyn turned to look at me full-on, her amethyst gaze sharp enough to cut. “Does it really matter?”
I stared after her wordlessly as she turned and walked toward the lake. Today, there was less joy in her step than before, and she drifted in a listless, lost way that made me think of ghosts. I wondered, probably much later than I should have, just what exactly was going on here. Her words haunted me in the stillness of the meadow. Does it really matter? Ashlyn, as I’ve said, had always been the dreamer. I was the realist; that was just how it worked. But how could she believe in this sudden fantasy so easily, so unquestioningly?
I went over to stand beside her, watching as she drank leisurely from the water. As I gazed down at the mirror-like surface of the pond, I began to second-guess myself. Maybe she was right. What difference did it make what lay beyond the pool? It was enough to be given the gift of finding it in the first place. As far as I could tell, we were the only ones lucky enough to drink from its mystic waters. My doubts fading like mist before the sunrise, I sank down to my knees and joined Ashlyn, silently promising to be grateful for what we had been given.
* * *
The next morning, I woke to the sound of my mother’s frantic voice calling out my name. I was being shaken back and forth like a ragdoll, and I should’ve been up in an instant, demanding what was wrong. Instead, I found it took nearly every ounce of strength within me just to open my eyes, and the most I could manage to utter was a pathetic excuse for a croak. Clearing my throat, I blinked the sandy residues of sleep from my eyes and tried again. “Mom?”
To my vague surprise, I felt her arms encircle me, clinging to me so tightly it became difficult to breathe. I heard her whispering my name, telling me how worried she’d been and what was wrong with me and why wouldn’t I wake up? Eventually I managed to focus my concentration on the last part of what she was saying. “Mom, what are you talking about?”
“Oh, honey, I came to wake you ten minutes ago, but you wouldn’t wake up! It was like you were in a coma or something.” Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she pulled back just enough to cup my face in her hands, searching – for what, I did not know. But whatever she discovered there worried her. “Baby, what’s wrong? You’re so pale today; worse than yesterday, even. Are you feeling well?” She felt my forehead for a fever, and apparently found none.
But I felt nothing – I was numb, and stood outside of myself watching our conversation from a million light-years away. Her voice echoed in my mind as if from inside a tunnel, and my still-groggy eyes could not focus on one thing for too long before closing again in search of sleep. I glanced at my clock to gauge the time, figuring it must have been pretty early in the morning. It took a few moments before the numbers finally registered in my mind. “It’s already noon?”
My mother nodded, watching me carefully now, probably trying to discern what was happening to her only daughter. “I came to wake you because you usually get up earlier than this. I have to go soon; I have a half-day today, remember?” I nodded. We liked to spend mornings like this together before she had to go to work; even when I was sick, I’d never overslept before. The deep lines of concern on her face, coupled with the time and how disturbingly tired I was when I’d obviously slept well, finally forced me to wake up the rest of the way, though my mind remained dulled by whatever dreams I’d dreamt.
“Sorry for worrying you,” I murmured, causing my mother to chuckle uncertainly and kiss my forehead.
“Just make sure you get plenty of rest tonight, all right? And take care of yourself.” She took my face in her hands again and gave me a long, measuring look. “I love you.”
“Love you too, Mom.” I hugged her. “You’d better get going or you’ll be late.”
She nodded, sighed, and pushed herself up off my bed. Casting one last worried glance over her shoulder at me, she walked out of my room. I waited long enough to be sure she was gone before kicking my covers aside and rushing to the mirror hanging above my desk. The reflection that greeted me had me gripping the edge of the table for support.
I was pale, much paler than the day before, and there were bags under my eyes. Oh, God, my eyes. Somehow, I didn’t understand how, but somehow they had – faded. They possessed the blurry, pastel quality of watercolor paint, and they contrasted so strongly with the dark circles forming around my eyes that it frightened me.
I tried to remember what I had dreamt the night before. I couldn’t remember much – just scraps of the edges of memories – but what I could recall only suggested what, deep down, I already knew.
I didn’t know how, or why, but somehow that lake was doing this to me. It had to be. What other explanation was there? Drinking from it was pleasant, yes, but it was changing me – and it sure didn’t look like I was changing for the better. I felt as if I was missing a part of myself, as if the pool had been drinking from me, rather than the other way around. I wondered how much of myself was still left – if I would ever get the rest of me back.
In the midst of my rising panic, a name came to mind. Ashlyn.
Her face came unbidden into my thoughts, almost unbalancing me completely in its sudden appearance. My breath caught when I realized where she must have been right then. True, she might have been asleep still, as I would have been were it not for my mother, but something told me I knew where to go. I barely gave myself time to pull on a pair of jeans and a shirt before racing outside the house and in the direction of Ashlyn’s backyard.
When I reached the forest, I instantly regretted not taking an extra moment to pull on some boots as well. The rocks and nettles of ferns scraped the soles of my sensitive feet, and more than one thorn lodged itself in my skin. Yet there was no time to go back, and I forced myself to ignore the pleas of my feet and press on, refusing to stop until I found my friend. It was only once I was deep inside the forest that I remembered I could not get to the pool without her. “Ash!” I screamed, my voice hoarse and cracking. “Ash!”
“I’m right here,” said a voice behind me. Startled, I spun around to face its origin. There she stood, barely more than a figment of my imagination in her transparency. Her skin looked paper-thin and just as white, and her once-bright eyes now a faded, dim lavender. The shadows around her eyes were even darker than mine, and I actually feared for a moment that a strong gust of wind would blow her away.
“Ash,” I murmured, relieved that at least she was still alive. I took a cautious step toward her, my legs trembling from more than just exertion. “Ash, the pool—”
“It’s right here,” she interrupted, misinterpreting me. We used to be able to finish each other’s sentences; now, we practically spoke two different languages. She stepped to the side, and I saw then that I had found the meadow after all. It looked so peaceful, so calm, so inviting…
I found myself taking a step forward before I could think. No! Gritting my teeth, I forced myself to stand still. I would not be seduced by its apparent harmlessness a third time. Already I was changed drastically – who knew what one more day beside the pool would do to me?
“What’s wrong?” Ashlyn’s voice whispered in my ear, and I cringed away from it. The gesture surprised us both. I had never, ever, been frightened of her before.
“Ash,” I said, a tremor in my voice, “we can’t drink from the pool anymore. It’s changing us. It’s making us sick!” I paused, seeing the blank look in her glazed eyes. “Don’t you see it?”
She looked me over – looked, but did not see. “You seem all right to me.” She glanced at my tangled, rat-nest hair. “Nothing a good brushing can’t fix, anyway.”
I flinched at her poor attempt at humor. “Fine? Ash, we’re dying!”
She shook her head. “No, we’re not. We just haven’t started living yet.” She smiled at me then, a smile that I did not – could not – trust. It shone, gleaming with all the false brilliance and promise of fool’s gold. “I saw it last night. The other world.”
My thoughts stumbled and screeched to a halt. “What?”
Her grin widened. “The world in the dream-pool. I saw it in my dreams last night. It’s beautiful!” Her eyes grew distant, lost in the memory of it. “Everything we ever read about in stories, and things so strange no one could ever write about them. So much wonder.” She sighed, and for a moment neither of us spoke. At last, she focused her attention back on me, pulling herself out of her reverie with apparent difficulty. “And, best of all, I know how to get there.”
“How?” Her words enchanted me. A world of magic, straight out of the pages of children’s fairytales – could it be real?
Still grinning, she took my hand in hers – how cold she felt! – and led me over to the lake. It was not until we were at the water’s edge that I realized what she was doing. “No!” I pushed her hand away from my lips just before the water poured down my throat. If I tasted even one more drop, I knew I was lost.
She turned on me, her eyes flashing with a rage I had never known. “Why not? Why don’t you trust it?”
“Don’t you get it? We’re going to die if we keep drinking it!”
Again she shook her head. “No. Don’t you understand? We’re not dying – we’re leaving! If we drink again today, we’ll go there. I just know it. I’m your best friend, don’t you trust me?”
My eyes stung. Fighting her was torture, but I could not follow in her footsteps this time. Whichever one of us was right, one thing seemed certain to me: if we left now, we would never return. I would never see my mother, or my father, or any of my other friends again. They would be left behind to wonder what had happened to me. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing them, nor would I be responsible for their grief. “No. Not this time. We can’t just disappear like this.”
“Why not?” Her voice was rough now, no longer the musical sweetness I used to be so jealous of. “Why can’t we just leave? What does it matter? There’s nothing for us here – nothing! Think about it. These are our dreams. You said so yourself, you always wished you could see a real unicorn. Don’t you still want to?”
My vision was growing blurry from the moisture gathering under my lashes. “Yes,” I whispered.
“Then come with me.” Kneeling down, she cupped the water in her hands once more before rising again to offer it to me. “Please.”
A lump grew in my throat, and I felt suspended between two halves of myself. On the one hand, there was my best friend and a world I’d always dreamed of. On the other, there was everything else in this world that mattered to me. Was it worth it? I didn’t even know if she was right, if we wouldn’t just die after all. Even if we didn’t, would I regret leaving? Would I be able to forget everything I’d left behind?
I took a single shaky step back, the line I would not cross burning in my mind at the tips of my toes. “No.”
Ashlyn stared at me, and I saw the anger spark up in her eyes again. I braced myself for another lecture, another outburst – anything but what she did next. She pulled her hands back to herself and, in one fluid motion, lifted them to her lips and drank. Dropping to her knees as if jerked down by a chain, she knelt over the edge of the pool and began to drink, gulping it down as if she’d just crossed the Sahara Desert.
“Ash, no!” I cried, and lunged for her, intending to drag her away. But when my hands should have made contact with her skin, they grasped only cold air, and in my shock I tumbled forward – through her. For a moment I lay still, the breath sucked from my lungs. Above me, patches of blue whispered through rustling green, and in the distance I could just make out the dull roar of morning traffic beyond the borders of the forest.
At length my breath came shuddering back into my lungs, and I finally managed to choke back to life. One inch at a time, I turned to face Ashlyn again, praying against the odds that the things I thought were not true. I gasped when I saw how quickly I was losing her; already she was halfway transparent.
Once again, I thought of ghosts. Goose bumps rose on my arms and neck, prickling to life in the wake of the electric terror shooting through my veins. “Ash.” I tried, one last desperate time, to call her back. I still wonder how much of her was left by then to hear me.
Though I hardly expected a response, something must have told her to look, and she paused to turn her face to me. I could see the grass of the meadow and the trees through her face, and I felt nausea curling up tight in my stomach. But I forced myself to reach out my hand for hers – and she, for reasons I will never know, reached back. But our hands did not meet as they should have, and again I saw myself pass straight through her. Her eyes widened, and I think we both realized then how blind she had really been. She withdrew her hand, cradling it to her chest in the same way she had done once with an injured bird we found beside the road, years ago. Realizing that the rest of her body was in the same condition, a violent shudder ran through her frame and she staggered to her feet, staring down at herself in terror. I heard her whisper my name before taking a step back.
The moment her foot hit that traitorously smooth sand at the edge of the pool, I swear time all but stopped. In slow-motion, I watched her soft-soled feet slide against the wet beach. She stumbled, pin-wheeled for balance, and fell back. I was barely on my feet before she hit the water. Our screams mingled for an instant; then the water closed over her mouth, and silenced her cry for help.
I ran to the pool. Even though I was only a few feet away, it seemed to take me years to reach her. Her pale hand flailed above the water, and I wondered how deep the pool was – if it even had a bottom to begin with. Forgetting I could not touch her, I dove for her hand, but her ghostly fingers slid beneath the surface and out of my reach. Screaming her name, I plunged my hand into the cool water, searching desperately. I could see her just below the surface, reaching for me, but my hand passed through her every time.
I stared, helpless, as she faded. Far too quickly, she was gone. Yet I waited, watching without hope, wishing without any real conviction that she would reappear. When she did not, I sank down beside the pool in defeat, my eyes closing and my vision fading, and I knew no more.
* * *
When at last I woke, my head pounding and my body stiff and sore from exertion and stress, I did not at first know where I was. The trees above me looked strange and new against the unfamiliar backdrop of a starry sky, and for a short span of time, I wondered if I was dreaming. But piece by piece my memory restored itself, and at length I realized where I lay. Though I remembered with terrible clarity the moment Ashlyn disappeared, there remained a shred of desperate hope within me, and I jerkily pulled myself up, swaying a bit as the world tilted back and forth beneath me.
When I succeeded in steadying myself, I began to make my way around the pool, taking great care not to look at the forbidden thing and hoping that somehow I would find Ashlyn alive and well, asleep as I had been. I circled the pond once, twice, three times, but she was not there, and when I arrived for the fourth time at my original starting point, I accepted at last that she was gone for good. Yet, even as that dark thought crossed my mind, the world around me seemed to grow brighter.
Blinking in bewilderment, my gaze flitted here and there as I sought the source of the light. When my eyes lit upon the pool, I shrank back in fear. It was glowing faintly with a light that neither stars nor moon could have given it. I was on the verge of flight when suddenly a voice that seemed to come from the pool itself beckoned me, calling my name.
I knew that voice. But it was not possible – it could not be. She was gone.
Trembling, I put one foot in front of the other and approached the pool. When I stood at the water’s edge, I looked down into the terrible reflection – but what I saw there was not terrible at all. Though it was night in my world, the dream-world beyond the water’s surface shone with sunshine. My breath caught in my throat as I surveyed the scene before me; it was a glorious day there, with clear cerulean skies, the greenest grass, and trees bursting with autumn-bright leaves. Off to the side, I could see the flank of a grazing horse – or rather, a creature I mistook for a horse. It lifted its head just before it meandered out of the scene, and in that moment I caught a glimpse of a horn.
But even the sight of a unicorn, a vision I’d waited for so long, paled in comparison to the girl standing in the middle of the meadow, smiling at me. “Ash!” I crouched beside the water and leaned forward, anything to be closer to her. She no longer looked translucent, but whole and glad, smiling with a joy I had never seen in her.
“I’m free,” she said. She was herself again, as she had been before we had found the pool. Her crossing seemed to have healed her in a way much deeper than simply restoring her body to her; it was more than ever I could have hoped for. “Don’t cry!” she laughed, the sound of it like the tinkling of Christmas bells. “I’m happy here. It feels like home.”
Her words were comforting, but inklings of the future rendered me incapable of calming myself. “You’re not coming back.”
She bit her lip, and shook her head. “I can never go back. But I’ll see you again. Maybe, someday, you’ll follow me.” She offered me one last smile, and began to turn away. “I have to go,” she whispered, her voice little more than an echo now. The image in the pool began to fade.
“Ash!” I cried out, but within seconds the vision was gone, replaced with the reflection of the trees above me. No longer fearful of the water, I thrust my hand into the pool in one last mad attempt to retrieve my lost friend. But as my hand flailed in the water, I noticed something was missing. The water, which had always been cool to the touch, was lukewarm, and contact with it no longer induced the strange, tingling sensation it used to.
I understood, with a sort of final certainty: the magic was gone.
Withdrawing my hand, I sat for what may have been moments or hours in silence, thinking over all that had happened, and all that could have been. I could have saved her, if I hadn’t let her enthusiasm infect my logic. I could have prevented all of it if I hadn’t been swept up by the fantasy.
But – she looked so happy. And then a new thought entered my mind. Though I drew back from it at first, the more I considered it, the more true it seemed. Maybe Ashlyn had been right. She had certainly not died, as I’d thought she would; there was no body to be found. And I knew I wasn’t crazy; despite all that happened, I felt certain I kept my sanity. This meant that the vision had been real, and she really made it to that other world.
Everything I’d been taught, every teacher who ever taught me, told me it was impossible, that I was wrong. But something deeper than knowledge told me I was right, that Ashlyn was alive and well in that other world, and in this, at last, I found solace. Quietly, I stood, and began the long trek back home.
* * *
I will never know what would have been, if I had somehow prevented us from drinking that water. Nor can I know what would have happened, had I gone with her that fateful day. But I do know a little of what lay beyond the surface of the lake; I have seen it in my dreams. It has been many, many years since I saw Ashlyn with my waking eyes, but sometimes at night she comes to me, and together we explore that other world. Though I am an old woman now, with children and grandchildren and a lifetime full of memories, I am still young in spirit, and in that other world I am still the child I was the day we found the pool. It took me a long time to see it, but I think I understand what she meant when she said I could follow her one day.
I was not ready then to leave this world, but now there is little left to see. Though Ashlyn belonged there, had always somehow been meant for that world, I was far too human to leave this earth so soon. I wanted to live; and after all this time, I can finally say that I’ve done it. I traveled the world, saw the seven wonders with my own eyes – I have done all that I ever dreamed was possible. Now that my time here is coming to an end, I believe it is time at last to take the next step.
Tomorrow, I am going back to the forest. There is no logical reason the window should open for me after being closed all these years, and I have no real way of being certain I will find it. But I believe.
I lived the life I wanted. Now, it is time to rest, to sleep – to dream.