The silence was oppressive after all the noise of the strange city. It felt like it was closing in around them, just like the dark.
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” Benny said. “Bonnie said it was light down here and a nice fishy helped them get out. Why is it so dark?”
“I think it’s because we’re scared for them,” Josephina said. “And for us, too. All that just for some supplies… I’ll feel much better when the four of us are home. Here, honey, I’ll help light the way. Maybe I can propel us, too. You just focus on helping us breathe, and I’ll get us to shore, okay? We can test our communication equipment when we get home, and I’m sure we’ll reach them.”
Benny nodded, and Josephina closed her eyes to focus on helping them move through the water. Their bubble moved forward, and the darkness lifted a little, but it was still eerily dead beneath the water. She thought of many more things she could say to try and reassure the boy, but her own worry was too heavy. Where were those girls? Would their communication equipment work? Would their safe house still be safe when they arrived? She wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
It was only a small relief to find the shore empty of shadows. Trouble was, it was empty of all life. “I want to wait here,” Benny said. “If they came first, they would have waited for us.”
“We’ll wait until sundown, but after that we need to get indoors. We don’t know what’s out here at night, and it isn’t safe. I wouldn’t want them waiting at night for us.”
“But we have to! It’s all my fault we got separated! They wanted to go home, and I said we should stay!”
“No, we made that decision together. It’s my call, in the end, I’m—”
“What? You’re not our mom!”
“But I’m the best you three have got! I don’t know where we are or why we’re here, all I know is I care about you, and Raven and Bonnie.”
“So we have to wait for them!”
“I know, honey. But we have to protect ourselves, too. We’re no use to them if the shadows get us. They know where our house is, once they see the beach is empty, they’ll come home. Here,” she handed him the walkie-talkie from her bag. “You can try to reach them, if you like.”
Benny took it, but didn’t use it. “I don’t think I should just yet. It might be too loud with the shadows nearby. I’ll know when to use it. I get feelings like that.”
“You’ve got a good gut, kid,” Josephina said. “We’ll just have to trust it, and wait.”
“Raven? Oh, please, please, be okay. It’s me, it’s Bonnie. You’re safe. Please, please, wake up, I can’t do this without you…”
“Where are we?” she muttered.
“Back in my old safe house. Oh my god, Raven, I thought you were dead… If Josephina hadn’t taught us magic, I…”
“You saved me?” She sat up slowly, cautiously moving her limbs. Everything felt bruised, but nothing felt broken.
“Well, you saved me first. Jumping in front of that train like some cheesy superhero. Thank you, though. And now I guess I can add healing to my magical resume,” Bonnie said, giving her that sweet little smile Raven adored. Tears spilled from her eyes a moment later. “I’m so glad you’re okay!” she threw herself into Raven’s arms.
“Oww, take it easy!”
“Sorry!” Bonnie pulled back.
“It’s okay,” Raven giggled. Feeling bold, she took Bonnie’s face in her hands and planted a kiss on her lips.
“Oh,” Bonnie’s whole face turned bright red. She leaned in and kissed her, a proper long, sweet kiss. Raven forgot all her pain for a moment, and even forgot she was living in a nightmare. “Oh, I hope you’re real, Raven,” Bonnie said. “I wish everything else would disappear, and you and me were the only real ones in the world!”
“What about Jo and Benny?”
“Oh! Oh, of course, them too, I was just so worried about you I forgot—oh, I’m terrible, I’m just the worst! I hope they’re safe!”
“I think they are. I was distracted by something jumping into the sky before I got hit… It must have been them. They’re probably back home…”
“Funny how that’s home now…”
“Funny how I could survive getting hit by a train,” Raven said. “If this is a dream, wouldn’t that wake me up?”
“Raven, I’ve been wondering… Maybe this isn’t a dream.”
“What else could it be?”
“That’s what scares me,” Bonnie said. “What if… What if we’re dead? I mean, you couldn’t die again, but we still have our souls, we know that because those things seem to want them…”
“Do you think this is hell?”
“I don’t know. If it was, would we have any power at all? I think we’re somewhere in between places, like, it’s a test. If we can’t make it good, it will be bad.”
“Well,” Raven said, slowly testing her body, and lifting herself to sit up. “We better get back home and make it happen.”
“Benny? Come in, kiddo, it’s Bonnie.”
Both of them jumped and stared at the walkie-talkie. Finally Benny shook himself and answered. “Bonnie?” His little voice sounded strange from lack of use. He cleared his throat. “Bonnie? Is that really you?”
“Yeah, hon, it’s me.”
“And Raven too!” said a more distant voice.
“Are you guys okay?”
“Yeah, we just made it to the beach! Where are you two?”
“We’re safe! We’re at our house, hurry up and get here!”
“Well, I don’t know about hurrying, but we’ll be there soon. Can you put Josephina on?”
Benny handed her the walkie-talkie.
“Girls! Are you two okay?”
“Well, we will be. Raven got hurt pretty bad, but she’s alright now. We’re on our way. No shadows in sight, but, you know, it’s dark out… I tried to re-create your invisibility spell, but we can’t tell if that’s working either, and… Hm… If you could have some tea ready, maybe infuse it with some healing magic, ‘cause you’re probably a lot better at that than I am…”
“Of course, dear, of course,” she hurried to get the tea ready, preparing herself to slip into her magical trance. “See you soon. Bye, Bonnie.”
“I should be getting some sleep too,” Bonnie said. “Come on, kiddo, let’s get you tucked in.” She and Benny both kissed Raven goodnight, and Bonnie ushered Benny to his room.
Josephina stayed with Raven. “Here, sweetie, have another cup.”
“Thanks,” she muttered, and sipped it slowly.
“How are you feeling?”
“Better now. Still a little sore, but nothing’s broken.”
“Good. Maybe you’ll be all better by morning.”
“Josephina… Do you think this is a dream?”
“I’m not sure anymore. I don’t like Bonnie’s ‘we’re all dead’ theory, but it does make sense.”
“I don’t know how I would have died.”
“What is your story, dear? You don’t talk about yourself like the others.”
“Well, there’s not much to tell. I guess I’m just a classic case of a troubled teen who never grew up.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty. Left home at sixteen. Finished high school by myself, though. No one thought I could.”
“That must have been hard. You’re a strong girl, to do that for yourself, good for you. Why did you leave home so young?”
Raven shrugged. How could she tell this lovely woman, with the perfect family waiting for her, what a screw up she was? Maybe she wouldn’t want someone like that around little Benny. Bonnie was their savior, after all.
“You can talk to me, Raven. You actually remind me quite a bit of my own daughter. I’ve got two boys, and my middle child is the only girl. She’s tough on the outside like you, but I think she’s just trying to appear that way for the rest of them. My oldest son, he’s been bullied for years, and she’s been his protector. But who looks after her? Mom and Dad can’t always be there when she’s out in the world, and she acts like she doesn’t need anyone. I hope she’s alright, now that I’m stuck here. Indulge me, Raven. I need to help you kids to feel useful. Have you had no one to care for you since you were sixteen?”
Raven hesitated for a moment, until she remembered where she was. If none of this is real, why not tell her?
“Well… No, I guess not. Not even before that, really. My parents weren’t exactly abusive, necessarily, just… I’d get into trouble, right, just ordinary teen stuff, and they’d blow it out of proportion. Thought I was a devil worshiper or something. I mean, just because I dressed goth and like new age crap, suddenly I’m a witch. I mean, I guess I did make pretty weird stuff happen sometimes. One night I was up late reading, and I had a few candles lit. I was focused on the book, but I noticed the light in the room changing, and when I looked up, all my candles were floating in the air. I thought it was a dream. I’m still not sure if it was real or not. Well… Now I’m not sure if anything is, or anything ever was.”
“You’re not alone, you know. I’ve caused plenty of weird occurrences in my past life, too. Scared my husband half to death. And little Benny got in trouble at his school for things he didn’t mean to do. All of these weird things we have in common might help us figure out why we’re here.”
“Are you all really here, though? I mean, how do I know I didn’t make you all up? I don’t really think we’re dead either, and maybe that’s just denial, but… I don’t know. I’m still afraid I’m lying in the hospital somewhere, and I’ve finally come unhinged. In a lot of ways this is hell, but at the same time… I don’t understand how suddenly I have this perfect mother figure sitting next to me wanting to listen and help me with all my problems. I don’t understand how I found Bonnie, who’s like, my dream girl, and I think she actually likes me too.”
“Did your parents know you’re gay?”
“Yeah. Said they wouldn’t kick me out, still ‘loved me’ or whatever, but didn’t like it at all. Did everything they could to show me it was wrong while trying to maintain the supportive parent illusion so everybody else thought they were wonderful. So, that was sort of the last straw, and I left on my own as soon as I could. But… You don’t have a problem with it, do you?”
“Of course not, dear. Actually, my oldest son came out fairly recently. I always sort of knew, so I was glad to hear him say it.”
“Are you serious? Do you see what I mean, why I’m afraid I’m making all of this up? I’m sorry if I’m wrong—if you’re real and have a real family waiting for you back home. And poor Benny, his parent’s must be worried sick. But you’re too perfect to be real. You three are everything missing from my life. I even have a little sister who I was barely allowed to spend time with because my parents thought I was a bad influence, and now Ben’s like another sibling to me…” she sighed. “I should have been better to her. I thought the shadows would impersonate my parents, I didn’t even think…”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it. If and when we get back home, now you know to call her up. Seems to me like you had enough on your plate.”
“Seems to me like I’m a coward. To see her, I’d have to see them. I don’t even know why it still bothers me. I’m an adult, I shouldn’t care what my parents think of me anymore.”
Josephina smiled, gently shaking her head. “I don’t know why everyone believes that. Being an adult doesn’t mean a switch goes off in your brain to turn off those kinds of bad feelings. Being an adult just means you’re free to live your own life now, and you can move on from those judgements and expectations your parents put on you. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, or that you’ll never shed a tear for them again. Think of it this way—you lived with them for sixteen years, and plenty of kids live with them longer than that. Anyone else you lived with for that long—if you had a long-time girlfriend for example—you wouldn’t be expected to drop your feelings for her so easily after breaking up and moving away.
“Never thought of it like that. Everyone just tells me to stop being a baby.”
“Seems to me like you did. You moved out and did the best you could for yourself. Emotions are sticky sometimes. But as long as you keep moving forward, like you are, you’ll break away in time.”
“I’m not sure what ‘moving forward’ means if I’m here. Either I made it all up, or I’m not alive at all.”
“Would you be in such a nightmare, if you invented it all yourself?”
She shrugged. “Well, that’s the weird part where it only started as a nightmare. I don’t know what’s what anymore, but we have learned how to shift our surroundings. We can turn this nightmare realm into paradise.”
“And we will.”
“Thanks for the talk, Jo. I think I’m just gonna sleep out here tonight.”
“You’re welcome, Raven. Goodnight.”
“I can’t sleep,” he said.
“Come along then,” she said, taking his hand and guiding him back to his room.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” he said, as Josephina tucked him in. “I’m a big boy, I don’t need you mommying me.”
Josephina giggled. The sweet boy was holding her hand the whole time he spoke. “Well, please humor an old woman. I miss my kids too much not to mommy you.” She kissed his forehead. “Want me to sing you a lullaby?”
“If you insist,” he said, nodding eagerly.
“Okay. Close your eyes.”
Keep your eyes bright
Keep your heart light
Turn your thoughts to the good and right
Think of me on your darkest days
Remember all the things I used to say
Though the darkness reaches high
Look to me, I’ll be your sky
When you feel like you could scream
Ask me if this is just a dream
It will be but a memory
When morning’s light shines merrily
So keep your eyes bright
Keep you heart light
Trust me, it will be all right
Little one, there’s no need to cry
Look to me, it’s just a dream
I will be your sky