Chapter 1 - Departure
Virginia rose. "I'll see you soon. I really love you, Daddy."
Tony's eyes filled with sudden tears. "You haven't called me Daddy since you were a kid."
She kissed him and then hugged him. He squeezed her so hard she thought her ribs would crack. Then she eased out of the hug and stepped back, watching Wolf land a kiss on her father's cheek, which Tony actually didn't seem to mind. She took Wolf's hand and stepped through the mirror. As the room began to twist and fade, she just had time to hear Wolf say, "See you soon, Grandpa."
And then she was swept into the vortex. Her heart and stomach lurched with the passage and the rapidly flashing images made her dizzy so she closed her eyes. In just a moment, she knew, she'd be back in New York, and her life with Wolf would begin.
Her eyes were still closed, and for some reason she thought it was her father who had spoken, which made no sense unless Wolf's last remark had prompted Tony to follow them after all. Which it might have; Wolf had the ability to provoke and irritate her father, so--
"Virginia, can you hear me?"
Well of course she could, what a ridiculous question! She opened her eyes.
She was not in Central Park.
She was not standing in a grove.
She was not standing at all.
She was in a bed. A bed in a brightly lighted room. A bed over which her father was leaning. "Dad?"
Tony shushed her. "Honey, lie still, don't try to talk." Dad? What was he doing here? Had he come through the mirror after all? And where was Wolf? Where was she? She turned her head and saw people in blue, white and green uniforms, fluorescent lights, curtains, metal poles with things hanging from them. There was an acrid, medicinal odor -- a hospital! She was in an emergency room.
"Where...? DAD!" Something terrible had happened. There was panic in her voice and her father came back into her line of vision, this time with a nurse.
"You had an accident, honey," Tony said, not doing a very good job of making his tone soothing and comforting. On the contrary; he sounded terrified. "On your way to work. The Park Police found you lying on the path with your bicycle all bent. You hit a dog and--"
The nurse gently pushed her back down as she struggled to sit up, but Virginia kept speaking. "The dog --Prince -- Wendell, you know." A furrow creased her brow. "Dad, not then, now! That was ages ago!"
"Sweetie, shh, you don't know what you mean. This just happened an hour ago."
"What are you talking about, Dad? You know!" Why was he being so thick? Her head hurt tremendously. " You know? After the banquet? The kingdoms? Wendell? Wolf?"
Tony shook his head and tried to look wise and fatherly. "No, Virginia, it wasn't a wolf, it was a dog. A golden retriever. Oh, if you're worried about him, don't be. He's okay. Just sat there barking. He was still at it when I got there."
"What did he say?"
Tony stared at her. "What do you mean 'what did he say?' He said 'woof.'" He frowned. "Miss -- Nurse --I think she might be delirious. Maybe we should get the doctor--"
"--I am not delirious! Why couldn't you understand him? Did the spell wear off? Why is he a dog, again, anyway?"
"Why? Dog? Spell? Oh, Honey, take it easy, okay?"
"What are you saying? What's happened?" Virginia's voice was approaching a screech.
"Sir--"The nurse stepped in and pushed Tony aside gently. She smiled broadly, then spoke distinctly: "Now - now - Miss - Lewis - we - took - a - verrrrry - bad - hit - on - our - HEAD. We - may - have - a - slight - CON-CUS-SION." She was speaking as if she thought her patient were slow, which only served to increase Virginia's panic. "We - need - to - do - some - tests. Dr. - Najima - will - be - right - back - to - tell - you - about -them."
"No!" Her head really was throbbing. "You may have a concussion, but we do not!" She put up a hand to her forehead and found a gauze bandage there. She looked at her hand incredulously. This was crazy. The nurse was crazy. Her father was crazy. She was crazy. She fought for control of her voice, though her heart was pounding, thudding in her chest. Okay, okay, take it easy. Of course he couldn't tell you with the nurse standing there. "Dad," she said, trying to sound sane, "Let me talk to you alone." She gave her father a significant look, then shot her gaze at the nurse.
The nurse didn't even flinch. "I'll go tell the doctor you're awake." She waddled out into the corridor.
"Dad, listen. I know, the nurse was here, you couldn't --I know you know. Tell me what really happened."
"I told you, honey, you collided with a--"
"--No, what happened while we were coming back? Through the mirror. After we saved the Kingdoms." Horrified, she saw her father still looked at her with that sad, concerned expression. "Come on! Trolls! Dwarves!" She began to babble, her voice rising. "Wendell was a dog, and then you turned him to gold, and then he wasn't -- oh, oh -- and Snow White! You broke your back, and, and Mom, she was the Queen, and I had to, I had to, and..." She looked at Tony expectantly. "And I just came back. Today! Please, please say you remember!"
Her father leaned close to her, his face gentle, his eyes tender. "Honey. Virginia, I...listen to me. You had a nasty crack on the head." He reached over and stroked her face, and the concern in the gesture brought tears to two pair of eyes. "You had a dream, that's all. A pretty vivid one, from what I'm hearing, kingdoms, gold dogs --If you have a concussion, it could make you think it really happened--"
"No!" Her voice went up and Tony shushed her. No! No! No! This was wrong! They'd been away nearly a month, and now -- She felt the panic rise and the frustration and suddenly she burst out crying, huge wracking sobs. Like she'd cried at Snow White Falls. That was real, that had happened!
A whisper of a shadow of a hint of a doubt crawled into a corner of her mind, and she had to marshal her will to push it away. It had to have been real! Of course it was! How else would she remember the thousands of tiny details of everything that had happened to her: the damp coldness of Dragon Mountain, the ghastly smell inside the Huntsman's lair, the sound of Snow White's voice in her ear, the incredible tastes of that amazing banquet in Kissing Town, the sight of that little worry line between Wolf's eyebrows--
Oh, God, Wolf!
She remembered so well, with such aching clarity, every detail of his face, every expression, every sound he made. How could he have been a dream? How could a month have been compressed into a single hour? How could she have invented someone like Wolf, with his unique idiosyncrasies? How could she create such minute detail about everything they'd done--
Everything they'd done. Everything...
She stopped crying abruptly. Tony looked relieved.
There was proof, the kind of proof she needed to show herself that she wasn't crazy or hallucinating. She would get proof. But first she needed to get rid of -- "Dad?"
"Could you go get me a, um --" her eyes darted around the room wildly, inventing, "Could you get me, from the, ah, gift shop--" the first thing she thought of popped out of her mouth "--I want a, a stuffed animal."
"Puh-leeeeze, Dad," An odd phrase fluttered into her head. "A rabbit. To cuddle. A long-eared rabbit's best. To, ah, comfort me." Hah! she thought. Could I have invented THAT?
Tony gave her a look that said Oh dear, she's lost it! But aloud he said, "Okay, sure. Whatever you want. Will you be all right?"
"Uh-huh. The nurse is right there."
Tony smiled uncertainly, then bolted for the gift shop.
The moment he left, Virginia called the nurse. "Yes? Feeling better?"
Virginia smiled what she hoped was a rueful smile. "Yes. Sorry. Listen, could you give me a pregnancy test?"
The nurse looked surprised. "Well, the doctor--"
"--Please! I need to know. You need to know, before you, um, take X-rays or something, don't you?"
"Yes, but I don't know if they'll--"
"--And please don't tell my dad."
This the nurse understood. "Sure. Okay." She escorted Virginia to the bathroom.
She was back in the bed when Tony returned. "Honey, they didn't have a rabbit." He seemed dismayed, and for a moment she wondered what the heck he meant, until she remembered the errand she'd sent him on.
"Oh, that's okay, Daddy. Never mind."
"But I did find you this." He held out a stuffed animal. It was a little fluffy sheep.
Virginia coughed convulsively. She took the sheep, noting a little tag in its ear that said "I Love Ewe" inside a pink heart. She ran her fingers through its fluffy wool, then suddenly began to cry. Oh, how she missed her Wolf!
Dr. Najima was a young Japanese resident with a lightly accented voice and a gentle manner. He poked, probed, squinted at and listened to various parts of Virginia, making small mm-hmm-ing noises to the nurse while she dutifully wrote things on a clipboard. Tony hovered by the curtain, interjecting nervous questions from time to time.
The doctor wrapped his stethoscope around his neck. "You look fine, just a little bump on the head, some bruises. I'll have the nurse bandage that scrape on your leg."
"Does she have a concussion?" Tony piped in anxiously.
"Perhaps. You did lose consciousness, so it is possible. I'm going to recommend a CAT scan, though it's probably not necessary. And you don't seem to have any broken bones." A smile creased his pleasant face. "You are very lucky, Miss Lewis."
Yeah, lucky, she thought. "What about--" She caught the nurse's eye, then looked pointedly at Dr. Najima.
"What?" He smiled back at her.
The nurse sailed in. "Doctor, let me take Mr. Lewis out and show him where he can wait during her CAT scan." And with that she steered Tony out the door before he could utter a word.
"Did you have something to ask me?" He nodded towards the curtain." Maria doesn't usually take parents out unless there's something private to talk about."
Virginia leaned towards him, unconsciously dropping her voice. "The nurse gave me a pregnancy test. I have to know."
"Oh. All right, let's see." He flipped through the chart, giving her unadorned left hand the briefest of flickering glances. "Don't worry," he said, "You're fine."
"'Fine. You mean--"
"--Nothing to worry about. You're not pregnant."
It was dawn when they left the hospital. The tests and examinations and waiting had eaten up almost eight hours, and both Tony and Virginia were ragged with exhaustion. Tony had caught a few catnaps here and there during the night, but Virginia couldn't sleep. Her mind kept racing, twisting her thoughts, bringing her back time and again to the questions Why? and What had happened?
There were no answers.
Except the one she didn't want to believe. That everything she'd lived through over the past month had been in her head, part of a dream, a fantasy from her subconscious. It hurt terribly to think that, hurt all the way down into her heart, but she couldn't imagine what else could explain what had happened.
She shuffled into her bedroom and tossed her bag onto the bed. Across the room her reflection startled her; she crossed to the dresser mirror and stared back at herself. Something was different. Her hair. She hadn't seen herself reflected in a mirror since she'd awakened. Now she realized her hair had grown back to shoulder length, from the rough bob Wolf had given her--
She forced the thought away. Her hair hadn't grown back. It had never been cut. Just more proof that her adventure had never happened.
She'd been so sure, so unshakably positive that the test would prove that she was pregnant. Wolf had been sure. She'd believed him. Now she wondered how she could believe in him.
Tony came in, and settled her into her bed, sitting next to her holding her hand. "You'll be okay, Honey," he said, then yawned. "Sorry. I'm gonna get some sleep. You do that, too. But whatever you want, whatever you need, don't get up, Call me. I'll be right there." He leaned over and kissed her on her forehead. "I love you, sweetie. I was so scared." His voice got thick, so he stopped talking, patted her shoulder and left, leaving the door ajar. Virginia suddenly remembered how he'd hugged her before she stepped through the mirror, how he--
She stopped herself. The sooner she stopped thinking about that, the better.
How she was going to do that, she didn't know.
She caught a glimpse of her hand as she reached for the stuffed sheep. Her left hand, where the singing ring should have been. Tears clouded her eyes. She clutched the stuffed sheep and wept into her pillow.
She went back to work two days later. Everyone clucked over her, examined her bruised forehead, offered help carrying the heavy trays. Virginia thanked them tersely, wishing they would leave her alone.
After a day or two, they did.
Days went by, then weeks. Indian summer slid into autumn. Virginia sank deeper and deeper into herself. Nothing seemed important to her, nothing mattered except the fact she'd lost her storybook life.
Her dream of a life, that was. After all, it hadn't been real at all, had it? None of it.
Tony watched her drag herself from room to room, and was deeply worried. He missed her attitude, her caustic sense of humor, even the frequent scoldings when she'd tell him exactly what he was doing wrong. True, Virginia had never been what he'd call outgoing -- at least not since her mother deserted them. She'd been a happy, friendly child, but in the years following her mother's departure he'd watched his daughter put up walls and formidable defenses, defenses he'd never been able to help her knock down.
Tony sighed. He knew he was a lousy father. Just like he was a lousy businessman. And a spectacularly dismal failure as a custodian. He picked up a screwdriver and drove it home into the elevator's wiring. Sparks flew out and he sucked his finger.
Virginia came out of their apartment. He'd never seen her look as despondent or remote as she did now. Ever since the accident...wait! Maybe something physical was wrong with her. A flutter of panic gripped his heart. But the doctors all had said she was fine. And she'd absolutely refused to see a shrink, though he'd gingerly suggested that perhaps she should, to deal with her depression. Not that he believed in such things, usually. Sure, he knew Christine could have used a psychiatrist, so maybe- -
NO! Tony pushed the thought away. Virginia was not Christine. She wasn't crazy.
He watched her as she crossed to the elevator, carefully stepping over his tools. "Hi, Honey."
"Is it working?" Her tone conveyed she didn't much care either way.
"Yep, she's running. For the moment." He stopped, an expectant look on his face. "Off to work?" His sunny smile seemed forced.
"Uh huh." Virginia studied the grill over the ceiling vent, cutting off contact.
"You're not walking through Central Park..." Even before she'd broken her bike it had seemed a bad idea to him for anyone who wasn't a mugger to go there after dark.
The elevator shuddered to a stop. "G'bye, honey," Tony called after her. She said nothing, just twitched her backpack higher and left.
Virginia didn't go into the park anymore. And even though a bus across the park would have been the fastest way to go, she didn't even like to look at it through the bus' windows. The subway was so noisy and so crowded she couldn't even think. And that was what she wanted most these days, not to think.
Wrong, she corrected herself. What she really wanted was to wake up from this nightmare. Except it wasn't. This was reality, this grey, empty existence, without hope. Without love. Without a lover who had never existed.
She walked down to the subway entrance at 77th and Lexington near Lenox Hill Hospital. At four p.m., rush hour was in full swing, and she had to fight her way through an army of pushy New Yorkers, each of whom had to be the first in line through the turnstiles. Her instincts carried her through unscathed. It was a particularly crowded Thursday afternoon, and commuters stood four and five deep, clinging to the platform dangerously close to the edge. Virginia stayed back by the wall. Another train would come along if she couldn't get into the first one. It didn't really matter if she was late. Let them fire her.
She knew they wouldn't, though. Everyone at the Grill felt sorry for her, how depressed she'd become. It was like a family there, a strange, multi-national family, and before the accident she'd taken a little comfort in the noisy, nosy staff, who knew everybody's business and accepted everyone's idiosyncrasies. These days she found them all a little hard to take.
She leaned back on her pack, against the tile wall, and let her mind wander. The buzz of the crowd was an effective white noise generator through which her thoughts were diffused and softened. Her eyes roamed down the platform, taking in the loud teenagers from the nearby private school, harried-looking doctors who hadn't been able to find a cab, doormen and housewives and cashiers and maids and shoppers and tourists. She wondered how many of them were going home to someone they loved and who loved them.
She closed her eyes for a moment. Stop thinking about that, she ordered herself. Just stop thinking at all. She opened her eyes again, blanked her mind and looked down the other end of the platform. More shoppers, children, woman with unnaturally-dyed red hair, old man with cane, man in jacket--
Her heart lurched. The man in the jacket had his back to her, and was very far away, but something about his back, his posture, the color of his hair--
Virginia looked away, breathing deeply to calm herself down. For a moment she'd thought... A bitter smile crossed her face. This wasn't the first time she'd caught a glimpse of someone and for a moment thought it was Wolf. The first time it happened she'd had a feeling of bliss wash over her, until she got close enough to see the man was not at all like him, except in height and coloring. Four or five "sightings" later she'd realized that her mind was making up a connection to her fantasy lover. But there was always that initial moment...
She made herself look back down the platform. It was better to get a reality check when these thoughts took hold. Better to remind herself that Wolf existed only in her mind.
It took her a moment to find the man again in the swelling crowd. But then there he was, a little taller than most of the commuters. No wonder she'd thought he was Wolf. The guy was slumping a bit, as if to make himself blend in with a shorter world. So much for reality, Virginia thought. Now I'm making up stories about strangers. She saw the man raise his left arm, probably to check his watch. He turned in Virginia's direction, to peer down the tunnel for the #6 train.
Virginia felt a shiver run down her entire body.
It was Wolf.
It was Wolf.
Even at this distance she could see his face clearly, and this was no stranger, no man with similar build and coloring. This was--
Her feet were taking her down the platform without her brain telling them to move. She banged into people, who cursed resentfully as she pushed by. He'd turned away again, now staring off across the platform to the uptown side, jiggling impatiently from foot to foot, his movements, his nervous energy, his face, his body--
"Wolf!" She called out without planning to, but the word was obliterated by a rumbling roar as the train came into the station, brakes squealing, metal wheels shrieking against track, sparks flying, so she called his name again, louder this time, and she was only a few feet away from him now--
And he turned around.