Melissa followed the trail where the riders had passed, hoping to catch sight of them. However, it soon became apparent that her transformation wasn't working out the way she expected. I'm just so tired, she thought. Way to go Melissa, you made yourself into an old crone without thinking about how hard it would be to get around when you're old. She stood stooped over, panting in exhaustion, and berating herself for her mistake. She walked slowly to a large flat rock near the narrow trail and sat down. Melissa winced as she felt aches in her back, hips, and knees as she sat. Lord God, is this what it feels like to get old? No wonder you make old people forgetful.
She sat for a long while, breathing as deeply as she could and willed the pain to ease. If only I had some ibuprofen for the aches, she thought with a wry smile. This is going to take a long time at this pace. It will be dark soon and I don't like the idea of walking through the night. I don't even know how to make a fire. Damn. My story won't be so good if I die of exposure the first night.
Melissa let out an explosive sigh and forced herself to her feet. She leaned heavily on her staff as she got her balance. There must be a village nearby, she told herself. Or at least a farmhouse. Maybe a place I can get warm and rest.
The trail led down through trees and heavy brush. Melissa was often obliged to push her way through using her staff and hands, more than once being smacked in the face by an errant branch. "Oh this is ridiculous!" She shouted at the trees. I made myself into this old woman, surely I can do something about it. Melissa calmed herself through an act of sheer will, breathing steadily and as peacefully as she could managed. She tried to create a mental image of herself as the crone in Charlie's story, old in appearance but vital and energetic and free of pain.
Perhaps I could find a farmhouse kept by a nice old witch, Melissa thought erratically. Argh! I have to concentrate or this will never work. She calmed her breathing again and carefully began building a mental image of what she wanted to achieve. And maybe she will have a nice fire going and some warm biscuits with honey and butter, and some milk to drink.
"What was I trying to do?" Melissa tried to concentrate but gave it up after a minute. "Must not have been that important. I sure am getting hungry." She kept muttering to herself as she walked down the trail. After a few minutes of walking and muttering, Melissa remembered what it was that she had been trying to do. She stopped in mid-step as the thought came clearly into focus. Oh my, she thought, now I'm even thinking like an old woman. Oh dear God, what if I can't change myself back? What if I die out here, a frozen starved old woman? Panic gripped her, her heart was beating painfully hard in her thin chest, her breathing rapid and shallow. She began to feel dizzy from hyperventilation and forced herself to slow down. "Whoa girl," she said out loud, "get a grip on yourself and get moving. Losing your mind will certainly get you killed. I've gotta keep moving to have any hope at all."
Melissa walked forward in her tottering old-woman gait. The trees were less of a problem now and she could focus on using her staff to balance her steps. She stumbled from time to time due to the unevenness of the trail and the failing light. The forest around her was growing too dark to see, even though there was still a glint of golden sunlight on the treetops. The sky straight overhead was a mixture of gold and pale blue as the sun was setting somewhere ahead of her. Melissa could see more light just ahead of her. I must be getting to the edge of the forest, she thought. A few more paces brought her to the edge of a large meadow, flowers dotting the tall grass as it rolled away downhill in waves. Is that a cottage down there at the far edge of the meadow?
Melissa had a brief view of a thatched roof rising above a sprawling cottage. The glass windows were already glowing with candle light as the day faded away. Such a welcoming place, she thought and smiled. The narrow dirt path she'd been following ran out into the grass but faded away to nothing within a few paces into the meadow. Melissa tottered forward, her weary legs feeling wobbly with fatigue.
Meow? Melissa started as a white cat stepped out of the grass at her feet and began curling around her ankles and purring.
"Well, hello there sweetie," she said to the cat. "Aren't you just the prettiest little kitty?"
Mee-row, the cat replied confidently. Melissa chuckled and bent to offer a hand to the cat. The white cat sniffed daintily and then arched her back and curled her whole body through Melissa's hand, achieving the greatest amount of pleasure with the minimum of effort. Melissa smiled and stroked the cat a few more times.
"I could really use a safe place to stay the night," she told the cat. "Do you live in the cottage?" The cat stopped it's gyrations as she spoke and gazed up at her as though she were listening quite carefully to Melissa's words. She has the most beautiful blue eyes I've ever seen on a cat, Melissa thought. She's so much like Snowball, she could be a twin. Melissa had a cat just like this one, a beautiful white kitten, that she'd named Snowball when she was a little girl, and had been heartbroken when the cat disappeared one day like cats sometimes do.
Before the cat could answer her, Melissa felt it stiffen against her hand and its head whipped around to stare off into the night behind her. Melissa stood up, groaning slightly at the pain in her lower back as she did so. The cat hissed at something in the darkness and then in a flash of white in the gloom, the cat was gone. Melissa fought down the instinct to run, and instead turned to face whatever was approaching behind her.
The last sunlight was quickly fading from the sky; the darkness seemed to flow outward from the forest edge to swirl around her feet. Melissa could see nothing in the trees ahead of her but she still had the sense of being watched by something standing within the deepening shadows.
"Who's there?" Melissa called. She was annoyed at the frail quaver in her voice. I am really getting tired of this being-old crap. There was no answer from the darkness, but the feeling of being watched intensified. There came a few thudding sounds from deep within the woods before her, like a boulder dropping on the forest floor. That sounds like footsteps, Melissa thought. Really BIG footsteps, oh my. She took an involuntary step backward.
Melissa was suddenly assailed by a horrible stench that was a bizarre mixture of rotting fish, feces, and body odor. "Oh my god …urp!" Melissa barely managed to keep the contents of her stomach from spewing over the meadow. The thudding step sounds stopped, and all was unnaturally silent. The feeling of being observed was stronger than she'd ever felt before in her life, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand up like steel bristles. "Is someone there?" Melissa called, softer than before.
No one answered while Melissa strained to hear, but she thought she heard breathing coming from the darkest part of the gloomy trail she had recently exited. Melissa still saw nothing in the gloom straight ahead of her. She let her eyes roam upward, searching for any sign of what she felt certain must be menacing her. My God in Heaven, she thought sharply, are those eyes?
Melissa could barely make out a place where branches from the trees that marked the edge of the meadow and the trail she just walked out of. Just above a pair of crossed branches was a pair of red glowing eyes, like animal eye-shine, but farther apart than any normal eyes should be. And they've got to be more than nine feet off the ground, she thought through a rising tide of panic. A massively deep rumble struck her, a palpable vibration in her chest startled her, and then she realized that she was hearing the growl of a huge creature.
"Oh please… Dear God, someone please help me," Melissa whimpered in her terror. Her knees felt weak and wobbly, one hand went to her chest as if to keep her heart from leaping out, the other hand clutched at her staff to keep herself upright. A streak of white fur darted past Melissa to place itself between her and the menacing presence. "Oh kitty, no… you'll be killed."
The white cat paid Melissa no heed, it's back arched and fur standing stiff. She heard the little cat hiss and then give voice to the most astounding roar. As she watched, the cat grew in size. Melissa rubbed a hand across her eyes, disbelieving what she saw. The white cat was now the size of a Bengal tiger, and still getting larger. The sounds ripping through the night were vast and painful. The hissing roar of the huge cat and the growling roar of the unseen beast in the wood. Melissa surrendered, her knees buckling beneath her, she fell to the ground as the blackness took her away.
Melissa awakened slowly to a metallic sound that was at once strange and yet familiar. She listened to it without opening her eyes, feeling warm and safe, and still somewhat sleepy. She could smell something savory wafting through the air and as she sampled this new smell she was aware that her stomach was empty and beginning to growl ravenously. Melissa tentatively opened her eyes.
Her eyesight was blurry from the sleep caked in the corners of her eyes and thick tears. She blinked and raised a hand to rub her eyes clear. As her hand lowered, she stared at the hand. It was her own, youthful hand, and no longer the hand of an old woman. Somehow her spell had been reversed, or she had reverted to her own firm when she fainted. Looking up again, Melissa saw a fire burning low upon a stone hearth, with a medium sized cauldron suspended above it by a heavy chain connected to an iron arm that swung out from the edge of the hearth. She guessed that the savory smells were coming from the pot, and imagined a thick, hearty soup or stew bubbling merrily inside its metallic confines. Melissa tried to move her legs to a position where she could sit up, but there was a pressure along one side that kept her from moving.
It was at precisely that moment that she remembered the events of the previous evening. Or, at least, I think it was last night, she thought. Oh God, was I injured by that horrible beast? Is that why I cannot move now? She tried a little harder to move, and was encouraged when there was no pain. She pulled her left arm out from beneath the covers, shivering briefly as her bare flesh encountered the chilly morning air. She reached down to discover what was restricting her movement and was mildly surprised to find a mound of warm fur that moved and meowed when she touched it. Melissa raised her head in time to see the beautiful white cat she'd met the night before stretch languorously and step daintily up onto her stomach and then up to her chest.
"Hello there, sweetie," Melissa said to the cat. The cat replied by sniffing at her nose and licking the tip ever so gently in a dainty kiss. "I'm so glad you are alright. That beast, whatever it was, nearly got the both of us."
"He probably wouldn't have hurt you, actually," said a young woman's voice from a corner of the room beyond Melissa's view. "That was Old Knobby. He is one of the wild people of the forest. They are normally rather peaceful toward humans. I think he was mostly just offended that you passed through his territory without leaving an offering."
"Knobby? Wha-what sort of offering?"
"He prefers to plunder the virtue of passing women," the woman said archly. "But don't worry, he prefers old women." Melissa realized she was staring with her mouth wide open after a minute of silence and closed her mouth with a snap. The woman held her serious expression for another long minute and then burst into laughter. Melissa realized she was being played for a fool and smiled sheepishly.
"Forgive me," the young woman said. "I really shouldn't do that but you seemed so gullible right then. And forgive me also for my poor manners. You can call me Daphne."
"Pleased to meet you Daphne, I'm Melissa. And thank you for caring for me after my frightful experience last night." Daphne nodded in acknowledgment. "Who is your little friend here?" Melissa asked, petting the white cat and smiling at the now thunderous purring.
"You know her, she's Snowball," Daphne said.
"That… Can't be," Melissa whispered. "Snowball was my best friend when I was little, and then one day she was just… gone. I was so upset that mom and dad took me to a doctor." She took a long, deep breath to regain her calm. "My parents and the doctor finally convinced me that Snowball didn't exist, that she was just in my imagination." The white cat stopped purring and stared into Melissa's eyes as if waiting for her to speak. They stared into each other's eyes for a long moment.
"Snowball," Melissa whispered. Tears formed in her eyes and she felt a lump in her throat. How can this be? Am I losing my mind? Living in fantasy and lost to the real world? Am I dead? Her hand reached out to the cat again and stopped just short of touching Snowball's head. Snowball sniffed at the fingers as if considering and then pushed her head under Melissa's hand in a welcome caress that included a long arching of the cat's back and tail against Melissa's hand. The tears overflowing from her eyes, Melissa smiled at the warming flow of love she felt from the little cat.
"She seems happy to see you again," Daphne said. "I'm not sure I will forgive you that easily, though."
"What do you mean by that? Have I done something to you?"
"You don't remember me?" Daphne gave her a look that was somewhere between a pout and an angry glare. As Melissa watched, Daphne shrank and changed, becoming a young girl of about eight years. Memories came flooding back of another friend from her childhood.
"Daphne?" Melissa whispered. She remembered now, another imaginary friend from her lonely childhood. "I… had forgotten you. I'm sorry, I… I don't know how I could forget." Daphne glared at her again, but after a moment her expression softened and then she flowed back into the form she'd had when Melissa first saw her.
"Snowball and I have been here waiting for you, hoping…" Daphne said quietly.
"We were hoping you would need us again someday," she said.
"And here you both are to help me when I most need someone," Melissa said with tears in her eyes. Snowball butted her head against Melissa's chin and purred louder. Melissa laughed and wiped away her tears. "But, how are you here? Or maybe I should ask why you are here?"
"You. You are the reason we are here," Daphne told her. "You created us when you needed friends as a child. When you no longer needed us, we left and you went on with your life. I suppose I really shouldn't be hurt by that."
"I am sorry, Daphne."
"Don't be," she answered. "It's ok; really, I have trouble dealing with rejection because you were having trouble with rejection when you created me." She smiled as she answered, and Melissa relaxed a little.
"So." Melissa said. "What do we do now?"
"I thought we could work on your magic," Daphne answered. "After all, that disguise won't help you much if it disappears the first time you get frightened."
"It might have been Knobby's smell, though," Melissa joked.
"That's a possibility, of course, but Snowball said you changed back when you manifested Knobby," Daphne said, taking on the role of a teacher analyzing her student's performance. "Do you remember Knobby at all?"
"Only that it was immense, and that the smell was so awful I nearly vomited."
"No, I meant do you remember Knobby from your childhood?"
Melissa started to answer negatively, and then paused. A shiver ran up her spine briefly as the shadow of a memory crept into her mind. "I… I used to dream about him, didn't I?" Daphne nodded.
"He was the recurring nightmare you had when we were together. Snowball and I would help you by standing guard while you slept and even drawing protective circles around your bed to keep the bad dreams away."
"Do you remember where he came from?" Melissa asked. "I mean, I don't even really know what he is, let alone why I would include him in my dreams."
"Knobby is a Sasquatch," Daphne explained. "The way I understand it, some neighborhood kids pulled a prank when you were little and frightened the devil out of you and the other little kids. The bad dreams started not long after that."
"And if I remember, and I'm having trouble remembering anything from my childhood, you came into my life not long after that. Am I right?"
"Yes, that's right," Daphne said with a warm smile. "I knew I was too important for you to ever really forget." Melissa giggled like the little girl she had been the last time the three of them had been together. Those had been comforting days, filled with warmth and sunshine, and her two imaginary friends. "Do you feel like eating?"
"I sure do," Melissa answered promptly.
"Why don't you get up and dressed, and I'll bring some bowls of food for us to eat on the front steps in the sunshine."
"Sounds very good to me," Melissa told her. Daphne rose and went to the fire to fill two good sized bowls and one small bowl with soup, setting them on a wooden tray. Then she found a loaf of bread, some honey, and took everything from the room. Melissa threw back the covers and got out of the bed to begin dressing. Snowball watched her for a minute and then yawned, stretched, and jumped down from the bed to follow Daphne and the food out to the front of the cottage. Melissa breathed deeply, savoring the smell of home cooking and realized she was famished. She could see sunlight coming in through the now open front door, and decided to forgo the stockings and shoes and walked barefoot through the small cottage and out into the sunshine.
Daphne had settles on one side of the broad stone steps, leaving the tray in the center. Melissa settled on the other end of the steps, and Daphne handed her a bowl of filled with a rich, thick soup. Melissa could see chunks of light colored meat and many different vegetables. It smells so good, but I wonder what's in it, Melissa thought.
"What kind of soup is this? It smells so good."
"Lizard and chick peas," Daphne said. Melissa fought an urge to vomit. I cannot abide chick peas, they make me sick every time I try, Melissa thought. Wait, Daphne knows that. She forced herself to look excited and take a great big spoonful. It's actually every bit as good as it smells, whatever it is. She looked up to find Daphne smiling at her.
"So you can control your reactions," Daphne said. "Or at least you know how to fake it. That's a good start."
"So what's really in the soup?"
"It has rabbit and as many vegetables as I could find hereabouts, but absolutely no chick peas." Daphne smiled at her again. "I promise." They laughed together. They ate quietly for a time, Snowball lapping at a bowl of the soup and occasionally pulling out a piece of the meat and picking it apart. Melissa felt more secure than at any time since this whole mess began. A nagging thought intruded then, what if I can't leave here? What happens to Charlie then?
"So what do you know about what's happening?" Melissa asked after a time.
"Not much more than you do, actually. My knowledge is still based on yours because I'm part of you." Daphne fell silent, but Melissa sensed she had more to say, so she let the silence build. She finished the last few spoons of soup and then set her bowl down on the stone steps at her side. Folding her hands in her lap, she waited.
"I know what brought you here, and what's happened since you arrived," Daphne said. "I think that there is only one thing I can help you with, and that is magic."
"I don't believe in magic," Melissa said reflexively, then paused, hearing her own words and considering what she had experienced thus far. "I guess I have to choose to believe in magic now… Or accept madness."
"You have believed in magic all of your life, you know." Melissa looked up sharply but said nothing. "All of those years going to church… What did you think the priests were talking about?"
"They were talking about God, and about His laws. And they talked about miracles."
"Miracles, yes," Daphne said, a faraway look in her eyes. "And what is a miracle if not magic performed by God or through a deep faith in God? Magic is a way of changing reality through will."
"Whether you call it miracle or magic, I can easily accept that God can do such things," Melissa said. "But it's really difficult for me to believe that I can do magic."
"Then how do you explain the change in your appearance? Or how you came here to find me and Snowball?"
"I found you because I prayed for help…" Melissa trailed off as she began connecting the pieces of ideas in ways she hadn't considered. "Do you mean that I caused all of this somehow?"
"If not you, then who else?"
"God… But I'm in Charlie's world. Does God control what happens here?" Melissa finished in a whisper.
"I can't really answer that," Daphne said gently. "Not until you learn the answer yourself, at least. But you're not really in Charlie's world at the moment. This is your world, or maybe it would be better to say it's our world. The one you made for Snow and me when you chose to let go of us."
Daphne fell silent, and Melissa considered her words. The sun had risen above the trees and the meadow was bright and full of wildflowers. She could see a hint of water down the hill from where they sat, a tantalizing possibility of a stream flowing at the edge of the meadow and holding back the trees. I remember seeing a place like this meadow as a child, Melissa thought. It was when mom and dad took me to see mom's family and we stopped at a national park, I don't remember the park, but I remember there being this big meadow full of flowers and surrounded by dark trees. A vague memory of the time when she last saw Daphne and Snowball began nudging her memory.
I wished for a place like that meadow, like this meadow, for them to live in happiness. Maybe I did have something to do with this. Melissa had seen a painting of a cottage just like this one. Somehow she must have combined the meadow and the painting in her imagination to create this place.
"Wait," Melissa said abruptly. "I thought it was only Charlie that was creating things through his stories. Could it have been me that was making them real?" Daphne shrugged and looked out over the meadow for a few minutes.
"That might be," Daphne said at last. "But I think the problem is much bigger than you or Charlie and what you may or may not have created."
"What do you mean? How much bigger?"
"I don't think you created the Shadowed Man, did you?" Melissa thought about what Daphne said before trying to respond. That shadow-figure she had seen when everything changed in their home had seemed to be a man.
"The Shadowed Man was that shadow figure I saw laughing at me when… When Charlie…" Melissa felt hot tears running down her cheeks as she tried to talk about Charlie's outburst and how he had run from her and hidden away in his office. Daphne took her hand to provide some comfort, and Snowball came to Melissa's side. She felt enfolded by their love as she had when she'd been a child.
"So. Is this shadow guy someone I need to watch out for?" Melissa said when she had a firm grip on her emotions.
"He is powerful," Daphne said. "I think you're going to see a lot more of his work in the future. I wish I could tell you more, but I just don't know anything more about him. Just to watch out for him."
The three friends sat in silence as the sun came up over the trees and lit the meadow before them. "OK," Melissa said suddenly. "Teach me more about magic." Daphne smiled and nodded.