By Kelly Lagor
Illustration by Linda Saboe
Dana looked up at the polished black tower before her, which stretched heavenward through the emerald canopy of the Enchanted Forest. Its apex had finally breached the cloud. She scanned the surface for imperfections to repair and was startled by a small black spider trailing silk behind it on the wall in front of her. She flung her hammer at the creature and the tower shook from the impact.
As the shudder rippled through the stone, Dana glimpsed the tower as it was — a five-foot tall pile of scrap wood she’d inexpertly nailed together in the small clearing in the oleander bushes that separated her family’s back yard from the field beyond. It didn’t look like something an accomplished hero would build. Instead, it looked like something the ten-year-old Dana would build.
The spider slipped between two warped boards and vanished.
She sat down on the grass, lightheaded. The throbbing in the space where her pinky had been had become sharper in the hour since her father had left. It was sharp enough now to bleed through the waning effects of the last of the painkillers. She wanted to stop. To go back to bed. But heroes didn’t falter.
She remembered, a week ago, how her mom had looked after the giant, black monster had slammed into their car as they’d pulled out of their driveway. She remembered how the cracks had spider-webbed through the windshield. She remembered the red eyes reflected in the fractured glass. How Dana had tried to reach out for her, but Dana’s left hand was pinned between her seat and the center console. She remembered the smoke. How her mother’s head and limbs had hung awkwardly behind her as the monster pulled her from the car. Dana had tried to save her anyway, grabbing only the smoke between them. She could only watch as the smoke climbed into the sky and became the cloud that still hung above her house. The cloud where the monster had imprisoned her mother.
Her mother had always told her stories about the Realm she had adventured in as a little girl: how princesses were just as good as princes; that anyone could be a hero if they were brave and clever enough; that one day, Dana would meet her prince, and he would be her equal. She had told Dana that when she could finally see the Realm for herself, they would be able to rule there until Dana’s own children were old enough to inherit it.
Her mother wouldn’t have let the monster take Dana, so Dana wasn’t going to let the monster get away with taking her mother.
She took a deep breath to steady herself, drawing in the scent of the grass beneath her, the soil. She looked down at the bandage covering her hand. A large red spot had spider-webbed through the fabric and there were smudges on her white nightdress. She’d probably ripped her stitches again.
She flexed her left hand; her finger still thought it was there, but the pain made the sky tilt above her. She lay down, shut her eyes and focused on the stillness of the forest. The waning sunlight filtering through the branches warmed the sudden cold sweat on her brow.
As she waited out the dizziness, she worried. She had never been able to see the Realm outside of her imagination before. It could only mean her mother was calling to her.
When she opened her eyes, there was only the blank suburban sky framed on one side by the sweet-smelling green and white oleander, and on the other, the fading black tower. Her heart pounded, aggravating the steady ache in her head, but the cloud was still there, an unnaturally round disc, stained pink by the sunset. She felt relief. Her mother was Dana’s connection to the Realm, so as long as her mother was alive, the Realm would be real.
The ache in her head lessened with each deep breath. She shook away the thoughts and sat up. Carefully, she picked up the hammer and stood.
A car door slammed behind her and she turned. Her dad was back from the drug store. He ran across the lawn, his face red.
“What are you doing out of bed? I told you not to work on this thing when I wasn’t here to watch you.”
“The tower’s done.”
He squeezed through the gap in the bushes and took the hammer from Dana’s hand. She saw his eyes flit to her bandage, her nightdress. “Dammit, Dana. Did you rip your stitches again?
“Heroes can’t be stopped by trivial wounds. Now we can save her.”
His face softened, the red in his eyes from something other than anger. He took Dana gently by her good hand and led her through the back door into the kitchen. He sat her down at the table and began to unravel the bandage. Dana closed her eyes.
“It’s not too bad,” her dad said. “I don’t think we need to take you back to the hospital again. Stay right here.”
Dana kept her eyes shut, and a few long moments later she heard him set things down on the table. There was a sting as he smeared antibiotic cream on her hand, then welcome pressure as he applied a fresh bandage. The pressure confused her missing finger, masked the ache. She opened her eyes. When he was finished, he looked at her for another long moment. His eyes were puffy and red.
“It was stupid to let you build that thing,” he finally said. “I thought it would give you something else to think about, give you a little time, but this has gone too far. I’m tearing it down in the morning.”
Dana felt her stomach fall to her toes. He couldn’t give up now. The cloud was still there. Her mom was still trapped. Her father was a coward. The realization shocked her. Angered her.
“We’re her only hope!”
“Stop it!” Dad’s voice cracked. “She’s gone! You know she’s gone!”
“She’s not! She’s right above us! Calling to us! You’re just a coward!”
They both fell into silence; numbness, similar to the one spreading through Dana’s hand, spread to her heart. She followed her dad upstairs and let him wash her face and smear more of the ointment on some of the still healing abrasions on her forehead and left cheek. She let him change the butterfly bandage on the bridge of her still-tender and swollen nose. She took the pills he offered her and let him tuck her in.
He hesitated over her as he fiddled with the covers, like he wanted to say something, but Dana looked away toward the bay window and didn’t see him leave.
Dana’s eyes traced familiar lines over the windowpanes. She remembered, five years ago now, watching her mother’s steady hand as she drew the outlines on the glass of men and women in their finery. She remembered the warmth of her mother’s voice as she described the ballroom of mirrors and stars as she had drawn it, the room where she had wed Dana’s father, where Dana would wed her own prince. She remembered as she colored the figures in with marker, how her mom told her how the magic would always provide them with what they needed to overcome anything, if only they were clever enough to figure how the pieces fit together, and brave enough to see their adventures through. The colors were faded now, bled of their vibrancy by the sun, her mother’s careful outlines all that remained. Dana had to save her mother, even if her dad wouldn’t help. They were connected, a thread extended between their hearts beckoning Dana into the clouds. And if her dad was going to tear the tower down in the morning, she would have to save her tonight.
Dana fought against sleep until midnight, listening as her father shuffled around the house before finally going to bed. After a few moments of willing her heart to stillness, she was satisfied it was safe to leave her bedroom. From her mother’s stories, she knew she wouldn’t have much time before the sun rose. Time passed more quickly in the Realm.
She pressed her hands into the mattress to sit up, then braced herself for the pain she expected in her injured hand, but there was none. She held her hands before her and saw she once again had all ten of her fingers. She stretched her hand. Her pinky bent as it should. It must have returned for a reason, she decided, grateful for the reprieve from the pain of its phantom. She slipped on her white robe and opened her bedroom door.
The house was dark and she moved through it on silent feet until she reached the door to the yard. She held her breath and closed her eyes, afraid that she would see only the night and a doomed pile of wood. That her mother was gone for good.
She exhaled as a warm breeze rustled the branches of the Enchanted Forest across the field from the house. Just beyond the tree line the tower still stood, its pinnacle still obscured by the cloud. But something was wrong. The tower should have been a black streak against the night. Instead, it shone like it was wrapped in starlight, with shimmering silver cascades spreading outwards to encompass the forest around it.
As Dana approached, she could make out long strands of something that spilled from the highest window that twisted and braided around one another. When she reached the mouth of the trail that would take her to the tower, she could see what the material was: spider silk. The trailhead was clogged with a web so thick it looked like human skin.
She walked up and down the tree line, but for as far as she could see the forest was clogged with it. She could smell it, sour and dry, with a hint of decay. There had to be a way through. Webs broke easily enough; she touched the webbing lightly with her hand to test its strength. A shudder rippled outwards, through the canopy, up the tower, rumbling stone against stone.
When the ripple reached the cloud, it expanded outward suddenly and silently, like it had taken an inward breath. For a moment, the world froze, until the cloud contracted as quickly and quietly as it had expanded, sending a gust of wind that whipped the canopy in return. Dana staggered back as something fell free of the forest onto the grass beside her. And as quickly as it had begun, the world around her stilled.
She picked up what had fallen from the trees. It was a dagger with a handle of woven black horsehair, with a single red orb set in its pommel. The short, curved blade was as white as starlight.
Dana felt a tension she hadn’t known she was carrying melt from her shoulders. Even though she could see the Realm, she was relieved to know she could still interact with and touch it, too. She had worried that something had broken — that the rules her mother had spelled out had changed in her absence; that Dana’s quest was hopeless; that her father was right and her mother couldn’t be saved. Her mother’s influence was still all around her. Everything was going to be okay.
She slashed at the web, but the dagger could not cut it. She tested the tip it on her finger and flinched as a drop of blood welled up, sticking to the blade. The red gem glowed dully before fading. She stabbed at the web again, and it ripped and stretched and popped as it fled from the blade. She pressed the dagger more deeply into the web, but the glow had completely faded from the orb. She looked at the tip. It was clean.
She tried to squeeze a few more drops from her finger, but the wound had closed. She tried to wipe some of the dried blood onto the blade, but the orb remained dark. She looked at her left pinky and at the path to the tower. It was at least fifty yards, and already the opening had begun to reknit itself. She worried if she were to cut the phantom away she would never be whole again, that the phantom would haunt her forever.
She laid her left hand in the grass and levered the knife.
The pain was brilliant, as bright as the sun. Her blood was black on the grass, her phantom finger crumbling to ash beside it. Dana gingerly wrapped her injured hand around the knife’s handle and the orb flared to life. The blade remained untarnished as it drank deep. Dana thrust it into the web again and a massive pulse pulled and snapped the tangle of silk away from her. The trees around her shuddered and sent out a ripple that rattled the tower once more. In spite of herself, Dana stuck her tongue out at the cloud.
She cut and sliced and stabbed. The sound was tremendous as the trees around her and the world shook and trembled.
She slashed at one last curtain of silk to reveal the clearing. Before her stood the tower. The sheet of spider silk overhead turned the night sky gray.
Dana used the dagger to rip the hem of her nightgown off and wrapped the strip of cloth tightly around her injured hand, welcoming the familiar ache and pressure, then stowed the blade in her robe’s sash.
Dana went to the wooden door at the base of the tower and put her ear to it. Silence.
She pulled the door open.
Lights flared up from all sides.
“Princess Dana has arrived!”
Where there should have just been stairs, a lavishly decorated ballroom stretched out before her, filled with men and women dressed in white and silver gowns and waistcoats embroidered with reflective thread. The room was illuminated by points of candlelight that stretched out forever, an ocean of shivering stars. The ceiling was lost in darkness beyond the reach of the light. When Dana took a step into the room, she saw from the way the lights shifted that the room wasn’t endless, but had walls of mirrors. It was the ballroom from her mother’s stories, the one they had drawn on her window together. It was just as breathtaking as Dana had imagined.
The crowd around her quieted, and the stillness spread in waves across the rest of the ballroom. The room smelled of perfume and flowers, and she breathed deeply of it. But as she did, she caught a lingering bitterness, something sour and wrong, like the webs in the forest. And for a moment the beauty of the ballroom quivered. Dana wrapped her arms around herself, her stained white nightgown and ripped white robe.
Someone stepped out from the crowd. It was her mother, draped in a quicksilver gown. Dana ran for her, arms outstretched, and hugged her mother around her waist.
“I found you.” Tears streamed down Dana’s face.”I found you.”
Dana wanted to lose herself in the moment, to pretend her mother had never gone, that her hand was still intact, that everything was going to be all right. But something was wrong. Her mother’s arms were stiff and her body felt cold. Dana stepped away. Her mother’s smile looked as though the corners of her mouth were pulled up by hooks. Her eyes dead, the only spark there from reflected candlelight. Her skin was the color of ash.
“I didn’t mean to worry you. I wanted it to be a surprise.”
Her mother’s voice felt like a hollow vibration, stripped of its warmth. Her mother offered Dana her elbow and the crowd before them parted to let them through. Her mother looked down at her, the unnatural smile still stretched her lips.
“I came to ready things for your marriage to the prince. Now I can keep my promise, and we can stay here together. Forever.”
Dana wanted to believe her. But the ache in her finger told her her mother’s words were a lie.
The crowd parted and she saw him. He reminded her of the promise of summer in deep winter. Of the miracle of the spring and the heartache of the fall. Dana couldn’t breathe.
“My lady.” The prince’s voice was a deep rumble. Dana could feel it through her mother’s arm.
Dana took a step away, but the prince’s smile didn’t falter. She turned to her mother. “We need to leave. Now.” She tried to pull her mother with her, but her mother didn’t budge, as if something else pulled her in the opposite direction.
“But this is what you wanted,” her mother said.
Dana thought of her father. His red, puffy eyes. Waking up alone. Forever.
The prince bent down on one knee and produced a pair of slippers made of mirrors. More light reflected off of them. Dana had a vision of herself in them, dancing through the clouds with the rest of the starlight.
“No.” Dana pulled against her mother again. “I don’t want your shoes. I just want to go home.”
“Dana, be polite.”
The prince beckoned her again with the shoes.
“No!” Dana screamed and pushed the prince’s hand away with her injured hand. A shock of pain arced through her from her missing finger. A stripe of fresh blood was absorbed into the prince’s hand, which began to unravel, sending a cascade of spider silk to the floor. He looked up at her, his eyes as dead as her mother’s. Reflected candlelight.
“What have you done?” he said.
Dana backed away into the crowd, her arms and legs sticking to whomever she touched. The people around her screamed, a high-pitched buzzing, and pulled themselves away. Dana lost sight of her mother in the mayhem.
The prince’s arm unraveled up to his shoulder. He was hollow. The last strand pulled free and tugged at the leg of the woman standing beside him. She began to unravel too. In a few moments, all of the guests had come undone, leaving Dana alone in the ballroom with a field of false stars.
Dana caught a glimpse of something shining out of the corner of her eye. Her mother lay on the ground. The light danced on her dress. Dana approached her, careful to step between the pools of silk. She knelt down beside her. Her mother’s eyes were open, lifeless.
Dana reached forward to touch her and saw the strands of silk affixed to her arms, legs, neck, face, chest; every inch of her. The strands went taut, dragging her mother across the room. The pools of silk on the floor snatched at her gown, twisting it around her body in awkward angles. Dana ran after her, and slashed at the threads with her dagger.
Her mother’s arm went limp and dragged beneath her, as did her head, which jerked unnaturally as her hair and skin caught on the silk. Dana freed each of her mother’s limbs on her slow trek across the ballroom, even her mother’s mouth, which went slack and hung open. But still her mother was pulled along by an unbreakable strand affixed to her chest, her arms and legs dragging on the floor behind her.
Dana had to step aside as her mother was pulled through a door on the far side of the room. Dana stepped over a line of thick white braids and chased after.
She was in the tower proper. A black spiral staircase hugged the black walls around the hollow space in the middle, which was filled with a quivering cascade of silk. Her mother was already ten feet above Dana and rising, her arms, head and legs dangling beneath her.
Dana ran up the stairs, and as she passed the windows set into the walls, she glimpsed the pale light of morning begin to pour over the horizon. She was running out of time. And though her legs burned, Dana willed herself to run faster.
When she reached the final landing and the final window, the cloud enveloping the top of the tower obscured the pale morning. The light on the landing looked gray and uncertain. There was a single door made of ashen gray wood, sitting ajar. Dana pushed it the rest of the way open.
The room was empty save for a four-poster canopy bed made of the same ashen wood. The silk ran up to the foot of the bed, then wove around the posters, disappearing atop the canopy. Her mom lay beneath gray covers on the bed.
Dana ran up and grabbed her mom’s hand. “Mom, wake up. We have to go.”
Her mother’s chest neither rose nor fell, and her eyes were still beneath their lids. Her hand was cold. Dana tucked her arm beneath the covers to warm it, but there was no warmth to be found there either.
“You can’t wake her,” a high-pitched voice said from above the bed. Dana looked up and saw a long, thin leg descend gracefully to the floor, followed by another, and another until a spider as tall as she was settled down on the opposite side of the bed.
It was as black as the space between stars, the two eyes she could see in profile were the same color red as the orb set into her dagger. The tip of its pincer was brilliant white, as sharp as her knife. Its two forelegs were smaller than the others and ended in delicate hands. It turned to face Dana. The spider was missing its other pincer and one of its four eyes. A thick cable of silk issued from the back of its abdomen.
Dana drew her dagger. “Release her.”
The spider sighed, a hollow vibration from its abdomen. She could feel the hum of it through the floor. The silk strands around the bed and on the floor quivered. “I can’t. Even if I could, she won’t wake up.”
Dana looked back to her mother. She looked so empty — as empty as the room around her and the people in the ballroom, and the heart of the tower itself. Dana reached out and traced a lock of her mother’s hair with her injured hand. Her missing finger ached. The hair came away in her hand. She dropped it on the bed and stepped away. If her mom was under a spell, Dana would have to carry her out, and already the sun was rising. She would have more time to figure things out once they were free of the tower. It would be okay. The magic always provided for them when they were together. She would find a way to defeat this monster. She brandished her dagger at the spider.
“Let her go right now or I’ll kill you.”
The spider sighed again. “I would if I could. Believe me.”
“Liar!” She lunged across the bed at the spider and plunged the dagger into the creature’s abdomen. She jumped back across the bed, the dagger stuck in the wound.
But the dagger slipped free and fell to the floor. The wound stitched itself shut.
“You can’t harm me.” It lifted the dagger from the floor, pulled the red orb from the pommel and placed it gently into its empty eye socket. It held the dagger against its mouth, and the skin knitted itself into place.
It flexed its restored pincer.
Dana shrank away from the thing. “You sent the knife.”
The spider folded its small hands in front of it and settled its abdomen on the floor.
Dana shook her head. “But why put up a barrier if you meant for me to get through it?”
“Why do you think you’re here?” the spider asked. It didn’t look as menacing, just tired. Like her father. Dana wanted the monster to menace her. She wanted to fight and scream and kick and push away the growing horror in her belly.
Anger flared through Dana. “You kidnapped my mother.”
“Your mother died in a car accident, Dana.” The spider’s voice was kind. As kind as her mother’s had been. “You know this.”
“Then why is she here?” Dana wanted to spit.
“All living beings are connected to me by the silk. I cannot claim a living being so long as their life exerts an opposing force. When that life wanes, I draw them to me and take them the rest of the way. I was drawing your mother to me when you trapped us in this cloud. The tower closed in around us. I beckoned you here so you could release us both.”
“You’re lying!” Dana screamed at the creature. But she didn’t move to strike it. She just wrapped her arms around herself.
Dana felt a small tug at her heart. She looked down. In the growing dawn, ripples of light reflected off of a fine line of silk that extended from her chest. She reached for the strand, but her hand passed through it. It couldn’t be telling the truth. It was a monster. She was a hero.
“I could trap you here forever, you know,” Dana said. She couldn’t look the spider in the eye. “I’ll let my dad tear down the tower and you’ll be stuck in this cloud forever. You won’t be able to take anyone else. No one would ever die again.”
“That’s not how it works,” the spider said. “If I can’t do my work, the souls of the dead would be trapped forever in their decaying shells.”
“Well, why don’t I let you go. I’ll stay here with her so I can see her whenever I want.”
“I have already taken her life. You are the one holding onto her shell.” The spider held out one of its hands to lift a strand of silk connected to her mother’s chest. “You have the power here. It’s your choice.”
“But why put up the obstacles? The forest? The ballroom?”
The spider didn’t answer. Dana already knew why. It had given her what she always thought she wanted so she would come to the Realm. But Dana just wanted her mom, to bring her home so she could tuck Dana in and tell her stories where none of the pain was real and everything had a happy ending. To tell Dana if she was clever enough, she would always win because life was fair and heroes were rewarded in kind. But she knew now that wasn’t true. She thought of her lost finger, how the ache of its phantom had faded since the forest, how she was still whole without it.
“But I’ll never see her again.”
“It takes more courage sometimes to let go than it does to fight,” the spider said.
Dana looked down at her mother, then leaned down and kissed her mother on her temple. She felt a tingle on her lips, like the part she had been holding onto had returned to her.
“I love you,” Dana whispered as tears welled in her eyes. She wiped them away on her tattered sleeve.
“The sun is nearly up,” the spider said.
“Go,” Dana said. The bed, and her mother, crumbled to ash.
As Dana flung the last bit of wood into the pile, her dad called out to her across the back yard.
The sun was just starting to rise over the roof of the house and his shadow cooled the air around her. He crawled through the gap in the bushes and sat down beside her. They sat for a while watching the sky lighten.
A small thing moved across a piece of wood. She caught sight of a black spider just before it disappeared into the grass.
When the sun had finished rising, her dad helped her crawl through the gap in the bushes and offered his hand. “Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up. I’ll make us both some breakfast.”
Dana slipped her good hand into his and turned with him back toward the house. As she had torn the tower down, the pain in her missing finger had gone. Her hand would heal. She was whole. She took one more look back toward the sky. The cloud was gone.