Fiction · 09/05/2012

Coburg Castle

SUMMONS

Your father has been summoned to a castle. By now, you’ve probably noticed that all your stories begin this way: with your father. Don’t worry. There is an end coming to that. Soon, there will be no more stories that begin that way, though you will retell the old ones again and again in your head, beginning always and forever with him. Your father is summoned to a castle, and he brings you along. It will be just a little trip, your father says, Nothing like the sea journey before. But you don’t remember the sea journey. All you remember doing, before the ship arrived at port, is dreaming. In your dreams, you packed all your belongings into a car, a futon like a useless blue tongue unrolled on top, and drove across an unknown landscape. Your father was not a warrior, and your mother you’d always known. There was a girl you wanted to marry who traveled in the opposite direction. After this excursion, your real father says, we’ll settle down for a while. You are not sure you believe him. You try to make sense of all the lives you’ve led asleep, summon to mind the sum of all your dreaming, an answer to a question that isn’t Yes or No. You try to begin a story that begins somewhere else.

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CHECKPOINT

At the checkpoint on the river, the guards know your father’s name, they have been expecting him, they let you pass. Your father takes you to the top of the building, to see the view of the river below, the mountain ranges in the distance. Look at that, your father says, Beautiful. But you are looking at an old man who is looking at the water. He says he’s watching the river flow, thinking of what the future holds for the kingdom. You look over the railing, and swirling there in the green rush of water, you see your future, all your possible futures, darting past like fish. There is one where you trudge through snow, one where you sweat in the desert, several where you have learned to speak. There is one where you fall in love with the girl who wears a yellow ribbon. There is one where you fall in love with a different girl, one you don’t recognize, with angles cut into her hair like schematics. There is one where you fall in love with someone else, a girl who has not come into focus, whose face blurs and ripples. There are so many where your father has vanished from your life, and a few where your mother never did. There is one where you sit in an unfurnished apartment, a place you recognize but are sure you’ve never visited, your mother and father familiar but not the mother and father you know to be yours. They are helping you put together furniture. They are helping you prepare for a new beginning. Maybe these are futures that will never happen, maybe these are lives you will only live in your dreams, but you want to dive in and grab one in all its slippery uncertainty. You want to lift it from the river, pocket it before it can slip slimily through your fingers, vanishing into the deep.

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CASTLE

There is a strange familiarity to this place, but all castles look the same, especially on the outside. While your father talks to the worry-eyed king, you explore. By now, you should know what to do. Check the dresser drawers. Break every pot and barrel. Talk to everyone. If you miss what they say, talk to them again: they will repeat it all, word for word for word. In your dreams, things people tell you never give shape to a story, there are always ambiguities and secrets concealed. But here, every piece of information adds up, every word illuminates another until the picture becomes clear, a certain future looming ahead of you. It is something out of a fairy tale: a stepmother who wants her son to take the crown, a cook who has witnessed her conspiring with unsavory characters, rumors of kidnappers roaming in the region just north of here, rumors of a hidden hideout, of a cave, of ruins. You find the prince, the queen’s stepson, and he has not noticed his father’s sunken cheeks, his sallow skin. He is too busy placing frogs on servants while they sleep, shattering bottles containing ships, demanding more cookie-dough ice cream, more sweets to make his teeth go numb. When you aren’t looking, he sneaks through a trapdoor in his room. Follow him down, down, down. You can guess what will happen next. You make it to the first floor just in time to watch everything begin at this, the perfect coincidence, the moment when your future is determined, the moment when everything you’ve been anticipating comes true. The men wear masks. They pick up the prince and cover his mouth, make him silent as you. They escape through a side entrance, make their getaway on a raft in the moat. Go, go and get your father, though you remember seeing this future in the river, you remember how this will end.

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RUINS

Follow your father’s path north to a cave. Inside the cave, you see it is not a cave at all, but ruins, remnants of a crumbling once. There is no choice you can make here, no safety you can pluck from a river’s current, time’s flow will only erode the way it wants to. Follow your father’s voice. Find where he is fighting, where he is caught in clouds of ancient dust his kicking has kicked up. He will be surprised to see you made it here on your own. Fight by his side and make your way deeper into the cave, where the prince is trapped in an iron cell. Your father will break down the barred door. It will look like this story is ending, but no, not yet: there is an ending lying in wait for you. When your father stays behind to fight off the hordes that stream from hidden fissures in the wall, run with the prince, make your way back toward the day, toward the sun shining into the mouth of the cave like a dentist’s operating light when you are just coming to, when you are just beginning to see through the fog of nitrous oxide, when your lungs open with oxygen and you remember who you really are. No matter how fast you run, know this: a backlit figure will block your path. All possible futures will be eclipsed. You will live through this, yes, for you must if the story is to continue, and so will the prince, for he must redeem himself, and you will need a companion, someone to take up arms beside you. You think you hear frantic tapping somewhere above you, like fingers on buttons trying to make something happen, but it is just your father’s footsteps echoing fast behind you. He is rushing to your aid. You want to tell him to turn back, to not be a warrior, to be something safe instead, safe and home and nestled in your dreams. But there is no choice to make here, no action you can take, only a fight you cannot win, a laughter that drains your life, a shadow foreshadowing what violence is yet to come. Maybe it was planned from the start. Maybe there is only one path to follow. Maybe this is destiny. You feel something wriggling in your pocket, and it turns out a future is not like a fish: it can grow legs and lungs, it can devour itself, it can get away from you forever.

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Sam Martone currently lives in Tempe, Arizona. At night, he winds into his sweat-twisted sheets and dreams of leveling up, of learning an ice spell that could cool this sweltering city down. While awake, he settles for central air and ceiling fans as he attempts to beat the final boss of Dragon Quest V.