Boris looked absently out the window as he sipped his drink. He hated Starbucks. Everything tasted the same. But it was the only place he could escape to when the agency office just got a little too… peppy. Fifteen minutes. Then he had to head back.
He looked up. The woman was his age, late forties, and had reddish-blonde hair and a dark blue suit. She looked familiar, like a supporting character on a show he would binge-watch.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know—”
“Hillary,” she said. He gave her a blank stare.
“Hillary,” she said again. Then something popped in his brain.
“Hillary from when we were kids Hillary?” he said.
“Yes, that Hillary.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I mean, do you live—”
“Can I sit down?” Boris nodded.
“God, how long has it been?” he said as she sat down across from him.
“Oh, I have no idea. Hey, do you still have any of those old stories?”
“You know what stories,” Hillary said with a sly grin. “Boris the Bold and Hillary the High Sorceress.”
“Oh, God!” Boris said. “You remember those?”
“Of course I do,” she said. “What were you a knight of again?”
“Do I have to say it?” Boris groaned. Hillary nodded.
“The Dragon Lions,” he said, burying his face in his hands. “And you were one of the… wait… Unicorn…”
“Unicorn Butterflies,” she said.
“Oh, God! We were so cliche!”
“Oh, I thought it was sweet,” Hillary said. “So how are you?”
For a flash of a second, he had an urge to tell her everything. His depression. His legal troubles. The strained marriage. Money problems. Ten years in marketing and still no clue what he was doing with his life. Instead, he just said,
“I’m good. How are you?”
“Ooo, I’d love to catch up, but I have to get back,” Hillary said.
“Yeah, me too. We should—”
“Okay, I’ll see you tonight.”
“Sounds good. Wait, what?” But she was already out the door and around the corner.
Back at work, Boris found himself distracted by his meeting with Hillary. Hillary! For the life of him, he couldn’t remember her last name. They lived in the same apartment complex where he grew up in New Jersey. He must have been about seven or eight then.
He couldn’t remember how or when they met. He wasn’t allowed to have friends over and he had never asked to visit her apartment. Instead, they explored the maze of two-story apartment buildings spanning two streets. It seemed huge then. A whole world to explore. There were tall hedges growing against the buildings, big courtyards with oval sidewalks, and the occasional laundry room or storage cellar left unlocked.
And in all of that strange landscape, they created their own stories. They called it The Old World. That was it. Looking back he could see how it was just a fantasy populated by their shallow imaginings. But it seemed so real to him then, a place he often went to escape the reality of being an anxious latch-key kid in an apartment in Central Jersey in the eighties.
That night he tried to remember more of The Old World. He dug through some old boxes of papers he had kept since college, but he couldn’t find the manilla folder of maps and stories scrawled on lined loose-leaf paper. Most likely it had been thrown out years ago when his parents moved to Connecticut and before he had gone to Texas.
Right before bed, he wrote out what he remembered of their adventures. There were the Lion Dragon Knights of which he was a part. He was Boris the Brave, a fierce warrior who was always called on to defend the kingdom from the Garben, cruel and single-minded lizardmen bent on taking over the lands.
Hillary the High Sorceress was born of magic high in the cloud realms of the Unicorn Butterflies. Her order protected the sacred magic of the world and kept the realms in balance. It was she who provided them with spells, enchanted weapons, and who led them into secret and forbidden realms of danger and great treasures.
In all of their stories, there was one figure, an old man who summoned them from the real world of eighties New Jersey into The Old World: The Ancient Keeper. And it was that figure, dressed in his robes of blue and silver, that was in Boris’ mind as he drifted off to sleep that night.
Boris woke in the middle of the night to his dog scratching on the back door. He slept on the couch because he snored and because… well, what did it matter anymore?
He staggered sleepily to his feet and undid the lock, but when he opened the door, instead of the dim fenced yard full of dog poop and patchy grass, he saw a vista of rolling green hills beneath sparkling stars and twin crescent moons, one of coral and the other of turquoise. In an instant it all made sense. He was dreaming.
He stepped through, calmly accepting the reality of this dream world and prepared to follow the dream to its end. Thus he was not surprised when he turned to see the wizened form of The Ancient Keeper standing next to him.
The man bowed his head, and Boris returned the gesture. But when the Keeper opened his mouth to speak, only unintelligible gibberish came out.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” Boris said. He thought it a terrible start to the dream. The Keeper spoke again, but still, it made no sense. Boris shook his head. The Keeper smiled then as if suddenly realizing something obvious. He placed his hand inside his robes and pulled out a small pendant. Boris took it and placed it around his neck, knowing somehow that this was what The Keeper intended.
He felt a slight tingling and caught a glimmer out of the corner of his eye. When he turned to look, he could see a faint, glimmering path winding over the hills and disappearing into the distance. He turned again and saw The Keeper pointing to the path with one long, outstretched arm. Boris nodded, and without another word, set out across the hills.
How long he walked, he could not tell. Time passed strangely here, as in all dreams. He passed sleepy, peaceful villages tucked among the hills, huddled together in the calm night. Not a soul stirred. Only the wind and the stars and the world’s two moons kept him company as he walked.
Before long, or perhaps after a long time, Boris could not tell, he came to the edge of a forest. The glimmering path continued on, disappearing into the darkness of the trees. He had a strange sense that continuing on meant not just entering the woods, but crossing the threshold of a new and unknown place.
Boris looked back. Only a few windows remained lit in the village behind him. A part of him longed to go back. To enter one of those houses and crawl into a cozy bed beneath a small round window. Or perhaps to even go back to the doorway that would lead him out of this dream world and back to his living room.
Somehow, he stepped forward. The forest seemed tame and unthreatening, filled with promise rather than fear. Again, he could not tell how far or how long he walked. When he finally emerged, he came into a meadow where a herd of unicorns grazed. They were dazzling. Only one stood alone. Hurt perhaps, or alone. He felt himself torn by the desire to approach the remaining herd or to tend to the lone mare.
Suddenly he realized that the single mare reminded him of his wife. In her pearly, careworn flanks, he saw the pain and hurt she carried. He felt a twinge of guilt. Stepping away, he moved towards the shimmering, carefree mares. They began to canter, and he rushed after them. He quickened his pace but they were faster. They sprang down a slope and into a wooded cleft between two rocky hills. A moment later, they were gone. He looked back but the lone mare was nowhere to be seen. He had lost them both.
He wandered across the landscape for what seemed like hours until he came to a river. A wooden bridge stretched before him, but it was not unoccupied. A patrol of armed Garben guarded it. In life, the lizardmen were more terrifying than in his imaginings. They spotted him at once, four guards peeling off from the patrol and rushing towards him.
Suddenly Boris had a shield in one hand and a sword in the other. He felt powerful but also afraid. Part of him wanted to charge and cut the Garben to pieces, and he knew inside that he could do it. It would be brutal and violent, and he would spare no survivors.
Another part of him was scared of that power. He didn’t trust himself to stop once he had killed the first guards. He knew the defeat of four of their number would drive the others away, but he didn’t trust himself not to kill them all.
Before he could decide, the Garben were upon him. He hacked and slashed with a skill that surprised him. His indecision gave the lizardmen the upper hand. Soon they drove him back to the bridge and the remainder of their patrol. Boris’ attacks were erratic. He struck viciously, wounding one of them, and then faltered, letting himself take a savage blow to his shield arm which nearly knocked him to the ground.
He continued like this until he ached, neither committing to his full strength nor fleeing from it. Eventually, the Garben overpowered him. He fell from the bridge into the cold, clear waters. When he rose, sputtering and exhausted to the surface, the Garben were laughing. They abandoned their post and moved on.
Boris swam to the edge of the river and collapsed, panting on the bank. He lay there through the night in a daze and a rage of confusion until the sun rose. Mist hung on the water, burning off in the early afternoon sun, yet still he lay there. He knew somewhere in him was the strength to rise and move on, but also the temptation to lay still and quiet.
What was there to live for in this world or any other? No matter which way he turned, he always made the wrong choice, following his selfish desires to ruin. Soon, travelers began crossing the bridge. In the end, Boris crawled from the bank into a small copse of trees, sulking in his shame and misery.
As he lay there, sunlight filtered down through the trees, warm and golden. Two butterflies flitted by as bright an iridescent as the dawn. He felt something stir deep inside him. He suddenly and strikingly realized where he was. Not in the mundanity of his earthly life which he had let shape him. He was in The Old World. A place he and Hillary had created. A place where everything he believed could not exist in his childhood in New Jersey could be realized. Hope. Faith. Loyalty. Courage. Was he prepared to abandon all of that here as he had done in the rest of his life?
He rose to his feet and steadied himself against a tree. He was not as tired and worn as he thought, but somehow strangely invigorated. He crossed out of the copse and onto a rolling plain of tall golden grass. He walked for hours without hunger or thirst as the muck of the riverbank dried and fell from him like dust.
He emerged from the grass into a landscape of rocky outcroppings fringed with blue-green grass. Rounding the corner of one rock, he startled a band of six Garben. Fear shot through him, and then rage, and finally, a sureness of spirit. He clenched his shield arm and put his hand on the pommel of his sword. Then he drew himself up and stood his ground, firm and calm. The lead Garben scowled and then bowed his head and motioned for the rest to retreat.
The rocky landscape sloped down to a sea which revealed itself to him in the tang of a salt breeze before he saw it. On a small patch of turf he saw the lone unicorn mare again. He approached her gently and cautiously, breathing through his shame and guilt with each halting step. He reached out to stroke her side but she stepped away. He bowed his head and stepped back, keeping his gaze steady yet gentle.
“You’ve come far,” a voice spoke behind him. He turned and saw The Keeper standing at the edge of the sea.
“I can understand you,” Boris said. The Keeper smiled.
“You’ve found your voice,” he said. “Only one task remains.” He stepped aside revealing a causeway that led to a tall tower rising out of the sea.
“Will she be here when I return?” Boris asked, turning to the mare.
“I cannot say,” The Keeper answered. “Will you keep to your path?”
“Then go,” The Keeper said.
Borris walked across the black stones that stretched out over the water. Waves washed the edges making the causeway slick with salt. He walked carefully and deliberately until he reached the base of the tower. He reached for the door and paused, wondering if it was locked, trapped, or otherwise barred. Pushing caution aside, he reached for the handle. It gave with some hesitation and then opened before him.
He climbed through the winding steps of the tower feeling the weight of the stones around him growing lighter and lighter. A strange light grew as he neared the top, and with it, a gentle celestial sound, like a gentle choir. The stair ended at a silver door. He opened it without hesitation and laughed with joy when he saw what lay on the other side.
In the middle of the circular room lined with rainbow crystals stood the Hillary of his childhood. From her back stretched a pair of magnificent butterfly wings shimmering with colors he had never seen before. He suddenly realized that he was not the Boris at the Starbucks, but the one from his childhood.
“What now?” he said.
“Now you go back,” Hillary said.
“But I want to stay here,” Boris said.
“Then take it with you,” she said. ‘Come on. It’s time.”
She wrapped her arms around him and with two steady beats of her wings, lifted him to the sky. As they rose, The Old World stretched beneath them, whole and complete. He knew now that when he woke, the tapestry of this world would be behind everything he saw. The glimmering path the Keeper revealed would endure, guiding him, Boris the Brave, to his next great adventure.