There were no adventures as we walked home. No fairytale war. No Red Room begging for exploration. Just thorns, weeds, and puddles of rain saturating the forest floor.
We climbed the second hill with lackadaisical strides, crossing--for the second time today--Dorothy's tomb. When we finally reached the brick wall of the castle, the evening sky shimmered above the watchtower with rolling, angry lights: red, blue, red, blue, red, blue.
* * *
Mom cried when she saw us. Her mouth formed a terrible O, but she smothered us with hugs anyway. Dad looked at the ground, shook his head, and apologized to the sheriff. Livy punched me in the chest and scowled at Mara.
The sheriff’s name was Beeder. He was a redwood of a man, nine feet tall and a chest that strained the buttons on his uniform. He examined Mara's eye. “Looks like you popped a blood vessel, little lady,” then turned to Mom. “It's harmless. Give it a week or two and it'll fade on its own.”
“Thank you, officer,” Dad said. He was like a papery birch beside Sheriff Beeder.
“If those kids build another fort in your tree, you give me a holler.”
Dad raised his hand and gave a half-salute of appreciation. “I’ve got it handled. Take care, officer.”
Mom and Dad demanded an explanation. Mara and I both tried to take the blame, claiming we needed to “get away from it all” despite the other’s attempt to stop us.
Of course, they believed my version of the story so I received the brunt of the punishment. I could edit my movie, I could attend the premiere, but I was confined to my room for the rest of the summer.
As Mom scolded me, she lavished Mara with apologies. “More dessert?” she asked after dinner.
“No thanks, Mrs. Parker,” Mara replied, her face pink with sunburn despite the day’s cloudy sky.
I didn’t tell my family that Mara and I were officially “together”; it seemed like the sort of secret that should stay a secret. Besides, they hardly approved of Livy and Ryan dating at such an early age... and who knows what the foster-parent rule book had to say about that kind of relationship.
I hugged Mara before bed when nobody was looking. Normally, Mara pulled away first. But that night, she didn't let go.
“I love you,” I whispered. She was my girlfriend now, and it seemed like the right thing to say.
“I love you too, James.”
* * *
Three hours later, as the castle settled in with its nighttime clicks and groans, I heard it. From the bathroom it came, cold, unfamiliar, foreboding... yet so wistful I had to press my body to the locked door to hear every word.
“Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come.
‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far--”
The melody was superlative but Mara paused--unsatisfied--and cleared her throat. She hummed a quick scale, coughed again, then finished the verse:
“And grace will lead me home.”