Categories > Movies > Labyrinth > Unlock This Door

The Gambler

by shadowlurker13 0 reviews

in which the games turn a bit more serious again...

Category: Labyrinth - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Fantasy - Published: 2017-08-09 - 8786 words - Complete

Chapter 6 – The Gambler

As is often the case with those of mortal lifespan, irrevocable decisions and sacrifices must be made for the sake of others, finite expanses of time get lost along the way. Sarah Stuart put her lofty (and, realistically-speaking highly unlikely, she often reminded herself) dreams and personal goals on hold to be a working mother of three highly-gifted special-needs children, needs that came to include expensive private lessons, doctors, and tutoring in very specific areas of personal strength; if Sarah’s parents hadn’t been willing to help out financially, she and Dan could’ve never swung it on their own for all of them, even with their combined salaries. Between her full-time job at the library and ferrying kids to and from lessons, recitals, appointments, and academic board and business meetings, once she added in the small amount of downtime she got with her husband, there was simply no time or energy left for herself.

They’d had to hire a talent manager for Deb (as she now called herself in high school) to work her piano recital appearances; she’d been performing professionally since she was twelve years old, and her mother loved seeing her up on the stage – doing something that had come as naturally to her as walking – and being applauded for it by huge auditoriums full of people. Sarah had even spotted Jareth at one or two of the concerts she’d been able to attend, when Deb’s appearance dates coincided with his ‘escape days’: he always appeared as himself with no attempts at disguise, yet strangely he seemed invisible to all eyes but Sarah’s own. As time went on, he started telling her of some of her daughter’s other performances that he had attended in far-flung locales in Europe and the Far East. Deb was more-or-less living on the road now and was completing her classes through home-schooling online. She was still partially financially dependent on her parents at first (she only got a certain percentage from her performances; she certainly wasn’t getting rich with everyone else who got a cut of those checks) and they skyped her for a little while every day, checking in, seeing what she was up to, making sure everything was still okay. Sarah was proud of Debbie, that she was doing so well for herself, but as the years went by she couldn’t help feeling a little superfluous in her daughter’s busy, successful life. Unnecessary.

Ethan, by contrast, had wound up going to a private Montessori academy; they had started him in public school - not wanting to put pressure on him so early in life - only to have to remove him because he was getting bullied and made fun of too often for being so unusually smart and seriously studious even in the lower primary grades. He was terribly thin-skinned that way, too, which had only made it worse; he was prone to anxiety over his abilities, his obvious difference, from childhood. They’d gotten him into a pediatric psychologist quick enough, though, and it seemed to be helping. The National Honors Society had sought him out; they already knew that he would be taking college courses in lieu of high school, and debate had started about technical and engineering universities: he loved space exploration, but was often more interested in the nuts-and-bolts of actually being up there than the scientific discoveries. Ethan was leaning toward Colorado School of Mines himself, but the real decision was still a few years off. Sarah rued that her son had been given so little time to be a child, but Ethan seemed not to mind; he’d never known any different. He wanted to be an adult now so that he could be treated like one; being a minor was a nuisance to him. He’d always felt a little lost in his home life in spite of their love and support, ‘a wizard stuck with a family of Muggles,’ as his mother often put it in her well-meaning, head-in-the-clouds sort of way, he thought. At least he was practically guaranteed scholastic assistance and a high-paying career in the aerospace industry once he graduated. He’d be okay eventually, do well in the world.

It was Ailsa they were worried about: she had been diagnosed with a moderate form of Asperger’s Syndrome when she was only four years old; her preschool teacher had noticed how withdrawn she was around the other children – how unusually good her vocabulary was already at her age – and first brought it to their attention to have her tested. To Dan and Sarah, their youngest had merely seemed introverted, quiet, preferring her own orderly little imaginary worlds to the big, chaotic one around her. She liked lining things up – stuffed toys, building blocks, even her crayons. She had always been hypersensitive to bright lights and loud sounds; she used to spontaneously cry when they tried to play her music as a baby. As a child she loved demanding, exact routine; she lived her life the same way every single day with absolutely no variations whatsoever – if anything was different, even something as simple as an object in her room out of place, she would experience personal meltdown, physically shaking from the overwhelming change in stimuli. They had to be so careful for her. Every morning she counted the slats on the blinds in her bedroom and deliberately stepped out of the same side of her bed right-foot first, saying aloud to herself that today was a good day; Sarah often overheard the little mantra, standing outside the door, as if her youngest child could simply will the world to be better than it was.

Even as an infant she had been a very finicky eater; at age nine it was still a struggle to get anything other than breaded chicken tenders down that throat – homemade gluten-free breaded chicken tenders, that is. On the advice of her autism therapist, they had eliminated both gluten and animal dairy from her diet, and once the inevitable storm of withdrawal had passed in a few months her parents did note some small improvements with her compulsive behaviors – she did seem more alert – but the diet intervention was hardly the cure-all panacea it had been touted as. Improvement was still improvement, though, and they had scrupulously kept it up. A stricter allergen diet protocol was discussed, as were alternative therapies to re-entrain her brainwave frequencies and very high doses of nutritional supplements along with more standard psychiatric drugs, but Sarah was wary of experimenting on her daughter like this; it seemed at times that the ‘goal’ was more about making a ‘normal’ person, not helping a high-functioning and unique individual with a handful of socialization challenges. They did stick with group interaction therapy, which Ailsa resisted every bit as strongly as her mother had resisted the other therapy options. She had her colored pencils and her books and her imagination: why was she demanded to care about being able to look someone in the eye that she found inherently uninteresting, let alone be forced to touch their hand? She did get to the point that she could stand being hugged by people she knew very well, like her immediate family – very briefly – but she still could not hug in return.

Her setbacks were every bit as frustrating to her parents as her personal successes were exhilarating. Privately, her mother could sort of understand her stubbornly intractable viewpoint, even if she could never say so aloud. Why were we all supposed to be so terribly concerned about the opinions of people who don’t care about us – as we truly are – at all? Sarah could already see a colder, more indifferent-yet-vulnerable version of herself slowly emerging in her youngest daughter and she was not looking forward to her puberty. Thank God for meal replacement shakes and the internet: all of Ailsa’s few friendships were strictly online on a forum for ASD kids (carefully screened members, no pictures). From the little Sarah had managed to snoop through the back-history on her laptop (a protective mother’s privilege, she thought), it was obvious that she got along far better with people who were more like her who shared her specific interests. There were still only two or three interests - mostly to do with art and horselike mythological creatures – but Sarah had been taught that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing so long as the subjects weren’t directly harmful to the child (actively attempting to suppress them could be); at least one of them often turned into a specialized career with the right kind of encouragement and assistance. Ailsa did need some extra help outside of school with math so far, but she was showing a remarkable ability for anything do with drawing: present her with a subject that genuinely peaked her interest, and she would take to it like pitch with an almost inhuman will, tirelessness and tenacity. She loved rendering thousands upon thousands of individual strands of hair in her sketches – she could do this happily for an entire afternoon or evening.

And, on top of all of this ongoing responsibility, on top of all of these constant demands on her time, Sarah was still eking out visits with Jareth; she’d had to learn to mentally couch it like she was going to see a shut-in or someone in jail. Her family had been doing a little volunteer work as a unit with Dan’s church, too, and while Sarah was starting to privately mull over believing in a God that seemed to inspire so much sincere goodwill and charity in the people around her, she still wasn’t ready to commit to the idea of there being only one; it left too many people out in the cold and the dark, so-to-speak, as far as her thinking went. It left no room in the world for shades of gray…

She asked her own ‘shade’ about what had happened to Ailsa, with her mental issues, when he politely inquired after her children one day in the gardens; he had come to enjoy the pretense of formally taking her for a stroll, with Sarah on his arm.

“I had no way of knowing that would happen,” he’d replied simply, surprising her, “I merely created a series of frequency vibrations that can trigger profound development in the human genetic code – but the possibility has to be there already somehow. You’d have to ask a scientist for a more precise answer than that.”

Sarah subsequently did – and put down a considerable chunk of change from her own savings account to pay for genetic testing and detailed analysis for her, her husband, and her children, just to see if anything else would turn up. Such work, while still time-consuming and therefore expensive, had improved by leaps and bounds in the years following The Human Genome Mapping Project, with many nucleotide sequences positively linked to specific traits.

What the research team attached to the samples from the Stuart family found was so statistically remarkable that Dan and Sarah were contacted directly by the lab with the initial findings and a request for further tissue samples, to be analyzed on the organization’s own dime: there were indeed recessive genes in Dan’s DNA that had the potential to make another Mozart – or Einstein – and the sequence of errors for the autism spectrum were present in Sarah’s, but the odds of these particular sets getting triggered into active use with such regularity were so astronomically high that it was a biological impossibility – unless there was an unknown environmental ‘cue’, an external factor, most likely encountered in infancy, possibly even in utero. Sarah suddenly found herself under the brunt of incredible personal scrutiny: no, she hadn’t been exposed to sprayed pesticides or other harmful chemicals. No, they didn’t live near or even drive by any kind of power plant or radiation source that she knew of. No, she had been careful to keep her cellphone in her purse during gestation, not carried anywhere on her body, certainly not in her back pocket. Well, there was WiFi at work, but they had cabled internet at home (the risk of cancer hadn’t been worth the convenience.) She was beginning to regret starting the line of enquiry in the first place – and there was no way to stop it now. It did settle once-and-for-all what had really happened – but only for her: it wasn’t magical at all, merely an unknown and unstudied biological mechanism that could be hacked from the outside and radically altered before growth was complete. Heck, other people were knowingly screwing with genes like that with the CRISPR, trying to make superbabies on purpose, knowing even less about which genes to edit and augment in what sequence for a predictably positive outcome as good as two-out-of-three nominal ‘successes’. Sarah stopped beating herself up over it in time and continued to do her best to nurture ‘the results’…

But, beyond the years put in, the memories and emotions a mother collects and treasures, she had done relatively little to see to herself, to her own wants and needs. The longing would come over her unexpectedly – and the more often the older her progeny became – the unmistakable pull of all the paths in life that her feet would never know now, the many opportunities she had turned a blind eye to in the name of maternal love and wifely duty: she was dead-resolved never to become like her own mother, abandoning husband and child to selfishly follow her own dreams.

No matter how much the worse part of her personality might want to do just that at certain times. They had just had to fire Deborah’s business manager for being underhanded with the accounts, siphoning off more money for himself than he was budgeted in salary, and she needed a new one right away – she was out on tour in Venice! Ailsa’s grades had been slipping again; they had only just found out that she had been refusing to do her homework in favor of working on a huge poster-sized lifelike rendering of a Pegasus on an alien planet that was taking her months to complete – and she would need summer school to pass… and probably a school change for the following year, where she could get more one-on-one help, as much as Ailsa hated that (or any change, for that matter; she’d be in her room trying to comfort herself out of panic attacks for weeks once she found out what they had planned.) And finals season was upon both Ethan and Dad (when had her Daniel become ‘Dad’? She couldn’t remember.) Sarah wasn’t sure which one of them stressed out about this annual event more, it was usually a pretty close tie. The workload was oddly similar, the only appreciable difference being one was on the giving end and the other on the receiving, buried under a mountain of tests and essays to grade – and then he had to survive the year-end student evaluations. The month of May in general was simply not a good time to be in the Stuart house.

What was worse was that she could see the sentiment reflected in Jareth’s almost alien eyes as he sat across from her, playing card games for years on end. She’d once made the mistake of inquiring whether he’d ever played chess, and he’d dropped a remark about the idea of her challenging him being too reminiscent of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; she refrained from asking how he’d known about that movie…

At the moment, he was shaking his head at her disapprovingly as he finished dealing. “You’re giving away too much of yourself; every time I see you anymore, you’re running ragged. If you continue doing this, you will begin to cause yourself harm.”

“Some of us don’t have the luxury of simply living for ourselves,” she responded quietly, picking up her hand of cards and studying it – rummy today.

“Working yourself to death is no part of that religion, Sarah,” – he would never name it aloud – “and, if I remember correctly, worrying is actually forbidden,” he suddenly smirked, “so live a little already.” He put down a four card run of high-ranking spades to start.

“That’s not what that means,” she reproved him – with a little smirk of her own. “Although I get what you’re saying. It isn’t going to be like this forever; it’s just until the last two are in college.”

“And how old will you be then?” he asked hollowly. “Middle-age, late-middle-age? Too old to start chasing most of your dreams,” he trailed off a little sadly.

“I made this choice, Jareth.”

“It’s not too late.”

Sarah nearly said, ‘yes, it is’… but she couldn’t get the words out, and she took apart a run of hearts to meld four eights.

“Oh, Sarah,” he sighed fondly. She couldn’t look him in the eye; he knew her far too well. His tone abruptly changed to something less sentimental and more direct: “Sarah, give me back your cards.”

She blinked, caught unawares. “What? Why?”

“When? Where?” he taunted her, taking them from her hand, scooping back up what had already been laid on the table and adding his own before reshuffling the deck. “I think I want for us to play poker instead; we can both agree that you’re finally old enough to be playing for… small stakes, shall we say?”

Sarah raised one eyebrow. “Whose idea of ‘small stakes’, yours or mine?”

He snickered at that. “Mine, naturally, but it’s nothing you can’t handle; you won’t be needing to add family members to the table.”

“What’s small?” she pressed.

He met her eyes; while he was obviously in a better mood now, she didn’t trust that look – he was still far too sneaky for total comfort.

“The bargaining chip I desire is time – your time, to be more precise: for many years now I have allowed you to stint the amount you have spent with me in order to succor your young children. They are not so young now that they need their mother every second of the day – you yourself tell me that Ailsa does not care for human contact at all. And even your dear husband is too busy for you most of the time, it seems.”

“He has work during the school year, you know perfectly well what he does for a living!” she shot back. “And summer break is coming up, as is my own vacation in another month!”

“Then you do have the time,” he smoothly countered, dealing hands of ‘seven’. “Don’t be cross, dear; I am doing this also for you. When have I ever asked anything of you – expected anything of you – but to relax and enjoy yourself in my company?”

He could be a persuasive devil when he wanted to be, she’d grant him that much. “And if I win? What are you gambling?” What do you even have to gamble with? she suddenly thought.

He considered for a moment. “My powers, at your disposal – but you must keep in mind the measure you yourself are willing to give and to only expect so much and no more, in return.”

Now Sarah was intrigued!

“You’re saying you’d be open to granting small wishes, provided that the requests are small and relatively simple?”

He smiled – he knew he had her.

“Let’s just say I’d be open to a certain level of negotiation. Are you in?”

Sarah looked at her top-cards again. A jack and a ten, both diamonds.

“You can’t cheat.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it; we take betting nearly as seriously as contracts. If I renege, you would get back all the time you’ve spent here in one go – added to your lifespan. But if you refuse to pay for the times that I win, I can still claim Toby as alternative payment and cancel your gateway to my world.”

“He’s 37!” she suddenly laughed. “What in the world would you even do with him?”

The king was not smiling… and Sarah’s quickly dropped from her face. How could she keep forgetting?!

It’s gotta be clinical-grade denial, she thought – then took a deep breath and bet only five minutes, Underground-time.

“So stingy, love,” he tisked. “Very well, I’ll up the ante: one ‘A’ grade on a test or assignment, undeserved – you pick the child to receive it.”

“You can do that regardless of… time of year?”

“With active consent, yes.”

She picked up her cards – it wasn’t a bad hand: another diamond card - a nine - plus a few various of unmatched suits.

“Ten minutes.”

“Is that extra time or running tally for this round?”

“Extra time.”

He raised his eyebrows but gave a slight head-tilt of approval. “Better. I’ll raise you an evening meal where Ailsa voluntarily eats her vegetables, whatever you prepare.”

Sarah would’ve argued the point that he was making the wishes for her, but she had to admit his choices so far were pretty much on the money; she’d talked to him about everything at one point in time or another. The extra cards were dealt.

“Any further bids?”

She shook her head. Both laid their hands on the table.

Sarah had lost – but not by much, just a straight beating three-of-a-kind. The game he wanted to play finally appeared legit. Fifteen minutes UT (Underground Time) was just under six minutes on Earth…

“Care for another round?”

He still looked far too smug to her eye, knowing perfectly well that he was deliberately tempting her with supernatural favors for her family, knowing it would be next-to-impossible for her to resist.

But the stakes were reasonable, doable…

They played again – and he won again, but not by much as before; these weren’t terribly impressive hands. The play was real. He produced a piece of parchment and a quill pen in his usual fashion, entering both of their first names upon it in his impeccable calligraphy, with plenty of space beneath for the outcomes of who owed what. She was up to eleven-and-a-half minutes, time she could probably still squeeze into her lunch-hour one day. Soon.

The next round Sarah won: a romantic date-night with her husband with the kids safely sleeping over at Nana’s (Dan’s mother – a widow now – was usually uncomfortable having to care for Ailsa in spite of how many times they had gone over precisely what to feed her and specifically how to help her deal with being somewhere else at night; it was a two-fold challenge usually.) The wish was her idea, and while the Goblin King had seemed vaguely miffed when she’d brought it up, other devious possibilities seemed to have occurred to him in the interim.

“At a time of my choosing, then,” he teased her. “You never stated when, Sarah – a bit sloppy on your part, but I’ll take care of it this time.”

“And don’t think you can pull that again! I’ll be using a diaphragm, too!”

He just rolled his eyes. “Such one-track paranoia. You think that’s the only variable you left up to my discretion just now? In a logistical sense, you’ve invited me to orchestrate events in your marital bedroom.”

Sarah felt her entire face flush; she hadn’t blushed that bad since… since the last time he made her blush like that!

He chuckled under his breath. “I trust we will be more specific in the future. Do you want to keep going, or is that enough to mentally deal with for one day?” he eyed her sideways, still smiling.

She suddenly gasped. “You didn’t specify when I have to visit you, either!”

“Ah,” he simply observed, “we can rectify that immediately. Since you are betting Underground time, I shall expect you to use it within one Underground week: you have approximately two-and-a-half days to fulfill your end of the bargain. As for mine… I think I’m going to surprise you – but don’t fret, it will be soon by your standards,” he crooned sultrily. “But I won’t be rushed into a shoddy job. Is this acceptable?”

“Uh – sure, fine,” she nodded, a teensy bit nervous as to what she had just agreed to.

His expression changed to thoughtfully wheedling. “Of course, if you were to bet Earth-time, I would grant you Earth-weeks to make it up to me – and improve my stakes against considerably. Be thinking about it, what you would want of me. But I understand your need for a trial round this time,” he reassured her, his more usual genial self again.

Sarah did think about: there were so many intangible things she couldn’t do for her children and spouse, and tangible problems that lay outside of her influence to do anything about. To say nothing of what she might wish for herself…

The next night when she came home from work, she found the house only lit with candles, carryout from a nice restaurant on the dinner table, and no trace of the kids. Daniel was a sweet guy, but he never went to these lengths, and Sarah found herself a little nervous. She would’ve been happy with him if they had just spent the time catching up on their Netflix while intermittently making out. This looked far more staged – and this was just the part of the house she’d seen so far! But she didn’t have long to worry: Daniel came down the stairs a minute later, dressed up and wearing the old poet shirt that she loved on him, a blood-red rose in hand…

And to her amazement they couldn’t even wait until after dessert! The slab of tiramisu and two forks was fetched from the fridge downstairs about two hours later, and they didn’t pass out until the wee hours of the morning in that exhausted, euphoric haze.

Of course, Sarah had mentioned nothing to Jareth about the next day: Nana dropped off Ethan and Ailsa at 7:30A.M. sharp, seeming to have come to her senses again and remembered why she never did this – Ailsa had had another of her panic attacks waking up someplace other than her room and it had taken a considerable amount of work to get the girl calmed back down. Sarah might’ve gotten all of three-hours’ sleep – and she’d nearly forgotten that she had to go to work, too!

But the experience was enlightening: it clearly demonstrated the sort of thing Jareth was capable of, as well as just how terribly specific she had to be with him to avoid any odd outcomes, accidental or deliberate. This could very likely lead to pushing the envelope on what his side of the Friendship Contract really meant – to him. She couldn’t afford to give him wriggle-room in these requests. For both their sakes. When she visited him that afternoon (adding in the extra time quick before she forgot, setting the timer on her phone so she wouldn’t accidentally overstay past her break), Jareth looked both pleased and amused at her apparent state of fatigue.

“I see it went well,” he noted drolly as she materialized in his room, “I wasn’t entirely certain just what form that implanted impulse would take, but I was aiming for classy-yet-informally erotic.”

Sarah laughed a little embarrassedly. “Then you succeeded, I guess.”

He regarded her a moment, processing her reaction. “I must remember that you aren’t the wanton waif that you were once, either; you’ve gone straight-laced proper,” he mocked her – but not too hard. And surrendered an indulgent smirk. “Just to demonstrate how ‘decent’ I can be about this, I shall be lenient with my first demand of your time.” He glanced at his sizable bed – which they had actually been on at the same time on numerous occasions, albeit just while playing with babies and very small children. “Take a nap.”

Sarah was surprised, to put it mildly. “Really?”

“I told you I wanted you to benefit also,” he responded in his deliberately gentle tone. “And you’re not going to be much good for anything else today in your current state-of-mind, I think,” he finished, sounding more himself.

Sarah had to admit it did look awfully inviting. Then glanced back at him: she knew a game when she sensed one by now. What was this? “If I’m here longer than half-an-hour, I’ll be late getting back to work; people will start wondering where I am,” she stated as casually as possible.

“Oh, Sarah,” he sighed, sitting down on the foot of his mattress on the right-hand corner, “you still use so many excuses to try to protect yourself from things that you don’t need protecting from. This is my wish for your first payment – that you rest. And I shall read to you.”

Sarah still wasn’t entirely certain of his true motives here; something still seemed off, like he was acting with her somehow.

There’s clearly no getting out of it, though, she thought as she removed her half-dressy sneaker-flats and climbed onto the mattress up to the head… and lay down. Granted it was comfortable. Jareth closed the drapes by will from where he sat, gesturing them over, then rose and went to the bookshelf, taking down a foreign-language volume he had never read her before, sitting on the left side of the bed, to her right, opening it.



“…why are you doing this? I can’t quite peg it.”

He paused before answering, and when he did he wasn’t looking at her. “You’ve worked so long – so hard – to take care of your children, to support your husband. When was the last time you’ve allowed anyone to actively care for you, be it ever-so-briefly?”

There was an unexpected bittersweet note in his voice. Sarah hushed up and let him read – only this time he wasn’t translating, the tones of his voice ran deep and lulling. She was asleep in under two minutes…

And woke up in the driver’s seat of her car, laid back like she’d been to wink out! She sat up with a start, confused for a moment before realizing where she was; her purse was still on the floor of the passenger-side. She quickly dug out her phone and checked the time: it was exactly 12:55 P.M. – she always left herself five minutes to get back. As she drove the short distance to the library, Sarah reflected that she did feel a heck of a lot better now; she’d slept the sleep of the dead back there, for that to seem so instantaneous!

The thought suddenly brought her up cold. The sleep of the dead? Oh, no, it couldn’t, she laughed at herself.

What worried her, of course, was that it could. That morsel of information – decades old now – was linked to a straight answer she could never obtain.

Her misgivings didn’t stop her from going back – they couldn’t. And her second thoughts about gambling with him gradually relaxed also, especially when his counter-bids were getting so enticing: a new government grant for space exploration sciences that Ethan would be the first recipient of; a Deutsche Grammophon recording deal for Deborah; turning the head of an introverted boy Ailsa had had a hopeless first crush on in painting class for a year without even having the nerve to introduce herself to him; Sarah’s schedule shuffling to the point that she could start amateur theater again – he really pushed that one, just refused to let it die. He would even throw out bones for Daniel in high spirits when he’d been winning: a new archeological discovery, texts that only he would be able to miraculously translate. Sarah wasn’t quite as onboard with those types of wishes, but he was obviously trying to be a good sport about this.

And he did win, regularly. Sarah had wrung a few choice gems of wishes out of him in turn (among them the previously mentioned recording deal and cancelled student loans due to new legal loopholes concerning students who went on to be educators), but the price had been very heavy: she often owed him Earth-hours a week now, and it was getting so hard to hide it. But neither could she stop challenging him; the human greed for his power had gotten the better of her judgment – and he knew this, too. The Goblin King thoroughly enjoyed the fruits of his labor, never gambling with her too often during her long stays to keep it from looking like the vicious cycle it was quickly becoming.

She had to start buying camping meals and paleo snack kits out of different accounts to survive on in his realm, along with gallons of water for her own private use and travel toiletries that never left her purse (and were used frequently.) She actively looked into babysitters for Ailsa on the off-chance that she had to leave for an entire afternoon without explaining where she was going with her phone turned off, and actually found one lady who specialized in caring for wards with a variety of disabilities – and her pay-scale reflected this, too. If this went on much longer, she’d have to hire a maid as well to do periodic dusting. Sarah was spending nearly all of her free time with an otherworldly man.

And – as far as Sarah was concerned – she thought that man seemed like he was on something all-of-a-sudden from how consistently cheery and considerate he was being all the time in her presence, any traces of bitterness or irony washed clean away. They started going for long excursions together through his domain, while he educated her about the native flora and fauna as well as the primitive mind that lay behind those moving outer passages of stone. He began to tell her more of himself than he ever had before – in vague allusions and the kind of hypothetical parables where all real information has been drastically changed to protect the parties involved, often to the point that she honestly couldn’t tell where the story ended and the truth began. He was an engrossing yarn-spinner anyway. He paid her no end of small attentions regardless of where they were or what they were doing; he still often read to her and would allow her to switch off at intervals if it was an English language book. He began to provide her with extra wardrobe while she was there, making small presents of things she could not take with her, and he always executed courtly bows over her hand before she left. If Jareth had been human, Sarah would’ve thought he was acting like a man in love. But she knew better, from the way the act would slip occasionally when they were at the gaming table again. He was really getting into this, but he was still playing and the objective was as-of-yet unclear to her.

It did not remain so for too much longer. Sarah had once been wise enough to know when not to trust her children with information, but she had grown careless under her current duress. It only took a few more weeks for the disaster to ripen: Dan came home early from a staff workshop day thinking of surprising Sarah when she got off work – maybe taking them out for pizza if she hadn’t planned dinner – to find two strange women in his house! Ailsa vouched for their presence, telling him who they were and why they were there rather matter-of-factly, adding that Mom had told her not to tell, but that she couldn’t disobey her Dad by withholding the information when he asked for it; it was a moral Catch-22 – Ailsa was a good, God-loving kid like she’d been raised to be.

Upon perusing the bill accounts – which Sarah usually handled herself online – he realized that she had changed the password to their joint savings account very recently without telling him. When he got the information from the bank in person, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing: Sarah had been paying the nanny and housemaid he had just met weekly wages for the past four months! And there were many other expenditures that made no sense, like reorder packages from high-end camping and trail-kit companies. Careful questioning of both Ailsa and Ethan revealed that their mother had been spending an inordinate amount of time away from the house without any explanation of where she was going for at least six months – possibly longer – and that she often left work during her lunch hour, too. And she never told them where she had been, fobbing them off with vague answers before asking how their days had been. She hadn’t even been making dinner – no wonder her cooking had suddenly gotten better, it wasn’t hers at all! It really and truly looked like his quiet and devoted wife had been living a double-life of some kind behind his back!

Sarah nearly had heart failure when he opened the door to let her into the house when she got home that evening at five-minutes-to-six like she had been, expecting that dinner was just about on the table and that the help would leave within minutes of her arrival; to her credit she did know how to do this smoothly – her stepmother had always hired a maid, having never done housework in her life (Karen had come from money, but not quite enough to be able to continue to live like that on her own.)

The ‘help’ was nowhere to be seen, as were the children: Ethan had driven Ailsa to Nana’s house along with the girl’s specially-prepared dinner, just the way she liked it. What followed over the next half-hour was a living nightmare for Sarah: she had no excuses, no answers. She couldn’t explain herself, couldn’t tell him the truth. She couldn’t answer a single question about her actions, and she had to bear hearing his terrible and inevitable, wild conclusions - that she had gotten mixed up with something or someone shady who was demanding weird resources. Was it a survivalist lover? Was she being blackmailed, being threatened? No, no, and no. Then why?

She was silent, bound and gagged by her pledges of secrecy.

He threatened separation. She begged him not to, telling him that she loved him, that he had to trust her!

But he didn’t believe her. How could he? There was simply too much evidence to the contrary at this point.

He packed a small travel satchel with his own toiletries and some extra clothes and left for the night, saying that he would call her in the morning in the hopes that she’d changed her mind about trusting him with whatever was going on here, if there was any truth to the little she had told him. The moment he pulled out of the driveway and down the street, Sarah shot back Underground with fiery tears in her eyes and murder on the brain.


“You called?” he dryly answered immediately from behind her and she jumped – he hadn’t done that to her in years! They were in the tower, which was fine by her; she didn’t exactly want ‘scenery’ for this discussion. Oddly, it was night here, too. “Do I detect a hint of irritation?”

She nearly punched him, but just barely kept herself in check. “Congratulations, you asshole! You’ve officially got my husband ready to divorce me because he thinks I’m having an affair with another man or I’m a drug addict!”

The king visibly bristled at being addressed like this. “I’d advise you to keep a civil tongue in your head, my dear,” he returned icily, “and as to your accusation, I cannot be held to blame for your own poor time-management skills.”

“But you knew this was going to happen! You had to know! There’s no way you couldn’t without…”

Sarah blanched with a gasp, covering her mouth: she’d just caught on. She had known for years now that he had been jealous of her Daniel – of the time and attention she gave him – but when she added her children into the mix and they grew into more people that she loved, that took her time, she had relegated Jareth to a smaller and smaller part in her life until he was just another chore to be completed, not someone who also needed her care. Who cared about her in his own strange way at times. He had direly acted out out of a sense of insecurity, out of fear that she would stop caring about him altogether, just going through the motions because she had to.

And he didn’t look too proud of it, either; beneath that face-saving anger, there was despair.

She closed her eyes and took a couple of deep breaths before saying, “We still need to talk about this.”

“I quite agree.”

At least he had the decency not to say anything further until she had had sufficient time to collect her thoughts, seated next to the fire in her usual chair.

“Jareth,” she started again measuredly, sounding nearly like she used to when she was trying to calmly lecture Ailsa when the girl had been younger, when she’d unwittingly done something really bad, “I understand that you probably don’t have working experience being around humans for any appreciably long length of time, that you don’t have the…the opportunity,” she self-censored, “but even you should be able to see the harm in this situation – to me, if not to anyone else. If Dan takes this to court – which I have every reason to believe that he will if I can’t give him a single honest answer, which you’ve basically assured that I can’t – I could lose not only my home but possibly even my legal joint custody over Ailsa. Have you thought at all about what splitting up our family would do to her? Divorce is rough enough for ‘neurotypical’ kids; it can be world-shaking for kids on the autism spectrum! What I went through with my parents would be nothing compared to how she would suffer for this! And for what?! I-”

She forced herself to breathe; she was still way too worked up for this discussion. “Look, I know my life is busy and it’s only gotten busier – and maybe I don’t pay as much attention to you as I used to; that tends to happen to normal human friendships, too, sometimes, when people get married and have families; there’s only so much time in the day and we only have so much energy physically and mentally. We can’t do everything. And I know your behavior works differently, but I’ve been able to tell that something’s been wrong here for some time now, but you also have this huge track record for being cagey and paranoid – I’m not judging, I’m just saying what I see here – so I didn’t ask, assuming you wouldn’t tell me. And I should’ve. But this communication difference goes both ways; I’m not a mind-reader. If there’s ever something that’s bothering you this badly, tell me so we can try to work it out before it turns into a big mess. Is that reasonable?”

He remained silent.


“I assumed there was no point to bringing it up,” he said quietly. “You weren’t going to upstage your family for the likes of me.”

She had been right; that was despair she had seen!

“You might even be within your rights to renegotiate our contract,” he suddenly added with a heavy-sounding sigh. “I obviously hadn’t thought of all the possible consequences; I was mostly thinking of us, of what you like in that man, if I could-”

“That I would pay more attention to you,” she almost groaned, “oh, Jareth.” She slowly shook her head, looking to the fire; it’s crackling was the only sound for about a minute. Sarah’s despair was a near-mirror to his own… until she resolved her will: the only way out was the way they’d gotten into this mess. “Fix it.”


“You heard,” her hardened gaze turned to face him, “and I don’t care how you do it this time, so long as no one gets hurt – not family, not strangers, nobody, do you understand? If you can manage that, I’d be willing to put this fiasco behind us. And no more betting for time – or wishes,” she quickly added. “You need to realize that me asking this of you is a huge act of faith and trust on my part – that you’re not going to botch this up, because I know you care. My entire life as I’ve come to know and love it stands in jeopardy because you chose not to be forthcoming with me.”

The king lightly snorted. “At least you’re upfront about your terms,” he noted tersely, “unlike some others I…” He sighed – and looked as if he was about to say something else, but he stopped himself before any sound could come out, looking away into the darkness of his room. “Go home, Sarah,” he whispered. “I have to think this through.”

She left him there without any further ado, putting the big meal the maid had prepared for them away in the fridge – not having the heart to eat any of it herself – and she grabbed a half-eaten pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream instead, heading up to her bedroom for a good, long cry.

She was still awake at midnight when she heard the unexpected sound of someone letting themselves in through the front door – not a break-in, keyed entry – and she cautiously crept out onto the landing to see…

It was Dan! He unshouldered his bag on the floor and ran up the staircase two-at-a-time, striding up to her with purpose and catching her in a fiercely protective bear-hug, apologizing over and over through heavy sobs, kissing her again and again; it was hard not to get caught up in his level of emotion. Why hadn’t she told him she’d been trying to single-handedly help a homeless family with small children all this time?! Had she been afraid that he wouldn’t approve because both parents were struggling opioid addicts who couldn’t receive help at the shelter in town on the grounds that they were still active users? Of course he would help them! There wasn’t a methadone clinic in the county, but there was one two over, along with a shelter: they could arrange to have them transported there nicely first thing in the morning! She hadn’t told him tonight because he’d been so thoughtlessly judgmental – could she ever forgive him?

Sarah was too stunned to speak; thankfully, steady crying can mask this condition pretty effectively, and they continued to do so jointly for a while longer before retiring to the bedroom…

Her level of astonishment grew over the next couple of days; it felt like she had just stepped into the Twilight Zone. Not only did this family actually exist, but they all had false memories of her bringing provisions and water, praying with them, trying to get the parents to accept help! And there were traces of the foodstuffs she had been ordering – the odd wrapper, extra unopened packages of jerky and dried fruits and nuts, along with gallons of water – in their well-hidden camp behind some bushes within easy walking distance of the library, just on the other side of that big lawn! Their two little boys had tearfully hugged Sarah goodbye as their parents and Dan packed what was salvageable into the back of the shuttle he had ordered to transport them to the clinic/shelter, saying that they would miss her reading to them at storytime in the library – she didn’t even know their first names! She’d never seen any of these people in her life!

And the story – which was that she had met them when they brought their kids for storytime – was vouched for by three of her coworkers: a PX administrative and two shelvers! Sarah would be ready to swear up and down that that camp had not been there yesterday, let alone the foliage that concealed it! Where had Jareth found these people?! Where were they really from? From their own accounts, they’d been in this area for about a year now, which was clearly not the case!

It was actually more than a little frightening, in spite of the roundhouse-kick of a positive outcome here: Jareth had kidnapped a family of four – most likely spirited their entire camp-and-cover right off the streets in the middle of the night – and planted them here with a drastically altered fabricated history, along with an immense, happy lie that was even shared by people that she knew! All Sarah had to do was play along until it was over. Thankfully Dan kept it to himself, respecting her wishes for this ‘charity’ to go unpublicized (“let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” giving-style) and the episode blew over quickly. Her husband started volunteering at the local shelter himself on Sunday afternoons. Sarah went back to playing harmless card games with Jareth (he never played poker with her ever again, even just for fun with no stakes like they used to.) She thought that was the end of it.

She was wrong. On her 52nd birthday that year, Debbie showed up out-of-the-blue on a surprise visit – and with a considerable gift: sufficient funds to not only pay off the remaining mortgage on their house but also for her mother to start taking acting classes again if she still wanted to! Sarah’s other two children had been too small to remember, but her eldest daughter knew how much performing had meant to her mom – and how much she had loved them to give it up to spend all her free time on her family instead. Ethan was going to be moving to Colorado before fall semester started at CSM. Only Ailsa remained in high school; she would be a junior this year. If Sarah reduced her position at the library to only part-time – which she could now afford to do – she would have more than enough time to pursue her art and to see her final special child safely graduated and on to college! And then there would be time! It was all too wonderful!

When she told Jareth about it, his response had been a seemingly distracted, “I told you they’d be worth the hassle someday,” as he studied some pale wildflowers growing up a stone wall, smelling them. But she caught his involuntary switch of a smile…

Three years later, she was performing in a staging of The King and I at the Landmark in Syracuse – a gorgeous burgundy-and-gold-ornate baroque-style hundred-year-old theater building right downtown, precisely the sort of venue she’d loved as a kid. About two-thirds of the way through the run of the show, there was a night that the cast had come out for the final bows and Sarah – Miss Anna – stepped forward for her mandatory round of applause… and suddenly something high up and to the left caught her eye, even with the lights in her face, a sudden movement…

There, in one of the tiny, opulently gilded balcony seats just above the stage that the theater never sold tickets for because they were built too small for most modern adults, the Goblin King had just stood up and was lightly applauding her also, tapping his gloved fingers into the palm of his other hand, a satisfied, knowing smirk plastered across his pale face.

She blinked and he was gone.
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