You are walking down the street. It’s late at night and your phone is dead. You’re alone.
You spent your last dollar getting black-out drunk at a bar called Callahan’s, which is for some reason located in Chinatown. As you start to black back in, you realize that you have no idea where you are. You have lived in this city for fifteen years and thought you knew every corner of it, especially the kind of corners that you’d end up wandering after an evening out at Callahan’s. But you can’t make heads or tails of where you are now. You don’t even see any street signs, though you think you can smell the ocean, a little.
You decide that the best thing to do is take a cab. You don’t have any money, but you can probably just jump out at a red light a few blocks away from your place, hide in a dumpster for a little while, and then be in the clear. You are not eager to admit it, but you know firsthand that this works.
You spy a striped awning that says F & P Car Service—We Never Close!, but the glass below the awning is darkened and has a metal safety grate pulled across it. A black sedan pulls up next to you, and the driver says, “Ride?”
You tell the driver where you’re going and then settle into the backseat, which smells like stale cheddar-cheese crackers but is also very comfortable. Your pant-leg rises, and you see that you have bruises looping around your leg. Fight? Or did you just fall? You’ll find out tomorrow when you plug your phone back in, most likely. But now, as you lie in the backseat, you can feel nothing but the cold, pillowy ache of your own tiredness.
When you wake up, you are deep in the forest. Well, you’re still in the car, but the car is on a road deep in the forest. You could have sworn that you only slept for a few moments, but there is no place like this anywhere near your city.
“Where the fuck are we?” you ask the driver, but he says nothing. You ask again. He tells you that he knows who you are, and that you don’t have any money. He says, “I have a proposition for you.”
Somehow, you’ve grown up into a scumbag. But at one point, you were something else. The driver tells you that he remembers when you and your special skills were all anyone in town could talk about—how you could find anyone, discover anything, no matter how badly people wanted it hidden. He remembers you from when you were in all the papers, even the sleazy gossip ones.
You still have those papers, even the sleazy gossip ones—they’re pressed between two special phone books that only listed disconnected numbers. People expected great things from you then. But those days have been over for a while.
You tell him this, and he rolls over your objection without even pausing, like it’s a soda can long ago smashed down into the pavement.
The taxi driver tells you that he has a daughter, who has given him much trouble. (Don’t they all?) He says she was cursed at birth—maybe by witches, maybe by bad genes from her mother’s side, who knows. But the end effect is still the same: she is asleep. It’s been that way for a very long time, and a lot of other people have tried to wake her up and failed. But he knows that you are different.
“So you know where she is already?” you say.
Yes, the taxi driver knows exactly where she is, and he can take you there right now (or, rather, he is already in the middle of taking you there right now). But he can’t wake her up. Only a hero with a pure heart can wake her up. “You’ll have to kiss her,” he says. “She is very beautiful.”
Kissing a beautiful woman? Not your usual m.o. (though you’ve been known to do it in the past, when the time and/or money was right). You tell him again that though you don’t do much of anything now, you were always more of a finder than a keeper.
The taxi driver tells you that if your kiss wakes her up, you’ll receive an untold fortune, because she is a princess. (Of course she is. Aren’t they all?)
The taxi driver stops the car. He tells you to get out, that it’s not too far of a walk from here.
“What if I don’t want to go?” you say.
He tells you that the heroes who failed before you failed because their hearts were corrupted. He tells you that you’re the kingdom’s only hope now, the only one who can restore order and save his daughter’s life. You tell him that you don’t know where he got the idea that you’re pure or a hero.
“Fine, we’ll do it your way,” he says, reaching into his pants and producing a gun. “Go now or I will shoot you in the leg.”
So you go, because you’ve heard that one before, and it almost never ends well.
Goddamn princesses. High-risk, high-reward, as they used to say in business school, during that one week when you went to business school.
You walk deeper and deeper into the woods and you begin to root through your pockets. In addition to your empty wallet, you find a coat-check ticket for a coat that you don’t remember wearing and a large metal key ring linked through about a dozen keys that don’t belong to you. Noticeably absent are your own house keys.
As you slog through the forest, you wonder if there even is any castle, any sleeping princess. You’ve known a few princesses in your time, sure, but you’ve known many more failed models with a scam and a mean, mobbed-up boyfriend, ready to take idealistic fools for all they were worth.
You begin to wonder if you got rolled while you were drunk—if maybe you did actually walk straight home from Callahan’s, but were jumped by kids drawn in by the smell of easy prey with a drunkard’s stagger.
You allow yourself a brief smile as you imagine those kids, rummaging around through your things. They’ll never find the good stuff, the things left over from your old life. They’ll be dead before they even get close. You never leave your dank little efficiency apartment without setting your special alarm. You may be a loser now, a washed-up joke who has to drink at a bar called Callahan’s in Chinatown because you’ve been permanently disinvited from every other bar in the city, but you haven’t forgotten everything you’ve ever learned.
None of this explains the coat-check ticket, except for the most obvious answer: you stole someone else’s coat-check ticket last night. It makes sense. You can be kind of a dick when you’re drunk.
And then, finally, you see it. The forest dips down into a small valley, and in that valley, there is the castle. It looks a little bit more like a very nice factory than a castle, but it does have the basic elements—turrets, moat (dried), drawbridge (wrecked). Thick, gray-colored vines seem to tightly bind the whole thing together. You walk down the hill, toward the castle, wondering if you should go inside, and if so, how you’re supposed to hack a path through those vines with nothing but a ring of keys and someone else’s coat-check ticket. When you get closer, you realize that someone has already hacked a neat path through all of it.
When you get even closer, you see that the vines are all almost completely dead. They crumple when you reach out and touch them. You wonder if going in is the right thing to do—from up on the hill there didn’t seem to be much of anything around for miles in any direction, and these dead vines make the likelihood of anyone helpful residing inside, princess or otherwise, seem very unlikely. You pause at the door and survey the great outdoors around you. The sun is just barely beginning to lift into the sky, and all of nature’s weirdest and most bloodthirsty creatures are making their final rounds, looking for a final score before they head back home. You, unfortunately, know this firsthand.
So you turn back around and knock on the castle’s front door, which falls open softly under the motion of your fist.
Inside, the whole operation is a little more castle-like: damp stone walls, no windows, thick dust almost everywhere. A broken padlock hangs from the handle of the first door before you, rusted to the point of rotting. You pull the handle and walk through.
You walk down a hallway, quickly passing a number of staircases that probably lead to something interesting because you are hoping to pass all the way through the castle, out a back exit, pause a bit until full daylight erupts, and then set a small, manageable fire. That should get the attention of some park rangers, right? If not, it’s a warm time of year, you could probably get by out there for three, four days, eating berries, drinking from streams, setting fires until someone notices you. Might even be nice, actually. Assuming that that taxi driver isn’t coming back to make sure you’ve done a good job.
You hear a cough. Not a cough of illness, but a cough of boredom, the kind designed to note that there is someone else in the room, so pull your pants up, please. Not that your pants are down this time, but you’re familiar enough with this cough anyway. You look ahead down the hallway and see, carved into the left side of the wall, a small counter-like opening, almost like the counter at the public pool where you used to be able to buy Nerds and Gobstoppers in the summer. The small man behind the small counter does not seem to have any Nerds or Gobstoppers. There are two torches lit on the wall behind him, and you now realize that this is where the faint ambient lighting for the entire hall has been coming from.
“Avast here heroic soul you have defeated the dragon which guards this fair castle now you have almost arrived to our princess fair to lift the evil witch’s curse,” he mutters very quickly, staring down disinterestedly, not making eye contact, like this is the fortieth time today he’s said it.
“Dragon?” you say.
He looks up, surprised. “Oh, uh, there used to be a dragon. Sorry.”
You peer down a little bit, past the edge of the counter, and see that he is texting.
“You get service in here?” you say.
“It’s 3G,” he says, again disinterested.
“Can I use your charger?” you say. “My phone is completely dead.”
“No,” he says, emphatically.
“What’s the princess’s name?” you ask.
“Briar Rose,” he says without looking up from his phone.
He then hefts a small wooden box with a large lock onto the counter and again begins intoning mechanically.
“Because you have shown purity of heart in the face of the dragon your heroism has earned you this light let it ever shine on your quest to bring truthfromdarkness andvictoryfromdefeat.” He really rushes through the last part, and then, again without looking at you, turns and enters what appears to be a men’s bathroom located behind him. You hear him turning the lock from the inside.
You examine the box in the dim torchlight. It is old, and dragons are carved into it—perhaps the dragons that used to live outside, perhaps just some general-interest dragons. You don’t see any keys around, and you start to write off the box and its large fierce-looking lock, when you remember the key ring in your pocket. You try a few keys and eventually the box pops open, its hinges wheezing like they ache when they move. You lift the top of the box and find a book of matches and a small torch. Even though this is what you had been looking for moments ago, after the whole buildup with the small man and the dragons and all, it feels a bit anticlimactic. You light the torch anyway, and walk on.
All that, for a fucking torch. That’s how it is with these princess types. Always a big, unnecessary deal about everything. Some princess complains about feeling a pea through twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds, and yet somehow you’re the asshole.
You laugh to yourself about this, only snorting a little, but your breath blows the torch out. It stays black for a moment, and then lights up fully, even brighter than before. Testing it, you blow it out one, two, three more times. Again and again it blooms back into a strong flame, brighter each time than the last. You smile to yourself, a little. Well, all right, you think. You’ve gotten out of worse jams than this with less.
You are wondering how much you’ll be able to get for this torch on the secondary market when the hallway ends. There’s no door, or window. You had imagined a door at the end, one you’d rush through, out into the free, delicious, dust-free air. But there is none.
You examine the wall, knocking for secret passages or holes or chutes, but it feels solid, through and through. You walk back to the window where the texting dwarf gave you the torch, but a metal security gate is now pulled down. You knock, to no avail. The front door that you came through now also seems to be locked. Well, then.
You walk back to the wall, and lay the eternally lit torch down carelessly at your feet. You place your palms flat against the wall and begin to do something that someone less cool might call praying, but which you call begging. Please, you think. As you loop this thought over and over in your brain, you begin to smell a new scent, separate from the dust and mold. It is the smell of your eternal flame setting the wall on fire.
At first you panic, because, you know, fire, but then you realize, this must have been the set-up the whole time. The wall before you, which had appeared to be made from stone like all the others in the castle, actually burns quickly, charring like a piece of newspaper under a match. As it begins to vanish, you see that the hall continues on the other side. This was actually a test. And you actually completed it correctly.
When the wall burns through completely, the fire suddenly extinguishes, as if doused in invisible water. You continue on down the hallway with, dare you say, a sense of purpose.
After a few minutes, you reach another counter, this one positioned slightly higher than the last, but, despite that, revealing only the midsection of an enormous man. You approach the counter, trying to squat down to see past the edge and look at the man’s face, but you can’t.
He, however, seems to see you.
“Hello,” he says.
“Hello,” you reply.
“What are you, about five foot ten, one-eighty?” he says.
“Yeah, one-eighty on a good day,” you say, puzzled, as you hear him rummaging around in some cabinets above your head. His enormous hands then come into view, laying down, piece by piece, a bunch of shining, silvery pieces of molded metal that, once they are properly laid out across the counter, you’d categorize as a suit of armor.
You approach the suit of armor, unsure if you should even touch it, but the giant pushes it toward you with a single, massive finger.
“Why do I need this?” you say, with less wariness than you had expected.
“It’s what a hero wears,” the giant says, unconcerned, prodding the helmet your way with a single finger again. Even though you can see both his hands, you still wonder if, somehow, he’s texting.
You take the helmet from the counter and hold it between your palms, like it’s an apple that you’re considering eating. You can see your face reflected in the polished silver. Not too shabby, you think.
Nobody grows up wanting to be a scumbag, in case you’re wondering. No baby is born like that. No one sets out to do it. And nobody ever gets out. It’s like severing an arm. Nobody ever gets to take it back.
Except, maybe, today, you.
The giant doesn’t seem too interested in telling you how to get the armor on—hell, maybe he’s texting the dwarf from the last counter. But eventually, you figure it out. You snap the helmet onto your head last of all, and briefly marvel at how surprisingly lightweight the whole get-up is. You pick your torch back up, blowing it out and letting it relight to make it shine even brighter. You slide the bottom of the helmet’s face guard aside, and ask the giant if he’s ever met the princess.
“What?” he says, startled yet bored at the same time. “Who? You mean Rosamund?”
“I guess,” you say.
“No,” he says.
You ask him how long he’s been working here, and he answers you by sliding down the counter’s metal security grate in your face.
So you go on down the dusty hallway, you and your torch and your suit of armor.
This hallway is long—at least two or three times longer than the last—and so it gives you a chance to think. Everyone else gets a second chance, you think. Morons who take poisoned apples from strangers, idiots who can’t tell the difference between their grandmother and a wolf, some jackass who literally all she has to do in her entire life is just not touch a spinning wheel and she can’t even handle that. These fools, they’re drowning in second chances, but they can’t spare a single drop for anyone else, can they? You start to think, over and over: Why not me?
You reach the end of the hallway, stopping at an iron door. The door has no handle. Where the handle should be, there are three large jigsaw-puzzle shapes indented into the iron, square with little half-circles jutting out, like something a little kid would play with. You turn around, scanning the floor for whatever might fit into the puzzle shapes, feeling proud of yourself for starting to anticipate these tests now, even if you have no idea what the hell you’re supposed to do. Turning, you hit the door with your elbow, and it swings open. You pause for a moment, wondering if you should maybe pull the door closed and try to reset the puzzle, but then you’re already walking through and down the hallway.
To your immediate left, there is another counter, and then another hallway jutting out at a right angle. But that hallway is very short, ending in a doorway and a spiral staircase. Behind this counter, there’s neither a dwarf nor a giant, but instead, two beautiful women of average length, mass, depth, etc. They appear to be identical twins, but one has blonde hair, the other red.
“Hero, you’ve reached the last leg of your journey,” the red-haired one says, her voice nearly cracking.
“Hey, are you okay?” you say.
“She’s fine,” says the blonde one, rolling her eyes. “She’s premenstrual.”
The redhead frowns, but doesn’t contradict the explanation.
“Hero, you’ve reached the last leg of your journey,” the blonde repeats, in a voice both cheerier and more removed. “Up the stairs lies the princess fair, so many have tried, but none have come as far as you in many, many moons.” She gestures to a shelf behind her. “This is your bird, created and enchanted by the King’s Magician. He will act as your squire, leading you through the final challenges of your trek, so that you may awaken her fair majesty and save our kingdom.” She elbows her sister, who has been dabbing the corner of her eyes with her velvet gown, and who then retrieves a mechanical bird with closed eyes from the shelf behind them, and places it on the counter in front of you.
“So, is there a spell?” you say to the blonde one.
“Yes,” says the redhead.
“Sure,” says the blonde.
“And it’s cast on all of you?”
“Yeah,” says the blonde. The redhead says nothing.
“And the only way to break it is to go upstairs, solve some puzzles, and kiss the princess?”
“Yeah,” says the blonde, arching her eyebrow. “This is pretty basic stuff, you know.”
You turn to the redhead.
“And then you’ll have your old kingdom back?” you say.
“Yes,” she says.
“And I’ll be the hero of this land?”
“What was this place like before the spell was cast?” you say.
“I don’t remember,” the redhead says. “I’m only twenty-three.”
“This isn’t one of these things where, like, one of you only tells lies and the other one only tells the truth, right?”
“No,” says the redhead.
“Ugh,” says the blonde.
“This a family business for you guys?” you say.
“Yeah, our dad works at the torch window,” the blonde says.
“The dwarf?” you say, surprised.
“Yeah, we’re actually not supposed to have conversations with the customers. Red, could you boot up the bird for him so we can keep things moving?”
Red flicks a switch, and the bird’s eyes pop open. Motors begin whirring and the bird takes off, flying in tiny circles in the air above the counter, before looping over and perching on your shoulder, cooing warmly.
“Oh, and take these keys,” the blonde says. “You’ll need them to get to the princess’s chamber.”
“Up the stairs?”
“Yeah, just up the stairs,” Red whispers. Blonde shoots her a look.
Red turns around to re-arrange the birds, spreading them out across the dusty shelf. You notice that there are two small dust-free circles to the right and left of where your bird had been sitting.
“Hey, what happened to those other two birds?” you say. “I thought I was the first person to come through here in a long time.”
“They broke,” she says. “Now give me your coat-check ticket, I need to validate it.”
You bow slightly to Red, and then bow even more slightly to Blonde.
“Thank you for your aid, maidens fair,” you say. “I shall make sure that your rewards are great when the kingdom is under my rule.”
“Thanks,” says Blonde.
“Good luck,” says Red, handing the coat check ticket back.
“Oh, wait, I do have one more question,” you say. “Your dad told me that the princess’s name was Briar Rose, but then the giant told me that her name was Rosamund. Which is it?”
“I don’t know,” says Red. “She’ll tell you when she sees you, maybe.”
The bird is now chirping impatiently, like a car alarm, and so you leave the girls at the counter, mounting the stairs, clutching your torch in one fist and your new ring of keys in the other. You walk up two, three, four flights before you come upon your first door. The door is locked, and you’re disheartened by the thought of having to go through all of those keys each time you come to a door. But then the mechanical bird swoops into your palm, grabbing the correct key, placing it into the lock. All you have to do is turn it and push.
He does this again and again, through three, four, five, six doors spread out across six, seven, eight floors, opening each easily, until there are only two keys left that you haven’t yet used. You don’t stop to wonder why this has been so easy to do.
As you cross through the threshold of what must be the final door, you enter a room with solid gray stone floors and walls and nothing else. No windows, no furniture, no good-looking girl who’s made a bad mistake that everyone else is paying for. You drop your torch, and when you lean to pick it up, your coat-check ticket comes sailing out of your large metal pocket. You notice that there’s writing on the back—writing that wasn’t there when you handed it over to Red. The writing says LEAVE NOW DO NOT GO UP THE STAIRS DO NOT FOLLOW THE BIRD. You look at the piece of paper, and then up at the bird, who swoops in and takes the paper from you. You try to grab it away from him, but he is too quick and swallows it. You turn to try to go out the door you just passed through, but you find that it is now locked. As you shake the door, you hear a small, metallic crash behind you. You see that the bird has broken open into pieces on the floor, its cogs and springs spilling everywhere, your note crushed to confetti. You try both keys on the key ring, but neither of them work in the lock before you. You drop them, and they tinkle as they fall on the floor.
And then you hear it: breath. You look around the room, wildly, but you see nothing. Your torch light flickers fruitlessly across the empty stone walls and the still-locked door. You hear the breath again, louder now, warm across the back of your neck. You feel its wet heat pass across your cheek as it blows your torch out. The torch does not relight. You believe that this thing was maybe a princess once, the way that you were your mother’s favorite child once. But as the room goes from dark, to black, to a color that no human being alive has ever seen, you know that those days are long gone for both of you. You feel something soft brushing across your throat. And then, on your lips, a kiss.