The setting is this: I’m four years old and sitting cross legged under your painting desk on that piece of carpet plastic, the one you use for your rolling desk chair. I’m lifting the smooth edges up and finding the spikes underneath. You stop bouncing your leg for a moment to lift me onto your lap. Your knees are scarred from childhood ballet, from sword fighting. The desk is blonde wood, yellow and painted with mixed colors, old glue and dried paint. The lamp shines yellow on your little armies and my little hands, and your hands: cuticles bitten and knuckles painted. Years later, my hands will look like that. Remember when we used dice and little models of a dragon and a unicorn, and we fought on the grey-carpet floor of your office? You give me a miniature to paint, a horse just like that unicorn, and I paint one color over another and somehow brown and purple end up happening at the same time, on the same horse, but I’m proud. Look, I think, I’m like you.
Now I’m six. Now, there’s lined paper filled with purple and blue and marker and crayon; it’s filled with my name. This is the deal: if I can sign my name, I’ll get a library card, and stories will be at my fingertips. Later, you teach me to count and you teach me the jargon of dungeons, and I know the word charisma before anyone else my age. This is the deal: I get to play Dungeons and Dragons if I can write down a character sheet. The letters take up two lines and some are bigger than others but I do it, and suddenly, I can make stories with my fingertips. I am six, so the character’s name is Flower, and she is sixteen because that is my favorite age, the age that girls grow up. She lives deep in the deepest part of a forest, and she battles wolves to save a woman. These are the stories you teach me to make: women saving women. It’s not the last story we will make together.
I’m eight and we’re going to where you grew up, to Massachusetts, for a white Christmas. All my winters have been Texas winters, where the best you can dream of is a slush Christmas. We stay in a hotel and you tell me stories about how you used to live in one; how the woman who cleaned the room would give you armfuls of Andes chocolate mints because she knew you liked them. We walk in the forest behind the house you grew up in, and of course you grew up here, because to me, both forests and you are things that good stories come from. There’s a pond half frozen over, and you kneel and use the tip of your old red-leather, gold-leather boot to poke a hole in the ice. Mama thinks you’ll fall in, and I’m scared you will. I should know better–this is your forest and your pond, and you’ve made enough stories here to know how not to fall. Later, we sleep in the attic and you show me the old fire escape, a hole in the house where you used to play. I can imagine you reading game manuals here; I can imagine the child-light in your eyes that still happens when you tell me stories, when your brow unfurrows and you start half-smiling like you’re on the precipice of an idea. Maybe, I think, maybe sometimes my eyes light up like yours. On the plane ride home you tell me a story about a knight of the round table named Loisel. Later, I will realize that she was a character that you made for me, that her name was mine mixed up.
When I’m fourteen, I sit at a table with friends and dice and Dungeons and Dragons manuals, and you tell a story where we’re the characters. In the story, we’re in a place called Crown City. I think about how I’ve lived in seven different houses and two different states, and how maybe Crown City the place where I grew up, how maybe it’s my home more than anywhere else. It’s intricate enough to be believable and magical enough to be wonderful, and I think, someday, I’ll write stories like yours.
I’m sixteen now, and I’m crying. I’m crying because all this has led up to nothing, because when I was six I made a character who was sixteen, because in stories, that’s when girls go on adventures. Because I thought, maybe when I get into high school, maybe when I dye my hair, maybe when I turn sixteen, maybe that’s when I will become a story. I’m crying because I’m still here, and I’m not who I thought I’d be.
It’s you who hugs me tight and says, “We’re the same. I was like you, I’m like you.” You hold me and say, “I know.”
I ask if things get better, if I will figure out how to be a story.
You say, “This is the nature of magic, Ella. When you realize magic is a different thing than you thought it was, when you realize your story is a different kind than you thought.” I ask if things will get better, if I will ever find my story.
“Yes,” you say, and you don’t hesitate. “You will.”