Two days later, I was walking home from school with Toby and Mouse and… wait, what? Have I neglected to mention Mouse? Oh dear. Well I had better correct that error before I utterly mix everybody and myself up. Mouse is Toby's brother. He was, in my firmest of opinions, absolutely adorable. He was only in year five at this point and, as his name implied, the tiniest, mousiest little boy I have ever met. He was so impossibly quiet and shy, especially when compared to Toby, and I would have challenged anybody not to want to just scoop him up and protect him from the world. Toby used to walk him to and from school every single day, which was why Toby was so consistently late but I don't think for a moment that it bothered him to do so and certainly the teachers had long since given up on questioning his inability to be there for nine am. Mouse, when he was not at school, was very much Toby's shadow. I always got the impression that, while their parents certainly were not neglecting them, Toby was the member of the family who made the most effort with Mouse. Or perhaps Mouse just genuinely did worship his older brother in that Disney movie perfect way. For all that Toby was perhaps not the most socially competent of people I had always admired the way he was with Mouse. Even having known the kid all his life I was never quite sure how to talk to Mouse and I had often suspected that I came off as patronising and awkward rather than friendly. Toby, although he swore he was utterly useless at dealing with children in general, never failed to do exactly the right thing with Mouse, to take his hand, or swing him around, or tell him a joke or whisper something to him that I was never allowed to know. It matters to this story that you know that Toby and Mouse were brothers not just by blood but by friendship and by choice. I have never known a pair quite like how they used to be.
Anyway, I had been walking home with Toby and Mouse when Toby had asked me if Mouse could not come around and have a look at the book sometimes. I am not particularly sure he wanted to but I'd been talking about the book nearly constantly since I'd shown it too him and not been particularly discrete in my hints that I felt they should also be taking an interest in it.
I had taken by that point to carrying the book everywhere with me (despite its weight) and, since Toby and Mouse had long since accepted me for being a bookworm, I was more than happy to show them right then and there.
I have tried and tried in days since then to remember their reactions to seeing the book properly for the first time. But I can never seem to recall much more than my irritation at Toby's blatant lack of interest and the fact that, several times as he was looking through it, Mouse gave me the strangest, and somewhat unnerving, of looks. For all that he was a little darling, there was no denying that in his own way Mouse was no more normal than Toby was.
Anyway, it was very clear that neither of them found the book half as interesting as I did and so, in a fit of pique, I had snapped it shut and shoved it in my bag with claims that I didn't want them 'dirtying it' or tearing the pages with their 'carelessness' although I had never seen either of them be careless with something to the point of damaging it, especially not something which didn't belong to them.
Once again, Mouse had looked at me oddly, he had clearly picked up on my anger and consequently I had found myself furious with him for judging me.
I should have seen it then. Nothing could have been more wrong than the rush of sheer loathing I had felt toward somebody as harmless as Mouse but my emotions had gotten the better of my sense and I had stormed away with no thought as to how unreasonable I had been acting.
As I said before, I have very little recollection of what happened that day and those I have are most likely distorted. At the time, I imagined myself as proud and righteous and that the other two were left gawping and shamefaced behind me. In reality I can see that I was bratty and arrogant and, though the truth slips from my memory, probably Toby had called after me, baffled and then, when I failed to respond, had muttered something vaguely sexist in that aggravating way he did. I suspect Mouse just shrugged my actions off.
I read all night that night.
I was still angry deep inside in the following days but I pushed it down and if anything showed, well Toby had already assumed all was forgiven and he never noticed if I had been walking home a little faster than usual or if my hand strayed more often to the book in my bag. Mouse noticed. I could see it in the way he watched me and it drove me mad.
Of course, I was not so far gone as to lash out at him but, where previously I had only stilted conversations with him on the walk home, now I never gave him more than a brief nod of acknowledgement. It was a week after that… well I fell asleep reading the book.
Oh do not look at me like that, it was bound to happen eventually, I was up all night reading it and then flipping back and reading my favourite passages again. The book never seemed to end and I was hooked.
I dreamt about the story. Of course I did. It was all I ever thought about by that point.
One moment the words were in my head, the next they were all around me.
I remember being confused. The earlier transitions were not smooth, I was always quite conscious of what was happening, and it was quite disorienting.
I was in the… in the tavern. So, that made me near the beginning of the story. I had never dreamt the start before. The tavern was darker than I had been used to and it had taken me a few moments to adjust to the light but once I had adapted I could see quite clearly. I remember being oddly pleased by the fact that it matched up to my imagining of the place although the air smelt more strongly of alcohol than I could have predicted. The atmosphere was pleasant, still obviously a tavern but more like one of those pub-restaurants that one can find out in the countryside than a bar. It was different to what I was used to but I liked it.
That had startled me. That is why I am telling you about this dream, you see. It is significant. It was the first dream I had had as myself.
I recognised the character that was working her way towards me. Old Missus Marchmarks, the tavern owner's wife (although I suppose she was the tavern owner really as her husband was long dead).
And why had I just called her mother? She was not my mother. She did not even resemble my mother! But I had called her mother quite instinctively and it had sounded right. Oh of all the times I choose to follow my instincts it would have had to have been then. The thing was she nodded to me then as I walked towards her and did not query the way I had addressed her as she handed me a cat that had apparently snuck into the building and told me to 'take the mangy thing outside you silly girl!' I apparently had a bit of sense back then and I did not do anything as idiotic as arguing with her.
The cat resisted me at first but I have a cat at home and nothing she did would have made me let go of her before I got her outside. For a moment being outside startled me. I was so used to being in a town with street lights and cars and the constant glow that comes with built up areas that the blackness struck me in a near physical way. My eyes adjusted. There was a hint of illumination coming from the tavern as I carried the cat to what seemed like a suitable distance from the tavern. It was cold and I was only wearing some sort of worn out woollen dress and strange wooden shoes. Strange. I'd always imagined I'd be wearing leather boots.
Then I heard the voices.