That’s how long I was mentally gone from the “real world.” Physically, I never left. I find myself in a hospital. My father has had a heart attack. He survived but I haven’t been allowed to see him yet.
I’ve been here all day and part of the night, apparently, although I don’t remember getting the phone call while I was at the flea market on the corner of Melrose and Fairfax. I was killing time before I was supposed to meet my dad for lunch, looking through a pile of used books. I don’t remember driving to Cedar Sinai hospital and sitting for hours in a chair in a hallway. My mom says I slept through most of it, and I do have a horrible kink in my neck, so it must be true.
Here’s how I know Lucitopia was not an illusion.
One: my hair is about a foot longer. I can’t sit on it, but it’s thick, shiny, and nearly to my waist. A year without hot tools and it’s like I’ve got a new head of hair. Two: my complexion is crystal clear. No sugar or preservatives has given me super-model skin. I’ll miss candy and Doritos, but I already know I can live without them. Three: I can still throw a blade. I went down to the cafeteria, boosted a knife, waited until a hallway was clear and I sunk that bugger right into the hole of the A in the “Must Wash Hands” sign. That is not the sort of thing I could have learned in a few hours.
And last: My heart is breaking. I don’t know when—or if—I’ll ever see Torvold again. I know he’s a real boy from this world or I would still be in Lucitopia. The one condition of my leaving was that I had to get a real boy to kiss me so Torvold must be real. He knows I’m from Fresno, but apart from that he knows nothing about me. He’ll have to find me in city of over half a million people—if he’s even back in this world. I have no idea what his condition for leaving Lucitopia was, but it probably wasn’t the same as mine. A year in there was one day out here. Who knows how long he’ll spend in there? When he does get out, I could be ancient history to him.
I’m going to have to leave L.A. and go home soon, so I can shower and make it to school. My mom said I didn’t have to go in today, but I really want to. I want to try to make friends. I’ve spent too much time locked in a tower.
“Here’s the doctor,” my mom says, relieved. She stands to greet him.
My father’s surgeon looks suspiciously like Bashan. I stand and smile at him, narrowing my eyes as if to ask, do you know me? He ignores my look and gives a quick run-down of my dad’s health.
“We put in two stents, and the surgery went well,” Bashan-as-a-surgeon says. “He’ll still groggy, but you can go in and see him now if you want.”
“Thank you doctor,” my mom says, and we both go into the recovery room.
My dad is hooked up to a dozen machines. He looks papery and hollow. Tanil and Gertie are there as nurses. They promised to look after my dad for me, and they did. I thank them as they adjust the curtains around my dad’s recovery bed, but they don’t seem to recognize me either.
And that brings up another horrendous possibility. I could run into Torvold, like I am currently running into some of the other cast member from my ultimate cosplay in Lucitopia, and he might not know me.
“There are my girls,” my dad says, still goofy from the drugs. My mom frowns, but she doesn’t correct him. We sit on either side of him and take his hands.
“I missed you so much,” he tells me. “I had the strangest dream. You were in a tower. You were painting red arrows on the walls with lipstick.”
I smile at my dad. “I missed you too, dad,” I say.
“We should spend more time together,” he says, his eyes shutting.
Me and my mom share a look. She raises an eyebrow as if to ask me if that’s what I want. I nod.
“We will,” I promise.
It’s a long drive. Four hours back to Fresno from Hollywood, even at 3 a.m. with no traffic. I get home and there’s a white horse standing in my front yard.
Rancor, minus the sparkly horn, is waiting impatiently for me. He’s already eaten all my mom’s roses and he’s pulled up half the grass in the yard. What a jerk. I couldn’t love any animal more. He sees me and whickers.
“You miss me?” I ask as I rub his soft nose. He lets me put my arms around his neck and rest there for a little while. “Want some salt?” Rancor sneezes. “Come on. I’ll get you some salt.”
He follows me into the house. I don’t even try to get him to stay outside because I know he won’t. He stands in my kitchen as I pour salt on my palm and let him lick it. I do a quick Internet search for a local barn where I can stable him.
There are a ton of stables around Fresno, and lucky for me horse people wake up early. I find a stable that specializes in “difficult or abused” animals, and they even do pick-ups. I give them a call and they promise to be over in half an hour.
“Want some candy?” I ask Rancor. He tosses his head. I go get my mom’s gummy bear stash out of the cabinet over the refrigerator. “I’m going to shower for school while you eat these,” I tell him. “Don’t chew on anything else.”
I take the most amazing shower of my life, except that Rancor comes into the bathroom while I’m in there and drinks a tub-full of water. I condition my luxurious hair, and I don’t blow dry it.
When the horse people come with their trailer, I walk out of the house with Rancor following me. They give both of us strange looks, but I just smile like nothing weird is going on and lead Rancor to the back of the trailer.
“You’ve got to get in there,” I tell him. He stamps a foot. “No, I’m serious. You can’t live in my room. My mom will freak out. But I’ll come visit you every day after school.”
Rancor nibbles on my sleeve and gets into the trailer. I go to the driver. “Don’t try to touch him,” I warn her while I sign some papers. “Just open the trailer doors and tell him where you want him to go. He might listen to you, he might not. I’ll be by later to feed him.”
She takes my money warily and drives off.
I can barely remember where my classes are or what the heck is going on in any of them. It has been a year for me since I sat here. I smile at people. I nod at familiar faces. I chat with a nice girl as we go from one class to another.
And then I see him.
He’s hard to miss. Torvold the Bold is coming down the hallway toward me. He is head and shoulders above everyone else. He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt and he’s chatting with other athletic-looking boys who are probably the popular portion of some treasured sports team here in Fresno.
I stop dead, terrified he won’t recognize me. He seems to belong here, and I never did. He’s also definitely a senior, while I am a junior, and from the way everyone watches his every move, it looks like he’s the jewel of the school while I am practically a ghost. What am I going to do? Walk up to him and ask, “Slay any evil sorcerer’s lately?”
But he sees me, and he stops. He walks away from all of his friends. He comes straight to me. He stops right in front of me.
“What’s your name? “ he asks.
“Holly,” I say. “What’s yours?”
“Jake,” I repeat. It’s perfect. He’s such a Jake.
“Holly,” he says, and the way he says it makes a glitter bomb go off in my chest.
We crash into each other.
He lifts me up, hugging me and laughing. I’m laughing and trying not to cry. Hoots and hollers erupt from everyone, especially his friends. He ignores everyone but me.
“I’ve been looking for you since I got back yesterday,” he whispers in my ear. “I went online, but I didn’t know your real name.” He pulls back so he can look at me, but he doesn’t put me down. “Do you have any idea how many high schools there are in Fresno?”
I smile into his eyes. “I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again,” I say. “And here you are.” Our faces are so close our noses are nearly touching.
“A-hem,” says a disapproving adult voice. “Mr. Lopez, please release that young lady.”
We both turn our heads to see Temperance (I guess she’s a teacher) watching us with her arms crossed. Jake puts me down, but I don’t want to step away from him.
“Meet me in the senior parking lot after school,” Jake says as the bell rings and our audience breaks up. “I have something that belongs to you.”
“Okay,” I say warily. What could he possibly have of mine?
For the rest of the day I find I have a lot of people who are interested in talking to me. It appears Jake Lopez is kind of a big deal in our little pocket of this world. He’s almost as famous and beloved here as Torvold the Bold was in Lucitopia. He’s the captain of pretty much everything athletic and academic, and though heavily chased by every girl in the school, from what I gather, our familiarity in the hallways was heretofore unheard of. Jake Lopez, it seems, has been saving himself for the right girl.
He is the flower of Virtue.
By the time the day is over, and I make it out to the senior parking lot I’m spinning. Seeing him leaning against a silver motorcycle does nothing but add to my dizziness.
“Oh good,” he says, grinning as I walk toward him. “You made it through the metal detectors. I thought I’d be waiting forever while security kept finding blades hidden in your clothes.”
I jokingly frisk myself as I walk toward him. “You can only really hide daggers in either a corset or garters. Jeans and a blouse just don’t have the structure to pull it off.” I’m standing next to him now and I really want to be closer. I gesture to his bike. “Is this Thunder?”
He smiles and shakes his head. A bit sad. “No. Nothing can ever replace him.”
“I know,” I say quietly. We stand there forever, just looking. A million questions, but all I can do is stare.
He holds out his helmet. “Put this on.”
I put on his helmet as he straddles the bike. “What about you? Do you have another helmet?” I ask.
“I’ve done more dangerous things without armor,” he replies without sounding like he’s boasting. “And we’re not going far.”
I climb on behind him. I can’t see a thing back here. Jake is just too big. “I think I prefer riding in front of you,” I say. Then I wrap my arms and legs around him and give what I just said a second thought.
He brushes his hands along the outside of my thighs and turns his head to the side toward me. “I’ll take either,” he says, a little breathless, and then he puts both hands on the handles, flips a foot, and we’re off.
Jake brings me back to his house. It’s a modest suburban home with a two-car garage and a pool out back. Inside, the walls are covered with pictures of Jake and his family.
There’s one wall with framed ribbons and American flags. Lots of medals from war, and then pictures of a particular brand of firemen out here in the West called the Smokejumpers. They literally jump into raging fires to save lives.
“I was wrong,” I admit. “I guess there are a lot of heroes in Fresno.”
“I’m looking at one,” Jake says. He’s looking at me.
I blush and go back to the pictures. A guy named Manuel Lopez is in a lot of them. I’m assuming that’s Jake’s dad because he looks like Jake after fighting the Thralls. In one picture, Manuel is covered in ash and smiling with an arm thrown over a buddy. The buddy’s birth and death date are stamped in gold under the picture. A lot of Smokejumpers die.
“Is this your dad?” I ask, pointing to Manuel.
Jake nods, smiling. “He’s sleeping right now,” he says quietly. “He had a three-day shift.”
He takes my hand and leads me past the kitchen and the dining room and up a flight of stairs.
He brings me to his bedroom. On his bedside table is huge leather-bound book with the word LUCITOPIA embossed on the bejeweled front cover.
“Have you read the whole book?” I ask him, reaching for it.
“Of course” he says, confused. “You haven’t?”
“No,” I admit sheepishly. I touch the cover with my hands. “Wait,” I say, stepping back. “You knew how our story would end?”
“Almost?” he says, like he’s trying to remember a dream. “There are so many stories. And they’re always changing.” He frowns as he thinks about it. “I knew parts of it.”
“Me too!” I say. “But I never knew all the details.”
He smiles, nodding. “It was the same for me.”
I look at the book. “Are we in there now?”
“No,” he says. “Our story is locked. I think other people might be able to read it, but I couldn’t find us in there anymore.”
I look at him, and I can’t seem to stop. This could become a habit.
He shakes himself and reaches under his pillow. He pulls something out and holds it behind his back.
“Is that for me?” I ask, grinning. I move closer to him.
“It’s yours,” he says carefully. “I promised I would guard it, though I thought about taking it,” he admits.
He pulls his hand out from behind his back and holds out my maiden’s circlet.
I can’t breathe. I touch my forehead where it used to rest. I wore it for a year. I don’t know what to say.
“Here,” Jake whispers, and he puts it back on my brow.
His hands run down either side of my face, then my throat, then he’s pulling me to him and he’s kissing me. The falling, floating, flying feeling has nothing to do with an interdimensional shift this time. It’s all Jake.
We jump apart. Jake’s dad is standing in the doorway in a t-shirt and sweatpants. I don’t know how we woke him, seeing as how we were whispering. He must have a chastity detector in his brain. I hastily take off my maiden’s circlet and hide it behind my back.
“Jake. No girls in your bedroom,” his dad says gently, and a little disappointed, actually.
“We’re coming right now,” Jake says. He holds my hand tightly in his as he brings me to the door. He glances back at me. “I was just giving something back to her. For now.”
Embarrassed but cheeky. Absolutely devastating.
“Will you stay for dinner?” Jake asks as we go down the stairs.
I frown. “I want to, but I can’t.”
He stops even though we’re not all the way down yet. I’m one stair over him which puts us almost eye to eye. “Why not?” He’s serious and a little worried. Like maybe things are different between us now that we’re back here. He’s frigging adorable.
“I have a very important quest,” I reply, breaking into a smile.
“Tell me your quest, Princess, and I will aid you in it,” he says. His smile is so close to mine our lips are nearly touching.
“Okay,” I say, shrugging. “But he bites.”