ISSUE 3 · FALL 2009




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Copyright © 2009

Rachel Lieberman

Damsel

RACHEL LIEBERMAN

 

 

Last night I dreamed I was standing in an empty space in front of a door. A man opened the door and said, “Sarah, please come in.”

His office was an amalgamation of every quality I had grown to believe an office should have. It was dimly lit with decorative lamps. Almost all of the furniture was made of wood. There was an intricately designed red rug on the floor, probably from India. African fertility figures lined the mahogany shelf behind him, because I wanted to be in the office of someone who owned African fertility figures. He had a leather swivel chair and a dark green wool jacket with brown patches on the elbows. I don’t think it was too far-fetched to decide he should be a professor. Professors do other things besides teaching and collecting African fertility figures.

“So, you’re interested in our services?” he said in a gentle, professor-like voice.

“I’m sorry there are wooden people with huge cocks and tits behind you,” I blurted out.

He chuckled. “I’ve been imagined in worse scenarios. Now, to your statistics. I’ve noticed you’ve had twelve nightmares in the past month alone.” Those statistics were mine. I mean, I compiled them myself, from my head to the sheet of paper he was holding. That’s why I was there, to prove my statistics meant that I needed his help. “I’m glad you came. This makes you an excellent candidate for our services.”

“Really?” Validation, at last. People tend to laugh at me when I tell them my nightmares are too frequent. This man says they’re wrong.

“We’ll get you a contract right away.” He was true to his word. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a long piece of parchment. “Sign here.”

“Shouldn’t I read it first?” One fact of life that had always been drilled into my head was that I should never sign a contract without reading it, lest I find myself in too ironclad a situation.

“You could, but it’s all very simple. We’ll assign you a good agent. That agent will follow you everywhere, into every tiny nook and cranny you find yourself in. But he will not interfere with anything unless things are in danger of getting out of hand.” He handed me a fountain pen. I signed my name on the line.

“Congratulations,” he said. He took my hand firmly and shook it. “You are now protected against nightmares.” He led me out of the office to the plain white hallway outside. A tall, thin boy with dark hair and a tuxedo stood waiting for us. “Simon, this is Sarah, your client.”

He nodded at me. “Hello,” he said. He had a British accent. Thank God for that. Every boy wearing a tuxedo should have a British accent.

“Well, I won’t keep you. Simon, take care of her.” He handed him the rolled-up contract.

“Of course,” said Simon as he stuck the contract between his jacket and shirt. Just like in the movies. He had Pierce Brosnan’s soothing voice, Sean Connery’s bulletproof hair, and Daniel Craig’s piercing eyes.

“I have transportation,” he said. We left the building. Outside there was an asphalt parking lot, with only one car, a red convertible. He opened the door. I don’t know how much nightmare insurance agents who dress in tuxedos make, but it doesn’t really matter. A red convertible is a red convertible, and a sexy vehicle at that.

He drove us down the road, easing his way through cars stuck together, cars going sideways or backwards or upside-down. Traffic never moved smoothly when I was trying to sleep soundly.

“So, when you’re not here, what are you?” he asked me. I didn’t need to tell him where I wanted to go. He knew. I didn’t.

“What makes you think I’m not this?” I asked. I leaned my elbow on the side of the car and gave him a challenging look. I don’t know how I appeared to him, like myself or not, but I hoped that whatever I was, it was someone who belonged in the passenger seat of this car.

He kept his eyes on me instead of the road, perhaps trying to assess that for himself. “Oh, balls, missed the turn.” He swerved around sharply. The cars he nearly hit in the process flew into the air and stacked together like Legos when they landed. We teetered on the edge of a cliff. I looked over and saw gray waves crashing against rocks. The only building on the road was a dilapidated crab shack with a sign that said, “Closed by order of the health inspector.” I never liked shellfish all that much. Next to the shack was a mountain that stretched so high up, the gray peak eventually became part of the overcast sky.

He parked between the shack and the mountain. A narrow gap, but it was still the widest place to stop. We both had to get out of the driver’s side door.

“Freeze!”

I froze, per the sudden request. It seemed like the safest thing to do. I turned my head. There was a police car behind us with two officers, one perched on the roof, the other in the driver’s seat. They were pointing their handguns at something up the mountain. “Don’t let him out of your sight,” said the one inside the car.” The one on the roof fired. I’d never heard a gunshot in real life, and here the bang seemed to reflect off every surface, infesting my eardrums with a startling sound that would not stop echoing. I turned in time to see a body fall unceremoniously down the mountain and land precariously close to Simon’s car. “Good job, rookie.”

My heart was pounding. “The mountain is easy to climb,” said Simon. “It’s a popular hiding spot for inmates who’ve escaped from the local penitentiary. This happens all the time.” What he meant was that this was mainstream, ordinary. At best, it got my adrenaline pumping, and with the right words to explain it away, this was not a nightmare.

He nodded to the cops, who started to drive away but couldn’t maintain their balance and fell down the cliff. We climbed up, tossing the convict’s body aside. He peered inside a hole, barely bigger than his head. “In here.” He crawled through, without his body getting smaller or the hole getting bigger. I followed. We emerged at the other end of the mountain and found ourselves at the entrance of a forest, with an abandoned fire pit under a canopy made of gnarled trees and vines. The sun was going down, when at the other side of the mountain, it had been midday. A few people, dressed as if they were at a Renaissance Faire were walking around. I took a moment to take in my surroundings, and felt something shaking against my leg. I thought it was a dog trying to hump my leg until I looked down. There was a girl, in a green dress, with long brown hair. She was kneeling down with her head buried in her knees. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew I’d seen her somewhere else before.

“Do you know her?” asked Simon.

“Do you?”

He smiled. Another chance to prove how well he knew my head. “That’s Beauty. She hasn’t been the same since the Beast locked her in his castle.” He looked at her with pity. “He kept her in plain sight, but the villagers didn’t want her back, so they went there and pretended they couldn’t see her. She wandered away and came here.”

She was so buried into herself that I thought it was entirely possible that her face had melted away.

“I’ll get a map,” Simon offered.

“There’s a map?” I asked as he started to walk away.

“A crude drawing, maybe.”

He left me alone next to Beauty. The other people walking around the area didn’t seem to notice me, but one person broke character. A large, bald man lumbered towards me. “Where are you from?” he asked.

“Nowhere.”

He appraised me for a moment, then looked down at Beauty. “Is she with you?” Before I could answer he crouched down in front of her. “Hey, baby, why the long face? Wanna take a walk with me?”

“Leave her alone,” I said, my voice shaking slightly.

He stood up, flexed his muscles, and towered in front of me. “Says who?”

I gulped. “Says me.”

“And who are you, getting involved in my business?”

“It’s not your—”

I was on the ground. He knocked me down. My palms scraped against the hard bark chips on the ground as I tried to catch my fall. Then he attempted to climb on top of me, and I closed my eyes and heard a grunt, and Beauty’s soft whimpering. I opened my eyes again, and Simon was on top of him, punching him repeatedly in the face.

“You do not!” he kept saying. “You do not!” He kept punching and punching until, finally, the man was still. Simon’s chest was heaving up and down. He closed his eyes, and for a moment I thought I glimpsed the shadow of a grin. He wiped some sweat off his brow and some tussled hair out of his eyes with a bloodstained fist, creating a red streak across his forehead that looked like war paint. Under his now unbuttoned coat I could nearly see the pink flesh of his chest, so matted with sweat was his shirt. “Alright,” he said. “That’s taken care of. He won’t hurt you anymore.”

“Is he dead?”

“He’s taken care of. Let’s move on.” He stood up and adjusted his cuffs, as if that might fix his rugged appearance.

“Are we going to leave her here?” I pointed to Beauty.

“She can come, if you want.”

The truth was, I didn’t know if I actually wanted her or not, but she looked so sad, and so alone, and the second I brought her up to Simon, she pursed her lips in a distinctly hopeful way. It didn’t seem right to leave her.

“Can you protect her too?” I asked. “There are a lot of people trying to hurt her. A lot of people don’t like her.”

“My first priority has to be you. That’s in accordance with your contract.”

Beauty stood up and tried nervously to decide which of us she should stand near. She took a nervous step towards me, and then a step towards Simon, then to me, then to Simon.

He fidgeted with his hair, trying to pat it back to normal. “Just remember, as long as you don’t need me to interfere, you have complete control. That means you can keep her safe too, if you want.”

I just said, “Let’s keep walking.” I started into the woods and this time, Simon followed me. I looked back and saw Beauty clutching his arm as they walked. She whispered something into his ear.

“Do you want me to tell her?” he said. She nodded pleadingly. “Beauty says wandering can get you into trouble. It’s a good idea to prevent nightmares as early as possible.”

“It’s fine.”

We walked side by side then. Simon seemed less concerned when he was closer to me. Beauty kept clinging to his arm, as if magnetized to it. Every sound, every movement that didn’t come from me or him frightened her. She didn’t speak except in whispers only to him, and the only other sound she made was the tiny gasp whenever she was scared. He never moved to comfort her outright, but he didn’t reject her either. She did annoy me a bit, but I knew what had happened to her. Even if Simon hadn’t told me the whole story, I knew. It was enough just to see her face to know it wasn’t her fault, and any ill feelings towards her should be ignored and justified by the thought that eventually, when I got around to it, I would create a safe place for her.

The woods were gone after awhile. We’d managed to get through them without incident. It wasn’t surprising to me. Scenery always changed so frequently. Now we were in front of an old and grand theater, newly renovated.

“We should see a show,” I said.

“You want to spend your dream sitting down and watching something?”

“It’s my business what I want to do.” I wasn’t going to argue about this.

The lobby was brightly lit and carpeted and wallpapered in pinks and whites. This was a friendly place. A sign on a pedestal greeted us when we entered. “One night only! The most grand performance ever seen on stage! Not to be missed!” I wanted to see it now, more than anything else in the world. A middle-aged heavyset woman wearing a blue frock waited for us behind the Plexiglas of the box office. She looked bored.

“Hi. One, please,” I spoke to the holes in the glass.

She handed me a ticket mechanically. I stood aside to let Simon and Beauty through. The lady didn’t move at all except when he opened his mouth, and then she took a huge sign that said “Sold Out” in bold letters from underneath her and stuck it against the window. He looked confused. Beauty whimpered.

“Excuse me?” He rapped the glass with the back of his knuckles.

“Read! It’s sold out!” we heard her bark.

“Well,” was all he could manage to say.

I went to the box office. “Can’t we have just two more tickets? They’re with me.”

“Sold out!”

“Well,” he repeated.

“Should I not go in?”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine. If there’s a problem I’ll come in anyway.” Beauty made an indistinct sound from the back of her throat. “I’ll keep this one company over there,” he pointed to the wall opposite from the door to the theater’s entrance.

The ticket was in my hand, beckoning me to go. Simon felt bad now for making fun of me for wanting to see it earlier. “It probably won’t be here tomorrow night,” he said.

I nodded. “I’ll be back.” And I walked through the ornately painted doors.

The theater was surprisingly small, more like a tiny function hall with a stage at the end, obscured with tall, red velvet curtains. The chairs weren’t even bolted to the floor. But the venue was indeed sold out. I noticed just one open seat in the front row, and as I made my way there, I became aware of something curious. The other theatergoers were busy chatting away with each other, talking in hushed tones of theories on what exactly this show would be about. Every single one of them was female. There wasn’t a man in the room.

The spot open for me was an aisle seat, directly in front of the stage so that I had to crane my neck a bit to get a good look. On my left there was a small, excited looking girl with very short hair and an outfit that seemed too sensible for a fancy show.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Kate.”

“Sarah.” We shook hands. “There are a lot of girls here,” I observed keenly.

She nodded, but didn’t seem to find it as odd as I did. “I suppose.”

“Do you know what this show is about?”

“No. No one knows anything about it, except that it’s the most amazing performance ever.” She was friendly enough to me, but when she spoke, she stared at the stage and bounced in her seat. I looked around and found she wasn’t the only one. The talking had died down, and now everyone was looking straight at the stage and only the stage, except for me, who was looking at everyone else. The lights dimmed and the curtains opened. Four actors in blank masks and white bodysuits danced across the cold black surface before us.

After a few moments of flips, spins, cartwheels and other acrobatics, there was a cymbal crash, and the dancers stopped and stood, two on each side of the stage, facing us, straight as pencils. From the shadowed back of the stage, a figure emerged. Instead of a mask, he wore a heavy fur cloak with a large hood that concealed his face. He spun around tantrically, moving amply well for someone covered in such a thick garment, as if to demonstrate merely the fact that he could. The dancers were still, and I could see that they were genderless, because they only existed to fill space. The more I watched the central performer the more I realized that under the cloak, his form was changing, morphing into something different than it was when he first appeared. Next to me, Kate inhaled with anticipation. We were all in danger, and I couldn’t move to warn anyone. He was changing.

His cloak burst apart. He was naked, but it didn’t matter. His body was covered in the same fur his cloak had been made out of, and he stood before us in strange nudity. His unhooded face was hairy and gnarled. I doubted his ability to speak, but I shouldn’t have.

“By now you’ve probably deciphered that this is no ordinary show. I am not here merely to entertain you, though that would be a delicious bonus.” He licked his lips wickedly. I was the only one able to move, though only in my face and neck, and I could sense that everyone was terrified.

“I am here for a specific purpose. I have come to seek a bride. My selection, I’m pleased to say, is very satisfying.” He snapped his fingers, and we all stood. Everyone else stood as still as a compliant statue. I could not unstick my feet from the floor, but I swiveled my hips around.

The creature walked among us, examining every curve, running his fingers through hair, taking note of clothes. He examined everyone, one by one, and as he approached me, I realized I was last.

He was not gentle with me. His fur was dirty. He lifted my chin up with his claw, and looked directly into my eyes.

“You,” he decided. “I’ll have you.” Immediately he wrapped his arms around my waist and tried to pull me close. I would not kiss him. I found my voice.

“No!” My knee jerked forward, and I struck him in the groin.

He released me as he doubled over. A few drops of the fluids he coughed up projected onto my shirt. I weaved through the forest of still girls in order to get to the door. “Get her!” His dancers began chasing me. I felt a couple of hands trying to get a grip on my ass and back before I thrust the door open and slammed it behind me. The lobby was empty except for Simon and Beauty. They sat on the floor, playing hand games to calm Beauty down. Simon looked at me curiously when I came out, panting.

“Where the hell were you?”

He looked around, as if I might have addressed my obvious question to someone else. “Right here.”

“I was just nearly kidnapped!” I looked at Beauty. Tears were streaming down her face. “What’s going on?”

He placed his hand on Beauty’s thigh. “His guards didn’t chase you out. This isn’t a nightmare.”

I’d had enough of the ambiguity. Simon knew. I knew that he knew. “Who is he?”

“Beauty knows him.”

“Is he the Beast?”

“No. Not the Beast. A beast.”

“What?”

“He’s not the Beast that took Beauty, but he is afflicted by the same curse. He has learned how to control his forms, change to human at will, and become a beast when it works to his advantage.”

“Damn it.” Still breathing heavily, I opened the theater door. The girls were all still standing up, without any chairs to comfort them. At first I braced myself for another advance, but after a moment I noticed the girls were the only ones there.

“Where is he?” I demanded.

“After you left,” they said, “he chose another.”

“Who?”

“Kate.”

My stomach knotted when I thought of that small, eager but innocent girl, who was taking my place because she could not escape as I had.

“Where did he take her?” I asked the girls.

“To his home,” they said simply.

I slammed the door, seething. She was gone. Gone? No, there had to be more information. I opened the door again, but the room was empty.

“We should leave,” said Simon.

“It’s a nightmare.” I was near tears. My throat was closing up. “You’re supposed to protect me if there’s a nightmare.”

“He stopped chasing you when you made it clear you weren’t interested by leaving the room.” I had control, and in a nightmare, things are out of control. But the grabbing, the kicking, the running were all so chaotic. It felt like I was hanging on to a rope that was quickly unraveling.

“We have to save her,” I said.

Beauty started to tremble uncontrollably, violently. Finally, she broke away from him and crumpled in a heap onto the floor.

“Beauty?” he leaned down, concerned. “What’s wrong?”

“No,” she kept mumbling, the first words I’d ever heard her speak. “No, no, no.”

I felt frozen again. “She . . . she probably just doesn’t want to go.”

“No. No. No. No.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “You don’t have to come. We’ll find someplace safe for you.” He stroked her hair, trying to calm her down.

“No.” She shoved him aside with her arm, and looked straight at me. Her gaze felt like it was trying to gouge right through my pupils. “You.” She struggled to her feet while pointing at me with one hand and keeping herself steady against the wall with the other.

“What?” My voice was hoarse. I coughed and tried again. “What?”

She shook her head and contracted her features. “You’re a liar. A fucking liar.”

“I’m the only one in this world who can’t be a liar.”

“No. Liar. You lie. All the time.”

“We’re going,” I decided. “Now.”

“Sarah, you’re in control here. If you want Kate to be alright, she’ll be alright.”

“She doesn’t know what she wants,” Beauty spat.

“This is ridiculous. Look, I don’t . . . ugh, I don’t care if it turns into a nightmare. I’m going to do the right thing and help her.”

Simon had a deceptively collected face, and Beauty, still leaning against the wall, looked hurt and livid. Her lips were moving, but no sound was coming out. I didn’t expect either of them to follow when I started walking. Outside, I made it halfway down the entrance staircase before I heard Simon trying to catch up with me.

“Wait,” he said.

“Why? What is it?”

“I’m coming with you.” He was alone.

“Where’s Beauty?”

“She melted into the wall and won’t come out, but I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

Simon’s car was waiting for us at the foot of the stairs. “It’ll get us there quicker,” he explained.

The beast’s castle was a short drive away, a tall and imposing gray structure. “How are you going to save her?” he asked.

“I don’t know yet. I’ll figure it out.”

“Be careful in there.”

“Right.” I opened the door, but before I got out, he grabbed my arm with an iron grip.

“But not too careful. You still have me as a fallback.”

“I know.” We ran up the stone walkway and entered the cavernous foyer. “Do you think we’ll find a talking clock?” I asked, trying to keep the mood lighthearted before something terrible and inevitable happened.

“Doubtful.” Our voices echoed. “Where are they?”

I looked around and saw a wooden door a few hundred feet away. “Through there,” I decided. We walked over and I pushed it open. Inside was a canopy bed with translucent white curtains. I made out the figure of Kate, lying on it. She was dressed in a Grecian gown now. I couldn’t make out her expression through the curtains. “Kate?”

Simon put his hand on my shoulder and leaned in close to my ear. “Watch out,” he whispered.

“Who’s there?” Kate crawled forward and moved the curtain aside. Her face didn’t give me a clear idea of how she was doing. “You’re Sarah, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” I took a deep breath in. “I’ve come to rescue you.” The words finally escaped, and I couldn’t help but smile, relieved that I was so close to my goal. She, however, did not smile back.

“Oh.” She put a hand to her chest. “You shouldn’t have come.”

“It’s my fault you’re here. We’re going to get you out.”

Kate looked away. “You’ve wasted your time, I’m afraid. He won’t let me go. And if he sees you here . . .” She seemed too frightened to put the consequences into words. “It doesn’t matter what he does to me. I can handle it.”

“No.”

She began to cry, and buried her face in her hands.

“You can’t do it. You can’t,” I said. I looked at Simon, who shook his head, unable to provide any advice, so I moved to place my hand on Kate’s back in an attempt to comfort her. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean for this to happen to you.”

Kate just kept crying.

“We should take her out now,” said Simon. “Before he comes.”

Too late. The door opened, and the beast came in, surprised to find two extra people in the bedroom. It was amazing how different he looked in human form, and yet so much the same. He was shorter like this, with far less hair, except for a mop of dirty blond on his head and above his cock. He was not as muscled as I thought he would be, in fact he was almost waif-like. He was also much younger than I had been expecting, no older than myself. Without his snout, he spoke with more refinement. “What’s going on here?”

“I’m not letting you get away with this,” I said, holding on to Kate defiantly.

He moved forward, furrowing his brow and showing his slightly pointed teeth. “You stupid little—”

“Careful.” Simon stepped in front of him before he could get too close. “You start something with her, and you end it with me.”

“Do I? And what exactly do you know about this slut that makes her worth protecting?”

“I’m just here to do my job.”

“How very noble of you. But I’m afraid your talents are wasted here. I won’t be starting any nightmares. I can’t.” He looked over Simon’s shoulder at me. “Can I, Sarah?”

“We’re not going to let things get out of hand,” Simon warned.

“Oh, nothing’s out of hand. Everything is completely under Sarah’s control. Watch this.” He tapped the side of Simon’s arm with the back of his hand, and with that slight tap, Simon went flying against the wall, leaving a red imprint and groaning as he fell. “Barely even touched you. Who’s really in control here? Me, you, or Sarah?”

I’d never been more terrified. “You are,” I said, my voice shaking. “It has to be you.”

“But this isn’t a nightmare. Even your little companion here admitted that.” He stood still for a moment, and then, with a primal growl, jumped forward. Kate got knocked to the floor as I got pinned to the bed. He held me down by my wrists as his hands turned into paws and his fingernails grew. “The real ruler of the castle is you.”

“Then let me go.”

He laughed an ancient, guttural sound. “Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be able to do that. I’m so tired of loving you. Of hating you while I hold you down. Do you like this, Sarah?” He pressed harder into his grip, baring his teeth and grunting.

I struggled to speak. “No.”

“You liar,” he said. Kate gathered herself up and started to climb on his back, forcing him to nearly crush me.

“Get off!” she yelled. She was pounding her fists onto him. “Off! You chose me!”

The beast growled again, and sat up quickly so that she was thrust off. There was the sickening crack of a leg bone snapping, and I could breathe again. “I chose who I was told to choose, and she didn’t want me. You’re of no concern to me anymore.”

She was sobbing. I could feel the tears coming myself.

“I’m willing to forgive you for everything. For all of these nights you’ve spent creating me, forming me into this monster that you both love and detest. I’ll forgive you for forcing me into this tragic, farcical role, and I will give you what you want.”

“You don’t know what I want.” Even still, I could feel myself struggling less.

He extended his tongue and ran it up my neck. I shuddered.

“I want to leave these two, before Simon wakes, before she gathers her strength. Shall we go somewhere else?”

I could not answer, only convey with my eyes the most awful sense of horror.

“Yes,” he decided. “I think we will go someplace less stifling.” He grabbed me by my forearm and dragged me into the great foyer and up the gigantic spiral staircase.

“Simon will find you,” I said.

“The poor bastard. Will you do to him what you have done to me? How large will you allow your harem to grow? How many poor men came before me?” He was clutching me so tightly I was sure he’d leave red marks.

“It’s not—”

“What?” He stopped and turned his head to me. That single syllable was so fierce, so condescending. “It’s not what?”

Why didn’t I have the same powers as Beauty? I wanted to melt into the stone of the stairs and forget about everything, especially this horrible night. “It’s not like that.” I could muster barely more than a squeak. “I’m only like this at night. Please forgive me.” I threw myself to my knees and buried my face between his legs. “Please.”

“You stupid girl. What else can I do?” I could not see his face but the defeat in his voice was heartbreaking. I couldn’t believe that I had doomed the Second Beast to such a curse, cursed to control, and controlled to control. Finding him mates and then taking them away. And I had run. Bless this poor creature, I had run.

“Up.” I stood up. “Such sorrowful guilt I see in you. For what?”

“For the way I have treated you.”

“It’s not your lot to feel guilty for that, nor mine to forgive you for it. What else?”

“What else?” What else was there?

“Beast!” I expected to hear Simon’s voice, but it was Kate limping toward us.

“Well,” he whispered. “Hell hath no fury.” He twisted my arm behind my back. I wailed. He made me watch as Kate, with an injured leg, tried to hobble up a few stairs. “What else?” he repeated.

I looked at the pitiful thing at the foot of the stairs, hurt and angry. This once timid girl had nothing now that I had claimed my prize. She did not speak anymore to us, she could only plead with her face and gestures.

“You have a choice to make,” said the beast. “You can either give me to her, or keep me for yourself. If you release me, you will leave with Simon, and he will continue to protect you from all your real and imaginary fears. If you keep me, Kate will leave and she won’t come back, and you will surrender Simon’s protection.”

At those words, Simon turned the corner, rubbing a bump on his head.

“Simon, so glad you could join us,” the beast yelled down to him. “Would you be so kind as to read, I believe, paragraph twelve of Sarah’s contract?”

He looked confused for a moment, but then pulled the parchment out of his jacket and complied. “If the agent has been misled about the contractee’s fears, and the contractee has misidentified a nightmare, creating unnecessary and/or potentially dangerous work for the agent,” the beast gave my arm a brief, tighter squeeze, “the agent may be dismissed, and the contract terminated.”

“So now, Sarah. It’s your choice. What have you dragged Simon here for?”

Simon seemed to want to know the answer to that himself. This boy, who was just doing his job, who had followed me even when he knew I was lying.

“I don’t know.”

“You do know.”

I did know. I didn’t know what I knew, but I knew that I did. But I didn’t want to, because I saw, then, a sort of truth that made everything more awful. I wanted this to end with everyone happy. With Simon not angry with me, with Kate unbetrayed, with the beast’s curse lifted. But he liked his curse, at least the one that enabled him to hold me fast. Even I, in complete control, could not be left happy. And yet, Simon was right not to move to help me. This was not a nightmare.

“You have led us all to this point,” said the beast. “It’s time to choose where we go next.”

I closed my eyes and whispered pleas of forgiveness. “I will stay,” I said.

“Speak up,” the beast commanded.

“I will stay!” The words materialized in a thick cloud of reality, or as much a reality as anything could be in here. It slapped Kate in the face, who screamed as if her insides were being torn apart. She dissolved quickly then, until she was quiet and absolutely nothing. From far in the distance, in the dark wall near the castle’s entrance, I saw Beauty’s face for just a flash of a moment, stern but not quite angry. Then she went back into the wall, not ready to leave.

As for Simon, he took the contract, held it up, and tore it in two. But there was no anger or disappointment. There was just this sad resoluteness in his eyes that this had happened so many nights before. His footsteps reverberated somberly as he left the castle.

Then we were alone. The only two left in this vast structure. He released me so suddenly that I almost lost my balance, but he caught me, if roughly. He had more facial hair now, a slightly less human appearance.

“We won’t be parted again,” he said.

“No.” I shook my head. “Never.”

He brought me to him, and as he kissed me, I pondered my lie. Tomorrow he would not be here. Tomorrow I might see Simon again, the contract mended. Tomorrow Beauty might come out of the wall completely, or she might never have been there at all. Tomorrow, due only partially to a foggy memory, I would tell my friends and family about my awful nightmare. How a Beast had captured a damsel in distress, whom I had failed to save. How I myself had then been captured, and how a handsome man in a tuxedo had valiantly tried to rescue me, and valiantly failed.