The Queens of Althearra by Linda Copeland
(Banned Books Week writing contest honorable mention)
Three months after Brie died, Felicia was curled on her couch, after work, and sobbing quietly. The apartment was filled with the unearthly chorus of silence. It was too still, too much, and the noiselessness buzzed in her brain until she thought she was going to explode from sound’s absence. She’d put her phone on ‘Do Not Disturb,’ not wanting to make plans with her friends as part of a distraction from her grief. She also didn’t want to deal with her now ex-husband, Travis. She dreaded solitude, but it was all she wanted.
“You deserve this,” a voice told her. “It was all your fault. You couldn’t keep your marriage together, you couldn’t keep your daughter alive.”
The pink paperback book was still on her coffee table. It had been there so long it was starting to collect dust. It was the last one in the Fairies of Althearra series. Part of their bedtime routine had been to read a chapter together. Felicia knew that if she managed to sit up and reach across the table, there would be a handmade bookmark Brie had made as part of a program at the library. She knew the spine would crinkle and the pages would make a subtle ssshhh as they slipped on each other. She knew that if she did all of this, she would ruin the book by crying into it. It did happen, but her tears fell in black drops.
“Maybe she’s asleep.” Kayla suggested.
“Door’s locked.” said Norris, who had spent the last fifteen minutes attempting to break and enter Felicia’s apartment.
“Let me try calling her again.” Kayla said, already dialing Felicia’s number.
“Maybe we could call Travis.” Destiny said in the way someone says something and knows it’s
a bad idea.
“To kill him.” said Norris.
“No.” Kayla and Destiny said in unison.
“Okay, I’ve got nothing.” Kayla sighed. They were all thinking the same thing. The big ‘what if’ hung in the air heavier than the humidity. Finally, Norris found the spare key tucked inside the wreath of the front door and didn’t wait for Kayla or Destiny to tell her to wait before shoving it in the doorknob and swinging the door open.
The apartment was empty and had been left as if Felicia was still there. The only thing that was out of the ordinary was the book on the floor. It was The Princesses of Althearra, the last in a book series they had all started as part of a book club at their library. They expected to see several copies around the apartment, but not on the floor. Never on the floor.
“Guys,” Destiny said. She’d opened up the book in hopes of finding a clue. Kayla and Norris gathered around her. It looked as if someone had taken a pen and scribbled in harsh, scratchy writing “Follow.”
“What does that mean?” Norris asked. The writing started to bleed together and drip from the book. Darkness reached out and pulled them into the book. The fall was fast and they landed on a polished stone floor in a throne room. Four gilded chairs sat on a raised dais in front of them and in one of them was Felicia, leaking something wet and black from her chest.
“Felicia?” Kaya called.
“All my fault.” Felicia muttered. The black liquid shot towards her friends. It picked them up and fed off their own darkness; it began to swallow them all whole. They tried to pull themselves out of the gunk and reach Felicia, who was still sitting slumped on one of the thrones. Each of them picked through memories made of soft brown pages, worn by use, trying to remember.
“It’s the Darkening!” Destiny called. The liquid had soaked into her locks and was attempting to pull her under. In The Fairies of Althearra, the Evil One used the Darkening to weaken the people of Althearra. It had been used on the main characters, the lost princesses, several times, each encounter different from the last, but it always latched on to the one who was most affected by their own darkness. They knew then that the Darkening had come for Felicia. It had broken through the cracks left in her breaking heart and settled there, biding its time until the right moment. They knew that the Evil One had sent it to destroy the world they had loved because it was Althearra that had brought them together.
“All my fault.” Felicia muttered again.
“It’s not your fault, Felicia!” Norris called.
“Travis left me.”
“Travis is a turd nugget! ” Kaya yelled.
“That’s not something you can control,” Destiny cried. “You did the best you could. You raised her through college without much help from Travis. You loved Brie, you cared for Brie. You’re a good mom!”
“And no one, not even the Evil One can take that from you.” said Kayla.
Light shot out from the darkness. The Darkening screamed and shattered as the light burned it away. Each of the women held shades of light in their hands, holding onto the love they had for each other. The light faded once all of the Darkening had been erased from the throne room and the four of them were left alone. Felicia was sitting on the floor, crying.
“I’m sorry,” Felicia said in between gasps. They ran over to her and nearly smothered her to death with hugs.
“Ah, don’t worry about it,” said Norris. “We defeated the Darkening with the power of friendship and all that corny crap.”
“It still hurts.” Felicia muttered.
“We know,” Destiny said. “And it’s gonna hurt for a while.”
“But you don’t have to go through it alone.” Kayla said.
Felicia sniffled and eventually wiped her nose. None of them noticed that they were back in her living room, with everything being left as it was, save for The Princesses of Althearra. It was on the coffee table, untouched.