Disclaimer: mine..characters.plot.setting..MINE ^_^

Prologue

            It was a sweltering, summer afternoon while I sat in the little shade inside my porch—oh-so-carefully avoiding the sun and the inherent dangers of tanning. It was my vacation break from teaching at the local middle school…only I had nowhere to go except my imagination. I could never see and experience, in real life anyways, those places on the various posters and paintings that littered the empty spaces in my house. Thank God for my imaginative streak…any that cared to look would have seen just an ordinary young woman sitting on her front porch and staring off down the road to somewhere. And ordinary, indeed. Nothing stood out that didn't stand out in the woman next door—only on me it never served to compliment. My disheveled, boring brown hair always got in the way of boring brown eyes and contrasted keenly against an all-too-pale face. Yet I could always dream that I was different. So while I sat on the porch and waited for my brother, Jason, and his daughter, Janie, I was far off across the oceans and exploring in places I had only ever heard of.

            I wanted someplace appropriately exotic and fairy-tale induced…so I placed myself in a castle—of seamless stone and ancient history—exploring the corners of forgotten myths and stalking the ever-looming shadows. I had lately been dreaming of this castle—until it gained new clarity and dimension in my sleep. I spent much time wondering and thinking of that castle and the lands around it. Around it, I made a desolate field of the goldest stalks of grass. Leading into a forest was a rushing river with deadly allure. And in the midst of a mysterious forest, a tree stood tall with an eagle that stood watch on top. An eagle that tried to see beyond seeing and knew too much.

 I was jarred out of my musings by the familiar humming of a red Volkswagen convertible approaching my house. Grinning widely, I flung myself off my white chair to greet the faces of the two people I loved best in the world. And sometimes, it seemed, the only people I had left.

            Mom and Dad would have been so shocked to see us get along so well now.

            My grin faltered as an obviously frustrated Jason clambered out of the car, with Janie at his heels. I recognized the pending storm and remained where I was at the door, and watched Jason make his way to me worriedly. Janie was asking questions in a small voice, and Jason didn't look like he intended to answer any of them. The hand I had half-raised came down and I watched him make his way to me worriedly. He brusquely handed Janie to me and was turning to leave, when I stopped him.

            "Jason, what's wrong?"

            An aggravated sigh, "Nothing, Zelle…nothing."

            He was always a horrible liar. My voice was rising now, "It's not 'nothing' that gets you this pi—angry." I amended, quickly glancing down at Janie.

            "Sorry, its just—Stella, you know?" His countenance was haggard and he looked torn.

            "Oh." I said hollowly.

            I knew about him and his ex-wife, Stella Brands. She seemed to hold the notion that the earth revolved for her and her alone. And when she wanted, it would stop and stand still just so she wouldn't get dizzy. People were always there for her. And when she didn't need them anymore, they became just so much trash. Of course, she hadn't always been like that. Fame had spoiled her—twisted her logic until she only thought in terms of herself. She had tried on marriage and children—only because every other actress did that and she could get that much more publicity through it.

Early morning wake-up calls and changing diapers, however, had quickly changed her mind.

After two months of short tempers and confused responsibilities, she had left—both Jason and the daughter she barely knew—in search of "deserved appreciation." I know she never found any, because on a cold night, when Stella Brands found that perhaps fame and wealth was not so dazzling up close, she came back. As always, full of apologies and late realizations and proclamations of undying love. And my brother, great sentimental idiot that he was, took her back in. Only to find the bed sheets cold and her side of the closet empty two months later.

I think it was then that he realized that he had lost the sweet Stella he once knew to her dreams. Dreams he could not compete with, because they were always so much brighter and better than the harsh planes of reality. This was not the way to live—for both he and Janie—and so he finally went about the business of forgetting Stella.

And I suddenly knew what was going on.

"She's back." He said, forming into words what I had just realized, "But this time, she's not staying. Can you watch Janie? She doesn't need to see this." He ran his fingers through his straggly brown hair—so much like Janie's. I could tell he had had no time to shower this morning. His eyes, however, looked like twin, silver blades, frosted in snow. He was determined, this time.

"Of course. See you later." And I steered Janie into the house as Jason ripped away out of the neighborhood.

The house was not so much to boast, but it was home. Janie and I walked down a blue-wallpapered hallway in silence until we had reached my backyard. Until the lazy rays of the sun broke—in the way that laughter does—the uncomfortable strain that had settled between us. Smiling, I flopped down onto the grass and pulled Janie into my lap.

Who's Stella?" Janie asked abruptly.

I should have expected that one (she was six, after all), but I was still caught off guard and fumbled for an answer. Of course Janie would wonder. She had only been a year old when her mother had left for the second—and what seemed like the final—time.

"Well…umm….she's a friend—no—acquaintance of your dad's."

"Oh." She said simply, interest lost. Suddenly, a grasshopper jumping in the grass became fascinating and she jumped off my lap in favor of chasing it.

God, kids are adorable…ran through my head as I got up. Brushing off grass stains; I walked into the kitchen to make some lemonade. It was all right… I could still see her through the window. After all, she was a pretty well behaved kid.

Ever since Stella had abandoned her daughter (she would say that it was because she was under appreciated here…and besides, children were inconvenient on the big acting tours that she was oft taking nowadays), I had found myself in the position of her unofficial mother. And in ways, Janie accepted this. She never questioned why, just accepted that even though I was not her real mother, I was there for her. It really made me blissful… to think that she had accepted me as unconditionally as she had.

The lemonade was done, but I was loath to leave the nicely air-conditioned kitchen to go out into the scorching heat. I cleared a nearby chair of the various drafts of syllabuses for the upcoming year. Perhaps I would try a different approach. God knows it was so hard to find the one, ultimate right way to teach pre-teens.

It had only been a moment. One brief look through my latest draft after seeing Janie now chasing after hummingbirds, I looked back up…and she was gone.

I had not put too much significance in it at first. She could have just gone to one of the corners of the garden, where I couldn't see her. A better look, however, showed that she indeed wasn't in the confines of the backyard. This was when I began to panic.

The papers fell into a heap on the floor as I rushed outside. Janie was still nowhere to be seen. Looking frantically around, I called out to her several times. I almost looked into the sides of the house, though they were closed securely by a tall gate, when I saw a flash of daffodil yellow pants in the corner of my eye. Turning to look, I spied Janie, perched precariously on the thin branch of one of my evergreen trees—hands clenched in a white-knuckled grip as she watched the elusive butterfly flit away. With a cry of terror, I ran over to the tree.

"Janie?!"

"Auntie? Help! I can't get down!" her face held fear as she looked down to the ground from where she was. I could see her lip quiver.

"What the hell? Why did you go up—never mind that, how in God's name did you get up there?" my voice was angry, but only because I was so scared. It was a long fall from where she was…and the ground was hard.

"I don't know! I just wanted to see the butterfly." Her voice became watery and I could see her crying from my position on the ground.

Releasing the breath I had been holding, I tried to calm myself. "Okay, Janie. I'm going to go up there and get you back down, okay? Don't move, don't do anything. Wait right there."

Heaving myself onto the lowest branch, I was amazed by the strength of the little devil. How she could have gotten herself even onto the first branch was a surprise. Even her just standing, the distance would at least have been up to her hairline. I had no time to really question it, however, as I focused my concentration on climbing up to where Janie was—and then, perhaps, somehow figuring a way down. My harsh breathing mixed with Janie's whimpering and pushed me upward.

"Ooh…Janie, you are in so much trouble when I get up there. Just… you… wait."

Something glittered in the corner of my eye, and I turned sharply to look.

No… nothing out of the ordinary. Okay, concentrate, Zelle. What is the first thing you're going to do with the little brat once you get her back on the ground…?

A convenient—not to mention sturdy-looking—branch that I had not seen before waited ahead of me. It almost seemed to shout: "Climb on me! Climb on me!"… and in a voice all too horridly reminiscent of Chip 'n' Dale Cartoons. It seemed the best way to go. And add that to the pressure of Janie's cries for help…of course I climbed onto it. Only—the second I put all my weight on it, it seemed—the damn branch gave way…and me with it.

I found no branches to latch onto, so I simply dived into the ground below. My life didn't flash before my eyes, as they say. I only remember that the fall seemed to go by a lot quicker than the climbing up. I don't remember hearing much aside from the rush of air by my ears. Not even Janie…but wait, there it was… I did hear an undeniably male tone chuckle wickedly above me.

That's it. I've finally reached my nervous breakdown…

 And the world faded into black before I even felt myself hit the ground.

   I never saw Janie in the tree suddenly smirk to herself as I fell. Never saw her seem to release something that shone from her hands just when I disappeared—inches from the ground—, throwing back her head in unholy—male—laughter just as she shivered and faded as well. Never saw the Janie, in her pink sundress, come out the side gate with some flowers bunched haphazardly in her hands.

Never saw a confused Janie look at the tree, with a strange curiosity…and then skip into the house to find her Auntie Zelle and give her the flowers. 

A/N: Not sure about this one..just posting this to see how you guys take to it -_-;;.constructive criticism much loved ^_^