Orphaned fifteen-year-old Dylan finds himself struggling to save his seven-year-old brother Robert, who has lost the will to live, by pretending that the world around them is a magical fairy tale as they trek across the country in search of a new home.
An abusive foster house is the den of a soul-eating witch, homeless dumpster-diving is the exciting life of a traveling bard, and the death of both parents is instead an adventure to rescue them from imprisonment. Or, at least those are the stories Dylan tells Robert to help him cope with their devastating reality.
Optimism and adventure suspend the brothers’ despondency as they embark on an epic journey that meshes the worlds of fantasy and reality in their travels across the country toward sunshine, safety, and belonging.
Sam taught us what to keep, what to hide, and what to leave.
“Just because you think you might need something down the road, doesn’t mean it’s worth dragging along for a month. Live light. You don’t need to haul around a clean mattress you found in the dump. It might look softer than a bedroll, but then you’ll start getting used to soft and what happens when you can’t bring it with you?”
We learned to use baking soda as deodorant and teeth cleaner. We learned where to shower and when to sponge bathe. Sam showed us how to dig through bins for food. “Take things out slowly and by the layer. Don’t go jumping inside and sloshing things around. Same goes for bags of trash; keep them upright, open carefully, and empty one piece at a time. It might be slow, but it’ll save you from soaking your loaf of bread in expired yogurt. Speaking of yogurt, dairy’s good for two days, and meat’s good for one—no longer. This’ll keep you from getting sick more than a couple times a month.”
Each morning, Sam gave us more life lessons while bin diving. In the afternoon, we’d visit the library, and in the evening volunteer at the soup kitchen. Most mornings before breakfast however, Robert dragged us to the park where we played with Phoenix and trained as knights. The more we trained, the more Robert’s back began to arch with poise. The flourishes in his wrists were deft and elegant, his lunges demonstrated risk and brashness instead of timidity and indecision, and a new fire burned in his eyes.
Robert regarded our practices with genuine purpose. Sometimes, I’d catch him alone, spinning a fork in his hand and stabbing the air as if it were a dagger. During training, he heeded my every command as if I were an authentic captain and he were my knight in training.
Every night after dinner in the soup kitchen, we’d return to the back of the Cinema Silver. Sam would light a fire and pull Henrietta from her case. “Keep the things you like, hide the things you love,” he said. When Henrietta wasn’t strapped to his back, she was tucked into a hole in the Cinema Silver wall that was a perfect hiding spot against the daylight.
Sam’s music made the cold nights feel like spring. He played with the passion of a lover and the skill of a master. And every night he taught me. I’d play for hours and sing until my throat was sore. Robert would curl against Phoenix’s belly, waiting for his nightly lullabies to begin, and until I played, he didn’t sleep.
One night when the sky was clear and the moon was brighter than it had been all month, Sam held Henrietta in his lap and stared at his hands. “You boys make an old man proud. Hope you know that. Now I know I’m not your grandfather or nothing of the sort—but if I’d had grandkids—I’d’ve wanted you boys. I’ll say it again; you do an old man proud. I hope you find your sandy beaches—your golden sun. You deserve sunshine.”
The mention of sandy beaches resurfaced the image of the calendar cover in Robert’s pocket. The sand was so yellow it almost seemed fake. I imagined hot grains of it slipping through my fingers . . . cool ocean water around my heels . . . the beating sun on my head, making my hair warm and my skin pink.
Sam shook his head. “You both have lives ahead of you—lives that aren’t here. Let’s put aside all pretending and agree that I’m not long for this life. I don’t have too many years left in me. You reach an age, and you can feel it. Your bones start whispering that they’ve had enough—that they’re too tired to hold the rest of you together. Lately, it’s not just my bones telling me that either. A man knows when he’s not long for life. Only liars will tell you different—and I don’t want to lie to you.”
Robert’s eyes were open but frozen still as if he suddenly didn’t know where to look. He chewed on his bottom lip. I wanted to say something but none of the words in my head seemed right. Instead, we all stared at the fire as it crackled against the silence.
Sam lifted the guitar and stroked the battered wood. “Some’ll tell you, it’s not the guitar, it’s the player.” He shook his head. “It’s just not true. I’m not saying a man can’t make a fine tune on a scrap piece—but some guitars—well some just have souls. Souls like you and me have. The right guitar will nearly play herself when you hold her straight. It’s in the knowing of the soul—and you know her soul.” He slid his thumb along Henrietta’s neck then placed her in my arms. “She’s yours now.”
I opened my mouth. “But—”
“And I’ll tell you something about Henrietta,” he continued before I could speak. “She might look a fair worn, but feel that soul.” He took my hand and pressed it into the scarred wood. His hands were thick and calloused, but they still called back memories of my father’s wiry hands doing the same. “She’s got plenty of life left in her, believe you me. She’s not done singing—not yet.”
“I can’t take her from you.”
He let go of my hand. “I’ll need someone to keep her singing after I’m no more. I know what happens on the streets: the moment I drop cold, all but my soiled drawers’ll get snatched up by some soulless vulture.” He eyed Henrietta with a somber look. “That’s not going happen to my girl, because she’s not going to be around to be had. No. She’ll be singing sweet on sandy beaches—warm under the sun—still in the arms of someone who’ll keep her safe.”
Sam’s words sunk into my chest like a plate of lead. The weather-beaten guitar—patched and splintering—felt magical under my fingertips as if filled with a tangible essence.
“You treat her right, and she’ll sing for you every night. Cold won’t seem so cold. Hunger won’t feel so deep. Now play. I want to hear my Henrietta sing to me.”
The battered guitar felt alive in my arms as if it radiated actual warmth—and I no longer felt like an unimportant homeless boy anymore.
Sir Dylan lifted the Master Wizard’s lute into his lap. The audience of forest fairies stilled, and a hushed whisper fell around him like autumn leaves after a breeze. Samuel, the Master Wizard, smiled and interlocked his calloused hands behind his head. The last whispers all but disappeared.
Sir Dylan’s fingers met the tender strings. They quivered at his touch. He plucked a single note, and the spirit of the maiden whispered into the night air. The sound rang through the trees and hovered in the air with a determined resonance. Sir Dylan closed his eyes and held the lute in his arms. He positioned his hands and strummed a chord. The music felt alive as if the whole forest was singing in unison.
Notes danced from the strings in a delicate ballet of harmony. Sir Dylan felt his fingers move as if on their own. They pulled and picked the strings creating more notes than such a lute should be able to make. His rogue hand glided along the neck as if he no longer controlled its movement. He strummed and the maiden sang. Her voice cut through the night air like a sliver of ice piercing a still pond. The forest fairies held their breath, but Sir Dylan breathed in the song, as if the music were the air itself. He played, and she sang—back and forth they carried each other through the notes—at times so soft, the music floated like shae petals, and at times, shook the earth like a summer thunder.
And then something happened that Sir Dylan could only understand as a watery moonlight ascending from the lute. The cloud of luminescence gathered in the meadow, drawing together until taking corporeal shape. The maiden’s soul could no longer be contained in the confines of the lute. This time, she was not a spirit as she had been before. She was a woman like Sir Dylan had never seen. Her skin was a radiant silver, fine and fair as a porcelain figurine. Her eyes were like dark raindrops and her lips like melting ice.
Sir Dylan lifted his fingers from the strings, but the music continued. The maiden opened her mouth and sang. Music glided over the forest. Runeflowers opened at the song, spreading their petals wide as if to capture the notes and keep them for the night.
The maiden drifted toward Samuel, her weary bard. She sang as if she had become the soul of a great wind—rocking the trees around them with her gentle fury. She sang as if she could still hold the Master Wizard in her arms. She sang as if the magic in her voice could turn back time for them both.
Sir Dylan’s skin buzzed with the force of the crystalline notes, and when it seemed that the trees themselves would bow to her clarity, her pure voice fell silent and the song was over. A hush filled the meadow. Fairy wings fluttered like the drum of a distant storm.
The maiden’s skin shuddered in the winter breeze. The fringes of her shoulders evaporated as if a single gust of wind would carry her body into the night. She smiled at her lover and reached out a silvery arm. The Master Wizard’s shaking fingers reached in return, and for a moment, the two touched. One tear crawled in solitude from the Master Wizard’s wearied eyes and clung to his cheek as if clinging to her. And when the tear finally fell, the ghost of the Maiden evaporated into the night sky, and she was gone