It was the night after his very first day of school that Markus was caught crying by his little sister.
In all honesty, he'd actually tried to muffle the sobs, to keep it a secret from her; but she'd heard him anyway and gone toddling down the hall, her stuffed toy bird dragging on the ground behind her. The little girl's great blue eyes had scanned the darkened room as she had leaned in the doorway, squinting at the darkness in an attempt to find her brother hidden somewhere in it.
He'd almost lost his temper with her, even then--but he stopped himself just before he did. It wasn't her fault, after all.
"What do you need, Elsa?" he called, hurriedly wiping his swollen eyes on the back of his sleeve.
"You're crying," the girl stated simply, her thumb still stuck in her mouth. "Which means you're sad. Why are you sad, Markus?"
"No reason. Now go to bed."
He could feel her eyes still fixed on his face even after he'd turned away. "People don't just cry because they want to. So why are you crying?"
"I told you, no reason."
"Well, don't worry, old brother!" the little girl piped, as though she hadn't heard him at all. "For even if there isn't a reason, I can still cheer you up!"
Without even waiting for a response, she pulled herself up on his bed (a very difficult task for a girl her age, so it took awhile) and gathered his blankets into her arms.
"A story," she stated, spreading them carefully around herself and her brother. "I know that a story will cheer you up. Now, once upon a--"
"No!" Markus yelped, jumping away from her. "No stories! Not now."
"But Markus!" Elsa pouted. "My stories are--"
"I already know what they are," he growled. "They're the ravings of a lunatic who actually thinks she travels to the world she dreams of! I've heard enough about them to suit me for one day, Elsa; and trust me when I say that I don't need to hear about them from you, too."
He understood what he'd said just a split second after he'd said it; and his heart pinched very suddenly, tightening and swelling in his chest.
"Lunatic?" Elsa echoed. Markus' face burned.
"It's...nothing. Go to bed."
But Elsa didn't move. She only sat there, staring distantly at the woolen blanket that lay limp in her arms.
"Here," Markus said quietly, pulling it away from her. "I'll take you back to your room, okay?"
His heart stung miserably as he carried her back through the hall; he wanted terribly to apologize, but she hadn't said anything since he'd last spoken, so he couldn't bear to break the icy silence. After lying her softly in bed and kissing her good-night, he turned to go.
"Markus," Elsa called suddenly, grabbing the back of his nightshirt. The boy froze. "Markus...I'm sorry."
He closed his eyes, struggling to contain his emotions. "Don't be, Elsa. I'm sure they...didn't mean it."
The room fell back into silence. After a while she let go of his nightshirt, and he heard her turn over in bed; so he walked back out into the hallway.
Once he had closed the door to her room, he paused, leaving his hand resting on the knob. He wished he could believe that they hadn't meant it, as he'd said. But he knew they meant it; they'd meant every word.
From the time he was very young, Markus had wanted nothing more than to have a friend. To be in the company of people who loved him just as he loved them had been something of a dream to him. And he'd looked forward to the coming of school more than anything else because of this.
How could he have possibly guessed that the only thing capable of stopping him was his precious and soft-spoken Elsa?
There wasn't anything wrong with her stories. If anything they were too perfect, too vivid and real to have come from the simple mind of a six-year-old.
But it was where she said they came from that was the problem. For who could believe in a child that said that her make-believe world truly existed, where the stars came out only in daytime and the people lived in clouds on the ground? At best they ignored her; but if they decided to pay any attention to her at all, it was only to call her names, or scold her for lying.
If only Markus knew the real reason they treated her so. But he never could've guessed that they were only afraid--afraid of the stories that were too real to be imaginary, yet too make believe to be mistaken for anything else. If places such as the one that she spoke of existed anywhere but in the heart, then everything around them would change. For there would be nothing to hope for in a world where dreams were real.
Markus sighed and let go of the knob, shuffling his way back to his room. Tomorrow would be just another day of school, another day of harassment and name-calling--and friendlessness.
But maybe--if he could only tolerate it for just one more day--maybe he'd get another chance, and maybe then they'd understand...
He actually had to concentrate on falling asleep that night--his mind wouldn't seem to shut off--and along with that, there was this nagging feeling that there was somewhere he needed to be, somewhere he needed to go.
But when he woke the next morning, the feeling had worn off, so he barely recalled it, if at all; and he couldn't even remember if he'd dreamed.