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When a young woman finds herself swept away, will she keep her head?

By Lauren EverdellPublished about a year ago Updated 8 months ago 15 min read
Top Story - January 2023

Fur on the inch of old, cold coffee is grey. The day breaking in at Bly’s window is grey, and a sleepless night hangs grey from her eyes. Do something. Her thoughts are grey. Clean. Start with the vacuum, but the bag is full. So empty it. Bins are full. Empty them. Can’t think where the fresh liners are. Shower. Water runs cold, only a glassy shave of soap left. Scum in the dish is grey. Tiles are grey, cold and grey.

Standing, gut-full of grey nothing. Get dressed. Last clean jumper has a hole, soles of her socks are house dust grey. So vacuum. Bag’s full. So empty it. Bins are full. Empty them. Can’t find the bin liners. Feed yourself then. Put the milk back empty yesterday. Bins are full. Leave it. Dry cereal, and the box for a bowl. Coffee. Mug needs washing. So wash it. Rubber glove’s missing a fingertip. No hot water. Dawn outside is grey, unfeeling and grey. Bly’s thoughts are grey.

Do something. Anything.

Winged on the coffee table, a half-read library book. Long overdue. So finish it. Grey ink words, and Bly can’t remember the story. Something about falling, and a race without rules on the shore of a sea of tears.

Return it. Bly sits up. Looks down. Her sweatpants are grey.

Who will care.


“Oh, thank God you’re here,” says the woman Bly’s never seen before.

“I’m sorry?” Bly asks.

“I should hope so. You’re overdue, and so is this book as it happens. You’ll have to pay a fine, but it can wait until you return.”

“Return. I'm going somewhere?”

“Oh, of course! Look at me; forget my own head if it wasn’t attached.” The Librarian plucks a return card from the box at her elbow, scribbling something Bly can’t read upside down. Folding the card, the Librarian slides it across the desk with the air of a person very much hoping to seem inconspicuous. Bly takes the card and goes to open it.

“Not here! Wait until you’re in the stacks. Gosh, child, is this your first day?”

“First day as what?” Bly asks. The woman stares, as if Bly’s demanded to know why the sky is overhead and the earth below her feet. The moment stretches, ballooning horribly as Bly tries to think what to say.

At last she settles on, “I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”

“No,” the Librarian says. “They said to look out for somebody no-one would look twice at. Someone looking exactly and completely like nobody special. And you’re the least special little nobody I’ve ever seen.”

Bly gawks.

“Don’t stand there catching flies,” the Librarian says. “You’re late. Hurry, go!” She flings out an arm, palm toward Bly, fingers and thumb an arrow pointing deep into the library’s guts.

Still speechless, Bly finds herself going.


The shadows in the stacks are deep and cool, and smell of dust.

“A nobody, am I,” Bly says to the note, “nobody special.” She turns the card between her fingers. “Well, you took me for someone.”

She opens it. The handwriting is swirling and beautiful, the words make no sense.

Turn your back on the White Whale. Stamp once, and spin three times.

Find the Scribe.

Below this, an ominous post-script.

P.S. Whatever you do, don’t look back.

“White whale,” Bly says to the books, “not much of a riddle. Even for nobody special.” She studies the spines, running her fingers over the bindings, until she finds it. Moby Dick. She turns her back, quelling the part of her that’s asking why. Why follow the cryptic instructions of a stranger who thought she was someone else.

Do something.

“Well, this is… something.”

She stamps. She turns, and turns, and turns.

She can’t stop. The note flutters from her fingers. The books blur to a dusty rainbow as she spins and spins and spins. Her stomach lurches and she closes her eyes.


She opens them to stillness, and a rough stone path through a leering forest. Moss-swathed branches stretch as if to snatch her up and feed her to the crows that cry their displeasure at such an intruder as her.

“RUN,” bellows a voice, a growl wrapped in a thunderclap shaped into an order she can’t disobey. She flees, and something’s chasing footsteps echo behind.

She runs until her legs are aching and her feet burn as if the path is crushed glass. She’s exhausted. Defeated.

She stops. And looks back.

Her feet seem to grow roots. A scream boils up her throat and freezes there, choking her.

The Hound pads closer, slower now. Its breath steaming, its eyes twin points of black fire already devouring her. The white fangs are stark and gleaming against the grey fur.

"No!” A man crashes onto the path between them, armour shining, sword upheld. A Knight. The Hound does not cower, but it backs away a pace.

“With me, my lady,” a second man speaks from the foliage. “Don’t worry, I know the ways off the path.”


The Knight is talking, pleading. Bly watches a fat blowfly walk the rim of her teacup like a tightrope. Far away and right next to her, the Knight’s voice shapes the word love, the word despair.

“You’re the one who must do it. They sent you for this,” says the Scribe.

They’re seated in his small, bookish house. Bly, the Knight, and the Scribe. He’s settled her in a fat armchair, and plied her with tea. Now he begs for her help on behalf of his foolish, love-struck friend, the Knight. Who has stolen a ruby from the Queen for his elusive, demanding Beloved.

“They, whoever you mean by that, didn’t send me. A Librarian mistook me for someone else,” Bly says, her voice sudden and loud in her own head. The Scribe doesn’t speak, but the lines of his face shape a question.

Did she?

“What, exactly, are you asking me to do?” Bly holds the ruby to the light. Big as a Swann’s egg, red as the rage of a Queen should she find it missing.

“Return it,” says the Scribe.

“Save me,” says the Knight, “and my Beloved.” Bly holds back a roll of her eyes.

“How?” she asks the Scribe. Who reaches down beside his chair to retrieve a crimson tumble of brocade. He holds it out to her.

“Only cross the ballroom without drawing the Queen’s attention.” Bly watches him, feels the whole truth like mist in the room.

“How do I avoid the Queen’s attention?” she asks. The Scribe sighs, like a man who wouldn’t have gone through with the lie. Really he wouldn’t.

“Simply be happy,” he says. This time Bly can’t help it, she snorts. Loud and unladylike. And honest. But the Scribe continues, as though he hasn’t heard, “the jewel-house door will present itself. Once the stone is back in place—”

“You will give me the map,” Bly says.

“I will give you the map,” says the Scribe, his eyes sliding away.

“And I can go home.”

“And you can go home.”


The knocker is a golden mouse, swinging by its tail from the teeth of a wide-grinning cat. Bly tells her hand to reach for it, that knocking is a small matter. A nothing much. Yet her arm hangs at her side. A nothing too much then, a nothing too far.

“I can’t do this, can I,” she asks the mouse, “if I can’t even get through the door?”

“You want to go through the door, why ever didn’t you say?” asks a voice behind her. Bly whirls, her legs catching in the lengths of her borrowed gown, and almost falls. Strong arms enclose her, set her back on her feet. Taking a moment to settle, she finds the arms belong to a Footman. His velvet frock coat is an unfortunate shade of red for the winged, ginger mustachios, over which he peers at her.

“We can’t make time for latecomers. Make time, take time. Lake time.”

“Lake time?” Bly asks, before she can stop herself.

“Of course. Time behaves differently underwater, haven’t you noticed?”

“Can’t say I have.”

“I don’t blame him, I hate to get my feet wet. Met. Bet. Toilette. Cigarette.”

“Forget,” Bly says. The Footman frowns over his moustache.

“Baguette?” she tries.

“Better,” he says, turning and laying his weight against the vast golden doors. Soundlessly, they open and he leads the way inside. Bly finds herself smiling, and following behind.


The carpet cushioning Bly's steps is red. Red like pomegranate seeds, and the hearts of full-blooming roses. Red like the ruby weighting her pocket. The swathed curtains and velvet sofas are red. The damask, and brocade, the chiffon, the lace, the moiré, and the taffeta of the gowns. All are red. The suede of the men’s shoes, and the silk of their ties are red.

The candle light lapping at the dancers is golden, gilded like the carvings on the marble walls, and the swaying chandeliers. Golden like the chains around the throats of the women, and the rings on their slender fingers. Golden like the goblets they sip from.

The wine is red. The Queen is red.

Her dress is red satin so deep its almost black, spilling from her seat on the throne like cut-throat blood. Her face is veiled in red silk organza, crowned with a golden sunburst, and there’s no way for Bly to know where the hidden eyes are wandering.

Bly’s trespass presses on her as she crosses the threshold of the ballroom, seems to make her huge among the swirling dancers. Her footfalls, in the borrowed golden shoes, echo in her ears like the tramping of an elephant. Fit to draw the notice of every person there, until they turn and gape at this creature who’s misplaced herself in their midst.

She blinks. The vision fades. No one is looking.

“Psst,” says the Footman, “don’t forget to be who you are.”

“Who is that?” Bly asks. The Footman captures a goblet from a passing waiter’s tray. Handing it to Bly, he raises his fox’s eyebrows.

“How should I know?” he asks. Bly hears his muttering as he turns to wander back the way they came, “hat, bat, cravat. Oh, rat, fat, polecat. Acrobat. Pyrostat. Diplomat.”

“Caveat,” Bly says, by way of goodbye.

She sips from the goblet, sips again. Licks her lips and sips again. Candied bitter cherries sparkle on her tongue, rose and black pepper warm her throat. The wine settles in her blood like the glow of an ember.

“Dance!” rings out a voice. “The Volta, and none stand idly by. It is a party!” All faces turn to the Queen, a tide toward the moon. The goblet in Bly’s hand vanishes into thin air.

“Quickly,” says a man, whose face she doesn’t see, “quickly.” And his hand is in hers and he’s sweeping her into the current of dancers circling the floor.

“I don’t,” she says, gasping and stumbling, hauling her skirts from under her feet with her free hand. “I don’t know the steps.”

“Then I shall dance for us both,” says the stranger, and he’s looking at her now and his eyes are dark and his cheekbones high and his lips red with wine, and Bly remembers the taste of it and knows he would taste of it too, and she’s blushing and they are somehow all that time dancing. He turns her, turns with her, leaps her into the air. Circles her, steps back, comes close. Bly can do nothing but try to remember to breathe. While, above it all, the Queen’s veiled facelessness beholds the dance.

Until she stands, and the ballroom falls quiet.

“Come to me,” the Queen reaches out.

Trembling, head bowed, and silent, a man emerges from the revellers to take the proffered hand.

“Let me help you,” says the Queen, and draws the man onto the dais before the throne. Passive, he stands with head low, until she rests her fingertips beneath his chin and he lifts his eyes to her. Her free hand she lays on his chest. The ballroom holds its breath.

From the folds of his red jacket, she withdraws the pulsing, blood-damp heart. They stand, close as lovers, the heart beating between them. Red flames ignite within it and crawl their twinging way up the Queen’s arms to sink into the flesh of her chest.

The heart that remains is vitrified, burned to clear glass, and with infinite gentleness the Queen presses it home behind the man’s ribs. A hollow moment rings through the room, until the man sighs as if a great weight has lifted. He smiles. Lighthearted now, he bounds from the dais and returns to the dance, which welcomes him a Hero.

“Foxtrot,” calls the Queen, retaking her seat, and the band strikes up the song.

Alone unmoving, her partner swallowed by the dance, Bly hears an echo. To go unnoticed, simply be happy.

A passing waiter settles a goblet in her hand and, unthinking, she raises it to her lips. Sun-kissed summer berries explode across her tongue, warmth rises in her chest.

A Hero emerges from the dance, bows his head and offers his hand.

“My lady.” His sickle moon smile glows down on her, lifeless as he lifts her fingers to his lips. Behind the summer sky eyes, there’s depthless quiet.

Bly hesitates, and something changes in the air.

“Come to me.” The Queen reaches out and a tug in Bly’s chest answers the summons. Beside her, the blank-eyed Hero fades into the crowd. The dance has once again fallen still to watch.

Her feet are moving, steps are taken, as she’s led by the heart to stand before the Queen. Bly’s breath is gone, and for an instant her heart is a heavy, beating thing.

Until it too is gone.

The Queen holds the heart between them, and a quiet so deep it could be endless fills Bly’s chest.

Looking up, beyond the Queen, Bly finds what she knows will be there. Silent, shadow-wreathed. Standing guard over the way back. The Hound, tall as a man and grey as sleepless dusk, waits for her.

The Queen could take him, if Bly called him to her. She knows it. Could burn him away, and Bly alone could remain. Dancing with these others, with their light hearts. She could have this quiet. Always. She thinks of the music, the dance. The smiling Heroes, and the sweet taste of the wine. She could stay here. Become weightless.

She stares into the eyes of the Hound, teetering on the edge of the dream.

What then? Endless contentedness. And is that any more than a new kind of nothing?

Back home, she sees now, her nothing is not nothing. It is Sadness. But it’s hers. And there—unlike here—it may change. Because she may change it. And what might that feel like? Pride, or Relief.


One day, perhaps, Joy.

Stay back and be still, she commands the Hound, and it obeys. It’s hers after all, and she’d smile at that, if not for the quiet.

Bly looks at her heart, sees the grey smoke shrouding it.

Sees also a fleck of red, deep within.

“Please, Your Grace, put it back as it is.” An astonished whisper rustles through the watching crowd.

“You were not dancing,” says the Queen.

The stolen ruby shines in Bly’s mind, and she knows Fear should come with it. The sweat at her back should be chilling her, her hands should tremble. Visions of a thieve’s punishment should flit before her eyes. But there’s only the quiet, and nothing else at all.

“I can join the dance, Your Grace. As I am.”

“Let me help you.”

“There’s happiness there,” Bly says, and does not lie.

“It’s weak” says the Queen.

“But I am not,” and that is no lie either.

The Queen inclines her veiled head and, gentle as settling dust, presses the heart back behind Bly’s ribs. The beat of it rings Bly’s bones like hollow bells but, heavy as the weight of it may be, she’s grateful to have the riot again.

“A Tango!” cries the Queen.

Another Hero rises from the dance, and though his eyes are empty and his smile unmoving, Bly lets him take her hand.

For a time, she gives herself to the dance. Flowing with the tide of circling bodies, feeling her breath rise and her blood quicken. Feeling her light feet and the heat of a Hero’s arm at her waist. Yet the door, as promised, is obvious—carved from red wood, bright against white marble—and when it blurs past, she leaps.

Standing before it, she half turns to look back. To see if the Hound waits for her still. To watch the dance and remember its fire.

She catches herself. She moves forward


“Tell the Knight he’s safe,” Bly says, when she meets the Scribe again. “The stone is returned to the crown. As far as the Queen knows, it was never lost. Our bargain—”

“There’s no map,” the Scribe confesses.

“No,” Bly says. “I need only want to leave?” It’s not truly a question.

The Scribe smiles, “but please, take this.” He folds her hand around the gift.

Bly closes her eyes, and thinks of home.


Nothing is different. Fur on the inch of old, cold coffee is grey. Another sleepless night hangs grey from her eyes. Soles of her socks are house dust grey, scum in the soap dish is grey. Her sweatpants are grey.

It might all have been a dream but for the cool kiss of metal in her fist. She loosens her fingers, and there on her palm rests a pendant. A ruby heart on a slender golden chain. She holds it to her chest, feels the riot beneath the skin.

Nothing is different, and yet, she’s almost certain there’s a fleck of red in this grey dawn.

Short StoryFantasyAdventure

About the Creator

Lauren Everdell

Writer. Chronic sickie. Part-time gorgon. Probably thinking about cyborgs right now.



Twitter: @scrawlauren

Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Top insight

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

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Comments (14)

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  • Test5 months ago

    Dazzling job! Keep up the outstanding work—congrats!🥉

  • Test5 months ago

    Outstanding! Keep striving for greatness—congratulations!

  • Completely enchanting. Congratulations, Lauren!

  • Cathy holmes5 months ago


  • Carminum5 months ago

    I read this back when it was a Top Story, and I was really struck by its vivid and whimsical quality. Ever since, it has remained one of the best stories I've read on Vocal, period. Congrats on placement, this story truly deserved to win.

  • Caroline Jane5 months ago

    Congratulations Lauren!!! 🥰

  • Mackenzie Davis5 months ago

    This story is so clever! And super powerful. I adored seeing Bly fall into a story. Congratulations on placing! 👏🎊💕

  • Samara Simsonabout a year ago

    Good one 💯👌

  • Jay Vabout a year ago

    Anyone interested in romcom or love fiction..... this is worth a try

  • Chua Yuan Hengabout a year ago

    Great story.

  • 👍❤️🎯💬U have a new subscriber❗💯

  • Chamodhi Polwattaabout a year ago

    Beautifully written. A very vivid gripping storyline. Well done and good luck for the future!

  • Kendall Defoe about a year ago

    Like the most vivid dream I almost had. Silly question at this point: did you ever listen to 'Foxtrot' by Genesis. There is a track called 'Supper's Ready', and there are some scenes that seem connected to that piece. ;)

  • İlkin Nağışovabout a year ago


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