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"I'm almost home."

            The sun left behind white streaks as it shone through the early evening clouds. The different shades of green found in the trees that lined the highway were bright and soothing, filling Sarah with the comforting joys that spring brought.  A sharp wind whistled and moaned as it forced its way through the open car window; Sarah leaned her elbow against it, her manner quiet and reflective as she tapped her fingers, letting the upbeat song on the radio better her wonderful mood. She had not a care in the world at the moment, for even the highway was devoid of the  usual midday traffic.

            Yes, returning home would be blissful.  She had a new apartment in New York, but if one asked her where her home was she always said "Highland Grove."  Sure, it was small and unnoticeable, hardly a dot on a road map, but she held her most important memories there.  Even as the sun glared through the windshield, making a partial silhouette of the scenery before her, she did not peel her vision from the horizon.

            Over that hill and beyond, she would vaguely say in her mind through images and feelings, beyond this futility I have left behind, beyond the constraints, beyond the labyrinth of confusion, there is my house, in the middle of that little town, and I am coming back to it, if only for awhile.  I am going to escape and forget what is there for me in New York and I am going to take full advantage of my visit.  If only for two days, I will no longer be plagued by the future.

            She imagined a little boy, pacing in his room, tugging at his mother's shirt, begging, not in words (for her thoughts were not that developed) but in expression, in motion, begging for his mother to bring his sister home more quickly.  A cake sat on the counter in the kitchen, and this little boy harboring on five years would make a sneaky approach to this cake and dip a small finger into the cloud like frosting; he would close his lips about the digit and reveal a satisfied smile, not so much for the flavor, but the mischief involved with the action of taking a forbidden taste.  He would stare out the window, he would skip across the porch, he would turn hours into days while awaiting his sister's arrival all of these things she knew would happen in all of the detail she had vaguely pictured in her mind, for Sarah knew her brother well enough to predict every aspect of his character, every action he might take.  She pictured all of this knowingly, and still wondered at the complexity of a child; instead of turning a frown upon her lack of understanding, she smiled, reveling in the mystery that slowly solved itself each moment she was around him.  Sarah impatiently looked toward the shortterm future as much as her young sibling, Toby, must have been on this day his birthday.

            She couldn't wait to give him his gift; she had run across it while browsing in a unprofitable craft shop in downtown New York. Her gaze had been idle, her intent not to spend money, yet, suddenly, there it had stood magnificently among the other plainer figurines, as if wanting her to see it.  It was as if an implacable memory had reached its long white arm out to her and tapped her on the shoulder, the words of yesteryear blowing like a cool breeze through her ears, saying, "Take it, take it this thing, you know he will like."  Her hand had rushed to grab it, the movement independent of any conscious thought. She rubbed her fingers across the powderfine grain of the ceramic, touched the rough gemstone eyes, caressed the soldered metal accents.  Nothing in the world might have pried it from her grip at that moment, and she had instantly bought it, without any second thoughts.

            It was one of the few wonders that had presented itself in her new home.  New York was a daily growing disappointment.  When she had journeyed there five years ago in the old family station wagon, she had looked at the city streets in awe, imagining that she would someday be walking down those streets on the way to a movie shoot.  Her aspirations were way over the top; she had ended up struggling through acting classes with a teacher that beat down her aspirations in an attempt to beat down the pre-madonna in her, many studios had refused to even allow her an audition while none had even accepted her for even a small part, and she had ended up accepting a job as a commercial actress just to pay her increasing debts.

            Sarah looked at the clock on the dashboard and saw that she was only five minutes away from entering town.  It had only been five years ago that she had rushed away to New York in order to escape ordinary life; an ordinary life that had made itself painfully apparent after her encounter with the Goblin King.

            The Goblin King resided in a land called the Underground.  It was a special place that existed beyond the human realm A place somewhat likened to a mirror image of the known worldnot physically, but inwardly An Underground in which magic was a vagrant looking for an employer, creatures were unafraid of giving vocal opinions, and the land sprouted forth castles, villages, forests, and bazaar circumstances An alternate world whose black night sky revealed an immense, silver moon, while a flaming sun came to burn at the crack of dawn

            Here had begun the incident, four years earlier, in which a fifteen yearold Sarah, believing the Underground was merely fantasy, had held her bawling, baby brother Toby towards the sky, high towards the ceiling of his nursery, and called out the eternal words that would give the Goblin King permission to take the child away.

            Without hesitation, he had taken the burden of her baby brother from her.  With a horrorstricken face she watched as twittering little creatures crept into the room, a mad owl pounding upon the glass door of the nursery.  The wind and rain lashed at her face on that stormy night as the owl finally beat open the doors and changed into a human form much more menacing and mysterious.  She had pleaded to the silhouette of a man who had come to her balcony that night, begged with him to please return her brother She hadn't truly meant what she had said!

            But no words, no matter how many tears accompanied them, would sway the Goblin King.  He taunted a glass sphere before her on his dancing fingertips, the clocklike ticktock of his hands entrancing as well as intimidating her, the glistening black pools in his eyes fixing her in place. She had two choices: take his offering of dreams and fantasies as a replacement for her brother, or travel through his Labyrinth with a maximum of thirteen hours in which to reach his castle at the center, and ultimately bring her brother home.

            Sarah had taken the latter of the two, thus embarking upon a journey she had never forgotten.

            The highway made a sharp curve, the strip of road ahead blocked by trees. Sarah turned the car left with the road and inertia caused her body to slant to the right. She lessened the pressure on the accelerator, warily watching the road and squinting her eyes against the strong glare of the oppressive sun.

            The turn in the road ended and Sarah could see the highway go uphill and disappear into the horizon, the sun's dagger rays scattering across the asphalt.  The light was blinding, allowing her to see only the small strip of road ahead.  She pulled down the visor to relieve her of the bright sun's glare and she was suddenly rewarded with full vision of the highway.

            A dark, heavyset person stood at the center of the highway about a mile away, not showing any indication of moving.  Sarah anxiously stabbed at the horn on the steering wheel, but the person just faced her, not moving, not flinching.  The car was closing in, foot by endless foot; Sarah pressed firmly down on the brakes in short bursts.  The speedometer went from fifty miles per hour to forty, then from there to thirty and from thirty to twenty, until the needle pointed to zero and the car was a yard away from whom it had nearly hit.

            A few beads of sweat trickled down Sarah's forehead as she let out a long sigh and rested her head wearily on the steering wheel, still gripping it with tense, white hands.  Her head continuing to lay on the wheel, she reached underneath it to turn off the car and hesitated in the middle of the task.

            "Need Sarah help," a familiar voice called from outside.

            Like so many peasants had done at the possible sight of a miracle from the tombs of saints, Sarah jerked her head with joyous reflex and stared in front of her.  As she saw who it was, her eyes widened beyond normal proportions and her knuckles became even more ghostly.  Her mouth suddenly went dry and she unconsciously worked to wet it.  Could she truly be seeing this figure in the road?  Was it a mirage produced by the hot sun beating against the ebony highway?

            "Ludo?" she mumbled uncertainly, afraid of stepping from the car to find that it was only the trickery of her imagination that brought this old friend back to her in the middle of this deserted highway.

            Yet she saw that it was Ludo, in all of his magnificent detail.  The beast was about eight feet tall, the long, shaggy fur on his back a rusty red in the sunlight, his frontal features fighting against shadows.  His broad, wistful face was scrunched up in a pug nose while his large teeth protruded upward from his lower lip.  He indeed would look like a large beast, if it were not for his strange, wistful smile and ridiculously small eyes.  He stretched his hands out toward her, palms up. His warbling voice came out softly and bore a melancholy tone:

            "Sarah Need Sarah help Need friend"

            She quickly opened the car door, having many feelings at the same time, but not quite comprehending any of them because extreme excitement overpowered them altogether. She stepped out onto the highway and veered around.

            Ludo was no longer there.  She ran earnestly to the front of the car and surveyed the deserted highway and the area around it. There was nowhere for him to have gone. The mirage had vanished as quickly and convincingly as it had appeared.

            As her mind cleared somewhat, she started to realize that she was standing in the middle of a highway and was an easy target for a crash.

            Sarah slowly removed her hands from her hips and walked back to the car, the entire time looking back, expecting him to be there as soon as she got inside.

            She eased in and gingerly closed the door, pulling her trembling hands in front of her eyes.  It had been another trying ordeal to accompany this suddenly trying day.  She put the key in the ignition and stared blankly at it as she turned the car on. Was it all in her mind? As she looked up from the steering wheel she blew a wisp of brown hair from her face. The road in front of her was still forsaken, discluding the notion that Ludo would reappear as soon as she had returned to the haven of her vehicle.

            As she put her foot to the gas, the feelings that she had suppressed earlier started rushing back into her mind. Sarah began to question her sanity and asked herself why she would suddenly imagine that she had seen a friend from the Labyrinth. Maybe it was the excitement of coming back home. Splitting her attention between watching the road and thinking, she looked at the opposing side of that question. What if it wasn't her imagination?

            She turned up the radio, a sudden uneasiness flooding her.  Where was that shred of evidence that would prove her sanity?  Of course, with things involving the Underground anything was possible, but she hadn't seen her friends from the Labyrinth since her junior year of high school.  The years had passed and the dreamlike world called the Underground had faded into the misty depths of her memory.  Of course, she knew deep down that she had forced the memory away, trying to forget that she had once had another world at her fingertips and was made to sacrifice it for practicality and her love of Toby.  Nothing in the world would have made her change her decision and to have forsaken Toby so that she could live in the Underground, but she still wished there had been some other way.

            No, she had not forgotten, but life itself had crowded so tightly into her brain that there was little room for anything else.  Especially her hopes and dreams.  And, for her, the Underground was just a hopeful dream that had come and passed over a hazy period of thirteen hours.

            She looked down with weary eyes at the dashboard.  Her gas tank was empty.  "That's strange," she remarked with a slight expression of confusion.  "I filled it only an hour ago."  She looked up and, as if on cue, the gas station at the county border became visible on the edge of the horizon.  The inclination to say "What luck" rose and fell within Sarah as she thought of the statement's possible eerie and displeasing connotation.

            Is it happening again? she found herself asking.  If it is, I don't think I could handle having to give it all up a second time.

            Just as she approached the station, a dull, white sign passed by her in a ghostlike flurry, its black cursive letters declaring, "Welcome to Highland Grove."  She had passed that sign numerous times within the past year and only noted its presence subconsciously.  Yet, with that mild acknowledgment came the thought that this particular journey did not make her feel so welcomed.

            Upon reaching the gas station she turned and pulled up alongside the gas pumps. A man in a grungy jumpsuit approached her from his workshop, wiping his hands on an oily rag.  He bent over to face her and said, smiling, "Can I help you, ma'am?"

            She forced a nervous smile and replied, "Fillerup, please."

            "Sure thing."  He tipped his cap and went to work at filling her tank.

            Sarah stared without focus through the windshield.  Something was nagging at the back of her mind, but she couldn't pinpoint what it was.  It was as if she was having a sudden recognition of something, but the object she supposedly recognized was not making itself apparent to her.  It was deja'vu, melancholy and rueful in nature.  It made her want to reach out with her hands and grab that thing that had caused it, to hold on to it with all of her strength and to never let go.  To suppress her overwhelming urge to take hold of something substantial, she clasped her fingers together tightly, holding herself down in her foolish need. Yet, she felt that, if she could hold onto the eluding source of her recollection, she would have an ultimate grip on her life.

            In an optimistic effort to relive that unknown piece of her past, Sarah gave the area around her a sweeping glance.  She squinted her eyes against the glaring reflection of the sun that emitted from her side view mirror.  She unhooked her fingers and went to reposition the reflecting piece of glass; the light subsided and her eyes were drawn to the crisp image of the man who was filling her tank.

            He leaned on the back of her car as if it were his own.  His head was bent downward as he waited for the tank to fill, the long, blond hair that covered his face pale in the sunlight.  He cupped his hands before himself, as if pondering a translucent sphere that was held there.  Her distraction must have been so strong earlier, because she had not noticed his striking air.  She felt that she might reach out towards him and pull a piece of the world from the canopy that surrounded him, as if the imaginary globe he held contained all of her hopes and dreams and he held it out before himself for the taking

            She swung her head around suddenly and looked back through the windshield.  She heard the man pull the nozzle from the gas tank and head towards the side window.  The recognition's source had been found.  The clickclack of his boots sounded like a drum in her ears and drowned out the sound of her own breathing.  Like a messenger of doom he came to her car window, standing silently in front of it after the abrupt ending of leather soles against concrete.  Still, his face was out of reach from her sight and only his torso could be seen through the window.  Each second was agony for Sarah as she wondered whose countenance the man possessed.  Slowly, carefully, he bent down, placing his crossed arms onto the edge of the window as his face eased its way into the image framed by the opening.

            "Anything else, Sarah?"  His lips were thin and straight, but his eyes were flirtatious, humored by the sudden motion Sarah made to push herself back into her seat.  She stared anxiously at him and groped around for her keys.

            "What are you doing here?" she demanded tonelessly with widening eyes.  The Goblin King gave a coquettish smile and his whispery eyebrows slanted upward on his brow.  His accent was smooth and entrancing.  "Why, to see you."

            She ran her fingers through her hair and closed her eyes.  It was all she could do to get a grip on her emotions.  Why, after five years, is Jareth visiting me?  Is he taunting me?  Is it just a game?  And what does Ludo have to do with it?  And are the others all right? And

            "Are you okay ma'am?" The voice that came was not that of Jareth's as it had been a moment before. She hesitantly opened her eyes again, to find a different man standing there with a look of concern on his face. The nightmare was over. It wasn't Jareth standing before her, but a normal man, hired to pump gas for waiting customers.

            Yet, had it really happened?  Was she going over the edge?

            She sighed and shook her head. "Umyeah. I'm fine. II just felt a little dizzy."

            The wrinkle in his brow eased and he pressed her further. "You sure? 'Cause I can get some help if you need it." He stared at her as if she were a china doll tottering on the mantel.

            "Yeah, I'm okay"  She gripped the steering wheel firmly to reassure herself that she was in reality.  "How much is the gas?"

            Hesitantly, he let go of his worried expression, yet he did not seem fully convinced that she had recovered.  "Thirteen fiftysix," he replied, as if the money were no longer important.

            As she dug in her purse he commented with false alacrity, "You know, you had me worried there a minute, asking me what I was doing here, 'n' all."

            "I'm sorry," she mumbled absentmindedly as she handed him the money.  "I thoughtI thought you were someone else, that's all.  I'm visiting my family for the weekend, and"

            "Oh!" he exclaimed, forsaking his discomfort. "I see.  An old boyfriend, come to haunt you, I suppose."

            "Something like that," she replied distantly as she stared away from him and out of the windshield.  No, this had not been the first time that thoughts of the Underground had haunted her.  She had thought once before that time would drag them away, but time had only made them more persistent and troublesome in nature.  Though she tried to deny it, vivid dreams and nightmares had afflicted her for the past week, and the past two occurrences of the day had fit neatly in with the other disturbing reminders of the Goblin King.

            Sarah noticed that the gas station employee's uneasiness was returning at her thoughtful demeanor, so she forced herself to return to the present situation.  "As a matter of fact, it was a lot like a boyfriend come to haunt me," she said in addition to her former answer to his question.  "I'm glad it was just my imagination."  Suddenly she realized that she was still holding the money, so she proffered it to him.  "Keep the change."

            He took it earnestly.  His interest in the matter vanished as he counted the money, but he did not speak without warmth.  "Have a nice day."

            "Same to you," Sarah answered with a forced smile as she turned on the car and pulled out of the filling station.

            After she was back on the highway the man stuffed the money in his pocket and stared at her departing car.

            "Odd girl.  Looks homesick."

Jennifer Connelly     David Bowie    Jim Henson            C    C