Esmeralda Santiago’s only friend was a girl named Luna who lived on the moon. Luna and Esmeralda had been classmates since kindergarten and had spent every day after school running through the woods behind Esmeralda’s house – skinning their knees on fallen, moss-covered trees, forging alliances with the fairies who lived amongst the ferns, and establishing an uneasy truce with the kingdom of squirrels who inhabited the tall oaks and maples.
“My mom is a fairy queen,” Esmeralda had told Luna as they lay in the shade of the old oak tree that stood next to the lily pond, “that’s why she’s always away – she has a kingdom to run.”
“That must be cool to have a fairy queen for a mom.” Luna said as she stared up at the great white galleons that floated on the endless blue sea.
“Mostly it is. I get lots of cool stuff that she brings back from all the places that she has to go rule over.”
“That’s cool.” Her hand darted up toward a cloud that drifted by overhead, “Oh, look, a windmill.”
“Oh, and there’s a rhinoceros.”
“Does that look like a bear?”
“A really fat one, maybe,” Esmeralda puffed out her cheeks, and then giggled.
“Fat like Fat Bobby!”
“No way. He’s way fatter.” Esmeralda held out her hands as wide as they would go. “He’s like twice the size of a really fat bear.”
“Hey! If your mom’s a fairy queen, doesn’t that mean you’re a princess?”
“Oh! Yeah, it totally does!”
“Does that mean you’re going to have to marry a prince?”
“Ew, no! Gross!”
“You’re going to have to marry a prince as fat as Fat Bobby!”
“Eew! No! That’s totally gross!”
“And you would have really fat kids!” Luna puffed out her cheeks this time.
“And maybe you’d even have a really fat dragon!”
Esmeralda laughed, “I’d take a really fat dragon. That’d be totally cool. Then I could curl up on him and take a nap.”
“Da?” Luna looked over at her friend; she was the only one besides Esmeralda’s mother who could get away with calling her Da.
“Let’s go feed the squirrels acorns!”
One day, Esmeralda’s mother brought home a pleasantly plump dragon. Esmeralda squealed and tossed her arms around its neck. It grunted, sighed, and laid its large, scaly head on the top of hers.
“Mom, this is so cool!” She bounced up and down as she talked. One hand gestured at her mother while the other scratched her new pet behind the ears. “I’ve always wanted a dragon!”
“Well, now you have one. What are you going to name him?”
“Hmm,” Esmeralda put her hand to her chin, “Let me think.” She looked into her dragon’s big, brown eyes and his tail started wagging vigorously - sending the contents of the coffee table he was sitting next to clattering onto the floor. “I think I’ll call him Spike.”
“Ok. Spike it is.”
Spike the dragon lived outside in the backyard in a very large dragon-house and spent most of his days nosing around the lily pond, looking for goblins to eat.
During the summer between fourth and fifth grade, Luna fell ill. She had always been prone to sickness, but this time she wasn’t getting better. At first, she simply wasn’t able to run around in the woods, but as the weeks wore on, she wasn’t able to go out at all.
Esmeralda spent most of her afternoons sitting at the edge of the lily pond watching Spike. Every Tuesday, though, she traveled to the moon to visit her friend. After school, she would wait by the pond for her transportation. She could hear it from a mile away, rumbling through the sky toward her. The great mechanical steed coughed and sputtered as it flew through the air. Smoke poured out of a pipe on the rear of the contraption, and every few feet it would emit a loud bang.
It resembled an old truck: red and rusted and clunky; but where it should have had side panels, it had wings that flapped up and down with a loud creak. When it landed, it blinked one of its headlights and wiggled its bumper at her.
Behind her she could hear Spike growl, so she jumped in quickly, and the truck took off, zooming into the sky. The ground receded into the distance beneath her, the house and lily pond and woods growing smaller and smaller. They soared up through the clouds, and the ocean appeared on the horizon. Then, as they left the atmosphere, the world as a whole became visible.
Esmeralda settled in as they sailed through the ether toward the moon, which glowed brightly in the distance.
Luna curled up on the crescent moon. The stars glowed in the night sky, the Milky Way hung directly above her, and the earth shined in the distance. Esmeralda bounced across the Sea of Tranquility toward her, pirouetting as she left the surface with each step.
“Hi Da,” Luna said sleepily as she turned toward her friend.
Esmeralda disappeared into a crater, and then reappeared a second later. “Hi Luna! How are you doing today?”
“Worn out, like usual.”
Esmeralda stopped bounding around the surface of the moon and sat down on the bed next to her friend. “I’m sorry.”
Luna offered a wan smile, “I know.”
“Maybe next time, I can bring feyberry juice. That’ll make you feel better.”
Luna was quiet. She stared at the stars overhead.
“Feyberry juice always makes you feel better, Luna. It’s got all sorts of fairy magic in it.”
Luna pale face turned red. “There are no fairies, Da!” She began to sputter, “You can’t turn into a robot, and Spike’s a dog, not a dragon, and the alchemist doesn’t give me potions, the doctor gives me medicine, and I don’t live on the moon, and the stars are just stickers.”
“I…I…” Esmeralda stammered.
“There are no fairies! There are no fairies! There are no fairies!” Luna yelled as she pounded the bed with her fists. “They don’t have magic and they can’t make me better.” She began to cry and looked away.
Esmeralda stared in silence for a moment, and then leaned over and then hugged her friend. “I’m sorry.”
Luna cried for a few minutes, was quiet for a few more, and then finally whispered, “My Mom says that I’ll be going to Heaven soon.”
“Is it going to hurt?”
“I don’t think it could hurt any more than it already does.”
“I’m going to miss you.”
“I’m going to miss you, too.” Luna returned Esmeralda’s embrace, and then collapsed back on the bed. Esmeralda lay down next to her, and they stayed that way, staring at the field of stars above them, for over an hour. Finally, Luna turned to her, “I’m tired Da, I need to go to sleep.”
Esmeralda nodded, pulled the covers up over her only friend in the entire world, walked over to the door, and blew her a kiss.
A month earlier, Esmeralda sat in a chair as the alchemist peered into his cauldron. Green smoke bellowed forth, creeping into the corners of the chamber and curling around her feet. Luna and her mother sat next to her, as the alchemist chanted arcane phrases.
He stared at a scroll for a few minutes, then pulled out a wand and began gesturing at Luna. The wand created eddies in the smoke, and little waves of magical energy leapt off the tip each time he came near her.
Esmeralda looked around at the alchemical equipment: the decanters and vials, the mortar and pestles, the braziers and cauldrons. She looked at the cabinets full of herbs and essences and the racks of bones and talismans. I can do this, she thought.
After several minutes of pouring over eldritch tomes and astrological charts, the alchemist scratched his chin and then pulled a glass vial out of a cabinet. He poured the contents of the cauldron into the vial, scribbled instructions on a piece of parchment, and ushered them out of his laboratory.
“I don’t want to take any more of these,” Luna told her mother.
“I know, darling,” her mother said, “But you need them to get better.”
Luna frowned, but nodded her head.
One day, I’m going to make potions for people, Esmeralda thought to herself. I bet the fairies will teach me how.
By six, Esmeralda was a full head taller than all of the boys in her class, and had the vocabulary of a spelling bee champion. One day, while walking through the jungle, Esmeralda saw a group of wild monkeys harassing a small, pale girl. They screeched and howled as they jumped around her, and several of them had picked up sticks.
The pale girl cowered on the ground, and Esmeralda knew she had to act. Summoning all of her power, she transformed: her arms turned into pistons, her hands into claws, her legs into tank treads, and her body sprouted armored plates. Now a heavily-armed fighting machine, she zoomed into the fray.
“You primates!” she yelled as her pneumatic-powered arms pummeled the monkeys. “Leave her alone!”
One of the monkeys squealed as its nose was crushed. “Owie, owie, owie!” it screamed as it ran off into the trees. Another monkey threw a stick at Esmeralda, which she easily ducked. She turned, picked it up, and threw it back at the monkey’s head. It squealed in pain, yelled, “No fair!” and then ran off as well. The rest of the monkeys stopped and began to back away.
“Run, you simians!” Esmeralda bellowed as she advanced toward them. She only needed to roll a few feet before they broke and scampered off. As she watched them disappear back into the jungle, Esmeralda transformed back into a six-year old girl. She extended her hand to the girl on the ground, “Are you ok?”
“Yes,” she whispered quietly, “Thank you.”
“No problem. When I transform into a robot, I can defeat pretty much anything, even talking monkeys.”
“Really? That’s so cool,” the pale girl said as she stood up and brushed the dust off of herself.
“Yeah. Hey, what’s your name?”
“Hi Esmeralda, how did you learn how to change into a robot?”
A week after her last visit, the great mechanical beast never arrived to take Esmeralda to the moon. She waited by the lily pond until the sun completed its circuit of the sky, and then went inside. After dinner, she did her homework, fed her dragon, and then put on her pajamas. The crickets chirped outside her window, and the light of the moon cast long shadows across her bed.
Sometime later, the sound of a phone rang in the night, and Esmeralda turned over and buried her head in the pillow. Then, she heard the sound of her mother climbing the stairs, and finally, the sound of her door creaking open.
“Yeah?” she said sleepily.
“Luna’s mom just called.”
Esmeralda sat bolt upright. “What happened?”
“Oh, Da. I’m so sorry.”
“No,” she said with a plaintive look.
“Da,” her mother walked over to the bed and sat down beside her.
“No!” Esmeralda threw off her covers and jumped out of bed. “No! No! No!”
“No!” She turned and ran from her room, bounding down the stairs and throwing open the front door. She could hear her mother calling from behind her as she ran out into the night. She headed toward the lily pond and the old oak tree that overlooked it.
Esmeralda had never felt so cold. She collapsed with her back against the tree, knees clutched tightly to her chest. Ice water ran through her veins, and her bones felt frozen through. A hollow emptiness churned within her belly – eating away slowly from within. She thought about crying, thought about yelling out at the top of her lungs, but instead sat quietly, trying to fold in on herself and disappear.
Spike peeked his head out of his dragon house and then wandered over to Esmeralda. He nuzzled her with his forehead, and, when she didn’t respond, he curled up around her: his head lying near the lily pond while his tail wrapped around the tree.
After a few hours, Esmeralda crawled over and lay down with her head on his belly, and the rhythm of his breathing finally lulled her to sleep.
Esmeralda woke in a strange land full of stone walls and steel-grey skies. Spike was gone, the lily pond was gone, and her house with her fairy-queen mother was gone. Bats flittered overhead, and Esmeralda felt the cold, damp air soak into her skin.
“Hello?” she called. Nobody answered, and the only sound was the whistling of the wind. “Is anybody there?”
She wandered through the desolate labyrinth for what felt like days. Occasionally, she would see a stray rock roll across the landscape of its own volition, and would hear a rhythmic creaking sound coming from the other side of the wall.
The light never changed: everything was washed out, nearly grey, no matter how far she walked. Her feet began to tire, so she stopped and sat. Nothing changed: the only constant was the emptiness.
She couldn’t tell how long she sat, but her feet eventually stopped hurting, so she walked again. “Hello?” she called again. This time, she heard the creaking, and it sounded close. She picked up her pace and rounded the corners of the labyrinth one after another.
Finally, she rounded a corner, and found the source of the creaking: not twenty feet in front of her, a specter, dressed in a white shroud, sat on a wooden bench. It had one hand on a wooden cradle and was gently rocking it back and forth. The specter groaned, and Esmeralda shuddered. This isn’t Heaven, she thought to herself.
From where she stood, she couldn’t see into the cradle. She didn’t want to see into the cradle – she was afraid of what she would see. “Who are you?”
No answer. The cradle simply continued to rock.
“Why am I here?”
The specter turned its head slightly, and Esmeralda notices a phrase carved into the wall behind it: “In hoc signo vinces.” She mouthed the words as she read them, “With this sign, be victorious.”
The cradle stopped rocking, and the specter turned to look at her. She saw a hollow shell filled with infinite, empty blackness, and felt a cold hand grip her soul.
“No,” she said simply. “No.”
The specter didn’t move, but she felt the cold recede.
“I won’t let you take any more.”
The specter looked away from her.
“I’ll use potions and medicine and wands and needles and fairy magic and science, and I won’t let you take any more.”
The specter began to fold in on itself – the white shroud consumed by the infinite black. A moment later, it was gone. She blinked, and the cradle disappeared. Then she blinked again, and she realized she was lying on her back next to the lily pond, while her pet dragon licked her face.
Esmeralda wiped her eyes and looked out at the stars far above, at the Milky Way that cut a brilliant path across the sky, and at the moon, where her only friend Luna used to live.
This was the winning entry of the Ceramic DM 2007 writing tournament. Thanks for reading!