12. The Null (Page 1)

Images formed around the princess, enclosing her in the same little room from her previous dream. Empty bowls leftover after a scrumptious dinner littered the table as her parents laughed happily by the hearth, the fire cracking like a whip every few seconds and faintly scenting the air with the cedar branches it fed on. Clothed in a brown skirt and a burnt orange bodice speckled with earthy green patches, Hataru's mother made up a story to entertain the family, altering her voice for each character. The girl’s father ─ his buff arms perfect for holding his wife and daughter close ─ made sound effects to accompany the tall tale, making Hataru, an eight year old at the moment, giggle profusely. This was what she remembered of her life in the early years: happiness and joy all around, no pain or sorrow, only bliss.

Evaporating like the smoke wafting up their chimney, the scene shifted. The fire was out, leaving the room stale and cold, and the rack that had once held the kindling now served as a home for a community of spiders; dusty, cracked dinnerware remained unused on the table. In the bed on the opposite side of the room, the young girl's mother lay pale and coughing.

Hataru,” she wheezed.

“Mama?”

Careful not to disturb the sullied bandages on her daughter’s cheek, she stroked Hataru’s hair, hoping that the bloody gash wouldn’t scar such a beautiful face. “Dance for me, my little swan. Won't you?”

“I don't want to dance anymore, not if you can't dance with me.”

“Oh, child, don't say that. You're so pretty when you dance; you've got to keep dancing. Don’t give up on your dream! One day you'll be even better than me, and you'll travel the world and meet new pe─” she erupted into another fit of coughing.

“I don't want to travel the world, Mama! I want to stay with you!”

“You can't stay with me forever, my little swan. Dance for me, please…

“But there's no music, Mama…”

“Please, Hataru. Just one twirl?”

Sighing, the girl relented. Just as her mother had taught her, she performed her special fouette en tournant, whipping her left leg around for momentum and allowing her filthy skirt to fan out around her.

“Oh, so beautiful! One more, one more!”

Daring to enjoy herself, Hataru obliged, whirling around not once, but thrice more. The weighty pressure she had withstood during her mother’s illness seemed to fly from her shoulders like migratory birds, and she beamed radiantly at the thought of them soaring away and never returning. But when she completed her last rotation, her smile faltered.

“Mama? Did you fall asleep? Wake up, Mama! I'm dancing for you, see?” She twirled again. “Mama!”

The frail woman's eyes did not open.

No,” the girl backed away toward the door, “No! Daddy!” she called, fleeing from the room as if to escape the sorrow that preyed upon her heart. “Daddy, come quick!”

She tripped into the next room, tasting the filth that had collected on the floor, just in time to see the front door crash to the ground. As fluid as water, men garbed in blue uniforms streamed into the house, and paying no attention to the crying little girl, they wrenched her father from the table where he had mindlessly been shuffling a deck of tattered playing cards. He didn’t try to fight the men, and he didn’t even look at Hataru as the blue-clad team dragged him from his home through the golden leaves dancing in the streets. And just like that, her parents were gone.

The End

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