|She gently fingered the delicate porcelain features of the ballerina, admiring the slender figure among the swans upon the painted lake. Various parts had chipped or broken off; only one of the three circling swans still retained its finely painted and sculpted head, and the paint of the ballerina’s tutu was faded to gray instead of the pure white it had once been. Dahlia remembered a time when the music box was new and perfect, but that time was long gone. Her mother had still been alive then.
Dahlia’s only memory of her mother was the two of them, Dahlia a young child in early elementary school, on her birthday. Her mother had given her the Princess of Swan Lake music box as a present. Later that evening, she had disappeared, and Dad had gently broken the news that Mom was gone for good. A semi had ploughed into her small car in a head-on collision.
Dahlia wiped away a hot, salty tear from her cheek. She had been too little to understand why Mom wasn’t ever coming back, but not too little to remember her. Dad was gone now, and the last connection to her mother she had left was the tiny toy music box of her childhood. Dahlia rediscovered it while cleaning out some boxes in her father’s attic, and, in a box with her mother’s name on it, she recognized the music box she had listened to every night before she went to bed, up until she had moved out for her college dorm. Dad must’ve felt the need to salvage some certain items from her broken childhood, and Dahlia could not have been more grateful than to take the keepsake home.
“I love you, Mom,” she whispered. This was a normal part of her nightly routine now: admire the music box and say good night to Mom before she went to bed. Tonight was especially emotional. It was Dahlia’s birthday, the anniversary of her mother’s death. “Goodnight.”
She gently wound the spring and watched the ballerina pirouette gracefully as the swans swam in a circle around her delicate, tiptoeing feet. Dahlia smiled at the familiarity of the tune as she closed her eyes, turning out the light. In a final gesture, she reached out her arm to her nightstand and touched the music box as it slowed to a grinding stop. Suddenly, the figure began to glow with intense heat and light.
Dahlia tried to recoil in fear, but her hand seemed to be attached to the figure with a cohesive, unbreakable bond. She cried out as, in a flash of blinding light, she was no longer in her bed.
“What?” Dahlia gasped, shivering in her flannel pajamas. The icy wind whipped at her clothes with its damp, salty breath, her dark curls flying in her green eyes. Her bare feet sank in the white sand as she navigated through the kelp and shells on the beach. Dahlia could not recall ever being here before as the roiling, foaming waves washed over her toes.
“Welcome,” a voice called. Dahlia turned to see a man about her age walk down to the sea. “Welcome, stranger, to Xanadu,” he repeated, giving her a friendly smile. “I am the gatekeeper here.”
She folded her arms, trying the best to cover her nightclothes. “Does the, uh, gatekeeper have a name?”
His grin grew broader. “My, you’ve a sense of humor. I am Alan.”
“Dahlia,” she murmured tentatively.
He gave her a gracious nod. “Come with me then, Dahlia. Come and join us.”
“’Us’?” she pondered.
“There are others, waiting for you,” Alan said. “They all have found a portal or another that led here.”
Dahlia studied the arm still proffered to her, mulling over the consequences. “If I go with you, can I get back home?”
Alan regarded her with a curious look. “Why would you want to leave Xanadu? It is a paradise land far more peaceful than your world.”
“Why would you want to go back? You haven’t anyone to go back to.”
“No, I guess I don’t.” Dahlia paused. “Wait. How would you know that?” She stepped backwards and into the cold surf.
A flash of emotion passed over Alan’s face before molding into a passive expression. “I surmised that was the case,” he smoothly replied. “The others who have come to Xanadu have very little left in their lives. Xanadu is their chance for rebirth and a new life.”
Dahlia stepped further and further backwards, finding herself in knee-deep water. “I don’t think I believe you.”
“Trust me.” Alan pressed forward, forcing her to wade deeper and deeper. “You don’t want to be too far in,” he warned. “The current tends to be strong the farther out you go. It’s almost too hard to swim sometimes. You’d best come with me and get changed into some decent, dry clothes.”
She ducked beneath the waves, out of Alan’s grip. Her lungs burned for want of air as she was dragged farther and farther down by an undertow.
Dahlia finally inhaled and opened her eyes. She was back in her room, in bed, arm stretched out to the music box on her side table. Without delay, she withdrew her arm and stared in wonder at the music box before watching the delicate porcelain figure crumple and shatter on her bedroom floor below.