|After emptying the last gold coins into the bottom of her dresser drawer, Emma tossed the box back on her bed. She looked at the drawer that now overflowed with gold. It was heavy and difficult to close. She had to push it closed with her shoulder and legs. She had accumulated thousands of coins in such a short amount of time. She knew how destructive she had to be to herself in order to get so much gold. She had to be miserable every night, making herself cry for reasons that weren’t even true. She knew that. She had to alienate herself from her so-called friends at school, who accumulated almost as fast as those gold coins. They weren’t real friends though, they only cared about her stuff. On top of all that, she had to yell at her parents for just trying to help. She knew they were right. She had become distant and sad; her emotions had become impossible to control.
Then Emma thought about her dreams, or at least that is what she thought they were at first. This last one seemed extremely vivid; it was dangerously real. The first dream she had had been in the swamp. She remembered how odd it was to see all those animals moving in the same direction for some great purpose. Then, when she got to the meeting place, her thoughts focused on that frog. It was huge, grotesque, bloated with flies. It must have eaten. She assumed it ate flies, but it also seemed to be in pain from its gluttony. Its mouth opened in shut, as if it tried to either breathe or croak. Maybe the frog called all the other creatures together. Maybe it ruled over the swamp. Then again, the other animals looked at the frog in pity rather than looking at it in reverence. They then turned on her. Looking into the frogs bright green eyes burned in her memory.
The next dream was completely different. She remembered how comfortable that butterfly made her feel, like sitting on her grandfather’s lap, listening to him read her a story. Yet, the butterfly remained just out of reach. Why didn’t the butterfly come close to her? Why did it always flutter further away when she reached for it? It made her take greater risks to try to hold it, and with the wind blowing unpredictably, it was dangerous. She had let her guard down. Thank goodness, she woke up.
Now, thinking about how torn her pajamas were, she wondered if any of them were dreams. Maybe she transported into another world while asleep because of that box. What if she never woke up from those dreams? Would the swamp animals have attacked her? Would she be dead now at the bottom of some cliff in another universe? Would she have had the same fate as those flying squirrels? Emma looked at the box closely. She hadn’t given it enough respect before. When she found it under the floorboards in the attic, she only saw a way of getting rich, but never considered what that might cost her.
Taking the box in her hand, she studied the carvings closely. The frog did look bloated. It legs were tiny compared to its huge stomach that protruded abnormally forward. She looked at the frogs face and saw how the eyes squinted in pain. It looked like it lived in a large room full of flies and couldn’t stop itself from eating. Emma turned the box. The butterfly looked simple enough, but the landscape carved behind it was terribly worn down. The scene showed a great canyon, but the image was faded from years and years of wear. And the cliff. She recognized the cliff. Emma turned the box again. The carving of the squirrel definitely jumped from a tree branch as she first thought, but what she didn’t notice, again in the background, were the images of a hawk with large talons outstretched and a snarling beast. All the images were faint, and easy to miss at first glance, but now they seemed clear as day.
She could remember one more image on the next side of the box. The thought of it made her hands shake. She hadn’t seen that in her dreams but she knew it would come soon. This realization made it painfully difficult to turn the box one more time. Hesitating at first, Emma forced herself to turn it. On the last side the image of a ferocious dragon spewed flames from its mouth. It perched on a cliff next to its cave. The dragon’s tail snaked from its lair and intruded on all of the other images, underlining them, emphasizing them with the tip of its tail finally pointing down to the underside of the box. It looked like it was pointing to something. She hadn’t that noticed before. Emma turned the box upside down and saw words inscribed into the bottom. It looked like they were burned into the wood. She read it aloud.
“Dreamers hunt for their own shadow
And follow the path to riches,
But dreamers who care only for treasure
Will surely be lost in dimness.”
Emma read it again and she repeated the last two lines to herself. But dreamers who care only for treasure/ Will surely be lost in dimness. She must be the dreamer it referred to, her and everyone else who had found that box before her. But what did it mean to be lost in dimness? It sounded foreboding. She had a good idea what had happened to the others that longed for the easy money that the box provided, just like her. She looked back at the flames that came from the mouth of the dragon. Emma had to get rid of that box and all the gold coins before it was too late, before she fell asleep, before it took her. But how? The coins almost overflowed in her bottom drawer and all the stuff that she bought with them were too much for her to remember. She should have written everything down. It had only been a few weeks, but she lost track of how much she had used. It seemed that even the pajamas she wore chained her to the mouth of that cave. Did she buy her pajamas with the gold coins or were they a gift from her parents? She couldn’t remember.
Emma grabbed a handful of gold coins from inside her bottom dresser drawer and stacked them inside the box. She fit as many as she could. The gold coins came from her tears, so maybe the opposite of tears would make them go away. What’s the opposite of tears? She couldn’t remember the last time she laughed. It was probably months ago. She had been crying for herself for such a long time, she forgot how to laugh. It seemed silly, but she drew in breath and tried it.
“Ha… Ha! Ha!”
It was obviously forced and insincere. She knew that her effort was pointless when she looked down at the box. How could she make herself laugh and feel genuinely happy when she knew what was coming for her? Crying was so easy. She really didn’t have to try too hard to do that. Things had been so miserable for her lately that it came without that much effort. By dwelling on the bad things in her life made it seem natural and sincere. Now, when her life depended on it, she had no control. How arrogant it was to fool her into thinking that she would be impervious to her own feelings, that making herself feels miserable each night by thinking about all the bad things in her life would have no long-term effects. Again, as it came so naturally, Emma felt sorry for herself and cried. The box clinked to life and more gold coins flowed out of it, pushing the already present coins out onto her bed. In horror, she picked up the box, hurled it against her bedroom wall, and screamed.
Emma grabbed her new school bag and filled it with as many gold coins as she could fit. She would have to make several trips. She ran up to the attic where she first found the magic box hoping that if she put all the coins and the box back, then it would be like she never found it. After four trips with her school bag completely full, she put the last coin in the floor where the old plank had once been. On top of the gold, she placed the small wood box that seemed so innocent. Then she placed the plank where it rested before, and with a hammer and nails she took from her dad’s toolbox, Emma hammered the board back down, sealing the box and the gold coins forever.
Emma doubted this would be enough. What would happen when she needed to buy more clothes? The temptation would be terrible. However, beyond all the doubt she had in her plan, she hoped this would be enough. She would board the attic shut so that she couldn’t make it up here ever again if she had to.
After she finished hammering the last nail into to the plank, sealing the treasure underneath the floor, she went back into her room and sat on her bed. It was late now. She spent the entire day trying to get rid of the gold coins. She hadn’t eaten. She hadn’t even seen her parents all day. They hadn’t tried to talk to her or check in; they hadn’t even tried to get her to eat anything. That was strange. She got up from her bed and checked the living room, then the kitchen, and then the dining room. No one was there. She knocked on her parent’s bedroom door and there was no answer. Slowly she cracked the door open and looked inside the bedroom. She used to come in there when she was much younger, scared of the dark, or from having a bad dream. This room was the most comforting place in the whole house. She would sleep right in the middle of that big bed, between her parents and they would hug her to sleep, telling her that she was safe and that they would never let anything ever happen to her. She missed her parents so much. She felt like cuddling up in that bed again. She needed her parents now more than ever.
She went back into the garage. The car was still there. She opened the back door and checked the back yard; they weren’t gardening or doing lawn work. They were gone. This was not like them at all. Even when they had to work long hours and no one was at home, they still left a note or made sure she knew where they were and when to expect them back. Something was wrong. She ran back to her room. What had she done? Suddenly a warm wind blew through her hair as she sat on her bed. It startled her and felt like someone breathed on her neck. Then another gust hit her right in the face, but nothing was in front of her. She knew what it was, and knew that it would take her no matter how much she tried to fight it. Then she saw something in the ceiling of her room. Above her head, a bright yellow glow seeped through her bedroom ceiling. She lay back on her bed, stared at the yellow light and waited.
* * *
Emma stood on a rocky cliff that overlooked a crooked canyon. This canyon was much more different from the one she fell from earlier that week. This canyon was dark and frightening. Jagged rocks that filled the canyon looked like huge teeth. Standing on the rim, Emma felt like she was looking into the jaws of an enormous shark. The sky darkened from ominous clouds overhead and looked like it would collapse on her at any moment. She recognized this canyon as the last image on the box. She turned around and saw that she stood at the mouth of a large cave.
Despite all her senses telling her to run away, she couldn’t do it. She walked into the mouth of the cave where a warm wind emanated. Slowly, Emma walked forward until it became completely dark. The stench horrified her. It smelled ten times worse than the rats. It smelled of death, disease, and stagnation scorched her nostrils and made her gag. She had to take short shallow breaths so she wouldn’t throw up. She wondered how long she would have to walk in darkness before she saw the horrible creature. Emma had to feel along the cave wall in order not to run into anything or get her direction turned around.
She wished she had some kind of weapon to fight a dragon with, although she knew having a weapon was pointless. She had never once considered how to fight a mythological creature, let alone meet one. People don’t think about these sorts of situations in the twenty-first century. They only read about them in fairy tales. However, in fairy tales, it seemed, something good always controlled everything and the characters were never in any real danger. There was nothing in control here. She was all alone with no weapon to defend her or without a torch so she could see in front of her. Then she thought of something horrible. What if the rocky wall was actually the dragon? She could be inching along, trying to find an opening or some light where she could gain her bearings, all while touching the scaly skin of the dragon that was there to eat her. She quickly pulled her hands away from the rock and stood still.
“You’re almost there, my dear.” A deep dark voice filled the cave and a warm wind blew through her hair and filled her lungs. She was soothed by it. It was like the voice of some higher being, comforting her.
“Who’s there?” Emma said feeling encouraged.
“Walk forward, Emma. Soon, you will be able to see clearly,” the warm voice said.
Emma walked forward and saw a dim light in the distance. As she moved closer the air turned thick with the smell of sulfur and replaced the stagnate smell of death and decay that filled the cave tunnel. She entered a large chamber that expanded like a grand cathedral in depth and length. The chamber extended well over fifty feet high and stretched in a large circle to the sides. She stopped at an edge, where the path ended and a lake of yellow boiling metal began. A path clung to the sides of the chamber in both directions. Before Emma thought to choose which way to go, the deep voice came to her, closer than ever.
“Welcome to my home.”
Emma jumped, startled by how close the voice sounded and how strong the warm breath hit her face. She looked up and perched above her head at the mouth of the tunnel, a huge dragon with intelligent eyes stared down at her. She recognized the dragon from the carving on the box. With a powerful flex of its magnificent wings, the dragon lifted from its perch and glided to the other end of the chamber where it gracefully landed, turned, and looked at Emma.
Emma couldn’t move from her spot. It seemed her feet stuck to the rock and even if she tried, it would be no use. She just stood there and looked at the enormous dragon. It seemed to comfort her when it talked. It gave her hope that maybe she got it all wrong. Maybe this dragon was sent to her, and all the others who were taken in by the boxes power, as a guide to return her life to normal.
“So you have found my box of fortune and now you are here with me. That must mean that it has taken you as its slave,” the dragon said. It gave a knowing sigh and continued, “Now, I am sure, you have many questions for me, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Emma found her voice, though it was very weak and seemed to be swallowed by the depth of the chamber. “Yes,” she said louder. She heard her own echo.
Emma stood there, silent. She hadn’t thought about asking questions, though she had many. She thought this encounter would have been quick. The dragon’s offer left her dumbfounded.
“You did say that you had some questions, did you not?” The dragon continued.
“Yes… sir.” Emma said, unsure how to address the dragon.
“Then proceed.” The dragon seemed to be losing some of its patience.
Emma asked the first thing that came to her, although she already knew the answer. “Am I dreaming?”
“No.” The dragon looked restless as it shifted its weight onto one of its talons.
She had to think of something else. “Um, how does the box turn my tears into gold?”
“Ah, yes. That is a good question, one you surely asked yourself at first, but then quickly lost interest as it produced unimaginable wealth for you. Am I right?” The dragon didn’t give Emma enough time to respond. “Well, my dear, the box was designed to cure your deep sadness. And it works quite well, I am sure you agree. The inside of the box is enchanted by magic that turns the physical representation of your most familiar emotion—in your case tears—into the most likely material to cure you of it. If you remember, the way you found the box in the first place, you were crying because you were so poor. Were you not?”
“I think so.”
“Of course you were, otherwise the box would never have produced gold.”
“How did the box get in my attic?”
“I put it there, dear.”
“You put it there? How?
The dragon gave a deep, throaty laugh that sounded like a growl. It put Emma on edge.
“Humans are so self-absorbed. Do you actually believe that you live alone and isolated in the world? Humans have always thought that they were the center of the universe, since the first philosophers said the sun revolved around the earth. You of course would have never considered a realm outside of your own, would you? It would be too, significant. Only a few have, and I am sure you have read their stories.” Emma thought of the fairy tales that her granddad read to her when she was younger. “Those humans were the truly enlightened ones. Although, I must confess, their stories came from experiences that I may have had a hand in.”
“Do you mean fairy tales?”
“Yes, I do believe that is what you call them.”
“But they aren’t real.”
“Of course they aren’t. They are stories. But the experiences that the writers had before they wrote such stories were. They all had much the same experience as you are having now. However, their reasons for being here were in many ways different from yours. The sadness, the joy, the love, and all other forms of emotions that humans feel penetrate through your reality and enter into mine. I feel all of your sadness, and when a human has such an intense feeling as you did, on occasion, I will intervene. In your case, I sent you that box placing it exactly where you were most likely to use it, just like I have for millions before you.”
Emma remembered the many fairy tales that she had read and thought about all the mythological creatures that were described in them; dragons, spirits, trolls, elves, fawns, all kinds of creatures, some good and some bad. She remembered that in those stories dragons had been both protectors and ferocious beasts that destroyed villages and had eaten many people. Dragons typically caused destruction and fear. Did all those stories refer only to this dragon? Was it both a wise counselor and ferocious beast? If the dragon was telling the truth then all the creatures in those stories did exist in another realm, and the writers had experienced them and wrote stories based on them.
The dragon continued, “As you are surely remembering all the stories you have ever read, you will recognize one commonality between them all.”
“They all have a moral.”
“That is right. You are bright. It took the Grimm brothers much longer to figure that one out. And what is the moral, dear.”
“Well… There are a lot of them, but they usually deal with greed and finding happiness. They talk about how important it is to stay close to your family and friends.”
“Of course! Wow, once again you amaze me, my dear.” The dragon continued, “Relationships are very important to humans. Did you think that those writers could have come to those wonderful ideas by themselves? Oh no, not in a million years. I have found that humans are very often dim-witted. Although some do have the insight to write down what they had learned from their experiences with me in order to prevent others from making the same mistakes. Nothing seems to excite humans more than stories. Your species thrives on them.”
Emma forgot about the smell from the chamber or her fate being at the whim of a dangerous creature. She was emboldened. “So this is all real?”
“Of course it is, dear. What do you think I have been saying? It is just like a human to take a perfectly tangible experience and shove it off as a dream or a vision of some kind. This is quite real, I assure you, just as real as those scratches on your arms.”
Emma looked down at her arms and remembered the grotesque rats that chased her in the tree.
As if reading her thoughts, the dragon said, “They are called Ograts, nasty creatures, and blood-thirsty scavengers.”
“Why was I sent to all of those different places in my dre…I mean.”
“Oh, it is quite alright. I would not expect you to find them as real experiences yet. You still need some convincing.” The dragon gave Emma a look that sent chills up her spine. “They were warnings, my dear. They were warnings about the path that you were so easily taking without regard to the consequences.”
Emma remembered the swamp and how bloated the toad looked.
The dragon continued, again reading her thoughts, “If you looked into the toads eyes, I am sure you would have recognized them.” Emma remembered that very well. “The toad was you, my dear. It represented your need to continue using that box so you could fill your closet with clothes and your ears with jewelry. Of course, you didn’t understand it at the time and wouldn’t stop using it.”
Emma then remembered the canyon that she fell from and the butterfly that fluttered just out of reach. “What about the canyon?” she asked.
“Ah, yes, the canyon. Well, my dear, think about it. What did you feel when you were stranded on top of that very narrow and unstable plateau?”
“I felt completely alone. I felt exposed and in danger, like no one could help me.”
“That is right. Then the butterfly came and that all changed, didn’t it?”
“Yes. Seeing the butterfly reminded me of my grandfather’s, when he used to read me…stories.”
The dragon let out a menacing snort. “That is right. Then you lost all inhibition and foolishly tried to touch the butterfly, didn’t you? Of course, you couldn’t reach it, because that butterfly represents something else.”
“That is right! But what about your family?” The dragon paused. It looked irritated when Emma didn’t respond right away and said, “Your family got further and further out of reach because of your own selfishness. You see, dear girl, when you were so self-consumed in gaining wealth—even though you said to yourself that you were doing it for your family—you were actually pushing your family away. Oh, the irony! They were becoming like strangers to you, in your state. You were alone; therefore, you could never have reached that butterfly. That is why you fell.”
Emma remembered how it felt to be in complete freefall, waiting to hit the ground below.
“And the last…”
Emma cut in, “I was in the tree, with the squirrels and the Og…Og.”
“The Ograts, yes, those vile things.” The dragon sneered at the thought of them and then turned its stare back on Emma and growled, “Do not interrupt me again.”
Emma looked at the ground, avoiding the dragon’s intense stare.
“What happened in the tree?”
“The squirrels were…eaten.” Emma choked on the words and remembered that terrible experience with her face covered, and hearing all those horrible sounds, those poor squirrels.
“Those squirrels never had a chance.” The Dragon sounded amused by the thought. “They were too set in their ways, I am afraid.”
“What do you mean?”
“The squirrels only knew one fate. They would never have considered working together to protect themselves. At that point, you were just like the squirrels. You knew the trouble you were in and still you could not resist that box or admit that you needed help. Do you remember?”
Emma remembered how terrible she was to her parents that night before she went to bed. They were trying to help her. That night she placed the box under her despite how it made her feel. It was a very productive night.
“So you see, my dear, you had all the opportunities anyone could have ever wished for to make better decisions and change the direction you were on. And now, I am afraid, your time has run out.”
Emma felt the cold chill of panic rising in her. “Wait, but if those weren’t dreams then why did I always wake up in my bed?”
“Because I didn’t want you to die,” the dragon hissed, “yet.” It searched its lips with a long forked tongue. “No more questions, it is time to finish this.” The dragon reared up on its talons and stretched its wings as far as they could go. It seemed to fill the entire chamber. Emma immediately smelled the sulfur again from the bubbling metal and began to sweat from the intense heat that came from it.
“But I still have questions!” Emma shouted. “What happened to my parents? They were gone before you brought me here.”
The dragons voice became harsher as it growled, “Your parents are safe for now, still in your world.” It pointed one hooked claw down at the bubbling pool. The forms of Emma’s parents rose out of the metal with their eyes and mouths wide open, but no sign of life. Her heart froze. “I am sure that after your sudden and unexplainable death, their grief will send them here, the same way you came. But maybe the box will produce something else for them. I don’t know, maybe I will send them small reminders of you, a finger perhaps, or maybe those pretty torn garments. You will not need those where you are headed.” Emma could see the belly of the dragon swell as it breathed. The dragon started to crawl along the side of the chamber, getting closer to her.
“Why did you choose me? I’m just a little girl!”
The dragon stopped. Its eyes softened slightly. “It is true that I have usually chosen humans that were a bit older than yourself. For a long time I tried to ignore you, but the intensity of your sadness drew me in. It became impossible to ignore. You had more sadness than most humans do when they are adults. It was strange to me, and no matter how long I tried to ignore it, you kept enticing me. To be quite honest, the thought of devouring such a young human was too attractive to ignore. The temptation is more than you would know. I am rather excited about eating you; this will be quite enjoyable.”
The dragon drew in a deep breath and blew flames at Emma. She jumped inside the tunnel wall just before the flames reached her. “I can change! I don’t want the gold any more!” she pleaded.
“It’s too late for that now, my dear. You have made your decision.”
Emma scrambled to her feet and started running into the tunnel. She ran as fast as she could, not caring whether she hit a rock or stumbled on the floor. She needed to get out of there. The dragon came lumbering into the mouth of the tunnel and blew flames into it. She got just out of reach of the flames and could finally see her surroundings. It became clear why the tunnel smelled so horribly. Along the walls were piles and piles of bones from creatures she had never seen before and of humans that the dragon had lured there with the box. Some bodies still had flesh on them and smelled ripe with death. She knew it would only be a matter of time before she joined them.
“Go ahead, dear. Keep running. Although you should know that, there is no escape. I controlled your escapes before and, frankly my dear, I would much rather you did not go. I am quite hungry. It has been a while since I have had a tasty human in my stomach. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.”
Emma could hear the dragon crawling through the tunnel, its wings slapped against the walls. She ran hard until she could finally see the dim light that came through the other end of the tunnel, having no idea how she was going to escape. She reached the edge and looked down the cliff once again. There was no way for her to reach the bottom without falling on those jagged rocks. She searched each side of the caves mouth for a path, but no trail appeared. She started inching along the side of the cliff, hanging on to the jagged edge, sure, that she would die soon.
The dragon reached the opening of the cave and stopped. Emma froze, as it smelled the air. A tiny rock that supported one of her feet gave away, broadcasting her position from the crash of rocks. “There you are!” The dragon growled. “Thought you could hide from me did you?”
The dragon started crawling along the same side of the cliff, but was too heavy for the brittle rocks and it fell, letting out a terrible growl as it plummeted to the bottom. Emma watched it tumble down the cliff and unfold its wings, soaring away from the cliff and flying back up to where she clung. Emma continued to struggle along the cliff, trying to find solid foot holds while moving as fast as she could. The dragon swooped by her and circled around to pounce on her from behind. As it closed in on her with its talons out, Emma let go of the edge and fell, just before the dragon slammed into the cliff.
Both Emma and the dragon tumbled town the cliff out of control. The dragon gained its bearings and snagged Emma out of the air before she hit the bottom. One talon closed around her arm, the other grabbed her shoulder. Its claws sunk into her skin. Emma ignored the pain. They flew back up to the cave entrance and she fell on the ledge.
“What do you think you are doing?” hissed the dragon as it circled around to land. It was obviously shaken up from both of its falls. “Are you trying to kill yourself? You know that wouldn’t stop me, but it would dampen my fun. What would you learn if you were already dead when I start to eat you?”
Emma scrambled to her feet and ran back inside tunnel to the chamber, hoping that it would give her time to think. The dragon landed on the edge and crawled behind her. Luckily, its size made it hard for the dragon to crawl inside the tunnel. When she reached the chamber, again she looked back into the bubbling metal. The effigy of her parents still lay in the middle of the pool, suspended with their eyes and mouths open. The image still haunted her. They looked so dead.
“AAGH! Now you have just made me angry!” The dragon stormed while making its way through the tunnel. “Where are you, you little rat?” The dragon drew in breath and a burst of flame barreled through the tunnel, bursting out into the cavern. She flattened herself against the inside wall avoiding the brunt of the flame. The heat was tremendous and singed her skin, catching a small part of her pajamas on fire. She quickly batted it out and started inching along the edge of the cavern to get closer to her parents who rested below where the dragon perched before.
Emma heard the dragon continue to crawl, clumsily crashing against the tunnel. Finally, she got to the platform where the dragon perched before. Slowly she crawled around to the molten pool. It got hotter and hotter as she came closer to it. The bubbles that burst let out balls of heated gas, which burned her face. When she reached the edge she was much closer to her parents’ images, but not near enough to touch them. With one hand, she held on a rock at the edge of the pool and with the other, she reached as far as she could. A bubble popped just below her hand, scalding it. She let out a scream of pain and pulled it back.
The dragon was now at the entrance of the chamber looking at her with curiosity. “What exactly was your plan, dear? Did you think you could sling your parents over your shoulders and escape? That sounds so heroic, so romantic. You could never even touch them. They are not real. But I assure you that they will join you soon enough.” The lips of the dragon strained as they curled up into a smile. Emma flinched.
“There is no happy ending for you, although that is what your precious fairy tale authors would have you believe. Not everything ends ‘happily ever after.’” The dragon gave out a terrible laugh.
Of course there was a ‘happily ever after,’ Emma thought. How else were the stories to be written? Some people did escape and wrote those fairy tales so that others wouldn’t have to go through such a horrible experience. If they could escape, why couldn’t she? Emma looked down at her parents and ignored their grotesque expressions. Instead, she pictured them at home, sitting together at the dinner table. There, mom made something wonderful in the kitchen after work. She was still able to smile and wait on her and her dad after such a long hard day. Dad sat at the table laughing and telling jokes. They were happy. Their clothes were old and they didn’t have a wide screen television, but the time they spent together was worth more than a thousand magic boxes.
Emma then remembered sitting on her granddad’s lap and listening to him read those stories when she was younger. She remembered being completely happy and feeling safe in her grandfather’s arms. The love of her family was the most comforting feeling in the world. She then made a promise to herself. No matter how hard life got for her and her parents, she would never take their love for granted. She would never wish for anything more than just to sit with her family and know that they were safe. Even though it seemed too late for her, Emma started to cry. Except this time, her tears weren’t from sadness, or want, or from wishing she had something material. This time her tears were for exactly what she did had. They were tears of joy which came from her feelings of belonging and love for her family. She didn’t need anything more than that.
The dragons face tightened as it looked at Emma. Its uncertainty rose.
“No.” It said half-heartedly.
Emma looked directly into the dragons eyes and a single tear came down from hers. It slid down her cheek and dangled there on the edge of her chin. Slowly the moisture accumulated, gained enough weight, and fell into the bubbling metal pool.
“NO!” The dragon roared and in desperation blew one last burst of flame at her.
The flame undulated towards her and enveloped her whole body as she shook in her bed safe at home. Emma’s parents burst through the door of her bedroom panting, “Are you okay honey? We heard you scream.”
Emma looked up at them and recognized how much they loved her. Her face was still wet from the tears she shed in the dragon’s layer. She jumped from her bed and into her parents’ arms. “I love you so much! I will never use that box ever again, I promise! You make me the richest girl in the world!” Her parents looked at each other, speechless.
* * *
Emma walked up the stairs to the attic where she used to come and think about all the sad things about her life. The last time she had come up here to cry seemed like ages ago. She looked down at the plank where she had boarded up all the gold coins and the magic box in order to try to save herself. She chuckled at how futile that effort was; all it required to rid herself of the box’s curse was her love for her parents. Burying her problems wouldn’t get rid of them. She held a crow bar, knelt down next to the board, and pried it loose. She didn’t open the space to use the gold inside; instead she just wanted to make sure that whatever happened to her was real.
Grabbing the board firmly with both hands, Emma pulled out the board and set it to the side. She leaned in close to the hole and looked inside the opening. Nothing, but something smelled different. It smelled like an old fireplace where wood had burned for years and turned to coals. Looking at it closer she realized that all the wood around the space blackened. Emma remembered how her ceiling glowed several nights before. She touched it and black dusk rubbed on her fingers.
Emma looked closer into the small opening and noticed something else. It looked like a piece of paper, with singed edges. She reached down and picked up a single piece of paper, probably no larger than an index card made of parchment that she had never seen before. She flipped the piece of paper over and on the other side there were some markings. It said:
As I am sure you have realized, you are not dead. Unfortunately, you were able to avoid the ultimate price of your greed through feelings of true remorse and love for the things that that box could never have given you. You are among only a few humans who had the insight to counteract the chains of that box. Although I regret not being able to eat you, I hope for your sake that you will never see that box or me again.
Farewell, my dear.
Emma sighed with relief, placed the piece of parchment back in the small opening in the floor, and set the board back in its place. She then hammered twice as many nails into that board than she had before. Emma walked down the stairs from the attic and thought about her loving family. No, her story didn’t end with ‘happily ever after.’ There were still hard times and still heartache. Emma struggled through school without having many friends. She had her heart broken by someone she thought had loved her and would marry her. She would even lose family and friends due to death or hurt feelings. However, Emma never wanted to change her experiences. Never again did she hold herself up in an attic and cry over all her problems. She never wished that she had it better or had more money. She held on to the memory of her past like a priceless treasure, more valuable than gold. She loved all the moments she had with her family and would eventually have a family of her own. Each night she told her beautiful children stories of dragons and fairies and elves and magical lands far, far away. She ended each story with ‘happily ever after.’ Then she would go back to her room, give her husband an enormous hug, and with a tear in her eye, she would fall asleep the happiest girl in the world.