When his dad told him a story the whole world disappeared. It faded into the background and a new one took its place. The empty spaces were filled and the ceiling became sky. Alex liked to sit and watch as the ground grew green and grass sprouted from his carpet. The walls were gone and he could see to a horizon, far off and dimly red with the sunset over the water.
Tonight the story was an old favorite – the shining white castle, the prince and princess, and the angry dragon. He’d heard it so many times already that he already knew to turn left and look at the castle there as the story started. Its walls were tall and beaming, bright against the lengthening shadows of the night. The princess was just coming in, head bent and horse plodding after a long day of riding.
“Daddy, you forgot reckless.”
“Right,” his dad smiled at him, “sorry. After a long day of reckless riding.”
Alex settled back against the pillow. The princess was racing through the forest on her horse, hair streaming behind her and a wild grin stretched across her face – eventually her horse slowed and she sighed, until they were trudging together over the moat to slip under the portcullis. The prince was waiting for her inside. He’d asked the kitchen to keep dinner warm. When the princess left for the day she usually came home too late to eat with everyone else.
Alex suspected that this was a hint – a dig or an apology, he wasn’t sure – to his mother, who sometimes listened. She complained sometimes that Daddy would leave her cooking dinner but never get home in time to eat it when everyone else was hungry.
While the princess was eating the reheated leftovers with her princes, they had a murmured conversation. In an instant, though, everything changed. Their words were drowned out by a roar, the view through the window was suddenly blotted black, and the air filled with filth. The ashes were swirling into the room, and the prince and princess huddled together with their hands clasped over their eyes. Straining, they could see outside the window and through the billowing smoke. The faint outline of a dragon was looming over the castle, massive wings flapping to keep it hovering in midair. Alex always gasped when he saw the dragon for the first time. He hugged close that feeling of fear and delight that made his heart flutter and pound.
The prince and princess ran, until they were hiding in a hallway with no windows and the doors were bolted on either side. They curled up there together and waited for the noise and the choking smoke to go away. There on the cold stone corner of the hallway, they fell asleep. The servants found them the next day as they spread through the castle with mops and brooms and as much medieval-style cleaning solution as could be found on short notice.
Alex loved that part. He didn’t really know what it meant, but he could tell his dad was being funny. His dad made a lot of people laugh, and especially Alex.
His eyelids were sinking shut, and he slid a little further down on his pillows. The prince and princess were tottering out the door now, looking aghast at the smeared black walls of their castle. Those stones had been so pure and lovely, only yesterday.
“Hey buddy, you look pretty sleepy. Do you want me to finish the story tomorrow?”
Alex mumbled, “S’ok,” and felt his dad’s kiss press onto his forehead and the covers settle around him. The light flicked off, but he could still see the castle. Now there was spidery scaffolding climbing up its walls, and the prince and princess were clambering up its walls along with the servants, all with sponges and rags in hand. Alex watched them through half-closed eyes, and fell asleep as they all scrubbed and sprayed and set everything to rights.