Prologue: The Princess Bride
(June 15-17, 1991)
The sky is a brilliant blue, completely cloudless. The day simply could not be more perfect, Sara thinks. Except for the pain in her right ankle; she’s slowing down the line of graduates as she limps towards the metal steps and then up onto the stage. She wishes she had her cane, even though she hasn’t needed it in more than a year. She glances over her shoulder; the graduate directly behind her glares impatiently, but right behind him John from New York grins at her and a little further back Janet Black gives her a thumbs-up.
She stops at the assigned spot, helpfully marked with tape. She’s grateful for a moment to rest. She only has a few seconds, though, before her name is called.
“Sara Katarina Barnes, Bachelor of Science in Biology, summa cum laude.”
Sara hobbles across the stage to the podium, her right foot throbbing now. It hasn’t hurt this badly, she thinks, since she injured it in the first place. She tries to push the pain aside but she finds it harder with each step, until her ankle gives way and she tumbles to the floor, her cap falling off her head and rolling right off the stage.
Sara feels the eyes of several thousand people on her, but her only concern is the two eyes looking down at her from the podium just a few feet away. They belong not to the President of the university or to her Dean, but to the man she loves. Brian looks down at her but he makes no move to help, says nothing. His expression, though, speaks eloquently: “Why are you just lying there? Don’t you want to graduate?” it asks…
…Sara is suddenly elsewhere. She’s surprised to be on her feet again, the pain in her right ankle gone. She’s equally surprised at finding herself - where?
A cemetery, she realizes as she looks all around, marble headstones dotting the well-manicured lawn. Specifically, a cemetery during a funeral. She recognizes none of the people standing around the open grave, but as she listens to the minister’s words she gasps at the name of the deceased: Dr. Abraham Morris.
Sara knows who he is: chairman of the admissions committee of the Crewe University School of Medicine. She’s met Dr. Morris exactly once; he conducted her final admissions interview. It had been an extraordinarily stressful hour. Afterwards Sara had been left wondering if medical school was the right choice after all.
“I don’t hate him! And I got in anyway! I don’t want him dead!” Sara blurts out, immediately cringing, whirling around in search of somewhere to hide, to disappear. She sees no such place, but the reaction she expects from the mourners does not come; no angry words or disapproving stares. In fact there is no reaction at all.
Sara is surprised, but only for an instant; then it becomes clear to her what’s going on. This has happened before; this is not her dream at all. She doesn’t cry, or scream; she simply closes her eyes and pleads – already knowing she will not be answered – “Please, God, not again!”
I open my eyes, and I know before I can even force them to focus what I’m going to see. The clock reads 3:05 AM.
It was always three o’clock in the morning last time, too. At least I didn’t wake up screaming. Or bite off Mister Pennington’s arm again - my stuffed rabbit is still in one piece, right here in the bed with me. I didn’t even wake up Lumpy, who’s living up to his name, snoring away at the foot of the bed all tangled up in the sheets, or Beth, down on the floor, looking more comfortable sleeping on an inflatable mattress than I would ever be.
I’m not going to tell her about this. Or Brian. Or anybody. Especially not today.
It’s almost funny, except it isn’t at all. I haven’t had any of these dreams in a year and a half, not since “it” happened – except one time, last summer. When Brian was dreaming about me, and I saw it. But that was the only time.
Talk about luck. Of all the times for this to start back up, for my brain to start picking up signals again, it has to be the night before my wedding.
I was able to get back to sleep, finally; I got maybe two more hours.
When I went to bed last night I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get to sleep in the first place; I thought I’d be up all night with the jitters. To my surprise, though, I had no trouble falling asleep. I spent a few minutes holding my hand up to my face and staring at Grandma Roberta’s ring – my ring – and remembering that afternoon last summer when Brian gave it to me. I did my best to act surprised, but I couldn’t pull it off. He knew I’d seen him, seen his dream, seen him asking my father for his blessing and getting more than he bargained for when Dad handed over my grandmother’s ring to him.
I fell asleep with that memory, and a smile on my face. After that, I didn’t expect to be woken up by someone I don’t know dreaming about killing somebody. I thought I was done with that once and for all.
For about the first three months after Dr. Walters was caught, I went to bed every night expecting to have more nightmares. I was certain I’d keep seeing other people’s horrible visions in my head. But it didn’t happen, and it kept not happening. It wasn’t until a week or two after my cast came off that I really started to believe that it was over for good.
Wishful thinking, obviously.
But I am not going to obsess about it today. I’ve got far better things to obsess about.
Beth is stirring herself awake. I don’t see how she can possibly look as rested and refreshed as she does after a night on an air mattress. I offered her my bed, and Dad offered to pay for a hotel room, but she wouldn’t hear any of it. She wanted to be here for me, she said, and as she put it: “I’m certainly not going to make the bride sleep on the floor the night before her wedding!”
I really do love her. I don’t think I could be any closer to her if we actually were sisters. It’s going to be so strange not having her right there, always just across the room or a couple of doors down the hall like she’s been for the last four years.
It’s going to be strange, too, to have someone else right there, every night, not just in my room but in my bed. I guess I should correct that – it’s not going to be “my bed” anymore, it’ll be “our bed.” I feel like I ought to be more nervous about that than I am, but I’m not. I think that’s a good sign.
I’m not even nervous about the wedding itself. It’s pretty much all out of my hands anyway. It wasn’t as though I could do much planning while I was finishing up my last semester, working on my senior thesis and getting ready for graduation. But I didn’t have to - Mom was thrilled to step in and do basically everything. About the only thing I did was to choose the color for the bridesmaid dresses – light blue, almost a pastel sort of color. I’m not sure if anyone else likes it, but I do and like everyone says, it’s my day, right?
And of course I picked out the dress; I did insist on doing that myself. Beth spent the week after Christmas at my house to help and it took almost that whole time to find it. I had no clear idea what exactly I was looking for and I turned down dress after dress that Beth or my Mom or both thought was perfect with the same unhelpful answer every time: "It's just not me."
I finally found it at the third or maybe the fourth bridal shop we tried, I honestly don’t remember. We'd all lost count of how many dresses they’d brought out, when they showed me the perfect one. Both Beth and Mom immediately pronounced it boring. But it wasn't. It was – I can’t explain it any better than to say, it was me.
It is very simple, I agree. It’s plain white satin, no fancy lace or anything. It has just enough of a neckline that my emerald necklace is visible; it does set my eyes off so nicely, after all. Beth and Mom both argued with me, but I insisted on trying it on. When I came out of the dressing room they saw I was right. Mom teared up immediately, and Beth – even though she denied it later – nearly did as well. She did try to talk me into lowering the neck a little, which I absolutely refused to do. That’s something that my alter-ego would have done. “Gretchen might,” I told Beth, “but this is my dress, and the neck is perfect how it is.”
Everything about it was perfect – the dress might as well have been handmade just for me.
Mom took care of every other decision: the food, the cake, the flowers, all of it. The only thing I really have to do is show up, and since the limo is coming here to pick us all up, even that’s covered.
There’s just one thing I am nervous about, and I know how ridiculous it is. I don’t even want to mention it to Beth, but if I can’t tell my best friend and Maid of Honor, who can I tell?
She’s up now, yawning and stretching; I guess I’ll have my chance to tell her. But before I can say anything more than “good morning,” there’s a knock on my bedroom door and my Mom comes in.
“Good morning, honey,” she says, and she sits herself down on my desk chair. She looks nervous herself. “It’s going to be such a busy day, and there’s just – I wanted to talk to you for a few minutes, you know, before – well, before.”
Oh, God. There’s no possible way this can be anything but embarrassing and horrible. Mom knows it too, but she puts on the bravest face she can and keeps going. “I know it’s old-fashioned. But it’s family tradition. My mother sat me down before my wedding, and her mother did the same and so on.”
Beth and I look at each other. She gives me an apologetic smile and starts towards the door, but Mom calls her back. “You may as well hear it, too.” For a moment I think she's going to leave anyway, abandon me to suffer through this alone, but – for about the millionth time she proves her loyalty to me. She stops, bows her head in defeat and shuffles over to the bed to sit down next to me.
“Mom,” I say. “I’m twenty two years old. I don’t need…”
She sighs. “I know that, Sara. But it’s my job as your mother, so I’m going to tell you anyway. Besides, I was twenty two myself once upon a time. I might know what you’re feeling right now,” she says. I believe that, but I don’t really want to think about it.
“Anyway, the night before my wedding, my mother sat me down, and - well, anyway. I’m not going to do that to you. I’m just – I want to tell you what I wish she’d told me.” Now I have no idea where this is going. I do know that I don’t even want to guess what advice Grandma Lucy gave to Mom on her wedding day.
“Mom, I don’t know…”
She actually smiles at me, and it’s a very kindly but also somewhat sad smile. “Yes, you do. You’re a smart girl,” she chokes up a little, “so smart. And so strong. More than I ever was.” She has to take a deep breath before she can continue. “You’ve also got a lot of - I don’t know how else to say it – romantic ideas about life.”
Beth nudges me; I don’t look at her but I’m absolutely sure there’s an “I told you so!” expression on her face. She’s right, too; she has told me so, many times.
“I have those same ideas myself,” Mom goes on. “And I did on my – you know, my wedding night. I had all these ideas about – well, I’m sure you know exactly what I mean. Candles and soft music and everything perfect and…” She can’t quite look at me now, and I’m looking everywhere but back at her. She somehow manages to finish her sentence: “…and - well – fireworks.”
How did she know? That’s exactly what I was going to tell Beth. I never expected to hear it from my mother – and I can’t imagine telling her she’s right, not if I live to be a hundred. But I don’t have to say it; my expression gives it away. “You’re expecting the same thing,” she says. “God, it’s like looking in a mirror when I talk to you.” She’s overcome for a moment. I am, too.
“Mom, it’s OK. I know…”
She recovers a bit. “I’m almost finished,” she says. “I think - if you’ve got anything at all of me inside you you’d probably sooner die than admit it – but I think you’re probably scared about tonight.”
I want to run over and hug her, and at the same time I’d like to go out to the backyard, dig a hole and bury myself in it for about the next thousand years. I can see in her eyes that Mom feels exactly the same. I don’t know how she keeps going, but she does. “Well, here’s my advice. Remember that – that Brian will be just as scared as you are. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe you’ve already figured it out on your own. It took me a long time to learn it, but being scared together can bring you so - so close.”
Yes. That’s something Brian and I learned right at the start of our relationship.
"There’s one other thing I want you to remember tonight,” she says, “you’re going to be so overwhelmed and so tired, after the ceremony and the reception and everything, just – if nothing happens, or it doesn’t happen how you’re imagining it - if you don’t feel – or he doesn’t – that’s OK. That’s normal. There’s nothing wrong.”
Now I do run to her and hug her. I can’t get any words out, but she understands what I’m saying just the same.
“That’s right,” she says softly, gently patting my head exactly the way she did when I was a little girl. “That’s right. If – just remember – this is the most important thing of all. Whatever tonight is or isn’t, you’ve got a whole lifetime together afterwards, you know?”
I do. I still can’t speak. Mom holds me a little while longer, and then she kisses my forehead, sniffles, and leaves. When I turn to look at Beth, I see that she’s hastily wiping a tear away.
“Wow,” is all she says.
I agree. “Yeah. Wow.”
“She was right about you,” Beth says, looking at me curiously. “About being a romantic. But she wasn’t - you’re not – you aren’t worried – don’t tell me…” she trails off.
I can’t look her in the eye, but I do give her a tiny nod.
“You can be incredibly thick sometimes, do you know that?”
So I’ve been told. I don’t say anything, though. After a couple of moments of silence, she walks over to me, grabs my face and makes me look at her. “I shouldn’t have to say any of this. Especially after everything your mother just said.” she says. “But I guess I do.” She rolls her eyes and sighs theatrically. “Tell me, honestly. Has Brian ever had any complaints? Any at all?”
“No!” I blurt it out without thinking. Well, he hasn’t!
The answer is the same, but it comes out in a much smaller voice, accompanied by a very red face. “No.”
“Then what are you worried about? You know what you’re doing, he knows what he’s doing, and you’ve never had a problem before, so don’t go looking for one now.”
When she says it that way, it is pretty hard to argue with.