Ann-Marie leapt from rock to craggy rock, the smells of sulfur and smoke thick in the air. She narrowly missed a blast of red-hot lava that burst up just beside her perch, causing her to squeal and jump to another.
“Come on, Paul.”
“Hold on, this bridge sure is scary,” Paul said, his knobby knees clacking together as he held tight to the rope they’d tied between platforms. He picked his way across, toes curling as the planks wobbled. One fell down into the fire and he gasped, catching himself on another and holding on for dear life as they swung to-and-fro beneath him.
Ann-Marie gasped and scrambled back towards her friend, determined to help him.
She took a breath and ran across the remaining planks of the bridge, the wood slipping and sliding with each beat of her feet until she reached him. It was too late.
With a loud crash, the rope they had both grabbed onto gave way, the planks fell through, and a screaming Paul and Ann-Marie went tumbling into the molten-
“Just what is all that racket? That better not be the china I hear! I swear, if one more of them cups of Ms. Linda’s is busted, I’ll dig out the ol’ paddle and come after you kids!”
The two children looked at each other with wide eyes—one pair warm and brown, the other glassy-blue—and fought against the sea of cushions and blankets they were lying in to get to their feet as Nia came out. Nia was no maker of idle-threats, either. She was a formidable opponent standing at five feet, ten inches tall, her armor a wide, stained apron covering her dress from neck to hem (currently sporting a few bright red streaks). Warm, brown hands that could soothe a fever with one leathery touch were now curled into tight fists that dug into the extra flesh at her hips.
“Oh no, the troll escaped,” Ann-Marie whispered, though being that she was all of six years old, it wasn’t a whisper so much as a shout.
“You think she’s been eating lost girls and boys again?” Paul said back, terror clenching at his tender young heart, though he would never admit it, being the older as well as a boy.
Nia straightened even more than before, looking down her long nose at them to fix them with a stare that would make even the wildest scoundrel in the world behave. “You best get away from that mess now and let me see what happened-it’s a plum wonder neither of you is all cut up.” She shooed them off to the side and surveyed the damage.
The children had constructed quite a scene together in the living room. Every single couch cushion (which she’d spent an hour cleaning, plumping, and arranging) was on the floor lined up like stepping stones, except for a pile going down the middle that was a jumbled mess. They had tied several of the aforementioned Ms. Linda’s fine scarves together and had latched one end to a chair, the other end tucked under a table tray upon which had been a set of her china out on display for a get-together she was having that afternoon.
Now, all that was left was a teapot (sans lid), two pitiful cups, and a sugar bowl with a bad chip on the rim. The rest lay in a heap on the floor, the pieces unrecognizable from one another. Nia’s brows lowered and met in the middle as her lips formed a thin line until there wasn’t much lip left to see. Ann-Marie swallowed hard and grabbed Paul’s hand.
“You see what mess you made? Land sakes, the trouble I put up with-don’t you start batting them eyes at me, Mister Paul. And you, Miss Ann-Marie, best put that lip right back in your mouth where it belongs; I’ve had it! Now I don’t have time to give you both a whoopin’, even though you deserve a good one, but y’all better get on to your time-out chairs. I mean it. Get on over there and settle in while I clean up this mess and finish them little cakes for the party.”
Ann-Marie and Paul trudged off to opposite corners of the room, heads bent with shame as they sat. Paul was a boy of seven and starting to shoot up fast, leaving him thin and gangly. His black hair was tousled, there was a little scrape just beneath his left eye (though there were plenty more on his elbows and knees), and his feet were bare. Ann-Marie sat up in her chair, but her legs were left dangling over the edge as one frilly sock slid down into her shoe. She wore a play dress of powder blue with a little apron to boot, her fair curls caught up with a big bow that was hanging slightly askew. Both looked as though they’d rather be facing fiery lava and rickety bridges than the housekeeper.
All in all, they made a rather pitiful scene as Nia bustled about, picking up the shards of china and tossing them into a bin before she swept up the pieces too small to get by themselves.
“Do you guess we’ll be here forever?” Ann-Marie whispered, turning around in her chair. “If we do, who will save the fairy kingdom?”
“Hush,” Paul said, shifting in his seat. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
Ann-Marie frowned and spun all the way around so she was sitting up on her knees, glaring at him now instead of Nia. “It’s important! If we don’t find the ice king, winter will end and the poor fairies’ homes will melt.”
“Ann-Marie, we’ll save them in a while. I don’t want another spanking.” Paul was glaring at her now. “Do you?”
“No…” Ann-Marie sighed dramatically and slid back around to face the wall. She did not fancy having a spanking, or being sent to bed without supper, but how could she possibly sit still when there were kingdoms to be saved and the smell of cake was in the air?
She didn’t have to wait long before Nia groaned and straightened, turning to survey the rest of the room. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and shook her head. “C’mere, young’ns, come on. You’re going outside-I can’t have you messin’ up this place anymore. Just what I’m going to tell Ms. Linda about the china, I don’t know.”
Ann-Marie hopped down from her seat with a grin and came around, arms already outstretched to don her winter gear. Nia made short work of the task, bundling her up with coat, gloves, and scarf all white as the snow that dusted the ground outside. She tucked a blue cap over her curls and then went to Paul, wrapping him up in his coat of red and making sure he put his boots on.
“Now go on outside and play for a nice, long spell. If you’re good, I’ll have some hot chocolate and cookies waitin’.” Ann-Marie skipped outside at the prospect and stared around at their backyard.
“Isn’t it magic, Paul?” she whispered, full of awe as she took in the yard. The shrubs grew into trees, then a forest, tall and full of twinkling fairies disguised as long daggers of ice. Her playset grew into a massive castle before her eyes, the bells at the top ringing and alerting her that time was passing.
“Yeah…” Paul came up and his grumpiness began to fade as he took in the sight as well, though it mostly just resembled their mother’s favorite snow globe when it was shaken.
“Here, look,” Ann-Marie said, taking his hand in hers and pulling him over. She pointed at the towers and grinned. “See the flags flying? That one is white, and it means more snow is coming. And that one means the fairies are—oh no! They’re dying, see the drips from the icicles? Each one has a fairy family and when they’re all gone, the fairies die! We have to save them, come on!”
And just like that, Paul could see everything and his smile grew wide, eyes crinkling at the corners. He tugged her to the castle and climbed across the drawbridge to get inside. They ran together and climbed up until they were in a tower, peeking through little windows at the world outside.
“How do we save them, Paul?”
“I don’t know…we have to find the fairy king, but nobody knows where he is,” Paul said, sitting down and thinking this problem over. Thinking was a lot easier with something warm in your belly, he decided. “I think we need to ask a wizard to help us.”
“How can I be of assistance?”
They spun around to see a grand wizard sitting and looking at them, his golden eyes slit down the center with black as whiskers poked out from a furry face.
“Wizard um…Tootles, we need your help! We must find the fairy king,” Ann-Marie said, holding her hands to her heart as she’d seen girls in her grandma’s stories do on the glass screen of the magic box in her living room. “Do you know where he is?”
Paul leaned in to listen as the wizard batted his ears with a paw, staring at them. “You must travel down the long, twisty road to the dangerous metal forest. Beware the slide of doom.”
Ann-Marie watched as the wizard jumped out the window then, disappearing from sight. She turned to Paul and took a deep breath, icy air filling her lungs. “Paul…we aren’t supposed to leave our own kingdom or we could be killed. Or starved or-or killed and starved!”
“No,” Paul said, looking at her and shaking his head. A wild light began to flicker there amid the glassy shards of blue. “We have to take this quest or all hope is lost.” The girl took another deep breath and nodded, taking his hand again.
“Okay, but no splitting up. We have to stay together.”
“Right,” Paul said, then climbed out of the castle and across the snowy ground, shivering at the crunch his boots made with every step. Ann-Marie followed after him, tripping over the edge of the drawbridge and gasping as her cap flew from her head, falling far below into the icy depths of the moat.
“Oh no,” she whispered, but Paul shook his head, tugging at her hand.
“Leave it. We have to go.”
Together, the two adventurers set off down a great mountain path, holding onto one another carefully to keep from slipping again. They leveled out onto the long road that would take them to the metal forest and moved closer than before, each scared breath coming out in a misty cloud.
Then, from around the corner, a roaring monster appeared. It was big as a dragon, every part of it shiny and black as sin, with two round eyes staring straight ahead. It shot down the road, a bullet, made faster when it hit a patch in the road just as dark and shiny as itself.
“Ann-Marie, watch out!” Paul shouted, shoving her and pushing his way to the side. Ann-Marie’s legs shot out from under her as she hit another patch of ice and cried out, the world becoming a blur around her. White, black, red. A lot of red. The shriek of the brakes was deafening, and then there was the sound of glass shattering, just as she’d heard not an hour before.
Voices shouted, words blending together until all she heard was noise. She blinked hard and sniffed, pushing herself to sit up before looking down and letting out a gasp. Her previously pristine white coat was splattered all over with red. Nia would be so angry. It covered the ground around her in funny little patterns and swirls and pools, coloring the snow. She felt her tummy quiver, like butterflies were dancing around and she had to look away as a metallic smell hit her nose.
She had to find Paul, but the next thing she knew, big, hairy arms slid beneath her and scooped her up; she wriggled and pushed at them, seeing a face loom closer as she was raised up. It had to be a giant, the kind that ate little girls for lunch.
“No!” she cried out and thrashed until she saw Paul’s red coat sleeve sticking out from behind the twisted metal monster that had come down the road. She stared at it and then laughed.
“Paul, you did it. You defeated the monster! Paul…Paul?”
Ann-Marie stared outside the window as little flakes of snow filtered through the air, catching and throwing the light before they stuck to the window to form spiky, unique shapes. Reaching up, she traced one finger down in a line, minute droplets of water chasing one another as she went. Even as she watched with some measure of fascination, boredom and loneliness clawed at the back of her mind.
It had been days since she’d seen Paul, maybe even weeks, and she missed her brother badly. So far as she could tell, he was still on the brave quest, but she wasn’t very happy that he had left her to do it by himself. She turned around as she heard the floor creak, hoping it was Paul come home, but it was just Nia.
Nia…could it be Nia? She wasn’t standing straight and moving around with that sharp look in her eyes like a hawk anymore. Her shoulders were hunched and she looked like an old buzzard to Ann-Marie, her lips always pulled down too. Adults were strange.
“Lord, help me,” Nia whispered, staring at a couch full of perfect cushions before she walked off into the kitchen to move around some pots.
Ann-Marie watched her until she was gone, then walked past the empty living room and down the hall to her room. Maybe some of her dolls could distract her. When she reached her door at the end, a big white one with her name hanging on a piece of wood from a hook, she reached up to push it open and enter, but the door was locked tight. Frowning, she tried to twist the knob again. No good.
“Nia!” Ann-Marie skipped back down the hall and into the kitchen. “Nia, can you come unlock my door? Someone has it shut.” She stopped behind Nia, waiting for a response, but the old woman didn’t move a muscle. Had she heard her? Ann-Marie moved around to her front, standing by the stove though she knew that was against the rules in case she fell in or got burnt.
“Nia? I need you to help me,” she said, tugging at her apron for good measure. To her surprise, Nia nearly jumped a foot in the air when the fabric gave a sharp pull away from her body. She spun around, eyes wide and searching, hands flailing, and it made such a funny sight that Ann-Marie couldn’t help but giggle.
“I’m right here,” she announced, hands on her hips and a smile on her face as she watched and waited. And waited.
“I-I must have caught it in the stove door-oh Lord, help me,” Nia whispered, slowly smoothing down her skirt before she stopped and looked at the loaves of bread cooling atop the oven. She didn’t need to bake, really. Every spare inch of the kitchen—the counters, table, even a few chairs, and certainly the fridge—were covered in casseroles, dishes, trays and platters of food. No, she shouldn’t be baking or doing anything in the kitchen except figuring out where to put all these things, but the living room was too clean to consider looking at. Those empty spaces in the coat closet and floor by Ms. Linda and Mr. Harold’s shoes were alright, but not the pair of tiny dress shoes tossed haphazardly nearby.
Ann-Marie watched as the woman stayed still and blank-faced for a moment before she moved around her and jumped up and down, waving her hands. “Nia? Nia, can’t you see me?” No response. Ann-Marie stopped for a moment before a grin lit up her face and she laughed with delight. “I must be invisible!”
She heard the front door open and bolted back into the living room, thrilled by this new prospect. It had to be the snow from outside, or the fairies, or maybe the wizard! She skidded to a halt and looked down at the coat and gloves she wore, still white but painted all over in red streaks except for a big patch at her middle that looked like a balloon. Yes, that had to be what was making her invisible. Satisfied, she looked up to see her Mama and Daddy coming through the door, which didn’t really make sense because Daddy was never home during the day, except for weekends. Weekends were her favorite, because he loved to play games and go adventuring with her and Paul. Maybe this was a weekend and she’d forgotten.
Ann-Marie watched as they paused in the threshold, looking at one another. Though they were usually dressed in pretty, colorful clothes, her Mama’s hair piled up high with curls at the very ends and her Daddy’s tie holding a funny pattern or color, that wasn’t the case today. Today they were both wearing black, and Mama looked terrible! She had two round patches of dirt on her skirt and tights, like she’d knelt on the ground though she was always telling Ann-Marie not to do that. Her hair was flat and hanging limply by her face, and the funniest little streaks of black were staining her cheeks in lines all the way down to her chin.
“I can’t do this, Harold. I-I can’t go in here.”
“Lin, we’ll find a new place, but you need rest. You haven’t eaten in two days or slept…come on, let’s get some food.”
“Surprise!” Ann-Marie jumped into the foyer, hands raised excitedly in the air. After all, if they were both home during the day, it had to mean something fun was about to happen.
But just like Nia, neither of them reacted, continuing to talk in low voices instead as Daddy took Mama’s arms and rubbed them, then kissed her forehead. Ann-Marie’s head tilted to the side before she tried another little dance. Neither looked her way.
She wasn’t so sure she liked being invisible anymore, but then she began to think of all the possibilities. She could eat all she wanted without getting fussed at by Nia, could stay up as late as she wanted, play anything and go anywhere without anybody bossing her! The opportunities were endless and she grew giddy with the prospect. She may as well start with all that food in the kitchen, though she wasn’t very hungry if she was being honest.
She followed Mama and Daddy into the kitchen and was just reaching for a cookie on one platter when a sob broke out behind her and she spun around, frowning to see who was upset.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry Ms. Linda, Mr. Harold.” It was Nia! Ann-Marie was frozen with shock as she had never seen Nia cry, but there she was, sobbing into her apron. “But I j-jest couldn’ go. I couldn’t look into those little boxes a-and know what I’d done.”
“You didn’t do anything, and we don’t blame you,” Daddy said to her. He looked older too—why did everyone look so old and pitiful with hound dog eyes, drooping and watery?
Mama stiffened like the fairy king had just frozen her solid, her jaw tightening. Daddy looked at her and took her hand. “We don’t,” he said, voice firm. “You know how rambunctious they were, no good at following the rules. It’s not her fault they slipped away, and she was busy in here making stuff for that tea thing.”
“Oh, so it’s my fault then? That’s who’s to blame, isn’t it? Me, and my-my stupid, stupid tea. I should have been here watching Pau-“
“Please…” Daddy’s voice broke and his head dropped, one hand coming up to cover his face. “Please don’t say their names. Let’s just sit down and eat something.”
Ann-Marie stared at this conversation in fascination, never having seen her parents like this, nor her mother yelling at Nia before. When Mama turned and began to shout ugly words though, she clapped her hands over her ears and bolted from the kitchen and down the hall.
Without thinking, she ran right through her bedroom door and into her room, throwing herself on the lacy princess-style bed, canopy and all. Why would Mama yell at Nia and Daddy? Nothing made sense and her head was starting to hurt. Oh, where was Paul?
Ann-Marie jumped when the door swung open (she hadn’t even heard the lock turn) and Mama came running in, slamming the door shut behind her. Ann-Marie jumped down from the bed.
“Mama, what’s the matter?” Instead of responding, Mama threw herself to the ground by the bed with a deep sob like Ann-Marie had never heard before. It came out like a growl that clawed its way up her throat and flew out, some wild, rabid thing. She watched as her mother grabbed one of the pillows from her bed, pressed it to her face, and screamed and screamed. Was she angry? Ann-Marie sometimes did that when she was angry, and Mama’s hands were holding so tight her fingers were turning pale white, her body twisted in an ugly way before she brought her legs up to her chest.
“Mama, please stop,” Ann-Marie shouted, pressing her hands to her ears until the terrible screaming stopped and turned into broken crying again. What on earth could have happened? Mama slowly lowered the pillow and grabbed Ann-Marie’s favorite doll, Chloe, instead. She hugged it to her chest and rocked it as if she was rocking a real baby.
“Ann-Marie, why did you leave me?”
Ann-Marie’s stomach did that funny flipping thing again and she came over, putting a hand on Mama’s arm.
“Mama? It’s okay, stop crying. I’m here, see?” Mama didn’t move and Ann-Marie frowned for a moment before it dawned on her. Of course. She was still invisible!
She jumped back and began to tug at the gloves and scarf around her neck, throwing them to the side and then undoing the coat as fast as her hands could go, small fingers slipping off smaller buttons. At last, she unbuttoned the whole thing and dropped it, grinning expectantly at her mother.
“Ta-Da! See, I’m here and you can see me now because I’m not invisible anymore.”
A soft knock came at the door then before it opened to show Daddy, his hair a mess like he’d been running his fingers through it.
“Linda…sweetheart, she’s gone. Please come out of there.”
“No, I’m not,” Ann-Marie said, starting to feel her own lips tremble and eyes sting, hands on her hips. “Stop saying that, Daddy. I’m not invisible anymore. Can’t you see me?” She walked up to him and tried to tug on his jacket sleeve like she had Nia’s apron, but she couldn’t catch it before he knelt by Mama, wrapping her up in his arms.
“I know that—you don’t think I know that? After what we just did? After seeing their pale little faces and tiny bodies in those stupid, stupid coffins?! I-I couldn’t even close her lid, you know how she hates the dark, and I kept thinking she’d just…jump up and surprise us all, say it was one of her little pranks. Even when I saw them lying on that road, blood everywhere, I…I couldn’t…”
“I know. I know,” Daddy said and hugged her tight as Mama stopped talking and just cried and cried. Cried more than Ann-Marie had ever done, even when her pet cat, Tootles, had run away.
She just didn’t understand. What was Mama talking about, with coffins and roads? Didn’t she know that Ann-Marie was standing right here? She walked right up and put her hand on her Mama’s cheek.
“Mama! Mama, I’m right here—look at me! I’m…I’m not invisible…I’m not invisible.”