Happy new year! I intend to post short stories to my blog when the mood strikes. This is the first in a series of magical realms, strange creatures, and unsettling situations.
(All photos used in this post are my own.)
Annie was five years old when she discovered she could make objects disappear into thin air.
One late summer afternoon, Annie sat on the living room floor with her Mama. Her grandmother smiled down at her from the couch.
“Show me what you can do, Annie,” Gramma said.
Annie picked up the penny in front of her. A dark stain covered the face of the copper coin. She had found this one, like the other three she’d vanished, between the couch cushions. Annie placed the penny between her index and middle fingers and flicked her wrist.
The penny disappeared from sight.
She clapped her empty hands. “See! I can make it disappear!”
Annie expected her mother to clap, too. Instead she frowned.
Gramma gave Annie a soft smile. “Very good,” she said. “Do you know how to get it back?”
Annie spun her wrist again. Her hand remained empty. She shook her head.
Gramma cupped her hands and let out a long, gentle breath into her palms. Then she lowered her hands and revealed the same copper piece with the mark on the head.
“After something disappears,” Gramma said, “you do that and wish with all your heart for it to return.”
Annie plucked the penny from Gramma’s hand. She held it between her index and middle fingers again and twisted her wrist. As expected, the penny vanished again. Then she cupped her hands, exhaled into them, and squeezed her eyes shut, wishing with what she hoped was all her heart.
It must have worked. The penny sat in her open palm once more.
“I don’t know if I like this, Mom,” she heard Mama say to Gramma. Annie continued to make the penny disappear and reappear.
“It skips a generation,” Gramma said. “It’s nothing we can control.”
“What’s a gen-ration?” Annie asked.
Mama ran a hand through Annie’s long ponytail. “Nothing, sweetie-pie.”
Annie stared at the penny for a moment. “Does it only work with pennies?”
Gramma shook her head. “No, but let’s use that one for now, okay?”
Annie heard the back door open. Daddy walked into the living room, home from a long day at work.
“There’s my girl!” he said. He scooped Annie up into his arms. He looked at Mama. “What’s wrong?” he asked her.
“Look, Daddy!” Annie said. She put the penny between her first and second fingers, spun her wrist, and then wiggled her empty hand. “I made it disappear.”
Daddy set her down on the floor. She put her hands together, blew into her palms, and wished and wished and wished. Then she pulled her hands away, triumphant, to reveal the penny once more.
But Daddy didn’t smile. He reached down and snatched the coin from her hands. The callouses on his fingertips scratched her palms.
Daddy waved the penny in Gramma’s face. “Is this what you’re teaching my daughter? Sorcery?” He put the coin in his shirt pocket.
Annie’s bottom lip shook. “Don’t you like it? I can make it disappear.”
Daddy shook his head. “No more,” he said. “There will be none of that devilry in my house.”
Mama stood up. “It’s not… that,” she said.
“We talked about this,” Daddy said to her. “We agreed we wouldn’t allow this.” He looked at Gramma. “It’s time for you to go, Madeline.”
Gramma stood up from the couch. “I’ll go,” she said, “but you must promise me you’ll let her use her gift.”
Annie sat on the floor watching the grown-ups. They had become blurry through her tears.
“I promise nothing,” Daddy said. “That evil is a curse, not a gift. It’s not welcome here.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re not welcome here.”
Gramma picked up her purse. She reached down to cup Annie’s cheek. “I love you, dearest,” she said, then left without another word.
Annie burst into tears.
“Sweetie-pie, why don’t you go to your room?” Mama asked.
Annie didn’t move from the floor. Mama picked her up and carried her upstairs. “Daddy and I need to talk,” Mama said. “Stay here and play, okay?”
Mama sat Annie down on the bed, where she continued to let out heaving, gasping sobs. She stopped when she heard Mama raise her voice downstairs a couple minutes later.
Annie wiped her nose on the sleeve of her shirt. On the floor by the foot of the bed sat a small blue marble from the set she’d played with the day before.
She slid off the bed and kneeled in front of the marble. Flecks of dark blue and teal twisted together and shimmered beneath the glass. She palmed it and took a deep breath.
Like the penny, the marble vanished between her fingers when she rotated her wrist. For a moment, she doubted the marble would come back, being so much larger than the coin. But when she wished hard and blew into her palms, it reappeared like it had been there all along.
Annie had looked forward to starting kindergarten. Yet making friends was proving difficult.
The school bus stopped each morning to pick up the kids who lived in the big, fancy houses at the edge of Hemlig Park, which was directly between Annie’s house and the school.
“Look,” Annie said one morning to the boy next to her. She pointed out the window.
He peered past her. “What? I don’t see anything.”
“There’s a doorway over there,” Annie said. And she could see it: a tall, rectangular door with a big golden handle, standing between two trees. Thin branches and yellowing leaves surrounded the door and cast shadows onto its wooden surface.
The boy stood up to get a closer look. “I don’t see anything,” he said. “You’re a liar.” He turned away from her, and he made sure to sit with the other kids after that.
Things weren’t much better in the classroom. One day, the teacher had everyone draw family pictures. Annie made sure to draw Gramma in hers, even though she hadn’t seen her since the day she’d made the pennies disappear.
“Do you want to see something?” Annie asked Sarah, the girl sitting next to her.
“Okay,” Sarah said.
Annie held the cerulean crayon–her favorite–between her fingers. Then she flicked her wrist and the crayon disappeared.
“Wow, how’d you do that?” Sarah asked.
Annie shrugged. “Magic, I guess.”
Matthew, the boy at their table, laughed. “That’s fake!” he said. “My parents took me to see a magician and he made stuff disappear, too. My parents said it’s all pretend.”
“It’s real. See?” Annie breathed into her palms and wished for her favorite crayon to reappear. When she opened her hands, she revealed the same blue crayon in her palms.
“She had it in her sleeve,” Matthew said. “She’s just making up lies.”
Sarah scooted her chair away from Annie.
“I’m not making it up,” Annie said. “You have to believe me.”
But Sarah didn’t believe her. Neither did any of the other kids. So Annie spent most of her school days working by herself. She didn’t speak unless the teacher asked her a question. During recess, she spent time inside coloring pictures and made crayons disappear and reappear when the teacher wasn’t looking.
The doorbell rang late on Christmas Eve. Mama opened the door and brought a package inside from the porch.
“There’s no return address,” Mama said when Daddy asked her what it was, “but it says it’s for Annie.”
Annie jumped up from the couch and ran over to the coffee table, where Mama had set the cardboard box. From the box, Mama pulled out a thin, rectangular present wrapped in glittery silver paper. She held it for a moment before finally handing it to Annie.
Beneath the paper was a book with a blue hard cover. Annie had begun to read in school, but she didn’t know what the faded gold letters on the cover said. In the center of the cover was a woman’s face outlined in gold and surrounded by flowers.
Annie had never seen anything so beautiful.
“Who is it from, Mama?” she asked. “Is it from Gramma?”
Mama took the book from her. As she turned the pages, Daddy peered over her shoulder.
Then Mama’s eyes went wide, and she slammed the book shut. “It’s nothing, sweetie-pie,” Mama said. “It’s just a blank book.”
Daddy snatched the book from Mama’s hands. He opened the closet by the front door and tossed the book onto the top shelf, where Annie couldn’t reach it.
Annie knew that crying wouldn’t bring the pretty book back. She let Mama tuck her into bed and say “Merry Christmas” to her, but she didn’t say it back.
As she drifted off to sleep, she wished with all her heart to see Gramma and be able to read the beautiful and mysterious book.
At the start of second grade, Annie had made a friend–a new girl named Leah. But the friendship was short-lived.
Leah lived one street over from Hemlig Park. One day, when Leah had invited Annie over to her house to play, Annie told her about the door.
“Cool!” Leah said. “Let’s go find it!”
Leah told her mom that they were going outside to play. They bundled up in their coats and boots and walked to the park.
Between two trees–still bare in March–was a wooden door. Now that Annie was off the school bus, she could see an intricate spiraling design on the wood.
“Look!” Annie said.
Leah squinted. “They’re trees,” she said.
“Don’t you see the door there?”
“No,” Leah said. “It’s just a bunch of branches all tangled together.”
But Annie knew that what she was seeing was real. A wide ditch, too big to jump over, separated the road from the woods. If only she could get to the door–then surely Leah would believe her.
At school the next day, Leah wouldn’t speak to Annie. During lunch, Annie overheard her telling the other girls that she got grounded–all because Annie had made her walk too far away from home “to see some door that wasn’t even there.”
“We told you,” said Bethany, who lived on the same street as Leah. “She’s a freak. Don’t hang out with her.”
In the spring, before the end of second grade, Annie shuffled into the kitchen. Mama was peeling potatoes for dinner. Annie slid her third-quarter report card onto the countertop.
“Report cards already?” Mama asked. She set down the potato peeler and picked up the paper.
Annie wasn’t worried about her grades. But she knew her parents wouldn’t be happy with her teacher’s comments.
“Anastasia is an intelligent and creative child,” her teacher had written, “but she spends her free time on her own. During group activities, she is often uncooperative and does not get along with the other children.”
Mama stood at the sink reading the report card.
“Oh, Annie,” Mama said. “Why can’t you just play with the other children?”
“They don’t like me,” Annie said. “They tell me I’m weird and that I lied about the door in the woods.”
Mama’s head snapped up from the report card. “What door?”
“The one by the edge of the park,” Annie said.
Mama kneeled in front of Annie and placed Annie’s hands in her own. “I don’t want you going through any doors in the woods, you hear me?”
Annie nodded. Mama’s hands shook. A knot formed in Annie’s stomach at her mother’s words.
“Promise me,” Mama said.
The stomachache lasted through dinner, and Annie couldn’t finish her meal. But Daddy didn’t mention the report card, and Mama didn’t either. Only when Annie fell into a restless sleep did the tension in her core disappear.
In third grade, Annie was in the same class with Leah, Bethany, and Sarah, who had all become best friends. They wouldn’t let Annie sit with them at lunch–or any other time, for that matter. When they played soccer or kickball during gym class, the three of them would stick their feet out to trip Annie as she ran. And if one of them threw something at their teacher, Mrs. Thomson, they would blame it on Annie.
The class had a big test on multiplication toward the end of the school year. Mrs. Thomson led the class to the cafeteria for lunch. Before joining the end of the line, Annie swiped the answer key to the test off of the teacher’s desk. She folded the paper into a tiny square, flicked her wrist, and made it disappear into the ether.
Annie had long been able to make things reappear in her hands with a breath and a wish. But the night before, while she was doing her homework, she had discovered how to make objects reappear across the room. All she had to do was tap her toes three times and concentrate on where she wanted the object to show up.
In the afternoon, Annie was the first to finish her test. She brought it to the teacher’s desk. “Mrs. Thomson?”
Mrs. Thomson was typing on the computer. She didn’t look up. “Yes, Annie?”
Annie dropped her voice to a whisper. “I saw Bethany take the test answers earlier.”
Mrs. Thomson peered down her nose at Annie. She reached into the pile of papers on her desk. “No, they’re right–”
When her hands turned up nothing, Mrs. Thomson got up and walked to Bethany’s desk.
“Bethany,” Mrs. Thomson said.
“Yes, Mrs. Thomson?” Bethany said. Her right arm lay flat on her desk, pencil still in hand.
“Annie tells me she saw you take the answers to the test.” Mrs. Thomson paused. “Is that true?”
“Of course not,” Bethany said. “She’s lying!”
Annie tapped her toes three times. Underneath Bethany’s arm, she thought, staring at the top of Bethany’s desk.
Mrs. Thomson narrowed her eyes. “What is that under your elbow?”
“What’s under–” Bethany began to say, but Mrs. Thomson had already grabbed the paper. She unfolded it and there, as Annie had expected, were the test answers.
“I didn’t take them!” Bethany said. “Annie put them there!”
Mrs. Thomson’s eyes narrowed. “And how did she manage to put them under your arm without you noticing?”
Bethany’s mouth flapped like a fish out of water. “She’s–she’s… She’s a witch!” she sputtered.
The kids around her–including Sarah and Leah–began to giggle.
“Witches don’t exist,” Mrs. Thomson said. “But the principal’s office does.”
Annie returned to her desk. She stifled a laugh as Mrs. Thomson sent Bethany down the hall.
That afternoon, Annie opened the coat closet at home. On the top shelf, somewhere toward the back, was the book that her father had hidden from her when she was five.
Annie closed her eyes. She thought about the space on the floor before her toes. She squeezed her eyes shut and tapped her right foot three times. Right in front of me. Right in front of me. Right in front of me.
Annie opened her eyes and looked down. The book sat on the floor inches from her feet. The same flowery, golden woman she had seen years before smiled up at her from the cover.
Annie scooped the book up and dashed upstairs to her room. She shut the bedroom door and crouched next to her bed.
Annie didn’t care if the book was blank like Mama had said. Now that she could read, though, she could make out the faded words on the cover:
The Secret World.
No author was listed. Annie peeled open the cover and saw an inscription.
“Dearest,” it said. “For when you are ready. Love, Gramma.”
So the book had come from Gramma. Why would Mama and Daddy want to keep such a beautiful gift from her?
The flowery title page named no author or publisher. Annie flipped through the book’s yellowing pages. She thought at first that it contained short stories, for it was definitely not blank.
But they were not stories; nor were they poems. Each of the pages had another fancy illustration and a title like a set of instructions:
“How to grow a bountiful garden.” “How to understand the birds.” “How to summon a flame.” “How to speak to the fae.” “How to divine the future in a bowl of water.”
Then one title caught Annie’s eye: “How to make objects disappear and reappear.”
She read the rest of the page:
“To make an object disappear, hold it in your hand. You must believe that you can make the object disappear. When you spin your wrist, the object will vanish from sight.”
That’s odd, Annie thought. She knew how to do that. Why was it in an old book?
“To make the object reappear,” she continued reading, “cup your hands together as if holding water within them. Breathe into your palms whilst wishing for the object to return. There it will appear once again.”
Annie skipped ahead a few more pages. She came to a page entitled “How to enter The Secret World.”
“The Secret World is just out of view from the mundane world,” Annie read. “It contains what others cannot see. Many people cannot see doors to The Secret World. To those people, these doors appear as brick walls, empty houses, or trees and plants. Those who can see into other realms will spy elaborate doors covered in everything from seashells and crystals to flowers and ivy.”
So the doors existed, Annie thought. But how could she enter the Secret World? And what was beyond those mysterious doors? Did Gramma know what this meant?
Before bed that night, Annie placed the book under her pillow. Her last waking thought was a wish to dream of the Secret World.
The next day was Saturday. Annie awoke early from a pleasant dream of lying in a sunny field filled with purple flowers.
Annie read more of The Secret World throughout the morning. Around ten o’clock, her mother knocked on the bedroom door. Annie shoved the book beneath her pillow and grabbed one of her library books next to her.
Mama opened the door and peeked inside the room. “Annie, come downstairs.”
“I’m not hungry, Mama,” Annie said, not looking up from her book.
“You can have breakfast later,” her mother said. “There’s someone here to see you.”
Mama left the room. Annie made sure The Secret World was still hidden under her pillow. She wondered who could be downstairs waiting for her. She hoped it wasn’t anyone from school.
She had to rub her eyes when she entered the living room. But it was no illusion: Gramma was sitting on the couch, back straight and hands folded in her lap. She looked the same as she had years before, only her silver hair had grown longer and was tied into a low ponytail past her shoulders.
“Hello, dearest,” she said.
Annie threw her arms around Gramma’s neck. “I missed you so much,” she said.
“I missed you, too,” Gramma said. She looked Annie up and down. “My, how you’ve grown. Why don’t you go get ready for the day? I have a special surprise for you.”
After Annie got dressed, she glanced at her bed. Then she grabbed her school bag, took out the folders from class, and placed The Secret World inside it.
When she arrived downstairs, Annie saw her parents talking to Gramma. She couldn’t hear what they were saying. Her father eyed her school bag but didn’t say anything.
“Have fun with your grandma,” Daddy said. He gave Annie–and not Gramma–a hug and a faint smile before they left. Mama gave them both hugs and big smiles.
“Where are we going?” Annie asked once they got into Gramma’s car.
“I thought we’d have breakfast at my house and spend the day together,” Gramma said.
A day with Gramma, Annie thought. She almost wondered aloud whether she had found the Secret World overnight.
Annie remembered going to Gramma’s house when she was little. Over the years, the details had slipped from her memory. But seeing it again felt like coming home.
Gramma lived at the end of a lane in a small white cottage with teal shutters and a bright purple door. In the front lawn, Annie stepped beneath an arch covered in clematis and through a path of jewel-toned azaleas. Among the broad-leafed hostas and long, sweeping ferns next to the porch was a fuchsia gazing globe on a pedestal. Annie smiled at her and Gramma’s reflections as they walked past it.
Inside, the house was every bit as colorful. A small chandelier above the front hallway cast rainbow prisms of light onto the walls.
In the living room were bookshelves lined with books arranged by the colors of their spines–purple and blue and green and so on. A few of the shelves held not books but enormous amethyst geodes. They made the room sparkle in the morning light.
Gramma cooked pancakes that they ate at her kitchen table.
“What did you bring along?” Gramma asked. She pointed to Annie’s school bag on the floor.
Annie reached down and pulled The Secret World out of her backpack. She handed it to Gramma.
Gramma stared at the book for a moment and then smiled. “I wondered if you had gotten around to reading it. When did you start?”
Gramma nodded. “Did you parents take it from you?”
“Yes,” Annie said. “They said it was blank.”
“To them it is,” Gramma said. “It’s part of the book’s magic. Only those who are meant to see it can read its contents.” She paused. “They probably saw the inscription I wrote to you.”
“I’m sorry,” Annie said. “I shouldn’t have let them take it.”
“It’s not your fault,” Gramma said. “Other people sometimes fear what they don’t understand. They’re afraid of people like us.”
Annie didn’t understand why anyone would fear her. She was eight years old, and she spent most of her time indoors reading books.
“What kind of people are we, Gramma?” Annie asked.
At first, Annie thought that Gramma had lifted the book from Annie’s hands with her own. But then Annie saw that The Secret World was levitating up and onto the kitchen countertop by itself.
“I can move things without touching them,” Gramma said. “I can make objects disappear and reappear. I know how to heal headaches, predict the weather, and brew a pot of tea that will ease a broken heart.”
Gramma held out her right hand.
“I can do this,” she said. She snapped her fingers three times. A glowing red flame formed and hovered less than an inch above her palm.
Annie reached forward to see if it was real. Gramma clapped her left hand down on her right palm, and the flame disappeared.
“These aren’t mere ‘tricks,'” Gramma said. “These abilities have passed from grandmother to granddaughter in our family for centuries.”
“Am I a witch?” Annie asked.
Gramma laughed. “I’m sure that’s what most people would call us. I don’t know that we have ever had a true name.”
“There are more of us?” Annie said. She wondered if there were any other girls like her at school.
“They’re out there,” Gramma said, “but finding them isn’t easy.”
“What about looking in the Secret World?” Annie asked.
Gramma didn’t say anything for a moment. Annie began to regret asking the question.
“That’s one way to do it,” Gramma finally said. “We’ll have to talk about that later.” After a pause, Gramma said, “How would you like to stay with me this summer?”
“Really?” Annie shouted. “I’d love to!” She frowned. “But I don’t think Mama and Daddy will let me.”
“Well,” Gramma said, “that was what I came to talk to them about this morning. I’m not getting any younger, Annie. I suggested it to your parents, and they agreed it would be good for you.”
“So that means I can stay with you?”
“If you’d like to,” Gramma said.
Annie threw her arms around Gramma’s neck, not understanding why she wanted to cry when she was so happy.
During the previous three summers, Annie had counted down the days to school with a sense of dread. But living with Gramma made Annie forget about school. Instead, she spent her days making object levitate, creating pretty-smelling tinctures, and learning to tell fortunes with tea leaves.
On a cool, gray day at August’s end, Gramma suggested a trip to Hemlig Park. Before they left the house, Annie saw Gramma take something out of her desk and place it into her pocket.
They found a door at the top of a steep hill in the park. Annie ran over and grabbed the bronze handle. She tried tugging on it, pushing it, and turning it, but it didn’t budge.
Tears stung her eyes. “It won’t open,” she said, voice cracking.
“Not on its own,” Gramma said. “We need a key.” She reached into her pocket. Out came the object she’d stashed there earlier: a golden key with an ornate, curling pattern on its bow.
When Annie was younger, she had watched The Wizard of Oz on TV. She had loved the part where Dorothy stepped out of her house and everything transformed from dull sepia to vibrant color.
But this wasn’t Oz, Annie thought as they stepped through the portal. It was so much better.
The two of them stood in a sunny field at the bottom of a rolling hill. Butterflies with wings of every color flitted around them and disappeared into nearby willow trees.
Annie and Gramma passed rings of daisies, buttercups, and bluebells. The latter Gramma grew in her garden. Even though they had “blue” in their name, they had an almost purplish tinge to them.
Annie ran over to one of the rings and lay down in the middle. She had a moment of déjà vu as she looked up at the clear blue sky. She had had a dream about this moment the morning before Gramma had arrived at her house.
Her dream had come true, Annie thought with a smile. She closed her eyes and let the sun warm her face.
“You know,” Gramma said from somewhere above her. “There’s an old legend that says that if a child steps into a ring of bluebells, the fairies would take her away.”
Annie sat up. “Are there any fairies here?”
Gramma shrugged. “Maybe. I haven’t seen any up close.”
They walked further up the hill. Toward the top, Annie could see rows of cottages made from bricks and what looked like tree roots and rainbow-colored glass.
Annie heard laughter. In the center of the village were dozens of women dancing in a circle. Each one wore a gauzy, flowing dress in some pastel shade. One of the women left the circle, walked over to them, and hugged Gramma tight.
“Madeline,” the woman said. “So glad to see you.” She crouched down to meet Annie at eye level. “And who might you be?”
“I’m Annie,” Annie said. “But my full name is Anastasia.” She felt like full names were important in this place.
“Anastasia–what a beautiful name,” the woman said to her. “Your granddaughter?” she asked Gramma.
“Time passes so quickly here,” the woman said and shook her head. “Come with me, Anastasia, and I’ll show you around.”
The woman said her name was Florence. She had long dark hair that hung past her shoulders in gentle waves. She looked to be around Mama’s age, but her red lips and white lace-covered dress made her seem younger. The other ladies in the village looked just as young. They all seemed to know Gramma.
Annie sat on a sunny patch of grass with her grandmother, Florence, and a few other women. Some brought trays of fruit over to them. Annie and Gramma ate peaches, strawberries, and raspberries. Florence braided Annie’s hair and tucked a large pink rose above Annie’s left ear.
Annie took one of the strawberries and made it disappear. Then she blew into her hands and made it reappear. Florence and a few of the other women sitting with them clapped with delight.
Florence then plucked a dandelion next to her, cupped her hands, and threw the flower into the air. But it was no longer a dandelion. Instead, it had turned into a small yellow chickadee. The bird flew off toward the houses.
“How did you do that?” Annie asked.
“Here,” Florence said, “you can bend the rules a bit more.”
Annie picked up the only thing next to her–a dandelion covered in puffy white seeds. She did what every child did on the playground at school: shut her eyes, made a wish, and blew the seeds to disperse them.
When she opened her eyes, the seeds had turned to a murmuration of starlings high above them. Their spiraling, synchronized pattern formed a shadowy figure eight against the clear blue sky.
The ladies clapped again.
“Your magic is very strong,” Florence said. “Your grandmother has taught you well.”
“She could already do it without me,” Gramma said. “She’s just had more practice lately.”
As she and Gramma prepared to leave, Annie saw another colorful butterfly. She chased it through the meadow and around to one of the house’s gardens, where it landed on a rose bush.
Annie crept up to get a closer look. But the butterfly didn’t look like a butterfly at all. It had a small face and tiny, slender arms and legs.
Annie gasped. The fairy heard Annie and darted off toward the nearest roof.
Annie rounded a corner. She had to tell Gramma that she had seen a fairy up close. But Gramma and Florence huddled close and spoke in low voices. Annie strained to listen to them from behind a hedgerow.
“Will you be coming back to us soon?” Florence asked.
“Very soon, Gran,” Gramma whispered back.
Later, when they returned to Gramma’s cottage, Annie let the words sink in. She’d met her great-great-grandmother.
The second-to-last night of summer vacation was Annie’s last at the cottage. She helped Gramma gather colorful fruits, vegetables, and herbs to make dinner.
Gramma chopped carrots on the kitchen counter. Annie washed the strawberries for their dessert.
“When will I get to see you again, Gramma?”
Gramma finished chopping the carrots and placed them into a bowl. “Any time you want, dearest,” she answered finally.
Annie thought for a moment. “How about this Saturday, after I go back to school?” If fourth grade was as bad as her other school years had been, at least now she would have Gramma to talk to. Maybe then she could ask her more about Florence. They hadn’t spoken about Florence since they’d left the Secret World.
“It would be lovely to see you this weekend,” Gramma said. She stared out the back window. The leaves on the trees outside were edged with gold. They didn’t speak again until it was time for dinner.
On Saturday, Annie woke up early. She wanted to tell Gramma about her first week of fourth grade. She had made a new friend on the first day, Jessica.
Even better, Bethany had moved away sometime during the summer. And so far Sarah, who was in her class again, hadn’t been mean to Annie.
Yet by noon, she still hadn’t seen Gramma. At one o’clock, her mother called her down for lunch. She pouted at the table until Mama asked her what was wrong.
“I was supposed to see Gramma today, but she hasn’t shown up,” Annie said.
Mama frowned. “I’ll call her after lunch,” she said.
Annie spent the afternoon reading and tried the spell to make a flame appear in her hand. So far, all she could manage was a spark. At one point, she heard Mama leave the house.
Around five, Mama knocked on her bedroom door. Annie saw that Mama’s eyes were puffy and red when she entered.
Mama sat down on the bed next to Annie. She had something in her hand.
“Sweetheart, I have something to tell you,” Mama said, her voice breaking.
Tears stung the corners of Annie’s eyes. She knew, even if she didn’t want to believe it. Mama leaned over and hugged her.
“But I just saw her this week,” Annie said between sobs.
“Sometimes that’s the way it happens, Annie.” Mama passed the object in her hand to Annie. “I think she meant to give this to you.”
It was a small, curved glass bottle, with a cork on top; a tag around it said “Annie.” Inside were bluebell flowers, still freshly picked.
Annie set the bottle aside on the bed. Later that night, when she was able to stop crying, she moved it out of sight on top of her bookshelf.
By middle school, Annie had joined her school’s cross country team. She’d done so because her father had insisted that she get out of the house.
She hated running at first. But then she grew to love the freedom it granted her. She hadn’t felt such peace since she had lain in a field of bluebells in another world.
During her sophomore year of high school, Annie ran with Jessica and Sarah, who were also on the cross country team. Sometimes they hung out after school. Lately, though, Annie suspected that they had gone out without inviting her along.
One day during practice, Annie found herself in Hemlig Park. She ran through the trail behind the baseball field. The trees guarded her from the chilly October breeze.
Annie maintained a steady pace. Having run there before, she knew every bump, dip, and tree root on the path.
But then she skidded to a sudden halt.
In a thicket–behind bare, tangled branches–was a door.
Annie rubbed her eyes to make sure she wasn’t mistaken. The door remained in place. White lilies in full bloom covered its surface.
Annie pushed through the underbrush and stepped over fallen tree limbs. The dirt there was muddy. Her sneakers sunk into the wet earth, slowing her movements.
When she reached the door, she grabbed its silver handle and tugged. The door was locked, as she had expected it to be.
Annie let out a shaky breath. Her grandmother had had the only key she’d seen. Annie had tried to join her parents when they had cleaned out Gramma’s house after her passing. They hadn’t let her go back. For all Annie knew, the key was lost forever.
She choked back tears. She hadn’t thought about going back to the Secret World in years. After Gramma died, she’d buried the book in the back of her closet; it was too painful to look at. Then school became a bit more challenging, and she had begun making a few friends. Running had kept her body busy and her mind from wandering too far.
Annie spun around. Jessica and Sarah stood on the trail staring at her.
“What were you doing back there?” Sarah asked.
Annie peered at them through the branches. “I thought I saw something.”
“It’s almost 4:30,” Jessica said. “We need to head back.”
They were looking at her, Annie realized. They couldn’t see the door. She crawled back through the brush.
Jessica and Sarah ran ahead. Annie heard Jessica laugh. She could swear she heard Sarah say “crazy.”
Annie glanced back once more as they left the trail. The door still stood, the lilies unmoving in the wind.
When Annie arrived home, she sprawled out on her bed. She could see the bottle of bluebells sitting on top of her bookshelf. She never took it down, preferring to leave it there and look at it from a distance.
The bluebells were still fresh. Her mother never questioned it; she may have believed they were fake. But Annie knew they were real, and they certainly hadn’t grown in Gramma’s garden.
She stood up and grabbed the container. A thick layer of dust coated it, and she wiped it away with the hem of her t-shirt. Carefully, she removed the wide cork on top of the bottle.
Annie pulled a few of the bluebells from the glass. The flowers tumbled, still intact, into a circle on her bed. The burst of their fragrance brought Annie back to the warm, sunny field.
Then something rattled inside the jar. Annie reached inside and felt cool metal.
She pulled and out came the same golden key Gramma had used all those years ago. Holding it in her hand, it seemed to her smaller and more delicate than she had remembered.
She showered and changed into sweatpants and sweatshirt. She ate dinner with her parents fast and said she had to finish her homework upstairs.
Once in her room, she poured the remaining bluebells onto the bed. In the pile, she found a slip of paper rolled up into a tiny scroll.
She unfurled the paper and recognized her grandmother’s handwriting.
“Dearest,” it said, “For when you are lonely. Love, Gramma.”
Annie placed the bluebells in a circle on the bed. Then she lay back in it with tears still in her eyes. What was it Gramma had said to her? That fairies would take children away if they stepped into a circle of the flowers?
She held the key to her chest and wished to be taken away forever and ever.
The glowing red letters on Annie’s alarm clock told her it was just past midnight when she awoke. The key still rested on her chest.
With the lights on, Annie scooped the bluebells and scroll of paper back into the bottle. She opened her bedroom door. The house was quiet.
Annie toed on her running shoes. She shoved both the key and bottle into the pouch of her sweatshirt. She left through the kitchen door, not bothering to bring her house key with her.
The park was less than a mile and a half away from her house. Within twenty minutes, she was back on the trail.
Annie’s heart thumped in her chest. With only the moonlight above her, she feared missing the door. The night air was cold with Halloween’s approach. A fluttering feeling caught in her throat and made her eyes water. Would she even find the door again?
She stopped on the path. The lilies on the door emitted a faint glow between the trees. She stepped through the dense underbrush, careful not to trip on the fallen branches.
Annie removed the key from her pocket. Her shadow obscured the keyhole. She snapped her fingers on her right hand three times, and a small, bright flame came to life in the palm of her hand.
The key entered the lock. Annie clapped her hands together to put out the flame. Then she stood silent in the dark before pushing the door open and stepping across the threshold.