The door closed with a not-slam, but the whoosh-snick might as well have been a thunderclap for all the emotion residing in it. Mara stood on one side, her parents on the other. Their voices were hushed, but not hushed enough. Not that it mattered. She knew what they were saying; the fight was on repeat a thousand times over.
Mother’s voice was flat, matter-of-fact. “It happened again. In front of several parents this time.”
“It was only a matter of time. Why are you even surprised anymore?” Father snapped, not bothering now to keep his voice to secretive levels. His footsteps creaked in the same old frantic pacing, the steps heavy with annoyance at yet another disruption to his desire for normal. When Mother paced, it carried a staccato of worry that even the threadbare carpet of the hasty rental couldn’t conceal.
“What are we going to do?” he continued, not allowing Mother time to speak. His voice was terse. It usually took longer for him to reach this state of frustration. “We can’t move again. I won’t move again. Not for her. Not this time. It isn’t fair to Arden.” That it also wasn’t fair to Father was all but spoken. He’d reached his limit.
Mother stayed silent. What could possibly be said?
Mara’s heart stung. The time had come to relieve the family of this burden. The burden of her. Mother would choose to stay––or go––with her, of course, but would bear the weight of leaving Father and her brother behind for the rest of her days. And she refused to make Mother into a pack mule of guilt. It was hers to bear, and hers alone.
She closed her eyes, mentally packing the absolute minimum she’d need: a few changes of clothes and a warm jacket; the locket with her favorite picture of Mother; the money she’d been tucking away over the past few years, just in case.
And them. Of course.
Content with the items she’d decided on, she opened her eyes. They trailed across the still-bare walls of her room––a cracked and cramped space she’d claimed as hers a mere three weeks ago––to the cage. She hadn’t wanted to confine them, but her father insisted. It was either caged or destroyed.
They had souls that sang to her dreams. She’d fought for their lives. The hunger strike lasted almost four days before Father finally gave in. The cage was the compromise. It was far too bulky for her to lug for untold days, but its inhabitants weren’t large and were as light as paper. She would put the softest of her sweaters on the top to cushion them against her movements, then tuck them carefully into the top of her backpack.
She gathered what she’d need, and once done, hid the bag under her bed. They whispered, moving about the cage with agitation and uncertainty.
Mara crouched, coming eye-to-flat eyes with the creatures. “Shhh! It’ll be an adventure, just like the ones in your books. We just have to wait until dark. Get some rest while you can.”
The thrilling buzz whisked around the plastic cage, as quick as a spring bee looking for early flowers. She watched as the now thirteen little figures found their beds and curled up in feigned sleep. They’d helped the more recent addition–-new as of this afternoon––find a place. Mara’s heart pattered with love for them all.
Mara planned her escape on her tablet, hiding the screen with the bus schedule when Mother crept in, offering a plate of still-warm food. She let a tender hand drift to the top of Mara’s curls, just like when she was a little girl, first learning what she could do. Mother had aged quickly over the following years. All these moves had been equally difficult for her, though only Father and Arden chose to complain out loud.
“We’ll figure this out, baby girl,” Mother said, her fingers trembling and belying the confidence in her whisper. “I’ll call you in sick to school for the rest of the week, and we’ll figure this out.”
Mara nodded and pressed Mother’s hand to her cheek, holding the tears back until the door closed again, leaving her in the mostly dark room, the smell of mac n’ cheese n’ peas standing in for Mother’s unspoken “I love you.”
Within two hours, the house was quiet. Mara waited another hour; impatience itched at her. They sensed it and the scratches from inside the cage only amplified her need to leave. It was the only way to keep them safe.
As soon as she was certain everyone was asleep, she crouched again in front of her friends, finger to her pursed lips. She held the open pack under the cage, holding her breath when the springs on the door release squealed.
The tiny figures formed a single-file line; not a one over three inches tall. The two most nimble––Peter Rabbit and Curious George––leapt in first and eased Mary Anne the steam shovel into the bag. She reached up her boom and lowered the rest of the creatures into the opening a few at a time: two pushy-shovey Wild Things; Sal and her bucket of blueberries; Cindy Lou Who and the Grinch; Anne with her swinging red braids, the newest member of their odd little family.
Tinkerbelle turned up her perfect little nose at the waiting scoop and flew in with an unhappy flap of her wings; Ralph S. Mouse also refused help and zoomed his motorcycle off the edge of the cage, making sure to avoid everyone below; The Very Hungry Caterpillar inched along the corner of the table and inside the bag on its many legs; and finally Charlotte, dear, maternal Charlotte, waiting until everyone else was tucked in, let out a line of web and lowered herself down.
Her friends. The only ones she had these days. And soon they’d be her only family, too.
Mara crept from her room, closing the door behind her. She knew she should leave a note, but what more could she say that she hadn’t all these years?
As Mara locked the front door and placed the hide-a-key back under the mat, a tightness gripped her throat, surprising her with its weighty emotion. She paused, hand on her heart. She’d miss them, even Father…to a degree. And she wondered how long she would’ve lasted here anyway. Father always found some reason to be upset with her. She wasn’t smart enough. She wasn’t quick enough. She wasn’t “son” enough.
Aside from the occasional creature creation, she’d managed to keep quiet and not be too much trouble.
Until Father had stumbled upon the Grinch being all grinchy in her room. She was ten and had pulled out the book a few weeks before Christmas. Father had lost his mind, accusing her first of playing a joke on him, then, when he finally sulked it wasn’t any trick her could figure out (and pointed out that she certainly wasn’t smart enough to fool him for that long), he called her a witch.
Mara admitted finally that it had been going on for three years, and that there were indeed more creatures.
He demanded answers and she offered them as best as she could. Not that it satisfied him. No one had been more surprised than Mara when, at the mere age of seven, she’d convinced Sal to come off the page of her book and share her bounty of fruit. At first, she’d squealed with glee, but that happiness switched to frustration when she realized Sal was no larger than her picture in the book, and no thicker than the page, though she could walk and move about like any normal child. Mara’s howl of anger had brought Mother running. She mistook the paper figure for a rodent at first, until her daughter picked it up, cradling it against her cheek.
Mother decided they shouldn’t tell Father.
The secret was fun. At first anyway. Others followed, with Mara uncertain how it was happening. One moment she was reading, the next Peter Rabbit was hopping about, looking for cabbages and carrots. Mara set up her dollhouse for her new friends. It seemed they didn’t actually require food or water and, since Father absolutely refused to allow her to have so much as a goldfish, they were the easiest pets to hide. Slowly the little paper family grew. Over time Mara learned to be careful around books, and fewer unexpected friends were created.
The summoning of Anne this afternoon had been an accident.
And now…now they were all on the run. Mara was fairly certain Father had plans to destroy them as soon as she wasn’t paying attention. As soon as she left them alone again. Probably one of the reasons Mother was going to let her stay home sick this week. Never mind the questions she’d get from the parents who’d seen an illustration of Anne swirl off the page and walk right over to Mara.
She trudged to the bus depot a few miles away, wishing for the warmth of a summer evening instead of the winds of early spring. The dingy station reeked of old hot dogs and piss but at least it offered relief from the chilly night. She couldn’t afford to go far, but knew she didn’t need to. Mother would worry and would maybe even convince Father to search for her. But she knew the façade wouldn’t carry on very long; he’d soon convince her that they were better off, that it had been her choice to leave. They could move again, to a better city, to a better house.
Maybe she’d try to find them again. Maybe someday.
The cashier questioned her age and gave her a dubious stare when she said sixteen, but finally accepted the fare and slid the ticket over.
When it pulled up, the bus was mostly empty and she had her pick of seats. Though she wanted to hide in the back, she felt safer sitting just behind the weary driver. She peeked in on them once, reassuring them with a bright smile, promising they’d be safe soon.
If only Mara actually believed it.
The sun was painting the sky a pale pink when the bus grumbled and creaked to the end of Mara’s line: the biggest city she could afford to get to and still have money for a few weeks of food. She didn’t have any illusions about finding a place to stay.
After wandering about for a few hours, she came to the local library. It’s aroma of old books and dusty carpet were homey, familiar. She returned day after day, arriving moments after the doors opened and staying until someone announced it was closing time. Sometimes, when the small building was mostly empty of other patrons, she’d find a corner in the back and let her friends out to stretch their paper legs. They might not be alive in the usual sense, but they didn’t like being confined any more than she would.
Weeks went by. Mara managed a few odd jobs here and there, just enough to keep her from starving. She found a nearby church that offered a safe place for homeless teens to sleep, and she managed to get a pallet there a few nights a week. She could even wash her clothes sometimes. The sandwiches they passed out could last a day or two if she was careful.
The days warmed, but still Mara gravitated to the library. A few of the librarians would smile at her, most with a look of understanding in their eyes. She tried to be discreet when she used the public restroom to clean up and refill her water bottle. She didn’t want to be banned from her one sanctuary.
After almost three months, as summer heat drove more and more people into the library, Mara found it difficult to let her friends out of her bag. She knew they were unhappy; she felt it in her dreams when she dared to sleep, but she couldn’t risk getting caught.
One of the librarians in particular, Katherine, would pay her a little here and there––from her own purse, no less––to help straighten shelves and put away books on the days they were extra busy. Mara wasn’t certain how the tiny woman, with her twiggy legs and wisps of silvery hair, knew when her funds were depleted.
But she always knew.
It was Katherine who came around a corner one afternoon and saw her. Saw them.
Yet she of the owl eyes pretended not to notice the flurry of little creatures scrambling to hide under shelves and behind piles of books.
Mara avoided the library for a few days after that, afraid of what might happen until the heat finally drove her back for the free air conditioning and feeling of safety.
Katherine was waiting for her. But she said nothing, not a word, until the library was closing. She stepped in front of Mara as she tried to exit, her arms crossed, her face blank. “Come with me,” she said. It wasn’t a question. There was no other option.
Mara hung her head and followed the old woman down the street. She contemplated running, but every time she sped up even a little, Katherine fixed her with a look that scared the thought right out of her. Katherine turned up the walkway of a tidy, one-story brick house. Everything was in its place, from the flowers to the step-stones to the curtains hanging in the perfectly centered windows.
Clutching her backpack straps, Mara stopped at the porch. All she wanted to do was run. All she wanted to do was stay, to see what might happen.
“Well, are you coming in or do you plan on spending another night outside?” Katherine held the door open.
“Yes, ma’am.” She shuffled inside, the kiss of cool air breathing fresh life into her.
“Och! None of that ma’am nonsense now. It’s Katherine, just like at the library. Now, let’s get a look at you, girl. What are you? Thirteen or so?”
“Fourteen,” Mara muttered.
“Well then, that’s an awfully young age to be on your own, isn’t it? Parents throw you out or did you up and leave on your own?”
She didn’t want to answer. But she felt compelled to be fully honest. “Left on my own.”
“Huh, that so?” Katherine stared at her for a moment. “Well, I’d tell you to go and get cleaned up first, but the wonder might as well be written all across your face. Come on, then. Follow me.”
Her rapid footsteps retreated down the hall with smart clicks and clacks, and Mara hurried to catch up. Katherine stopped at the doorway of a closed room. “They can stay here,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll be relieved to get out of that bag of yours.”
She swung the door open. Warm light filled the space, illuminating the most wondrous room Mara had ever seen. One wall was consumed by a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, complete with a sturdy rolling ladder that reached all the way to the top. Murals of fantastical forest scenes dominated the other three walls. Doll houses lined the floor. Pathways and miniature stairways wound about the walls to the second and third levels of small homes. Tiny, twinkling bulbs made the ceiling look like the night sky.
It was all so overwhelming that at first Mara didn’t notice the room’s inhabitants.
Not until they crept about her shoes and tugged on the frayed laces.
They were no more than three to four inches tall, and thin as sheets of paper.
Her heart drummed a heavy metal tune, at odds with the magic around her, but she immediately knelt and unzipped her bag, releasing her friends. They clung to her fingers, shy. Frightened.
Katherine sighed and gestured impatiently at her family of characters. “Well, don’t just stand there. We have guests. You know what to do. Go get rooms ready.”
When Mara’s friends didn’t move from her hands, Katherine settled into a worn arm chair. “I understand,” she said, her voice kindly and welcoming. “Your dear friend here has taken such good care of you all these years. But now I’m going to take care of her for a bit. Help her get cleaned up and enjoy a hot meal. You are all welcome here. For as long as you want to stay, you will be my guests. Part of my family, if you wish. You’re all safe here. I swear it on every one of those books over there.”
Mara nodded at her friends, bringing them to her face. “It’s okay. She’s okay,” she whispered. “I don’t know how I know, but I do.”
Her thirteen characters jumped from her lowered hands and allowed themselves to be greeted by Katherine’s family. Mara thoughts she recognized Pippi Longstockings and Mathilda, along with the Tin Man and maybe Ferdinand. The rest were a flurry of color and black-and-white figures.
“You’ll have time to meet all of them. And plenty of time for asking questions,” Katherine promised. “But first let’s take care of you. I bet it’s been a long time since someone did that for you. Too long for a young lady such as yourself. Meant what I said, you’re safe here with me. For as long as you want. For as many more as you create. Now, I’ve got a room just down the hall that can be yours.” She stood and nodded once at Mara, a smile adding beautiful wrinkles to her face.
We’re finally home, she thought and followed Katherine to her room.
Find Jill in all these places!