by Em Richey, Age 16, USA
This piece won one of our weekly writing challenges. It is the epilogue from a 20,000 word fantasy story, “The Invisible Girl.”
The light of a hundred policemen’s torches stole the darkness away from Amble of Northumberland. Led by Kaeleb, the prison keeper, they flashed their torches down forlorn alleyways and the empty places between tired-looking houses. Pupils dilated, they peered into the fishmonger’s barrels, spilling brown salt and scales onto the cobblestones, and pushed over boxes stacked on the docks.
“She’s here. I know she is.” Kaeleb shone his torch into a water barrel, sparks catching and dancing off the reflection. “Search every nook and cranny if you must. No one will go home until she’s found.”
“But, sir,” Marcus, the second in command whined, absentmindedly lifting the lid of a disposal bin and releasing putrid fumes. “How do you know she’s here? Why tonight of all nights?”
“Christmas,” Kaeleb muttered. “She always comes for Christmas.”
“How do you know?”
Kaeleb pushed his aide-de-camp against the wall of the red brick house. “My father and his father before him spent their lives tracking down the Invisible Girl. Fifty years of searching. Every Christmas she comes from goodness knows where to visit her family. But she’s clever.” He released a gasping, blue-faced Marcus. “She’s too clever. Always manages to escape.” His eyes glinted fiercely. “Not tonight.”
“What are you going to do…Sir?”
The prison keeper tucked the end of his long, black ponytail into the hood of his midnight cloak. He looked like the angel of death. “I’m going to catch her, Marc. That’s what I’m going to do. Tell the men to move farther down. The one who catches her will receive thirty pounds and the favour of the prison keeper. Make sure they know that.”
“Sir.” Marcus gave a mock bow and scurried to fulfill the orders. His torch cast eerie shadows on the cobblestones as he ran.
Kaeleb stayed a while longer in the marketplace. He thrust the torch into holes in the brick, as if he expected the girl to seep out of the walls. He didn’t know what he expected her to look like or do. He’d only heard tales from his grandpappy, Dolan, who had seen the girl himself. She’d been his servant girl, up until she’d disappeared. Grandpappy said that she had wild, dark hair that sparked magic at the ends, and bewitching green eyes that could hypnotize even the strongest man. She was obviously dangerous, but Kaeleb would put an end to that. He would put an end to all the faerie tales and ghost stories about an invisible girl who was forced to flee from her own country because of an evil prison keeper. In the stories parents sent their children to bed with, they made the girl a hero, a protagonist, someone to cheer for. But Grandpappy had always said that she was an evil witch and needed to be hung for her crimes. She had married a murderer and released a prisoner. She had to be caught.
He crept away finally, his heavy boots clomping on the stones. The flame on his torch became smaller and smaller as he walked farther and farther. At last, the light was gone and so was he.
“Aces, I thought he’d never leave.”
A still, small fracture of light flickered. Then, in the very middle of the street, a little old woman appeared. She had long, grey hair that seemed to defy braids and plaits, and green eyes that sparkled dangerously. She stood hunched over a smooth, wooden cane, but there was something about her that said she would never be defeated by old age. Even at seventy-some-odd, she still looked wild.
The trees bent their branches in awe as she hobbled down the streets. The wind didn’t dare toss her hair or muss a curl. She hummed cheerfully and smiled to herself, as if she was already anticipating her destination.
And even though a hundred of the prison keeper’s best men were stomping down the streets, she refused to turn invisible. Refused. She dared them to try and catch her. She’d heard Kaeleb say that she was terribly clever, and her Charlie always told her the same. She’d spit in Kaeleb’s face before she’d let him lay a hand on her.
Fifty-four years she’d been hounded by the prison keepers, but now Meredith had children and grandchildren of her own to protect. She loved them more than the world itself, and she would make sure that Kaeleb and his posse would never hurt them. Ever.
“Knock, knock.” Meredith rapped her bony knuckles on the door. “Open up, hon, it’s Merry.”
The door flew open on its hinges. “Gran!” A little nightgown-clad bundle threw itself at the old lady, hugging her tight with chubby little arms.
“Arabeth,” the old lady scolded with a twinkle in her eyes. “One of these days you’re going to squeeze the brains right out of me.”
“Come sit down, my dear. I’m terribly cold and tired.” She collapsed into a huge grey chair that simply dwarfed her, and the little girl climbed atop her gran’s knee. “There’s a good girl. Now, why are you home alone at such an hour?”
“Marm and Da went dancing. There was a ball at the baker’s, it being Christmas Eve and all.” Arabeth bounced a little in her grandmother’s lap, as energetic as her fiery curls suggested. She looked more like her father than her mother, but she had inherited Meredith’s sparkling emerald eyes. Sometimes they made her look as devilish as her grandmother. “Marm says that I can go dancing, too, when I turn twelve.”
“Four years away? No, that simply won’t do at all,” Merry tut-tutted. “You’ll be grey by then. No, I’ll sneak you out before then, my dear, don’t you worry. Your mother is much too strict.” She muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “Must’ve gotten that from her father.”
Arabeth snickered behind her hands. “Marm says that you’re too lenient, and Da agrees.”
Meredith was tempted to have the little girl tell her what else her daughter and son-in-law said about her, but it wouldn’t make a difference. Till the day she died. She intended to be free. And she would make sure that the rest of her family was as well. So instead she said, “And yet who will guarantee you the best night of your life—your mother or me? Never mind, don’t answer that. When are they due back?”
“They left you all alone without telling you when they’d be back?”
Seeing the disapproving glint in her gran’s eyes, Arabeth answered quickly, “Not alone, Gran! Pap’s upstairs taking a nap. He’s awfully tired.”
“Yes, I know he is. Foolish man always works too hard and then wonders why he’s tired…they still shouldn’t have left you.”
“You were out,” Arabeth said, “otherwise you could have made my dinner.” She wrinkled her nose. “Marm made me eat leftover casserole.”
Meredith grimaced and hugged her baby girl close to her heart. “My poor dear. I am sorry. You know, I saw the prison keeper while I was out.”
Her green eyes grew round and large. “Kaeleb? Oh, Gran, did he almost catch you? He’s so mean and horrible!”
“Goose! ‘Course he didn’t almost catch me!” Meredith spluttered, pretending to take offence.
“I’m sorry, Gran, it’s just…he’s so clever! I forgot about…,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “the invisibility.”
“It isn’t a secret,” Meredith said. “You needn’t whisper, darling. I was invisible for a little, but then he left, so I turned back. There was never any danger.”
Arabeth rested her head on her grandmother’s shoulder, nestling into the cocoon of warmth and love. After a while, she said, “Gran? When you die, who will you give your power to? Marm?”
“Well,” Meredith sighed, “it would have to be someone brave—yes, very brave indeed—and clever enough to escape the prison keepers. She’d have to be wild and free and strong as an ox. Her eyes would have to be shiny with curiosity and kindness. She’d have to be witty and not be easy susceptible. And more than anything in the world, she’d have to want to help people. The power shouldn’t be used for yourself, only to help others.”
“Oh!” Arabeth squeaked. “I don’t think I could ever be that brave.”
“Of course you could, goose. I have one more question. If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?”
“Easy,” the little girl said. “I’d want to fly. You know, like one of the sparrows or blackbirds. I’d want lots of feathers on my wings, like a rainbow. I’d fly up to the moon.” Her hand stretched high above her head. “And swoop down just above the ocean.” Her hand swooshed down. “I’d be like a bird.”
Arabeth shrieked as a pair of hands snatched her out of the warm, cozy lap and whirled her through the air.
“Vroom!” Charlie zoomed the little girl around the room, his smile just as big as hers.
“Aces and stars,” Meredith groaned. “Charlie, you’ll spoil the child senseless.” He ignored her and started ticking Arabeth until her cheeks were as scarlet as her hair. “Now she’ll never get to sleep.”
“Sleep? Ha—who needs sleep?” Charlie growled, pulling Arabeth into a bear hug.
“You do, Papa,” she said. “You snore like a walrus during your naps.”
Charlie swatted the little girl playfully. “Traitorous grandchild. I’ll never hear the end of it from your gran now.”
“Sorry, Papa.” She kissed him on his stubbly, unshaven cheek, and then pecked her gran’s soft, wrinkled skin. “Goodnight.”
“Merry Christmas,” Meredith sighed as the pitter-patted of tiny feet on the stairs subsided. “Stars, Charlie, she’s growing up too fast.”
“No thanks to you.” He smiled at her quizzical look. “I’m not deaf yet. Amelia will have a fit if she finds out you took her girl dancing.”
“So she won’t find out. Arabeth knows how to keep a good secret. That’s what I love about the kid. Not deaf, eh? What else did you hear?”
Charlie eased himself into the chair next to Meredith and stretched his rusty legs nearer the fire. The years had been good to him as well. His dark hair had salt-and-peppered and eventually greyed, but it was still all there. His big, beautiful smile had more wrinkles and lines in it than a bed sheet, but everyone loved it like that. His eyes still twinkled and sparkled like a mischievous teenager’s, and his charming personality never faltered; neither did his love.
“You as good as promised to give Arabeth the power.”
He nodded. “And Amelie and Carter? They won’t be hurt that you gave it to a little girl, your grandchild, rather than your own children?”
Meredith loved her children, but she had to think about everyone. “Amelia’s too strict and practical. I don’t think she’d do anything with the power. And Carter…” The mention of her son, named after her deceased brother, made her cry. “Who knows when he’ll be back?”
Carter had disappeared, been gone for so long that he’d never even met Arabeth. They never knew where he was, but Meredith had her ideas: married with six children in a farm town, shucking corn and milking cows as the years went on. In all her dreams, he was happy and healthy and whole; she couldn’t bear to think of him any other way.
“He’ll be back, love,” Charlie soothed. “Soon. You know boys. He’ll come to and be back before we know it.”
Meredith sniffed. “Arabeth is the best choice. She’s young and brave. She longs to be free. Did you hear her, Charlie? She wants to be a bird, to fly. She’s so like me when I was a girl.”
Charlie patted the old woman’s hand. She was old and wrinkled with adventure, worn from excitement, grey from the years, hunched over from running through grassy meadows, tired from hiding. She was always Meredith. In his eyes, she looked the same as she had on their wedding day, fifty-some-odd years ago. Just as beautiful, just as lovely, just as free and wild.
“You’ll give it to the right person, love,” he told her. “Even though they’ll never measure up to you. You’re the Invisible Girl, don’t you know?”
“You mean, the Invisible Old Woman?” She didn’t sound bitter, only tired.
“No,” he said. “You’ll always be Meredith, the Invisible Girl to me. My Merry.”
“Even with my wrinkles and grey hair? Even with a cane?”
“Aces, Merry, that cane is more of a weapon than anything!”
She patted the smooth wood fondly. “Nothing wrong with a little extra protection.”
Charlie laughed. He leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. By then, he too had grown tired, even after his nap.
The old woman watched her husband fall asleep. Only then, when his breathing was even and his limbs relaxed, did she allow her own eyes to close. Even after so long, she was still afraid of losing him. Old man, middle-aged man, boy—what did it matter? Grey hair, black, he was still her Charlie. Still teasing and playing with her hair and smiling at her adoringly. One thing that amazed her was that every day, he told her how much he loved her, as if she would or could forget. “I love you, Merry,” or “You know I love you, right?” or “Don’t forget that I love you.”
She never did.
Em writes: This is the epilogue of “The Invisible Girl,” the story of Meredith, a servant girl at a prison in a tiny town in England. She was taken as a child and lives in the jailhouse, cooking and cleaning. When one of the prisoners dies from a gunshot wound, he mumbles something in Meredith’s ear as he lays dying. That night she turns invisible. The rest of the book is about Meredith learning how to control her powers and her inner battle as she struggles to decide how she to use it: hide it or help people.