Woodsborough, New Jersey
Annie twisted in her sleep. In her dream she was running, running, trying with all her might to scream, “No, Mama, No!” but could not utter a sound.
She jerked awake. A shuddering gasp shook her. Her heart pounded in her chest. Every cell in her body was tensed with terror. For a long time, she lay rigidly still on her back, scarcely breathing, staring at the slanted ceiling above her. Sobs struggled in her, but could not come through.
Finally, barely daring to move, she turned her head. Early morning light poured through the window. Outside she could see the leaves and branches of the tree that grew close by. She became aware of the sound of Donny snoring. Turning her head the other way, she saw him in his narrow bed next to hers. He was asleep with his mouth slightly open, clutching his ragged teddy bear, his tumbled curls dark against his white pillow.
Annie caught a swift, short breath. It was a dream. She was in her and Donny’s room and it was morning.
There was a soft thud on the windowsill. Her cat Misty was poised there, the morning light shining on her gray fur. She leaped lightly down. Then Annie felt the familiar, comforting weight of the cat on her bed, the pressure of soft paws walking up her body. Misty licked Annie’s face with her rough pink tongue, then settled down on her chest.
A long sigh rippled through Annie’s body, loosening the fibers of her fear. She rolled on her side and gathered her cat close in her arms. “Oh, Misty,” she whispered. “I had a really bad dream.”
Misty’s purr vibrated into Annie’s aching heart. She bent her face into the soft grey fur and began to cry.
Her bed shifted. Annie turned her head and looked up to see Donny leaning over her. She could smell the warm flannelly odor of his sweat.
“Hey, Annie-fanny. What’s wrong?”
Annie sucked up a sob. “I had a bad dream.”
“What did you dream this time?”
“Goblins were chasing me . . . through the big woods. They were all pale with big bulgy eyes and long arms like worms and were trying to grab me . . . to take me to the witch. I was running as fast as I could, but they . . .” Annie’s words were interrupted by sobs. “I fell down, and they almost got me. . . Then Mama came and I was running to her to be safe . . . but she got all big and dark, and her nose got long, and . . . and she was smiling a mean smile with pointy yellow teeth . . . and when she held out her arms, she had claws instead of hands . . . and she was reaching out to grab me . . . Mama was the witch.”
Shaken with a fresh burst of sobs, Annie turned away from Donny and bent her head over Misty again.
“Aw. Don’t cry.” Donny patted her head. “Mama’s not a witch. She’s mean sometimes, but lots of times she’s nice. I know a secret. Will you promise not to tell?”
Still curled over her cat, Annie nodded. She stopped sobbing to listen.
“Remember tomorrow’s your birthday. You’re gonna be five. Mama’s gonna make you a cake. She told me. And she has a present for you.”
After breakfast Donny rode off on his bike to play with his friend, Jack. Annie sat on the front steps of their house, watching him go.
Annie didn’t have any friends. The only girl around who was Annie’s age lived more than a mile up the road. Bossy Linda. Sometimes Mama would take her up to visit, but it was a long walk, and Annie didn’t like Linda very much.
Annie kicked her feet against the stone steps. She was hungry. They’d had toast and yellow juice for breakfast, but Mama had burned the toast. She always did. By the time she’d scraped the burned part off into the sink, the toast was thin. Even with peanut butter on it, it didn’t begin to fill Annie up.
She wished they still lived with Grandma and Aunt Nellie. There was always plenty to eat there. Grandma had a big house with lots of rooms. She and Donny had each had their own room and there was a staircase with a bannister that she and Donny could slide down. And Aunt Nellie was nice. She held Annie in her lap and let her follow her around and help make cookies.
Mama didn’t like it there, so they moved. But Mama didn’t like this house either.
It was a little house made out of stone, like some of the houses in her fairytale book. It was way away from other houses, sitting on the side of a hill. Below the house, the road went by, and behind the house were big woods.
Every house was better when Daddy was home, but now Daddy was far away in Boston looking for a job.
Annie loved her Daddy more than anyone in the world, and the ache of missing him was always with her. When he was home, he laughed and sang and played the piano, carried her in his arms and tossed her in the air until she screamed with joy. Sometimes when he was away he sent her a letter telling her the adventures of her teddy bear, who, he claimed, came to visit him in Boston and got into all kinds of trouble. Mama would smile and even laugh with Annie when she read the letters to her. Annie knew Mama missed him, too. Donny said that was why she was so crabby.
Mama came out the front door, sat on the steps beside Annie. Annie leaned against her. The dream had faded away. It felt good to have Mama near her.
“What are you going to do today?” Mama asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go up in the woods.”
“All by yourself? Donny’s gone off to play with Jack.”
“I know. I could go all by myself. I’m almost five.”
“That’s true. You’re getting to be such a big girl. But those are big woods. What would you do?”
“I could play in the fort me and Donny made.”
“Donny and I.”
“Donny and I. I like to look at things, bugs and flowers. Sometimes there’s squirrels.”
“That sounds nice. I wish I could go with you.”
Mama couldn’t go up in the woods because there was so much poison ivy and she got sick from it. Annie and Donny and Daddy sometimes got a little rash, but nothing bad like what happened to Mama. Annie knew how to stay away from poison ivy. Her daddy had shown her and Donny the three shiny leaves. All the same, Mama made them wear long pants and shoes whenever they played up there, no matter how hot it was.
Mama frowned and rubbed her forehead. “I guess it’s all right for you to go by yourself. But don’t go far. Put on your overalls, and watch out for poison ivy. And come home right away when I ring the bell.”
Mama got up, brushed her hand over Annie’s hair, and went inside.
Annie sat a while longer on the steps. She thought about her birthday, and Donny telling her Mama would have a cake and a present for her. Last year, her present had been Misty, who’d been a tiny gray kitten then, the best present she’d ever had. She wondered what it would be this year. How could Mama give her a cake and a present when they didn’t even have enough money for food? But maybe present money was different from food money.
She was excited about her birthday. She would be five, and when school started she would go to kindergarten. Donny would be in third grade and he would ride her to school on the bar on the front of his bike, though Mama had promised to walk with her the first day. In kindergarten, Mama said, there would be lots of little girls who would become her friends.
Annie got up from the step and went upstairs. Misty lay on Annie’s bed, curled up on her pillow.
“I’m going to the woods,” Annie told her. “You want to come with me?”
Misty had often gone with her and Donny, scampering along after them, playing with leaves and stalking bugs while they worked on their fort, but she hadn’t come recently. Misty stretched and yawned showing her small white teeth and pink tongue, then curled up again. Annie could see how her tummy bulged when she stretched. Mama had told Annie that Misty’s tummy was big because she had babies inside that would be born soon. Sometimes when Annie put her hand on Misty’s belly she could feel the babies moving inside. It felt to her like magic, like a fairy tale, that baby kittens could be inside her big kitten. She couldn’t wait for them to be born.
“When will they come out?” she’d asked her mama a few days ago.
“I don’t know,” Mama had said.
Annie couldn’t believe that. Mama always knew the answer to everything. Maybe she just didn’t want to tell.
“Will the babies look like Misty, like people say I look like you?”
“I don’t know that either,” her mama had said smiling. She was in a gentle mood that day, holding Annie on her lap and stroking her hair. “Maybe some of them will look like their daddy.”
The babies had a daddy?
“Who is their daddy?”
“I think he’s the big yellow tomcat that lives in the house up the road.”
“Will he come live with us when the babies are born, to take care of them?”
“No. Cats don’t do that. Only people. Daddy cats start their babies and then just go away.”
“Don’t they come back?”
“Our daddy is people. Is he going to come back?”
Then Mama’s voice had gone from gentle to sharp. “That’s enough questions.” She dumped Annie off her lap and walked away fast.
Annie sat on the bed, pushing her lower lip out, aching inside as she remembered how Mama had pushed her away. Mama’s gentle moods could end so fast if Annie said or did the wrong thing. And she never meant to do anything wrong. She just didn’t know what all the wrong things were.
She put her hand on Misty’s soft fur. Misty purred and looked up at Annie with her big green eyes, and Annie was comforted. She kissed Misty on the top of her head, and went to look for her overalls, feeling a shiver of excitement about going up into the woods all by herself.
She counted the stairs as she went down. She was proud that she could count to one hundred. Her daddy had taught her, and now her mama was teaching her to read. She reached the bottom of the steps. She wanted to jump off the last one and shout the number, but maybe Mama had a headache.
“Twelve,” she whispered as she stepped softly off the bottom step.
She peeked into the living room. Mama was sitting in the big chair, reading. She got mad if anyone disturbed her when she was reading. Annie crept by quietly, through the dining room and kitchen and out the back door.
Outside the door were the big rain barrel, the trash can, the gray washtubs, and a shed where Daddy stored his tools and Donny parked his bike. There was only a little yard. The woods came down almost to the house.
Meg lifted her head from The Ladies Home Journal just in time to catch a glimpse of Annie slipping by the living room door. So quietly, like a little shadow. She was always so quiet Meg never knew where she was.
She was probably on her way up the hill. Meg hoped she had her overalls on. She’d better check and be sure.
She laid down her magazine with a sigh. She shouldn’t be reading foolish stories in a magazine anyway. Pure escape, that’s what it was. She hadn’t washed the dishes and the kitchen floor was sticky from the children spilling juice on it.
She got up and reached the kitchen window just in time to see Annie starting up the path into the woods.
She’s so little, Meg thought with a pang. Way too thin. If only I could give her a decent meal. She’d been hoarding a can of tuna fish. Maybe she’d get it out for Annie’s lunch. Donny was invited to Jack’s. He’d get a good meal there. And with him gone, there would be more for Annie. She could give Annie some carrot sticks with it.
She watched until Annie disappeared into the trees. She did have her overalls on. She was a good little girl.
Meg sighed again and rubbed her neck. The dull ache in the back of her head was starting already, so early in the day. Time to get to work anyway. She turned on the tap. No hot water. Damn! She’d forgotten to turn on the boiler after breakfast. She found the matches and knelt down to light it.
She was tempted to go back to reading her magazine story while the water heated, but she shouldn’t be reading that junk anyway. Instead she just sat down on the floor, hunched over by the boiler, one arm across her belly propping the elbow of the other arm, her head in her hand.
Her thoughts circled around in the same familiar, despairing loop.
She hadn’t guessed it would be so hard. They should have stayed at the farm with Mama and Nellie. At least there the children had enough to eat.
But those two were so goodand proper and Christian-kind. They tried to be nice to her, but she could tell how shocked they were by her bad temper. She could imagine them wondering how their Jesse could have married someone like her. She had felt so judged. She couldn’t stand it. And Annie was bonding with Nellie more and more, clearly loving her better than her own mother.
So now she was alone in this damnable house, so small they could barely fit in the necessary furniture.
Meg shifted her weight. The stone floor was hard. The pathetic kitchen was so tiny there wasn’t even room for a chair. She got up and went into the dining room. It was only big enough for the table and four chairs, one of which was always empty. She pulled out a chair, dropped into it, and laid her arms and head on the table.
She was so tired. So tired of all the drudgery. She hated the house and the humid August heat. Her body twitched. She got up again, kicked her chair back, and pushed her limp hair off her brow.
The ache in the back of her head had morphed into pounding in her temples. She turned away from the door and walked back to the kitchen.
Just get the dishes washed. She put the plug in the sink, turned on the faucet, picked up the soap cage and swished it through the water. It was barely hot enough to make suds, but Meg didn’t care. There weren’t many dishes because there wasn’t much food. Just a plate and a glass for herself and each of the children. Her coffee mug with an inch of cold coffee in the bottom. She drank the dregs, and put all the dishes into the soapy water.
Then she just stood there, hands in the water, thinking of her children. Donny going to school with factory workers’ children who didn’t speak decent English, and Annie soon to start kindergarten. She should keep Annie home, not expose her to those rough children and ignorant teachers. Donny managed okay. He had a strong spirit. But Annie . . .
But there was nothing for him here. Working on a road crew, digging ditches. He with his refinement, his intellect, his Ph.D. He said it was a good experience for a sociologist. Always making the best of things.
She missed him so much. His gentle touch, his loving smile, his quick humor and the way he teased her and made her laugh, his clear tenor singing in the shower, the evenings when he sat at the piano and filled the house with music. She’d never known a man like him who paid so much attention to his children and even helped with the housework when he was home.
Meg realized she was squeezing the dishcloth into a knot and that her tears were dripping into the water. She pulled in a ragged breath and wiped her cheeks with the back of her wet hand. Much good that did. Just get the damned dishes washed.
Her hands moved, rinsing, stacking. If only Jesse could come home more often. But there was gas rationing, and anyway gas cost money, as did long distance phone calls. At least he was too old to be in the war.
He had called two nights ago. Told her to have hope. He had an interview coming up at Boston University. He was staying with his older brother, who was a professor at some small college in Boston, Meg couldn’t remember which. His brother had gotten him some tutoring jobs. He could send some money soon.
Annie followed a path she and Donny had made. It led a short way up through the trees to a flat-topped cliff that jutted out of the hillside. Above it three huge trees hung their branches down so low that it was like a roof over the cliff. Donny had decided that it was a perfect place for a fort. They had worked on it for weeks, digging rocks out of the ground with a trowel and piling them along the front edge of the cliff to make a wall. Annie didn’t especially enjoy fort building, but Donny had it all planned and Annie had to do what he said.
Today Donny wasn’t there. Annie could do what she wanted.
She sat a while in the fort. It was quiet without Donny talking all the time and telling her what to do. She could hear some birds chirping a little way up the hill, and even the sound of a soft breeze moving through the leaves of the trees above her.
After a while she crawled through the opening they had left for a door and looked up the hill. The woods looked mysterious, magical, like the pictures in Annie’s fairytale book. Annie loved the delicate ferns around her feet, the smell of the dark earth, the way the bushes pushed close with vines winding in them, the tall tree trunks rising up. She especially loved the way the sun came through the leaves, making leaf shadows dance all around her when the breeze moved.
She and Donny had been so busy with the fort, they had never explored much. A little above the fort, she saw a faint track through the undergrowth, a path she hadn’t noticed before. It wound up and away into the trees. Who had made the path? She knew there were no other children nearby. It must have been made by an animal.
Mama said not to go far. She’d just go a little way.
The path was open about as high as her shoulders; above that branches and vines hung over and she had to duck her head to get through. It must have been a big animal, to clear the path so high. Maybe if she was very quiet, she might see it.
She knew how to be quiet so as not to disturb her mother when she had a headache. She had to watch where she put her foot so nothing would squeak, like the third board outside her and Donny’s room; she had to open and close the screen door very carefully so there were no creaks or bangs. Now she had to be careful not to rustle leaves as she pushed the branches aside, or kick a stone, or step on a twig that might snap. She went slowly up the path, practicing quietness.
A sudden jabber overhead startled her. She looked up to see a squirrel on the branch above her. It continued to jabber, flicking its tail in swift ripples that showed its tail’s bright orange underside.
Annie laughed. “You don’t have to be so mad,” she told it. “I’m not going to hurt you. See, I’m leaving.”
A little farther on, a rotting log lay across her path. Ferns grew out of it, sheltering a wide crack at one end. Annie peered into the crack. It was a big log and the crack was so deep she couldn’t see the bottom of it. Maybe it was a doorway to the elves kingdom. A thrill of excitement ran through her. She lifted her head and looked around. The woods felt even more magical than when she had first entered. Maybe this was a magic woods. Maybe there really were elves. She knew Donny would tell her they were just pretend, but Donny didn’t know everything. She wondered what Daddy would say. She remembered him telling her once that there were lots of things people didn’t understand or know about yet. Maybe elves where one of them.
When she stood up, a soft breeze moved through the woods, and a tree branch hanging over her brushed her hair with its leaves. Her heart opened and she looked up into the branches above. Dappled sunlight fell across her face and it seemed the tree whispered a secret to her. In a magic woods trees could whisper to you.
She looked down again into the crack in the log. Maybe if she sat there very quietly, elves would come out. But she was also lured by the faint animal path she had been following.
The path won. She ducked under a big branch and pushed through a tangle of bushes and vines. Whatever animal made the path must have jumped over that part, but she could see the path opening again on the other side, leading to a little grassy clearing.
Annie took a few steps forward, then went perfectly still, her eyes wide. Three deer grazed in the little clearing. One of them was bigger, the other two smaller. Maybe it was a mama and her babies. The mama deer lifted her head and perked up her big, pointed ears. Her soft dark eyes looked straight at Annie. Annie held still, so still, barely breathing. For a long moment, she and the mama deer gazed at each other.
The mama deer moved her ears, turning them slightly from side to side. Then she flicked her tail, turned, and leaped lightly over some low bushes at the edge of the clearing. The two young ones followed. In a flash, all three had disappeared into the trees.
Annie let out her breath. “Oh . . .” she whispered.
It wasthe deer who had made the path, Annie was sure, jumping over the thick places just as she had guessed. She still held the image of them leaping, arcing over the bushes, so lightly, so easily. If only she could leap like that.
Annie stepped into the little clearing and lay down in the grass. It was kind of tickley on her bare arms and neck, but still it felt good to lie in it. The trees around the clearing towered over her, their leaves in different shades of green and their dark branches vivid against the blue sky. A soft wind moved through them, turning the leaves.
Peace flowed through Annie. She sighed a long sigh, feeling her body soften into the earth.
As she lay quietly looking up into the trees, it seemed in one moment as if the sky, so blue, was right behind the leaves, right up against them. In the next moment the sky was far away, so deep a leaf could never touch it. She lay a long time, first seeing it one way, then the other. Could they both be true? She’d have to ask Mama. But maybe Mama wouldn’t be interested.
Daddy would for sure. If only she could ask Daddy. But maybe Daddy wouldn’t come back. Maybe he was like the daddy cat that just started his babies and then left. Maybe that’s why Mama pushed Annie off her lap, because she was sad about it.
The ache of missing her daddy tightened her chest. With a swift roll, she jumped up, her peace shattered. She pushed around the bush the deer had leaped over and ran up the path that opened on the other side. She wasn’t trying to be quiet anymore. She was just running as fast as she could away from the fear her Daddy might never come back.
Meg flipped The Ladies Home Journal shut and tossed it down on the little table beside her chair. After she’d washed the dishes and mopped the kitchen floor, she had surrendered to her curiosity about how the story ended. It was a stupid story, blah, cliche. Maybe she should take up writing stories for magazines. She could certainly do better than that.
Oh, no! She’d forgotten to turn off the boiler. Their landlord had warned them that if they left it on too long, the pressure would build up and it might explode. Comforting thought.
She went to the kitchen and turned off the boiler. The kitchen window looked out into the woods. Even though she’d told Annie that morning that she wished she could go with her, she had no desire to enter the woods. She didn’t like them. They loomed over the house and were thick with bushes, tangled with vines. Especially poison ivy vines. Her one venture into the woods, when Jesse had coaxed her to explore with him and the children, had resulted in weeks of utter misery. She wished the children weren’t so attracted to playing up there. Fortunately they weren’t as allergic to poison ivy as she was. Still . . .
Annie should be back soon. Meg had told her not to be gone long. She checked her watch. Ten thirty. When had Annie left? Somewhere around nine. An hour and a half. What would she do up there all by herself? It was time for her to come home now. Meg was uneasy about her going alone. Maybe she shouldn’t have given her permission.
She picked up the big bell she used to call the children, stepped out the back door and rang it.
The woods became more open. Annie could no longer see the deer path, but she kept on running up the hillside. She came to a place where a steep rock face blocked her way. Above and around it, the trees closed in again. The cliff was high, as high as her bedroom window. She leaned against it, panting from her run.
She looked up at the cliff. It would be fun to be on top. Donny would climb up there for sure. She could do it. Beside the cliff, the bank was steep under the trees, but she went up easily on her hands and feet pushing the vines and bushes aside, creating a tunnel in the undergrowth. At the top, there was a broad rocky shelf as big as her bedroom, spreading back to where the trees started again, rising on up the hill.
From the top of the cliff she could see everything. Her house far below, just the roof half hidden by the trees. Below that, the road, like a long curvy black snake, wound out of sight around a bend in one direction, and led into town on the other. In the town, she could see the cluster of houses, the three churches with their steeples, the school with the playground around it, and the factory with black smoke puffing out of its chimneys.
She felt like a bird, being up there so high, looking down on the world below. A gust of wind rose up from the valley, blowing her curls back from her face, rippling through her T-shirt and cooling the sweat on her chest. She lifted her arms and turned her face up to the sky, sudden joy pulsing through her.
But the sun was hot. One of the trees just above the cliff and off to the side where she had climbed up, was an old, tall spruce. It towered against the sky, and its dark branches touched the ground all around it.
It would be shady under the tree. Annie went to it, pushed aside one branch and looked underneath. It was a perfect shelter, almost a circle around the big, rough trunk in the center. Annie crawled in. It was dim inside, and definitely cooler out of the sun. The ground was covered in dried spruce needles, soft and deep. Annie scooped some up in her hands, inhaling their pungent fragrance. They were small and prickly, but there were many layers and the surface was smooth, as if no one had come there to disturb it before Annie.
She looked around more carefully. The space under the tree wasn’t a circle after all. On the far side of the trunk, another cliff face, about as tall as Annie, interrupted the curve. And oh! There was a dark space in the rock, a hole, a cave! Annie scrambled toward it, first crawling, then finding as she neared the trunk that she could stand. Beyond the trunk, the cliff held the branches up so she could stand there, too.
She had to get down on her hands and knees to look into the hole. It was big. Big enough for her to crawl into, and once inside, high enough for her to sit. She crawled to the very back of the cave. She tried lying down. The cave was long enough if she curled up.
Annie sat up in the middle of the cave and looked out into the dim space under the tree. She was brimming with excitement. This was a perfect hidey hole, way better than Donny’s old fort. She lay down again, curled on her side, looking out into the dim light under the tree, feeling doubly sheltered by tree and cave.
But the floor of the cave was rough and rocky. Pointy rocks were poking into her.
She got up on her hands and knees and started at the back of the cave raking the loose stones out with her fingers, backing out as she pulled them to the opening of the cave. But some of the pointy rocks were part of the floor of the cave. As she backed out of the cave and her knees touched the cushion of spruce needles, she had an idea.
She piled the loose rocks by the opening of the cave, then began gathering big handfuls of spruce needles. She crawled back into the cave and spread them over the hard, rocky floor. It took a lot of spruce needles to cover the whole floor thickly enough that the pointy rocks wouldn’t poke through, but there were lots. She gathered the needles from all around the tree and filled in the hollows where she had taken them, so the space under the tree would still be smooth and even.
At last she finished. The floor of the cave was soft and comfy. She lay down, curled on her side, her head resting on her arm.
Meg sat at the dining room table where she had been pondering their bills, trying to figure out how little she could pay each one and still keep the gas and electric and phone turned on, how to eke out the last of the money from the road crew job. She glanced at her watch. Eleven o’clock. Annie still hadn’t come back. She should have come right away when Meg rang the bell. Meg had told her not to go too far.
She stood up and went to the kitchen window. Why wasn’t Annie back? Meg had lost track of time dealing with the damn bills. It had been a half hour since she rang the bell. Annie had always been an obedient child. She must not have heard the bell.
Prickles of panic rose up Meg’s spine. Where could Annie be? Why wouldn’t she have heard the bell? Anything could happen. She could fall. Donny had said there were cliffs up there.
Meg hurried into the kitchen, grabbed the bell, went out and rang it again, longer, louder.
“Annie,” she called as loudly as she could. “Annie, come home.”
She stared up the path that led from the back yard. The woods stared back at her, secret and still.
For the next hour, again and again, Meg went out the back door, rang and called.
She crossed the small yard and stood at the opening in the trees. Just to the side of the path the children had made, she saw the vine with the three shiny leaves. She stepped back.
If only she weren’t so allergic, she’d go look for Annie. But she remembered all too vividly the raging fever, the oozing blisters that lasted for weeks. If she got sick like that again, who would take care of the children?
The noon whistle sounded. Annie had been gone for three hours. Maybe she was lost. Meg didn’t know how far the woods went, up and over the hill.
She clutched her throat. Maybe she should call Jack’s mother, have her send Donny home to search for Annie. But what if he got lost, too?
Hammers pounded on the inside of her head. Her belly churned with nausea. She went to the kitchen sink, wet a towel in cold water and pressed it to her eyes and brow. Again she went out, rang and called, “Annie, Annie.”
Annie was waked by the factory whistle. It sounded at regular times through the day and night. Mama had told her that it was to tell the workers that they could change shifts. Annie didn’t understand what that meant, but she knew one of the whistles sounded at lunch time.
Lunch time! Mama had said not to stay long, and she had been gone all morning. She hadn’t heard Mama ring the bell, but she realized she was so far up the hill, that maybe she couldn’t hear it from there. It wasn’t near as loud as the factory whistle.
Oh! Mama would be really mad. Annie felt scared in her tummy. She crawled out of her cave and stood up by the trunk of the tree. Even though her tummy was still queasy, she was happy. This was her tree, her cave. She’d found it all by herself and fixed it up. She could come back again, and no one would know where she was.
But she’d better get going. She dropped to her hands and knees and crawled out from under her tree. Still on her hands and knees, she backed into her tunnel down the steep bank beside the cliff. She came to her feet at the bottom and looked down over the area below where the trees grew thinner. Farther down the forest became thick again, and she couldn’t see the path she had taken. What if she couldn’t find her way home?
She’d have to try. She remembered that when she had walked in the woods with her daddy the last time he was home, he’d said she could always find her way home by just going downhill. So she started down the hill. When she reached the thicker forest, she did find her path, branches she had pushed aside that hadn’t gone back to their place, a faint opening in the underbrush. She followed it. She came to the little glade where she had seen the deer, a bit farther on, the log that might be an elf home, the tree where the squirrel had jabbered at her. It wasn’t there now; the woods were quiet.
She began to hurry a little. There was the fort, and the path clear now toward home. She walked the path from fort to home more slowly. Maybe Mama wouldn’t be mad, but . . . Fragments of her dream brushed behind her eyes.
When she reached the edge of the woods and could look down into her backyard, she hid behind a thicket. She could see the kitchen window. Her mama was there, probably working at the sink. She wasn’t looking out. Maybe Annie could sneak around and go in the front door and upstairs and hide in her room, pretend she’d been there for a long time.
Her heart was beating fast now. She backed up into the woods and crept around toward the side of the house where the living room was. She’d still have to make a dash across the back yard. She was hesitating, trembling, when Mama came out the back door and looked up the hill. She had the bell in her hand. She rang it and called, “Annie, Annie, where are you? Come home, now!”
She sounded sad and afraid.
Mama afraid? Annie’s heart opened. Maybe Mama loved her and was worried she was lost.
She burst out of the shelter of trees and ran to her mama. “I’m here. Here I am, Mama.”
Mama dropped the bell and picked Annie up, holding her tight in her arms. Just for a moment. Then she set Annie down. She towered over her. She grabbed Annie by the shoulders and started shaking her.
“Where have you been? I told you to come home when I rang the bell. I have rung and rung for hours and you didn’t come. Wicked, wicked girl. I give you freedom and you abuse it. You’re not ever going up in the woods again alone.”
She was shaking Annie so hard that her head was bobbing all around. Her hands were gripping Annie’s shoulders like the witch’s claws in her dream.
But worst of all was her saying Annie couldn’t go into the woods alone anymore.
Mama was still yelling at her, but now Annie was crying so hard she couldn’t hear what Mama was saying.
Mama let go of her shoulders and slapped her hard across her face.
Annie ran. Through the kitchen, the dining room, up the stairs, into the bedroom, and under the bed.
Meg chased Annie as far as the dining room. There she stopped. She heard Annie running up the stairs, heard her sobs, the slam of the bedroom door. Meg dropped into a chair and covered her face with her hands, sick with grief and self-loathing. Why, why had she shaken and slapped her child? Again. Oh, my Annie, she mourned. I hit her so hard her head went way over to one side. I could have broken her neck. She is so little, so fragile. She came running to me with her beautiful smile. I was holding her precious little body safe in my arms at last, and then . . . Fierce, cruel demon inside of me. How could I have hit her so hard?
She lifted her head and listened. No sound from upstairs. When Annie went into silence, it was much harder to reach her than when she was still crying. She would go far away. Sometimes only Jesse could reach her. And Jesse was gone.
Meg got up from her chair. She’d have to try. The longer the silence, the worse it got.
She climbed the stairs, opened the bedroom door, knelt down by Annie’s bed, and moved the bedspread aside. It was as she feared. Annie was curled into a tight ball way up under the head of the bed.
“Annie,” Meg said softly, “I’m sorry I hit you. I was just so worried when you were gone so long. Please come out.”
Annie didn’t move or answer.
Meg stifled an impulse to crawl under the bed and drag her out. She’d done that before, but it only made matters worse.
“Annie, come out now.”
Still no response.
Meg leaned her head against the side of the bed and began to cry.
Annie lay listening to her mama’s sobs. Mamas shouldn’t cry. They were big and could do anything they wanted. Still, she knew Mama cried sometimes. Then Daddy would comfort her. She’d lie on the couch with her head in his lap and he would smooth her hair and she’d stop crying.
But Daddy was gone.
Annie knew she was bad. Her mama’s words “wicked, wicked girl” burned in her heart. She had worried Mama so much it made her cry. Being up in the magic woods and finding the cave was the best fun Annie had ever had, and now it was all spoiled. Mama would never let her go again. Annie wanted to cry, too, but she was all stopped up. Her tummy hurt.
She curled her legs up tighter and went away—away from Mama’s crying, away from being bad. She was standing on the cliff again with the wind blowing through her shirt. She was sitting in her cave, safe. She was strong. She would be five tomorrow and she’d found a hidey hole way better than Donny’s fort. It was her castle. She was a princess and Misty was her magic cat. Elves would come and be her friends and bring her magic food. At night she and Misty would go with them into the forest and dance under the moon with all the animals, the squirrel with the ripply tail and the mama deer and her babies.
The bed shifted. Mama wasn’t leaning on it anymore. She had stopped crying and was lifting the corner of the bedspread. Annie could feel the change in the light through her closed eyes. She wasn’t in her castle. She was under her bed. Her cheek still burned where Mama had slapped her. She was bad and really sad.
Her mama said, “Annie, please come out. It’s lunch time. I know you must be hungry. I have tuna fish and carrot sticks for your lunch. Please come out and let me hold you and comfort you.”
It was Mama’s gentle voice. Everything in Annie ached to be held. And she was so hungry. Tuna fish. But Mama’s gentle could change so fast. She didn’t want Mama to yell at her and hit her again.
A darkness of confusion overcame her—fear and longing battering her back and forth. Longing was stronger. Slowly her legs uncurled. With a shuddering sigh, she turned herself around and crawled toward the light where the bedspread was lifted.