This is sort of old, but good enough to transfer from its obscurity to here. As usual, Nallo is borrowed and was cleaned before he was returned to his proper owner.
It is a hard thing to be young and ill, and a harder thing to be young, ill, and alone.
She wasn’t the same, this much she understood. Grown ups whispered when they thought she was sleeping. Ladies had always clucked about her; cluck, cluck, cluck like hens, Papa said. The very same ladies had clucked about her Papa and his runaway bride, and had clucked about how he hardly raised her at all like a little girl should be raised, and had clucked about how her clothes never fit and how she never fit in with the other children. Now they still clucked.
“Poor little orphan.”
“Who will marry her now?”
“Not that anyone would, with a mother like that.”
“They had to burn it off you know, she hardly looks like a little girl.”
“Really, it’s too bad that she almost looks like a you-know-what.”
She asked Uncle what they meant, and he said he didn’t know. She was fairly sure he was lying, and that she was ugly, and that Papa was never going to be there to tell her the truth. Papa always, always, always told her the truth. He said it was important to tell the truth, so very important. She lied to him once – just once that she could remember – and he explained how very bad lying was. Lying, he said, can seem nice at first, but it makes bad things happen.
“What if I left the cover off the well?”
“That’s bad, Papa. The rule is to put it back on.”
“But if I told you I had when I forgot, you’d feel better about me. You’d think I didn’t make mistakes, and was perfect.”
“Yes, but I’d fall into the well because I thought the cover was on.”
“Just so, Sunshine. I love you, and I don’t want to you go out into the world thinking there are covers on wells when it isn’t so. So even though it hurts me a little right now to admit to a mistake, I’m going to tell you the truth.”
“I still love you even when you forget things, Papa.”
“And I’ll love you if you tell me the truth about what you really did with your vegetables at dinner.”
That was that. But nobody here called her Sunshine, just Helvie. She hated it. She hated the wooden floors and the tall buildings and the cracks in the plaster and the loud neighbors and the strange sheets and everything, just everything! Her stubbly hair stuck into the course pillowcase here when she turned her head, and her back throbbed with a constant dull ache even after the fever broke. She wanted her Papa. Uncle was Uncle, but he wasn’t Papa, even if his books were interesting. She adored her fairy-book and read it to herself by heart in the night so she could put off dreaming.
There were the threes. She wasn’t sure what else to call them, but three… it was important now. She found herself looking for it everywhere, in the walls, in the boards, even in the letters in her books. Three vowels, three letter G, three everything. There were lots of threes in the fairy stories.
It wasn’t as if she hadn’t counted things before. Papa let her help him, like a game every morning. They’d count the stores in the pantry, count the ingots in the forge, count the plates… anything. At the end, they’d see if they got the same number, and if they had, Papa would kiss her head and give her braid three little tugs. She was neat, like Papa, and careful to check. “Thrice sure, never sorry.” Papa would say. People found it odd, but it had never been anything but a game.
Now, though, it was urgent. She needed to count and needed to find three. She dreamed of threes, she woke to threes, and sometimes the threes were so loud she couldn’t do much else but rock back and forth and tap her sore, swollen fingers to her denty nose. One, two, three. One, two, three. Uncle just let her count. She supposed he understood.
Today, she was sick to death of the small room. She had read her fairy stories three times through already, counted the floorboards, counted the cracks in the wall-plaster, and checked to be sure everything was right where it should be, and the fire was out and wouldn’t come back to life. It was cold, but Uncle couldn’t leave her with a fire. She’d panic. Better to be cold.
Her feet were swimming in her charity-shoes even as her wrists and ankles poked out bare from her threadbare charity-dress. She stared at the door and the door stared back. The light from under the crack shifted and blinked as feet went to and fro. Voices rose and fell. “And so the harvest of 2045 was recorded as the most blighted since….” “But your theory fails to fit the fact that the sun angles differently at the solstice in Forochel…” “… made of tiny pieces so small they cannot be divided….”
Fairyland, it must be. People spoke strangely in fairyland, and there was magic and adventure. Perhaps that’s where Papa was. She lifted a trembling hand to the latch and fumbled with it. Her fingers were stiff and weak from weeks under heavy bandages and her scabs pulled at their angry red edges. The metal was icy, as well the latch to fairyland would be, she reasoned, due to all the magic. She lept a little when it actually opened, creaking inward on its old, warped hinges, and then she tremulously put her eye to the sliver of light.
Fairyland was a room made of bookshelves! It was like Uncle’s shelf, only it was the walls! Row after row after row went right up to the ceiling at a dizzying height and men in robes wandered among them. Were they elves? Maybe they were elves. She wasn’t quite sure what elves looked like, but elves lived in fairyland.
One thing was familiar there. A boy had made it to fairyland first, and this comforted her a bit. He didn’t look enchanted or anything, and it was right he be there. There was always a boy in the stories. He was probably just a peasant boy, because everyone knows princes wear crowns. Besides, his clothes didn’t fit either – too large. His legs swung idly from his propped-up seat as his finger went right along a line in a book bigger than his torso.
She took a deep, brave breath and stepped over the threshold. It froze her, and she was convinced for a minute that the door had disappeared or locked behind her, trapping her there forever and ever. She turned back to check, and check, and check. The door was still a door, but she propped it open with her clunky shoe anyhow. Then she was lopsided, so she used the other shoe just in case. Then she needed a third shoe, so she went for Uncle’s slipper. The boy still hadn’t noticed her, so she crept up little by little. One, two, three boards. Two, two, three boards. Three, two, three boards. She hoped they wouldn’t come apart.
Finally she was near enough that he could see her, and he looked down. His expression was startled, just like everyone’s when they looked at her now. She must really look like something awfully scary. Perhaps she was a monster now. She hoped this boy would see she was a good monster, and not the sort you had to kill to get the magic pot from.
“Hello. I’m Nallo. Who’re you?”
She didn’t say anything. Words were sticky now and she didn’t like choking on them.
“Do you like to read?”
She nodded. It was the truth.
“Do you want to see the atlas?”
She tilted her head curiously and strained to see this… atlas thing. Whatever that was. Perhaps it was magic.
He reached to help her into a chair, and she shrank back. Touching hurt, hurt very badly, in her heart some as well as her flesh. He was puzzled, of course, but he just let her get her own chair, and scooted the book to where she could see.
“This is Bree. We live here…”
And it was magic.