It was his freckles that convinced her he was worth the extra effort. They stood there boldly across his nose, just below eyes that tended to brood. They were friendly, even if he wasn’t always so. Evidence of sunshine when he said he preferred the rain.
The book had been waiting for her as many years as she’d been alive. It had come to the shop by way of the elder Mr. Billing’s estate when he passed. It came with its own history and stories beyond those written upon its paper.
It had been moved from shelf to shelf on occasion and been dusted from time to time. Its pages had been flipped through by sticky-fingered children, distracted mothers, and students in search of more serious literature. But it had never left the room that overlooked Plum Avenue, not since the day she’d been born.
She found it on a brilliantly sunny, decidedly sweltering August day where it had lived for so long in the store’s attic. There weren’t many who ventured upstairs on late summer days, not many who were willing to bear the heat. But she knew the best things were always found where others were reluctant to go.
She found it under a towering stack of baseball caps and a pile of old magazines on the very bottom and dustiest shelf of the bookcase. She picked it up and knew it was meant for her. She ran her fingers over the green fabric cover, embossed with flowers in gold. She opened it and read a few pages, thinking about who else must have read the same words a very long time ago, wondering what color eyes read the same passages as she did now. It smelled of dust and rain, much like the fields did after dark when it was cool and the moon cast hazy blue shadows.
It fit just so into the crook of her arm, protected and close to her heart. Precisely as the book knew it would when it came all those years ago to the room that overlooked Plum Avenue.
The house she and her mother shared was small, so small it begged pardon for being there at all. Grayed siding held thin walls together and the windows held their breath, the cracked sidewalk below begging for their glass with a wrinkle and a wink.
But it was theirs.
And they filled it full.
Full of ghost stories they told each other on the longest nights of winter. Full of marmalade and toast, movie marathons, peppermint tea, and secrets. Full of music that hit the walls and ran down in sloppy, rich tones of gold. Full of tears and laughter that stitched their souls together.
“If you thought leaves in your shoes and lumpy milk was bad,” the small girl said, “just you wait.”
“Wait?” she whispered.
“Wait until your tongue turns black, until spiders make nests in your ears, until-”
“Stop it,” she said. “What do you want?”
The crown. But she wanted so to keep it, more every day. She wanted to hold it, to wear it loosely on her fingers, to kiss it.
“It’ll only get worse.”
“The need for it. It’ll consume you. It’ll be the most important thing in the world to you. More important than food or shelter or any living creature.”
“I don’t believe you.”
She sat on the box. “Smart move, that.” She knocked on the lid. “Brass latch and hinges.”
“My mother gave that box to me.”
“My mother gave me the crown.” The girl looked so sad that all the heat in her cheeks turned blue.
“What if we share it?”
She looked at her with impatience. “Pixies keep what’s theirs.”
She started to cry. “I’ll miss it too much.”
“You’d miss your pinkie toes more.”
She hiccuped again. “Huh?”
“Oh.” She put her arm on the dresser, laid her head on it and wailed.
“I’ll give you something for it,” the pixie said.
“There’s nothing else I want!” She hiccuped and cried.
The pixie hopped off the box and whispered in her ear, “My name’s Anemone.”
She kept crying but flipped the latch and opened the box. She couldn’t bear to look.
When her tears were all used up, she wondered why she’d been crying at all. She wondered why, too, her jewelry box was open. She wondered at the leaves in her shoes, the knots in her hair and the smell of burnt toast coming from the kitchen.
From that day on, wherever she breathed, anemones grew. They sprang up in country gardens, in concrete city blocks, in window boxes and flowerpots. They grew in sun and rain and snow and ice.
They were gold and ruby and sapphire blue, emerald and onyx and pearl veined with light.
All the colors of a tiny crown she could never again quite recall.
She turned around but could see no one. “Who’s there?”
“You dumb girl,” the voice said. “You dropped it back inside.”
Her ears burned where the sound touched them, her face flushed warm where the color ran. “I’m going crazy. I’m going crazy. I’m going crazy. I’m going crazy.” She sat back down on the bed and started to weep.
“What are you crying for? I’m the one who’s without what’s hers.”
She peeked between her fingers, afraid to see something, afraid to see nothing.
A very small girl stood on top of her dresser, knocking on the jewelry box as if she expected an answer. She was no bigger than a ruler and wore a dress made of ranunculus petals embellished with what was sure to be the threads missing from our heroine’s favorite shirt.
The small girl began pacing, fading in and out as she walked, like a mirage shimmering in the heat. And hot she was, too. Face red, hands balled into fists that she pounded against her thighs, heat came off her like a stove.
“Are you real?” she asked her, blinking furiously.
“You astonish me.”
She started hiccuping. A ridiculous reaction to fear that had plagued her since she was a child.
The tiny girl clamped her hands to her ears. “Oh for the love of Pete, stop that racket.”
She held her breath. She hiccuped deep in her throat.
The girl pulled her hands away from her head and squinted at her. “I said, give it to me.”
She blinked some more. “You’re not real. You’re a—” she was interrupted by a violent hiccup “—a hallucination.”
“I am not.”
“You are. I can see right through you.”
“You’re such a dummy.” She walked away and looked back over her shoulder. “You can’t see all of me because I’m too beautiful.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“If you saw all of me at once, your mind would just…” She spun around. “Explode!” She put her fists to the side of her head and fanned her fingers out to demonstrate.
She put out a finger to touch her but the creature was instantly at the other side of the dresser.
“I haven’t cursed you yet but don’t think I won’t.”
“Curses aren’t real.” She said it more to herself than the girl.
At first, she thought it must just be her mind playing tricks on her. Maybe she had indeed left the milk out to sour all night. And her favorite shirt with the sweet peas embroidered on it was getting pretty old–that would explain the missing threads of the brightest colors. “I never was a good cook,” she told the birds on the third morning in a row she’d burnt her toast.
But then it was though someone began to whistle to her from the bathtub and the light fixtures and the doorjambs, one right after the other, every night before bed. The toes of her shoes were stuffed with autumn leaves each time she tried to put them on. The sugar was salt and the salt was sweet.
She looked into the mirror one morning, her hair tied into a thousand impossible knots, and told herself, “You’re going crazy.”
Laughter bounced around the room like little bells the moment the words were out of her mouth.
She turned her back to the sink and picked up a can of hairspray as a weapon. “Who’s there?” she whispered, wishing she sounded bigger.
The giggle was at her ear this time, she could feel the breath of it.
She screeched and dropped the hairspray. “You’re crazy but don’t panic. No need to panic.”
She walked calmly to her bed and sat down, facing her dresser against the near wall. She looked at the photo of her parents that sat on top of it, begging them for wisdom. She pitied the struggling potted ivy next to it and lamented her mostly-empty jewelry box.
“What?” She turned on a lamp, walked to her dresser, and squinted: there were tiny scratches all around the box’s brass latch.
She picked it up and heard the tiny crown clink against the side. It had been ages since she’d taken it out. She opened the box, held it up and sighed, wishing for the hundredth time it fit her.
“Give it to me,” someone said behind her, making her jump and drop the crown back inside. “That’s mine.”
She found the little crown in a bed of zinnias, of all places. Not around stems of prize roses, not atop a pile of jewels. Zinnias. The same simple country flowers that thrive in farmer’s gardens, across from the okra or corn.
She might never have seen it at all, had it been a completely cloudy day. In fact, it’d been a full score of cloudy days up to then. But the sun persevered just long enough on that particular day to glint off the gold as she walked by.
It was too big to fit on her finger like a ring, too small to slide on as a bracelet.
“What is it?” she asked the flowers. “A doll’s crown?”
They didn’t answer, of course, though she waited for a reply.
But even she–whose only piece of jewelry was a simple silver cross–knew that it was too fine for dolls.
The zinnias, they wanted to warn her. To tell her to put it right back where she found it, tell her you don’t play with fairy-sized things that haven’t been given you. (Zinnias are the kindest of the flowers, after all. If only they could talk.)
As it was, she thought it was a pretty trinket and probably valuable, too. “I best put it in my jewelry box,” she said. “Somebody might come looking for it.”
So she put it in her vacant jewelry box and told nobody about it. She’d take it out and look at it, sigh and wish it was the right size to wear somehow. She’d polish it and admire it and dream up stories about it, none of which were anywhere near the truth. But there was one thing she was right about.
Somebody did come looking for it.
He thought nothing about paddling his small wooden boat out alone on the lake at night. In fact, he’d done it a hundred times before. There was something so beautiful and quiet about drifting on little waves under a tall twinkling sky. Like being rocked to sleep in arms that love you.
But what he didn’t know was that the sky wouldn’t twinkle for long.
Heavy curtains of clouds soon extinguished those little points of light and the soft summer breeze that called him out onto the water became a gale. His friendly wooden boat turned fiend and dumped him into the dark water.
At first, he was annoyed, as he’d worn his favorite pajamas, freshly laundered. Now they’ll smell like lake, he thought to himself.
But soon enough, he was panicked, splashing farther and farther from the boat as the storm whisked it out of reach.
Pull yourself together, he thought, stop splashing and float.
For a minute, it worked. Then it was as though slithering fingers pulled at his ankles, bit into his feet and dragged him under.
Down, down he went until his ears popped. The dark all there was, all he could see, all he could hear and taste, all he could breathe.
And then the queen of the deep, covered in scales and blooms, swam so close he could see the light that lived inside her.
They looked at each other and blinked, both surprised to see the other. She knew what needed to be done.
She brushed her fins against his fingers and he latched on. She swam and he kicked and together they neared the surface.
He knew he didn’t have much longer. He felt dizzy and the world was far away. He couldn’t feel his toes, he couldn’t even feel her anymore.
How much farther? he thought. Is this my end?
He looked up and saw diffused lightning beyond the water. He looked down and saw the light inside her fading as it fell home.
He didn’t want to look away. She’d saved his life, after all. His friend, his savior, the angel he never expected.
Her light turned pink and his head began to pound. He kicked upward still and finally felt the cool of the air touch his head.
But still, he didn’t want to look away.
Her light was a bloom now, dark red and purple. It sent showers of stars into the dark. He thought it looked like the sky. Was it the sky?
He felt sleepy and calm. He reached toward her as he felt his eyes close.
Her light grew brighter and bigger and more scarlet.
She rushed at him just before he fell asleep. She pushed him back into his world.
And he breathed.
It was the birds that woke her in the morning
And sang her lullabies at night.
The birds who danced about her fingers
While she hung the wash up, crisp and white.
They carried to her blooms in spring
And berries in the fall.
They lifted her when she was weary
And laughed with her when she felt tall.
They perched on sills at night
And nestled soft in her dreams.
They slayed her dragons while she slept
And whispered strange and lovely things.
When skies were heavy and she cried,
They cooed melancholy too,
While they sat together under branches where
The cold and quiet rain fell through.