Meredith sighed. What was the point of all this? She had been sneaking past her mother to meet with Miss Oleva for weeks with nothing to show for it. Meredith frowned and stuffed a small children’s book deep into her backpack. All that woman did was make her read this infernal story—she must have recited it twenty times at this point. Then Miss Oleva would quiz her on the contents over and over again, and then make her reread it! She shook her head and zipped her bag up in a huff. Meredith was beginning to think the hint of magic she’d seen had been nothing but a trick.
With her bag packed, Meredith took one final appraising look at herself in the mirror. When they moved in, one of her mother’s ever-changing boyfriends had screwed it into the back of the door for her. But it had broken relatively soon after and now lay at an awkward angle against her dresser. Meredith tugged at the sleeves of the chambray shirt she was wearing. It clung to her more than she would have liked, especially around the arms. But then nothing Meredith owned ever seemed to fit right. “A consequence of doing most of your shopping at thrift stores,” she told herself. Years ago, it had been possible to find some passable items among the racks of discarded garments. But now that vintage was trendy and used was chic, most of the good stuff was impossible to find. Or people never donated them in the first place. Being small didn’t help with finding the right sizes either. At twelve years old, that meant that most clothes that were available and fit her were for much younger girls. Meredith often found herself wearing shirts with cutesy sayings or childish cartoon characters. She only wished she was wearing them ironically.
Someone shouted down the hall now; her mother yelled back at them. The sound of broken glass followed, which only seemed to intensify the argument. She snapped a simple black hair tie around her wrist before pulling back her long brown hair and fastening it. Meredith let her ponytail drop and looked around her room one last time before she shouldered her pack—now was the time to make a hasty exit. Trying to make it to the front door would be far too risky. Instead, she reached over, unlatched her window, and slid it open an inch at a time. The old wood had swollen with the summertime humidity, and the window groaned as it got stuck halfway up. Meredith made herself as small as possible, shed her pack, and wiggled her way through the tiny opening. She felt confident about her plan as she stood there on the fire escape, until she looked down. Her stomach twisted itself up like a wrung-out towel, and Meredith felt her palms start to sweat. Still, it was better than the hell she’d catch if her mother got hold of her with that book in her bag.
Meredith reached back through the open window and grabbed her backpack. She threw it over her shoulder and began to follow the black, rickety staircase down to the alley below. The old metal creaked and vibrated with every step. Rusty old bolts pulled against the crumbling brick façade. The whole thing seemed as if it would give way at any moment. There was nothing good about this place other than that they could afford the rent. Then again, that described most of their apartments. Meredith brushed her hand over the last railing. Rust mixed with black paint flaked off and fluttered down into the alley. She could see the remnants of the missing ladder lying on the pavement below. There was no turning back now; she’d have to jump. Meredith lowered herself down as far as she could, and then let herself fall to the ground. Freedom. A brisk wind whipped through the alley as rain started to fall. She pulled her hood up over her head against the drizzle and began the long walk to the library.
Miss Oleva was waiting for her in the same spot Meredith always found her. She looked up from her armchair and smiled as Meredith walked in. The circular room was small, but not cramped, big enough to fit two cars side by side. Solid, gray stones interlocked together across the floor like an old puzzle. This was the oldest part of the library. Shelves carved by hand into the rock walls held an endless variety of books Meredith had never read. These gave way to stone arches that rounded out the ceiling above. Despite being on a lower level, the room felt cozy somehow. Down here, cordoned off from the outside world, Meredith felt safe in the quiet isolation.
The old woman sat in an aged and cracked leather armchair next to a now defunct fireplace. She was dressed in her usual style— shabby chic, Meredith’s mother would have called it with a roll of her eyes. Miss Oleva would not have cared. Today she wore a long, layered brown dress that would drag across the floor when she walked. She’d finished her look with a ridiculous amount of unusual jewelry. A multitude of stone-inlaid bracelets adorned her wrists. Only the eclectic assortment of necklaces that hung down from her neck outdid them. It looked as if she’d raided a flea market for everything she owned. There was no doubt she was a strange old woman, but she was always kind to Meredith.
Magic. Before she’d walked in on Miss Oleva whipping books off the shelves, Meredith wouldn’t have believed it possible. Each volume had dutifully fallen in line behind the woman and remained there floating and bobbing like a hot air balloon. Meredith had stood there, mouth agape, as the old woman flipped through some pages, then flicked her wrist to fly them back to their proper place. When Miss Oleva caught sight of Meredith, all of her reading material had fallen to the floor with a thud, and she had hurried off into the stacks.
But Meredith knew what she had seen—a chance at freedom. And she wasn’t about to give it up. She spent the next several weeks going to the library every day and searching the stacks until she found Miss Oleva. At first, the woman wouldn’t even acknowledge what Meredith had seen. Instead, she treated her like she was crazy. But Meredith persisted until she was practically begging Miss Oleva to teach her whenever she found her. As the days wore on, and it became clear that Meredith was not going to give up, Miss Oleva had finally relented.
Miss Oleva removed her glasses and placed the book she had been browsing on the table beside her. Deep brown eyes stared at Meredith from under darker eyebrows. They always seemed to be scanning Meredith’s face, probing her, testing her responses. “Have you done your reading?” she asked, beckoning Meredith to sit in the chair across from her.
Meredith looked down, avoiding eye contact. “Yes,” she replied, slumping into her seat. Miss Oleva’s gaze wasn’t doing wonders for Meredith’s self-confidence. The old woman’s demeanor made Meredith feel even smaller than she already felt in that oversized chair. She tried to stretch her toes out to reach the floor, but it didn’t help. Meredith chanced a look up again. Long flowing white hair framed the sharp angles of Miss Oleva’s face. A few strands might be frayed but never out of place. A wiry woman, she was taller than Meredith and more imposing in almost every way. Miss Oleva was not the kind to bother to conceal wrinkles and lines either. They were battle scars, she would tell Meredith, from decades of hard living. Meredith wished she had half the old woman’s strength.
“You don’t seem pleased, child. Is something the matter?”
Meredith hesitated before bursting out, “Well I don’t see the point of reading this silly story! It’s a book for little children, only five pages, how much am I supposed to learn from that?”
“I told you, all books have something to teach us.”
“I know why you picked this for me, but I still don’t see the point.”
“Why do you think I chose this story for you?”
“Because she’s me.”
“The girl. The girl in the story she’s me—it’s my life. She describes this perfect world where everything is happy and green and beautiful. It’s an escape from the terrible life she has at home.” Meredith took a breath, and the heat rose in her chest.
“Hmm, could you give me an example please?” Miss Oleva prodded.
Meredith’s exasperation was so plain on her face she might as well have rolled her eyes and groaned. Instead, she complied by reaching into her backpack and pulling out her copy of The Home I Never Knew. “Here,” she said and began to read aloud. “‘I sat here upon my hilltop surrounded by such peace and beauty, and I knew that not a thing could hurt me. Not here in my perfect sanctuary. The butterflies rose in the field around me; their tiny wings fluttered in the breeze. They came in colors I could only dream of, dancing and flirting with each other in the shifting rays of sunlight. They spun around me in a vortex and encircled me in their wings. I reached out to touch them and felt their gentle fluttering as they parted before my hand like water. I laughed as I tilted my hand to let one perch upon it. At that moment, I knew even this perfect place could not protect me from the pain, the darkness, and the memories.’”
Meredith folded the book in her lap and looked down at the floor. “She’s created a perfect world to escape her family, and it sounds lovely actually.”
Miss Oleva’s face softened a bit. “Perhaps you are ready indeed for a real lesson then. Come here, child, and give me a hand.” She held out her hand for Meredith to help her out of her seat, and Meredith obliged. Miss Oleva reached back for her walking stick and led Meredith over to a block of stone. It was unremarkable—a dusty lump of rock sitting high up on a shelf between rows of moth-eaten books. Meredith hadn’t noticed it before.
Miss Oleva pointed at it with her staff. “Get close, my dear, and tell me what you see?”
At five-foot-nothing Meredith was below average in height for her age. She had to stretch up on her toes and squint to examine the piece of rock. Sometimes, Meredith thought gaining only a few more inches would have been a godsend. She slumped back down to the floor. “It looks like a rock.”
“Yes, I know it’s a rock, but tell me about the carvings.”
On closer inspection, Meredith could see several carvings covering its surface. “Ohhh… It looks like ancient writing, is it Egyptian? What do they call that?” She scrunched up her face and tried to remember.
“Hieroglyphics,” Miss Oleva offered. “And no, these are much older than that.” She put her finger on the first carving. “Rahe, the great adventurer, he saved his family by traveling far and wide to find a cure for their curse. He is here to remind us of the importance of our journeys.” She pointed to the next figure. “Then there is Mahle, the great wanderer. She is here to remind us of the importance of exploring new worlds with an open mind. And here, here is Sotro, the guardian. He is here to remind us of our laws and rules that protect us.” She skipped over the last one.
“What about this one?” Meredith asked, pointing to the hooded figure hunched over a confusing symbol.
“Ah, it is wise of you to ask,” Miss Oleva said, lowering her voice. “This is Necra, or Death. He reminds us of the risks and dangers that lie ahead, and of our mortality, for he awaits all travelers in the end.” She laughed at Meredith’s expression. “Come now, child, it’s only a story, a bit of ancient mumbo jumbo.” She smiled. “But it’s important to be cautious. You can’t go plowing into new worlds without any planning or understanding.”
Meredith looked at the stone again, then back to Miss Oleva. These lessons were going nowhere. She yearned for her own magical adventures. It didn’t matter how or where—Meredith wanted to escape. It always sounded so exhilarating the way Miss Oleva described it, even the dangerous parts. But so far, she hadn’t learned even the slightest bit of magic. Meredith closed her eyes and sighed. She longed to be free. Released from the constant pressure of dealing with her mother’s behavior. Spared from the teasing and ridicule at yet another new school. And most of all, liberated from this prison of a life she led. Maybe I’m the crazy one, Meredith thought, for believing in this fantasy in the first place. This time would be her last trip to meet Miss Oleva if things didn’t improve, she decided. Besides, if her mother found out she’d been sneaking off to the library… She shuddered to think of the consequences.
“So are you ready to go then?” Miss Oleva’s question roused her out of her thoughtfulness.
“Go? Go where?”
“To the home you never knew, of course.”
“I don’t understand,” Meredith replied, looking more confused than ever.
“Come here, child, and place your hand on this stone,” Miss Oleva commanded. The old woman took Meredith’s other hand in hers, “Whatever you do, don’t let go. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Meredith nodded. She kept her eye on Miss Oleva though; she was starting to creep her out. What was she thinking meeting this strange old lady in the basement of the library every week?
Miss Oleva closed her eyes. “Now concentrate, clear your head, and think of nothing except the book you’ve read. Let it fill your mind; you want to feel as if you are already there living in that world.”
This is getting ridiculous now, Meredith thought to herself. She let out a disconcerted sigh and tried to picture herself on the hill from the book.
Miss Oleva opened one eye and raised an eyebrow at her protest but chose to ignore it. She uttered a few simple words: “Rahe inspire me. Mahle guide me. Sotro protect me. And Death I do not fear you.” Then she fell silent.
Meredith shifted her weight from one foot to the other. How long is this weird séance going to last? Then without warning, a warmth crept up the length of her. It started at her feet and trickled upward, spreading its tendrils as it climbed. It wasn’t a bad feeling, it wasn’t a particularly good feeling, but it did catch her by surprise. It almost caused her to let go of the stone. Miss Oleva reached out and placed her hand over Meredith’s and held it in place with a firm grip.
“You might want to close your eyes now, dear.”
Before she could, Meredith’s body jerked upward and off her feet as if pulled by a string. She lunged out for something to steady herself but found nothing. The air around her was thick with a shimmering haze that dazzled in the firelight. Her body felt both limp and limber, as if her bones had fallen out of her. Meredith watched the tips of her fingers dissolve into glittering golden particles. For some reason it didn’t alarm her—she was fascinated as she watched the process unfold. Then the next second, she was spinning in a vortex as if she had turned to dust inside a tornado. The sparkling whirlwind filled the room with a dazzling light before winking out.