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Skipping Stones

“I am running away,” I announced to my father. He glanced up from his work, grease streaked across his face like absent-minded war-paint.

“You can’t do that, Eilis,” He sighed, resting his head with both hands. I quelled a pang of sympathy. Why did I always feel like I had to make him happy? He was never going to be happy, and if I stayed here, I would never be happy either.

“I can,” I huffed, my hands on my hips. “I’m not a baby.” He walked, numb and zombie-like, over to where I stood. I remained still as he ran a hand through my, long, red hair and kissed the freckles on my forehead.

“I won’t let you leave,” he told me. “Please. Just think about it--”

“There is nothing to think about,” I lied.

There was plenty to think about. I could think about the many times I had tried to leave before, or the many times I had failed to leave. I could weigh the benefits of rotting in an abandoned church for the rest of my life against the disappointment I was told I would find in the “real world.” I couldn’t see what made one world more real than the next. My life could easily be fiction, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t. And in real life, magic doesn’t solve all your problems.

For my sixth birthday, my father had given me a long, full-length mirror he had made with silver carved around the edges like ice. But with my father, mirrors were never just mirrors, and birthday presents were more unfortunate than happy things. When I looked in the mirror, it was not my own face that was reflected out of its depths. Instead, the mirror showed me what life was like outside the walls of our faithless church. As I thought of a place, it would appear in the mirror, so vivid and tangible that I often sat for hours with my hand on its surface, hoping to slip through. I navigated the muted streets of New York, Paris, and London. I observed, like a cloaked fairy, the minute details of strangers’ lives, watching birthdays, and funerals and everyday triumphs and tragedies. Some places or people, I saw only a quick glimpse of. But I returned to my favorites constantly, more attached to cities and people I had never actually experienced or met than I was to my own father. Sometimes, I was so engrossed by my looking-glass world that I forgot to eat or sleep.

“Why?” I asked, starting to choke up a little. “Why did you have to give me that mirror?”

“To warn you,” He looked up now, his eyes begging me to understand. “It isn’t safe out there. It isn’t pretty, and most of the time it isn’t even exciting. It is tragic--in the most boring and dull way possible.”

“That’s not true, “ I sputtered. There had to be something out there. I wanted to be free of all my ghosts; the little fears and doubts that lingered in my mind. I was tired of living in our crumbling church, surrounded by lop-sided, anonymous gravestones. The dead wouldn’t let me live.

“Just let me go,” I whispered. He made no answer, only hunching back over his tools and continuing to work. Anger sizzled in the marrow of my bones; old, childish anger from years of unanswered questions. Why had my mother left? The question ached under everything my father and I said or did. I remember that I thought, for a long time, that I could make all of the frustration and grief disappear like a lucky magic trick. Now you see it, Now you don’t.

Taking one of my father’s slipstones from my pocket, I flung it at the shimmering mirror that stood in the corner of the room. It shattered like February ice. No more watching, or waiting, or thinking. I was done with this place. You can’t fix him, I told myself.

I spun around, dragging my mottled leather sack behind me, my bare feet slipping on the wet stone floor. I ran as fast as I could, daring anyone, or anything, to stop me. I emerged outside, panting, in the decrepit graveyard. The grave stones were, for some inexplicable reason, arranged in a slope down the hill. If it rained anymore, they would probably slide off. I made my way recklessly down the hill, sticking and sliding through thick, spongy mud. I angrily wiped a few stray tears with the back of my hand and slumped down with my back against an illegible grave stone.

I gazed up at the gray-marbled sky, fragile rays of sunlight breaking through the clouds like lemon-yellow fingers. I had lied to myself--I had no idea where I was going and I had just recklessly thrown away my only way to get back home from the outside world. Our little churchyard, by some invention or sorcery of my father’s, was periodically transported through time and space. Without a slipstone, I would never be able to find my way back here. Did I even want to?

A sharp yell interrupted my thoughts and I leaped up, startled, and expecting to see my father, but I only saw a lone figure running frantically up the hill and a bulky man at the edge of the fence, shaking a half-hearted fist at him. Never talk to anyone who comes here--and never, ever go past the fence. My father’s voice droned in my head like a broken record. Curious, I crept skillfully around the tumbled, moss-covered stones and made my way over to where the boy had come to a stop. He was bent over a crumbling block of granite. The only word that still adorned it was a simple, sad “Beloved.” I tapped him on the shoulder and he spun around.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him.

“Um. I’m sorry...I...,” he trailed off.

“I’m running away,” I told him, a little doubtfully. I wasn’t as sure of my brilliant plan as I had been before. He looked about my age, twelve, or a little older. He looked like he was running from something. Something more than just a shouting, angry man.

“Last night, when the storm came, a tree fell down,” he gestured to a charred, toppled oak at the bottom of the hill, “It tore this huge hole in my fence and I’ve always wondered what was over here, so--” He cut himself off again, as if he was expecting some divine punishment to be dealt from above, or was worried that someone had seen him break the rules.

“So you wanted to see what was over here,” I finished for him. I grabbed his hand. “Come on, then. My name’s Eilis.”

“I’m Jackson. Do you live here?” He asked, as I dragged him up the muddy hill, winding my way through the forest of granite and marble.

“Unfortunately,” I scrunched up my face, making him laugh.

We reached the top of the hill muddy and scraped, but content. Jackson looked back over his shoulder in awe at the wild loneliness of my home.

“This isn’t like my home,” He muttered, “You know, it’s so different. It’s like a place in a book. Magical.”

I shook my head, “This place is a prison,” I told him, “I’ve never been able to get over the fence before. The only thing magic here is that you can’t leave.”

“Am I stuck here?” Jackson asked, sounding unsure whether or not he was bothered by the idea.

“No, no. We can get you back. My dad has these stones, you see. They take you back to where you came from. Then, when you flip them over, they take you to wherever you want to go.”

“Why didn’t you use one to leave before, if you don’t like it here?” Jackson asked. So he’s the kind that asks the real questions, I thought. Those were the dangerous ones; the ones that I didn’t want to answer.

I bit my lip. “I was afraid,” I admitted uncomfortably. “I was afraid he would stop me, and I was afraid that if I succeeded, he would be crushed.”

“That reminds me of my Mom, “ Jackson grimaced. “She hardly ever lets me out of the house and she acts like I’m made of glass, or something. She isn’t a magician though.”

“He hates when people call him a magician. He says he’s an inventor and that magic is one of his tools.” I stopped speaking, realizing with chagrin that I had automatically defended my father. “Do you want to see his things? I can get you a slipstone to take you back. Maybe, I’ll even come with you.”

“Alright, “ Jackson agreed, grinning, “but I don’t think you’ll like my world very much.”

I almost laughed. How could I not like somewhere that would let me be free?

I wanted to show Jackson the inventions room--he would be so impressed, but I felt an itchy sense of shame prickling down my spine. It wouldn’t do any harm, would it? Just one last look, that was all. Besides, he had to go home soon and all the slipstones were in my father’s workroom. I gestured him forward, one finger pressed to my lips. We crept around the side of the church, laughing softly with the joy of doing something secret and then scolding each other for making noise. The lock on the cellar doors was old, rusted, and broken, like everything else around my home, so we easily lifted it open together. Grinning, I leaped over the edge with a flourish, like a tight rope walker or a trapeze artist. Jackson followed me a little less surely into the rabbit hole.

We found ourselves in a cavern of bizarre, cobbled creations. My father had left, thank God, so we were the only ones there. Jackson was riveted to the spot in awe. Seeing the room through his eyes, I saw the magic there for the first time in years. How had I forgotten? A bronze mechanical bird that was scribbling away at what a plaque proclaimed to be “the next great novel.” A machine that glowed a toxic, radioactive green. And a well full of shimmering black pebbles that seemed to hum an eerie siren song that was just out of reach. These were wonderful, beautiful things. But frightening, too. Jackson’s hair was drying over his eyes in rain plastered mats and he kept brushing it our of his face.

“Shh,” I whispered. I heard footsteps. Jackson silently picked up an oily, black pebble and I watched as he faded away like a hazy, gray mist.

“Eilis, is that you?” my father called. I thought about answering. Really, I did, but I couldn’t. This was my only chance. I stepped up to the well, bent over, and picked a small, shimmering stone.

“Goodbye, Daddy,” I whispered, as I flipped the stone over in my palm.

When my head stopped swimming, I was standing in a dingy, gray yard behind a one-story tract house with a concrete patio. Jackson stood forlornly beside me.

“Cheer up,” I told him, “You don’t need spells, or stones, or churches to have magic.”

“Then what do you need?” He asked, with a little disbelief.

“I don’t know yet,” I told him, “but I’m going to find out.

For the first time in my life, I had acted not for my father, not for my lost mother, and not to make myself feel less inadequate. I walked forward, glancing over to make sure Jackson was following. I stepped out onto an expanse of pitch-black asphalt, spun around and stared at the sky. The rain had stopped. This soggy, mundane place was paradise, if only because I had chosen it for myself. I wasn’t running away. I was running towards something brighter and better.





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