Here is a chapter from my book, Sentenced to Castle County, now available on-line.
The instant Ella awoke she knew she wasn’t in her bed. That didn’t worry her; she was used to waking up somewhere other than her bed. She often awoke on the couch, the floor of her room, or her parents’ bed. Once she had been sitting on the toilet unaware of how she had gotten there. This awakening was different though. Before she even opened her eyes, she was fearfully aware that she was not in her home.
The ground beneath her was damp and hard. There was something painful jabbing into her skin. Her pillows and blankets were gone. She opened her eyes and pushed herself up from the ground, straining to see in the dark. Ella opened her eyes wider searching out any available light. She stared at solid black patches in the sky that seemed to be waving. There were small lights, stars, peeking through what must be leaves on branches.
I am in the woods, she thought; I have never been in the woods before. She reached down her leg where the pain had been and pulled at a small twig embedded there. She wiped the dirt off her skin and remembered her father’s advice; use your senses even when dreaming. Your senses will tell you what you know. She concentrated on the senses.
What do I hear? She recognized the sounds rustling leaves on the waving branches and an owl hooting in the distance. There were strange chirping sounds that she thought must have been crickets. If she carefully listened, would she know what they were saying?
What do I see? She could see so little in the dark. All around her was just darkness. Like the sounds, what she could see was not helping her find home.
What do I feel? She could feel dirt and, as she reached out around her, she felt the bark of a tree. She also felt cold. Feeling was not helping either. She felt scared!
What was another sense? Oh, Taste, what do I taste?
“I am not going to taste the dirt or the tree,” she said defiantly. Taste is not going to help.
Ella had used all her senses and she should have been able to know something about her dream now. Unfortunately, all she knew was that she was lost, she was cold, and she was very much afraid. She wished she had her parents with her or at least some fairies. She was terribly afraid to be alone in this dark and unfamiliar place.
“Daddy, I’m lost.” A slow tear ran down her cheek followed by its faster brethren. Then, distorted due to the water filling her eyes, she saw a light coming from a fire.
Ella slowly walked towards the light with her bare feet feeling their way over and around fallen branches. A vine caught between her toes as she lifted her foot and thrust it forward in stride. The vine trapped her foot and caused her to stumble noisily backwards. She fought back the urge to cry out because she was afraid something dangerous might be hiding among the trees.
As she neared the fire, she noticed two large shapes and was relieved. They had to be her parents. Ella jolted, trembling in place, when she heard a sudden shrill screech coming from one of the shapes. The two (adults, humans, monsters?) were now talking and they had scary voices. One was low and gruff, the other shrill.
Oh, Daddy, Mommy, I want to be in bed. Ella thought desperately.
The gruff voice came from a male (still unknown) form sitting by the fire with a large book on the ground in front of him. He was turning pages quickly and moaning. The shrill voice came from a tall form standing at the fire stirring a large spoon around in a big pot. Ella saw steam coming from the top of the pot like the steam in her mother’s kitchen; only the smell was not anything Ella had ever smelled before. She hoped never to smell it again.
The woman at the fire said, “I know he lives, how did we not get him?” Her tone became more urgent and angry, as each word she spoke was louder than the last. “How did he escape? Just how did he get by us?” The banging of spoon and pot made such a clamor that Ella, though frozen on the spot, spasmed each time she heard it.
The man stopped turning pages and jumped up suddenly shredding the page from the book. “Here it is!” He shouted triumphantly as he hobbled over to her with his back hunched terribly.
The terrifying woman grabbed the paper from him and held it close to her face in the dim firelight. In an alarmingly high-pitched crescendo she threatened, “I’ll get you now. Do you hear me? I’ll get you and all the pretty, little things you tried to hide from me. You can’t keep them from me. Even your prayers won’t protect those you love.”
The pair began chanting something low and threatening. Ella saw the woman’s face. It was old, wrinkled, and hateful. Though the man was wearing a hooded cloak, allowing her to see nothing of his face, she could not imagine forgetting the terror of his voice.
The woman turned in Ella’s direction and Ella’s stomach clenched as though she were desperately ill. The woman was looking right at her and Ella felt something she had never felt before. She felt as though someone or something had pushed right through her entire body from behind. A shadow, or maybe it was mist, was moving swiftly towards the fire. Ella’s five-year-old mind could not quite understand how this apparition had appeared in front of her. Had it been a part of her taken magically out of her body?
Ella screamed, tried to turn, tried to run, tried to escape. She could not move. Somehow, the vines had wrapped around her feet and she screamed again. All thought of keeping quiet lost in the terror of the moment.
A light shone brightly in her eyes and suddenly they were grabbing her. She stopped fighting and whimpered in despair.
The arms around her held her tight and she heard soft whispering in her ear.
“Hush, it will be alright; it was just a dream.”
Ella was once again safe in her bed, held by her mother who was whispering soothing words. She looked at her mother’s face. Her mother seemed very certain that it was just a dream and Ella tried to believe her.
Her father, who was now sitting on the opposite side of her bed from her mother, seemed to be looking closely at Ella. With his eyes alone, he inspected her arms, her feet, and her face. He reached out, wiped her cheeks, and gave her a kiss on the forehead.
“It was just a silly dream. All is well now.” He smiled and squeezed her shoulder.
Normally that would have been enough to calm Ella. It would reassure her that it was all just a dream and she had no reason to worry. However, as Ella looked into her father’s eyes she knew his mouth was saying one thing, but his eyes disagreed. There was fear in his eyes. Though Beth, who was also looking at his face, only saw the compassion she was expecting, Ella saw fear, and if her father was afraid then her dream was real.
Beth James stood at the sink putting last night’s dishes in the dishwasher. She had been too tired then. She was always too tired these days. Looking out the window she watched as concrete flowed down the chute of the large cement truck forming a patio in the yard behind theirs. For some reason the patio really bothered her. She couldn’t express her feelings with words, it just seemed not quite right.
Earlier in the week, there had been the loud rattling of the gas-powered tamper pressing down upon the gravel. The sound gave her the sense that she something was in fact pressing her into the ground, bones shattering beyond recognition. First, it had been just the pressing down of the dirt, and for some reason they had had to compact it twice. They dumped gravel in the yard and smoothed it with wide rakes. The rattling continued with the tamping of the gravel. The sensation was excruciating.
She swore she heard the sound again this morning, felt as if someone was standing over her as she heard it. However, there was nobody in her room other than her husband sleeping peacefully at her side. He had not heard the tamper, but he had heard their daughter screaming just moments later. Another sleepless night, but at least he was home now.
Michael had been away on business for the last few weeks. Now he was home for six weeks because the baby was due. Beth was so relieved he was home as she watched the concrete slide down the chute onto the gravel. Michael had said the sound of the tamper before Ella’s nightmare had just been her imagination. Maybe, but at least now they were pouring the concrete and the patio would be finished. The crew would leave and peace and quiet would be restored.
She listened to the joyful chattering of Ella talking to her long time imaginary friend, Sylvester. Ella was only five years old, an imaginary friend was to be expected, not a sign of a troubled child. She would grow out of it. The night terrors were something else. They worried Beth.
Michael came into the room, grabbed a mug from the rack next to the sink, and poured himself some coffee. Placing his left hand on the small of her back, he kissed Beth on the top of her head. His smell comforted her almost as much as his touch.
“That dream last night wasn’t the first,” Beth whispered tossing her head back toward Ella. “Just the first she was able to remember. It took a long time to get her back to sleep.”
Michael straightened, tension seeping into his bones. He looked at her with genuine concern and she loved him for it. He did not treat her as if she was crazy to be worried about their daughter. He never told her she needed to deal with these things on her own as if his job was so important that she should handle the childcare by herself. Many of the men he worked with were either divorced or on the verge of it because they simply could not handle switching gears from long adventurous business trips with the guys to family life. Beth was incredibly grateful for the help she had; yet she was terrified and needed to voice her concerns.
“She dreamed she was threatened by witches. Witches! It is not even Halloween. It’s the middle of August, for crying out loud, and she’s waking up terrified of witches.” Her whispering was urgent and getting louder.
She looked directly into Michael’s eyes. He had never kept anything from her as far as she knew, but now she was not so sure. It was something about the way his expression had hardened at the mention of witches. Beth thought he knew the reason for their daughter’s fears and was keeping it from her because he didn’t want to worry her. It wasn’t working; she was worried.
“It wasn’t exactly witches you know. She didn’t say it was witches.” His gentle tone, surely meant to calm her, was not soothing her nerves. “All she said was she saw people around a fire. You’re projecting witches into it.” He paused and shook his head confidently. “It isn’t witches”
“Fine, it isn’t witches.” Beth wasn’t going to waste time arguing. “She just wakes up screaming that someone wants to ‘get’ her. This person is standing over a large pot on an open fire in the middle of nowhere saying ‘I’ll get all your pretties, you can’t have your pretties.’ What else would it be if it isn’t witches?”
Beth looked over at Ella for a moment. Her daughter was still happily eating her oatmeal, engrossed in some one sided conversation, completely oblivious to her parents. Turning her attention back to her husband, she continued. “Who cares anyway? What I want to know is why she’s waking up night after night terrified.”
Tears filled her eyes and she turned back towards the sink hoping her daughter would not notice. She could not fall apart with Ella in the same room. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, praying Michael would have both a simple explanation and a solution. Maybe they had watched some movie or he had read her a fairy tale. He could offer to solve the problem with one of his fairy tales in which Ella became the heroine who rids the world of all evil witches. Beth was hopeful.
Then, for the first time she ever remembered, he did not deliver. Instead, he stiffened and his blue eyes lost all tenderness. His forehead showed lines of worry. His brows turned downward. His expression was serious. Michael James turned away from his wife, left her side, and walked out of the room.
As if she called, Ella stopped her chatter and scampered after her father. Beth remained with the dishes, the view of the new concrete patio, and a room filled with emptiness.
Ella sat on the floor in front of her father who was sitting on the couch. She started to play with the large dollhouse that was the centerpiece of the room.
“You better say ‘hi’ to each of those fairies before they cover your dolls and furniture with dust,” her father teased.
“Oh, Daddy,” she giggled, “the fairies don’t cover my dolls with dust. They play with my dolls. I think they want to have a tea party. Don’t you?”
“Absolutely,” Michael agreed as he looked around the tiny rooms nodding his approval. He pointed to the top of the dollhouse. “Watch out for that little rascal right there,” he whispered and winked one eye to his daughter. “I think he is getting ready to steal your tea cups.”
Ella looked on the roof and wagged her chubby finger in the same spot as her father. “You keep away from my teacups until I say you may have some tea. I am watching you.” She scrunched up her face with mock anger towards the fairy and started placing her teacups around the table in the dollhouse.
After the dolls, fairies, and humans all had tea, Ella sat on the couch next to her father. She might have only been five years old, but she was a very intuitive little girl and she knew he had something to say. She looked up at him as he put his arm protectively around her.
“You’ve had a lot of bad dreams lately,” he said calmly.
Ella did not know what to say so she just nodded, leaned her head into him, and stared down at the ground.
“Tell me about last night’s dream again. Maybe I can help.”
Once again, Ella told him all the details of the dream but when he asked if she could describe the man or woman her lip began to quiver.
“No, they scared me.” Ella was afraid saying it aloud would make it real. What would happen if the man and woman suddenly appeared in front of her? Would they get her father? They might appear in the house and get her mommy and the baby. She looked up at her father. “Do you think someone is going to hurt us?”
Michael noticed her clenching her hands together, her knuckles turning white. Instantly he pulled her into his lap and held her in a hug. Shaking his head, his face calm, he reassured her.
“I don’t think you need to worry about that.”
He gently ruffled her hair and pushed her away enough so he was able to look into her eyes and smile before turning his gaze back towards the dollhouse. Ella squirmed in his lap until she was sideways, able to look at the dollhouse and him easily.
“I’ll tell you what you should do. Ask your fairies to stay around your bed each night.” He pointed to each of the fairies. “Then if some bad dream wants to take hold of you the fairies will chase it away.”
“Should I ask all the fairies – even Rascal?” Ella wondered. She thought he might cause more trouble. It would be fun to play with him through her dreams, but he might make a mess of her room.
“Oh, you should ask Rascal most especially. Just look at him now. He is standing at attention waiting for his orders. He is the one that is always on alert for trouble and he is the fastest, and most cunning. The other fairies will comfort you and make you laugh, but that Rascal of yours is the one no dream will want to meet.”
Ella laughed at the thought of someone trying to mess with Rascal. The littlest fairy who was always trying to steal her teacups may have been small but he had a sword he could produce in the twitch of his bright blue wings. He would flutter around so sporadically that other fairies had trouble keeping up with him. Humans would find it impossible to catch him. She imagined his sword would leave terrible wounds that would not stop bleeding for weeks at a time. He was fearless and faithful. Ella knew she would be safe with him standing guard.
She laughed, “Oh, Daddy, just look at him. I think anyone would be scared to see him with his sword like that!”
Michael looked at the top of the dollhouse and pretended to be afraid. “He is intimidating. I hope he doesn’t mistake me for a threat.”
“Oh, Daddy,” Ella smiled up at him, “Rascal would never hurt you.” She turned back to the dollhouse, “Will you protect me, Rascal?” she asked formally, though she already knew he would.
The doorbell rang and her father answered it. Ella could not see who was at the door, or hear the words being said, but she knew it was not for her. She went out the back door to play in the yard.
She was in the sandbox when she heard a soft sound from behind her and she realized someone was crying. She turned and saw the little girl who lived next door. Ella had never met her, but she had seen her dancing with her mother in their yard. The girl’s beautiful caramel colored skin and long dark hair adorned with beautiful ribbons streaming down her back had fascinated Ella. The mother and daughter always seemed so happy that Ella could not imagine why she would now be crying, so she asked.
The startled girl looked curiously at Ella but did not say anything. Ella stood up, walked over to the fence and tried again.
“My name is Ella. Why are you crying?”
With a sob the girl said, “I’m Becca.” After what seemed an eternity to Ella, she sniffled. “I broke my necklace and I can’t get it.” She pointed to the ground on Ella’s side of the fence. “I have to get it before my mommy sees it. She’s going to be so upset, but I can’t reach it.” She was breathing in loud short puffs, as if she were having trouble getting air.
Looking from Becca to where she was pointing, Ella saw the necklace glittering in the corner of the chain link fence that separated the four adjoining yards. She reached down, pulled it gently from the fence, and held it out to Becca. Becca seemed afraid to take it.
“Mommy just came home from the hospital. She needs to rest; I don’t want to upset her.” Becca was looking down as she spoke and although she was no longer panicking, she was so quiet that Ella could barely hear her.
Ella invited Becca to come play in her yard and the two were soon making sand castles without talking. Somehow, they knew they only needed to be together rather than alone. They hardly noticed when Michael James came back outside.
“Well, who have we here?” he asked as he sat on the edge of the sandbox. If he had been surprised to find a stranger in his yard, he did not show it.
“This is Becca, Daddy. She lives next door.”
Michael reached out to shake Becca’s hand, “It is an absolute pleasure to meet you.”
“Daddy, Becca broke her necklace and she doesn’t know how to fix it. Can you fix it?” She handed him the necklace and he saw the clasp had broken off the chain.
He looked at Becca curiously. “How was it broken?”
Becca whispered through tears that were beginning to fall again, “I don’t know. I don’t remember breaking it.”
Michael smiled, “That’s okay; I can try to fix it.” He said, slipping it into his pocket.
After a while, Michael walked Becca back to her house and Ella went in the house.
Michael’s partner at work, Dhade, was the closest thing the James family had to an extended family. Ella called him ‘Uncle Dhade’. Most people pronounced his name ‘Dah-day’, but when Ella said it, it sounded more like Uncle Daddy. He loved her as much as he would his own child, and the name fit.
Naturally, Dhade came to watch Ella when Beth and Michael went to the hospital to have the baby. Beth felt secure knowing he was watching over Ella. He would not let any outside threat harm the little girl. Ella would be safe, yet Beth was afraid of her daughter’s dreams. It seemed foolish, yet the fear was as intense as the pain of the contractions.
When Dhade helped Ella get into bed that night, he had to find a new nightgown for her. Laughing he asked, “Girlfriend, just how did you manage to get all this dirt on the back of your pajamas?”
Ella did not answer but she quickly ran down to the dollhouse and asked the fairies to stay by her bed. They took this responsibility very seriously and immediately flew up the stairs and, under Rascal’s command, took their various posts around the room. Rascal stood sentry on Ella’s headboard.
As she was falling asleep, a fairy came flying in through the window. Ella heard her whisper urgently to another, “The sweet pretty little girl was not so pretty. Never saw a baby quite like that.”
The littlest fairy stuttered, “W- w-what h- happened?”
“Only thing I can think is that witch got the little pretty.”
There was a frantic whispering among the fairies as they worried about the new baby and the safety of Ella. Finally, Rascal pulled out his sword in a threatening manner and warned the others, “Our job is to protect this pretty. So everyone stop worrying and start working.”
Baby Gertrude had to stay in the hospital for a long time because, though all the sonograms, ultrasounds, blood tests, and exams had indicated a perfectly healthy baby, and the delivery had been textbook perfect; there were many unexplainable complications with the child’s health. By the time she came home, the fairies had done such a great job protecting Ella that she had forgotten all about the dreams and her fears.