His voice boomed through the woods as she ran. A thorn bush snagged her shirt, but she pulled herself free and broke into the clearing at the back of the property.
She could feel him at her back as her little legs worked to carry her over the dry grass. Bianca could outrun him, she’d gotten enough of a head start before he’d realized she’d gone.
She raced into the shed, ducking behind one of the large shelves. It was a tight squeeze, but she sucked in her breath and shimmied into the dusty corner.
“Where oh where has my little girl gone?”
He’d never find her in here. She was a good hider, he’d told her that.
“Come out, little girl.”
She heard him enter the shed, his boots heavy on the cement floor. Her heart threatened to beat out of her chest. Working to calm her breathing like her daddy had taught her, she closed her eyes and drew in a slow breath, then blew it out until her heart settled.
Listening for his footsteps, she made herself smaller.
He huffed out a little laugh that made the hair on the back of her neck tingle. He walked by where she hid, his feet slowing. Squeezing her eyes shut, she visualized sinking into the concrete wall behind her. She was invisible, she was invisible, she was invisible.
A hand grabbed her ankle beneath the shelf and Bianca screamed so loudly the sound echoed in her own ears. Kicking hard, she dislodged the hand and propelled her body out from behind the shelf. Bianca tumbled to the ground, landing hard enough to scrape her knee through her thin leggings. The jarring pain almost stopped her, but she scrambled to her feet and dashed back the way she’d entered.
The light of the open door was bright in front of her. She’s close enough to almost dart through it and out into the open, when an arm snagged her around her waist.
Her father tossed her into the air easily and caught her again as she squealed. He turned her in his arms and growled at her, his black beard and snapping white teeth making him look like a monster. He held her in a tight embrace. She pressed her face into his bearded cheek, rubbing hers against it until it tickled her skin and made her giggle.
“Caught you, my girl.”
Holding her away from him, he brushed a cobweb out of her pigtail before giving it a tug. His smile peeked out from behind his beard, a rare gift since mama died. The way his eyes sparkled at her made her happy.
“Oh daddy, I found such a good spot. I was convinced you wouldn’t find me there.”
He hoisted her up on his shoulders, and started the walk back to the big house.
“You are learning to hide well, but you shouldn’t have run off like that, Bianca. What if I had lost you or couldn’t have found you? That would’ve broken my heart, losing my little girl.”
Bianca patted his head. “You can’t lose me, daddy. I’ll always come back. I’m your bad penny, remember?”
He chuckled. “That you are.”
They made their way back in comfortable silence. Bianca loved when he let her ride piggyback, she could see so much of the world when she was one his should. Glancing down at his dark head, she ran her fingers through the strands. There were more gray strands than there had been two months ago.
Bianca knew his job with the government took him away a lot, more so since his promotion within the counsel, but he’d been grim even before mama died. Even her jokes didn’t really make him smile. Something was happening, something that made mama sick fast, something he was trying desperately to protect her from falling prey to.
“Do you have to go away for work again, daddy?”
“Not tonight, but soon.” He patted her leg as he moved around a fallen log. “I’m working on something that I hope will help the world.”
She’d rather he stay there and play with her, but she knew how important saving the world was to him.
When the house was in sight, one of her newer nannies came out to stand on the porch. From the way the woman’s face scrunched up, Bianca wondered if she might be in trouble. She just stopped herself from sticking her tongue out at the dour looking woman. Her father always made her promise not to antagonize the nanny, but he never said anything about not hiding from them.
They started up the steps and he gave the nanny a look as he positioned her bedside the woman. Placing a hand beneath her chin, he made her look up at him. The look on his face was serious; almost as serious as the day he told her mama wasn’t home from the hospital.
“Are you going to stay put now, Bee? I have a meeting I need to go to and I need to know you’re not going to disappear on me.”
He stooped down in front of her. Placing his hands on her shoulders, he held her eyes.
“Remember that time I gave you that keychain with the colorful sand in it?”
She loved that keychain. It reminded her of the last family trip that’d gone on. Bianca had wanted that thing so badly; she’d thrown a bit of tantrum in the shop. Her father had stood, stoic, above her as she’d wailed. He’d seemed unmoved by her tantrum, but purchased the chain for her. When they’d left the shop, he’d pocketed the chain and put it away in his suitcase. The way he’d sat her down in the hotel and explained how everything she did has consequences. He told her when she learned to behave he’d give her that keychain.
“When are you going to give me that keychain, daddy?”
He pressed his lips to her forehead, his beard tickling her skin. “When you learn to behave.”
She hugged him and then waved as he walked back into the house. As soon as he was out of sight, the nanny grabbed her upper arm and led her back into the house.
“Back to your lesson. Stop trying to run off, little brat. If your father fires me, I’ll make you pay.”
“Ow, you’re hurting me.”
The woman didn’t loosen her grip until they were back in the little room that her father had converted to a small classroom. Bianca sank down into the wooden desk and rubbed at her arm. She stuck her tongue out at the woman when she turned her back. The woman whipped around to pace back to her and bang a hand down on her desk.
“I’m determined to find a place here and nothing you will do is going to stop me from doing that.”
“I’ll have a new nanny by the weekend.”
The woman crossed her arms over her chest and stared Bianca down. Her face changed. Less that sour face from earlier and more a mask of fakeness that made Bianca frown in response.
“Ah, little girl, you think you know what happens between grown ups, but you have no idea. Don’t get in my way or I’ll make your life very difficult.”
Bianca may only be ten, but something told her this woman was dangerous. She’d ignored the woman when she’d introduced herself this morning. Shorter than her mother and much curvier She dressed conservatively, as was required for her position, with a high neck black turtleneck and straight grey slacks.
“And what did you say your name was?”
“Hilde.” She stepped forward and placed a stack of papers on her desk. Her continued smirk made Bianca leery. “You’d do well to remember it.”
Bianca fingered the awful pink junior bridesmaid dress she was wearing. Her father and Hilde were having a second wedding on their anniversary in two weeks, something grander now that her father’s position in the government had changed. The dress was too tight across her breasts and hips. It didn’t matter how many times she’d objected to wearing it, her father had patiently told her she had to do it because it looked nice.
“No,” she remarked to her mirror image. “It’s because Hilde will throw a fit if I cut it up.”
Looking at her reflection, Bianca was convinced Hilde had chosen it for her specifically because she knew Bianca would look ridiculous.
No amount of talking to her dad would get him to realize marrying this woman was a bad idea. She hadn’t even known they’d gone on their first date. Bianca had found out when she’d snuck out of her room two nights after her conversation with Hilde in the classroom to find them kissing out on the porch.
Five years later and everything had changed.
After she’d found them together, Bianca had tried to talk to him about it, mentioned that she didn’t need a new mother. He’d simply said no one would replace mom, but it quickly became apparent that that was Hilde’s aim.
He started walking around in a daze, a drunken smile on his face. If Bianca didn’t know any better, she would think the witch had drugged him. Two months later, her father was professing his love for this woman and moving her into the house. It was barely a year and he wanted to pretend they were a happy family. All Hilde wanted to do was erase her mother’s existence.
It had started subtly. Her father spent a little less time with her, growing a bit distant. Her attempts to get his attention were diverted by Hilde. It was a fight to see him between his work and the time he spent with his fiancé.
It wasn’t long before her mother’s things started to disappear. The vanity her mother sat at brushing her beautiful hair, the wardrobe that used to be filled with her mother’s pretty gowns disappeared out of the master bedroom. Wallpaper was taken down, furniture disappeared, and fixtures were changed to reflect Hilde’s “modern style”. When Bianca found men carrying her mother’s special mirror, she’d begged her father to keep it in her room.
Bianca stood in front of the mirror, feeling lost as she stared at her reflection. She missed her mother so much in that moment. Was it always going to be like this? Bianca felt alone without a way out.
Sighing softly, she reached out to touch the glass. Her mind went to the words her mother used to utter when she stared in the mirror.
The glass wavered under her fingertips.
“On the wall.”
It grew warm, seeming to breath in and out.
“What will become of me after all?”
The glass breathed out and then shattered, before solidifying again. In the image was an unknown city that had been laid to waste. The picture grew bigger to include more areas. The world seemed to be black, the trees stripped of all leaves. A grey sky filled with yellow clouds hovered low over the buildings, blotting out the sun. People walked aimlessly through the streets, sores on their faces, something sickly in the grey pallor on their faces. They looked so much like her mother when she was on her deathbed. Vacant-eye’d zombies with parts missing.
Another shimmer of the glass and the picture changed. This time, she saw herself, older, her skin healthy. Reflection Bianca stood in the middle of somewhere dry and sandy, mask over her face as she dug into the sand. Next to her stood a man, a fierce look on his face and a gun in his hand. The shovel struck something and she pulled a box up. Words were exchanged, Bianca couldn’t hear them, but she knew the look of determination on her face all too well. She’d just discovered something important. Before she could see what it was, the glass cleared and only her young face was visible.
“What was that?” She removed her hand from the glass.
The door to the room opened behind her and Hilde swept in with a few women trailing behind her. She was dressed impeccably in a knee length pencil skirt and a fitted white blouse, her hair in a knot on top of her head. Bianca would’ve almost called her pretty, if it wasn’t for the sour expression on her made up face.
“All of this make sure it’s boxed up and ready to go.” She glanced at Bianca where she stood by the mirror. “Only take the necessities for clothing, she’ll need new things once we’ve arrived.”
Bianca crossed her arms over her chest. “What’s going on?”
“We’re leaving. Your father has returned with news and requested that I begin the packing process immediately.”
Moving? They’d lived in this house her entire life. The thought of leaving it, and the memories it held, behind made her stomach roil.
“You’re lying.” She felt her face get hot and fought back the tears that threatened to spill. “Daddy told me we’d never leave this house.”
That made Hilde smirk. “Did he now? Well, it seems your father finally listened to reason about this hellhole house and town.”
Bianca swallowed, determined not to give Hilde the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
“I still think you’re lying.” She spoke through gritted teeth. “Daddy would’ve told me.”
The women marked things to be taken, darting in and out of the room as if on speed.
Hilde lifted one perfectly arched brow at her, pinching her lips together in a pout before she replied. “Would he? You know your father is a very busy man and doesn’t have time to explain to a troublesome little girl.”
That was a stab to her heart. The witch wouldn’t best her.
“You’re wrong, I’m going to go talk to daddy.” Bianca marched out of the room, not hearing Hilde’s chuckle as she raced down the hall.
Bianca knew he was in the house, but wasn’t sure where. It could be difficult to track him down at times. She went to his office first, but found it filled only with a few aides that tended his notes. Next was the master suite, but it sat empty. On a hunch, Bianca went to her mother’s old sewing room, the one place he’d forbid Hilde from changing, stopping just in the doorway. She had found him. He sat on the trundle bed by the window, staring out into the garden, holding one of her mother’s old scarves. He looked lost, more wrinkles lining his face than should be for a man who had only just turned forty this year. There was such anguish on his face that Bianca couldn’t help calling out to him.
When he turned to her, that look vanished, replaced by the more neutral face he tended to show around her any more.
“How can I help you, Bianca?”
She approached slowly, suddenly not sure how to deal with the man who felt so distant.
“Hilde said we were moving.”
His face changed again, flashing between fear and anger before settling down again. “Yes, we’re moving to a new place. One that will offer protection for the things that are coming.”
“But this is home. How can we leave this place?”
“You have to trust me. I know what’s best, and staying here means I can’t keep you safe.”
That had been one of his constant mantras for years, keeping her safe. Protecting her when he should’ve been there playing with her. A wave of bitterness swept over her when she realized things were never really going to be the same. Things hadn’t been the same for a long time anyway.
“Bianca.” Her father sighed, his head in his hand. “I know this is difficult for you to understand, but please, trust me. I love you so much, too much to watch something happen to you like what happened with your mother. Anything I can do to protect you, I’ll do. Because I love you too much not to.”
She almost didn’t want to hear it. Her heart felt broken as another important thing in her life was taken away. Turning toward the door, she stared out across the landing.
“Please.” He was earnest now, his voice cracking. “You’ll understand in time.”
A large part of her wanted to believe him and it was that part of her that turned back toward him. Tears were in his eyes as he looked at her and he looked like her daddy again, that man who gave chase and taught her to hide.
She nodded her assent, unable to speak. It was obviously enough for him because he stood to cross the space between them so he could pull her into his arms.
“All will be well.”