Chapter 1: Lion and Lambs
The little girl sat in the dark, only a strip of light coming from under the door. She pulled her arms in, tightening them around the smaller child in her lap. Maybe if Anika could make them small enough, they would disappear.
Suzie began whimpering, clutching her stuffed lamb Lacey with her chubby hands. At four years old she was still too young to understand the need for silence. Anika was only six, and she barely understood herself.
The yelling got louder as Daddy’s voice scraped against her. He always sounded like a lion when he’d been drinking. Not a good, brave lion like Aslan—but a mean, hungry lion with big paws. A thump sounded against the closet door, and Anika muffled Suzie’s cries with a hand, even though she wanted to cry out too. Liam alone, their ten-year-old brother, kept that mean, hungry lion on the other side of the door.
Anika clutched Suzie closer, telling her that they would be okay, that Daddy would fall asleep soon, and then they could leave the dark closet and stay away until he was nice again.
“Maybe we can go get an ice cream,” Anika told her sister.
Suzie sniffed and brushed tears off her cheeks, trying to be brave. “With sprinkles?” she whispered with big, hopeful eyes.
Nodding, Anika folded her little sister back in her arms. She didn’t know how she would pay for ice cream, but she’d think of something.
Anika’s cheek still stung where the lion batted her with his big paw, her wrist still throbbed where he’d grabbed her. Was it broken or just bruised again? Had Mommy woken up yet, or did she still lay in the corner where the lion left her? Why did some children have good, loving parents and others did not?
Mommy always said that she didn’t believe in God because a loving God wouldn’t let bad things happen to his children. But Anika didn’t think those bad things were God’s fault. Some kids had to go to bad grownups, or those mommies and daddies would have nobody to love them.
The noise outside the little dark closet moved away, but Anika’s ears still rang with the lion’s roars. Suzie was so quiet that Anika thought she’d fallen asleep. Maybe Suzie dreamt of ice cream cones with sprinkles.
Maybe when Anika opened the door, the lion would be gone and mommy would be awake.
Maybe angels would come and pick them up, fold their wings around them, and fly them away from that awful, shrinking place.
The screaming started again. Only this time the clock on the nightstand told eleven-year-old Edmund Bertram that it was two a.m. instead of one. Progress?
A groan issued from the next bed over. “Not again . . . maybe Aunt Nora’s right, and she should sleep in the barn.”
Tom had been moody for the last several weeks—since he officially became a teenager. “Make it stop!” he whined.
Edmund climbed out of bed, glaring at his brother on his way out of the room they shared. Somewhat nervous, Edmund made his way down the hall toward the injured wailing. It bothered him that no one else in the house had come to see if they could help—not even his parents. They’d tried, of course, the first couple of times. When Edmund’s father, T.R., picked the little girl up in his arms, she’d flailed and kicked until he released her. This made sense to Edmund. From what he’d been told, the girl’s father hadn’t been the nicest person. So Edmund offered to try himself, thinking that maybe someone closer to her own age—even at five years older—would be less threatening, but his efforts yielded the same effect. In the end his parents decided that letting the girl cry it out might be best.
Edmund didn’t think so.
Anika Price wasn’t a newborn baby who was used to being picked up and cuddled by devoted parents each time she squeaked. Edmund’s mother and Anika’s mother had been college roommates. They’d managed to stay in touch through marriages, childbirths, moves, losses of jobs, and everything else in life. A week ago, the Bertram kids were gathered and informed that a little girl would be coming to live with them—the daughter of their mother’s friend. Edmund still couldn’t work it out in his mind. They weren’t adopting the little girl, and she wasn’t being taken away from her parents and put in a foster home like some kids, either. In his limited understanding, he saw it to be a temporary, unofficial situation which all the adults agreed on.
Not troubling himself to knock, Edmund pushed into the room, determined to find a way to comfort little Anika. The wailing had quieted to whimpering and sobs, but the bed stood empty. Maybe she hid underneath? Turning on the lamp next to the bed, Edmund got down on the floor and checked for the girl, but found only dust bunnies. There was really only one other place she could be.
Slowly, he approached the closet and cracked open the door. There she was, huddled up in a ball in her long nightgown, arms clasped around her knees. She flinched away from the light, and her crying grew louder.
What to do? Edmund wasn’t about to touch her, even if that was his first instinct.
“Anika?” he said softly, frowning when it had no effect whatsoever. Then again, she cried so loudly that she probably hadn’t heard him. Edmund raised his voice. “Anika?”
After he said her name a few times, she quieted just a bit. They were getting somewhere.
“Anika? It’s me, Edmund.”
“You’re okay. Nobody’s trying to hurt you. You’re in your room at Mansfield.”
The pathetic little creature trembled for a few minutes, her malnourished body racked with sobs that grew farther and farther apart. Was it safe to approach her now? She seemed to be waking up and calming down. Edmund took a chance, folding himself into a sitting position just outside the closet door.
Anika didn’t move, just sniffled and looked up at him through her scraggly hair. Her brown eyes were huge in her face as she watched him uncertainly.
“I’m Edmund, remember? I won’t hurt you.”
She rubbed her eyes, then nodded.
Now what? Maybe she wanted to talk about her feelings.
“Did you have a bad dream?”
She squeezed her eyes shut tight and more tears rolled out. Okay, bad idea. He should distract her instead. “Do you like stories?”
Her tear-streaked face lit up with just a bit of hope. “Liam reads to me.”
“Liam? Is that your brother?”
She nodded morosely.
“You must miss him.”
Anika’s chin trembled, and Edmund thought it best to hurry his plan along. “What does he read to you?”
“Fairy stories. Hansel and Gretel.”
“Hm . . . I think we have a copy of that story somewhere. I’ll be right back, okay?”
The child’s big eyes were fixed on Edmund as he left the room. Hurrying to his father’s study where all the books were kept, Edmund scanned the worn volumes until he found the object of his quest. He lifted the book called My World of Fairy Tales and scanned the table of contents.
Excitedly, he tucked the book under his arm and hurried back to Anika’s room.
“Found it!” Plopping onto the empty bed, Edmund patted the spot next to him. “Come show me where you left off.”
But Anika shook her head vigorously, clamping her arms tighter around her legs.
Worth a try, Edmund thought as he relocated to the closet. “Can I sit by you? So you can see the pictures.”
Anika studied him for a moment, then shifted aside.
“Show me where you were.” Edmund held the book open.
“Right here.” Anika pointed to the first line of the first paragraph.
Deciding that this little girl was much smarter than any of the Bertram family knew, Edmund took the book and began reading. “There was once a poor woodcutter who was blessed with two loving children—a boy called Hansel and a girl called Gretel. When their own dear mother died—”
“No, no,” Anika interrupted. “You have to put Liam’s name and my name in for the boy and girl. That’s what Liam does.”
Edmund grinned down at her as she wiped the hair out of her eyes. “Is that so? Sorry about that, I’ll start over. There was once a poor woodcutter who was blessed with two loving children—a boy called Liam and a girl called Anika—”
“Ani,” she corrected. “Liam calls me Ani.”
Edmund watched her for a moment, feeling his heart fill up with pride. He had done it. He’d gotten through to her when no one else could. And if he tried hard enough then maybe, just maybe, he could become like the brother she so desperately missed.
“Okay, Ani.” He began again. “There was once a poor woodcutter who was blessed with two loving children—a boy called Liam and a girl called Ani . . .”
This time she didn’t interrupt or correct or say anything. It must have been hours and hours that they stayed that way, side by side on the closet floor. Edmund read the story at least one and a half times, and when dawn began lightening the room, he felt a tiny bump against his arm as Ani’s head drooped onto his shoulder.
A strange sensation filled him. His own sisters, eight-year-old twins, never needed him. Mia and Jia rarely needed anyone, and when they did, they turned to Tom. Edmund stood, then crouched and gathered Ani in his arms. He walked carefully so as to not jostle her awake, then laid her gently in her bed. He looked down at her for a moment, then pulled the blankets up to her chin.
Maybe he could fill in for the brother she missed, just for a while. Maybe he could help her not to be afraid. Maybe she would start to trust him.
And who knows? Maybe they would even get to be friends.