I woke to a creak of floorboards and pulled the blanket up over my head, holding my breath while I listened hard. My mind whirled with men in black, faces masked, creeping through the house. Daddy, why did you leave me alone? He’d come home and find me gone, stolen away with the furniture and the television and the oven and all my toys.
I hiccupped on a sob and everything swam with tears. I wanted my daddy. I wanted my mommy, who was never coming back. I wanted someone, anyone, to keep away the noises in the night. I didn’t want to be stolen away!
“Shh,” a voice said, low and soothing. “I’m here. It was just the house settling, nothing more.”
I peeked out from underneath the blanket and the mattress groaned softly as a weight settled beside me. A warm hand touched my shoulder and I saw the shape of a man. Donar. My hero. My protector. My friend. The tightness in my throat eased and I pulled the blanket down, gasping for fresh air.
“Go back to sleep, Anna,” the shape said, a finger brushing the tears from my cheek, making my skin tingle. “You’re not alone.”
Even though it was a lie, I believed him. Donar was always right.
“I’ll be back to take you to school in the morning,” Daddy said, tucking me into bed. “If you need anything, you call Mrs. Philips next door, all right? The number is right here, next to the phone.” He held up the receiver, then set it down on my nightstand. “Sleep tight.” He kissed my forehead. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
“Good night, Daddy.” I hugged his neck. “See you in the morning light.”
He turned out the lamp and pulled the door shut behind him, leaving only the whirling rainbow glow of the nightlight. Footsteps shifting from carpet to linoleum, the jingle of his keys, the door opening, then closing, and the click of the lock. I threw off the blanket and went to the window, watching him back out of the driveway, the headlights flashing in the rain.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?” Donar asked.
I made a face at his reflection in the glass. “I just wanted to see Daddy.”
He ruffled my hair. “Now you’ve seen him off, back under the blankets.”
I sighed and crawled into my bed. “Will you tell me a story, at least?”
“Of course.” He tucked the blankets under my chin and sat down at the foot of the bed. “Which story would you like to hear?”
This was our ritual, Donar’s and mine, and I couldn’t sleep without it on the nights that Daddy left me to work. He had two jobs now, since Mommy died, and I saw more of Mrs. Philips than I did him. And Donar of course, but he didn’t count because nobody saw Donar but me.
I’d told Mrs. Philips about him once, but she said I was too old for imaginary friends, and if I didn’t stop seeing him, she was going to tell my daddy to take me to the doctor. Donar and I talked about it later and we decided it would be better if I didn’t say anything to anyone else. I asked him why I’d have to go the doctor, and he got real quiet and sad and I wished I hadn’t said anything at all before he answered.
“To make you stop seeing me,” he said. “With tests and medicines, if necessary. But I promise you, if you don’t want to see me anymore, you only have to tell me so, and I’ll go away without any of that. All right?”
“Why would I want you to go away?” I asked him.
He half-smiled. “One day you’ll realize that no one else has any friends like me, and you’ll want to be like them, maybe. Or else you just won’t remember me anymore, because you don’t need someone to keep you safe at night.”
I thought the whole thing was silly. How could I forget Donar? Who would tell me stories until I fell asleep? Who would get me water in the middle of the night, after I dreamed the house burned down, and Mommy was still inside? And I was sure I didn’t want anyone else making me forget him, so when Mrs. Philips asked about him a few weeks later, I told her he’d gone away, back to his stone palace with his magic goats.
“Tell me about the princess who can turn into a bird and fly away,” I said to Donar. “Don’t her cats ever try to catch her and eat her? Mrs. Philips has a cat and it’s always trying to catch birds.”
Donar smiled, the rainbow nightlight turning his beard purple. It was almost orange in daytime. “She becomes a very large bird. So large the cats worry she’ll eat them instead. Do you remember how she turns into a bird?”
“How?” I asked.
“She has a magic cloak of feathers, and when she puts it on, it transforms her. But anyone can wear the cloak. Someday, if you ask her very nicely, maybe she’ll let you borrow it and soar into the sky like a falcon until your arms are too tired to fly any higher.”
I dreamed of flying that night. It was much too exciting for my arms to ever get tired, that’s for sure.
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