Illustrated by Lakshmy Mathur
They scaled the tree, settled themselves on the highest branch and took their apples out of their pockets. From up here Janey could see the river flashing with sunlight and little silver fish, the dairy cows behind the fence and beyond that, a farmer on his tractor. The woods were bursting with bee buzz, bird trill and freedom. Further down the river, the rumble of the waterfall. The only rules that governed their days were to keep away from the waterfall, to not talk to strange men and to get home before dinner time. Janey bit into her apple and wriggled with happiness.
Between bites, Natalie started planning their day. They could be two kidnapped princesses and write a note and conceal it in the roots of the tree. They could promise a ransom of gold and diamonds and draw a map for their rescuers. Janey suggested Snow White with the wicked witch and the poisoned apple. Or Cathy and Heathcliff, said Natalie who had forged her mother’s signature on her library form so she could get books out the adult section though she wasn’t twelve. Or how about we play them all, said Janey and reminded Natalie that she’d promised to forge Janey’s mother’s signature too because she was dying to read Jane Eyre. Or we could just stay up here for a bit, said Natalie, and when they come searching for Amber we’ll see them but they won’t see us.
“Do you believe she ran away?” said Janey. “Like they said?”
“Could be,” said Natalie, flinging her apple core into the river. She watched the current pick it up and speed it towards the waterfall. “Her granddad was the only person in her family who was kind to her. And when he passed she had no one else who really cared.”
“Passed what? His driving test?”
“Don’t be stupid! He died!”
“Well why didn’t you say so? What of?”
“Sadness. Because of losing Amber’s mum.” She clambered down the tree.
Janey jumped down after her, “He lost her? Where?”
“Died!” Natalie said. “Cancer.”
“So really, there wasn’t much point in Amber sticking around, was there?”
“In fact, if someone helped Amber to leave, that would be a good thing, right?”
They inched their way along a branch that hung over the river, lowered themselves onto their stomachs and gazed at their reflections in the water.
“It’s a pity she left before she got a chance to be the Little Mermaid though,” Janey said. “She was really looking forward to that.”
Natalie was silent for a moment then said, “If I tell you a secret will you promise to keep it?”
“She did get a chance to be it.”
“You remember the part about the witch’s spell that’s supposed to turn the mermaid’s tail into legs so she can walk on land?”
“Well, it didn’t work. Amber got swept down the river and went over the waterfall.”
Janey twisted herself up into a sitting position, her mouth a perfect O. “Have you told them?”
“Course not. They’d say it was my fault because I played the witch. And then I’d be sent to prison. So you must never tell. Not even when they find her.”
“I won’t,” Janey said. “It’s not like she has anyone who’d miss her. Not really.”
Natalie nodded. “That’s what I thought.”
“We’ll play something else today,” said Janey. “Something with no sadness in it.”