Everyone thought I was still hung up over Lucas’s death. It’s the guilt, they all said. It’s making it hard for her to let go. So they let me have my ‘imaginary friend’, and I let them believe this to be the case.
Nobody understood why I took Lucas’s portrait everywhere. People at school just thought I was morbid, or in mourning, or had one too many screws loose after the death of my best friend. Any of those reasons sounded better than the truth.
I adjusted my bag strap and held the framed portrait close to my chest, trying not to breathe too hard as I made my way up the steps to the top of the hill. It was hard enough for Lucas, being trapped in his portrait as a ghost, without having to deal with my physical discomfort.
“All right there, Luke? I could slow down, but I want to get home before it gets dark.” We were at an awfully secluded part of the hill, where I was certain I heard the hiss of snakes on more than one occasion.
“Quit talking and get moving,” was his reply. He wasn’t too thrilled about my decision to look for the Tin Lady, but the old lady who lived at the top of the hill was the only one who could free him.
That wasn’t her name, of course. The Tin Lady was only known as that – did anyone remember her real name anymore? – because of her tin legs. People said she made a deal with a malevolent fairy who reneged on her promise to save her lover, and ended up losing both the boy and her legs.
Now, she oiled her tin legs twice a month. This was the only time she accepted visitors. This was the only time she was willing to talk.
When I reached the top at last, Lucas piped up. “Is it raining?”
I wiped the sweat off my brows and glared at his reflection in the photo frame, which was vague as always. “Very funny.”
“Seriously, Emeline. Just go home.”
He did seem deadly serious, but I couldn’t leave now. Not after climbing all the way up here.
Besides, the Tin Lady had spotted me.
She was seated on a wooden bench just outside her house, her tin legs propped up on either side of her on the bench. Her legs, stumps that ended at the knees, were wrapped in swathes of gauze where they ended, while she was dressed in a thin, flowing one-piece the colour of the forest at night. She glanced up halfway through unbundling her legs, and found me standing in the clearing hugging a six-by-eight-inch photo frame.
“That is no way to treat a ghost,” was the first thing she said. And I knew I had come to the right person.
The Tin Lady said since Lucas’s body was stolen by the fairies, we either tried to get it back from them or made another in its likeness. Neither option sounded plausible, especially after hearing how she had been robbed of her legs and the boy she loved.
“What happened exactly?”
She beat down my question with her stern, cloudy gaze, and then pulled a pocket knife out of the folds of her clothes.
“You should at least free him,” she said, before proceeding to drag the edge of the knife down the length of Lucas’s photo. An ugly rip sat slashed his face in half. I let out a cry and reached for the photo, but Lucas was the one who stopped me.
Lucas, with his hands on my arm.
It wasn’t warm or solid, by any means, but it offered far more comfort than the past two weeks had, ever since he went missing and I noticed his ghost in the reflection of the photo frame.
I grasped at whatever wisp of him there was.
Lucas turned to the Tin Lady. “It had been this easy all along?”
“You’re still dead,” I pointed out.
“At least I’m not stuck inside a cramped little photo frame anymore.”
That hurt. I’d made sure to wipe the photo frame every day, at least. But this was hardly the point of contention now. “How do we get him back for good?”
The old lady searched me with a look, then pulled on the tin prosthetic legs that creaked in the stillness. The sky was slipping into a sleepy lavender shade, but here at the top of the hill the air was tight as an intake of breath. I was finding it harder to breathe – whether from anticipation or the thinner air, I wasn’t sure.
Lucas took my hand, but his grip was hardly strong enough to stay me. “I’m not sure about this,” he whispered as the tin lady pushed open the front door and left it open behind her. “We don’t know anything about her.”
“She can bring you back,” I said, by way of convincing myself too. “Don’t be such a pansy.”
The Tin Lady’s house was a squat little thing that offered little room for movement and thought – the former because of the gleaming iron cages hanging from hooks everywhere, the latter because of the wild, heady musk of some exotic flower I couldn’t pinpoint.
“Do you make these?” I reached for an intricately carved cage the size of Lucas’s photo frame swinging from a squeaking hook. The carvings on the cage bars and base made no sense: they were words from another language laced into thorny vines, nothing legible or discernible.
The Tin Lady nodded once. “This way,” she said, heading for a cupboard in the corner of the room. Lucas and I navigated our way through with the dying light of dusk; he tried to catch my eye, but I kept my dogged gaze fixed on the old lady, who had pulled open the cupboard and stooped to take something out.
It was a wrought iron cage, pretty nondescript in plain dull-grey. She rapped it twice on the crown, letting off a strange mellifluous ring. A beat later, the cage emanated a multi-coloured glow that painted the dirty walls of the house. But the light was frail, a whisper for help in an inked night.
“Emmy,” Lucas whispered, pointing at what’s inside the cage.
A tiny … being lay sprawl at the foot of the cage. At the sight of us, she flung herself against the bars, a snarl distorting her lovely face. But iron was cruel to her, poisoning her skin, her body, and, slowly, her mind. She curled up into a tight ball and glowered up at us – but mostly at the Tin Lady.
My breaths came out in a loud staccato. I scrambled for Lucas’s hand. “Is that a –?”
The old lady turned around, a smile curved like a hook on her face. And it was only then, under the dying light of the sick, captured fairy, that I noticed the wicked iron-grey spark in her cataract-clouded eyes.
“This is how we’ll get your lover back.” Her voice was a rusty blade.