Fantasy contemporary Family dark portal fantasy siblings animals

The Claw in Her Heart

By Renee Carter Hall
Mar 16, 2018 · 3,151 words · 12 minutes

A little girl walking along a path.

Photo by Amy Treasure via Unsplash.

From the author: A brother and sister discover a fantasy world full of magic and delight—but every world has its secrets. Are those talking animals really as friendly as they look?


As long as I sit here, sharpening this knife, I don't have to think about why I'm going to use it. The blade's sharp enough already to slice a sheet of paper without wrinkling it, but I figure a few more strokes won't hurt.

I've dug out everything else—my camo coveralls that still mostly fit from Dad's last father-son hunting kick, the canteen from when I was a Cub Scout in fourth grade, the binoculars, some trail mix… And the rifle, of course. It's meant for deer, but maybe it'll be enough. It has to be enough.

All this stuff looks pretty silly spread out on my little sister's fairy-patterned comforter, with the rifle lying next to her stuffed unicorn. Any other time, I might have laughed, but now I'm not even sure I remember how.

I test the blade again. It could probably cut my hand wide open and I'd never feel a thing.

Outside the open window, the sky's gone that deep blue you only get in summer. The kids across the street are yelling to each other, and the scent of charcoal smoke drifts in from someone's barbecue. The first stars will be out soon, and from those Cub Scout days, I remember the name of the constellation that will hang over our house tonight.

Ursa Major. The great bear.

I shiver, and sharpen the knife.

 

 

When my sister Amanda came into my room that November afternoon and told me she'd found a magic world, I really wasn't surprised. Some little kids are just into the dress-up part of fairies and magic: the wings and tiaras and frothy pink dresses. Not her. She spent hours coming up with elaborate stories to act out, with way more detail than you'd ever expect from an eight-year-old.

Me, I'm not exactly the elf-ears-and-broadsword type. My heroes wear more jerseys than jerkins, and my idea of a noble steed is a '68 Mustang. But Amanda was my only sister—it was just the two of us—and you could have pulled out my fingernails before I'd have admitted it, but I loved her. So I let her cast me as some elf prince from faraway somewhere, and I'd go along with all of it and try to talk the way she wanted me to. And okay, maybe it was weird, but it was fun.

So I went along. "A magic world, huh? Where?"

"I'll show you."

I followed her into her room. She'd put on a pink velvet party dress, and I couldn't help thinking Mom would kill her for playing in something that nice. I was in my usual state of grunge, of course. "You want me to put something else on?"

"It won't matter."

This from the kid who'd once spent an hour and a half carefully crafting an elven crown out of aluminum foil and gold glitter paint.

She told me she'd found the entrance in her toy chest. The chest was one of those big wooden types with a hinged lid and her name spelled out in rainbow wooden letters on the front. It was big enough that, even at seventeen, I could have lain down in it as long as I scrunched my legs up. She'd taken all her toys out of it—all the ponies and stuffed animals and plastic swords—and piled them haphazardly in one corner of her room.

I had a history paper to write, but I figured I could spare an hour or so before dinner to climb in the chest, get out, and pretend to be in a magic world for a while. It beat going over the stupid War of 1812 again.

Except that when she opened the lid, I didn't see the bottom of the chest. Instead, where the wooden base should have been, ripples of golden-green light washed like water.

"Come on," she said, like this was completely normal. Then she climbed into the chest and let the lid close over her.

I stood there a minute, staring at the chest, trying to think of some explanation for that light. Maybe it was a reflection off something. Anyway, whatever it was, she'd climb out in another second or two, and I'd get in, and we'd go on with the game. When another minute passed and nothing happened, I slowly lifted the lid and peeked inside.

The light was still there, but Amanda was gone.

My spine turned to ice. I closed the chest, opened it again, searched behind it—nothing. I had no idea what had just happened, but like I said, she was my only sister. I couldn't let her disappear into God knows where by herself if I could help it. So I crawled in after her, and the lid slammed shut over my head.

Everything went green for a minute, like I'd been out in bright sunlight and had come into a dark room. I could hear birds singing somewhere, cheerful little songs repeated over and over, and then I felt grass under my hands and knees.

And I could smell the grass. That was what really freaked me out. I don't smell things in dreams, but I could smell grass and earth, something floral here and there on the breeze, and beneath all that, a sort of musky, spicy scent, like wet fur and cinnamon.

As my vision cleared, I looked up and saw Amanda standing beside me, her velvet dress grass-stained at the hem. And just past her, about four feet in front of us, was the biggest bear I had ever seen.

I glanced back at Amanda, trying to decide whether I should stand up slowly or start crawling backward. But she just smiled at me and then curtsied to the bear as formally as if he were a king.

The bear rumbled low in his throat. Then he lumbered forward. I scrambled to my feet—he was big enough to bite her in two—but before I could get to them, the bear lowered his head to her shoulder, and she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.

"I told you I would come back," Amanda said.

"You gave your word," the bear replied, "and you have kept it."

A talking bear. Of course. Magic world, talking bear. It was definitely Amanda's kind of place.

The bear's fur was golden, lighter than brown but not quite blond, and his voice was warm and rich as melting chocolate. He was power in all senses of the word—the kind that came from muscle and claws, and the kind that came from authority.

"I brought my brother," she said. "This is Seth."

The bear turned to me then, as if he'd just noticed I was there. For a moment, I couldn't breathe, and I fought a sudden instinct to run. His gaze held me first with fear and then with awe; it was that intense. I was being sized up somehow, but I couldn't tell if he liked what he saw.

Amanda spoke up. "This is Ormuk. He's…the king, sort of."

I wasn't sure whether to bow or kneel or what, but none of that felt right, so I just nodded slowly and, I hoped, respectfully. At last Ormuk nodded back, and my heart dialed down to normal again.

By now we had a crowd around us, and they all seemed to know Amanda. A red fox frisked about her ankles like a puppy, and an alarming number of mice dressed in flower petals squeaked merrily in voices so high I couldn't make out the words. A badger waddled up to us, stood on its hind legs, and bowed to Amanda. It wore a tiny pair of glasses that looked suspiciously like they'd come off one of her teddy bears.

I realized I was grinning. It was nuts, all of it, and wonderful.

"This way, m'lady," the badger said, and he led us to a tree stump so wide that it served as a table. The other animals followed, and food appeared in a golden shimmer once we were all seated. There were berry tarts with fresh cream, colorful little salads of wild greens, a fizzy drink that tasted like grape cough syrup, and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Quite a spread, anyway, for woodland creatures. And the fox never once looked at the mice like they were hors d'oeuvres, which impressed me.

While we ate, some squirrels showed up and played silver flutes that looked like twigs, and a fat raccoon came to apologize on behalf of the mermaids of the river, who would have loved to come to the party but couldn't make it because of, you know, the whole dry-land thing. By this time my head was spinning, and it had nothing to do with the fizzy cough syrup. Ormuk didn't eat anything, but he stayed anyway, sitting back and watching everyone else like he was guarding us.

Finally Amanda told everyone we had to go back home. They surrounded her in a flurry of good-bye hugs and nuzzles and licks, and then she ran over to Ormuk to hug him again. The bear said something to her, but I couldn't hear what. She nodded, and then she ran back to me.

The way out was hidden in the base of a hollow tree, where a vague phosphorescence pulsed amid the gnarled roots. I followed Amanda into the narrow crevice in the trunk, ducking my head to fit. Then everything went green again, and I felt the wooden sides of the chest around me.

That history paper didn't get written that night.

 

 

I thought a world like that would run on the whole magic-time thing, where hours over there would be mere seconds in the real world. But time seemed to run the same in both places, which meant we had to watch how long we stayed. Amanda kept going back whenever she could, and sometimes I had to cover for her with Mom and Dad. I didn't mind doing homework for her—fourth-grade math made me feel smart the same way being in the kids' section of the library makes you feel tall—but I wasn't so hot on having to do her chores while she was off having tea parties with the bear-king's subjects. But I understood. I mean, you try discovering a secret world in your house and see if you can stay out of it for more than a day at a time.

I went with her whenever I could. We listened to a mermaid concert by the river. We rode white stags with golden antlers and silver bridles. We sat under the big oak in the moonlight while the owls told ancient stories. I learned that fairies sound like hummingbirds when they fly, and that squirrels love silly practical jokes. They were all friendly enough toward me, but Amanda was their queen. The red fox used to fall asleep curled up in her lap, like her pet.

Months passed that way, through winter and into the first days of spring, and around that time I started seeing the change in her. Not when she was in Ormuk's world; everything was fine there. At home, though, she looked tired and listless. The papers she brought home from school didn't have foil stars on them anymore. Mom and Dad finally sat up and took notice when she started losing weight, but when the blood work didn't show anything unusual, the doctor just told them to give her vitamins and make sure she was getting enough sleep.

I was worried that there was some kind of addiction thing happening, or that the other world was sapping her strength somehow. I told her not to eat anything else over there, and as far as I knew, she didn't, but it didn't seem to make any difference. And it wasn't like she was over there constantly or got wild-eyed if she had to stay and clean her room, or whatever. But it was still weird, and I wanted answers.

One day I faked a dentist appointment, left school early, and crossed over alone.

Ormuk wasn't around, but he rarely spoke anyway, and never to me. I got the feeling the bear tolerated me when I was with Amanda, but when it came down to it, he was her friend, not mine, and I wasn't too crazy about the idea of seeking him out. I figured if I was going to give someone the third degree, it'd be safer to start with a smaller animal, and when I found the red fox in the woods, I told him what was going on.

Something flickered through the fox's yellow eyes. I couldn't tell if it was fear, shame, or something else, but he obviously didn't want to talk. He turned away.

"I'm not leaving until I find out what's going on," I said.

"Lower your voice." He cast nervous glances at the trees. "There's nothing you can do."

"Tell me."

The fox darted away. I lunged for him but missed, and he slipped into the underbrush.

When I stood up, I realized for the first time how quiet everything was. The birds, if they were there, were silent, and I didn't see any of the other animals. It felt as if everyone were hiding. I went back home with nothing, no answers except for the crawling sensation that something was very wrong.

I tried to get Amanda to stay home. I offered her trips to the movies, bike rides in the park, lunch at the mall, a marathon of whatever game she wanted to play. Nothing worked. Nothing could compete. I tried to tell her something was wrong, but she laughed and told me Ormuk would never let anything happen to her. So I went with her as much as I could to keep an eye on things, but whenever I was there, everything was fine and happy, just the way it had been all the other times. Unless you count the fox not making eye contact with me.

And then came that Saturday, almost a week ago now, even though it already feels longer. Amanda was supposed to go to a birthday party, one of those deals where the parents make them invite the whole class. When it came time to leave, though, nobody could find Amanda. She wasn't in her room, or the house, or the yard. We called all her friends' houses. We called the house where the party was, in case she'd gone there somehow, but no one had seen her.

I told everyone, later, that it had just occurred to me to check the toy chest when I saw all the toys piled in the floor. I told them I had checked the closet first and under the bed. Nobody pressed any further. Nobody asks a lot of probing questions when the EMTs are charging up the stairs and hauling out the defibrillator.

The official cause of death was suffocation. They figured she'd been playing in there and hadn't been strong enough to lift the toy chest lid once she was inside. To everyone else—my parents, the EMTs, the police—her dress was whole, her body unmarked. Only I saw the ripped fabric soaked with blood and the claw marks gouged deep across her chest.

 

 

My first impulse was to take a sledgehammer to the toy box. Dad might have done that himself, but he couldn't get past her doorway without breaking down, and Mom was on a steady diet of sedatives.

But I knew it wasn't the box that had killed her. And when I opened the lid again, that green light still washed along the bottom.

I didn't think about anything. I just jumped in, and once my vision cleared on the other side, I grabbed the first creature I saw—that damn fox, the same one—held him tight by the scruff, and dragged him back into Amanda's room. I was afraid that when we got back, he might have changed somehow, and I would find myself holding a plush toy, or maybe an empty scrap of fur, or nothing at all. But it was still him, even if his coat was suddenly patchy and his eyes dull.

I flung him onto Amanda's bed. "Where is she?"

"Gone." The fox lifted his gaze to mine. "Gone where no one can bring her back."

"Dead." My throat closed on the word.

"Yes."

I realized then how much I'd wanted all of it to be part of a story, part of the game. I'd wanted to hear that she was trapped somewhere over there, held by some spell, some enchantment, and I could go on a quest to save her. To restore her mortal body. To protect her the way I was supposed to.

The fox coughed weakly. I wasn't worried about him running off this time; he didn't look like he could even stand.

"Why?" I asked.

He looked down at the comforter and gave a wheezing sigh. "Ormuk's power is great, but it needs fuel like fire needs wood. Every thousand moons, we call a human child, one whose soul is steeped in magic. Every thousand moons, a child comes. Once their hearts are tuned to his, once they are truly part of our realm, he opens them with his claws. And our world goes on."

It was all I could do to keep from shaking him until his neck snapped. "You could have told me."

The fox stared at the comforter. "Without a human child, our world dies. And all of us with it." He turned pleading eyes to mine. "There are so many of you and no other world like ours."

Rage pressed hard against my chest. "There was only one of her."

The fox coughed again. "Send me back."

"Murderers. All of you."

"Send me back."

"Why should I?"

He said nothing, only closed his eyes. His sides jerked as he fought for breath. He would be dead in moments.

Hating myself, I opened the toy chest, dumped the fox in as if I were throwing him away, and slammed the lid shut.

 

 

I've left a letter for Mom and Dad, just in case. I don't expect them to believe it, but it made me feel better to write it.

The knife is sharp, and the rifle's loaded. The green light in the toy chest is fading, but I think I can still get through. I check everything one last time and take the safety off. The moment I cross, I want to be ready.

I am the elf-born prince, avenging the death of the princess. It is my quest and my doom, and I will not rest until my task is done.

I climb inside, and my world dissolves into green.

I have a bear to hunt.

This story originally appeared in Fictionvale.