This story is by Page Craw and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Mommy called from the first floor. “Hurry up, Pagie. Your daddy is waiting in the driveway.”
I was always late for a reason. My unruly hair stuck out in the most peculiar places. Richard didn’t have this problem, so his timeliness received praise while I endured chastisement.
Disgruntled, I stared into the bathroom mirror for the last time. Nothing could be done—no Rapunzel here. I hurried down the stairs to the front hall where coats hung on pegs in two tiers—the children’s jackets lower for access. From the bottom array, I selected my blue one. Only a dolt wears a hooded red one to grandma’s house. You never know what’s along the way.
Mommy shut the door behind us. Smiling a greeting as she held my hand, she guided me toward our modern coach. Daddy peered from the open window, and I noted my smug little brother in the back seat. I sat beside him and glared, daring him to start. We were both surprised as Daddy declared my outfit attractive and withheld any remark on my tardiness.
“Ready? We’re off!” Daddy said. “Grandma has prepared a lovely dinner for us. And there’ll be a home-baked pie.”
“Yum!” Richard and I said in unison.
“I hope dinner’s chicken and dumplings,” I said to Richard’s nod.
Daddy raised his window a few inches against the October chill, and we progressed from our neighborhood down from Hillcrest. We entered the stretch nicknamed Sherwood Forest. No streetlamps were here, but fireflies still glittered among the pine boughs. Two tiny lights suspended in the gloom made me think of the big, bad wolf. What if he waited in Grandma’s bed? Silly me!
“What took you so long?” Richard asked.
“Mind your own beeswax, Twerp,” I said.
Mommy turned from the passenger seat, her glance imploring me for an apology.
“Sorry,” I said, further annoyed seeing Richard’s smirk.
Daddy eased on the brakes, alternating braking with accelerating, and we chugged-chugged down the hill. We responded with shrieks of laughter as Mommy lurched forward and backward in her seat. She moved like a rag doll, having little substance, but her giggles gave her life. She’s so lovely, never a hair out of place. I yanked at my hair from habit.
Soon, we arrived at the valley we knew as Sleepy Hollow. I rolled my window down to listen for hoofbeats but didn’t hear any over the sound of distant water. A bluster blew through the hills, and a crack high in the tree canopy to my left brought a flock of crows cawing as they re-established their perch. A crescent moon’s glimmer through the foliage formed dancing shadows across the road.
Richard’s arms clenched his tiny form, his forehead furrowed. This route contained the troll bridge.
“Scared, huh?” I asked.
“Nope. I’m just cold.”
“It’s okay to be scared. I’ll admit I’m a little, but Daddy doesn’t want wimps for kids—we’ll need to buck up!”
“Pagie, you could roll up your window,” Mommy said.
“Do I have to? I want to hear the sounds of the river. We’ll be there soon, right, Daddy?”
“We’re almost there. Do you want me to turn on the heater, little Buddy?” Daddy asked.
“I’ll be all right. No sir, I’m not a baby,” Richard said, sitting taller in the seat.
“Are you two up for the challenge?” Daddy asked. “Let’s see if we can locate the troll beneath the bridge.”
Craning my head sideways, I observed what was ahead through the side window. Upstream, a cascade of water in torrents followed its course to flow into a tidal pool, splashing against massive boulders deposited by a giant during the Ice Age. This wasn’t the gurgling of a contented brook, but noisy buffets. In the semi-gloom farther downstream, I detected the bridge’s lichen-colored pillars abutting the stream’s two sides. Daddy stopped before the bridge and opened his car door.
“Joe, should we take the time tonight?” Mommy asked.
“Just for a moment, Ginny. Come here quietly, children. Concentrate beneath the bridge and see if we can catch the troll unaware. It’s a perfect night, neither Summer nor Winter, neither hot nor cold, an in-between time in an in-between place. This structure girds two areas suspended between two locations—it’s the place where a troll stands guard.”
I scrambled from the back seat, leaving the car door open, with Richard advancing behind me with less enthusiasm. Looking back at him, impatient, I motioned. “Come on!” I wanted him with me for support.
From my fairytale books, I knew what to check for. I strained to see the troll’s bulbous, ugly form beneath the bridge’s shadows. Any movement would give his location away, and for a second, I perceived a retreat farther into the darkness created by the piers. However, it was impossible to hear any activity above the sound of the river’s flow.
I pointed, and Daddy’s eyebrows registered a possible identification. I stared in that direction, not daring to blink, moving closer to the embankment. A splash upstream made me jump, and Richard, close behind me, stifled a scream, standing paralyzed before a hasty retreat toward our car.
Daddy moved near me, pressing his finger to his lips.
Oblivious to my dress, I slid down a steep bank, moving closer to the bridge’s base—the undergrowth, snagging my socks. The shadows there were dense, but I glimpsed the outline of a swarthy hand gripping the stone at the edge of the pier closer to me. It beckoned me forward, and my breath caught in my throat. We had discovered the behemoth off guard. If I had the nerve, I’d be the hero of my story. But fearful, I hesitated at the same time Daddy restrained my descent.
“That’s far enough, Pagie.”
“But, I could see better if….”
Daddy spoke after a moment’s observation. “The troll knows we’re here and will stay in the shadows. He’s notified that we’re unafraid and will allow us safe passage across the bridge. Good work, Pagie. Come on and load up. Grandma’s waiting, and we’ve left your mother alone long enough.”
We met a sheepish Richard already in the vehicle, and before I entered, Mommy gave me a once-over glance, checking for mud on my clothing. Daddy flicked the beams on high and pointed them down the incline for one last view. The glare didn’t reach throughout the entire base of the bridge, but I knew the troll hunkered at the farthest point, shielded within the shadows.
Our bridge crossing was uneventful. I stared from my side of the vehicle without the troll attempting to deter us. Richard remained silent as we progressed through The Slough, where I counted twenty or more fairy lights before we moved beyond. The enchanted realm receded at the road’s turn, where houses and streetlights began.
Grandma’s house on the hill, with its turrets and gables, had a fairytale appearance. Grandma met us at the door, wearing a blue dress sprinkled with sequins, and her silver hair piled on her head gave her a regal and charmed appearance. We entered the welcoming aroma of spices and sugars, and as usual, a bowl of ribbon candy sat on a table for takeaway goodies.
The covered tureens on Grandma’s mahogany table contained our delicious meal. It wasn’t chicken and dumplings, but we gorged on Shepherd’s Pie, tomato, and basil salad, followed by a warm homemade peach cobbler with gobs of vanilla ice cream melting on top. When everyone had their fill, I recited my story to Grandma, heralding my bravery in discovering the troll, allowing us to proceed with our evening visit. I didn’t mention Richard’s scaredy-cat about-face.
“You weren’t afraid of the troll, Pagie?” Grandma asked.
“I figured Daddy would know what to do, and he didn’t let me get too close. Besides, I needed to be a good example to Richard. He’s learning all these things now.”
“You’re a fine big sister to Richard. I’m sure he thinks so,” Grandma said, giving Richard a chance to respond.
“Yes, ma’am. But do I have to follow everything she does?”
“You’ll learn in your own time, but don’t disregard anyone’s wisdom if it holds merit.”
“That’s what’s hard to know,” Richard said.
Grandma laughed at Richard’s interpretation.
“It was Daddy’s test, and I wanted him to be proud of us,” I said.
“We’re always proud of you both, and I wouldn’t have approached as close as you did, Richard,” Mommy said as Richard’s doleful expression lifted.
“Darkness itself isn’t harmful, but light doesn’t conceal. It’s wise to ascertain what shadows might shield when they consume the light. Only the foolhardy ignore threats, but I gave you a challenge, and Page, you showed great spunk,” Daddy said.
I grinned at Daddy’s approval.
With little bags of candy, we departed, sleepy and contented children.
Daddy selected a different route home to revisit the troll’s bridge another time.