It had been Charlotte’s idea, of course. Beautiful Charlotte. Just so, even in her brown school dress, her hideous brown socks, her red beret. She placed a hand on each of her four friends in turn, an exclusive invitation to appreciate her company.
“A game, that’s all. Just a little game.”
She could have been her mother, biscuit tree in one hand and lemon in the other, orchestrating a garden party.
Sadie-Caroline-Sukie-Jo flanked her as she swept through the corridor, her satchel bouncing along with every precise step. They paused, a battalion in waiting, as the object of their search appeared before them. Millie was lesser in so many ways, her clothes ragged.
Charlotte crossed to where she stood, tiny next to a bank of lockers. “Millie.”
Sheepish eyes rose to her face, resting on the beauty spot below her left eye–a perfect imperfection.
“We’d like you to play a game with us, Millie Mowers. Tonight.”
The plan unfurled from Charlotte’s mouth, became an enveloping cowl. The common, at eight. The very idea held a racing chill: eight was far later than they were permitted to play outside; a foreign island in the nighttime sea.
“Yes, Charlotte. Yes.”
Yes. What else was there to say?
Charlotte turned and strode quickly away, shattering the sunlit dust straits that filled the air so that a glowing storm raged in her wake.
Later. The girls stood, a pentagram, on the dusk-blue grass of the common. Millie’s steps were hesitant, but she had changed into a white summer dress. A blooming red batik flower exploded from her stomach.
The game was to be light as a feather, stiff as a board. They positioned Millie upon the grass; Charlotte at her right, facing Sadie, beside her Jo, facing Caroline. Her head rested on Sukie’s lap. As one, the girls each slid a hand beneath Millie’s trembling body. The grass was cold.
“Light as a feather. Five.”
Millie lifted slightly from the ground. Cold air tickled the soft hair on her neck.
“Light as a feather! Four.”
Each girl retracted their thumb, and Millie rose a fraction higher.
“Light as a feather! Three.”
Now the little fingers–pinkies–curled back into moistening palms.
“Light as a feather! Two.”
Ring fingers lowered, and Millie twitched as ten fingers pushed more firmly into her neck, her back, her legs. Charlotte hissed through her teeth, and Millie was still.
“Light as a feather. One!”
Caroline shrieked–a shrike at her thorns. Millie threw back her head and yelped, now indexed to eye level with the girls. Their fingers kept pushing; elbows at their faces, and then beyond. The five girls were upon their knees as Millie became an illusionist’s plate supported on five bony sticks.
Then, in an instant, there was no pressure. Air rushed between finger-ends and cotton and Millie was floating above the girls. She whimpered, and then she screamed.
It was Jo who reached for Millie first as she lifted further into the sky, but all she could muster was a bemused grasp. Her fingers brushed Millie’s dress, floating in the wind, but as they did so she snatched them back as though burnt.
The strange moment caught Charlotte, and an infantile squawk erupted from her mouth. Her face suddenly showed her years as her eyes widened and her mouth quivered in fear. It was in a young voice that she called, “Come down, Millie! Come down at once, you’re horrible!”
Millie gave no reply, save for another scream. She continued to rise, seemingly light as a feather, and indeed stiff as a board. The girls rose too, but no higher than stretched dancer’s toes would allow; fingertips as far as they could go, still an ocean of impossible distance away from Millie.
Charlotte called again, but this time no sense emerged, only strange half-words choked upwards.
Mille rose higher and higher, until the white of her dress was obscured by the heavying clouds, and her cries subsumed into the roaring hush of the night.
For a moment, just longer than a top takes to fall, not a sound was heard on the darkening green. Then arms rustled back down to sides, and eyes turned sharply like those of cats caught in torchlight.
“We say a man did it,” Charlotte said, a stray hair tickling her nose. “A man in a raincoat who snatched her away.”
Sadie began to cry, blubbering uncontrollably as her large cheeks were soaked.
“But that’s not true!” she whined, throwing her hands over her eyes and clawing at her forehead.
Charlotte rounded on her, wrenching her wrists down to her sides.
“How can we tell them?” Charlotte asked sternly, embodying her mother once more, “How can we explain how we lost Millie?”
Sadie silently bowed her head, humbled.
The girls ran home then, across the common and the road, until the doorways and the reproach.