Nina loves her papa very much.
She loves Alexander, too, and Big Brother and Little Brother, and the neighbor's orange kitty cat. She loves ice cream and flower crowns and spilling sticky syrup down her front when she and Little Brother make breakfast. She loves getting to stir cookie batter with a big wooden spoon, and falling asleep in front of the fire, all curled up using Alexander's big furry warm side as a pillow.
But Nina loves her papa more than any of that. And she misses him, these days. He's so worried all the time now. She likes to play with her brothers, of course. But in the end, no matter how many times Big Brother swoops her up onto his shoulders and runs horsy-back around the yard, and even though Little Brother always tucks her in oh-so-careful at night and plants a funny gentle little kiss on her forehead...
She just wants to see her papa's smile. She wishes, so much, that her papa would play with her again.
When the bad men who wear blue and shout too much come and take her brothers away, Nina is very lonely. Papa is sad too. He hugs her and talks about things she doesn't understand.
Little Brother said it would be okay. He promised he would come back, and she believes everything her brothers tell her from the bottom of her bright little heart. So Nina doesn't cry, but instead she snuggles up to Alexander and scrawls on the back of old reports with a thick red crayon. Mamma...Papa...Alexander...Big and Little Brother...
Two circles and a triangle. She closes her eyes tight and makes a wish.
Her eyes fly open, and there's Papa, standing next to her. He picks up the paper and looks at it, and then he looks at her. And smiles.
"Nina, would you like to play a game?"
A sleepy smile spreads across Nina's face, and she nods, sitting up. Alexander whuffs softly and cranes his head around to lap at her cheek with his wet tongue.
"Can Alexander play too?" Nina asks, wrapping her tiny arms around the dog's huge shaggy head and hugging it with childish enthusiasm. Alexander shakes her gently off, with the ease of long practice.
"Of course he can," Papa says, still smiling. He runs his hand over Nina's hair, and she giggles and holds up her arms to be carried. This is better than flower crowns and cookie dough, a hundred jillion times better.
Papa carries her through the halls and up to a big door. Nina recognizes the door. Papa always said she should never go in here.
"Papa?" she says, confused. "That's the time-out door..."
He chuckles and pats her head. "Good girl, Nina," he tells her. "But today we get to go in the time-out door. That's where the best game is..."
Alexander pads along at their heels, as they go down the stairs. Papa tells her to shut her eyes, and she hears funny animal noises as he carries her through a dark room. She wants to open her eyes to see the animals, but Papa told her to keep her eyes closed, so she does, burying her face in his shoulder and breathing in his comforting smell, with her little arms hugged tight around his neck.
When he puts her down, they're in a big room with funny paintings on the walls. Nina lets out a cry of delight and runs over to a big swirly picture on the floor.
"Pretty!" she says, and kneels to press her palms to the curls and knots chalked on the stones. "Papa! Did you drawed this? What's it for?"
"It's an alchemy array," Papa says. He's walking around the outside of the circle, doing something with a piece of chalk on the ground. "It's not quite finished, Nina, but when it is, we're going to play a game with it."
"Al...chemy...?" Nina's eyes light up. "Like Little Brother's flowers! Little Brother says alchemy makes wishes come true!" She tugs at Papa's pant leg. "Are you gonna make wishes come true, Papa?"
His face is kind of funny when he looks down at her, but he doesn't look mad at her, so that's all right. "I hope so, Nina," he whispers, and kneels to look her in the eye. "Now, Nina, why don't you go sit in the middle of the circle with Alexander? Then I can finish the array, and we can play together."
"Okay!" Nina chirps, happy to be helping her papa. She pulls on Alexander's collar, and he whines and edges away from the chalked lines. Nina frowns, hands on her hips. "Alexander! Don't be naughty! Papa says to wait in the circle! Now, come on!"
Alexander follows her into the circle, still whining, and Nina plumps herself down next to him, bare feet sticking out from under the hem of her nightgown. She snuggles up to her pet, still sleepy. It's awful late at night, but staying up to play with Papa is a special treat, and she's not going to fall asleep and miss it...
...and then there's a very loud noise, and she wakes up. There's colored lights flying all over the place, and something is wrong. She can hear Papa laughing. Did he start the game without her? She tries to get up so she can play too, but her legs feel all funny, and she can't find Alexander, and...everything hurts...
This isn't a very good game, she decides, curling into a ball on the floor. Something is wrong with her arms, too, and her skin is prickling like it fell asleep, and she hurts everywhere inside...
Something is wrong.
Papa is talking to somebody, but she can't hear him very well. Her head feels all funny and heavy, like she's really tired and can't think right. She tries to get up again, and this time it sort of works. Her body is all funny too, furry and...and...but... Is this part of the game? Did Papa make fur grow on her, like Little Brother made flowers grow in the snow? She tries to see in the dark, but her eyes and ears are all muzzy and strange. There should be smells, another part of her thinks, and her nose won't work either.
A man kneels by her; she can see him smiling at her. Papa...? Is it...she can't think...she... She feels a little better... "Look, it's Edward," he says.
"Ed...ward..." she echoes, puzzled. Her voice doesn't sound right.
"Good job!" Papa says. She tries to smile, but her mouth is all wrong too.
"Good...job...?" she says. Papa is talking again, and now she can see a boy. A boy, with a silver chain...Little Brother? And...and Big Brother? Little Brother is shaking, like he's cold. He walks over and kneels by her, and he looks like he's going to cry.
She wants to ask why he's sad, but the words mumble around in her strange new mouth and won't come out. She can see his pretty silver watch chain, and she remembers how it made him so happy when he got it. Remembers...chasing...? No. Maybe. She reaches over and pulls it out of his pocket.
"Ed...ward..." she says.
He touches her face. "It's...going to be okay," he tells her.
"Ed... Bro...ther...?" she tries again. Why does he look so angry?
Why is he yelling at Papa?
Why are they fighting? It's not nice to hurt people! Why is everyone acting so strange? It's just a game, a funny game of Papa's. It will all be okay. Papa promised! Little Brother promised! And fighting is a no-no...her papa is getting hurt...
She catches Little Brother's coat in her mouth, and he stops fighting with Papa. Little Brother, that's not okay to hurt my papa, she wants to say, but all that comes out is, "Bro...ther..."
Little Brother has tears on his cheeks. "Nina, this might hurt a little, but be strong, all right?" he says, lifting up his hands like he's going to press them together. Nina? Is that...is...who is he...? She wonders if he's going to grant another wish, but he just stands there, talking to Big Brother and Papa in a sad, angry voice. She wishes he would do something. She wants to find Alexander. She wants to find Nina. She wants to play...
She turns to Big Brother. "Let's play..." she says. "Let's...play..."
"Nina," he whispers.
Why is everything all wrong?
Then she hears a loud voice behind her. The men in the blue coats are back. They shout and break things and take her papa away from the playing room and up to a big car outside.
Her brothers run and shout and pull on the mens' arms, but the men don't listen. They put her in the car together with her papa. They put Nina in a cage, and she doesn't like that. She wants to stop the game and go home. The men in the blue coats don't play fair.
Her teeth are sharp, not sharp enough, different and funny. She wants to jump on somebody and bite them, but she knows that's a no-no. She pushes her nose between the bars of the cage and whimpers at her papa, who's sitting all quiet in the back of the truck with chains on his hands. She doesn't like this at all. What if those bad men hurt her papa more?
Then there's a big flash of light and more noise, and the truck rolls over. The latch on her cage breaks, and the cage door falls open. She wriggles out and jumps out of the open truck door. It's dark outside, and still so very hard to see or hear, but she can hear somebody shouting somewhere, and she knows the men in the blue coats are still out there.
Maybe if she runs far enough, she can find someone to help her papa...
She turns and runs, feet thudding on the stone street, trying to find somebody to help them. Bad people are playing a bad game with her papa, and somebody has to make them stop it! It's dark and she can't see, and all the smells on the ground are old and faint.
She runs and runs in the dark, all alone and scared that the angry loud blue men are following her, and then she smells a new person. A grown-up. Grown-ups always help. Sometimes they pat her head and call her a good girl, good dog, scratch her ears and give her candy. She follows the smell into an alley.
There's a man sitting in the shadows, and she walks over to him and tries to ask who he is, but just whimpers instead. He looks at her and puts his hand gently on her head, like Papa used to do, and she sees there are pretty drawings on his arm. Another game? Papa says not to play with strangers, but maybe this man with the pretty pictures can help her. She whines softly, trying to make the words come out.
The stranger touches her head again, talking in a deep voice, and it feels so nice, like when Papa puts her to bed at night. Like when the little girl sleeps with her by the fire. She'll ask him for help in just a minute...
In just a minute, she'll be able to say it...
He'll wait, she knows. She can tell he's a very nice man.