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Each year there were nine months of winter. Cold wasn’t a feeling, but a state of being, a permanent fixture in Cyra’s home. On their street, the power went off at least two times a week. On those nights, their parents found wood to light a fire. Cyra and her twin sisters gathered all the blankets in the house. They slept on the floor close to the flames. Cyra tried to imagine her quivering muscles warm. Her family never lost fingers or toes to frostbite, but other kids in her class weren’t so lucky.
The world outside was monotone, grey on the ground, grey in the sky. It was disorienting if you looked too long, like a photo, one-dimensional. A ceiling of shapeless clouds pressed the sky closer and closer to the ground. Cyra imagined running across the snow until she reached a place with color and smell, greens and yellows and blues surrounding her.
In the morning Cyra’s mother helped her bundle up, wool hat and two pairs of gloves, sweater, jacket, heavy coat. Cyra stood in line with the other kids from the cul-de-sac to wait for the big green army truck.
Hunter’s Ridge Primary School sat atop a giant mound. The hill was built with dirt, concrete, steel, and sandbags. When her parents were little, it was place of refuge during the floods. Dad told stories about the months they spent sleeping in the school, praying the water wouldn’t overtake the hill.
Every day they climbed the stairs that led up to the school, boots clanging on steel. The higher Cyra got, the more the wind bit and scratched, like a creature with a thousand tiny nails. Her cheeks grew colder and colder. Inside the school, she took off her gloves and rested warm fingers against frozen cheeks. She could feel the skin beneath her fingers but her face felt nothing.
Morning lessons were environmental sciences, risk prediction and meteorology. They checked the forecast hopefully for temperatures high enough to go outside for recess. But each year the temperatures got colder, the sheets of clouds thicker. Grown-ups whispered about it when they thought no one could hear them. After lunch was water purification and fire building.
At home, Cyra helped make dinner, cans of potatoes they’d gotten from the distribution last week. Mom mixed the melk powder into water until it became thick like glue. While they ate, Mom and Dad talked about work, which jobs they’d gotten from the town council, who’d been invited for the next distribution.
“We must be grateful,” Dad said, but he and Mom looked at each another as if they weren’t.
On the news, Mrs. Smith said the town motto: “Excellence for few over mediocrity for all. We are able to keep the power on more often now, and the melk has more vitamins.”
After winter, there were two months of thaw. Mountains of snow melted, flooding the concrete and earth, gushing into gutters and swamping boots. The grass, once revealed, was brown and dead. It provided a shabby carpeting atop the sloppy mess of dirt. Mud and oil scarred the leftover snow.
That was when the smell came back. There was the scent of earth, the sweetness of decay. Some green things appeared, new and damp. And there were earthworms, some of the only live animals Cyra had ever seen. She found them stranded in huge concrete deserts, unable to dodge the stomping of boots or the wheels of military trucks rushing by. Cyra plucked them up, cradled them in the palm of her hand. They were soft and slick. They squirmed with panic.
“It’s okay,” she murmured while carrying them to safety.
“You’re free!” she said, depositing them safe in the dirt. She imagined them wiggling their way back to the center of the earth. When she came into the house, her mother sighed at the muck covering her boots and made her wash them off in the entryway.
During the thaw they could play outside after lunch, but only on the big concrete slab surrounding the school. Cyra felt trapped, stranded like a worm. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to sit and read a book. There were two groups in school: the jokers and the butt of the jokes. The jokers were Dylan Smith and his gang, Leah Anderson and her crew. Their hair was always shiny and clean – they always had warm water to wash with. They wore quilted jackets that fit tight, purchased from shops with glass windows instead of the distribution. Cyra, Tamara and Dahlia tried to look small, so no one would make fun of their grey coveralls bought alongside a big shipment of melk.
The boys played dodgeball and Red Rover. Dylan took aim at skulls with ball or fist. The girls stood around in clusters. Cyra, Tamara, and Dahlia kept their distance. Leah plugged her nose whenever they came too close. Sometimes Dylan and his buddies lobbed balls at the girls to make them shriek. Once, they sent Lindsey Allen to the emergency room, but the teachers believed Dylan when he swore it was an accident.
“Innocent until proven guilty,” they said.
In class, Dylan stole pencils and whispered bad words they weren’t allowed to repeat. Sometimes he slammed fingers in desktops. Kids in the class did as they were taught, found excuses and never blamed Dylan when the teacher asked what was wrong. Even without a mother on the town council Dylan would have been untouchable. He was twice the size of the second biggest boy in the class, a giant compared to his peers.
Then came the dry month, when the ground was almost firm beneath their boots. At recess they trooped down the stairs to the clearing near the ragged forest below. Frostbit trees barely managed to produce leaves before the winter came again to drop them. There were a couple old swing sets, rusted and worn, which were occupied by the jokers. Cyra and her friends walked the edge of the forest. They pretended to be in the desert where it was always dry, the rainforest where rain steamed hot as it struck the ground.
Tamara found the tiny house near the edge of the forest. Sticks were built up in the space between three saplings in a triangle, a roof and walls, a little hut made of leaves and twigs. They crouched down to peer inside, and found a tiny shirt, a thimble, some rocks arranged like chairs and a table.
“Do you think it’s fairies?” Dahlia whispered.
“Maybe it’s elves!” Tamara said.
Cyra crouched near the house. She thought of all the mystical creatures she knew. Mice and ladybugs didn’t need tables, and why would a fairy build a house so close to the ground? Elves were too big. She peered closer. She remembered a story her dad always told them.
“I think it’s a leprechaun!” she said.
“What’s a leprechaun?” Dahlia asked.
“Once upon a time in a faraway land, there were lots of green hills and it never snowed,” Cyra said. “The rains were gentle sprinkles to feed fields full of plants. There were potatoes and carrots and peas and tomatoes that grew from the ground instead of in greenhouses. There were creatures called sheep covered in soft squishy hair, which people made into coats to keep warm. This was a land of plenty, and they ate until their bellies were full.
“But then came a very bad year. There was no sunlight, so no plants could grow. The people were very hungry. They called to the fairies that lived all around them. But none of them came. One of the boys in the village said he knew where the leprechauns lived. No one wanted to see leprechauns because they were very mischievous little men. Leprechauns wore green and danced around four-leaf clovers all day long. But the boy said the leprechauns had a secret. After a rainy day, there were beautiful ribbons arching across the sky in every color imaginable. These ribbons were called rainbows, and at the end of them lived the leprechauns. The boy said the leprechauns had whole pots of gold!
“The parents of the village didn’t believe the boy’s story. But the children swore that when the next rainbow appeared, they would follow it to the end, and get gold for their families. They were good to their word. The next time a rainbow sprang up, they all left their chores and followed it. At the end of the rainbow was a marvelous sight. There was gold all around them, even in the trees. The children gathered it up, and they carried it back to their parents.”
“Maybe he will give us gold,” Tamara said.
Dahlia smiled. But Cyra had another idea. Dad said the story of leprechaun gold was misunderstood by greedy people in the old days. He said the pot of gold was the sun shining down all year round.
They spent the dry month reinforcing the house for winter. They brought tiny items found in their houses: doll clothing, extra buttons, scraps of fabric for blankets. Sometimes when they came back they found the items rearranged.
“I hope one day we’ll see him,” Dahlia said.
Cyra wondered what would happen to the leprechaun when the snow came. She hoped he would make it through another winter.
The dry month was coming to an end, the cold beginning to rattle bones with its approach. The leprechaun house was almost complete, reinforced for winter with mud and sticks and stones. That was when Dylan found them.
“What are you doing?”
Behind him was Max, tall and pimply, Aaron, so fat he had no neck. Dexter was short and even meaner than Dylan, but not so well protected – his mother was one of many plumbers in town.
“Nothing,” Cyra said. “Hanging out by these trees.”
Dylan took a step toward them.
“Stop!” Tamara shrieked.
“Leave him alone!” Dahlia cried.
Dylan grinned. “Leave who alone?”
Max, Aaron, and Dexter were getting closer. Cyra’s heart beat faster. These boys had an appetite for destruction. She couldn’t let them near the house with only a few days left before the cold came. There wasn’t time to rebuild. She grabbed a big stick from the ground nearby.
“What’s that?” Max asked. He pointed at the house.
The four of them were getting closer and closer.
Cyra raised the stick like a baseball bat. “Keep back,” she shouted.
Dylan laughed. He took another step toward them, his enormous boot crushing the ground as he came. Cyra imagined the crunching of his foot into the leprechaun’s tiny living room. She felt braver than ever before. She swung the branch wildly. It grazed Dylan’s cheek, leaving bright red on his face.
Dylan shouted and ran, away from the tree, away from Cyra and her swinging branch. She and Tamara and Dahlia chased after them, shrieking. Once the boys were far enough, they gave up the chase and came back to the tree, panting and smiling at their victory.
That night for dinner there was only melk. Mom mixed two glasses for everyone, and didn’t talk at the table. On the news they showed another shelter closing. People walked away from Hunters’ Valley, dressed in winter clothes, searching for shelter before the snow began.
“Where will they go?” one of Cyra’s sisters asked.
“They’ll find a cave somewhere,” Dad said, but he gave Mom that look that Cyra thought meant he was lying.
The next day, class was interrupted by Leah.
“Cyra Anderson, please come to the principal’s office,” she said with a sneer.
“Oooooooooo,” chanted her classmates. Cyra’s face turned red. She gathered her books and trudged down the hall.
Dylan and his mother were sitting on the only two chairs in Principal Burton’s office. Cyra stood behind them. Principal Burton looked at Cyra, but didn’t say anything. Then Cyra’s mother rushed in, breathing quickly like she’d run all the way there. Mrs. Smith stared at her, eyes narrowed. Her mother looked at the floor.
“Cyra, do you know why we called you here?” Principal Burton asked.
Cyra stared at the wall.
“Dylan says you attacked him the other day.”
Cyra felt her heart beating fast again, angry like when Dylan came for the leprechaun. She raised her chin. “He attacked us!”
Cyra panicked. She didn’t want to get Dahlia and Tamara into trouble.
“Me and … the leprechaun,” she said.
Mrs. Smith snorted. “Leprechaun?”
“I’m very sorry,” Cyra’s mom said. “She has an overactive imagination.”
“Dylan, is it true you attacked Cyra?” Principal Burton asked.
“She was holding a big stick,” Dylan said. “I was really scared.”
“Just look at his cheek,” Mrs. Smith said, pointing. “It’s horrific.”
Cyra looked at Dylan. The scratch on his cheek was barely visible. Her mother stared at the floor. Mrs. Smith glared at her. Principal Burton looked out the door with a vacant expression on her face. Dylan smirked. No one seemed to notice he was three times her size.
“But Dylan is a bully,” Cyra said quietly. “He hurts everyone.”
Mrs. Smith stood up. She stood close to Cyra.
“I’m not surprised to hear scum like you say that,” she said. “Just look at you. That dirty hair, those coveralls. You stink, my dear. And you dare to tell me that my boy is a bully? My boy is well behaved. Unlike you.” She turned to Principal Burton. “Frances, it’s clear that you have some disciplinary action to take here. We don’t want this one growing up bad. I only hope you can salvage it.”
Then she turned to Cyra’s mother. “I’ve always thought you were alright Susan, despite your profession. I thought you had some kind of class. Don’t prove me wrong.”
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Smith,” her mother said.
“You’d better be.” Mrs. Smith took Dylan’s book bag. “Come on Dylan. We’re going home.”
They slammed out of the door. For a moment there was silence. Then Principal Burton looked at Cyra and her mother.
“Look, Cyra, you can’t go around hitting boys with sticks just because you don’t like them.”
Cyra fought back tears.
“It’s not nice for little girls to be fighting. Just keep your nose in your books from now on, okay? For the next week you’ll stay inside for the first half of recess, and you’ll help cleaning the floors after school. I don’t want to see you in here again, understood?”
Cyra’s mother still stared at the floor. Cyra nodded.
At dinner there was silence. Cyra’s father’s face was red. Her sisters drank their melk without a word. Cyra didn’t touch her second glass. She felt sick. And not melk-sick, a deeper sick that twisted her stomach around.
“Drink your melk,” her father said.
Cyra chugged the thick white-grey liquid, gagging on chunks of powder.
“May I be excused,” she whispered.
“Alright,” her mother said.
On the last day of sunshine, Cyra came out halfway through recess. She ran down the iron stairs two at a time and edged around the jokers seated on the rusted swing sets. As she got closer to the leprechaun house, she could see Dahlia and Tamara hunched on the ground.
There were sticks and leaves and stones everywhere. Even the tiny clothes were smeared with mud. The three trees where the house had been looked like a battleground, boot prints and broken sticks everywhere. Imagining Dylan and his friends laughing as they stomped and tore and threw, Cyra burned with righteous anger. She remembered how they ran from her before. She wanted to take the stick and punish them how the adults wouldn’t.
But she remembered the look of fear in her mother’s eyes when Mrs. Smith swept out of the room. She thought of her parents talking about gratitude and the fact that for a week now there had been only melk for dinner. Cyra knew how it worked. She knew why her mother looked at the floor. The town council decided who got a chance to buy cans of food and cartons of melk powder, which plumbers got to work.
“What are we going to do?” Tamara sniffled.
“Let’s go get them,” Dahlia said, her face uncharacteristically stern.
Cyra shook her head. “It’s too late. Winter is coming anyways. I guess there’s just not much chance for a leprechaun to survive.”
The next day, the winter began. Hail dented cars and broke windows. During recess, Cyra, Tamara and Dahlia hid in the library, reading. When Cyra walked through the hallway, she kept her head down. She did her best to avoid Dylan after his victory. But one day she came to the library and found him there, his goons all around him.
“Hey,” he said with a grin. “Long time no see.”
Cyra didn’t look at him. She picked up her book bag and went to hide in the bathroom.