Jessica ran towards the edge of the lake, fallen acorns and old pine cones kicking up from her shoes. Grasshoppers leapt away from her rampage through their territory and butterflies swirled in the air, dancing their incomprehensible steps about her head. She ran for all she was worth, hair tied with blue ribbons – her mother always tied her hair with blue ribbons – spreading out behind her teased by the summer’s breeze. She ran on knowing that her pursuer wouldn’t catch her, not at the speed she was going. She didn’t even look over her back; all she needed to do was make it to the water’s edge and she would be safe.
Dragonflies flitted between the rushes at the edge of the water, lazily hovering and flying here and there. Their wings gave off rainbows in the bright sunlight and their bodies were iridescent flashes of purples, greens, and golds. Reaching down, she waggled her fingers in the water and then turned to flick the droplets at her pursuer.
“You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!” she shouted, and then stuck her tongue out, as her pursuer wiped the water from her face and slowed to a halt in front of her.
“You win!” Annie said, shaking her head in disbelief at Jessica’s speed. Annie’s dark hair rippled in the breeze.
“It’s your turn to be chased now and the tree is home,” Jessica said, pointing to the great fir tree over towards the house from which Annie had just chased her. Annie looked at the tree and out her hand to her side, frowning.
“No, you’re too fast for me,” she said, “and anyway, I’ve got a stitch.”
Annie sat down on the grass by the water’s edge, breathing heavily and rubbing at her side. Jessica sat beside her, crossing her legs, and idly picking up handfuls of grass and scattering them on the water’s surface. Pond skaters skittered to avoid the blades of grass, their delicate legs propelling themselves almost miraculously across the lake without them sinking. Further out in the lake, the ripples of fish surfacing could be seen. Clouds drifted by casting dark reflections on the water, which made it look as if there were huge monstrous fish beneath the surface.
“What do you want to play next?” Jessica asked Annie, who had stopped holding her side and was breathing normally again.
“I don’t know,” she said, pulling a feather from her hair. She looked at it, puzzled, and then twirled it between her fingers.
“We could play Pirates?” Jessica suggested. She didn’t like the game much herself, but it was Annie’s favourite outdoor game. Chase was Jessica’s favourite, but they had just finished playing that.
“No, I don’t fancy playing Pirates,” Annie said, which took Jessica by surprise. Annie never refused a game of pirates usually. “I want to play a game we’ve never played before.”
That was a tall order. They had played almost every game they could find in the house over the last few weeks. Jessica’s father had bought the big manor house, with its huge gardens and fishing lake, earlier in the year, but this was the first family visit. The previous family had left in a hurry, so she’d heard her father say at dinner, so he’d got it at a good price. The family had left most of the furnishings and there was a cupboard with lots of games in it. As the first week of the visit had been met with rain, rain, and more rain, Annie and Jessica had played every single game, except Monopoly. Annie didn’t like Monopoly because it was boring. Jessica thought Snakes & Ladders was boring but they’d played it anyway. At least it was a quick game.
As the rain had gone away for the moment to be replaced with blue skies and a dry heat, Annie and Jessica had spent the last week or so playing games outside, which her mother and father appreciated because it gave them the peace and quiet that adults thought was so important. They’d played bowls, croquet, Chase, Tig, and even had a go at climbing the fir tree. They’d played hundreds of games of Pirates too. Now they were out of games and Jessica sat by the water wondering what they could play. Annie seemed distracted, looking off to her right where there was a small wooden jetty.
“We can play Explorers,” Annie said at last, turning back to Jessica.
“How do you play it?”
“It’s easy. We go exploring.”
“Where? There’s nowhere here we’ve not been,” Jessica said, looking at Annie as if she was mad.
“We’ve not been there.”
Annie pointed out into the centre of the lake, where a small island stood, covered in trees, ragged bushes touching the water. Jessica thought it looked like her father’s beard when he hadn’t trimmed it, dunking into his soup. Despite its small size, the island was so covered with trees that Jessica could not see to the other side of the lake.
“We can’t go there,” she said to Annie.
“Because daddy said we aren’t allowed. He said we could play anywhere but we had to be extra careful near the lake and not go to the island.”
“It’s only a bunch of old trees by the look of it,” Annie said, shading her eyes from the sun and looking towards the island. Her brows knitted into a frown.
“Yes, but daddy said that we weren’t to go there because there’s a special sort of duck that lives there and we mustn’t disturb them.”
She couldn’t remember exactly what was special about the ducks, but her father had been very serious about it with her mother nodding in the background.
“I’ve not seen any ducks near there,” Annie replied, “I think you’re just scared.”
“I’m not scared of anything,” Jessica protested, “but daddy said.”
“We’re explorers. We go exploring and discover new sorts of animal. That’s our job. We’re not going to hurt the ducks, we’re going to discover them.”
“All right then,” Jessica said, giving in, “but how do we get there. I think it’s too far to swim.”
“There’s an old boat by the jetty, I saw it yesterday.”
They set off for the wooden jetty; two explorers looking for transport. True to the game they cupped their hands around their eyes as binoculars and cut through imaginary thickets with equally fantastical machetes. Birds twittered to one another in the trees and bees buzzed amongst wild flowers as they approached the jetty, which was made of a dark stained wood and extended a short way into the lake. At the end of the jetty, hitched by a line covered in a greenish slime, was a rowboat with two paddles. It had been red too once, but the paint had faded and flaked. Barely legible letters at the front of the boat said that it had once had a name. Jessica could make out ‘A’ and ‘N’ and ‘I’, but not the whole name.
Annie was the first in the boat, stepping down from the jetty with confidence. The craft bobbed on the water, sending out wide ripples, disappearing into the middle of the lake. Jessica followed Annie, hoping that the boat was not broken and that it would not sink under their combined weight. She could swim, but she didn’t want to try it in her favourite dress.
Annie handed her a paddle and unhitched the boat from the jetty, grimacing at the slime it left on her hand. She scraped the worst of it off and then rinsed her hand in the lake, before taking up her own paddle. Together they began to row the boat out into the lake, steering a direct course for the fronds of the island’s edge. They were still playing Explorers, of course, so Jessica kept watch for crocodiles that were coming to eat them as they crossed and Annie consulted the faded map she had carried all the way from England.
It took them quite a while to reach the island’s edge; the lake was much wider when you were rowing across it than it appeared from the jetty. Reeds wafted against the side of the boat, tangling around the paddles, before they reached the firmness of the island’s bank. Annie was first out of the boat, following her imaginary map, and pointing off between the trees as if she had seen something. Jessica wondered if she’d spotted a duck and hurried to follow her.
Remaining as quiet as possible to avoid upsetting the special ducks and frightening them away, they crept through the dense undergrowth and slipped like shadows between the trees. Brambles lashed out at Jessica’s bare arms and legs, but they pushed on past the briars and came to a clearing at the island’s centre.
There were no ducks. Not one. Even if she listened as hard as she could Jessica could not even hear any kind of bird at all. Annie was not looking for ducks or listening for birds, she was looking at the thing in the centre of the clearing, a look of wonder on her face. It was a mirror, sunken into the grown, which gave it the appearance of having grown there. It stood upright, frameless, with light sparkling off its polished surface into Jessica’s eyes.
Frowning, she went over to it. She could see herself in it; her blue and white dress, white socks, and black shoes were all there. Her hair was tied up with blue ribbons. She looked exactly as she had done in the hallway mirror that morning, except her hair was a little looser and her dress a little more rumpled. Annie was not in the mirror, of course. Annie was never in mirrors because they were made by adults and Annie could make herself invisible to adults. That was a power Jessica sometimes wished he had. Behind her though, Jessica could see the trees and brambles through which they had pushed. She walked around the mirror and saw that the other side too was reflective.
“Who would put a mirror in the middle of a lake?” she asked, as she arrived back at her starting point.
“What mirror?” Annie asked, surprised.
“This mirror,” Jessica said, pointing at it, “the one we’ve been looking at.”
Annie shrugged and looked about as if it was not right in front of her eyes. Jessica went over to her, took her by the arm and dragged her over to the mirror.
“It’s here,” she said, pushing Annie’s hand against it, “see?”
The mirror was cool on Jessica’s skin as she touched her reflection. It felt a little like ice, despite the heat of the day, beginning to burn like snow did when she had forgotten to wear her gloves. She tried to pull her hand away but she couldn’t. It was stuck. The mirror shimmered where her hand was touching it and black ripples spread across its surface. The reflections disappeared replaced by a black oozing mass into which Jessica’s hand disappeared. She struggled to pull it out, but it would not come and she felt herself being tugged forwards by something beyond the ooze.
“Annie, help me!” she shouted, frightened now, but Annie stood motionless, watching her.
The black ooze continued to ripple and inch by inch Jessica’s arm disappeared inside it, pulling her closer to the mirror. The more she struggled the more it pulled her in and though she screamed for Annie’s help, her friend did not move. She stumbled forward, pulled by the ooze, and felt the icy touch of it on her cheek. Numbness spread across her face and her eyes went dark for a few moments.
When her vision returned she was stood in a wide space where strange light fell from nowhere onto a white misty fog that obscured everything except for a space the size of the mirror which looked out onto the island clearing as if it were on the other side of thick glass. She could see nothing through the mists and there were no sounds. She reached out and touched the glass; it was solid. She pressed herself against it, willing herself to be on the other side, but she stayed where she was.
Movement at the corner of the glass made her turn her head. Annie stood on the other side, but her friend did not look worried or upset. Instead, she was smiling, laughing, and watching Jessica struggle against the glass prison.
“I’m free,” Annie said, “after hundreds of years, I’m free!”
“Annie!” Jessica shouted, sobbing with panic, “What do you mean? Where am I? Get me out of here! Get my father, anybody!”
“Who’s Annie?” Annie said, stepping forward so that she filled the glass, “my name’s Jessica and you can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man.”
With that she turned on her heel, laughing to herself, and began skipping out of the clearing. Jessica let the tears run down her cheeks as she watched Annie go, the breeze rippling the blue ribbons in her hair.