Melanie is determined to save Riverhaven, home to unicorns and dragons, from being torn apart
Staring at the harsh sunlight, Melanie McGee smiled. She was glad to say that the miniature dragon nuzzling her shoulder had not dared to take a step away from her. She grimaced at the thought of leaving all the grown unicorns alone, who were in fact not that grown at all. They were quite a foolish species. No matter their age, they always seemed to find trouble. Leaving them unguarded surely meant the ghastly notion of being fired.
Melanie McGee, who seemed to be no older than twelve, had been given the preposterous job of watching over the irritating animals of the Riverhaven Zoo. The job was impossible. That, at least, was what nearly all the townsfolk had said.
* * *
The mysterious town of Riverhaven was like no other. It was filled to the brim (if that’s even possible) with all types of unusual species. You never knew if you might bump into some strange creature on the street. Unicorns, dragons, hippacles, griffins, monerines—the list could go on forever. The people of Riverhaven had disliked the creatures since the beginning of time. All they had ever wanted was to be left in peace with no foolish unicorns, playful griffins, repulsive monerines (it is believed that this species is a cross between a goat and a sheep), or engrossing hippacles to stop them.
Ever since the end of the Battle of the Diddod, the people of Riverhaven were never to live a regular life again. You see, the Battle of the Diddod had been the worst in centuries. The people of Riverhaven announced war against all of the odd creatures, who were given this name: the Diddod. The war went on for 200 years, 200 long, bloody years. In the end, the creatures won. They were allowed to stay in the town. No one could stop them. The people could declare more war, but no one wanted to relive the horrors of having no food, water, shelter, family, and life.
Melanie McGee was not an inhabitant of this town then. But this is her story. And it is my job to tell it. So, I am going to take you to a place a lot nicer than the town of Riverhaven. I am taking you to New York, where Melanie was born.
* * *
Now, before I explain Melanie’s life, I will start from the very beginning, with the life of Melanie’s father, Mr. McGee.
Mr. McGee was the type of person who could become popular within a matter of seconds. He was well known in the city for his mathematical ability and his way with science, and he was one of the many who constantly claimed that Riverhaven was not a real place. Not that many people disagreed. However, Mr. McGee had his quirks: he, even to his own daughter, refused to say his full name. He was always leaving town unexpectedly, and when he came back, he didn’t mention any details of what had happened, let alone tell Melanie where he’d gone. He had never, according to Melanie, written with pen and paper; he always used a typewriter. However, his weirdest feature was that he always kept a large metal feather in his pocket. There was no way that the feather had been created by a sculptor. Melanie was sure of it. Not even the best of the best could match the amount of detail woven into the metal. She was also sure that it was definitely not from any animal she had heard of.
“New York is not a place for an imaginative child. It is not a place for a girl who likes to run, climb, dance, and prance around the city. New York is for success. For attentive children. For children who follow the rules. For children who aren’t foolish and aren’t babies. You, my child, are not ready for New York.”
This was the exact wording of what Mr. McGee had told her after Melanie had once again broken her arm trying to catch a butterfly—it had been flying so elegantly! It had landed on her nose with a light flutter. A shiver of delight had scurried through her skin. She had trailed behind it as it flew by bustling citizens, as it headed for the streets, headed for the cars, until, at last, it halted with a sudden motion. Melanie was a cheetah at that point: she couldn’t stop. Her body flung itself onto the road. Cars screeched to a stop. A man with curly brown hair down to his shoulders left his car and picked up Melanie’s prostrate body. She had been driven to the hospital and was now pacing in her room, arm wrapped securely in a cast.
These types of incidents were a ritual for Melanie. Something like this happened at least once a month. And, if she was feeling particularly foolish, maybe even twice. And every time it happened, her father’s frown would dig deeper into his face and he would sternly repeat the same words. Then he would give Melanie one last glare and leave her to think in silence.
Melanie always tried to prevent her silliness, but it wasn’t much use. She wasn’t a city girl. She was meant to be roaming rural landscapes, searching for hidden treasure and mythological creatures that her father said didn’t exist. But Melanie knew better. She had read books about the
Battle of Diddod. She couldn’t help it: she was fascinated.
She was meant to be roaming rural landscapes, searching for hidden treasure and mythological creatures that her father said didn’t exist.
But her father, tired from all the pestering, had made a decision. The following day, he stated his plan: “Melanie, I have come to realize that you aren’t fit for this lifestyle.”
Melanie rolled her eyes in an exaggerated fashion. She had heard those words continually. Her father had attempted to send her away many times, get rid of her so that he did not have to deal with all her silly thoughts. Melanie always returned. No matter where she was sent to, she was sent back. Not many people liked her.
“I am bringing you to the town of Riverhaven,” he continued blankly.
Melanie widened her eyes.
“But, Father, you told me that place didn’t exist. You told me that I was being foolish. You told me I was being a baby. You’re actually bringing me there? You actually believe in Riverhaven?” said Melanie excitedly.
If you knew Mr. McGee, you would never have to second-guess what he was going to say. Of course he did not believe in the foolish land of Riverhaven. However, he had found some town that matched that name perfectly. I guess it was a shock at first. But he must have soon concluded that some irrational folk-person had come up with the name as a joke.
“Yes, my daughter. You will go to Riverhaven.”
Melanie jumped up and down giddily.
“Really? You mean it? Thank you so much,” she said while running off to pack her bags.
* * *
That is about it. After a long and exhausting journey, she made it. When she arrived, people were speechless. She was the first in decades to be happy to see all the nuisance-y creatures. She was the first to show interest in the zoo. That gave old and wrinkled Mr. Bandswith, the owner of the Riverhaven Zoo, an opportunity to offer the job to someone more willing than others. Melanie took it without a hesitation. Now she was beginning to regret it.
* * *
“No one in the town appreciates you guys. Am I right, Uni?” said Melanie solemnly.
Uni, in fact, was a unicorn. And Melanie had named her that. She supposed it was foolish. An act for a silly little girl with an imagination a little too vast. But she liked it. She liked animals, and they liked her. But they were annoying. She felt pained to say it; however, she was starting to agree with the townsfolk. When she had arrived in Riverhaven, her hair had still been blonde. Now it was a disheveled mess, caked with so much mud that she could have passed as a griffin herself! Her once-alert posture was now a sagging mess of skin and bone. Her wide and attentive eyes were dim and circled with black exhaustion.
Ever since she had entered the town, she had realized right away that the animals and humans were not getting along. If she were to survive, she was going to have to change that. And who better than Melanie to go fix the town?
Almost anyone. It was true. She was not fit to save even a puny little town. But Melanie pushed those thoughts away.
“You know what, Uni? I got this. Soon, Riverhaven will be a happy, lively town again.”
Then she walked off. She was going to save the town, she thought, even if it took years to figure out how.
* * *
Melanie was sitting in her office, which had been kindly given to her by the zookeeper, Mr. Bandswith. She had already spent hours in there, in search of some clue that would tell her how to stop the menacing war between the Diddod and the townsfolk. All she needed to do was figure what that thing was. Her wish seemed to be granted because just then she said, “Uni. Oh, Uni, you must come over here. Look what I’ve found.”
It was a scroll. A long, ancient scroll, frayed at the edges and full of dust. She had heartily opened it with a majestic gesture. She saw it showed a detailed treasure map.
“Look, Uni! This map is about stopping the war! Now, Uni, what we must do is search for the . . .”
Melanie squinted at the handwriting. No one writes like that. No one. She was sure of it. The writing was impossible to read. It was squished together like millions of sardines all trying to fit in one can. She had also noticed that the letter had been written with a quill. Not a pen. Like usual, Melanie discarded the memory.
Before she could depart and follow the strange map, she realized that she was going to have to tell Mr. Bandswith what she was up to. She couldn’t just leave her job without telling him. But Melanie didn’t understand. She didn’t understand what dangers she was about to create by telling this man her plan. She didn’t understand that he, out of all people, was not the one to tell. She knocked on his door.
“Mr. Bandswith, may I talk to you?”
“Ah, of course, Malerie. Come in,” said Mr. Bandswith.
Melanie groaned. In her head, she repeated, as usual, the same words: My name is Melanie. Me-la-nie. Not Malerie.
But of course she never said it out loud. If she had learned one thing from her father, it was to be polite.
“Mr. Bandswith, I am here to talk to you about saving the world,” began Melanie.
Mr. Bandswith chuckled. It was a bizarre thing to say.
* * *
But before I continue, I guess I must explain Mr. Bandswith to you. You see, similar to Melanie, he was new to the town. He had a short, stubby nose much like her father’s. His hair, much like his face, was old-looking. There was barely a strand of hair sticking out of his head, and what was there was the purest white, as if snow had decided to live on his head. When he smiled, it created a treadmill of some unnatural feeling inside Melanie’s body. His smile cocked to the side, showing a line of neat, white teeth. So white that they might have been mistaken for his hair by some folks. His arms, however, looked younger, as if they were aging at a slower pace than his head and hair.
There are only two features that I can explain that are not about his face, arms, or body. And, if I were to be honest with you, I shouldn’t be revealing it. It is that Mr. Bandswith’s last name is not Bandswith at all. That is, in fact, his middle name. This isn’t unusual, though. There are many people who prefer to be called by their middle name and not their last. But it is a characteristic I must point out. He also likes to fidget. A lot. His hand seems to be constantly rubbing some shining object in his sweater pocket.
All of these alarming features were enough to make anyone turn around and never return. But Melanie really needed this.
* * *
“I would like to make peace between us humans and the Diddod. I’ve been researching, sir. I found this scroll. Inside there is a map. It is a map leading to something that will bring peace. I just don’t know—”
Melanie was cut off by Mr. Bandswith. He said, “The scroll said to find the Bird of Steel, the bird that controls the pathway between all the worlds. It says you must follow this certain path, and then you will find him.”
“But sir,” Melanie said, “how on earth could you read that writing? It’s so small and . . . un-modern. Is there a word for that? Because if there isn’t, there should be.”
Mr. Bandswith waved the question off.
“If you would like to go on this quest, you will need my help. I am grown. You are not. I will help you. Now give me the scroll. I will write down some notes,” said Mr. Bandswith.
Melanie shrugged, a little taken aback, and handed him the scroll. Even she could tell that there was something wrong with this man. With a flourish, Mr. Bandswith snatched the scroll, nearly ripping it in two.
“Sir, be careful,” said Melanie, saying it more like a shout than anything else.
Mr. Bandswith ignored her. He picked up a long, fragile quill. Melanie giggled. He must have been one of those few people that still used those silly devices. He scribbled down some notes hastily and then stood up.
“Let’s go, Margaret, if we want to find the Bird of Steel,” said Mr. Bandswith.
“Wait,” said Melanie, still gritting her teeth from being called otherwise. “I need to call my father. He must know that I am on a quest.”
“That will not be necessary.”
(Now, before I continue, I have been kindly calling this man Mr. Bandswith. But he will be staying in the story for much longer than you think. I have taken that as an opportunity to point this out: Mr. Bandswith, as you may have noticed, is quite an unusual man. I think that I will, therefore, call him by his first name: Walter.)
Here Melanie was, hands deep in thick mud, in the middle of some endless forest, searching for . . . well, what?
“Like I said, Magnolia, there will be no need to contact your father. I have it all under control. He doesn’t need to know about this meager little adventure. It’ll be our own secret,” said Walter.
Melanie eyed him suspiciously but found no way of solving her suspicions. She gave him one last look and then walked off, grabbing a tiny parcel with just enough food for a week, and shouted behind her, “Let’s go. We want to find this bird and get home before sundown.”
Little did she know that it would take much longer than that.
* * *
It had been three days since Melanie had set off on her so-called “quest.” She had skipped into the forest, Walter trailing behind her, a flower of hope blossoming in her chest. That hope had died long ago, and she was starting to believe that she was never going to see her beloved Riverhaven again.
Her hair was a tangle of cobwebs, her face was covered in so much grime it took effort to breathe normally, her shoes didn’t seem like shoes anymore. They resembled brown circles, which looked much like some sort of animal foot. It also seemed to reek of some substance that she assumed was some sort of animal waste. And, with barely any doubt, Melanie was pretty sure that it was. She looked away in disgust.
“Have you found anything, sir?” mumbled Melanie grumpily.
Like usual, Walter replied, “No. Nothing.”
Here Melanie was, hands deep in thick mud, in the middle of some endless forest, searching for . . . well, what? She was in search of some steel bird. Some bird who had such boundless knowledge and power that it could grant Melanie’s wish. What would such a bird be doing in the mud in a dry, earthy forest?
In all the excitement, she had barely paid any attention to Uni, who had been nudging her, begging for food. Melanie had none. She had eaten it all, barely sharing with Uni and not even offering any to Walter at all. He was the one who had gotten her into this mess anyway. He had, many times, led them in the completely opposite direction, claiming that the map had told them to go that way. He was wrong every time. He had also said that he saw a metal flash fly through the sky. There had been no metal flash.
At first, Melanie had felt quite bad. It was very unlike her to treat a person in such a manner. Father would not have been proud. But when she saw Walter’s disapproving frown, which was much like her father’s when she thought about it, she had decided that Walter wasn’t worth the kindness. She just shoved more food into her mouth, watching him stare greedily. By the time they had started digging through mud, all the happy thoughts of saving the town had left her, leaving her as a ball of anger and grumpiness. She looked back at the map. She traced her finger along the winding path that she was supposed to take. Her finger stopped gliding. She had found a landmark!
“Mr. Bandswith,” she said, “we may have a chance to save the town after all.”
Melanie had seen it on the map. The large circular object that she assumed was a stage. This time, ignoring Walter’s protests, she used the map and guided the three there. With Uni trotting beside her, Walter unable to use the map and ruin their chances, and in the fresh and welcoming air, Melanie knew that luck was on her side and that she was going to fulfill her wish.
But like I always say: saying that you know something is a strong term, like saying you hate a certain person or saying that you’ve never done a certain thing. Melanie was taking quite a risk saying that she knew it was going to work. And maybe she was right. But I like to say that Melanie jinxed herself. That she had expectations that were a little too high, like how her imagination was just a little too vast. Because that night, when she arrived at the circular stage where she was supposed to find the legend of the Bird of Steel himself, no one was there . . .
“This—this can’t be. We worked so hard, traveled so far . . . and the bird isn’t here.”
Melanie’s whole body went rigid. This had been her chance to prove to her strict, well-educated father, and the whole city of New York, that she was worthy, that she could be the mature young lady that her father wanted her to be. She was ready to turn around, leaving her only chance of being worth it behind, until she saw Walter. He, like always, was fidgeting with something in his pocket. But this time she could see the object. It was a long, detailed, metallic feather.
Melanie recognized that metal feather. It was the one that her father simply adored. The one that he never let anyone touch. The one that he liked more than his own daughter.
“Father?” said Melanie, her tone clearly stating that she was beyond confused. “You are Walter Bandswith? You’ve been following me this whole time?”
Walter smiled mischievously. Leisurely and not at all frightened, he pulled off all his hair. But it wasn’t hair at all. It was a wig. He took it off, revealing a patch of dark-grey hair. He truly was her father.
“Daughter,” he said. “My name is Walter Bandswith McGee. And yes, I am your father. I have much to tell you. So, I guess I’ll start from the beginning.”
Melanie had so many questions. She was mostly concerned that her father wasn’t a dedicated scientist at all but some criminal mastermind who was going to hurt her any second from now. She was mostly correct.
“As a young boy, I had, much like you, a wild imagination and a longing to see the beloved city of Riverhaven. You see, Melanie, at the time, it wasn’t unusual to believe in that town. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Many people had lived there and seen it with their own two eyes. Most came back. They did not want to get entangled with the war between the Diddod and the townsfolk. I, however, was one of the few children who never got to see it.
The questions in her head pounded so loudly that all she could think of doing was burst into tears.
“And it was for the same reason that I sent you away. I had an imagination a little too vast, much like yours. I was indeed quite popular among the New Yorkers. But that was only when it came to science and math. I would be popular, people would hang out with me, but if I found trouble, everyone would scamper away until my foolishness had stopped. Over the years, I became less and less silly and more and more the lonely child longing to see a famous town. Yes, I had grown, but no one wanted to take any chances. That was, until, one day, I completely disappeared. I ran away from my family, my friends, my only home. I had to see the town. It wasn’t the town itself that I longed for. It was the power of the Bird of Steel. I had read and heard that if you were to capture the bird, and managed to snatch one of its metal feathers, you would receive all its power. You would control the whole world. I wanted that power for myself,” said Walter.
Melanie scowled deeply.
“Why would you do such a thing? That seems horrible,” seethed Melanie, trying to keep her voice calm.
How was it possible that out of all people, her nerdy, favored father was the one acting like a greedy hog? Melanie felt troubled to think it, but there was no other way she could describe it. The questions in her head pounded so loudly that all she could think of doing was burst into tears.
“Now, now, Melanie,” said Walter. “Let me continue. When I arrived at Riverhaven, it was pure chaos. I had heard that humans and the Diddod were at war, but I never expected it to be so gruesome, bloody, and cruel. I had nowhere to start. But then one day while I strolled through town searching for a clue, there was a whisper sounding in my ears. The whisper told me to create a map and write down some exact amount of measurements and words which I don’t remember. It said that, after doing so, I must follow the map and I would find the bird. I followed its exact instructions.
“And I guess it’ll be no surprise for you if I say that, after following the whisper’s instructions, I found the bird. It was hard, but at last I snatched the metal feather right off his back. I don’t remember much, but I do remember the deafening crack that sounded right when I pulled it off. The thing that I fidget with all the time is the feather itself. That is why I never told you my name. That is why I always use a typewriter. No one can know that I wrote that scroll. That I leave town to make sure no one is looking for me. No one can know I took the bird’s power.
“After I received the power, I went back to New York. I, with success, created my own news station. I convinced the majority of the town that Riverhaven wasn’t real. I wanted no one to hear of my unlimited power. I didn’t want anyone to steal it. There were a couple people who knew the truth. They would protest, but they were soon to become known as insane. Melanie, I am the Bird of Steel.”
Melanie gasped. This couldn’t be possible. Her whole life she’d been trying to prove herself to a thief. A liar. A greedy man who wanted the world to himself. Melanie’s breath rattled in her throat. How was this possible? She swallowed down the pain of being so harshly betrayed. She realized once again that she was experiencing one of those awkward moments where she had no way of knowing what to do next.
A silly idea, like all her other ones, popped into her head. It was most likely the worst idea she’d had yet, but it was worth a try. She pretended to look unhappy (which she was) and eyed her father carefully. She saw him rub his palms against the side of the metallic feather. She watched as he fidgeted uncertainly with the tip. She studied him as he lifted up the feather, pinched it with his fingers, and began twirling it endlessly among his fingertips. This was her chance.
As fast as a human could possibly move, Melanie jumped up, rapidly yanked the metal feather right out of her father’s fingers, and ran. Less than two seconds later, she heard her father’s angry footsteps right behind her heels. His hand swiped through the air, trying to wrench the feather out of Melanie’s firm but sweaty grip. Melanie realized that this was her last chance to save Riverhaven. She had no choice but to do what she was hoping not to.
“UNI! OVER HERE!” screamed Melanie.
Uni arrived in an instant. Melanie jumped onto her soft, furry back and kicked her with her muddy shoe.
“Go! Go, go, go!” screeched Melanie.
Uni soared into the air, howling. Below her, Melanie could hear her father’s desperate cries and growls. He had lost all his power.
* * *
Two days later, Melanie landed in New York. It had been a long ride. Uni wasn’t used to carrying such a heavy weight. Melanie’s heart was still thumping loudly. The encounter with her father had left her in a shock she had not yet managed to shake off. When Melanie landed in New York, she was immediately surrounded by citizens. Gasps and a couple whoops of excitement circled her. A news reporter jumped to her side, sticking a microphone in her face.
“What is that? Is that a unicorn? Why are you on a unicorn? Where did you come from? Are you Mr. McGee’s daughter? What is your name? What happened? Give me a story?” said the news reporter rather rapidly.
Melanie nearly fell back with exhaustion. But she knew that if she wanted to save Riverhaven, she had to tell the truth, even about her father. She took a long breath and then spit out the whole story. Once she finished, the whole crowd was standing there ogling her, speechless.
* * *
It had been a year since Melanie had saved Riverhaven. It felt more like decades. Her father, once popular and favored, was currently sitting in an empty cell in an empty jail on the outskirts of town.
Melanie, who was now thirteen, didn’t have much of a home. She was currently on a world tour, surfing through the world, educating every family about Riverhaven. Starting from the day she’d arrived back home, Melanie had been on countless TV shows explaining the story of the beloved town and how it was now safe and full of heartwarming animals and people.
Since Melanie had snatched the feather from her father, the Bird of Steel, it meant that she had full control over the town and the rest of the world. She had immediately stopped the war among the Diddod and the townsfolk. She knew how dangerous this weapon was and how, if it landed in the wrong hands, the world could once more be in danger. She clearly remembered the day when she made her decision: Melanie had burned the feather, destroyed it. No one was going to make the same mistake as her father.
Now the town of Riverhaven was a welcoming town full of tourists. The days of the war were long gone. The creatures and the humans lived in harmony. Melanie didn’t have much time to actually visit Riverhaven itself. She was usually on the news or in an interview. Or speaking to her father who wasn’t as greedy as he’d been before. But when she did visit, she’d stand up tall and envision what her next adventure as the new Bird of Steel would be. Because she was the type of girl with an imagination a little too vast. And I can assure you, that is how she will stay.