I was sitting in class when I first saw it.
Miss Weaver had been my teacher for a few months, and was known around Stagwood Elementary for the stack of black hair that rose a foot above her head. Before the school year started, I’d heard a few rumors about her, and within a week I realized that they were all true. For one thing, she did, in fact, wear the same outfit every day; the colors changed, but she always had on striped pants and a striped jacket. For another thing, she was mind-numbingly boring. It was the kind of boring that made your eyes shut without permission. The biggest problem, though, was the stories. She was obsessed with tales of former students who had become some kind of famous. The first couple of times weren’t bad, maybe even kind of interesting. But, by the second week of school she had started repeating herself, just like her outfits.
By then, I knew all the stories by heart. The professional football player who got excellent marks in Math. The State Senator who was a teacher’s pet. I knew every word. So, instead of trying my hardest to listen, I spent most of class drawing in my notebook.
Most days, I drew imaginary places and then spent the rest of the time whipped up creatures to live there. They’d have horns where horns don’t go, fur where scales should be, and all the wings. They were odd. And they each had a story that I wanted to tell. But, on that day, I never even got to the first pair of wings. I had barely gotten started when it appeared, and changed Stagwood, and me, forever.
If it had chosen to press its little green face against any other window, I might not have seen it. And if I hadn’t been trying to decide whether my dragon should have four legs or two, I might not have looked out window at that exact moment, dropping my pencil on the page.
It was a frog. And it was staring right at me.
I couldn’t stop looking at the frog and it couldn’t stop looking back. We were locked in a staring contest. Maybe some frogs blinked, but with its eyes smushed against the glass, this one didn’t. Stagwood Forest was just beyond the schoolyard and it was riddled with frogs, but they always avoided people. I knew right away, in a way that I could think better than I could say, that this frog was different.
I tried to listen back in to Miss Weaver, just in time to hear the end of her story about Martin Shandals, the now-famous comedian. Martin had transferred schools half way through the year, so I always felt to me like that one shouldn’t count. We were supposed to be learning long division, but something had reminded her of Martin. I knew exactly what bad joke she would end the story with, but much less about long division.
“Whenever he acted up in class I’d say, ‘we’ve got a real comedian on our hands don’t we?’ And I was right!” she said with a guffaw.
I was certain that Miss Weaver would see the frog within moments, but I was wrong. Nobody did. More importantly, when I looked again to see if it was still there, I noticed something new. Something shiny. And when I realized what it was, I forgot all about class, and Miss Weaver, and Martin Shandals. There was no denying it: the frog had put on a tiny pair of glasses.
I wanted to lecture it, to explain that frogs don’t wear glasses. It bothered me that it didn’t already know that. On top of that, it had been staring at me for at least five minutes by then. And that seemed to be bordering on rude. Could a frog even be rude? I wasn’t sure. But, the bigger question was why it was so interested in me.
I wasn't the type of kid who got attention. Teachers always wrote “needs to participate more” on my report cards (with a smiley face to make my parents feel better). I never got into trouble and barely ever stood out on purpose. A few years earlier, I accidentally peed my pants because my zipper had gotten stuck in the bathroom at the last moment. I tried to convince everyone that I had fallen into a puddle at recess. The custodian, Mr. Salazar, charged outside with a mop and brought me with him to point out the puddle. My guess is that we wasted a half-hour looking around at the dry gravel. Luckily, my mom dropped off some new clothes and nobody really noticed my wardrobe change (…or that it hadn’t rained in weeks).
That’s how it was. Whether I did something spectacular or sneezed myself out of a chair, nobody cared, and almost nobody said my name. As far as school was concerned, all those things had happened to “some kid”. So, why would a frog with glasses jump up on a windowsill to stare at "some kid"?
Teachers, on the other hand, were a different story. Once her lesson started back up, it didn’t take Miss Weaver long to realize that I wasn’t paying attention. She called me up to the blackboard to make an example out of me.
“Since you don’t feel the need to listen, why don’t you solve a problem on the board instead?” she said, sitting down at her desk.
My stomach did a flip. Then it did a flop. The problem would take a minute or two to solve, and being in front of the class always made me nervous. How could I be expected to do anything when there was a spectacled frog staring me down?
I walked to the right of the equation on the board so that I could check on the frog easily in secret. Despite the distraction, I did my best to focus. But, it wasn’t easy. Halfway through, I saw the frog move towards the front of the classroom. It stopped at the window next to Miss Weaver’s desk. It took me a moment to figure out what it was doing, and another to believe it. It was trying to lift the window!
Finishing the problem became almost impossible. I made a mistake and then quickly erased it. By the time I looked over again, the window was open. Why should that surprise me? Of course a frog with glasses would also be super strong. The window was only open an inch, but that was enough for it to slip through. I dropped the chalk, and some of my classmates laughed. Bending down to pick it up, I tried convincing myself that when I stood back up again the frog would be gone. “It’s not there. I just think it’s there.”
When I straightened up, the frog was sitting on Miss Weaver’s left shoulder.
This was a brave frog.
Her head blocked the class from seeing it, and I realized that I was still the only one who could. Either the frog was real or my imagination had outdone itself. It wasn’t all that surprising that Miss Weaver didn’t feel it there, because the shoulder pads inside her orange striped jacket were large and fluffy. I had heard that she rested her head on them like pillows during her breaks. I tried to remind myself of the situation. There was a frog sitting on Miss Weaver’s shoulder and nobody else knew it. And I was supposed to be doing math.
Now that it was closer, I could see the frog better. It didn’t look like some new species of frog to me. It looked like every other frog I had seen (except for the glasses). I wondered if they made contact lenses small enough for a frog. But, it wasn’t the right time to worry about frog vision- that would be a job for a frog eye doctor, anyway.
I had daydreams all the time when I was drawing, and sometimes I got lost in them. It really was possible, I thought, that my imagination had just carried me off. I tried one last time to explain the frog away as part of an impressive daydream. I concentrated hard, finished the problem, and put the chalk down. The frog couldn’t be real. I shook my head confidently.
When I turned to Miss Weaver, I saw the frog look me square in the eyes and nod. A moment later, it disappeared into Miss Weaver’s hair.
I didn’t see the frog for the rest of the day. Maybe it stayed in Miss Weaver’s hair or maybe it jumped back through the window when I wasn’t looking. All day long, I expected her to find it and let out a scream, but she never did.
When the bell rang, I ran out of the school onto the side of the grass that had the most bushes. I had seen frogs hide in there before, but there was no sign of any. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have known what to do with the frog if I had found it. Would I capture it? Would I ask it questions? If I was caught talking to a frog outside the school, I think people might finally start to remember me, but in a #donttalktothefrogkid kind of way.
I liked most of the kids in my class just fine, but I was only really close with one. His name was Soy, and he was definitely, without a doubt, my best friend. Soy had kind of reddish-blond hair and a round face. He and I had been friends since preschool, and I knew that I could talk to him about anything. The downside to that was that he also felt he could talk to me about anything. Since he had eight older brothers and two older sisters, his questions were always about things that I didn’t understand and didn’t want to.
Here’s how it would usually go: Soy’s brothers would talk about older kids things, and then make fun of him for not getting it. He would ask me about it, and we’d look it up. It only took a few Google searches for me to get banned from using the Internet with Soy.
The bottom line was that if I was going to tell anyone about the frog, it would be Soy. I decided that our walk home would be the best chance.
“Did you see anything outside today during math?” I asked Soy as we started walking.
“What do you mean? On the grass?” he asked, jumping over cracks in the sidewalk.
“I mean right outside the window. Like right up against it,” I answered.
“Like a person?” he asked, still hopping.
Soy sat in the row farthest from the window, so it would’ve been possible, but still weird, for someone to walk by without him noticing.
“No. It’s more like… I saw a frog up against the window," I explained.
“Awesome,” he said.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t a normal frog. It opened the window and it came in the classroom and jumped on Miss Weaver’s shoulder and it jumped inside her hair,” I spit out.
Soy stopped jumping and looked at me.
“That happened… today?” he asked.
“Yeah, I mean I’m pretty sure. And when I thought I might be making it up, the frog nodded at me,” I said.
Soy looked confused. I thought I heard something move in the tree above us, but Soy answered before I could look.
“It nodded at you? I don’t even think frogs have necks, do they?” said Soy.
“This one did, I guess. I mean most frogs don’t wear glasses either, but it had those too,” I explained.
All of a sudden, Soy seemed a couple steps further away.
“The frog was wearing glasses?” he asked suspiciously.
“Yes,” I shot back.
“Why would someone go around putting glasses on frogs?” he asked.
"I dunno… maybe it bought them on its own,” I replied.
Soy was standing at least ten steps away now.
“Right… Well, maybe Miss Weaver will let us look in her hair tomorrow, and we can ask the frog where it got ‘em… So, I think I’m just gonna head back home today instead of coming over. My mom has lots of stuff for me to do. See you later!” Soy said, turning to run away.
“Soy!” I yelled. “Stop right there. I can prove the frog is real.”
“Oh yeah? How?” he asked with an eye roll.
“It’s sitting on your backpack,” I said.
3. The Treehouse.
Soy had the frog in his hands within seconds. He was always good with outdoorsy stuff like that. His mom was usually busy with his siblings, so Soy was left to play outside a lot. By third grade, he had caught a pet turtle, salamander, and flying squirrel. Unfortunately, his older brothers Rick and Hank stole the squirrel and kept it in their room. Once a week they played a game where Rick threw the squirrel from the second story window, and Hank caught it midair with a trash can as it glided down. Soy tried to get them to stop, but they never listened. It wasn’t until a particularly windy fall day that he caught a gust and flew over their heads to freedom.
The frog didn’t put up much of a fight. I started to wonder if it actually wanted to be caught.
“Do you believe me now?” I asked.
Soy peaked inside his hands, and then lifted his head with wide eyes. "Well… this frog is wearing glasses. I’ll give you that.”
Both of our minds were racing with questions.
“Let’s bring it to my treehouse, so we can figure this out,” I said.
I had built most of the treehouse in my backyard myself. My mom and dad insisted on one of them being there when I used certain tools, but that was about it. Building things always made me feel good afterwards, and I had gotten pretty good at it. The treehouse had been done for a while, but there were still a few things I wanted to add to it before winter.
When we got there, I told Soy to use the elevator. It was really just a rope with a weighted pulley system, but I called it the elevator anyway. We used it when we needed to carry things that we couldn’t bring up on the ladder. I climbed up and then lowered it down for him. All those years of critter-handling had paid off, and he got it inside the treehouse without any problem. I shut the door and quadruple-locked it, so that the frog couldn’t run away (and also to give us some privacy).
“Okay, Soy,” I said, "let him loose."
Soy lowered his hands and opened them, letting the frog hop to the floor of the treehouse. I had a small drafting table, drawings, and bits of wood all over, which provided plenty of places for the frog to hide. Luckily for us, it didn’t move at all.
Instead it looked up at me, and in a loud voice said, “What do you mean, ‘him’?”
Soy fell backwards from a crouch onto his rear. The frog was looking right at me, waiting for an answer, but all I could do was shake my head.
"It’s rude to assume I’m a ‘he’, don’t you think? I happen to be a girl,” said the frog proudly. Soy was now holding his head with both hands.
“It can talk!!” he said in disbelief.
"Calling me an ‘it’, after I just told you I was a girl, is just plain inconsiderate, Soy!” she insisted.
I knelt down closer, looking for anything that might make sense of it all. Maybe the frog was a robot? But nothing about the way it moved was robotic. And would a “Made in China” sticker really make me feel better? It… she… had just called my best friend by his first name! Soy was so flabbergasted that he was gnawing on his backpack strap, so I doubted that they had met before.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the frog, kneeling down, “we didn’t mean anything by it. Truly.”
The frog hopped even closer and said, “You’ve always been kind.” Then she whispered, “It’s a powerful thing. Remember that.”
“I will,” I said, amazed that I had just gone from meeting a talking frog to taking advice from a talking frog in a matter of seconds.
“But, um, if you don’t mind me asking, how is it that you can talk?” I said.
By that point Soy had half of the backpack strap in his mouth.
The frog crooked her head at me slightly. “Do you think that humans are the only animals that can talk?” she asked.
I was startled. Was it possible that animals could talk, and somehow no one in the world knew about it? Was everything that I thought about animals wrong? I took a seat on the floor, too. Soy spit out his strap.
"That’s not okay,” he said. “I tell my pet iguana all of my secrets. If he can talk, I need to know who he’s been talking to.”
The frog gave out a little laugh, then she said, “Oh, I’m just kidding. Animals can’t talk any more than humans can flap their arms and fly.”
I was embarrassed, but mostly relieved.
“What about some kind of iguana sign language?” asked Soy, still nervous.
Ignoring Soy's question, I asked the frog, “How is it that you can? Talk, I mean."
“For starters, I’m not a frog,” she explained. “The only reason that I—”
Without any warning, there was a knock on my treehouse door.
“What are you up to in there? Why is this door closed?” asked my mom sternly.
I searched my brain for an answer that didn’t have the word frog in it.
“Soy and I were, um, we were doing homework, and the breeze kept blowing our papers away." I replied.
“He’s a clever one” the frog whispered to Soy.
I gave the frog a signal to be quiet. It may have been the first time in the history of the world that one had spoken, but for the time being, she needed to stop. If my mom heard a girl’s voice, I was worried she might break through the door again. She had a habit of doing that any time something seemed suspicious. It was only a week before that she had seen the smoke from one of Soy’s firecrackers and broken through three locks. I added the fourth the next day, but it was becoming clear to me that metal was no match for “mom strength”. So, for the moment, I needed this frog’s vocabulary to shrink back down to “ribbit”.
“Well, come on inside the house. There’s a man from the school board here who needs to speak with you.” She lowered her voice and spoke softly into the crack of the door. “He looks pretty official. He’s got a fancy suit and a shiny yellow bowtie. Don’t worry though, he told me me you’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Yellow?!” screeched the frog.
“What was that, honey?”
“Oh… I said, ‘Hello!’” I lied, using the best high-pitched voice I could muster.
“Honey, ‘Hello’ usually comes at the beginning of conversations. We’re pretty far into this one,” she answered.
“Ah, right. I just sometimes forget when you’re supposed to say it,” I replied nervously.
“Oh… I didn’t realize. Maybe we can work on that, sweetie,” she said, closer to the door than ever. “Because that’s definitely a problem. Just hurry up and come down, please.”
I heard my mom climb down the ladder, then watched her go back inside the house through the sliding back door. The frog jumped up onto the open treehouse window in a panic. I was amazed at how high she could jump, and knew at that moment that she could have left any time that she had wanted.
“Whatever you do, don’t mention me,” the frog whispered frantically. “I’ll find you later.”
And with that, she jumped out the window into a bush below.
4. Tiger Lilies.
I sent Soy home and told him not to say a word until we could agree on a plan. He was too frazzled to argue. Soy walked home along the path behind my house that crossed the woods to his. I had no choice but to head inside. When I slid the back door open, I saw my mom and the man in the bowtie sitting in the living room. She sat smiling by the fireplace, and he sat in the flowery love seat closest to the front door, taking up most of it with his long skinny frame. His tall legs were bent at sharp angles to both sides, just like his elbows. My mom and the man were mid-conversation when I walked in. I saw him notice me from the corner of his eye, but he kept speaking.
“They’re absolutely beautiful, Mrs. Caelum. I don’t believe I’ve seen lilium bulbiferum that vibrant before” said the man as he touched the lilies that were on the table between them.
“Oh, you’re too nice!” said my mom with a giggle.
My mom wasn’t known for giggling, but flowers were one of her most favorite things in the world. She filled the house with them whenever she could. The most that my dad would say about it was that fake flowers would probably cost less.
“Does your son have an appreciation for flowers as well?” the man asked, finally turning to look at me.
His blond hair was pressed firmly against the top of his head, and his pale skin looked almost wet. His grin was toothy… larger than it should be. I felt uneasy. The talking frog had been surprising, odd even, but I preferred it to him.
“Ah, there you are! Come have a seat and say hello to mister…,” my mother said, stopping for a moment. “What was it again?”
“Ream,” he finished. “And it’s a pleasure to meet you, young man.”
“Hello,” I said.
“Well done,” my mom whispered happily at hearing me place my ‘hello’ correctly. “Mr. Ream is from the school board,” she projected, “and he’s here to…”
Once again she wasn’t sure how to finish her sentence.
“I’m here to speak with you about Miss Weaver’s class. We’ve begun an initiative where we, the board members, speak directly with students to learn more about their experiences in the school system. We’d like to have an open dialogue between the administration and the children.”
“I think that’s just wonderful,” said my mom.
She was smiling ear to ear, looking for me to agree. I gave a nod, then waited for someone else to speak.
“Mrs. Caelum, we’ve found that students tend to be more free and honest with their feelings when their parents can’t hear. I assure you, I’ve been trained in creating an atmosphere where students can speak their mind without fear of punishment,” said Mr. Ream.
“I see,” said my mom. She turned to me and spoke in her usual kind voice. “I’m going to be right here in the kitchen if you need anything, sweetie. Remember that you can be honest with Mr. Ream, and nothing bad will happen. Okay?”
I nodded. Mr. Ream followed my mom with his eyes as she walked by him to the kitchen. She’d been right about his suit. It was a dark blue and, from what I could tell, was fancy and expensive. But his bowtie was what stood out. It was a color yellow that I had never seen before, and I could see why she had mentioned it too. As he moved, the light reflected off of it in every direction. It didn’t move like clothes usually do. In fact, it didn’t move at all. I also couldn’t help but notice that he was taller than my mom, even when he was sitting down. When she left the room he turned to me abruptly.
“Has anything strange happened at school in the past couple of days?”
I shook my head hard and fast.
“You can tell me. I’m here to help,” he said in a friendly voice. “You see, I didn’t tell your mom this because I didn’t want to worry her…”
Now Mr. Ream leaned in closer. His mouth looked larger by the second. I was almost positive that he could eat a whole sandwich in one bite.
“There’s a...” he said, pausing, “person who has been bothering students. Some little birdies told me that perhaps they’ve been bothering you. ”
Then he gave the largest smile I had ever seen. Two sandwiches, at least. I knew, deep down, that he meant the frog. That’s why she had acted so funny when she heard about his bowtie.
“Well, what does the person look like?” I asked shyly.
“That’s the tricky part,” he replied, “This... person likes to disguise themselves in different ways. Ways that might even seem impossible.”
His mouth was only a foot away now. Three sandwiches and a side of fries..
He continued, “They may even be disguised as an animal."
My eyes got wide. Mr. Ream’s got small.
“You have seen them!” Mr. Ream said, trying to hide his excitement.
I shook my head defensively. “I didn’t say that, you did."
“But you have, haven’t you,” he said sympathetically. “Tell me what happened. It’s for your own safety.”
I didn’t know what to believe.
“What’s so dangerous about her, anyway?” I asked.
The moment I said it, I wished that I could take it back. I wished that I could grab the words out of mid-air and zip them right back into my mouth. But I knew that’s not how words work.
“‘Her?’” he said.
I couldn’t look at him.
He spoke sharply in a whisper. “So, it’s true. She has come to see you. Tell me why.”
I shook my head.
“Why did she choose to reveal herself to you? Why you? Tell me!” he demanded.
“It was nothing,” I answered despite myself. “I was just...”
“You were just? You were just what?” he prodded.
I was confused, but I knew beyond a doubt that I did not want to tell him anything more. And I was not going to make the same mistake twice.
“I was just catching frogs in the woods with Soy and we didn’t know it was a special frog and we caught it by accident, I swear, and she begged us to let her go, so we did,” I said in one breath.
Mr. Ream sat back in his seat and listened to me ramble on.
“And she wanted nothing to do with us, and made us promise not to tell anyone about her, and… am I in trouble?” I asked, pretending to cry.
I had learned how to fake cry the year before when I tried out for a small part in the school play. As it turned out, the role of “Weeping Willow” wasn’t even a speaking part. It’s just a tree. No crying required. Still, after forty minutes of standing up on stage, not being allowed to move, I cried a little anyway.
“No,” he hissed, “you’ve just disappointed me. I thought for a moment that you were the…”
My mom walked in smiling, with a vase in her hand.
“Sorry to interrupt but I thought you might enjoy seeing my latest- ” she stopped inner tracks when she saw me.
“What are you two talking about in here?”
“Oh, Mrs. Caelum, your son and I were just —,” Mr. Ream sputtered.
“Why is he crying??” my mom asked more forcefully. She rushed to my side to console me.
“It’s nothing,” Mr. Ream pleaded, “sometimes these talks can be emotional, and if you wouldn’t mind my asking just a few more questions…”
The tears were flowing more freely now. I had become the Weepiest Willow in the world.
“I would mind,” she said firmly, “and if you’d like to keep your job, you’ll leave right now.”
Mr. Ream straightened his jacket and grabbed a briefcase from behind the couch. “Yes, of course. Thanks for your time,” he said. He opened the door and turned to me. “Be sure to let me know if your story changes,” he said with an unfriendly glare.
My mom put her arm around my shoulder.
“Out!” she shouted.
I spent the rest of the night listening to my mom speak on the phone with people from the school district. Apparently, Mr. Ream was highly regarded, but my mom didn't care. She was beyond angry. She yelled at some of the school people and even threatened to call the police once. By bedtime she seemed a little calmer.
Whatever Mr. Ream wanted with that frog, it wasn’t good. I decided then and there that I wasn’t going to let him get to her.
The next morning my mom gave me an extra long hug and apologized (for the tenth time) for letting Mr. Ream into the house. I told her (for the tenth time) that it was all right. Soy and I met in front of my house to walk to school, as usual. I hadn’t spoken to him since the treehouse, but it was immediately clear that he had gotten over his backpack-chewing phase.
“How do you think it learned to talk? She, I mean. How come she could talk?” he asked. Without waiting for answer, he continued, “And how did it know my name? She, I mean.”
“I don’t know. Same as you,” I said honestly.
“What about the dude with the bowtie?” he asked excitedly.
“His name is Mr. Ream. Soy… he knew about her,” I said.
“About the frog?” Soy asked.
“Yeah. He said that he was looking for someone who could disguise themselves as an animal. She was right to warn us. There was definitely something off about him.” I said.
“You didn’t tell him anything, right?” asked Soy.
I looked down at the ground.
“I accidentally let on that I met her,” I confessed.
“You did what?” Soy said in shock.
“I didn’t mean to. It came out by accident. And then Mr. Ream grilled me on why she had come to talk to me. Apparently, it’s a big deal that she did.”
“So what’d you do? Draw him a picture of it and tell him everything? Are you recording this conversation for him right now? My brothers say if you’re wearing a wire you have to tell me,” Soy said angrily.
“No. Quit being silly, Soy. I told Mr. Ream that we were catching frogs, found her by accident, and let her go.”
“Oh. Okay, that’s not bad actually,” Soy said.
“Thanks,” I said with my head still hanging.
“And if he looks into it at all, the story will check out since I do love catching frogs. In fact, I should catch a few extra this week, just to be safe. So… what now?” Soy asked.
“I really don’t know, but we need to find out why that frog’s here and why Mr. Ream is after her,” I answered.
“I’m in,” said Soy. “I’d take a frog in glasses over a man in a bowtie any day.”
It felt good to have Soy on my side.
“We’ll figure this out together,” he said, patting me on the back.
My smile faded as he continued to pat…
He was checking for a wire.
5. Un-tradable Lunch.
The first half of the day was more normal than I expected. Miss Weaver continued a Social Studies lesson and only stopped once for a story.
“The legislative branch of the government is important. Probably the most important, if you ask me. It’s quite remarkable, but a former student of mine is actually a State Senator now. One of the youngest we’ve ever had! And since I was his favorite teacher, I can ask him for favors. I don’t want to brag. I really hate to brag. But I can tell you that he’s gotten me out of at least twenty parking tickets,” she said with a proud laugh.
I always wondered how many parking tickets you could get before they stopped letting you park. I didn’t know how to drive yet, but of all the things you had to do, parking seemed the easiest.
I had been too preoccupied to eat breakfast. My mind had been racing with questions. So by lunchtime I was starving. Soy and I sat together in the lunchroom everyday and we usually didn’t care much about which spot. The lunchroom was long and narrow with brightly colored green, blue, and orange tables. With a secret subject to discuss, Soy and I decided to sit at the far end of the longest blue table, as close to the corner as we could get. There were twelve seats between us and any classmates, which was good because Soy’s voice was known for being loud. After our third grade spelling bee, it was agreed, for everyone’s sake, that Soy would never be allowed to speak into a microphone again.
“So… how are we going to find the frog?” he asked, looking around.
“I don’t know. I’m not that good at finding regular frogs,” I answered.
“Well, I’ve been thinking. Frogs like flies, right?”
“Yes.” I started pulling my lunch out of my bag.
“And they like ponds?” Soy added.
“Yes,” I said again.
“Well, that’s something,” he said.
“That’s not a plan though, Soy,” I replied.
“The rest is on you! I spent all morning on that,” Soy shrieked.
When I reached inside my bag again, I stopped trying to think of a plan. To be honest, my mom wasn’t the best at packing lunch. Every once in awhile, she made one so bad that it was completely un-eatable and un-tradable. Still, she had never given me anything slimy. Never anything wet. And definitely never, ever anything that moved. There was no doubt in mind: I was holding a frog.
It had to be her. It was the only thing that made sense. Then I reminded myself that none of this truly made any sense. I tried not to panic, but I knew that I had to warn Soy from across the table, without causing a scene. The frog sat still, breathing in and out inside my hand.
“Eets een my beg,” I said through clenched teeth.
“What did you say to me?” Soy asked with an eyebrow raised.
"I said, eeeets eeeenn my beg," I repeated.
“Huh? Who’s seen your pig?”
“No, eeeeeets eeeeeen myyyy begggg,” I said slowly.
“Wait a second. Did you get a pig?” Soy asked with his arms crossed. “If you really have a pig you better let me ride it...”
Soy was convinced that you could ride any animal larger than a cat. Also, sometimes cats. My mom said Soy was the reason we could never own any pets.
“Soy,” I said, unclenching my teeth, “put your hand in my bag.”
I slid the bag over and watched him stick his hand inside. His face changed immediately.
“Ohhh,” he exclaimed, “it’s in your bag!”
The frog must have somehow understood what was going on because she was still waiting patiently.
“Let’s bring it out and ask it some questions,” Soy said.
The bag moved a little bit.
“She, I mean! Let’s bring her out!” he said too loudly.
“Shh, we don’t want anyone to hear,” I whispered, trying to think of what to do next.
Soy was eating make-your-own soft tacos that he'd bought from the cafeteria. They were one of his favorite lunches. He still had the ingredients for two more tacos, with the tortillas waiting on the side. I had an idea, but he wasn’t going to be happy with it.
“Give me your tortillas,” I said.
“What? Why?” he said, shielding them with his arms.
“Soy, I’m sorry… Im gonna need your lunch.”
“But… it’s soft taco day,” Soy replied sadly, “my third favorite day of the month.”
“Trust me,” I reassured him as he slowly slid them over. I was sure that if it was “grilled cheese day” or “pizza day”, I wouldn’t have been so lucky.
In a flash, I used the tortillas and our milk cartons to construct a small fort for the frog. The opening faced me, so that only I could see inside. Gently, I laid my lunch bag down nearby, showing the frog what I had built.
“Listen,” I whispered into the bag, “when I say so, jump out into the fort. Okay?”
There was no reply, but I was pretty sure that she had heard. Soy and I checked the surroundings one more time, trying to seem casual. The kids who were sitting closest to us had gotten up to talk to the girls sitting two tables over. Soy looked left, then right, and gave a nod.
“Now,” I whispered.
With a quick green blur, the frog jumped from the bag to the taco-day-fort. When she turned around, I saw her glasses. It was her.
She spoke loud enough for Soy and me to hear, but nobody else. “Are you all right?” she said. “What did the man in the bowtie ask you? What did he do to you?”
“He didn’t do anything to me, but he did ask about you,” I answered.
“Ream has been on my tail for a while now,” she said, testing the tortilla wall with her leg.
“Frogs don’t have tails,” said Soy.
Nobody respond. But it did make me realize something.
“We don’t know anything about you. I don’t even know your name yet,” I said.
“You may call me Delilah, or Deli for short," she replied. Her face got much more serious (as serious as a frog’s face can get). “It’s very important that you tell me exactly what you told Ream. Can you do that?” She asked.
“Yes. I, well… I accidentally told him that you and I spoke. I’m sorry,” I said, and meant it.
“That’s all right," Deli said. “It’s not your fault.”
“Then he asked why you came to talk to me… Why did you come to talk to me?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that now," she said. "What did you tell him?”
“I told him that Soy and I caught you by accident in the forrest, and that you were angry about it,” I answered.
“Brilliant!” she said. "It probably won’t hold him off for long, but it might confuse him. Then what happened?”
“Then my mom saw that he had upset me and kicked him out straight away," I told Deli.
“Oh, she did wonderfully! Your mom is a strong one, you know,” she said.
I wanted to know how she would know that, but there were other things that I wanted to know more.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“That,” she said with a deep breath, “is a complicated answer.”
“He’s an alien, isn’t he?” asked Soy in an excited voice.
“No, he’s not an alien,” Deli replied, but in a way that didn't make Soy feel silly for asking. It made me like her a bit more.
“Can you tell us who he is then?” I asked.
Deli paused for a while before answering. “He’s a dragon,” she said.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. I thought the word must mean something different than the one I knew.
“Technically, he’s the King of the Dragons,” she added.
Soy rolled his eyes.
“Thanks for clearing that up,” he said, “I was going to guess unicorn.” Deli couldn’t see his eye roll, but Soy’s tone made it clear that he thought she was delusional.
“You mean like… a dragon-dragon?” I asked.
“Wait, maybe she meant dragonfly,” interjected Soy, “like this guy Ream must be the dreaded King of the Dragonflies!”
Deli wasn’t amused.
“I mean dragons!” she said firmly. “As in fire-breathing, hard-scaled, big-not-small dragons,” she rebutted.
“But...” I said like I was breaking bad news, “dragons aren’t real."
Deli brought one of her frog legs up to her head and smacked it.
“Listen to me. There are things in this world that we don’t know, until we do,” she said.
It was a good point, and it was made by a talking frog. If we were arguing in a courtroom, that would have been her “Exhibit A”.
“Okay, fair enough. But if dragons are real, then why hasn’t anybody ever talked about them before?” I asked.
“They have. You can read about them in hundreds of books,” she countered.
“You mean like in fairytales?” asked Soy as he raised his head above the fort, trying to peek in.
Before Deli could say another word, a hand hit the table and started tapping its nails. Soy and I froze. Deli tucked herself back under the cover of the fort as far as she could go.
“The bell has rung, boys,” said Miss Weaver. “Lunch is over, and Principal Lance would like to see you.”
I had completely forgotten about the bell, on account of the existence of dragons. Miss Weaver was not in a good mood. She always got that way when it was her turn to chaperone the lunch room. Probably because it cut into her shoulder pad naps.
"We’re not done with our lunches, Miss Weaver,” I said as politely as I could.
“This looks more like play time than lunch! I can’t have you building houses out of food,” she said, struggling to find a reason, “because... because then everyone would want to do it!”
Soy was nodding in agreement.
“It’s true. I’m already jealous of yours,” he admitted.
Suddenly, Miss Weaver was walking away to grab one of the garbage cans at the other end of the table.
“Deli!” I whisper-shouted, “she’s bringing a garbage can. You’ve gotta hide!”
Without a word, Deli leapt forward. A split-second later Miss Weaver turned around and dragged the trash can over to us. She used one arm to push all of our food into the can. That put Soy in a worse mood than Miss Weaver. His soft taco lunch was gone forever. Never to be eaten.
“Get moving. Don’t keep Principal Lance waiting,” said Miss Weaver.
At that moment, I didn’t care about the principal or Miss Weaver. I cared about dragons, and the frog named Deli hiding inside my shirt.
6. Bathroom Break.
It’s hard to imagine a better principal than Principal Lance. He had grey hair down to his shoulders, even though he was bald in the front. He was the oldest person at Stagwood, but he didn’t act like it. I had never heard anyone say a bad word about him, and I wouldn’t have either. Every year, on my birthday, he called me into his office and gave me a candy bar. I know he did the same for Soy (who usually finished his before he got back to the class and showed up with chocolate all over his face), and probably everyone else in my class. Still, he had a way of making me feel like I was more than some kid.
Principal Lance’s office was small and crowded, but friendly. He had stacks and stacks of dusty books that looked like they were hundreds of years old. I heard that a girl once sneezed on one of them by accident, and it blew away in pieces. The way the story goes, Principal Lance laughed so hard that he forgot why he had sent for her. But, as Soy and I walked into his office, it seemed less friendly than usual. Miss Weaver gave a small awkward bow and left us. As it turned out, Principal Lance wasn’t alone. What I saw first in the chair next to us was a yellowish-gold bowtie, and then the large grin of Mr. Ream. My stomach dropped.
“Have a seat, kids,” said Principal Lance. “You’ve done nothing wrong, but Mr. Ream has insisted that he speak with you. And I insisted on being present. And so, with all this insisting going on, here we are!”
I always liked the way that Principal Lance explained things.
Deli moved ever-so-slightly inside my shirt and I adjusted my posture without thinking. Ream’s eyes shot towards me and narrowed. I had expected him to speak to me first, but he turned to Soy with a smile instead.
“I don’t believe we’ve met. Hello, Soy. My name is Mr. Ream,” he said.
“Hello. My name is Soy,” said Soy.
“Yes… as I said, hello, Soy,” said Ream, already losing patience.
Soy had a knack for making people lose their patience faster than anyone I’d ever met. My dad called it “impressive”, but my mom preferred not to talk about it.
“Hello,” said Soy a second time.
“Soy, do you know why I’m here?” asked Ream.
“No. Do you know why I’m here?” Soy asked back.
Ream was about to lose his cool. He turned to Principal Lance.
“If you would let me speak with them alone, we could be done with this much faster,” Ream said.
“As I’ve told you, if you’d like to speak with my students, you’ll do it with me present,” said Principal Lance.
“I’m here as a representative of the school board,” Ream said sternly.
“And I am here as caretaker to these children. Unless you are their parent or guardian, you may not speak to them without me present,” Principal Lance said even more sternly.
Soy’s face was already covered in chocolate from a small bowl that Principal Lance had left unguarded. Ream looked over at Soy, shuddering at the thought of being his parent or guardian.
“This will not be brought up in front of the children again,” finished Principal Lance.
“Very well,” resigned Ream. “Soy, I need to know if you’ve noticed anything unusual in the past couple of days.”
Their conversation was starting just like mine had, and that got me worried. The longer Ream questioned Soy or me, the more chances we would have to slip up again, even with Principal Lance there. I could still feel Deli inside my shirt, and I didn’t want to think about what would happen if Ream got his hands on her. Or, if we believed Deli, his claws.
“Sir, may I go to the bathroom?” I blurted out.
“Of course,” said Principal Lance.
Ream gave the slightest hint of a smile. He relished the idea of talking to Soy without me around.
“Um, also, I’m not allowed to go without my bathroom pal,” I said.
“Pardon?” said Principal Lance.
"Miss Weaver told us that we have to go with a bathroom pal if we want to use the bathroom. I could get in a lot of trouble if she finds out that I went alone.” I realized that I was learning how to think on my feet more and more since meeting Deli. It wasn’t the greatest lie ever told, but I hoped it would do.
“Bathroom pal? Seems a little unnecessary at your age. ‘Bathroom buddy’ has a nicer ring, anyway. Well, so be it. Go on then, Soy,” said Principal Lance.
I nudged Soy before he could object.
“Yeah…” said Soy, “I’d better go with him. He always gets lost without me.”
Soy was the one who had walked into the girls' room by accident, not once, but twice that year already. But I wasn’t about to argue with him. Not then, at least.
“You can’t let them both go.” said Mr. Ream. “What if they...”
“What if they run away?” interrupted Principal Lance. “Would you like me to disable their getaway car, just to be safe?” he laughed. “Mr. Ream, when my students need to use the restroom, they use the restroom.”
He rose and ushered us towards the door.
“And that goes for their bathroom pals, as well,” he said, giving me the tiniest wink.
As we walked out, I could tell that Ream was upset, but he dared not argue against Principal Lance again. Ream knew that we were up to something, but, luckily for us, he didn’t know what. Not-so-luckily for us, neither did I.
Leading us through the brightly lit hallway, I didn’t stop at the nearest bathroom. Instead, I kept walking, looking down at the green tiles under my feet, wondering what to do next.
"Where are we going?” Soy asked.
“I’m not sure yet.”
We passed the library, then turned the corner and passed two more bathrooms: one for students and one for visitors. Either one would have done if I was actually looking for a bathroom. At the moment, the last place I wanted us to be was somewhere that Ream expected us to be. If there was a book called “Dealing with Dragons”, I was pretty sure Chapter One would be: “Don’t Tell the Dragon Exactly Where You’re Going then Corner Yourself”, or something like that.
After turning the corner to an empty hall, I stopped. If we were going to figure this out, we’d need Deli’s help.
“What are we supposed to do now?” I whispered to Deli inside my shirt.
“You need to get to your home,” Deli answered, “it’s not safe here anymore.”
"What’s she saying?” asked Soy.
"She said we need to get to my house," I told him.
"What’s at your house?” he asked me.
"What’s at my house?” I asked Deli.
A mop splashed onto the floor, and my head flew up to see the custodian, Mr. Salazar, staring at me.
"I sometimes talk to my belly button. Sometimes,” I stammered at him.
“Me too,” said Soy without skipping a beat.
He pulled his shirt away from his body, stuck his head down, and said, “Hey, little guy, come on out and say hi!”
Soy’s bellybutton was sometimes an innie and sometimes an outtie, so I wondered if this was actually a conversation that he'd had with it before. Mr. Salazar shook his head, and continued mopping in the other direction.
I didn’t want to risk running into anyone else, so we snuck into the empty auditorium across the hall. When I got inside, I remembered that there was an exit behind the stage that would lead us straight into the woods. During play rehearsals, when the auditorium got too hot, they opened the door and let the breeze in. “No sense wasting money on air conditioning,” Miss Weaver would say. She was the self-appointed director every year since she, “knew how to deal with stars.”
I was pretty familiar with the stage area. Not only had I been the (first actually) Weeping Willow, I had also been a stagehand. Soy knew a little about the stage, too. He had tried out for the lead once, but was given the role of a crocodile instead. Despite that, he ended up being mentioned in every single review, although indirectly. “Was the crocodile supposed to talk?”, and “Why did it have an accent?” were two of his favorites.
Now, the stage exit was our best shot at escaping without being seen.
“This way,” I said, hurrying down the side aisle.
The set for the next play was still being built. There was a fake forest, and a small hut with pieces of wood scattered all around it. I hadn’t paid attention to what the production was, since deciding not to try out again. Soy had gotten a lifetime ban* for his crocodile performance and it wouldn’t have been much fun without him.
*Soy had told me that he outgrew the theater. It wasn’t until I saw “BANNED FROM THE THEATER” posters with his face on them that I found out the truth.
I let Deli out onto the stage, and then Soy and I hopped up after her. The glowing red exit sign was in sight when we passed the hut, but a loud noise from the front of the auditorium stopped us in our tracks.
“Get down!” yelled Deli.
We crouched behind the flat wooden hut. Deli instinctively crouched too, which I thought was strange. Then I saw the terrible news for myself through a window in the hut. It was Ream, and he was being escorted down the center aisle by Mr. Salazar.
“They came in here. They were acting all odd, talking to their tummies,” said Mr. Salazar.
“Hmm, I see. Thank you, that will be all,” Ream said with a wave of his hand.
“Who did you say you worked for again?” asked the custodian.
“The school board. The one that decides your salary,” replied Ream as he strode down the aisle towards us.
Mr. Salazar mumbled something I couldn’t hear and left the auditorium. Ream was looking down each row of seats as he approached. When he was halfway down, he started speaking.
“I know that you’re in here,” he said.
“Is he talking to us?” whispered Soy.
“We need to get out of here!” said Deli.
“He’ll see us if we run for the exit,” I said.
“Okay, then… we need to find a way to make him angry!” she whispered.
"If he really is a dragon, is that such a good idea?’ asked Soy.
“It’s the only way. Trust me,” said Deli.
I looked around the set. I’d never set out to make an adult angry before (especially one that worked for the school), but this was cause for an exception. My eyes settled on a handwritten sign that I had seen many times before, attached to the switch beside us. It read: DO NOT TOUCH.
"I know how,” I said shakily, “but he’ll need to get closer.”
“Not a problem,” whispered Soy.
Ream vaulted up onto the stage, apparently finished searching the seats. He was the tallest person I’d ever seen. If we didn’t do something soon, he would find us in seconds.
“I knew he was hiding something. You’ve been following these two for a weeks now, haven’t you Delilah? Have you finally found him?” Ream asked with a villainous grin.
Soy was about to ask a question, but Deli quieted him with one look. Ream was ten feet away, right where the set began.
“Whatever you’re going to do, do it now!” she whispered.
I lunged to the side, tore through the warning sign and flipped the switch. Ream turned his head towards me with a sinister snarl. There was a loud crack from above the stage. A wave of red came crashing down on Ream's head, covering him and the ground completely. I was in shock. The curtain had fallen directly on him, just as I had planned, but seeing it happen startled me.
“Do you think I hurt him?” I asked.
I approached the pile slowly, but Deli jumped in front.
“No! We have to go now!” she exclaimed.
The pile began to rise from the center. It kept growing until it almost reached the ceiling.
In a burst, the curtain was split in two by sharp claws. There, standing in front of us, was the King of the Dragons.
7. Dragon Breath.
“HOW DARE YOU!” said the dragon in a booming voice. His scales were bright yellow and shiny (almost glistening). His wings expanded and blocked out the rest of the auditorium. He took a step forward and I felt the stage shake beneath us. He was more terrifying than any dragon I had ever seen in drawings. His head alone was larger than my whole body.
Ream breathed a heavy breath and then let out a puff of steam that blew over me and Deli. Soy was still tucked down behind the hut, but I knew he felt it too.
"Go!” yelled Deli as she jumped between my legs to lead the way.
The three of us sprinted toward the exit door. Soy charged through first, and as Deli and I ran behind him, I felt more of the steam. This time it was much hotter. I slammed the door shut behind us and we ran as fast as we could to the tree line. We kept running until the school was out of sight. We stumbled over logs and under branches. Soy and I both fell at least twice, but Deli seemed to weave through the trees perfectly with every jump. When we were deep in the woods, Deli finally told us that it was okay to walk for a minute.
“He’ll have to hide in the auditorium until he can take human form again. It takes much more effort to build a disguise than to let your true form show,” she explained.
“That was a DRAGON!” yelled Soy, catching his breath.
“I don’t understand what just happened,” I muttered.
Deli replied, “Listen boys, I know this is a lot to take in, but it’s time that you started believing me. It will make this a lot easier."
Not running anymore had helped me to calm down and think a little more clearly.
“Did you know that he was going to do that? Change like that?” I asked.
“I was counting on it,” she said.
“That was pretty risky, don’t you think?” Soy asked angrily. “Especially since he would’ve passed right over you and gone for the main course!”
We found the worn dirt path that led to my neighborhood. It was quiet in the woods, except for a few birds chirping overhead in a strange whistle.
“What happened when you flicked that switch?” Deli asked me.
“That curtain’s been broken for two years. Miss Weaver told Mr. Salazar to fix it, but he just put up a sign instead. She doesn’t mind because without a curtain falling she can bow as many times as she wants to when the play is over.”
“Miss Weaver finally did something right, then,” said Deli.
I stopped in my tracks.
“How is it that you know Miss Weaver?” I asked. “And what did Ream mean back there when he asked you if you’ve found ‘him’?”
Soy stopped walking, too.
Deli replied, “Okay, I’ll explain. But keep walking. We still need to get to your house, and it’s another five minutes away.”
I almost asked how she knew that, but decided not to bother.
She continued, “I’ve been watching Stagwood for a long time. My job was to find the hero before Ream did.”
“What do you mean ‘the hero’?” I asked.
“About twelve years ago, a hero was born here in Stagwood,” she answered.
“I was born in Stagwood twelve years ago!” said Soy.
“Yes, I know,” Deli responded. I could feel her looking at me as she spoke, but I got real interested in the colorful leaves at my feet instead.
“Do you know who the hero is?” I stared harder at the fallen leaves.
“We know that it’s a boy,” she said.
“Well, duh,” interrupted Soy with a proud smile, “aren’t most heroes?”
“Actually, no. About 51% of heroes are female and 5% are non-binary. The males just seem to brag a lot more about it,” Deli explained with a smaller, but louder smile.
“Yeah, well…” Soy sometimes started a sentence without knowing how to end it. “Go on,” he said.
“As I mentioned, we know that he was born here in Stagwood, and we also know that it was in the summer,” she answered.
“Right, and I was born in June. I think we’ve decided that it’s me,” said Soy.
“And when were you born?” she asked me.
My stare pierced the leaves and was well on its way to the center of the earth. “July,” I mumbled.
“Guys, guys, guys. It’s me,” said Soy with a hand on my shoulder, “When you’re a hero, you can just… feel it.”
“For years we weren’t sure who the hero was, because not much else had been written about him,” Deli told us.
“Written? By who?” I asked.
Nearby, a woodpecker was knocking on a tree. I couldn’t see where it was, but Deli had noticed the sound, too.
“The fairies write down the stories. The battles between good and evil, darkness and light, and magic and sorcery are all found in the fairytales,” she said.
“Fairies?” I asked, looking at Deli.
“Of course.” she said. “That’s why they’re called fairytales. Fairy’s tales. Who did you think wrote them?”
“People!” answered Soy.
Deli responded, “People can’t write the way that fairies do. Fairies are able to be places without being seen, and to know what is happening as it happens. They are the first and true storytellers.”
“Wait, are you saying… those stories are real?” I thought out loud.
“Yes,” said Deli, “as I was trying to tell you before, the creatures you’ve read about are real, and so are their adventures. And the hero of this story has the most important adventure of all ahead of them.”
"So what is it that the hero has to do? I should probably know before I get started with my heroicalisms,” Soy boasted.
“Heroics.” I corrected. “And this adventure sounds kind of dangerous.”
Deli’s eyes became serious behind her glasses. “Yes. He must face the gravest of foes.”
Soy had lost his smile. He lowered his eyes, choosing rocks to stare at instead of leaves. “Foe, like an evil gnome?”
“Afraid not. More like a dragon," she replied.
Soy and I looked at each other. “You mean Ream? He’s part of the fairytale?” I asked.
Deli nodded. “Perhaps he wasn’t always meant to be, but he is now.” She looked at the trees above us.
“Guys, I’ve thought a lot about it, and I don’t think that I’m the hero,” said Soy definitively.
Deli smiled. “It’s all right, Soy,” she said. "After years of searching, I believe I’ve found him.”
“And who is it?” asked Soy.
Deli shot a glance behind us towards the path.
“There’s no time for that now,” she said. “Ream has spies all over these woods and we’ve taken too long. Unless my ears are deceiving me, they’re getting closer. It’s time to get inside.” Deli sprinted ahead with long jumps.
Soy whispered in my ear, “Okay, maybe they do have a neck, but now she’s talking about ears? Seriously, Deli has no idea how to frog.”
We ran the rest of the way to my house, which didn’t take more than a minute. Once we were inside, Soy started to make a snack from the fridge. This was despite the fact that ever since the “Midnight Sleepover Snack Incident of 2012”, Soy was only allowed to take food from a special drawer labeled: FOOD THIEF.
My mom had woken up that fateful morning to find our kitchen in shambles. At first she blamed my dad, then what she estimated must have been fifteen raccoons, and then, finally, Soy. He was sprawled out on a pile of containers and wrappers (and not nearly enough napkins) when my mother came for him. “Worth it,” was all he had the energy to say.
Afterwards, my parents and Soy’s made an arrangement to give Soy his own drawer and only stock healthy food inside. That’s also the reason that I never once saw him open it. Sometimes I ate from it to help cover for him.
“Soy, now’s not the time for food,” I said, shutting the fridge.
“No, it’s all right,” said Deli. "Soy, I want you to gather as much food as you can carry inside both of your backpacks and then bring them upstairs. Anything you want, okay?”
Soy was too shocked to speak. It was like she had just asked if he would mind testing every toy in the toy store. He nodded (and drooled a little).
I picked up Deli and ran up the stairs to my room. “Okay, we’re here. Now what?” I asked.
“Now we get ready for liftoff,” she said. “Open that window as far as it will go.”
“Got it,” I said.
I ran over to the window across from my bed and dresser, pulled up the blinds and lifted the glass as high as I could manage.
“That won’t do it,” she told me, “get it higher.”
I used a baseball bat to get an extra two feet and built a base out of three books and an empty glass to hold it up. Deli gave me a little frog nod.
I ran back over to her and asked, “What else do you need for, wait… liftoff?”
Soy had to drag the backpacks into my room. By the time he got to us, his smile looked like it hurt.
“Great work, Soy!” Deli said. “Now lift them up onto the bed.”
As Soy heaved the bags up one at a time, I heard crinkles and clinking and sloshing. My guess was that Soy must’ve taken absolutely everything in the kitchen except for the contents of his drawer.
"Do you have a smartphone?" Deli asked me.
I opened my desk drawer and pulled out a dark blue smartphone. It was a birthday gift from my mom. The cover was custom-made with a picture of me at three years old with spaghetti all over my face. I was pretty positive she had glued it on.
Even though I had the phone, my parents didn’t really let me use it much. They told me it was only for emergencies, and they made sure to check the bill every month. On top of that, they looked at my text message history every week, just to be sure I wasn’t using it improperly. Once, I used it to vote for my favorite singer on a reality show. When my parents found out, they grounded me for three weeks. They let me off the hook after two weeks, but I never got to see the finale.
“Now, hop on the bed,” said Deli.
All three of us sat in a row facing the window, with Soy in the back with our bags, Deli in the center, and me at the foot of the bed.
“What do we do now?” Soy asked.
“We’ve got to fly this bed out of the room,” she answered.
Soy was silent for a moment. “I decided I’m not asking any more questions,” he said.
“How are you going to make a bed fly?” I asked her.
“I won’t,” she said, “you will.”
“Me?” I asked with a squeak. “But I’m… I can’t even drive yet!”
“Listen, your bed already has the magic that you need to make it fly,” she explained.
“I’ve slept in this bed every night, and it’s never once flown,” I rebutted quickly, before Soy could accuse me of holding out on him.
Deli explained, “There is a magic in the stories your parents read to you when you were younger, and the ones you read to yourself. It’s a form of magic called lore. Most of it goes to you and helps fuel your dreams. Some of it, though, falls around you, building up inside your bed.”
Soy was staring at her blankly.
She continued, "Imagine a single flower in a field of dry grass. If you watered that flower every single day, not only would the flower bloom and grow, but the grass surrounding it would become green and strong, as well. Your bed has been sprinkled with lore, growing stronger every night. Now it’s time to use it.”
I had never heard of lore before and, from the look on his face, neither had Soy. He shook his head as he opened a bag of chips.
“Nope. Nope. Nope. What you’re looking for is an airplane. This is a bed.” He took a bite and made a loud crunch. “I do sleep on both of them, though,” he said to himself.
I put my hand on top of the blanket for a moment. Maybe it was time that I started to trust Deli. She had warned us that Mr. Ream was a dragon, and there was no denying that now. She had helped us escape and had risked her own skin more than once. If she said my bed could fly, maybe she was right.
“Okay, what do I need to do?” I inquired.
“Wharffs??” Soy said with a mouth full of chips.
“Excellent!” Deli responded, “First things first, pick your steering wheel. It can be anything you’d like.”
I picked up the smallest pillow on my bed. It was one that my grandfather had made for me when I was little. It was dark grey with an apple tree sewn onto the front of it.
“Got it,” I said.
“Place it in front of you,” she told me.
I put both my hands on the pillow in front of me, acting like it was a steering wheel. Without a noise, I felt it lock into place. I could rotate it around, but when I pushed or pulled it too far, it snapped back into position. When I let go, it hung midair. It was like it was held in place by invisible rubber bands.
“Whoa,” I said, turning back to Soy, “are you seeing this?” He nodded with wide eyes.
“That will do nicely. Items with meaning tend to absorb more lore,” she told me. Soy was starting to creep up to watch more closely.
“Now, place your phone down,” she instructed me.
I put the phone down on the bed to my left, next to the steering wheel, and it stuck there. The smartphone glowed orange, and the screen began to change. There were all sorts of gauges and levels on the screen that I had never seen before. Most prominent, were five buttons:
and the largest, LIFTOFF.
I was so nervous and excited that I didn’t realize my mom had come home until I heard the door slam shut.
“What are you two doing here?” she yelled upstairs. “Was it a half-day today?”
She had seen the books from our backpacks that were emptied onto the kitchen floor when Soy made room for the food.
Deli started to speak faster. “Do you see the LIFTOFF button? Press it now.”
I pushed the button and the mattress immediately began to shake. And then, slowly, it lifted itself up into the air. It was only a few inches off of the frame when it stopped shaking and hovered smoothly. My face gave way to an involuntary smile. Of all the things that I had seen and experienced that day, this was the most amazing. We were flying!
My smile was cut short when we heard the sound of cabinet doors opening and closing with loud bangs.
“He did it again!” she yelled. “He ate it all!”
My mom immediately started storming up the stairs, speaking to herself. “This time Soy’s going to replace everything he took! How did he even… No, I don’t care how! He’s going to be punished!”
“We don’t have time for proper instructions,” Deli panicked. "Push the brown button and tilt the steering wheel forward.”
“Okay, but it -” I began to say.
My mom knocked angrily on my door and then started to turn the knob.
“There’s no time, just do it!” Deli shouted.
I pushed my finger down hard onto the brown button, labeled: SQUEEZE.
The sides of the bed shot up towards our heads, wrapping us up. The door started to swing open. I had just enough room to push my hands forward on the pillow. In the blink of an eye, we shot straight ahead, pushed through the window, knocking the bat away, and popping us out the other side as it shut.
I could barely hear my mom shouting when she opened the door to an empty room. “Beds?!? He’s taking beds now?!”
9. Flight of the Bed.
Our house sat on forest end of Windfall Drive. There were eleven-and-a-half houses on our side of the street and twelve on the other. The “half” was because of a house on the opposite end of the block, at the intersection with Slope Street. It was owned by two elderly ladies, both named Miss Trinket. They were identical twins and didn’t seem to like anyone, least of all each other. Miss Trinket got her mail addressed to Windfall Drive and her sister, Miss Trinket, insisted on getting her mail addressed to Slope Street. According to my dad, it all started forty years ago with an argument over who should mow the lawn.
“Miss Trinket doesn’t think she should have to do it because Miss Trinket has slightly longer legs than her, and it would take her less time. However, Miss Trinket thinks Miss Trinket should do it because she has a bad back and Miss Trinket doesn’t. Ever since the argument started, they refuse to live at the same address, so Miss Trinket changed hers to Slope Street. Understand?” my dad asked. My answer was always no, no matter how matter times he explained it.
Sometimes their grass would get so long that Soy refused to walk by. “Who knows what’s inside there?!” he would say. Most likely it was just bugs and maybe snakes, and Soy liked both of them. Still something about not being able to see inside rubbed Soy the wrong way, so we took the long way around or went through the woods instead. Besides that, there was always a Miss Trinket outside on the porch waiting to get mad about something. They yelled at the mailman every single day for scaring their dog, Marshall. He was a small border collie with white and black hair, and he was always laying down next to one of them. I sometimes wondered if he could tell them apart. If animals really could talk, that might have been my first question.
Once a summer, my dad sent me over to mow their lawn for them, secretly hoping to make our side of the street an even twelve again (he said that the other side of the street looked down on us). Mowing their lawn didn’t make our street whole, but it did make me the only person who the Trinket Twins liked.
They would each make me a lemonade if it was a hot day, and deliver it to me when the other one wasn’t around. One of the Trinkets made hers too sweet and the other made hers too tart, but when I combined them the lemonade tasted perfect. The best part was that they always paid me separately, as well.
“Remember, I’m the nice one,” a Miss Trinket would say as she handed me money.
Two minutes later the other Miss Trinket would say the same thing and hand me the same amount of money. I decided that they were both the nice one, partly because it was true but mostly because I had no way of picking.
Flying on my bed, we rocketed down the middle of Windfall Drive, past twelve houses to our left, and eleven and a half to our right. Luckily for us, there was only one person outside that day, and it was a Miss Trinket, with Marshall by her side. She was sitting on her porch, looking out over a foot of grass with a lemonade in her hand, either too sweet or too tart.
Marshall lifted his head and wagged his tail as he looked up. Miss Trinket gave me a friendly smile and wave as we zipped by her. I waved back as best as I could from the smushed bed. She put a finger over her mouth to tell me that she knew how to keep a secret, and gave a wink. Say what you will about a Miss Trinket, but they’re a pretty good person to have on your side when you’re flying down the street on a magic bed and don’t want it getting back to your mom.
Flying was like nothing I’d ever felt before. It was like being on a roller coaster that jumped its tracks and decided to explore. My excitement changed to worry when I spotted the bookstore getting closer and closer. I’d forgotten that my street ended abruptly at Finnegan's Books, and we were running out of road. It looked like a house, but it was one story taller than all the others.
“Press the button again!” shouted Deli from behind me.
I found the smartphone, at eye level now, but it was too close to my face to see. I shimmied and nudged my elbows until I could just make out the words. The brown button now read: FLOPBACK.
There wasn’t a second to spare as I pushed it. The mattress flattened out in an instant. I lifted the pillow steering wheel slightly, now that it was moving more easily, and we shot up higher. The bookstore was passing safely below us when Soy spoke.
“How are you so good at steering?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking back. “I’m just doing what feels right.”
Deli seemed to be smiling, but it can be hard to tell sometimes with frogs.
The sky was clear blue as far as I could see. I saw the wind blowing crumbs off of Soy’s shirt. We were flying faster and higher by the second.
“Keep climbing,” said Deli.
I steered the bed upward until I could see all of Stagwood Forest below us. To the west, it thinned out and faded into the slope of Saltridge Hills. The forest was thicker to our right, where it spread until hitting Merrywater Creek.
I decided to test out the bed a little more. Better to learn how to fly it when there was nothing else around. I turned the pillow to the right, and the whole bed started to fly right. I turned the pillow slightly left, and we shifted back. When I pushed forward, the bed sped up and the wind blew through my hair, making my cheeks flap. I pulled towards me, and we slowed down, which made the bed begin to dip. Lifting and pushing and forward, we floated right back up.
I was so intent on learning that I barely felt the tap on my shoulder. When I turned around, I saw that Soy’s face had turned green, and it looked like he was about to throw up.
“I’m starting to get car sick,” he said.
“This isn’t a car,” reminded Deli.
Soy didn’t have time for a rebuttal. He got sick over the side of the bed. I concentrated on keeping the bed straight from then on.
“You okay?” I shouted, so he could hear me over his vomiting.
A few moments later he was laying back on the bed. “You can’t zigzag around like that!” he scolded me. “I almost fell off the bed!”
“I’m sorry, Soy,” I answered.
I felt pretty bad about making him sick, but it felt much worse to think that I had endangered all of us.
“Where am I supposed to be going?” I asked Deli, to change the subject.
She hopped over to the phone and looked at the screen. I watched her leg stretch out and press the button that said: CRUISE MODE. A map application came up that looked like one my parents used on their phones all the time. She typed out the word “PAVIDALE”, and entered it.
The pillow popped out of my hands and dropped, attaching itself to the bed. All of a sudden, a see-through bright orange shield started to rise from all sides of the bed. It locked together above our heads. We were completely encased.
“Luckily, your bed has more than enough lore to spare for the shield, too. It will make sure that nobody falls off,” Deli told us happily. “And Soy, if you need to throw up again, let me know, because you don’t want the shield up when you do.”
“And we’re going to... Pardivale?” I blurted out.
“Pavidale. Yes. Right now, it’s over Iceland,” she told me.
“Right now?” I asked.
“Right now,” she said and left it at that. “The bed knows where to go. It will take care of the rest. But remember this: the shield is better at keeping things in than keeping things out, so pay attention to anything that might get in our path. Take back control anytime by pressing the CRUISE MODE button again to turn it off.”
Soy reached his arms out wide and looked around. “What could we possibly hit out here?”
“Birds for one thing, planes for another… or dark clouds. Those would be the worst of all,” she answered gravely.
“What’s so bad about dark clouds?” I asked Deli. I had a feeling that we wouldn’t like her answer.
“Dark clouds can be a source of a magic that we call rile. Rile is the opposite of lore. It fuels nightmares, and it gives the worst kind of creatures their magic. There’s no telling what we’d find inside if we passed through a cloud with rile,” she said.
“Okay,” I interjected, “but we learned in school that clouds are just water vapor. And that they’re white because of something to do with how they scatter light.”
“We learned that?” Soy asked.
“And that dark clouds, or rain clouds, are only dark because they have more water inside,” I finished.
“When did we learn that?!” Soy questioned.
“Last week. That’s why you should pay better attention in class sometimes,” I responded proudly.
“And you looked out the window, saw a frog with glasses, and have us flying away from a dragon on your bed. That’s why you should pay attention in class."
Soy must’ve been saving that one up.
“That’s how most clouds work,” said Deli, “but these clouds are different. They don’t operate by the same rules, just like a dream doesn’t operate by the same rules as the real world. Lore and rile are stronger than you can possibly imagine.”
“How do we know a dark magic cloud from a regular one?” I asked.
“Magic clouds take the shape of something unusual. Extraordinary even,” she answered.
Soy and I both looked around the sky. There were no clouds around with interesting shapes. And I still had more questions.
“Deli, if there are clouds with rile inside, does that mean that there are clouds with lore inside too?”
Deli smiled back at me.
“That is an excellent question,” she said.
The bed dipped a few feet, riding on an air current that was invisible to me.
“But I don’t have to tell you,” she said, lying back, “because you’re going to find out soon enough.”
Deli took over a little while later, patrolling the sky until the sun began to set. She told Soy and me to get some sleep while we could, so we’d be rested. I tried to remember whether frogs were nocturnal or not. Then I wondered whether it mattered, since Deli said she wasn’t a real frog. Those were my last thoughts before drifting off to sleep.
I hadn’t had a nightmare in a long time, but that night I did. I dreamt about big red dragons who were attacking me from the sky and from underground. And then I dreamt about the shape I had been drawing in class when Deli appeared. I didn’t recognize what it was then, and I didn’t even know why I drew it. It felt like maybe I had dreamt of that shape once before, but I couldn’t be sure. Then the shape was floating right above me, but just as I reached out to grab it, Deli woke me. She thought she had seen something following behind us. After we looked more closely, we decided that it was nothing.
“Probably just a plane passing by,” she concluded.
I went back to sleep easily. The rest of the night I dreamt of flying around the world on top of an enormous marshmallow. It was much nicer than the dragon dream. By the time the sun rose, we were almost there. I didn’t let on to Deli and Soy, but I knew almost nothing about Iceland. When we first caught a glimpse of it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought it was the most amazing place that I had ever seen. There were big green mountains and hills with snow on top. We flew over huge lakes and waterfalls cut into the side of rocks, and the air smelled nicer than any air from back home.
“This reminds me of Scotland!” Soy said.
“You’ve been to Scotland?” I asked him.
“Yep, my whole family went when I was a baby,” he replied proudly.
“How can you possibly remember it then? I can’t remember a thing about being a baby,” I said.
He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Some babies are smarter than others.”
I took my position at the head of the bed, and Deli jumped up beside me. “Press the CRUISE MODE button again,” she commanded.
Right after I pressed it, the bed started to shake. The orange shield receded slowly, and I felt the temperature drop. The pillow popped up into my hands, and I grabbed it, doing my best to steady the bed. Deli pointed to a large cloud which was now directly in front of us. I noticed that it was in an odd shape: long in the body, but still thick, and there was a wisp of cloud coming out of the top.
Soy recognized it before I did. “It’s a whale!” he shouted.
I steered the bed upward, heading for the tail. We followed the curve and headed up the back. I had underestimated how fast we were going and we passed right over most of the body in a few seconds.
We were almost at the head when Deli yelled, “Drop us down!”
I pulled down hard on the pillow, and we broke through the top edge of the cloud, just a little past the blowhole. There was a flash of white, and I felt a cool wet breeze. A split-second later I felt warm, like it was a spring day. The white surrounding us turned to open space, and I realized that this cloud was hollow.
I looked down and saw green, speckled with small squares, and there were shapes moving around in-between them on tan lines. There was also a blue circle. My brain searched, trying to match what I was seeing with everything I knew about clouds. But it was somewhere else in my head that I found the answer. What I saw reminded me of a map. I was looking at a village.
We were falling faster and longer than I’d ever fallen before. My stomach felt like it was inside my throat. I tried yanking up on the pillow, but it was not responding to my touch; it felt like there was something stronger controlling it. As we got closer to the bottom, lights flew up from below us and began whizzing by the bed.
“Do something!” yelled Soy, “I don’t want to die inside a whale cloud!”
Deli hadn’t moved since we started dropping. She looked as calm as ever.
The back of the bed hit first, and then the front came crashing down. To my surprise, water shot up from all sides and splashed down onto my head.
“Welcome to Pavidale,” Deli announced.
The water was clear and blue, and when I peeked over the side of the bed, I saw strange fish swimming below us. They had long snouts and small fins, and most of them were purple and yellow. The fish were sprinting through tubes made of something spongy and, every once in awhile, they would jump above the water and do a flip. We were in a small pond. The bank had bright emerald grass and a group of houses that were the size of dog houses, but fancy as mansions.
At the far edge of the pond was a flat stone with dozens of glowing lights dancing around on top of it. They were the same lights that had flown by us during my “landing”. They were moving in a way that even the best holiday lights in the world couldn’t.
“Why aren’t we sinking?” asked Soy.
Before he got an answer, the bed started to float towards the stone platform. I got a closer look at the lights and realized that they weren’t just lights. They looked human, with one big difference: they had wings that were more incredible than any I’ve ever drawn.
“Are those over-sized fireflies?” Soy asked.
“Those are fairies,” I said with certainty.
“That’s right,” said Deli, “Pavidale is the home of the fairies.”
“Do you ever do or say anything normal?” Soy asked.
The fairies wings were glowing brightly, and you could almost see right through them. Their ears were tall and pointy on both sides of their long faces. Each fairy had its own colorful glow, and they all hummed with excitement as we drifted closer. Without a sound, the bed tapped the edge of the stone.
I guessed that the fairies must be about six inches tall. Almost all of them were a shade of green or blue, but there were a few yellow and red ones, too. There was only one pink fairy, and their glow was stronger than any of the others. The pink fairy stepped forward from the crowd.
“Allow me to introduce, Tryt,” Deli said as she gestured toward the pink fairy.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Tryt,” Soy said, bowing his head low behind me.
“We have waited a long time for your arrival. Although, I had hoped that you both would have learned some manners by now. Just because a fairy is pink does not mean that it is female,” Tryt said.
Soy picked his head up and blushed. As we stepped off the bed onto the stone, the fairies swarmed us. They fluttered and giggled, and gossiped in whispers.
“Come now,” commanded Tryt, “leave them be. They’ve traveled far, and there’s much to do before they leave.”
I wasn’t ready to think about leaving anytime soon. I had never seen any place like Pavidale. There was something magical and comforting and serene about it. We followed Tryt down a wide tan road. He flew low to the ground, at the same height as Deli’s hops.
Tryt had a regal look about him. He wore a magnificent clear robe that glimmered (with holes in the back for his wings). Somehow he always seemed to be talking down to us, even when he was speaking from a few feet below.
“There were some fairies here who were beginning to wonder if you’d ever find him,” he said to Deli.
“Yes, it’s just that, I needed to be certain,” she responded meekly.
After a long pause, Tryt spoke again. “Of course,” he said calmly, “I knew you wouldn’t fail with so much at stake.”
Tryt led us to a circular building much larger than the houses, with pillars and some letters above the entrance that I did not recognize. As we walked through, I discovered there was no roof in the center, just an open garden with a round table and four chairs that looked like they were made of glass.
“The pond fairies will take care of your bed. Although I must say, we did not expect you to land so abruptly,” he said to me. “Have a seat and let us get down to business."
Tryt showed each of us to our chairs around the table. Soy was to my right, and Tryt was to my left, with Deli straight across. I noticed that the chairs were made of a hard material, but they were still comfortable. It was like mine had been fitted specifically for my body. I noticed that Tryt’s chair was also the perfect size for him. And so was Soy’s. Deli’s chair was the only one that wasn’t the exact right size. It was even taller than mine, and she had to hop up to sit on it.
“These are beautiful chairs, Mr. Tryt, sir. Are they made out of glass, Mr. Tryt?” said Soy.
“Your words are more transparent than the chairs, Soy,” answered Tryt.
Soy shot me a puzzled look.
“Transparent,” I whispered, “it means he can see right through it and knows what you’re doing.”
“Ah,” Soy whispered back. “… I don’t like him.”
“Soy, I think he can hear everything we’re saying,” I responded shyly.
“Oh, because of those pointy elf ears? You might be right. He can probably hear Miss Weaver’s lesson from here with those things.”
By this point, Tryt was glaring at Soy.
“Miss Weaver isn’t teaching right now. She’s on a break," Tryt said.
I looked at Tryt and wondered if he was being serious. His face hadn’t changed and, besides that, Tryt didn’t seem like the type of fairy who was known for joking around. Although, to be fair, I could count the number of fairies that I knew on one finger.
“How do you know what Miss Weaver is doing right now?” I asked.
“I told you, it’s the pointy ears,” whispered Soy.
“A fairytale begins when a single sentence appears in the Book of Lore. After that, it is up to the fairies to record what happens. In order to do so, we must keep a close eye on all those who may be involved in the story. For this we use lore,” Tryt said. When he spoke, it wasn’t with the same kindness as Deli, but it still made me feel better to know that he and his fairies had been looking out for us. “And our ears aren’t that pointy,” he added crisply.
Soy smiled back, rubbed the top of his ear and then pretended to cut his finger on a pointy edge. Apparently, Soy was no longer worried about staying on Tryt’s good side. Given his history, it wasn’t all that surprising. Soy never got along with authority figures; it usually took less than a day for him to get into a battle with one. The fastest that I ever saw it happen was when he held a “special election” on the walk to school and decided that he would only respond to “President Soy” from then on. (I was the only other person who voted, and Soy told me there was an error with my ballot). We never made it past roll call that day.
“So are the fairies speaking to you right now?” I asked, still not understanding.
Tryt pulled out a shiny yellowish pen from the pocket of his robe. It had a broad tip, and the top of it was an even shinier crown of gold. There was something about the shape that grabbed my attention, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Magic pens are extremely powerful. They can use lore in many ways. I use the Fairytale Pen to collect information from fairies all over the world. It’s how I’m able to write the stories as they happen,” he explained.
“This isn’t a story. It’s our lives,” Soy protested.
“I see no difference,” replied Tryt coldly.
“How do the fairies collect the information? Are they watching Miss Weaver right now?” I wondered out loud.
“As you know by now, magic can be used to disguise. The fairies take the form of small creatures that go largely unnoticed by humans,” Tryt explained.
Deli hadn’t spoken in a little while, and instead sat listening. I looked at her for a moment and thought about what Tryt had just said. “Small creatures… so, does that mean that Deli…”
“No,” replied Tryt, “a fairy would never choose the shape of a frog. And Deli isn’t a fairy, she’s—“
Deli cut him off before he could finish. “What about Ream? What’s he up to now?” she asked loudly.
“Ah, yes. The King of Dragons,” he responded.
Deli nodded, happy to have changed the subject.
“He took his human form again and stole a costume from the set of the school play,” said Tryt. “He left the grounds twenty minutes after you fled.” He was staring at Soy when he said the final word.
“Where did he go?” I asked.
Tryt paused for a moment and looked at Deli. Deli looked back at Tryt. She waited for an answer. It was clear that Deli had been just as much in the dark as we were since leaving the school.
“He went to your house,” Tryt said to me. “My fairies tell me you missed each other by less than two minutes."
It took a moment for the news to sink in. I looked through the fancy table at the grass. A dragon. At my house. With my mom. The thought scared me beyond words. And then I got angry. I stood up from the the table and pressed my hands down hard.
“My mom was home when we left!” I shouted.
“Yes,” said Tryt, “now calm down and have a seat.”
“No! He’s a dragon, and he could destroy my entire house with one breath and my mom is inside!”
I was hysterical. The tears came pouring down. My view of the courtyard blended into watery colors. Deli hopped onto the table and then onto my shoulder. She patted the back of my head. It was so soft that I could barely feel it, but still, it was nice. She spoke to me in a soothing voice.
“She's all right,” Deli said.
Tryt spoke in a matter-of-fact way. "Ream cannot enter your home. He was struck with stonegold in a battle many years ago, and it cannot be removed. Stonegold is an ancient metal with a strong magic. It’s the same magic that forged The Fairytale Pen,” Tryt explained, gesturing towards the pen he had shown me. Through my teary eyes, the shape looked even more familiar to me.
“That’s the same color as his bowtie,” I noticed.
“Yes,” said Deli, “Ream’s stonegold was in the form of a bowtie when you met him. But lore is able to control stonegold, and nothing that touches it may enter your home unless the fairies permit it. It’s the same magic that has protected Pavidale for centuries.” Her voice faltered a bit as she spoke the last words.
Soy stood up now, looking just as upset as I had moments ago.
“What about my mom? What about my family?!” he asked.
“We’ve done the same for your home,” replied Tryt, “although your brothers proved to be a challenge.”
Soy laughed a little in relief. “Ha, yeah that sounds right.”
“My fairies found them throwing a squirrel out of a window when they arrived,” Tryt said with disgust.
“They must’ve found another one,” said Soy, a bit more relaxed.
“Yes, well it won’t be a problem anymore. Two of my most trusted fairies gave the squirrel enough lore to truly fly. When your brothers tried to throw it out the window this morning, the squirrel simply kept on going and flew away.”
Soy smiled now. “How did they take it?” he asked.
“Rick accused Hank of throwing the squirrel too hard. Hank accused Rick of secretly attaching it to a drone. They wrestled for seven minutes, and then looked up “flying squirrels” online for the next two hours on their phones,” Tryt elaborated.
It occurred to me then that fairies must be better with details than any other creature in the world, imaginary or real (although, I felt like I didn’t know which animals belonged to which category anymore).
“Good for the squirrel,” said Soy.
“So what happens if our families leave our homes?” I asked, becoming nervous again.
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” said Tryt, “Ream left Stagwood hours ago and is headed towards us.
11. For Fairy Eyes Only.
“Why didn’t you tell us that right away?” Soy asked as he stood up.
“You did not ask,” replied Tryt, still seated.
“I also didn’t ask to be flown here to hang out inside a cloud with a pointy-eared jerk. But here I am!” Soy shouted.
Tyrt stood up too, but as a fairy, it didn’t have the same dramatic effect.
“Soy, let’s just calm down,” I said to him. "They’re trying to help us.”
“They’re the whole reason we’re in this mess,” Soy said gruffly. “How do we even know we belong here?”
Soy had made a pretty good point. It seemed that Ream was only interested in us because Deli was, and she still hadn’t shown us any evidence that either Soy or I was the hero. For a moment, I imagined that maybe everything was a mistake, and that we might be able to end this all and go home. The thought didn’t make me sad, but it didn’t make me happy either.
“I believe we can answer that,” said Deli from my shoulder.
As she hopped onto the table in front of Tryt, she spoke only to him. “It’s time to show them,” she asserted.
Tryt’s face told me that he wasn’t thrilled about the idea. He wore the same expression that I had when my mom insisted that I do my homework right when I got home. I knew that she was right, and that it wasn’t her fault she was right, but I still didn’t like it.
Tryt raised one of his pink fluorescent wings and motioned some fairies over, using it like an arm. Four fairies came flying in from the side of the courtyard, opposite from where we entered. They were carrying a large dark brown book.
These fairies had on a kind of medieval armor made from the same glass as the chairs and table. The book they were carrying was thicker than a dictionary and wider. It was the kind of book that Soy would have openly protested if we had been assigned to read it for our class. He once protested that making kids read anything over one hundred pages was technically illegal, but he never found the proof to support it.
Despite the size, it still seemed that the book was heavier than it looked, since the fairies were out of breath by the time they put it down on the table. Tryt shooed them away with his wing, and they disappeared straight up and out of the courtyard.
When the fairies left, Soy and I stood up at the same time to inspect the book. It was a dusty, rundown book. But something about it was beautiful. There were no words on the cover, and it was hard to say whether they had rubbed off or they were just never there at all. A buckle with a lock ran horizontally across, made of the strange yellowish-gold that I now knew.
“Stonegold?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Tryt, “only a magic pen may write in the Book of Lore, but it does not hurt to be safe.”
“Why would anybody want to mess with the book?” asked Soy.
“The Book of Lore chronicles every fairytale throughout history. Changing them would change the fate of the world,” answered Tryt indignantly. Soy didn’t bother responding this time.
All four of us gathered closer, hovering over the book as Tryt held up his shiny pen. Without a word, he turned it over, placed the crown top inside the stonegold lock and turned it. The buckle surrendered, opening up with a low hiss. I thought the pages smelled like pine trees, but didn’t say it out loud. Tryt began flipping through the book and it was hard to see the words. Whenever I did catch a glimpse, the writing was hard to focus on at first, but then got more clear. The words were written in fancy, old looking letters.
Soy was poking his head even closer.
“It’s in English,” he said, “I thought it might be in fairy or elvish, or something weird like that.”
Tryt glanced at Deli, then back to the page. It was obvious from his voice that he was agitated. “It’s not in English. The fairytales in the Book of Lore appear in the first language of whomever is reading it,” he said.
“That’s English,” said Soy, pointing at the book.
“Soy, to you it is in English, but to someone else it may be in French or German,” said Deli.
“If it was in French of German, I wouldn’t be able to read it,” Soy explained simply, “so that’s how I know it’s in English.”
Tryt let out an un-fairylike grunt and continued flipping through the pages while he spoke. “The characters in these stories had their fates sealed by the outcomes written here. But there is one fairytale that remains unique. Ream’s first fairytale.”
“He was part of a different fairytale?” I asked with surprise. That seemed like a big deal to me.
“Yes," Tryt replied. "When a hero or heroine defeats a villain, their story and their fate are sealed within this book. All the rile of those who were defeated, all of their magic, is confined within the book so that they may never use it against the world again. And every villain inside the Book of Lore was defeated, save one."
“Ream,” I said.
“Yes,” replied Deli. “Instead of defeat, his tale ended with an escape. That is why he was able to hold onto his rile.”
“He was injured. Pierced with stonegold to be exact,” Tryt said as he slowed his page-turning. “And once stonegold pierces you, it may never be removed or covered. That is why Ream always has a piece of stonegold visible, regardless of his disguise."
“But nobody has explained yet why he’s after us,” said Soy. “We didn’t do anything to him!”
“You’re not a patient child, are you, Soy?” asked Tryt in a half-question.
“And you don’t own a bookmark,” rebutted Soy, not-at-all in the form of a question.
Tryt turned one last page, then covered it with his fairy hand, unleashing a slew of pink sparkles that shot out to conceal the center. He spoke only to me.
“This… is your fairytale. And this is the reason that Ream is after you. It may be the last fairytale that is ever written. All the fairytales that came before it, and all the creatures inside of them are at stake. It offers Ream and the forces of rile a chance to change their fate.”
“But, why are you calling it mine?” I asked shyly.
Deli looked up at me.
“Because you are the hero,” she replied.
Tryt moved his hand, and the sparkles flew away. Written on the page in a thousand languages, but in English to me, was the title: The Boy and The Flying Bed. And underneath it, there was a small drawing.
It was the same one I had been drawing when I noticed a frog staring at me from behind a window.
The drawing in the book was the same shape that I had dreamt about, and I finally realized what it was.
“Is that supposed to mean something to me?” asked Soy.
“It’s... something that I was drawing that day in class when I saw Deli,” I told him.
“So, you’ve seen this book before?” he asked.
“No, never,” I answered.
“You are the first humans to see it,” said Tryt solemnly. "It is a great honor that I have bestowed upon you.”
“Well, we deserve to be bestowed,” said Soy (clearly not sure what the word meant). “So, what do the rest of the pages say?” he asked.
Tryt closed the book with surprising strength.
“All you need to know is that if you fail, the consequences will be dire,” said Tryt.
“Okay, but I feel like we’re missing something major here,” Soy stated.
“What do you mean?” asked Deli.
“So, Ream’s the villain and he’s the hero?” Soy asked as he pointed to me.
“Correct,” said Tryt.
“Yes,” said Deli.
“And I’m some kind of expert guide who helps the hero because I am the only one who can,” Soy continued.
“Nobody said that,” said Tryt.
“But what is the point of the fairytale? What’s the thing we have to beat Ream at?” Soy inquired.
Soy asked the one question that I'd forgotten to ask. There was always a reason for the fairytale. Sometimes a giant was terrorizing a village, and sometimes a kingdom was under siege by a witch, but it was always something. What was it that Ream wanted? Why was there a fairytale at all?
“I’m curious too,” I said, “and that title doesn’t seem to help.”
Deli jumped on top of the book in a puff of shiny dust. Her head was low as she spoke. “Ream didn’t escape his fairytale by chance. He knew things that helped him. Things that he shouldn’t have known.”
“Somebody helped him, then?” I asked.
“We believe so,” said Deli.
“Some believe so,” said Tryt, glaring at Deli.
“What we know for sure,” she replied, “is that once he escaped, he set out to find the one thing that could make him more powerful.”
“What is it?!” asked Soy, “Some kind of magic wand?”
“No,” said Tryt. Then he turned to Deli and me. “Why do you let him guess so much. He’s terrible at it.”
“Hey!” Soy yelled. “I can still hear you. Regular-sized ears work, too.”
“How would you like it if I turned you into a newt?” said Tryt, staring angrily at Soy.
“Tryt!” exclaimed Deli.
Tryt immediately got back his composure and confessed, “I’m sorry. I just… he just, draws my ire.”
“Yeah, well you should really work on that,” said Soy.
I spoke up. “It’s the pen isn’t it?”
Soy look at me, puzzled.
“That shape in the book and the shape that I was drawing in class; it’s a symbol for your Fairytale Pen isn’t it?” I asked Tryt.
“A pen,” Tryt answered, “but not mine.”
He lifted the pen up to show us more details. As he spun it, I saw the stonegold shimmer and spin like it was alive. It was mesmerizing.
Soy had done battle with a hypnotist once at a birthday party. She made the mistake of picking Soy to be the volunteer, and it all went downhill from there. By the time Soy was selected, he was already convinced that he could hypnotize the hypnotist. We watched them try to hypnotize each other for about a half-hour. Her with techniques that she had learned over the years, and him with exaggerated movements and words like “abracadabra”. When she finally asked him to sit down, Soy commanded her to sit down, instead. That lasted another five minutes.
But even Soy was entranced with the spinning pen.
Tryt explained as it spun, “Before time was time, there was a King of the Mountain. He ruled the world along with his brother, the King of the Valley, and his sister, the Queen of the Sea. But the King of the Mountain wanted to rule alone. An advisor, a fairy himself, told the King of the Mountain about two hidden wells of legend. One held all of the good magic in the world: the ancient Well of Lore. The other held all of the evil magic, known as the Well of Rile. The fairy told the King of the Mountain that if he could control these wells, he would become more powerful than his brother and sister combined. That very day, the King of the Mountain enslaved his entire kingdom, magical and non-magical creatures alike, charging them all with finding the wells. It was a group of eight dwarves, being the most skilled at digging, who found the wells deep within a mountain.”
“Eight dwarves?” I repeated.
“Yes, eight. Why?” Tryt inquired.
“Just used to hearing seven. Please, keep going,” I said.
He continued, “However, the dwarves did not go back and tell their king as he had commanded. Because of his cruelty, the dwarves used the magic of the wells to craft two pens and a book instead. The first pen was made with the most powerful magic from the wells. It had the ability to create tales from nothing, and make them real. This pen is known as the Author Pen. It is the pen you were drawing.”
“So, if you write something, it comes true?” I asked. Deli nodded, then gestured for me to keep listening.
“Next they crafted the pen you see before you, using a strong, but less powerful magic. Then the dwarves dipped a blank mining ledger into the wells, creating The Book of Lore. As I have said, only these two magical pens are powerful enough to write on its pages. And when a story is completed within the Book of Lore, it becomes known to all the kingdoms in every corner of the globe, so that the world may learn from them.”
I stared at the book with a new sense of wonder.
Tryt explained, “The dwarves used the power of the Author Pen to make sure that the King of the Mountain would never find the wells for himself. Unable to find them and use their magic, the king was not strong enough to defeat his brother and sister. He was banished, and the “Mountain and Valley” became known simply as the “Land”. All of the great leaders for centuries to come were descended from one of the two remaining, wise siblings.”
“What happened to the pens after that?” I asked.
“A fairy stumbled upon the dwarves at the wells. He had been hiding from the greedy king, deep inside the mountain, refusing to be enslaved,” Tryt said. "The dwarves decided to give the second pen to the fairy, to keep it safe, and to pay for his silence. But they charged him with much more than just protecting its magic. The fairy would have to be the one to record the tales and would use his brethren to watch these stories unfold. All would know the tales of good and evil, and the pen would seal the fate of villains defeated. They dubbed this pen the Fairytale Pen, and that is what it is used for to this day. This is how fairies became storytellers," said Tryt with pride in his voice.
“This all sounds a bit...made-up-ish,” said Soy.
“I assure you, every word of it is true,” Tryt stated firmly.
Suddenly, I understood why Tryt was taking all of this so seriously.
“You’re the fairy in the mountain, aren’t you?” I asked.
“I am,” he said.
“The one who was hiding?” Soy asked me, the same way that he asked me about characters in movies (during the movies).
“Seems like it,” I whispered.
Soy looked triumphant when he whispered back, “Hmph...hiding.”
“And the Author Pen, did they give that to you as well?” I asked.
Tryt shook his head. “I tried to convince the dwarves to let me care for it as well, but they kept it buried in the mountain. They had decided that no creature should hold both, and used the pen to made it so. I am blocked from finding the wells again, and their story is concealed by magic in the Book of Lore. Instead, they left us with this poem engraved on the inside cover."
Tryt flipped to the front of the book and pointed to the grey inside cover. As the words settled into English, we read:
One pen we place in fairy’s hands, lest history be lost.
One pen we keep inside these buried wells at any cost.
If ever there is dire need to find the Author Pen,
A hero true of mind and heart will hold it once again.
Find the hero’s mark, and you will make the quest begin.
He alone can reach the wells and find the pen within.
Two guides to aid: an expert on the foe they soon will face,
A second known for loyalty, nobility, and grace.
But such a heavy burden, beg the hero to beware.
To write more of their fate in ink, we dwarven do not dare.
I read the poem three times, trying my hardest to remember every word.
“Nobility and grace! It’s like they knew me,” said Soy.
“Yes, speaking of that...” said Tryt to Deli.
“It’s him,” she said immediately. “He’s the companion. I’ve seen the loyalty part. The rest will come in time.”
Tryt resigned himself and got back to us. “So you see, the Author Pen was locked in the mountain and nobody but the hero can get to it. That’s why we need you.”
“Then there’s one thing that I still don’t understand,” I interrupted. “Where’s the dire need?”
“What do you mean?” asked Deli.
“If this hero is me, then I’m the only one who can find this pen, right? So why did the fairytale need to begin. Ream can’t get it without me. So, where’s the urgency? Why not leave it there.”
Deli’s face turned pale. Well, pale green.
“Ream is taking fairies.”
“He’s what??” asked Soy.
Tryt replied with a purposeful voice. “For years now Ream has been taking fairies from us. Some he converts into spies, and others… well, we don’t know what’s happened to the others.”
“You see, that’s why we need your help!” said Deli with emotion in her voice. “If you don’t get that pen and stop Ream, soon there will be no fairies left at all.”
The fairies’ interest at our arrival made even more sense. I wasn’t just a random person to them, I was suppose to be their hero. At that moment, I knew that’s who I needed to be, whether I liked it or not.
“Let’s not waste any more time, then. If I’m the only one who can stop Ream, then I’d better get to it,” I declared.
Suddenly the pen glowed brighter, and Tryt started flipping through the pages of the book again, settling back on the most last story. My story. He scribbled down some words, but covered the rest of the page.
“Look at that,” Deli said looking over the page with an enormous smile, "it looks like the hero has finally taken his place in the story."
“There it is!” shouted Soy, “There’s your name!”
The line read: “Within Pavidale, the meeting of the four had concluded. So began Cal’s quest for the pen.”
13. Road Trip.
It was time to go. Still, I wanted to know as much as I could from The Book of Lore.
“Can we see Ream’s fairytale?” I asked politely.
Tryt shut the book swiftly, again.
“I’m afraid not,” he answered. "That story is not yet completed, and I’ve already shown you too much. It’s time to go.”
Tryt escorted us out the back of the garden. As we passed under another ornate archway, we stepped onto a path made of stone. It lead us to a wooden platform near the edge of the cloud. From inside, the cloud had a slightly blue color to it, like a lighter shade of sky.
Every once in awhile, a fairy would fly in through the cloud wall onto the platform, and the spot where they entered shimmered with orange for a moment. I figured that this must be the right way to enter Pavidale. I felt even more embarrassed that I had entered by dropping my bed into a pond. But, in fairness to me, it’s not like there was a sign…
On the very edge of the platform, my bed was waiting, fully restored to its normal, dry self. Even our backpacks were there, looking as full as ever. A few fairies were still working on the bed, using instruments and contraptions I had never seen before. I wished that I could inspect them closer up.
“Wait a second, we’re going back on the bed?” Soy asked.
“The bed knows where the mountain is,” Deli said.
“Well, there are planes and cars and boats too. And they know where things are, when you tell them. It’s called GPS,” he responded.
“And do you know what GPS stands for?” she asked.
Soy looked at me.
“Global positioning system,” I whispered softly.
“Globule position sanctity,” Soy boasted.
Deli smiled. “Close enough. And to use it, you need an exact location. Nobody knows where the mountain is without magic. That’s why only a vessel using lore can find it.”
Deli hopped on the front of the bed, and I followed behind. Soy climbed up slowly in protest.
“Ask anyone who’s not a magical frog: planes are better than beds,” he mumbled.
“I told you I’m not a frog,” she said.
“But you haven’t told us what you are, and frog is still the most obvious choice,” Soy argued.
It was the same logic Soy had used with me many times. When I had a secret that he wanted to know, he would make a guess that was ridiculously wrong and then assume it was right until I told him otherwise. It worked on me. Every. Single. Time.
I felt like Deli was telling the truth, that she wasn’t a frog, but that didn’t mean I was any closer to knowing what she was.
Tryt flew to the front of the bed with impressive speed.
He addressed only Deli, “He doesn’t have to go with you two, you know.”
“He does,” she answered, “and you know that. Besides, I have a feeling he’s more valuable than you think.”
Tryt did a graceful flip to the back of the bed. We all prepared to depart.
“We will return when Ream is defeated, and the pen is safe again,” announced Deli.
I turned around and realized that the all the fairies were on the platform watching us, and there were even more of them than when we first arrived. I saw young fairies flying around clumsily and older fairies using their wings to hold themselves upright. I had the sad thought that there used be far more fairies in Pavidale, before the yellow dragon started taking them… before my fairytale began.
Deli started punching commands into the phone, but Tryt stopped her.
“That won’t be necessary,” he said. “I will create a current for you to ride on. It will work with the bed to take you straight there and, as long as you don’t stray, you will go much faster."
Deli looked at him with gratitude and bowed her head.
“It is important for Cal to get there without delay. If I can do anything to help, I will,” he added.
Tryt began to glow much brighter. His face became hard to see. In fact, he started to look like he was just a pink ball of light.
I looked ahead at the wall of the cloud. It was fascinating. A hole with an orange outline started to form in front of us, shooting off sparks like a lightning storm. The fairies got behind us and pushed the bed forward. As the front of the bed peeked out of the cloud, I saw that there was nothing below us. In a few seconds, the bed tipped down and we started to plummet. The air was cold enough to sting my face.
Before I could get scared and without warning, an invisible river of air caught us from below and quickly carried us away. I turned to see the cloud one last time. The fairies were filling the hole with their faces to watch us as it closed. Tryt was in front. The glow on his face began to fade as the hole finally shut. Pavidale was a special place, and I hoped that one day I would visit the home of the fairies again. The wind was cutting through us, as I remembered that unless I defeated Ream, there may be no fairies left to visit.
14. Over the Seventh Sea.
The current we were riding started turning red as we got further away from Pavidale. It stretched out ahead of us for what must have been miles, with no end in sight. Tryt had been right about one thing for sure; we were going twice as fast as we had on our way to Pavidale.
Deli tinkered with the phone and put the shield up so that we could relax. Still, it was twenty minutes before Soy and I felt comfortable enough to sit back.
“So, what happens when we get to the mountain?” I asked.
“Truthfully, I don’t know much,” said Deli.
After a few minutes, she spoke again.
“There are supposed to be three tests that you must pass before you can find the wells.”
“What are they?” I asked.
“I meant it when I said that I don’t know much,” she answered.
The bed had completely settled into the current by then, and the ride was smooth. I saw land pass by to the north or south… or east or west (I had gotten turned around in the cloud), but mostly we flew over sea. Occasionally we would see tiny islands below us. Soy asked if we could fly down and stop at the first three, but Deli refused each time.
“Tryt’s current won’t last forever. He told us to stay on course and that’s what we’re going to do,” she told Soy.
“But there might be hidden treasure down there. Pirates love hiding treasure on islands like that!” Soy rebutted.
I decided not to weigh in, until the third time.
“Soy, if we find the wells, defeat Ream, save the fairies, and make it out alive, I promise we can come back and explore an island.”
Soy stopped asking. Any objection to that would mean that he doubted our return, and nobody wanted to do that.
The few clouds that speckled the sky formed and disappeared quickly, like puffs of smoke. Later on, the current took us straight inside a thin white cloud that gave me a nice feeling as we flew through. There was nothing inside though, not like Pavidale. I was beginning to like clouds more and more, until I spotted a dark one.
At first it was just a black spot in the distance. We sat in awe as it grew larger and larger ahead of us. Closer up, I could tell that it was actually dark grey. There was flashing all over it, like a lightning storm was raging inside. Eventually, it was almost all that we could see. I got a queasy feeling in my stomach when I recognized the shape it had taken: a ferocious ocean wave. It was a cloud filled with rile.
“Um, Deli,” I asked. “Can we get off the current now?”
Deli jumped to the controls and began pushing buttons. I didn’t notice anything change. She started pushing them more frantically. Nothing happened. I tried grabbing the wheel but it was glued to the bed and wouldn’t budge.
“What’s going on Deli?!” Soy screamed as the wall of darkness loomed. It must’ve been the largest storm cloud I had ever seen.
“I don’t know!” Deli yelled back. “The cloud is pulling us in!”
“What can we do?!” I cried.
But I never heard an answer. The dark cloud swallowed us whole.
The cloud was hollow, just like Pavidale. I doubted this place had a nice name of its own, or any name at all. It was empty and sad. There were some deep holes among the layer of rocks that covered the ground. I imagined this cloud might be home to some nasty creatures, but nothing was there to greet us.
The bed, it turned out, couldn’t fly inside the cloud and started to dip the moment we entered. We hit the ground hard and skidded to a soft stop.
“It’s the rile,” said Deli. "It’s too strong for the bed to work in here.”
I was surprised to find that I could see fairly well. The whole place was lit by a dim red light coming from another small pond, just like in Pavidale. But this pond looked mean and gloomy.
We all sensed it was probably best to whisper.
“How do we get out of here? Can we push the bed back out?” I asked.
“It will just suck us right back in,” Deli said. "We’ll need to carry the bed across to the other side.”
“You’re crazy!” Soy said in an angry whisper. “This looks like the same place from my nightmares! And they never end well!”
“What do you suggest we do then?” she asked coolly.
“Call up the fairies and get them to pick us up with a new bed. A king-sized one this time. I’ll wait here,” Soy said as he sat cross-legged and cross-armed.
“That’s not going to happen, Soy. There’s no way to reach them from in here,” she replied.
“Well, too bad, because I’m not moving. I’m pretty positive that those holes are filled with monsters," Soy responded. "And you’re going to get gobbled up. Gobbled. Right. Up.”
“Will you talk to him, please?” Deli said, turning to me.
Soy was pretending to chew while he stared at Deli. “OM NOM NOM NOM,” was all he would say.
I sat down next to him.
“Soy, I know this isn’t what you signed up for when you became my best friend.”
He nodded dramatically.
“But, I need you. And those fairies need you even more than I do,” I pleaded.
Soy wasn’t moved.
“If you walk across this cloud, you’re going to get eaten by the green hog monster things in those holes. And I’m not going to watch it happen.”
I understood now that he wasn’t just angry, he was worried. Worried for me. But my mind was racing from what he had said.
“Soy, how do you know what’s in those holes?” I asked.
“I told you, this place is just like the one from the nightmare I’ve had dozens of times. And I always get eaten!” he whimpered.
I looked at Deli. She’d heard it too.
“Soy… you’re here to save us,” I said.
“What?” he asked.
“There’s a reason you had those dreams, Soy, just like there’s a reason why my bed can fly. You were always meant to be my guide. You got gobbled up in those nightmares, so that we wouldn’t get gobbled up in real life. You are the only one who can get us through this cloud.”
He opened his mouth, but before he could speak, I repeated, “The only one.”
He sat there for a moment, staring at the ground. Then he looked back towards the cloud wall that we just passed through. Finally he let out a big sigh, and rose to his feet.
“Right," he said, “Cal, grab the other side of the mattress, then both of you get behind me. We need to move quickly. I think I may have figured the way out last time.”
“Got it, Soy. I trust you,” I told him.
“So do I,” said Deli.
She jumped on the bed as we lifted it up. It wasn’t heavy, but it wasn’t light. From where we stood, the far end of the cloud looked at least two football fields away, but it was hard to tell. I started to notice that the holes weren’t the only obstacles in our way. There were bumps in the ground that looked like small hills, and some tall, scraggily looking trees.
It took Soy and me a minute to get our steps in sync, but once we did we moved well together. Soy weaved the bed in-between the holes deftly, and periodically stopped to change course. He had made it clear that under no circumstances should we make noise. Apparently, in his dreams, making too much noise tended to get him eaten. A lot.
At that moment, in the dark cloud filled with rile, with monsters sleeping below our feet, Soy was leading us. And he was doing it well. We made it about halfway through without any trouble, but then it looked like Soy was stuck. There were three large holes in front of us and a few trees to our right. I spoke softly.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’ve seen these holes before,” he whispered back, “and I’ve never gotten past them. There are hog monsters in each one. The middle one has the biggest.”
He turned to face me. “Bigger than a truck.”
Deli and I sat patiently while Soy planned our next move. He motioned for me to turn the bed on its side and led us to the skinny trees. As we squeezed between them, Soy and I were careful not to touch a single branch. I looked closely at the lowest one and realized the true danger. What I thought was a leaf wasn’t a leaf at all. It was a sleeping animal. It had long claws that wrapped around the branch three times, and its wings came together to form a flat surface that made it resemble a humongous leaf. It wasn’t just this one creature that worried me really; it was the 500 more that were sleeping above it.
Once we passed through the trees, we came to a low, rocky hill. It was steep enough to make me tired, and Soy was getting winded, too. When we got to the top, we had no choice but to rest for a minute. At the far foot of the hill was another hole and two more trees, larger than the batch we had just passed. It would be difficult, but we could make our way through if we were careful and took our time.
Soy laid down on the bed while Deli took a moment to take stock of how much ground we had covered. I was the only one looking forward, so I was the first one to see the light. It wasn’t like any other light inside the cloud. It was a dull yellow glow coming from inside the hole at the bottom of the hill. But I knew that it wasn’t actually yellow… it was stonegold.
“Soy… Deli,” I said with a tremble, “Look!”
They turned in time to see Ream fly up from inside the hole, spreading his wings. He had found us.
I hadn’t seen his full body in the school. The auditorium wasn’t large enough for him to show his full form. Ream’s wings were larger than I could have possibly imagined. He was the King of Dragons, and I was frozen in fear. My heart beat out of my chest. My legs locked in place. I felt smaller than I ever had before. Ream flapped his wings and sent a tornado of wind towards us.
“So, this is the hero that you send to his doom?” bellowed Ream. “The boy named Cal?” He bared his teeth and looked at me with a glint of gold in his eyes.
“You will not touch him!” shouted Deli, “You will not speak his name!”
She jumped in front of me, trying to shield me. She was no larger than one of his claws. As a frog she could not protect me from a dragon. This was not a battle that she could win. But, she did it all the same.
I felt like I might cry. Then, without a word, Soy stepped up next to Deli, and I did. My best friend, Soy, standing between me and a dragon. Ream started to laugh, like he was happy that they had.
“This will be easier than I thought” mocked Ream. “You have failed again, Delilah. Your hero cries.”
But Ream didn’t understand. There are all kinds of tears. Some tears are for a sad rainy day, and some are too happy for just words. Some don’t even tell you why they’re there. But, then there are tears that have fight inside them. Those were the tears that found me. I promised myself that we would be leaving that cloud.
I picked up a rock and took aim behind us. There was only one hole that I wanted to hit. When I made the baseball team last spring, I practiced throwing a ball against the wall every day after school, and it was about to pay off. I squared my shoulders and feet, and brought my arm back. Hurling the rock with all my strength, I watched it fall out of sight into the hole. We didn’t have to wait long.
The monster came barreling out within seconds. I could see why Soy had called it a hog. Its snout was long and flat with pulsing nostrils, and I could see long, sharp teeth even with its mouth closed. It came forward on four legs with a row of spikes shooting up from the top of its back.
“Yep, they’ll do that,” said Soy.
The creature was so mad that it spit as it stomped the ground.
Ream flapped his wings and flew back slightly, but not in retreat. He was laughing again.
“You think that a warlug will save you? What do you think was in this rock hole before I got here? They make for delicious meals!” he said.
The warlug, a name I had just learned, took a moment to look around and then charged up the hill towards us.
“Grab the bed and follow me!” I yelled.
We started down the hill as fast as we could. Ream was content to watch the chase unfold. It seemed to amuse him. We were almost at the bottom when the warlug reached the top of the hill. He ran straight downhill at a blistering pace.
When the ground leveled off, I made Soy help me prop the bed up between two trees. We were careful not to touch any branches. We had barely finished when the warlug closed in on us. Ream knew that we couldn’t outrun it, and he smirked.
I looked at my two companions.
“When I say so, jump to the right,” I said.
We hid behind the bed as the warlug charged towards us with furious speed. It was ten yards away, then five. I could hear its angry breath from behind the mattress.
“Now!” I yelled.
We jumped out from behind the mattress, beyond the trees that held it up. The warlug saw us and tried to change course at the last second, but it was too late. Its body went sideways, and its momentum carried it forward. Its body crashed into the trees, hard enough to shake them to their roots. And that was exactly what we needed it to do.
In a single moment, every sleeping eye on the trees had opened, and the winged creatures fluttered up. Over a thousand leafy creatures went parading into the sky. They blocked out everything else from sight, including Ream.
“Let’s go,” screamed Deli.
We grabbed the bed, and Soy took the lead again. Without second guessing, we sprinted past hole after hole. From above us, Ream let out a deafening roar. I looked back for just a moment to see the creatures swarming him from every angle.
We were almost to the cloud’s edge when the holes ahead began to come alive with noise. Warlugs were stirring inside. By the time some of the hogs started rising, we had just three more holes to pass. The first two were empty, but I saw a particularly spiky warlug poking his head out of the last one. He saw us just as we were about to pass and we only had a second to decide what to do.
“Jump!” shouted Soy.
Soy vaulted above the warlug as it eyed me up behind him. I took one step straight onto the top of its head and launched myself forward, flipping onto the bed. It chomped down on the empty air and let out a groan. As I landed, the mattress hit the ground.
The warlug’s hole had a slope of dirt on the other side that led directly to the cloud’s edge. The mattress skid down bumpily. Soy couldn’t outrun it and got scooped up when it hit his legs. Deli was between us again. Without a sound, we slid out of the dark cloud and onto the current, which had been waiting for us in the quiet night sky.
16. Boy Meets Frog, Again.
I spent the next hour staring out the orange shield, down onto the ocean. Nowhere felt safe. Ream had found us in the middle of the sky. He’d known where we would be, and he’d been waiting. But when I finally decided to speak, it was about something else entirely.
“Deli, what did Ream mean when he said that you’d failed, again?” I asked.
Deli, looked exhausted. “I guess it’s as good a time as any to tell you,” she said.
She hopped in front of us, and began to explain.
“I was a hero once, and Ream was my villain. He was the fiercest that we had ever seen, and the first to have been named King of the Dragons. Back then, Ream had been taking elves and making them fight for him. Tryt said he’d never seen a creature so skilled at building an army. It was my job to defeat him, to make sure that he could never hurt anyone ever again, and it was a great honor to face him. Tryt told me they would be telling our tale until the end of time. Except, it didn’t go the way it was supposed to.”
“No kidding,” said Soy. I nudged him from behind. We lost the backpacks in the dark cloud and Soy was getting hangry (hungry and angry).
Deli went on. “The plan was for me to find him in his lair using a secret entrance. The fairies had found it for me, behind a waterfall. I would catch him by surprise and defeat him with my stonegold bow. Except, that’s not what happened. I found the entrance and swam in through a small rock pool. But, when I crawled out, Ream was waiting for me with his army of elves. I held them off as best I could for as long as I could, but eventually I was cornered. With almost all the magic I had left, I was able to guide one last stonegold arrow at Ream, wounding him. I used the last of my lore to create this disguise and jump into a stream that run through the walls to the base of the waterfall. The blow helped break Ream’s magical hold on the elves, but he had gotten away. Tryt tried to find Ream himself, but he was never able to. I had failed. Ever since then, Ream has been gathering his strength and building his new army. His fairy army.”
“Why you? Why was it your job to save the elves?” I asked.
“Because I was their leader. I am their princess,” she said.
“You… are an elf princess?” Soy said in disbelief.
“Elven princess,” she corrected.
“Why not change back then?” I asked.
“I can’t. I am bound by the story, just as Ream was bound with the stonegold. Until Ream is defeated, I am stuck in this disguise.”
Soy began to fidget a lot more than usual.
“So, um, what kind of stuff do you like? If you even like stuff, I mean? What’s like, your favorite of the stuff?” he asked Deli.
“Soy? What are you doing?" I whispered.
“She’s an elf princess! I’ve never talked to an elf princess!”
“Elven princess,” she corrected.
“Exactly!” he said.
Deli jumped on Soy’s shoulder and whispered something into his ear. Soy’s face changed, and he stopped fidgeting. Deli and I made our way to the front of the bed.
“Don’t worry,” I told her, “this time, we’re going to win.”
Deli smiled back at me. “I hope that you’re right.”
She pointed ahead, and I saw a dark brown mountain rising from the middle of the ocean. It had a bit of snow on top and was surrounded by a forest below.
“The dwarves set the mountain adrift to make sure that no one could chart a map to it without lore,” Deli explained.
The current was winding us down towards the mountain. There was an opening between two orange trees at its base.
“What did you say to Soy?” I asked her quietly as we descended.
She whispered, “I told him that I’ve been watching you two for a while. I know that he refuses to go to school every morning without his rocketship underwear. So, he has nothing to be nervous about in front of me.”
“Every morning?” I whispered.
“Every morning. They don’t make them anymore, so his mom can’t buy extra pairs. She has to wash them every night. If they aren’t ready in time, he throws a fit.”
“Oh,” I said.
I made a mental note not to forget about the rocketship underwear.
17. The Mountain.
The entrance to the mountain was the mouth of a large cave. It was easy to walk in, almost like it had been waiting for us. But once we were inside, things got a lot trickier.
The way was lit with torches that burned violet. They led us down a path that ended abruptly at a stone wall with five wooden doors. Each door was painted a different shade of orange (they were all pretty dull from age). They weren’t tall, as far as doors go. I thought that maybe the dwarves had built them at their own height. And there were words above them, engraved onto a silver plate.
“What does it say?” asked Deli, who was now squinting through her glasses.
I read the plate aloud:
To find the door, you must be clever,
Else you will be lost forever.
No amount of magic spells,
Will aid you if you seek the wells.
Don’t forget the trodden trail,
For those who do are doomed to fail.
“What does that even mean?” asked Soy.
“I’m not sure.” I answered. “Deli?”
Deli was biting her miniature glasses. For a moment, I thought that I saw a shimmer from inside her mouth.
“It’s some kind of clue. We need to find the right door to get to the wells.”
“This is easy,” said Soy impatiently, “let’s just try each door, one by one, and look inside.”
He strode forward to open the door closest to him, second from the left. It was a pale orange door with a carving of an antelope in the center.
“Soy! Stop!” I yelled as I lunged toward him.
The moment that Soy turned the wooden knob, the door flew in away from him. Soy was being pulled in, too. I reached him in time to grab his other arm and we fell to the ground. I pressed my feet against the wall to pull harder, desperately trying to keep him from being sucked in.
“Close the door!” yelled Deli behind us.
I saw through the opening that this door led to another dark cloud, even scarier than the one we had barely escaped. But something else was different about it, too. Instead of seeing a long field of rock with trees ahead of me, I was looking at a far away wall with holes that faced me. Warlugs jumped out towards us, then fell back away. This door was in the top of the cloud.
The words, “Else you will be lost forever" hit me with a chill. Using all my strength, I pulled Soy until he was free from the doorway. The moment he cleared it, the door slammed shut behind him. We rested on the dirt floor, both out of breath. When I looked at the door again, I didn’t see an antelope. Instead, the door had a carving of a lion on it. The color changed slightly as well. Deli hopped over to us, just as frazzled as we were.
“Deli,” I asked, "did the doors just...”
“Yes,” she stopped me short. “The doors must change each time one is opened.”
“But wherever the antelope is, we know never to open that one again, right?” Soy asked, still catching his breath.
Deli looked upset, and I understood why. The doors in front of us were now a serpent, a lion, some kind of fish, a spider, and a rhino. No antelope.
“I think the doors are trying to tell us something,” said Deli.
“That no matter what we do, every door we open will be for the first time,” I finished.
“That’s unfair!” cried Soy. “They can’t do that!”
Soy had almost been sucked into a dark cloud, so I could understand why he was upset. I gave him a minute to cool off and turned my attention to the plate. My mom had taught me that when I don’t understand something, I should take it apart piece by piece. Maybe, I thought, that was what I needed to do with the clues.
The first verse seemed pretty straightforward. To find the right door, we were going to have to be smart. We also knew what might happen if we chose wrong again. The second verse was no mystery either. We couldn’t use lore to find the wells. That meant that Ream wouldn’t be able to use rile to find them, either. Although, he couldn’t get to them without me, anyway. But the last verse was the tricky one. Don’t forget the trodden trail.
“Hey Deli,” I asked without taking my eyes off the plate, “what exactly does trodden mean?”
“It means that it’s been walked on before, like a path that’s already been taken,” she answered.
I thought about the story Tryt had told us. The dwarves who found the wells made it almost impossible for anyone else to find them again. So if there was a “trodden” path, it must have been theirs. But how did they find them in the first place? I had hit another dead end. Tryt never told me which way they went to find the wells. In fact, he had only told me one thing about them, really.
Suddenly it hit me. I read the clue one more time and it all made sense!
“That’s it!” I shouted.
“What is?” asked Deli.
“The trodden trail is the way that the dwarves got there,” I said.
“Okay,” said Soy, perking up. “But we don’t know how. The clue says that we have to pick the right door, and we still don’t know which one it is. I’m not up for guessing another door, or actually guessing at anything ever again.”
“But it doesn’t say pick the door. It says, ‘to find the door, you must be clever.’ The door is hidden!”
“So… where is this hidden door?” asked Deli pointing to the empty room.
“The dwarves found the door because they’re the best diggers. It should be right where they left it, under our feet!”
Deli suggested digging in the center of the room, but I disagreed. There was an area of dirt to the left of the doors that seemed right to me. I couldn’t explain it, so I asked them to trust me. After a few minutes of digging with our hands, Soy and I felt the first sign of the sixth door.
It’s a good thing we found it when we did, because Soy was beginning to get annoyed with Deli. She was directing his digging, and Soy didn’t take kindly to direction from what he described as a “non-digging frog”.
The wooden door that we discovered wasn’t orange like the others, but purple. I cleared off the top and bottom, getting it dirtier before it got cleaner. There was another difference about this door compared to the others. The carving in the center wasn’t of an animal; it was a shape that I could now recognize easily. It was a fairy. And something told me that the carving would never change, no matter how many times we opened the door.
“Do the honors, Cal,” said Soy.
I opened the door slowly, not knowing what would pop out at us, or suck us in, but there wasn’t much to see. It was a black tunnel. It was impossible to tell where it led, since only the first few feet were visible. Beyond that, only darkness. I took a breath.
“I’ll go first,” I told them.
“Are you sure?” Deli asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “It’s why I’m here. I need to get to those wells.”
I had started to lower myself down into the dark hole when Soy grabbed my arm.
“Cal,” he said with a concerned voice.
“Yeah, Soy?” I asked with a smile.
“It’s just, if there’s something horrible down there… make sure you yell up really loudly, so I know not to follow you,” he said.
“Sure, Soy,” I answered without the smile.
“I’ll be mad if you don’t,” he added.
Deli rolled her eyes.
“Rocketship underwear,” I thought to myself.
I dangled my legs over the edge first. When I finally let go of my grip, I immediately regretted it. I had counted on the tunnel walls curving beneath me, but they went straight down. I started falling fast, not sure if I was screaming out loud or just in my head.
I could barely think at all. I’d never fallen so far in my life and had no idea what was waiting for me at the bottom. The tunnel seemed to go on forever. Finally, I started to scrape the sides with my back. More and more of my back touched the tunnel, slowing me down. The walls got smoother and took most of my weight. My fall had turned into a slide, and I was starting to level out. The ride ended when I was ejected out onto a landing. There was a rich purple lake glowing in front of me. The lake was the only source of light, showing off a stubby, wooden dock that jutted out over the liquid.
I thought that I must be deeper underground than I had ever been before. It was hard to tell how long I had been falling. My guess was somewhere around three minutes. I called back into the tunnel, not knowing if Deli and Soy had any shot of hearing me.
“Hello! Deli! Soy! I’m OK!” I yelled.
To my utter surprise, I could hear them like they were only a few feet away.
“What took you so long to say something, then?” Soy asked suspiciously.
“Because...I was falling,” I said. “…For a while,” I thought.
“Are there monsters with you?” he asked.
“No, Soy. Come down and bring Deli, but be careful on the way down.”
I could hear him whisper to Deli, “See, but that’s exactly what a monster would make him say.”
I decided to use the acoustic phenomenon to my advantage.
“Soy, you can hear how close I am. If there were monsters you’d hear them too,” I said. "Just jump down. I can still see you from where I am.”
Eventually, Deli convinced Soy that it was worth the risk. They jumped in after me.
I didn’t have to wonder how long the fall was after that. I listened to Soy scream at the top of his lungs for about two minutes before he was deposited on the ground in front of me, with Deli on his stomach. She looked as though she had actually enjoyed the experience.
“See, now that’s the kind of fun we should be having more of!” she said.
Soy pointed his fingers at both of us and said, “You, Cal, are a liar. And royalty or not, you, are a weird little frog.”
Deli hopped up towards the dock and inspected the lake.
“Oh, my!" she gasped.
“What is it?” I asked worriedly.
Deli replied, "This lake has rooze in it. It’s the waste that’s left over when rile and lore are used in large quantities. It occurs naturally, but there’s a reason why it is buried so deep in the mountain. As legend goes, it turns anything it touches into food for magical creatures.”
“What are you saying? It could transform us into dragon food?” asked Soy.
“Or warlug food or troll food or ogre food. The legend doesn’t really specify,” she answered.
I looked across the huge lake and saw another spot of land. It was the only other one in sight. It led to a bright purple door.
“There,” I said pointing. “That’s where we need to go.”
“Great. And did you happen to hear about the lake of death in front of us, just waiting to turn us into a Cal and Soy smoothie?” Soy answered with frustration.
“I can assist with that," someone said.
The voice we heard came from the dock. A small metal boat had appeared without us noticing. It was towing an even smaller dinghy (the size of a milk crate). A thin rope connected the two.
The voice belonged to a short creature who could barely see over the sides of his boat. His ears rose a few inches above his head, and his pointy snout had silver whiskers. He held a large oar that was at least three times his size. He stepped up and stood on the bow of the boat to reveal himself fully. The grey fuzz on his body seemed to ruffle in a breeze from the lake. There was no way around what I was seeing. This was an abnormally large, talking mouse.
“Who are you?” asked Deli forcefully.
“I am Sebastien. I row the boat from this side to that, waiting for passengers,” he answered calmly.
Soy mouthed the word “mouse” at me and pointed towards Sebastien.
“And how many passengers have you had down here?” I asked.
Sebastien looked at me with his beady eyes and gave a smirk. “You will be my first.”
“You know, we’re gonna need to revisit that whole ‘animals don’t talk’ thing,” said Soy to Deli.
There was no way across without his boat. That much was clear. Without a word, I stepped inside. It only wobbled a little, but it was enough to make me uneasy. Sebastien held us steady by keeping his paw on the dock.
“Careful now, we wouldn’t want you falling in,” he said with a hint of amusement.
“We don’t have a choice,” I said to Deli and Soy, “and there’s no turning back now.”
“He’s right,“ said Deli, and she hopped aboard.
Soy followed slowly, looking around the boat, and then staring at Sebastien through squinted eyes. Now that we were closer, I could smell the rooze. It smelled like raspberries that had gone bad. Real bad. In fact, if “zombie raspberries” were a thing, they would smell like rooze.
“What do you eat out here, rowing back and forth all day long?” Soy asked him, still suspicious.
Sebastien pushed off with his oar and began turning the boat towards the other side of the lake. The smaller boat followed behind as we moved forward.
“I do not require much food,” he answered.
Sebastien rowed us steadily out into the open water, alternating sides with his oar.
“And what do we owe you for the trip?” asked Deli.
I hadn’t thought of that. If Sebastien set a price too steep, I wouldn’t know what to do.
“There is no cost, Princess,” he answered. “I ask only for your company.”
He had called Deli “Princess”, and we had all heard it. I didn’t know what that meant, but it definitely meant something. Soy was glaring at Sebastien through even smaller eyes. A few minutes later we had reached what I thought was the center of the lake. I could tell because the light glowed brightest there, like a chandelier.
“Hey, Sebastien,” Soy said, “I’ve got some crackers for you in my pocket if you get us there faster.”
Sebastien plunged his oar beneath the surface, and the boat stopped dead.
“I’m afraid I can’t get you there faster. In fact, I can’t get you there at all,” Sebastien said, turning around to face us.
“Hey,” Soy said with concern, “I didn’t mean anything by it. You can row whatever speed you’d like. Just… definitely keep rowing.”
“I’m sorry” he replied, “but, there is a leak in the boat, and we cannot continue.”
Sebastien pointed to the middle of the boat. All of a sudden, the purple liquid started to seep into the boat from a hole too small to see. Soy and Deli jumped toward the front with Sebastien, and I scrambled to the back. The putrid smell added to my panic.
The rooze was filling the boat more and more by the second. Deli jumped onto Soy’s shoulders, and we both lifted our feet onto the wooden planks meant for sitting. Sebastien didn’t move.
“What’s happening?” I shouted, “There must be something you can do, Sebastien!”
“There is,” he said. “But only for one of you. The dinghy behind us can fit a single soul. Anything more, no matter the size, and it will sink into the lake forever.”
I stared at Deli and Soy from across the boat. They were scared. I was scared, too.
“It’s got to be you,” said Deli. "You’re the only one who can stop Ream.”
Soy looked at me with a sad smile, and nodded.
“I know you can do it,” he said.
My eyes started to water. I looked at the liquid pouring in and shook my head. Then I turned to look at the dinghy behind me. Finally, I looked back at my friends.
“I won’t,” I said, staring right at Sebastien. “I won’t do it. I won’t leave them. This is not how the story ends.”
Sebastien stared back at me with fierce eyes. Then gave way to a great big smile.
“Very well,” he said laying down his oar. Sebastien jumped down from his perch and landed directly in the purple pool before us. It disappeared in a puff of smoke.
“A fine choice,” he continued. "It is true that my dinghy can only take one soul, but that soul is me, and only me.”
He strode past me, walking on the wooden planks inside the boat, and then jumped inside his dinghy.
“Had you chosen to leave them, you would have perished in the lake,” Sebastien said as he undid the rope connecting us. "Good luck, Cal, and remember one thing: you were chosen for a reason.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
I didn’t know what else to say. It was all so confusing. By the time I grabbed the oar at the front of the boat, Sebastien was out of sight. I felt Soy pat me on the back as I started rowing.
“Hey, you didn’t leave us,” he said.
“Of course I didn’t,” I replied, wiping my eyes. “I wouldn’t be much of a hero without you two.”
I quickly realized why Sebastien had been rowing so slowly. Any faster and I would risk sending drops from the lake back at my friends. I wasn’t sure what Sebastien’s role was in all of this, but I wondered if I had misjudged him.
It took about ten minutes to reach the dock on the far side of the lake. The two landings were identical, except that in place of a tunnel, this one had an archway with large purple double-doors. Two flaming torches burned on either side. Just like the doors before, there was a carving in the center. This one was a dwarf. Ok, so maybe, I had never seen a dwarf, but it couldn’t really be anything else. The figure had a long braided beard and a wide, brawny face. He held a hammer and a small shovel in his crossed arms. Two of my favorite tools.
“This is it,” I said aloud.
“I don’t know what will be on the other side,” Deli warned.
“I don’t think I’d want to know anyway,” said Soy.
With a push from all three of us, the doors swung open.
19. The Wells.
The cavern we entered was about half the size of the entire Stagwood Elementary. I walked forward and felt the dirt and stones crunching underneath. There was no telling how long it had been since someone, anyone had set foot there. To our right was a deep hole with a simple wooden support standing over it. Attached to the crank, a rope was hanging from down, disappearing into the hole. Whatever was inside was glowing the same orange as the shield over my flying bed. To the left there was a similar hole, except that it glowed red.
I had been picturing wells like the ones I had seen in pictures, but these looked much older. Ancient even.
“Red is for rile,” Deli told us.
That meant the orange well was for lore.
The room was wide open, without anything of note besides the wells. And after our last few run-ins, it’s safe to say we were happy that there wasn’t a creature in sight. There was, however, another plate in the center of the floor though. It sat directly between the wells, and read:
Remember what’s been found and learned.
The pen is not a gift, but earned.
The safest place to hide creation:
Hands that lack imagination.
“Great… another riddle. Cal, you figured out the last one. What does this one mean?” Soy asked me.
“I don’t know yet,” I replied.
We searched around, looking for the pen under every rock and inside every crack. There was no sign of it.
“How do we even know it’s in here?” I asked Deli.
“It’s in here,” she said.
“Where then?” Soy asked. “If it’s down another hole, I quit. We’re going to reach the other side of the world pretty soon.”
It hit me right away.
“Soy! You’re brilliant!” I shouted.
“I know. Why?” he answered.
“There are two holes here already, and we haven’t checked them,” I said.
Deli gave a smile. “Of course!” she said.
I ran over to the Well of Lore, grabbed the handle, and started turning the crank. The rope creaked and groaned as it crawled up towards us. Soy grabbed the handle to help. Deli hopped to the edge of the hole to peer down.
“I see it!” she said. “There’s a bucket coming up!”
By the time I saw the bucket, I was already sure. There was nothing inside. We finished pulling it up, anyway.
“Now what?” asked Soy.
“There’s still one more to check,” I said.
Soy shuddered. “The rile one? Do we have to?”
“We don’t have a choice,” I said.
We went over to the Well of Rile and started cranking again. This time the crank turned much slower. Soy and I were both getting tired when Deli called out.
“I see another bucket,” she said.
I kept cranking, but the muscles in my arms had started to burn. The bucket lurched into sight.
“Keep going. This one looks different!” Deli said excitedly.
When I looked down, I agreed that the inside of this bucket did look different. Something was moving inside. The last few feet were the hardest. When the bucket was finally within reach, I took it off the worn metal hook and set it down carefully next to us.
The inside of the bucket was bad news. Awful even. It was filled to the brim with purple rooze. Except this time, the rooze was much thicker and darker. The smell was overwhelming.
“More of that rooze stuff,” Soy complained.
“This looks stronger,” said Deli.
The pen had to be inside. The words of the riddle floated through my head.
Remember what’s been found and learned.
What had I learned? I had learned that dwarves liked to hide things underground. Soy had already reminded me of that a moment ago. But it wouldn’t help here.
I had also learned that this mountain was filled with tricks (like tunnels that are long and short at the same time). And I had learned from the boat that sometimes making the more dangerous choice is the only thing that will save you. That’s when it hit me. The words gained meaning and I knew what I had to do. I was starting to like these rhyming riddles.
I reached my hand inside the bucket with my right arm, past the surface of the thick rooze.
“What are you doing??” yelled Soy.
I kept reaching until my hand hit the bottom. I expected to feel the pen, and the rooze to disappear like it had in the boat. Neither happened.
Soy put his heads to his head. “Take it out of there or you’ll be monster food!”
“Cal!” cried Deli, with wide eyes.
But it was too late.
The rooze started traveling up my right arm, covering it. And it didn’t stop there. It oozed across my chest. It felt cold and hot at the same time. It made it’s way to my left arm, then down to my wrist.
“Get it off him!” shouted Soy, batting at my arm with his hands.
But when the rooze settled on my left hand it started to condense. It was being pulled and concentrated into my palm, until it formed a new shape. Much smaller. More solid.
When it stopped, I knew without looking that I was holding a pen.
20. The Pen and the Sword.
Just as the pen appeared, we heard fluttering from behind us. Two grey stones came alive and took off in flight out the door.
“What was that?” asked Soy.
“I think we’re going to find out,” answered Deli.
With a great swooping noise, the low purple light from the lake was blocked by an enormous figure. The huge, shiny talons on Ream's feet clinked on the ground as he landed. Ducking below the archway, he approached the three of us. He was flanked on both sides by dozens and dozens of fairies.
The fairies looked similar in shape to the ones in Pavidale, but they were not the same. They had no color, only greyness, and moved like they were made of stone. When their wings flapped, they left a trail of dull chalk. These was no brightness or happiness about them.
“So, Cal,” bellowed Ream, “it seems that you’ve finally lived up to your story.”
“How did you get here?” demanded Deli.
Ream slowly circled us as he spoke, kicking up dirt and dust.
“Oh, it wasn’t hard once you showed me the right door. I see now that it was under my claws this whole time. To think how many fairies I wasted on those other doors. Oh, well,” he said leaning in closer, “they were only fairies after all.”
Deli was angry.
“How dare you!” she shouted.
“Hush now, Delilah. There are more important things to worry about. Like how I will roast your new little friend if he doesn’t hand over the pen.”
“Don’t you dare!” shouted a voice from behind Ream.
The moment I heard it, I knew that it was the voice of the one fairy who might be able to get us out of this mess.
“Tryt!” I yelled.
Tryt came flying in straight past Ream and settled in front of us.
“I followed you here to make sure that nothing went wrong,” he said.
“Well, thank goodness you did,” said Deli. “Ream was about to turn us into a meal.”
Tryt turned with a smile and said, “Oh, he wouldn’t do that. I gave him strict orders not to damage the pen.”
The words cut me as they settled in.
“You… gave him orders?” said Deli.
“That’s right, Delilah," Tryt declared. "Ream has been a valuable ally to me.”
Ream let out a fiery laugh.
“Didn’t you ever wonder how I was able to steal your fairy friends? Or how I knew you’d be in the dark cloud before you even got there?” Ream said with amusement.
“Yes," Tryt responded, "I sent them straight to you, Ream, so that you could get rid of Deli and the sidekick, but you didn’t, did you?”
Ream’s toothy smile faded.
“No matter, there’s nothing they can do to stop us now, anyway,” said Tryt.
“You betrayed your friends. How could you?” screamed Deli.
“Fairies don’t matter. The Author Pen is all that matters,” said Tryt.
Suddenly, it all clicked.
“You’re the fairy from the story, the one who told the king about the wells,” I said.
“I thought he was the one who was hiding like a tiny baby?” remarked Soy.
“I was both of them, you fool. And I wasn’t hiding!” shouted Tryt. “I was following the dwarves as part of my plan. I used the king and those stubborn dwarves to help me find the wells. But once they did, I couldn’t convince them to give me the pen. At least not the important one. The one that showed the wells’ true power. The pen meant for a king! Instead, they gave me this.” Tryt pulled out the pen he had used to write my story. “The pen of a servant.”
“And… Ream?” Deli asked sadly.
“A means to an end. When I learned there was a dragon powerful enough to enslave elves, I knew that he was my best chance. That’s why I couldn’t have you defeat him. I warned him of your impending attack, and he was able to escape.”
“You did what?” Deli leapt forward. A handful of fairies flew up and intercepted her before she could reach Tryt.
“You see the advantage of an army," Tryt said with a laugh. “You see, you freed the elves when you hit him with your arrow, but he kept his rile. Power strong enough to build a new army, for me. An army made for one purpose: to find the Author Pen. I thought an army of fairies would be useful, but it turns out they were better than I could have imagined. When Ream started stealing fairies, he threatened the existence of fairytales, and a hero was chosen. ‘Dire need’, as they say. I had hoped Ream would be able to find the pen without Cal, but the dwarves were craftier than I expected. But no matter. We are here now, and the Author Pen is within my grasp, thanks to all of you.”
The pen burned in my hand. I had done exactly what they had wanted me to do. I had led Ream and Tryt and their army of fairies right to the most powerful tool in the world.
“It was a brilliant plan, wouldn’t you say?” asked Tryt boastfully.
“People don’t like it when you call your own ideas brilliant,” Soy interrupted.
Deli and I turned to face him.
“What? I’m just saying, I’ve been told that a lot,” he said softly.
“What’s in it for you, then?” I asked, turning to Ream, desperate for a way out of all this.
“Oh, not much, just control of all the humans,” he said with a grin that crawled under my skin.
“With just one swipe of a pen, I will make it so. I have little use for them,” said Tryt.
Deli tried to jump free, but no luck. Soy looked at me and motioned with his eyes that he was ready to charge Tryt. I shook my head slightly.
“That’s cute,” noticed Tryt, “but I'm afraid you won’t be a match for an army of fairies and the most powerful dragon ever known. Now hand the pen over, and I will consider letting you leave here in one piece, Cal. I will keep Soy as my own personal servant, however, and teach him some manners… the hard way.”
This wasn’t right. I had promised Soy that I’d get him out of this trouble- that I’d get us all out of this. But at that moment, I didn’t see how. I thought back to the poem. I scrolled through it in my mind, looking for anything that I might have missed, and there it was. The second stanza:
The safest place to hide creation:
Hands that lack imagination.
It was the only verse that hadn’t made sense yet. If the answer I needed wasn’t in those words, then I was lost. I started with the first line. If creation meant the Author Pen, then we had already found where it was hidden. Hadn’t we? But we had found it at the bottom of the Well of Rile. That didn’t sound much like a hand to me. And, as far as I could tell, imagination didn’t play any part in it. I was out of ideas, and I was out of time. Tryt stepped in front of me, with Ream at his back.
“The Author Pen. Give it to me now,” he said.
Tryt reached out his palm towards me. I stared at his pink hand…
“I’ll trade you,” I offered.
“What?” Ream asked.
“Give me the Fairytale Pen, and I will give you mine,” I said.
“Why would I give you any…” started Tryt, but before he could finish, I held the pen out over the Well of Rile.
Tryt took a step back in fear.
“Because if you don’t, I’ll drop the pen. Do you know what happens when a magic pen is dropped into a well of rile? Because I don’t,” I said.
“If you do, I will roast every last one of you!” shouted Ream.
Tryt closed his eyes for a moment and raised his hand to silence the dragon. “No need, my fiery friend. He can have the Fairytale Pen. It seems fitting for him to be the one to write down the terrible tales to come. Here,” Tryt said, as he tossed the Fairytale Pen to me. “Now hand over the pen before I get angry.”
“Don’t do it!” shouted Soy.
But I did. I withdrew the pen from over the well and tossed it to Tryt. He caught it with a flutter.
“I don’t believe it. It’s finally mine!” he exclaimed. “Send in the book!”
Grey fairies flew into the room carrying the Book of Lore that I had seen back in Pavidale, when things seemed so different, and Tryt was still on our side. Tryt flew off to the edge of the room and set to work on the book.
“Shall I finish the frog off?” asked Ream.
“Not yet. I want her to see this,” answered Tryt as he opened the book to the pages of my fairytale.
Deli looked at me with sad eyes.
“Oh, Cal. We’ve failed," she sobbed.
I shook my head and told her, “Nobody writes my story but me.”
I heard an angry clamor echoing in the great cavern.
“It’s not working! Why isn’t it working!” Tryt screamed.
21. The Hero.
I opened my hand and looked at the pen that Tryt had been so ready to give up. I wished harder than I ever had before that I was right. Lifting the pen, I started to write in mid-air.
The first stroke gave off a few sparks, almost too few to notice. But the next stroke made a brilliant line of orange as clear as day.
Ream had taken notice.
“Tryt, did you know that your pen could do that?” Ream asked.
“I’m busy!” shouted Tryt, still struggling to write in the book. “Why won’t it let me write what I want!”
The words started coming to me and didn’t stop, as I wrote in the air:
The fairies that the dragon stole,
Were all set free from his control.
The stone fairies started to shed the chalky greyness off their bodies. Their original colors started to shine through. Ream took a step back. The fairies flapped their wings, removing the last remnants of grey, and flew toward the dragon. Soon they had him on the ground, holding his mouth shut to prevent him from breathing fire.
The commotion got Tryt’s attention. “What’s going on?” he shouted.
That’s when he saw my words, etched in the air. They were moving now, towards Tryt. But instead of hitting him, they flew into the book leaving a trail of smoke.
“How did you do that?!” asked Deli.
Tryt tried desperately to write in the air as I had, but nothing happened.
“I don’t understand it! You’re using the wrong pen!” he screeched.
“No, Tryt. You are.”
Tryt’s face twisted.
“What do you mean??”
“I think you might find the answer in the beginning of your book,” I said.
Tryt flipped to the first tale of the book, the one that had always been locked. But this time, with the true Fairytale Pen in his hand, he was finally able to turn the pages.
“What does it say?” asked Soy.
Tryt read the tale, with fire in his eyes, as I explained, “It tells the story of the King of the Mountain and his siblings. And Tryt, following the dwarves to find the wells for himself.”
“You mean the dwarves knew?” asked Deli.
“They must have, because they kept the true Fairytale Pen here in the wells, the one that tells the stories of good and evil. They knew that Tryt would stop at nothing to find the Author Pen, so they kept its identity secret.”
“This can't be!" Tryt wailed.
I continued, “They hid it in the safest place they could think of ...in hands that lack imagination. Your hands, Tryt.”
“All this time, I had the pen! And I never knew?!” Tryt moaned.
“Of course!” said Deli. “He values power more than anything, so he couldn’t fathom that the dwarves had given it to him freely… but you could,” she said as she turned to me.
Tryt began to shake with fury.
“Give it me!” he shouted, and flew straight for me.
Before he could reach me, Soy stepped in front and caught Tryt mid-air. He held him down against the ground.
“You don’t fly at my friend!” said Soy, “It lacks… manners.”
I quickly wrote in the air above his head.
The fairy’s magic left forever,
Immediately Tryt's pink glow began to fade until his skin was a pale white.
“What have you done to me? You can’t!” he protested.
I thought for a moment, then finished the line.
Tackled by a boy more clever.
Soy gave me a huge smile as he read the words. Tryt spit and sputtered under him. Then I turned my attention to Ream, who was still struggling against the fairies.
The dragon lost his breath and flight,
I had written it just in time. Ream burst out from beneath the fairies, and turned towards us with his mouth wide open. But only air came out.
“What, what did you do to me?” he said. In his anger he hurtled towards me.
Never more to start a fight.
The dragon stopped in his tracks.
“You won’t be causing trouble anymore, Ream. Neither of you will,” I added as I glared at Tryt. I took another few moments to think, and then I started writing in the sky again:
The stolen fairies, safe and sound,
Those they lost would now be found.
The fairies zipped out of the room towards the other side of the lake. I knew they’d be headed straight for Pavidale. And if I had done it right, every fairy who had been sent through those dark cloud doors would be there waiting for them. That thought gave me another idea.
The dragon and his fairy friend,
Were sent away at story’s end,
To live inside a darkened cloud,
Where only warlugs are allowed.
All at once, Tryt was flung from Soy’s grip straight into Ream’s stomach (who was being tugged away much slower).
“This is not over!” said Tryt as he and Ream were dragged by an invisible force.
Ream didn’t say a word. He just smiled a toothy grin at me as they were swept from the room.
My words floated in the air for another second, then flew inside the book. The moment they did, there was an orange flash behind me. Soy and I turned around to see that Deli was the source of it. She had changed. She was no longer a frog. In fact, she was about as far from a frog as you could get. Deli was a tall, pretty elf with long dark hair and pointy ears. Her glasses surrounded big brown eyes and freckled cheeks. Without them, I might not have known it was her.
“Whoa!” said Soy.
She gave us both a warm smile.
“Thank you! Oh, thank you!” Deli said as she ran over and gave us a hug.
When she pulled away I noticed that she was wearing braces. I guessed they must’ve been hard to see when she was frog.
“But… you’re young. I thought you’ve been around for a long time,” I said.
“I have been," she said, “but elves age differently than humans. I’m still a teenager in elf years. That’s why I have to wear these braces. ‘One day that hero will come along and turn you back into an elf, so you’d better take care of your teeth, frog or not!’ my dad is always saying. He’s the King of the Elves,” she said.
“Right, of course,” I remembered.
“Well,” she said, “let’s get out of here before something else happens!”
22. the Lake.
Sebastien was waiting for us at the dock. This time there was no dinghy behind his boat.
“So,” he asked, “how’d it go? Saw an awful lot of fairies and one big dragon leaving in a hurry over my lake.”
“It went all right,” Soy said modestly. “I got to tackle an evil fairy.”
“Good for you,” said Sebastien sincerely.
We started for the other side of the lake.
“What are you going to do with the pen?” asked Soy with excitement.
The pens and the Book of Lore were sitting next to me.
“Well, I think it’s only right to return the book and the real Fairytale Pen back to the fairies,” I said.
“No, not that pen. I mean the Author Pen. You can use it to create anything you want! You saw what it did back there!” Soy was getting more and more animated as he spoke.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” I answered.
“Instead of just doodling you could be creating entire cities! Kingdoms! The possibilities are endless!” Soy said.
Deli placed her hand over mine.
“What do you think you should do with it?” she asked kindly.
I looked at Sebastien. He was watching me intently, as well.
His words were running through my head. “You were chosen for a reason.” Deli had said that I thought differently than Tryt, and that was why I discovered the identity of the Author Pen. But that couldn’t be all. Maybe I was chosen so that I could put the pen to good use. There was so much that I could do with it. But… that didn’t seem like the answer either.
Instead of just recording tales in the Book of Lore, Tryt could have been using the pen to create his own version of things. There’s no telling what he would have done if he had known. In their cleverness, the dwarves had tricked him, to conceal the pen’s identity. Above all else, they wanted it protected. And in a way, they were the ones who had chosen me to do it. The needed someone to find the pen who would know what to do with it once the story was over. And I did.
I picked the pen out of my pocket and wrote one last note in small letters, covering it with my other hand. I waited until the words were safely inside the book, then reached my hand out over the side of the boat. I shut my eyes and dropped the pen into the lake.
Deli let out a laugh and gave me a hug.
“What? What?... But…What?” was all that Soy could say.
Sebastien smirked at me and continued rowing.
Soy let out a sigh. “Well, I don’t get it, but I don’t get most of this, anyway.”
Soon we were on the other side of the lake. Sebastien pulled us up to the dock and held the boat steady as we stepped out.
“How will we get back up?” I asked him.
“Same way you got down,” he answered.
“Thank you!” I said as we all waved goodbye.
“It was my pleasure. Best fare I ever had,” Sebastien said with a wink.
He disappeared into a purple mist before I could respond. When we approached the tunnel again, I still didn’t know what Sebastien had meant.
“He said, ‘same way you got down’,” Deli repeated.
As I stuck my hand past the opening, felt something odd. There was a gravity inside the hole, pulling me in, same as from the other direction.
“Soy,” I said, “try to enjoy it this time.”
I jumped forward and was immediately falling again- this time upside down. A few minutes later, I was tossed up and into the cave room with the five animal doors. I noticed that the doors were all open and calm.
The only stirring was far away at the bottom of the cloud beyond the middle door. I peered through, down from the top of the cloud. There was a golden dragon and a fairy, surrounded by a circle of warlugs. Moments later, Soy and Deli popped out of the tunnel. I closed the door shut.
Outside the entrance of the mountain, my bed was waiting for us. It was nice to see it again. I probably could have fallen asleep on it right then and there, but I knew there was a lot of traveling left to do, so I climbed on top and took my spot up front.
“Hey Deli,” I asked, “do you know a good place for three heroes to celebrate after an adventure?”
“I do,” she responded with a smile.
And with that, we set off for Pavidale on my flying bed.
I pressed the SQUEEZE button and felt the bed pinch. With a few more clicks, I was lying in my bed in my room on Windfall Drive. I pulled the pillow and phone hard until they popped out, and then put them back where they belonged. It was a normal bed again, at least for now. I laid down my head, wanting to fall asleep. It felt strange to be back, but I didn’t have much time to dwell on it.
I could hear my mom on the phone downstairs.
“Where could they be?” she asked frantically.
“We’ll go looking again in the morning. Maybe they went camping,” my dad said, trying to hide his own concern.
“They ran away from school, took all of the food and a bed to go camping? Who takes a bed camping?!” my mother cried.
“They’re kids, they don’t know how to camp. Heck, I don’t even know how to camp,” my father said.
I called down to them, “Mom! Dad!”
They ran upstairs in no time at all and threw open my door. “Cal! You’re okay!” they said, hugging me fiercely.
“Of course I am. Soy and I were out camping is all," I said, too tired to think of a different excuse. My dad gave my mom a knowing grin and a nudge. She was not amused.
“What do you mean camping?! How did you get your bed up here?! What were you thinking? You are more grounded than you’ve ever been in your entire life!” my mom said without taking a breath.
“It’s ok dear, he’s here and he’s safe,” said my dad trying to calm her.
“I’m so happy you’re ok,” she said hugging me again. “But you are in so much trouble. You don’t even know,” she said squeezing me even harder.
I knew that she meant it.
“You look exhausted. We’ll deal with this in the morning. Dad will guard your door tonight to make sure that you don’t sneak out again.”
Now my dad was the one who didn’t look amused. I was in trouble and there was nothing I could do about it. Still, as I drifted off to sleep, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any way to fish a magic pen out of a rooze lake.
“Soy, were you out with Cal? His mom left me a bunch of frantic messages,” Soy’s mom asked while microwaving some dinner.
“Yeah, I told you, we went on a mission to save the world. You never listen to me!” he shouted back at her from up the stairs.
“Okay then, sorry dear,” she said calmly.
A few seconds later she heard a loud commotion.
“MOM!” he yelled.
“What is it Soy?” she shouted back.
Then came the excited footsteps of Soy barreling down the stairs. When he appeared in the kitchen, he was holding an enormous pile of clothes taller than his head.
“Look!” he shouted.
Soy dropped one hundred pairs of rocketship underwear onto the kitchen floor.
Months had passed since our adventure. I was only allowed out of the house for school. My hopes were high that someday soon I’d be released from my punishment. Deli had been away with the elves. She couldn’t tell us what it was about, but she assured us that she’d be back soon. Soy and I didn’t say it out loud, but neither of us could wait to see her again.
I was sitting in class drawing again, listening to another lecture from Miss Weaver.
“The first capital of the United States was actually Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Speaking of which, did I ever tell you that the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles was actually a former student of mine?” she began to repeat.
Ever since we visited Pavidale a second time, my daydreams were all about clouds. Some of the time I would doodle the inside of a cloud with lore, like Pavidale, but different. It was somewhere that seemed even farther away. Most times I would draw the inside of a single dark cloud. Every time I did, the inside was a bit different. Structures appeared where there didn’t used to be anything, and little by little it seemed to look more… organized.
That’s when a small ball of paper landed on my desk. Then another hit the right side of my face. I looked across my row and saw Soy staring at me.
“What?” I mouthed.
“Low cow hair,” he mouthed back.
“What?” I said with a shake of my head.
“Look. Out. There.” he mouthed again, pointing to the window next to me.
There was a squirrel sitting on the windowsill. It might be nothing, I thought. Squirrels run around the yard all the time. But, when I looked again, there was no mistaking it, this squirrel was staring inside the classroom, right at me.
What were the odds that this would be happening again? It probably doesn’t mean anything, I thought.
Until I saw its watch.