What the Whumtroll had not seen, while its bulging eyes were so fixed on Brent’s tear stained face disappearing into its own mouth, was the Marshwallow. He was standing in the river, his fishing pole in one paw and the other over his mouth.
The Marshwallow was very young for a swamp monster, but he was very old compared to the rest of us, and the old and young parts of him exploded inside him like fireworks and grenades going off.
“WAAAAaaaaaAAAAAA!” wailed the Marshwallow. “YOU GREAT BIG MEANY!” (That was the young part of him, throwing a tantrum and panicking at the same time.)
The very old part of him reached one long strong arm down into the water and caught the Whumtroll by the foot so it couldn’t swim away and disappear forever. He knew, from decades of dealing with Whumtrolls, that he was no good at dealing with Whumtrolls. They confoundered him and hurt his feelings. No, you had to be assertive with them. Bossy. Maybe even a little mean. Who was the bossiest, meanest person that he knew?
The Marshwallow stuck out his lip. Now he remembered. “BOLLYGOGGLE! BOLLYGOGGLE! BOLLYGOGGLE!” roared the Marshwallow, so loudly that a few of the younger trees bent over to get out of the way.
Bollygoggle was nowhere near that part of Otherworld, but names have magic summoning powers. (Wouldn’t you come, if you heard your name rumbling in the distance like thunder, being called incessantly by a swamp monster? See, magic!)
Bollygoggle was very red faced when he arrived. He had to stand on the stump and rest his hands on his knees and pant for a few moments before he could even look up at the Marshwallower.
“Wha--what is being wrong?”
“Whumtroll,” said the Marshwallower. “Ate him, ate him up like a meany!”
“Ate who?!” cried Bollygoggle.
“The booooyyyyyyy!” wailed the Marshwallow. He wasn’t crying Whumtroll tears, either. He was a genuinely tenderhearted swamp monster and couldn’t stand the thought of anyone being eaten by the Whumtroll.
“Look here, you--you!” shouted Bollygoggle down into the water. “You be spitting him out RIGHT NOW!”
The Whumtroll started crying under the water. “Everyone is falsely accusing me! I didn’t do anything wrong! It’s all lies!”
“That boy!” shouted Bollygoggle. “Spit him out!”
“I did-didn’t eat anyone,” blubbered the Whumtroll.
Bollygoggle gave the Marshwallower a look. “Pull him up, that’s being a good giant monster.”
The Marshwallow snuffled, nodding, and pulled it up.
The Whumtroll was an ugly, ugly beast, dangling by one leg and kicking furiously with its three others. It was almost like a round, flat, yellow toad, but it was not nearly as dignified or as considerate as a toad. No, it was barbaric and ugly and had more teeth than was good for anyone.
“You, you are hurting me,” whimpered the Whumtroll. “You are not nice at all. You--you--”
“Oh, shut up,” said Bollygoggle.
“You’re insensitive!” shouted the Whumtroll.
“You bet your flat bottom I am being insensitive,” snapped Bollygoggle. “I’m being a selfish and cranky and sometimes out right MEAN imp.”
The Marshwallow was sucking his free paw and watching in awe. A Whumtroll had tried to eat him when he was little, and he was rather afraid of them. Of course, little by Marshwallower standards was still much too big for a Whumtroll to swallow, but it had hurt excruciatingly.
“How--how are you--” gasped the Whumtroll.
“Not being mind controlled?” sneered Bollygoggle. “Because I am being too wise and self-aware. Because I know that along with being insensitive and selfish and cranky and sometimes mean, I am also being loyal and wise and resourceful and forgiving.”
The Whumtroll started crying again, but this time they were real tears. “Stop!”
Bollygoggle crossed his arms.
The Marshwallower did, too, which meant that the Whumtroll, still hanging by one hind leg, went flying over Bollygoggle’s head and flopped despondently at the Marshwallower’s side. “I don’t like the Whumtroll,” said the Marshwallower. “He ate boy.”
“Ah, yes, we’re still having to get him out.” Bollygoggle tapped his lip. “We must make the Whumtroll sick, so he will be spitting the boy out.”
The Marshwallower grinned. “I could play catch with him. I like to play catch.” He got ready to toss the Whumtroll straight up into the air as far as it would go.
The Marswhallower’s lip quivered.
“It is being a--a goodish idea,” said Bollygoggle. “But we are not wanting to be hurting the boy inside the Whumtroll.”
“Oh,” said the Marshwallower. “Okay. No catch.”
“We need someone who is being an expert at making people sick,” said Bollygoggle. “I will call Harnswiggle. She is having the most experience of anyone I know.”
The Marshwallower expected Bollygoggle to start shouting, just as he had done, but Bollygoggle got a little grey box out of his pocket. “It’s a Phone,” said Bollygoggle proudly. “Of the Cell variety. King Dehn got it for me, when he was being at the mall. A present.”
The Marshwallower was very impressed.
Bollygoggle bit his lip, and pulled his ears, and stomped his feet, and then, finally, he remembered how to turn the phone on and dial Harnswiggle’s number.
There was a very loud, very shrill ring.
“Hello?!” shouted Harnswiggle through the phone. “You’ve reached Harnswiggle! I am using a PHONE!”
“Hello, Harnswiggle, I am needing your help,” said Bollygoggle.
“Who is this?” asked Harnswiggle.
“Oh! Bollygoggle, I can’t hear you… breaking… flying with… didn’t die, thanking good…”
“HARNSWIGGLE!” shouted Bollygoggle. “I CAN’T UNDERSTAND YOU.”
“Redwood, and then Pinkletina said…”
“HARNSWIGGLE, I NEED YOUR HELP!”
“Dish soap is not good for… and he says… welp, that was exciting! Got to go, Bollygoggle, it was great to talk to you on a PHONE!”
Bollygoggle and the Marshwallower looked at each other.
Even the Whumtroll rolled its eyes.
“Well,” said Bollygoggle.
“I feel a little sick,” offered the Marwhallower.
“We need to work faster,” said Bollygoggle, poking the Whumtroll in the belly with his stick. “There’s no telling who Brent will be meeting in there.”
The Whumtroll started crying again, but Bollygoggle just bopped it on the head with his stick, and it stopped.
Bollygoggle’s phone dinged, and it startled him so much he dropped it. Luckily, it landed on his foot. Cautiously, as if afraid it might bite, he picked it up with two fingers.
“I have received A TEXT.”
The Marswallower’s eyes welled up with tears. “That sounds frightennnnnniiiinnnnnggg!”
“It is,” said Bollygoggle. “But I think I’m up to the task.”
There was more foot stomping and ear pulling before Bollygoggle remembered how to read his texts. “Here is what it is saying: WHY IS HARNSWIGGLE YELLING IN THE KITCHEN? And it is being from the human girl, LINDA.”
“Oh,” said the Marshwallower.
“I will send her A TEXT back,” said Bollygoggle. “Dear,” he typed, and then deleted it again quickly. “To whom it may be concerning,” he typed, and then nodded to himself. Excellent start. “I was needing Harnswiggle’s help in making the Whumtroll sick. We are needing it to throw up, before it is being TOO LATE and the boy BRENT is being digested.” He rubbed his hat brim. “TYFYCRAAIWABCTHNI.”
“What does TYFYCRAAIWABCTHNI mean?” whispered the Marshwallower.
“Oh, that’s how people are speaking when they send A TEXT,” said Bollygoggle. “It means Thank You for Your Considerate Reply All Advice Is Welcome We Are Being Close to Having No Ideas.”
“Wow,” said the Marshwallow.
The Whumtroll laughed. It was an ugly laugh, that someone would laugh after they had just eaten one of the sweetest teenage boys who had ever lived. “I have an idea. You could let me go.”
“That is being a horrible idea,” said Bollygoggle.
“But, you, darling--”
“NO!” said the Marshwallower.
“I have received A REPLY TEXT!” cried Bollygoggle. “It is saying ‘OHMYGOSH where are you I am coming don’t move is Brent okay do I need to get an ambulance does Grandpa I mean the Chronicler know about this?!?!?!?!?!?!?” Bollygoggle blinked. “I was not knowing that you save all of the punctuation for the ending when you are sending A REPLY TEXT.”
“We are being at the Marshwallower’s river Brent is being fine except for being eaten he probably will want to go home once he is saved but otherwise being eaten is not usually lasting unless one is eaten permanently?!?!?!?!”
“Do you think that’s enough punctuation?” Bollygoggle asked the Marswhallower. “I don’t want to seem chintzy.”
“I think you should say bring human food,” said the Marshwallower.
“Do you think it would make the Whumtroll sick?”
The Marshwallower looked guilty. “I was going to eat it. YUM.”
Bollygoggle sighed. “We have a human being DIGESTED here.” Shaking his head, he pressed SEND.
Literally five seconds later, Linda appeared. “Grandpa went into town with Grandma,” she panted. “I wrote me here in the book, because--EEEEEKKKK!”
The Marshwallower and the Whumtroll both looked at her, unsure of which she was screaming at.
“WHAT IS THAT THING?!”
“Whumtroll,” said the Marshwallower. “He’s a meany!”
“He ate your--”
“THAT THING ATE BRENT?!”
Linda almost attacked the Whumtroll with her bare hands. She got right up to it, close enough for it to see its miserable lying life flash before its eyes, before she took a few deep breaths.
“Bollygoggle,” she said, in her calmest, I-am-NOT-going-to-rip-anything-limb-from-limb-until-I-know-all-of-the-details-voice. “Are you sure that Brent was eaten by this thing?”
“Very,” said Bollygoggle.
“I saw it with my own eyes,” said the Marshwallower. He started crying again at just the memory.
“And how do we get Brent out?”
“We are needing to make the Whumtroll sick so he will be spitting Brent out.”
“But they’re out of ideas,” said the Whumtroll, flashing a wicked smile through its wicked teeth.
It was the worst thing it could have done.
Linda walked the two steps closer so she could jab it under the chin. “You listen to me, you freak. You’re going to throw my friend up right now, or I’m going to give you something to feel sick about, you understand?”
“You can’t hurt me,” said the Whumtroll. “Nice people don’t hurt innocent creatures.”
“Innocent creatures don’t swallow people whole,” said Linda. “So let me make myself very clear. My grandfather is the Chronicler, which means he has all of these amazing, magical books.” Linda ran the point of her finger downwards, to where there was a suspicious bulge in the Whumtroll’s stomach. “That means that all I have to do is write Brent uneaten. And then--” she smiled wickedly. “Then I’m--”
“But why would you want to help Brent,” interrupted the Whumtroll, to try and distract her.
“He’s my friend,” said Linda. “Why would I possibly not want to help him?”
The Whumtroll turned the lightest shade of green.
“Marshwallow,” said Linda, thinking. “Do you think you could pry the Whumtroll’s mouth open? Then I could put my arm down--”
“You would put your arm down in that thing’s mouth?!” shrieked Bollygoggle. “That is being unsanitary and disgusting me!”
“Brent is down there!” yelled Linda. “Being digested! So yes, I think I would put my arm down that freak’s throat if that’s what it takes!”
“We will just be writing him out,” said Bollygoggle.
“That means we have to take him all the way back to Grandpa’s house. What if it takes too long?”
“We have to get the boy oooouuuuuttt!” The Marshwallow was crying so hard that it sounded like a small rainstorm. “He’s too nice to be eeeaaatteeen!”
“Please stop,” murmured the Whumtroll, looking queasy.
Linda got an evil, evil grin on her face, almost as evil as the one Roger would get when he got A Grand Idea. “You don’t like it when we say nice things about Brent? Why? You don’t like it that he’s about the most considerate guy on the planet?”
“Oh dear,” sighed Bollygoggle. “Saying nice things about people isn’t being my strongest suit.” Then he got an evil grin that more than matched Linda’s. “Lucky that it is Brent we are of. He is being easy to think of nice things to say about.”
Linda high fived him as the Whumtroll moaned. “It’s like the whole word is spinning.”
“Brent is a good boy,” said the Marshwallow. “He is always polite and friendly, even if I am a giant swamp monster!”
“Please,” whimpered the Whumtroll.
Linda took a deep breath. It was time for her final onslaught. Looking the Whumtroll straight in his greasy green eyes, she squared her shoulders. “Brent is my best friend.”
The Whumtroll’s eyeballs rolled back and it gave a great gurgling heave. With that, and a little extra help in the form of a shake from the Marshwallower, Brent fell right out.
“UUUUUUuuuggggHHHH!” bellowed Brent, the little fish darting away from his flailing arms.
“Are you all right?” cried Linda.
“THAT THING ATE ME!” shouted Brent, still in shock.
“Yes, it did!” Linda whirled on it, her relief at seeing Brent all in one piece being transformed into fury. “I’M GOING TO MAKE YOU SORRY!”
“AAAAaaaahhhHHH!” screamed the Whumtroll. And then it bit the Marshwallow on the leg.
“GGrrrrUUUfff!” shouted the Marshwallower.
Bollygoggle thwacked the Whumtroll with his stick, and Linda socked it a solid punch with her left, and the Marshwallower pulled until the Whumtroll looked strangely stretched.
Brent smacked it right in the eye.
That made it let go, all right, but the Marshwallow in a combination of agony and anger hurled it as hard as it could over its head.
Unfortunately, that meant the Whumtroll went flying over the trees for the length of several football fields, soccer fields, and even a hockey field.
It was long gone.
“You let it get away!” shouted Bollygoggle.
“What was that creepy thing?” asked Linda, wiping her hands carefully on her paints to get the goo off.
“It was being a Whumtroll.”
“I thought Otherworld only had the best of everything!” raged Linda.
“Invasive species,” said Bollygoggle, scrunching his face up with disgust.
“Blech,” said Brent. “I’ve got slimy green guts all over me!”
Linda knelt down beside him and started splashing water over him. The good brown swamp water was only too happy to help.
“I have never heard of a Whumtroll,” said Brent. “And I wish I had never met one.” He curled up in a little ball, which was most certainly not his usual way of handling things.
“Whumtrolls are being very persuasive,” said Bollygoggle. “But they are all being terrible liars. You must not be believing anything Whumtrolls say.”
“I can’t help it. It all sounded--true.”
Linda scrunched up her face. “That thing literally swallowed you whole. I doubt it had any interest at all in the truth.”
“It said I wasn’t a good friend,” whispered Brent. “That I ruined people’s days. That I never should have come to Otherworld, that I was a mistake. That I was a wet blanket and…” a tear dripped down his cheek. “That no one wanted to be around me.”
“Brent, none of that was true.” Linda looked him in the eyes. “Don’t you think I’d have told you if I thought any of that?! You know me--I just say whatever I want!”
Brent tried to smile, but he was still too sad.
“I am not liking people,” said Bollygoggle. “Like, any people. And even I am liking you.”
“You’re a good boy,” added the Marshwallower, who had been sucking his paw and crying the whole time.
Brent blinked up at him. “You’re the good boy, Marshwallower. If it wasn’t for you, I would probably have never been heard from again.” He patted him on a giant mossy paw. “Thanks.”
The Marshwallower turned pink, which is very hard for a giant green moss-covered monster to do. “Awww--”
“No, I mean it,” said Brent. “You did absolutely the right thing. I’m very grateful.”
“Me, too,” said Linda. “Without you, my best friend would still be eaten.”
Brent gaped, his mouth hanging open.
“What?” She cocked her head at him.
“I’m your best friend?!”
She blushed and pushed him playfully on the shoulder. “Nah, I was talking about the Whumtroll. Of course I met you!”
Brent’s grin spread from ear to ear. “Thanks, Linda.”
“Don’t get all mushy on me, I’ll probably throw up like he did. Come on, you need a shower.”
“Yeah, I do,” said Brent, trying not to look at himself so he wouldn’t turn green.
“I’ll walk you home,” said Linda. “Make sure nothing else takes a bite out of you.”
“I think I’ll be walking with you,” volunteered Bollygoggle. “In case you are needing someone with my skills and--”
The Marshwallower scooped them all up and set them on his back. “Not lonely anymore.”
“You’re lonely?” Brent asked the Marshwallower, placing his hand on the nubby green shoulder he was sitting on.
“Not when you’re around.”
“I’m glad,” said Brent. “I’ll come around more often, okay?”
The Marshwallower didn’t feel like crying anymore.
And neither did Brent.
He got to the slough and shoved his hands in his pockets. There was very little water--it was October and the summer rains had gone home to the sea. But there was still a little water, and he didn’t feel like getting his feet wet. “Oh, well,” he told himself crossly. “You’re the one who had the bright idea to come this way.”
He trudged on.
Then he came to the swamp, and he had to stop completely. He had never come this way by himself before. Was the water shallow enough he could wade? Or was a dark, unseen river cutting through, deep enough he would lose his foothold and drop down into the black water? Brent could swim, of course, but he didn’t feel like swimming. He had already gotten his feet wet.
“Why am I even going to King Dehn’s?” Brent grumped to himself. “No one is expecting me. No one is wanting me to be there.”
“You’re quite right,” said a voice, seeming to come from nowhere.
“Who--who’s there?” gasped Brent.
“You are,” said the voice. “And you’re ruining the view.”
“I’m very sorry,” said Brent. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Of course you didn’t mean to,” said the voice. It was now low and soothing, the sort of voice that has switched to a forced kind of gentleness. “You never mean it when you hurt people’s feelings, now, do you?”
“I hurt people’s feelings?” asked Brent.
“Certainly. Why else would Linda have stopped talking to you. Hmmm?”
Brent shuddered. “How did you know about that?”
A stump, a clump of grass, a shadow in the water stirred. Two great greenish yellowish eyes opened, exactly like a toad’s eyes peering at you above the water while the rest of its face stays hidden underneath. The eyes looked at Brent, and Brent looked at the eyes, and there was a long silence.
“I said,” said Brent, “how did you know?”
“Oh dear,” said the voice that belonged to the eyes. “You said that, did you? But ‘said’ implies a statement, and you very clearly used an interrogative sentence. Mavis would never have made such an awful mistake.”
“Mavis is very clever,” admitted Brent, his cheeks flushing. He felt terribly, horribly embarrassed, even though he didn’t know why. Being embarrassed made him feel even more miserable than he had felt before.
And his feet were still wet.
“Well,” and the eyes blinked. “If you dislike getting your feet wet so much, why in the worlds did you come this way? You could have been sitting on a nice, dry train, letting it carry you where you wanted to go, but instead, here you are. Walking. With muddy socks. I really am worried about you, Brent. You don’t seem to be making very good choices.”
“I wanted to be alone,” explained Brent. Saying it out loud, it suddenly seemed very foolish. What a stupid reason to walk three or four miles in the heat and the damp, just to get to a place where no one was even expecting him. Now Brent felt stupid and feeling stupid made him feel defensive. “Why should you care if I decided to walk, anyway?”
One of Brent’s friends--his real friends--would have known it was very unlike Brent to snap at anyone. It was very unlike Brent to even be cross in the first place.
But the owner of the eyes sighed a deep, deep sigh. “Why do I care? Why? Oh, Brent. Because I care about you; I’m worried about you.”
Brent didn’t have any argument against that. How could you argue against someone caring about you? He sat on a stump. “I didn’t even know you knew me,” he confessed. “I think I really ought to at least know your name.”
“Oh,” sighed the voice, and the eyes blinked. “No one ever remembers me. No one ever stays. They always come. They always go.” The eyes blinked back the first of their tears. “I’m the Whumtroll. No one ever listens to me.”
“I’m listening, Mr Whumtroll,” said Brent gently.
It was still crying, great, green tears plopping thickly into the water. There was a little hiss of steam, as the good brown swamp shrunk away.
“Please, please stop crying,” gasped Brent.
The Whumtroll sniffered and swallered, using one strange, leathery finger to swipe away the last of its tears. “I can’t help it. My life is full of woe. Of pain. Of--” It shook its head. Some things were just too awful to speak of.
Brent shook his own head worriedly. “I am so sorry. You seem so--”
“Depressed,” whispered the Whumtroll. “I’m depressed.”
“Oh,” said Brent. He had read about depression in the newspaper. It was different than sadness, somehow. More horrible and hard to bear. People who suffered from depression needed extra love and care. At least, that is what the article had said.
“You know what makes it even harder?” asked the Whumtroll, rolling its eyes up to the heavens.
“Oh, oh dear,” said Brent. He hadn’t known depression could be even harder.
“When you are depressed, no one wants to be friends with you. You end up all alone. It’s a fact.”
Maybe that was it, thought Brent. He was selfish and sad. No wonder Linda hadn’t returned his texts yesterday, when he had been thinking about his dad. He’d probably ruined her night. Why was he being so needy?
“You know,” said the Whumtroll softly. “I don’t mind that you’re selfish and sad. I care about you anyway. I think--I think you’re cool.”
“Really?” asked Brent, feeling as if he had last found a light at the end of a very long tunnel.
“Yes,” said the Whumtroll. “You stopped to talk to me, didn’t you? Everyone else is too busy running around, having lives. Being happy. None of those people have any time for poor old me.”
“I have time for you,” said Brent. And then, because he felt like he had to, he added: “I’ll always have time for you.”
“You’re...you’re getting more sensitive, aren’t you? You were such a jerk, but now you are almost nice. I’m such a good influence on you.”
Goodness, thought Brent to himself. I was a jerk. It’s such a good thing I stopped to talk to the Whumtroll.
Underneath the water, the Whumtroll’s belly was rolling with laughter. On top of the water, his eyes started to water. “Do you know why I’m so, so very lonely? Because people are so cruel. They never want to listen.”
“Yeah,” said Brent, miserable from his sweaty forehead to his wet feet. “Yeah, like the other night, when I tried to explain to Linda that I’m not trying to be a wet blanket. It’s just--well, it’s just--”
“But you were being a wet blanket,” interrupted the Whumtroll.
Brent sucked in his breath. “Really?”
“Yes,” said the Whumtroll. “I hate to have to tell you, I really do. I’m only saying it because I’m your friend. I won’t talk about it behind your back, like those people do.”
“People say that behind my back?”
“Oh,” said the Whumtroll, almost slyly. “No, no, they don’t say that exactly, they say--well, I shouldn’t tell you what they say. You could get depressed.”
“What? What did they say?!”
“They said…” the Whumtroll took a deep breath. “They said you were never supposed to come to Otherworld in the first place, it was all a horrible mistake. They just don’t want you around here.”
Brent couldn’t say anything. He was numb.
“I stood up for you,” continued the Whumtroll. “I said, aren’t we supposed to give people a chance? Isn’t it what nice people do for… people who aren’t as nice?”
Brent rubbed his finger up the bridge of his nose. He wasn’t angry. He was just…sad. He felt like he had known it, deep down, the whole time. He couldn’t blame them for saying it behind his back. They were right.
“Who--who was it that said it?” asked Brent, so quietly the minnows swimming by shook their heads, filled with pity.
“There you go again,” said the Whumtroll. “Making everything about you. You haven’t even asked me about my day.”
“Oh,” said Brent. “Oh, I’m so sorry. How was your day?”
“Miserable,” snapped the Whumtroll, even though he was beginning to smile under the water. “People are never around when you need them. When you--when you really--really need a friend!” The Whumtroll’s voice rose higher and higher until it squeaked. Then it burst into tears again.
“Oh, oh, please!” Brent thought he was going to cry, too. He didn’t want to stay there talking endlessly, but then he remembered the Whumtroll was depressed. He needed to be patient. He needed to give the Whumtroll extra love and care. He needed to stop being so selfish and insensitive. Why did he keep making this about him? Brent shook himself. “Here, okay, here, why don’t you tell me all about it? See? I’ll sit right here.”
The Whumtroll took care to keep its hungry, toothy grin under the water. “You won’t understand. No one does. Not a single soul in all the worlds.”
“I’ll--I’ll try to understand,” offered Brent.
“You’ll try,” mocked the Whumtroll.
“It’s the best I can do,” said Brent, putting his head down. He cried, just a tiny bit, hoping the Whumtroll wouldn’t see it.
The Whumtroll did.
“It’s because no one is ever there for me,” said the Whumtroll. “They say they’re your friends, but then--do they show up when you need them? Do they look out for you? No. They always leave. Always. Always. Always. There isn’t a single person anywhere who is actually a good friend!”
“No one can be a good friend all of the time,” said Brent. “We all make mistakes.”
“You’re just saying that because you make bigger mistakes than anyone,” sneered the Whumtroll.
Brent didn’t have anything left to say. He felt completely empty and used up. He felt like he had been punched and pinched and tossed around in a circle, and he felt guilty for thinking about how he felt at all.
The Whumtroll was watching the tears roll down Brent’s cheeks and rubbing his hands together under the water, his long, thin, angry fingers cracking with anticipation.
“You know,” said the Whumtroll despondently, “there is only one thing that can make me better-it’s just one, simple, little thing-- but no one will ever--”
“I’ll do it!” cried Brent, if only to get the Whumtroll to stop talking. Brent was getting a headache, and the more the Whumtroll talked, the more his head hurt.
“Really?” The Whumtroll’s eyes blinked and widened, as if completely and utterly surprised. But, safely underneath the water, it was licking its lips with its thin forked tongue. “Maybe I’ve misjudged you, Brent, maybe—no, no, you’d never go through with it.”
“I’ll do it,” said Brent again, standing up and shoving his hands in his pockets. “Just tell me what it is.”
“You are a real friend,” wailed the Whumtroll. “And to think I almost didn’t ask you! I could have spent my whole life in misery and woe!”
“Just tell me what it is!” snapped Brent, and his face got even redder. He was really, truly angry now. At everyone else, for not helping the Whumtroll ages ago, at the Whumtroll, for going on and on and on and on, and at himself, for just wanting to be done and get away. Because something, deep down under his sadness, was still thinking, even if the top part of him wasn’t. And it was saying, leave, Brent! Don’t stay!
“I have a hook stuck in my mouth,” said the Whumtroll quickly. “See?”
The Whumtroll’s mouth came up out of the water. It didn’t look like a very big mouth, but it certainly had very big teeth. The deep, deep part of Brent started shoutings. RUN AWAY, BRENT!!
But Brent just laughed nervously. “I don’t--I don’t see it.”
The Whumtroll turned its head, and even more teeth swayed past Brent’s wide eyes. There was a hook, an ancient fishing lure still attached to it. The ragged skin all around was even yellower than the rest of the Whumtroll, and it was swollen and had red blotches, and looked like if you bumped it puss would come out. In short, it was the most disgusting thing Brent had ever seen.
He did not want to go near those giant teeth and touch that nasty hook.
“We will be friends forever,” cooed the Whumtroll.
Brent did not want to be friends forever. He didn’t even want to be friends for a day.
“The water’s not deep,” added the Whumtroll. “And you’re so very brave.”
TEETH! Screamed Brent’s brain to itself.
The Whumtroll began to simper and swiver, working himself up all over again.
Brent couldn’t stand the Whumtroll crying. Not because he felt sorry for it when it cried, exactly, but because he felt overwhelmed by it.
He hopped down into the water, and the Whumtroll was right. It barely came up to his knees. He bent over the Whumtroll’s mouth.
And, suddenly, the Whumtroll’s mouth grew. It grew, and grew, and grew. The Whumtroll was smiling. Maybe, thought the weary and sad part of Brent, maybe I have finally done something that will make the Whumtroll happy.
The rest of his brain, which was now listening to the deeper part of him, screamed THIS THING COULD SWALLOW YOU WHOLE!
Nah, thought sad Brent. It wouldn’t do that.
And then the Whumtroll did.
It swallowed Brent whole and ducked down under the water, leaving nothing but the faintest of ripples.
Brent Meets the Whumtroll Part 2 will release March 24, 2020
“Surely not!” cried the first knight.
“Inconceivable!” cried the second knight.
“Absolutely out of the question!” cried the third knight.
“What about lunch first?!” begged the fourth knight.
“Calm down, calm down!” said Linda. “No one is being tortured, okay? It’s just--it’s just a name. I don’t even know what it means.”
“They should be more careful naming their establishments,” sniffed King Dehn. “There must be all sorts of confusion.”
“Just follow me,” sighed Linda, and started leading the way across the grimy tile. Her hair was in mid toss when the knights came to a screeching bumping halt behind her and Mavis let out a squeal.
“What now?” asked Linda, whirling around.
“There are creatures of evil staring at us,” said the first knight.
“Cursed men and women who have lost their humanity,” said the second knight.
“We could fight them and win eternal glory,” said the third knight.
“Was it something from the Food Court that poisoned them?” asked the fourth knight.
“Those are mannequins,” gasped Mavis. She and Linda were laughing so hard they couldn’t breath to add anything more.
“Manne-whats?” asked King Dehn.
“Mannequins,” said Mavis. “Stores use them to show off clothes! They’re not people. They never were people!”
“They’re plastic!” Linda’s face was red from laughing. “They’re like big dolls!”
King Dehn’s face turned red from anger. “They are to display wares?! Then why are they made with heads yet lacking faces? To confuse us?”
“I don’t know,” said Linda. “They just are.”
“I think they’re creepy, too,” admitted Mavis, because some of the knights were looking embarrassed and shifting uncomfortably.
“Come on,” said Linda. “At this rate, we’re never going to make it.”
“We have never failed on a quest,” said King Dehn.
The knights glanced at each other and kept their mouths shut.
They went around the little fountain under a skylight that is a mandatory part of mall layouts--the one with strange blue tile and a weird ridge around the edge that you’re never sure whether you should sit on or not. King Dehn and the knights all stuck their noses out over it and sniffed knowingly, as if it were some great piece of art.
Linda couldn’t help laughing. When a little old lady in a very unflattering jacket took one look at them, snatched off her spectacles, cleaned them, and then put them back on again, she laughed even harder. Then four punks in saggy pants that had been leaning against the wall hiked up their drawers and scurried away. Linda turned so red Mavis thought she might pass out.
“You find us amusing?” asked King Dehn.
“Everyone else does!” Linda coughed and cleared her throat, shaking her head. “You’re the randomest thing they’ve seen in like--what would you say?”
“A week?” suggested Mavis, grinning.
“What is so amusing?!” demanded King Dehn.
“You don’t exactly look like a normal person from Earth,” Mavis explained.
“Well, we are not.”
“Sure, but that’s not what’s funny,” continued Linda. “What’s funny is that this is the mall. It’s full of people who don’t look normal!”
King Dehn sighed and looked at her as if she were adorably deranged.
“Here we are! Rack Room Shoes!” Mavis gave a triumphant flourish.
“You are sure there is no torturing involved in this purchase?” asked King Dehn.
“None,” said Mavis.
King Dehn shook his head disappointedly. But then he swept into the store with a flourish of his cape. “We have come, peasants, to purchase your most honored of footwear--Chuck’s.”
The girl standing behind the register froze midway through a text. “What the--”
“It’s okay, we’ll show him!” said Mavis, taking King Dehn by the arm and scurrying him away.
“Rule number one at the mall,” said Linda, “you don’t talk to anyone you don’t know.”
“Why is conversing with the peasants forbidden?”
“Because those ‘peasants’ might call the police,” said Mavis.
“Or, you know,” said Linda, “mock you on their instagram stories.”
“His Majesty is not to be mocked,” said the first knight.
“His Majesty must be--”
“Yeah, we got it the first time,” said Linda. “You don’t really have to say it in surround sound, ya know?”
“Where are the Chuck’s?” demanded King Dehn.
“Don’t get your crown crooked,” said Linda. “They’re right here. Red, black, white, ones with skulls on them--seriously?” She picked up a metallic ombre and played the light across it. “Okay, that’s cool.”
“Of course it’s cool,” said King Dehn. “It is the most Honored of Footwear.”
“Well, which ones do you want to try on?” asked Linda.
King Dehn blinked.
The knights blinked.
Even Mavis blinked.
“All of them,” said King Dehn.
And he did.
“Magnificent, sire!” said the second knight when he tried on a black pair.
“Boring,” said King Dehn.
“Stupendous!” cried the second knight when he tried on a red pair.
“For peasants,” sniffed King Dehn.
“Incomparable!” cried the third knight when he tried on a green pair.
“Not kingly,” grumped King Dehn.
“Good enough to eat!” cried the fourth knight when he tried on a purple pair.
“WHO WANTS TO EAT SHOES?!” yelled King Dehn.
Linda put her hands on her hips and fourth knight scurried around behind her so he would be protected. “Now, is that any way for you to behave?” asked Linda. “You start acting like a king, or we’re going home this minute.”
“You cannot make our personage do anything,” sneered King Dehn.
Linda rolled her eyes. “By ‘we’ I meant me and Mavis. You can stay here however long you like. Have fun with the faceless plastic people.”
All of the knights shivered and looked at each other.
“FINE,” said King Dehn.
But Linda didn’t take her hands off of her hips. “Shopping is supposed to be fun, okay?”
“How do we go about making it fun?” asked King Dehn, a little more meekly than before.
“Well, for one thing, we’re all just standing here watching you,” said Linda. “That’s no fun, is it Mavis.”
“Come on,” and Linda plopped down on the floor. “Everybody grab a pair. Let’s get this shopping party really started.”
“Look at the colors of the heavens embracing my feet!” cried first knight as he tied on a pair of yellow high tops.
“It has the richness of a thousand wells!” cried the second knight hopping up and down in a turquoise pair.
“What feats of bravery I could accomplish with these as my boon companion!” cried the third knight, double knotting a pair of reds.
“They look like a picnic blanket!” shouted the fourth knight when he found the red and white checks.
“I HAVE FOUND CHUCKS FIT FOR A KING!” roared King Dehn when he opened a box and found gold metallic chucks inside.
Linda and Mavis laughed until they cried.
“We’ll take these,” said Mavis, putting a stack of boxes on the counter.
“With our utmost congratulations to Sir Chuck,” added King Dehn.
The girl started slowly scanning the boxes, never taking her eyes off the knights. “Do you need help?” she mouthed, turning her head ever so slightly toward the girls.
“We’re...umm...in a musical,” said Mavis. “The Knights basketball players.”
“Community theater,” jumped in Linda. “Kind of B rate, if you ask me, but lots of fun.”
“Extremely jolly,” said the first knight.
“Immense pleasure,” said the second knight.
“Yeah, she gets it!” said Linda. “Let’s just pay and get on to rehearsals, okay?”
The knights had no idea what rehearsals were, but they had learned not to ask too many questions of the sassy Earth Maiden.
“Is that all for you today?” asked the girl.
“Yes,” said Linda. “And here you go.”
Her eyes bugged out even more as she took the wad of hundred dollar bills. “Thank you for shopping with Rack Room Shoes, have a great day.”
“Excellent establishment,” said King Dehn, “although you should consider a name change, due to the confusion--”
“It’s time to go,” said Linda, grabbing his arm and pulling him away.
Mavis wiggled her eyebrows as they walked out. “I know a place you all are going to love.”
“Is it--” breathed the fourth knight.
“The Food Court,” Mavis declared. “You guys have to get something from the Food Court.”
And, for once, none of the knights argued.
“Silence, knaves!” roared King Dehn, who had been waiting for the perfect moment to do it. He loved yelling the word “Knave.” It just rolled off of his tongue and made everyone shiver.
Well, almost everyone. That pesky Linda never shivered, no matter what he yelled. She was striding beside him up the hallway, a grin on her face. “You know you're not going to change his mind,” said Linda to the knights. “He’s far too much of a stubborn brat.”
The knights moaned at her impudence, but King Dehn just wagged his head sagely. “The maiden is right--we will not be changing our mind.”
They were wishing very much that they had not come. They might have enjoyed a quest or two in their young, whip snapping days, but now they had aching backs and brittle knees and sore feet. Well, all except the youngest, but he had missed breakfast. And he thought it was a cruel thing to be sent on a quest without breakfast.
But one does not refuse a quest from King Dehn anymore than one talks King Dehn out of something he’s already decided. And so four reluctant knights were trailing after King Dehn and Linda as they crossed Central Station.
Linda was a normal girl--well, normal as in a girl from earth. To cut a long story short (and it is such a long story there is a whole book written about it!) her bratty cousins had discovered a wonderful magical world, and had turned out to not be as bratty after all. Now Linda went back and forth to Otherworld from Earth all the time. She was Assistant Royal Basketball Councillor, and her neighbor Brent was the Chief Royal Basketball Councillor, but he was busy with work. Which meant she would have been on King Duty all by herself, except she had called in backup from her not-as-bratty-after-all cousin Mavis.
Mavis was walking along with them, her hands in her shorts pockets. Just a few weeks before, she had been too sick to get out of bed, and it felt so very good to go striding along, keeping up with the knights and their great long legs. “Did you bring money?” asked Mavis. “To go shopping with?”
King Dehn snapped his fingers, and the first knight stepped forward and put a bag in Mavis’ hand. At least, he meant to put it in one hand, but it was so heavy she almost dropped it and had to catch it with two.
“What on--” began Linda, and Mavis gave her a peek at the gold coins the size of US silver dollars and twice as thick. “What is that?!”
“Currency used to procure the king’s whims,” said the first knight.
“Gold from the Royal Treasury used to make purchases,” said the second knight.
“The means of exchange used in our realm put into a bag,” said the third knight.
“Shopping money,” said the fourth knight, who was more earth-speak savvy, even though he was terribly hungry.
“How much do you think this is?” whispered Mavis.
Linda shrugged. “One way to find out.” She led the way across the glossy cream marble, snaking her way around clumps of fans going to Central Stadium for the Sweezeball Bowl.
“Why are we walking so quickly?” puffed King Dehn.
“Hey, if you want to hang with me, you’ve got to keep up,” said Linda. But she did slow down. Just a hair.
There was barely a line at the money exchange booth, mainly because few people went to earth to spend money. There were far to many other interesting worlds with interesting things to buy for that.
“Great,” said Linda under her breath. “Hobgoblin.”
Hobgoblins are small and leathery and unreliable at best, but they are also extremely canny about money. This particular Hobgoblin was slouching on his stool so much it looked like he would fall off onto the tall counter, but the minute he saw Mavis’ bag he rubbed his fingers together. Mavis couldn’t tell if he was laughing or crying. Maybe he was doing both.
“We’re here to change this for earth currency,” said Mavis, putting the bag on the counter.
“What country?” wheezed the hobgoblin, already weighing the bag with his eyes.
“United States of America,” said Linda.
“Pity. I could have gotten you a much better rate for Venezuela.”
“Are there malls in this Venezuela?” asked King Dehn. He liked the sound of “better.”
“Maaaaybe,” said Mavis.
“No,” said Linda. “At least, none that we’re going to. I’m the guide, remember?”
King Dehn rolled his eyes. “FINE.” It was his favorite Earth Girl expression, and he did it with a lot of flare. Three knights nodded appreciatively. The fourth was watching a picnic basket be carried by.
“All agreed?” asked the hobgoblin.
“The US,” said Linda.
He grabbed up the bag with so much speed Mavis almost snatched it back. But in another second and with a great leap he was off his stool and disappearing into the room in the back.
“He probably has to have a manager open the door,” said Linda, tapping her fingernails on the counter.
“Why?” asked Mavis.
“Haven’t you heard? Hobgoblins are like addicted to eating paper. And American money is--”
“Made of 75% cotton and 25% linen,” said Mavis. “So not really paper.”
Linda blew her breath out. “I forgot you were a nerd.”
Mavis just grinned at her.
King Dehn shifted with a huff. Didn’t this so called hobgoblin know who he was?
As if he could read his mind, the hobgoblin came plodding out. “The currency is ready for you,” he moaned.
“How much?” asked Linda sharply.
The hobgoblin finished climbing up on his stool, moving painfully slow now that the money was heading out rather than in. “Two,” he whispered.
“Two what?” demanded Linda. “Two dollars?! That’s absolutely--”
“Thousands,” said the hobgoblin.
“Pardon?” gasped Linda.
“Two thousand US dollars,” said the hobgoblin, as if it should be as obvious as the nose on his face.
Linda looked as if she might faint.
“If you won’t give us a reasonable rate--” began King Dehn.
“We’ll take it,” said Linda, grabbing the bag.
The hobgoblin didn’t want to let it go, and she had to pry it out of his fingers.
“Can one purchase these Chucks with two thousand of your dollars?” asked King Dehn.
Mavis coughed. “You can buy a store.”
“His Majesty does not wish to purchase a--” began the first knight.
“Shut it,” said Linda. “Two thousand dollars is...insane for just casual shopping. There’s no way I’m letting you spend all of this today.”
“I am King,” said King Dehn. And he snatched the bag away.
Mavis and Linda looked at each other.
He opened the bag and his nose wrinkled up. “All it is dirty scraps of paper with bad drawings. Who is this man with no hair on his forehead and a ridiculous ruffle on his collar?”
Linda snorted. “That’s Benjamin Franklin. He, like, invented old people glasses.”
“Bifocals,” corrected Mavis.
“We do not like to look upon his countenance,” said King Dehn, shutting the bag decidedly.
“Well,” said Mavis, “at least we’ll have enough money for mall junk.”
“What is mall junk?” asked King Dehn.
“Oh, you know. Useless stuff you buy at the mall when you’re bored and hanging out.” Mavis blushed. “I’ve never done it, but I’ve heard that’s what you do.”
“Ah,” said King Dehn. He pulled out a fistfull of bills--hundred dollar bills--and handed it to the first knight. “Purchase some mall junk for yourself as is customary.”
“Your Majesty is very gracious,” said the first three knights.
The fourth was already picturing what he was going to buy. He’d talked to the Earth Dweller Roger, and he had a pretty good idea of what a mall was--a magical place with something called a Food Court.
“Here, maiden,” said King Dehn, and shoved the bag back at Linda.
“What are we--”
“Our Royal Personage does not handle financial transactions! You must buy the Chucks.”
“This is way more than you need for Chucks,” said Mavis.
“Then once our whims are satisfied, you may keep the rest,” sniffed Dehn. “Provided you desist from talking about such unpalatable subjects as finances.”
“Oh we couldn’t--” began Mavis.
“Disagree with that,” jumped in Linda. “Don’t worry, we won’t talk about money any more.”
“We can’t just keep that kind of money,” hissed Mavis as they walked away.
“You can keep your half or not,” said Linda. “But you’d better bet I’m keeping my half.” She was grinning from ear to ear and clutching the bag a little more tightly.
“I thought you said this was a bad idea,” whispered Mavis with a knowing smile.
“Look, it’s going to be awful,” said Linda. “But it’s also going to be hysterical.”
They were walking up the tiled hallway to where the Mall Portal was. Soon there would be no turning back. “What if someone calls the police?” asked Mavis suddenly. “I mean, we’ve got the Burger King and four Sir Spam-o-lots following us around!”
Linda gave her a sassy look. “Like anyone will care. It’s the mall.”
Mavis had to concede it was an excellent point.
“Yeah,” said Mavis, with a contented sigh.
“Just like that,” pressed Roger. “Grandpa fixed everything in two sentences.”
“Well,” said Mavis dreamily, “it all got broken with one sentence. It makes sense that if you could write something and make the worlds crazy, you could write something and fix it.”
Roger thought about that, and thought she was probably right. It still seemed to him, though, that there ought to something else. Something more. Then he realized what was still bothering him. “But that means that it’s back to where it was. That means that you are...I don’t know, dizzy and stuff.”
Mavis woke up a little. “I hadn’t thought about that.”
“And if you don’t get better, Mom and Dad are going to send you to the research hospital.”
The grey that had seemed so friendly before now seemed...sad.
“I wish you hadn’t said that,” said Mavis. “I know that it’s true. But I wish that you hadn’t said it now.”
Roger curled up a little smaller, looking miserable again. “I only spent one morning like that,” he said. “It was awful. Really, Mavis, I don’t see how—” he broke off, refusing to let himself cry again. “You can’t live like that. It’s not fair!”
“I guess I’m just used to it,” said Mavis. “It’s not fun, and I don’t like it or anything, but I’m used to it.”
“That doesn’t make it all right,” insisted Roger. “There’s got to be something that someone can do! I mean, look at Grandpa! Why can’t there be some medicine that will help you?”
“I agree,” said Lady Agatha quietly, from behind them. “I’ve been looking in a lot of books, and reading a lot of things. I think that soon it will not be just the Chronicler who is on the mend.”
Mavis settled back into her relaxed position. “I like that.”
Roger felt a weight start to lift off his shoulders. Grandpa was better, and he was wise, and he would help them to know what to do for Mavis. She would have to get better, with all of them helping her.
“I think it’s awesome that you made that book,” said Roger, laying his head on Grandpa’s shoulder.
“I am the Chronicler,” said Grandpa. “It is a great honor.”
“It’s the bomb,” said Roger.
“It can only be done by someone brave, and loyal, and very creative.” Grandpa smiled down at him. “I think you would be the perfect person to train. If you want to learn, you know.”
Roger opened and closed his mouth a couple of times.
Mavis smiled, letting the moment sink in.
They went out of the shadow of the grey mountains capped in pure white snow, and into the clear waters of the wider ocean. And then, as the view opened, they all gasped in wonder.
Shining into this world of black and grey and white, shining with all of the splendor of emerald and sapphire, was the beautiful Earth. And Mavis couldn’t help being proud to call it her home, even if it wasn’t perfect. And she also couldn’t help but be grateful that she had escaped it for a while, and got to see some of the things that were beyond it.
Epilogue~Two Weeks Later:
Brent came pounding up the driveway, a basketball under each arm and his court shoes thrown over his shoulder. “Linda!”
“Hold up, punk!”
“We’re going to be late for practice!”
Linda opened the kitchen door with a bang and came skipping down the porch steps, her hands trying to contain her hair long enough to put it in a pony tail.
“Dehn doesn't like it when we’re late,” Brent reminded her.
“He doesn’t like it when we whup his butt,” snapped Linda, “but I’m not going to stop doing that, either.”
“Whatever,” said Brent.
“Wha EVA!” sang Linda.
“Have fun at the community center!” called Grandma from the porch, where she was sitting in her rocker, knitting.
Mavis was sitting on the step below her, notebook in hand, pencil moving furiously. She was getting tan from all the time she spent riding and sailing and exploring. Roger had been right--if Grandpa could really understand what was going on, he would know what to do. Under his expert advice, she had been taken to the right chiropractor and nutritionist and...well, here she was. Of course, there were still some bad days, and even a few very bad days. But, in general, she was getting so strong, and was dizzy so rarely, that no one even mentioned research hospitals to her anymore.
There was a peal of laughter, and Mavis stopped writing long enough to enjoy it. As puzzled as the doctors were about her recovery, they were far more amazed by Grandpa’s. He wasn’t quite as spry and chipper as he had been before, but he was certainly more like his old self than not. He seemed ridiculously happy to be back to talking a mile a minute, especially to Roger, who was holed up with him in his study almost every spare moment. They were making a new Book, the title of which they wouldn’t tell anyone.
Mavis shook her head, wondering what in the world they were laughing at. She was going back to her own project, when she heard the faintest sound in the bushes. Crouching behind a flowering plant, looking up at her with big green eyes, was the fuzziest orange and white kitten that she had ever seen. “Hello, Sir Fluffy McFuzzbutt,” said Mavis softly.
“Mew,” said Sir Fluffy McFuzzbutt.
“Here, kitty kitty, here cat cat.”
And he came right to her, just as if he had been doing it every day of his life. Mavis cuddled him up to her chin and climbed up onto the porch swing. Laying down among the chintz pillows, she smiled at the world and closed her eyes. What an adventure the last few weeks had been.
She had gotten her wish.
“Which you still have,” said Grandpa. “Correct?”
“Of course,” said Lady Agatha.
Everyone else got up to follow her into another room in her apartment, but Roger stayed firmly planted on the embroidered dragon’s head and Mavis scooted over onto the dragon’s back. “Hey,” she said, squeezing his hand, suddenly sure of what she needed to say.
“You’re my hero,” said Mavis.
Roger looked at her, surprised and almost suspicious. “You heard them. I messed up royally.”
“No,” said Mavis. “You were willing to die in my place. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone as brave as you.”
The corner of Roger’s mouth went up. Just a little.
Then Roger cried, for the second time that day.
And for once, Mavis sat with his head cradled in her arms, and smoothed his hair, and told him that everything was going to be all right. Just like an older sister ought to be able to do.
“Roger! Mavis!” called Linda, sticking her head around the door jam. “Y’all are missing out!”
The Book of Things that Might Be was much, much different than The Book of Things that Are. For one thing, it was much larger, covering an entire table top with its pages when it was open. And it had illustrations. Of course, you don’t have to have illustrations for a book to be interesting, but they do help, don’t they? And they weren’t ordinary illustrations either. They were glorious drawings of ships and continents and creatures, each more strange than the next. When Lady Agatha began flipping the pages, they almost seemed to move, and dart out of the way of the falling parchment. “Here!” she cried, and Roger and Mavis were suddenly staring at drawings of...themselves. “Mavis might be a famous author,” said the steady handwriting. “Roger might be a scientist or a cartoonist or a scientist who cartoons or a cartoonist who sciences.”
“Mavis might travel the world in eighty days and write a blog about it.”
“Roger might win a Nobel Prize for the cure for malaria.”
“Mavis might fall in love and choose to never leave it.”
“Roger might avert a war by using humor.”
“Mavis might sell a billion copies of a book.”
“Roger might invent a working Millennium Falcon.”
“Mavis might convince a generation that the well thought out story is mightier than the tweet.”
As they read the words, little illustrations would pop up. Mavis with a pen behind her ear and a desk covered in manuscripts. Roger with a microscope. Mavis with a backpack in exotic locations that she had always wanted to see, and Roger giving his Nobel Acceptance speech while hundreds of children in Third World Countries could go to school because they weren’t sick.
Mavis felt a little overwhelmed by it all. Her eyes filled up with tears and she couldn’t keep up with all of the things that she might do. And then at the end it said “Mavis and Roger might not do any of these things. But they will always be enough.”
“This is some of your best work,” said Lady Agatha softly, running her hand over the page.
“It is some of my most important,” said Grandpa.
Mavis looked up at him in a sudden jolt of awe. She slipped her hand into his, and he squeezed it back.
“What are you going to do?” asked Linda. “How are you going to fix Otherworld so it’s not ripping apart at the seams?”
“Do you have a pen, Agatha?” asked Grandpa.
“Of course, George,” said Lady Agatha, and handed him one. It was a very cool pen, the kind you dip into ink. And it had a swirled jade handle.
“Roger might be able to die in Mavis’ place,” wrote Grandpa. “Mavis might be immortal.”
“Wait,” said Mavis, “that’s--that’s awesome.”
“Dude!” said Brent. “Can I be immortal?!”
“I don’t think we should risk the worlds again,” said Grandpa dryly.
“Do I get to be immortal permanently?” asked Mavis. Then her face fell. “Wait, I don’t want Roger to have to die twice, or in my place, or whatever.”
“This is just until we can fix The Book of Things that Are,” Grandpa assured her.
“How does that fix anything?” asked Linda. “You just wrote something in a different book. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“The Book of Things that Might Be is more powerful than The Book of Things that Are,” explained Lady Agatha. “Because What Might Be is something that, if we choose to work for it, can become Something That Is.”
“For now, since it Might Be, it is no longer impossible,” said Grandpa.
“And Otherworld and your world can once again coexist,” added Lady Agatha.
“Do we need to go and change The Book of Things that Are?” asked Roger, almost hopefully.
“I have an emissary that is purchasing The Book, perhaps as we speak,” said Lady Agatha. “It is too important to leave in the hands of an imbecile such as Dehn.”
Linda snorted into her hand.
“So...world crisis averted?” asked Roger. There was a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach, almost of disappointment.
“Yes,” said Grandpa.
“Do we have to go back to whatever-world-it-is-that-we-live-on?” asked Brent. “I mean, I got cut from work. So, I have, like, all day.”
“I’ve used up my data,” said Linda. “It’s not like I have anything else to do.”
Grandpa smiled at them. “It has been quite the morning. Perhaps we should stick around, and let the children have some time to process.”
“Would you like to go out on the water?” asked Lady Agatha.
“Yes!” said Roger and Mavis and Brent and Linda altogether.
“What about you, my friend?” Grandpa asked Esperanza. “Can you spare the time?”
She smiled. “Of course.”
“You’re better,” said Mavis softly into Grandpa’s nightshirt. “How are you better?”
“Esperanza and Agatha,” said Grandpa proudly. “They found a recipe for a cure in a musty old book of potions and decided it was worth a try.”
“But what? How?” asked Linda. But then she started again. “It’s so awesome that you’re better, Grandpa, but what about reality? And Roger? And Otherworld?”
“Ah, yes,” said Grandpa, with a sigh. He turned to look at Roger. “Roger, tell them what you wrote in The Book.”
Roger gulped. He was staring at Mavis, at how bright her eyes were, at the way she was bouncing up and down on her toes with nervous energy. “Please don’t make me,” he begged.
“We’re going to find out sometime,” said Linda. “You might as well spill.”
“Roger,” Grandpa insisted gently.
“I—I changed The Book twice,” said Roger, wanting to get it over with as soon as possible.
“What else did you change?” whispered Mavis.
“Well, it did say that everything was all in your head. But, above that,” Roger’s voice stopped working for a second. “It said ‘Mavis is dying.’”
It was as if all of the air had been sucked out of the room, and Mavis couldn’t get a breath. She just stood there, staring at Roger, her arms still around Grandpa.
“Oh, no,” said Linda. “You didn’t…”
“I crossed out Mavis,” said Roger, miserable and yet in awe of his own bravery. “And I wrote Roger instead.”
Mavis started to cry, completely and utterly overwhelmed.
“Roger,” said Linda matter-of-factly, stunned.
“I don’t regret it,” added Roger stubbornly.
“Is this why Otherworld is on the fritz?” asked Brent, still from the doorway.
“It would seem—” started Grandpa in his methodical way.
Suddenly, Esperanza shook. “I don’t think we have time for a lengthy explanation,” she gasped.
“Right,” said Grandpa. “We can talk on the way.”
Grandpa led them all out of the house, across the yard, and straight to the shed. Without hesitation, he swung the door open.
They all stood frozen in place, even more shocked than when they had found Otherworld in the first place.
Central Station was in uproar, people running from one side to the other, lights flashing on and off, the air cracking with the intensity of panic only barely supressed. In the distance there was an air raid siren, which Mavis and Roger recognized from documentaries. But it was more piercing in real life, more like a scream. It made Mavis want to cry.
“I--I did all of...this?” whispered Roger.
Grandpa put his hand on Roger’s shoulder. “It will be all right.”
Mavis looked worriedly at the guard that was standing there, afraid that he would try to keep them from going through. When he saw Grandpa, though, he tipped his hat and didn’t say a word. As they crossed the main floor of the Station, people seemed to get out of their way, all of them nodding and smiling as much as they were able. It began dawning on her that Grandpa--he was somebody in Otherworld.
The platforms were crowded, and they had to thread their way through to the right area. Mavis noticed the lance dudes were there, talking worriedly to each other, waving their hands around. The lady with the goat was there, too, looking decidedly more rumpled and holding the goat close to her side so it wouldn’t panic. Every once in a while it would bleat questioningly, wondering if all of the humans had lost their minds.
“Where are we going?” asked Brent, ducking into the train car.
“We are going to the one other person who lives both in this world and ours,” said Grandpa.
“Who?” asked Linda.
“Lady Agatha,” guessed Mavis. She was trying to keep talking, so she wouldn’t worry. About Otherworld. About what was happening to her. About Roger. Mostly Roger.
Because Roger looked really bad. Mavis couldn’t tell if it was because he was scared...or because he was in pain. I don’t think Roger really knew which it was, either.
The train seemed to go in slow motion past all of the green fields and the little houses and the swaying forests. No one here seemed to be in any panic, or have any idea that something was wrong. In a lot of ways, it reassured Roger. Maybe he hadn’t ruined everything, forever. Things would still turn out all right. Right?
Mavis was watching him watch the countryside go by, and she kept wanting to say something to him. But she couldn’t seem to get her mouth to open. And what could she possibly say? What would you say, if you found out your little brother chose to die in your place?
The station door opened onto the Moon Lobby with the same cheerful ding as it had before, but the room it opened onto looked far different. All of the orchids had been stashed away, and the paintings had all been taken off of the walls and piled in heaps in the corners. No one seemed to be there.
The lobby began to shake, and a high-pitched voice filled the air. “Moonquake! Mooooooonquuaaake!” It was Horace, hiding behind the front desk.
“Don’t worry, Horace,” said Grandpa, striding by. “Just keep your wits about you.”
“Yes, sir, of course, sir!” squeaked Horace. “I wish I could take you in the elevator, sir—” The room shook again.
“This way, everyone!” called Grandpa, leading them through a small doorway and into a hallway. Another turn and they were climbing a set of narrow stairs.
They climbed for a while, and as they climbed, Roger’s head began to hurt worse and worse. His temples pounded and the very top burned like it was on fire. Never, never in his life had he hurt that badly before. Desperately, he tried to keep up with the others, and tried to pretend like everything was all right. He felt Mavis slide her arm around him. “It’s going to be ok,” she whispered. “I’m right here, and I’m not going anywhere.”
“That’s what I always say to you,” whispered Roger.
“Well, now it’s my turn to say it.”
Grandpa knocked on Lady Agatha’s door and then pushed it open without waiting for a response. “Agatha?” he called. “You here?”
“George?!” she called from some adjoining room. “Hello, everyone! Come in, come in!” She looked a little disheveled, her hair coming down and her overdress falling off one shoulder. “Please tell me that you know what has gone wrong.”
“Roger does,” said Grandpa.
A look passed between Esperanza and Lady Agatha. “Here, why don’t we sit down?” asked Lady Agatha.
“I think we’re in a hurry,” said Roger, trying not to look anyone in the eye and also sound convincing all at the same time.
“Of course we are,” agreed Lady Agatha, “but I need to know the cause before I can know the cure.”
They all sat on the long sofa that had been embroidered with moon scenes, Mavis on the sail of a fishing junk and Roger on the head of a dragon.
“What has happened?” asked Lady Agatha, to open the conversation.
“Why don’t you explain it, Roger,” said Grandpa, in that way that adults have of making a question a command.
Roger explained it the best way that he could, about Mavis being sick and the careless wish, trying not to panic any more than he already was. When he got to the part about what he wrote in The Book of Things that Are, his eyes welled up and his throat dried out and he just sat there for a moment. “It said,” he whispered, “it said ‘Mavis is dying.’ So I crossed out Mavis,” explained Roger. “And I wrote Roger instead.”
Mavis began to cry again, noiselessly this time. The only person who seemed to notice was Brent, who pulled a bandana out of his back pocket and slipped it to her. Gratefully, she blew her nose.
“I didn’t mean to mess anything up,” whispered Roger. The reality of what was happening was beginning to sick in, and he was beginning to wonder if Otherworld would ever be the same. “I didn’t add anything, or erase anything. I tried to do what you said. But I couldn’t—I mean, I couldn’t just let Mavis—”
Grandpa put his arm around Roger’s shoulder.
Lady Agatha leaned forward and took both of his hands in hers. “I think that I understand what has happened. You were afraid, afraid that Mavis’ sickness is uncurbable. Weren’t you?”
“And so when you saw what was written in The Book, you tried to save your sister?”
He nodded again.
“That was a very brave and self-sacrificing thing to do, Roger, and nothing can take away from that. You loved completely, by trying to choose what was best for Mavis, at great cost to yourself.”
Mavis squirmed, and Lady Agatha looked at her out of those deep black eyes. “Yes?”
“It’s nice what you’re saying to Roger, it’s true. It’s just,” she paused, “I’m waiting for you to say the But.”
“There isn’t any But,” said Lady Agatha, and any other day, Roger would have snickered at her. “There is an And. Because Roger loved you immensely and wanted to help you--and that has set some things in motion that he had no idea of.”
“I know what you are going to say,” whispered Roger with his head down. “That is was stupid of me to think I could do anything, that it wasn’t my responsibility.”
Lady Agatha shook her head. “That is not what I was saying at all. You chose to take her death sentence, as you saw it, and it is something to be proud of. We bear the pain of those we love every day. Only we must bear it with them, and not for them.”
“You did the only thing you knew to do,” added Esperanza.
“But what you didn’t know,” said Grandpa, “is that The Book only says Things that Are, not Things that Might Be.”
“That is a totally different Book entirely,” said Lady Agatha, “and, between us, a much better read.”
“The truth of the matter is,” continued Grandpa, “that if you had scanned through The Book cover to cover, you would have found ‘George is dying’ and ‘Linda is dying’ and--” he stopped and looked at Brent blankly.
“Brent is dying,” filled in Brent.
“Yes, right. The point is, everyone alive is dying.”
Roger felt his cheeks flush.
He felt his eyes burn.
He felt like a complete and utter fool.
“When you changed The Book of Things that Are,” began Lady Agatha gently, “you made it say in two places that ‘Roger is dying’ but it does not say that Mavis is.”
“Which is not how Things Are,” explained Grandpa. “Especially in our world. Which means the magic that binds our world with Otherworld is tearing apart at the seams.”
“Huzzah!” the imps and the knights cheered.
Mavis looked like she might cry from relief.
What Roger didn’t tell them was what else The Book said, on the line above that.
“I suppose it is being time for you younglings to be going home, and resting,” said Harnswiggle.
“I would have to agree,” said Brent. “I have to go to work early tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry,” Mavis assured him, “we’ve always slept well after we’ve been to Otherworld. Right, Rodge?”
Roger started. “What, Mavis?”
“We always sleep well, whenever we have been to Otherworld.”
“Uh, yeah. Yeah, we do.”
Mavis raised her eyebrow at him, but he wouldn’t make eye contact.
“Well,” said King Dehn, The Book safely back in his lap. “It has been an entertaining evening. If either the warrior Brent or Roger would ever like to come back to our realm, and teach us more of this great sport, we would welcome them. And,” he added suddenly, “I am sorry about your leg, young page.”
“It’s nothing,” said Roger.
“What about me?” asked Linda.
“You must come back when our champions are trained to prove whether their skills are great or not.”
She laughed, and Roger realized it was the first time that summer he had heard her do it.
King Dehn was in such a surprisingly good mood that he even offered to write them back to the station, and in no time at all they had boarded the right train and were speeding home.
Mavis looked over at Roger dreamily. “It’s so nice that things are back the way they were.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Roger, his throat tight.
“You ok? Is your knee hurting?”
“Yeah, it’s really throbbing.”
Mavis looked sad, because she was sad
But Roger felt worse. His knee did hurt, a lot, but it wasn’t really why he wasn’t ok. Everything he did now felt like a lie--like he was lying to Mavis just by looking at her. It was awful.
It was a tired lot that all piled into the train and rode back to the central station.
“Good night all!” said Brent. “That was either the craziest dream that I’ve ever had, or it was seriously the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me!”
“Good night,” said Mavis, laughing. “Thank you for your help!”
“You can play basketball with Rodge and I whenever you want,” said Brent to Linda.
She smiled. “I don’t think it would be any more fun than heckling you, but it might be a nice change.”
Roger smiled the best smile that he could muster and went up into the house.
The next morning, Roger lay in bed with his eyes closed, wondering if he was brave enough to open them and see what the world looked like through the eyes of a dying man. And then he couldn’t help but laugh at himself, because it seemed so melodramatic to think that thought, and while he laughed at himself he opened his eyes by accident. The room looked the exact way it had the morning before. Golden light was dancing across his dad’s old model planes, casting shadows on the row of shadow boxes holding his Grandpa’s childhood beetle collection. There was the little pedal car that he and Mavis had used to play Phantom Tolbooth, and the heap of clothes he habitually left in the corner of the room.
He sat up, and gingerly moved each of his limbs. Apart from his swollen and bruised knee, everything seemed exactly the same as it had the morning before. And that almost frightened him more than anything else. Things couldn’t just continue on normally, could they? And no one would know, no one would find out what The Book said--what he had made it say.
Roger is dying.
That’s what The Book said now. Mavis’ name had been carefully crossed out and his placed above it in his own handwriting. That seemed like a huge change to him—shouldn’t something have sifted? Shouldn’t the world seem…different?
All at once, he had the horrible idea that he might fall over at breakfast, and then what would everyone do? Or what if he hung on for years and years and then one day he would happen to be driving a bus and then he would die. What would all of the people on the bus do?! That would horrible. He couldn’t drive, ever, not even a bike. It was too risky. And that thought settled onto him like a brick. It would be horrible to live much longer, he decided, with the knowledge that every second of every day, he was dying.
“Hello, sleepy head!” sang Mavis, waltzing into the room. “Guess who isn’t dizzy! Guess!”
Roger felt a warmth explode inside his chest. “You’re not dizzy?! That’s awesome!”
“And Linda was singing in the shower.”
“Whoa, Otherworld did her a lot of good.”
“I was thinking,” and she plopped down on his bed, “that we should all go back tonight. You know, when it isn’t a life or death situation. We should take them to see Agatha. She’s the best.”
“That’s such a great idea! And then we could take them out to meet the Gullumgall’ad, just because he would make them laugh. He’s the only person I know who can be ruder than Linda.”
Mavis laughed. “That would be so great, the two of them going at it?! Oooh, and we should go back to Esperanza’s and see what is in that house, the one that looks exactly like Grandpa’s.”
“It probably looks the same as this one,” said Roger. “Harnswiggle said it was just the better version of this world’s.”
“Yeah, but they have an orange cat. Grandma only has a black cat. So who was he?”
“Sir Fluffy McFuzzButt,” said Roger.
“I named that cat Sir Fluffy McFuzzButt.”
“Hey, lesser losers,” said Linda with a smile, sticking her head in the door. “Breakfast.”
“How’s your knee?” asked Mavis, remembering it suddenly.
“Whoa,” said both of the girls when he showed it to him.
“We should have put some ice on that last night,” said Linda.
“Yeah, but it doesn’t matter because--”
“Because why, Rodge?” asked Mavis, suddenly suspicious.
“Because we didn’t think of it,” said Roger, lamely.
“Kiddos, are you coming?” called Grandma.
“Be right down,” called Mavis.
The girls hurried out, and Roger hopped up to follow them. But when he did, it was as if the ground had been snatched out from under him. For one awful second he was collapsing, while his legs tried desperately to stand. Then the whole room shifted suddenly to the left, swirled lazily back to the right, and little dots floated like confetti in front of his eyes.
Things had changed. They had changed a lot.
Grandma was fussing around the table, her face in a worried frown, but as soon as she saw Mavis, the furrows between her eyebrows lifted. “Your, your face…”
“What?! Is it gone!?” Mavis scrambled into the bathroom and came back beaming. “It’s gone! The mark is gone!”
“Good heavens, I wonder what that means?” gasped Grandma.
“Maybe the freak is going to be ok, after all,” said Linda.
Usually Roger would have had something to say back, and he felt vaguely that everyone would be disappointed if he didn’t. But he couldn’t think of a snappy comeback, and he didn’t feel like coming up with one.
“You all right this morning, Roger dear?” asked Grandma.
“I hit my knee on the bed frame last night, and it’s kind of sore.”
Grandma took one look at Roger’s knee and shuddered. “Roger! You should have come and gotten me, dear. That needs ice, right away, and rest. Oh dear, it looks like something might be broken.”
“I’m sure it’s not broken,” said Roger, softly. “It just hurts.”
Grandpa, who was sitting at the head of the table, slowly and carefully put his fork down. “Don’t be frightened, Roger,” he said, in something that sounded more like his every day, pre-stroke voice. “Everything is going to be ok.”
Roger found that he couldn’t swallow his bite of waffle.
Mavis was watching him, her eyes growing more and more worried, and she kept making eyes at Linda, trying to tell her that something was up. But Linda was starring at the wall, or at a bit of the table, or at her phone, and would never make eye contact.
“If you’re all done,” said Grandma, “I think I’ll take Grandpa upstairs and get him settled in his chair.”
“Can I do it?” asked Roger. “I’d like to just sit with him for a while, and ice my knee.”
“If you think you’re leaving me to do the dishes by myself, punk, you’ve got another think coming.” Linda scowled at him over the top of her phone, all of her combativeness back in a minute.
“I’ll help you with them,” said Mavis quickly. “No, really, Grandma, I feel fine. It’s more than my turn to do them.” She looked over at Roger. “When I’m done, do you want me to come up and sit with you?”
“No, thanks,” said Roger. “I think I’d just like to be quiet for a while.”
Mavis, Linda, and Grandma all watched Roger gently guide Grandpa out of the dinning room and up the stairs. “Do you think he’s getting sick?” asked Grandma, to no one in particular.
Mavis started stacking the dishes up and carrying them in to the sink. “Something’s wrong with Roger,” she hissed to Linda.
“I’ve been saying that for years,” Linda whispered back, “what made you finally realize it?”
“I’m not teasing,” said Mavis, checking over her shoulder to make sure that Grandma had gone out. “Did you see his face? He looked grey.”
“And you look all rosy,” said Linda.
“Really?” asked Mavis, flushing.
“Yeah, really,” said Linda. “You dizzy or anything?”
“Not at all,” said Mavis, doing a little twirl.
Roger helped Grandpa sit down in his big, overstuffed chair by the window. And then Roger didn’t really know what to do with himself. He had his ice pack in on hand, and he sort of stood there awkwardly, looking at Grandpa.
“Sit down, Roger,” said Grandpa softly, patting the stool by his chair.
Roger did, grateful to hear his own name, desperate for some kind of comfort.
“You’re sad?” asked Grandpa.
Roger nodded, surprised that Grandpa was talking so much. “I really wish I could talk to you,” said Roger. “The old you, because this is big.” He took a deep breath in, and a deep breath out. “Everything’s all mushed up in my brain, see? And I keep feeling like I did the wrong thing.” Roger shifted miserably. “I hated it when Mavis got sick. It was like she was a flower and then the frost just shriveled her up. And what was I supposed to do? And all of the adults kept talking to each other, and making scary faces, and suggesting all kinds of weird and horrible possibilities but she never got better. She just got worse. I know they said just to change what Harnswiggle had written in The Book, but…what else was I supposed to do?” He leaned his head forward until it was resting on the arm of Grandpa’s chair. “I can’t watch her die,” he whispered into the chintz flowers. “I can’t. Maybe I messed something up, or whatever, but I’m not sorry if I did. I’m—I’m going to die, instead. And that’s the way I want it.”
Roger cried. He cried because he was frightened. He cried because Mavis had been sick, and now she was better. He cried because people went to conferences in Atlanta. He cried because he felt like he was turning inside out and he didn’t know what to think or be or do. He didn’t stop crying until his eyes burned, and his nose ran, and he sides ached. And then he started crying again, overwhelmed that, somehow, the block inside of him had been broken and he could finally cry. It was a relief to cry, in the end.
A gentle hand caressed his hair. “You are not alone, Roger,” said Esperanza’s wise and wonderful voice.
Roger jerked his head up, terribly embarrassed, but Esperanza didn’t have the look that adults usually got whenever he cried. In fact, she had tears in the corners of her eyes.
“Sorry,” mumbled Roger. “I didn’t think anyone was there.” He was too tired and too sad and in too much pain to ask questions. Esperanza just seemed to belong at Grandpa’s house, anyway. Like a native flower or a ray of sunshine.
Esperanza handed him a handkerchief. It had blue flowers embroidered on the edges and smelled of orange blossoms. Not the fake, chemical kind that is in dish soap, but the real, growing on a tree kind that mix rain and sunshine up and make delicious fruit.
“I came to give your grandfather his medicine,” Esperanza explained, even though Roger hadn’t asked.
“What?” asked Roger.
She nodded toward Grandpa. “I think it is working, too. He is getting better.”
Roger looked at Grandpa, who was sitting back in the chair with his eyes closed.
Esperanza was mixing something into a glass of water, each stir a distinct motion, as if she was counting them.
“What medicine?” asked Roger, beginning to be curious. “I thought you weren’t a healer.”
“I’m not,” said Esperanza, acting just a little guilty. “That’s why this is dangerous. We—Agatha and I—thought about not giving him medicine at all and letting the Earth doctors help him. But he didn’t seem to be getting better. Harnswiggle and Bollygoggle kept coming back from their visits looking sadder and sadder. And I knew, then, that he would want us to try. For you, and Mavis, and Linda, and Martha’s sakes.”
“How do you know my Grandpa?”
“You will find out in due time,” said Esperanza. “Right now let’s give him this, and sit quietly. This is the biggest dose I’ve given him yet.” She seemed nervous, which didn’t seem to fit her at all. She helped Grandpa to drink the whole glass, and then she and Roger sat on either side of him, quietly willing him to get better.
Mavis and Linda were just about done with the dishes, when Brent came up to the kitchen window, waving excitedly.
“Yo,” said Linda, opening the kitchen door.
“Guys,” puffed Brent. “Last night wasn’t a dream!”
“Nope,” said Mavis happily.
“Like, I went to the shed, and the door was half open. The train station was actually there.” Brent’s face changed. “But something’s going on, as in something bad is going on. There’s this guard at the door and he says there’s no outgoing traffic, something about the CCAT on the fritz. I asked him why, and he said that somebody misused a magical object.”
“No way!” said Mavis, and sprinted out the door past Brent, to see what he was talking about. She was almost out at the shed before she realized that neither of the others had followed her. They were standing on the kitchen porch, their mouths open.
“Girl!” gasped Linda. “You just ran!”
“Are you like taking some magic vitamins or something?” asked Brent. “I’ve never seen you look this good. It’s awesome!”
“You’re, like, cured!” said Linda.
Mavis felt her throat tighten. That was what had been bugging her all morning.
Things had not gone back to the way they were before everything was all in her head. She was better.
And Roger was worse. Much, much worse.
“Guys, I think I know what’s wrong with Otherworld,” confessed Mavis softly, even though she hated the very idea.
“What?” they demanded, in unison.
“I think Roger did something extra when he had The Book.”
“Do you think that little rat wrote something bad in it?” gasped Linda.
“I’m sure he didn’t do anything bad on purpose!” Mavis protested.
“Wait, you guys think that Roger messed up Otherworld?” asked Brent.
“He did have a magical object,” said Linda. “A really finnicky one, from the way everyone was talking about it.”
“And I’m better,” said Mavis, hardly daring to speak it out loud. “And he’s sick.”
“Where is he?” snapped Linda. “Do you think he’s—”
“Oh, no, what if he’s lying hurt somewhere?” gasped Mavis.
All three of them ran up the stairs and burst into Grandpa’s room.
“Roger, what did you do?!” cried Linda.
It was Grandpa who turned around to answer.
“Kick their warrior butts!” she screamed.
“Apply your boot to their common rears!” King Dehn shouted.
“Roger, roger, he’s our man, if he can’t do it, Brent Coleman can!” chanted Mavis.
“No defeat! No defeat! No defeat!” countered King Dehn.
“EEEEEEEE!” squealed Mavis, when Brent dunked another shot.
“FAIL US AND LOSE YOUR SPURS!” roared King Dehn.
And the whole game went downhill.
The knights hadn’t seemed to be shy about physical blocks before, but now it got ridiculous. Roger was only half as big as either of them, and he was doing his best to not get the ball snatched away--or worse, let himself be squashed.
“Unnecessary roughness!” shouted Mavis, waving her hand in what she thought was a referee like way.
“TEACH THEM THEIR PLACE!” bellowed King Dehn, clearly enjoying the new flavor.
“What!?” snapped Linda, when one of the knights went down hard. On top of Roger.
“No tackles!” said Mavis. “Even I know that basketball isn’t a tackle sport!”
“Your pardon,” said the knight. But the minute he said it, Mavis knew that he was about to do something mean.
And he did.
He ground he his boot into the back of Roger’s knee as he stood up.
Mavis jumped up so fast she had to sit right back down, before she fell down.
Linda was out on the court in less then a second. “You’re a--a disgrace to knights everywhere!” she spluttered. “You are a dishonor to chivalry! You are ejected from this game!”
The knight looked from Linda, to Brent, who was helping Roger limp to the sideline. “Dude, that was uncalled for,” Brent said firmly. “You’re out.”
“What is this?” cried King Dehn. “You think it unfair that our knight has bested you?”
“Your knight didn’t best him,” snapped Linda, whirling on the king. “Your knight squashed him! That’s against the rules! He’s out--he gets kicked out of the game!”
“You are a very feisty maiden.”
“I’m Latina. Deal with it.” Linda put her hands on her hips.
“Are you alright?!” asked Mavis, rubbing Roger on the back, and trying to look at his knee, and feeling a little panicked.
“It just hurts really, really bad. Nothing crunched. Like, I don’t think it’s broken.”
Brent came back out onto the court, his arms crossed. “You eject that knight, or you forfeit the game.”
“We do not see--”
“I don’t care what you see!” roared Linda. “You’re a great big, overgrown--”
Brent held up his hand. “We’re not asking. We’re telling. New knight, or you lose. Basketball has a long and noble history in our realm. It is a matching of skill with the ball, it is a test of stamina and speed. It is not something to be won by random violence or vengeful cruelty.”
Brent made it sound so heroic, Mavis felt bad for thinking basketball was stupid all of those years.
King Dehn seemed impressed, too. He leaned back in his chair, and stroked his beard. “We will replace the knight, and honor this great tradition. But you may have to forfeit, instead of us. You cannot play this great game of ‘two on two’ without two champions, can you? And who will replace Roger?” he smiled smugly. “The fainting girl? She could not play in the first place.”
“Oh, shut up!” snapped Linda. “I will.” She was furiously putting her hair up into a ponytail.
“You?” said King Dehn, Brent, Roger, Mavis, the imps, and the knights, all at once.
“Don’t everybody have a heart attack!”
“You play basketball?” gasped Roger.
“Varsity team, state champs.”
“Females are permitted to compete in this?!” cried King Dehn. “Wha--”
“Scared?” interrupted Linda. “You should be. Because once I get my hair out of my way, this female is going to whup your champion’s butts!”
King Dehn sat with his mouth open, looking rather stupid.
Linda flipped her new ponytail. “Come on, tin cans, let’s finish this!”
It was a whole new ballgame, now that Linda was in it. She was like a fury unleashed on the court, darting here, darting there, smashing the ball through the hoop. Once she and Brent connected, they were dunk city, and nothing the knights could do seemed to change anything. The net was still swooshing from the last basket, Mavis was still hoarse from cheering, and Brent and Linda were still high fiving, when King Dehn held up his hand for silence.
“I have never seen such a display of skill,” he began, and this time no one teased him about forgetting to speak in the third person.
“It is a pretty great sport,” said Roger, beaming at Brent and Linda.
“But don’t think I did all of that for your entertainment,” puffed Linda. “That was for my wimpy cousins--family is family, after all. And someone’s got to take care of business.” Her eyes suddenly narrowed, and she looked at King Dehn suspiciously. “You aren’t going to try and back out of the deal, are you?”
“We are a monarch of our word,” said King Dehn. “I will permit you to make your change to The Book of Things that Are.”
Mavis felt a huge weight come off her shoulders. Everything was going to be all right. But when she reached out for The Book, both King Dehn and Harnswiggle shook their heads.
“You cannot change something written about yourself,” said Harnswiggle.
“Which is a stupid rule,” said Bollygoggle.
“But it is a rule,” said King Dehn.
“Then can I do it?” asked Roger hopefully.
King Dehn seemed to think a minute. “You must not change anything written about us or our realm.”
“Of course not,” agreed Roger.
“Then very well, you are more responsible than the imps.”
Harnswiggle and Bollygoggle did not even protest. Their eyes were focused on The Book that Roger was now holding and opening in his lap. But everyone looking at him was making him nervous, so he turned around on the bench and licked the end of his pencil. Why did people lick the end of their pencils? He didn’t know, and they tasted disgusting. But people did it, and it seemed…
His eyes froze, transfixed on the page in front of him. “It's all being in Mavis’ head,” read a line, in very uneven pencil. But it was what was written above it that made all of the air escape from Roger’s lungs.
“Mavis is dying.”
Mavis was beginning to get this horrible feeling in the pit of her stomach that they wouldn’t find anything--that the portal or doorway or whatever it was would be closed and Roger would be lost forever and no one would believe her when she tried to explain what happened. Her heart was pounding so loudly that her ears hurt.
She turned the knob on the door inside the shed. Light flooded in on them.
“Whoa,” breathed Brent and Linda.
“What--what is this?”
Mavis smiled. “This is Otherworld.”
She walked slowly through the center hub, letting Brent and Linda amble around with their heads thrown back and their mouths wide open. She couldn’t help but wonder if she and Roger had looked so stupid when they first found their way in. Yeah, she was pretty sure they had.
“Have you been to all of these places?” asked Brent, pointing to the continually changing destination board.
“Some of them,” said Mavis. “The moon was cool.”
“The moon,” echoed Linda, still totally shocked.
“Come on,” said Mavis, “we need to catch the next train.”
They hurried down stairs and into the sideway, Brent reading the signs aloud.
“Wait!” said Linda. “Is this like the station in Harry Potter? Are we going to Platform 9 and 3/4?”
“No, we’re going to the train that takes us to Otherworld.”
“But I thought we were already in Otherworld?” asked Brent.
“We are, sort of. It’s complicated. People have tried to explain it to me, and I still don’t really understand.”
The train came squealing into the station, sending their hair flying. “Climb on,” said Mavis.
Brent and Linda hesitated and looked at each other. Who were they kidding? They got on the magical train to somewhere they had never heard of. Because, secretly, they had always wanted to find another world, and they weren’t about to miss out on this one.
Mavis stood close to the pole and closed her eyes, letting the motion of the train soothe her.
Brent was watching her, his eyebrows furrowing. “So, this whole sickness in your head thing, that’s not a joke?”
Mavis opened her eyes. “It’s very real, unfortunately.”
“What happens if you can’t get it out of your head?”
“I’m not actually sure.”
“And this diva king? What’s wrong with him?” broke in Linda.
“I have no idea. He has The Book, but he won’t let us touch it. And now he’s obsessed with this basketball thing.”
“Well, have these knights ever played basketball before?” asked Brent.
Linda scoffed, but it was a perfectly reasonable question.
“No, they’re never even heard of it before.”
“Then Roger and I will beat them, easy, and you’ll be able to write whatever you want in it. It’s going to be ok.”
Mavis nodded, but she didn’t believe him. Because they couldn’t write whatever they wanted. They just had to put things back to what they were.
The lady was still asleep in the cavern, which was probably good, seeing as Brent and Linda didn’t have tickets and Mavis’ was already punched. She led them down the side tunnel and up into...the shed at Grandpa’s house. Both Brent and Linda looked confused.
“Are you leading us in circles?” accused Linda. “Because if you are, it’s a sick joke.”
“No, no, I told you, it’s complicated. We have to wait for Kind Dehn to write in The Book that we are out at the sporting fields.”
“You know what that sounds like?” snapped Linda. “That sounds like--”
But at that exact second, they all blinked, and suddenly they were standing in a row at the edge of the sporting fields.
Mavis was shocked to see a whole squad of knights, sans armor, out in the middle of the field doing basketball drills. On the far end of the field still more knights were digging a hole and setting up a basketball hoop made out of a pole and a basket with the bottom punched out.
This was getting serious.
Roger beamed at her when she walked up, hardly looking like a fearful hostage. “These guys are learning fast!”
“Hey, man,” said Brent, and they did their dude handshake.
“Good to see you, man!”
But then Roger saw Linda. “Who let you in here?”
“Don’t act like you own Otherworld, just because you found it first,” snapped Linda.
“Whoa, attitude!” said Roger. “It’s not like you would’ve ever found this place on your own!”
“Yeah, and pigs might learn to fly, too!”
“Chill, guys,” said Brent. “What’s the scoop?”
Roger gave Linda one more glare and then turned to walk back toward the still drilling knights. “So it’s two on two, and King Dehn is getting ready to pick which two knights he wants to go against us.”
They talked strategy and rules for a while, things that Mavis didn’t really understand and didn’t really want to. She took Linda over to where King Dehn was sitting, because she figured that they might get along, seeing as they had so much in common. And if they didn’t get along that might be even more entertaining.
King Dehn raised his eyebrows when he saw them. “Is it customary for maidens in your world to wear the breaches that we reserve for men in ours?”
“Is he talking about us wearing pants?” asked Linda.
“Yeah,” said Mavis, sitting down on the grass.
“It’s totally normal in our world, your kingness,” Linda assured him. “Jeans are like, what we live in. And it’s totally not cool to say that we can’t. It’s like chauvinist, or something.”
“You know? Jeans?” and she sort of tugged the material of her pant leg in an effort to help him know what she was talking about.
“Oh,” said King Dehn. But of course he still had no idea what she was talking about.
“Do you seriously have a magic book?”
King Dehn proudly displayed the cover of The Book of Things that Are. “It contains everything that is, and nothing that isn’t.”
“And that’s The Book that’s making Mavis’ face turn black?”
King Dehn seemed to really look at Mavis for the first time. “You ought to be concerned, maiden,” he said at last. “You appear to be cursed.”
“Not cursed,” said Mavis. “Just ‘helped’ a little too much by Harnswiggle. Speaking of her, where are they?”
“Harnswiggle and Bollygoogle are in the tent, sulking and worrying.”
Mavis went to the tent flap and had barely stuck her head in before Harnswiggle practically shouted “You’re alright!”
“I was not worrying!” said Bollygoggle, which meant that he had been.
“I got Brent, he’s with Roger,” said Mavis. “Don’t you want to come out and see?”
Harnswiggle shifted uneasily. “It is going to being violent?”
“Oh! Not at all. Basketball is...well it’s not bloody or anything. People play it for fun.”
Harnswiggle and Bollygoogle looked at each other.
“Then I guess we will watch,” said Harnswiggle.
King Dehn was just choosing the two knights to play when they came back out. The hoop had been somewhat successfully set up; it leaned slightly to one side. Someone, probably Roger, had thought about needing a hard surface to dribble on, and several knights were hastily setting up a wooden floor that would usually have been used to finish a tent.
It was lucky that Mavis had thought to grab a basketball, or they wouldn’t have been able to play after all. As it was, Roger began dribbling deliberately, the ball thumping dully on the wooden planks. After a few thumps, he shook his head with all of the disappointment of a connoisseur. “This isn’t ideal,” he said. “But it’s the best that we can do, it seems.”
Roger had even seen to it that a bench had been set up, and Linda, Mavis, and the two imps all perched on it, eager for the game to start.