Roger watched the whole thing, the way he always did. And once he knew she was asleep, he pulled the bottle Esperanza had given him out of his pocket. Would a warlord really trade a book that could change reality for a potion that could give him...hair? It just seemed ludicrous--and definitely like something out of a strange novel. This whole thing seemed so unreal, all of a sudden, sitting there in the still green swamp air. The fact that Mavis was hurting so much, the fact that they were in a magical world between worlds, the fact that he, the little brother, might be the only thing standing between Mavis and--but he refused to think that thought, even in his head. If Mavis were really that bad, then the doctors would be able to find something. And if they could give this whatever it is a name, then they could find a cure for it, too. Right? If Mavis were--if she was close to--if it was even a possibility for her to...you know what than their parents wouldn’t have left them at Grandma’s for the summer. Right? Parents don’t do things like go to seminars in Atlanta while things are...scary. He was overreacting. He needed to stop worrying. For all he knew, this was all some crazy long messed up dream, and he would wake up back in his own bed, probably on the last week of the school year. And then he would get to do the summer all over again, with his friends back home. He would tell Mavis all about this crazy cool dream he’d had, where they rode this ginormous swamp monster and met the lady on the moon.
But somewhere, deep in his heart of hearts, Roger knew that this was no dream. And he knew that Mavis was not doing well. And it felt like the bitterness of a thousand adult worries had crept into his dream world, like a noxious gas that clouded the sun and drained all enjoyment.
Harnswiggle startled him when she laid her hand on his arm. “It’s not your responsibility,” said Harnswiggle.
“You don’t understand. She’s my sister. And honestly, she’s really my best friend, too. I have to help her.”
“No,” said Harnswiggle. “You want to help her. That is different than having to. You are choosing. A good choice, but a choice still the same.”
Roger wasn’t sure what she meant, but somehow he knew it was something that he needed to remember, and think about.
The Marshwallow’s pace was slowing, and he seemed to be wading more in mud than in water. He had begun to cry again, too, because he had stubbed his toe, and he was hot, and his favorite tree was thirty miles away, and he was thirsty.
“Oh, goodness greif!” shouted Bollygoglgle, and Mavis sat up with a start.
“Now, there, there,” began Harnswiggle, but Bollygoggle wasn’t finished.
“You are the whiniest creature that there ever was! For crying great monstrous tears, put us down! We’ll walk from here!”
“You shouldn’t being so hard on him,” said Harnswiggle. “You know that he is only a youngish swamp monster.”
“He is?” asked Roger. “How young is youngish?”
“I’m--I’m six hundred and forty twoooooo!” wailed the Marshwallow.
Six hundred and forty-two didn’t seem that young to either Mavis or Roger, but they just followed Harnswiggle and Bollygoggle down off the Marshwallow’s arm and back into the muck. It wasn’t the most pleasant thing in the world, to get shoes wet and muddy, let them dry out, and then get them wet and muddy all over again. Mavis considered just taking hers off, but then she remembered all of the little cypress knees and how miserable it was to step on one with bare feet.
“Goodbye, Marshwallow,” said Mavis to the youngish and extravagantly sad swamp monster. “Thank you.”
“Yes, thank you,” Roger agreed.
And, for the first time, the Marshwallow smiled, ever so slightly. They got a glimpse of yellowed teeth the size of tree trunks, with moss growing merrily up and down the sides. As much as Mavis wanted to shudder, she smiled back instead.
“Come along,” sighed Harnswiggle. “There is still being plenty of way left to go.”
They sloshed on, until they started coming up out of the swamp, and the water got lower and lower, until at last they were on dry ground. Still they kept going, following a faint trail through the palmettos and winding their way around the pine trees. And then they got to openings in the trees, like little courtyards in the cities of live oaks. They would cross these, and Mavis would watch the ground to make sure that she didn’t twist her ankle in a low place, and Roger would watch the interesting bugs and flowers and cloud formations that there were to see.
“How much longer?” asked Mavis at last. She was a little tired, a little dizzy, and her head hurt, but she was trying her best not to be a wimp.
“It not too much farther,” said Harnswiggle, with a worried sort of look in her normally sparkling eyes.
“It is a long, long way farther,” said Bollygoggle.
Harnswiggle glared at Bollygoggle, and he shrugged. “It’s not my fault that we are off on this wildest goosey chase. It is all your fault. And it is being definitely your fault that we had to bring someone who is being sick all the time. Didn’t I always tell you not to get involved with the humanspersons that are sickos? They be waste time, I said. They slow us down, I said. Especially this humansperson.”
“Hey!” cried Roger. “Lay off! Mavis has been keeping up just fine, and she’s in pain! And don’t call her a sicko--it’s not her fault that she doesn’t feel well. Do you think she chose to be like this?!”
“She is the one who made the wishing,” said Bollygoggle.
Mavis was still walking and acting like she wasn’t crying, but she was, and they all knew it.
Bollygoggle shook his head so hard his pointed hat almost fell off. “The shorter way means that we are all going to be killed.”
Harnswiggle just ignored him and started walking. Mavis and Roger looked at each other, but they didn’t really have any choice but to follow.
Harnswiggle cut across the front yard, sticking her tongue out on the still reclining tabby cat, and heading into the azaleas that Grandma had planted on the east side of the porch. Mavis had never actually seen those azaleas, but she had heard about them. They had been wedding gifts and Grandma had tended them lovingly for decades before the Big Freeze had killed them on one evil day.
Mavis had seen what was one the other side of where the azaleas had used to be. There was a little stretch of dirt road (some neighbor who lived farther in’s drive way), and then there was the smooth green lawn of the Coleman house.
At least, there was supposed to be. When they pushed through the azaleas, there was the dirt track just where it should be, but no lawn and no house on the other side, only magnificently old Live Oaks bejeweled by Spanish moss.
“Where is the Coleman house?” asked Mavis, trotting to catch up to Harnswiggle.
“It’s not there,” said Harnswiggle, still walking at her determined pace. She had turned to walk down the trail, and nothing seemed to slow her down.
“But why isn’t it there?” pressed Mavis. “Grandma’s house was there!”
“Grandma’s house!” cried Bollygoggle. “She is thinking that that is Grandma’s house!”
“But, isn’t it?” asked Roger.
Harnswiggle snorted. “Grandma is living there. But the house rightfully belongs to your grandpa.”
Neither Mavis nor Roger understood why that was such a big distinction, so they just made mental notes of it to ask someone a little less cryptic later. If they could find someone a little less cryptic.
“Keep up, humanspersons!” called Harnswiggle, and veered off of the main track and into the forest.
It wasn’t long before solid ground gave way to squishy ground, and live oaks gave way to cypress and palmetto. Great clumps of ferns began to spring up everywhere and gigantic air plants hung from the trees like strange accessories.
“We’re in a slough,” said Mavis, looking about herself in wonder. There was no slough close to Grandpa’s house--only more rural houses that gave way eventually to urban houses and then finally parking lots. Esperanza had been right. They were in an Otherworld, a between place where only the best things existed.
Soon the ground got even gooier and the green air became muggy and still. They had moved beyond the slough, Mavis realized, and into the swamp. They began sloshing through knee deep water, the giant banana spiders beckoning all comers to their webs. An iguana lay on a tree branch, his eyes half closed in contempt, his claws only lightly gripping the bark. Roger pulled a face at him. Still, Harnswiggle kept her nearly frantic pace.
“Stop,” said Harnswiggle suddenly, so they stopped. They were on the bank of some deeper river or pool, because in front of them the water deepened to a foreboding black.
“We are going to have to cross without killing the humanspersons,” said Harnswiggle to Bollygoggle.
“Come again?” asked Roger.
“You’d better not kill us ‘humanspersons,’” said Mavis, “seeing as saving me is kind of the whole point of this entire thing.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” said Harnswiggle. “There is a very safe way to cross. There is no problem at all, is there, Bollygoggle?”
“No problem at all,” agreed Bollygoggle, “as long as you don’t call the Marshwallow.”
“Oh,” said Harnswiggle. “That is exactly what I was saying we ought to do.” She didn’t wait for Bollygoggle to argue with her, because he most certainly would have. She just started yelling as loudly as she could. “Marshwallow! Marshwallow! MARSHWALOW!”
Harnswiggle seemed determined to keep calling until she got some response, so Roger and Mavis began helping her, even though they had no idea who they were really calling to. Roger half expected it to be a dragonfly with a leaf boat for them all to shrink down and ride in, but Mavis was thinking more along the lines of some sort of wise spirit of the swamp.
Both of them were very surprised to hear a distant sniffing.
“Is--is someone crying?” asked Mavis.
“Goody!” said Harnswiggle. “He heard us! Marshwallow! Stop sulking and show your face to the humanspersons!”
There was a great sloshing, and a huge ring of ripples, and then a face began rising out of the water. Not a friendly face, but not exactly an evil one, either. And it was most certainly not a face like anything that either of them had seen before. There was a great mouth, with moss growing at the corners, as if the Marshwallow often forgot to wipe his face after he ate (which was the very case). There was a crooked green nose, barely discernible. And there were two great yellow eyes, like those of an owl, only not nearly as wise and brimmed with tears.
“I bet his eyes are as big as King Zepher’s,” whispered Roger. “You know. In Hobo Stew it says that they are--”
“Shhht,” said Mavis.
The Marshwallow was sobbing.
“Don’t cry, dear Marshwallow,” said Harnswiggle. “Everything is all right. In fact, you will be helping to make that so.”
“I can’t help it!” sobbed the Marshwallow, and two great tears plopped into the quivering water.
“We need your help, see, to do something of the greatest importance,” said Harnswiggle gently. “Just keep thinking, what must it be like to be a great hero!”
“I’m scared of being a hero!”
“But Marshwallow, you are a great big swamp monster. You are stronger than a Whumtroll and taller than a Whifflin. And you are the only one who can help us!”
“Aaaaaaahhhh,” wailed Marshwallow.
“Pull yourselfness together!” snapped Bollygoggle.
The Marshwallow gulped in surprise.
“Harnswiggle went and messed something up again,” said Bollygoggle. “And now her being herself as she usually is being, she’s gone and roped me into helping her fix this dreadful mess. If I have to help her, then you do, too. We have to cross, and you are going carry us. Understand?”
The Marshwallow nodded, slowly at first, and then faster under Bollygoggle’s withering gaze.
“Alright then, be a good swamp monster and blow your nose.”
With a hitherto unexposed paw, the Marshwallow brought a very green, very yellow, very crusted with salt scum handkerchief, up to his nose. When he blew, there was a minor earthquake that skewed a young cypress sideways.
“Pick us’ins up,” commanded Bollygoggle.
He put his great paw down into the shallower water where they stood and let them climb, one by one, up his arm and onto his back. Mavis had the decided sensation of climbing up a live oak branch, the kind that are covered over in exotic green mosses and resurrection fern. She thought that she would feel scared to ride this strange creature, but once she was up, she found plenty of nooks and crannies to hold onto and brace her feet in. And it was so broad, and so green that in some ways it was like sitting on a living hill. A living hill that every once and awhile would heave as the Marshwallow sighed.
“That sounds really kung fu-y and deep, but I have no idea what it means.”
“Perhaps you will come to understand it with time. Remember this, young Roger. We are each given our own burden to carry, and though we may help another in a time of need, it is not for us to take this burden completely.”
She looked him deep in the eyes. “Things are, whether we understand them or not. When you have found The Book, you must not add any new lines. And you must not erase any old lines completely. You must simply change what is written there. As much as your love for our sister would wish it otherwise, the balance of our worlds will not permit anything more.”
Roger nodded, to show that he understood. But she just kept looking at him, staring at him with those eyes.
“Can’t you--” he stumbled, “can’t you do anything to help Mavis? She’s awful sick.”
“I wish that I could, young Roger. But it is not given to me to be a healer. I can only offer what I am able. And that is a word of encouragement. Your sister is strong, if not in body, then in will. You must trust that she can carry her own burden.”
Roger, for once, was silent.
“You will understand in time.” She put her hand on his arm. “It is time for you to rest.”
Roger and Mavis woke up at the same time, surprisingly rested for having slept curled up on the floor. Esperanza had moved to a table made out of matchsticks and tree bark, set with little cups made out of shells and plates made out of coins.
“Are we in Grandpa and Grandma’s back yard?” asked Roger, sitting up.
Esperanza laughed. “He is never finished with questions, is he?”
Mavis cocked an eyebrow at him, but Roger was undaunted. “So, are we?”
“In a manner, yes. And yet, we are not.”
“I think that may be the most evasive answer I’ve ever gotten.”
“Shhh,” hissed Mavis.
“I have prepared food for you,” said Esperanza.
It was very good food, too. Bread and cheese and strawberry jam, with spring water to wash it down and slices of almond for a nice crunch. When the kids had eaten their fill, they thanked her and said goodbye.
“Do not doubt your road,” said Esperanza, “for I truly believe that you are capable of achieving what you seek.” She laid her hands on each of them. A warmth flowed from her, and they stood a little taller and smiled a little more. With one last smile, she handed Roger the remedy from baldness.
Once they were out of earshot, Mavis jabbed Roger with her elbow. “You could have been more respectful.”
“Come on, she was being vague on purpose! She must be some kind of fairy Yoda.”
“I thought she was more like a fairy Galadriel,” said Mavis. “Well, anyway, now we’re stuck on some quest.”
Roger stopped and raised his hand with a flourish. “We are not stuck. We are heroes on an awesome quest. And I declare this the official best summer ever.”
“Even if we don’t get to Narnia?” teased Mavis.
“That’ll have to be next summer.”
Mavis laughed. “Come on, let’s find Harnswiggle.”
Harnswiggle was standing on the branch, a scowling man imp standing next to her. “Roger, Mavis, meet Bollygoggle.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Bollygoggle,” said Mavis.
“It is not nice to meet you,” snapped Bollygoggle. “In fact, it is the definition of not niceness.” As he spoke, the tip of his much worn and very faded hat quivered in emphasis.
Neither Roger nor Mavis knew what to say to that. They wisely kept their mouths shut.
“He is going to be coming along, see?” said Harnswiggle.
“No, I am not.”
“Yes, of course you are. Don’t be such a marshwallow.”
“Me a marshwallow! Don’t do it, I said. No fuss, no muss, no broken coconuts, I said. But would you listen? You had to go, and try to grant humanspersons wishes--”
“Shut your mouth, Bollygoggle,” snapped Harnswiggle. “You’re going, and that’s that. Coming along!”
The three of them, all somewhat unwillingly, fell in behind her.
“It’s Mavis,” said Roger before he was even seated all of the way. “She’s been sick for a while and no one knows why. Linda says it is all in her head, and she wished it was. And Harnswiggle heard her…”
Esperanza chuckled softly. “I should have known that Harnswiggle would be a part of this. She wrote it into The Book of Things that Are, didn’t she?”
They nodded, not surprised at her understanding, comfortable in her deep knowing.
“And now you’ve come to try and find The Book so that you can change it.”
Esperanza looked at Mavis. “That is Harnswiggle’s plan. But is it really what you intend?”
Mavis knew that she couldn’t lie to her. Not while she was looking at her with those eyes that were filled with knowing. “If it is The Book of Things that Are...couldn’t I just...couldn’t I…?”
“Write in it that you are not sick at all?”
Mavis looked down. “Yes.”
“Remember, child, that things are the way they are for a reason. You cannot erase anything from The Book of Things that Are. You can only add them or change them. The Book is not a toy. It should not be used to manipulate the fabric of our worlds or of our lives.”
Both Mavis and Roger were very sad and very quiet.
“You are wondering if you will be sick for the rest of your life,” said Esperanza gently.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Mavis.
“Don’t you know?” asked Roger, sure that she must know everything.
“It is not within my power, I am afraid, to tell you the future.”
“Couldn’t you guess?” Roger persisted.
“It is hard to guess at another’s future, Roger, because it is so far out of my control.” She sighed. “But I see that you will not be content unless I hazard some sort of effort in that area. I do not think that Mavis will be as she is now for the rest of her life. Perhaps some hero will rise up to change the course of her illness, or perhaps it will run through its lifecycle and be done. I can only say this with certainty: what Harnswiggle has written into The Book has been of a great disservice to Mavis, even though it was meant well. Whatever it is that is hurting your sister was not meant to be in her head.”
Mavis couldn’t agree more, and Roger was in no mood to be contrary. He was getting a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, and wanted to get on with making Mavis better, not talking about how she was getting worse. “Would you tell us where The Book is? Is it near?”
Esperanza shook her head. “Obtaining The Book will not be easy. It is in the outer regions of Otherworld, in the kingdom of the Rutlars.”
“I thought that Harnswiggle just had it!” cried Mavis.
“Unfortunately, she misplaced it on a train.”
It was Roger’s turn to sigh. He was beginning to think that Harnswiggle was a great deal of trouble. “How will we find it? This kingdom?”
“Someone will have to guide you there,” said Esperanza with a smile. “And seeing as Harnswiggle is the cause for all of this, I believe it ought to be her.”
“Will the Rutlars give it to us?” asked Roger.
“King Ragoon is...not the politest of men. Nor is he the most compassionate. But he can be bargained with. And it just so happens that I have something that he wants.”
“What is it?”
She gestured to a cupboard on the wall and the leaf curtain moved aside. Sitting on the shelf was a little bottle of liquid. “It is a remedy.”
“A remedy for what?” asked Mavis.
Roger squeaked. “Baldness? He wants a special remedy for baldness so bad that he will give us a magic book that changes reality?”
“The Book does not change reality,” said Esperanza without blinking. “It changes the things that are.”
“Oh,” said Roger. “That makes sense.”
Mavis jabbed him with her elbow.
“You have other questions?” asked Esperanza.
“Yes,” said Roger.
“No,” said Mavis at the same time.
“Proceed,” said Esperanza.
“Is Otherworld an actual world? Like another planet that orbits another star?”
“Otherworld is neither here nor there. It is a place between worlds, a place that is the best of all other worlds.”
“Ok. That wasn’t cryptic or anything. Does time stop here, when we’re back at our world? Does it stop in our world when we are here? Are we going to randomly come back 2,000 years from now and the Telmarines will have taken over?”
“Telmarines?” asked Esperanza.
“That’s from a book,” explained Mavis, shooting Roger a look. “They’re not a real thing.”
“You don’t know,” said Roger. “We found a door in a shed, but Lewis could have totally found one in a--.”
“Give it a rest,” said Mavis.
“I’d better get a trip to Narnia out of this somehow.”
“I am unsure of where this Narnia you speak of is,” said Esperanza. “Perhaps you should consult the map in the Central Station.”
“Sure,” said Roger. “When are we going on this quest?”
“It is best if you leave as soon as possible.”
“Now?” asked Mavis.
“Cool,” said Roger. This was more his style. Action, movement, implementing a plan. And hopefully he would get to kick some butts before this was all over. He had always wanted to kick a butt, even though, now that he thought about it, he wasn’t really sure how. Did you just pull your leg up from the ground? Or stick it to the side? Maybe you--
“Can’t we, I don’t know…” Mavis’ voice sounded wobbly.
“Are you feeling ok?” asked Roger, forgetting about butts and kicking almost instantly.
“I’m just--just feeling a little tired. Couldn’t we eat something, or just rest a minute?”
“Of course you may rest,” said Esperanza. She reached out and laid her hand on Mavis head. With a sigh, Mavis curled up and fell asleep.
But there wasn’t any light, and there wasn’t any turn. There was just a dead end of earthy wall.
“Pull the root, pull the root,” sang Harnswiggle, clinging to Roger’s thumb.
Mavis pulled the largest and most impressive looking root that was sticking out of the wall, and the whole thing pulled inward, like a door on a hinge. It was, in fact, a cleverly disguised door, made by none other than Harnswiggle’s greatest great grandpa.
“Oh,” breathed Mavis and Roger, as soon as their eyes were able to handle the sudden light.
They were looking at a house exactly like their grandma and grandpa’s, except there were no neighbors in sight, just forest. And the house had a fresh coat of yellow paint, and there were soft rose curtains in the upstairs windows, like the ones that had been in Grandma’s room when Mavis was a little girl. And sitting on the porch was the most prodigious tabby cat, all orange and gold and prideful indolence.
“Who lives here?” asked Roger.
“You do!” cried Harnswiggle.
“No, we live on a different world,” said Mavis. “Outside of...well, wherever we are now.”
“Silly youngsterperson,” laughed Harnswiggle, but she didn’t explain anything else. She just told Roger to walk around behind the house.
The cat came down the stairs and followed them, twitching his tail and looking like he didn’t want to be touched. But he did sniff the side of Mavis’ shoe, as if he were attempting to be polite.
In the backyard there was the most enormous, beautiful live oak that Mavis had ever seen. The whole thing was draped in Spanish moss that was drifting gently in the wind, and just the sight of it made Mavis feel suddenly at home, as if she had at last found the place that she had been looking for her whole life without knowing it.
Hanging from one of the low, sturdy branches, was a tire swing. Of course Mavis and Roger went straight to it. How could they not?
“Get on, get on!” sang Harnswiggle.
“You go first,” said Roger to Mavis.
“No, no! Both on!”
“But Harnswiggle,” said Mavis, “we can’t both swing at the same time.”
“Both,” Harnswiggle insisted.
Mavis put her legs through the tire’s mouth and sat down, and Roger put his feet on either side of her and clung precariously to the rope. Harnswiggle clung even more precariously to his thumb. “Up, up, up, UP!” she chanted.
And sure enough, the tire swing began to go up, just as if someone was standing on the branch above and was pulling them hand over hand. Which was, in fact, the case.
Mavis looked down at the receding lawn and felt a dizzy sort of confusion come over her. Somehow it seemed like the yard was much, much too far away. She reached over and wrapped her hand around Roger’s ankle, just to be sure that he was the same size. And he was. She couldn’t possibly be shrinking, she told herself.
Suddenly there was a foot standing on the top of the tire, right at her eye level. It was wearing a soft brown leather shoe. A very dirty leather shoe.
“Welcome!” said whoever it was up on the branch, that Mavis still couldn’t see. A pair of strong hands grasped her shoulders and pulled her the rest of the way, up and out of the tire swing so that she could stand on the branch and see what there was to see.
Harnswiggle was standing next to her, only now the happily smiling imp was taller than Mavis.
Mavis and Roger both gasped.
“Welcome to my homeplace,” said Harnswiggle.
“Thank you,” said Mavis.
“We’re tiny!” cried Roger.
There was another imp standing next to Harnswiggle, wearing an acorn hat and a very shaggy coat. He raised his eyebrows at Roger. “Is this a problem to you?”
“No, this is awesome! This is so The Borrowers! I’m totally going to drink water out of a thimble, and sword fight a mouse with a pin, and then I’m gonn--”
“Focus,” said Mavis.
“We’re here to see Esperanza about a problem,” explained Harnswiggle.
The man frowned. “Esperanza is very busy today.”
“It is of most importance,” said Harnswiggle.
“It is, oh!” cried Mavis, struck by how awful it would be if the only person that Harnswiggle knew of to help them wouldn’t even see them. “Please, please let us talk to her!”
He seemed surprised by her passion, but he did not seem offended. “Very well, we will let her make the decision. Right this way.”
“Check it out,” called Roger. He had walked farther up the branch and was looking out at the rest of the tree.
Up there in the canopy it was a friendly sort of twilight, neither too dark nor too light. And all throughout the branches there were lights, hundreds and hundreds of lights, each one a perfect circle of glowing warm yellow. There were also great strands of twine hung with triangle papers in butter yellow and spring green and robin’s egg blue and sea shell pink. Mavis thought that they were decorations, like great bunting, but then she saw little figures walking on them in the distance and realized that they were rope bridges.
“Come, coming!” sang Harnswiggle, and skipped off. Mavis and Roger tried to keep up, but they were not so comfortable running and skipping and scrambling that high above the ground, and so Harnswiggle would have to stop and wait for them. At last she led them over one final bridge and, pushing her broad brimmed hat back, pointed up a set of shelf mushrooms leading like a staircase higher up into the Fairy Tree.
“Esperanza is up there.”
“Aren’t you coming?” asked Roger.
“No, not coming. You have to go to her all by yourselves.”
Roger and Mavis looked at each other. Mavis only saw the slight look of worry in Roger’s eyes, but Roger saw that the black mark on Mavis’ face was creeping farther down her neck. He turned and led the way up.
“I feel like a freak.”
“Feeling like a freak doesn't make you one, either.” He stopped and looked at her tired eyes and the mark, that had grown again, on her face. “But I understand what you mean.”
They were quiet for a while, the only sound a distant drip of water plop plop plopping down into the pool. Just when Mavis thought that she would scream if one more drop of water plopped anywhere, the door to the cave opened.
But there wasn’t any shadow blocking the light from the outer cave. There didn’t seem to be anyone there.
The door shut.
“Hello?” said Roger.
“Hello!” said First Voice.
Mavis’ heart skipped. Was she at last going to meet the person who had been granting her wishes?! The person who had been, somehow, changing the course of her life?! Harnswiggle--just the name seemed exotic and magical! Maybe there was hope for fixing this whole mess, after all!
“Harnswiggle?!” called Mavis. “We need you!”
“Hold on for a smidgen,” sang First Voice. There was an awkward pause, and then a tawny brown spot could be seen making its way across the mossy rocks.
Roger looked at Mavis, and Mavis looked at Roger, and they tried not to laugh. Or cry. Because it looked like a walking mushroom.
“What can I do for you?”
Mavis knelt down so her face was close to the stone Harnswiggle was standing on. Harnswiggle really was a fascinating little creature, all covered in moss with dusty brown skin and deep deep green eyes. Her hat was flopped precariously to one side and it looked like something had taken a bite out of it.
“Hello,” said Mavis, more than a little disappointed. “I’m Mavis.”
“I know,” said First Voice.
“You are Harnswiggle, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” said Harnswiggle.
“Have you been granting my wishes?” asked Mavis.
Harnswiggle looked horrified. “Me?! Grant wishes?! No, not me. Never me.”
“But somebody has been granting them!” said Roger.
“It was the Gullumgall'ad. He’s awfully fantastic about granting wishes.”
“But he said he didn’t!” Mavis was feeling more than a little exasperated and more than a little panicked, and she wasn’t sure which feeling was going to win out.
“Oh,” said Harnswiggle, squishing up her face. “He is always saying that he doesn’t grant wishes, but he is always doing it just the same. That is why I brought the tickets to your sleeperslabs. I knew that he would grant them.”
“So what about Mavis’ wish? What about it being all in her head?”
“Oh, he was going to grant that wish. He is very powerful, and I knew it was a wish that he would grant, so I put it into The Book of Things that Are.”
Roger raised his eyebrows.
“What?” asked Mavis.
“The Book of Things that Are,” repeated Harnswiggle. “Anything that is, is in The Book, and things that are in The Book, are.”
“So if you take it out of The Book?” asked Roger.
“You have to change it,” said Harnswiggle.
“Do you have it with you? Can you erase it?!” Mavis almost lept up in her excitement.
“I don’t, well, I don’t have it.”
“But you just did,” said Roger. “You must still have it.”
She shook her head.
“Where did you put it last?” asked Mavis.
“I..I don’t know,” said Harnswiggle.
“So you have no idea where it is now?” asked Roger.
Sorrowfully, Harnswiggle shook her head yes.
Mavis felt a little sick to her stomach. This felt like a rollercoaster and all she wanted to do was get off.
“Listen, Harnswiggle, I know you only meant to help,” said Roger. “But you’ve got to realize that this is very important. Mavis is very sick, and the doctors want to send her away to a research hospital.”
“Hospital?” asked Harnswiggle, her eyes getting wide. “Oh no! The Chronicler, he will never like that!”
“She doesn’t want to have to go,” explained Roger, wondering who The Chronicler was. “You’ve got to think--is there any way that we can find The Book and get whatever it is out of Mavis’ head?”
Harnswiggle scrunched her face up and stood on one foot. “Oh!” but then she shook her head and switched to the other foot.
“I can’t think of anything to answer,” she said at last. “But…”
“But?” asked Mavis.
“Esper-wha?” asked Mavis.
“Esperanza. She may not know the answer, but she will make sure that you don’t quit looking for one. She is very wise and good.”
“Can you take us to see her?!” asked Roger.
“Yepp! Yeppie yepp!” Harnswiggle was jumping up and down in her excitement. “Come on!”
She started running across the rock, but of course it was only one step for Roger and Mavis to be on the other side of her. Roger put his hand down and let her climb on. “Just tell me where to go, ok?”
“And don’t fall off,” said Mavis.
“Out the door-y-way!” sang Harnswiggle. “This way to Esperanza!”
“Of course, dear,” said Grandma quickly. “I’ll be just down the hall if you need anything. Be sure she stays awake, all right, Roger?”
“I wonder why she acted so funny,” said Mavis as soon as the door was closed.
Roger looked at her knowingly. “You haven’t played a board game in months, Mavis. You haven’t felt like it.”
“Yeah, all you’ve done is laid in bed. You’re better since we started going to Otherworld.”
Mavis was quiet, pretending to study the board. But she was really thinking about what Roger had said. If the Gullumgall'ad had been the one to make it “all in her head” then maybe with the right wish he could take it all away. Maybe she could be more than better. Maybe she could be fine.
The train station was mostly deserted, their footsteps echoing on the marble floor. It was eerie, the normally bustling station nearly empty, the long lines at the ticket counters replaced by the bored ticket men themselves, coming out from behind their desks to chat with each other. Roger couldn’t help but wonder what was going on, whether there was some kind of holiday, or maybe an emergency. Maybe it wasn’t safe to travel on the rails that day. But even though they were the only ones waiting at the stop and the only ones in the train car, there were no signs saying not to ride, and no problems in the transport.
The stop for Otherworld was so quiet that the lady at the desk was asleep when they got there. Rather than wake her up, Roger just quietly stamped their ticket himself.
Mavis pulled the folds of her kimono more tightly around herself. Suddenly, she wished that they were anywhere else. What had she been thinking? She was from Reality, and in Reality magic fish cannot take away illnesses.
But Roger was already halfway to the door that led to the Gullumgall'ad’s cave, and Mavis knew that she would never forgive herself if she turned back now. So she squared her shoulders and went on.
The Gullumgall'ad was not at the edge of the pool like he had been the last time, so Roger splashed around the corners of if in his rainboots, calling softly into the water. At last, the swirling fins approached and then they could see the scowling face itself.
“I thought,” said the Gullumgall'ad, “that the last time you were here, I made it very clear that you were not welcome back, any time, don’t drop by.”
“We came to thank you,” said Mavis.
He swirled his fins even more. “Of all the bothers! Whatever on earth are you going to thank me for? I most certainly never did anything for either of you!”
Mavis and Roger looked at each other, dumbfounded.
“But didn’t you grant my wish?” asked Roger. “I wished to come back to Otherworld, and we did.”
“I don’t grant wishes for snotty-nosed children like you,” insisted the Gullumgall'ad.
“But if you didn’t grant Roger’s wish, why were there tickets under our pillows?” cried Mavis. “Why are we here?”
“It must have been that ne’er do well meddling Harnswiggle. Now go away.”
“But!” said Mavis, her heart thumping with terror, “But didn’t you grant my wish?! Didn’t you make it all in my head?”
“Young lady,” said the Gullumgall'ad, “I am beginning to be convinced that there is nothing in your head. Now go away.”
It didn’t matter what Mavis or Roger said after that, the Gullumgall'ad didn’t answer. He just swam away, his fins trailing after him, taunting Mavis.
“Well,” said Roger, trying to be brave.
But Mavis couldn’t say anything. She just sat down on one of the stones and started crying.
“Don’t cry!” said Roger. “Please don’t!”
“I can’t help it! I thought for sure something had happened and that I was getting better but now here I am and what if this funny mark doesn’t go away and I have to live at the research hospital and I become a human guinea pig and I never get to grow up or do anything with my life all I do is go to doctors and take medicine forever?”
Roger sat next to her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “We’ll think of something.”
“There isn’t anything we can think of! None of the grownups know how to fix it, and neither do the doctors. I’m a freak, and I’ll always be a freak, and I hate that stupid, mean fish!”
The tears were coming so fast now that Mavis couldn’t say anything else. Roger hated it when she cried like that, because it wasn’t a normal girly cry, like at a movie or a good book. It was a hot and angry cry that spoke of sadness and pain deeper than he could express. It was an ugly cry that spoke of despair and frustration, a cry that wanted to turn its back on the future and run away from it all. Sometimes, when Mavis cried like that, he wished that he could, too. Maybe it would feel better to have the tears out on his cheeks, rather than bottled deep in his chest where no one could hear him. But he couldn't cry, not even a little. It was stuck. And so he sat with his arm around Mavis, wondering what he ought to do, and whether anyone in Otherworld would help.
Mavis knew what he was looking at. It was what doctors had been looking at, poking, scanning, testing, for hours on end. It was the giant, funny shaped bruise that was all down the side of her face and almost onto her neck. The bruise that had seemingly appeared without cause or explanation, the bruise that finally proved that something was wrong. That she was not making things up. That she, Mavis, was sick and that nobody knew why.
And nobody knew what to do about it, either. Some of the doctors said that she should be rushed to the nearest research hospital for more extensive testing. Others said that she must have fallen and simply forgotten that she had. Was it a concussion? Grandma wanted to know. It wasn’t. It was just...there.
Grandma was driving them all home, steering their silent car through what seemed to Mavis an unfriendly stretch of countryside. Because she knew this wasn’t the end. She would be tested and analyzed and badgered until some explanation was found. And all she could think, over and over and over, was that it was all in her head.
Grandma’s old school ring tone went off, much too loud, and Roger had to help her flip the ancient phone open so she could answer.
“Hello, Ruby, yes we’re going home. No, they didn’t give her anything…”
Mavis closed her eyes and tried not to listen to Grandma talking to her mom. She tried not to think about anything.
“Is Nathan there?” asked Grandpa, suddenly.
“What, dear?” asked Grandma weakly.
“Nathan.” He gestured to the phone. “I want to talk to Nathan.”
“George wants to talk to Nathan,” said Grandma into the phone.
They could hear Ruby’s voice on the other side, excited and demanding. And then there was the warm, calm “Hello, Dad?”
“Hey, Nathan,” said Grandpa. “Mavis isn’t feeling well.”
“That’s what Ruby was telling me. But, hey, what about you? You sound amazing!”
“Mavis isn’t feeling well,” Grandpa repeated. “I don’t want you to send her to the research hospital.”
There was silence in the car and silence on the other side.
“They can’t find anything, anyway,” said Grandpa. “Let her stay with me.”
Mavis could hear her mother’s voice rising to a crescendo in the distance, punctuated here and there with her father’s low comments. Then he came back onto the phone. “Dad?”
“Yeah, Nathan?” said Grandpa.
“I’m going to trust your call on this. Mavis is going to stay with you for now. But if anything changes, I want Mom to call me right away. Okay?”
“And Dad?” Nathan’s voice sounded funny.
“I love you.”
Grandpa smiled into the phone. “I love you, too, Nathan. It’s going to be all right. Take care.”
And then Grandpa sort of sunk back down in his seat, his eyes wandering out of the window. Grandma took the phone away from him gently. She wasn’t making any sound, but everyone in the back seat knew that she was crying.
Roger looked over at Mavis, and this time he met her eyes. They just both shrugged at each other, unsure what to say.
When they got back to the house, Linda bolted from the car, slamming the door behind her. Grandma looked in the rearview mirror and sighed. “All right, Mavis, let’s get you inside.”
“It’s ok, Grandma, you can take Grandpa. I’m not dizzy.”
Grandma looked unconvinced.
“I’ll walk with her,” said Roger.
“Maybe you should stay downstairs, dear,” said Grandma. “Since the doctors say that you have to stay awake. You could watch cartoons, or a VHS.”
“I just want to be quiet for a while,” said Mavis. “My head hurts.”
“I’ll make sure she stays awake,” added Roger. “I’m going to camp out with her all night.”
Grandma smiled at him. “Thank you, Roger. You’re such a big help.”
Mavis and Roger went in, leaving Grandma to coax Grandpa out of the car. They needed to be alone. They needed to talk.
But they weren’t alone when they got inside. Linda was standing in the living room, waiting for them, and she followed them up the stairs. She awkwardly stood watching while Roger made a pallet on the floor and Mavis moved her blankets around to make a nest.
Finally, Roger sighed and looked up at her. “What is it, Linda?”
Her face curled up into a kind of scowl that they had never seen before, but she still didn’t say anything.
“Are you ok?” asked Mavis wearily.
“Am I ok?!” snapped Linda. “You’re the one freaking everyone out! Now tell me this, and tell me the truth. Does that weird mark on your face have something to do with what you did outside last night? Because if it does, and you didn’t tell anyone about it, I’m going to…”
“I don’t know,” said Mavis. “That’s the honest truth.”
Linda looked at Roger.
He shrugged. “She didn’t get hit. She didn’t fall down.”
Linda put her hands on her hips. “You’re hiding something. I know it. And I’m going to find out what, just you wait.”
As soon as she was gone, Roger hopped up and shut the door. “Why don’t we just tell her the truth? There’s no way that she’d ever believe us.”
“Because she might follow us to make fun,” said Mavis. “I can’t deal with her in this world and Otherworld.”
Roger perched on the edge of the bed, wrapping his hand up in the corner of Mavis’ fuzzy blanket. “Do you think that your face has something to do with Otherworld?”
“Well...maybe. I made a wish, the other day. When Linda was being mean and said something about it being all in my head. I wished that it was. I think that somehow the Gullumgall'ad must have heard me and granted it.”
“So we should be able to get him to un-grant it. Or maybe grant a wish that counteracts it.”
Mavis nodded. “And we have our tickets, to go back to his cave.”
It was Roger’s turn to nod, but Mavis could tell that he wasn’t satisfied yet.
“What is it?”
“Grandpa hasn’t spoken a full sentence since last Christmas. And all of the sudden, he was talking to Dad on the phone, telling him what to do.”
“Grandma said that he has good days and bad days.”
“Yeah, but that wasn’t a good day. That was five minutes of being normal again.”
“I miss him,” said Roger softly.
“He’d know what to do, you know. He’d just look at you and know what to do.”
“Maybe he still does,” said Mavis, sliding her arm around Roger’s shoulder. “He made sure that we would stay here. I couldn’t talk to the Gullumgall'ad if I was on my way to the research hospital.”
“You’re right.” Roger hugged her back. “I’m really glad that you’re staying here.”
He didn’t say the “for now” part because neither of them wanted to hear it.
“Anyway,” said Mavis, “we’ve got to think of something to do for a few hours, until Grandma comes to check on us. Then we take our tickets and run for it.”
“Look who the cat drug in,” said Linda. She was standing in her doorway, her hands on her hips. “I thought that the Wraith couldn’t even stand up.”
“Leave her alone, Linda,” said Roger. “It’s none of your business if she wants to sleep in her own bed.”
“In her rain boots?” asked Linda.
“Just ignore her,” said Mavis to Roger, not wanting to fight.
Linda blocked their path. “I saw you out in the yard. I don’t know where you went or what you did. But when I find out, I’m telling Grandma so fast your heads’ll spin.”
“Just as long as no heads roll,” said Mavis.
“Downwiththebloodybighead,” said Roger, under his breath.
“I heard that, scumbag,” snapped Linda.
Mavis just went into her room and closed the door. Reality wasn’t nearly as fun as Otherworld.
The next morning at breakfast, Grandma kept glancing worriedly at Mavis.
“Is there something wrong, Grandma?” asked Roger.
“No. I mean...are you sure that you’re alright, Mavis?”
“I’m as good as I ever am,” said Mavis. She raised her eyebrows at Roger but he just shrugged.
“Why do you ask?” asked Roger.
“I don’t know. Linda said that she heard something, and that she thought that you were hurting or...”
“Noooo…” said Mavis. “I just went upstairs and--”
“Whatever,” said Linda. “Sorry for pretending to care.”
Mavis put her head in her hand and used her fork to move the eggs around. She didn’t know that anyone was still looking at her.
“Poor Mavis,” said Grandpa softly.
“Poor Mavis. Hurt--hurting Mavis.”
“Don’t worry, dear,” said Grandma. “Mavis is going to be fine. Don’t you worry about anything.”
But Grandpa didn’t seem to hear. He just reached out and gently touched the side of Mavis’ face. “I see the mark, the hurting mark,” he leaned forward until their faces almost touched. “All in your head, isn’t it?”
Grandma was getting wide eyed, and Mavis was just starring. So Roger jumped up. “I’ll wash today. You want to dry, Linda?” And to her credit, Linda just stood up and started stacking dishes.
“Grandpa?” whispered Mavis. “What do you mean?”
But Grandpa had already gone back to tracing the flowers on the plate with a finger, his eyes watery and distant. “I’ll help you up to bed, dear,” said Grandma, still looking worriedly at Grandpa.
“Couldn’t I lay on the porch for awhile?”
Grandma looked surprised, but she nodded and helped her out.
Mavis curled up on the porch swing and closed her eyes. She wished that she could close out her thoughts. “All in your head, isn’t it? All in your head. Everything is all in your head. In your head…”
There was a thud, thud, thud, as Brent and Roger came out onto the pavement and started their drills. It was a comforting sound, in a way. A steady sound that her brain could latch onto and predict. It lulled her into a slight doze, warm and safe on the porch.
“Is Linda really your cousin?” Brent asked, and there was a swish of net.
Roger’s feet pattered as he went to get the ball before he replied “Yeah, she is.”
“Ok. She just doesn’t...”
“Look like us,” Roger finished. “It’s ok. She doesn’t. Her dad is Hispanic.”
“Oh,” said Brent, and there was a bonk from a rebound. “That’s cool.”
“It would be cooler if her dad wasn’t such a jerk.”
“Ugh. That must stink.”
“It does,” said Roger. “I think that’s why she’s so cranky. That’s why people are cranky in movies, you know, ‘cause of their rotten parents or luck or whatever.”
“Yeah,” said Brent.
“What’s cool is her Abuela. She’s amazing. She cooks like no one’s business and she tells the best stories.”
“That’s cool,” Brent agreed again. “One on one?”
“Sure thing,” said Roger.
Mavis listened to their game, enjoying being close enough to feel like a small part of what was going on. It was nice not to be up in her room.
The ball soared over the railing and hit into the wall of the house.
“Got it,” said Brent, heading toward the porch.
But Roger gasped. “Mavis is up there!”
She could hear the fear in their sudden silence, the sudden feeling of the air being sucked out of the yard. But she hadn’t been startled. She hadn’t been hit. She was just fine. So she sat up to tell them so.
But the looks on their faces rendered her speechless. Something was horribly wrong.
Instead of going back to the elevator, she led them around to a little entryway and opened the door. They found themselves standing in a little yard, right on a street full of people. People were everywhere! There were grownups and children and dogs and birds and even some pigs (they had bows tied around their necks and were very adorable).
“What is the festival for?” asked Roger.
“It is to celebrate all of the birthdays this month.”
“So you have a birthday festival every month?” asked Mavis.
“Even cooler!” said Roger.
They walked down the road together, listening to the bright tinkling music and the sound of everyone talking and laughing. They looked at the cheery grey streamers that hung from the cane poles and the lanterns with black polka dots. And the kites! Everyone seemed to be flying a kite. There were butterflies and and dragonflies and giant manta rays and eagles and even a geiko, all swooping on the wind and casting friendly shadows on the ground. Some of the kites were very small, no bigger than dinner plates. But some of them were so big that several grownups were holding on to several strings, laughing and joking about being carried off to Earth.
“Are you hungry?” asked Agatha.
“Yes!” they cried.
So they stopped at a little cart and Agatha ordered something that sounded weird and looked even weirder. Neither of them had ever eaten grey food before, and for a moment they both considered politely changing their minds and telling Agatha that they weren’t hungry, after all. But then they realized that what they were holding was giving off the most amazing of smells. Then they had to take a great, big bite. “This is amazing!” said Mavis. “It’s sort of like a cinnamon roll!”
“It’s a special pastry, made just for the birthday festival.”
“Hello, Lady Agatha!” called a group of children as they ran past.
“Hello!” she laughed.
They wandered through the streets for a while, Agatha leading the way. After a few blocks they came out of the city proper and found themselves standing in view of the sea. It looked nothing like our sea, with its grey waters and black undercurrents. It looked icy and a little frightening. But there were also plumes of white foam that seemed to be enjoying themselves, patting at the shore and then skittering back out across the face of the ocean.
“Look at the boats,” said Roger. There were dozens and dozens of them, all scampering about in the bay, their sails going up and down and little people running back and forth on their deck.
“Do you like boats?” asked Agatha.
“YES!” said Mavis and Roger together.
“Then let’s go down to the pier,” said Agatha.
Of course neither of them objected, so they went down the steps cut into the shore, and out on the pier. It was truly dizzying trying to turn about and see all of the boats; boats with square sails and dragons on their prows, long lean boats that were fronted by maidens with flowing hair, boats with decks so high up they looked like skyscrapers. Some of their hulls were painted in swirls and scales and scallops, and some of them were draped in flags. Agatha led them straight to a little boat--not a tiny boat, but one that was much smaller than the other ocean liners--and called down to the captain. “Hello, Honora!”
The captain waved at them, a smile lighting up her face. “Hello, Lady Agatha! Are you seeking a vessel?!”
“Could you take us out so we can see the show?”
“It would be my pleasure!”
And so they climbed down into Honora’s boat and settled onto the padded benches. Roger was fascinated, because he could not hear a motor, and the sails were all furled, and yet their vessel taxied slowly away from the pier and toward the open water. “Watch as it gets dark,” said Agatha, and so they did, their smiles stretching from one ear to the other and the wind blowing their hair back.
There was a sound in the distance, like the first kernel of popcorn bursting in the bag. And suddenly the sky was full of light, full of glorious buttery yellow fireworks. They popped and hissed and the biggest sent sparks raining into the sea. They were roses and orchids and butterflies, dogs and horses and dragons, suns and moons and stars. Mavis and Roger sat with their mouths open, the lights reflected in their rapturous eyes.