“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.
At the next stop, when the doors opened with their steady “woosh,” Mavis was very surprised to see the Lady Agatha.
“Hello!” she cried.
“Hello!” said Agatha. But then she frowned. “Dear, whatever has happened to your face?”
“It’s a long story,” said Mavis.
“We have time,” said Lady Agatha.
So Mavis explained about Harnswiggle overhearing her wishes and changing what was written in The Book of Things that Are and how she had been getting worse, all of a sudden, right when she was getting better. And she told the Lady Agatha about Roger being challenged to a duel by King Dehn and how it was all so utterly ridiculous and how Brent would never believe her.
And the Lady Agatha listened to it all, and swayed to the movement of the train, and thought.
“I suppose that you are hoping to find a way to change what is written in The Book, so that you are not sick at all?”
“That’s what I was hoping,” Mavis admitted. “But Esperanza says that things always go wrong when you change The Book.”
“Things always go wrong when you erase something,” said Lady Agatha. “But I wonder why the Chronicler hasn’t done anything to intervene?”
Mavis didn’t know who she was talking about, or what she meant, but Lady Agatha didn’t seem to want to explain.
They rode the rest of the way to the Moon Stop in silence, and other than a fond farewell, there didn’t seem to be anything else to be said.
Mavis was alone in the train car for the rest of the way back to the station.
She hurried through the central hall, barely glancing up at the train times and the different rate boards. Who knew what King Dehn was getting up in high dungeon over now--probably something stupid, something that would condemn Roger to be his court jester forever.
The moon was high when Mavis cut across the yard toward Brent’s house, high enough that she cast the faintest of shadows on the grass in front of her.
Her’s wasn’t the only shadow to be seen.
“Hey!” said Linda.
Mavis squealed. “Hey, don’t frighten me like that!”
“Oh, don’t frighten you while you are sneaking around in the dark, doing a very good impersonation of a delinquent. Oh wait. You don’t have to impersonate a delinquent at all. Because you are one.”
“Shut up, Linda!” said Mavis. “I don’t have time for this.”
“You don’t have time? You’re so deathly ill that you have to go to the emergency room over a bruise, and then you and Roger stay up all night playing in the shed?! What are you doing in there?”
“Planning my funeral,” snapped Mavis.
“Ha ha, look who’s so witty.” Linda made a great show of putting both hands firmly on her hips. “The truth.”
“Or I’ll scream, and wake up the whole neighborhood.”
Mavis shook her head. “You wouldn’t. Because you would frighten Grandpa.”
Linda tossed her hair. “Ok, fine. I wouldn’t scream. I would drag you by your ear to Grandma and tell her what you’ve been up to.”
“Yeah, the whole two sentences of it. I’m supposed to stay up all night, genius. Doctor’s orders. And Grandma asked Roger to stay up to make sure that I do. And the shed isn’t off limits. Sooooo...go ahead. Drag me to Grandma. Give your great accusation that will sentence me to prison for life.”
“You’re so immature!” said Linda hotly.
Mavis knew she had won, that round at least. Because immaturity was what Linda accused people of when she had run out of witty things to say. Usually only Roger could push her that far. Roger! She really, really didn’t have time for this! Mavis started walking briskly, purposefully keeping her eyes straight and her nose in the air.
But Linda was not about to give up that easily. She may not have been the most observant of people, but she knew something strange was going on. And the truth was that curiosity was driving her just as much as the great need to tattle tale.
“Stop following me, Linda,” said Mavis.
“This is a free country, I can walk wherever I want to.”
“Oh, so you’re stealing Roger’s lines now. How unoriginal.”
“You know, no matter how sarcastically you say it, whatever will always be a cop out line.”
Linda ignored that. And kept following her.
She followed her all the way to their neighbor’s back porch, where they could see the tv flickering through the half drawn blinds.
“What are you doing?” hissed Linda through clenched teeth.
“I’m kidnapping Brent for nefarious purposes,” muttered Mavis, knocking softly on the window. She was hoping that it was Brent still up watching tv, that late at night.
It was. He pulled the curtains back part way and stuck his face up to the glass, so he could half see them in the fuzzy darkness. He looked more than surprised.
“Hey Mavis,” he said as soon as he opened the back door. “Hey, Linda. What’s up?”
“Mavis is in so much trouble,” said Linda. But she didn’t say why or how, because she wasn’t sure.
Brent looked to Mavis for an explanation, which is what she had been dreading.
“Ok,” she said, taking a deep breath and letting it out. “This is going to sound crazy. But would you just hear me out?”
“Sure,” said Brent, coming out and shutting the door behind him. “What’s going on?”
“So you know how I got this strange mark on my face all of the sudden? Well, it’s because I made a wish, and someone heard my wish, and tried to grant it. She changed what was written in this magical book that has Things that Are, and because of that now things are going horribly wrong and we have to change The Book back. But it belongs to this king, and he’s a diva, so he won’t let us write in The Book unless Roger can beat two of his knights at two on two basketball. So I need you to come and be the other person for the basketball duel.”
Brent was completely silent.
“Wow,” said Linda. “I know what’s wrong with you now. Drugs. You are doing some serious drugs, girl.”
Mavis thought she might start crying.
“What’s really going on, Mavis?” asked Brent, so gently that it surprised Linda. “Whatever I can do to help, I will.”
“Then will you come with me?”
Brent looked at her for a minute and then nodded. “Sure, let me grab my sneakers.”
Linda scoffed audibly. “You’re going to fall for this?”
The door squeaked when Brent came back out, holding his sneakers and socks, a gatorade stuffed in his back pocket.
“Seriously?” asked Linda. “You’re going to run off into the night with this weirdo?”
Brent gave Linda a look, one of those looks that grownups give other grownups when they tell a child that there is no Santa Claus or that the tooth fairy is having a pay cut and can’t leave money for teeth anymore.
“Where are we going?” Brent asked Mavis.
“King Dehn doesn’t tell you what kind of test, remember? He challenged you to a duel, so you get to pick.”
“Oh,” said Roger, remembering his chivalry trivia. “That’s right.”
“What?!” shouted King Dehn. Now all of the knights were looking interested.
“Didn’t you know, your kingliness?” asked Mavis, with just a touch of an edge to her voice. “Those are the rules in all of the most fashionable courts. High King Peter would have it no other way, and so agrees King Aragorn and King Robin Hood...and--and King Spock is known for only allowing his knights to accept a challenge rather than give it, for fear of this honorable tradition.”
Roger had to hide a snicker. He’d have to remember to tease her later about King Spock.
King Dehn looked surprised, but also impressed. “Very well. The boy may choose in what field of sport he will face our noble knights. Jousting? Swordsmanship? Archery?”
Mavis looked at Roger. She hadn’t thought this far, and her mind was completely blank. But the wheels had already been whirling at breakneck speed in Roger’s head. King Dehn saying sport had given him an idea.
“Basketball,” said Roger.
“Basketball?” asked King Dehn, bewildered.
“Basketball?” asked Harnswiggle, curious.
“Basketball?” asked Bollygoggle, disgusted.
“Basketball?” asked Mavis, impressed.
“Yep,” said Roger. “Basketball. I’m surprised that you haven’t heard of it, your kingship. All of the coolest kings can’t get enough of it, and they reward their greatest heroes with amazing titles, like the Sneaker of the Order of Lebron.”
“The Sneaker of the Order…” breathed King Dehn. He couldn’t believe his luck. Here it had been shaping up to be one of the most boring days of his boring life, and these extremely strange and entertaining people had fallen right into his lap. He was beginning to be very amused. “Then by all means, our noblest knight will compete against you in this great and enriching sport of mankind.”
“Oh,” and Roger faltered. “It’s not really any fun one on one. You need at least two on two for it to be any good.”
“Two on two?”
“Two people competing on each side. One on one is boring.”
All of the knights looked very relieved. They never knew which of them was the “noblest” on any given day, and none of them relished the idea of going against a boy in a contest that they had never even heard of. The risk for embarrassment was just too great. But now, it looked like it wouldn’t work out, after all. King Dehn would just have to forget the whole thing.
But King Dehn was not about to forget the whole thing. King Dehn wanted to watch this basketball, and he was used to getting what he wanted.
“Well, then you must provide a second,” said Kind Dehn haughtily. “Or are you unable to perform this most basic act of chivalry?”
“A second?” asked Roger. “But Mavis can’t play, she’s sick. And Harnswiggle and Bollygoggle are too…” He didn’t want to say short because they were a good deal taller than they normally were.
“Provide a second!” snapped King Dehn.
“Hey now, don’t get your nose out of joint,” said Roger. “It’s not that easy. I come from another world!”
“And that makes you think that you’re better than us?! You can just come in here and make a challenge, and then back out of it?! COWARD!”
“I’m not a coward!” Roger’s face was getting hot. “One on one is fine. Let’s do that.
“It is NOT FINE!” yelled King Dehn. “PROVIDE A SECOND.”
“You are being a GREAT BIG BRAT!” Roger yelled back.
The knights gasped.
And then there was silence.
“You have insulted our royal personage,” said King Dehn, in a calm voice that was much more frightening than his yell. “You are now sentenced to being held here until such a time as a second can be produced and you can fulfill your debt of honor.”
“What debt of honor?” snapped Roger.
“A game of basketball.”
“Good grief, let it go. We’ll find some other way of getting this nonsense out of Mavis’ head.”
“There is no other way,” Harnswiggle reminded him in a whisper.
“Roger…” said Mavis.
But two of the knights had already reached up and grabbed his arms and he was hoisted down from the pony. They weren’t rough with him, but they were firm, firm enough for Roger to know that they weren’t about to just let him go because they thought King Dehn was being a whiney baby.
“How am I supposed to get a second if I can’t leave?” he asked, somewhat crestfallen.
“We don’t know,” sneered King Dehn. “Send someone from your other world to get a knight basketball player.” He looked pointedly at Mavis.
“You’re kidding!” said Mavis and Roger at the same time.
“We never kid.”
“But you aren’t really going to keep him here,” said Mavis.
“Oh, yes, yes we are. Forever, if necessary.”
Mavis sighed. This was ridiculous. And confusing. And she really wanted to smack King Dehn.
“Will you do it?” asked Roger.
“Sure, but who am I going to get to come play basketball in another world so that we can take my sickness out of my head by writing in a book of that changes reality?”
“Brent,” said Roger.
“Brent?! But he wouldn’t believe me!”
“He might,” said Roger. “All you’d have to do is get him to follow you into the shed. And he’s the best shot we’ve got.”
Mavis sighed. Roger was right. Brent was the kind of cool, laid back dude who would think she was crazy but would follow her into her grandparent’s shed rather than hurt her feelings. And he was more than the best shot. He was the only shot.
“I’ll be going with you,” said Harnswiggle, but the soldiers shook their heads and held onto her bridle.
Mavis was in this alone.
She thought that was rather petty of King Dehn, but what more could she do? He was crazy and unreasonable, but as long as he had a tin can army, he was going to be hard to disagree with.
But Bollygoggle didn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t disagree with King Dehn. Disagreeing was his specialty, and he didn’t make exceptions for anyone, especially for spoiled royalty. He crossed his arms.
“This. Is. Utterly. Ridiculous!” he spluttered. “I had heard that King Dehn was a man of honor, but this--this is--you sir,” and he took a step closer to the astounded king, “are not a nice man.”
Everyone stood there with their mouths open, unable to do anything but watch in awe.
“You would send this humansperson back? Alone? She is dizzy! She is tired! What if she loses her way? Do you know how long it took us to get here?!”
King Dehn honestly had never thought of any of those things, because he never thought through his tantrums before he had them. They always ended up causing him more trouble than they were worth, but what could he do? To learn from them and become a better person was too much work. So he just kept making messes and expecting other people to bail him out of them. He stuck his nose in the air, just like he had a thousand times before, waiting for his knights to rush to his defense and propose, inadvertently, a solution.
But for the first time in King Dehn’s spoiled life and spoiled reign, his knights were silent. Because they were thinking, and most of them were thinking along the lines of “the imp has a point.”
King Dehn would have to think up his own way out of this mess. Which made his brain hurt and his face turn red and his lower lip tremble. At last, he looked down at The Book of Things that Are and got an idea.
“You are an impudent and accusatory imp,” he began regally, as if Bollygoggle had just finished speaking. “Of course we never intended for the human girl to go all that way alone. We are going to write her into the Station.”
Bollygogge opened his mouth and then shut it again.
But Roger saw a problem. “What happens when Mavis and Brent need to come back. It was a long way here. They’ll get lost.”
King Dehn sniffed. “Once they come back into the station, they will appear in The Book. All I have to do is simply write her back here.”
It was a good idea, maybe a great one, and Roger looked at Mavis, who looked at Harnswiggle, who looked at Bollygoggle.
“Very well then,” sniffed Bollygoggle.
King Dehn flourished his pen again, and after a second, Mavis disappeared. There was no poof of smoke, no dramatic flash of light. She was just gone.
“How do we know it worked?” gasped Roger.
“Your sister is gone,” said King Dehn.
“Vanished,” suggested one knight.
“Disappeared,” suggested a second.
“Eating diner,” suggested a third, who was still hungry and still not paying attention.
“I meant,” snapped Roger, “how do we know that she got the station alright? How do we know that she’s not just...gone.”
“Because,” and King Dehn’s tone got even more regal than it had ever been before, “because our illustrious personage wrote it in The Book.”
“There isn’t anything we can do either way,” said Harnswiggle. “We’ll have to just be patient until she comes back.”
“And in the meantime,” said King Dehn, “you will be teaching us how to combat in this sport called basketball. What weapons will be necessary?”
Roger got an evil grin on his face.
King Dehn drew himself up to his most regal and snobbish height. “If you think that we would trust you with a Book of such importance, even for just a moment, then you are more of a knave and a fool than we thought possible.”
“Let me do it,” said Bollygoggle, but without his usual spunk. “That way Harnswiggle is not touching it at all.”
King Dehn seemed to waver for a second, but it was only because he was scrambling to think of a good reason why Bollygoggle couldn’t touch The Book, either. He couldn’t, so he gave the answer that always worked with servants and lackeys. He sniffed.
“Bollygoggle is untrustworthy,” said a knight.
“He is beneath the great King, may his face shine like the sun,” explained a second.
“Your hands are dirty,” insisted a third.
“Please, oh great King Dehn, may your beard never be falling out?” begged Harnswiggle.
But he just stuck his nose in the air and looked the other way, as if it was all settled.
Mavis’ head was pounding and it felt as if the pony was doing the hula in slow motion, and it was maddening to have The Book that close and not be able to get her hands on it. She wracked her brain for everything she’d ever read about pompous and spoiled people of every kind, and most importantly, how to get them to do what you want. What was a good plan? And then she thought of what Roger would say.
“I--” she began, and everyone looked at her, startled. “I bet that you haven’t got The Book at all.”
There was a gasp.
“You are an impertinent little--little--”
“Ingrate,” suggested one knight.
“Knave,” suggested another, thinking of the king’s favorite insult.
“Beef steak,” suggested a third, who was hungry and hadn’t really been paying all that much attention.
“It is The Book that we are holding! Right here!” And he held up the cover, so they could read the title, and feel ashamed of themselves.
“It’s a fake,” said Roger, having instantly caught on.
“Definitely,” said Mavis.
“It even looks cheap, can’t you see where they Sharpied out the old title?” asked Roger.
“Did he really think we’d fall for that?” asked Mavis.
“ENOUGH!” roared King Dehn.
“If it really is The Book of Things that Are, prove it,” said Mavis.
“Yeah, prove it. Change the line that says ‘It’s all in Mavis’ head.’ I bet nothing happens, don’t you, Mavis?”
“Oh, you bet, Roger. He’s going to look mighty silly when all of his knights see that he’s just a big phony.”
“Or are you too much of a coward?” prodded Roger. “Are you afraid to write in The Book, and mess up how things are?”
This jab was very effective...maybe too effective. King Dehn got a strange and vile look on his face, that can only be described as the look a very unpleasant child would get if he had been throwing a tantrum wanting to go to Disney instead of the dentist, and suddenly found himself driving the family car. “You are a very loud mouthed boy, aren't you?” he asked Roger.
“I do talk a lot,” said Roger, without an ounce of shame.
“We don’t like you very much.”
“That’s ok, I don’t like you very much either, so we’re even. Are you going to be a lily livered chicken hearted mama’s boy, or not?”
“We think that you were sent here,” sneered King Dehn. “By someone.”
“I don’t have any idea who you think sent me,” said Roger honestly. “But I bet I’m not the only one who thinks you’re a coward.” Roger was beginning to think that things were going in a direction that didn’t bode well for him, but he didn’t know what else to do. Talking big and riding out the waves as they came was really his strong suit, so he just kept firing back responses and hoping for a new idea to strike him--or, better yet, Mavis.
“We think you were sent here to humiliate me.”
“Me? What happened to the whole I’m-a-king-so-I-talk-in-confusing-plural-pronouns bit?”
King Dehn gnashed his teeth. “We am going to prove that you are just an overgrown lout.”
“Am? Now you’re conjugating your verbs incorrectly. Am is a singular verb. Are is the correct verb for a plural subject.”
King Dehn opened the cover of The Book of Things that Are with a flourish and brandished his feather quill melodramatically.
As soon as his pen stopped moving, Roger looked at Mavis excitedly. “Well?! Do you feel any better?”
King Dehn laughed. Not an “I hope you are better because I fixed it for you, aren’t I a nice person” laugh. It was more of an attempt at an...evil laugh.
“Wha...what did you do?” asked Mavis, too hurt and too disappointed to pretend to be polite.
“The Book of Things that Are says that the young and impudent member of you company will be dueling against one of our men in a test of skill and courage. Only if he does best our most noble knight will he gain the privilege of changing what is written in The Book.”
“Your fathersperson raises cattle animals then?”
Roger laughed. “No, dad is a human resources and efficiency researcher.”
“What is that meaning?”
“That means that he takes a bunch of numbers and drawings on paper and uses them to make machines work better and faster, with less waste. And he studies business and helps them see where they could be maximizing their employees contributions better.”
“That sounding interesting,” said Harnswiggle, vaguely impressed. “Does he like being this?”
“Yes, he likes it a lot,” said Mavis.
“What does your mothersperson do?”
“She is a publicist--she tells people when cool things are going on. Or, she tells people that they should think things are cool. Anyway, she works mostly for dad, making sure his theories and discoveries get the attention they deserve.”
“Is she liking being this?”
There was a pause, a sort of thinking stillness. And then at last Mavis said “I think...I think that she liked it more a couple of years ago, when she worked for other people, too. I think that she doesn’t like that people see her as Dad’s employee.”
“Hmm,” said Harnswiggle. “And what do you do? You go to humansperson school?”
“We’re homeschooled,” said Roger quickly. “Or...self schooled.”
Harnswiggle seemed to know from the sound of Roger’s voice that there was something more, something deeper. But she didn’t say anything about it, because she didn’t know what to say. And though Harnswiggle had many faults, she was a genuinely caring little sprite, and she had learned a lesson that many who would claim to being wise have yet to learn: if you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything at all.
Bollygoggle also happened to choose that exact moment to bring them to a halt. “This is the end of the forest,” he said. “After this is all being scrub land. Stay close.”
They rode their ponies two abreast out into the open, and tried to watch for gopher tortoise holes, and for ant piles, and for sodee apple plants. At least, Roger and Mavis did, and it took them a little ways to realize that while there were tortoise holes, because the gopher tortoise was supposed to be there, there were no ant hills and no sodee apples. This was Otherworld, after all.
“Getting close,” said Bollygoggle.
They came out through a little stand of palmettos and pine trees and found themselves at the edge of a very large field, perfectly leveled and covered in thick green grass. At the other end of the field, there was a tent and a row of horses grazing leisurely.
Bollygoggle seemed to have lost his desire to lead, and so Harnswiggle pushed ahead, riding straight out into the middle of the field with no apparent fear.
A soldier came striding out to meet them. Even with his black armor clanking dully like a tin can, he was an impressive sight, and he didn’t seem too happy to see them. “Harnswiggle, did you forget the warning that good King Dehn, may his reign never falter, gave you when last you met?”
Harnswiggle turned pink. “I didn’t forget. But I was hoping...see...I was hoping that he would forget.”
“Wait, you messed with this guy, too?” asked Roger. “What did you do to him?”
“It’s a long story. No time for telling it now.”
“You should ride away, Harnswiggle the unwelcome, before the treasured King Dehn, may his strength never decrease, learns of your presence here on these great and noble fields of sport.”
“It is too late, oh fellow knight,” said another knight that had come up behind the first. “The benevolent King Dehn, may he never be weary, has seen this long dreaded sprite, and bids you bring her and her companions to his tent.”
The first knight sighed. “Very well. His Majesty’s whim is the command of thousands and cannot be broken. Come, Harnswiggle the miscreant, and these, your fellow perpetrators of vile misdeeds, or the profound King Dehn, may his--”
“Ok, we’re coming,” said Roger. “There’s no need to write a book about it.”
Bollygoggle gave the tiniest of snorts.
Up close, the tent looked exactly like Mavis thought it would, with its solid wood posts and its elaborately embroidered coverings. It looked like an illustration right out of one of her favorite fairy tales, complete with the greying king sitting with his feet up in the doorway, his robe lined with fur and his crown gleaming. But this king was not smiling, and he looked more like the fairytale king who would send the hero on ridiculous quests than the jolly sort of king who would welcome them to a legendary feast.
Mavis was right. Dehn was a spoiled prince who became an even more spoiled king, who had never had to do anything more important than read tax law proclamations and eat large meals at fancy banquets. It also happened that on this particular day he was sitting in his chair on his very wealthy bottom, reading The Book of Things that Are, and being incredibly bored. It turned out that things that are were not much fun to read at all--not when compared to things that might have been, or could be, or were improbable.
He did not look happy to see Harnswiggle. Not at all.