“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.