“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.
“Hello, King Ragoon!” called Harnswiggle happily.
The warriors parted a little and they could see a man who was slightly shorter than all the others, and who was even more dirty than all the others. He was also completely bald. He was more than bald. He was hairless.
And when Roger looked at the other warriors, each with more red hair than the last, he suddenly realized that King Ragoon might be very happy to trade a book that changed reality for a potion to grow hair. But then he thought, a little surprised, that King Ragoon did have a book that changed reality. Why didn’t he just write in that he was covered in hair and call it good enough?
“Hello!” repeated Harnswiggle. “Are all of you being well?”
King Ragoon rested his hands on his saddle horn and showed a mouth full of stubby broken teeth. “Very well,” he half spoke, half grunted.
“We have come from Esperanza,” Harnswiggle continued.
His eyes brightened. “Huhg?”
“She sent us with something special!”
Roger pulled the hair growing ointment out of his pocket and held it out for the king to see. It was evident that he knew what it was, his whole face contorting into a greasy and rather disconcerting smile.
“What do you want?” asked King Ragoon, cutting straight to the point.
“Well…” Harnswiggle smiled and cocked her head. “There was…”
“The Book,” snapped Bollygoggle. “She wants The Book.”
“Which book?” asked King Ragoon.
“The book that changes reality,” said Roger.
King Ragoon’s eyebrows furrowed, or at least his forehead furrowed. It was actually very fascinating to see what a forehead did underneath, where it was usually covered. “Who’s this?”
“This is being a humansperson named Roger, and this is being his sister, Mavis,” said Harnswiggle. “They are both from the Outside.”
King Ragoon’s men shifted and murmured to each other and then eyed them suspiciously.
“Why do they need The Book?” King Ragoon growled.
“They don’t need The Book,” said Harnswiggle hurriedly. “Esperanza is wanting The Book for them.”
He clearly didn’t take Harnswiggle’s evasive answer. “Keep potion.” He turned his pony’s head and acted as if he was going to simply ride away.
“No, please!” said Mavis. “You don’t understand! I have this horrible sickness, and the doctors can’t figure out what it is, and The Book says that it’s all in my head. And we’ve got to get it out, or I’m going to...well, I’m…”
“Come on,” said Roger. “Just let us borrow it, for like five seconds, and we’ll give it right back to you!”
“Can’t,” said King Ragoon.
“Please?” asked Harnswiggle.
“Please!” cried Mavis and Roger.
They all glared over at Bollygoggle, who just crossed his arms and looked prickly.
“Can’t,” repeated King Ragoon. “I already traded it away.”
Mavis felt as if she would choke on the lump in her throat.
“Who did you trade it with?” asked Harnswiggle, her hat drooping with disappointment.
“My cousin, King Dehn.”
“And where is he?”
“Give me the bottle,” he said, holding his filthy hand out, “and I’ll tell you.”
“Give it to him,” said Harnswiggle, defeated.
Roger handed it over and King Ragoon’s smile almost cracked his lips.
“A deal is being a deal,” said Harnswiggle. “Tell us where he is.”
“Don’t know. He’ll be out hunting, or sporting, or swimming, or maybe just trekking, for another month at least.”
“You must have some idea!”
“Not at all.” His smile was a little too...happy.
Now Mavis really did feel sick to her stomach.
Roger was furious.
But he wasn’t as furious as Bollygoggle.
“You! YOU!” and Bollygoggle snatched the bottle right back. “How dare you be such a! Such a!”
No one had an answer for that, least of all King Ragoon, who simply sat there in his saddle with his mouth open.
“You do know, you are lying. Tell us where your cousin is, or I will be breaking this bottle! So THERE!” And he raised the bottle threateningly, stretching it up as high as his arm would go, and even standing on his tippy-toes.
“No!” shouted King Ragoon, while his entire group of men gasped in horror.
“Being telling or!” and he waved the bottle.
“He’s at the fields! The sporting fields!”
Bollygoggle smiled, and started looking at the bottle with a smug air. “Maybe I’m just not giving this to you. You were being a Barnaclebum and a liar.”
King Ragoon made spluttering noises.
“Maybe Mavis should decide,” he continued, much to everyone else’s surprise.
Mavis was more than surprised. She hadn’t even thought that Bollygoggle wanted to help, or that he cared whether they were successful. What did she really think, about giving King Ragoon the ointment? “I think...I think that you should make him promise that The Book is actually with his cousin, and that his cousin is actually at the fields.”
Bollygoggle raised his eyebrows at King Ragoon and shook the bottle. “Promise. Or else.”
“I promise! It really is there!”
“Do you think that he should have it?”
Mavis crossed her arms. “I guess...but” she had a sudden thought. “How far is it to the fields?”
“Almost a day’s walk,” said King Ragoon.
“Is there a faster way?”
“We could ride,” said Bollygoggle, catching on.
“You broke the old deal,” said Mavis, crossing her arms. “And a deal is being a deal.”
There was a good deal of arguing and some name calling, with a smidge of insubordination, before it was finally decided which four of King Ragoon’s men would give up their ponies. Bollygoggle waited until he was mounted up and ready to go before he finally handed over the bottle.
King Ragoon laughed, tucked the bottle into his pocket, and then went thundering off into the forest, followed by his men, who sounded like a very small and very disorderly herd of elephants.
“You are being a very great help on this quest,” said Harnswiggle admiringly to Bollygoggle. “Maybe I am glad you came along.”
“I want this to be over,” sighed Bollygoggle, exasperated.
“Then we should probably be going,” said Roger.
Bollygoggle looked surprised, so much so that a gnat flew in and out of his open mouth without him even noticing. “Me? Disrespect the Chronicler?”
“You are the one always complaining,” said Harnswiggle haughtily.
“Me, go home without you?” gasped Bollygoggle.
“You are the one saying that you never were wanting to come. So fine. Go home!”
Bollygoggle shoved his hands in his pockets, and trailed the toe of his shoe in the dirt, and looked extremely crestfallen.
Harnswiggle put her hands on her hips. “Are you sorry?”
He nodded vehemently.
“For what? For being a Grumgobber?”
Bollygoggle started to set his jaw and cross his arms, but he knew she was right. So he nodded again, albeit a little less energetically.
“Then you apologize to Mavey, and maybe we let you come with us.”
“I’m sorry for calling you a sicko,” said Bollygoggle to Mavis. “Although it is--”
“Bollygoggle,” cautioned Harnswiggle.
“Totally fine to be a sicko. If you were one, which you are not.”
“I forgive you,” said Mavis softly.
Harnswiggle shook her head at him, still angry that he would do such a thing. “Come on, we are needing to keep going.”
They started walking again, Mavis slower than before, and not seeming to enjoy it. Roger had noticed that she hadn’t said anything during that whole exchange, and it bothered him. He could tell by the way that her shoulders were starting to droop that she would need to lay down soon. It was how she looked all the time back home, in the “normal” world. But she had never looked like that here. He had thought that she would always be better off in Otherworld.
He wasn’t the only one watching Mavis wilt with concern. Harnswiggle was keeping a close eye on her, and that was why when they reached a clearing with a stump in the center, she motioned for them to halt. “King Rangoon is coming by here very often to hunt. Let us hope that he will being coming this way today, and much walking we will be saving.”
“Sit,” added Harnswiggle. “And wait.”
Mavis lowered herself down and propped elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.
“King Ragoon is a funny name,” said Roger, looking at her out of the corner of his eyes.
She half smiled.
“Why don’t you trying resting while we are waiting?” suggested Harnswiggle. “Bollygoggle and I will keep watch.”
“There’s nowhere comfortable to lie down,” Mavis mumbled.
Roger stretched his legs out and patted his thigh. With a sigh of relief, Mavis curled up next to him and rested her head on his leg. It was moments like these, Roger cradling her head in his lap, that made Mavis and Roger wonder if somehow they hadn’t gotten switched. That he was really meant to have been the older brother, and she was meant to have been the young sister.
The shadows moved across the ground until it was late afternoon. Roger couldn’t help wondering if any time was passing in the home world--if Grandma and Grandpa had woken up and they hadn’t been there. He didn’t really care about what Linda thought. She could make up a thousand nasty and untrue reasons for them to have disappeared. But he knew that Grandma would be out of her mind with worry, and that that would frighten Grandpa. Roger felt a tightness in his chest when he thought about that, because when his parents had dropped them off, they had told them that they were not to create any stress or worry for Grandma. Tending to Grandpa was hard enough, Dad had said, without them adding any stupidity to it. And, Mom had added forcefully, there was no telling what might affect Grandpa. Did they want to give him another stroke?
But there was nothing Roger could do about any of that, at least not in the moment. So he mustered his cheerfulness and told himself that it was like Narnia-- it had to be. There would be no time lost when they got back.
When they got back?
If they got back.
Mavis’ head was getting heavy on his leg. Sweat, just the tiniest drops of it, were beginning to run down his back inside his shirt. He was thirsty.
Still they saw no one and no thing.
“Is he not coming?” asked Roger at last, weary with thinking and waiting.
“He is coming,” said Harnswiggle. “Be patient, humansperson.”
But Roger didn’t feel like being patient. He felt like being angry. And sad. And frustrated. This whole thing was a mess. And even if it worked, they would only get Mavis back to the way she was before.
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.