Monday, June 13, 2011

What does a child do when life hurts? 
She dreams up a hero.

— "A childhood trial of survival."
— "Realism and fantasy beautifully intertwined."

Dandelions: The Disappearance of Annabelle Fancher is a suspenseful, human-interest account detailing the harsh reality endured by young Anna. It tenderly acquaints the reader with a lonely young girl and shares her courage facing adversity. Many of Annabelle's experiences were taken from the lives of actual people. 

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Have you ever felt as if your dreams
were more memorable, more alive,
than what you knew to be reality?

Have your dreams ever seemed so tangible
as to make you question upon waking
if you’d truly only dreamt them?

Have they at times been addictive enough
to consume your waking hours,
blurring actuality and pretend together
until your wishes and passions
stare back at you with open eyes?

If only dreams could be reality,
that beautiful garden of sweet-smelling roses we all long for.
But reality for me is no such bed of roses.
It is nothing but a field of unwanted dandelions.

    From the thoughts of
           Annabelle Fancher 







Copyright 2012 Richelle E. Goodrich



Prologue



I was dressed in all red, swathed by a long, hooded cloak that covered my raven hair, protecting me from the chilly air.  My feet kept on a dirt path partially hidden by discarded autumn leaves.  Laced boots reached well above my ankles, the kind lined with soft, warm fur.  My arms swung at my sides, one hand clutching at a basket of aromatic treats.  It was a real temptation not to stop and snack on the baked goods inside.  But no.  It would have to wait until the clearing of trees revealed itself, the one that led to Grandmother’s cozy home.
I was singing a merry tune as I stepped along the trail, something about melting rainbows and whiskered cattails.  For you see, that’s what a solitary, na├»ve girl does in fairytales.  As I started into a chorus about galloping pigs, a young man suddenly appeared on the trail in front of me, emerging from out of nowhere.  I stopped singing at that point and stood in place.
He wore a heavy cloak, similar to mine though black in color.  His boots were made of brown hide, frizzy fur spitting up from the rims.  His pants were dark, his shirt as well, tucked behind a black leather belt.  A fierce creature froze in a howling pose on the buckle.  The boy’s face was too shadowed by his hood to discern. 
I was a bit puzzled by his appearance.  This wasn’t part of the story my teacher had read to our class.  I didn’t know what to think.
The boy summoned me to him with his thin, young fingers.  Apprehension gripped my stomach, but I reminded myself that this was only a dream.  When I stepped up close enough to feel the warmth of his presence, his features came into view.  He was a good-looking boy with round cheeks and a pointed chin.  His lips were thinned into a crooked grin, pale pink against tanned skin.  His eyes were brown like mine.  A mess of dark curls framed his face, falling down his neck, barely missing his shoulders.  We spoke at the exact same instant.
“Who are you?”
He cocked his head.  “I asked you first.”
“No you didn’t,” I protested, shaking my red-hooded head.  “I asked you at the same time you asked me.”
“Well, then,” he sighed, seeming to concur with my observation, “I suppose we’ll have to go with ‘girls first.’”  His grin widened into a white smile.
“I’m Little Red Riding Hood.”  My hand gestured to all of me dressed in red. 
His eyebrows skewed.  “Hmmm.”  The sound he made was unimpressed.
“Actually,” I confessed, “I’m not really Red Riding Hood.  My name is Annabelle, but I’m pretending to be her because……well……because this is my dream and that’s what I wish to dream about.”
“That’s what you want to dream about?  Some girl in a red cloak?”  His twisted expression seemed to question my sanity.
“It’s better than dreaming about some boy in a drab, black cloak,” I defended.  Although the moment I said it I realized my statement was absurd.  That’s exactly what I was dreaming about.
“I’m only wearing this black cloak because you’re wearing that red one.”
“You’re copying me?”
“Not entirely.” 
We stopped to stare suspiciously at one another.  It was quiet through the long gaze.  Leaves rustled overhead while a breeze managed to sweep beneath his hood, tousling his brown curls.  He spoke up first.
“Annabelle.”
“Yes?”
“I like your name.”
My lips grinned involuntarily.  I bit down on them.  “You do?”
“I don’t care for your dream, though.  It’s boring.  Let’s do something else.”
“You don’t even know where my dream was headed,” I said defensively.  “I’m off to Grandmother’s house with this basket of goodies.”
His dark eyes flickered to the basket in my grip and then back to me.  He sniffed once at the air.  “Boring.”
My gaze narrowed slightly as I revealed the kicker to my dream.  “My grandmother won’t be there when I get to her house…”
“Can we eat those goodies then?” the boy asked, interrupting me.
“No!” I exclaimed.  My hands brought the basket protectively behind me.  “I need these goodies to feed to the wolf who’ll be lying in my grandmother’s bed.  He’s probably already eaten her by now.”
The boy’s eyes grew wide.  He gawked at me, speechless.
“Not so boring?” I asked with a tiny hint of smugness.
“That depends,” he said.  “When we get there, is this wolf going to eat you too?”
My eyebrows pulled together in a worried manner.  “I don’t think so.”
“What do you mean you don’t think so?  Haven’t you thought this out?”  My gaze dropped, hearing how his boot tapped impatiently against the ground.
“Well, um,” I hemmed, “this isn’t actually my story.  It’s a book my teacher read to our class.”
“So how does it end?”
“She hasn’t read the ending yet,” I admitted, “but it probably ends like every other fairytale.”
His foot stopped its tapping.  “How’s that?”
“Well, the evil villain is defeated, and the hero runs off with the princess and lives happily ever after.”
The boy rolled his eyes.  “Bor~ing.  I think the girl should be eaten by the wolf.”
“But that can’t happen,” I argued.  “Nobody would care for a story like that.”
“Why not?”
“Because no one wants to read about a little girl who dies in the end.  It’s too sad.  It’s not how fairytales go.  And besides, I really don’t want to be eaten by a wolf.  It might hurt.”  My face tightened with concern.  I hoped he wouldn’t force me to be eaten.
“What if I let him eat me?  When he’s done, we can sit down and share those goodies in your basket.”
I thought about it for a second and then shrugged one shoulder.  “Okay.”
The boy pulled back his hood uncovering a thick mess of brown curls.  He turned and stepped along the trail.  His dark eyes sparkled as they peered over his shoulder at me.
“Come on, Annabelle.  That hungry wolf isn’t going to wait around forever.”
I obeyed his order, hustling up beside him.  Looking past the rim of red fringe above my eyes, I studied his dimpled profile.  He was handsome.  But most of all he was kind.  It was fun to dream that people could be so friendly toward me.  I loved dreaming for that very reason.
“What’s your name?” I finally asked the boy. 
His pointed chin lifted proudly with his answer.  “I’m Gavin.  Key keeper of Dreamland.”

Chapter One




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Chapter One


“Cold Stone”


“IN A WORLD PLAGUED WITH COMMONPLACE TRAGEDIES, ONLY ONE THING EXISTS THAT TRULY HAS THE POWER TO SAVE LIVES,
AND THAT IS LOVE.”


 The words were scratched in bold print across the stone wall.  Mrs. Cosgrove, our teacher with hair as fluffy as a yellow chick, had read them to us.  I could read the words myself, even though I’d learned to do so late in school.  I was good at reading now because I liked words.  Especially these.  They beckoned to a secret part of me that longed to believe such a thing. 
 Beneath this bold sentiment were columns of engraved names, a list of local fallen.  I touched one with the same last name as mine, though I didn’t know the man.  CARL HENRY FANCHER.  The letters felt cold to my fingers.  Unloved.  That was my first impression.  I thought it odd.  This rock of beloved heroes ought to feel warm.

 My father was never good to me.  That’s the truth in its tolerable form.  A serious understatement in reality—in my reality and my mother’s as well.
 The first memories I have of the man are unpleasant ones.  Him screaming, standing over my mother with a threatening fist.  She would hold me tight to her chest when I was little, trying to protect me….and herself too, I think.  I learned at a very, very young age not to cry.  At least not out loud.  Eventually, I learned to stifle my feelings as well—as much as is humanly possible anyway.  There was no sense in harboring hope for anything.  Fear and disappointment inevitably squelched it.
 The fact is, the man who’d begotten me didn’t want me.  In his eyes I should never have been born.  And perhaps that would’ve been best.  As it was, my existence had proven to be nothing more than a nuisance for everyone.  I angered my father, brought strife upon my mother, irritated my teachers, and annoyed the other children who were forced to interact with me in school.  All by simply being. 
 When you aren’t loved, you aren’t real.  Life is cold, like the stone against my palm. 
 I suppose that’s why I first turned to books.  I engrossed myself in them once discovered—creatively assembled words that molded imagined stories in my head.  They were always so vivid, these kind characters in pretend worlds.  People and places that also weren’t real.  I imagined I loved them.  And sometimes, I dreamt that they loved me back.

 “Annabelle!  Anna, where are you?  For heaven’s sake, child, must you always wander off alone?  You should keep with the rest of the class.”
 I hadn’t wandered anywhere.  I’d simply failed to follow, but there was no use correcting an adult.  The carving of my last name in stone had distracted me, so perfectly straight and uniform and appealing in design.  My small hand covered up the CARL HENRY as I imagined ANNABELLE in its place.  It made me smile, the thought of being among heroes on cold stone.  I hustled toward the end of the commemorative wall where Mrs. Cosgrove turned the corner to find me.  Her fuzzy hair seemed to float around disgruntled features as she hastily approached.
 Her fingers slipped tightly around my wrist when we met.  She dragged me along to where the other boys and girls were listening to a tour guide explain the recent history behind the wall.  He used photographs and newspaper clippings as visual aids.  Mrs. Cosgrove spoke to me in a strict, hushed voice.  She didn’t bend over to my level to talk as she would any other child.  I knew why.  I didn’t smell good.  I never did.
 “Stay here with Ginger, Annabelle.  She’s your assigned buddy for the day.  It’s important that we stick together on this tour.  No more running off alone.”
 “Yes, ma’am,” I whispered. 
 Ginger curled her upper lip unattractively as two sapphire eyes peered over a shoulder at me.  She had pretty Cinderella eyes and hair.  I tried to smile, but the gesture caused her nose to wrinkle.  My muddy brown gaze dropped to the floor.  I watched her shiny sandals move closer to her best friend, a redhead named Elizabeth.  My eyes lifted to catch a screwed-up freckled face.  I scooted back a few feet until the wall stopped me—keeping in company with the class yet exclusive of them.  No one would complain about me standing back.  Not even Mrs. Cosgrove.
 My fingers combed through my dark hair, short and straight, landing in choppy, uneven ends nearly level with my chin.  The color reminded me of every evil character in any fairytale.  It seemed all were characteristically black—black hair, black eyes, black clothing, black demeanors, and black intent.  I never thought I was truly a villainous character, not like I knew my father to be, but I was his offspring and devoid of any princess-like characteristics, so that left only the wicked side of the story to play.  In my dreams, though, I imagined myself more like Snow White with wavy, raven hair, a perfectly fair complexion, bathed in rose scents, and exhibiting a natural feminine grace that would dance musical circles around both Ginger and Elizabeth.  No, I never hoped for such a thing to be real, but I dared to pretend it with perfect clarity in my dreams.
 I tried to pull on my short hair, wishing like Rapunzel I could extend it down to my toes.  It had been past my shoulders only weeks ago until my father had ransacked the kitchen in a violent, drunken rage. 

 A stick of gum had been left on the floor, unopened, untouched.  For some reason it set him off.  It was always my aim, and that of my mother’s, to remove anything from his view that might anger him, including my very presence.  Usually I hid outdoors whenever possible, but this time I’d been in my room in a corner of the closet reading a book about hobbits and elves.  I stepped up to my bedroom door when I heard the first chair hit the wall.  Mother hardly ever screamed, but I could hear her trying to reason with the insane.
 “It’s just a stick of gum, not even opened.  It…it must’ve fallen out of my pocket or something.  I…I’ll pick it up.  I’ll throw it away.”
 My father cursed at her, hollering about how gum wasn’t allowed in his house…..stuck on the furniture…..ruining his hard-earned junk……a waste of blood-spilt money……and other furious comments.  That’s when he started in on me.  I heard him swaggering down our narrow hallway, bumping into the wall, ranting about how expensive my mouth was to feed while polluting every other word with foul expletives I’m not permitted to repeat.  Nor would I ever care to. 
 “Get your scrawny, little, rat-hide out here!”
 I stepped into the hallway, having learned that disobedience always proved a worse decision.  My mother was right behind him, still attempting to reason with a drunken fool. 
 He had the stick of gum between his thumb and forefinger, flopping it back and forth in the air.  His words came out slurred as he spoke over me.
 “You like gum, do you?” 
 I didn’t answer.  My gaze flickered up, wary of the glassy look in his eyes.  He was definitely intoxicated……again.
 “You think you ain’t done enough damage around here?  Eatin’ all my food!  Stinkin’ up my house!  Breathin’ my air!  Now you gotta be spittin’ out your gum on the floor with no respect for the king of this here castle!  No respect for the only one who earns his weight in this pathetic family!  I’m the boss of this dump, you hear me?  I’m the one who keeps a roof over your worthless head, you little beggar!  You like gum, do you?  You like wastin’ my hard-earned money on this crap so you can leave it lyin’ around the house and ruin this scrapheap we gotta live in cuz your lazy mother thought she had to go off an’ have a stupid kid?”
 He panted over me, winded by his own absurd lecture.  The stench of his alcoholic breath stung my nose.  Again I didn’t answer.  I hoped he’d tire out and end his speech and hobble back to the living room without touching me.  Such hopes were unlikely, as was the case this time. 
 “Answer me, you good-for-nuthin’ wench!” 
 The pain bit instantly as his hand connected with my cheek.  I shook my head in answer to his crazy questions, feeling a rise of warm tears.
 “Johnny, please stop it,” my mother begged.  “Leave Anna alone.  It wasn’t her fault, it was mine!  It…it was my gum!” 
 The interruption did nothing but earn her a similar slap, as I’m sure she knew it would.  Sometimes I wondered if my mother spoke up at the wrong time on purpose.  As often as we endured my father’s abuse, she had to be aware that it wouldn’t save me from a beating but simply earn her one as well.  Or was it that sharing my fate made her feel less guilt-ridden about those things that happened to me?
 I tried not to squeal when my father grabbed at my hair, holding it up in a tight ponytail that made me rise to my tiptoes.  The fringe along my neckline ripped out by the roots.  It hurt.
 “Get me the scissors, Lin.”  It was a growled command.
 “Johnny, please don’t…”
 My hair was nearly yanked from my head as he turned to smack my mom again.  I barely managed to keep my balance, held up by my father’s firm grip.  Mother slunk off to find the scissors.
 I endured a drunken lecture and a few painful tugs on my hair until my mother returned and handed over the scissors.  I cried silently as my father chopped off every bit of ponytail, leaving the ends jagged, falling at just below chin length.  At least six inches of dark black strands remained in his fist.  He blubbered something about getting gum stuck in your hair and suffering the consequences of such stupidity, though it wasn’t nearly as coherently put.  I could barely look at my mother.  She was bawling worse than I was—that horrid look of pitiful helplessness in her eyes.  The black wad was thrown at my feet before my father stumbled off, hollering for me to clean up the mess I’d made.  I wiped the tears from my face with the back of my hand and let my mother gather the hairs alone.  I returned to the hobbit world waiting for me in the corner of my closet.  Who needed stringy, long hair anyway?

 “Annabelle!  Anna, come along, keep up with the class.  Where’s your assigned buddy?”
 My eyes glanced from Mrs. Cosgrove’s soft, blonde hairdo to Ginger’s long, golden waves, both glimmering with a pretty sheen.  My fingers fell from the brittle ends of my mangy haircut, and I obediently stepped in line behind Ginger and Elizabeth. 
 Our tour guide marched us to another area of the park where a crowned oak tree towered over a long, narrow garden of colorful flowers.  Among the blooms were heavy boulders, flat-faced and polished until they glistened like a row of reflective mirrors.  More names were engraved in the stones.  More provocative quotes scratched in bold print.  I silently read the one on the end beside me.

“DARE TO IMAGINE.  DARE TO BE.
BOOKS ARE THE SEEDS.  DREAMS ARE THE SOIL.
THE FRUIT OF THE HARVEST, A WORLD REBORN.”

RUSSEL HARVEY ARNETT
FOUNDER / PHILANTHROPIST

 “Phil ~ an ~ thro ~pist,” I whispered to myself.  I would have to look up that word in class.  It sounded impressive.  Important.  He must have been a beloved man to have his very own cold stone.
 “…and now we’ll head inside the library where you can browse through a reserved section of children’s books.  Your teacher and I, along with two of our librarians, will assist you in checking out one book apiece.  Remember to keep your voices low.  This is a library.” 
 I looked up in time to catch a friendly grin on the face of our tour guide.  He was gesturing toward a set of glass doors that led inside a brick building behind the flower bed.  I stayed with the group this time, as eager as the others to find a new book, but not voicing my delight out loud.  My ears picked up on Ginger’s conversation with Elizabeth and a blonde girl named Charlotte dressed in pressed, yellow cotton.  Spotless, white daisy print smothered her sunny skirt. 
 “My mom brings me here every weekend.  It’s soooo easy to check out books.  I’ve done it a hundred times already.”  Elizabeth’s red hair fell as gently as autumn leaves as she tossed it over her shoulder, acting like an old pro at such things.
 Ginger’s fingers spread out like a fan.  She nearly hit Lizzy’s nose holding her hand in her face.  “I have five library books at home right now.  All of them are about horses.  I love horses!”
 Both the blonde and the redhead hopped a few times, moving excitedly along with the crowd.  “Me too!  Me too!” they exclaimed.
 Charlotte bragged, “My dad reads to me every night before bed.  Sometimes I read to him.  We’re finishing The Black Stallion.  We’ve read it before, but I asked to read it again.”
 “I love when my dad reads to me.  He makes the funniest voices!”  Elizabeth made a face like a freckled pig and oinked.
 “My dad too!” Ginger said.  “Mom lets us eat cookies when we read.  We have our own story-time cookie jar.” 
 The other girls looked jealous.
 Charlotte dared to challenge the claim.  “You do not.”
 “Do so!  My mom keeps it filled with cookies just for when we read.”
 There was a momentary exchange of speculative glances.  Then Charlotte piped up, “I want to come over and read with you and your dad and eat cookies.”
 “Okay.”
 “Me too!” Elizabeth chirped.
 All three girls chattered about how fun it was going to be.  I wished for long, pretty hair and shiny shoes and a new cotton dress so I too could go to Ginger’s house and eat cookies and tell stories and be wanted.

 I recalled an earlier year, sitting in the back corner of a classroom barely familiar to me, thumbing through a book I couldn’t yet read.  My mother sat up front, her frail figure slouched in a chair too small for adults.  Her black hair was pulled back in a tight bun.  Her dark eyes darted about like an anxious mouse, unwilling to make eye contact. 
 My teacher, two prior to Mrs. Cosgrove, spoke to my mother.  It was my first teacher ever, with auburn curls, high heels, and slim glasses.  She wore colorful makeup and the same disgruntled expression as everyone else.  I tried to appear preoccupied with the book I’d been given, but my ears couldn’t ignore the conversation addressing my numerous faults.
 “I’m afraid that it may take years for her to approach the same performance level as other students her age.  Annabelle has missed out on so much.  To have started her this late in school, Mrs. Fancher, well…….the child is years behind her classmates.” 
 There was a disapproving sigh from my teacher and a moment of uncomfortable silence.  My head stayed low, facing the book in my lap, but my eyes flickered up every now and then to observe the adults.  They were separated by a desk stacked with papers.  My mother looked nervous.  She always looked nervous.
 “We can only hope that she picks up on some basic math skills and an understanding of letter groups and their sounds before the end of this school year.  Perhaps she may even learn to read a few simple sentences.  But with so many other children in my classroom, there isn’t the time nor the resources to give Annabelle the constant individual attention I fear she requires.  It’s imperative that she pay close attention to the instruction she receives.  And you, Mrs. Fancher, will need to help her at home.  There are some easy things you can do.  First and most importantly, review the alphabet with her.  It seems a highly unusual thing for a child her age not to have a knowledge of letters and at least a few simple words.” 
 I caught the reprimanding way my teacher looked over her glasses.  My mother, however, didn’t catch it, too busy staring at the bunched hem of her dress kneaded by nervous fingers.  She was in trouble because of me.  Because I couldn’t read.
  “Have Annabelle practice writing the alphabet while voicing the sounds of each letter.  If you write along with her it will provide an example to copy.  Do you understand how important your time and efforts will be to your daughter’s education, Mrs. Fancher?  She has a lot of catching up to do.”
 My mother nodded in small, quick moves.  She was doing so nearly nonstop.
 The teacher who’d been leaning over stacks of papers rose and rounded the desk, setting herself directly before my mother.  Her voice lowered, still hard-edged and judgmental in tone.  I had no trouble hearing this hushed conversation. 
 “Mrs. Fancher.  I hate to bring up personal matters, but in this case I feel it is necessary.  Annabelle, well, quite frankly she smells bad.  The other kids have noticed and commented on it.  This fact will hinder her ability to interact socially and make friends at school.  Many students already don’t care to play with her because they can’t stomach the odor.  Does she take baths at home?”
 My mother nodded vigorously, her eyes downcast.  I watched the teacher’s red lips press into a hard frown.
 “Does your family have the means for personal hygiene items such as soap and shampoos?”
 My mother was still nodding, a tight wad of skirt clutched in her fist.
 “Such things can be provided if necessary, Mrs. Fancher.”
 Her head suddenly changed directions, shaking strongly, adamant in declining the offer.  My teacher’s lips pursed together as she looked down on my mom.
 “Mrs. Fancher, I can’t emphasize enough how influential example is to young children.  Annabelle will naturally grow to take on the same personal habits that she observes her parents performing, especially those of her mother.  Regular bath time, clean clothing, combed hair…….such things should be routine for Annabelle.  Is this something you can do for her at home?”
 I watched agitated fingers brush flat the wrinkles on my mother’s dress.  She looked up.  “Is that all?”
 My teacher sighed again, this time a defeated sound.  “Yes, Mrs. Fancher.”
 We left abruptly.
 Mother did help me with my letters, reciting and writing out the alphabet every day for two weeks in a row.  We practiced the sounds associated with each character.  She even spelled out simple three-letter words for me to read.  I memorized them eagerly. 
 I took four real baths in that time with bubbles and bar soap and shampoo.  It was the most I’d ever washed.  I liked how light my hair felt afterwards, almost as soft as Ginger’s honey-colored waves.  She was the girl who sat beside me in class—my first and last hope for a real friend.  The luxury of regular bathing came to a swift end, however, when my father returned home from a long haul.  He said it was a waste of good soap and water on a filthy beggar, and he gave my mom a black eye for spoiling me.  
 In school Ginger asked to be moved.  She was assigned a new seat beside a freckled redhead named Elizabeth.  The chair next to mine remained empty for the remainder of the school year. 

 The tour guide ushered our class up a minor set of stairs to the main floor of a wide open room.  He then directed us further back along a sun-warmed window that swept around the right corner of the building.  Bookshelves were arranged in small boxed areas with tables and chairs in the center of each square.  The highest ledges were reachable for kids our age, every shelf crammed full of colorful books.  The quantity was overwhelming.  I could hardly decide where to begin. 
 Ginger, Elizabeth, and Charlotte headed for the furthest boxed area at my left.  Their steps seemed sure and determined.  I guessed that their treasured horse stories were filed away in that corner.  Charlie and Thomas sat on the floor thumbing through a book on military vehicles.  Leonard and Jake invited them to a table where they could study the pictured trucks and tanks together.  Mrs. Cosgrove was led by both hands to the most congested section of the library among a circled display of hardcover books standing on end.  I wondered if those were the best stories or perhaps the newest.  I cringed instinctively when a man’s voice startled me from behind.
 “Oh dear, young lady, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
 I felt his hand on my shoulder.  Though the touch was gentle, I automatically pulled away.  Turning around, I recognized his clothes first—the grey slacks and pale, collared shirt worn by our tour guide from outside.
 My gaze lifted, expecting to find some form of annoyance on his face.  It was disconcerting when he actually smiled at me.  Not a forced expression either but a genuine, cheerful greeting.  My eyebrows slanted warily.
 “Would you like some help finding a book?” he asked.  His smile remained fixed as he waited for an answer. 
 I froze, unable to reply.  I felt anxious, like I wanted to bolt and yet yearned to stay at the same time.  It was uncomfortable being treated in this manner.  My heart pounded as my mind found a word for it……….kindness. 
 Only my mother ever made me feel this way, and her actions were usually accompanied by jittery nerves.  Never relaxed.  Other people normally avoided me.  Any interaction was solely for the purpose of reprimanding, correcting, punishing, or teasing. 
 “What’s your name, child?”
 I was staring at him eye to eye now.  So close.  He’d squatted down to my level, sitting on his calves, still smiling.  I stepped back and swallowed.  I wondered if his nose worked.  Could he not smell how repugnant everyone else claimed my odor to be?
 His eyebrows pulled up and together in a brief show of pity.  That was a look I saw often.  The familiarity of it calmed me.
 “Do you like books about real things like horses, gardening, or raising rabbits?  Or do you prefer stories of pretend things like fairies and dragons, flying children, or talking creatures?”  He ended his question with wide expectant eyes.  The same big grin recaptured his lips.  I found my fear stifled by curiosity.
 “I…um….I like pretend things.  But I do like rabbits too.”
 I would have thought his face couldn’t grin any wider, but it did.  I felt my own lips mimic his to a smaller degree, a natural response. 
 “Well then, I think I have just the book for you.”  He rose to his full height.  “Come along….what was your name again?”
 I had never told him.  “Annabelle,” I uttered.
 “Miss Annabelle.  That’s the name of a magical fairy princess.  Did you know that?”
 I shook my head.  The thought sent a rush of warmth throughout my body.  It made my name seem instantly prettier.
 I followed the man to a square of shelving two areas ahead of where Ginger and her horse-loving friends were huddled.  No one else stood nearby.  The man scanned a row of books three levels from the floor.  He squatted while pulling an older volume out from among its neighbors.  The cover was brown with black print and had a black sketching of a girl, a smiling cat, and a well-dressed rabbit.
 He read the title.  “Alice in Wonderland.”  His friendly eyes looked to me.  “Have you ever read this story, Annabelle?”
 I shook my head. 
 “It’s wonderful.  It’s about a girl near your age who gets lost in a land of make believe where the animals speak to her and all sorts of strange, fun things happen.  It even has a talking rabbit.  I bet you’ll find the tale to your liking.”
 I nodded, certain that I would.  He handed the book to me and then moved to a lower row of books at his right.  He scanned the bottom spine of each one, searching for something more.  His throat made a successful “ah-hah” sound as his fingers pulled another volume from off the shelf. 
 He read this title aloud.  “Peter Pan and Wendy.”  His eyes shifted to me.  “Do you know this story, Annabelle?”
 Again, I answered with a silent headshake.
 “Oh my!” he exclaimed.  “Every child should know of Peter Pan!  Peter is a special young boy who can actually fly and teach others to do the same.  He lives on an island called Neverland with other boys and a lively little pixie.  He spends an eternal childhood there playing with Indians and fighting ornery pirates!”
 My eyes grew wide just imagining such an adventure.
 The kind man handed over the second book.  I took it and held it next to the first.  One was brown.  The other an aqua blue.  Both titles were printed in bold, black lettering.
 “May I read them both?” I dared to ask.
 I understood his regretful expression before he answered, but I couldn’t decide which story to give back.  Wonderland or Neverland?
 “You can sign out one book today.  Then, when you finish, return it and check out the other.  It will be waiting right here for you.”  He gestured to the shelving behind him. 
 I looked woefully at both adventures in my hands.  This would almost certainly be the only time in my life I’d ever see the inside of a library.  My mother didn’t drive, and my father would never bother bringing me to a place as wonderful as this, let alone actually read me a story. 
 “Which one should I choose?” I asked the man.
 He grinned wide.  “That’s up to you, Miss Annabelle.  Look them over.  Take your time.”  He stood up and walked to a square table in the center of our box of bookshelves.  He pulled out a chair.  “Have a seat.  Browse through both books until you decide which you’d like to read first.  I’ll help you sign one out when you’re ready.”
 I nodded and obediently sat in the offered chair.  He left me alone to read.
 I opened to the middle pages of Peter Pan and ate up as much of the story as my hungry eyes could take in.  It was a simple thing to block out all surrounding distractions.  It wasn’t until Mrs. Cosgrove barked my name, too loudly for inside the quiet library, that I focused back on reality.  My mind shifted from a riotous pirate ship to the vividly irritated expression on my teacher’s face.  The class was already lined up near the doors in the background waiting to walk outside.
 “Annabelle, for heaven’s sake!  Didn’t you hear me announce that it was time to line up ten minutes ago?  We need to go, now.  The bus is waiting.”
 I stood up, letting the Peter Pan story fall closed on the table.  I picked up Alice in Wonderland and hugged the book to my chest, hunching as I stepped past Mrs. Cosgrove.  Her hand reached over my head and swiped the treasure from my fingers.
 I gasped, unable to protest any further than that.  Tears threatened to burn my eyes.  My hand feebly reached for the book, then fell, knowing better than to hope for anything.  I focused on the ground, ready to drag my sunken spirits across the floor.  I would never know if Peter defeated the pirates or if he grew up enough to understand how to win Wendy’s heart.  I would never have any inkling of whatever happened to Alice in her crazy Wonderland. 
 “Mrs. Cosgrove, why don’t you let me sign out that book while Annabelle joins the other kids.”
 Something in my heart flickered when I heard the offer from the kind man who’d introduced me to Peter and Alice.  He was reaching for the treasure now in my teacher’s possession.  His other hand fell gently on my shoulder.  My muscles tightened, but I didn’t cringe from his touch this time.
 “I’m sorry, but there’s no time.  The bus is waiting.  Annabelle, get in line.”
 “It will only take a minute,” the man persisted.
 “Maybe next time.”  Mrs. Cosgrove placed the little brown book on the table I’d been seated at.  The man smiled as he went to pick it up. 
 “I promised the girl.  It’s my fault it didn’t get checked out before now.  Please, I’ll run it to the bus if I must.”
 Mrs. Cosgrove rolled her eyes beneath closed lids.  “It’s well above her reading level,” she argued.
 The man argued back.  “Annabelle’s been quietly reading the book on the table there, Peter Pan and Wendy, which happens to be at the same reading level.  She seemed quite involved in the story.  I think she can handle this one.”
 “I doubt very much that she actually made out any of the more difficult words.”
 “But I did!  I can even read philanthropist!”
 Mrs. Cosgrove dropped her eyes on me, looking both surprised and upset that I’d spoken up.  I was shocked myself, and shrunk from her reproachful glare.
 The man covered up an amused grin with the book that was now in his hands.  “It will only take me a minute,” he said. 
 “Alright, fine,” my teacher sighed, a frustrated huff of resignation.  “Anna, I’m certain I told you to get in line.”
 I nodded at my teacher, stealing a glance at the stranger who’d come to my rescue.  He smiled before doing something no one else had ever done to me before.  He winked.  I felt my heart flicker again.  This was so foreign, such misplaced kindness.  I didn’t know how to react.  Urged by a shove from Mrs. Cosgrove, I hustled over to the line of waiting students. 
 The man in grey slacks met us outside and handed me the library book before half the kids were loaded on the bus.
 “Thank you,” I uttered.
 “You’re more than welcome, Miss Annabelle.  Enjoy your time in Wonderland.”
 I hugged the book to my chest and stepped onto the bus.  Ginger plugged her nose as I walked past.  Lizzy screwed up her freckled face disgustedly.  Jake smashed his snout flat like a pig.  Thomas stuck out his tongue while Charlie uttered a lowly, “Ugly duck.”  Leonard tried to trip me near the rear, but I caught myself on the neighboring seat, keeping a tight grip on my precious book.  As usual, no one allowed me to sit beside them.  I found a seat in the very back all alone, but for some reason none of those things bothered me.  For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like the cold stone outside my window.  A peculiar sensation pressed against the walls inside me, buoying me up as if I could actually take flight like the fairytale boy, Peter Pan. 
 I felt warm as sunbeams.  It made my skin tingle.

Copyright 2012 Richelle E. Goodrich


Chapter Two




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Chapter Two


“Gardens”

           
    I sat in my closet facing a cement corner.  The paint was cracked and peeling in a number of spots, a putrid green beneath a coat of off-white.  The door at my back stood open just enough to allow in light to read by.
 Wood planks, warped and stripped, lined the floor of my hiding place.  They were the source of unpleasant slivers.  I curled up on a heap of frayed wool for protection, having learned the hard way not to scoot my bare feet across the splintered surface.  The natural fibers in the woolen blanket made my bare legs itch, but it kept them warm. 
 In the deepest corner of my closet, piled in a short stack, sat my fondest treasures.  Six books—half a dozen children’s stories that inspired many of my nighttime fantasies.  I’d acquired each one from school.  The first was two years old, Goldilocks, an early reward for excellent progress in reading.  The second was a gift from one year back, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.  It had been handed out to every student in class by a guest speaker.  The third Charlie Thompson had given to me recently as a cruel joke, The Ugly Duckling.  (Little did he know I secretly adored the tale.)  The remaining three were hardbacks retrieved from the trash where they’d been discarded over broken bindings —Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and my absolute favorite, The Hobbit.
 I kept my little library hidden in the dark, below an old, threadbare dress and a pair of strapless sandals, all buried beneath the wool blanket.  My greatest fear was to have this treasure discovered.  If my father were to find it he would punish me for stealing, or worse, accuse me of wasting his money on pointless scrap.  If mother were to stumble upon my books she’d worry herself sick over what father would do and force me to return them to school.  I’d be left with nothing—no adventures, no friends, no treasure.
 At the moment I was engrossed in my newest storybook, Alice in Wonderland.  It was easy to imagine trailing in Alice’s footsteps, remaining far enough behind her to keep out of the way.  Once I met the grinning cat from Cheshire, however, my strategy changed, and I pictured myself sitting right there amid the festivities, invisible to everyone in attendance.  I even helped myself to a crumb of cake and a sip of tea. 
 I was laughing in my head right along with Alice, the March Hare, and the Hatter, when the sound of my name put an abrupt stop to our mad tea party.  All laughter ceased and my heart stalled.  It started beating again when I realized it was just my mother calling.
 “Anna?  Anna, where are you?”
 I scurried out of the closet, making sure to bury my precious library book beneath the blanket.
 “Coming, Mama!” I called.
 I followed my nose into the kitchen, recognizing the familiar scent of boiled potatoes.  Dinner.  I hoped that Mrs. Hopkins had left a bottle of cow’s milk at the backdoor today.
 Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins were our closest neighbors.  They were private, gray-haired people living on a small farm about a mile away.  The quickest route to their land was a straight line through the woods, but the easiest way was to travel down a snaky dirt road walled on either side by endless cottonwood and white oak trees.  The old couple farmed a few acres, keeping cows, sheep, hogs, and chickens fenced up around a huge red barn.  I wasn’t allowed to bother them, but my walks took me near their place now and then.  Theirs was an inviting ranch home set back from the road, spacious and pretty.  Nothing like our house. 
 My mother and I spent most of our days alone inside a rundown, two-bedroom box of cinderblock and wood.  Mother always told me to be grateful for the roof over our heads, especially now that the leaks weren’t as bad.  I recalled the week my father had stayed home to patch up the holes on the rooftop.

 It was raining. 
 Every few minutes thunder vibrated the air and a wild streak of lighting glared through thin curtains draping our windows.  Mother and I were minding two dozen pots and buckets spread throughout the house catching drips and trickles that seeped through the ceiling.  I was in charge of the containers in the hall and bedrooms, emptying them as they filled with rainwater.  Mother watched over the kitchen and living room, keeping an anxious eye on my father’s form planted in front of a black-and-white television.  The fireplace hissed beside him every now and then, tossing up a billowed mix of steam and smoke whenever wandering raindrops fell on the flames.
 He grumbled and complained about the “rotting dump” my mother kept us living in, swigging back a liberal dose of alcohol in the process. 
 “What the hell is it you do when I’m gone anyway?  I’d think with all the time you got to waste you could patch up a hole or two around here.…..worthless woman.”
 Mother didn’t talk back.  A wise move. 
 It wasn’t until a sudden stream of rainwater broke through the ceiling right above him that he threw a real tantrum.  We stayed out of his way.  He took out his anger on the house, pitching his empty beer bottles overhead, smashing them against the sopped, torn plaster while cursing both the weather and my mother in the process.  Eventually, he stormed outside and managed an intoxicated drive to the hardware store to purchase shingles, nails, and a few sheets of plywood. 
 The next morning I was awakened by loud hammering.  The caustic swearing that accompanied the noise was nothing new.
 Mother attended to a drunken roofer for the next five days, wincing every time he called her name. 
 “Lin!  You tryin’ to starve me to death?  Where the hell’s my food?  And bring me another beer!”
 She never hesitated in promptly responding, crawling up and down the ladder to hand him demanded items.  I knew it was a difficult thing for her to do, being terrified of heights.  But I guess we were both far more afraid of him than anything.
 I watched from the trees every day—a forest of white oak, birch, cottonwood, and the occasional conifer that surrounded our house.  I hid in the shade of the woods, keeping within earshot in case I was called.  My job was to remain invisible for as long as my father ignored me.  Luckily, he never did growl any foul version of my name that week.  It seemed on this particular visit he’d overlooked my existence. 
 I could tell mother was emotionally drained by the time his truck rolled off, headed on another long haul across the states.  I came out from my hiding place as soon as he left, and walked up to stand beside her.  Her weary eyes, sunken from exhaustion, stared down the dirt road as if she were waiting for the cloud of dust to settle.  I waited too.  After sighing an audible sound of immense relief, she uttered only one thing.
 “We should be grateful for the roof over our heads.”

 I appeared in the kitchen from out of a dark hallway and hugged the wall, waiting for Mother to notice me.  We were dressed similarly in faded cotton dresses, no belts or shoes or accessories.  Mother’s hair hung loose just past her shoulders, so thin it behaved like fine threads, lifting and floating with each move.  It took only a moment for her darting eyes to find me.
 “Anna, there you are.  Come get the glasses.  Have a seat at the table.”
 I headed for the cupboard, spotting a bottle of fresh cow’s milk on the ledge.  Mrs. Hopkins had left some after all.  I couldn’t help but smile.
 “Would you like cream on your potatoes?”
 I nodded absolutely.
 Mother skimmed the cream from off the top of the jar, ladling it generously over our bowls of steaming boiled potatoes.  She then poured milk into the two cups I’d set on the table.  We ate in silence, savoring every rich bite of food.  It was a tasty treat—fresh, sweet cream and milk. 
 I always wished we could thank the Hopkins for their generosity, but Mother forbade me to see or speak to them.  I think she was afraid if we ever said anything, the neighbors might find the courage to talk to us.  And if that were to happen, my father might get wind of the shared spoils.  He’d put a firm end to it, for sure.  Charity to him was the worst form of insult.  As it was, Mrs. Hopkins only brought around the milk and potatoes every couple of weeks, and only when my father’s truck was gone.  It seemed the old couple was wary of him also, so things were always left at the backdoor early in the morning.
 “Mama?”
 My mother’s eyes glanced up from her bowl.  They stayed on me, waiting for the question I obviously wished to ask.
 “Have you ever had a garden?”
 She nodded the tiniest bit.  “Once,” she said.
 “Did you grow potatoes?”
 Her eyes fell as she shook her head.  “No, Anna.  Flowers.  I once had a flower garden.  It was pretty.  Johnny didn’t care for the colors, though.”  She always called my father by his name, even around me. 
 I could tell whatever memory my question had dredged up wasn’t a pleasant one.  Kindly, I stifled my curiosity.  It was easy enough to imagine a younger version of my father tearing up a beautiful flower garden in some drunken rage, shouting out absurd excuses for his cruel actions.  I went on, working up to what I wanted.
 “Mama, did you know that a buried potato will grow into a potato bush?”
 I watched her slurp up a spoonful of cream and shake her head.
 “It’s true.  Lenny said so at school and his father’s a farmer.  Mrs. Cosgrove told the whole class he was right about that.”
 I watched Mother’s eyebrows pull together, her normally troubled face appearing even more so.  I continued.
 “If we were to plant some of the Hopkins’ potatoes, they would grow into bushes full of new potatoes.  We could grow our own!”  My eyes widened, hopeful. 
 Mother laughed nervously.  “Is this an experiment your teacher suggested?”
 “Well, no,” I admitted.
 “Then why would you want to do something so silly when the Hopkins provide us with more than enough.  They have a farm, Anna.  We don’t.”
 “But it might be nice to grow a few plants of our own, just two or three.”
 Mother was shaking her head as I spoke, but I continued to make my case.
 “It would only take a small patch of dirt.”
 Her head appeared to tremble, shaking with an adamant no.
 “But, Mama!”
 “No, Anna.  No vegetable gardens.  You’re a little girl, not a boy.”
 My face twisted up, confused.  “What does that matter?”
 She straightened up in her chair and wiped both hands on her lap, attempting to convey some parental confidence.  “Boys grow up to be farmers, Anna, it’s their place.  They plow and plant and harvest to provide for their families.  Girls don’t.”
 “Then what do girls do?” I asked, discouraged by her announcement.
 She forced a momentary smile.  “Well, they grow up to be mothers, of course.  Like me.”
 “Oh.”  I felt my eyebrows skew.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to grow up to be like her.
 It was quiet as I helped clear the table.  Mother washed the few dishes we’d dirtied at dinner.  I wiped them dry and put them away.  Once finished, I slinked out the backdoor, eager to take a short walk through the woods.  My feet slipped into a pair of sandals abandoned next to the screen door and then hustled across a stretch of tall grass that made up our backyard.  A healthy mix of dandelions and chickweed choked off large sections of the yard.
 The sun had already slid below the treetops, painting the horizon a fire red.  I walked toward the sunset into the woods, certain of where I was going.  The path I took was as straight a line as you could manage having to skirt around countless trees.  A low, constant croaking from distant frogs mixed with chirping crickets, the two sounds nearly identical.  Occasionally a warbler sang from high above, his voice a tickled chime in the wind.  About a hundred yards from the house I stopped and fell on my knees.  I’d reached my destination—a tiny opening in the woods with a ceiling of clear sky.  The patch was mostly wild grass and clover.   
 My hands slipped into each dress pocket, the right fishing out a large kitchen spoon, the left recovering a snatched raw potato.  I went to work on the ground, digging at the grass with my makeshift shovel.  It was difficult cutting through the sod until I realized that worming my fingers beneath the roots to rip out an entire section at once proved more effective.  When I reached the soil below, it was a simple task to spoon out a hole.  I worked quickly and determinedly to dig five holes about three inches deep.  It seemed a good depth to bury a chunk of potato. 
 When the digging was done, I used the spoon to carve into the flesh of the potato, cutting it into five semi-equal pieces.  I ended out with four rounded balls and a fifth chunk that sort of resembled a square with sloped sides.  The job was nearly done.
 The first piece of potato made a dull thud as it hit the bottom of the hole.  The second made a similar sound.  The third fell from my hand, nearly silent in its landing.
 I gasped, looking at the evidence in my mother’s open palm.  She’d caught it in midair.  Her brown eyes weren’t nearly as big as mine when our gazes met.
 “Annabelle,” she sighed, kneeling the rest of the way down beside me.
 “Mama,” I whispered, terrified that I’d been caught red-handed.
 Her neck twisted to scan the little clearing that was growing more shadowed by the minute.  My heart pattered in my chest, waiting for her to speak.
 “Johnny doesn’t know about this place?”
 My head shook in small, rapid movements.
 Her head tilted as she frowned at me.  “I told you not to do this.”
 My shoulders crept up, nearly touching my ears.  I didn’t know what to say.
 She released a long, audible sigh and let the chunk of potato roll off her fingers into the center hole.  Silently she took the two remaining pieces of potato flesh and plopped them into the final holes.  Her hands scooped the mounds of dirt I’d dug up, and buried our experimental seeds.  She patted the dirt flat, then turned to a bucket I hadn’t noticed behind her.  I watched in surprise as she rose to her knees and poured a good amount of water on the plot of dirt.  I jumped up to avoid getting wet.
 Our focus rested on the mud puddle, regarding what we’d just done.  I felt as if we’d buried a litter of dead kittens.
 “It would be best if this were to remain our secret, Anna.”
 I nodded.  My eyes lifted to find hers.  She seemed to want to smile, but instead her mouth pulled to one side, twisting into a discontented look.
 “If Johnny were to find out that you defied me, well…..it wouldn’t be a good thing.”
 I nodded again.  I knew that wasn’t the reason my father would get upset, but it was as good an excuse as she could come up with.  Either way, I understood that this was another thing we were to keep quiet about.
 Mother carried the empty bucket back to the house.  I walked beside her, my eyes flickering up every few seconds to gauge the worry engraved in her features.  It was easy to see she was troubled, fretting over another secret she’d need to keep from father.  He was our soul provider, a fact he often ranted and raved about.  Once a month he would drive my mother to town to purchase the things we needed for survival, though a large portion of her grocery allowance was spent on his coveted alcohol.  It filled up half the cooler.  Being a proud man, if he were to discover that our food supply was supplemented in other ways—if he ever learned of the Hopkins’ charity or stumbled upon our experimental potato bushes—well….
 I swallowed hard.  Mother shuddered as if she could read my mind.  An eerie coincidence.  Perhaps we’d shared the same thought.  I felt a pang of guilt, knowing that once again my existence had caused her strife.  A wave of regret made me want to go back and dig up the wasted potato, preventing it from sprouting and announcing to any passer-by that we had a secret garden.  But I didn’t turn around.
 The evening sky reddened to black as mother saw to her busying chores.  She swept the wood floors, wiped down the table, chairs, and counter, pulled the windows and curtains closed, and turned out all but one light.  Then she put me to bed with a cool kiss on the forehead. 
 I laid on a single mattress in the dark, wondering if it was a moonless night outside.  No light filtered through my curtains.  Though I longed to, I knew it would be impossible to read anything more of Alice in such blackness.  The muffled sound of the television cut through the silence, carrying down the hall to comfort me until I fell fast asleep.

 A curiously far-reaching table, covered by an unusually long, lace tablecloth, reached all the way from one birch tree to another.  It was a wide stretch across the hollow in the woods.  The table was surrounded by many chairs, fancily shaped and cushioned.  A great number of ceramic place settings ran the length of both sides while the center was stacked with trays of mouth-watering desserts.  On either end sat a large ceramic teakettle, each snout steaming sweet-smelling vapors.  Every setting had a saucer and teacup, though not dainty by any means but as big as beer mugs.
 Compared to the available seating, few souls were in attendance at this tea party.  I recognized most from my reading—the snooty Duchess and her baby pig, the well-dressed rabbit, the blue caterpillar, the March hare and a still-sleeping dormouse.  I noticed a white smile hovering off to my left, and realized the Cheshire cat must also be there.  His grinning lips and teeth were the only part of him visible.
 I took a seat on one side of the table—right in the very middle—and was greeted by the host, the Hatter.
 “Welcome to our party, dear Annabelle…” he started.
 “Alice,” I corrected.  For that’s who I wished to be in this dream, even though my hair wasn’t blonde but black as crows.
 “Alice?” he questioned.
 I looked to the head of the table, such a far distance from my seat.  How odd.  It was difficult to make out the Hatter’s features, being shadowed by the oversized brim on his towering hat.
 “Yes, sir,” I affirmed politely.  “Please do call me Alice.”
 “Alice!” he announced with a sudden cry, startling me and every other guest.
 “Yes sir?” I questioned.
 “What?”
 “Did you not call my name?”
 “No, I did not.”
 “But…you said ‘Alice’ quite loudly, sir.  I heard you.  I’m sure everyone here heard you.”  I gestured to the surrounding party.  They all nodded, excepting the sleeping dormouse.
 The hatter argued, leaning forward in his chair, “I did not call your name.  If I’d wanted to call your name, I’d have cried ‘Annabelle!’”  He did so in a loud voice. 
 Once again I jumped.  “Mr. Hatter,” I breathed, with some annoyance.
 “Yes?” 
 I wasn’t used to characters in my dreams being so disagreeable, but it did seem to keep in line with his personality from the book.
 “Sir, I’m going by the name, Alice, right now because that is the name of the girl in this story.”
 He groaned and slid back in his chair.  “Another boring story.  Did you at least find out how this one ends?”
 My eyebrows pinched.  I was confused and concerned.  “I’ll have you know that Alice in Wonderland is most certainly not a boring story!  There are a lot of mad and crazy things that happen in it.”
 “Mad and crazy does not mean interesting,” the Hatter said.  “Crazy without any excitement or fun or danger is just plain…..BORING!”
 Things were not proceeding as I thought they should.  “You’re not the Hatter at all!” I accused.
 “And you’re not Alice.”  He rose from his chair, jostling the table and every dish on it with his haste.  The Duchess spilled a drop of tea from her cup while the dormouse fidgeted in his sleep.
 With him standing now, I could see beneath the brim of his hat—the rounded face, the brown curls, and a pointed chin that stuck out stubbornly at me. 
 I recognized him.  Gavin. 
 He was the boy I’d met once in a previous dream.  We’d both worn riding hoods, his black, mine red.  I stood up from my chair, careful not to disturb the table as he had.
 “Why are you here?” I asked.  “You don’t belong in my dream.  You’re not a part of this story.”
 He tapped the brim of his oversized hat.  “I am as much a part of this story as you are,” he declared.  “I’m the Hatter.”
 I frowned.  “No, you’re not.”
 “And you’re not really Alice.” 
 I watched his eyes grow big and challenging.  The look was intimidating.  I breathed in and out.  This was silly.  Why was I arguing with my own dream?
 We stood there for a long time, silent.  No one around us spoke either, which made sense because it was my dream and I’d willed them to wait patiently at the table.  The dormouse yawned and turned in his sleep—a simple test to be sure I still controlled the activities in my own dreams.  I broke the silence first.
 “This is my dream,” I insisted, fairly sure of the fact.
 “It is,” Gavin agreed, “although it’s awfully boring,” he added in a mumble.
 “Quit saying that.”
 “Well, it is,” he mumbled more lowly.
 I mustered up enough courage to tell him, “I want you to leave.”
 Silence followed.
 “Please,” I added with a nervous swallow.
 His dark eyes looked me up and down.  Then he fell back in his chair, picking up the oversized teacup in front of him at the same time. 
 “I don’t want to go,” he told me matter-of-fact.  He sipped on his cup then placed it on the saucer.  He watched me stand there uncomfortably for a moment.  Then his eyes scrunched and stared as if he were displeased with me.  His nose wrinkled when I failed to do anything.  But why should I do anything I didn’t care to?  This was my dream, not his!
 Gavin flitted his fingers at me.  “Go on, Anna…I mean, Alice.  Have your little boring tea party.”
 Every character seated around the table suddenly disappeared except for Gavin and myself.  I’d willed them all away, but no matter how hard I wished for it I couldn’t seem to make him go.
 “Great!” he exclaimed, rising from his seat.  “Now we can have some real fun!”
 He was all smiles, looking like a copy of the vanishing Cheshire cat.  I felt my eyes burn with threatening tears, but managed to hold them back.  Gavin jumped up on his chair, using it as a step to reach the table.  He danced down the middle of my imagined buffet, kicking up his heels and hopping about, stomping and squishing plates filled with sweet cakes and tarts.  His big hat remained high on his head, one hand holding fast to the brim.
 “Come on, Annabelle!” he called, waving me up with his free hand.  “This is fun!”
 All I could do was watch.  My beautifully dreamed tea party had turned into a nightmare.  Gavin twirled about in a swift, tight circle and lost his balance.  He tumbled backwards, landing with his hind end in a platter of cream puffs.  I couldn’t stand it anymore.
 “You’ve ruined everything!” I sobbed.  I willed my dream to an end and all our surroundings disappeared.  Everything but Gavin and his big hat.
 I heard a sigh, or maybe it was a huff, before Gavin picked himself up off the ground.  He came over to stand in front of me, frowning.  I could only flicker a glance up at him occasionally, noting that his expression wasn’t sorrowful, nor angry, but disappointed. 
 “You don’t belong in my dreams,” I sniveled.  “I was dreaming of Wonderland.  You are not part of Wonderland.”
 A quick glance caught his frown moving to one side of his face.  He appeared to be contemplating my words.
 “I belong in any dream I wish to be in,” he eventually told me.  “I’m the key keeper.  And this isn’t Wonderland anyway, it’s Dreamland.”
 I scrunched my eyes and tilted my head, looking up to regard him strongly.  This didn’t make any sense at all.  I pinched myself.  Nothing.  So this was definitely a dream.  I was surely sound asleep and dreaming, which meant that he was a part of my fantasies—a figment of my imagination.  But why was my mind doing this to me?  Why could I not envision that intriguing mad tea party as I wished to?  Or perhaps that’s exactly what I was doing…..going mad at a tea party like all the mad and crazy characters in the book.  Maybe my imagination had taken it a little too far.
 “I’m sorry I ruined your tea party.”
 I focused on Gavin again.  His lips were puckered, pulling down at the sides.  He looked sincere……and funny.
 “I just wanted to dream of Alice and Wonderland, that’s all,” I said.  “I happen to like the story.”
 Gavin turned his head to look at my mental void.  He waved his hand and the forest reappeared all around us.  We stood facing each other in the middle of a sunken, open area of grass.
 “So, what else happens in Alice’s story?” he asked.
 “Um…”  My shoulder involuntarily lifted.  “I haven’t read past the tea party yet.  That’s as far into the book as I’ve gotten.”  I stuck a finger in his face before Gavin could comment, making his eyebrows perk behind a curtain of curly bangs.
 “I did read about how Alice was trying to find her way into a garden, but she wasn’t able to get there right away because she was too big to fit through the doorway, and then she was too small to get the huge key to open the door, and then she was too big again when she’d finally recovered the key, and then a bunch of animals came and other things happened that I suppose were distractions, but she did meet this wise, blue caterpillar who told her to eat from both sides of a mushroom so she could grow bigger or smaller until she finally got to the right size.”
 I stopped to breathe.
 “So can she fit through the doorway to the garden now?”
 I shrugged.  “Yes, I think so.”
 “Did she step through it?”
 “Well, no, not yet.  They were right in the middle of a mad tea party.”
 “Oh.”
 “It’s not boring,” I insisted, reading the look on his face.  I was grateful when he didn’t challenge me.
 I felt his fingers slip in between mine as he took my hand before announcing, “Well, come on and we’ll go see this garden ourselves.  Who needs Alice or that goofy Hatter?”  He shed his big hat and tossed it to the wind.
 I kept with his determined pace as he pulled me along, headed for the surrounding tree line.  A mess of thick, brown curls bounced around his face with each eager step.  He looked sideways at me and smiled.
 I smiled back.
 We slowed near the edge of birch trees.  My mouth gaped when Gavin guided me around a bush, stopping before the most beautiful garden I’d ever laid eyes on. 
 Flowers of all varieties spread endlessly in every direction, the colors more vibrant than any rainbow.  I let go of Gavin’s hand and reached for a soft pink rose.  My palms cupped around the open bud.  It was huge!  The petals draped over my fingers like sheets of dusted silk.  My nose naturally moved in to take a whiff.  It smelled like fresh-baked strawberry cupcakes. 
 “Wow,” I breathed.
 “Do you like it?” Gavin asked.
 “Oh yes,” I answered truthfully.
 “Good!” he chirped.  “Now we can get to the fun part!”
 My hands fell away from the pink rose and I felt my eyebrows slant.  I was seriously concerned that he would start trampling through this beautiful garden, stomping the flowers into the ground, once again spoiling everything.
 “I don’t think I like your fun,” I said. 
 His smile wilted faster than a poisoned weed.  “What do you mean?” he asked.  “I thought we had a great time the other day when we hiked to Grandmother’s house.  Remember how I let that big bad wolf eat me?  That was amazing fun!”
 I recalled how he’d allowed himself to be eaten by a storybook wolf who was dressed in a nightgown, waiting in Grandmother’s bed for Red Riding Hood.  Gavin had laughed the entire time as he was swallowed whole, head first.  His amusement had echoed up from inside the wolf’s stomach.  I’d turned my eyes away in horror. 
 “I don’t want to spoil the garden,” I told him.
 “Spoil it?” he repeated, screwing up his face.  “You’re so strange.  We’re not going to spoil it, we’re going to make it better!”  His smiled instantly returned.  “Come on, Annabelle, you’ll see.”
 Once again my hand was snatched up and he dragged me behind him through a congestion of flowers that stood up to my waist.  We stopped dead center amidst a circle of pink roses. 
 “Imagine them anyway you want them to be,” Gavin instructed.  “Then wave your hand.”
 “Wave my hand?”
 “Yes,” he nodded, “like a magician.  You can even use magic words if you want to.”  He immediately demonstrated, turning to a mass of yellow daffodils beside the pink roses.  He waved his hand and shouted, “Butterkin Flybertix!”
 I watched the droopy, yellow petals rise like the sunset and fold up in the center.  Then they slowly fell open again before rising and flittering closed.  A smile spread across my face as I realized the flowers were flapping their wings.  Soon the stems began to stretch and pull as if they wanted to fly away but couldn’t, rooted to the ground as they were. 
 “Oh my!” I gasped.
 Gavin nodded proudly. “Now it’s your turn.”
 I glanced uncertainly at him.  “How?”
 “Make up a magic word and wave your hand.”
 “Okay.”  I thought for a second, then waved my hand over the pink roses.  “Spotterdottipus!”  I giggled at my own silly word.
 “Not bad,” Gavin said, observing how an infestation of colorful polka dots were popping up on every petal of pink.  I’d never seen anything like it, not in any storybook.
 Gavin took my hand and pulled me through the polka-dotted roses, past the fluttering daffodils, and into a stretch of bright-orange, freckled lilies.  Five long petals came to a curved point on each stem. 
 Lifting both arms over his head, he cried, “Grimdraggon Slobberchomp!”  His hands fell down abruptly and washed to either side. 
 At once, the lily petals transformed into orange dragon muzzles, more scaly than freckled.  Their jaws snapped at the sky, many of the heads leaning in our direction.  I squealed and cringed away from them, but my moves weren’t fast enough.  Lily petals fell against my cheek, my hair, and the tips of my fingers.  I was certain to be bitten by such fierce-looking flowers, until it registered that the sensation on my cheek wasn’t painful at all, but more like the wet, rough texture of a kitten’s tongue.  I looked at my fingers to find dragon lilies licking at the padded flesh.  Gavin’s laughter hit the air before my own as we were playfully attacked by the slobbery licks of dozens of lily tongues.
 My dream continued like this—Gavin and I taking turns making up ridiculous, meaningless magic words while transforming the sea of flowers into a truly mad Wonderland.  When we’d finished gardening, a table for two materialized in the middle of it all, set up for tea and cake.  Gavin’s big hat appeared at his feet.  He never did put it on throughout our entire private tea party.

Copyright 2012 Richelle E. Goodrich


Chapter Three




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