“Don’t you think he’s the coolest!” Margaret squealed. Ellie smiled as she walked with her friend down the school hallway after class. She could talk about the latest heartthrob on her favourite TV show all day. Margaret was about to say more when a step away from the right turn leading to the lockers Patrick came around the corner, almost bumping into them.
At five foot ten, Patrick towered over them, with his dark blue eyes and dark brown hair giving him an intense look that always surprised Ellie. He had a wry smile on his face. Ellie looked at him wide-eyed, mortified by the derision she saw on his face. He looked back at her and said, “So, do you think I’m the coolest?”
“No!” said Ellie. “I mean, yes. I mean—”
By this time Patrick’s friends had caught up to him and were laughing. Ellie’s face and chest grew warmer by the second. Though she knew her tan skin wouldn’t show her blushing, she still looked down, embarrassed. But the boys were already moving on, white shirts half pulled out of their navy blue uniform pants. Their laughter continued to resonate down the hall.
Margaret looked at Ellie with her nose pinched up on one side. “Since when do you let some stupid guy make you look stupid? Why didn’t you talk back? He was obviously just kidding. It’s not like he’s into you or anything. Plus, he’s been going out with Jennifer Cook for like two months now.” Margaret laughed and said, “Unless you’re into him too!”
“Nooo! I was just surprised, that’s all.”
Margaret accepted this answer without protest. Though a bit wounded by Margaret’s mocking tone, Ellie was relieved her secret was still safe. After all, Patrick was two years older than they were. Not to mention the fact that he was popular and going out with and equally popular blond girl. All Ellie expected from Patrick was for him to star in her romantic fantasies. The last thing she wanted was for others to know about that.
And besides, Ellie thought, I have more important things to do than fawn over him. She had to finish her essay on her new favourite subject. The essay itself was for English class, but Mr Grubber, in an effort to fan some enthusiasm into his students’ essay writing, had left the choice of topic open. A few weeks earlier, Ellie had discovered the world of sixteenth-century England and was fascinated by it. Mr Grubber had told her she’d have to narrow down her focus on a specific person or event of that period if she wished to fit it into a three-to five-page essay. He’d even smiled when he said he’d be happy to read her paper. She wanted to write the best essay she possibly could. The only real obstacle in the way of achieving her goal was finding enough time to work on it while also working on her other homework.
“Are you listening to me?” Margaret asked as they stopped in front of her locker. She’d already unbuttoned her collar and hung the red clip-on tie on the second button of her shirt.
“Yeah, you were talking about that new guy on that TV show. What’s his name again?”
“Chad. But no, I was talking about the algebra test we have next Monday.”
“Oh, right.” Ellie wasn’t much more interested in math than she was in the TV show. Math was her weakest subject, even when she studied like crazy for a better grade.
Once Margaret had picked up all her things from the locker, they walked to the main entrance where Jessica was waiting for them.
* * *
Jessica and Margaret chattered about Jessica’s love interest while Ellie unlocked the front door to her house. The girls often got off the bus at her stop to hangout before going home to study. Ellie felt the cool October wind on her legs. The knee socks and the knee-length pleated navy skirt were mandatory for school, but outside, they weren’t much protection from the autumn wind. The leggings and wool tights would have to come out soon. She hated having to wear a skirt every day, especially during winter.
Simon usually arrived home thirty minutes before she did. As she walked into the house, she thought it strange that her little brother wasn’t in the living room playing a video game with his friends. Maybe he’s at a friend’s place playing some game or other, she thought. She bypassed the living room as usual and went straight up the stairs to her room. Her friends followed close behind, still chatting and laughing. But just as Ellie was about to join in the conversation, she heard scuffling coming from inside her room.
She stomped the last few steps and shoved the door open. There, she found Simon grinning up at her, hunched over her diary. The broken lock dangled from the cover. She then looked up at his friend, who was standing next to him with a look of cowering denial on his face.
“Simon! What are you doing in my room?”
Looking her square in the face, he said, “I was reading your diary. Your love diary.” Snickering, Simon looked up at his friend, who couldn’t help but respond with a muffled laugh of his own.
That was the last straw. Ellie, unsure of how much she wanted to say in response in front of her friends, opted for a loud growl as she bounded forward. Anticipating her reaction, Simon leaped up onto her bed and landed on the other side. Ellie skirted around it to catch him but missed as he jumped his way back to where his friend was still standing. “You can’t catch me!” he said with glee as he ran toward the door.
Ellie rushed passed her friends in pursuit of Simon, who was flying down the stairs in a mad dash to get away. He had his running shoes on, and escaped out the front door. Ellie cursed herself for forgetting to lock the door on her way in. She now had to waste precious seconds slipping some shoes on before continuing after him. Seeing he had a slight lead, Simon stopped for a moment to taunt her even more.
“I can’t wait to tell everyone who you’re in love with! They’re gonna be so happy when I tell them!” He laughed as he started running again.
Judging by the direction he was running in, Ellie thought it was a pretty sure bet he was going to tell her crush himself. Simon was friends with Patrick’s youngest brother. Ellie sprinted after him. She knew Simon had been itching to get back at her for telling on him when his latest stupid prank had gone wrong and made a mess. But this was going too far.
At fourteen, she was bigger than Simon, who had just turned ten. She knew if she focused, she could definitely catch up to him before he ran the four blocks to Patrick’s house. This time she would give him a beating he wouldn’t soon forget.
Ellie could see quick movement from across the street—Simon’s red baseball cap. Grateful for the hint of colour she could see flitting between the parked cars, she followed her little brother from the opposite sidewalk. Intent on catching the object of her fury, she ran blindly, only narrowly avoiding trampling a small dog. As she gained on him, she saw an empty parking space between two parked cars. Ellie rushed headlong into the space and sped up as she crossed the street.
She heard a long, loud honk.
The car appeared out of nowhere.
Her mind registered the sound of tires screaming. Her head jerked to the right. And, mid-stride, she stopped running. Ellie was so surprised, she never even cried out.
For a long time, everywhere she looked, all was darkness. She knew she was running again, though she couldn’t see where she was. Despite not knowing, she kept on running. Eventually, her panic began to subside. She could think more clearly, and slowed her pace down to a walk. Finally, she stopped moving altogether, needing to think. Then she sensed something, a shift. She stopped thinking about the impenetrable darkness. She stopped thinking about going somewhere. She would wait and see if her vision would clear. A feeling of safety began to wash over her. This was surprising—she was usually afraid of the dark.
What was it that had shifted? None of her five senses could make sense of it in any logical sort of way, and yet she knew something had changed. She decided to focus on this challenging enigma: how could one know beyond a doubt that something had changed and not at all be able to find even the slightest clue as to what the change had been? The more she pondered this question, the more fascinated she became. Everything else leading up to this question faded and she became absorbed in this new mystery.
And then she heard a soft tinkling. She turned to face the general direction it had come from. She hoped it would perhaps give her a glimpse of the shift she had felt only moments before. She saw nothing. She was still in complete darkness. Disappointed, she was about to turn her attention back to the mystery when she heard the intruding sound again, quite a bit louder this time. It sounded like a cricket or a very small frog. She crouched down. If indeed it had been a small creature, surely she would find it faster if she was closer to what should be the ground under her feet. But the sound didn’t come again. She sat down—a bit of patience might win her another sound. Unfortunately, all this running and thinking and listening had made her feel very drowsy. So despite her best efforts at trying to hear something more, she ended up lying on her side and falling fast asleep.
The moment sleep washed over her, she felt as though she were waking up. She found herself immersed in light. But it was more than just light—it was musical light. It had neither harmony nor dissonance. The sounds seemed random and all around her but without chaos or discomfort. After marvelling at this new place for some time, she began to notice that the light was as bright and blinding as the darkness had been impenetrable. She couldn’t see a single thing. She couldn’t even see her own hand, which she knew she held only inches from her face. But the light, as bright as it was, did not hurt her eyes. And the sounds that seemed to be coming from the light made her feel happy. As she brought her hand down to the ground, the sounds began to fade. She moved her hand around again, but there were no more sounds, only the light. As she set her hand down once more, she caught a glimpse of some small movement. She sat up and looked around. There was nothing to see but light.
“Is someone there?” she said, more out of curiosity than anything else. She looked around again and shrugged. Then she saw it again. A golden-yellow glimmer, and this time it was no more than ten paces in front of her. She got up slowly, so as to not scare it away, and carefully walked toward it. She then heard something akin to the sound of leaves rustling. She froze. The sound was closer than she had expected it to be. But it had also seemed slow. So the source had moved, but it didn’t seem too scared either. She had a great desire to see it, to know who or what had made the sound. And so she followed it. The longer she followed the intermittent sounds of brush, the more she wished she could see the source.
Then, she saw it again. Right there in front of her, radiating golden yellow light. She couldn’t see a clear shape, only the colour. She stopped moving to observe it better. It moved again, only this time it was coming straight toward her. Still staring at the golden object she stood perfectly still as it approached. All of a sudden, her knees buckled and she collapsed. The awe she felt for the being coming toward her made her react on instinct. It stopped two paces in front of her. She still couldn’t see what it was she’d followed, only the yellow part of it. But now, she could see that the yellow light was in fact boots that seemed to be spun of gold so pure it emanated its own light. The longer she stared, the more she could see of the intricate pattern woven into their top half. But the light was so bright and the pattern so varied she couldn’t make it out clearly. No matter, at least she knew someone was standing there in boots made of yellow light. Everything else was still blindingly white.
As if on cue, the boots turned to her right and began walking away. She really wanted to get up and follow them but couldn’t find the strength to move. She felt as though she’d fainted without actually losing consciousness. The boots disappeared into the whiteness. Deciding to rest a while before pondering this mysterious encounter, she lay back down again. Feeling her surroundings with her arms, she found a comfortable crook within what felt like the base of a large tree and fell asleep.
Leaves rustled high above her head. Was that wind blowing through trees? The smell of dry earth filled her nose. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant, but she had a vague feeling it was much too close to her nose.
She didn’t move, not even to open her eyes. Enjoying the foggy wellness, hovering between wakefulness and sleep, she tried to prolong it. She knew it would disappear the moment she let her eyes see what was beyond her lids. Too soon, however, a noise disturbed her doughy pseudo-sleep. She tried to ignore it, and moved a bit to make herself more comfortable. Just as she found the perfect position for falling back into a gentle sleep, she heard a loud, insistent croak. She grumbled in reply. The croaking came again, and this time it was much closer to her ear.
“What?” she asked in a voice as thick with sleep as it was with annoyance.
Words mingled into the croaking sound. Did someone say “Wake up?” she thought.
She opened her eyes and gasped. Only a few feet away, a human-sized toad towered over her. Its brown, speckled arms were as long as her legs. Wide awake now, she pushed herself back along the ground while still staring aghast at the giant toad. Was she still dreaming?
Sitting up, she stared at the toad in disbelief. “Excuse me, what?”
It made a sound that could only be described as a huff as it replied, “You have slept enough.”
Though not groggy anymore, she clumsily got to her feet and took a few shuffling steps to the left. The toad turned to face her as she moved. Her mouth went dry. She took a step back and bumped into a hard surface. Her hand jutted out and she looked behind her to see the enormous root of a tree. It went up to her shoulder. Taking her hand away, she looked back toward the giant toad. It hadn’t moved. She looked around. Where am I? Panic began to creep into her mind. What is this place? It was a beautiful summer morning, but how long did she have before nightfall? Her heart was hammering in her chest. Just as she was about to start moving away, the toad blinked once, slowly, and moved toward the spot where she’d been sleeping.
The toad croaked. “You are lost.”
It wasn’t a question but a statement of fact. This made her nervous. However, his voice had cut through the tension. She collected her thoughts. “Y-yes”, she said, “I think so. I don’t know where I am or how I got here. Do you think you could help me?” She didn’t hold much hope of that happening. To her surprise, the toad took a step closer to her. She blinked.
“I came because you are here.”
Her mouth fell open. The toad shook a little. Could it be laughing? She closed her mouth. “I don’t understand— ” she said, annoyance edging her words. It seemed the toad was enjoying her confusion. Is he making fun of me? Are all toads like this?
She tried again, “Why are you so huge?”
“I am not.”
“Yes, you are!”
“No, you do not see.”
“Of course I do—I'm staring straight at you! You're as tall as I am and I’m five foot four!”
“No, you are the one as small as I am.”
She looked around again and noticed for the first time the trees were much bigger than any she’d ever seen before. She also noticed that her head was still very close to the ground even though she was standing.
“Well,” she said, “that would explain why the roots are so huge. But why am I so small? What happened to me? And where am I?”
“The better question is, who are you?”
“Who am I?” A puzzled look crossed her face. “I'm me. Who are you?”
As the toad gazed at her, she could sense something akin to a smile hiding behind that seemingly fixed gaze. Was a toad even able to smile?
“I,” said the toad, “am Zurburt.”
The combination of the toad’s name with its croaking voice had made the name sound like a burp. She burst out laughing and couldn’t stop until her throat started to wheeze from lack of breath.
“I'm really sorry,” she said, still laughing, “but you have a very... uncommon name.” Feeling a bit shaky while barely containing a new round of hysterics, she tried to change the subject.
“Are there many talking toads here? Are talking animals a common thing in this place?”
Zurburt shifted slightly and asked her again, “Who are you?”
It seemed like the stupidest question she’d ever heard. “I just told you, I’m me. Why do you keep asking?”
Zurburt turned his gaze away and took a step to the side. He blinked twice, with a pause between, as if punctuating his thoughts. He turned to her again. “What is your name?”
“My name?” she said. Her gaze zigzagged as she tried to remember. “I... My name is...” What was her name? Confused and sensing something overwhelming slowly rising to the surface, she looked at Zurburt.
The toad returned her stare. His fixed gaze was so deep and so gentle that she felt as if she’d been looking into his eyes for years. This somehow had a soothing effect on her mind. It was as though he was talking to her but without any words or gestures. After what seemed like ages, he said, “You are Una.”
She blinked as if coming out of a trance. “I am... Una.” Feeling dizzy, Una slumped to the foot of the tree. “What’s going on? I feel weird,” she said as she lay herself down.
“Perhaps you do need more time to rest,” he said, as he walked up to the base of the tree. Looking as if he were about to climb it, Zurburt put his hand on the trunk, triggering a secret door. There had been no door frame visible before, not even a seam. He pushed open the door and walked into the tree. Una lost consciousness as the door closed again.