Excerpts for Land of Stories : The Wishing Spell


The Land of Stories

The Wishing Spell
By Chris Colfer

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Copyright © 2012 Chris Colfer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316201575

PROLOGUE

THE QUEENS’ VISIT

The dungeon was a miserable place. Light was scarce and flickered from the torches bolted to the stone walls. Foul-smelling water dripped inside from the moat circling the palace above. Large rats chased each other across the floor searching for food. This was no place for a queen.

It was just past midnight, and all was quiet except for the occasional rustle of a chain. Through the heavy silence a single set of footsteps echoed throughout the halls as someone climbed down the spiral steps into the dungeon.

A young woman emerged down the steps dressed head-to-toe in a long emerald cloak. She cautiously made her way past the row of cells, sparking the interest of the prisoners inside. With every step she took, her pace became slower and slower, and her heart beat faster and faster.

The prisoners were arranged according to crime. The deeper she walked into the dungeon, the crueler and more dangerous the criminals became. Her sights were set on the cell at the very end of the hall, where a prisoner of special interest was being watched by a large private guard.

The woman had come to ask a question. It was a simple question, but it consumed her thoughts every day, kept her lying awake most nights, and was the only thing she dreamed about with the little sleep she managed.

Only one person could give her the answer she needed, and that person was on the other side of the prison bars ahead.

“I wish to see her,” the cloaked woman said to the guard.

“No one is allowed to see her,” the guard said, almost amused by the request. “I’m on strict orders from the royal family.”

The woman lowered her hood and revealed her face. Her skin was as pale as snow, her hair was as dark as coal, and her eyes were as green as a forest. Her beauty was known throughout the land, and her story was known even beyond that.

“Your Majesty, please forgive me!” the stunned guard apologized. He quickly bent into an overly pronounced bow. “I wasn’t expecting anyone from the palace.”

“No apology necessary,” she said. “But please do not speak of my presence here tonight.”

“Of course,” the guard said, nodding.

The woman faced the bars, waiting for them to be raised, but the guard hesitated.

“Are you sure you want to go in there, Your Highness?” the guard said. “There’s no telling what she’s capable of.”

“I must see her,” the woman said. “At any cost.”

The guard began turning a large, circular lever, and the bars of the cell rose. The woman took a deep breath and continued past them.

She journeyed through a longer, darker hallway where a series of bars and barriers were raised and then lowered after she walked past them. Finally, she reached the end of the hall, the last set of bars was raised, and she stepped into the cell.

The prisoner was a woman. She sat on a stool in the center of the cell and stared up at a small window.

The prisoner waited a few moments before acknowledging the visitor behind her. It was the first visitor she had ever had, and she knew who it was without looking; there was only one person it could be.

“Hello, Snow White,” the prisoner said softly.

“Hello, Stepmother,” Snow White replied with a nervous quiver. “I hope you are well.”

Although Snow White had rehearsed exactly what she wanted to say, she was now finding it nearly impossible to speak.

“I heard that you are the queen now,” her stepmother said.

“It’s true,” said Snow White. “I’ve inherited the throne as my father intended.”

“So, to what do I owe this honor? Have you come to watch me wither away?” her stepmother said. There was such authority and power to her voice; it was known to make the strongest of men melt like ice.

“On the contrary,” Snow White said. “I’ve come to understand.”

“To understand what?” her stepmother asked harshly.

“Why…” Snow White hesitated. “Why you did what you did.”

And with this finally said, Snow White felt a weight lift off of her shoulders. She had finally asked the question that had been so strongly on her mind. Half of the challenge was over.

“There are many things about this world that you don’t understand,” the stepmother said, and turned to look at her stepdaughter.

It was the first time in a long time that Snow White had seen her stepmother’s face. It was the face of a woman who had once possessed beauty without flaw, and the face of a woman who had once been queen. Now, the woman sitting before her was just a prisoner whose looks had faded into a permanent, sorrowful scowl.

“That may be,” Snow White said. “But can you blame me for trying to find some sort of reason behind your actions?”

The recent years of Snow White’s life had become the most scandalous of the kingdom’s royal history. Everyone knew the story of the fair princess who’d taken refuge with the Seven Dwarfs while hiding from her jealous stepmother. Everyone knew of the infamous poisoned apple and the dashing prince who had saved Snow White from a false death.

The story was simple, but the aftermath was not. Even with a new marriage and a monarchy to occupy her time, Snow White found herself constantly wondering if the theories of her stepmother’s vanity were true. Something inside the new queen refused to believe that someone could be so malicious.

“Do you know what they’re calling you out there?” Snow White asked. “Outside these prison walls the world refers to you as the Evil Queen.”

“If that is what the world has labeled me, then that is the name I shall learn to live with,” the Evil Queen said. “Once the world has made a decision, there is little anyone can do to change its mind.”

Snow White was astonished by how little her stepmother cared, but Snow White needed her to care. She needed to know there was some humanity left in her.

“They wanted to execute you after they discovered your crimes against me! The whole kingdom wanted you dead!” Snow White’s voice faded to a faint whisper as she fought off the emotions building up inside her. “But I wouldn’t allow it. I couldn’t…”

“Am I supposed to thank you for sparing me?” the Evil Queen asked. “If you expect someone to fall at your feet and express gratitude, you’ve come to the wrong cell.”

“I didn’t do it for you. I did it for myself,” Snow White said. “Like it or not, you are the only mother I have ever known. I refuse to believe that you are the soulless monster the rest of the world claims you to be. Whether it’s true or not, I believe there is a heart deep down inside of you.”

Tears rolled down Snow White’s pale face. She had promised herself she would stay strong, but she had lost control of her emotions once she was in her stepmother’s presence.

“Then I’m afraid you’re wrong,” the Evil Queen said. “The only soul I’ve ever had died a long time ago, and the only heart you’ll find in my possession is a heart of stone.”

The Evil Queen did indeed have a heart of stone, but not inside her. A rock in the shape and size of a human heart was on a small table in the corner of the cell. It was the only item the Evil Queen had been permitted to keep when she was arrested.

Snow White recognized the stone from her childhood. It had always been very precious to her stepmother, and the Evil Queen had never let it out of her sight. Snow White had never been allowed to touch it or hold it, but nothing was stopping her now.

She walked across the cell, picked it up, and curiously stared down at it. It brought back so many memories. All the neglect and sadness her stepmother had caused her as a child rushed through her.

“All my life I only wanted one thing,” Snow White said. “Your love. When I was a girl, I used to spend hours hiding in the palace just hoping you would notice I was missing, but you never did. You spent your days in your chambers with your mirrors and your skin creams and this stone. You spent more time with strangers with anti-aging methods than you did with your own daughter. But why?”

The Evil Queen did not answer.

“You tried to kill me four times, three of which you attempted yourself,” Snow White said, shaking her head in disbelief. “When you dressed as an old woman and came to me at the dwarfs’ cottage, I knew it was you. I knew you were dangerous, but I kept letting you in. I kept hoping that you would change. I let you harm me.”

Snow White had never confessed this to anyone, and she couldn’t help but bury her face in the palms of her hands and cry after saying it.

“You think you know heartbreak?” the Evil Queen said so sharply that it startled her stepdaughter. “You know nothing of pain. You never received affection from me, but from the moment you were born you were loved by the whole kingdom. Others, however, are not so fortunate. Others, Snow White, sometimes have the only loves they’ve ever known taken from them.”

Snow White didn’t know what to say. What love was she referring to?

“Are you speaking of my father?” Snow White asked.

The Evil Queen closed her eyes and shook her head. “Naïveté is such a privileged trait,” she said. “Believe it or not, Snow White, I had my own life before I came into yours.”

Snow White grew quiet and slightly ashamed. Of course she knew her stepmother had had a life prior to marrying her father, but she had never considered what it had consisted of. Her stepmother had always been such a private person, Snow White never had reason to.

“Where is my mirror?” the Evil Queen demanded.

“It’s to be destroyed,” Snow White told her.

Suddenly, the Evil Queen’s stone became much heavier in Snow White’s hand. Snow White didn’t know if this was really happening, or if she was just imagining it. Her arm became tired from holding the stone heart, and she had to put it aside.

“There’s so much you’re not telling me,” Snow White said. “There are so many things you’ve kept from me all these years.”

The Evil Queen lowered her head and stared at the ground. She remained silent.

“I may be the only person in the world with any compassion for you. Please tell me it isn’t going to waste,” Snow White pleaded. “If there were events in your past that influenced your recent decisions, please explain them to me.”

Still, there was no response.

“I’m not leaving here until you tell me!” Snow White yelled, raising her voice for the first time in her life.

“Fine,” the Evil Queen said.

Snow White took a seat on another stool in the cell. The Evil Queen waited a moment before beginning, and Snow White’s anticipation grew.

“Your story will forever be romanticized,” she told Snow White. “No one will ever think twice about mine. I will continue to be degraded into nothing but a grotesque villain until the end of time. But what the world fails to realize is that a villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told. Everything I have done, my life’s work and my crimes against you, has all been for him.”

Snow White felt her own heart grow heavy. Her head was spinning, and curiosity had taken over her entire body.

“Who?” she asked so quickly that she forgot to hold back the desperation in her voice.

The Evil Queen closed her eyes and let her memories surface. Images of places and people from her past flew out from the back of her mind like fireflies in a cave. There was so much she had seen in her younger years, so many things she wished she remembered, and so many things she wished to forget.

“I will tell you about my past, or at least the past of someone I once was,” the Evil Queen said. “But consider yourself warned. My story is not one that ends with a happily-ever-after.”

CHAPTER ONE

ONCE UPON A TIME

Once upon a time…” Mrs. Peters said to her sixth-grade class. “These are the most magical words our world has ever known and the gateway into the greatest stories ever told. They’re an immediate calling to anyone who hears them—a calling into a world where everyone is welcome and anything can happen. Mice can become men, maids can become princesses, and they can teach valuable lessons in the process.”

Alex Bailey eagerly sat straight up in her seat. She usually enjoyed her teacher’s lessons, but this was something especially close to her heart.

“Fairy tales are much more than silly bedtime stories,” the teacher continued. “The solution to almost every problem imaginable can be found in the outcome of a fairy tale. Fairy tales are life lessons disguised with colorful characters and situations.

“ ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf ’ teaches us the value of a good reputation and the power of honesty. ‘Cinderella’ shows us the rewards of having a good heart. ‘The Ugly Duckling’ teaches us the meaning of inner beauty.”

Alex’s eyes were wide, and she nodded in agreement. She was a pretty girl with bright blue eyes and short strawberry-blonde hair that was always kept neatly out of her face with a headband.

The way the other students stared at their teacher, as if the lesson being taught were in another language, was something Mrs. Peters had never grown accustomed to. So, Mrs. Peters would often direct entire lessons to the front row, where Alex sat.

Mrs. Peters was a tall, thin woman who always wore dresses that resembled old, patterned sofas. Her hair was dark and curly and sat perfectly on the top of her head like a hat (and her students often thought it was). Through a pair of thick glasses, her eyes were permanently squinted from all the judgmental looks she had given her classes over the years.

“Sadly, these timeless tales are no longer relevant in our society,” Mrs. Peters said. “We have traded their brilliant teachings for small-minded entertainment like television and video games. Parents now let obnoxious cartoons and violent movies influence their children.

“The only exposure to the tales some children acquire are versions bastardized by film companies. Fairy tale ‘adaptations’ are usually stripped of every moral and lesson the stories were originally intended to teach, and replaced with singing and dancing forest animals. I recently read that films are being created depicting Cinderella as a struggling hip-hop singer and Sleeping Beauty as a warrior princess battling zombies!”

“Awesome,” a student behind Alex whispered to himself.

Alex shook her head. Hearing this made her soul hurt. She tried to share her disapproval with her fellow classmates but, sadly, her concern was not reciprocated.

“I wonder if the world would be a different place if everyone knew these tales in the way the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen intended them to be known,” Mrs. Peters said. “I wonder if people would learn from the Little Mermaid’s heartbreak when she dies at the end of her real story. I wonder if there would be so many kidnappings if children were shown the true dangers that Little Red Riding Hood faced. I wonder if delinquents would be so inclined to misbehave if they knew about the consequences Goldilocks caused for herself with the Three Bears.

“There is so much to learn and prevent for our futures if we just open our eyes to past teachings. Perhaps if we embraced fairy tales as much as we could, it would be much easier to find our own happily-ever-afters.”

If Alex had her way, Mrs. Peters would be rewarded with thunderous applause after each lesson she gave. Unfortunately, all that followed her classes was a mutual sigh of relief among the students, thankful that they were over. “Let’s see how well you all know your fairy tales,” the teacher said with a smile, and began pacing the room. “In ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ what did the young maiden’s father tell the king that his daughter could spin hay into? Does anyone know?”

Mrs. Peters scanned the classroom like a shark looking for wounded fish. Only one student raised her hand.

“Yes, Miss Bailey?” Mrs. Peters called.

“He claimed she could spin hay into gold,” Alex said.

“Very good, Miss Bailey,” Mrs. Peters said. If she had a favorite student—not that she would ever admit to having one—Alex would have been it.

Alex was always eager to please. She was the definition of a bookworm. It didn’t matter what time of day it was—before school, during school, after school, before bed—she was always reading. She had a thirst for knowledge and, because of it, Alex was usually the first person to answer Mrs. Peters’s questions.

She tried her best to impress her classmates with every chance she got, putting extra effort into each book report and class presentation she was assigned. However, this usually annoyed the other students, and Alex was often teased for it.

She constantly heard other girls making fun of her behind her back. She usually spent lunch alone under a tree somewhere with an open library book. Although she would never tell anyone, Alex was so lonely that sometimes it hurt.

“Now, can anyone tell me what the compromise was that the maiden made with Rumpelstiltskin?”

Alex waited a moment before putting her hand up. She didn’t want to seem like a total teacher’s pet.

“Yes, Miss Bailey?”

“In exchange for turning the hay into gold, the maiden promised to give Rumpelstiltskin her first-born child when she became queen,” Alex explained.

“That’s a pretty steep deal,” said a boy behind Alex.

“What’s a creepy old short man want with a baby anyway?” a girl next to him asked.

“Obviously, he couldn’t adopt with a name like Rumpelstiltskin,” another student added.

“Did he eat the baby?” someone else asked nervously.

Alex turned around to face her clueless peers.

“You’re all missing the point of the story,” Alex said. “Rumpelstiltskin took advantage of the maiden because she was in need. The story is about the price of a bad negotiation. What are we willing to give up long-term in the future for something short-term in the present? Get it?”

If Mrs. Peters could change her facial expression, she would have looked very proud. “Nicely put, Miss Bailey,” she said. “I must say, in all my years of teaching, I’ve rarely come across a pupil with as much in-depth knowledge as—”

A loud snore suddenly came from the back of the classroom. A boy in the back row was slouched over his desk and drooling from the corner of his mouth, very much asleep.

Alex had a twin brother, and it was moments like these that made her wish she didn’t.

Mrs. Peters diverted her attention to him like a paper clip to a magnet.

“Mr. Bailey?” Mrs. Peters asked.

He continued to snore.

“Mr. Bailey?” Mrs. Peters asked again, kneeling down closer to him.

He let out another enormous snore. A few of the students wondered how it was possible for such a loud noise to come out of him.

“Mr. Bailey!” Mrs. Peters shouted in his ear.

As if someone had lit a firework under his seat, Conner Bailey jumped back to life, almost knocking his desk over.

“Where am I? What happened?” Conner asked in a panicked state of confusion. His eyes darted around the room while his brain tried to remember where he was.

Like his sister, he also had bright blue eyes and strawberry-blond hair. His face was round and freckled and, at the moment, slightly smushed to one side like a basset hound when it first wakes up from a nap.

Alex couldn’t have been more embarrassed by her brother. Besides sharing looks and a birth date, she and her brother couldn’t have been more different. Conner may have had a lot of friends, but unlike his sister, he had trouble in school… mostly trouble staying awake.

“I’m so glad you could rejoin us, Mr. Bailey,” Mrs. Peters said sternly. “Did you have a nice nap?”

Conner turned bright red.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Peters,” he apologized, trying to be as genuine as possible. “Sometimes when you talk for long periods of time, I doze off. No offense. I can’t help it.”

“You fall asleep in my class at least twice a week,” Mrs. Peters reminded him.

“Well, you do talk a lot.” Before he could stop himself from saying it, Conner knew it was the wrong thing to say. A few of the students had to bite their hands to stop from laughing.

“I recommend you stay awake while I teach, Mr. Bailey,” Mrs. Peters threatened. Conner had never seen anyone squint their eyes so tight without shutting them before. “Unless you know enough about fairy tales to teach this lesson yourself,” she added.

“I probably do,” Conner said. Once again, he spoke without thinking. “I mean, I know a lot about this stuff, that’s all.”

“Oh, really?” Mrs. Peters never backed down from a challenge, and every student’s worst nightmare was that they’d be her challenger. “All right, Mr. Bailey, if you’re so knowledgeable, answer this question.”

Conner gulped.

“In the original tale of Sleeping Beauty, how many years does the princess sleep before she is awoken by true love’s first kiss?” Mrs. Peters asked, studying his face.

All eyes were on him, impatiently waiting for the slightest indication that he didn’t know the answer. But fortunately for Conner, he did.

“One hundred,” Conner answered. “Sleeping Beauty slept for one hundred years. That’s why the castle grounds were covered in vines and stuff, because the curse affected everyone in the kingdom, and there was no one to garden.”

Mrs. Peters didn’t know what to say or do. She frowned down at him, immensely surprised. This was the first time he had ever been correct when she’d put him on the spot, and she certainly hadn’t expected it.

“Try to stay conscious, Mr. Bailey. Lucky for you, I used my last detention slip this morning, but I can always request more,” Mrs. Peters said, and promptly walked to the front of the classroom to continue her lesson.

Conner sighed with relief, and the red drained from his face. His eyes met his sister’s; even she was surprised he had gotten the answer right. Alex hadn’t expected Conner to remember any fairy tales….

“Now, class, I want you all to get out your literature books, turn to page one hundred and seventy, and read ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ quietly to yourselves,” Mrs. Peters instructed.

The students did as they were told. Conner made himself as comfortable as possible at his desk and began reading. The story, the pictures, and the characters were all so familiar to him.

One of the things Alex and Conner looked forward to the most when they were very young had been the trips to see their grandmother. She lived up in the mountains in the heart of the woods in a tiny house that could best be described as a cottage, if such a thing still existed.

It was a long journey, a few hours by car, but the twins loved every minute of it. Their anticipation would grow as they traveled up the windy roads and through the endless trees, and when they crossed a yellow bridge, the twins would excitedly exclaim, “We’re almost there! We’re almost there!”

Once they arrived, their grandmother would greet them at the door with open arms and hugs so tight they would almost pop.

“Look at you two! You’ve both grown a foot since the last time I saw you!” Grandma would say, even if they hadn’t, and then would lead them inside, where a freshly baked batch of cookies waited for them.

Their father had grown up in the woods and would spend hours each day telling the twins his adventures as a kid: all the trees he’d climbed, all the streams he’d swum, and all the ferocious animals he’d barely escaped from. Most of his retellings were highly exaggerated, but they loved this time with him more than anything else in the world.

“Someday, when you’re older, I’ll take you to all the secret places where I used to play,” their father would tease them. He was a tall man with kind eyes that would wrinkle whenever he smiled, and he smiled quite a bit, especially when he was teasing the twins.

At night the twins’ mother would help their grandmother cook dinner and, after they had eaten, as soon as the dishes were done, the family would sit around the fireplace. Their grandmother would open her big storybook, and she and their father would take turns reading the twins fairy tales until they fell asleep. Sometimes the Bailey family would be up until sunrise.

They told the stories with such detail and passion that it didn’t matter how many times the twins heard the same story. They were the best memories any child could ask for.

Unfortunately, the twins hadn’t been back to their grandmother’s cottage in a very long time….

“MR. BAILEY!” Mrs. Peters shouted. Conner had dozed off again.

“Sorry, Mrs. Peters!” he bellowed back, sitting straight up in his seat like a soldier on guard. If looks could kill, Conner would have been dead from the scowl she was sending him.

“What did we think of the real Little Red Riding Hood?” the teacher asked her class.

A girl with frizzy hair and thick braces raised her hand.

“Mrs. Peters?” the frizzy-haired girl asked. “I’m confused.”

“And why is that?” Mrs. Peters said, as if asking, “What on earth could you possibly be confused about, idiot?”

“Because, it says the Big Bad Wolf is killed by the Hunter,” the frizzy-haired girl explained. “I always thought the wolf was just upset because the other wolves in his pack made fun of his snout, and he and Little Red Riding Hood became friends in the end. At least, that’s what happened in the cartoon I used to watch when I was little.”

Mrs. Peters rolled her eyes so far into the back of her head, she could have seen what was behind her.

“That,” she said with a clenched jaw, “is exactly why we’re having this lesson.”

The frizzy-haired girl became wide-eyed and sad. How could something so dear to her have been so wrong?

“For homework,” Mrs. Peters said, and the room unanimously slumped in their seats, “you are to pick your favorite fairy tale and write a paper, due tomorrow, on the real lesson the tale is trying to teach us.”

Mrs. Peters went to her desk, and the students began working on their assignment with the little class time remaining.

“Mr. Bailey?” Mrs. Peters summoned Conner to her desk. “A word.”

Conner was in deep trouble, and he knew it. He cautiously stood up and walked to Mrs. Peters’s desk. The other students gave him sorrowful looks as he walked by, as if he were walking to his executioner.

“Yes, Mrs. Peters?” Conner asked.

“Conner, I’m trying to be very sensitive about your family situation,” Mrs. Peters said, glaring at him over the frames of her glasses.

Family situation. Two words Conner had heard too many times in the last year.

“However,” Mrs. Peters continued, “there is certain behavior I just will not tolerate in my classroom. You’re constantly falling asleep in class, you don’t pay attention, not to mention you quiz and test very poorly. Your sister seems to be functioning just fine. Perhaps you could follow her example?”

It was a comparison that felt like a kick in the stomach every time someone made it. Indeed, Conner was not his sister by any means, and he was always punished because of it.

“If this continues, I will be forced to have a meeting with your mother, do you understand?” Mrs. Peters warned him.

“Yes, sir—I mean ma’am! I meant ma’am! Sorry.” It just hadn’t been his best day.

“Okay, then. You may have a seat.”

Conner slowly walked back to his seat, his head hanging slightly lower than it had all day. More than anything, he hated feeling like a failure.

Alex had watched the entire conversation between her brother and their teacher. As much as her brother embarrassed her, she did feel for him as only a sister could.

Alex flipped through her literature book, deciding on which story to write about. The pictures weren’t as colorful and exciting as they had been in her grandmother’s book, but seeing all the characters she had grown up reading about made her feel at home, a feeling that had recently become a rarity.

If only fairy tales were real, she thought. Somebody could wave a wand and magically make things how they used to be.

CHAPTER TWO

THE LONGER WALK HOME

I’m so excited about this lesson,” Alex told Conner as they walked home from school. This was something Conner was used to hearing his sister declare, and it was usually his cue to stop listening.

“Mrs. Peters made a very good point, you know,” Alex continued excitedly, speaking a mile a minute. “Think about everything children miss out on when they’re deprived of fairy tales! Oh, how terrible for them! Don’t you just feel awful for them? Conner, are you listening to me?”

“Yup,” Conner lied. His attention was focused on an abandoned snail shell he was kicking along the sidewalk.

“Can you imagine a childhood without knowing all those characters and places?” Alex continued. “We’re so fortunate that Dad and Grandma made such a point of reading them to us when we were little.”

“Very lucky…” Conner nodded, although he wasn’t exactly sure what he was agreeing with.

Every day after school, the Bailey twins would walk home together. They lived in a charming neighborhood that was surrounded by more charming neighborhoods that were surrounded by another series of charming neighborhoods. It was a sea of suburbia, where each house was similar to the next but uniquely different at the same time.

To pass the time as they walked, Alex would tell her brother everything on her mind: all her current thoughts and concerns, a summary of everything she had learned that day, and what she planned to do as soon as they got home. As much as this daily routine annoyed Conner, he knew he was the only person in the world Alex had to talk to, so he tried his best to listen. But listening had never been Conner’s forte.

“How am I ever going to decide which story to write about? It’s too difficult to choose!” Alex said, clapping her hands with excitement. “Which one are you going to write your paper on?”

“Um…” Conner said, whipping his head up from looking at the ground. He had to mentally rewind the conversation to remember what the question was.

“ ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf,’ ” he said, choosing the first fairy tale that came to mind.

“You can’t choose that one,” Alex said, shaking her head. “That’s the most obvious one! You have to select something more challenging to impress Mrs. Peters. You should pick something with a message hidden deeper inside it, one that isn’t so on-the-surface.”

Conner sighed. It was always easier to just go along with Alex instead of arguing with her, but sometimes it was unavoidable.

“Fine, I’ll pick ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ” he decided.

“Interesting selection,” Alex said, intrigued. “What do you suppose the moral of that story is?”

“Don’t piss off your neighbors, I guess,” Conner said.

Alex grunted disapprovingly.

“Be serious, Conner! That is not the moral of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ” she reprimanded.

“Sure it is,” Conner explained. “If the king and queen had just invited that crazy enchantress to their daughter’s party in the first place, none of that stuff ever would have happened.”

“They couldn’t have stopped it from happening,” said Alex. “That enchantress was evil and probably would have cursed the baby princess anyway. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is about trying to prevent the unpreventable. Her parents tried protecting her and had all the spinning wheels in the kingdom destroyed. She was so sheltered, she didn’t even know what the danger was, and she still pricked her finger on the first spindle she ever saw.”

Conner thought about this possibility and shook his head. He liked his version much better.

“I disagree,” Conner told her. “I’ve seen how upset you get when people don’t invite you places, and you usually look like you would curse a baby, too.”

Alex gave Conner a dirty look Mrs. Peters would have been proud of.

“While there’s no such thing as a wrong interpretation, I have to say that is definitely a misread,” Alex said.

“I’m just saying to be careful who you ignore,” Conner clarified. “I always thought Sleeping Beauty’s parents had it coming.”

“Oh?” Alex questioned him. “And I suppose you thought Hansel and Gretel had it coming, too?”

“Yes,” Conner said, feeling clever. “And so did the witch!”

“How so?” Alex asked.

“Because,” Conner explained with a smirk on his face, “if you’re going to live in a house made of candy, don’t move next door to a couple of obese kids. A lot of these fairy-tale characters are missing common sense.”

Alex let out another disapproving grunt. Conner figured he could get at least fifty more out of her before they got home.

“The witch didn’t live next door! She lived deep in the forest! They had to leave a trail of bread crumbs behind so they could find their way back, remember. And the whole point of the house was to lure the kids in. They were starving!” Alex reminded him. “At least have all the facts straight before you criticize.”

“If they were starving, what were they doing wasting bread crumbs?” Conner asked. “Sounds like a couple of troublemakers to me.”

Alex grunted again.

“And in your deranged mind, what do you think the lesson of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ is?” Alex challenged him.

“Easy,” Conner said. “Lock your doors! Robbers come in all shapes and sizes. Even curly-haired little girls can’t be trusted.”

Alex grunted again and crossed her arms. She tried her best not to giggle; she didn’t want to validate her brother’s opinion.

“ ‘Goldilocks’ is about consequences! Mrs. Peters said so herself,” Alex said. Although Alex would never admit it, sometimes arguing with her brother was amusing. “What do you suppose ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is about?” she asked.

Conner contemplated a moment and slyly grinned. “Bad beans can cause more than indigestion,” he answered, laughing hysterically to himself.

Alex pursed her lips to hide a smile.

“What do you think the lesson of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is?” she asked him. “Do you think she should have just mailed her grandmother the gift basket?”

“Now you’re thinking!” he said. “Although, I’ve always felt sorry for Little Red Riding Hood. It’s obvious her parents didn’t like her very much.”

“Why do you say that?” Alex asked, wondering how he could have possibly construed that from the story.

“Who sends their young daughter into a dark and wolf-occupied forest carrying freshly baked food and wearing a bright jacket?” Conner asked. “They were practically asking for a wolf to eat her! She must have annoyed the heck out of them!”

Alex held back laughter with all her might but, to Conner’s delight, she let a quiet chuckle slip.

“I know you secretly agree with me,” Conner said, bumping her shoulder with his.

“Conner, it’s people like you who ruin fairy tales for the rest of the world,” Alex said, forcing the smile on her face to fade. “People make jokes about them, and suddenly the whole message is… is… lost

Alex suddenly stopped walking. All the color in her face slowly drained away. Something across the street had caught her eye, something very disappointing.

“What’s the matter?” Conner asked, turning back to her.

Alex was staring at a large house. It was a lovely home, painted blue with white trim, and had several windows. The front yard was landscaped to perfection; it had just the right amount of grass, patches of colorful flowers, and a large oak tree ideal for climbing.

If a house could smile, this house would be grinning from ear to ear.

“Look,” Alex said, and pointed to a For Sale sign next to the oak tree. A bright red stripe with the word Sold had recently been added to it.

“It sold,” Alex said, slowly shaking her head from side to side in disbelief. “It sold,” she repeated, not wanting it to be true.

The little color in Conner’s round face drained, too. The twins stared at the house for a moment in silence, each not knowing what to say to the other.

“We both knew it would happen eventually,” Conner said.

“Then why do I feel so surprised?” Alex asked softly. “I guess it had been for sale for so long, I figured it was just… you know… waiting for us.”

Conner saw tears begin to form in his sister’s eyes through the tears forming in his own.

“Come on, Alex,” Conner said and kept walking. “Let’s go home.”

She looked at the house for a second more and then followed him. This house was only one thing the Bailey family had recently lost….

A year ago, just a few days before their eleventh birthday, Alex and Conner’s father died in a car accident on his way home from work. Mr. Bailey had owned a bookstore a few streets away named Bailey’s Books, but all it had taken was a few small streets for a big accident to happen.

The twins and their mother had been anxiously waiting for him at the dinner table when they got the phone call telling them their father wouldn’t be joining them that night, or any night after that. He had never been late to dinner before, so as soon as the telephone rang, they all had known something was wrong.

Alex and Conner could never forget the look on their mother’s face when she answered the phone—a look that told them, without saying a word, that their lives would never be the same. They had never seen their mother cry like she did that night.

Everything had happened so fast after that. It was hard for the twins to remember what order it all had happened in.

They remembered their mother making tons of phone calls and having to deal with a lot of paperwork. They remembered that their grandmother came to take care of them while their mother made all the funeral arrangements.

They remembered holding their mother’s hands as they walked down the church aisle at the funeral. They remembered the white flowers and candles and all the sad expressions on everyone’s faces as they passed. They remembered all the food people sent. They remembered how sorry people told them they were.

They didn’t remember their eleventh birthday, because no one did.

The twins remembered how strong Grandma and Mom had stayed for them in the following months. They remembered their mother explaining to them why they had to sell the bookstore. They remembered that, eventually, their mother couldn’t afford their beautiful blue house anymore, and they’d had to move into a rental house a little way down the street.

They remembered Grandma leaving them once they were settled into their new, smaller house. They remembered returning to school and how falsely normal everything appeared to be. But most of all, the twins remembered not understanding why any of it had to happen.

A full year had passed, and the twins still didn’t understand it. People had told them it would get easier with time, but how much time were they talking about? The loss seemed to grow deeper each day without their dad. They missed him so much sometimes that they expected their sadness to swell out of their bodies.

They missed his smile, they missed his laugh, and they missed his stories….

Whenever Alex had had a particularly bad day at school, the first thing she would do when she got home was jump on her bike and pedal to her dad’s store. She would run through the front doors, find her dad, and say, “Daddy, I need to talk to you.”

It didn’t matter if he was helping a customer or putting brand-new books on the shelves, Mr. Bailey would always stop what he was doing, take his daughter to the storage room in the back, and listen to what had happened.

“What’s the matter, sweetheart?” he would ask with big, concerned eyes.

“I had a really bad day today, Daddy,” Alex said on one occasion.

“Are the other kids still teasing you?” he asked. “I can call the school and ask your teacher to have a talk with them.”

“That wouldn’t solve anything,” Alex said through sniffles. “By publicly persecuting me, they’re filling an insecure void caused by social and domestic neglect.”

Mr. Bailey scratched his head. “So, what you’re saying, sweetheart, is that they’re just jealous?” he asked her.

“Exactly,” Alex said. “I read a psychology book in the library today at lunch that explained it.”

Mr. Bailey let out a proud laugh. His daughter’s intelligence constantly amazed him. “I think you’re just too bright for your own good, Alex,” he said.

“Sometimes I wish I was like everyone else,” Alex confessed. “I’m tired of being lonely, Daddy. If being smart and being a good student means that I’ll never have friends, then I wish I was more like Conner.”

“Alex, have I ever told you the story about the Curvy Tree?” Mr. Bailey asked.

“No,” Alex answered.

Mr. Bailey’s eyes lit up. They always did when he was about to tell a story.

“Well,” he started, “one day when I was very young, I was walking around the woods and saw something very peculiar. It was an evergreen tree, but it was different from any other evergreen tree I had ever seen. Instead of growing straight out of the ground, its trunk curved and wound in circles like a large vine.”

“How?” Alex asked, utterly entranced. “That isn’t possible. Evergreens don’t grow like that.”

“Perhaps someone forgot to tell that to the tree,” Mr. Bailey said. “Anyway, one day the loggers came and cut down every single tree in the area except for the Curvy Tree.”

“Why?” Alex asked.

“Because they figured it was unusable,” Mr. Bailey answered. “You could never make a table or a chair or a cabinet out of it. You see, the Curvy Tree may have felt different from the other trees, but its uniqueness is what saved it.”

“What ever happened to the Curvy Tree?” Alex asked.

“It’s still there today,” Mr. Bailey said with a smile. “It’s growing taller and taller and curvier and curvier every day.”

A tiny smile grew on Alex’s face. “I think I get what you’re trying to tell me, Daddy,” she said.

“I’m glad,” said Mr. Bailey. “Now all you have to do is wait for the loggers to come and chop down all your peers.”

Alex laughed for the first time all day. Mr. Bailey always knew how to cheer her up.

It took the twins twice as long to walk home since they’d moved into the rental house. It was a boring home with brown walls and a flat roof. Windows were few, and the front yard consisted only of a plain grass lawn that was barely alive because the sprinklers didn’t work.

The Baileys’ home was cozy but cluttered. They had more furniture than they had room for, and none of it matched the house because it was never intended to. Even though they had lived here for more than half a year, unpacked boxes were still lined up against the walls.

None of them wanted to unpack them; none of them wanted to admit they were staying as long as they actually were.

The twins immediately went up the stairs and into their separate bedrooms. Alex sat at her desk and started her homework. Conner laid on his bed and started a nap.

Alex’s bedroom could have been mistaken for a library if it weren’t for the bright yellow bed tucked away in the corner. Bookshelves of all heights and widths lined the room, holding everything from chapter books to encyclopedias.

Conner’s bedroom was more like a cave, in which he appropriately hibernated whenever he could. It was dark and messy; patches of carpet could be seen in between piles of dirty clothes. A half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich rested on the floor and had been there far too long for anyone’s peace of mind.

An hour or so later, the twins heard sounds that meant their mother was visiting from work, and they went downstairs to join her in the kitchen. She was sitting at the table while on the phone, flipping through a stack of envelopes she had just collected from the mailbox.

Charlotte Bailey was a very pretty woman with red hair and freckled skin that the twins undoubtedly had inherited from her. She had a huge, caring heart and loved her kids more than anything else in the world. Unfortunately, they hardly ever saw their mother anymore.

She was a nurse at the local children’s hospital and was forced to work constant double shifts to support the family since her husband passed away. Mrs. Bailey was already gone before the twins woke up every morning and would get home after the twins had gone to sleep. The only time she had with the twins anymore was on the brief lunch and dinner breaks she spent at home.

Mrs. Bailey loved her job and loved taking care of children at the hospital, but hated that it took time away from her own. In a way, the twins felt they had lost both their parents after their dad’s death.

“Hi, guys,” Mrs. Bailey said to the twins, covering the receiving end of the phone. “Did you have a good day at school?”

Alex nodded positively. Conner gave her an overly enthusiastic thumbs-up.

“Yes, I can work a double this Monday,” she said into the phone, speaking with someone from the hospital. “No problem,” she lied.

Most of the envelopes she was looking through had bright red warning stickers saying FINAL NOTICE or PAYMENT DUE. Even working the hours she worked, Mrs. Bailey had to get creative with money sometimes. She put the envelopes facedown on the table, hiding them from the twins.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Bailey said into the phone, and clicked it off. She turned to her children. “How are you guys?”

“Good,” they both said passively.

Mrs. Bailey’s “mom-tuition” turned on. She knew something was troubling them.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, studying their faces. “You seem a little down.”

Alex and Conner looked to each other, unsure of what to say. Did their mother know about their old house? Should they tell her?

“Come on,” their mother said. “What is it? You can tell me anything.”

“We aren’t upset,” Conner said. “We knew it was going to happen eventually.”

“What?” Mrs. Bailey asked.

“The house sold,” Alex said. “We saw it today on our way home from school.”

There was a moment before anyone said anything. This wasn’t news to Mrs. Bailey, but the twins could tell she was just as disappointed about it as they were and had hoped they wouldn’t notice it.

“Oh, that,” Mrs. Bailey said, brushing it off. “Yes, I know. You shouldn’t be sad about it, though. We’ll find a bigger and better house as soon as we catch up on things here.”

And that was that. Mrs. Bailey wasn’t a good liar, and neither were the twins. Still, Alex and Conner always smiled and nodded along with her.

“What did you learn in school today?” their mother asked.

“So much,” Alex proclaimed with a huge smile.

“Not much,” Conner mumbled with a scowl.

“That’s because you fell asleep in class again!” Alex tattled.

Conner gave Alex a dirty look.

“Oh, Conner, not again,” Mrs. Bailey said, shaking her head. “What are we going to do with you?”

“It’s not my fault!” Conner said. “Mrs. Peters’s lessons put me to sleep. It just happens! It’s like my brain switches off or something. Sometimes even my old rubber-band trick doesn’t work.”

“Rubber-band trick?” Mrs. Bailey asked.

“I wear a rubber band around my wrist and snap it every time I get sleepy,” Conner explained. “And I was positive it was foolproof!”

Mrs. Bailey shook her head, more amused than anything.

“Well, don’t forget how lucky you are to be in that classroom,” Mrs. Bailey said with a guilt-inducing “mom look.” “All the kids at the hospital would like nothing more than to trade places with you and go to school every day.”

“They’d change their minds if they met Mrs. Peters,” Conner said under his breath.

The phone rang just as Mrs. Bailey was about to continue scolding her son.

“Hello?” Mrs. Bailey said, answering the phone. The worry lines on her forehead became very prominent. “Tomorrow? No, there must be a mistake. I told them I couldn’t work at all tomorrow; it’s the twins’ twelfth birthday and I was planning on spending the evening with them.”

Alex and Conner looked at each other with the same surprised expression. They had almost forgotten they were turning twelve the next day. Almost…

“Are you positive there’s no one else who can cover it?” Mrs. Bailey asked, her voice more desperate than she wanted it to sound. “No, I understand…. Yes, of course… I’m aware of the staff cuts…. See you tomorrow.”

Mrs. Bailey hung up the phone, closed her eyes, and let out a deep, disappointed sigh.

“I’ve got some bad news, guys,” she told them. “It looks like I have to work tomorrow night, so I won’t be here for your birthday. But I’ll make it up to you! We’ll celebrate when I get home from work the next night, all right?”

“That’s fine, Mom,” Alex said cheerfully, trying to make her feel better. “We understand.”

“It’s okay,” Conner added. “We weren’t really expecting anything special anyway.”

The situation made Mrs. Bailey feel like the worst mother in the world, and their understanding made her feel even worse. She would have much rather watched them throw a fit or get angry or show any emotion appropriate for their age. They were too young to be used to disappointment.

“Oh…” Mrs. Bailey said, fighting back the sadness inside her. “Great. Then we’ll have dinner… and get a cake… and have a nice night…. Now, I’m just going to go upstairs for a minute before I head back to work.”

She left the kitchen and hurried up the stairs and into her bedroom.

The twins waited a beat before climbing up the stairs to check on her.

They peered into their mother’s bedroom. She was sitting on her bed crying, with rolled-up balls of tissue in both her hands, talking to a framed photo of her late husband.

“Oh, John,” Mrs. Bailey said. “I try to stay strong and keep our family going, but it’s really hard to do without you. They’re such good kids. They don’t deserve this.”

She quickly dried her tears once she felt the twins watching her. Alex and Conner slowly walked into her room and sat on either side of her.

“I’m so sorry, for everything,” Mrs. Bailey said to them. “It just isn’t fair that you’ve had to go through all of this at such a young age.”

“It’s going to be okay, Mom,” Alex said. “We don’t need anything special for our birthday.”

“Birthdays are overrated anyway,” Conner added. “We know things are tight right now.”

Mrs. Bailey put her arms around them. “When did you two become so grown-up?” she asked them with watery eyes. “I am the luckiest mom in the world!”

All their eyes fell on the photo of Mr. Bailey.

“You know what your dad would say if he were here?” Mrs. Bailey asked the twins. “He’d say, ‘Right now, we’re living in an ugly chapter of our lives, but books always get better!’ ”

The twins smiled at her, hoping this was true.

CHAPTER THREE

A BIRTHDAY SURPRISE

Pencils down,” Mrs. Peters ordered from the front of the classroom. Her students were taking a math test, and she had been watching them like a prison guard the entire time. “Pass your tests to the front.”

Conner looked down at the test as if it were written in ancient hieroglyphics. Most of his answers were blank, and he had just scribbled around the others to make it look like he had tried. He said a little prayer to himself and passed the test forward with the others.

The tests were all passed to Alex, who stacked them in a neat pile for Mrs. Peters. She always felt so refreshed after taking a test, especially one as simple as that one had been for her.

Her brother’s test caught her eye since it was the one with the least amount of writing on it. Alex knew Conner always tried his best at school, but his best never seemed to be good enough. She looked back at him, wishing she could help him… and then it occurred to her: Maybe she could.

Alex looked up at Mrs. Peters and saw that she was busy looking at the notes in her lesson plan. Would her teacher notice if Alex quickly filled in a couple of answers for her brother? Was Alex even capable of doing something so blatantly wrong?

Was it considered cheating if you were doing it on someone else’s test? Would the gracious gesture cancel out the offense in the grand scheme of things?

Alex was prone to over-thinking everything, so she just did it; she quickly filled in some of her brother’s answers, making her handwriting slightly sloppier than it usually was, and handed the stack of tests to Mrs. Peters.

It was the most spontaneous thing she had ever done.

“Thank you, Miss Bailey,” Mrs. Peters said, making eye contact with her. Alex felt like the pit of her stomach had fallen out of her body. The excitement she had felt from her impulse was now overshadowed by guilt.

Mrs. Peters had always trusted her; how could she do something so juvenile? Should she confess what she had done? What was the punishment for her crime? Would she feel this guilty for the rest of her life?

She looked back at her brother. Conner let out a long but quiet sigh, and Alex sensed her brother’s sadness and embarrassment; she could feel his hopelessness as if it were her own.

The critical wheels in Alex’s head stopped turning. She knew she’d done the right thing—not as a student, but as a sister.

“I want you all to get out your homework from last night,” Mrs. Peters commanded, “and I would like you to briefly present your work in front of the class.”

The teacher regularly surprised the class with impromptu presentations to keep them on their toes. She took a seat on a stool in the back of the room uncomfortably close to Conner’s seat so she could keep an eye on his consciousness.

One by one, the students presented their assignments to the class. Besides a boy who thought “Jack and the Beanstalk” was about an alien abduction and a girl who claimed “Puss in Boots” was an early example of animal cruelty, all the students seemed to have interpreted the tales correctly.

“It was so hard to choose just one fairy tale to write about,” Alex said as she animatedly presented her seven-page paper to the class. “So, I selected the story the theme of which is present in virtually every fairy tale and every story ever written, ‘Cinderella’!”

Her excitement was not shared by her peers.

“Many people have had issues with ‘Cinderella,’ saying it has anti-feminist elements,” Alex continued. “But I think that’s completely ridiculous! ‘Cinderella’ is not about a man saving a woman, it’s about karma!”

Most of the class began daydreaming about other things. Mrs. Peters was the only person in the room who seemed even slightly interested in what Alex had to say.

“Think about it,” Alex went on. “Even after years of constant abuse from her stepmother and her stepsisters, Cinderella remained a good person with high hopes. She never stopped believing in herself and in the good of the world. And although she married the prince in the end, Cinderella always had inner happiness. Her story shows that even in the worst of situations—even when it seems no one in the world appreciates you—as long as you have hope, everything can get better….”

Alex let her mind linger on what she had said. She questioned the last point she had made in her presentation. Was that really what “Cinderella” was about, or was it what she needed “Cinderella” to be about?

“Thank you, Miss Bailey! Very well said,” Mrs. Peters said with the closest thing to a smile her face was capable of making.

“Thank you for your time,” Alex said, and nodded to the class.

“It’s your turn, Mr. Bailey,” the teacher announced. She was sitting so close to him that he could feel the warm breath from her nostrils on the back of his neck.

Conner went to the front of the classroom, dragging his feet as if they were encased in concrete. He had never had trouble talking in front of the class, but he’d rather be anywhere in the world than presenting something in front of a teacher. Alex gave him an encouraging nod.

“I chose ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf,’ ” Conner said, going against his sister’s advice from the day before.

Alex slumped in her seat, and Mrs. Peters rolled her eyes. This was very disappointing.

“I know you’re all thinking I went with the easiest one,” Conner said. “Except, reading it again, I don’t think the story is about the importance of honesty. I think it’s about high expectations.”

Alex and Mrs. Peters both raised an eyebrow. Where was he going with this?

“Sure, the boy was a brat. I can’t deny that,” Conner continued, gesturing to the half-page paper he had written. “But can you blame him for having a little fun? Clearly his village was having a bit of a wolf problem, and everyone was stressed out about it. He was just a kid; did they really expect him to be perfect all the time?”

His presentation may have not been the best, but it certainly was catching the class’s attention.

“And it makes me wonder, why was no one watching this kid?” Conner added. “Maybe if his parents had kept an eye on him, he wouldn’t have been eaten. I think the story is trying to tell us to keep an eye on our kids, especially if they’re pathological liars. Thank you.”

Conner never tried to be funny. He was just painfully honest about his thoughts and opinions. This honesty always amused his classmates, but never his teacher.

“Thank you, Mr. Bailey,” Mrs. Peters said sharply. “You may sit down now.”

Conner knew he’d blown it. He took his seat, resuming his position under his teacher’s cold stare and warm breath. Why did he even bother trying anymore?

It wasn’t the end of a school day unless Conner left feeling completely worthless. There was only one person who was capable of making him feel better when he felt this way. Conner only wished he were still around….

Mr. Bailey always knew when his son needed to talk to him. It didn’t have anything to do with observation or intuition, but with location. Occasionally, Mr. Bailey would get home from work and find his son sitting up in the oak tree in the front yard with a contemplative look on his face.

“Conner?” Mr. Bailey would ask, approaching the tree. “Is everything okay, bud?”

“Uh-huh,” Conner would mumble.

“Are you sure?” Mr. Bailey would ask.

“Yup,” Conner would say unconvincingly. He wasn’t as vocal about his troubles as his sister was, but you could see it in his face. Mr. Bailey would climb up the tree and have a seat on the branch next to his son and coax out what was troubling him.

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?” Mr. Bailey would continue. “Did something happen at school today?”

Conner would nod his head.

“I got a bad grade on a test,” he admitted on one occasion.

“Did you study for it?” his father asked.

“Yes,” Conner said. “I studied really hard, Dad. But it’s just no use. I’ll never be as smart as Alex.” His cheeks turned bright red with embarrassment.

“Conner, let me fill you in on something that took me a long time to learn,” Mr. Bailey said. “The women in your life are always going to seem smarter; it’s just the way it is. I’ve been married to your mother for thirteen years, and I still have trouble keeping up with her. You can’t compare yourself to others.”

“But I’m stupid, Dad,” Conner said, his eyes filling with tears.

“I find that hard to believe,” Mr. Bailey said. “It takes intelligence to be funny and tell a good joke, and you’re the funniest kid I know!”

“Humor doesn’t help with history or math,” Conner said. “It doesn’t matter how hard I try in school. I’m always going to be the dumb kid in class….”

Conner’s face went white and expressionless; he stared off into nothing, so ashamed of himself that it hurt. Luckily for him, Mr. Bailey had an encouraging story for every situation.

“Conner, have I ever told you the legend about the Walking Fish?” Mr. Bailey asked him.

He looked up at his father. “The Walking Fish?” Conner asked. “Dad, no offense, but I don’t think one of your stories is going to make me feel better this time.”

“All right, suit yourself,” Mr. Bailey said.

A few moments passed, and Conner’s curiosity got the best of him.

“Okay, you can tell me about the Walking Fish,” Conner said.

Mr. Bailey’s eyes lit up as they always did just before he was about to tell a story. Conner could tell this was going to be a good one.

“Once upon a time, there was a large fish who lived in a lake by himself,” Mr. Bailey told him. “Every day, the fish would watch longingly as a boy from the village nearby would play with all the horses and dogs and squirrels on land—”

“Is a dog going to die in this story, Dad?” Conner interrupted. “You know I hate stories when dogs die—”

“Let me finish,” Mr. Bailey went on. “One day, a fairy came to the lake and granted the fish a wish—”

“That’s random,” Conner said. “Why do fairies always just show up and do nice things for people they don’t know?”

“Employment obligation?” Mr. Bailey shrugged. “But for argument’s sake, let’s say she dropped her wand in the lake and the fish retrieved it, so she offered him a wish as a thank-you. Happy?”

“That’s better,” Conner said. “Go on.”

“The fish, predictably, wished for legs, so he could play with the boy from the village,” Mr. Bailey said. “So the fairy turned his fins into legs and he became the Walking Fish.”

“That’s weird,” Conner said. “Let me guess, the fish was so freaky-looking, the boy never wanted to play with him?”

“Nope, they became great friends and played together with the other land animals,” Mr. Bailey told him. “But, one day, the boy fell into the lake and couldn’t swim! The Walking Fish tried to save him, but it was no use; he didn’t have fins anymore! Sadly, the boy drowned.”

Conner’s mouth hung open like a broken glove compartment.

“You see, if the fish had just stayed in the lake and not wished to be something else, he could have saved the boy’s life,” Mr. Bailey finished.

“Dad, that’s a horrible story,” he said. “How does a boy live by a lake and not know how to swim? Dogs can swim! Couldn’t one of them have saved him? Where was that fairy when the boy was drowning?”

“I think you’re missing the point of the story,” Mr. Bailey said. “Sometimes we forget about our own advantages because we focus on what we don’t have. Just because you have to work a little harder at something that seems easier to others doesn’t mean you’re without your own talents.”

Conner thought about this for a moment. “I think I get it, Dad,” he said.

Mr. Bailey smiled at him. “Now, why don’t we get down from this tree, and I’ll help you study for your next test?”

“I told you, studying doesn’t help,” Conner said. “I’ve tried and tried and tried. It never helps.”

“Then we’ll come up with our own way of studying,” Mr. Bailey told him. “We’ll look at pictures of people in your history book and make up jokes about them so you’ll remember their names. And we’ll create funny scenarios to help you with all of those math formulas.”

Conner slowly but surely nodded and agreed to it.

“Fine,” he said with a half smile. “But for future reference, I liked your story about the Curvy Tree much better.”

The walk home that day was very quiet. Alex could sense that her brother’s presentation had left him a little tense. She tried breaking the silence every few steps with supportive comments—or at least she thought they were supportive.

“I thought you made a good point,” she said sweetly. “Granted, it’s not a point I ever would have made.”

“Thanks,” Conner replied. She wasn’t helping.

“You may have overanalyzed it, though,” Alex said. “I do it all the time. Sometimes I read a story and interpret it the way I want to, rather than the way the author wanted me to. It just takes practice.”

He didn’t respond. She still wasn’t helping.

“Well, it’s our birthday today,” Alex reminded him. “Are you excited to be twelve?”

“Not really,” Conner admitted. “It feels just like eleven. But aren’t we supposed to be getting a new set of molars soon?”

“Come on, let’s be positive,” Alex insisted. “Even though we aren’t doing anything exciting for our birthday, we should stay optimistic. There are plenty of things to look forward to! One more year until we’ll be teenagers!”

“I suppose,” Conner said. “Only four more years left until we can drive!”

“And six years left until we can vote and go to college!” Alex added.

That was all they could come up with. Their cheerfulness was hollow, and they both knew it, so they just stayed silent for the remainder of the walk. Even if they had the most extravagant party in the world waiting for them at home, birthdays were always going to be hard for them.

School had been predictable. The walk home had been typical. The whole day had seemed normal. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary to make their birthday feel special at all… until they got home and saw a bright blue car pull into their driveway.

“Grandma?” the twins said in perfect unison.

“Surprise!” yelled their grandmother, getting out of her car. She was so loud, the entire neighborhood could hear her.

The twins ran up to her with huge smiles on their faces. They only saw their grandmother a couple times a year and were stunned to see her in their driveway with no prior warning.

Their grandmother hugged both of them so tight they thought they’d pop. “Look at you two!” she said. “You both look like you’ve grown a foot since the last time I saw you!”

Their grandmother was a petite woman with long, graying brown hair that was pulled back in a tight braid. She had the warmest smile and the kindest eyes in the world, which wrinkled pleasantly when she smiled, just like the twins’ dad’s eyes had. She was cheerful and energetic, and exactly what the twins needed.

She always wore bright dresses and her signature shoes with white laces and brown heels. She was never more than a few feet away from her large, green travel bag and blue purse. And although their grandfather had died many years before, she always wore her wedding ring.

“We had no idea you were coming!” Conner said.

“It wouldn’t be a surprise if you knew I was coming,” Grandma said.

“What are you doing here, Grandma?” Alex asked.

“Your mom called and asked me to stay with you while she went to work,” Grandma told them. “I couldn’t let you spend your birthday alone, could I? Thank goodness I was in the country!”

Their grandmother was retired and spent most of the year traveling around the world with other retired friends. They traveled to mostly third-world countries and read to sick children in hospitals and taught other children of the communities to read and write.

“Come help me with the groceries,” Grandma told the twins. She opened her trunk, and the twins began unloading bags and bags filled with food into the house. It was enough food to last them for weeks.

Mrs. Bailey was sitting at the kitchen table going through another stack of mail with bright red warning labels on them. She quickly pushed them to the side when the twins and their grandmother paraded into the kitchen with the groceries.

“What’s all this?” Mrs. Bailey asked.

“Hello, dear!” Grandma said to her. “I’m planning on cooking the twins a huge birthday dinner and wasn’t sure what you had in the house, so I went to the store and picked up a couple things.”

Their grandmother always had a talent for sugarcoating the truth.

“You didn’t have to go to all this trouble,” Mrs. Bailey said, shaking her head, unprepared for the kind gesture.

“It wasn’t any trouble at all,” Grandma said with a small but reassuring smile. “Alex, Conner, how about you go get your birthday presents from the front seat of my car, and I’ll catch up with your mom for a second? But don’t open them until tonight!”

They happily did as she asked. Presents was a word that had been absent from their vocabulary for a long time.

“See, I told you!” Alex said to Conner on their way to their grandmother’s car. “Optimism always pays off!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” Conner said.

Half a dozen wrapped presents with bright bows, each marked to one of them, were waiting in the front seat of the car.

The twins returned inside with their gifts. Their grandmother and mother were still having a conversation that they most likely weren’t supposed to hear.

“Things are still tough,” Mrs. Bailey said. “Even after selling the bookstore, the house foreclosed, and we still have some debt and things unpaid from the funeral. But we’re making it somehow. In a few more months we’ll be back on our feet.”

Grandma took Mrs. Bailey’s hands into her own.

“If you need anything, dear, and I mean anything, you know where to find me,” she said.

“You’ve already helped so much,” Mrs. Bailey told her. “I don’t know where we’d be now if it weren’t for you. I could never ask you for anything else.”

“You’re not asking, I’m offering,” Grandma assured.

The twins knew if they eavesdropped any longer, they’d be caught, so they walked back into the kitchen with their presents.

“Well, I have to go back to work,” Mrs. Bailey said, and kissed both of the twins on the tops of their heads. “Have a great night, you guys! I’ll see you tomorrow. Save some celebration for me!” She gathered her things and mouthed a meaningful thank you to their grandmother on her way out.

Grandma put her things away in the guest bedroom and returned to the kitchen, where she found the stack of bills Mrs. Bailey had put aside. She plopped the mail into her own purse with a smile. And that was that. Grandma loved helping people, especially if it was against their will.

“Let’s get started on dinner, shall we?” Grandma said, clapping her hands.

Alex and Conner sat at the table and visited with their grandmother while she cooked up a storm. She told them all about her recent trips, the difficulties she and her friends experienced getting into and out of places, and all the interesting people she had met along the way.

“I’ve never met a person I didn’t learn something from!” Grandma said. “Even the most monotonous people will surprise you. Remember that.”

She was cooking so many different things, it was impossible to tell which ingredient was going where. Everything she did was so fast, and she used almost every pan and dish they had. With every second that passed, the twins’ stomachs growled louder and louder, and their mouths salivated more and more.

Finally, after a few hours of aroma-teasing torture, they ate. Alex and Conner had become so accustomed to frozen dinners and takeout, they had forgotten how good food could taste.

There were plates of mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, oven-roasted chicken with carrots and peas, and freshly baked rolls. Their kitchen table looked like the cover of a cookbook.

Just when they thought they couldn’t possibly eat any more, their grandmother pulled a huge birthday cake out of the oven. The twins were amazed; they hadn’t even realized she had been baking one. She sang “Happy Birthday,” and the twins blew out the candles.

“Now, open your presents!” Grandma said. “I’ve been collecting for you all year!”

They opened their boxes and were flooded with knickknacks from all the countries their grandmother had been to.

Alex was given copies of her favorite books in other languages: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in French, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in German, and Little Women in Dutch. Conner got a pile of candies and tacky T-shirts that said things like “My crazy Grandma traveled to India and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

They both received several figurines of famous structures, like the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Taj Mahal.

“It’s crazy to think that places like this actually exist in the world,” Alex said, holding an Eiffel Tower in her hand.

“You would be amazed to know what’s out there just waiting to be discovered,” their grandma said with a smile and a twinkle in her eye.

A day with very low expectations had turned into one of the best birthdays they’d ever had.

As the night grew later, the visit with their grandmother began to come to a bittersweet end. Since their dad had died, they never saw their grandmother for more than a day at a time, and there were always a few months between each visit. She was always so busy with her travels.

“When do you leave?” Alex asked her grandmother.

“Tomorrow,” she said. “As soon as I take you to school.”

The twins’ postures sank a bit.

“What’s the matter?” asked their grandmother, sensing their spirits sink.

“We just wish you could stay longer, Grandma. That’s all,” Conner said.

“We really miss you when you’re gone,” Alex added. “Things are so gloomy here without Dad, but you make everything seem like it’s going to be okay.”

Their grandmother’s constant smile faded slightly, and her gaze drifted off toward the window. She stared blankly into the night sky and took a deep breath.

“Oh, kiddos, if I could spend every day with you, I would,” Grandma said longingly, perhaps more disheartened than she intended to show. “But sometimes life hands us certain responsibilities—not because we want them, but because we were meant to have them—and it’s our duty to see to them. All I can ever think about is how much I miss you two and your dad when I’m away.”



Continues...

Excerpted from The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer Copyright © 2012 by Chris Colfer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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