Abigail D. Brown was like most other eight-year-old girls: creative, inquisitive, and precocious, though perhaps taller than some. She spent most of her summers exploring the woods behind her house. Her mother called it a green space, but to Abbie it was the forest, and if you called a forest by any other name, it lost some of its inherent magic.
The early summer day began with a rainstorm that blanketed the town in a thick humidity unusual for Oregon. By midday, the humidity had burned off, giving way to the sort of dry heat that singes bare feet on stone pathways baking in the sun. Abbie sat on a mossy stump, watching gold-fuzzed bees swarm the petite white blooms of a blackberry bramble, and she anticipated the bountiful harvest she’d enjoy in the coming months. Picking berries and eating them until her fingers and lips (and clothes, to her mother’s private horror) stained purple was one of her favorite things about summer.
Abbie was often alone (if you don’t count her parents’ company), but she didn’t mind. She had friends among the other kids in the neighborhood, but she tended toward solitary flights of fancy, playing with her dog, and scribbling stories in a battered notebook in her large, childish handwriting. The other children seemed to prefer playing video games and watching other people play video games on the internet. Abbie’s parents didn’t have the internet or a television in their house. Her father homeschooled her, which meant she could focus on subjects that interested her. Dan, her father, brought her outside to enjoy their lessons in the fresh air when the weather was fine. Of course, the Oregon weather was often dreary or cloudy, but bundling up in raincoats and splashing about in mud puddles was almost as fun as running barefoot in the woods during the summer.
Abbie looked down at her dirty toes and wiggled them. If they were here, Mom would make her put her sandals back on (in case she stepped on something sharp), but Dad would wink and tell her to enjoy herself. After a few moments of toe wiggling, she slipped her flip-flops back on and stood up. The bees buzzed around her as she meandered past the tangle of thorny vines into a mass of tall clover growing under enormous fir trees. “C'mon Sammy,” she called.
Sammy, her little Jack Russell terrier, bounded out of the bushes and nearly took her out at the knees. Abbie knelt and ruffled his ears.
“Who’s a good booooy,” she crooned, and Sammy wagged his tail and licked her face, much to her delight. “You’re all dirty!” she cried, fending off his licks. “C’mon, I’m hungry. Let’s get something to eat.” Sammy barked, turning a quick circle in his excitement.
She pressed her hand to her stomach as it rumbled and looked up through the trees at the blue sky. The sun was well overhead, which meant it was close to noon. Abbie picked up the pace, running down her trail toward her hidden lunchbox, with Sammy at her heels. She’d stashed it in the cool, dark shadow of a fallen log, and she brushed off the dirt as she pulled it out. Sammy sat patiently, waiting for her to decide where they would be eating.
She sat on the log, opening her lunch as she decided that it was as good a place as any, when the trees seemed to spin around her. Abbie dropped her lunchbox as she put her hands out to balance herself and gasped at her sudden unsteadiness. The ground lurched, tipping to one side as though the world was trying to throw her off the log, and she had the sensation that if she let go of her perch, she would be swept away. Unaffected by this phenomenon, Sammy lunged at the spilled lunch, scarfing down the scattered dog biscuits where they lay among the leaves. A wave of nausea nearly overwhelmed Abbie, and then the forest settled, seeming to straighten itself, no longer trying to pitch her to the ground or spin her like a top. She managed to focus on Sammy as he angled to move on to her sandwich once he had finished the biscuits.
She put her foot out to block him. “No! Bad dog!”
Sammy backed up, looking as contrite as a dog could while chewing a mouthful of ill-gotten treats. Abbie dropped to her knees in the dirt, blowing the forest detritus off her sandwich as best she could before repacking her lunchbox.
“What was that, Sammy? Did you feel it?” As she spoke, Abbie could still feel that something bizarre was happening around her in the forest, though the effect was far less pronounced than it had been a moment before. It felt as if a thousand butterflies were pressing against her in every direction, but from the inside of her body.
Sammy nuzzled her hands, looking for more biscuits. Abbie pushed him away, stood up, and brushed leaves off her knees. “I feel . . . tingly.” She looked in the direction of home, somewhere beyond the trees in front of her, and then to the right, where the strange spinny, fluttery feeling seemed to emanate from. She didn’t know how she knew that, she just did, as if she were a scientist charting the epicenter of an earthquake.
“C’mon, Sammy,” she said, darting off the path toward the strangeness. Strange meant new, new meant exciting, and exciting meant she’d have a good story to tell her dad when she got home. He loved her stories.
Abbie slowed down, making her way carefully through the ferns and forest clover now she was off the well-traveled path. Where she was didn’t look familiar, but it felt right, as if she’d been there before. In Abbie’s experience, running off into new places could mean scraping through a load of thorns, so she was careful, but she was also curious, and curiosity was at the heart of any exploration or new adventure. Sammy barked warningly as she edged past a large purple foxglove, and she shushed him.
“Be brave, Sammy,” she told her dog. He whined, but obediently followed her into the clearing.
A beautiful pond lined with lush ferns and a drooping willow tree on its bank lay in front of them. Wildflowers in all the colors Abbie could imagine were sprinkled throughout the clearing, and the sun shone down through the gap in the trees, reflecting brilliantly off the smooth water.
“Look!” she cried with delight, picking her way through the flowers. Sammy excitedly chased a butterfly, paying no attention to her whatsoever. Abbie emerged from the knee-deep wildflowers at the edge of the pond and peered down at the smooth stones she could see through the clear water.
“Maybe there’s fish!” she called out to Sammy, but he ignored her still, jumping after the fluttering insect but missing every time.
Abbie left her flip-flops at the edge of the pond and waded barefoot into the cool water, her lunch still clutched in her hand. She didn’t see any fish, just rounded pebbles. She was careful not to go deeper than her shins.
“C’mon, Sammy!” she called, turning around to look for him. Instead, she caught sight of something reflecting in the water by the edge of the pond. A boy!
Abbie looked up, startled, her eyes searching for him, but he must have pulled back into the ferns. She took a slow step back toward the bank, looking back at the water where she’d seen the boy’s face—and there he was again! “Hey, come back!” she called, sloshing over toward him. “Stop hiding!”
The boy looked surprised as she accidentally splashed water, disturbing his reflection, but he didn’t move much, except to look closer at the surface of the pool.
Abbie stopped wading, looking at the empty spot on land where he should have been crouched, and then back to the reflection where she could clearly see him.
“How do you do that?” she said, amazed. “Are you underwater?” The boy said nothing. He just stared back. He appeared to be a few years older than her, and he was wearing green clothes.
Sammy leapt into the pond behind Abbie, splashing and barking happily. She grabbed his collar with her hand, maintaining a grip on her lunchbox under her arm.
“Shusssh,” she murmured, reaching down toward the face.
Her hand cut into the water, and the boy drew back, alarmed, but she still couldn’t see where he was on the bank.
“Don’t go!” Abbie called, “Please!” She dipped her hand in up to her elbow, but she couldn’t feel the stones she knew must be there because she was standing on them. Abbie waved her hand underwater even though Sammy was pressing against her leg, and he was about to knock her over headfirst into the water. Mom would be mad that she was all wet, but this was probably the weirdest thing that had ever happened to her in her entire life.
Abbie shrieked as a hand clutched hers and yanked her down into the pond. Sammy barked, trying to pull her back, and slipped out of his collar. She couldn’t breathe, the water pressing in around her tightly as she was pulled deeper and deeper.
She struggled to get free, desperate for air, but the boy’s grip was forceful. The world spun around her, sending tingles up and down her spine. It felt as if she was caught in a whirlpool; she couldn’t tell which way was up anymore. Finally, her head burst through the surface, and she gasped for air, her lunchbox popping up and floating away from her as she flailed her arms, finally knocking away the grasping hand as she tried to get her feet back underneath her. The water was much, much deeper than she’d thought, and it took a moment for her to realize she needed to be swimming rather than trying to stand.
“Where have you come from?” called a boy’s voice. Abbie blinked wildly through water-filled eyes, struggling to concentrate on the boy braced on the bank, reaching out to her again. “Take my hand!”
Desperate, Abbie slapped her hand into his, and he pulled her to the bank, where she collapsed onto the ferns. She was still clutching Sammy’s collar, but the dog was nowhere to be seen. She looked up at the sun, shielding her eyes from its brightness, and then she sat up abruptly. “Why did you pull me in?”
“Why did I—I pulled you out!” The boy crouched out of arm’s reach, his blond hair curly and messy. His face was dirty, Abbie noticed, and his clothes were… well, they looked like leaves. She knew it wasn’t polite to stare, so she turned her attention to finding Sammy. She stuck her fingers between her lips to whistle for him.
The boy clapped his hands over his ears, his eyes wide as Abbie frowned and repeated her whistle.
“How did you do that?” he asked.
“It’s just a whistle,” Abbie said, a little self-consciously. “Like this.” She put two fingers back into her mouth and tried to show him how she was holding her tongue. “Like between your teeth, but kinda behind them.”
He leaned forward, fascinated, but quickly retreated when she unleashed another piercing whistle. “You’re gonna have the wolves on top of us if you keep doing that!” He grabbed her wrist and pulled her hand away from her mouth.
“There aren’t any wolves around here,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Anyway, you asked!”
“I didn’t know you were going to do it again,” he protested.
“Well, I didn’t know you were going to pull me into the water! That’s pretty rude.” Abbie frowned at him. Where was Sammy? He would usually came running when she whistled for him.
“You were in the water already! And your hand came out!” The boy put his hand up in the air, waving it about. “I helped you!”
“No, you pulled me in,” she said, pouting a little. “And now I’m all wet.” Abbie bunched up the front of her yellow T-shirt and wrung out as much water as she could. Her denim shorts would just have to stay wet...and she’d lost her sandals. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Foster,” he said, cautiously watching her try to squeeze the water out of her shoulder-length brown hair. “What’s your name?”
“Abbie. Abigail, really,” she replied. She stuck her hand out to shake, and he peered at it for a moment before taking it and giving it a tentative squeeze. Foster dropped her hand quickly. Abbie grinned at him, but then frowned as she looked properly around.
“Where did all the trees go? Did you see my dog?” For a panicked moment she wondered if Sammy was still in the water, and she turned and waded back into the lake.
The weeping willow tree and the wildflowers were still in place, but the meadow had suddenly become much larger. The towering evergreens of her forest had fallen away, and instead maple trees grew in the distance.
“The trees are where they have been,” said Foster, unhelpfully, watching her splash her hands in the water. “Come back! You cannot return that way!”
“No they aren’t!” Abbie straightened, turning in a circle in the pond. “They’re all wrong. Those aren’t my trees.”
“No, they aren’t anyone’s trees,” said Foster, standing up. “They own themselves.”
She stared at him incredulously. “Trees can’t own anything. They’re trees.”
He frowned. “Exactly.”
Abbie matched his expression. “What?” She paused, and then yelled, “Sammy!” Where had he gone?
“I’m going home now.” She looked around, feeling a little scared for the first time. “Once I find my dog.” Abbie sloshed back out of the pond and started toward the tree line opposite the willow tree, roughly the way she’d entered the clearing.
Foster darted forward, standing in front of her as she started to walk away toward the maple trees. “Wait! You were both in the pond. I think I might have—I mean, I didn’t, but it’s the only thing that makes sense.”
She stamped her foot down in frustration. “You aren’t making any sense!”
“I was playing,” he said. “Practicing.”
Foster scratched his head, pushing his wildly curly hair behind his ears. Abbie stared at them, her mouth falling open into a small O.
“Your ears are pointy,” she interrupted, rudely.
“Oh! Oh, yes, they are.” Foster moved closer, peering at her, and she took a step back, stumbling over a hidden rock. “Is everyone like you where you live?”
Abbie caught herself and put her hands firmly on her hips.
“No one is like me. And who are you, and why am I here, and where is here?” Her voice got louder with every word, and Foster put his finger to his lips.
“Sssh!” He looked around wildly. “I was using my magic, of course. I’m a guardian of the forest. Well, I will be, and I was practicing. Just little spells, but I’ve seen the gate spell done before, from far away, and it’s similar enough to—” he looked at Abbie’s wild eyes and hurried on. “But that does not matter. I saw you in the water and then your hand came out.” he began to grimace as he spoke, as if the full gravity of what he’d done was finally sinking in. “I pulled you though. If your dog was with you, he must have been left behind.”
“Left behind where?” asked Abbie, looking behind her at the pond. A fish broke the surface, its mouth gaping for a moment before it slipped back under. “The water?”
“Through the gate. Into the Otherworld.” Foster took a step back, arms spread in apology. “Uh, sorry?”