The scream of a cell phone alarm was the first sound to greet Joanne when she opened her eyes on a lazy summer morning. Joanne propped up her head and saw the blinking red light on the corner of her cell phone on her bedside table. With a groan, Joanne dragged her body to the head of the bed and stretched out a bronze hand to grab it. She raked her dark brown hair with her chewed fingernails and yawned as she opened the message. Whoever contacted her had interrupted her in the middle of a strange dream that she already couldn’t remember. She was pretty sure there was a castle. And a really nasty storm. That was as far as her mind could reach. Joanne was regretting that she pulled that late nighter to watch a medieval movie marathon with Jack.
Joanne saw her friend Lizzie’s name flashing in front of her and pushed the call button. Lizzie answered immediately.
“Hey did you get my text?” asked Lizzie, who snorted as soon as she asked the question. “Duh, of course you did or you wouldn’t have called! Sorry, it was a stupid question. I don’t know why I asked. Anyway, I wanted to know if we were still on for carpooling to Jack’s place. You know, for the party?”
“You mean the party that I helped to plan?” questioned Joanne, who struggled not to laugh. Typical Lizzie. “Yeah, we’re still on. I’ll be there to pick up you and Mia in half an hour.”
“Awesome,” said Lizzie, hanging up before Joanne could say anything else.
Lizzie and Mia were on the front porch of Lizzie’s house when Joanne arrived in her prized Mustang. Joanne tapped her hands on the wheel like a drum while Mia and Lizzie threw their bags into the trunk. Lizzie gnawed on her lower lip as she eyed the faded teal color, dented bumper, and the subtle crack on one of the side mirrors. Joanne rolled her eyes and glared at Lizzie, daring her to make a comment about her inheritance from her late uncle. Lizzie raised her chin and joined Joanne in the shotgun seat, while Mia went into the back, hugged her knees, and dropped her face to rest her forehead on them.
“So girls, have you started the college search?” inquired Joanne a few minutes after they were on the road.
“No,” Mia muttered. “I still have three years until graduation.”
“It’s never too early to start,” Lizzie chirped.
“I don’t think that’s true!” exclaimed Mia as her cheeks flushed.
“Whoa, inside voice,” said Joanne, grinning.
“Sorry,” apologized Mia, blushing more deeply. “It’s just that the whole college search is such a big step and I’m not so sure if I’m ready.”
“I understand,” said Joanne, “but you have to accept what’s coming.”
Mia sighed. “I know. Pretty soon you and Jack will be graduating, and then Lizzie, too. One day, we might not even be able to recognize each other.”
Joanne opened her mouth to try to comfort Mia, but what could she say? After that the car ride remained silent, and Mia buried her nose between her knees.
At last they reached Jack’s house, and the girls hopped out of the car with their pool gear in hand. They stood on the small front porch and rang the doorbell. Joanne admired the dark green vines with small yellow flowers that wrapped around the cylindrical white columns of the porch. Jack’s mother always knew how to give life to things, including, Joanne had no doubt, her son’s birthday party today.
“Finally!” exclaimed Jack when he opened the door. “The party never starts until my three favorite girls arrive. What took you so long?”
“It’s called being fashionably late,” quipped Lizzie before she ruffled Jack’s hair and walked inside.
Jack pretended to be disgruntled at Lizzie’s gesture before he hugged Mia and Joanne. Jack jumped ahead of Lizzie so he could open the sliding door for his friends, and as soon as they stepped out, they were confronted with all the colors of summer. The pool was a sparkling blue, the meat sizzled red on the barbecue, and the shiny bathing suits were across the spectrum of bright hues. While the girls set their items down, Jack started playing around with some of his guy friends. He and his male friends were teasing and pushing each other more roughly than Joanne, Lizzie, and Mia liked, but it was his party.
Mia stared at the pool a few yards away; she hadn’t been altogether comfortable with large bodies of water ever since she nearly drowned when she was seven. The only reason she was at the pool party that day was because it was Jack’s birthday, and she didn’t want to disappoint him. Eli, one of Jack’s more flirtatious friends, approached Mia as she applied sunscreen to her arms. He flexed his well-carved arm muscles in front of her, hoping she would notice him and start a conversation. Unfortunately for him, Mia was never good at catching a hint—especially from a guy.
Finally he cleared his throat and asked, “Are you headed to the pool any time soon?”
“O-oh, uh…” stammered Mia. “Probably not.”
“What’s the point of going to a pool party if you don’t get into the pool?” Eli inquired.
“Come on,” urged Eli, who pulled Mia by the wrist from her seat and towards the pool.
When Lizzie and Joanne noticed a strange boy hauling Mia to the pool, they didn’t hesitate to follow. They slid in front of a confused Eli and a relieved Mia.
“What do you think you’re doing with our friend?” asked Lizzie in a low, quiet voice.
“We’re going into the pool,” replied Eli.
Joanne’s tanned hand shot out toward Mia and wrenched her away from Eli’s grip; unfortunately, Joanne was very close to the edge of the pool, so this only made Mia even more nervous.
“Not today, buddy,” dismissed Joanne. “Mia is not overly fond of bodies of water—she can’t even take a bath without getting woozy.”
“Thanks for telling everyone, Jo,” muttered Mia.
“Oh, what’s the big deal?” asked Eli with a broad smile.
Eli reached for Mia again, but Jack’s hand on his muscle-toned arm stopped him.
“Take a hint, Eli,” said Jack. “She’s not interested.”
Indignant, Eli jerked his arm away from Jack and accidentally elbowed someone who was passing behind him. Before Eli could turn to apologize, the person was already spinning around and then stumbling towards Jack. His forehead collided with Jack’s, causing Jack to unintentionally jump back and to crash into Lizzie, Joanne, and Mia in turn. As a result of the chaos, Jack, Lizzie, Joanne, and Mia to all fell into the pool at once with a large splash.
Immobilized, Mia sank deeper and deeper into the water without even a fighting kick to try to resurface. Bubbles and blue darkness enwrapped her, smothering any sense of where the sunlight was and squeezing her with mounting pressure. She began to feel her heartbeat in every part of her body, especially in her head, until everything was a constant thud, thud, thud. Then a small flash of colors snatched her attention from the corner of her eye, and when Mia turned, she saw a rainbow-colored fish swimming hurriedly past her. Simultaneously, her bare feet scraped against what felt like sand instead of the solid stone bottom of Jack’s pool. Instinctively, she bent her knees and propelled herself up by pushing all her muscle power into the floor.
A few moments later, she burst out of the water, flailing her arms and gasping for oxygen while her nostrils burned. An arm curled around Mia from behind, and she craned her neck to see Jack dragging her to the shore of a crystal clear lake. Joanne and Lizzie were swimming ahead of them, and Mia vaguely wondered if this was all a dream. With their friends cheering them on, Jack and Mia finally reached the edge of the lake and stood with the water lapping at their heels. Now that everyone was accounted for, each person began to scan the world around them, which was filled with little more than a large lake, a high noon sun, and blankets of grass that continued for miles. There was no sign of Jack’s pool party anywhere, and when they looked down, they noticed something even more disturbing: their wet swimwear (or summer dress in Mia’s case) had been replaced with dry, neutral-colored tunics, tights, and boots. With hearts beating fast, everyone looked back and forth between each other and the still lake before them.
“How do?” piped up a thin, high-pitched voice.
Everyone jumped (Mia let out a little scream) and looked frantically around for the source of the voice until that same voice coughed very loudly. They looked down and saw a creature that looked like a round ball of yellow fluff with wiry red antennae and flat red feet. Its solid black eyes blinked and a friendly smile was strung across its face. The mouths of all four teens dropped and froze in that awestruck expression until the creature spoke up again.
“How do?” the small creature repeated.
“Uh, fine, thanks,” stammered Jack, fumbling with his fingers.
“I am Zwinkie,” informed the creature. “Who are you?”
“I’m Jack, and these are my friends Joanne, Lizzie, and Mia,” introduced Jack.
“Excuse me, but can you tell us where we are?” Lizzie asked, biting her fingernails.
“Haven’t you seen Eurovia before?” inquired Zwinkie.
The word “Eurovia” tapped the teens’ memory urgently, but they were too busy gawking at Zwinkie to grasp this.
“No, we’ve never been here before,” said Lizzie. “We’re from California.”
Zwinkie stared. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that place. Unless… are you Earth Dwellers?”
“Zwinkie!” called a hoarse voice. “There you are, you fiendish rascal.”
“Hi, Magus!” responded Zwinkie.
The hoarse voice belonged to a man of small stature with short gray hair and beard and wrinkled brown skin. His long navy blue cloak, embroidered with silver constellations, dragged behind him, and his fingers curved around a gnarled wooden staff. It clicked instantly in everyone’s head that this man was a wizard. He was laughing at Zwinkie until he saw Jack, Joanne, Lizzie, and Mia awkwardly waving at him. He halted and stared with unwavering gray eyes until the objects of his gaze began to fidget even more than they already were.
“Who are you?” asked Magus.
The teens were silent with shock, so Zwinkie tried answering for them.
“They’re strangers from… what did you call it? Calpurnia?” Zwinkie chuckled. “They came out of the water just now, but they’re not wet.”
“We, uh, came from another world,” explained Jack. “At least, this place certainly doesn’t seem like Earth.”
Magus’ eyes widened. “You four are part of the Ivrin?”
“I’m sorry, what are you talking about?” questioned Joanne.
Magus smiled. “Only the Ivrin—that’s ‘Realm Crossers’ in the ancient language—can pass between worlds, usually at will.”
“I can assure you that this was not at will,” said Joanne.
Magus scratched his ear. “That’s a problem. You should have honed your skills when you first discovered them as children.”
“Can you tell us how to get back?” asked Joanne, reaching out to clutch the wizard’s wrist.
“They say their passage is through water,” answered Magus.
“That’s how we got here!” exclaimed Lizzie.
“Well hey, what if we just jump back into the lake?” suggested Jack.
Jack ran into the lake until the water splashed around his thighs, and then he dunked his whole body. The girls reached for each other’s hands as they watched the small ripples in the water that Jack left behind. They didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed when Jack’s blond head resurfaced and he began paddling back to the shore. He was still dressed in his tunic, remaining wet unlike the first time he came out of the water.
“Maybe you weren’t down there long enough,” murmured Mia when he stood in front of them again.
“No,” said Jack, shaking his head like a wet dog. “I stayed down there until my breath almost gave out, and you know that’s a long time for a lifeguard.”
“Something is blocking your passage,” said Magus.
“So that means…” Joanne trailed off.
“We’re stuck here,” Jack finished.
“Well good, it gives us a chance to explore!” exclaimed Lizzie.
Joanne stared at Lizzie. “Do you understand the reality of the situation?”
Lizzie rolled her eyes and fluffed her long raven hair. “I don’t think you’re understanding the reality of the situation. We are in another world. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s awesome.”
“Me too,” mumbled Mia.
“Would you like to join Magus and I at my house?” offered Zwinkie. “We must be going before one of the Dark Lord’s spies passes us. I’m sure he’d love to get his hands on the Ivrin if he could.”
“We’d be delighted,” said Lizzie. “Although, who’s the Dark Lord?”
“We’ll get to that later,” answered Magus.
Jack stayed behind with Joanne while the others began walking ahead. He looked at Joanne and tilted his head towards them with raised eyebrows. Joanne glanced at the lake, accepted Jack’s proffered hand, and slowly started to follow their lead.
Colorful birds tweeted overhead, bees nestled in the spring flowers, and winds brushed against the tall grass. For being another world, this place did not appear all that different from Earth—save for the talking yellow cotton ball in front of them. The teens walked close to each other until they reached a large green hill with a circular wooden door. One of Zwinkie’s red antennae coiled around the silver doorknob, twisted it, and pulled open the door. Magus and the others had to get down on their hands and knees to crawl through the opening, but thankfully once they were inside, the ceiling was high enough for them to stand. Jack’s head did brush dangerously close to it sometimes.
“I’ll make us lunch!” Zwinkie announced as he bounced his way into the kitchen and began dragging out his cooking utensils.
“What exactly is he?” Lizzie whispered to Magus.
“He’s a piffle,” answered Magus. “From the Wiggle clan. It’s a very old and proud lineage.”
Zwinkie prepared a salad of greens (piffles are vegetarians) and served it in a giant ceramic bowl on the circular table around which the six of them sat. Zwinkie said grace (except he prayed to Adonai, whom the teens had never heard of), shoved his face into his plate of lettuce, and began munching away like a rabbit. After a few minutes of quiet crunching, Zwinkie lifted his face and smiled at his guests with bits of lettuce sticking out of his teeth. The teenagers’ chests constricted and their bodies shook as they tried to suppress their laughter.
“Well, I may as well tell you how the Dark Lord came to rule over us,” said Zwinkie.
“Yes, please,” replied Mia as she held up a steaming cup of milky tea to her lips.
“We could use some information right now,” commented Joanne.
“The Dark Lord used to be the late King Elchanan’s closest friend, Sir Demetrius,” said Zwinkie. “When the king died in the last of the Magic Wars, Sir Demetrius took over because the prince was too young to rule. Grief didn’t seem to do well for him, though. He associated himself with the worst kind of folk until he started dabbling in black magic—hence the name ‘Dark Lord.’ His wife sent the prince away before he could get killed.”
“What happened to her?” asked Mia.
“That’s the strangest part, no one knows,” answered Magus. “But we know where the prince is. For years we heard about a boy roaming around the Whispering Timperland. The Dark Lord tried to investigate, but the Dryads there barred the way. They became so smitten with the prince that they wouldn’t let anyone else in either, and by the time they reopened their borders, he was too willing to hide for anyone to find him.”
“Why does the Dark Lord want the prince?” asked Lizzie.
“I imagine he wants to get rid of the last threat to his power.”