This year I cheated a bit, and worked on adapting a story I had tried doing in screenplay form for ScriptFrenzy, the annual screenwriting equivalent of NaNoWriMo. Didn’t help – I still rewrote it to death without actually completing it. This is another I’m definitely coming back to, because some of the stuff I didn’t get to write still makes me giggle.
“The Stolen Fairy Tale”
by C. A. Bridges
All imaginary figures, living or dead, are purely coincidental. So are the real people. So, very probably, are you.
Heather was as prepared as it was possible to be.
In her room full of brightly colored toys and mobiles, gently used furniture and big fluffy comforters, she was huddled on her bed like an arctic explorer getting up the nerve to leave the tent. She was bundled in her warmest clothing and sturdiest boots. Her knit cap was pulled tight over her ears, and her gloves were tied to her coat sleeves. In the dim light from the window only little bits of her were actually visible through the various folds of cloth; she looked like a stuffed turkey designed by L.L. Bean.
By her feet was her school backpack, emptied and carefully repacked with spare clothes, a flashlight, pebbles for leaving trails, her jump rope in case she needed to climb a mountain or tie up a bad guy, and all the beef jerky in the house. Tucked away in various pockets were band aids, ointment, string, a key made of cold iron, and a whistle that she knew for a fact was very loud indeed. Also batteries, her Instamatic camera, and extra film, for later proof. If she could have gotten her dad’s car keys she’d have had flares, but she made do with a box of fireplace matches.
And she had bus fare, because you never knew.
She snuck another sip of coffee from her thermos and grimaced. Horrible, horrible stuff, but she knew from her parents’ jokes that it kept you awake — probably because you were too busy puking to fall asleep — and she didn’t dare pass out, not now. Not tonight.
Heather had a mission. She’d been training for it her entire life (7 years and a bit), and she recognized the signs of its coming.
You see, Markham Glen (where she lived) was a little town that loved its celebrations. Everyone turned out for massive picnics and Homecoming parades and Easter egg hunts and town anniversaries, and every year, right after Thanksgiving, the Christmas decorations began to bloom. Hardly a person in town didn’t have twinkly lights and stand-up Santas on their roof. Manger scenes cohabited comfortably with reindeer on front yards. Christmas music could be heard from every window, and toy drives and hayrides and celebrations were planned for every day of the month. And this year looked to be the biggest and best Christmas ever.
But then the town’s power plant blew a gaskit or a thurbine or something that same night and there wasn’t enough ‘lectricity to spare for the town’s lights or the big Christmas tree in the square. Without the sparkly lights the wreaths on the town’s lightposts looked sad and shriveled, and the streets of Markham Glen were, for the first time ever, scary and dark.
And then the weather stayed unseasonably warm right through December. Record heat, the man on the TV said, and behind him happy sun faces were floating all over Massachusetts where there should have been happy snowflakes. The temperature dropped just low enough so that the wind whipping through your clothes was cold and miserable, but not enough for snowmen or sledding or anything at all fun.
The postmaster got sick and the post office had to be closed and all the mail was sent thirty miles to Coleville to be processed until he got better or a replacement could be found. Someone reluctantly decided that letters to Santa weren’t a priority, so all the hopeful, misspelled envelopes and postcards piled up in heaps and stacks, unread and unanswered.
And worst, of all, because of the plant problems Daddy got laid off two weeks before Christmas. He and Mommy had sat down right on Heather’s bed and explained to her that they weren’t going to be able to afford much in the way of presents this year but they’d have a wonderful holiday anyway, you just wait. Daddy didn’t say much, actually, he just looked sad. Mommy kept stroking Heather’s hair over and over. Heather tried very hard to be a Big Girl and not cry, but it was so hard when there was no point in getting up on Christmas morning anymore.
After they left that night Heather crawled under her covers and made her plans. She knew what she had to do.
Tonight she had to save Christmas.
And maybe Hanukkah, too. She wasn’t sure how that worked, but she’d borrowed a dreidl from a boy at school before Christmas break in case she needed one.
The wind picked up, howling and beating against the window. Heather kept her eyes focused on it, waiting for her moment, because she knew down to the very core of her being, that finally it was up to her.
Every night of her life Heather’s parents had read to her, stories of fantasy lands and hidden gardens and magical places. Every night she fought to stay awake to find out if Good triumphed and Evil was vanquished, and to beg for just one more chapter. Did Frodo make it to the lake of fire? Did Meg save her brother Charles Wallace from IT? Will Gerda rescue Kay from the Snow Queen’s clutches? The answer was always yes.
And she learned the lessons of the stories, which was this: one person can make a difference, no matter how young or how small. In some cases, in fact, a child was the only one who would do. Adults looked down at children all the time, but how many of them had ever fought the forces of evil to a standstill on a distant planet or faraway land?
Heather knew, more certainly than she knew her own address, that in times like this, when evil threatened to take away all that was good in the world, a child would come forward to Save the Day. He or she would face Mortal Peril and some really big challenges, but they would come through at the end and then the world would be saved until the next big threat. Even on television kids were all the time saving some holiday or other from some big meanie with bad fashion sense and maybe an army, and the plucky kid always, always, always won. Heather knew that she could be that kid, and she wouldn’t make the same mistakes those kids always did, either, getting fooled by the bad guy or giving up too soon. So, more than a year ago, she’d started planning. She hadn’t know exactly which disaster would become her responsibility, but she wanted to be prepared.
First she started exercising. She didn’t expect to become all muscley, but she knew that very few fantasy lands had mass transit so she took up hiking in the woods whenever she could. Her parents loved her new interest in camping and took her out several times during the warm months and they didn’t even wonder why she kept asking about medicinal herbs or how to defend a cave against monsters.
She also prepared her pack, which was tougher than she thought because she didn’t know what to prepare for. Would she be in a land where darkness ruled and an evil fiery eye looked out over its evil creations? Definitely need a flashlight, then. Would she walk through her closet and come out the far end in a world of snow and ice? A heavy jacket would be good, and some Chapstick. She packed and repacked every few months, to fit the seasons.
Everything you need to know about Heather could be explained by looking into her pack where one could see that, while preparing to enter into a world that might contain fairies, dwarves, monsters or knights, she had thought to pack a roll of toilet paper.
In school she studied hard and got excellent grades in everything except geography, largely because she kept insisting on including Oz and Xanth. She didn’t have any close friends but she talked to everybody, mostly to make sure none of them had been replaced with a robotic double or fairy changeling, and she became well-regarded almost despite herself.
She also talked to animals. All of them. There was no telling which one might suddenly realize it was late and disappear down a hole where she could follow, so she took pains to stay on speaking terms with every horse, dog, cat, donkey, and bird in the area. None of them showed an inclination to talk back, but you had to lay your groundwork.
But her real friends were her stuffed animals. There was a bear named Wolford, a smaller bear named Wolford Jr., a sort of froggish thing she called Spratt, and an ancient rabbit passed down from her grandmama named Pardy. She spent more time with them than with anything else, playing with them and loving them and cuddling them at night and whispering to each one her dreams and hopes, all on a strict rotation so as not to slight anybody. Every one was handmade and unique; her parents knew not to buy her any mass-produced toys. No one ever visited the Hundred Acre Wood with a bear from K-Mart.
She gathered them around herself now, all ready for them to magically come to life and guide her through the perils to come. Sure, sometimes they’d probably give her bad advice, but your veteran child fantasy adventurer allowed for such setbacks and besides, she knew she’d need someone to help carry blankets and things.
There was one problem: How to get into the magical worlds in the first place. By this point Heather had pretty well exhausted all the immediate possibilities. Every closet and wardrobe wall had been thumped. Every bush in the garden had been peered under. Every candy bar she ate was always carefully checked for golden tickets. None of her bedknobs moved her bed through time, even when she used a pipe wrench and bent the frame by accident and her dad had to put it back on with electrical tape. And her parents, in a surprising setback, flatly refused to hire a musical British nanny.
So she waited. If she couldn’t go to magical lands, they’d have to come to her. And if Christmas didn’t want to miss itself it had better get a move on.
She spared a peek away from the window – where an elf or reindeer or talking snowman was sure to rap and beg her to help, any second now – long enough to check the time. 2 a.m. How close could Santa cut it?
Mumbling about procrastinating Kringles and uncooperative holidays, Heather settled a bit to make herself more comfortable.
She awoke to morning light and snow gently falling past the window. Her animals were scattered around the bed, staring in all directions like, like lifeless toys. From downstairs she heard her father’s booming voice, “Wake up! Wake up! You’ve had a visitor, baby girl!”
Heather pulled off the sweaty jacket and stumbled downstairs to the most horrible sight awaited her.
There were presents under the tree. Lots of them, piled high. The lights were on, blinking bright color into every shadow. The rich smells of bacon and maple cyrup filled the air, and standing in the middle of the living room her dad was beaming from ear to ear.
“The plant’s fixed! I’m working again, darlin’!” He swept her up in a spinning hug and laughed and laughed and laughed so much that even had he noticed her tears he would have assumed they were tears of joy, just like his.
Christmas was, indeed, picture-perfect and wonderful. To make up for the weeks of dimness and gloom the town turned on ever light it possessed, firing the place up like a star. Carolers caroled in the park. The mayor dressed up in a Santa suit and rode the fire truck up and down every street, handing out gifts and candy. The town’s richest man, known far and wide for his greed and ill temper, burst from his house on Christmas morning and went straight to the orphanage to spoon out soup all day before donating half his fortune to the delighted nuns in charge. Children laughed and played in the snow all day long before curling up around fireplaces and roasting chestnuts.
During it all Heather sat in her room, listlessly thumbing through her favorite books, and thinking madly. How could it have gone wrong? She’s been so ready! If she hadn’t rescued the holiday and earned the town’s love and oddly synchronized dancing – and she was certain she would have remembered – what happened? The notion of a random universe was new to Heather, and not a cosmological leap she was prepared to take.
On the first day of school after the break she arrived early and turned her chair so she could watch every child as they entered. It didn’t take long.
Peggy Harkney walked in proud and tall, shining with confidence, which was odd because two weeks ago she had been the shyest, meekest, most picked on person in school. Now she was bold, and the other kids responded to her the same way. Lisa Brady, the most popular girl in class, greeted Peggy warmly as if Lisa had never tried to kill her with a dodgeball a month earlier. “Hi Pegs! It was a great Christmas, huh?”
And Heather heard Peggy say, almost accidentally, “Thanks.”
Heather spun back in her seat, furious. Someone had saved Christmas, all right, but it hadn’t been her. It was like being passed over when they were picking teams for sports, only a million times worse. Everything Heather knew with rock hard certainty was crashing down inside her head, distracting her so much she barely noticed when Peggy touched her arm and asked if she was all right.
And the thing that made it a thousand times worse was that she really had the sense that Peggy could help if Heather let her. Possibly with the help of her animal friends.
Heather never again let her parents read fiction to her. She started reading gossip magazines and watching hours of television every night. She never talked to animals or cars or toasters again. And all of her stuffed animals were carefully packed into a cardboard box and put away.
She didn’t even poke any air holes.
CHAPTER ONE – Once Upon a Time
Dark clouds swept over a densely wooded glen. In the midst of towering trees and rolling fields of clover, there was a single clearing where the world had stopped.
In the center of the field were seven small men in colorful, vaguely medieval outfits and floppy cloth hats standing around a glass case made of the finest crystal, and in the case lay a beautiful sleeping woman. The men were weeping, wiping their faces with large handkerchiefs (except for the one who was blowing his nose with his floppy cloth hat). Several were openly sobbing, and hugs were exchanged.
By the edge of the clearing, animals gathered to watch with subdued, mournful stares. A hawk swooped low to alight on a branch above a fox. Rabbits crept closer to see. A deer gently nudged some field mice closer with its nose. Two bluebirds fluttered around helplessly. They remained very still, and their sorrow was a thing to see.
The very air seemed to howl with regret and anguish.
Without warning the clouds broke and a single shaft of golden sunlight bathed the case, making it sparkle. On cue, the little men gasped and looked around to see a very non-little man emerge from the trees, riding up on a massive horse. He was tall and powerfully built and his face was so handsome that one of the bluebirds sighed, causing a brief airborne scuffle.
He dismounted with athletic grace as the men hurried forward to lift the case off the woman in time for the prince – and you knew just by looking that he was a prince, no one who looked like that was ever not a prince – to confidently stride past them. The prince leaned over the woman, soft and delicate, and prepared to kiss her lips in a gloriously romantic scene that was only slightly marred when her hand whipped up and pepper-sprayed him in the face.
The prince fell to the ground, screaming and clawing at his eyes, and the woman sat up.
“Knock it off, Romeo, that’s date rape,” she said. The little men cheered until the woman stared them down; they quieted and backed away, except for one dwarf who continued to cheer until the others nervously shushed him. She turned away and began addressing the camera.
“‘Oh, girls are helpless creatures, easily fooled and in need of a hero to save them from the evil in the world’,” she said in a singsong voice. “Is that really what you want your children to learn?” She looked over her shoulder to see a few of the men going to help the prince, who was crouched over behind the case, retching. “Oh, suck it up, it’ll rinse out.”
She turned back. “Fairy tales served their purpose back in the good old days of poverty, rigid class distinctions, and rampant disease. They entertained. They amused. They lied to us to make us feel better about our miserable lives.” Behind her the prince was frantically wiping his streaming eyes with one of the little men’s floppy hats, which was unfortunate since the little man was still wearing it. There were screams.
“Living in filth?” she asked, ignoring them. “Don’t worry, someday your fairy godmother will save you. Bullied by evil relatives or evil landlords or evil kings? No problem! Magical creatures will appear to help you get what you’ll never earn by yourself. And they don’t even charge for it!”
She stormed through the agitated dwarves, past the flailing prince – knocking him over in the process — to where the animals were waiting by the edge of the woods. They looked up at her, entirely tame and cute and with eyes several times what any sober zoologist would expect. “And animals are all intelligent, kind, and helpful, instead of, you know, just animals,” she told them. She snapped her fingers.
The collected wildlife suddenly blinked, shook themselves, and erupted. The deer dashed off, the fox snapped at the bluebirds, and the hawk immediately pounced on one of the mice and began to eat it in high-definition full-color documentary reality.
The scene froze on that close-up, bits of field mouse dangling, glistening, from the hawk’s beak.
“That was the opening from the upcoming Discovery Channel special ‘Mother Goose is Child Abuse,’” said a voice. A middle-aged woman stepped out in front of the grisly scene on what was revealed to be a large television monitor. Impeccably attired, she approached a podium and addressed the small crowd of reporters and supporters in the room with the smug look of someone enjoying the celebrity gained from someone else’s accomplishments. “Based on the highly controversial book of the same name,” she continued, “now in its 4th printing and 22nd consecutive week on the New York Times bestseller list, by one of the co-founders of Mothers Against Lies, Dr. Heather Broudon!”
A small group of people in the front row of folding chairs launched into enthusiastic applause that petered out quickly underneath the almost palpable waves of journalistic cynicism emitted by the three reporters in the room, every one of which was wondering what he or she had done to piss off his or her editor this time. Two of the reporters, experienced in the way of book tour events, were already putting the finishing touches on their articles about the talk that hadn’t been given yet. The third, more experienced yet, had written his article two days ago and was therefore free to apply his considerable skills to good and industrious use at the small buffet.
The rest of the chairs were empty. Outside multitudes of oddly dressed teenagers and even odder adults wandered by, occasionally peeking in and quickly leaving again once a noticeable lack of anything fun was observed. A banner in the hallway stated, rather optimistically, that this was the 7th Annual SciFiFanSpecFicCon.
Unfazed and very likely unaware, the woman on the stage went on. “And now, without further ado,” she said, with ado, “let me introduce our very special guest, my good friend, Dr. Broudon!”
From the shadows besides the monitor a figure stood and walked forward, her face matching the one on the backs of the stacks of books on the table at the entrance to the dining hall. Where the woman was dressed in Upper Class Regal, Heather was piloting what could only be termed a power mom suit; flower print dress, pearl necklace, and carefully coiffed hair. She was only one apron and a tray of cookies away from being a corporate logo. Heather took her place at the podium.
“Not much of a turnout, Helen,” she whispered to the woman.
“Don’t worry, they’ll spread the word for us. Just give them the works!” Helen said. She started to move away but stopped and touched Heather on the sleeve. “Only do it quick, the man said they needed the room in 8 minutes.” And she was gone.
Heather looked out over the room Was 11 people, most of them friends, enough to be called an audience? 3 reporters, 6 fellow members of MAL, and a few teenagers who had wandered in to the dingy convention room and were sitting off to one side, reorganizing their backpacks. And Emily, of course, back in the very back.
That gave her strength. She had spoken to far more people than this, of course, and she had talked to people one by one with the same passion as she would an auditorium, and the reason for it all was sitting in the corner nibbling shrimp puffs. So what if she wouldn’t get in the papers for this event. She just had to reach people, no matter the number.
Heather stepped out from behind the podium and walked up to the front row to stand in front of one of the reporters. “Seems silly to preach at you today. You know my positions, you have my book even if you haven’t read it. Do you have any questions for me?”
The reporter, a young man who was suddenly flustered at a story subject actually addressing him, fumbled in his bag and held a notebook in front of her face. “Dr. Broudon, why do you… oh, damn,” he said, putting it down and producing a voice recorder that worked on the second try. “Why do you hate fairy tales?”
She sat down next to him. “I don’t hate fairy tales, Mr….?”
“Mr. Rockingham. I think that when experienced by readers or viewers of an appropriate age they can be very useful as moral guides, instruction in the social contract, retention of community mythology, and plain old entertainment. I think I’ve read them all, myself.”
“And yet you want them out of school libraries.”
“Only below high school. By the time children are old enough to fully distinguish reality from fantasy, fairy tales are safe.” She raised her head to glance at the teenagers in the back. One was dressed as an elven warrior complete with pointy rubber ears and enchanted cardboard sword, the other was garbed as a Japanese schoolgirl with a white dress shirt and tiny black skirt, both about half the size they needed to be, and two puffy ponytails twice as large as her head. “Assuming that ever happens,” Heather added.
“But why are they bad for children?”
“It’s simple enough. Fairy tales, fantasy movies, stories whispered over a campfire, all of them instill an entirely false sense of ‘how things ought to be’ in children that is entirely at odds with how the world really is.”
One of the other reporters leaned over. “And how is the world?”
“Utterly uncaring,” Heather said. “There is no grand scheme or ultimate justice that will take you from poverty and want to glory and riches just because it ought to happen, and we do our children a grave disservice every time we tell them about magic beans or dancing animals or helpful fairies instead of teaching them to rely only on what they can see and what they can do.”
“Fairies such as those in Peter St. Lucy’s “Marvela” series?” the second reporter said. The teenagers sat up, suddenly focused, like lazy tigers scenting prey.
Heather smiled. “An excellent example. This is a hugely popular, best-selling series that’s read by millions of children around the world, about to become a movie, and the ultimate message of it is that you should ignore the warnings of your parents and teaches, run off with little magical friends no one else can see, and save the world all because you’re ‘special.’ What lessons do we teach our children with these books? That Good will always overcome Evil just because it’s nicer?”
“Hey, are you dissing Marvela?” said the newly Japanese girl.
Heather stood up and addressed them. “For grownups? Not at all. But for children, impressionable children, books like that warp their concept of reality and make them think that their judgment will always be better than that of their parents or teachers.”
Helen appeared and tugged on her sleeve. “Um, Heather?”
“Peter St. Lucy, by aggressively marketing his books to young children, is actively damaging the next generation of humanity!”
“Peter St. Lucy is. . . what is it, Helen?”
Helen was looking past her. “Peter St. Lucy is over there.”
In the doorway was a god, judging from the reactions of the people around him. St. Lucy looked, rather annoyingly, exactly like his book jacket photo: young, virile, handsome, with the flowing hair and piercing eyes of an artist and the stylish wardrobe of a successful one. He was flanked by two large men in VOLUNTEER T-shirts and was closely followed by what looked like the population of Minnesota, packed tightly in the hallway behind him.
“Excuse me, I’m supposed to do a book signing here?” he said, with a self-deprecating smile that made Heather’s hands itch for her pepper spray. The volunteers ushered him down the aisle past her as the crowd flowed into the room, filling every nook and cranny with bizarrely costumed and terribly eager excitement. Faster than she could follow, more volunteers swiftly appeared around the table of Heather’s books. There was a flurry of activity, and they stepped aside to reveal a much larger stack of “Marvela” books and a large poster of Peter St. Lucy’s smiling face. By the time she whipped around the podium was already gone, replaced with a long table piled high with “Marvela” books, toys, dolls, CDs, box sets, limited-edition replica “Marvela” pipe wrenches, and a wide variety of Peter St. Lucy head shot photos. St. Lucy himself was seated behind the table between the two volunteers with a bottle of ruinously expensive water and a wide assortment of Sharpies. He was twisting in his seat to see the large monitor, still displaying mouse guts.
“That reminds me, I don’t want room service again,” he said, to the uproarious laughter of the crowd.
Most of the crowd, anyway. A small pocket of MAL members were huddled together, trying to avoid contact with anything fantastical. And Emily… where was Emily? Heather swallowed her fear – Emily could well take care of herself, and her own ice-cold gut was simply a relic of evolutionary maternal overprotection and could thus be ignored — and stared at St. Lucy. “I don’t believe we were quite finished,” she said.
St. Lucy looked up from the papers he was shuffling. “Oh, I am sorry,” he said. “I know we’re a bit early but the fans were getting antsy and kept coming after me, knocking over displays and hotel equipment and such, so we ducked in here. I think the elevator’s broken now. They got everybody out, didn’t they?” he asked a volunteer.
“You can’t be held liable, Mr. St. Lucy,” the volunteer said.
“Right, then. Anyway, if you’d like to finish your little talk, please take all the time you need.” He held up his sheaf of paper. “After all, I’m sure the folks here can wait a little bit longer to hear the first chapter of the next ‘Marvela’ book.”
Heather suddenly found herself the focus of an enraged populace. Many of them brandished weapons. She drew herself up. “Mr. St. Lucy—”
Rockingham, sensing a better story, sidestepped in front of her. “Mr. St. Lucy, Dr. Broudon’s claim is that fairy tales set an unreasonable expectation for children. How would you respond?”
“Well, first I’d probably stare at her in shock with my mouth open for awhile,” St. Lucy said, and demonstrated. The room collapsed in laughter again. This was even better than a chapter.
“And then I’d suggest that stories in my world, or Oz, or the Hundred Acre Wood, or Neverland, or Hogwarts, to use more worthy examples… no, far more worthy,” he said, to head off the shouted objections from the more spirited members of the audience, which was all of them. “These all inspire children to try and make the world match those ‘unreasonable’ expectations. Things like justice and honor exist only because we think they should, and this is where we start that belief, by delivering it couched in metaphor and language children can understand.”
Heather crossed her arms over her chest. “And when you treat your children as stupid, you can’t be surprised when they grow up that way.”
“Sit the hell down,” one fan yelled, to cheers.
“So you’re saying that imagination is bad,” St. Lucy asked. The crowd swiveled back to her, like a tennis match during a costume party.
“Not at all. Imagination and creativity and discovery are the greatest tools we’ll ever have. But not make-believe. Not imaginary friends or beneficial boojums. They have words for people who see things that aren’t really there. Long, scary, medical words,” Heather said. “People should learn to see what’s real. Why can’t that be enough?”
St. Lucy smiled ruefully. “The world can be a pretty harsh place sometimes, you know. Some people need their harmless little daydreams.”
“There are no harmless little dreams.”
From the low-level muttering and fanciful death threats involving room service, another fan raised his voice. “Don’t you have kids, you whack job?”
She turned in the voice’s general direction. “Yes, I have a daughter, Emily. She’s here today, in fact. Emily?”
There was some stirring as the audience looked around until three fans dressed as a dragon shuffled aside to reveal a small, red-haired girl. She waved. Heather tried not to show how relieved she was to see her.
“Hi, Emily!” St. Lucy called. “I’m going to go out on a purely conjectural limb here and guess she’s not my biggest fan.”
“Actually, I bought her your latest book,” Heather admitted.
“Ah!” St. Lucy said, surprised and pleased. There was applause around the room. “So there are some fantasy books you deem worthy after all! I’m honored.”
“No, it’s just that all of her peers have read them and I don’t want her socially crippled.” The applause abruptly stopped.
“Fair enough, fair enough,” St. Lucy said. “I’d be happy to sign the book to her, if you like.”
As an experienced public speaker, Heather could perceive the audience – any audience — as essentially a hive mind that could be manipulated with care, and that could turn on you at any moment. Right now this hive mind was torn. Half of them were cheering such a cool and stylish move by their favorite author, the others were bitterly jealous of Emily, and at least one fan still desired her to sit the hell down. “Thank you,” she said. “That’s very kind. Emily?”
The little girl worked her way through the crowd, which parted reluctantly. She walked past Heather and presented her book to a grinning St. Lucy, who started to take it until he looked down. The shriek he emitted then was barely audible past the first few rows, but unfortunately for him one lucky fan captured it on his phone and had the video on YouTube within the hour.
The book, a hardback edition of the last Marvela novel “Storming the Help Desk,” was crammed full of Post-It notes. St. Lucy took it gingerly and opened it to see large red strikeouts and scribbles on nearly every page.
“What the hell…?” he said, his cool cracking just a little bit more.
“I just pointed out a place or two where she might have gotten confused,” Heather said. “Not much, really. You’re very good, at what you do.”
St. Lucy flipped through the book, growing more visibly appalled by the minute. “’This doesn’t happen’? ‘She should have been grounded for this’? ‘Thinly disguised, inaccurate satire of representative government’? What are these, Buzzkill Cliff Notes?” Finally he stopped and read a sample passage, raising his voice to be heard over the muttering. “Hang on, here’s a good one. ’Marvela thinks she’s running away to help her hallucinatory ‘magical’ friends, but she’ll probably be assaulted and left for dead in a rest stop bathroom’. You must be a riot around the campfire.”
“Just a few helpful tips to help her separate fantasy from reality,” Heather said.
“On a first-name basis with reality, are you?” St. Lucy said, to more laughter.
“I know that if Emily ever stumbled across a bear in the woods she wouldn’t expect him to be a harmless and cuddly fellow of Very Small Brain who likes pots of honey. She’s been taught not to romanticize the world, but to see only what her own eyes show her. She would know that this massive and very territorial creature could easily disembowel a grown man with one swipe of a germ-ridden claw,” Heather said.
Emily spoke up for the first time. “It’s true,” she said. “She showed me videos.”
There was a moment of stunned silence, broken only by the reporters’ furious Blackberrying.
“You… I… I don’t know what to say,” St. Lucy said. “I make my living crafting words and I am utterly speechless right now. How can you… wait a minute. You’re the nutter trying to ban my books, aren’t you? Right, full marks for balls, campaigning against fantasy at a science fiction and fantasy convention and all that, but I think it’s time we move on.” He spoke up over the sudden applause and hooting. “Thank you, Mrs. Broudon, it’s been magical! Any last words?”
Unbowed, Heather took Emily’s hand and faced the crowd. “By reading your children stories of magic and wonder, elves and fairies, good knights and damsels in distress, and magical lands that lie just on the other side of reality, you are dooming them to a lifetime of pain and disappointment so they can grow up to be parents just as horrible as you are,” she said.
As one, St. Lucy, the volunteers, the reporters, and the audience all stared at her in shock, mouths open, as Heather, Emily, and the remaining MAL members filed out. Helen paused, torn by years of etiquette, as she faced 500 angry people mostly covered in facial paint. “Thank you for a lovely afternoon,” she said, and fled.
CHAPTER TWO – Paying Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
“Mother?” Emily asked, as Heather bit into a six-dollar hot dog from the convention snack bar. “Will I get my book back?”
Heather painfully swallowed roughly $1.25 of overcooked wiener. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry, I forgot all about it. I’m sure they’re still in there, we’ll go get it back after we finish eating.” She looked at their meal. “Although as a responsible parent I should probably slap that lunch out of your hands. How do people eat this?”
Around them the snack bar boiled over with costumed convention-goers, all waiting reasonably patiently in line for overpriced, below standard meals with the quiet resignation of those who have done this many times before. One fan was dressed as a 6-foot high Stargate, and the PVC supports in his costume kept knocking over the ketchup bottles. A Gandalf was trying to balance six bags of chips and a fruit smoothie, while behind him a chubby Red Sonja fought to hold her backpack, three bags of books, and a large, framed poster and still negotiate the sale of a nacho basket without popping out of her wholly inadequate chain mail top. People in line around her watched the battle with interest.
Those fans without costumes all seemed to be wearing roughly the same thing: a T-shirt, usually black, with either a slogan on it relating to pop culture or technology, or an image from a popular TV show, movie, or comic book. The men wore jeans or big shorts, the women mostly wore jeans. Conformed nonconformity was the outfit of choice.
Emily sipped her water. “Only, I haven’t read it yet, and I think Marshelle at school keeps using lines from it. I’m having problems staying relevant.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get it. If need be we can always buy another. There’s certainly no shortage around here.”
“Will I have to wait for you to go through it again?” Emily asked.
Her mom started to answer, then stopped and rested her chin on her hand. “I don’t see why. You’re old enough now, I think you can spot lies on your own.” Emily felt very proud and grownup, but Heather continued. “Remember; come ask me about anything that doesn’t ring true. What did I tell you? ‘If you can’t see it—‘”
“’—don’t believe it,” Emily finished with her, and then giggled.
A teenage female Klingon paused on the way past their table. “Jinx!” she said delightedly.
Heather and Emily stared at her.
“Now neither of you can talk until someone says your name!” the Klingon said, beaming.
Heather and Emily looked at each other. “I can’t?” Emily asked. She touched her own throat. “I think I can, actually.”
“But you’re not supposed to, that’s the whole point!”
Another female Klingon walked up. “Unless you say ‘buttercup,’ that takes the jinx off,” she said.
“Not if I say ‘jinx no buttercup,’” the first Klingon insisted, brandishing her ceremonial weapon for emphasis.
Heather leaned over to whisper as the alien race argued. “Playground ritual, looks like,” she murmured in Emily’s ear. “A way to enforce temporary dominance and humiliation through someone’s personal inconvenience, based on a totally random and meaningless occurrence.” Emily nodded, and gathered her things to sneak out.
“—but you can also say ‘pinch poke, you owe me a coke,’” said the second Klingon.
“I thought you just linked pinky fingers,” a third, meeker Klingon said, but the first two turned on her with the ease of long practice.
“God, Tricia, you are so lame!” they said in unison.
Emily looked back over her shoulder as she and Heather headed for the hallway. “Jinx!” she called.