Abigail D. Brown was a creative, inquisitive, and precocious girl of eight. That is to say, she was like most girls her age, if taller than some, and during the summer she spent most of her time exploring the woods behind her house. Her mother called it a ‘green space’ but to Abbie it was her place, and if you called a forest by any other name it lost some of its inherent magic.
It was a hot day in early summer, but it had started off with a rainstorm and the air was warm and humid, especially for Oregon. Abbie was sitting on a mossy stump, watching bees as they swarmed the petite white blooms of a blackberry bramble, and anticipating 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) were stained purple was probably her favorite thing about summer.
She was alone. Abbie was often alone (if you don’t count her parents), but she didn’t mind. She had friends among the other kids in the neighborhood, but she tended toward 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 video games, and watching other people play video games on the internet. Abbie’s parents didn’t have the internet in their house, or a television, and she was homeschooled, which meant she got to learn about things that interested her. Her mother, Fiona Brown, worked, and Dan Brown, her father, taught her at home, but when the weather was fine he would bring them both outside to enjoy the fresh air. Of course, they lived in Oregon, so it was often dreary or cloudy, but bundling up in raincoats and splashing about in mud and puddles was almost as fun as running barefoot in the woods during the summer.
Abbie looked down at her dirty toes, and wiggled them. 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 moment of toe wiggling, she slipped her flip-flops back on and stood up. The bees buzzed around her, but she wasn’t scared, walking slowly past the tangle of thorny vines into a mass of tall clover that grew under the enormous fir trees. “Come on Sammy,” she called, and Sammy, her little Jack Russell terrier, bounded out of the bushes and nearly took her out at the knees. Abbie knelt down and ruffled his ears. “Who’s a good booooy,” she crooned, and Sammy wagged his tail and licked her face, to her delight. “You’re all dirty!” she cried, fending off his licks. “C’mon, I’m hungry.” 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 lunch time. Abbie picked up the pace, running down her trail, with Sammy at her heels, toward her hidden lunchbox. It was stashed in the cool, dark shadow of a fallen log, and she brushed dirt off of it as she pulled it out. Sammy sat patiently, waiting for her to decide if she was going to eat here or maybe somewhere else.
She’d sat on the log and decided here was as good as any place, plus shade, plus she was hungry now, when the world spun around her. Abbie dropped her lunchbox, putting her hands out to steady herself, and gasped at her sudden unsteadiness. Sammy lunged at the spilled lunch, but the world resumed normal operations, and she managed to put her foot out to stop him from moving on from the scattered dog biscuits and gobbling up her sandwich. “No! Bad dog!” Sammy backed up, looking as contrite as a dog could who was also chewing up 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 and securing it and her water bottle back into her lunchbox. “What was that, Sammy? Did you feel it?”
Sammy didn’t respond, except to nuzzle her hands looking for more biscuits. Abbie pushed him away, standing up and brushing leaves off of her knees. “It feels… weird.” She looked in the direction of home, somewhere beyond the trees in front of her, and then to the right, where the weird spinny feeling seemed to be. She didn’t know how she knew where it was, she just did.
“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. This place didn’t look familiar, but it felt right, like she’d been here before. Running off into new places could mean scraping through a load of thorns if you weren’t careful, so Abbie was careful, but she was also curious, and curiosity was at the heart of every 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, and he whined, but followed her into the clearing.
A beautiful pond lay in front of them, lined with lush ferns, with a drooping willow tree on its bank. Wildflowers in all the colors Abbie could imagine were sprinkled through 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 while her dog chased a butterfly. She emerged from the knee deep wildflowers at the edge of the water, and peered down at the smooth stones she could clearly see. “Maybe there’s fish!” she called out to Sammy, but he ignored her, jumping out of the flowers after the fluttering insect but managing to miss every time.
Abbie kept her flip-flops on and waded into the cool water, lunch still clutched in her hand. She didn’t see any fish, just rounded pebbles. It looked like it got deeper further in, so she was careful not to go too far, just up to her shins in the pond. “C’mon Sammy!” she called, turning around to look for him, and caught sight of something reflecting in the water by the edge. A boy!
She looked up, startled, trying to find him, but he must have pulled back into the ferns, because she couldn’t see him anymore. Abbie 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! “This isn’t funny!” she yelled, sloshing over toward him. “Stop hiding!”
The boy’s face looked surprised as she accidentally splashed water over his reflection, but he didn’t move much, except to perhaps look closer at the surface of the pool.
Abbie stopped walking, looked at the empty spot where he should be crouched, and then to the reflection where she could clearly see him. “How do you do that?” she said, amazed. “Are you underwater?” The boy said nothing, just stared. He looked like he was a few years older than her, and he was wearing green clothes.
Sammy leapt into the pond behind her, splashing and barking happily, and she grabbed his collar with her hand, holding her lunchbox under her arm. “Shusssh,” she murmured, reaching down toward the face. Her hand went into the water, and the boy drew back, alarmed, but she still couldn’t see where he was. “Don’t go!” Abbie called, “Please!” and 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, and she waved her hand around even though Sammy was pressing against her leg, and he was going to knock her over head first into the water, and wouldn’t Mom be mad that she was all wet, but this was probably the weirdest thing that had ever happened to her in her entire life.
A hand grabbed hers, under the water, and Abbie shrieked as it yanked her down into the pond. Sammy barked, trying to pull her back, and the world spun around her again, like she was caught in a whirlpool with tingles up and down her spine. She couldn’t breathe, and the water pressed in around her tightly, and then her head broke the water and she gasped for air, her lunchbox floating away from her as she flailed her arms and tried to get her feet underneath her. The water was much, much deeper than she’d thought it was, and it took a moment for her to realize she needed to be swimming rather than trying to stand.
“Where have you come from!?” said a boy’s voice, and she looked wildly through water filled eyes to where he was braced on the bank, trying to reach 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. Sammy was barking and swimming out into the middle of the pond after her lunchbox. She looked up at the sun, shielding her eyes from it’s brightness, and then sat up abruptly. “Why did you pull me in!?”
“Why did I - I pulled you out!” The boy was crouching out of arms reach, his blond hair curly and messy. His face was dirty, Abbie noticed, and his clothes were… well they looked like leaves. She didn’t stare, that wasn’t polite, so she turned her attention to Sammy and stuck her fingers between her lips and whistled for him.
The boy clapped his hands over his ears, his eyes wide as Sammy grabbed the lunchbox handle with his mouth and started swimming for the bank. “How did you do that?”
“It’s just a whistle,” Abbie said, a little self consciously. “Like this.” She put her 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, fending off Sammy as the Jack Russell dropped her lunch in her lap and then shook his wiry coat. “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!” She frowned at 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 pink t-shirt and wrung out as much water as she could. Her denim shorts would just have to stay wet...and somehow 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 squeeze. Foster dropped her hand quickly, backing up even further as Sammy sniffed his way toward him, tail wagging slowly. “I think he likes you,” Abbie giggled, and then she quieted as she looked properly around. “Where did all the trees go?”
The weeping willow tree was still in place, and the wildflowers, but the meadow was much larger than she remembered. The towering evergreens of her forest were gone, and instead maple trees were growing, but much further away. “The trees are where they have always been,” said Foster, unhelpfully, tentatively giving Sammy a scratch behind the ears.
“No they aren’t!” Abbie stood up, turning in a circle. “They’re all wrong. Those aren’t my trees.”
“No, they aren’t anyone’s trees,” said Foster, standing up as well. “They own themselves.”
She stared at him incredulously. “Trees can’t own anything. They’re trees.”
He frowned, “Exactly.”
Abbie matched his expression. “What!? Trees don’t own things. Trust me. Sammy!” Her dog stopped sniffing around Foster’s feet and returned to her side happily. “I’m going home.” She looked around, feeling a little scared for the first time. “Once I figure out where it is.”
Foster darted forward, standing in front of her as she started to walk away toward the maple trees. “Wait! You were 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 sense!” Sammy sat down and barked at him, and the boy backed away, his eyes wide.
“I was playing,” he said, “Practicing.” Foster scratched at his head, pushing his wild 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, and she backed up, nearly falling back into the pond. “Watch out! Are all people from the world like you?”
Abbie stopped herself, and put her hands firmly on her hips. “No one is like me. And who are you, and how did I get 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. 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. I pulled…” 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.”
“Through what?” asked Abbie, looking behind her at the pond. A fish broke the surface, it’s mouth gaping for a moment before it slipped under again.
“Through the gate. Into the Otherworld.” Foster took a step back, arms spread in apology. “Uh, sorry?”