On the day of the camping trip, Marshall arrived at the home of his ex, Lauren, and instead of his usually jubilant 6-year-old daughter greeting him, a pensive young investigator sat on a stool in the middle of the living room with a note pad and pen in hand.
“Good day, sir,” Autumn said, trying to withhold a smile. “Have a seat, please.”
She pointed at the couch; her father did as directed.
“How can I help you, miss?” Marshall said, struggling to hide his amusement.
Autumn crossed her legs and remained silent.
Lauren explained. An argument erupted the day before in Autumn’s kindergarten class after a student lost his pencil, and Autumn suggested a fairy might have taken it. A boy in the class responded that there were no fairies, nor Santa Claus nor Easter Bunny, for that matter. A girl, offended, insisted the boy was mistaken; she claimed to have seen a fairy herself.
The class quickly divided in two camps, the Believers and Non-Believers in a world of magic. Meanwhile, Autumn’s faith had been sufficiently shaken, so much so, in fact, that before her father arrived that morning she created a survey that she intended to use to interview the adults she knew to determine if her favorite mythical creatures were real, or not.
Autumn already completed her interview with her mother. Next was her father.
“First question, sir,” Autumn said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Do you believe in fairies?”
“I believe in you, don’t I?” Marshall said.
“Check,” she said, and with her pen she marked the appropriate square box on her note pad. “Second question, do you believe in Santa Claus?”
Marshall glanced nervously at Lauren; Lauren smiled.
“Let me put it this way,” Marshall said. “I believe in the spirit of Christmas.”
Autumn raised her eyebrows suspiciously, but after further consideration she interpreted her father’s comment in the affirmative.
“Check,” she said, and she marked her survey accordingly. “Third question, do you believe in the Easter Bunny?”
“Maybe,” Marshall said, and he stood. “I’m not sure I have the right answer. What do you think?”
“Excuse me, sir,” Autumn said, and she pointed at the couch. “Please, sit down. I’m the one asking the questions.”
“Sorry, sweetheart,” Marshall said, glancing at his watch. “Chloe’s waiting in the car, time to go!”
“Oh, all right,” Autumn said, and she disembarked from the stool, shoulders slouched, and harrumphed her way to the door.
Autumn kissed her mother goodbye as her father loaded her into her car seat, survey still in hand. As the car ride began, Autumn switched back into investigator mode and greeted Chloe, her father’s girlfriend, seated in the front passenger seat.
“Good day, miss,” Autumn said. “Okay, first question …”
They were on their way to a forest up north that Marshall promised would be unlike any Autumn had ever seen, but she was skeptical. If there were no fairies or Santa Claus or Easter Bunny in the world, what else was left that could be so special?
Autumn mulled the implications of such an existence as she, Marshall and Chloe meandered in the car up the coast.
They had been driving forever, it seemed, and Autumn felt tired as the sun receded beyond the dark blue Pacific outside her window. The car entered a tunnel as Autumn started to doze.
The car emerged from the tunnel: what a forest, indeed! There were fields of flowers that resembled sugar cookies, trees made of lollipops, mountains covered in whipped cream.
Bob the Mystic Frog was driving, and El Papa, the immortal potato, sat in the front passenger seat. The Troll from Autumn’s birthday party sat next to Autumn in the backseat. Everyone was in good spirits.
“Wow!” Autumn said. “This is cool. Where are we going?”
“We’re meeting up with your dad and Chloe at the camp site,” Bob said. “Just taking a detour, that’s all.”
They stopped at a fueling station, and some gummy bears ran out of a garage, grabbed a pump and filled the tank with liquid licorice.
The passengers stepped out and stretched. Autumn surveyed the area, and noticed white frogs bellowing from creeks made of orange soda, blue birds soaring through a pink sky that smelled like cotton candy, and little bunnies hopping to and fro.
Then, a horrifying sight: a dragon, purple and menacing, appeared overhead. It zigzagged its way across the sky in a strangely logical fashion, exhaling grayish smoke that formed circles, rectangles and triangles.
Stranger still, the dragon’s eyes were closed. It began to cry out in fear and anger and rained fire on the enchanted wilderness below.
“Run!” the Troll said, and Autumn, her friends and the gummy bears huddled together inside the fueling station.
When the rain of fire ceased, Autumn and the others stepped outside and assessed the damage. Many of the lollipop trees were scorched; some of the sugar cookie flowers were wilted. The frogs, birds and bunnies remained in hiding.
“It’s okay, you can come out now,” Autumn said. “Don’t be afraid, cute little animals.”
Reluctantly, one by one, the mythical creatures of the forest followed Autumn’s cue and again revealed themselves.
“Let’s get out of here,” El Papa said. “This place gives me the creeps.”
Autumn and her friends waved goodbye to the gummy bears. Bob directed the car back to what he believed was the tunnel through which they came, and Autumn was suddenly thrilled at the prospect her nightmare soon would end and she would be reunited with her father and Chloe again.
But that’s not what happened. Bob was a lousy driver, and the tunnel they entered was not a tunnel at all, but a cave.
Deep into the cave they drove, until at last the car’s lights shone on the closed eyes of a dragon slumbering peacefully.
It snored loudly.
“I’m scared!” the Troll said, clinging to Autumn in her car seat.
“What should we do?” Bob said.
“Back up!” El Papa said. “This place gives me the creeps.”
“That’s what you said about the forest, and look where that got us!” the Troll said.
“No, wait,” Autumn said. “We can’t leave. We have to save this magic world.”
With note pad and pen in hand, Autumn disengaged herself from her car seat, opened the door and stepped before the snoozing dragon. Her friends watched, mesmerized, as she sat on the ground, Indian style, and proceeded to ask the terrifying monster a series of questions.
“Do you believe in mountains covered in whip cream?” Autumn said.
No response from the dragon, only snores.
“Trees made of lollipops?”
Still no response, just more loud breathing.
“Fine,” Autumn said. “It’s clear you don’t care about this world. I’m not sure why I should, either.”
As Autumn stood to leave, the dragon opened its eyes. They were as green as her own.
“Excuse me, little girl,” the dragon said, “I just had a terrible nightmare of a land far, far away. It was a world where people only believed what they could see with their own eyes, and it made me fearful and angry.”
“He must have been flying in his sleep,” Bob said.
“Thank you for bringing my bad behavior to my attention,” the dragon said. “I must remember to eat more strawberries before I nap. That will help calm my nerves. I’m so sorry for scaring you and your friends.”
“We forgive you, and I am sure the forest animals will, too,” Autumn said, and she hugged the dragon’s nose.
She returned to the car.
“How about that?” Bob said. “You saved the day.”
They drove away.
As the car exited the tunnel, Autumn startled awake. Her father was behind the wheel, and Chloe was curled up next to him. The sun’s last rays shone through a beautiful forest.
They were surrounded by trees taller than any building Autumn had ever seen, with trunks so red and leaves so green that Autumn thought she was on another planet.
But she wasn’t. She was home, on Earth.
“Pretty awesome, hey?” Marshall said.
It was true, Autumn thought, even if it were a planet without dragons, or at least any she could see.