Dragon Buster

Dragon Buster 1

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.

Autumn smiled.

“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.

“Gummy bears?”

Nothing.

“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.

Another Kid’s Treasure

butterfly

Autumn was a born treasure hunter. Not long after she learned to walk, Autumn began scouring the ground in search of shiny objects: buttons, coins, rocks and sea shells were among her favorite findings. For a while, Autumn tried to eat her treasures, but in time, as she grew from toddler to girl, she learned such behavior was neither acceptable nor desirable. When it came to fine dining, Autumn realized she preferred fries over pennies any day.

However, Autumn’s steps toward maturity didn’t stop her from collecting the odd things discarded by everyone else. By the time she began kindergarten, Autumn’s “treasure chest,” as she liked to call it, consisted of a shoe box brimming with a wealth of trinkets collected in her day-to-day travels from home, school, park or beach.

With each figurine, key, pebble or ring Autumn discovered, she liked to recount the story of its unearthing. She was also known to sometimes embellish her tales and attribute magical qualities to the items she found.

“Where did you get this?” said Marshall, Autumn’s father, one morning as they prepared to depart for school.

Marshall held up a small, stitched tie-dyed sack that crumpled in his grip.

“I found it at the laundromat with Mommy,” Autumn said, whispering in a secretive tone. “I think it might be a pouch to carry Pixie Dust … Daddy, do you know what it is?”

“Yes, it’s called a Hacky Sack,” Marshall said. “My friends and I used to play with them when I was a kid. Here, let me show you how.”

Marshall demonstrated how to kick and catch the Hacky Sack with the top of his foot, and he and Autumn practiced passing it back and forth to each other with their feet.

“Cool!” Autumn said.

“Well, Hacky Sacks may not make us float with magic powder, but they can still be fun.”

“Shouldn’t we get going?” said Chloe, Marshall’s girlfriend.

“We should,” Marshall said. “Time to clean up, Autumn.”

As Autumn put away the contents of her shoe box, her father absent-mindedly pocketed the Hacky Sack.

It was Work Day at school, where members of the community volunteered to help beautify the campus. Autumn’s class was gathered at the school garden, where Autumn and her fellow classmates worked alongside their parents weeding and tilling the soil before the spring planting.

“Look what I found!” a boy said, unearthing a caterpillar.

Several of the boy’s classmates, including Autumn, gathered around him.

They took turns admiring and petting the green bug.

“What should I do with it?” the boy said to their teacher, Jay.

“Put it back in the soil where you found it,” Jay said. “That way it will live.”

The boy did as suggested and returned the caterpillar to the soil.

Not long after, another classmate found another caterpillar.

“Look what I found!” she said.

Several of the girl’s classmates, including Autumn, gathered around her.

They took turns admiring and petting the green bug.

“What should I do with it?” the girl said to Jay.

“Put it back in the soil where you found it,” Jay said. “That way it will live.”

The girl did as suggested and returned the caterpillar to the soil.

Autumn and her classmates continued weeding and tilling.

Marshall and Chloe were knelt side by side, pulling weeds and amused in the pleasant work, sunshine and small talk with the children when they noticed a squabble underway.

“Put it back!” a boy shouted.

“Yeah, put it back!” a girl said.

“I won’t!” Autumn said. “It’s mine!”

Marshall glanced up from the soil and noticed Autumn surrounded by her classmates. He walked to the circle, and the crowd of children parted.

“Autumn found a caterpillar, and now she won’t let it go!” the boy said.

“She’s not listening to what Teacher Jay said!” the girl said.

“Autumn, what’s the problem?” Marshall said.

Autumn opened her cupped hands; languishing inside was a green caterpillar.

“That’s a beautiful little creature, isn’t it?” Marshall said.

“Uh, huh,” Autumn said.

“What do you plan on doing with it?” Marshall said.

“I want to take it home and add it to my treasure chest,” Autumn said.

Marshall knelt before his daughter, gazed in her eyes. He spoke as softly as possible.

“But, sweetheart, that’s the problem,” he said. “That caterpillar isn’t like your rocks and keys and rings … it’s alive, and it will die if you don’t let it stay here. This is its home.”

“I can build a home for it,” Autumn said. “I can put it in a jar with sand and grass …”

“Sure, you could,” Marshall said, “and with a little magic, anything is possible … but wouldn’t it be better just to let the caterpillar be, to be surrounded by other caterpillar friends?”

“Maybe,” Autumn said.

“Let this beautiful little creature be, sweetheart,” Marshall said. “Believe me, it’s the right thing to do. You won’t regret it.”

“Okay,” Autumn said, and she slowly put the caterpillar back into the soil.

“Nice job, sweetheart,” Marshall said, and he stood.

He glanced at Autumn’s classmates surrounding her, and he had an idea.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “All of you have worked so hard, why don’t we take a break, and I will show you a little game. I’m sure your teacher won’t mind.”

Marshall pulled out the Hacky Sack and winked at Jay; Jay gave Marshall the thumbs up.

“How many of you have ever played with one of these before?” Autumn’s father said.

Autumn was the only one to raise her hand, so Marshall offered to have him and her demonstrate. Soon, Autumn’s classmates joined them, and they took turns passing the Hacky Sack to one another.

No one mentioned the caterpillars again.

Then, a few months later, Marshall picked up Autumn one day from school, and she and her other classmates rushed him and the other parents toward the school gardens.

There were herbs, vegetables and flowers. There were also beautiful white butterflies, fluttering freely.

It was magic.

The Long Wait

Children love to play and enjoy treats, and few occasions provide better opportunities for them to do both than birthday parties.

There is also no mythical creature known to help children revel in friends and fun more than El Papa. According to legend, he is little and round and brown, like a potato, with dark eyes and beard. He wears white overalls and a round hat. He has a huge grin.

Autumn claimed to be one of the few who could see El Papa, and he liked to visit her once in a while. Because he was immortal, El Papa had all the time in the world. To him there was never need to rush or hurry. He only wanted to make the most of any moment, and he encouraged others to value time the same way he did. He gave great advice.

“Can’t we get there any faster?” Autumn said.

“I’m driving as fast as I can,” her father said.

Finally, Autumn arrived at the home of the birthday girl, Juanita. It was a hot sunny afternoon. Autumn handed Juanita a birthday present, and Juanita handed Autumn a popsicle.

“Daddy, may I eat the popsicle?” Autumn said.

Although Marshall preferred his daughter didn’t eat sweets, he agreed.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Hopefully you’ll burn off the sugar.”

Autumn ate the popsicle, and then she ran wild with her friends in a bouncy house. Marshall joined some parents on the front porch, and they watched their children play.

As time passed, more guests and treats arrived. Juanita’s family rolled a cotton candy maker onto the driveway, and the children lined up for the pink, fluffy sweet.

“Daddy, may I eat some cotton candy?” Autumn said.

Although Marshall preferred his daughter didn’t eat sweets, he agreed.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Hopefully you’ll burn off the sugar.”

Autumn ate the cotton candy, and then she ran wild with her friends in the bouncy house.

As time passed, the sun crossed the sky and was preparing to set. The party was scheduled to end, yet it seemed to be just beginning. More guests, and treats, arrived.

The atmosphere became so festive it was easy for Autumn to get carried away. She slipped by her father with a bottle of fruit punch in her hands without even asking if she could drink it.

Marshall snagged the fruit punch and replaced it with water.

“This will keep you hydrated,” he said.

Autumn was too excited to complain.

Marshall was not. He and some parents on the porch began glancing back and forth at their children and watches.

“It’s close to Autumn’s bedtime,” Marshall said. “We might have to skip out, before the cake.”

“Same with us,” another father said. “This party seems like it could go all night. We have to be up early in the morning.”

Marshall crept next to Autumn and whispered in her ear.

“Sweetheart,” he said, “I think we ought to leave soon. You need to get to bed.”

But Marshall’s voice, it seemed, was not the only one whispering in her ear.

“Not yet, Daddy,” Autumn said. “I’m still having fun!”

At that moment, a lady wearing a pink dress and golden crown appeared. The children gathered around her in a circle. The lady began making balloon dolls and swords, doling them out slowly to good girls and boys.

“I want a balloon!” Autumn said.

“Of course you do,” Marshall said, rolling his eyes.

The moment to escape had passed.

Autumn joined the circle and waited patiently with the other children.

Marshall returned to the porch and also waited. And waited. And waited. A half hour later, he and Autumn continued to wait for her to get a balloon.

Marshall crept beside his daughter and whispered in her ear.

“Sweetheart,” he said, “You have been very patient, but the balloon lady is taking a long time. Wouldn’t you rather play with your friends?”

“She’s not a balloon lady, she’s a princess!” Autumn said. “And I do want to wait, I do!”

Autumn was tired and cranky. Marshall realized the sweets and the heat finally were getting to her. He reached for Autumn’s arm, to usher her toward his car, when he heard a voice inside his head.

Give her a chance,” it said. “The only one in a hurry is you!”

So, Marshall returned to the porch and waited. And waited. And waited. An hour later, he and Autumn continued to wait for her to get a balloon.

Marshall crept beside his daughter and whispered in her ear.

“Sweetheart, you have been very, very patient, but the balloon lady – sorry, princess — is taking a really long time. Wouldn’t you rather play with your friends?”

Autumn glanced away from her father. She was so absorbed in thought it seemed like his must not have been the only advice she was considering.

Marshall watched his daughter’s eyes drift toward a group of friends. They were playing in the bouncy house. Some had balloons, but some did not, and those who did not, did not seem to mind. They were too busy having fun to worry about what they didn’t have.

“Okay, Daddy,” Autumn said.

She stood and broke away from the circle. She ran wild and free, once again, immersed in her time with her friends.

Long after sunset, a lone white balloon shaped like a sombrero slipped through the princess’ hands. It floated across the yard and onto Autumn’s lap as she flopped out of the bouncy house.

Many guests, Marshall included, seemed surprised. Some clapped.

But not Autumn. It was as if she expected it. She took a bow and donned her white balloon sombrero.

There was a round of laughter.

Marshall crept beside his daughter and whispered in her ear.

“Does this mean we can go now?” he said.

“What about the birthday cake?” she said.

“Fine, we’ll stay for cake.”

Autumn stared into her father’s eyes; they reflected her fatigue.

“That’s okay, Daddy,” she said. “We can go. I’m feeling … tired.”

Autumn reached up for her father. He lifted her into his arms and carried her away.

“Thanks for being so patient with me today,” she said, whispering in his ear. “I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too, sweetheart,” he said.

Marshall was so touched, his eyes welled up with tears. Autumn had a magical way of knowing just what he needed to hear.

Bob the Mystic Frog

Bob the Frog 2

On the nights Autumn stayed with her father in his apartment, he told her a bedtime story, and then she fell asleep in his bed next to a big stuffed frog, which she called Bob. He had a pink heart.

Later that night, after reading a book or watching a movie, Autumn’s father, Marshall, joined them.

And that’s how it was, for years: Marshall slept on one end of the bed next to Autumn, who slept in the middle of the bed next to Bob, who slept on the other end of the bed.

And while Autumn and her father were close, Autumn and Bob in some ways were closer.

“We share the same dreams,” Autumn said one night as Marshall put her to bed.

“Oh, yeah?” Marshall said. “What do you and Bob dream about?”

“Bob and I dream about a town where everything is made out of rainbows,” Autumn said. “The houses are made out of rainbows. The cars are made out of rainbows. The fridges are made out of rainbows. Even the fruit roll-ups are made out of rainbows.”

“That sounds like a beautiful place,” Marshall said. “Are the people made out of rainbows, too?”

“No, they’re normal,” Autumn said. “Except for Bob. He still looks like a frog.”

“That must be neat, to have a friend that shares your dreams.”

“It is,” Autumn said. “Bob’s really cool. He can read minds. He’s a … mystic!”

“I see,” Marshall said. “Sleep well.”

And the three did, until Chloe started spending the night, too. She not only often joined Autumn and her father for Daddy Day, she sometimes stayed until the next morning.

Autumn remembered the first time. She woke up with her father to one side, as usual, but Chloe was on the other. Bob was nowhere to be seen.

“This is so surprising!” Autumn said, playing with Chloe’s poofy hair.

“Chloe was too tired to drive home last night,” Marshall said. “I thought it would be better if she stayed here.”

“You had a sleepover?” Autumn said.

“Yes, is that all right?” Chloe said.

“Yes, I think that’s a great idea!” Autumn said. “You can sleep over any time.”

Autumn quickly learned, however, that sleeping in bed with her father and Chloe was a little different than it had been with her father and Bob.

There was less room in the bed, because Chloe was larger than Bob. Everybody was squished.

One day, Autumn arrived at her father’s apartment, and it wasn’t only his anymore. It had plants and books and crystals and blankets and spoons. Chloe was moved in.

“Is all of this stuff yours?” Autumn asked Chloe.

“It came from my apartment, but now it’s all of ours,” Chloe said.

“Are you going to marry Chloe?” Autumn asked her father as he put her to bed.

“Someday, probably,” Marshall said.

“Will there be a big wedding, with lots of cupcakes?”

“Big wedding, no. Lots of cupcakes, maybe. But only if you sing.”

“I will sing, Daddy.”

“I hope so,” he said. “Love you, baby.”

That night, Marshall told Autumn a bedtime story about her and Bob’s first adventure leaving the rainbow town. It involved a treasure hunt on a flying carpet for magic cupcakes that gave Autumn and Bob super powers.

It was such an exciting story, Autumn and her mystic friend dreamed about it together all night.

When Autumn woke the next morning, she was sleeping in a new bed.

Just for her.

And Bob.

Story Clouds

aliens and spaceships

Because she often was bored during car rides, Autumn liked to play games to pass the time.

During the drive to her cousins’ house one Sunday, Autumn played Story Clouds. In this game, passengers take turns telling stories about the images they see in the clouds.

“I see a frog jumping off a lily pad!” Autumn said. “Daddy, what do you see?”

Marshall, her father, glanced out the window.

“I see a kitty eating a cookie,” he said. “What do you see?”

“I see an alien spaceship, and it’s coming our way!” Autumn said. “Daddy, what do you see?”

Marshall saw the red flash of brake lights as cars stopped ahead of them. He applied his brakes, and the car he and Autumn were riding slowed down.

It was stop-and-go traffic on the freeway as far as Marshall could see.

“Sorry, sweetheart,” he said. “I’m going to have to keep my eyes on the road for a while. You’ll have to play by yourself.”

Autumn sat in her rear car seat and watched silently as the alien spaceship approached. To her it looked like a giant hamburger, a meal her father always wanted her to try but she was always too afraid to do so. She only liked eating the bun.

“Why are all of these people honking at us?” Marshall said, confused. “I’m as stuck here as they are.”

Autumn knew. The alien spaceship hovered above their car, and people were excited. Everyone wanted to meet the aliens, even Autumn.

“It’s nothing, Daddy,” Autumn said, not wanting him to be anymore confused than he already was. “You just keep your eyes on the road.”

Finally, the cars began moving again and didn’t stop. As Marshall continued to drive, Autumn noticed the spaceship fly past the freeway toward the hills where her cousins lived.

Autumn’s aunt, Misty, and her cousins, Star and Krystal, were happy to see Autumn when she arrived.

“Okay, sweetheart,” Marshall said. “It was great seeing you this weekend. Have fun with your cousins. Your mom will be by to pick you up in a few hours.”

“Okay, Daddy,” Autumn said. “See you next time.”

Autumn, Star and Krystal decided to play on the trampoline in the backyard. They unzipped the safety net, climbed aboard, and began to jump.

Autumn told Star and Krystal about the alien spaceship she saw on the freeway. They didn’t seem impressed.

“There’s no such thing as aliens,” Star said. “You just imagined it.”

“Yeah, Autumn!” Krystal said.

“I did not!” Autumn said. “They flew this way. I think they are landing on the street. The aliens are coming for us.”

“Why would they come here?” Star said. “What would they want us for?”

It was a good question, but Autumn had an even better answer.

She sprang toward Star and whispered in her ear.

“They aren’t coming for us,” Autumn said. “They’re coming for our food!”

Star, Autumn and Krystal laughed. They jumped around the trampoline in circles, pretending to be aliens chasing each other.

Aunt Misty called them to the patio table. It was time for lunch.

Hamburgers.

“I’ll be right back, girls,” Aunt Misty said. “I need to get more water from the kitchen.”

Star and Krystal piled their patty with cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickle. They squirted ketchup and mustard on their bun and swirled it together with a butter knife. They began to eat.

Autumn was a little jealous, but not enough to do the same. Since Star and Krystal were so busy with their food, they didn’t notice what Autumn did with hers.

Autumn gave her patty to Sabina, the old family dog, who fetched it from Autumn’s hand and disappeared around the corner.

Aunt Misty returned from the kitchen.

“Done so soon?” she said to Autumn.

“I guess the alien ate her food,” Star said.

“What?” Aunty said.

Star explained to Misty Autumn’s fascination with the aliens.

“Maybe they came here to make you eat your food,” Aunty said.

Star laughed.

“Yeah, if that were true, would you still say aliens are real?” Star said.

“No,” Autumn said, taking a bite out of a bun. “That would be silly.”

Unicorns Are Real

park house

Autumn finished her latest Lego creation.

“Look, Daddy!” she said. “It’s a park house!”

“A park house,” her father said. “What’s that?”

Autumn explained that a park house was a special place where people could rest and eat snacks while they played at the park. They were built among flowers and trees. Autumn’s park house featured a bed, lemonade stand and TV.

“All the comforts of civilization,” her father said.

“What’s civilization?” Autumn said.

“Good question,” he said, looking at his watch. “We’ll talk about it later. Clean up, please, time to go!”

Autumn and her father, Marshall, and his girlfriend, Chloe, were off to hike in the mountains near their home. They were met at a trailhead by friends, Steve and Kim, and their little baby, Luna.

“Hi, Autumn!” Steve and Kim said.

Luna, strapped to her mother’s chest, peered at Autumn with her big dark eyes.

“Luna is so pretty!” Autumn said.

Autumn heaved her Tinker Bell backpack over her shoulder, filled with Band-Aids and peanuts, and ran uphill. The adults trailed behind.

After a while, they came to an open field, where stood a magnificent apple tree.

Autumn couldn’t help herself. She rushed to the tree and tried in vain to pluck one of the red, shiny, low-lying fruit.

The adults agreed that a lone apple tree in the wild was unusual, even for Los Angeles, a city where the unusual was not uncommon, but what happened next was more so.

From the ridge, a white glistening unicorn galloped into sight.

The majestic creature slowed to a trot and ambled toward the apple tree. There, it pulled the branches with its mouth, causing apples to fall.

One landed in Autumn’s hand. The unicorn gently nibbled the apple, tickling her fingers, until swallowing it whole.

The unicorn peered into Autumn’s eyes, neighed quietly, then vanished.

Autumn turned toward the adults.

“Wasn’t that awesome?” she said.

Steve scratched his head. Kim adjusted the baby strap. Chloe sipped water from a bottle.

Marshall gazed at his daughter.

“Sure was,” he said. “All of those apples falling at once. Who would have thought?”

“We must have just had a little earthquake,” Steve said, examining the apple tree. “But I didn’t feel anything, did you?”

The adults shook their heads.

They must not have seen the unicorn, Autumn thought. How strange.

“Gather up those apples, and let’s get going,” Autumn’s father said.

Autumn noticed that Luna continued staring at the empty space where the unicorn once stood. Then, she smiled at Autumn. Autumn smiled back. At least Luna knew.

Autumn stuffed the fallen apples into her Tinker Bell backpack. She rejoined the group.

They continued to hike. Finally, they came to a grassy clearing at the end of the trail. There stood a lone oak tree.

An old woman with raggedy hair and dirty clothes was building something around the tree. It involved a blue tarp and a shopping cart and pieces of cardboard.

“It’s a park house!” Autumn said. “Look, Daddy, look!”

But no one else seemed to notice the lady, except Luna. Like the unicorn, it was as if they couldn’t see her.

As Autumn continued tugging on her father’s shirt, trying to get his attention, Marshall bent down suddenly and met his daughter, eye to eye.

“Remember how I mentioned the word ‘civilization’ to you earlier today?” he said.

“Yes, Daddy. What is it?”

“Civilization is like our city, Los Angeles,” he said. “It’s a place where a lot of people come together to live. Some people live in big fabulous houses, but most of us live in little houses, or apartments. Some people don’t have homes at all, like that lady there, so she’s building herself one.”

Autumn stood in silence and watched the lady. Slowly, she opened her backpack.

“May I give her an apple?” she said.

“Yes,” her father said. “Let’s give it to her together. I’m sure she would like that.”

The Valentine’s Day Surprise

When Valentine’s Day arrived, Autumn was sad to see that her father had neglected to bring her a card.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he said. “I guess I forgot.”

But Autumn did not. She handed her father the red heart-shaped Valentine she made for him that morning and quietly walked out the door to the car.

It was Saturday, and they were busy, as usual. First they were off to ballet class, then lunch, then grocery shopping, then to the park to play before dinner, bath and bed.

Autumn loved the park, where she liked to make friends.

“May I play with you?” she said to two girls.

They were digging a hole in the sand. They didn’t bother looking at her.

“No,” one of them said.

They continued digging.

“Okay,” Autumn said.

Her lips quivered a little, and then she moved on.

It didn’t bother Autumn as much as it used to when kids didn’t want to play with her. She learned from her father long ago that people were sometimes so absorbed in their own business that they could be inconsiderate of others.

“May I play with you?” Autumn said to a group of boys.

“Sure,” one of them said, and he tapped her on the shoulder. “You’re it!”

Autumn counted to ten, and then she chased the boys in a game of hide-and-go-seek. Because she was fast, she easily caught a boy, and because she was small, she easily fit into a cranny where no one bothered to look for her.

This gave Autumn time to think.

As she lay hidden, tucked behind a slide, she thought about her father. She was sad because he forgot to give her a Valentine.

The more she thought about it, the sadder she became. It made her want to cry.

Autumn heard a scratchy voice whisper in her ear.

“Don’t worry, my pretty,” the voice said. “Your daddy doesn’t love you as much as I do.”

Autumn felt something in her hand. She peeked.

It was an apple, shiny and red, just like the Valentine from her father should have been.

Autumn wanted to take a bite out of the apple, but she hesitated. She wasn’t sure why.

She ran to her father and showed it to him.

“Wow,” her father said. “Where did you get that?”

“A lady gave it to me,” Autumn said. “Can I eat it?”

“What lady?”

Autumn turned toward the playground. She spotted the boys and girls, but not the lady with the scratchy voice who offered her the apple.

“I don’t see her anywhere,” Autumn said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“That’s strange,” her father said. “Maybe she was a witch — or maybe you just picked the apple off the ground.”

“I didn’t, Daddy!”

“I believe you.”

Autumn’s father opened his hand, and Autumn gave him the apple.

“What do we call people we don’t know?” he said.

“Strangers.”

“Exactly,” her father said. “And what are we supposed to do if strangers offer us treats?”

“Not eat them.”

“Exactly.”

Autumn’s father tossed the apple in a trash can.

“But, Daddy, I want a treat!”

“Of course you do.”

Autumn’s father handed her a folded napkin instead.

“Open it.”

The napkin had words written on it. Autumn’s father helped her sound out the words:

“I LOVE YOU MORE THAN ANYTHING. YOU WILL ALWAYS BE MY VALENTINE – XO DAD”

“Thank you, Daddy!” Autumn said.

She gave her father a hug.

Autumn was happy, but she wasn’t satisfied. She still craved something sweet.

“Come on,” her father said.

“Where are we going?” Autumn said. “I want to play a little longer.”

“We’re getting ice cream.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Yay!” Autumn said, and then she seemed confused. “Why, Daddy?”

Her parents rarely let her have sweets. They said sugar from cupcakes and candy and other stuff like that wasn’t good for her.

“First, because it’s Valentine’s Day, a special occasion,” her father said. “Second, because you didn’t eat the treat a stranger offered you, even a healthy treat.”

As Autumn and her father left the park, she glanced back.

She thought she saw a witch peeking at her from a tree.