S’more Boy Returns

s'more boyThroughout the school year, Autumn’s classmates often returned from weekend getaways, regaling her with tales of pitching a tent, hiking through a forest, and hearing stories around a fire. Camping quickly captivated Autumn’s imagination, a great American tradition the six year old wanted to experience herself.

Of the joys of camping, however, one garnered Autumn’s attention the most. S’mores. She longed to eat the gooey, marshmallow, chocolate, graham cracker treat.

On a hot afternoon in June, Autumn arrived at a mountaintop camp with her father, Marshall, his girlfriend, Chloe, and Chloe’s brother, Will, ready for her first outdoor overnight adventure.

Their over-stuffed car came to a grinding halt at the entrance to the park, where Marshall stepped out to check in with the ranger.

Meanwhile, Autumn stood by and swatted flies buzzing around her head. In the time her father talked to the ranger, she was bitten by two mosquitoes. Intuitively, Autumn started to wonder what other ‘joys’ she could look forward to on her maiden voyage into the wilderness.

“Okay, I think we’ll try that hike tomorrow morning …” Marshall said, concluding his conversation with the ranger.

The ranger, a white-haired lady with piercing blue eyes, bent down so she was eye level with Autumn and said, “How about you, dear, what would you like to do on this trip?”

“Eat s’mores!” Autumn said.

“Yes, s’mores, of course, what is a camping trip without them?” the ranger said, and she began speaking in a hushed voice. “But Beware, young lady, a ghost is said to inhabit these woods. They call him S’more Boy. He likes to eat the treats of our camp guests, so be sure to clean up after your mess, so you won’t be visited by an uninvited pest!”

“That’s one way to keep the trash in the cans,” Marshall said, “and another way to keep the kids up at night. Thanks, a lot.”

“You bet,” the ranger said with a grin, waving to Autumn as her father tugged her away. “Have a nice trip!”

“Is there really a ghost?” Autumn said as they walked toward the car.

“No,” Marshall said. “I think she was just saying in a roundabout way that we need to keep our site clean, unless we want bears or something to ruffle through our stuff.”

“Bears?”

Marshall realized that between the ranger’s comments, and his own, there was little that put a child at ease.

“You have nothing to worry about,” he said, patting her head, buckling her tight in her car seat. “Never mind what that lady said, or me, all right?”

“What was that all about?” Chloe said as Marshall put the car into drive.

“Ghosts and bears are coming to get us tonight!” Autumn said.

“Oh, boy,” Marshall said.

“No, S’more Boy!” Autumn said.

*

They found their site and pitched the tent. Well, actually, Marshall, Chloe and Will pitched the tent while Autumn scrambled up some boulders until her father yelled at her to get down. He asked her to collect sticks for the fire instead.

That was a task Autumn managed handily, finding stray branches and twigs until there was a pile so big waiting to be lit that it was larger than Autumn herself. After that, Autumn wasn’t sure what to do. There were no TVs or pizza parlors or water slides, like there were in the big city life of Los Angeles. Not only was camping hot, with a lot of bugs, but it was also boring. Some trip this was turning out to be.

“Now what?” Autumn said.

“Looks like you’re going to have to entertain yourself,” Marshall said.

Autumn did. Life in the woods took a little getting used to, true, but once Autumn came to terms with the fact she didn’t have the usual gizmos and artificial amusements to keep her occupied, she adapted well.

First, she gathered an assortment of rocks — big ones, small ones – lined them along the campsite, and went into business.

“Who needs magic crystals?” she yelled, to everyone and no one in particular. “I have red ones, blue ones. I have crystals that heal you, and crystals that make you fly …”

None of the neighboring campers seemed to appreciate Autumn’s wares, but Will offered to buy a rock, which made Autumn happy. For a moment. Then it was on to another game …

Autumn chased bunny rabbits. She sang and danced in a makeshift theater she carved into the dirt with a stick. She even made a fishing pole with a branch, string and rock for bait, trying to lure tadpoles from the pond.

When it was time for the hike, Autumn led the charge. She climbed hills, strolled fallen trees, skipped rocks.

Life was good, despite the heat and bugs, and in time even that didn’t bug Autumn as much.

Eventually the sun set, a fire made. Day turned to night, the weather cooled, and even some of the bugs went away. Marshall, Chloe, Will and Autumn ate. They sat under a canopy of stars, surrounded by darkness, and gazed at each other across the orange glow of firelight. When they weren’t talking, there was only silence.

Chloe, Will and Autumn took turns telling stories. They roasted s’mores, and they were better than Autumn imagined they would be. She loved pushing the gooey marshmallows through a stick and roasting them over the fire.

For a while, camping was heaven. Then, Autumn couldn’t take anymore. She was done, she realized. Exhausted. She didn’t even think about cleaning up her mess; she dropped her gooey marshmallow stick and approached her father, arms raised in surrender.

“Daddy, put me to bed,” she said.

Marshall brushed his daughter’s teeth, changed her into her pajamas, and laid her into her sleeping bag. He told Autumn a story about a little girl who is given a special gift for her birthday, a box that allows her to travel in time. Autumn loved the story, but even so, in the back of her mind, she hadn’t forgotten about S’more Boy.

In the middle of the night, she woke. Something scratched along the tent, and she heard a faint voice.

“Give me more,” said the voice with a low, frightening moan. “More s’mores, more s’mores …”

The next morning Autumn startled awake, frightened by her nightmare. But it may not have all been in her head, because there were small footprints around the camp fire.

“Probably your own,” Marshall said.

“Daddy, can’t you see, S’more Boy’s for real!” Autumn said.

She found her stick. Licked clean.

“See?” Autumn said.

“Probably from you,” Marshall said.

Camping that day was little different than it had been previously, including the relentlessness of the heat and bugs. The games continued, but instead of them being shorter, Autumn, Will, Chloe and Marshall found ways to make them longer.

For example, they made wreaths out of twigs to decorate the makeshift theater Autumn made and sang and danced in the day before.

“Camping requires a lot of improvisation,” Will said, and they laughed, including Autumn, once Will explained to her what ‘improvisation’ means.

That night, after Autumn enjoyed her s’mores, she was not as willing to go to sleep as easily as she had been previously, however.

“Daddy, I’m scared,” she said, sobbing in her sleeping bag. “I’m afraid S’more Boy is going to get me!”

“Oh, sweetheart, it’s okay,” Marshall said, rubbing her hair. “Don’t be afraid. S’more Boy is just pretend, remember?”

“But I heard him …”

“You cleaned up after yourself tonight, right?”

“Yes,” Autumn said, wiping the tears from her face.

“Then you did everything the ranger told you to do,” Marshall said. “You have nothing to worry about.”

That night, Autumn slept soundly until she again heard scratching along the tent. This was no nightmare, either. She startled upright in a panic, and shook her father.

“Daddy, Daddy, S’more Boy’s here!”

Marshall rose, groggy, and listened. He didn’t hear anything except the wind rustling in the trees; certainly there was no sign of a ghost looking for a treat.

“False alarm, sweetheart,” Marshall said. “Now quit scaring yourself, and get some rest.”

Marshall’s head was about to rest on his pillow when he heard it. Faint, and not so much the moan of a boy, but a boy’s fiendish cackle. And the boy was getting into something …

Marshall sat upright, no longer groggy. He grabbed his flashlight, and Autumn clutched his arm as he unzipped the tent and shined the light toward the smoldering campfire.

Smacking a s’more in the fading glow of the firelight, the pest turned and faced them.

“Is that a bear?” Autumn said.

“No, a raccoon,” Marshall said, smiling. “How about that? I guess the ranger’s tale got to both of us.”

“You were scared too, Daddy?” Autumn said, loosening her grip on her father’s arm.

“A little,” he said, “but there’s nothing to worry about, after all.”

Father and daughter laughed.

Marshall shined the light around the campsite, to see if there were any more raccoons, but there were none.

When he shined the light back on the campfire, ‘S’more Boy’ was gone.

How the Karate Monster Became the Karate Princess

karate princess

Autumn loved karate, and her father, Marshall, loved teaching her what little he knew.

After all, a little self-defense never hurt anybody — or so he thought.

“Let’s fight!” Autumn said.

Seated on the living room couch, Autumn sprang to her feet and ran to her father’s bedroom. Marshall chased his princess to his bed, where she stood, eyes level with his, fists raised.

“After this, it’s time for bath and bed, okay?” Marshall said.

Autumn didn’t respond with words. Instead, she charged her father with the quick, precise punches and kicks he taught her to use if someone ever attacked her.

“Hey, that’s not self-defense!” Marshall said, overwhelmed. “Get off me!”

Autumn laughed as Marshall blocked, except one kick, which grazed his groin. It was like a bell going off in Marshall’s head: his daughter’s kick had just the right amount of force in just the wrong enough place to make him reel in agony.

“Daddy, Daddy!” Autumn said. “Are you okay?”

Slowly, Marshall recovered.

“Only kick a guy there if you’re in real trouble, understand?” he said.

“Okay, Daddy,” Autumn said. “I promise.”

Marshall flipped Autumn onto the mattress and began tickling her.

“Payback’s tough!” he said. “Say, ‘I win!’”

“I win!” Autumn said, laughing.

“I mean … say … ‘Daddy wins!’”

But Autumn was laughing too hard to speak.

Finally, Marshall disengaged Autumn, but she was too wound up and continued to attack. After several minutes trying to re-direct his daughter off the bed and into the bathtub, Marshall started to wonder if his princess hadn’t become a monster – a karate monster.

“If you keep this up, I won’t be able to play karate with you anymore,” he said. “I think you’re taking our matches too far.”

“Okay, fine,” Autumn said.

Autumn desisted, took a bath and crawled into bed.

The next day, Autumn was playing with classmates on the playground after school when her mother, Lauren, witnessed Autumn get into a fight. A male student scratched a female student, both of whom were brother and sister, and Autumn responded by karate-chopping the boy’s chest, causing him to cry.

Autumn, however, refused to apologize.

“He was being a bully!” she said. “I was protecting her!”

The students’ mother quickly gathered her crying son and confused daughter and fled the playground.

Next time Marshall picked up Autumn to spend the night at his apartment, Lauren told Marshall about the incident.

“Autumn is having trouble controlling herself,” Lauren said. “I think you two ought to stop playing karate for a while.”

Marshall, on the other hand, had mixed feelings about his daughter’s mixed martial arts. He knew it was wrong for Autumn to hit the boy, but he liked the fact his daughter stood up to him and protected the girl.

Perhaps Autumn needed to understand there was a time to use karate to resolve conflict, but most of the time words were best.

That night, Marshall refused to play karate with Autumn. Instead, he said he had a surprise.

“Get into the bath, and then get into bed,” he said. “I have a special story I want to share.”

Marshall called the story, “Heart & Sword,” about a prince intent on finding a magical treasure that promised to protect his inheritance, the kingdom, from conspiring brothers. The prince found the treasure, which turned out to be a woman, and she taught him the power of kindness, not violence, in solving problems.

The prince married the woman, who became the princess. The prince inherited the kingdom and proved to be as wise a ruler as his father once had been, because he listened to his wife.

“Violence rarely makes things better,” Marshall said. “It’s always best to try to solve a problem by talking to those you have the problem with first. A little kindness goes a long way.”

The next day, Marshall and Autumn went to the park. There, Autumn began playing tag with an older boy and sister.

The objective of the game was different for the siblings than it was for Autumn. For the siblings, Autumn always had to be ‘it’ and try, and fail, to tag them. However, Autumn was too fast, especially for the boy. So, any time Autumn almost caught the boy, he called timeout and made up an excuse why he couldn’t be ‘it.’

“You can’t get me, I need to tie my shoe!” he said.

“Yeah, he needs to tie his shoe!” his sister echoed.

But his shoe was tied; he simply bent down and re-tied it.

Next time Autumn almost caught the boy, he stopped her again.

“You can’t get me, I have a rock in my shoe!” he said.

“Yeah, he has a rock in his shoe!” his sister echoed. “That’s not fair, now, is it?”

He bent down and removed his shoe, but there was no rock in it.

Next time Autumn almost caught the boy, he stopped her again with another excuse. And again. And again. His sister always played along.

The boy and his sister were taking advantage of Autumn, but it was different from the bullying Autumn witnessed at school. The boy and sister weren’t hitting Autumn or anyone else, for that matter, physically or with words.

They were hitting Autumn by playing unfairly with her.

That was wrong of them, and it hurt. Autumn became so disillusioned with the game she often stopped chasing the boy and sister, going on the swing or doing gymnastic tricks on the monkey bars by herself.

Every time, the sister said, “Hey, little girl, try to get us!”

Again Autumn would try, and fail, to tag the boy and sister; again they had their excuses.

Marshall looked to see if the siblings’ parents or guardians were present or paying any attention; not surprisingly, they weren’t.

As for Marshall, he had seen enough; he decided it was time for his daughter to take action.

“Sweetheart, come here,” Marshall said, waving Autumn to the bench from where he sat and watched.

“Are you having fun?” he said when she arrived.

“No,” Autumn said.

“I wouldn’t be having much fun, either,” Marshall said. “You’re faster than that boy, so what’s the problem?”

“Every time I catch him, he says he can’t be it.”

“Sounds fishy,” Marshall said. “So, what do you want to do about it?”

“I want to punch him.”

“Maybe so,” Marshall said, “but is that a good idea?”

“No.”

“So, what should you tell him instead?”

“Stop making excuses, and play right?”

“Sounds good,” Marshall said. “Give it a try.”

Autumn turned back toward the playground and hollered at the boy.

“Hey, dude, get over here!” she said. “I need to talk to you!”

The boy stood still at top of the slide, mouth agape. He did not move.

Autumn repeated herself.

“Hey, dude, get over here!” she said. “I need to talk to you!”

The boy didn’t respond. Autumn marched toward him; she met him face to face at the top of the slide.

“I’m tired of your excuses, dude!” Autumn said. “Start playing right, or don’t play at all! Do you understand?”

The boy nodded, and so did his sister, behind him.

“Okay, let’s play,” Autumn said, and she tagged the boy. “You’re it!”

The game continued, and judging by the laughter, Marshall thought this time it was enjoyed by all involved.

Only Marshall wasn’t satisfied. Driving home from the park, he was curious about his daughter’s choice of words and tone when she confronted the boy.

“You did a great job explaining to the boy that he was wrong,” Marshall said. “You were calm, but firm. You didn’t lose your head or get frustrated. I’m very proud of how well you handled the situation, and I’m glad it worked out for you.”

“Thanks, Daddy,” Autumn said.

“But I have a question for you,” Marshall said. “Why did you keep calling the boy, ‘dude?’”

“I notice boys listen to me better when I talk to them like boys do.”

It was a profound insight, and Marshall realized his karate monster was no more. Autumn had become a karate princess, whose words were better weapons than her fists.

Heart & Sword

sword of peace

Once upon a time, there was a great King who led his people with fairness and wisdom. Unfortunately, the King’s health was in decline, and so was his kingdom. None of the King’s subjects understood why, but many suspected the reason had to do with a recent omen.

The royal family’s coat of arms was displayed high above the King’s throne. For generations, it consisted of a sword crossing a heart, during which time the kingdom was ruled with fidelity. However, after the Queen died, the coat of arms changed, so that the sword seemed to pierce the heart instead of protect it. Real blood began to drip onto the feet of the King as he sat on his throne, which his servants scrubbed away. Many saw this as a sign the King’s demise would mark a period of turmoil for the kingdom, unless the royal family again learned to live together peacefully.

The problem was the King’s sons were neither married nor had children, and many of the King’s subjects felt these young men were too ill-tempered to rule. As the time for the King’s death drew near, his sons plotted more fervently to seize power from one another, and the royal family’s coat of arms dripped more blood day by day.

Perhaps the most greedy and selfish of all the king’s sons was his eldest and the heir apparent, the Prince. He wanted to make sure none of his brothers robbed him of the opportunity to control the kingdom, but otherwise he gave little thought to the manner in which he might use his power, which greatly troubled the King.

“Even now, you look at me as if I am already dead,” the King said. “But what shall you do, and whose will shall you serve, when I really am gone? Your own?”

“I shall serve your will, father,” the Prince said. “I will force this land and its people to do as you intended, always and forever.”

“That’s a clever answer, but I fear not the right one,” the King said. “I would prefer my successor serve the will of the people, and not mine or anyone else’s. Force should only be used to do right by others. Do you understand?”

The Prince dismissed his father’s remarks and continued his plotting. There were rumors of a map that led to a treasure so powerful that anyone who obtained it could lead an army against the Prince and threaten his chance to control the kingdom. The Prince wanted the treasure, so none of his brothers would dare challenge him.

The map to the treasure was said to be buried deep inside the stomach of a talking oak tree, which only made itself known if someone worthy sang to it.

The Prince, believing himself worthy in any matter that interested him, arrived at the forest, and sang. His voice, however, was so coarse and unpleasant that the birds flew away, and the rabbits and squirrels buried themselves deep in their holes to avoid him.

Needless to say, the oak tree the Prince sought remained unresponsive, and so the Prince left the forest, dejected. The next day, he returned, pondering what he should do next, when he heard a lovely voice.

He followed the voice to a brook, where he found the forest birds, rabbits and squirrels listening to a lady singing as she washed her hands in the water.

“Excuse me, Prince,” the lady said, when she noticed him.

“No, please, excuse me!” the Prince said. “It is I who interrupted you and your beautiful song. May I ask you for a favor, miss?”

The Prince explained that a map had been taken which rightfully belonged to him. The map was under a spell, hidden somewhere in the forest.

“Only a person whose voice is worthy can lure the map out of hiding,” the Prince said. “I suspect you will do. Will you help me?”

“Of course, my Prince,” the lady said. “I am always willing to help those in need.”

The Prince took the lady by the hand, and she sang as they wandered together through the forest. At last, they came upon an oak tree that had the gnarled features of a face.

“What might I do for thee, o’ lovely one?” the oak tree said.

“Help me return a map to its rightful owner,” the lady said.

“Of course,” the oak tree said, and out of its mouth emerged a rolled scroll.

The scroll would have landed on the lady’s feet, had it not been for the Prince, who leaped forward and snatched it midair.

“Ah-ha!” he said. “Mine!”

Once the Prince had the map in his possession, he thought his quest soon would be finished, because no one would be able to stop him from obtaining the treasure that would ensure his power for as long as he lived. However, as he unraveled the scroll, he realized his quest was anything but complete.

“What’s this?” the Prince said. “It’s blank!”

He turned to face the tree, but the face in the tree was still and silent.

“Great, now what?” the Prince said.

“May I see the map?” the lady said.

“Promise to give it back?”

“You are its rightful possessor, are you not?” the lady said. “Of course I will!”

The Prince handed the lady the map. As soon as she touched it, something magical happened. The scroll was no longer blank; a map to the treasure appeared.

“Amazing!” said the Prince. “How could this be?”

“I do not know,” the lady said, equally surprised. “Perhaps this is a sign our work together is not done yet.”

“I cannot think of a better reason myself,” the Prince said. “Perhaps you will join me for the rest of my quest, or at least as long as your company proves necessary?”

“I would love to, but I really should get home,” the lady said. “I am told nothing good happens in the forest at night.”

“Fear not, my lady!” the Prince said. “You would be in excellent company. No harm would come to you, I promise. Also, my father the King would be most grateful for your service.”

“In that case, very well,” the lady said. “No one is expecting me home, anyway. My parents passed long ago, and I support myself by selling mushrooms in the village.”

The lady raised a basket full of truffles she recently collected under the trees.

“I see,” the Prince said. “Maybe we can turn your misfortune into something more palatable. Perhaps you would allow us to enjoy your morsels tonight for dinner? I would compensate you in coin for the trouble, or course.”

“As you wish, my Prince,” the lady said. “But, really, it’s no trouble at all. My truffles are delicious, as you will see!”

“Excellent, then it’s settled!” said the Prince, and together they followed the map to the mountains beyond.

The map led them along a trail up a majestic peak that overlooked the kingdom. At the top of the peak they found a cave, the final destination of the map.

Night fell, they were tired, and the Prince and lady decided to camp near the cave’s entrance. They lit a fire, munched roasted mushrooms, and shared stories about their lives. Then, they heard a distant hum.

“Oooooh, eeeeeeee, oooooooh, ahhhhhhhhhh, oooooooooh!” bellowed a group of dwarves as they marched up the mountain.

“Quick!” the Prince said. “Hide!”

He and the lady poured dirt on the fire. They watched as the dwarves unsuspectingly passed them and continued into the cave.

“Gather your belongings,” the Prince said. “We will catch them by surprise!”

“They look tired,” the lady said. “Are you sure we should be introducing ourselves at such a late hour? Perhaps tomorrow would be a more fitting time for all of us to meet.”

“Absolutely not!” the Prince said, and he stood and drew his sword. “Let’s go!”

They proceeded slowly, cautiously. The cave was dimly lit, its rocky walls strewn with gold. The deeper the Prince and lady went, the brighter the cave became, until at last they reached a large cavern, filled with the comforts of home.

Tired, indeed. By the time the Prince and lady arrived, the dwarves were fed, a pile of dirty dishes were stacked near a sink, and they were fast asleep, snuggled together in a big bed.

Opposite the cavern was a closed chest.

“That must be it,” the Prince whispered. “The treasure!”

Together he and the lady crept past the dwarves. The chest was unlocked. The Prince quietly opened it, peered inside.

Nothing.

“What?” he said. “How could this be?”

He closed the chest, and by so doing, inadvertently let his frustration known; the chest slammed shut with a loud thud.

When the Prince turned back toward the lady, the dwarves were sufficiently aroused. They stumbled forth from their bed and formed a barrier barring the intruders from the exit.

The dwarves carried an array of knives, forks and other kitchen ware, raised as weapons.

“Who goes there?” they said in unison.

“It is I, the Prince!” the Prince said, pointing his sword. “I have come for the treasure that rightfully belongs to me!”

“What treasure?” a dwarf said, stepping forward. “We have no treasure here, just that empty chest you see. It has inhabited this cave longer than we have!”

“Listen up, you little monsters!” the Prince said. “I didn’t come all this way just to hear …”

As the Prince and dwarves bickered about the whereabouts of the treasure, the lady peeked inside the chest. This time, there was a beautiful golden necklace with a heart-shaped ruby pendant.

The lady gently retrieved it, and the Prince and dwarves ceased their bickering. They stood and watched in silence.

“Try it on, my dear,” a dwarf said.

The lady did as suggested, but she could not clasp the necklace together by herself.

The Prince stepped forward, reached behind her neck, helped her, and then he stepped back. He and the dwarves marveled at the lady and the heart necklace. It was as if it were made for her.

“My lady, would you be willing to return with me to the castle, to show the King what I have found?” the Prince said.

“Of course,” she said, and the she turned to the dwarves. “Would that be all right with you?”

The dwarves mumbled to each other in awe and agreement.

“Take it as long as you wish, my dear,” they said. “Good luck!”

The Prince returned to the castle with the lady. The two appeared before the royal court. Blood stained the foot of the King’s throne. Gathered around the King were his sons.

“Father, I have been on a great journey,” the Prince said. “All this time I sought a treasure I thought would help me vanquish my enemies. I found that treasure, but it was not a powerful axe or sword, as I hoped.”

The Prince turned to the lady.

“The treasure I found is you,” he said to his companion, “and your kind heart.”

The comment caused murmurs around the court.

“In our time together,” the Prince continued, “you have shown me a power that goes beyond my own. You have shown me the power that comes from looking out for others. I have been selfish and greedy in my objectives, and for what purpose? A sword that protects itself serves no one, while a sword that serves others protects everyone. Today I seek your hand in marriage, because I realize that the heart and sword rule fairest and wisest side by side.”

The lady agreed to marry the Prince, and he was delighted.

So was the King. His son had learned a valuable lesson about the nature of love and loyalty. Finally, the Prince was fit to rule the kingdom, and soon his brothers would follow his lead, too.

The royal family’s coat of arms ceased to drip blood.

In time, the Prince and lady became King and Queen, and together they had several sons and daughters.

They lived happily ever after.

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.