In the margins of her textbooks, Sara brought the world to life. It always started in the margins, but inevitably, forests grew from algebra equations, cell diagrams transformed into cenotes, mountain passes carved their way through paragraphs about Lewis and Clark. Sometimes she tucked dragons under the page numbers. Cartographers used to write “Here be dragons” at the edges of their maps, but Sara knew better. Just because her paper ended didn’t mean the world did.
She jumped when the teacher’s hand slapped her desk. “Sara. Pay attention!”
Sara looked up, tried to orient her mind to the here and now. She heard the snickers. She’d felt this before, knew how to ignore the rushing in her ears and the heat on her cheeks. But today—maybe because she was fresh off summer break, three whole months away from the school’s sterile, echoing walls—the feeling settled around her lungs and squeezed. Maybe that was why she scowled, looked up at the teacher and said, “Do you mind?”
Her sneakers squeaked on the linoleum as she shuffled off to explain herself to the principal. What was there to explain? Sara had learned long ago there was nothing she could say to make people understand the tug on her heartstrings, the pull to things unknown.
As expected, her parents were not pleased.
“I thought we agreed 6th grade would be different,” her mom said. “You can’t keep doing this.”
“You’ve gotta reign it in, Sar-bear,” her dad said.
After a halfhearted apology and promise to ‘at least try’, she was excused to her room. Sara loved her mom and dad, and they loved her, even if it was in their slightly hands-off way. Sometimes she wondered if they viewed her as a specimen in one of their labs. They let her create, let her explore, noted the results. The only time they cared about her ‘eccentricities’, as her mom called them, was when those got her into trouble.
In her room, she picked a textbook off the floor and flipped to today’s sketches. No matter what she promised, she knew she wouldn’t stop. These were her practice spaces, filled with ideas that would be carried off if Sara didn’t get them down right now.
She pulled a large sketchbook out of her desk—her most valued possession, a Christmas gift from grandparents. She ran her hands over the red silk cover, felt the thick cotton pages. Any ideas worth keeping, Sara put here: the official mapbook. She only added to it when she felt confident in a map’s accuracy. She’d already finished the forest behind the house. Her current project—her most important to date—was the cave. She’d worked on it nearly every day this summer, and she certainly wasn’t going to let school slow her down. Not when she was so close to her biggest discovery, to proving herself once and for all.
The next day, Sara spotted a North American racer on her walk to school. It lay on its back near the gutter, a trickle of blood at the corner of its mouth. Even dead, it was beautiful, inky black stripes with an olive sheen. She fished through her backpack for pencil and paper, knelt down, and started sketching.
“What are you doing?”
Sara jumped and nearly fell forward onto the snake. A boy stood on the sidewalk, a slight scowl on his face, studying her in a way that reminded her of a crow.
“Just looking,” she said, realizing only after the words were out how stupid they sounded.
He tilted his head to see past her. His dark hair was long, too long. He flicked his head to keep it out of his eyes. “You’re drawing that snake?”
She nodded, trying to figure out an escape. These types of interactions never ended well.
To her surprise, the boy knelt down next to her. He leaned in, and Sara noted the furrow of his brow, purse of his lips. After a moment, the scowl turned to a smile. “Cool. What kind is it?”
They were late to school that morning, but the tardy mark was worth it to meet Roland.
He’d just moved to the area with his mom and brother and didn’t know anyone yet. Maybe that was why they so quickly fell into a rhythm, meeting at the cottonwood grove every morning, separating when they reached school. They only shared one class together, math, and Sara had first lunch period while Roland had second, so she didn’t see much of him during the day. Three days a week, he had lacrosse practice after school. (“I don’t even like lacrosse, but my mom says it’s a good way to make friends.”) But on Tuesdays and Thursdays, they met under the ponderosas behind her house. Day by day, the strange boy grew less strange. Roland was quiet, serious, with a dry humor that was slow to reveal itself. His favorite subject was history and his favorite book Game of Thrones.
“Because it combines fantasy with real history,” he liked to explain. He had a shy grin. “My brother says not to tell people that because they’ll beat me up. But you won’t.”
It was easy to smile around him. “I like the dragons in those books.”
“But dragons aren’t real,” he said.
Her mouth opened, about to respond, before she thought better of it. She wasn’t ready to tell anyone about that yet.
“It’s cool having someone who gets these things,” he said. “There wasn’t really anyone I could talk to at my old school.”
She felt her cheeks flush and a warm glow fill her chest. She’d never heard anyone echo her own thoughts before, not in such exact terms. She wondered at this feeling, the happiness at discovering someone who understood.
On the days Roland had lacrosse practice, Sara went to the cave.
From her backyard, it was a 28-minute walk if she went straight there. Usually, she didn’t; the forest between tempted with so many things. When she was little, Sara had wished for a ‘real’ forest, all shadows and dense trees that curved to hide the world. But she grew to appreciate this one. High-desert sun filtered through the arms of ponderosas that reached up to touch clear blue sky. The heat wrapped around her as she walked the familiar path, a thick layer of long, orange pine needles softening each step. Sara didn’t have to look around to know where she was. Here was the tree where she’d found the wren’s nest last fall. Over there, the boulder where she’d cried when the sick baby raccoon died. These spaces knew her, and she them. She had charted them all, drawn every detail to scale.
Gradually, the trees thinned. She walked into a clearing and there it was, open and inviting. Sara paused to put on a sweater. She clipped on her bike helmet and hurried forward. She couldn’t stand the sun long in this outfit. September in the desert was no place for wool.
Just when the heat grew intolerable, she hit it: an exhalation. The cave reached you before you reached it, drawing you in. It was like stepping through a curtain of water, an invisible barrier that separated two worlds. Just a few yards away it was a 90-degree day. Here, at the maw, 40; 42, actually. Two degrees warmer than last week. Sara jotted it down in her field notes, put her thermometer away. Closing her eyes, she breathed in the damp, earthy aromas of moss, fern, basalt, and clay. And today, something else, something she couldn’t identify. Like the smell when you blew out a match.
In all her time spent in this cave, she’d never seen another human. It felt secret, safe, a place where no one expected anything of her, no one could say stop that, a place she could be herself. She’d asked her parents once why no one ever came here, why no one else cared. Her dad shrugged. Her mom said because there wasn’t a road going right to it. They didn’t mind that she came here alone. They trusted her to be safe.
Today, she was lucky; it had rained at the end of the school day, fierce and brief. Now, an inch of water trickled through the usually dry bed that traveled through the cave. She crouched down, charting the way the creek expanded and changed. The dirt and debris that collected in the bed had already washed away. Now, clear, amber-hued water rippled on its journey. Somewhere, a spadefoot toad called for its mate. Sara stood and made her way forward, stepping as carefully as she could, trying not to splash, not to disturb anything that may have come.
The front area of the cave was…well, cavernous. Like a hall where Tolkien’s dwarves might feast. It had taken Sara all summer to map it. There were ten wooden steps at the entrance, leftover from a time when some entrepreneur hoped for money and tourists. Then a small landing, where she’d sometimes find animal bones. (Never pellets, though. Whatever was eating the mice and voles and shrews, it wasn’t an owl.) Pretty soon after, the sunlight reached its limit. The bats lived here. Sara sensed their small bodies overhead; the murmuring, the breathing, the rustling of a thousand leathery wings wrapped around one another.
Three tunnels led off from the main cavern. One dead-ended shortly after it began, a pile of rocks and debris. The tunnel walls were intact—no cave-in. And there were sandstone boulders mixed in amongst the basalt. Someone or something had moved them there.
The second tunnel wound its way for about half a mile before coming to a natural end.
The third tunnel. This was the one the stream traveled down, after a rain. This tunnel was wide, tall, echoing. It went on forever. Or at least seemed to. She was determined to reach the end, map it all.
There was something she hadn’t added to the map yet, something she sensed but couldn’t yet verify. It had been four weeks since she’d last heard it, something deep and primal, a reverberation that traveled up the basalt into her bones. When it reached the ossicles in her ears, she could sometimes make out words. Be patient. Be brave.
That was alright. Part of Sara’s strength lay in her patience. She was cautious and respectful of everything she discovered, taking her time to study and learn. No one else saw these things. No one else noticed. Why would anything reveal itself to someone who didn’t care?
Sun, rain, or snow, the school expelled students outside on their lunch breaks, to the playground and patchy lawn behind the building. Sara spent her breaks alone on the grass. She hated playgrounds. Asphalt forgave nothing; it ate knees and ankles. The forest liked when she ran and jumped and explored. It cushioned when she fell.
It was early October, still warm and comfortable in the sun. She sat on the lawn, absorbed in a small paperback with a taped-on cover. No matter how many times she read it, this scene was one of her favorites, where the princess confronted the dragon. She was so engrossed she didn’t notice the shadow until it darkened the words on the page. Her head snapped up. Peter Harp loomed over her, his two best friends from lacrosse flanking his sides.
“Reading on break? You’re a bigger nerd than I thought.”
Every muscle in Sara’s body coiled up tight. “What are you doing out here? You’re second lunch.”
“Didn’t feel like English today. Guess I could do some reading, though.” Before she could react, Peter grabbed her book. She felt the slice of a paper cut as she tried and failed to hold on. He showed the cover to his friends as she scrambled up.
“Dealing with Dragons?” He laughed too loud, for show. “She’s reading a kids’ book!”
“It’s not a kids’ book.” She felt blood rushing to her cheeks. “You’d know that if you could read beyond a first-grade level.”
Peter’s face darkened. He threw the book back at her. It bounced off her arm and landed in the grass, spine splayed.
“You’re writing my semester science report,” he said.
She stood tall, squared her shoulders. Her voice shook. “I’m not doing your homework this year.”
“Yeah, you are. Unless you want to spend every lunch with your face in the dirt.”
“You can’t beat up a girl.”
He held up a hand, feigned offense. “I’m a feminist, Sara. I treat everyone equal.” With another peal of laughter and a nod to his friends, they marched off.
Sara picked up the book, careful not to get blood from her cut on it. She stared at the familiar words she loved so much, but they blurred and refused to focus. Screw Peter Harp. This year was different. This year, someone understood.
“Can I show you something?”
Sunlight filtered through the pine trees and highlighted the too-long hair partially covering Roland’s eyes. Sara reached into her bag, pulled out her social-studies book. “There’s a cave I’ve been mapping. I think it’s home to…something big.”
She opened to the Oregon trail section, where she had a rough sketch of the main cavern. She pointed out the creek bed, the tunnel entrances, the nooks and crannies shaped by stalagmites.
Roland looked closely, flicking the hair out of his eyes. “You do all this in class?”
She grinned. “The teachers don’t like it much.”
He laughed. It always surprised her, how much she liked making him laugh. Roland turned the page to a sketch of the third tunnel, which dead-ended when it reached the edge of the page. “Is this all of it?”
“No. These are just my notes. I have more in my mapbook.”
“Mapbook?” He looked up. “Can I see it?”
Sweat tickled her palms. This wasn’t the direction she’d wanted the conversation to go. She wasn’t ready to share that much yet. “That one stays home, to keep it safe.”
To her relief, he shrugged and turned his attention back to the sketches. “Why do you think something lives here?”
She paused. Be brave. “I’ve noticed some signs of habitation. But I also can just feel it. I know something’s there. And if I’m patient, I’ll prove I’m worthy. It’ll show itself to me.”
Roland’s face remained serious. She was sure her heart would bruise from the way it pounded against her sternum. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
He looked up again, eyes wide. “Course I do. Friends believe each other, right?”
Her heart escaped her ribcage altogether and fluttered out on a long, slow exhale. She passed it off as a laugh, turned the page, and showed him more.
After two more times being ‘caught’ drawing in class, it was decided Sara should see the school counselor. ‘Decided’ by people other than Sara. No one seemed to care about her opinion on the matter.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” her dad said. “We know you’re fine.”
“Middle school is an adjustment for a lot of people,” added her mom.
If it was nothing to be ashamed of, why did the teacher sneak up to her in class, tell her in hushed tones it was time for her ‘appointment’?
The counselor’s office was a glorified broom closet. Miss Reyes smiled as Sara entered, said something about taking a seat. The wooden chair groaned as Sara sat, its old varnish warm under her hands. A fan under the desk pushed stale air around, its mechanical hum reminding her of conehead crickets in summer.
“I hear you’ve started off the school year on the wrong foot, Sara.”
Sara pressed her fingers into the tacky varnish, unpeeled them slowly. “I wouldn’t say that.”
“Tell me a bit about yourself. Your parents…” Miss Reyes opened a file on her desk. “I don’t know if I’ve seen them around school much.”
“They’re busy. They both have fellowships at the university.”
“Academics!” Miss Reyes laughed. “You’d think they’d take more interest in their daughter’s schooling.”
“My mom says school isn’t a good marker of intelligence.”
Miss Reyes raised an eyebrow. “Interesting point of view. A few teachers mentioned you draw in class. What is it you draw?”
Now the backs of her thighs were sticking to the chair. “Just doodles.”
“Well, they must be important. Mr. Hubert said you yelled at him when he took your notes away.”
Sara remembered that day. Stupid Mr. Hubert had kept her notebook for two days, putting her behind on the tunnel. “It was my map. He had no right to take it.”
Miss Reyes raised an eyebrow. “Well, you were working on it in class, Sara. But I understand that frustration. So you like maps, huh? I have a cousin who works for Google.”
She wrinkled up her nose. “So?”
“Well, I know they aren’t the only mapping technology out there, but—”
“Ugh, no.” She couldn’t help herself. She hated when adults assumed they knew. “That’s not what I do. I draw fantastic maps.”
“Oh!” Miss Reyes blinked. “You mean Narnia, that sort of thing?”
Sara rolled her eyes. “Not fantasy maps. Fantastic maps.”
Again with that counselor smile. “I’m sure they are fantastic, you practice a lot.”
She couldn’t squash down her frustration any longer. “No, you don’t get it.” She unzipped her bag, pulled out her science book. “When people think of maps, they think of roads, rivers, mountains…that type of thing. But that’s boring. Anybody can see that. You don’t need a map for it. I make maps to what you can’t see.”
Miss Reyes studied the book. “What is this marked here?”
Sara looked where Miss Reyes was pointing. “Oh…well, these are just my quick notes…my real maps are back home. That’s probably why you can’t tell. It’s a troll den.”
Miss Reyes looked up. “This is very creative, Sara. But you do know it’s not real, right?”
“I understand most people think that,” Sara said. “My maps help them think differently.”
“Sara…there’s thinking differently, and then there’s refusing to see reality. There are billions of people on earth—”
“Over seven billion.”
Miss Reyes’ smile grew a little tighter. “Exactly. So don’t you think that if these things existed, someone would have seen them? Reported them?”
“Not if they’re hiding. When a creature’s environment shrinks, they shrink with it. Everyone thought Omura’s whale was extinct. Then they found a whole group of them.”
“That’s the depths of the ocean, Sara.”
“So? There are depths of the earth, too.”
Miss Reyes folded her hands in front of her. “I think it’s wonderful how imaginative you are. But don’t you think you’re getting too old for make-believe?”
“It’s not make-believe,” Sara said. “There are dragon stories from all over the world! England, China, Greece, India…they differ in appearance, but they’re all obviously describing the same species.”
“And really, the variations make sense, that’s normal with any type of animal across so many environments.”
“I’ve been tracking data.” She pulled out another book and flipped to a page in the middle. Its text was barely visible under a complex drawing of a tunnel system. “And it confirms what I’ve been thinking. These caves are the perfect environment for—”
The raised voice startled her. She looked up from her sketches at Miss Reyes, whose palms were now flat on the desk. The counselor took a deep breath. “I think we’re going to need more sessions than I originally thought.”
A knock at the door—the shave-and-a-haircut rhythm that indicated her dad.
“How was school, Sar-bear?”
She sat on the bed, holding her mapbook. She didn’t look over at him. “I don’t know why you make me go there.”
He sighed and sat next to her. “Didn’t go well with the counselor?”
“She’s awful, Dad. She tricked me into showing her my maps.”
“I’m not sure ‘tricked’ is the—”
“She’s so fake. I don’t think she did one real thing the whole time I was there. And then when I showed her…she wanted to see them, and I showed her, and she just got mad.”
He considered this. “I haven’t seen your maps in a while. May I?”
Sara paused, then handed him the mapbook. He studied each page. “These are getting quite good. That’s the glen to the east of the house, isn’t it?”
“And this is…” he paused. “Actually, I’m not sure where this is.”
“Tunnel three, in the cave. I’m not done with that one.”
“Ah…don’t mention this one to your mom, alright? She’s not crazy about you exploring down there.”
Sara kept her gaze on the page. “Dad, do you think my maps are stupid?”
“Well now. Let’s think about that.” He held the book out in front of them both. “These obviously require quite a bit of technical skill, which I can see is improving. They also require math to indicate elevation, grade change, and distance. Plus, you use logic to decide what’s important to include. None of that sounds stupid to me.”
Sara looked down at her feet. “Miss Reyes says none of it’s real.”
“Well…maps can do different things, you know.”
She side-eyed him. “I know, Dad.”
“Hear me out. Your maps…they may not be traditional, but I think they give you directions for paying attention. And that’s very important. That’s what scientists do every day.” He handed her back the book. “But it’s good to pay attention to what’s in front of you, too. The real world can be scary. I know. But it creates a lot of amazing things, too.”
She heard the word—real—and felt something inside her drop. “Ok, Dad.”
He stood to leave and kissed her on the forehead. “That’s my brave Sar-bear.”
The deciduous trees turned umber and orange. Soon it would be too cold to sit together under the ponderosas’ arms. But it was a dry fall, and today the sun shone. Sara’s shoes were off. She stretched out her toes and dug them into the needles. Roland lay across from her, studying her latest drawings. Sara wiped Cheez-It dust off her fingers and flipped the page of his copy of Maus. She hoped he didn’t notice how slowly she was reading. That she kept glancing over at him, trying to catch his reactions to her work. He really did remind her of a crow, the way he inspected and observed. Every once in a while his lips twitched up into a small smile, and she’d have to hide her own matching grin.
She was working up the nerve to ask him what he thought when his backpack buzzed. He turned off the alarm on his phone and started packing up. “I have to go. You can borrow that book tonight, if you want.”
She tried not to look disappointed. “Where are you going?”
“Pegasus Pizza, with some guys from lacrosse.”
What was this feeling inside her? Something afraid, something jealous. “Which guys?”
“Justin Rucinsky, Peter Harp, a few others.”
She scowled. “Peter Harp’s the worst.”
“He’s kind of annoying, but he’s on the team.” He stood, dusted pine needles off the back of his jeans.
“You don’t have to go, you know,” she said.
“Yeah, I do. My brother keeps bugging me, saying they’re the ‘cool kids’ and I should hang out with them. This is the only way to get him to shut up.” He shrugged. “See you tomorrow?”
She nodded and watched him walk away. Should she call after him, say something funny? Or should she look absorbed in her book, in case he looked back? She didn’t know these things, couldn’t figure out how to measure and draft them.
She pulled over her science book, still open to the page Roland had been looking at. A dragon crawled down the left margin. She didn’t know these things, but maybe it didn’t matter. Roland saw her—even the parts she did her best to hide—and he didn’t look away.
The summer after Sara had turned six, her parents packed up the car and drove to another world. Or so it had seemed. Sara fell asleep in forest and woke up in a red land, with bridges and towers carved from sandstone.
“It looks like Spaceman Spiff,” she said.
“Or maybe Spaceman Spiff looks like it,” her mom said. “After all, Arches was here first.”
Her dad had laughed. “Anything you can imagine, the earth churned up at some point.”
Those words glued themselves into Sara’s brain. Anything you can imagine… When they returned home, Sara pulled up Google Earth, panned around, zoomed in. Here was a well that sucked up the sea into the earth. There, a pink lake surrounded by lush green jungle. Across the world, giant stepping stones led into the sea.
She never could have imagined all these things, yet there they were, each more fantastic than the next. The world made them. Maybe people didn’t have the ability to dream up anything new. Maybe it was all there, hiding, waiting to be discovered.
“Are you ever scared?”
They sat under the pines, flipping through comics. Sara looked up. “When?”
“When you go into the cave. Isn’t it dark?”
“Well, yeah. It is a cave.” She smiled. “I have a headlamp and flashlight.”
“Still…” Roland trailed off. “You don’t know what’s in there, right?”
“Not yet. But I will.”
He paused, and Sara sensed he was gearing up for something. “Would you ever… I mean, could I come sometime?”
Anxiety settled in the bottom of her stomach. She reached out to touch the earth, grounded herself with long, stiff needles. “Well…you need special equipment.”
“My mom has a flashlight in the emergency kit.”
“And warm clothes and good shoes—it’s really cold in there.”
“And a lot of other stuff, too,” she added. “Stuff that’s kind of hard to get.”
“Well, I’ll just stick next to you and we’ll be fine.”
Sara pictured the two of them together, her flashlight beam lifting up to reveal the huddled bats. The cold, clear air of the cave. Her exhale meeting his, mingling before disappearing together into the dark. She thought of the sounds, the shifting shadows, the near silence of the third tunnel as it wound its way through the earth. Of another pair of eyes seeing these things, recording, judging her place.
“Your mom probably wouldn’t like it,” she said.
“Why not? Your parents let you go.”
“My parents are weird.”
“So I won’t tell my mom. She’ll just think we’re hanging out. Which would be true anyway.”
His grin made her heart sink. She thought about saying yes—wanted to, she realized with surprise—but the voice still hadn’t returned. She didn’t know the rules, didn’t know if it had to be only her, if it mattered if anyone else came…but she couldn’t risk it.
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea, Roland.”
His serious face darkened into something unfamiliar. “Why? You think I’m scared or something?”
“It’s not that.”
“So you’re the only one allowed in there?”
“I didn’t say that. It’s just…” The thought of sharing the cave with someone else—her cave, the only space that truly knew—filled her with unnamed dread.
“Fine.” Sara jerked back as Roland snatched the comic from under her nose and stood.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I thought we were friends. But I guess not.”
“You know everyone talks about how weird you are, right? I didn’t listen.” He shrugged his backpack onto his shoulder—how well she knew that movement, the upward twitch of muscles—and stalked off.
The next morning, Roland wasn’t waiting to walk to school. In math class, Sara wrote him a note.
Where were you?
She watched the folded piece of paper move slowly forward, two desks up and one to the right. Roland’s hand reached out, the muscles on his slim shoulders moving as he unfolded it. Sara waited an eternity for it to make its way back.
Took the bus.
Sara blinked at the words, trying to figure out their meaning. She wrote back.
Are you mad at me
It took longer for the note to come return this time.
Sara raised her pencil, trying not to panic, when the shadow loomed over her desk.
“Passing notes in class?”
She looked up, saw Mr. Hubert’s frown. She heard necks swivel in her direction. She saw Roland, turned away, the only one in the class not staring.
“Do you understand why Mr. Hubert would be upset you were passing notes? It’s very disrespectful, Sara.”
Sara’s fingers curled around the edge of her chair. Miss Reyes’ office was cooler now, the varnish no longer tacky. In a few months the room would grow cold, a space heater under the desk instead of a fan.
“Who were you passing notes with?”
Miss Reyes leaned forward. “Was it an imaginary friend?”
Sara shot over a glare. “I have real friends.” A pain shot through her chest. Then, quietly: “He’s mad at me.”
“Ah.” Miss Reyes’ face softened. “It’s normal for friends to fight, Sara. Conflict is part of any relationship. The important thing is how it’s resolved. Saying ‘sorry’ can be hard, but it’s important.”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Miss Reyes leaned in closer, and for a moment Sara worried she’d take her hand. “Sorry never hurts, Sara. If the words feel too hard to say, a gesture can help, too.”
The words were always hard to say. That was the good thing about the cave, the pines, the sky. The rocks and the water and wind. They communicated in a different way, a patient way. The earth never expected words. It accepted her as she was.
And, she realized, so did Roland.
After school, she sat in the entrance of the third tunnel, watched her breath condense and evaporate. She listened. Somewhere, the dripping of water. Her own chest rising and falling. She closed her eyes, willed whatever it was to return, to prove it had been real, to prove she wasn’t…
The quiet pressed down, thick enough to feel, real enough to get lost in.
She opened her eyes. This was real, these sensations, these feelings, what lived and breathed beyond the casual eye. Of course they didn’t want to be seen. Who would want to be exposed to such a careless world?
Roland wasn’t careless, though. Roland was her friend.
Back home, she pulled out the mapbook, looked through the pages. She hadn’t shown Roland she cared. But she could.
The next day, Sara walked to school alone, backpack heavy on her shoulders. It was a little too cold now for just her anorak. She walked quickly, in theory to stay warm, in reality to speed the morning along. She did her best to focus in class. She resisted the smell of lead, the empty margins. She couldn’t get in trouble before lunch. She stole glances out the window, watched clouds swirl and gather.
First-lunch came. Sara ate in her regular spot on the lawn. It was warmer than it had been this morning, but the air was thick and heavy with the promise of rain, the first in weeks. She looked up at the dark clouds that blanketed the sky.
The bell rang, announcing the five-minute break between periods. The sounds of the schoolyard increased in a final release of energy as students went back inside. Sara tried to finish her food, but her stomach swirled as much as the clouds. Finally, the second bell rang.
Now she heard the wind moving through the sky, the small birds warning each other of the coming storm. She put out a hand, ran her fingers through the grass, noted each blade.
Then the rush came. She heard it growing, echoing in the halls, before it burst out into the open air. Second lunch. Sara stood, grabbed her bulky backpack, and walked around to the front of the building.
Even with his back toward her, she recognized him immediately. The slight slouch, the way he shuffled his feet. He stood in a group to the side of the basketball court.
Sara walked up and tapped him on the shoulder. Roland turned. She watched his eyes widen, his brows rise.
“What are you doing here? You have first lunch.”
“I know. I have something to show you.”
“What is she doing here?”
Her head snapped to the right. She’d been so intent on Roland she hadn’t noticed the people he stood with: lacrosse players, including Peter Harp. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Finish my report?”
She swallowed and squared her shoulders. Be brave. “Could you come with me?” she said to Roland.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” he said. “You’ll get in trouble.”
“Hey, I asked you a question,” Peter said. “Anybody home in there?” He was loud, using his ‘look at me’ voice. His cohort snickered. Roland didn’t, though. Sara focused on him.
“It’ll just take a minute.”
“Just drop it, ok?” She saw his gaze dart around, track the gathering crowd. “I know your parents are ok with you getting in trouble, but my mom isn’t.”
“You won’t get in trouble, I just…” But he was turning away. Desperate, watching her plan rapidly unravel, Sara unzipped her backpack, held it out in front of her. “I brought something to show you, it’s really important and—”
Without warning, her backpack swung violently to the side, pulling her with it. Her arms shot out to steady herself, and it was only then she noticed Peter, his hand still extended from swatting the bag. She watched it fly out of her hands. She watched its entire contents scatter, notebooks, pens, markers, empty bags of Cheez-Its. Her mapbook flew out last, its beautiful silk cover skidding across the asphalt before landing right at Peter’s feet.
She dove, too late. Her palms hit tar as Peter picked up the book.
“What’s this…” His eyes widened as he studied the page in front of him.
Sara scrambled up, ignoring the sting in her palms and knees. “Give it back.”
But he was laughing now, pointing at the book, playing it up for the crowd. “Oh my God. Do you see this? ‘Signs of past dragon habitation. Witch’s lair. Fairy glen.’ She actually is crazy!”
There was more laughter now, rising on the wind, swirling around her. It hit Sara’s ears one peal at a time, reverberating, traveling down her spine to tighten around her lungs, her heart. She looked at the faces, all staring at the mapbook as Peter turned the pages dramatically. She watched his mouth move as he sounded out the names, the locations, the discoveries. A ringmaster showing off the freakshow.
Sara sought the one face she wanted to see. Roland stood slightly behind Peter, his serious face staring at the mapbook. His gaze darted up, crow-like, and caught hers. Peter elbowed him in the side, and Roland’s eyes flitted back to the page. Peter was pointing at something, waiting for a reaction. Roland paused just a second—a second that held worlds, that stretched to contain heartbeats—before his mouth turned up at the corners and he laughed.
She snatched the book from Peter’s hands and shoved him, hard. By the time he hit the ground, she had already shouldered past the people behind her. She pushed past all the blurry faces and ran.
Asphalt turned to concrete turned to pine needles. Sara clutched the mapbook to her chest as she ran, felt its pressure against her. The rain started when she reached their meeting spot under the pines. Only a few drops, hitting her cheeks and running down to her lips.
Thunder clapped as she passed through the invisible curtain, the sheet that divided one world from the next. She ran down the ten steps, past the landing, into the main hall. She didn’t pause to hear the bats, to see what new bones lay undisturbed. She ran, footsteps splashing through the rising creek. Her feet knew this place. They needed no light, no thought to guide them.
Sara’s ragged breath echoed in her ears, off the walls. Everything, she wanted to wipe away everything: the laughter, the jeers, the shoulder shrug away. The notes passed, the sunny afternoons spent trading books, the walks to school. The tack of varnish on her fingertips, the teachers’ frowns, the stupid, lonely patch of grass where she sat, alone, every lunch. The weight of the word: real. What was real? Sara’s feet hitting stone, salt on her lips, her breath…
She stopped and stood still, tried to calm her beating chest. What had stopped her? A sense, a sound? She couldn’t tell, not with her stupid heart filling her ears.
Be brave, Sara. Breathe in. Breathe out.
That was it—nothing. No steam as she exhaled, no condensation as the hot air from her body hit the cold air of the cave. She touched her arm. Her bare skin was warm.
She looked around—or tried to. When she put them in charge, her feet knew the way. Now…her eyes tried to adjust to the pitch black. She could hear a trickle of water at her feet. Was she in the third tunnel? She mentally retraced her steps. Had she come this far before? She drew in the hot air, realized it stank of rotten eggs. She began to gag, to panic, when she felt it traveling up her bones. Close your eyes.
She brushed her fingertips against stone, warm to the touch. The water had stopped; all she could hear were the sounds of her own body. Nothing else this far in the earth. Except…
Her eyes flew open and she held the mapbook closer to her chest. Her protection, her knowledge. Her proof that she knew this place, that it knew her. That she belonged.
She was sure she heard something now. Something beyond her echoing heart and careful steps and invisible breath. She recognized it from the bats: the scrape of leather wing on stone.
Sara peered into the dark. “Hello?”
There was a flare of light, small as a match, but in this inky blackness it made her squint. Still, she caught the shimmer of scale, the flicker of a long, forked tongue. She sensed rather than saw the vastness in front of her, the endlessness beyond the edge, everything, everywhere, waiting to be discovered.
An exhale answered: Well done.