Isaac’s feet hit the soft beach sand and continued to slide forward. He ended up lying on his back, looking up at the clear blue sky. He stood up and brushed the sand off and looked around.
The trees on this island were brightly colored. They looked more like giant flowers than trees. They surrounded a central plateau that didn’t have any trees at all. The island looked like a giant hat with a wreath of flowers around the crown.
Isaac unrolled the map. There was a new red x on the island with the elephant picture. He was where he thought he was, but where were the elephants?
Perhaps they were in the jungle of flowers. In the picture, they had wings. Maybe they were some sort of bee-elephants. Did they have a stinger? How big would the stinger be on a bee-elephant?
It looked like there weren’t any on the plateau. That would be a safe place to look over the island and see if there were any signs of a party. Of course, if there really were giant stinging elephants, he really hoped the party would be somewhere else.
Isaac’s mom always said that bees were scared of people, and that they wouldn’t sting you if you left them alone. Isaac really hoped this was true for possible stinging bee-elephants. If they heard him coming, maybe they’d fly in the other direction and he wouldn’t have to see any bee-elephants up close.
But what kind of noise should he make? There weren’t any sticks or rocks nearby to clap together. Would clapping his hands be loud enough? He could sing, but didn’t bees hum? Maybe they liked singing.
Shouting would be louder than clapping. What should he shout? He heard there were bees that liked spelling and geography. Did bees like math? He’d never heard of math bees. Math it was.
He took a step forward. Fortunately, on this island, walking forward meant moving forward. That would make things much easier. He began to yell his times tables.
At first, this was fairly easy. Zeros and ones and twos. Threes got a little tricky, especially as this was about the same time that he entered the cool twilight of the flower jungle.
“Three times three is…um, six.” Isaac peer closely at a suspicious shadow. “Three times um, six? I think that’s where I was…” He pushed through a screen of tall ferns. “Is… seven?”
His voice had gotten softer as he struggled through the undergrowth and dappled shadows. Looking up, the light filtered through glowing, bright colored petals. It was like looking up through a bunch of balloons, or as though someone had started to build a stained glass ceiling, but left patches where blue sky could peek through.
Isaac realized he’d stopped doing his times tables. He had no idea of where he’d left off. He’d have to start over from the beginning.
But he was too late. He could hear humming getting rapidly louder. What if the bee-elephant was so surprised to see him, it decided to sting first and ask questions later? Where could he hide?
He grabbed one of the giant ferns and pulled on it as high as he could reach. It bent over, and he walked his hands, one over the other, until he was bending it around himself, hands clutched around the end of the frond to keep it close.
Looking up through the fern’s fingers, Isaac watched a bee-elephant dive down to hover over one of the flowers high above the ground. It landed on the petals and flicked its elephant tail. Then it lowered its trunk to sip nectar from the center of the flower.
It didn’t have a stinger! How strong were these flowers that an elephant could land on them? Or were these very lightweight elephants?
The bee-elephant came closer, and landed on a flower above Isaac’s fern. He could see its shadow through the petals of the flower above. Finally it flew away, still humming. Suddenly Isaac recognized the tune. Apparently, bee-elephants hummed “Ring Around the Rosies.”
Isaac pushed his way through the flower jungle, hiding under ferns whenever the bee-elephants were close. They might not have stingers, but they were as big as regular elephants. If they landed on him, it would hurt.
He finally reached the plateau at the center of the island and could see a path winding up the side. He walked around until he found the start of the path. He scampered up the path, eager to see the view from the top.
As he walked up the path, his steps slowed as he could look down into the jungle. There were flowers and bee-elephants, and there was something that looked like a buffalo with dragonfly wings, but there was no party. It was the wrong island.
The gentle humming of the bee-elephants grew louder the higher he climbed. It seemed strange. Wasn’t he getting further away? It made more sense once he reached the top of the plateau.
The plateau was less plateau-like at the top. Instead, it looked more like an extinct volcano. The bee-elephants had built a nest inside, and were darting in and out of the nest in small groups.
This was probably the worst place ever for a party, but Isaac paused to look down into the volcano just in case. Nope. It was all bee-elephants and oddly-shaped honeycomb. Time to go.
He looked back down at the beach. There was a boat, loading passengers from a dock on the far side of the island. How had he missed that? He needed to hurry back down to the beach before they left.
But, which way would he need to turn once he got back down the the jungle floor? He looked down the side of the volcano. He couldn’t see the start of the path. He took another step forward.
And he was on the beach, at the end of the line waiting to board the boat. He looked back at the jungle and the volcano. What just happened? Faintly, he heard the bee-elephants hum.
“We all fall down, I guess?” Isaac said.
“Isn’t that just the meaning of life,” said the giant beetle in line ahead of him. It set down its suitcase and adjusted its sunglasses.
“That’s not the meaning of life,” a small white mouse snapped. “I’ve made the meaning of life my life’s work. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“What is the meaning of life?” Isaac asked.
“I’ll be releasing a research paper on the subject in fifty years. I won’t have anyone stealing my work ahead of time.” The mouse turned with a huff.
“Don’t mind him. If the meaning of his life is researching the meaning of everyone else’s, I think he’s missed the point,” the beetle said.
Isaac shuffled forward as the line finally started to move. It was a long line. “Will there be room for everyone on the boat?”
The beetle laughed. “They wouldn’t have sold more tickets than they have seats for, right?”
The mouse snorted. “You don’t know anything,” it muttered.
Uh oh. There were tickets? “I don’t have a ticket,” Isaac said. “Where do I buy one?”
“You should have bought one weeks ago,” the beetle said.
“Years ago,” some further up the line yelled.
“I was born with a ticket for this boat ride,” said someone else.
“What will I do?” Isaac began to panic. “Does someone have an extra ticket? Can I shovel coal or mop the deck to pay for my trip?”
The mouse sighed. “I didn’t bring a bag. You can ride along as my luggage. Just stop yelling. It’s making it impossible for me to think.”
“Okay. Thank you,” Isaac whispered.
The line was moving faster now. Had all these people been on the island? What were they doing there? What if he’d just missed the party, and it was all over? He would be stuck wandering all over all the islands on his map looking for a party that was already over, like the poor sailors on that ghost ship he’d heard about once.
Isaac shivered. “Hey, were you here for a party?” he whispered.
“Hush,” the mouse said. “Luggage doesn’t talk. It’s time to board the ship. You can ask your question later.”
They reached the end of the line, and they were finally able to climb aboard an oddly-shaped flat boat. The goat taking their tickets waved them forwards. “Move to the center,” he said.
The crowd huddled together and watched the goat unhook the boat from the dock. “How does the boat go anywhere?” Isaac asked the beetle. “It doesn’t have a sail or a motor.”
The beetle laughed. “Just watch.”
The goat pulled a lever and the boat folded up and around the passengers. Seats popped up, and everyone began to sit down. Isaac turned to the mouse and beetle. “Let’s sit by a window.”
“They’re portholes,” the mouse said.
“Oh, right.” Isaac looked around. “Can we sit by the portholes? There’s some empty chairs over there.”
The mouse sighed. “I don’t know. Can we?”
Wheeling his suitcase behind him, the beetle called over his shoulder, “I can. I’m not so sure about you. Maybe you’re too short.”
“I was correcting his grammar. Grammar is important,” the mouse huffed. “I am not too short.” He chased after the beetle. Isaac trailed behind them.
Things were still popping up around them. Potted plants, hallways, and bookshelves appeared as they hurried past. When Isaac reached the portholes, the mouse and beetle were already sitting in the chairs, arguing.
Isaac ignored them and kneeled up on the chair so that he could look through the porthole behind it. The boat shook and moved forward. The surface of the water looked closer and closer.
“I think we’re sinking,” Isaac said.
“Of course we are,” the mouse snapped. “It’s supposed to go under the water.”
Isaac gasped. “It’s a submarine! I’ve always wanted to ride on a submarine.”
Just then, the goat approached. “Tickets?”
Isaac jumped up out of his chair. “Wait. If you’re here, who’s driving the boat?”
“The driver,” the goat said.
“Oh. Right.” Isaac sat down again.
The mouse and beetle handed him little brightly colored circles of paper. “And the boy?” the goat asked.
“He’s my luggage,” the mouse said. “I’m allowed one carry on. He carried himself on.”
The goat looked at Isaac. “He doesn’t have a tag.”
Isaac turned out the back of his collar. “My shirt has a tag.”
The goat sighed. “Very well.” He moved on.
The mouse turned to Isaac. “You had questions?”
“Oh, right. Were you at the island for a party?”
“It was a work break,” the beetle said. “We were taking a break to work. I got so much done. I’m really looking forward to the next one.”
“What do you normally do?”
“It’s our turn to ask a question. You already asked one,” the mouse said. “Where are you going?”
“I’m not sure,” Isaac said. “One of the other islands.” He looked out the porthole. They were finally underwater. A catfish swam by the portholes, chased by a dogfish. “Hey did you see that?”
“Yes. Any island would do?” the mouse asked.
Isaac pulled the map out of his pocket. “As long as it’s on my map.”
The mouse looked at the map and nodded. “That’s easy enough.” He reached under the chair and pulled a lever.
The goat appeared. “Ready to leave?” He asked.
“My luggage wants to see an island,” the mouse said.
The goat pulled a page of star stickers. He peeled a gold star from the sheet and stuck it to the middle of Isaac’s forehead.