Isaac unfolded his map and told the tall, thin man about his visit with the queen of everything. The man nodded and made notes on his own battered copy of the map. When Isaac finished, the man put his pencil and map away with a smile.
The smile transformed his face, and suddenly he looked much younger. “Thank you. This may change everything. Maybe we can finally go home!”
“I hope so,” Isaac said. “It’s nice here, but I don’t think I’d like to stay forever.”
“There’s no place like home, right?” the man said. “We’ll drop you off at the next island. I can see that you’ve not checked it yet. We’re almost there.”
Isaac followed his gaze. What had seemed to be a wispy cloud on the horizon was now more clearly a mound of dark fog closer to the water. “That’s an island?” It didn’t look at all inviting.
“You’ll see soon enough. No sense putting it off, right?”
“Right.” Isaac suddenly wasn’t so sure about this. What if he became the king of the dung beetles? Maybe he wasn’t in so much of a hurry to find the party. “I could come with you and make sure you find the right place,” he offered.
“You gave us great directions,” the man said. “We’ll find it. Here, Johnny!” The man waved at nothing. “Take the boy to shore.”
Isaac watched as invisible crewmen lowered a rowboat to the water followed by a rope ladder. He climbed down the ladder and sat in the boat. The ladder slid up the side of the ship, and the little rowboat seemed to row itself to shore.
The closer they got, the thicker the fog grew. By the time they reached shore, he could only see the ship waiting in the harbor when a breeze blew softly and parted the fog for a moment..
Feeling quite nervous now, he stepped onto the sand. He turned and looked at the empty seat between the moving oars. “Thank you,” he said. And the boat rowed back to the ship.
A booming, crackling sound echoed across the water, followed by a splash. “I think that was the cannon. Did he fire it to say goodbye?” Isaac asked himself. The next time the breeze parted the fog, the ship was gone.
Isaac turned back towards the island. He could see the outline of some large rocks just ahead. Everything else was lost in the dense fog. Cautiously, Isaac started walking towards the rocks.
“Ahoy! Ahoy there!” yelled a voice from the fog. “Have you got my package?”
“It’s my package! Check the name on the label,” said another voice. “It should say Professor Grey.”
“But I’m Professor Gray,” said the first voice.
“No you’re not, I am,” said the second.
And then, next to the rocks, Isaac could see the outline of two figures. It looked a bit like a goat and a bear. But not quite. “I don’t have any packages,” Isaac said.
“Of course you do. Why else would you be here?”
“He may want to sign up as a test subject. Were you planning on doing any medical trials?”
“Not until I fix the moon gate. Every time I power it up, I see water instead of the moon.”
“Well, that would be handy if you were a fish. Now stop trying to steal my packages.”
A breeze blew the fog away for a moment, and the bear and goat outlines turned into people dressed in white lab coats. The tall, bearlike man huffed and left. The old, bearded man turned and smiled at Isaac. And then the fog was back.
“Would you like to see my moon gate?” the old man asked.
Isaac nodded, and then remembered the man couldn’t see him. “Sure.”
“Then follow me.”
The outline of the man disappeared into the fog. “Wait! I can’t see you,” Isaac said.
“Then follow my voice. I’ll sing you a song I wrote.”
This sounded familiar. “Is it a long song?” Isaac asked.
“Yes. Make sure to clap when I get to the end.”
Isaac followed the voice.
The dragon flapped its wings a few times. Then it jumped up into the air and flew in wide circles, spiraling higher and higher. Isaac held up a hand to shade his eyes so he could watch the dragon fly.
The dragon paused, just for a moment, and then he tucked his wings into his sides and dove almost straight down. He opened his wings at the bottom of his dive and careened towards Isaac.
His talons locked around Isaac’s shoulders and upper arms, and the dragon beat his wings against the air as they climbed higher and higher. Isaac looked down. The island seemed empty, except for the low wall that was now a thin line, dividing the island in half.
Isaac reached up and clutched the dragon’s ankles. “Please don’t drop me!” He shouted.
“Let go!” the dragon shrieked and tightened its grip on Isaac’s shoulders.
“Only if you put me down somewhere safe.”
“Not on my island!”
“Somewhere else then.” Isaac winced as he looked down. The island looked so far away. If he fell from here, he’d never get back home.
“Fine.” The dragon dove once more, and Isaac held on tight, closing his eyes against the biting wind.
And then his feet were touching something just as the dragon released his shoulders. Isaac let go and opened his eyes. It looked like he was standing in a wooden basket with sky all around him. His knees felt weak and he sat down suddenly.
The dragon was already spiraling higher. “Never come back,” he shouted as he flew away.
Isaac watched him go, and then crawled to the edge of the basket and looked down. He was in the crows nest of a ship. He stepped onto the rope ladder hanging nearby and climbed down to the deck of the ship.
A tall thin man with big bushy eyebrows was waiting on the deck, arms folded. “A stowaway? I’d send you the way of the bat and the owl I found hiding aboard my ship, but I can see that it’s already too late for you.”
“What do you mean?” Isaac asked.
“You can stand on the deck of my ship, and you’re squinting in the sunlight. You don’t see mist or a ghost ship or a skeleton crew, do you?”
Isaac looked around. The sun was shining, and the ship looked solid and deserted. “No, I don’t see any of that.”
“Then you’re one of us, those cursed to play the terrible game. I’d tell you to quit and go home, but it’s too late for you.” He shook his head. “Too late!” He yelled and shook his fist at the sky.
“Do you know the way home?” Isaac asked. “I thought we could go home once we found the party.”
“Not every one can, and few like what they find when they get there. Spending time between worlds like we do changes us. There’s no preventing that.”
The man lifted a busy eyebrow. “Did you see more than a handful of people or animals on any of the islands?
Isaac shook his head.
“Of course not. You could only see the one between worlds like you are. People that didn’t quite belong in one place or another. And they were the only ones who could see you.”
The man held up a little pencil that was missing its eraser. “I found the party, a long, long time ago. They made me the king of wishes. I was so pleased. So foolish. They didn’t say that any of my wishes would come true in the way I expected them to.”
“What happened?” Isaac asked.
“I wrote all my wishes into a little book.” The man pulled a notebook out of his pocket. “And then I watched them all go wrong. I wished for a ship and crew. My crew fought constantly and couldn’t work together to sail the ship anywhere. I wished for my favorite meal. I now have an unlimited supply of roasted chicken that I’ve somehow become allergic to.”
“Did you wish to go home?” Isaac asked.
“I did, and now I’m half here and half there, on a ghost ship that is only real to those just as cursed as I am, forever between worlds.” The man put the notebook and pencil into his pockets.
“Can’t you wish you hadn’t come here?” Isaac asked.
“I can’t change the past. The words just vanish from the page.” The man looked sad. “The only thing that worked was to erase the wishes. But I lost the eraser somewhere, and I’ve spent so many years trying to retrace my steps.”
“But can’t you wish for the eraser?” Isaac asked.
“And risk destroying my only chance to fix this half-life?” The man glared at Isaac.
Isaac thought for a moment. “Have you met the queen of everything?” he asked.
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.
The boat, the goat, the beetle, and the mouse all disappeared. Isaac was standing in the middle of a dark, dense jungle. “Where am I?” he asked. “Wait a minute. Who am I?” But he couldn’t remember.