I don’t know why, but the party is always over when that guy shows up.
One evening at dinner, Isaac made an announcement. “Cousin Reginald invited us to a jam tasting party.”
Marianne put down her spoon and made a face. “I think I’m busy that day. We all are.”
“But I haven’t told you what day it is.” Isaac looked confused.
Marianne rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t matter what day it is. Whenever it is, we’ll be too busy to go.”
“But I like jam.” Charlie smooshed a carrot into the side of his soup bowl with his spoon. “Strawberry, raspberry, grape, apple. I like all kinds of jam. Why don’t you want to go eat jam?”
“It’s all going to be terrible.” Marianne frowned. “You know it is. Cousin Reginald makes his own cologne that smells like raw onions, and he wanted actual shark teeth as dental implants. Everything he does is strange, so he’s probably making pickled pigs feet jam and moldy cheese jam and I don’t know what else. I’m not going to go.”
Charlie looked at Isaac. “Do you think Cousin Reginald is going to make gross jam?”
Isaac felt a little trapped. He knew that Cousin Reginald was still going through a bit of a rebellious phase. It started when he retired and was still going strong. But Cousin Reginald was kind and funny when he wasn’t insulting aliens and trying to start interstellar wars. Besides, he was family.
“Well, sometimes when you’re invited to a party, you go because you want to be polite,” Isaac said at last. “I don’t mean you have to go to every party of course, or that you have to go to parties where you won’t feel safe, or that parties aren’t ever fun, or that…”
Charlie rolled his eyes. “So you’re saying the jam will be awful. I get it.”
Marianne laughed. “It’ll probably taste worse than dirt.”
“Worse than worms and beetles smooshed together,” Charlie added.
“Worse than…” Marianne began.
“I’m eating dinner here,” Isaac reminded them. He sighed. “You don’t have to go. But, maybe you can help me make some jars of jam to take with me to the party as a show of support.”
“We can do that,” Marianne said. “So, what kinds of jam would you like? It can’t be too normal or he’ll be offended. I guess we could do onion jam and jalapeno jelly. Maybe that would be weird enough. Probably not, but I think it will look like we tried.”
“That would be great,” Isaac said gratefully. “I’d be glad to help out.”
“We should do pineapple jelly, too,” Charlie said. He started smooshing a potato.
“That sounds nice,” Isaac said.
“Too nice,” Marianne added.
Charlie looked up. “Oh, lots of people hate pineapple. It’s kind of weird.”
Marianne shrugged. “We’ll add it to the list.”
And so, on the day of Cousin Reginald’s jam tasting, Isaac left for the party with three jars of jam. Marianne and Charlie went to the bug museum with sketchbooks and colored pencils. “Don’t bring anything home,” Marianne said before they left. “Especially not any jam.”
The party was held in a graveyard. Cousin Reginald was setting jars out on paper plates when Isaac arrived. “Are we allowed to do this here?” Isaac looked around, and was relieved that no one was nearby.
“Someone in our family paid for this space. We may as well use it,” Cousin Reginald said. “Besides, I bet they miss parties. I’ve heard that Great-great grandma Rose loved jam too.”
“It could be true,” Cousin Reginald said. “After all, who doesn’t love jam? What did you bring?”
Isaac held out the first jar. “Onion jam…”
“And pineapple jelly.”
Cousin Reginald looked horrified and delighted at the same time. “Pineapple? Ghastly! Put it over there on Grandpa Edgar’s grave. I hear he liked terrible things like puns and crossword puzzles. It seems fitting.”
“So what kinds of jam did you bring?” Isaac asked.
“Why spoil the surprise?” Cousin Reginald smiled. “Isn’t the surprise half the fun?”
It was the strangest party Isaac had been to since that time he was lost in the woods after midnight and somehow ended up stuck in a hollow tree with a family of giant squirrels hosting a riddle tournament. Cousin Reginald’s friends either looked strange and acted normal, or looked normal and acted strange. The odd gray lumps of bread made Isaac nervous, and the jams…
Isaac was afraid to try the jams. He watched the party guests smear the jam on their gray bread with plastic spoons. Once they took a bite, they shrieked or gagged or cried or yelled loudly in strange languages or hissed…
Instead, Isaac wandered around, plate in one hand, spoon in the other, and tried to make conversation in a graveyard with people that were yelling or crying or hissing. He finally gave up and found Cousin Reginald. “So…” he began. He wasn’t sure what to say next.
“Isn’t this going great?” Reginald looked pleased. “I was worried that a jam tasting would be boring. I still can’t believe you brought pineapple jelly, though. I was a little worried that Clarence might have nightmares, so I warned him. He must have said something, because I notice that everyone else is steering clear of it.”
Isaac looked around. The jar of pineapple jelly was still completely full. He wondered what happened to the onion jam and jalapeno jelly. “What happens next?”
“In a half an hour we’ll clean up, and then we’ll take turns reading from the dictionary while the rest of the group sings nursery rhymes in minor keys. After that, it’s freestyle opera…” Cousin Reginald listed the program as he counted things off on his fingers.
“Um, that sounds great, but I don’t think I can stay that long.” How long was this party going to go? And what was freestyle opera, anyway?
“I understand. Jam just isn’t for everyone. It was brave of you to try. Did you want to take anything home for Marianne or Charlie?” Cousin Reginald looked around. “There was the jam with liver and grape koolaid and…”
Isaac shook his head. “I’d probably better not. Keep the pineapple jam. And the others too, if you still have them.” Cousin Reginald laughed.
When Isaac got home, Marianne and Charlie were waiting for him. “How was the jam tasting? Was it horrible?” Marianne asked.
“Did he like our jam?” Charlie asked at the same time.
Isaac told them all about it as he helped them fix dinner. He finished the story just as they finished cooking. He answered all their questions as they set the table.
“I’m glad you didn’t bring anything home,” Charlie said at last. “Especially not any jam.”
When Isaac was getting ready for work, he found a small piece of paper in one of his shoes. It said: You’re invited to a Dinosaur Party in Charlie’s Room after dinner. Bring this ticket to get in.
At the bottom of the ticket, there was a squiggly drawing of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It looked very festive. Isaac was thrilled to be invited to a party and left for work with a smile.
Work seemed to go especially slow in the way that it always does when there’s somewhere else he’d rather be. Isaac kept losing track and had to reread emails and important documents several times. However, he did his best and somehow made it through the day.
Outside, it was freezing cold. Isaac had parked a block away, which wasn’t too far. He pulled his gloves out of his pocket, and a piece of paper fluttered to the ground. It was the ticket to the dinosaur party.
Just as Isaac leaned over to pick it up, a nearly-invisible wind sprite dashed by in a gust of wind. It picked up the ticket and ran away grinning madly, its feet barely touching the ground. Isaac chased after it, and the wind sprite began to leap higher and higher. It grasped the edges of the ticket and used it a parachute to glide on the air currents.
Isaac ran faster and faster. He lunged forward and almost managed to catch the sprite. It dropped through the bars of a storm drain and fluttered to the bottom, out of reach. The wind sprite hugged the ticket to its chest and laughed a hissy, sighing sort of laugh.
The sprite obviously wanted to keep the ticket, but Isaac needed that ticket to get into the party. He patted his pockets to see if there was anything he could offer in trade. He found an old shopping list with the entries all crossed out.
Storing his gloves in his pocket, he began to fold the list. He quickly formed a decent paper airplane. He balanced it in his hand, then gave it a trial toss. It flew out of his hand and landed a good distance away.
The wind sprite watched the airplane with wide eyes. Isaac left to retrieve it. He tossed it so that it flew past the storm drain a few more times. The air was still and waiting.
The sprite held the ticket a little more loosely as its eyes tracked the flight of the paper airplane above the grate. Finally it flew up out of the grate with a puff of wind that knocked the plane out of the air. It crashed to the ground nearby.
The wind sprite dropped the ticket and darted over to the plane. Holding it out in front, the sprite ran with the wind. The planed lifted up higher, and the wind sprite jumped on and flew away in a wild wave of wind.
Isaac ran towards the ticket, certain that it would be carried away too. But he couldn’t see it fluttering away. In fact, he couldn’t see it at all. He looked all around, in a wide circle, and then returned to the spot where he’d last seen it.
Had that rock always been there? It blended into the sidewalk so well that he hadn’t noticed it before. Looking closer, he could see the edge of the ticket poking out from under the rock. He tried to pick up the rock and move it to the side, but it wouldn’t budge.
Somehow, he knew the rock wanted to keep the ticket, but Isaac needed that ticket to get into the party. He checked his pockets again, shuffling around his gloves with cold hands. He pulled out a penny. This might work.
“Look,” Isaac said. “This was once a rock. Now it is shiny and decorated. Look what it can do.” Carefully, Isaac spun the penny. It managed a few turns on the side walk before flopping over. “This is a real treasure.”
Isaac set it next to the rock. “I’ll just leave it here and look over there for a minute.”
When Isaac looked back down, the penny had disappeared under the rock. The ticket was sitting on the sidewalk, looking only slightly crumpled. He picked it up quickly.
He held onto the ticket tightly and walked quickly to the car, not even stopping to put on his gloves. He shut it into the glove box, started the car, and turned on the heat even before putting on his seatbelt. It took a while for the car to warm up and a little longer for his hands to feel warm.
When he got home, he opened the glove box and was relieved that the ticket was still there. He kept it next to his plate at dinner, where he could keep an eye on it. Luckily, it didn’t go anywhere.
Isaac still had his ticket when it was time for the dinosaur party. He was an old shopping list and a penny poorer, but he didn’t really mind. The party was worth that and more. They had a lot of fun playing dinosaur games and acting out their favorite part of the dinosaur movies and drawing happy dinosaur pictures. It was the best dinosaur party Isaac had ever attended.
Billy threw the door open. In the middle of the otherwise empty room, there was a tall, white door frame attached by wires and pipes to a semicircle of machines behind it. The door frame was filled with water, like a vertical pool. Isaac had no idea what was keeping the water in place.
“Go on, you can look a little closer, just don’t touch. I’d hate to have you transported to the bottom of the sea.” Billy waved his arms grandly towards the door frame.
Isaac didn’t need a second invitation. He walked in a circle around the door frame and then inspected the machines. It was all so strange. He walked back to the door frame and looked closer. He could almost see something on the other side of the water that wasn’t the other side of the room.
He pulled the mist goggles on. The image slid into focus. “It’s an island on the other side of the water,” Isaac said. “I think the water is just a doorway.” He squinted. It looked like there were banners and balloons marking a path into the forest. It must be the island with the party!
“Let me see.” Billy held out his hand for the goggles. Isaac handed them over. Billy put them on and squinted. “They must be for all kinds of water, not just mist. I’ll have to test them on ice later,” he mumbled. “But why isn’t that the moon? I designed it to reach to the edge of the world. That should land me on the moon. It makes no sense. I’ll have to recalculate.”
Isaac took out his map and unfolded it. One island left. It was on the edge of the map. Was that the edge of the world, too? How did this world work?
Isaac cleared his throat. Billy ignored him and kept talking to himself. He tried again. When that didn’t work, he tapped Billy’s shoulder. “Can I test your moon gate? I’d like to go to the island.”
Billy looked at him intently as though he was trying to look through him. Finally he nodded and pulled some paperwork out of his pocket. “You’d have to sign a waiver, of course. And I’d need your medical history.”
Isaac took the forms and a pen and went to work filling out the paperwork. Billy took the papers and had Isaac leave the pen outside the door to the room. When he came back in, Billy was standing behind the circle of machines.
Billy waved. “When you’re ready, step through the gate. You might want to hold your breath.”
Isaac nodded. He was too nervous to say anything. Instead, he took a deep breath and then stepped through the gate.
The gate and room and scientist all vanished the moment he stepped on the sand. He stumbled, but caught himself. He took out his map and checked it. All eight islands had a big red x.
He looked over at the forest. He could see the path marked with balloons and banners. The queen of everything and a lady with long hair and a sword were coming down the path to greet him. Both were wearing golden crowns. Isaac stepped forward to meet them and suddenly felt something heavy settle on his head.
He reached up and felt something smooth and cold. He lifted it off his head to examine it. It was a golden crown, glowing in the sunlight. He turned it around in his hands and glimpsed an engraving on the inside of the crown. When he turned it just right, he could read what it said:
King of the Unseen, the Unheard, and the Unnoticed
“But what does it mean?” he murmured.
“You’ll find out eventually,” said a voice at his elbow. He jumped and turned. It was the queen of everything.
“We all did,” agreed a mournful voice at his other side. He turned to see the woman with the sword. Was this the queen of dreams he’d heard about?
“But how do I…” he began.
“Hush, there isn’t time,” the queen of everything said. “Everyone is waiting.”
“We heard from the captain,” the other queen added. “He said that you want to help.”
“What can I do?” Isaac asked.
The queen of everything adjusted her shawl. “There will be cake at the party, you know.”
The other queen nodded. “What’s a party without cake?”
Isaac nodded. “I like cake.” He really didn’t see where this was going. “Did you want some cake? I’ll share, of course.”
“Just listen,” the queen of everything said. She pulled something out of the knot of her shawl and cupped it in her hands. “Look what I brought.”
Isaac leaned in close to look. It was a small candle and a single match. The queen held them out to Isaac, still half-hidden in her hands. The other queen stood nearby, looking around sharply, as though she expected them to be attacked at any moment.
Isaac took them and quickly put them in his pocket. “But what are they for?” he whispered.
“What happens when you put a candle on a cake and light it?” The queen of everything whispered back.
“If you blow it out, you get a wish. But isn’t that only for birthdays?” Isaac asked.
“Today’s your birthday as a king, isn’t it?” The queen adjusted her shawl again.
“But what should I wish for?” Isaac asked.
The other queen approached them. “It’s time. They’re coming.”
Isaac looked down the path. A large group of people was coming to meet him.
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.
“Do you both live in this house?” Isaac asked, once the song was over.
“Of course we do, it’s our house,” Hannah said.
Anna nodded. “It’s our house, so we live here.”
“So who lives in the other house?”
Hannah and Anna looked confused. “What house?” they asked in unison.
Isaac unfolded the map and showed the picture of the two houses. “I could only find your house, though. I didn’t see any signs leading anywhere else.”
“Oh, that house.” Hannah jumped up and grabbed Isaac’s arm.
Anna jumped up and grabbed the other arm. “We’ll take you there.”
Isaac stood up and allowed the two girls to lead him through the bushes and down a steep hill. They stopped in front of a wall of overgrown rose bushes.
“She doesn’t do much yard work,” Hannah said.
Anna nodded. “She mostly just sleeps. She’s the queen of dreams, you know.”
Isaac, who had been contemplating the sharp thorns on the nearest rosebush, turned to look at the little girls in horror. “You mean she can’t go home?”
Hannah shrugged. “She is home.”
Isaac shook his head. “No, I mean the home she had before she came here, where her family is. She can’t go back?”
“She is home.” Anna put her hands on her hips. “Hannah told you that. They’re all in her dreams now.”
“What do you mean? What happened?”
Hannah stepped closer to Anna and put her hands on her hips too. “She became the queen of dreams and took a nice nap and then went back.” She looked at Anna.
Anna continued the story. “But too much time had passed. Her parents and her sister and brother had all grown old and died. Her baby cousin was a great-grandpa. So, she couldn’t go back, not really.”
Hannah smiled. “So she came back here and she dreams about them, and in her dreams they’re real. So she doesn’t want anyone to wake her up.”
Anna smiled. “She has a great big sword and would probably kill anyone who tried. She’s really scary.”
The girls continued smiling, but Isaac frowned. It was an awful story. He hoped it wasn’t really true. Isaac looked at the wall of rose bushes. “So, no one would throw a party anywhere near her house if people are scared to wake her up, right?”
“We could check, but we’d probably hear them screaming from here if they did,” Hannah said.
“She wakes up if people are too noisy?”
“Doesn’t everybody? I do,” Anna said. “Especially when Hannah snores.”
“I don’t snore, you do.” Hannah glared at Anna.
“Yes, you do. I wish I had a giant sword too.”
“Can we see over the rose bushes from the top of the hill?” Isaac interrupted. He didn’t like where this argument was going.
The girls turned to glare at Isaac, then looked back up the hill. “Maybe,” they said in unison.
Isaac hurried back up the hill. He walked along the top of the hill until he found a spot where he could look across the rest of the island. There was an empty overgrown garden, the red roof of a far away house, and a deserted beach beyond it. The party wasn’t on this island.
Hannah and Anna trudged back up the hill. “Time for cheese curds,” Hannah said happily.
“Yay!” Anna said.
“Wait, can you tell me the best way off this island?” Isaac asked. The girls were already pushing their way through the bushes back to their yard. Isaac chased after them and tried not to worry about the story they told. He would get home and see his family again. He got home last time, after all.