Of Giants and Ice
n my first trip to Yellowstone National Park, I threw a rock at a dragon. It wasn’t my smartest idea.
I’m not telling you this to brag, or to scare you away from national parks and their fire-breathing inhabitants, but you need to know: at some point in your life, you stop acting like a side character in someone else’s life story and start being the main character in your own.
Look. If you’re like me, you’ve dreamed of it already—your real life, I mean. Maybe it happens when you scan the whole carpool line and realize that no one has come for you. Or maybe when your parents are shouting at each other so loud you can hear them three rooms away. You look out the window and wonder when the good stuff happens—when your life gets jump-started. You might not be sure what that real life will be, but you know that this really isn’t it.
Well, you’re right. It’s not. Just around the corner lurks the beginning of your story.
And I’m here to tell you: It won’t be much like you think it’ll be. It’s always more terrifying and more awesome than you can ever imagine.
My life story, for example, started when I threw a rock at a dragon.
Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. I was kind of busy running for my life.
You might not recognize yours, either.
• • •
No one could give this presentation to a bunch of sixth graders and get away with it. Maybe to grown-ups, but not us.
“Ever After School offers a wide range of activities between three and seven every afternoon. You can do your homework in our reading room, hang out with your friends, or even take a special afternoon class—all without the hassle of a babysitter or a nanny.”
A few of my classmates snickered.
Definitely a mistake to bring up the nanny.
Ms. White, the representative from EAS, slammed her briefcase on our teacher’s desk so hard that the students in the front jumped.
“I have handed out an application form for those of you who are interested,” she said. “Please complete it with your name, physical address, e-mail address, and phone number, and bring it to the front when you’re finished. Are there any questions?”
I watched it all from my desk, a row from the back, against the wall farthest from the window. That part of the classroom attracts the least amount of attention. (Trust me, I know. I had avoiding attention down to an art form.)
Then one kid raised his hand. “Can I go to the bathroom?”
“Yeah, me too,” said his buddy, seated behind him. “I have to go too.”
They both struggled to keep a straight face. A clear sign that they wanted to goof off out of class.
Ms. White wasn’t fooled. “No, but I will speak to Mrs. Coleman about the next student who wastes my time,” she said in a cold voice. “She can send you to the principal.”
After that, all my classmates bent over their papers silently. Even if the only thing they did with the form was make a paper airplane.
I had only been in Mrs. Coleman’s class for a week and a half, but I had met plenty of recruiters before. They were usually friendly people who introduced themselves and whatever program they promoted in a ridiculously upbeat voice.
Not Ms. White. For one thing, she was beautiful in a scary way—with very pale skin and dark hair and bright red lipstick. With one sharp look, she had sent Mrs. Coleman scurrying to the teacher’s lounge of Ridgefield Middle School. Then Ms. White passed out a stack of photocopies while silently and creepily glaring at us all. She obviously didn’t even like kids.
She also kept weird things in her purse. After threatening us with a visit to the principal, she pulled out a mirror—not even a whole mirror, just a shard about the size of her hand, diamond-shaped with jagged edges. She laid it carefully at the edge of the desk.
That mirror convinced me I was seeing things.
I filled my form out politely. When I finished, I took it up to the front like Ms. White had asked and placed it on top of the stack.
The mirror’s reflection caught my eye. It had a girl’s face in it, but not my face—someone older and very pretty. Long hair fell over her shoulders, a blond so pale that it looked almost silver. She stared into the mirror, like she was waiting for something she wanted very badly and couldn’t decide if our classroom could help her get it faster. She also wore a crown made of towering icicles, which made her even weirder than Ms. White.
I glanced over my shoulder toward the door.
No one was there.
I looked back at the mirror to check again, but the picture had changed: Now a wrinkled man in spectacles struggled to open a leather-bound book. He was either a very small man, or it was one enormous book. I didn’t bother to look behind me this time, because once the book was open, the picture in the mirror changed again. It centered on the man’s face like a camera zooming in during a movie. The man’s mouth moved, and even though there was no sound, I was sure he said, “Rory Landon.” My name.
I jumped away, rubbing my eyes.
The entire room stared at me. Even Ms. White. I felt my face heating up, like it always did when I was the center of attention.
I glanced at the mirror one more time, but now it only showed the speckles on the ceiling tiles.
“Are you feeling all right, Rory?” Ms. White asked.
“Fine.” I hurried back to my seat. It was hard enough being the new girl in April. I didn’t want to also become the girl who started hallucinating after one too many fish sticks in the cafeteria. Especially if it might end up in a tabloid someplace. People were still looking at me, so I added, “I, um, thought I was going to sneeze.”
A couple kids snickered, but Ms. White just turned to the rest of the class. “Any more forms to turn in?”
By the time school ended, I had let the whole mirror incident slide. The weirdest thing that happened after Ms. White left was Bobby Fuller getting a bloody nose during P.E.
Then, after the bell rang, I turned my phone on and found two messages.
My heart sank. Getting voice mail ten minutes before you’re supposed to be picked up is never a good sign.
“See you tomorrow, Rory Landon,” someone said behind me.
I turned. Two seventh graders passed by, in cleats and shin guards, on their way to soccer practice. They had the exact same hairstyle—blond in a high ponytail—and I had no idea who they were.
I saw the faraway glaze in their eyes, and I knew they were thinking of my parents, maybe remembering Mom’s Oscar acceptance speech or the poster for Dad’s latest film.
“See you,” I said with an awkward half-wave. I could pretty much guarantee that before they started practice they would tell at least three separate people that they’d talked to the daughter of the famous Maggie Wright and Eric Landon. I tried to look busy listening to my voice mail so no one else would talk to me.
“Hi, sweetie! It’s Amy.”
Amy, my mother’s assistant, always tried to sound cheerful when she told me bad news. I braced myself.
“I’m so sorry. We’re running a little late today. The director changed the shooting schedule around. I don’t think we’ll be able to pick you up until maybe six o’clock.”
I sighed. That was hours later than usual.
“You can hang out in the library. I’ll call you if we can get there any earlier. I am really sorry, honey.” It sounded like she really meant it.
Okay, so maybe this part wasn’t weird.
When people found out Mom was an actress, they usually thought my life was pretty glamorous, but most of the time, it was like this.
I was a practiced new kid. I was practically a professional.
I’d been to ten schools in the last three years. We started moving a lot after my parents divorced and my mom got tired of running into my father in L.A. Since then, Mom focused on making movies that shoot only on location.
It wasn’t really so bad, but I was tired of getting picked up late.
The other message from Amy was the strange one.
“Hey, Rory. Me again! I bet you’re sick of the library, so maybe you could try out that Ever After School thing. Ms. White called this afternoon to offer you a place in their program.”
First of all, my mom never placed me into any program without speaking to every teacher, principal, and guidance counselor I might meet. She liked to be “involved,” as she called it. I usually called it “overprotective.”
I was glad that she cared, but it also meant that the whole school knew who my parents were before my first class. Which kind of led to kids like those seventh graders talking to me for reasons that have nothing to do with me.
Just once, I’d like to walk into a school and not hear “Maggie Wright” and “Eric Landon” whispered as I passed.
Not that I had ever mentioned it to Mom or Dad.
“She spoke to your mom. She seems very nice,” Amy continued.
“Nice” didn’t seem like the right word to describe Ms. White.
“Very professional.” That sounded a lot more fitting. “Ms. White said that if you wanted to do a test run this evening, you could walk there. To the right of the school, three houses down, the red door. She said you can’t miss it. What do you think?”
It couldn’t be worse than two and a half hours in the library. The kids’ shelves at this branch were pretty picked over, and surfing the Internet for that long made my eyes hurt.
“Who knows? You might make some friends,” Amy added slyly. “Anyway, I’ll pick you up there at six. See you soon!” That meant she and Mom had made the decision for me.
• • •
The red door belonged to an ordinary brick house. The lawn was a little overgrown, and I didn’t see any other kids going in. When I noticed a JUST SOLD! real estate sign hidden behind the bushes, I thought I might have the wrong place.
But the plaque on the door read Ever After School in curly script. Someone had added a little blue Post-it that said: Welcome, Rory!
Sketchy was the word that came to mind. My mom would’ve wanted me to back out and head to the library instead.
The door opened. A woman about Mom’s age came out, smiling. Her brown hair was very frizzy, and she wore a blue and white apron around a thickening waist. “You must be Rory Landon. Come in! I’m Ellie. I’m so sorry that the Director couldn’t come meet you herself. A minor emergency has come up that requires her immediate attention. You know how it is. Always putting out small fires.”
Laughing a little to herself, she bustled through a dim hallway, but she didn’t give me time to look around. At the far end, she held the door open to the backyard. “Everyone’s so excited to make your acquaintance. Snow has told us so much about you.”
“Ms. White, dear,” Ellie explained.
“Snow White?” I said, in disbelief.
With a sinking feeling, I realized that this was probably one of those themed day care centers. I hadn’t gotten stuck at one of those since I was seven. I glanced back. Maybe there was still time for me to pretend I had tons of homework and escape to the library.
If Ellie noticed, she pretended she didn’t. She closed the door behind us. It was as red as the front door with a red crystal doorknob. “This is the ruby door, my dear. Remember that for when it’s time to go home. This way, now. You’re just in time for the field trip.”
The backyard looked like a formal courtyard. An enormous tree stood in the middle of the grass, almost three stories tall, with branches dipping to the ground and twisting up again into the sky.
Underneath the tree, a crowd of kids had gathered around a woman standing on a podium. Blond hair fell to her waist and curled girlishly. Her velvet dress was way old-fashioned. The last time I had seen one like it was when Mom played a medieval queen in a historical drama. The blond woman wore it like a uniform. Which meant that EAS was definitely into the themed thing.
“That’s the Director,” Ellie whispered. “She’s explaining today’s trip. The sixth graders are over there.” She pointed out half a dozen kids my own age. One of the boys stood on the lower branches of the tree, leaning against the trunk, his arms crossed over his chest. A girl in a green silk dress took in his every move with a small smile.
If the kids had also been dressed in costumes, I might have turned and made a break for it. Instead, I dropped my backpack and crossed the courtyard. A few people noticed me, but most just listened to the Director as I crept around the trunk.
If you’re like me, an only child whose mom’s job forces you to change schools three times a year, you develop a system for making friends. The first step in mine was to identify possible candidates, attracting as little attention as possible.
The girl in the green dress tossed her long blond hair and moved away from me, nose up. Friendship with her didn’t seem likely—or very appealing.
So I stood by a girl sitting on the roots of the tree, bent so low over a book that the beads in her braids touched the page. She read really fast, turning pages every few seconds and tapping her dark brown fingers on the spine nervously. It didn’t look like it, but I had the feeling that she was listening to every word the Director said.
“Rangers have reported five fires in the park area.” The Director gestured to a map behind her, but it was too far away for me to read. “Four have been extinguished, and the park is allowing one to smolder in order to clear out the underbrush. Our objective is to stop the source before the problem gets out of hand.”
She surveyed the crowd like a general sending troops into battle. When she saw me, she smiled. I froze, all my plans for keeping a low profile going up in smoke.
“Ah, Rory—so glad you could join us.”
Over a hundred heads turned toward me. A flush crept hotly across my cheeks, and trying to smile, I swallowed around a lump in my throat.
“Everyone, this is Rory Landon. She’s new to Ever After School, so it would be best if you could watch out for her,” the Director said.
My face grew even hotter, and I knew I was doing a great impression of a human traffic light.
“Please join me in welcoming Rory.”
Everybody around me applauded dutifully, and looked me over a second too long to be normal, even the boy in the tree. I waited for them to start whispering about my actress mother or director father, but they didn’t.
“And Chase Turnleaf, let me remind you that we do not climb the Tree of Hope,” the Director added sternly.
When everyone turned to him, the boy grinned carelessly, as if it didn’t matter whether he was in the Tree or not. He jumped down and landed as lightly as a cat.
“And let me remind you all of the rules for today’s excursion,” the Director said. “Only high school EASers are allowed to approach the problem directly.”
Surprised, I looked into the crowd more carefully. At least half the kids were definitely too old for day care. I started to worry that Ever After School was one of those role-play programs, where they stage mock battles with elaborate point systems.
And I left all my armor at home.
“Those of you in middle school are attending purely in a scouting capacity,” the Director added.
Even weirder, I didn’t recognize any of the younger kids. Considering that we were so close to my school, you would think I would see one or two familiar faces. Maybe it was just because I was new to the area.
“Do you guys go to Ridgefield too?” I asked. (This is another friend-making tactic—finding out who answers questions nicely, and who doesn’t.)
Chase Turnleaf frowned, as if this was a really weird thing to ask. The girl in the green dress said, “No. Millstone.”
From the snotty way she said it, I guessed Millstone was exclusive—maybe even private. If most of the girls were like her, I was really grateful Mom hadn’t sent me there.
“Hansel has led the juniors and seniors ahead,” the Director continued.
“Hansel? As in Hansel and Gretel?”
I hadn’t meant for anyone to hear me, but without looking up, the girl sitting on the roots answered, “Yes.”
“Now, follow me. We’ll need to hurry if we’re going to get back in time.” The Director rushed down the foot ladder behind the podium and led us across the courtyard, her skirt raised in both gloved hands. The train of her dress dragged behind her over the grass. It was embroidered with a flame-colored bird. “Don’t forget to take a flare as you enter the passage.”
They were taking this a little far. “Who’s she supposed to be? Cinderella?”
“No,” said the same girl. She stood up, still flipping through pages in her book, Dragons for Dummies: Dos and Don’ts, as the crowd meandered across the courtyard. Her thick, old-fashioned glasses made her brown eyes look huge. “Ellie’s Cinderella. The Director is Sleeping Beauty.”
I laughed a little, but the girl gave me an odd look.
As we lined up, she read one final page, closed her book, and tucked it behind a box holding open a yellow door. Then she held out her hand with a smile. “I’m Lena.”
“Rory.” I shook her hand, relieved that she’d made the first move.
The hallway we walked down was dark, lit only with strips of tiny lights on the floor like you see in airplane cabins and movie theaters.
“We know who you are,” said a boy walking behind us. It was Chase. His blond hair hung in shaggy curls around his ears, and he looked a lot taller up close. “Ms. White came back from your school and dragged Rumpy into a conference about you for two whole hours—”
“Don’t call him that.” Lena glanced back nervously.
Chase ignored her completely, which I didn’t like much.
After being the new girl so many times, I’d gotten better at figuring people out. Chase seemed like he couldn’t decide what he wanted to be exactly—the class clown or the school bully. It was probably better to avoid him until he made a decision.
So I turned to Lena. “Why were they talking about me?”
Lena sighed. “We were hoping you could tell us.”
“Was it because of my parents?” It would not be a good sign if even the adults running Ever After School got excited over Mom and Dad.
“Why?” asked Lena. “Are they Characters?”
I stared at her blankly, wondering if “Character” was a code word in role-play speak.
“Your dad’s not an Aladdin, is he?” Chase asked darkly.
That had to be the single weirdest question anyone had ever asked me about my father.
“His name is Eric,” I said hesitantly.
“That name sounds familiar. . . .” Lena said. For a second, I thought she would make the connection and ask, Eric Landon, the director? But she just looked thoughtful.
Maybe, just maybe, nobody here knew anything about my parents.
Most people couldn’t tell just by looking at me. Everyone recognized Mom. She was the petite, elegant blonde they’d seen on magazine covers. I looked more like my dad—athletic and on the tall side, with wavy brown hair so thick that it went everywhere no matter how tight my ponytail was. The only part of me that came from Mom was my eyes—hazel with dark, arching eyebrows.
“Sometimes parents don’t talk about it,” Lena added with a sympathetic smile. “They don’t want to get your hopes up—in case you don’t turn out to be a Character.”
But if these kids didn’t know— Well, it made this role-play deal look a lot more promising.
I wanted to ask what a Character was, but then Chase nodded to his left where three boys with light brown hair and brown eyes walked with flashlights. “These are the Zipes brothers—Conner, Kyle, and Kevin.”
“Nice to meet you,” one of them said.
“We’re triplets,” said another.
“Fraternal,” added the last.
“So you can tell us apart,” said the first.
“Great,” I said. Maybe it was the dim light, but they all looked identical to me—except that maybe one was a little taller and one had darker hair.
Triplets were tough. I had been friends with identical twins a couple schools back. Erna and Erma were always nice to me, but every once in a while, they would completely forget I was there and start talking like they had a secret language. If these guys were fraternal, they might not be like that, but I would have to wait until I could tell them apart to be sure.
Lena pointed to the girl in the green silk dress, who was walking ahead of us and hadn’t once looked back. “And that’s Adelaide.”
“Charlotte Adelaide Eleanora Radcliffe,” Adelaide corrected.
“What’s her problem?” I whispered to Lena.
“Her grandmother is a grand duchess or something, so she thinks she can act like a princess.” Then Lena rolled her eyes so hugely that I saw it even in the dark, and we both grinned.
I liked Lena.
That hallway seemed longer than hallways in a building should be, but maybe it only felt that way when it was crowded with students shuffling along in the dark.
My elbow brushed the wall, which was cold, like wet stone, and it smelled a little like rotten eggs. I wasn’t the only one who noticed.
“All right, own up,” said an older boy. “Who farted?”
“That’s sulfur, dummy,” replied one of his classmates, and several people laughed, including Chase.
Lena shivered and started counting on her fingers. “Besides fire, weapons include teeth, claws, tail—”
She seemed way more into the role-play deal than I was. I sighed, but another step in making friends was developing shared interests. “So, where are we going again?”
“Yellowstone National Park,” said Chase.
“Oh. I’ve never been there.” Yellowstone was thousands of miles across the continent, not just a short walk down a creepy corridor, but I played along anyway. “Are there other rules I should know before we start the game?”
“Uh-oh.” Lena stared at me. “You didn’t have your orientation yet, did you?”
“There was an orientation?”
Lena gasped. “Oh, my gumdrops.”
“This should be fun,” said Adelaide.
The triplets behind us laughed.
I ignored them. Lena looked like she might have a panic attack any second. “What problem are we supposed to be looking for?” I asked.
“Nobody tell her,” said Chase quickly. “It’ll ruin the surprise. Who wants to bet we have a screamer?” Someone patted my head in the dark.
“Hey!” I swatted at the hand. The other kids were really laughing now. My hands curled into fists, but I didn’t lose my temper. I just told myself that this was better than the usual gossip, even if I wasn’t totally sure that was true.
“I don’t think I’ll tell you either,” Lena said, more worried than teasing. “You’ll either freak out or not believe me.” There was a light up ahead. We were almost outside. The air felt cooler than it had in the courtyard. “I just hope that we don’t see anything bigger than a buffalo.”
We stepped out into a forest. I blinked in surprise. It looked nothing like the woods outside my school. No oaks, no maples, no roads, either—just hills covered in pines as far as I could see.
“None of them waited?” Lena said, horrified. “The Director specifically said that someone would be stationed outside in case we had any problems.”
“I’m sure it’ll be okay,” I said, a little distracted by the exit. It looked a lot like the mouth of a cave.
Lena pulled me to the side. “We’ll just wait here.”
“Do what you want,” Chase said, leading Adelaide and the triplets over a small stream. Part of me wanted to ask who put him in charge, but I bit my tongue.
“Wait!” Lena called after them, but none of the sixth graders looked back.
Apparently, it was also against the rules to stay there alone.
Tagging along behind the others, Lena comforted herself by repeating all the rules that the Director had told them before I arrived. I tried to pay attention, but I couldn’t stop staring at the tall, skinny pines and the yellowish hills with hidden pockets of melting snow.
“Travel in squadrons of no less than seven,” Lena said, huffing a little as Chase started up a ridge. We passed a sign that said OLD FAITHFUL—15 MI. Ever After School really went all out with this role-playing deal. “If we see any signs of the beast, we’re supposed to send up a flare and wait for one of the high school squadrons to reach us.”
One of the triplets pointed over the ridge. “There’s one.”
“Where? Is Hansel with them?” Lena rushed up to look.
When I saw the drop, bile rose to my throat. I stumbled back behind the others, hoping that no one could tell that I’d broken out in a cold sweat. Heights aren’t my favorite thing in the world.
After a few steadying breaths, I made myself peer over the ridge with everyone else.
A hundred feet below us, a herd of buffalo grazed on a plain of short yellow grass, steam billowing around them. Smaller figures—the teenage squadron—passed just beyond them. One of them playfully swung a long, pointy thing that looked suspiciously like a sword. “What’s that he’s carrying?” I asked.
“One of these.” Chase lifted a short silver sword. It had a blue-colored jewel on the hilt and his name etched on the blade.
The triplets looked impressed—and kind of jealous.
That was about the time I started to feel like I was dreaming.
“Oh,” I said. A bald eagle soared in and landed directly opposite us in the top branches of a pine tree.
“You weren’t supposed to bring that!” Lena cried.
Chase shrugged. His grin took up half his face, and he had a dimple in his right cheek.
Mom always said to be careful of someone with dimples. They usually know how cute they are, and they’re used to getting away with stuff. Of course, my dad had a dimple too, on his chin, and since the divorce, she’d been a little biased.
“Need to be able to defend any damsels-in-distress.” Chase looked over at Adelaide and me.
Adelaide smiled in a syrupy way, and I liked her even less.
Lena eyed Chase’s sword like it was going to come to life and bite somebody. “The Director said that we aren’t supposed to attack it ourselves. She said if we—”
“Shut it already.” Chase slid his sword back in its sheath. “We were all there. We know what she said.”
Lena looked hurt. If we were going to be friends, I couldn’t let anyone talk to her like that.
So, even though I was kind of tired of hearing about it too, and even though I felt the blush creeping up again, I said, “Well, I missed it. And I think it’s important to know what’s going on.”
Chase only rolled his eyes and started over the next ridge, but Lena smiled gratefully. “Signs of the beast include fire, fewmets, scales—”
The tallest triplet pointed up ahead. “Does smoke count as a sign?”
A dark gray cloud rose in a plume to our right, and everyone perked up.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Lena stopped walking. “Quick—who has a flare?”
Chase shook his head and hurried toward the smoke. “The Director also said there have been a bunch of fires already. You don’t want to send up a false alarm, do you?”
Lena was obviously torn, but she kept quiet as we approached the smoldering tree—a smaller pine, charred gray. A little orange flame danced on one of the bottom branches, the only part still burning.
Chase blew it out.
“Well done,” said one triplet.
His brother examined the golden embers glowing through the trunk. “That fixed it.”
“Hey. Only we can prevent forest fires,” Chase said, and they all cracked up. Even Lena smiled tremulously.
I stared at the smoking tree. If this wasn’t a dream, and if Ever After School was setting fire to trees, then they took the role-play game really seriously. I could get in a lot of trouble. If the wrong people found out about it, I could get my parents into a lot of trouble. I edged away, wondering if I could find the way back by myself.
My foot found a hole in the ground, and I almost tripped. It was about the size of a manhole, but it had five jagged points, like claw marks. A few feet away, there was a groove in the yellowish chalky soil.
Lena noticed it too. “The Park digs trenches to contain the forest fires.”
“But aren’t they supposed to be bigger than this?” The groove was only a foot deep and a couple feet wide, but it stretched from the burning tree all the way across the ridge and down the slope.
“Look,” I said, pointing.
Beyond the spot where the groove disappeared over the hill, smoke rose in another cloud, much bigger and darker than the one above us.
Maybe it would’ve been smarter to make a hasty escape, but I was curious. Chase sprinted toward it, and I ran after him.
“Flares! Who has the flares?” Lena shouted.
“The Director would want visual confirmation of the target, Lena!” Chase yelled back, just as we reached the top of the hill.
I took one look into the valley below and screamed.