Authors: Natalie Lloyd
“They say all the magic is gone up out of this place,” said Mama.
She looked straight ahead as she drove, past the white beam of our headlights, deep into the night, like she could see exactly what was up ahead of us. I couldn’t see anything, though: not a house, not a store, not even an old barking dog. A big fat moon, pale white and lonesome-looking, was our only streetlight. I watched the way the moonlight painted her profile: the dark shadows under her cheekbones, the tight pull of her mouth. I didn’t need to see her eyes to know how they’d look: sky blue and beautiful. Full of all the sadness in the world.
“Soooo …” I propped my feet up on the dashboard and wiggled my sock-striped toes. “Does that mean there
magic here to start with?”
The wind answered before Mama did; it swooshed through the van and flung her blond hair into a cloud of golden whirls and curls. Only my mama could shine like that when the rest of the world was so dark.
“That’s what some people say,” she told me. And then she stopped clutching the steering wheel so tight and her shoulders relaxed and I knew exactly why: She was about to settle into a good story.
“Midnight Gulch used to be a secret place,” Mama said. “The mountain hid the town high-up-away from the rest of the world. And the river surrounded the mountain and kept it safe. And the forest stood up tall around the river and caught all of the town’s secrets and songs in its branches.” I relaxed into the sound of her voice. Her speaking voice is wonderful, but my mama’s story voice is like nothing I’ve ever heard, like something between a summer breeze and a lullaby. “The town
to stay secret, you see, because the people who lived there had magic in their veins.”
“Real magic?” I could barely even whisper the word. Just the thought of real magic sent shivers from my nose to my toes. This time it was my heart that answered, a steady drumbeat
inside my chest.
“That’s the story they tell,” Mama sighed. “They say some people could catch stars in Mason jars. And some people could sing up thunderstorms and some could dance up sunflowers. Some people could bake magic into a pie, make folks fall in love, or remember something good, or forget something bad. Some people had a magic for music….”
Mama’s fingers clutched knuckle-white around the steering wheel again. But she kept on telling:
“They could play a song and it would echo through the whole town, and everybody in town, no matter where they were, stood up and danced.”
She cleared her throat. “They say some people glowed in the dark. And some people faded when they were sad — first they went colorless, then totally invisible. There are so many stories….”
“And this magic town is the same town where you grew up?” I asked.
“Then why the hayseed would you ever leave a place like that?”
“All the magic was gone by the time I lived there. There was only a two-lane road and a traffic light that always stayed green. I figured that meant the magic had moved on out. Figured I had to move on, too, if I wanted to see any of it.”
“Did you ever?”
“I see you.” Mama smiled. “And I see Frannie Jo sleeping right behind me.”
She glanced up in the rearview mirror at my little sister, who was snuggled up with our dog, Biscuit. Both of them were snoring sweetly, cuddled against all the clothes that we’d piled in the way-back seat. Frannie’s nearly six, but people think she’s even younger than that because she’s so small. She blended in easy with the books and blankets and clothes.
“I got all the magic I ever need here with me,” Mama sighed.
I smiled at her words. I wanted them to be true, but I knew Frannie and I didn’t have the kind of magic necessary to get rid of Mama’s sad. But maybe that kind of magic did exist somewhere. Maybe magic was just a few miles away.
My heart fluttered again.
Mama glanced up at the lonesome moon. The moon glowed down over her face like it was very happy to be noticed.
“I can’t imagine anybody or anything lonelier than that midnight moon,” said Mama. “That’d be awful — sitting up against ten thousand stars without arms to reach out and hold a single one.”
For a time, we didn’t say anything else. We just listened to the van
down the curvy road. And I listened to my heart, still singing
Yes, Yes, Yes
to all the questions I wasn’t asking.
gave way to a
as we crossed over a long, narrow bridge. The crickets sang a little louder as we crossed that river. The moon shone a little bit brighter. The night air smelled like baking cookies. And my heart drummed steady:
Yes, Yes, Yes.
Good things happen when my heart says yes, especially if nobody else around me is saying much of anything at all.
Mama slowed the van and leaned her arm across me. “Take a look, June Bug. We’re here.”
She pointed to a sign that somebody’d painted up and shoved sideways into the hillside. A flickering spotlight shone up at the words:
“Used to read different, before they painted over it,” Mama said. “It used to say —”
place to call home,” I whispered. I didn’t need her to tell me. I could already see the word
shining as bright as sunshine letters, even through all those layers of paint. I could see other words, too.
The stars above us spelled out:
And the yellow lines caught in our headlights curved into these words:
I heard a poem tangled up inside a rush of the midnight songs the crickets were whistling:
Forever, and now,
Here you are.
I didn’t say another word to Mama that night, but I could feel something good even then: the
in my heart, the swirling-around in my belly, the prickly tingling all the way from the freckle on my finger to the tip of my pinky toe. That much wonderful could only mean one thing:
magic in Midnight Gulch.
This is how I turned it loose….
Mama liked to say that us Pickles were nomads. Sweet gypsies. Adventure seekers. But as we zoomed toward our first day of school at Stoneberry Elementary, I didn’t feel adventurous at all. Traveling around so much had us all tired out. Mama most of all, even though she didn’t realize it.
I saw the proof when she glanced at me in the rearview mirror. Her eyes used to be as bright blue as a summer sky, but now they looked like jeans faded from too many tumbles through a washing machine. “Are you nervous about today, girls?”
“A little,” I sighed.
“A little,” Frannie Jo mumbled. She clutched her small blue suitcase tighter against her chest and leaned against me. Since we never knew when Mama might wake us in the middle of night ready to bolt out of town, Frannie liked to keep a suitcase packed full of all her worldly treasures, the special stuff she didn’t want left behind.
“Well, I have a good feeling about today.” Mama nodded. “Anything can happen in a town like this.”
“Does that mean we’re going to stay a while?” I asked. I heard Frannie Jo’s breath catch. Maybe people can’t grow roots the same as trees do, but we both needed a place to dig in and grow some good memories. And so did Mama.
She only managed a shadow of a smile as she softly answered, “We’ll see.”
At exactly that moment, I saw my first word of the day:
The letters were made of melted sunshine. They dripped down the window glass, warm and tingly against our faces.
is a powerful word to see and to say. But that morning, I felt it. And feeling it was the best of all. I knew something wonderful was about to happen to me. I didn’t know what, or why, or how. But I believed.
Frannie Jo and I stood on the sidewalk of Stoneberry Elementary School, waving to Mama as she drove off in the Pickled Jalapeño. We named our van the Jalapeño because it was green-brown and dented up and droopy-looking, kind of like a rotten pepper. And since it’s just us Pickles driving around in it, the Pickled Jalapeño is what it became.
The Pickled Jalapeño made a
noise as it disappeared down the foggy road. I squinted my eyes at the cloud of exhaust billowing out the tailpipe and saw three smoke-colored words:
Words that hover around cars or trains or boats or planes never make much sense. At least they don’t make much sense to
. I’m not sure if that’s how it works for other people. I know I can’t be the only word collector in the whole world, but I’ve never met anybody else who has the knack.
As Frannie slipped her hand in mine, I felt something scratch against me. When I looked down, I realized she had a bunch of neon-colored Band-Aids stuck down the inside of her arm. That’s why we keep Band-Aids hidden from Frannie Jo; she uses them like stickers.
“Hey.” I squeezed her hand. “You ready for a new adventure?”
Frannie shrugged a shoulder.
I concentrated on the words shimmering around Frannie’s blond ponytail:
Frannie Jo was concentrating on her most favorite things: the name of our dog and the vehicle she aspires to drive when she grows up and also her most favorite food. That’s her trick to keep tears from spilling out.
Sure enough, Frannie’s chin started trembling. She nuzzled against my arm and blinked up at me with watery blue eyes. “Will you carry me?”
I sighed and hugged her close to my side. “You’re too old
for people to still be carrying you around so much. Want me to catch a poem for you?”
Frannie nodded quickly. She sniffled, but she didn’t cry. Frannie’s a brave little Pickle. She leaned in closer to my side as we walked through the doors of the schoolhouse. I kept my arm locked tight around her shoulder. The world’s got to be a scary place when you’re no bigger than a bean sprout.
You’d think we were both invisible the way the big kids kept bumping into us. But I knew we weren’t, because I could hear our sneakers singing squeaky songs across the tile floors. My sneakers were covered with the words I didn’t have room for in my blue book. Those same sneakers had walked over the sand and grass and gravel of six different states. Moving around so much had us all tuckered out, and that’s a fact. But at least the world is full of words to hold and see and keep. Frannie likes hearing words as much as I like finding them.
“Hurry!” Frannie squealed.
I made a big show of catching invisible words in my hands and putting them in my mouth and chewing on them. I knew my word-catching charade wasn’t the best way to make a fast friend at Stoneberry Elementary School. But it was the only way I could think of to make my sister feel better. And I think if you’re lucky, a sister is the same as a friend, but better. A sister is like a super-forever-infinity friend.
“Sticky as gumballs,” I said, working my jaws up and down. Frannie smiled at me. I cleared my throat and declared:
The Pickled Jalapeño keeps its heart in its trunk!”
Two girls in line at the pencil machine swiveled around to stare as we passed by. Any shimmer of confidence I’d stored up began to fizzle at exactly that moment. First impressions aren’t my specialty, even in the best of times. And yelling crazy poem words in the hallway when you’re the new girl in a new school is definitely not the best of times. But I soldiered on, lowering my voice just barely:
“Tipple-tap, tipple-tee, tipple-top, tipple-tat,
The old man keeps his heart in the brim of his hat.
Ratta-tat, ratta-tat, ratta-tat, ratta-tee,
Frannie Jo wears her heart on the edge of her sleeve.”
Frannie swung my hand back and forth and shook her hips in rhythm to my words. She’d worn a yellow tutu over her jeans, part of last year’s Halloween costume. The glitter on the skirt sparkled and sparked under the fluorescent lights as we tromped down the hallway.
We stopped in front of a first-grade classroom that smelled like crayons and peanut butter sandwiches.
I thought Frannie’d skippity-jump on into the classroom right away, but she hesitated. She chewed on her lip and fluttered her eyelashes in such a way that I thought she might be tearful again. But I didn’t see sadness when she looked up at me. I saw determination. “I’m tired of first days,” she declared.
I nodded. “Me, too. But people say this town used to be something magical. Maybe it’ll be magical for us, too; Mama will like it here and so will we.”
Frannie’s eyes sparkled. “This is home?”
“Maybe,” I sighed, and I nudged her through the doorway. Frannie pranced into the room with her chin high and her ponytail swinging. The words swirling around her head were all spunky words now:
Those were good words, bright and tasty. So I didn’t feel so bad about leaving her.
I walked down the hall, concentrating on my squish-popping shoes. Thousands of words swirled through the hallways of Stoneberry Elementary, so I didn’t look up. I didn’t have time for word collecting just then because I had to save every last speck of my energy for class.
I’d been in enough new schools to know what would happen next. A teacher would probably ask me to stand up and say my name and where I was from. And I
stand up, but instead of saying anything, I would most likely just
keep right on standing and staring. My mouth would stay wide open, but the words would never come.
Here’s the thing: I see words everywhere, all around me, all the time. I collect them. I think about them. I say them fine if I’m talking to Mama or Frannie Jo or my aunt Cleo. But words are a mess when I try to say them to more than one person at a time. They melt on my tongue like snowflakes. They disappear right off the edge of my lips, and I end up standing there blinking, openmouthed, like the Queen of Dorkville.
That’s how it had always happened before, at least. But Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, so maybe this first day would be different. I stared down at my wordy-sneakers and practiced: “My name is Felicity Juniper Pickle. I’m from here and there and all across the world.”
Because that sounded better than the truth: I’m Felicity Juniper Pickle and I’m from Nowhere in Particular. I sighed. Moving around so much should have made me bold and happy and free, I guess. Strange how I only ever felt lost.
I didn’t know that the Beedle was watching me even then. I would find out soon enough, though. In Midnight Gulch, the Beedle was always watching.