Annika made her way to the kitchen rubbing sleep from her eyes. Pouring milk into a bowl of Tasty Squares, she couldn’t help imagining the last four months in quarantine like those bland brown squares; boring, plain, and far from tasty. It started out exciting and scary, almost like a snow day with a twinge of danger. Like standing at the top of a snow-covered hill in the middle of the week with a new sled. The freedom and possibilities were endless, but now, four months later, the routine had set in, boring and repetitive. What’s worse, it was summer. School had ended and summer had begun, but it didn’t feel like summer, just a repeat of the day before.
She grabbed her tablet, charging at the counter. If not for her friends and videos, she would lose her mind. She couldn’t even go to the park, what was a ten-year-old girl to do? Annika stared at her tablet in disbelief. The little update circle spun and spun without a refresh. A quick restart of the device gave a no internet notification.
“No.” Annika whispered.
She ran to the router unplugging and waiting ten seconds. It restarted, its lights continued to blink amber and blinked amber and blinked. No internet.
“Mom!” Annika cried.
“Oh, I guess today is the day.” Her mom gave a sympathetic smile. “Annika, we couldn’t pay the bill this month. Your dad hasn’t been working and unemployment is being reduced soon. We have to hold onto our money by giving up things we don’t need.”
“Things we don’t need?” Annika’s mouth fell open. “This is THE ONLY THING I NEED, Mom.”
“You’ll be fine. You can play in the yard or take a walk.”
“Can I go see my friends?” Annika’s brow furrowed. They both knew the answer. They couldn’t see their friends because of the virus. The stupid virus.
“Can I go to the park?”
“You know you can’t, there are plenty of things to do around the house. You can help me fold laundry.”
“Ugh.” Annika exhaled heavily, growling and stomping down the hall to her room. She laid on her bed looking for videos saved on her tablet. She scrolled through some old pictures of amazing summers past. She should be out riding bikes or visiting the mall or creating videos. None of that was possible. She spent the rest of the day lying in bed, playing music, and drawing. It was miserable, quarantine was one long day with naps in-between. An endless day that repeated itself: Tasty Squares followed by paint, boredom, snack, nap, same videos, dinner, and ended with staring at the ceiling wondering when the nightmare would end.
One evening her father interrupted her session of staring at the ceiling. He sat at the edge of her bed. “I hear you’re bored?”
She gave him a sarcastic look and returned her eyes to the ceiling. This was his fault. Internet was life, she was living a meme she had seen, would you live here with no internet for a year? But her house was nowhere near as nice.
“I have something I want to show you, come on.” He moved to the door waiting for her to follow.
“Oh, we can go somewhere?”
“It’s in the house.”
“What is it?”
“You have to come to find out.” He slipped through the door with a smile.
Annika reluctantly followed; what could he show her she hadn’t seen in her own house. “Down here.” He called from the basement. Annika never went in the basement, it was terrifying. That’s a place she didn’t go, so yea, she wasn’t going.
“I’m not going down there. You can bring it up.” She called.
“No, I can’t.” He called back. “You have to see it. Be brave, it’s not as bad as you think. It’s always worse in our mind. You’re scaring yourself. Come on.”
She stood at the door following the stairs with her eyes watching them disappear into darkness. A light came on at the bottom, a soft glow.
“You don’t want to miss this.” Her father called. “It will change your life.”
Annika took a deep breath and began her descent on the creaky wooden steps into the dark unknown. She would never do this by herself, that would be stupid. Who wants to be in a basement anyway, she thought? The light illuminated basement full of stuff. Large stuff, small stuff, boxes of stuff, all kinds of stuff; a basement full of stuff and dust. At the far end, her father stood at a large wooden door. Vines were scrawled across and around the door. Blooming flowers outlined three words engraved in the center of the door. “Always and Forever”
“I made this for your mother before you were born.”
“A door?” Annika asked.
“Yes. But a door that leads somewhere.” He opened the door as he spoke. “After you.” He flipped a light switch revealing a brightly colored room, walls lined with books. Shelves and shelves filled with books lined the walls. There was no décor except a large soft chair in the corner and a lectern standing in the center of the room. Directly across from the lectern stood a full-length mirror set in a dark wood ornately ornamented with gold and brass. A small couch sat against the wall next to the door they entered through.
“I know it’s not the internet, but maybe it’ll help you pass the time.”
Annika ran her hand over the book spines. There were so many. “Entire worlds and adventures waiting to be discovered, your mother would say.” A black book with gold inlay grabbed her attention. Rainbow’s End it was titled. A unicorn stood regally pawing the air on the cover. It was old but well worn. She opened the cover; a small square of folded paper fell out. Annika opened it. Never trust a dragon the note read. “Did mom write this?” Annika asked.
“I don’t know.” Her father shrugged. “I got a lot of these books at an estate sale. Actually, a lot of this came from the estate of a librarian in town.”
“A library? You mean that place we go to get picture books and they read to you in the story corner?”
“That’s a library, but the librarian manages the library. You can borrow books and return them when you’re done. It’s not just activities for children. They said she was the only librarian at that library, she helped build it.”
“Wow, she’s old.”
“Yes. Was old. She passed about ten or twelve years ago. Anyway, I gotta continue looking for a job before bed, so have fun.” He paused at the door. “Is this okay? Are you going to be okay?”
“Yea.” Annika smiled. “It’s fine. Can I stay the night here? I can sleep on the couch.” She did not want to go back through the basement to get upstairs. Besides, she might find some cool stuff in the books. It was quiet and warm. It felt cozy.
“You bet, opened or closed?” He motioned with the door.
“Closed.” She said. She definitely wanted it closed, nothing coming in from the basement.
After her dad left, Annika opened the folded piece of paper again. The note was scrawled with ink, it was smeared a bit and smelled like soot. That’s odd. Annika thought. She wondered if the librarian died in a fire. Okay, that’s morbid. She sighed. She turned to the lectern. It looked to be made of the same wood as the mirror. It was gnarled and crooked like an old tree growing out of the floor. The flattest part sat at the top of the tree; a smooth plane made to lay a book. Engraved in the flat surface read
‘Lay it down, read aloud,
follow the clouds,
new worlds will abound.”
Annika set the book, ‘Rainbow’s End’ on the smooth plane and opened the book. She opened towards the middle of the book, flipping through she found a drawing of a mountain surrounded by smoke. She began to read, aloud. “The wind slipped and slapped across the snow-covered rocks along the narrow trail. The traveler pulled a rainbow scarf across their face. The snow blanketed the thin trail and fell thick in the air. A gust of wind chilled the traveler to the bone.” Annika stopped reading; a cold breeze drifted into the room. She looked around to the door, it was closed. “Step by step progress was slow.” Annika continued reading. “The cave entrance would have been missed if not for the change in wind. Snow swirled away from the traveler revealing the cave entrance. Once inside the air warmed immediately. The air was thick, steam rose from the rocks at the entrance clouding the air. It became thicker further in the cave. Wet clouds of steam hung in the air.” Annika looked up from reading and stared at the mirror directly across from her. Its glass was cloudy. Her reflection disappeared in steam and clouds. She left the lectern and cautiously approached the mirror. Lifting her finger, she attempted to write her name in the frosted glass. Her finger pressed through the glass releasing a rush of warm air from the other side. Annika gave a startled shout. She pushed her hand through . . . and her arm followed until she was stepping through the mirror. She found herself in a warm muggy cave. Looking back, she saw the mirror, now a narrow space in the rock. Looking on, she wondered how far she could go. This was crazy, right? Am I still in my house? A few careful steps further and she saw a light in the distance. Was there a tunnel under her house? Would it lead to the old lady’s house across the street? Was she still in her basement? She did not want to be in the basement. A cave was not much better, but at least it wasn’t the basement . . . right?
Moving towards the light, the air became warmer and sticky. It felt like the steam room at the rec center. Peaking around a corner she looked to see the source of the light. It was a giant room, the largest room she had ever seen. It wasn’t really a room; it was a cavern. The light came from torches hanging along the rock walls, their fire reflected in golden platters, cups, jewels and coins. So many coins she could swim in them. There were so many pretty things filling this room. Her eyes were wide as she cautiously walked to the sea of coins. She suddenly felt a sinking feeling, as though, she was somewhere she shouldn’t be. She was surprised she only, just now, felt that way. I’m in a cave under the house, that’s not normal. She thought.
A soft jingle floated across the cavern and she froze. “Hello?” She said slowly. She wasn’t afraid, she was cautious. She should apologize if she had wondered into someone’s home. “Hello?” She said again with no response. She walked into the coins finding a small path. It wasn’t really a path, it was more of a less crowded trail of things, as though someone had moved items aside. She followed it into the piles of coins and jewels. “I may be lost.” She said a little louder. If someone was here, maybe they could help her understand where she was. She never imagined her neighbors having this much gold under their house. I mean, this couldn’t all be under her house, could it? If it was, they wouldn’t have had the internet turned off.
“Lost?” A deep voice echoed as the jingle began again. “Perhaps, I may be of some help?” The voice was deep but sounded kind.
“I was in my house and found this cave. I mean, I was in my basement. Is this the Parson’s house?” She craned her neck to look around the piles hoping to find someone. “Mr. Parson?”
“You are trespassing, you know?” The voice came again. It sounded closer.
“What’s trespassing?” Annika asked.
“What’s trespassing?” The deep voice chuckled. “This is my home, and you weren’t invited.”
Annika froze. I’m in someone’s house? She thought. This is so weird. One of the piles moved, it was barely noticeable. It was like one of those old cartoons when a mole or something is moving under the ground. It raised in a path and quickly lowered again. She suddenly wanted to leave. Panic began to bang in her head. Leave, leave now!
“I’m sorry I’ll go back home. I’m so sorry.”
“Leave? No.” The voice boomed. “You must stay for dinner.” The voice rumbled like a deep drum and moved quickly around her. The piles began moving and shaking.
“No, thank you” Annika cried and turned to run. The entrance was only a few feet behind her, but the coins started falling. She slipped and tumbled on the coins. She felt something bearing down on her, she screamed scrambling to her feet.
Lightning and colors filled the cavern. A roar above Annika made her turn and look up. The head of a giant red dragon cringed as it was struck again and again. Its wings unfurled as it roared again. The dragon sprayed flames across the room. Annika rolled away just in time. Her shirt was singed. The heat was unbearable as she covered her face.
“Run!” A hooded figure called as it ran towards her. “He won’t be blind long.” It was a girl’s voice. A hand grabbed her arm. “We have to go, now!” With no time to think, Annika leapt to her feet running after the hooded figure. The girl was going the wrong way. They were not going the way Annika had come. The dragon quickly landed in front of the hooded girl.
“Ah. Jade of Dancing Star.” It purred. The dragon bared its teeth, levelling its head with her. The wings sucked in against the dragon’s bright red body making it as slender as a snake. It was fast, but jade was faster. She launched herself in the air dodging the dragon’s strike. Lightning filled with all the colors of the rainbow flew from her fingertips striking its head. The dragon roared unfurling its wings and flew to a safer distance sneezing and wheezing.
Jade still masked, ran back to Annika with a staff in her hand. Her eyes were golden, her skin dark, tight dark curls peeked out from her hood across her forehead.
“Jade.” The deep voice called in frustration. “You came for the Dragon Star. Yes?” The dragon sneezed fire and groaned. “I saw you coming from a long way off. I expected you. However, I didn’t expect the other one.” The dragon crept closer. “Look to the ceiling, there’s your Dragon Star.” In the center of the cavern a glow illuminated the stalactites hanging from the ceiling. “I’ll make a deal with you.” His voice had returned to a purr. A pleasant deep rumble. “I will give you the stone, but you must leave the other girl.”
Jade looked at Annika and back again. The dragon blocked her path out.
“I know another way out.” Annika whispered to Jade. Jade’s eyes narrowed.
“I know it’s all you need. Your people need it Jade. They will die without it.” The dragon had sucked its wings in again. He slipped across the gold cautiously, edging closer to the girls. “What’s this girl to you in comparison to your family?” He had regained his composure and hummed softly. His nose twitched. “The dragon star is very valuable to me, but I have been locked away in this cave for so long. I am so hungry. I would trade anything for something to eat.”
“I don’t have any food.” Annika called.
“Don’t you?” The dragon chuckled. “Jade. You have caught a dragon at his weakest. You have won. Shall I get it for you?” The dragon smiled keeping his jagged teeth hidden.
Jade looked at Annika for a moment, then her eyes darted around the room. Was she actually going to leave her here? Jade whispered, “Never trust a dragon.” She shook her head, as though remembering something. “Run to where you came from, I will be right behind you.” Annika opened her mouth to respond. “Now!” Jade shouted as she lifted her staff.
“NO!” Cried the dragon. Annika ran as fast as she could to the entrance she came through. There was an explosion so loud it made the ground shake. Stalactites fell from the ceiling crashing around her. Annika covered her head leaping into the cave entrance leading back to the opening in the rock she came through.
Jade was just behind her. She was so fast. “Where do we go?”
“There.” Annika shouted.
“It’s a dead end.” Jade whined.
“You don’t see it?” Annika asked.
Suddenly heat filled the cave. It was unbearable. Annika knew the fire was at their backs. Taking Jades hand, she screamed, “Jump!” As they vaulted through the mirror, Annika swiped at the book on the lectern. A heat wave and some flame escaped as the mirror’s portal closed blowing books from their shelves.
The dragon could still be heard in the mirror. “NOOO!”
Annika picked up the book, Rainbow’s End. Her place was marked with a folded piece of paper that smelled of soot.
She read it again: ‘Never trust a dragon’.