Reaching back into the box, her fingers brushed her mom’s key. All the times that her mother had reminded her to lock her bedroom door hadn’t mattered at all. Even if she’d piled on locks, the Wild still would have been whisked to freedom. It had escaped through a wish, not through doors.
Cindy had said it wasn’t Julie’s wish. It couldn’t have been. Grandma had called Ursa at the motel
Julie had said that horrible thing. Something had happened at the motel before Julie ever spoke. But even though her wish hadn’t caused this, she still felt responsible. The Wild had been under her bed, after all.
Julie tried to remember if she had seen the Wild last night when she went to bed, and she couldn’t remember actually looking. She had assumed it was there. She should have checked. If she’d checked, if she’d known sooner . . . But no, she’d been too busy feeling sorry for herself.
It hit her like a blow: what if her wish—her horrible wish that Zel weren’t her mother—were the last thing she ever said to her?
Thinking about it made her insides twist. It didn’t matter that her wish hadn’t caused the Wild to escape, she realized. What mattered was that she’d said it at all. Mom was now trapped in the Wild thinking that Julie hated her, and Julie might never have the chance to explain. She kept replaying the night in her head. What if she never saw her mother again, never heard her say “uppy snuppy” again, never laughed at her horrible quiche again? What if that was the last moment she got?
She couldn’t let that happen. If no one would go in to rescue Mom, she’d go herself. The thought made her catch her breath. Could she . . . No, no, it was crazy. She wasn’t a hero. The idea of voluntarily entering the woods with all its dragons, witches, and ogres . . . Julie shuddered. It was a job for a hero. Like my father, she thought. He died in there. Her hands clenched. The Wild killed her father, and now it had her mother.
The Wild has declared war on your family, she thought. Now, what are you going to do about it?
“Stupid,” she said out loud. How could she go up against the Wild? She was one girl. She had nothing to help her make it through the Wild . . .
Or did she? Dropping the necklaces, she picked up Mom’s special key—the key that opened all locks, including the linen closet.
The Linen Closet
If this was a war, here was her arsenal.
What should she take? What did heroes use against witches, wolves, ogres, magicians . . . ? She’d better take everything.
Julie inhaled deeply, then plunged into the closet and began shoveling items into her backpack: wands, hats, scarves, small boxes. Into a side pocket, she dumped a handful of magic rings. She added a jeweled knife, a tablecloth, several feathers, and a purse with pebbles. Shelf by shelf, she emptied the closet and stuffed the backpack until it was bursting.
When she finished with the shelves, she knelt down and sorted through the boots on the floor—too small, too large, too incomplete . . . She extracted a pair of brown boots and examined them. They looked like they would fit, and (except for a frayed lace) they were mostly whole. Julie flipped off her left sandal and put on a boot. Holding on to the linen closet door, she stood up on her other foot. Carefully, she placed the boot down. With a whoosh of air, she found her nose pressed against the wall.
Guess it works, she thought. Balancing, she took off the boot. With the magic Seven League Boots, she felt much better. They could help her cross the forest in seconds. She’d tie them to the handlebars of her bike, she decided, and she’d put them on as soon as she entered the Wild. With luck, she’d be in and out of the woods before the Wild could trap her in any of its stories.
In and out of the woods.
This, she thought, is a terrible idea. What was she doing? She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t walk into the Wild and intentionally use fairy-tale items. She’d only be making things worse. It was stupid to take this stuff. Using it could set off fairy-tale events. Using it could trap her in a story. Using it could make the Wild grow larger faster. It went against everything Mom had ever taught her. Mom would have a fit if she knew Julie was even thinking about doing it.
On the other hand, did she really want to waltz into the Wild empty-handed?
Standing on tiptoes, she felt along the upper shelves. Her fingers brushed cool metal. She pulled the item down.
It was a trumpet. Gillian, she thought. I have to warn Gillian! By now, the Wild could be at Crawford Street. Julie dumped out some scarves and hats and crammed the trumpet into her pack. She zipped it shut, then locked the closet door. After a moment’s thought, she slipped the works-on-any-door key into her jeans pocket. She hurried to the phone.
That meant someone was still home.
Stop there first, Julie decided, and then into the Wild. With luck, Gillian would talk her out of going at all.
Distantly, Julie heard sirens. She knocked on Gillian’s door. “Gillian!” She rang the bell. “Gillian! Mrs. Thomas!” She pounded with her fist.
She heard shouting inside, then footsteps. Gillian yanked open the door. “Julie!” Behind her, Gillian’s five-year-old sister, Rachel, screamed, “Not without my Barbies!” Her mother boomed back: “You are getting in that car, young lady, whether I have to carry you there or not! Now, let go of that table!”
“Did you hear?” Gillian said to Julie. “Police are evacuating the street. News says they’ve called out the National Guard. No one knows what’s going on, but it’s big.” Rachel shrieked like an irate dolphin, and both Gillian and Julie winced. “Sirens freaked her out,” Gillian said. “It’s like a national disaster or something. In Northboro! Can you believe it? I mean, nothing ever happens here. There’s this, like, monster growth—”
Julie interrupted, “It’s the Wild.”
Gillian’s mouth pursed into a small
“It’s got my mom,” Julie said.
Gillian’s mouth opened and shut, wordless.
Trying to sound braver than she felt, Julie said, “I’m going in.” She was not going to let Gillian talk her out of it. No matter what she said. She was going to be strong and . . .
“Oh, wow,” Gillian said. “Can I go?”
Julie gawked at her. “No.”
“C’mon,” she said. “You can’t leave me out of this. Nothing this interesting ever happens to me. I want to save the day too.”
Was Gillian really saying this? Didn’t she understand how serious this was? Didn’t she get how dangerous the Wild was? “No!”
“We’ll get to have adventures. Real adventures,” Gillian said. Poking Julie’s arm, she waggled her eyebrows. “Princess adventures.”
“It’s got my
,” Julie said, glaring at her. This wasn’t a game. Last time the Wild was this strong, it had kept her mother and her mother’s friends prisoner for centuries, forcing them to reenact their fairy tales over and over, century after century. Whatever happened there had been so traumatic that none of them ever spoke about how they’d escaped—not even, apparently, to each other.
Gillian shot a look over her shoulder and then leaned in conspiratorially. “So what’s the plan? How are we going to get in?”
Julie felt like tearing her hair out. “I could
. Eaten by ogres. Broiled by witches. Thrown into barrels with sharp nails. Fairy tales aren’t jokes. Happily ever after is only at the very end—and only for the heroes and princesses.”
For an instant, Julie thought she’d gotten through to her. Gillian swallowed hard. But then she rallied and said, “Gee, you couldn’t be a little more optimistic?”
Julie turned her bike around. “I’m going,” she said.
“Wait, I’ll get my bike.” Gillian ran to her garage, and Julie started riding down the brick walk. Her backpack bounced on her back. Broiled by witches, Julie thought. Barrels with nails. She wished she hadn’t thought of that. Whatever Gillian believed of the Wild, Julie knew the truth: it wasn’t nice.
Gillian’s mother appeared in the doorway. “Girls! Oh, patience! Don’t do this to me!” Rachel swung from her arm, shouting up at her. Her mother yelled, “Julie, you come back here or I’m calling your mother!” Gillian wheeled her bike out of the garage. Her mother caught sight of her. “Gillian, get back here! This instant! Gillian!” Gillian, following Julie, bounced across the lawn.
Rachel pulled on her mother’s pants. “If she doesn’t have to go, I don’t have to!”
Her mother herded her toward their car. “In, in! We’ll catch her!” She sat in the driver’s seat. “Keys!” She ran back into the house.
Sirens wailed as a police car turned down Crawford Street.
“An emergency evacuation is in effect. Repeat: an emergency evacuation is in effect.”
Julie and Gillian leaned into their handlebars and pedaled faster. The boots smacked against Julie’s bike frame.
Swerving left onto West Street, they sailed down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, the street turned and the Wild was suddenly in front of them. Both Julie and Gillian squeezed their brakes. The bikes tipped forward, and they caught their balance with their feet. “Wow,” Gillian said. “I didn’t think it would be so
Julie had known it was big. She hadn’t expected it to be guarded.
The forest marched up the street toward them. Lions, tigers, bears, and wild boar prowled the perimeter. “Julie, they’re walking on their hind feet,” Gillian said, her voice shrill. “Those aren’t normal animals.”
“Thank you, Sherlock,” Julie said. She felt like an idiot. She should have realized the fairy-tale characters would post guards to stop people from entering and feeding the Wild—it was the logical next step after Cindy and Goldie failed to convince people with words.
“They’re . . .” Weird, disgusting, incredibly scary, Julie thought. “. . .
,” Gillian said. Amazing? Was she not looking at the same army of animals Julie was looking at?
Lowering his tusks, a boar spit in their direction. A grizzly reared onto his hind legs and pounded his chest. Six trolls marched in front of them. Julie swallowed. Her throat felt like sand. How were they going to get past them? Some hero she was if she couldn’t even enter the woods.
“I think I see a unicorn,” Gillian said. She sounded starstruck.
“Watch the horn. He has a temper.” Julie shed her backpack and rummaged through it. Something in here had to help. First to come out was the trumpet. Gillian picked it up. “Oh, wow, what’s this?”
Did she have to sound like it was Christmas? She wasn’t helping. Julie pulled out a wand and shook it at the guards. Flowers spewed from its tip. She tossed it away. Pulling out a box, she opened it. It held donuts. She closed it and opened it again. This time, it held éclairs.
Gillian lifted the trumpet to her lips and puffed out her cheeks. A lion, walking upright and wearing a crown, snarled at her. Gillian squeaked a note. The trolls clapped their hands over their ears. One of the bears huffed.
“Quit playing around,” Julie said, exasperated.
“One more try,” Gillian said. Julie blinked at her. She sounded determined. Maybe she
understand how serious this was. Maybe her enthusiasm was her way of being brave—Julie hadn’t thought of that before. Adjusting her lips on the mouthpiece, Gillian tried again. This time, she blew a long, clear note.
Snarls died. She played a scale, stumbling over the middle notes. One of the wild boars sat down, transfixed. Smiling, the trolls leaned against each other. Gillian grinned. “They like me!” she said happily.
“Keep going,” Julie whispered. Did she dare hope?
Gillian plunged into the school fight song.
The animals began to dance. “I’ll—keep—them—dancing,” Gillian said between notes. “You—go—for—it!” Swinging her backpack over her shoulder, Julie got on her bike. She hesitated for a second. Should she leave Gillian here? Would she be safe? What if the Wild advanced?
Wait, did this mean Julie would have to go in alone? Suddenly, she didn’t want to do that. She couldn’t do this by herself! Gillian had to come with her!
Finishing the song, Gillian held out her pinky. “Luck,” she said. Automatically, Julie shook her pinky with her own. Gillian inhaled again and launched into “Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Friends.” The lions and the bears linked arms and skipped in circles with the trolls. Lowering her head like a charging bull, Julie pedaled between the dancing animals and rode off the pavement into the green.