Before I start, I should note that the language gets a little salty in a few places. But based on what I remember about fifth grade, it's not exactly out of place.
So here we go!
Rina seemed to have no hobby besides making us miserable. On Tuesday, she filled the lunchroom with the stink of rotten eggs, created a rain storm over the playground, and made a plastic skeleton heckle our science teacher. Still Mrs. Horn was powerless. You could see the stress on her face.
I couldn't wait for the weekend; Gregg had invited us to spend the night at his house on Friday. It was enough just to get away from Rina.
Wednesday morning, before Rina arrived, Martin told me he had news.
"I talked to my cousin last night. He said his class has got an elf in it, too."
"What's this one like?" I said.
"He said she's really nice. Likes to do magic tricks and light shows for everybody."
I couldn't believe their luck. "Which school is this?"
"South Valley. He said we can even meet her, if we let him arrange it."
A nice elf? This might be worth a try. "Let's do that."
Rina came in, and we shut up.
Later, she ruined lunch. A cluster of cockroaches crawled up to her table, and she picked them up and started eating them. I lost my appetite, and got up to throw my lunch away.
I spotted Zoe staggering out of the girls' room. Her hands were dripping wet, her face pink from crying. I had to say something. "What happened?"
"I needed lunch money," she said, "and Rina let me borrow some change. I thought she was being nice for once, but by the time I got here, it--" a quick sob "--it'd all turned to shit. It was all over my hands, Jeremy. I've been washing them for ten minutes, and I still can't tell if I got the smell out."
She let me sniff. "Smells like strawberries." My heart danced. Strawberries.
She sighed and smiled. "Thanks." She touched my hand and went back to her table.
During class, something fluttered around the room and around Mrs. Horn's head. She watched it carefully, and when it got close, she swatted it with a book. She stared at it, then lifted it with her fingertips. "A paper crane. Rina?"
"I'm shocked, shocked!" Rina shot out of her seat. "How could you kill an innocent creature like that?" She wasted half an hour snapping back and forth with Mrs. Horn.
That night, I got a call from Martin. He'd not only arranged to meet the other elf, he'd talked to her.
"Her name's Papu," he said. "My cousin gave her my number. She's really, really nice, and she really wants to meet us."
I pushed the name through my lips. "Papu, huh? So when can we meet her?"
"I told her Friday, after school."
I didn't respond at first. It would have to be at Gregg's place. "You think Gregg's gonna be okay with that?"
"I dunno, I just thought, since we'd all be together..."
The next morning, Martin and I went to Ms. Ivory's class, and told Gregg. "Of course not! Are you kidding? I can't have a girl at my house. It's only supposed to be us guys."
"She just wants to say hi," Martin said.
"That's what it sounded like to me," Art said. "What's the worst that could happen?"
"I dunno," Gregg said. "It's just... a girl?"
"What's the big deal?" Art said. "She's not any different just because she's a girl."
"Yeah," I said, "she's different because she's an elf."
Gregg stewed over it, and threw up his hands. "Okay, fine. She can girl up my house Friday, but just for a little bit."
We all agreed.
I saw Zoe across the room, and waved. She seemed better after yesterday. I liked her dress.
On the way back to our room, I asked Martin, "You find out anything else?"
"She mentioned some kinda dorm. All the exchange students from Faerie are staying there."
"Maybe we could visit."
I stopped at Mrs. Horn's desk as Martin went to his seat. "I was wondering, did you get that thing yet?"
"Which thing-- oh, the thing that stops magic?" She dropped her shoulders and sighed. "I'm still waiting. I've tried calling her parents, in the meantime, but they're hardly ever home. I'm sorry."
Rina laid low through the morning, as if she'd created enough fear, and needed to let it simmer.
Lunch started out okay. Rina was still quiet. The weekend was only a day away. I had my mom's leftovers, and a good view of Zoe, who had picked up the cafeteria spaghetti.
So I saw when Zoe's fork jerked itself out of her grip. I checked Rina, at the next table. Her hands were glowing. She wiggled her fingers, and the fork flicked the pasta at Zoe.
Zoe shot up and slammed her fists on the table. "That's it!" She grabbed a wad of spaghetti, chucked it at Rina, and hit her in the face.
The lunchroom collapsed into silence. Zoe hunched over and panted. Rina started to get up, and another handful of pasta splattered on her shoulder. A barrage of food--spaghetti, sandwiches, vegetables--flew from all directions. I threw my mom's leftover rice. It was less a food fight, and more a food beatdown.
Things settled in only a minute. Rina dripped with a whole menu's worth of food. We all knew what she was capable of, but I don't think anybody cared. I had to admit: it felt really good.
A bright light filled the room. I covered my eyes and shrank back. Soon there would be nothing left of us but a smoldering crater.
But the light faded out, and everyone was still alive. Rina had simply vanished.
Mrs. Horn, however, had come in with Mr. Tennant and Ms. Ivory. They all hung their jaws at the mess of food where Rina had been.
Rina didn't come back, and no one knew where she'd gone. Instead of Recess, we all got stern lectures in our classrooms.
"That was shameful." Mrs. Horn said. "I know Rina hasn't been the easiest to deal with, but the way you lashed out was entirely inappropriate. We were asked to be part of this important cultural touchstone, and we blew it."
Sure, we could have done better. But no one could tell us Rina didn't deserve it. They shouldn't have stuck us with a vicious brat like her in the first place. I still couldn't sit in front of her empty desk without my shoulders clenching.
We all got notes to take to our parents. I knew Mom would pry it out of me sooner or later, but my throat still knotted at the thought of it.
I rehearsed all afternoon and told her after she'd served the pork chops and mashed potatoes.
She read the note. "Did you throw anything at her?"
I darted my eyes away. "Maybe."
She clicked her teeth. "Well, you certainly could have handled that better." She shrugged and grinned. "But you stood up to her. Gotta give you that. How about after dinner, you watch the apartment while I go buy ice cream?"
I goggled at her. "Okay."
While she was out, Gregg called me. "Bad news, man." I could already tell. "Sleepover's canceled. My mom and dad got really pissed off about the note, so now I'm grounded."
"Crud. What about Papu?"
"Martin's taking care of it. I didn't want to see her anyway. What'd your mom do when she found out?"
"She's out buying me ice cream right now."
Rina never showed up on Friday, but she still haunted us. Even her lunch table was empty, as if she'd booby-trapped it.
"What if she comes back and tries to kill us?" Gregg said.
"She's not gonna do that," Art said. "She's mean, but she's not crazy."
"Okay," Gregg said. "What if she puts a curse on us?"
Art froze. "Yeah, that would suck."
"I'm sorry you got grounded," Martin said.
"No big deal," Gregg said. "It's happened before, and it'll happen again. You did call that girl, right?"
"Y-yeah," Martin said.
"Psst, Jeremy." Art pointed to one of the girls' tables. Zoe sat all alone, picking at her food. "You should talk to her."
"You sure? What if she--"
"Watch my stuff, okay?" I got up and walked to Zoe's table. "Zoe?"
She looked up. "Oh, hey, Jeremy. Wanna sit down?"
I sat beside her. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she said. "It's my friends. Everybody's mad at me 'cause of what happened. Some of them got grounded, and they said it was my fault, and now they won't sit with me."
"It'll be okay," I said. "I mean, geez, my friends and I fight all the time. We always come around. Your friends will, too. Besides, Gregg got grounded, and he's not mad at you. I don't think he is. And I'm not mad." I paused for breath. "What about your parents? What'd they think?"
"They didn't ground me, but they took away my TV and computer."
I hunted for something to say next. I couldn't find anything, so I stood up. "It was nice talking to you."
"Thanks. See you later."
I floated back to my seat. I never thought I could talk to Zoe that way. I told my friends what happened, and Art slapped me in the head.
"You should've asked her out, you idiot."
"Out to what?" I said.
"I dunno, but you should've done it."
Since I wasn't going to Gregg's, Mom said we could order Chinese and watch a movie instead. As soon as we got home, I flopped on the couch and started a video game. The most psychotic week of my life was finally over.
Mom ordered, and ten minutes later, there was a knock.
"That was fast." Mom answered the door and said hi. "Jeremy, it's for you."
I sat up. "For me?"
"It's a girl." She smirked.
I sprang out and ran to the door as Mom stepped aside. I saw the girl and said, "You're not Zoe."
Two ears poked like steeples through orange highlighter hair. Her eyes were big and round and gold, her dress was embroidered with red flower petals, and her feet were bare. She was cute, but definitely not Zoe. "No, I am Papu. You're Martin's friend, right?"
She knew Martin? "Oh. So you're Papu. Yeah, Martin told us about you. Come in. What're you doing here?"
She stepped in, and bowed to my mom. Mom giggled--it was the first time she'd met an elf.
Papu turned to me. "I'm here to talk about Rina."
"Rina?" I gasped. "She wasn't a friend of yours, was she?"
Papu grimaced. "My parents have tried for years to make us be friends, but it's impossible. She's the most spoiled pooka in all Frangont." Her accent resembled Rina's, but she controlled her words better. "No, she's not my friend. But now we're in a bad situation. She never came home yesterday."
"She's missing?" I almost cheered.
"No, not missing. If I know her, she's at home, sulking while her mother buys another gift for her. But this whole situation, it's threatening everything the exchange has worked for. You just had to attack her with your food, didn't you?"
"Hey, it's not like I started it."
"No, but try to understand. Our two governments--your people, my people--they don't trust each other. They struggled for years just to start the exchange. Someone, either side, could use this incident to prove our people can't get along. And Rina's father, the Duke--he must be outraged. There's no telling what he would do. Do you understand? This could bring the whole exchange to an end." She pulled her arms together. "I can't let that happen. I've made so many friends at my new school. I couldn't bear to leave them. That's why I need your help to fix this."
"Fix it? How?"
"You come with me, to the Dorm. From there we'll go to Faerie, and you and your friends can all apologize to her."
"Apologize? After what she did?"
"Of course, she has to apologize, too. But she won't do it first. Someone has to reach out to her. I truly think if you apologize, she'll give the exchange another chance. We'll show both our worlds we can settle our own differences."
"No way. I'm not doing it."
"Please reconsider. It won't just be you. Your friends are there already, waiting for you."
"They are? But why us? We didn't start it."
"No, but Zoe Carmichael did, and she's there, too."
I straightened my posture. "Zoe's there?"
Mom said, "I've been meaning to ask, who's Zoe?"
My face sizzled. "Just a girl from school, no big deal."
"What do you think?" Papu asked my mom. "Should he go?"
Mom thought a moment. "I think so."
"But last night, you said--" My fists shook.
"I know. I said you could have handled it better. Papu's right, someone should take the high road." She asked Papu, "Will he be safe?"
"Certainly," Papu said. "My magic is very strong."
I looked at Papu, then Mom, then Papu. "Fine. Do we have to go now?"
"If it's all right with your mother."
"It's okay," Mom said. "Just don't stay out too late." She patted me on the back. "I'll put your dinner in the fridge. And you can tell me all about Zoe when you get back."
"Mom," I groaned. We kissed goodbye, and I put on my jacket, and walked outside with Papu. The delivery girl was already on her way up with our dinner, and stared at Papu as we passed.
"Now hold my hand," Papu said, and I did. "We have to go pard now. It's a direction you don't use in this realm, so you might get dizzy."
"Wait, I don't under--" The world spun and twisted around, and wobbled back into place. Now we stood under bright street lights, in front of a large house on top of a hill. "--stand."
My arms went limp. We had just jumped all the way across town. I knew that house--it had been there my whole life. It was an old historic house, with a wide porch and circular tower, and it stood out among the more modern buildings around it. Behind it was a steep bluff overlooking the river. Mom and I had passed this house so many times while running errands, and could see it from the park on the other side of the river. So now the elves were living here.
Rain dripped on my head. Clouds were building up. Papu and I ran up the hill to the porch, out of the rain. Papu knocked on the door. Immediately, a tall elf with straight silver hair opened it. The person's name was Anana; I couldn't tell whether Anana was male or female. Anana let us in.
We passed an older boy with black hair and green earrings. Papu introduced him as Galam. I stared at the large dragonfly that sat on his shoulder.
"Good evening." He had a smooth, deep voice. "I've been talking to your friends. They are nice."
"Thanks," I said. "I guess you know Rina, too?"
He grimaced. "I know her. I always have to keep her away from my dragonflies. She almost ate Ekka here the other day." He gently stroked the dragonfly's head with his finger.
Papu grabbed my arm and pulled me onward.
Music played from the room at the end of the hall. We came into some kind of parlor, where many different elves played flutes and drums and horns. A smaller girl danced in the middle of the room, her lemony braids whipping around her. My friends--and Zoe--sat on a sofa in the corner, and bobbed and clapped along.
Martin and Art sat on one end, with space between them. Papu sat there and leaned up to Art. Then there was Gregg, and Zoe. The only space left was next to her. I stared at Papu and Art, and took a seat.
The music died down, and the girl stopped dancing. "Hey, Papu. Is this everybody?"
Papu laughed. "Zsusa, if I wanted everybody, I'd get their whole class. It's everybody I need."
"Looks like you've been having a good time," I said.
"Definitely," Zoe said. "Everyone here's so nice."
I smiled at her and leaned over to Gregg. "Aren't you supposed to be grounded?"
"I was, but Papu won my parents over," he said. "She's pretty cool. And they have all this weird stuff here. There's one guy who has a two-headed lizard! I already wanna come back again. This beats a sleepover any day." He leaned back. "And I'm glad we're not the only ones who have to put up with Rina."
"No kidding," Zsusa said. "I can't believe you never got the Bangle. It could've solved your problem in a second."
"What's the Bangle?" I said.
"It's an enchanted bracelet made of cold iron," Galam said, and picked a small plastic bag off the mantle with his fingertips. It contained a simple metal circle. "It suppresses magic. Even touching it would weaken our kind, and the few spells it does have had to be put on by experts." He passed it down to Martin.
"Your principal was supposed to get it before school started," Papu said. "If Rina acted up, your teacher would put the Bangle on her wrist, and she wouldn't be able to take it off until your teacher touched it again. You can't use any magic when you have it on."
"That's what Mrs. Horn was telling me about," I said. "She said she never got it."
"Right," Galam said. "Because Rina stole it. Anana found it in her room. She must have slipped it out of her packet before they mailed it to your school."
The bag came to me. It was just a gray iron loop. I didn't see any finer details, except a hinge in the middle for it to open up. You wouldn't think it could do anything special like drain magic. On the other hand, maybe that's how it worked: something this dull is about as far from magic as you can get.
"You should take it with you," Galam said. "Put it on her when you find her. Stealing it is a serious offense. She'll be lucky if she doesn't get expelled."
"We'll use it if we need it," Papu said. "But I want to give her a chance to come back on her own. Jeremy, do you mind holding it?"
"I guess not." I stuffed it in my pocket.
Papu sprang up. "All right," she said. "Is everybody ready to go?"
My friends and I all arose. The elves wished us well.
"Good luck," Zsusa said.
"Yes," Galam said. "And we hope you enjoy Faerie."
We followed Papu down another hall, to an elevator. This was the last place I expected one. It was so empty and stale. Papu pushed the button for the lowest level. We came out into a deep but brightly-lit basement, which had been carved out of the rock. A pool rippled on the other side, probably connected to the river. A small boat floated there, and someone was lying in it. Papu tapped him. He chirped, and got up.
He resembled a walking turtle, with a wide beak, a small shell, and shaggy mop hair. He was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen.
"Good evening, Kidoh," Papu said. "We're ready."
Kidoh's beak opened and let out a chirp that echoed through the basement. He grabbed an oar, and waved us on. I took a seat in the back, the better to keep my distance.
"Don't be afraid," Papu said. "He's a Kappa, and this is his job. He won't let us down." She and Art sat together behind Kidoh. Gregg and Martin took the middle row.
I tried to read Kidoh's turtle face, but couldn't find any expression.
Zoe sat next to me. "You okay?" she said.
"A little nervous," I said. "How about you?"
"I'm nervous, too. I mean, when I met Papu earlier, I didn't wanna come, 'cause I didn't even want to see Rina, much less talk to her. I don't even feel like I'm in the real world anymore. Isn't that funny? We haven't even left yet."
"Yeah." As for me, I was trembling. After all the things Rina did, how could a bracelet help us? Did I even want to see Faerie? I still couldn't believe it existed. I just wanted to go home, relax with Mom, and be a normal kid with a normal school.
The boat lurched forward.
There I was, going to a strange world, in a boat piloted by a turtle-man, to see a magic bully. It was too late to get off now. I was stuck.
I looked at Zoe, and remembered the smell of strawberries in her hands.
"Hey, Zoe," I said. "I need to tell you something."
"I really like you. I've liked you for a long time. I was wondering, would you want to maybe go out for ice cream or something, sometime, after we get back?"
Kidoh turned the boat toward a tunnel, and we drifted into darkness. I waited for Zoe's answer.
"Jeremy." Zoe pressed her hand on mine. "I like you, too. Yeah, that sounds great."
She scooted closer to me. I burned with such bliss I could have lit the tunnel myself.
Papu's voice rang out in the darkness. "We're about to go meggle, so hold on."
I heard Gregg say, "That's not another weird direction, is it?"
Right then, the boat turned meggle.