The amber light from the outside porch lamp bounced off the old woman’s wrinkled face. She bent over to place a bowl of food for her five cats. Tree branches transformed into a witch’s fingers in the moonlight. Ron and Steve shivered. It could have been the cold October night, or their fear of riding past the old woman’s house. They were ten and got a late start home from the park.
Ron raked his chubby fingers through his blonde hair, nervous about their situation. Steve’s tall skinny body seemed to blend in with the tree they stood under.
“Geez, when is she going to go back inside?” Ron asked.
“I don’t know, but I hope it’s soon. We’re going to be in trouble if it gets too late,” Steve said.
Ron, still nervous, asked, “What are we going to tell our moms?”
“We’ll think of something. We could say we lost track of time,” Steve said.
Finally, they could see the old woman’s humped back fade into the house as she closed the door behind her.
“Let’s go now before she comes back out!” Steve said.
They hopped onto their bikes and peddled as if the devil was behind them. Neither one of them dared to look back.
The Saturday morning sun blazed bright and lit up Steve’s bedroom. Steve could hear his family downstairs. He glanced at the watch his father gave him—eight o’clock. After putting on a pair of jeans and a red hooded sweatshirt, Steve bolted down the stairs. His family never ate breakfast together, so he grabbed a Pop-tart and ran out the door.
“Mom, I’m going over to Ron’s house.”
He hopped on his bike and heard his mom’s voice fading as she yelled, “Isn’t it a little early?”
Steve finished his Pop-tart the same time he reached Ron’s house. He knocked on the front door. Ron’s father died two years earlier. Ron, his 7-year-old sister Stephie, and his mom had very little money.
The door opened. “Hi, Steve. You’re up early.”
“Hi, Mrs. Jacobs. Yeah, I couldn’t sleep anymore. Is Ron awake?”
“Well, he’s still in bed, but you can go on in. Tell him to get his butt moving. He missed breakfast.” Ron’s mom said as she winked.
Steve knocked on the door then pushed it open.
“Hey, dipshit. Your mom wants me to get your butt moving.” Steve said as he jumped on the bed.
Ron groaned and pulled the pillow over his eyes. “Why do you get up so early?”
“Why do you sleep so late?”
Then, Ron pulled the pillow from his face and asked, “Hey, what did your mom say about you being late last night?”
Steve shrugged his shoulder. “Nothing much. She seemed annoyed, as usual. What did yours say?”
Ron rolled his eyes. “The usual stuff about finding me in a ditch somewhere. Blah blah blah.”
Steve laughed. “C’mon, let’s go see what that old woman is doing. If she’s not home, we could peek over the fence in her backyard and see what’s back there.”
“Are you freaking crazy?” Ron said. “I heard there were a hundred cats back there that will tear the eyeballs out of your head.”
“So what. I heard there were two-headed dogs that rip your heart out.” Steve said as he mimicked an evil laugh.
“You’re stupid,” Ron said.
Steve started to rummage through Ron’s drawers.
“What are you doing?” asked Ron.
“Getting your butt moving like your mom told me to. Come on; it’s Saturday. Let’s go.”
Ron put on a white t-shirt, jeans, and a blue flannel shirt. Ron’s 8-year-old sister, Stephie, stood in the doorway of Ron’s room with her arms folded.
“What do you want?” Ron asked.
“Can I go with you?” Stephie asked as she leaned on the door. Her blonde hair was still messy from sleep.
“No. We don’t want you tagging along.”
Stephie stuck out her tongue and ran to the kitchen, where her mom was washing dishes.
“Mom, can I go with Ron?”
“Where’s he going?”
“I don’t know,” Stephie said as she pouted.
Ron and Steve rushed passed the kitchen.
“Ron, where are you two going?” asked his mom.
Ron stopped and hung his head. “To the park.”
“Take your sister with you.”
“Great. That’s all we need is your sister tagging along.” Steve said.
Since Stephie was with them, they decided to go to the park first for a couple of hours. Ron and Steve became bored and figured they would ride home the way of the old woman’s house. Stephie might be a nuisance, but they could use her to distract the old woman if she was home.
“I’m hungry,” Stephie said.
“Here, I brought a candy bar.” Ron pulled it from his backpack. He nudged Steve. “You want one too?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
As they approached the old woman’s house, daylight softened its look. A six-foot-high fence guarded the backyard. There was a canopy of trees shading the back left corner. Sometimes a strange glow filtered through the branches. Was the old woman home? They couldn’t be sure. If they could get a look at the backyard, they would be heroes in the eyes of their friends. They would be superheroes if they could walk through the yard in one piece. All they had to do was figure out a way to climb over the fence.
“Stephie, you go and knock on the old woman’s door,” Ron said.
“I don’t want to,” Stephie said as she folded her arms.
“Because you guys are just trying to get rid of me.” She said.
Steve kneeled to her level. “No, Stephie. We want you to help us out so we can look over the backyard fence.”
Stephie’s eyes widened. “Really?”
Ron answered. “Yeah, so go knock on her door and see if she’s home. If you hear her coming to the door, run back here. Okay?”
“Okay.” She said and took off running before Ron could say anything else.
Stephie knocked on the door and waited. Hearing footsteps, she backed away from the door. As she turned to make a run for it, the door opened.
“Well, hello there little one.” The old woman said.
Stephie turned and said, “Hello.” She was holding both sides of her shirt hem and stood frozen.
The old woman smiled and said, “Aren’t you the cutest little blonde doll.”
“That’s what my mom calls me,” Stephie said.
“Why don’t you come in and have some pumpkin pie with me.” The old woman said as she took Stephie’s hand, leading her into the house.
Ron and Steve stood stunned. They didn’t plan for this. If something bad happened, it would be their fault. The chance for superhero status would be gone forever.
“What are we going to do now,” Ron asked as he fell to the ground and crossed his legs. He put his head in his hands.
“Stop it,” Steve said. “We can’t just sit here. Let’s climb over the fence while your sister is inside.”
“We can’t leave her in there,” Ron yelled.
“We won’t, you idiot.” Steve flicked the back of Ron’s head. “C’mon.”
They left their bikes under a tree and took off running toward the backyard fence. How would they climb the six-foot-high fence? They found some rotting logs on the edge of a wooded area and rolled them to the side of the fence. Doing this gave them enough boost to climb to the top and down the side, into the backyard. Ron fell hard and landed on his butt instead of his feet.
“Ouch, dangit,” Ron yelled. He was facing the fence. As he glanced up at Steve, he saw Steve’s eyes widen as he stood frozen, staring straight ahead.
“Hello, boys,” the old woman said. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to use the front door as little Stephie did?”
“Um, yes, ma’am,” Steve said. The color had drained from his face.
“She’s not crazy. You said she was crazy,” Stephie said, putting her hands on her hips.
“Shut up, Stephie,” Ron said with a scowl.
“Stephie told me you both wanted to see my backyard. What did you expect to see?”
Stephie didn’t wait for her brother to answer. “They thought there were mean cats and bad dogs back here. They said the cats would tear our eyes out.”
“Oh my God, Stephie. Shut up, will you?” Ron said, his face turning red.
The old woman laughed, and her body shook. “That’s a new one. You all can call me Miss Emmy, and as you can see, this is a normal, boring backyard.”
Steve stared at the canopy of trees at the left corner of the backyard. An iron gate in the corner stood as a barrier to the woods beyond the backyard. Every few minutes, a faint glow emanated from the trees, barely noticeable.
“What is that?” Steve asked.
Miss Emmy explained, “It’s a gateway to a very delicate world called Vitalus. It needs protection from this world. Would you like to see it?”
“Why does it need protecting?” asked Ron.
“Because the people in this world would exploit it and make it a science project.” Miss Emmy said. “I will only show it to the three of you if you promise to help me protect it. Will you make that promise?”
“I will,” said Stephie. She went over to Miss Emmy and held her hand.
“I know you will, Stephie, but what about your brother and his friend.”
Ron and Steve glanced at each other before saying in unison, “Yeah, we promise.”
The four of them approached the iron gate. Miss Emmy put her palm over a large sapphire stone, which opened the gate. As they walked through the gate, Ron and Steve glanced behind them. The gate closed on its own, and the backyard vanished. All they could see now was a trellis with flowers, and a sapphire pendulum hung down the center.
Almost immediately, a flock of sprites swarmed them. They glowed with every color of the rainbow. As a sprite landed on Ron’s hand, they heard a loud groan from a large tree to their right. Steve tripped and stumbled backward as he attempted to move further away from the tree.
Brushing himself off, Steve asked, “What was that?”
Miss Emmy leaned into Steve and whispered, “That’s the seeing tree. He watches over who enters through the gate.”
“Is this real?” Ron could hardly believe his eyes. “How is this real?”
“Children, you entered through a gateway to a parallel dimension. This is a world quite unlike our own. Can you see why I need your help to protect it—to keep it a secret?”
“Nobody would believe us even if we did tell them,” Steve said.
“There are many creatures in this world that are gentle and those that are dangerous,” Miss Emmy warned.
“Which ones are dangerous?” Stephie asked.
“It’s mostly the dragons that cause the problems. They are not so trusting as most of the creatures. They can be defensive at times,” said Miss Emmy.
“There are dragons here?” all three said in chorus.
“Yes,” said Miss Emmy. But, It’s getting late, and we should go back to our world. We can come back another time. And, boys, be sure to come to the front door next time.”
Miss Emmy led them back to the trellis. She held her palm in front of the sapphire pendulum, which opened the portal for entrance to her backyard. She sent the children home but knew they would be back soon. They were the children she had hoped for.
PART TWO WILL PUBLISH SOON