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(n.) behavior that is recklessly bold
“Just find the watch and leave,” Alex repeated to himself, stepping into the woods. He had no intention of staying outside for long that day, nor did he make any plans to bump into the so-called King Beatrice. In fact, the boy would be rather relieved if yesterday was the first and last time he’d ever see her.
His plan was to search for up to forty minutes (ideally finding the watch long before then) and make it back home by three o’clock so he could eat a snack and watch one of his favorite TV shows, just as he did every Monday.
“We wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t gone crazy,” Alex mumbled, bitter as he glanced down at his dog. At least Rex was behaving, though, Alex thought.
Rex was more than happy to be on good behavior. After all, he was getting exactly what he wanted. Rex had never disobeyed his master before, but if that was what it got him, then maybe . . .
With no warning, Rex took off in a dead sprint, nearly throwing Alex down and dragging him along, and then nearly trampling Beatrice as she stepped out from behind a tree.
“Hello, stranger.” She grinned and took Rex off the leash. Beatrice hadn’t expected for her new friend to come back so soon. The girl ignored the look on Alex’s face, the look that said I-really-don’t-want-to-be-here-right-now.
“Hi,” he grumbled, latching Rex’s leash back on, “we’re going to go.”
“No! Stay and play!” Beatrice undid the leash again.
“I’m only here to find my watch.” Alex put the leash back on.
The back and forth confused and angered the lab. Could he explore? Could he not? He was sure he smelled a squirrel close by.
Beatrice felt in her pocket and sighed, “Is it green?”
“I may have seen it.”
“Where? Can you show me?”
The girl didn’t want him to take the watch and leave forever. He’d never come back. That might have been the only chance to keep him as her friend. “I don’t know.”
“W-would you play with me for a bit if I gave it to you?”
It was a trap! How much did he really needthe watch anyway? Was it so important as to spend another day with her? He would miss his show and he did have work to do. Alex narrowed his eyes on the dirt and clenched his fists. But it was his favorite watch, his dad would be furious, there’s no way he’d ever be able to replace it, and he would never hear the end of it from his grandmother. He studied her, the silence carrying on. Her hair was a mess, a few leaves sticking out from the massive curls, and Alex didn’t doubt that she put the leaves in her hair herself. He didn’t like her ragged appearance, and the hopeful smile on her face almost made his skin crawl. She made him uncomfortable, but she had his watch.
“Fine.” He crossed his arms over his chest, wondering what he had just got himself into.
Beatrice was frozen. No one had ever agreed before. Well, more accurately, she had never gone so far as to invite someone to play her game. For a split second, she thought that maybe she misheard him, but he had agreed . . . right?
Out of sheer panic, she dove into it. “All right,” the girl stammered, and then cleared her throat. “Mr. Holberry, let’s go!”
He marched behind her, making a game of his own out of mimicking her from behind her back.
She led him first to a village she called Lorine Wood. Alex thought it looked plain and frightfully overgrown. There were a couple benches, but bushes and tall grasses nearly covered them completely.
The girl stood proud at the entrance to Lorine Wood, ever so happy to show off their growing town. She loved the tall wooden buildings and the happy citizens who were always running about, dancing, crafting, and living their absolute best lives.
“My good subjects!” Beatrice boomed, her arms stretched wide. Exhilarated, she continued forward, beckoning Alex to follow. Beatrice shook the hands of the lord who was dressed as poorly as the peasants. “This is Lord Turk,” she introduced, gently pushing Alex forward to meet the lord.
Alex stood still.
Beatrice rolled her eyes and nudged the boy, whispering, “Go on. Don’t be shy.”
“Be shy about what?”
“Shaking his hand!”
There was no one in front of the boy.
The girl let out an exhausted groan, “Don’t you see him? He’s standing right there! You’re being very rude. Just shake his hand already, jeez.”
Get your watch and leave, Alex told himself, extending his arm and shaking hands with an invisible man in an invisible town.
“My apologies, Lord Turk. This one is new.”
The Lord shook his head and smiled, greeting Mr. Holberry.
As they passed the man, she whispered to the boy, “They are quite poor here. That’s why a lot of the buildings are run down and they aren’t dressed very fancy.”
That was why she wanted to take him there first. They were humble in Lorine Wood.
Alex immediately regretted walking out of the house that afternoon. He was expected to interact with Lord Turk, little Anna, and an entire village of people that didn’t exist. On top of that, he had to act amazed, or shocked, or whatever Beatrice wanted whenever she showed him the bakery that had burnt down, the swordsmith’s workshop, the new tavern . . . all things he couldn’t see! If he had to shake hands with one more invisible person, he was going to explode.
“Come on!” the girl cried, noticing him spacing out. He was probably distracted by the town’s jester, which was understandable. Beatrice took hold of Alex’s hand and started running, whistling for Regenald Rex.
She didn’t hold on for long, for which Alex was quite grateful.
“We’re going to the river!” Beatrice cheered. Alex found himself surprisingly giddy to see the river, for he had no idea a river ran through that part of the city. How she described it, the river was huge, the water fast, and one could catch fish as large as Rex in it. The girl continued, “But we have to take the King’s Road to be safe, unless you think you’re brave enough to cut across.”
The King’s Road, Alex observed, was the trail they were taking, and perhaps the only one he had seen in the godforsaken place. “The King’s Road is fine.”
“Maybe later you’ll be brave enough to go through the woods!” She smiled back at him, finally slowing to a reasonable walking speed.
“Ta-da!” Beatrice exclaimed, lunging forward with jazz hands to show off her river.
Alex stopped short, his shoulders slumped, and his excitement vanished. That wasn’t a river, Alex frowned. What laid before him could pass for a stream—a brook, maybe—but nothing more. He couldn’t believe he had fallen for it. He should have known she was exaggerating.
“There it is!” she exclaimed, looking upon the magnificent sight with pride. When Beatrice stood before the river, she saw its incredible depth, crystal waters slipping into an impossibly deep blue far into the horizon, and its great potential for a boat festival. Silenced by the beauty, she sat down and gazed at the marvel.
“This is your sea? What are you talking about?”
She beamed, “Isn’t it magnificent?”
The water probably wouldn’t cover his ankles, Alex thought. “Yeah,” he said sarcastically, “magnificent.”
The girl spoke again. “It’s going to be wonderful.” Her voice was soft, nearly a whisper.
“What will?” Alex sat beside her, first clearing the space of leaves and sticks.
“The boat festival. Just imagine the river cluttered with boats, big and small, plain and colorful. Everyone in the kingdom will come to watch.”
“So, a big event.” Alex’s interest was feigned, but the girl was too preoccupied on the image of a large ship drifting past them to notice. She waved to the passengers who waved back to their king.
“Yes,” she smiled and gazed in quiet contemplation over the river.
The girl played with a dandelion and smiled to herself, drenched in sunlight. Her chest filled with a surge of nostalgia. Her mother would have loved the river. Beatrice looked at the sparkling water as it rolled over the rocks and she imagined her mother dragging her father into the stream to dance and play.
What a nice image, the girl thought glumly. What a lovely dream.
A tear rolled down her cheek, but she wiped it away before the boy could notice.
They sat in comfortable silence as shadows on the ground grew longer, alternating between watching the trees, the impeccably blue sky, and Rex playing in the stream. After a while, Alex even started nodding off. So much for fifteen minutes, the boy sighed.
“Have you ever used a sword?” Beatrice asked.
He didn’t answer right away. The idea of that girl with a blade terrified him. “I really don’t think—”
Alex sighed. “No,”
“Today you’ll learn!”
Goodie, groaned Alex as he followed the girl and Rex to an incredibly neat stack of sticks that she called the armory.
Beatrice could hardly mask her excitement. Not only did she have a best friend, but she had a best friend with a dog. In addition, she had someone to swordfight with. Unable to keep herself from giggling, she looked over their selection a dozen times. She had about seven armories. The girl could never successfully keep track of just one, so she found it safer to have no less than five or six. Beatrice, of course, would take Excalibur’s twin, but one of the other large, sharp blades couldn’t possibly be safe for someone like Mr. Holberry, she thought.
“Here, Mr. Holberry.”
He had half a mind to tell her that he didn’t like the name Mr. Holberry, but he bit his tongue. Honestly, he believed that she had forgotten his real name. Alex nodded and accepted a small and unimpressive yet surprisingly sturdy stick. Frowning, he wiped off the leaves and dirt that had stuck to the stick from the last rain. There were no words he could find to express how deeply he despised this idea.
“It really isn’t all that hard, but I’ll take it slow. Now make sure your grip is tight, but not too tight. If your grip is too tight, then your arm will be way too stiff. Like this,” Beatrice demonstrated and helped Alex hold the stick, but all he could think about was the fact that he missed his snack and show on the cosmos to be outside pretending to use swords with some weird girl who probably lived out there in the trees.
“Come on, Mr. Holberry! Hold it right!” Beatrice shouted. “Back straight! Face your feet in the direction you want to go! Head up! How do you expect to fight off bandits if you can’t keep your eyes off the ground?”
He didn’t want to fight bandits. That was the whole point. However, the girl scared him, so he did as she said.
“That’s better!” she cheered, and Rex barked, too. “That’s right! Good girl, Regenald! Good girl!”
“He’s a boy,” Alex muttered under his breath.
“Nothing,” Alex kicked a stone and drove his hands deep into his pockets. “Look, I really don’t want to do this pretend swordplay.”
“What? Of course, you do!” She threw a stick for Rex to fetch. “You just have to learn first.”
“I think I’m going to go home.”
“Your King commands you!” Beatrice moved so quickly that Alex couldn’t register what was happening until she already had her stick pointed against his chest. It was a miracle, Alex thought, that she hadn’t broken through the skin.
Alex had two thoughts running through his mind: Beatrice was truly insane and if she wanted to, she could stick him through and leave him to die with no one the wiser. Rex obviously wouldn’t come to his rescue.
The boy knew better than to say no to someone like that; that’s how you got slammed against lockers or all your books thrown on the ground. And out there with no witnesses and a death trap around every corner, who knew what she could to do him.
“I-I’ll play for a b-bit longer.”
Beatrice’s eyes lit up like fireworks and she nearly tackled him in a hug. “Thank you! Thank you!”
“P-please let go.”
“Again, Mr. Holberry. Let me see a proper stance this time!”
Alex didn’t understand stick fighting, not that he understood real sword fighting either. To make it worse, Beatrice didn’t go easy on him, at least not after the first few minutes. There was a look of death in her eyes as they fought, an intensity that, though quite fitting for her, Alex found unnecessary and frightening. The girl would hit harder and harder, and after the second stick snapped, he wondered why they continued.
Beatrice stopped, feeling defeated by his lack of interest. “Come on! This can be fun if you try!” The girl frowned as she looked him up and down. God, he was scrawny. “Pretend a little?”
“That may be more your thing than mine.” Beatrice didn’t respond, so Alex studied her. He didn’t know what he was looking for—a reason to run and go home, maybe, but maybe something else altogether. Whatever it was, he found it after watching her eyes. “I’ll give it a shot.”
Slowly, Alex grew more confident, or perhaps he simply started to lose sight of his ticks and fears just long enough to have fun. His posture improved, his stance was less awkward, and he attacked with fiery passion.
Beatrice took full advantage, fighting harder than before. Never in a million years did she expect that kind of ferocity, let alone life, from Mr. Holberry.
It didn’t last long.
Beatrice leapt from a fallen tree. Her sword struck him, and he fell.
Victorious, the girl roared, holding her sword above her head as Alex cried out in pain.
“Can you stop playing for even a second?” Alex said through his teeth, squeezing his hand as hard as he could to make the pain go away. He was certain his hand was broken.
“Never!” She cackled and hit his back playfully with her sword as she circled him. “I am the king and I have conquered you, Mr. Holberry!”
For a moment, he stared at her in total disbelief as she continued her speech, saying that he’ll get better with time and that he did such a good job for his first time, but he was too scared and furious to listen. Her temerity frightened him to his core.
She must be stupid, Alex thought.
“Will you shut up?” Alex cried when his hand began burning instead of healing as he had prayed. That’s what he got for not going home when he should have. “You don’t care about anyone else around you because you’re too busy playing your stupidgame! You probably broke my finger, but you haven’t even noticed because you won’t stop talking! You never stop talking!”
“Are you serious?” Her eyes grew fearful as she inched toward him, not knowing what to do next.
“Yes, I’m serious! Why would I joke about that? Stupid.” Keeping pressure on the hand, he carefully put Rex on the leash. “Leave me alone.”
“No. Seriously, don’t ever talk to me.”
His mother pressed on his finger, wincing when Alex did as if it hurt her as much as it hurt him, which, in her mind, it did.
“It isn’t broken.” She pursed her lips as she began to wrap the hand with a bandage. “You’ll be fine, honey.”
His dad tossed him an ice pack. “Put this on it.”
“How did this happen?”
“Some girl hit me with a stick when we were playing.”
“You let a girl beat you up?” David laughed.
“A girl?” Marianne squealed. “You have a friend? Oh, Alex, I can’t believe you have a friend!”
“Beatrice isn’t my friend.”
“Beatrice!” She sighed, clasping her hands together as she grinned. “Oh, darling, Alex has a friend! Isn’t that just so perfect?”
“A friend who beat him up!” David added.
“Be quiet, David! Alex, that’s wonderful you made a friend. I was getting so worried.”
“Maybe we should have her and her family over for dinner sometime! Yes! That’s a perfect idea! David, honey, we could grill some burgers and have dinner with her family!” She scurried to a counter, grabbing a scrap piece of paper and pen to scribble down notes. She muttered to herself, “We should have hot dogs, too, in case they don’t like hamburgers. Oh! What if they don’t eat meat?” Marianne didn’t bother to look up at her son, “Sweetie, does your friend eat meat?”
“Look at him, he doesn’t want that.” Truth was, David wasn’t exactly fond of the idea of dinner. He reallydid not want to play nice with a strange couple who were most likely crazier than his own wife, or, worse, dull, or even worse, hippies. He shuddered.
“Thank you,” Alex whispered.
“Oh, nonsense! It will be so much fun! Alex, what’s her name again? Beth? I’ll try to call her mother. Do you think they’ll be in the phone book?”
“No. No. No. No. We aren’t friends and she is notcoming over for dinner, Mom!”
“Of course, we are! You’re just nervous because this is practically your first—”
“Mom, seriously, no. I’m going to bed. Please, no more talk about this dinner thing.”
“Keep icing that finger!” his dad shouted.
As soon as his mother thought Alex was out of ear shot, she said, “We are so having this dinner. What was her name again? Betty? I’ll have to find . . .”
Alex groaned and stomped up the stairs. The last two days had to have been the worst days of his life.