Bree scowled as she climbed into the van. We were headed back to the worksite soon, and I refused to let her bum me out. I’d dreamed about the waterfall the night before and woke up excited and ready for the day. I battled with doubt, as I worried I wouldn’t make it past the waterfall without her, but I wouldn’t let her see that.
Of all the days Dad and Auntie could have had a trillion tasks planned for us, it just had to be that day. It was as if they’d reserved all the lengthy lab assistant work from years before just for that sunny morning. Bree and I started out with data entry, but not just simple stuff. No, Dad had apparently just completed 45 tests that confirmed similarities between other plants and the Valeferus. Bree and I had to double-check each test and type every detail on Auntie’s laptop and in writing on graph paper. I had done data entry before by my own request for one of my dad’s projects, on the proven importance of ferns to mental health. I liked reading about his findings. It made me feel like I was in on some big scientific secret. I would have found this task educationally stimulating had it not been a day I planned to travel into a vortex.
After two hours, and the possible beginning stages of carpal tunnel in my left wrist, we finished, only to hear Auntie say, “Good, now you can photograph these!”
She directed me to a translucent box of dozens of leaves pressed between plastic. Beside it was a digital microscope camera that my dad once described as an “exciting toy for any scientific mind.” I was supposed to carefully place each unknown specimen under the microscope, photograph it, and label it. Not complicated, just tedious.
I looked at my watch. We’d planned to stay on site for three hours, and already two had passed. I had to be quick, or I’d never get a chance to go to the fall. I was in the zone. I felt like I was prepping for the biggest race of my life, as I developed a smooth pace for each photo. I didn’t know who I’d be letting down if I didn’t go to the fall; I just knew I wouldn’t be the only one disappointed, and the pressure of that was unshakeable.
“Done!” I jumped up, and my dad met my gaze.
“Did you enter the data on paper?”
“Photograph the organisms?”
“Clean the pipettes?”
“Uh.” I hadn’t.
I tried pretending I hadn’t heard the question, so I could just disappear into the woods, but I’m a horrible actor so, I opened my mouth to confess. When suddenly the unimaginable happened.
“I’ll clean them.” Bree offered to help me.
“Okay, great! That’s very nice of you, Bree,” Dad said.
Bree’s expression was something like a smile only a little more sad.
Dad raised his brow, “Well, that’s that, then! Go explore.”
As Bree started at her chore I headed into the woods one more time. I glanced back at Bree, who had already begun to clean the equipment. I didn’t get why she was doing anything nice for me. It’s not like we’d been getting along. It’s not like I even liked her.
I focused in on the pathway leading to the waterfall. It sunk in that I’d actually be alone, and my heart dropped. I had no real plan in making the portal I’d seen open again on my own. I wasn’t even the one to spark it the first time; Bree was. Would I even be able to summon what had come before?
I finally got to the water. I removed my shoes and felt the damp, cool ground beneath my feet. A warmth enveloped me, and I looked up to find another guiding light shimmering directly in front of me. I breathed a sigh of relief. It’s working, I thought.
I followed the light towards the waterfall. I had made sure to wear shorts that day, so I would have an easier time wading through the water. I was closer to the light than I’d ever been, so close I reached out to touch it. I continued my steady trek toward the fall more relaxed than before, and I was starting to settle in.
“Juniper!” Bree shouted at me as she burst out from the foliage, frantic and out of breath.
What. The. Actual. Fuck. It was clearly backwards day.
I halted in the water and struggled to get words out, “What . . . why are you—what?”
I could barely speak.
“Just wait, alright?” She wheezed as she skidded over slippery mud and into the water.
My mind went immediately to the site with Dad and Auntie. How did she get away so fast?
I made a second attempt, “How did you—?”
“They think I’m trying to pee. I saw a light again, and it led me here. I’m going with you.” She spoke in short bursts, quickly closing the distance between us, as she trudged through water fully clothed.
I grabbed her hand as she stepped over a rockier part of the pool. As soon as we touched, I was speechless.
I imagine it’s what astronauts feel like in space, only we didn’t need oxygen tanks. We hovered before deep, black nothingness. A nothingness that was more like everything and forever. We were surrounded by darkness, moving in midair as if carried by invisible currents. The pitch-black space brightened into a royal blue, and little dots that looked like stars surrounded us.
Through a little peephole, I saw the fall in front of us, only it shone bright blue and the trees behind it looked like animation. There were creatures moving in the water that looked like dinosaurs. Real, actual dinosaurs. The eyelet grew, revealing the land, everything more vivid and opaque. I could see deep into the forest, and though parts of it were familiar but the little, round, wooden homes built high in the trees were like nothing I’d ever seen before. The void opened to a window twice our size and after suspending us for a moment spit us out, deep into the woods.
I scrambled to get up. I breathed in the brisk floral air. There was something so uncanny about the land. It was as if I were in a more magical version of North Carolina, one select few would ever get to see. Bree, who was still holding my hand, rose with me.
Our feet trampled tender petals as we eased through lush vegetation. In front of us were towering trees with brassy golden bark. Instead of standing tall, each branch leaned, creating perfect crescent shapes. Above us, large splashes of orange and brown wood folded into round cottages nooked in every other tree.
Through the trees, I could tell the sky was a purple-ish hue, like right before dawn, but richer and more encompassing. Groups of little beings gathered as they came out of their strange little homes. The path from before was still there, only this time covered in the purple petals from the trees. Naturally, we followed it.
My gaze was interrupted by a white creature racing past us into the trees. It sported a horn on its forehead. I nearly fell over myself when it clicked that I’d just witnessed an actual, factual unicorn in the flesh. Before I could even grasp the sight of it, four others stampeded past us, like we weren’t even there. Did they even see us?
“Did you see…” Bree trailed off.
“Yes,” I nodded, like an eager kid.
A rush of excitement flowed through me. Bree and I sprinted into the trees after the unicorns. The trees gave way and enveloped us, making the unicorns disappear from our sight.
Each tree was decorated with curly glass charms. A ravine weaved, trickling through the trees. Docked in the stream were tiny boats, stabilized with anchors like necklace pendants, just waiting for their micro crews to return.
Elsewhere in the stream, frog like creatures rowed a boat the size of a shoebox. Tiny fishing rods were propped at the back. Though I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I could see their mandibles moving as they spoke to each other.
My feet sagged into soft, blue-green mosses, thick like a carpet. This land was the perfect place to be barefoot. The frog-looking creatures wore leaf backpacks. The quieter my breath, the more I heard them chatting.
Bree grabbed my arm.
“Did you hear that?” she hissed.
I shushed her, worried we’d scare them away. Bree pulled me behind a tree, where we stumbled and fell, hidden under a tangle of roots.
She scooted closer for a better look, “They may not even speak English.”
Feeling bold, I jumped up and shouted, “Excuse me!”
Excerpted from Juniper Leaves: The Otherworldly Tale of a Lonesome Magical Girl, available in paperback or Kindle edition. Copyright © 2017 by Jaz Joyner.