The Virtual Red Couch is hosting a collaborative short story project. Each week, a new author will continue the story. Check back every Monday to see how the story unfolds!
Written by Matthew Clark
“Took ya long enough, kid,” Pete remarked with a cheeky grin. “Yeah, we finished our challenges ages ago,” added Little Piggie.
“Now, now, you two,” Everett cautioned. “I’m just glad you’re safe, Emma.”
The soft, orange glow of the torch was enough to reveal Everett’s reassuring smile.
“But now,” he looked up slowly, “begins the true challenge.”
As Everett spoke, Pete made another clicking noise, causing a large passageway to slide open above them. The entire system of tunnels shook as a large staircase was revealed in front of them, sunlight shining down on their faces.
“I’m ‘fraid this is far as I go,” the platypus backed away from the staircase.
“Yeah,” Little Piggie tagged on once more. “I think I’ll stay with Pete to guard the tunnels.”
Emma eyed the antiquated stairs carefully. “Go ahead, milady. I’ll be right behind you.”
Fearlessly, the two of them climbed the stone stairs, preparing themselves for whatever may lie ahead. Yet, what was ahead refused to “lie.”
Above the trees, above the mountains—even above the clouds—rose a castle composed of millions and millions of books. There were novels, textbooks, compendiums, and articles; each ranging from leatherbound and hardback to those kept in shells; books of every color, shape, size, and genre. Before them stood a fortress of fiction—a stronghold of science. The Inkwell Bookstore simply paled in comparison.
Emma had gazed at this garrison for so long her neck was beginning to cramp.
“Let’s go now, my brothers must be in there.”
“Wait,” Everett laid his hand on Emma’s shoulder before she could rush into danger. “Look there.”
Swarming around the castle were hundreds of storm clouds and calico griffins.
“We’ll find your brothers soon enough, but we can’t risk a run-in with her minions.”
“Well, what do we do?”
Everett searched high and low, recalling each and every one of his adventures, trying to think of a way to enter the castle undetected.
“I’ve got it!” he announced proudly.
Springing into action, Everett nocked a strange-looking arrow and ducked close to the ground, motioning for Emma to follow him. As they inched closer to the castle walls, Everett found the perfect moment to strike.
He shot his arrow through a nearby cloud. Emma watched in awe as it soared all the way to the top of the castle before getting lodged into the railing of a balcony.
“Intruders!” the nearby nimbus shouted, thus alarming his fellow clouds and griffins.
“They’re going to spot us!” Emma restrained herself from shouting. “No they won’t,” Everett smirked. “Watch this.”
Almost as if on cue, utter chaos ensued. Thunder roared, lightning crackled—fur and feathers flew everywhere.
In the midst of this uproar, Everett snapped his fingers, at which a rope shot down from his trusty grapple arrow; he caught the rope and, with another snap, Everett and Emma held on tight as the arrow pulled them hurtling toward the top of the castle.
Opening her eyes slowly, Emma gave a sigh of relief when she saw that her and Everett had landed safely on the balcony. While Everett was tending to his arrow, Emma looked up in horror.
This particular balcony led to the chamber of the queen herself.
Upon a mighty throne of books rested none other than Mrs. Schreibel. To her left sat James, and to her left was Daniel.
Emma, overmastered by her emotions, charged into Queen Schreibel’s chamber and made her demand.
“Give me back my brothers right now!” The queen laughed.
“I’ve been patient with you, Emma. Day in and day out, you come and read to the very last minute, and you hardly ever buy a book. Maybe I’ve let you take advantage of my soft heart.”
She stood up and began pacing the floor.
“I suppose it’s because you remind me of myself when I was younger. So vibrant and full of life. Always ready to read the next page—enjoying every paragraph and sentence in the book of life. But, not every book is a comedy or adventure or romance, and not every sentence wants to be enjoyed.”
Suddenly, her pacing ceased, and she turned to face Emma.
“My patience has run out. You have overstayed your visit to my bookstore for the last time.”
Queen Schreibel lifted her hands and books began floating in the air. Some grew spikes on their spines, others became engulfed in flames, and many started to buzz with electricity.
“Don’t let her hurt us, Em!” Daniel shouted desperately. “I’m sorry I ever doubted you. I just wanted to ride a griffin and have a once in a lifetime adventure.”
“I just want to go home and have ice cream!” James cried out, wishing the nightmare would end.
“Alright, that’s quite enough.” A voice came from behind.
All four heads turned to look at Everett Hawforn, who had finally finished resetting his arrow.
“Everett,” said the queen.
“Alice,” replied the adventurer.
“How nice of you to drop by.”
“Just thought it would be good to visit. Something you apparently never thought to do.”
A glimmer of remorse shone in Schreibel’s eyes.
Daniel and James took this opportunity to run to their sister.
“Why is it that you stopped coming by anyway? Getting too old for a good story?”
“I wanted to, Everett, I really did, but—”
“But what? What was it that kept you from your own dreams?”
“Not what, Everett—who.”
The three children had taken refuge behind Everett, who was puzzled by his old friend’s words.
“Who could have possibly kept you from your dreams, Alice?”
Schreibel sighed and gently lowered herself into her throne.
“When I first began The Inkwell, I was still living with my mother. She never really approved of my hobby, so she certainly wasn’t thrilled to hear that I was starting a bookstore. One day after work, I came home more excited than usual. Most days, I was good about only discussing things like the news and stocks with her, but, I was enjoying our adventures so much that I just couldn’t help myself. So I regaled her with the best story that has ever been told or written. Even so, all she said in response was ‘If you keep wasting your time on these ridiculous stories, you will never amount to anything in life.’ And that was just too much for me.”
“I kept running the bookstore to make a living, but I never got any joy from it again. I even thought it was childish.”
Now, she looked up at Emma.
“When you started visiting the store, I was reminded of my childhood. I remembered a time when everything about books and stories was simply magical. I didn’t know how to convey it to you, but I just didn’t want what happened to me to happen to you.”
“Oh Alice,” Everett began. “I’m so sorry.”
Alice and Everett met one another with a hug. After wiping the tears away, the two of them began telling tales from the past, exchanging stories of action and adventure; it was like they were kids again.
Meanwhile, Emma rejoiced at her brothers’ safety, and the three of them snacked on the figs they foraged earlier in their adventure.
Finally, Alice stood and faced the kids.
“I hope you can forgive me for my cruelty.”
“That’s okay Mrs. Schreibel,” said Emma. “It was unfair of us to think that you were just mean. I guess we never knew your story.”
Alice smiled at Emma’s maturity.
“Here, for your trouble.”
Alice presented Emma with the book she was reading from earlier.
“Are you sure?” Emma hesitated.
“Why of course. You are one of my most frequent customers, after all.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Schreibel.”
“Oh, and don’t worry, I didn’t forget about you two,” she chirped to Emma’s brothers.
“For Daniel, an Avatar comic, and for James, a book about ice cream.” “Thank you!” The two responded with glee.
“I’m guessing it’s about time for you three to head home,” Everett stepped in.
Emma realized how late it must be.
“Oh yes, our parents must be worried sick! How do we get back to the library?”
Alice effortlessly materialized a staircase leading back to The Inkwell.
Emma started toward it, but stopped herself and turned around. “Will I ever get to see you again?” she asked Everett. “Absolutely, milady. You can visit anytime.”
“Certainly,” Alice responded. “You three are welcome to come back whenever you’d like.”
Relieved at this new revelation, Emma, Daniel, and James walked closer to the stairs.
“And kids,” Alice called after them.
“Yes?” Emma paused to turn back once more.
“Never stop reading stories. Good stories are what make a good life.”
Emma smiled and nodded, then took her brothers’ hands and walked back down into her favorite building on earth.