From the floor of her closet, Ruby could see the whole world drawn out before her. None of it was real, of course, but that didn’t stop her from spending her days looking at it, wondering what there could be.
It had begun when she was nine; her teacher had given the class a map of Minnesota and told them memorize the rivers, the highways, the counties. She’d taken the map home, back to her hideaway, and examined it carefully. If she squinted, it almost felt real. She’d found a pencil and traced out the river onto the corner of her wall, just above her head. The next day, she got a perfect score on her test. After school, she stopped at the dollar store and bought a pack of colored pencils—79 cents—and after a moment’s hesitation, a pack of sour gummy worms as well.
She lined the worms up, first by color, then by size, like schoolchildren in a hall, and began to draw. It had started with just one map, but she quickly expanded her collection. She fell into a routine: stop at the library after school, then head quickly home to preserve her latest discovery before her parents got home. By the time she was eleven, every inch of wood was full of color. The maps didn’t match up, of course; beside Minnesota sat Oregon and beside that Thailand, but it was her own world. One day, all of those places would be hers.
A year passed before she added anything else, but now she sketched a fine red line across her very first map: her path to a new world. There was only one problem: she had no way to bring her maps with her. She lay there, inspecting it for the last time. Memorizing it just like she’d done so long ago. The rivers, the highways, the lakes. She pulled on her jacket—it was almost too small, but she couldn’t bear to get rid of it—and checked her backpack: a box of Cheez-its, two plastic water bottles, a lighter, a pack of sour gummy worms, and of course, her colored pencils, or what remained of them at least.
Her window didn’t open all the way, but at twelve she was still small enough to squeeze through. She slid onto the mulch and made her way down the street, trying not the look at the shadows that loomed beside the street lights.
She didn’t get far before she heard voices, saw shadows, and panicked, scampering to the nearest bush where she crouched, listening.
“When was the last time Peter took out the trash?”
“I don’t know! Why don’t you just ask him?”
The voices retreated up the stairs, but Ruby remain tucked behind her bush, frozen.
“Peter! Come take out the trash.”
Ruby knew she had to leave, had to get away before the voices found her, but she couldn’t move.
She was about to get up when she heard footsteps heading down the driveway, toward her. The lid to the trash bin opened and she breathed a sigh of relief; no one had noticed her. She looked down and reached for her backpack that she’d hastily shoved beneath a branch. When she looked up, a pair of green eyes were floating only inches from her face.
Her eyes quickly adjusted to reveal the body that the eyes belonged to and she nearly screamed, before remembering that it would surely give her away even more. The eyes belonged to a boy, not quite old enough to have grown out of his childish gait.
“What are you doing in the lilacs?” asked the boy.
Ruby stayed very still and didn’t respond. Perhaps he’d mistake her for a statue then.
“I’ve never met a girl who lived in a lilac before. Are you a wood nymph? I’ve read about those you know, in my history books.”
Ruby paused, considering, before raising her head high. “Yes, I’m a wood nymph, and I’ve come to take you on a quest, noble prince.”
“But I’m not a prince.”
“You’re as much of a prince as I am a wood nymph,” after all, Ruby told herself, at least that part was true. The voices from the house still haunted her. She’d never considered bringing someone else, before then, but maybe together they’d be safe from any voices they met.
Peter looked back at his house, unsure of what to do. “If it is a quest… do I have to go then?”
She nodded. “Now hurry, before we run out of time.”
“Where are we going?”
“Far, far away, to the kingdom of… Ghana.”
“I’ve heard of that, isn’t it in Africa? Or maybe it was Australia… We learned about the continents in school once. Do you have a boat?”
“Silly prince, wood nymphs don’t need boats.” She began walking down the street and he followed tentatively behind.
“But what about me? Don’t I need a boat?”
Ruby could find no good answer to his question. The truth was that she’d already forgotten where she was going, the roads all jumbling together in her mind. Wasn’t there supposed to be a left turn here? They turned right instead: a dead end. All that lay before them was the woods.
“Where do we go now?” Peter’s voice shook; he’d never been out at night without his parents.
She looked around. “Into the woods of course. Where else would a wood nymph go?”
The woods were darker than Ruby had expected and full of shadows and sounds. She heard rustling in the grass around them and looked around. Was there someone following them? A howl pierced the night from somewhere in the distance; a stray dog, maybe a coyote. Maybe a wolf.
Peter was shaking. “I don’t have to fight any bears or wolves, right? My dad said to never fight a bear, always just lie down and hope they don’t see you. Should we lie down now?”
“Come on, I’ve never heard of a prince who was afraid of some trees.”
“But I’m not a prince, that’s what I told you! I just want to go home and sleep. Can’t we just watch Star Wars instead?”
Ruby shook her head. “We have to keep going. We’ll be out of the woods soon.”
“Don’t you miss your parents?”
“Come on, Peter, we have to keep going.”
“How do you know my name?”
So she’d guessed right. “Magic.” That was enough to convince him to keep going.
They walked on for what felt like hours. Peter kept his mouth shut except for the occasional yawn, leaving Ruby more time to worry. She was certain she’d lost the way. How long did these woods go on for anyway? She could almost see a light ahead, but when they reached it she discovered it was not a light at all, only a stripe of spray paint across the trunk of the tree. A branch snapped and Peter froze. Ruby pulled on his arm, but he wouldn’t move. Her heart was pounding.
“Come on Peter, we have to keep going!”
“I can’t. I’m scared. I just want my parents. I don’t get where we’re going at all.”
“You can’t just stay here. You have to move.”
“I can’t move, Ruby. Haven’t you ever been scared?”
“Of course I’ve been scared.”
“Then help me!”
“Whenever I’m scared, I just make up about being happy again.”
“I can’t.” He ignored her glare. “You tell me a story if you’re so magical.”
She’d told the story so many times, alone in her closet, surrounded by her maps, but never aloud, never when someone else could be listening. “Fine.” She hesitated for just a moment longer, before launching into the story that had been waiting for a chance to be told.
“Once there was a young girl who lived in a small cottage. Every day, she’d look out her window, and plan all the adventures she’d go on. She imagined all the places she’d visit, someday, when she was old enough.
One day, when she sitting at her window, a big scary wolf came up to her.
He asked her what she was doing, and she was so scared that she ran away and hid, but the wolf found her and scratched her until she bled, and then he left.
The next day, the wolf came back. This time he held a broom in his mouth, and she took it and swept the ground for him. When he returned she wasn’t done, so he stole the broom away and chased her with his claws again.
When the wolf came back again, she took the broom from him and swept faster, and when he came back she was done and waiting for him. He took the broom back and looked at her, sitting patiently.
Instead of being pleased with her work, he called her a lazy girl and told her that the world had no place for lazy girls. And this time when his brought out his claws she didn’t run.
The girl grew to expect the wolf. Each day, he would bring her the broom, and each night when he returned, she’d stand calmly as his claws burned her skin.
She hated the wolf, but she also loved him. Without the wolf, she was all alone in her cottage. She’d never had any other visitors, so she grew to see him almost as a friend. Sometimes, after he’d finished shredding her skin, he’d even talk to her and tell her stories of the places he visited each day while she swept.
The girl would listen and dream of going with him someday. Sometimes she’d even beg him to bring her with him, but he always called her a foolish girl so she learned not to ask.
Still, she waited and never let go of those stories, and she got bigger and bigger, and one day, when she was big enough, she snuck out and left the wolf behind and set off to the lands far, far away.
There were flowers—blue and pink and orange and yellow—and trees so tall you could barely see the tops if you squinted. There were tigers and bears and deer and giraffes, but no wolf. Sometimes she missed the wolf, but she was glad to be away from him at last.
Every night she’d look up at the stars and wonder if the wolf would find her here, but every morning she’d wake up and he never was. She loved her new home, and made sure to make friends with everyone she met, even the leaves at the very tippity-top of the trees, and over time she forgot all about the wolf and his claws that burned. Each afternoon she’d climb to the top of a new tree and look out. She could see the whole world from up there, and her cottage was only a dot far, far away.”
When Ruby looked up at Peter, her shoulders were trembling.
“Is that where we’re going?” he asked, “The place with the trees?”
“Are you really a wood nymph?”
She shook her head.
“I’m not really a prince either, I’m just Peter.”
“What’s your name?”
She looked at him, unsure whether he deserved an answer. “I’m Ruby.”
“Ruby, just like your jacket,” he laughed.
She looked down at her sleeves, torn from pushing through the branches, dirt caked around the edges.
“If the trees are real… does that mean the wolf is real too?”
Ruby didn’t respond, didn’t say anything, and he knew. He reached out, hesitantly, and put a tiny hand on her shoulder. She put her arms around him.
“I don’t know how… I’ve lost the way.”
They stood there for a while, in silence, but understanding. There was no magic, no prince, no nymph, but they were somehow a little less lost in the neverending woods.
“Where do we go now?”
She shook her head.
“Maybe we can find a new way there?”
She shook her head again, more vigorously this time.
Peter hesitated for a moment, then started walking by himself, gesturing for her to follow.
“What are you doing?”
“I just want to go home.”
“No! We can’t just go back!”
“But I wanna go home.”
“I can’t go home, Peter.” She refused to move, aware that she looked like a child, but unwilling to give in.
“You can come back to my house. We even have banana ice cream.”
Ruby felt hesitant. She remembered the voices back at Peter’s house, and fear rose in her again.
“Maybe we can go looking for the trees again sometime.”
He said it so innocently, so genuinely, that she couldn’t help but listen for a moment.
“Did you know that trees are alive too?”
When she nodded, she was still thinking of what it could be like to stay with him, in his home.
She opened her backpack and pulled out the bag of gummy worms to offer to him. He accepted, motioning her over to a branch, not far from where they stood.
They sat quietly, passing the packet back and forth, and the faintest smile crept across Ruby’s sugarcoated lips.
She would find a way.