Mihi Whan Park was sitting in the library for indoor recess.
Two months ago, she’d:
1) discovered a portal to a fairy-tale world
2) met Sleeping Beauty, Snow White’s evil queen, and Goldilocks’s three bears
3) survived a horde of enchanted ladies-in-waiting.
You’d think after all that her life would have fundamentally changed. But instead, here she was again. In trouble.
Or maybe it was more accurate to say things had changed—and that was exactly the problem.
After spending time in the Rainbow Realm, Mihi’s perspective on her own world had shifted. She’d always taken certain things for granted: She wasn’t great at school. She wasn’t popular. Her parents’ pet shelter was always facing varying degrees of money problems, despite their hard work.
Before, those things had seemed entirely unchangeable.
But now … fairy tales were real. She could step through a refrigerator, right into them. So how could she accept anything as a fact of life when the most fundamental facts (i.e., refrigerators are not portals) had been proven wrong?
Mihi looked down at the stack of envelopes in front of her.
As part of indoor recess punishment, her kind-eyed librarian had tasked her with stuffing envelopes with book order forms. It wasn’t so bad really. And Mihi liked Ms. Lavender, so she didn’t mind doing it.
“I shouldn’t even be here,” Genevieve Donnelly pouted. She flicked her blonde ponytail, which she’d tied up with a thin green ribbon.
Right. The worst part of today’s indoor recess: Mihi had to endure Genevieve, formerly known as Mihi’s best friend. Currently known as Mihi’s archnemesis.
Mihi closed her eyes and breathed deeply. This was a trick her dad had taught her. You’re so reckless, darling Mihi, he said. Before you speak or act, close your eyes and take three deep breaths. Then use your words—thoughtfully.
“Like, this is your fault,” Genevieve continued. “This is so unfair.”
“Yeah. It is unfair.” Mihi exhaled.
For the record, it was not Mihi’s fault. The girls still sat next to each other in class, and what had started as a whisper-fight had escalated to a not-so-whispered fight … and then became indoor recess.
“Oh, please, Mihi.” Genevieve sighed. “How do you expect to survive and thrive when you’re living in a fantasy world?”
Of course. Survive and thrive. Genevieve’s dad hosted a popular motivational podcast, and that was his motto: Don’t just survive … thrive! At dinners with the Donnellys, Mihi had always felt less than, like she was doing something wrong, but she didn’t know what the right thing was.
Now those feelings crept back. Which was totally bogus. “Genevieve, I’m strong enough to survive this world and a fantasy world—which you never could, by the way.”
Genevieve scrunched her nose. “Weird, Mihi.”
They went back to writing Book Orders! on the envelopes. Genevieve’s handwriting was cheery, bubbly, and perfectly even. Mihi’s always tilted up, like her words were reaching higher. She tried to write in a straight line, and failed.
Genevieve glanced at Mihi. “And I could thrive in any world, thank you very much.”
Mihi’s dad had given her some very good advice on how to control her emotions, but she could not for the life of her remember what it was. “Wanna bet?”
Genevieve didn’t bother responding.
And Mihi felt that familiar crunch of shame, the one she always got when Genevieve ignored her. The fiery urge to bite back and get Genevieve’s attention burned inside her. But then she thought of her new friends, Reese and Savannah. Thoughtful and resourceful, gentle and kind, they had a deep goodness that reminded Mihi to be better.
She inhaled-exhaled. Three times.
Then she turned to Genevieve … and noticed something.
Genevieve’s shoulders hunched. Her right foot tapped. She blinked just a little too quickly.
Somebody else probably wouldn’t pick up on it, but Mihi had been Genevieve’s best friend for years. That kind of connection didn’t disappear overnight. And Mihi knew: Her former friend was close to tears.
Part of Mihi was still angry. Part of her still wanted a fight. But instead, she asked, “Is everything okay?”
Genevieve sniffed. Blinked faster.
More than anything else, Genevieve hated crying. Nobody liked crying, of course. But Mihi figured crying was a part of life, like traffic before school, or rainy days, or the fact that even though each new puppy at the pet shelter would inevitably pee on her, she knew she’d fall head over heels in love with them anyway.
During their friendship, whenever Genevieve got close to tears, Mihi felt like it was her job to make her friend happier. And she’d always done that by distracting her with a fantastical story.
“Hey, wanna hear something cool?”
Genevieve glanced at Mihi, her eyes almost hopeful.
Mihi plowed on. “Once upon a time, there was a girl. Like, a really cool, brave girl. And she and her friends found a portal into a magical world. All they had to do was eat one of Ms. Lav—Ms.… Lilac’s magical candies, and a doorway appeared in the library refrigerator. They stepped through and met princesses and witches and a really terrifying woman named Bertha. She turned into a zombie for a moment, but honestly, she was scarier as her true self.”
Genevieve half laughed, but not in a mean way. She sniffed, and her shoulders relaxed, and her eyes said, Thank you.
Mihi remembered now: Genevieve could make her feel really bad—but Genevieve could also make her feel really special.
“Where do you come up with this stuff?”
Mihi hesitated, then told the truth. “Sometimes I think I want fairy tales to be real so badly that I actually make them happen.”
Genevieve half smiled, but sadness flickered beneath her expression.
“Is everything okay?” Mihi asked again, quieter this time.
Genevieve bit her lip. She tapped her pen on the table. Tap, tap, tap. And Mihi thought maybe they could go back. Maybe she could forget that Genevieve called her weird and annoying, and that the words had caused a terrible rip—something that had been fraying for a while until it finally happened, a tear in their friendship that felt impossible to mend.
What if Mihi could befriend Genevieve again? Would it be different this time? Would Genevieve get along with Reese and Savannah?
But then Genevieve’s jaw hardened, and she stood up. “I’m too old for made-up stories,” she said, grabbing her backpack. “I’m not like you.”
“Oh.” Mihi felt the pain of Genevieve’s disdain all over again. It was simultaneously sharp and numbing, like the cold-burn of winter on gloveless hands.
“I’m going to go do this at the front of the library,” Genevieve said as she gathered her half of the envelopes. “There’s no reason we have to do this together.”
Then she walked away with a swish of her ribboned ponytail, leaving Mihi in silence.
Over the past couple months, Mihi had been happy at home, in her own world. She felt grateful for her family in a way she never had before. And she loved Reese and Savannah. Though the magical people and creatures she’d met called her world the Grey World, to Mihi, it looked brighter than it ever had.
But sometimes—and she couldn’t admit this to Reese or Savannah—Mihi missed the Rainbow Realm. She missed the magic and adventure, the feeling that she could do anything.
And right now, wounded by Genevieve’s words, Mihi missed that magical world more than ever. She could almost hear the portal calling to her, just down the hall. She could feel the magic, as startling as an indoor breeze, reaching out to kiss her cheek.
She looked down the hallway, temptation spreading through her chest.
It was all so close.
Of course Mihi wouldn’t revisit the refrigerator.
Of course not.
She dreamt about the realm most nights. She wondered about its secrets. And she carried a mysterious compass, a gift from an unknown friend, in her sweatshirt pocket.
But going back would be a betrayal of Reese and Savannah, who most certainly never dreamt of returning. And besides, Mihi knew how dangerous the world was. She might be tempted, but she also remembered all those near-death experiences.
She took a deep breath and tried to focus on her task.
“Need any help?”
Mihi looked up to see Savannah, smiling softly and holding a stack of envelopes. She wore a knit hat with a giant puffball on it over her light brown hair.
Behind her, Reese carried her own stack and raised a teasing brow at Mihi. She, too, was dressed for the cold weather, with earmuffs and a big puffy jacket. Her red-framed glasses fogged in the library’s warmth, and she wiped them with her sleeve. “I can’t believe you got indoor recess again. It defies the laws of probability.”
Mihi grinned at her friends, but her smile gave way to concern. “Why are you here? Did you get in trouble too?”
Savannah shook her head as she sat beside Mihi. “We just thought hanging out with you sounded nicer than outdoor recess. It’s too cold, anyway.”
Reese tugged off her jacket and slid into her own seat. “Plus, I asked Ms. Lavender if we could get extra credit for helping, and she said yes.”
“Not that Reese needs extra credit,” Savannah added.
“You never know when you’ll need some extra credit!” Reese protested.
Mihi bubbled with joy. Her friends had given up recess! For her! “You two are better than baby birds and cotton candy and outdoor recess. Genevieve was here, which was kind of terrible, but she didn’t want to…” Mihi cleared her throat. “She decided to sit at the front of the library.”
Savannah’s brows pinched. “I’m sorry you had to spend time with her. I know you two used to be friends.”
“She’s not my favorite person either,” Reese said. “She was my partner for the science fair last year. Our project was on capillary action, which is when liquid flows upward, against gravity. It happens in cases where tubes or porous materials are narrow enough to cause surface tension, and it creates a suctioning effect.”
Copyright © 2023 by Tae Keller. Copyright © 2023 by Geraldine Rodríguez.