“Oh my god!” Chris gasped. “What did Ryan do to my laptop?”
Darren’s gaze traveled from his friend’s horrified face to the poster tacked to the tree in front of them:
DEAD OR ALIVE
FOR BURGLARY, THEIVERY, AND
RUNNING FROM THE LAW
“Were you and Ryan working on a Land of Stories/Glee crossover episode together?”
“Not to my knowledge, and certainly not with my consent,” Chris huffed.
“So what’s with the poster?”
“That’s what I’d like to know. Last night, Ryan sent me an email with a huge attachment. Brian tapped the keyboard and it started to download.”
“Good old Brian,” Darren chuckled.
Chris rolled his eyes. “Yes, well, I couldn’t stop it, and my computer wouldn’t shut down, and then it started glowing and humming, and then someone showed up at my house and decided it would be a good idea to stick his hand into the possessed laptop, get sucked into another dimension, and drag me along for the ride.”
“Oops? It that all you’ve got, Dare? Oops?!” Chris ranted. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“Chris, please, I know you’re upset, but don’t take it out on me. It was an accident. How was I supposed to know that your laptop had suddenly become a portal to another world?”
Chris took a steadying breath. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s not your fault.”
Darren grinned at him. “And hey, wasn’t I just saying that we should take a little vacation together? And haven’t you always called this your ‘happy place,’ where you can escape from the stresses of the real world?”
“The Land of Stories may be my happy place, but I don’t think that’s where we are. At least, not entirely. There’s no ‘Kurt Hummelocks’ in my book. Who knows what else is different here?”
“So wait – are you upset because I accidentally transported us to The Land of Stories? Or are you upset because it’s not The Land of Stories?”
Chris looked down, embarrassed. “The second one, actually. All my life, I’ve dreamed about coming to The Land of Stories. This book is like my first-born child. And now I feel like it’s been kidnapped by Ryan Murphy and used in some bizarre experiment in genetic engineering. I mean - don’t get me wrong - I love Kurt, too. I just don’t think I want to see him turned into some weird, mutant Goldilocks-hybrid.”
Darren looked thoughtful. “Hmmm… That might actually be kind of cool. I’ve read your version of Goldilocks, and she’s the most kick-ass character in your book. And I’ve always felt like Kurt is secretly one of the most bad-ass characters on Glee. I bet he could pull it off.”
Chris raised an eyebrow.
“C’mon,” Darren coaxed. “Why don’t you give me the grand tour? And while we’re at it, you can figure out if anything else is different here.”
Chris heaved an exaggerated sigh, but he was secretly pleased that Darren wanted to explore. “Okay,” he agreed. “We shouldn’t be too far from Froggy’s house. Let’s see if he’s home.”
As Chris led the way deeper into the forest, he had a strong sense of déjà vu. Every rock and tree seemed familiar – not as though he’d imagined this scene, but as if he’d actually been here before. The sensation was oddly disturbing, and Chris was glad to have Darren with him, his friend’s familiar presence acting as an anchor to reality. Or, he amended in his head, whatever version of reality the two of them were currently experiencing.
Soon, they reached a large, wooden door, set into the side of a small hill. Chris turned to Darren. “You’d better let me do the talking.”
Chris knocked on the door. There was a scuffling sound from within, and the door swung open, revealing an enormous frog-man.
“Froggy!” Darren exclaimed.
Froggy looked taken aback. “I’m sorry… Do I know you?” he asked.
Chris glared at Darren, and gave him a little kick for good measure. Then, turning back to Froggy, he said, “We’re sorry to disturb you. I’m Chris, and this is my less-than-tactful friend, Darren. We’re not from around here. We were wondering if you might be able to help us.”
Recovering his composure, Froggy said, “Of course, of course.” Then, beckoning them inside, he added, “You took me by surprise. I don’t get many visitors.”
“I can see why,” Darren muttered to Chris under his breath.
They found themselves in a large, dark room, with a dirt floor, dirt walls, and a dirt ceiling. Froggy motioned for them to sit down on a large, ratty-looking sofa. “I’ve just made a pot of lily-pad tea,” he said. “Would you like a cup?”
Chris shook his head in refusal, but Darren replied, “Sure.” When Chris looked at him questioningly, Darren explained, “When in Rome, and all that.”
After handing Darren a cup of tea, Froggy sat down in an overstuffed chair opposite the sofa. “So,” he inquired, “how can I help you?”
“Do you have a journal written by a man who wanted to use the Wishing Spell to get to another world?”
Froggy gasped. “How do you know about that?”
“We’re from that other world, and we need to get home. Would you mind letting us borrow the journal?”
Froggy stared at Chris and Darren, taking in their jeans and t-shirts. “Um… okay,” he said at last.
Froggy stood and walked to one of the many large bookshelves lining his dirt walls. He pulled down a small, leather-bound volume, and handed it to Chris.
“I’ve had this journal for years,” he said sadly. “I kept telling myself that maybe one day I’d collect the Wishing Spell items so that I could be turned back into my real form. But the truth is, that would require me to leave this hole in the ground, and I’ll never do that because I just can’t bring myself to face the world looking like this.”
“Hey,” Darren piped up, “don’t knock yourself. I don’t care whether you’re green, purple, frog, toad, or dinosaur. That which makes you different makes you strong. Just be who you are.”
Froggy gave Darren a tremulous smile, but didn’t look convinced. “You two will need more than just the journal if you’re trying to create the Wishing Spell. Let me put together some provisions for you.”
Froggy gathered food, a couple of water flasks, a woolen blanket, a small bag of gold coins, and something that looked suspiciously (and incongruously) like a Swiss Army knife. He placed the supplies in a sheepskin satchel, which he handed to Darren.
Chris stood up and put a hand on Froggy’s shoulder. “Thanks so much for your help. Darren and I need to head out now, but you ought to think about what he said. You have more courage inside than you realize. In fact, deep down in your heart, you’re a hero.”
“I appreciate the kind words,” Froggy said, escorting them to the door, “but you don’t really know me.”
“Oh, but I do,” Chris told him with an enigmatic smile. “Just trust me.”
As Froggy closed the door behind them, Darren turned to Chris and asked, “So, was he exactly the way you imagined him?”
“Close, but not quite. For one thing, he was so much bigger than I’d pictured. I mean, I wrote him to be taller than the twins, but they’re just kids. Froggy must be at least six-three. And his voice wasn’t what I’d imagined, either. But I guess that makes sense. After all, I did all the voices on the audio-book myself, but I wouldn’t expect every character here to really sound like me.”
“His voice did sound kind of familiar, though,” Darren mused. “As if someone we knew had been turned into a frog. But I couldn’t quite figure out who…”
“Well, we can think about it as we walk. We need to get a move on if we’re going to make it out of the Dwarf Forests before it gets dark.”
“And something tells me that we’d better hurry,” Darren agreed, as eerie howls sounded in the distance…