JAN'S QUEST

Chapter One

"Before the Strangeness"

It was the last day of school, and Jan had remembered at the last minute that she had a library book she needed to return. When she got back to her class, she saw her friends talking together. She started happily towards them, and then noticed what they were talking about.

"It'll be great!" Kathy said. She was the group's leader. "We'll have two whole weeks at the beach to work on our tans!" Kathy was tall, with shiny black hair and hazel eyes.

"Yeah! Party time!" That was Cindy, the ditz of the group. She was blonde with blue eyes, and not too bright. Even Jan got better grades.

"This is gonna be great!" Lisa cried. She was tall and skinny, with flaming red hair, green eyes, and freckles. She had a weird sense of humor.

"I can't believe it!" Bonnie said. Jan didn't know Bonnie too well. She had black hair and brown eyes. She was a shy, quiet girl. "Pinch me! Ow! Lisa!"

"Well, you asked!" Lisa said, sticking her tongue out at Bonnie.

Jan stared at her friends. Two weeks at the beach? All of them?

"Just remember," Kathy said, "don't tell--Oh, hi, Jan!"

"You're all going to the beach for two weeks, and you didn't invite me?" Jan asked. She felt like she'd been punched in the stomach. "You didn't even tell me!"

"Yeah, well…" Cindy said. "Um…little help here somebody?"

"Um…my mom only let me invite three friends," Kathy said, looking down at Jan. Actually, Jan was the shortest kid in fourth grade. Everyone looked down at her. "You understand, right, Jannie?"

"We'll bring you back some nice souvenirs," Bonnie suggested. "You're not mad at us, are you, Jan?"

"Yeah, Jan's cool about it, aren't you, Jan?" Lisa said, putting a freckled arm around Jan.

"Sure," Jan said, ducking out of Lisa's grip. "I…I gotta go right home today, guys. I just remembered, my aunt's coming over to see me." She took off at a run without another word.

Jan wished. Her Aunt Sue was the coolest adult ever. But she didn't come over too often. She didn't get along with Jan's mother. In fact, nobody really got along too well with Jan's mother. That was why Jan's father had moved out last year. They weren't divorced yet, but Jan only saw her dad every other weekend.

It was because of Jan's lousy home life that she was so eager for friends. But now they'd turned on her too. Jan's life stunk!

Jan ran all the way home. It didn't even occur to her that, as short and…well, chubby, Jan was, she should have gotten exhausted running nearly three miles home. But Jan never seemed to get tired, or sick either. She'd never really thought about it, but sometimes it seemed like it was the only good thing in her whole rotten life.

At home, Jan slammed the door. All that running hadn't helped get her over her anger.

"Don't slam the door, Jan!" her mother yelled from her study. Her mother worked for a real estate agency, mostly recording records. She also sold houses herself, but not very often. When she did, she dragged Jan along with her.

"My whole life's ruined!" Jan sobbed, running to her room. "And all you care about are your doors!?" She slammed her bedroom door. She jumped onto her bed and started screaming, pounding and kicking her bed. "I hate them!"

Jan's door opened. "You're such a drama queen, Jan," her mother said. "What happened this time? Did someone pull your hair?"

Jan stopped her tantrum and stared at her mother. "I'm not a drama queen!" she said. "They're all going to the beach for two weeks, and they didn't even invite me!"

"You couldn't have gone, anyway," her mother said. "You're too young."

"You never let me do anything!" Jan sobbed. "I'm a prisoner here!"

"Oh, grow up, Jan!" her mother said. "Maybe next year you can go."

"I'm ten days older than Kathy, and her mom's the one that's taking everybody to the beach!" Jan yelled.

"Lower your voice in the house, young lady!" her mother said. "That's Kathy's mother. And Kathy's a lot more mature than you are. Look at this room!"

Jan looked around. One wall had a mural of an enchanted forest. There were fairies all over. Jan's dresser was so covered with stuffed animals that she had to put them on her bed in order to look in her mirror. Her bedspread was pink, and she had a matching canopy over it.

"What's wrong with it?" Jan asked.

"Jan, you're too old to have all this stuff," her mother said, picking up an orange rabbit. "If you want me to treat you like a grown-up, then you have to start acting like a grown-up. Why don't we at least give some of it away?"

Jan nearly fell off her bed. "My stuff? You want to give away my stuff?!"

Her mother put the rabbit back between the pink hedgehog and the yellow fox. "You see? How can I let you spend a week or more someplace when you're so immature? You'll wake up in the middle of the night, start crying, and embarrass yourself."

"I would not!" Jan said. But deep down, she thought her mother was probably right. Her mother was almost always right. That was probably why she didn't get along with other people very well.

"I'm just thinking about you, honey," her mother said, walking over to Jan's bed and sitting down. "If you had one of your weird little nightmares and wet your bed, your friends would all laugh at you."

As long as she could remember, even longer, Jan had had strange dreams. In them, she would meet fairies and elves and gnomes and other creatures. Sometimes they were happy dreams. Other times, weird little goblins would tie her up and drag her to their king. Jan could never see the goblin king's face, but she knew that he wanted to hurt her, maybe kill her.

"But they didn't even tell me they were going!" Jan said, looking at her shoes. They were pink ballerina shoes. And Jan was wearing a yellow sundress with big sunflowers on it. Maybe she was immature. But Jan didn't feel any different now than she had when she was five. Why should she have to grow up?

"They know me," her mother pointed out. "Did you think I'd let you go?"

"No," Jan admitted.

"I'll be working a lot over the summer," her mother went on. "You can spend a lot of time with your dad and your aunt. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"Yes," Jan said. She threw her arms around her mother. "I'm sorry, Mom!"

"Of course you are," her mother said, kissing her forehead. "Now take off your shoes before you climb on your bed again. I have to get back to work. Then we'll see about dinner. What do you want?"

"Um…chili dogs and French fries?" Jan asked hopefully.

"How about one chili dog, mashed potatoes, and a salad?" her mother suggested.

"Well, okay," Jan said. Her mother was in a good mood right now, and she didn't want to push her luck.

Jan was relieved to have settled her problem with her mother, but it didn't make her feel any better about her friends. Well, if they didn't want to hang around with Jan, she didn't want to hang around them either!

Jan went to her dresser and opened the bottom drawer. The others all contained clothes. This one held Jan's diary and her box of fairy stuff. Both had combination locks on them. She took out the box, placed it on her bed, and opened it. Inside were all the things she'd collected over the years that looked like they might have been made by fairies. Tiny dishes, spoons, what looked like a sword about half an inch long. She had found them in the park not far from where she lived. Of course, they might be toys other children had left behind, but she doubted it. Toys would be made of brightly colored plastic. The dishes were pottery, the spoons were wood, and the sword was made of bronze. Jan had read that iron made fairies sick. She didn't know if that was true or not, but the bronze sword seemed to prove that.

Jan went through all her things until she came to the very bottom. There was a tiny envelope. She opened it. Inside was a picture Jan had taken when she was almost five. It was taken in the woods with her Aunt Sue's camera. Walking away with her back to the camera, holding hands with a toddler that looked like she could barely walk, was a girl who had butterfly-like wings. Could this really be a fairy? Fairies were tiny, though, and the girl in the picture seemed much too big to be a fairy. An elf? But elves didn't have wings, did they? This was Jan's most prized possession. Whenever her mother or school or her so-called friends made her feel bad, she'd look at this picture and think, "There are magical things in the world! And this picture is all the proof I need!" Of course, her mother said it was probably a little girl playing dress-up, like Jan often did. But the wings looked awfully realistic, and clearly grew right out of the girl's back. What had held them on if they were fake? Glue? She returned it to its envelope, put the envelope back in the box, locked the box, and returned it to her dresser. She took out her diary.

Her diary had a fairy carved onto the wooden cover. Aunt Sue had given it to her last summer. There was a pen, attached with a magnet, which also looked like a fairy. She'd named the book fairy Primrose and the pen fairy Nightflutter. She opened the diary.

"Dear Primrose,

"Today I found out that my friends are going to the beach for the summer without me! It's so unfair! I thought they liked me. What am I doing wrong? I try so hard to be their friend. Is that the problem? Am I trying too hard?

"Mother says I can spend a lot of time this summer with Daddy and Aunt Sue. I'm excited about that, of course. Daddy takes me to miniature golf and bowling and lets me do pretty much anything I want. And Aunt Sue works in that medieval store and lets me put stuff away and try on the princess dresses and tiaras. So maybe this'll be a better summer if I don't go to the beach. Still, it would have been nice if they'd at least asked me.

"I'll talk to you again soon, Primrose. I hope you and Nightflutter have fun together.

"All my love to you both,

"Chubberella."

Chubberella was the fairy name Jan had given herself. She saw herself as a poor little Cinderella, and she was chubby. Well, the truth was, Jan was fat. Not gross fat. But Cindy had once asked Jan if she had ever done any sumo wrestling.

The truth was, Jan had done a little, but she wasn't about to tell anyone. Five years ago, her mother had asked Aunt Sue to enroll Jan in ballet. The ballet class had been full, and Aunt Sue had planned to take Jan to a judo class. But Jan had seen the sumo class next door, and decided that she had to try that instead. Aunt Sue had gone along with her, which she usually did. When they'd gotten home, her mother had asked Jan to show her what she'd learned. Jan had ran into her room, gotten her bunny rabbit, which was then bigger than she was, and thrown it around the living room.

"She learned that in ballet?" Jan's mother had demanded.

"Um…ballet was closed, Sis," Aunt Sue had admitted.

"Then what exactly did you sign her up for?" her big sister had asked.

"Um…sumo wrestling?"

Naturally, Jan's mother had raised the roof. Then she'd dragged them both down to the school.

"Sorry, lady," the huge sumo teacher had said, staring down at Jan's mother. "No refunds. You can place her in my little sister's judo class if you like."

So Jan had had one sumo lesson, and three months of judo. Of course, that was so long ago, she didn't remember anything she'd learned. And she'd never been in any fights, so she didn't know if anything would come back to her in an emergency. Of course, Jan's life was so dull; she doubted she'd ever have an emergency of any type.

After dinner, Jan watched television. Since school was over, she didn't need to get up early, and her mother let her watch a documentary on spirit photography. It was a special process that was used to try to take pictures of spirits. Aunt Sue used to look for real ghosts, and used that sort of film. She'd never found a real spirit, but maybe Jan had found a real fairy. A picture that picked up ghosts would pick up fairies, wouldn't it?

Jan fell asleep watching an old black and white monster movie.

The next morning, Jan didn't know what to do. School was out, and she sure wasn't speaking to her so-called friends. She asked her mother if she could go to the park. It was a big nature trail a couple of blocks from her house.

"I don't like you going there alone, Jan," her mother said. "You could get kidnapped or bitten by a squirrel or bat with rabies. Your Aunt Sue said she was coming over later. I'm sure she'll be thrilled to take you there."

"That's great!" Jan cried. Aunt Sue always told her the best stories on the nature trail.

There was nothing on TV, so Jan looked through her fairy tale books for something to read. Nothing interested her at the moment, so she went out to her back yard. Aunt Sue had started a little fairy village in the trees and rocks, and Jan had been adding little houses or figures since she was four.

Jan came to the large bushes in the middle of her yard. Once, years ago, she had dreamed that she'd crawled through the bushes, and found herself on the beach. There, she had seen a little mermaid about her age, crying because the tide had gone out, and she couldn't get back into the water. Jan had tried to drag her, but she'd been too heavy for her. Finally, Jan told her to walk on her hands while Jan held her tail up. That worked, and they were soon in the water. But a wave knocked Jan over, and she nearly drowned. The mermaid pulled her onto the beach, and then swam away. Jan had ran crying back to the bushes, crawled through, and ran to her mother. She never did figure out exactly when she woke up. But it had to have been a dream, right? Dream or not, thought, ever since then, Jan had been afraid of water. She couldn't swim a stroke, and had cried every time she was in a pool past her middle.

Jan was trying to remember exactly what the little mermaid had looked like, when she heard a horn. "Dah dah dah dah dahdah!" Aunt Sue's horn!

"Charge!" Jan yelled, racing inside.

"Hey, Jannie!" Aunt Sue said. She was dressed like a Renaissance woman, with a peasant blouse, a skirt that fell to her ankles, and a small pouch at her waist. Hundreds of years ago, people kept their money in pouches like that.

"Auntie Sue!" Jan cried, throwing her arms around her. Aunt Sue hadn't been around lately.

"How's my favorite niece?" Aunt Sue asked.

"All my friends are going to the beach for two whole weeks, and they didn't invite me!" Jan sobbed.

"Bummer," Aunt Sue said. She picked up a large bag.

"Not another present, Sue?" Jan's mother asked. "It's Jan's birthday in less than a month. You're going to spoil her!"

"Come on, Sis," Aunt Sue said. "You know I can't have kids of my own." Aunt Sue had fallen out of a boat kayaking years ago. She seemed fine, but she couldn't have children. It was very sad. Jan knew that Aunt Sue would be the coolest mother ever.

"It's your own fault," Jan's mother said. "Honestly, white water rafting alone! You're going to kill yourself one day!"

"Here, kiddo," Aunt Sue said, handing Jan the bag. "Your mom says you want to visit the nature trail. I think you'd like to try these on first."

Jan took the bag, thanked her aunt, and then ran to her room. She opened the bag, and pulled out a light blue dress. Light blue was her favorite color. She changed into it, and then took out darker blue peasant shoes. She blushed at the size. Jan was short, but she had big feet. She put then on. They had fur all around them, and felt as soft as her plushest teddy bear. She tied on the little money pouch. Then she moved all her stuffed animals to her bed so that she could look in the mirror of her dresser. She turned all the way around. She didn't look like a princess, but she did look like she lived in a castle. There was one more item in the bag. Jan took out a silver necklace. It had a big red stone in the middle. Jan knew it was costume jewelry, but the jewel was beautiful. She fashioned it around her neck. She turned all the way around again. Now she was starting to look important. If not a princess, then at least a lady in waiting.

Jan's mother and aunt were talking when she came back. Jan heard Aunt Sue say, "It's not harming her to let her keep pretending, Jackie. Jan's a smart girl. She knows it's all just make believe."

"She's getting too old for make believe, Sue," Jan's mother argued. "She needs to start acting her age."

Jan sighed. That argument again. She'd heard it last year and the year before.

"Come on," Aunt Sue urged, "it's not…Jan! You look great! Come on, Jackie, tell your little girl she looks beautiful."

"Of course she's beautiful," Jan's mother said. "But I don't know who she takes after. She doesn't look like you or me, or Mom or Dad, or anyone in her father's family."

This was true. Jan was short and chubby, with hazel eyes that contained flecks of green and gold, and dark reddish-brown hair. Her aunts were both tall and slim, with brown eyes and black hair, while Jan's dad was blue-eyed with brown hair. Jan would have thought she was adopted, but her mother had shown her the stretch marks she'd gotten from carrying Jan once when she was angry at her.

In Jan's daydreams, she sometimes pretended that her parents were king and queen of a fairyland. That they had been forced to send her away to save her, and that she would someday find her way back to her kingdom. But Jan loved her parents, and didn't want others, not even if they were a king and a queen.

"So, ready for the park now, Jan?" Aunt Sue asked.

"Oh boy!" Jan cried. "You bet!"

They said good-bye to Jan's mother, who told Aunt Sue to bring her back right after lunch, which they'd be eating in the park.

"Feel like jogging, Jannie?" Aunt Sue asked.

"Sure!" Jan said. "Race you!"

As they ran to the park, Jan had no idea that she'd be back the day after her birthday, in the pouring rain, and find herself at the beginning of her life's greatest adventure.

End of chapter one