“Anise! Anise, wait for me!”
Run faster! You can beat him! Anise felt her legs pumping faster, her waist-length red hair flying loose behind her. Her younger brother, Russell, was losing ground. You’re going to win! A smile pulled up the corners of her mouth.
They were racing to a tree stump in a clearing right beside the forest. Whoever lost had to buy the other a treat.
There it was now! Almost there, faster, faster! She blew past the trees and smacked the stump with a hand.
“I win!” She looked back to see her brother slowing to a walk. He was breathing hard. Then his eyes went wide, and he started running again. “Anise! Anise, look out!” he yelled.
Anise whirled around, and saw that a trail had opened in the forest. A golden man stood just inside the tree line. He reached out a hand, and she took a step back. He smiled at her. When he opened his hand, there was a bright red card. He blew it towards her – was that her imagination, or did it just change into a butterfly? – and she caught it. The golden man nodded and motioned for her to open it.
Carefully, she popped the wax seal and opened the heavy paper. Inside it said in fancy script:
You have been chosen to visit my workshop for the day. This is a limited time offer, and you must choose whether to go now or not. If yes, follow my golden magician. He will lead you there. Do not be afraid; you will not be harmed.
She looked up, and saw the golden man was already turning around to leave. She glanced back at her brother. He was banging his fists on the air and his eyes were huge saucers. “Don’t go, Anise! It’s a trick!”
She glared at him. “Just because you’re my brother doesn’t mean you can boss me around.” But she was uncomfortably aware that it could very well be a trick. But her brother seemed to be being held back by magic, so the letter couldn’t have been lying. “Tell mother I’ll be home for supper!” Then she turned around, hiked up her skirts, and dashed into the forest after the golden man. As she stepped onto the path, the forest behind her started to close up. She didn’t panic. The letter said she wouldn’t be harmed. But she saw her brother stumble forward, and start running toward them. The trees quickly swallowed that view from her, and golden light filtered through the branches. As she walked behind the man, she saw a deer grazing in the woods. Squirrels skipped across the path and ran along tree branches, watching her. Bird song filled the air. Flowers grew in bunches alongside the path, a rainbow of colors. A hummingbird flitted by and drank from one of the lilies. Then it zipped up in front of her, and she stopped. It watched her for a moment, and then was gone.
It was amazing. She had never seen the forest like this before. A porcupine scampered right in front of her, closely followed by a litter of baby porcupines. One of them came up to her and sniffed her foot. Anise bent down and touched the soft quills on its little back. It didn’t run away; instead it lifted its head and made a sound Anise had never heard from a porcupine: it purred. Startled, she jumped up, and the little creature waddled off after its mother. “What is this place?” she whispered. Almost instantly, an answer jumped into her mind. “This is Evergreen, isn’t it? That place that everyone talks about? I thought it was a story. Is this a dream? Does it really exist?” The golden man turned a head to her; eyes crinkled, and put a finger over his lips. “Oh, sorry,” she said, and clamped her mouth shut. They continued their slow trek through the woods. Eventually, she saw flashes of color moving through the woods with them, and the path started to widen out. More children trickled in and walked beside her, lead by their own golden man. Every one of them was holding a red card. Anise sidled over to the boy next to her, who looked about her age. Everyone else was under the age of ten. He had short brown hair and a mischievous glint in his blue eyes.
“What’s your name?” she whispered.
“David. What’s yours?”
“Anise. Where are we going?”
“Didn’t you read your card? We’re going to Saint Nick’s workshop! Won’t that be grand?”
“I thought that maybe I was dreaming. Is this real?”
David snorted. “Of course it is. It’s Evergreen. Didn’t you figure that out yet?”