Walking the rest of the way to Oz proved more difficult than Saguaro had anticipated. With the high elevation and so many hills, she had to take many breaks in order to pace herself. The sky had also turned gray and cloudy, evidence that it might rain soon.
During one such break late that afternoon, Saguaro pulled out her map. She studied the four Lands of Oz, from Gillikin Country in the North to Quadling Country in the very South. Her gaze lingered on the border of Winkie Country and the Badlands, where the words, “Time Dragon Clock,” had been written in her mother’s even script. Judging from the location of the Clock, she guessed that it acted as a portal between the Badlands and Oz.
Before she left, dreaming about Oz had been easy. She’d had elaborate fantasies of being in Winkie Country and stumbling upon someone who had known her parents. The person would embrace Saguaro and tell her everything, and Saguaro would return to Cascadia with the answers to all her questions.
She held back a laugh at the absurdity of her fantasy. The odds of meeting someone who knew her parents were equal to finding a four-leaf clover in a sea of shamrocks. Someone who knew her parents would not materialize out of nowhere. She would need to search in order to find them.
Once, when she was around seven, she had asked her father if her mother had had any friends in Oz. “Oh yes, she had several,” her father had said, but seemed to change his mind when Saguaro raised her eyebrows. “Well, actually, not counting some Animals or your aunt, just one…they were roommates at college, and she was very different from your mother.”
“Then why doesn’t Mommy ever write to her?” Saguaro had asked. Their family owned several carrier pigeons that were quite willing to deliver letters. After a pause, her father replied that they had simply lost touch.
She thought about that friend now. Aside from her aunt and a few of her father’s college acquaintances, this friend was the only person from Oz that her parents had ever mentioned. If only Saguaro knew her name.
At least she knew her father had connections to Winkie Country. The descriptions in his stories were so vivid that he must have been there. She took solace that, by beginning her journey in Winkie Country, she was starting out in the right place.
However, when she thought about her poor planning, Saguaro realized just how unprepared she was. She had rushed her packing the night before and had not given enough attention to everything she would need. In addition to her training wand and spell book, she had packed the map, water, dried food, a sleeping sack, Ozian money she had stolen from her mother, clothing, and a few basic necessities. But instead of packing a lantern, she had packed her stuffed Hedgehog, Bramble, and instead of a small tent, she had brought her father’s pocket watch.
She placed the map back in her bag and stood up. She would worry about finding people who knew her parents later. For now, she needed to concentrate on getting to Oz.
Saguaro had maintained her weight diminishing spell from earlier in the day and was now dragging the hot air balloon behind her. While the balloon’s friction against the ground slowed her down somewhat, she did not care. She still clung to the hope that she could fix the balloon and use it to fly across Oz.
A few minutes later, Saguaro got the feeling she was being watched. She looked up to find a fox perched on a ledge above her. She continued walking, but the fox followed her, scrutinizing her with its amber eyes.
Saguaro tensed. She knew that the fox was only curious, since he likely had not seen many humans before. Still, being stared at was a feeling she knew all too well.
Cascadia had been established one hundred years before as a refuge for people with unique physical characteristics. The founders had been two Ozians, one pumpkin-headed and the other a living patchwork doll. Self-professed misfits from Lands near and far had flocked to Cascadia, eager to escape the prejudice they had experienced in their homelands.
Each Cascadian had a trait that set them apart physically. Saguaro’s classmate Pollara had hair like the feathers of a peacock, and Xeff, in the year above her, had striped skin. A little boy in Year One was already over six feet tall, and Marietta, the medicine woman, had rainbow freckles. Many Animals also lived in Cascadia, where they were treated as equals.
Most Cascadians had inherited their traits from their parents. The members of the tiny Parva family came up to Saguaro’s knees, and Fiona Alford and her parents all had blue skin. No one questioned whether babies born in Cascadia would inherit their parents’ unique traits, because they all did.
Except one. Almost fifteen years ago, on the night of the autumnal equinox, a midwife had been called to deliver a baby. She had traveled deep into the forest to a small house where the parents had been waiting. The labor, though long, had gone without complications. The mother had huffed and pushed through great pain until a crying baby girl was born.
The midwife had held her breath as she pulled the baby into the world. The baby’s parents were a half-Scarecrow and a green-skinned sorceress, so she was interested to see which parent the child would favor. But when she cleaned the baby and examined her, she found nothing the least bit extraordinary about her. The baby’s soft skin was a nondescript shade of beige, and her downy brown hair hinted nothing of the coarseness of her father’s. Even her eyes were a dull shade of bluish gray.
The midwife reasoned that the baby would develop her unique features later on. Perhaps it had something to do with her mother’s sorcery powers. Still, the midwife mentioned the Ordinary baby to her friends the next day. They were equally perplexed that an Ordinary baby had been born into Cascadia and wondered if such a phenomenon had ever occurred before.
As the little girl grew older, she became no less Ordinary. Her eyes developed into her mother’s common shade of brown. Her skin had no tinges of green, and though the girl was small for her age, she was tall compared to the Parva family. People began to refer to the girl as simply “Ordinary,” short for “the Ordinary Child of Cascadia.” Many disliked her, as they felt that an Ordinary girl had no place on an island of misfits.
Stares followed the girl wherever she went. When she entered school, her classmates teased her, and she spent most of her time alone. The girl’s parents did not seem embarrassed by their Ordinary child, which was a curiosity in itself. Why were they not ashamed of not producing a more extraordinary child?
By the time the girl was a teenager, people knew better than to approach her. She glared at the people who stared at her and gave terse retorts to those who teased her. It did not appear that the girl spent much time with her parents either, as she was always seen alone.
By her Year Nine graduation, the girl was tired of the prejudice against her. One day, she took a spell book and went to her favorite place, a peaceful pond deep in the forest. She knelt on a rock and stared at her reflection, admiring how green she looked in the water.
It came to her in an instant. If she were green like her mother, there would be no more jeering or staring; she would finally belong. Energized by this realization, she flipped through the spell book and searched for a spell that would change her skin color.
Once she found what she was looking for, she raised her training wand. She waved it above her head and chanted the words, not truly expecting the spell to work. Instead, a strange chill swept over her, and she lost track of her senses for a moment. When she regained her sight, she steadied herself and took another peek at her reflection. There, staring back at her, was the same emerald green skin as her mother’s.
Saguaro bit her lip and tried to pretend the girl was someone else.
A few hours later, thunder crackled in the distance. Rain followed, gentle at first, but falling harder with each minute. The ground turned slick with mud, and Saguaro became drenched.
She struggled to continue walking. Though the weight diminishing spell worked, the mud dragged the balloon down. Whenever she would pause to yank it free, she would find herself even wetter than before.
Saguaro took a moment to look over her creation. Several more pieces of straw had unwoven from the basket, and the ropes she’d been using to pull the balloon were beginning to fray. Even the balloon, which had been lying limp inside the basket before the rain, was much the worse for wear. It was heavy with water, and the sealant was completely washed away. Unless she stumbled across a balloonist within hours of entering Oz, she would never be able to make the balloon fly again.
Saguaro thought back to early that spring, when she had started working on the balloon. It had taken her weeks to understand the library book’s instructions, which were written for people much more experienced than she. She had struggled even longer to find the necessary supplies and a place to conceal the balloon.
Yet somehow she had done it. The balloon had flown, transporting her from her monotonous life in Cascadia, where she was disliked by almost everyone, to the Badlands, the closest she had ever been to Oz. The balloon had been her wings. As long as she lived, Saguaro knew she would never forget her first experiences with flight.
Now she needed to be reasonable. She had to keep her feet planted on the ground and forget the thrill of flying. If she wanted to survive her journey, she needed to find shelter from the rain. Dragging the balloon would only slow her down.
Saguaro let go of the balloon’s ropes and took her satchel and compass from inside the basket. Then she put her hand on the basket and stroked the rim.
“Thank you,” she whispered. The wind lifted a rope off the ground, and for a moment, it was almost as if the balloon were waving goodbye.
Saguaro knew it was foolish to cry over something she could not control, but as she started jogging, she felt the sting of her tears. She had worked so hard on the balloon, and now it was gone. In the three months since she had begun working on it, the balloon had become her best friend. All this time, it was like the two of them were sharing the secret of her journey. Saguaro could tell the balloon things she could not tell anyone else. Constructing it had helped her work off her anger. It had helped her process the crazy feeling that there was more to life than Cascadia and that she should be doing something to improve the world, or at the very least, her own pathetic life.
That was the thing about Saguaro. She had always known she was meant to do something special with her life. School was a bore and not a priority, in spite of her mother’s insistence that earning good grades could help her get into university and out of Cascadia. But there had to be more to life than school. There had to be more to life than the fights with her mother and her scoffing classmates. She wanted to discover what it was she was meant to do and why she was alive. Everyone had a purpose, didn’t they? The purpose couldn’t be just to survive.
The urge to do something ran in her veins, although Saguaro was not sure where it came from. Her mother was far more ambitious and forward thinking than most women in Cascadia, but Saguaro could not understand why she had left the Marvelous Land of Oz for some nowhere island. She had always imagined, struggling to fall asleep some nights, that she would discover the underlying source of this urge in Oz. She would accomplish something when she was there: become an inventor of a revolutionary machine or discover a new cure. She was not sure what she would do, but it would be notable.
She was grateful for this longing, even though it made her unbearably different from her classmates. She was grateful in the same way she was grateful for having a personality that was more like her father’s than her mother’s.
A dark structure became visible in the distance. When she jogged closer, Saguaro realized that it was a tunnel that had been built into a rocky hillside. She wondered if this tunnel was connected to the Time Dragon Clock, the portal between the Badlands and Oz.
Though nervous at the prospect of entering Oz for the first time, common sense propelled Saguaro forward. She ran towards the tunnel, eager to gain shelter from the rain. There was no door, and she slipped inside.
Saguaro found herself in a dark, narrow passageway. The air was damp and humid, and a hint of daylight was just visible at the far end. With a jolt, Saguaro realized that the daylight was probably coming from Oz.
The light was not ominous or unwelcoming. Instead, it was warm and inviting and drew her forward. She raced towards the light, the prospect of entering Oz no longer daunting. She was so close to achieving her dream that she could almost taste the warm Ozian air.
She had almost reached the light when a huge roar echoed through the tunnel. The entire passage began to quake and tremble, and Saguaro fell backwards onto the hard ground. When she pulled herself up, she realized that she was engulfed in darkness. The light had disappeared, along with the thunderous roar and tremors.
She forced herself not to panic. Stretching out her hands in order to feel her way, Saguaro inched towards the end of the tunnel. She stopped when her hands reached a wall that blocked her way. Running her hands along its surface, she could feel the texture of a knobless door.
She knocked once, but nothing happened. She even tried ramming her body against it, but only her shoulder felt the impact, and the door did not give.
I’m stuck, she realized. There is no way out, and for all I know, I could be trapped here forever.
Saguaro found that she was having trouble breathing. She inhaled hard, but her lungs were unable to take in enough air. Her heart had also begun to race.
Sparks flew, not two feet in front of her. They began to dance around her in a circle. She looked about, but there was nothing that could have caused the sparks. Though Saguaro knew it was impossible, she found herself wondering if she had been responsible for the sparks’ appearance.
Her heart hammered even harder. She closed her eyes to compose herself, but this did not help. She had never felt so physically out-of-control before.
Get a grip! Saguaro told herself. She tried to imagine herself someplace else entirely: reading a book, cuddling her family’s cat, or running in the woods. Perhaps if she focused on something else, she could calm herself down.
Saguaro thought of her father. She wished he were there. It comforted her to imagine leaning against his broad shoulder, inhaling his faint scent of straw.
She tried another deep breath and willed herself to remember.
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