Throughout the day after she first entered Oz, Saguaro concentrated on only two things: making progress and avoiding people.
Racing along the forest trails, she anticipated danger at every turn. If she paused to eat or drink, she kept constant watch, fearful that someone would see her. A number of towns were scattered in the woods, and people peered at her from the dirty windows of their homes. Their screams and shouts only made her go faster.
It was not supposed to be like this. Still, her fear motivated her to run farther and cover as much ground as she could.
Spending so much time alone also gave her more time to think about her journey. Saguaro decided to tell people that she was an orphan and that she was trying to locate her next of kin. The Crows had been skeptical about letting her continue her journey because of her parents, and she did not want anyone else forcing her to stay in one place so that her parents could find her.
She also decided to go to the Emerald City. While Saguaro still did not know if her parents had any friends who lived there, the Emerald City was sure to have libraries with records and other resources she could use. If she could not find answers in Oz’s largest city, she doubted she would find them anywhere.
Late that afternoon, Saguaro emerged from the woods into a vast prairie. Her first sensation was of soft grass brushing her fingertips. It reminded her of Azure’s whiskers, delicate, pointed, and ticklish. Soon, the grass became dense and tangled and grew nearly the same height as she. Saguaro could hardly see over it. The grass reminded her of string that had tousled off its spool.
The Thousand Year Grasslands, Saguaro realized, remembering the location from her map.
The air was the perfect temperature, and the sky overhead was as blue as a jay’s crest. Larks and finches sang around her, and hundreds of butterflies fluttered in and out of the grass.
Saguaro was surprised when a regal monarch floated a few inches in front of her. It then began to dart back and forth and seemed to be motioning towards something with its wing. She wondered if the butterfly was trying to tell her something.
The monarch flew higher, and Saguaro strained to see above the grass. Her stomach lurched.
Not far away, where the meadow came to an end, stood a scruffy pack of boys.
Saguaro tried to duck, but the boys had seen her. She looked around, but the grass enveloped her so thickly that straight ahead was the only way out. Saguaro began to edge towards the boys, her nerves more raw with every step.
Each boy’s eyes were upon her. Most seemed about fifteen or sixteen-years-old. With their worn, tattered clothes; dirty faces; tangled, unkempt hair; and hard eyes, they reminded Saguaro of two boys in Cascadia who had teased her without mercy.
Before she could go further, the boys and a tall girl she had just noticed circled around her and cut her off.
Saguaro’s mind raced. She noticed a narrow opening between the two boys in front of her, but as soon as she rushed towards them, they closed in to block her way. On the opposite side was another opening, but when she took a step in that direction, the boys narrowed the gap. Looking up at the tall bodies surrounding her, Saguaro wished she had added a few inches to her height when she’d turned herself green.
“Who are you?” demanded a voice.
Saguaro looked up to see a boy who appeared to be a few years older than the others. His dark hair was greased back, and his eyes were narrow and suspicious. The entire group had turned to him when he spoke.
“My name is Saguaro,” she said. “Please let me go. I’m not here to harm anything. I was just passing through. I didn’t mean anything. Honestly.”
“‘Not here to harm anything,” mocked another boy. “We’ll just see about that.”
Saguaro rammed into the boys behind her, who pushed her forward with a jolt.
Everyone then turned to the older boy. “You’ll be okay, kid,” he said. “This is standard procedure. Everyone gets through it. Your name is Saguaro? What about a last name?”
“Throgelaar,” said Saguaro. She was tempted to lie, but her mind did not work fast enough.
“Saguaro Throgelaar?” the gang leader said, and she nodded. “Well then, who gave you permission to cross here?”
“Well, nobody-but I’m not from here!” Saguaro said. “I’m from an island called Cascadia, miles and miles away. I’ve always wanted to see Oz. I would never harm anything.”
“‘Would never harm anything,’” said the boy who had mimicked her earlier. “That’s what they all say.”
The lone girl spoke for the first time. She had dark, wavy hair and stood a few boys away from the gang leader. “So you aren’t from here,” she said, folding her arms. “You’d better explain why you have no accent.”
Saguaro’s face burned. The Cascadians had always teased her about the way she spoke. “My parents are from Oz-I mean, were. They’re not alive, anymore.”
Sneers and jeers filled the circle. Her lie about being an orphan had not inspired empathy from any of them.
Except one. A very tall boy stood towards the back of the circle. His skin was a few shades lighter than the others’, and his hair was sandy brown instead of black. Unlike his friends, this boy kept quiet. He stared at Saguaro, as though oblivious to the chaos around him.
The other gang members did not notice his distraction. Saguaro wondered if she would have noticed herself if the boy’s height had not drawn her attention.
The girl grabbed Saguaro’s arm before she could consider this further. She held her so tightly that Saguaro could feel her nails digging into her skin. “Look, I don’t know why you’re here, but there’s no way we’re letting you through. You and your skin are a danger to all of us.”
Saguaro began to feel suffocated just as she had back in the tunnel. She looked around, but she was still trapped by the pack. There did not appear to be any means of escape.
Saguaro forced herself to speak. “Where I come from, everyone is different.” She was frustrated to hear that her voice was trembling with fear. “I haven’t always been this way. The green was a recent addition! All I want is to continue my journey. Just LET ME THROUGH!”
The next instant, an enormous crack shook the ground, and a few boys fell over from the force. The girl released her grasp. The fallen boys looked terrified. But the tall, quiet boy was the most stunned. He did not bother to close his open mouth.
“What just happened?” the gang leader whispered.
“I think it’s obvious.” The girl glared. “This girl must have done something to curse us. It’s clear that she’s dangerous and should be taken care of at once.”
“I didn’t do anything!” Saguaro said. Still, remembering the sparks from the tunnel, she could not be sure.
The girl turned to face the gang leader. “Alo, don’t just stand there! We’ve got to come up with a plan!”
“You’re right,” said Alo, jerking back to attention. “This girl is a threat to all of us. We need to do something before it’s too late.”
“I’ll do it.”
The voice belonged to the tall, quiet boy. Everyone stared as he walked to the center of the circle. He seemed to grow taller with each step he took.
“Ie’ello, are you sure?” asked the girl, shooting a quick glance at Saguaro. “She’s dangerous. I don’t think anyone should deal with her alone.”
“You think a runt like her is dangerous?” Ie’ello said. “I’m at least a foot and half taller than she is. Besides, my dad’s best friends with the lawman.”
“It’s probably the best plan we’ve got, Fycity,” Alo said. “I say we let Ie’ello take care of her.”
Fycity bit her lip. “All right. But don’t blame me if something goes wrong.”
“Don’t worry,” said Ie’ello. “I know what I’m doing.”
He grabbed Saguaro’s arm and moved towards the edge of the circle. The boys parted to let him pass, stunned by this unexpected turn of events.
Saguaro had never been so confused or scared. She struggled to break free, but Ie’ello gripped her arm tighter.
“Stop it!” she said, once they were no longer within earshot. “You’re hurting me!”
“Look, I don’t know if you noticed, but I wasn’t hurting you until you tried to break away!” Ie’ello said. “Now, I’m not gonna say this again, so you’d better listen. Don’t make this any harder than it has to be! You don’t know what you’re up against.”
“What do you mean? I heard exactly what you proposed back there. You’re going to take me to the lawman so that he can decide what to do with me. I’m not brainless, you know.”
Ie’ello stopped walking and loosened his grip. They were now standing on a deserted dirt road. “Look, I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong about me,” he said. “I’m not the bad guy here. Now, just hold on until we’re somewhere we can talk.”
Without waiting for her to respond, he pulled her arm again. Though she stopped resisting him, she was no less wary of the situation.
They soon arrived in a village. Saguaro spotted a lemon colored market, a mustard tinted schoolhouse, and several amber houses. It became clear that each structure was painted a different shade of yellow. The buildings were old and rundown. One was leaning so far off center that it appeared ready to collapse at any moment. This town was in only slightly better condition than the first one Saguaro had visited.
Ie’ello stopped at a grassy field just beyond the town. He looked twice to make sure they were alone before releasing her. He lowered his voice when he spoke. “Now, listen. I’m not going to take you to the lawman, and I’m not your enemy. Call me crazy, but I don’t think a tiny girl like you is much of a threat. I can’t say I understand what happened back there, but I don’t think it was your fault.”
“Oh, so what do you know about me?” Saguaro snapped. Ie’ello was confusing her, and she did not like feeling that way. “It just so happens that I found my way to Oz all on my own-no easy feat, I might add. I may be little, but that has nothing to do with what I can or cannot do.”
“All I meant was-”
“Anyway, who are you to judge me? I’m not the one who hangs out with a pack of bullies that attacks every stranger they see. I’m not the one who scared an innocent person half to death!”
“If you’d just listen, you’d-”
“I thought you looked nicer than the other boys, but no! I don’t know what you’re thinking, hanging out with that bunch of scum, because if I were you, I’d-”
“Do you ever let anyone else talk?”
He spoke these words over her last statement, causing Saguaro to fall silent. He crossed his arms and glared at her.
“Listen, I don’t know if you realize this, but I saved your life back there! If I hadn’t been there, Fycity and Alo would have taken you straight to the lawman, and believe me, you would have been finished. Everything I said about your size was supposed to be a compliment. You’re lucky that at least someone believes in you.”
A slow flush washed over her cheeks. She had been so confused that she had not stopped to consider that Ie’ello had saved her life. The realization made her feel both warm and cold, aware that no one else had ever done anything like that for her.
“Listen,” she said quietly, “can I just make one more point?”
Despite his obvious frustration, Ie’ello’s eyes revealed his amusement. Saguaro had not noticed his eyes before; they were a gentle shade of grey.
“Go ahead,” he said.
“You didn’t have to help me back there.”
“So, you can’t blame me for being confused. You’re friends with people who don’t give me a chance before deciding to haul me off, but you tell me that you’re different. At the very least, I have the right to know why.”
Ie’ello looked as uncomfortable as she had just moments before.
“You’re going to judge me,” he said quietly.
“Believe me, I’m judging you far more at the moment than I will after I hear the truth,” said Saguaro. “Now, what’s going on?”
Ie’ello ran his fingers through his hair. An awkward silence settled over them. When at last he spoke, he did not look at her.
“Have you, I dunno, ever been in a situation where you didn’t fit in? Where everyone thought you were the strangest creature they had ever seen, and they didn’t hesitate to tell you so every chance they got?”
A shiver ran down Saguaro’s spine. His questions were hitting much closer to home than she would have liked.
Ie’ello continued. “Well, that’s what it was like for me. I was teased all the time as a kid, and when I found out Alo was recruiting people for his gang, I jumped at the chance to be included. For some mad reason, he let me in. It’s not that I agree with anything they do, but at least people know not to mess with me anymore.”
He was looking at her now, as though daring her to judge him. Saguaro thought of her own past. She had never had the opportunity to join a group of friends. Still, there was a reason she had turned herself green. Perhaps in her own way, by changing the color of her skin, she had done the same thing that Ie’ello had.
“I don’t judge you,” Saguaro said finally. “I think we all do things to protect ourselves. I can’t say that it’s honorable to stand there while your friends bully others, but you did save me back there. That’s a start.”
“So,” he said playfully, “how old are you, anyway?”
Though Saguaro knew Ie’ello was teasing, she nonetheless felt a little self-conscious. Saguaro was thin and bony like her mother, but many inches shorter. She looked much younger than her age and had only started developing in the last year. She had not even begun her monthly cycle…though this was certainly not something that she wanted to think about.
She rolled her eyes to mask her embarrassment. “Are you asking because I’m so small?”
“No, I was actually marveling at the fact that your guardians let you go so far from home. My dad still isn’t comfortable with me going too far beyond our town, and I’m sixteen.”
“Well, if you must know, I’m fourteen, fifteen at the end of September,” Saguaro said. Her mouth suddenly felt very dry. “As for my guardians letting me go…my parents’ death wasn’t that long ago. I have relatives in the Emerald City, so the only way I could find them was to go myself.”
The same sympathetic look from earlier passed over Ie’ello’s face. Saguaro twirled her hair. While she knew that lying was necessary, she could not shake off the guilt that overwhelmed her every time she mentioned her parents.
“Listen,” she said, “are we okay? I really need to continue before it gets dark.”
Ie’ello grinned. “Well, that depends. Are you hungry? Because I’m sure I wouldn’t be a proper hero unless I invited you for supper. Maybe for a nice bath too, come to think of it.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Are you trying to tell me something?”
“Not at all. However-” He reached over and plucked a stray leaf from her hair. “I think this speaks for itself.”
“Well, if it’s all the same to you, I don’t really care about my appearance at the moment,” said Saguaro. “People already judge me for being green, so I don’t think it matters if I’m dirty green or emerald.”
She turned to leave, but Ie’ello stopped her by once again placing a hand on her arm. This time, his touch was gentle. “Don’t leave yet. There’s a lot I want to tell you about the roads ahead and the dangers you’ll face. Besides, you could use a hearty Winkie meal, and we happen to make the best around.”
Her arm tingled beneath his hand. “You’re awfully determined, aren’t you?”
Ie’ello shrugged, almost shyly. “I’m trying to be nice. I might be wrong, but something tells me you haven’t met enough nice people on your journey. Let me try to persuade you that not all Ozians are bad.”
Studying his face, Saguaro found herself taken by how sincere he appeared. Though one part of her wanted to run off, the other was reconsidering. Perhaps it would be helpful to get advice from someone who knew Winkie Country better than she.
“Well,” she said, “if you insist-“
“I do.” Ie’ello smiled at her. “Are you ready, Miss Saguaro?”
She smiled back. “Lead the way, Master Ie’ello.”
He turned and began walking back in the direction from which they had come. As she followed him, Saguaro could not help thinking that he really did have lovely eyes.
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