Robin Carter was a lonely child. He had no friends, and he couldn’t remember a time when things were different. He was twelve, in the seventh grade. He was only open when he was reading and had such great passion for it that it was the most dominating factor in his life. He had loved reading for as long as he could remember, and his parents told him that he still loved reading even before that. His parents had tried to drive him out of his shell, but when he was put out into the world he would pull out a book and read. As much as it broke their hearts to see their son alone and cut off from the world, they eventually gave up.
At school he was no different. He was average in nearly every subject, barring English, in which he excelled. The kids acted as if he was invisible, and even the teachers sometimes forgot about him. And when they did remember him it was only to give an acknowledgment when they passed back a test. His English teacher, Ms. Murkly, was perhaps one of the few people in the whole school who realized that he existed. He was her best student. He always turned in his homework and always had something to say about the author of the book they had been reading most recently.
On the other end of the spectrum was his sister, Judy Carter. Eighth-grade diva, Judy was one of the most popular kids in the school. She was a motormouth and always had something to say or a story that she had just remembered. The parents of these drastically different children were Mabel and Albert Carter. Mabel was a thin and kind woman with long flowing dark hair and a large intellect. She would read to Robin when he was a baby and never ran out of books, since she was the head librarian at the Guava County Library. Albert was a slightly rotund man with hair like a bonfire and a deep love of botany. The first thing he did when he bought the house was build an extension in which he housed his vast collection of plants. Just recently his collection had grown too vast and he had been forced to make an extension to the extension which he classified as “For Bonsai Trees Only.”
On this particular day, Robin was in the fiction section of the Guava County Library, currently reading E. Nesbit’s The Magic City, when his mother walked in. Robin was a curious figure in the library. While the librarians loved his passion for reading and encouraged it often, Robin could be quite aggravating due to his tendency to check out the maximum amount of books at a time. Sometimes he would use his parents’ library card too. When his mother spoke, she startled Robin out of his fantastical reverie.
“We’re going on a vacation,” she said.
“Where?” said a surprised Robin.
“The beautiful Hibiscus County,” she replied.
“OK,” said Robin dismissively, and continued reading.
“Also, we were thinking you shouldn’t bring very many books, if any,” she continued. Now Robin was really surprised.
“No books!” he spluttered. “Mom, this is outrageous! Books are great!”
“I agree, but I think you read too many books for it to be healthy,” responded his mother. “You have no friends, Robin, you don’t stop and enjoy this world because your head is in another.”
“Books are my friends,” muttered Robin. But it was hopeless and he knew it. Unlike his father, his mother was a strong woman, and he would be even more shocked if she did back down than he was about this atrocity. He quickly relented and stormed down the street towards his house. A cloud of fury was about him.
* * *
Judy had a similar reaction, but for very different reasons. “The country! We’re going to the country!” she screeched. “There’s no cell reception in the country! How will I talk to my friends?”
“This is a family trip,” responded a tired Albert Carter.
Judy continued to complain, but Robin didn’t stick around and listen. He was walking upstairs to his room, hoping that it would provide him some calm and sanctuary. His room was a veritable treasure trove for people like him who loved books. Robin’s dream room, in other words. It had stacks of books everywhere. Robin had tried to put them all into shelves, but he was unsuccessful, as they repeatedly spilled out. He had so many books that you would wonder why he goes to the library at all, as his room was a library in its own right. This remains a mystery.
Once upstairs he walked straight to shelf A-6 and pulled a book from the shelf. It was his favorite book, Edward Eager’s Magic or Not. He found it was calming, a charming story about a young girl, her brother, their friends, and their adventures in a rustic town. He sighed. This was going to be a horrible vacation.
* * *
The Carter family’s red truck rumbled down a bumpy dirt path. Up ahead was the house they had rented, a small ivy-encrusted cottage, which was barely large enough to avoid being classified as a hut. Goodie, thought Robin as they pulled up to the “parking space.” In truth it was brittle twigs forming an open rectangle. Robin’s father was the first to leave the car, followed closely by Robin’s mother.
“All right, gang, let’s go see the place,” said Albert Carter in a voice that suggested that he had won the lottery. He was answered by the chirping of the birds. Judy was giving them the silent treatment, and Robin… well Robin just didn’t feel like talking.
Unperturbed by the apparent lack of enthusiasm, Albert pushed on. He had a brief tussle with a door that appeared to have never been opened within the century, but eventually bested it and opened the door. The inside of the house was admittedly nicer than Robin had expected, but it wasn’t the Tardis; it was still small.
“Cozy isn’t it,” said a jolly Albert. Mabel agreed as she unloaded the luggage. “So, gang, where should we go next?” said Robin’s father, but Judy was already in her room and Robin was outside.
The weather was cold and wet, but Robin was too miserable to notice. To really understand how he felt you would have to lose something that was a part of you, and then know that part of you was miles away. That’s pretty much how Robin felt right now. The road stretched far ahead and Robin was actually getting kind of tired. He had been walking for a while. Eventually he came to a nondescript bungalow. There was nobody home. He threw himself into the bench that sat on the porch. He knew it was wrong, but he was exhausted.
It wasn’t long before he heard a voice. “Who are you and what the heck are ya doing in my yard?” Robin opened his eyes. A boy with red hair and tan skin stood over him. A straw hat sat on his head, and his crystal-blue eyes bore into him as if to say, Answer me or else. I don’t know what I’ll do, but ya won’t like it.
“Um, hi?” said Robin.
“Playing dumb, are you?” said the boy. “Well I’m not, get out of my yard.”
“Um, wait,” said Robin, not much wanting to abandon the bench. “I was admiring the architecture.”
“You were admiring the architecture,” repeated the boy.
“Um, yeah?” said Robin.
“From the porch?” asked the boy.
The boy suddenly smiled broadly, “OK, funny boy, why are you really here?”
“My house is miles away on Citrus Avenue and I was taking a walk,” answered Robin. “I was exhausted so I sat down here.”
The boy frowned. “Citrus Avenue? That’s over ten miles away! You must be exhausted! Here, come inside. I’ll have Mom make us some grub.”
Robin hadn’t noticed until now, but he was starving. His stomach rumbled like a beast straight out of one of his books. “Thank you…?” he said.
“Chester,” said the boy, and walked through the front door. Robin quickly argued with himself over the sanity of walking into a random child’s house, but his hunger quickly got the best of him.
The house was small but welcoming, and a small fire crackled in the hearth, despite the fact that it was ninety degrees and sunny outside. He saw Chester already sitting at a table, gnawing at a loaf of bread with what appeared to be colored sugar decorating the top. “Turns out Mom wasn’t home,” he said between bites, “but I found this instead!” Chester shoved another loaf of the peculiar bread into Robin’s hands. Robin stared at it, dumbfounded. Chester noticed his confused stare. “Seriously? You’ve never heard of pan dulce?”
Robin looked at him blankly.
“No? Well you’ve gotta try it. It tastes like heaven.”
Robin, musing over what heaven actually would taste like, took a bite. He had to admit, it was pretty delicious. They ate in silence for a while, appreciating the pan dulce. When they finished, Chester asked, “Are you new here?”
“Yeah,” replied Robin. “My family and I are staying here for the summer.”
“Cool,” said Chester. “In that case, do you want a tour of the town?”
While still not entirely sure that the sweet bread hadn’t been poisoned, Robin hadn’t a clue where he was, so he said yes.
“Sweet,” said Chester as he got up from the table, “let’s go.”
Chester turned out to be a very good tour guide, not only showing him the town, but giving him inside tips on the various locations and people. “This is the market, my father sells his food here, he is a baker after all… This is Mr. Barnaby’s house. He has the juiciest apples, but he’ll only share them with you if you make a good impression on him…” and so on. Robin learned about everybody in this deceptively diverse town, from a veterinarian who adored naked mole-rats, to a librarian who suffered from forgetfulness, and even a strange man the locals called “The Gouda Man,” who was hopelessly obsessed with cheese and making a nacho that was truly perfect. Robin was especially interested in a young boy who made marionettes and thought of them as friends. Even though, for all Robin knew, Chester was an insane boy obsessed with providing false stories about non-existent people in a rustic town, Robin couldn’t help but enjoy his quirky presence. And this is especially surprising because Robin’s voracious appetite for unrealistic books had made him exceedingly paranoid.
When they reached Robin’s house he said, “This is Old Man Akee’s house, but he won the lottery a while back. I think he rents it out now, but nobody’s living here right now, unless…”
“Hi, sweetie.” It was Mabel’s voice.
“... you moved in here,” finished Chester.
“Well, I guess this is goodbye for now,” said Robin. “Do you want to meet again tomorrow?” Despite his previous misgivings about the boy, Robin had a thoroughly good time.
“Sure,” said Chester. “Right here at nine o’clock sound good?”
“Sounds great,” replied Robin. “Bye.”
“Bye,” said Chester.
Robin was whistling as he came walking down the dirt path he had been miserably bumping down only hours earlier. As he came up to the door, his mother asked, “Who was that?”
“A friend,” replied Robin.