“What should we play?” the little girl asked of her older cousin.
The redhead stood and began walking up and down the bricks, using her arms for balance as if she were a tightrope walker at the circus. She furrowed her brow in concentration. “Sisters,” she said finally.
The little girl beamed with pleasure. She was happy just to be at her hero-worshipped cousin’s house on this beautiful day when she did not have to go to school, this beautiful day with the purple wisteria trees in bloom.
“Orphan sisters,” the redhead continued. “Our parents were explorers and they took us with them to go explore the jungle and they died out there, see? So now we’re two orphan sisters wandering around alone in the jungle. Trying to survive and find our way home.” She plopped down on the front steps with a self-satisfied smile. “My name’s gonna be Hermione; what about yours?”
The little girl spotted a small green leaf in the driveway. “Leafy” she said.
“Emma, that isn’t a real name. Why don’t you just be . . . Crookshanks or something?”
“My name is Leafy.”
“Ohhh, fine.” The redhead heaved a great sigh. Five-year-olds. “How old do you wanna be?”
“Seven!” with an adoring gaze at her cousin.
The redhead scrunched up her face, trying to think up the biggest age imaginable. “I’m thirteen,” she said decidedly.
So that was that. Hermione stood, brushing off the back of her floral-print jeans, only suddenly the pattern was camouflage. So was her formerly pink hoodie. She ran through the grass with her body doubled over, beckoning for Leafy to follow. Despite their camouflage clothing and the green and black paint they had smeared under their eyelids, they were still fairly easy for predators to spot. And here in the very heart of the jungle, predators were everywhere.
“What are we. . .” Leafy began.
But Hermione said, “Shh! You have to be very quiet. There are tigers.”
Leafy shivered with excitement. “Taahgers!”
They stopped and ducked down in the tangled underbrush to rest and conspire. “It’ll be night soon,” Hermione whispered, flinching as a brightly colored bird flew uncomfortably low over her head. “We’d better build a fire to keep us warm and keep the wolves and stuff away, or we’ll be goners for sure. The matches Mom and Dad brought got wet in the swamp, but we can rub two sticks together. The trick is gathering the firewood without getting eaten.”
The front door swung open just then, and a woman in jeans and a sweatshirt stuck her head out. “Alice, Emma, you guys hungry? I can make grilled cheese sandwiches.”
“Yes, please,” said Alice. They could discover the previously overlooked sandwiches in their backpacks when the fire was built.
“Me too!” added Emma.
The woman went back inside. Hermione said, “Now, what we need is some strategy” but she stopped as she noticed her real-life sister reading on the front porch of the house. “Beth, you wanna play?” she offered.
The girl, thirteen, looked up with a start. She had forgotten about the world outside of her book. “Oh, no thanks, sweetie.”
The seven-year-old rolled her eyes, amazed at how anybody would want to read when nobody was making them; but before she could meditate on the mystery any longer, a sleek black panther leaped down at them from a tree overhead. “Watch out!” she shrieked to Leafy and, grabbing her hand, the two of them ran as fast as their small legs could carry them.