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Luxi decides to spend a year among her animal friends, researching the mysterious, wild forest of Oakwood

Luxi Carbonelli was a city girl. She liked pop culture, the tall ’scrapers that loomed above her, and all the noise to brighten up her day. Luxi loved the flash and lights of the city. She lived in an apartment on the twenty-third floor. Her room was plastered with posters of models, TV stars, fashion designers, and much more. All the walls were covered, and her drawers were filled with makeup, perfumes, and purses. Often she went out late with her friends to new exhibits, popular restaurants, and the mall. She got the newest styles of clothing and the hottest lipsticks, purses, and necklaces.

But Luxi also loved nature.

There was a small, dense forest just outside the city. It was so thick with trees and plants that nobody ever bothered trying to make a settlement there. People just let it be; it was small and full of hills, so it would not be good to try to live there. The soil was hard and cracked, and who-knew-what animals lived there. At night, you could hear the pack of wolverines howling, a pierce of noise through the quiet, unmoving silence that hovered over the city. Then a rustle of feathers, and the arc of doves that nested in the forest took flight from east to west, and didn’t seem to fly back; but in the morning, the doves were in the forest. Many people stayed up all night, watching to see if they flew back to the east. They never did, but somehow they were back east in the dense forest after flying west.

When Luxi was dismissed from school one day at 2:45, her first stop was always the wild forest. In the city it was called Oakwood, because of the numerous varieties of oak there. Luxi would breathe in the woody scent of the forest, and calmness would fill her heart. She loved the calls of nature— the chirps of the sparrows, finches, woodpeckers, and the occasional colorful parrot. Then there was the swish of the tail as the squirrels went flying from branch to branch above her. Burrowing animals making their home underground came up and welcomed her—Luxi was not a stranger in Oakwood. Beautiful hummingbirds, so delicate, shy, and small, landed on her with no fear, and mourning doves nuzzled her gently.

All the wonderful creatures of Oakwood waited for her to come, and then the woods were alive with chirping, singing, squeaking, everything! Even the plants danced, waving their leaves—thin or thick, small or big, rough or smooth. They came together in harmony and waited for their king.

The king of Oakwood, his majesty of the forest, the Great Brown Bear, was bowing to her!

After the small woodland animals welcomed her, the air filled with joy, they became suddenly anxious—for the king of Oakwood was about to come into their presence, his guards all around him. As silence befell them, a low growl filled the quietness, followed by a choir of howls. Then came the king of the forest.

His wolverine guards, dressed in green uniforms with yellow rims, a brown wood belt from which hung a silver sword, and long trousers reaching down to their thick boots, surrounded him on all sides. He was a mighty, strong animal, big and towering over Luxi like the skyscrapers. He balanced on his hind legs, stood up to his full height, and then he let out a roar so great it shook the dirt ground beneath them. The trees seemed to shake, the birds squawked with fear, and the deft creatures sprang to their burrows for protection. Luxi’s legs felt like they would crumble, but she stood up straight and strong. She was ready for him.

When the king of Oakwood finished his show, he came back on four feet and looked deeply into Luxi’s amber eyes. His big black eyes softened and he bowed his head. The king of Oakwood, his majesty of the forest, the Great Brown Bear, was bowing to her! Luxi was appalled, but showed no emotion.

“Who are you?” the Bear King asked softly.

“I’m Luxi Carbonelli,” Luxi answered confidently. They stared into each other’s eyes.

“You’re brave,” the bear said. It’s funny to think that bears can smile, but this brown bear did. The tips of his mouth curved upward, and his eyes smiled along.

“I know,” Luxi replied. The Bear King nodded admiringly. All the woodland animals watched them, including his wolverine soldiers.

“Why don’t you come to my royal den?” the bear invited encouragingly.

Luxi blushed and nodded. “Sure, why not?”

The bear heaved Luxi up on his back, and the animals gasped in wonder. This lucky girl received such an honor, they all thought, murmuring to each other as they crawled back to their homes. The bear and his parade of soldiers, and Luxi, who rode on top of him, strode away.

Up on the bear’s back, Luxi could almost reach the treetops. She could see the magnificent birds in the fumble of branches and leaves of the trees. She spotted marvelous creatures she’d never imagined before: birds with plumes in all the bright colors she could think of, red, orange, yellow, and pink; squirrels that were transparent and seemed to be made of glass; a nest woven out of pencils (later she realized they were pencils belonging to every schoolchild in the city—she spotted her name somewhere in the middle); and below the trees, she slowly realized that there were deer freckled with white dots. But the most marvelous feature of those deer was their antlers. The antlers were so long and stretched so high up they mixed with the branches of trees, camouflaged. Rabbits sat near the feet of the deer and watched the parade with dull eyes.

Eventually, they reached the bear’s home. It was a huge hole, or den, dug out from the largest tree Luxi had ever seen. It stretched so wide Luxi could not see either end and so tall there was no top—at least to Luxi’s eyes. The neighboring trees were dwarfed; they seemed a hundred times smaller than this giant of a tree. Its trunk was old and rough, its branches weak but sturdy, and the leaves were dried and falling because it was November and almost all the trees planted in the sidewalks of Luxi’s city were bare. The wind swept the dried fallen leaves from the floor and carried them away.

“We’re here.” The bear smiled. Luxi was dumbfounded by the enormous tree, the trunk facing her like a wall.

“Why can’t we see this?” Luxi asked, thinking of how they couldn’t see this giant tree from her city. The treetops were flat when they looked down to the small patch of forest.

“The Fog stops humans from looking at the true image of Oakwood. The trees are small and dense to you humans, aren’t they? I’m—well, I’m glad that the Fog’s there to blind the humans’ eyes. Humans are so unaware of their natural surroundings. That’s why the WOOD—Wizards Of Oakwood D— placed the Fog around the trees.”

Luxi looked confused.

“What? There are four Oakwoods of our kind: Oakwood A, Oakwood B, Oakwood C, and Oakwood D.”

Luxi nodded.

The bear heaved a sigh. “You know, you’re the only human to ever see Oakwood without the fog.”

“Really? Why?” Luxi asked, genuinely surprised.

“Well, you’re different from the rest. You take notice of nature’s beauty. You’re kind to animals. And you care for us. Others just make tables, chairs, and rugs out of us.” The bear looked away as he said this, and Luxi noticed he was sad.

“Well, I’m honored to be special to the king of Oakwood!” Luxi said with a giggle.

The bear looked fondly at her, but Luxi didn’t see.

Afterward, Luxi thought about what the bear had said about her, and she made a decision—she was going to stay in Oakwood for a year and study nature. When she went back to her city, she would spread the information to other nature researchers, and what she found could help maintain wildlife. Her schedule? Monday, observe and take photos. Tuesday, get samples (like pieces of plants, abandoned nests, etc.). Wednesday, analyze photos and samples. Thursday, record findings in her Nature Notebook. Friday, explore some more in the forest, catching anything she might’ve missed. Saturday, the bear would take her to landmarks and hopefully she could find anything useful there. Sunday, free! At first, Luxi was hesitant to leave her city life for a year or more, but then she thought again. How she loved the natural world!

Luxi’s pencil dropped onto the wet soil. She couldn’t believe it. Her head spun. She had been in Oakwood, doing nature research, for ten years.

So that’s what Luxi did. She got up early to start her day’s work, with two wolverine soldiers guarding her. The bear, she realized, was quite fond of her, and her heart bloomed with warmth when she thought about it.

Sometimes, as she looked for samples and clues, conversations started between Luxi and the critters of the wild. One day, as Scientist Luxi (as she liked to call herself) was taking samples of dirt in test tubes, a mouse skittered past her knees, his warm white fur brushing against her.

“Oh! Hello, little mouse! I’m Luxi. What’s your name?”

“Oh, hey! I’m K.T. And yes, I’m a male! Wait, are you a human?” K.T. asked.

“Yeah, I’m researching Oakwood’s nature. After a year or so, I’m probably going to go back to my city and share my findings with the scientists in my world,” Luxi told K.T.

“Huh. Oh, I remember you now! You rode on the king of the forest’s back! Back then, I was just a mouseling,” he replied giddily. “Wait, a year you say? For your research?”

“Yeah, I think I have two or three weeks left until I go back,” Luxi said as she drew a sketch of a bony plant in her Nature Notebook.

“But . . . a year in Oakwood time would be ten in human years! You’ve been here for ten years of human time.”

Luxi’s pencil dropped onto the wet soil. She couldn’t believe it. Her head spun. She had been in Oakwood, doing nature research, for ten years. Big, fat drops of tears rolled down her pink cheeks. She bowed her head, the tears dripping onto her sketch, and her long brown hair draped down, covering her face. She didn’t understand why the bear hadn’t told her. K.T. tried to hug her, but he realized he was too tiny, so he patted Luxi on the knee instead. She must’ve cried for hours, because when she wiped the dry tears away, K.T. was no longer there. Instead, K.T. had left her an acorn larger than an average ping-pong ball. She picked it up and admired it, smiling, and knew that she had a friend in Oakwood.

When the bear heard what Luxi said had happened in the woods, demanding why he hadn’t told her that Oakwood’s time went by faster than it did in her human world, he bowed his head to her for the second time during her stay with him.

“I didn’t want you to leave,” the bear said sadly. Luxi stopped yelling, and her face softened.

The next day, the bear heaved her up to his back. And though he had done it before, she was still taken by surprise. Again, as on the first day she had come, the parade attracted attention from all the animals in the forest. Luxi waved goodbye to the animals, recognizing some that she’d spoken with. When she looked down, she saw K.T. squished in the midst of a family of mice and waved joyfully at him. K.T. smiled and waved his tiny paw goodbye.

After a while, the woods became denser than ever, signaling that the exit was near. After all, that was what people in her city thought Oakwood was like. Then the bear said to Luxi, “This is where I will leave you. Remember, you have to stop them from cutting the trees down for land. Say that the trees are dense and the ground is hilly so they’ll know that they can’t build houses here on the animals’ land. Say that there’s a barrier that wouldn’t allow anyone in except for you. That way, Oakwood’s nature won’t be destroyed. Please?” the bear said sincerely, and Luxi nodded.

“Of course. This beautiful wildlife ecosystem can’t and won’t be destroyed. Girls’ honor,” Luxi promised.

Luxi turned around to exit Oakwood, and also to shade her tearful face from the bear. How sad it was to leave all the animals in the forest! She would miss them so much. Suddenly, she stopped in her tracks. Luxi turned around and threw her arms around the furry bear, saying, “Oh, I’ll miss you so much!”

The bear smiled again a little and patted her lightly on the back, for fear of crushing her. Although you couldn’t see it, in Luxi’s fist was the large acorn, brown and handsome, that K.T. had given her. Friends couldn’t be separated. All the rabbits, deer, mice, birds, moles stopped in silence, and it seemed that time stopped at that moment. And maybe it had. Who knows?

All we can do is hope for the best. And then? It’s all up to fate.

Ever Sun
Ever Sun, 10
Bellevue, WA

Aerial Chen
Aerial Chen, 11
Katy, TX