“I’d like to go to the Halloween party,” Isaac said. “I really would. But I have a headache.”
“We’ll wait for you,” Marianne said. “Take some medicine. We’ll go when you feel better.”
“No, I don’t want Charlie to miss out,” Isaac said. “Go ahead and go without me.”
“All right,” Marianne said. “But we’ll miss you.”
And she and Charlie dressed in their costumes and left. Isaac changed into his pajamas and went to bed to try to sleep away the awful headache. He pulled his pillow over his head to shut out light and sound and eventually drifted off to sleep.
He woke up to a pinching feeling on his right pointer finger. His headache was mostly gone. He pushed the pillow off his head and sat up. He looked at his finger.
There was a bright orange spider ring on his finger. It waved a front leg at him. “Hello,” it said. “I’m the spirit of Halloween past.”
“Really?” Isaac asked.
“Absolutely,” the spider ring said. “Let’s go see a memory.” The room started spinning.
“I think my headache is coming back,” Isaac said.
“Not to worry,” the ring said. “We’re here.” They were in a room decorated with orange and black streamers. Adults and children were in costumes playing games and talking. “Hey, look who’s over there,” the spider said.
“It’s me. And there’s my dad,” Isaac said. “This is the party where he dropped his glasses in the punch.”
“How did that happen?” the spider asked.
“He took them off to wipe the glitter off and someone bumped into him,” Isaac said.
Just then, a small bumblebee ran into Isaac’s dad and his glasses fell into the punch with a plop. “How unfortunate,” the spider ring said.
“It’s not that bad,” Isaac said. “We all laughed about it for years afterwards. It’s a good memory.” Isaac watched his father fish the glasses out of the bowl with a ladle as little Isaac giggled.
Isaac woke up feeling like his teeth were glued shut. His mouth tasted like caramel. His headache was mostly gone. He pushed the pillow off his head and sat up. There was a caramel apple sitting on the nightstand.
Isaac picked it up and took another bite. He looked around the room. Shouldn’t there be another spirit? An origami bat fluttered down from a dark corner of the room. “I’m the spirit of Halloween present,” it said. “There are a lot more treats at the party. Do you want to see?”
“Of course,” Isaac said. “Take me there, please.”
The room dropped out from below them and another room rose to meet them. This room was decorated with white and black balloons. Children and adults in costumes were playing games and talking.
“Great party, isn’t it?” the bat asked.
“Where’s Charlie? Where’s Marianne?” Isaac asked.
“Oh, they left. Charlie said it wasn’t as fun without you.”
“Well, take me home,” Isaac said. “We can all go to the party together. My headache is gone now.”
“Sure thing,” the origami bat said. “I’ll tell the vampire teeth that they’re not needed.”
“Thanks,” Isaac said.
“Have a happy Halloween,” the bat said.
Isaac woke up when he heard a door slam. He pushed the pillow off his head and sat up. “Marianne? Charlie?” he said.
Charlie burst into the room. “Dad? Are you feeling better? We came home to get you. It’s a great party. You don’t want to miss out.”
“Thank you, Charlie,” Isaac said. “I am feeling better. I’ll change into my costume and we can go.”
“Hurry! We need to get back before all the caramel apples are gone,” Charlie said.
Isaac looked back at the nightstand. There wasn’t a caramel apple sitting there, but his mouth still tasted like caramel. How strange.
“We’ll wait for you by the front door,” Marianne said. She and Charlie went out and closed the bedroom door behind them.
Isaac jumped up. He needed to hurry and change into his costume. He had a party to attend!
“I can be anything I want to be, right?” Alex asked one night at dinner.
“Of course you can,” Dad said. He paused. “But you probably shouldn’t choose to be a veterinarian. Or a doctor. That might not go well.”
Alex frowned. He clutched his fork a little too tight. It broke in half and the metal pieces landed on his plate and cracked it. Alex burst into tears.
“It’s all right, honey,” Mom said. “There are still lots of things you can do.”
“Like what?” Alex asked. He sniffled and blew his nose on his thick canvas napkin. It tore down the center.
Mom handed him a new fork. “Well, um, you could be a newscaster,” she said. “Or a writer.”
“That’s right,” Dad said. “They have those programs now where you can dictate everything and you don’t have to type or hold a pencil.”
Alex frowned. “I just want to be like all the normal kids. You know, do the craft projects for the holidays. Play sports after school. Write down my own answers on assignments.”
Dad sighed. “Life isn’t fair sometimes, huh?”
Alex nodded. “Yeah.”
“You’re not the only kid at school who can’t do all the normal things though, right?” Mom asked.
“One kid has to keep his eyes closed all the time, because he has laser eyes. And this one girl can’t talk at all because her voice shatters glass,” Alex said.
Mom smoothed Alex’s hair. “You see? It’s not just you.”
“It’s still not fair.” Alex picked up his new fork and speared some lettuce. The tines curled under.
“Maybe you can find a way to use your talents to help other people,” Dad said.
“Like what?” Alex asked. He ate the lettuce and bent the fork’s tines back into place.
“Well, you could read to that boy with the laser eyes,” Dad said.
Alex frowned. “But I’m not supposed to touch the books. The pages keep ripping when I turn them.” He speared another bite of lettuce and the tines curled under again.
“But he can pick up the books, right?” Mom asked.
Alex nodded. “There’s nothing wrong with his hands.”
“Then maybe you can help each other,” Mom said. “I’ll bet there are a lot of stories you both want to hear.”
“You’ll find more work-arounds for your problems if you can work with other people,” Dad said.
“It would be nice to help people,” Alex said. “Do you really think I can?” He straightened the fork’s tines again.
“You’re the strongest person I know,” Dad said. “I’ll bet there are lots of ways you can help people. All you need to do is look around and notice.”
“But what if I see a problem, and I can’t help?” Alex asked.
“Then you could try to find someone who can help,” Dad said.
“Okay,” Alex said.
“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Mom asked.
“A space pirate,” Alex said. “Do you think I can?”
“Maybe,” Dad said. “If you find the right crew.”
“You might need to invent a good spaceship first,” Mom said.
“I could do that,” Alex said. “At least I think I can.”
“Well, then you know where to start,” Dad said. “Now who’s ready for lasagna?”
“Me!” Alex said. “Can I help?”
“Sure,” Dad said. “You can help me check to make sure it’s done. What do you think? Does it look good?”
“I think it looks great,” Alex said.
“Then it’s ready. Thanks for your help,” Dad said. Alex grinned.
The little catfish swam around in slow, mournful little circles. The handsome pedigree Russian Blue house cat lying on the grass at the edge of the pond was always watching her, but he was so far away. Her father didn’t understand what it was like to be in love. He kept telling her that she couldn’t swim in the shallow area of the pond closer to the cat.
“Cats are dangerous,” he said. “They eat fish.”
“Not this cat,” she said. “He’s a prince.”
Her dad rolled his eyes. “There aren’t royal cats. And even if there were, they’d still eat fish.”
The little catfish twitched her tail. “Anyone who looked at him could tell he’s a prince. You’re just jealous.”
“Jealous of what?”
“Jealous that he’s handsome and wonderful and amazing,” the little catfish said, and she swam away to look for her prince again.
While she swam near the edge of the shallows, a little crab scuttled over. “I heard you yelling. Did you know that you could ask the pond witch to turn you into a cat?” he asked.
“Then the Russian Blue would fall in love with me and we’d live happily ever after,” the little catfish said.
The crab looked doubtful. “Maybe.”
“Well, at least I’d get out of this pond,” the little catfish said. “It’s far too full of bossy parents right now.”
The little catfish twitched her tail and followed the crab’s directions to find the pond witch. Deep in the darkest, murkiest part of the pond a rams-horn snail lurked and waited. She glided forward to meet the little catfish.
“Can I help you?” the snail asked.
“I’m looking for the pond witch,” the little catfish said.
The snail nodded. “That’s me. What do you want?”
“I want to be a cat so that the handsome cat that waits by the pond will fall in love with me. We’d live happily ever after. I just know it.” The little catfish sighed.
“I can do that. But I don’t work for free,” the pond witch said.
“What do you mean?”
“If I change you into a cat, I’ll want something in return,” the pond witch said.
“You can do it? You can change me into a cat?” The little catfish swam in quick, happy circles.
“Of course I can.” The pond witch scowled.
The little catfish paused. “So, what do you want?”
“Your sting. You won’t need it as a cat, right?” the pond witch asked.
“It’s a deal,” the little catfish said.
The pond witch chanted and glided around in strange patterns. Then she sent the little catfish to go swim into the shallow part of the pond. The Russian Blue cat was there to meet her.
Just as he swiped at her head with his sharp claws, the little catfish transformed into an unremarkable little tabby cat. The Russian Blue jumped back and hissed. “Get away,” he said.
“But it’s me,” the little tabby said. “You know me. We’re in love. You’re always watching me.”
“I don’t know who you are,” the Russian Blue said. “Get away from my pond. I’m the only one who can eat the fish that swim here.”
“You eat fish?” the tabby asked, heartbroken.
“Of course I do. What kind of cat are you?” The Russian Blue growled. “Now go away or I’ll bite you.”
The little tabby ran from the pond into a world where everything seemed strange. She hid in some bushes, afraid to go too far from the pond. When the Russian Blue went home, she hurried back to the pond.
“Pond witch,” she mewed. “Change me back.”
The pond witch glided into the shallows. “Why should I?”
“I’ll pick you some of the greens that grow here on the banks of the pond,” the little tabby said.
“Fine. But I want the greens first,” the pond witch said.
The little tabby filled the shallows of the pond with grass and mallows and dandelion leaves. When the sea witch thought there were enough greens, she told the tabby to wade into the shallows and wait. The pond witch started to chant and glide in strange patterns.
Finally, the little tabby was once again a little catfish. She thanked the grumpy pond witch and swam home. “Dad, you were right,” she said.
“Of course I was,” he said. “About what? And where have you been?”
“Cats are scary, and I’m so glad I’m home,” the little catfish said.
“I’m glad you’re home, too,” he said. “But I would like to know where you’ve been.”
“I was a cat for a bit,” she said. “But I changed back and came home.”
“Hmmmm,” her dad said. “Don’t do that again.”
“I won’t,” she said.
“Good,” he said. “Let’s go have dinner.”
Grag was under the bridge typing away when Frod came to visit. “Hey Frod,” he said. “Where’ve you been? I haven’t seen you in years.”
“Yeah, well, you know how I never paid attention in class?” Frod said.
“Of course I do. You snored so loud that we could hardly hear what the teacher was saying,” Grag said.
Frod laughed. “I wasn’t that bad, was I?”
“Do you remember any of the lessons?” Grag asked.
“Good point,” Frod said. “Anyway, when we were talking about life skills, I thought I needed to live under a fridge to gather my hoard. Wow, it was a tight fit. I only ever managed to grab a handful of dropped change, but the food was good.”
“You’re joking, right?” Grag asked.
“Not really,” Frod said. “But enough about me, tell me how you’re doing.”
Above their heads, they could hear the pounding sound of someone crossing the bridge. Frod looked over at Grag. “Aren’t you going to go get that?”
Grag typed something on his laptop. “Nope.”
“Don’t stop trolling just because I’m visiting. I may have slept through all our lessons, but I could help,” Frod said.
“No one trolls in person anymore,” Grag said. “It’s all online now.”
Frod looked around. “On what?”
“Online. Look.” Grag turned his laptop screen around.
Frod squinted. “Your dog is ugly and has fleas,” he read. “Did you write that?”
“That’s modern trolling,” Grag said.
“But what good does saying weird things online do?” Frod asked.
“What do you mean?” Grag asked.
“Well, you can’t eat your words,” Frod said. “Or gather them up to keep you warm at night.”
“You really missed a lot sleeping through all those lessons,” Grag said. “I don’t troll to make a living. I do it because I’m honoring my cultural heritage.”
Frod scratched his head. “But you still have to eat. And you still need to build a hoard so that you can find a nice cave to settle down in, right?”
“Of course I do.” Grag closed his laptop and turned to look at his friend. “I work as a customer service representative.”
Frod frowned. “Are those really words?”
“Of course they are. I work for a human company, answering questions about the stuff they sell and handling returns. Things like that.”
“That doesn’t sound like a good job for a troll,” Frod said.
Grag laughed. “You’d be surprised.”
“Listen,” Grag said, leaning forward. “Do you want to build a hoard and earn money you can exchange for food?”
“Good, good,” Grag said. “It’s the modern troll way. I know of a collections agency that’s hiring. I think it would be a great job for you. Do you know how to use a telephone?” Grag held up a cellphone.
“That’s a telephone?” Frod asked. “It’s so small.”
Grag sighed. “I think you were under that fridge too long. Don’t worry. You’ll pick it up really quick. Are you hungry? We can talk over lunch.”
“I found some bread in the park this morning, but I had to fight some ducks for it,” Frod said. “I’m starving.”
“Let’s get a pizza,” Grag said.
“That sounds wonderful,” Frod said. “Thanks for being a good friend.”
“Don’t mention it,” Grag said. “Ever. I’ve got a reputation as a troll to keep up.”