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Tale of Treeo: Chapter 15

Squizzle whimpers. “Nellie, I think I might be imagining animals again,” Eli whispers

Eli: So we finally made our way back to the treehouse, and it was exactly as amazing as we remembered!
Nellie: But right after we started to explore, Squizzle got us in big trouble.
Squizzle: I knocked over a snow globe, that’s all! What’s the worst that could happen?

What?” Eli says.

Nellie shuts her eyes. She has to be dreaming. She has to be. Maybe she banged her head in the storm and knocked herself out, and now she’s lying on the ground in the middle of the woods behind her house.

But when she opens her eyes again, there is no sign of the woods, or her house, or even the treehouse where they’d been exploring before Eli’s squirrel friend, Squizzle, knocked a little glass globe off a string and broke it. Nellie isn’t wearing her sweatshirt anymore. Instead, she’s wrapped in a thick coat she’s never seen before. Eli has a matching one, and even Squizzle is wearing a tiny parka. A hole in the back lets his fluffy tail poke through. Squizzle chitters, shivering in the coat, and climbs onto Eli.

The worst part is the snow.

It stretches on for miles. When Nellie sits up, she can see nothing else: just snow and ice and pale blue water crashing between the ice in the distance. It looks like one of those puzzles that she does with Eli sometimes, with a thousand pieces that all sort of look the same. But even she wouldn’t do one with snow.

Nellie hates the snow. When she was five, there was a huge snowstorm in her neighborhood. After the snow had settled, everyone ran outside to play, to build forts and have snowball fights and play hide-and-seek. Nellie had hidden at the edge of a ravine in the woods. She fell into a snow bank and was in so deep that she couldn’t get out. No one could find her for hours. She’d gotten so cold and wet that she’d been sick for days. She missed the rest of the snow days and a week of kindergarten. Since then, she’s always stayed inside when it snows.

And now there is no inside. “Where’s the treehouse?” she asks, dragging herself to her feet. There’s snow caked against her skirt. Yuck. She brushes it off until her hands are red and freezing from the cold.

She tries to blow air on her hands to warm them up, but then wonders: If she can wake up in a strange place with a brand-new coat from the treehouse, then she bets that there are gloves, too. Sure enough, when she digs inside the pockets of her coat, there are thick, fuzzy gloves to slide on.

Eli climbs to his feet beside her. “It’s gone,” he says, disappointed. “Do you think it threw us out because Squizzle broke that globe?” Squizzle lets out a mournful noise. Eli pats him on the head. “You couldn’t have known,” he assures the squirrel. “You were just exploring.” He brightens. “Hey, what’s that?”

To Eli’s right is a mailbox, poking out of the ice as though someone had nailed it into place. It’s an ordinary looking one, shaped like something out of a book, except it’s made completely from wood. Nellie thinks she might have seen it before. “I think it was at the base of the treehouse,” she says thoughtfully. “Let’s open it.”

“Open it?” Eli repeats. “Nellie, last time we touched something from the treehouse, it turned the whole world to ice! Let’s not rush to—” But before he can finish, Nellie yanks the mailbox door open.

She half expects to be brought home right away. But instead, nothing happens. The inside of the mailbox is a blank wooden space with a strange indentation in it. The indentation is shaped like a circle, with two loops emerging from it like a sideways 8. Nellie tilts her head, trying to understand what it might be. “A baby rattle, maybe.”

Eli furrows his brow. “You think that we need to fit a baby rattle into the indentation?”

“You never know with the treehouse. Maybe we need to find a baby with a rattle. Inside the rattle, there could be a button that when you press it, it takes us home,” Nellie suggests hopefully. “Or at least sends out a message. Come save us. We’re cold.” She shivers. It is cold, even with the coat and gloves.

“You mean, come save us. Nellie’s afraid of the snow.” Eli crouches down for a second, and Nellie realizes, with rising dread, exactly what he’s about to do. “Hey, Nellie.” Eli pops up, a grin on his face and a perfect sphere of snow in his hands. “Snowball fight?”

“No! Absolutely not!” Nellie yelps, racing away from Eli. He pulls his arm back like he’s about to throw a baseball, and Nellie throws herself to the side to dodge it, landing back in the snow. “I hate the snow!”

“That’s because you’ve never really gotten to know it,” Eli says. “I know you’re still upset about that time in kindergarten, but it’s not worth it! You miss out on so much fun on snow days.” He drops the snowball. “Hey, what’s that?”

That is what Nellie had kicked up when she’d dropped to the ground, a gleaming silver ball with a circle on top. Nellie picks it up and pops it open. “It’s some kind of compass,” she says, tossing it to Eli. “You try to read it. Figure out how we can get back home.”

Eli takes it and peers at the little writing inside. He turns in one direction, then another, a frown spreading across his face as he does.

“Is it broken?”

“I’m not sure.” He turns in a full circle, then looks up at the sky, which is bright and blue like it’s the middle of the day. The sun shines down on Nellie and Nellie squints up at it. She’s positive that it had been nighttime at home.

“No,” Eli says suddenly. “I don’t think it’s broken. I think—” And he turns again, holding the compass out in front of him. “Every way I turn, it points south.”

“Sounds pretty broken to me.”

“No, Nellie.” Eli’s voice rises like it does when he’s excited. “I think we’re at the north pole!” He gestures around them. “Look at all this ice. I don’t even think there’s land underneath. Do you see how the water runs right around it?” He shakes his head. “The clubhouse took us to the north pole!”

Nellie is more skeptical. “I mean, Squizzle broke a snow globe, didn’t he? So maybe it just… swallowed us up. And now we’re in the middle of that globe, in the treehouse.”

“How does that explain the compass?”

“It makes no sense because the globe makes no sense,” Nellie suggests. “I mean, we can’t be at the north pole! If we were, there would be something here other than a mailbox. A big sign, maybe. A building. Someone trying to sell us T-shirts.” She snaps her fingers. “Or animals!” She remembers now. There are certain animals that live up near the north pole. Seals and white rabbits and certainly not squirrels like Squizzle, who has jumped away from Eli to examine the mailbox.

Penguins? No, penguins are at the south pole. The big animal up at the north pole is…

“RRRAAWWWRRR!” The roar is so loud that Nellie almost falls over. Her ears ringing, she twists around to see what’s appeared in front of them. It’s huge, so white that she can hardly see it against the snow. Only its black eyes and wide open mouth stand out.

Squizzle whimpers. “Nellie, I think I might be imagining animals again,” Eli whispers.

“Nope.” Nellie keeps her eyes focused on those black orbs. The big fangs. The long pink tongue right at its center. “I am very sorry to tell you that you’re not imagining this one.”

The polar bear roars again, and then charges forward — straight at a shuddering, frozen Squizzle, and straight at Nellie and Eli.


(Originally featured in Cozey, Issue 994)

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