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by Jeffrey Wald
I heard the growl of a big truck and looked out our window and saw a red Chevy pickup with Minnesota license plates pulling into the parking space a few doors down from us. I watched as a man with dark hair and big boots stepped out of the pickup and grabbed a bag from the bed. Then a boy who seemed about my age got out of the passenger side carrying a red backpack. He had sandy-colored hair that came to just above his eyebrows. The man and the boy walked up to room 137, beeped the door open, and went in. A few minutes later they walked out again and went to the bed of the truck and looked in.
I turned to my mom and said, mama, can I go and play with the new boy. What new boy, she asked. The new boy who just pulled up in the Minnesota pickup truck I said. Who’d he come with she asked. His daddy I responded. OK, she said, but please shut the blinds, my head is killing me and that setting sun is piercing my brain. I closed the blinds and stepped outside. It was February and one of those perfect Florida days that almost makes you forget July when the AC can’t keep up and mama says there’s no money to be made and there’s nothing to do but put ice cubes down your shirt or sit in the pool but even that only feels like pisswater. The boy was holding another bag and standing by his dad.
I walked up to the boy and said hi and he looked up at his dad and said hi back. I said I lived over in room 134 with my mama and I was the official welcoming committee and would the boy like to play?
The boy looked up at his dad again and his dad said ok, but just be back before it was too dark. His dad handed him a plastic key card and I said come on then and we began to walk across the parking lot. A door closed behind us and we walked towards the pool.
A blue junker of a Camry pulled up blaring Spanish pop music and stopped beside us. It was little Pedro. He rolled down his window and said hola Irene. I said hi Pedro. He said is your mama in. I said yes but she’s nursing a bad one. He said oh ok. He’d stop by another night. He rolled up his window and spun out and drove around the motel.
I told the boy little Pedro is actually a prince from Mexico. That’s why he has a tattoo of a crown under his right eye. But his younger brother wanted to be king, so he killed their dad, and tried to kill little Pedro, but missed, shooting him in the leg. That’s why little Pedro walked with a limp. I told him he was gathering forces to return to Mexico and take back his rightful crown but in the meantime he lived here at night and during the day held one of those road construction signs that said Stop on one side and Slow on the other.
Oh said the boy.
Come I told the boy, leading him over to the pool. I asked the boy if he could swim. He said not really. He’d been in a lake once when his dad took him hunting. But he’d almost drowned. And he’d never been in a pool. Nobody had pools in Minnesota. Everything freezes.
I told him I’d like to see the snow.
He said it ain’t nothing much to look at and its cold besides. We looked at the pool. It had brown palm branches floating in it. I said my mama didn’t let me swim in the pool anymore. She said there was a sea serpent that lived at the bottom of the pool that would love nothing more than to devour a princess like me. I said I didn’t believe there was a sea serpent at the bottom of the pool. More likely it was someone’s pet alligator they had grown tired of and dumped in the pool. But anyways, I didn’t want to get bit by no pet alligator so I stayed out of the pool.
We walked around the metal pool fence and a red Mercedes drove up. It was K.P. Hey Irene he said, is your mama in? I said she was in but had a headache but he could stop by and say hi. He said oh ok, he’d let her be then, but could I tell her he’d stopped by? I said sure. He looked the boy up and down. Who’s the boy he asked. My new boyfriend I said. Is that right he asked. Yes I said. Well ok then, if he treats you bad let me know, I’ll break his legs. He looked at the boy and smiled, showing two gold teeth. Be safe Irene he said. He drove down the parking lot and parked in front of room 152. He got out and went into his room.
We walked a few steps and the boy said so we’re boyfriend girlfriend now? Well aren’t we I responded. Yes, he said, I just wanted to make sure. I said well aren’t you going to hold my hand then? He looked in the direction where the red Mercedes had gone. I said, oh, don’t worry about K.P., he’s just messing with you. He’s actually an emperor in Nigeria. But he’s hiding out here because several of the tribes he rules banded together and with machetes and sticks and things rose up and tried to kill him. He had to flee the country. So now he’s running his empire from his motel room. That’s why people come and go all the time from his room. But when things settle down over there he’s going to go back. He’s really a great guy, you don’t need to worry about him I said.
Oh, ok said the boy. I took his hand. It was warm and a little sweaty. I pulled him toward a hole in the fence. Come, I said, I’ll show you the woods. I brought him through the tall grass between the parking lot and the fence. I ducked under the top metal bar of the fence. I said come on, your turn. He looked back at his room. He turned back around and ducked to come through the hole. His shirt caught on the fence. I grabbed the shirt and pulled it off the snag and the boy climbed through.
We walked through some garbage and more tall grass until we got to the edge of the woods. The boy looked to the west, where the sun was very orange. He said maybe we should be getting back. I said it’s not even dark yet. And there’s one more thing I need to show you. The door to his room started to open and I said quick, follow me. I grabbed his hand and pulled him into the woods.
It was much darker in the woods. We waited a few seconds for our eyes to adjust. I told him my mama told me not to go into the woods, that there were wolves and dragons and trolls. But I told the boy not to worry. I had cast a spell on the woods long ago, turning the dragons into harmless lizards, and the wolves into mice, and the trolls into fat toads. So there was nothing to worry about now.
Then I saw a dragon. Shh, I said, pointing to the dragon on a tree. Ok, now grab it I told the boy. Pretend I’m a damsel in distress. This dragon wants to eat me. It’s your job to save me. Go ahead, grab it. The boy looked at the lizard and slowly reached out his right hand towards it. Then his arm froze. I waited a few seconds and still his hand was frozen. You’ll never be a prince like that, I said, reaching out my hand and grabbing the lizard. I held it up to the boy’s face. He pulled back his head and grimaced. I started to laugh and said you have a long way to go to become a prince charming, but don’t worry, I’ll teach you.
I put the lizard on the ground and we watched it run underneath some leaves. Come, I said, grabbing the boy’s hand again. I want to show you something. I led him further down the path that led through the woods. We could hear the cars and motorcycles and semis racing down the interstate to our left. Then I heard it and told the boy shh and to close his eyes and listen. We stood still, just listening. And then we both heard it. Drrr, drrr, drrr. There, you hear that, I asked. You mean the cricket he said. That’s not just a cricket, I said. That’s my last boyfriend. When he started to talk to the pretty girl in room 115 my fairy godmother turned him into a cricket. I’ve been trying to catch him ever since so I could put him in a jar and keep him as a pet but he’s too quick. The boy looked at me and scrunched his face together. I started to laugh. Just kidding I said, that’s not my old boyfriend. That’s just Rob, from room 108. I didn’t know he was in the woods when I cast the spell on it. I accidentally turned him into a bug. Why don’t you just turn him back the boy said. It doesn’t work like that, I said. The spell can only be broken by true love’s first kiss.
Oh, the boy said. We stood there quietly listening to the chirping of the cricket and the racing of the vehicles down the interstate.
Come, I said, grabbing the boy’s hand and leading him further down the path. When we got closer, I told him to close his eyes. No peeking I said. He walked the rest of the way with his eyes closed, letting me lead him. When we got to it, I told him ok, now open your eyes. He opened them. He said wow, what is it?
I said what it looks like is an old hollowed out fig tree. But what it actually is is the remains of my family’s castle. Oh, the boy said. I continued. You see, my daddy and mama were king and queen of this region. And they lived happily in this castle, and did good to all under their reign. But after I was born, an evil sorceress came into the kingdom. She changed her hideous looks to appear as a beautiful fairy. She convinced the king that the queen was trying to poison him to steal the kingdom. She told my daddy to run off to save himself and the entire kingdom from the evil queen. So the king ran off with the sorceress, but before they left, the sorceress cast a spell, turning our castle into this tree, and my mama and I into plain, ordinary folk. You’d never know it just by looking at us, but we’re actually royalty.
Oh, said the boy. What happened to the sorceress and the king, he asked. My mama says not to think about them, I said. What’s past is past, dead and gone. Thinking about what might have been will only get you into a heap of trouble, she says. But I’m not scared of the past. It’s what got me right here, and I’d say right here is pretty good.
I turned to look at the boy, and he looked back at me. We stood staring at each other for a few moments. Then I said well aren’t you going to kiss me?
He said he didn’t know how.
I said you haven’t ever kissed your mama?
He said he didn’t have any mama.
I said, here, I’ll show you. Close your eyes. So he did. Then I leaned up and kissed him once on the lips. He remained standing, his eyes clenched shut. I laughed. You can open them now. He opened them and looked at me and I smiled. I said there, now you know how to kiss a girl. But there’s one more thing. What’s that, said the boy. Now you have to marry me, I said. Oh, really, he said. That’s right, I responded. Well, ok then, said the boy. When will we get married?
Come with me, I said. I led him through a crack in the vine-like tree and into the hollowed center. I bent down and dug in the dirt. I pulled out a Ziploc bag. I opened the bag and took out a golden ring. I stood up and gave the ring to the boy. Here, I said. What is it, said the boy. It’s the king’s ring I said. Before he ran off, my daddy left his ring on the nightstand. So now our kingdom is without a king. I’ve kept the ring safe in here ever since. Hold out your hand. The boy held out his hand. I put the ring on his left ring finger. It hung there loosely. Well, you’ve got a ways to go before you can be king I said. But you’ll get there. When this ring fits you just right, then we can be married and you will be king and I will be queen and the kingdom will be restored.
The boy thought about that for a moment. Ok, he finally said, looking into my eyes again. It was dark in the hollow of the tree, but his eyes seemed to give off a light of their own. I put my head on his shoulder and just stood there for a minute. I could hear his heart beating.
We should go back, I said. It’s dark. I don’t want you to get in trouble.
We stepped out of the hollow and walked back down the path and out of the woods and around the pool and into the parking lot. We ran across the parking lot and stopped outside the boy’s room. The boy looked at me. Then he looked down at the ring that he was still holding. He held out his hand, offering me the ring. No, I said. You keep it safe. Don’t lose it, ok? The kingdom depends on you. Ok, he said. Good night I said. Good night he responded. Then he brought out his plastic key card and beeped the door open and went inside.
I walked down the concrete walkway to my room. The moon was bright to my left and the air was warm. I keyed myself into my room. When the door closed, I stood there letting my eyes adjust. I heard my mama snoring. I saw a pair of big winter boots on the ground near my mother’s bed. I slipped off my sandals and climbed into my bed and laid there, feeling my heart beating. I looked out my window at the low yellow moon and just stared at it for a long time. Then I fell asleep.
I woke up the next morning to bright light staring at me through the window. I stretched and sat up. Mama was still snoring, the flower comforter pulled up over her head. The winter boots were gone. I slipped on my sandals and opened the door. The red Chevy pickup was gone.
I walked to room 137. I knocked on the door. The door opened and I saw Marietta, the cleaning lady, standing beside the door. Morning mama, she said. Morning I said. I asked where the man and the boy who stayed in this room were. She said she didn’t know. They had checked out early that morning.
I stood in the doorway. I felt my chest rise and fall. She said mama, is everything ok. I said yes, Marietta, have a good day.
I closed the door and walked back to my room. I opened the door and went inside. The light streamed in from the opened door. My mama turned over, shielding her eyes with her arm. She yawned and opened her eyes. Morning princess she said. I climbed into bed next to her. Morning mama I said. She wrapped her arms around me. What would you like to do today my little princess, she said. I said I just wanted to do this. She said me too. And so that’s what we did.