“Cowabunga!” yelled Rocket, after he ditched his clothes and ran naked towards the boardwalk in the Spice District.
“Oh, to be three and free!” said their ama. “Shall we join him?” And she made to take off her own shirt.
“No!” yelled Sparkroot and Florinda together, and everybody laughed. Everyone except their ada, that is, who looked on with a scowl and furrowed brows.
When Rocket turned and raced back towards them, their ama scooped him up in her arms and rustled him back into his otter t-shirt and orange dungarees. “That’s my wild child!” she said.
The family crossed the street to the square.
Their friend Semperviren’s grandpa was playing his fancy guitar, and Sparkroot and Florinda danced.
“Come dance, Rocket!” Sparkroot called to his little brother.
But before Rocket could join them, their ada hissed, “Where do you think you’re going, young man?”
Sparkroot ran towards his brother but was stopped when his ada yelled. “I’ll not have you dancing like a hooligan! You are still grounded for your antics, you renegade!”
Rocket looked up at their ada.
“I not bad! I good!”
“You’re bad if I say so, ” said their ada. He laughed, and looked down at his youngest son who stood glaring up at him.
Sparkroot thought their ada looked proud. But their ama looked sad, hurt, angry, and disappointed, all at the same time.
Sparkroot felt the black slug twist and turn and squeeze his stomach, and the badger started gnawing his heart again.
He remembered how excited he’d felt yesterday when he asked Ama if the whole family, even Ada, could go together to the Spice District.
He’d thought out what he’d say so carefully. First, he’d say that it was most fun when they were all together. And then, he’d say that, really, it was good for them to spend more time with Ada, and it was really good when they all spent it together, and couldn’t they please go? Rocket would want to.
After he said it all, just like he planned, Ama was quiet. She still looked at her book, but Sparkroot knew she was thinking.
“I’d be happy to take you kids myself,” she said at last.
“But what if we go as a family?” Sparkroot asked. “Can’t we?”
And she was quiet for a while, and Sparkroot could see his ama thinking it through, and at last, she said, quietly, “Ok. Let’s give it a try.”
“Oh, Ama!” Sparkroot said. “Thank you! We’ll have so much fun! I promise!”
And now, they weren’t having fun, and his ama was sad and mad and all those things, and Rocket was glaring at their ada, and Ada just smiled like everything was OK, and Sparkroot had broken his promise, because they weren’t having fun at all.
“Sparkie, will you take Rocket over to the vendor’s stall to get a snack? Anything he wants. He’s hungry, and I want to talk to your ada alone.”
She gave him some money, and he and Rocket veered towards the vendor, but slowly, so that Sparkroot could hear what his ama said.
“Brennan, I’m not happy with you yelling at our kids,” she said.
“That’s nothing!” said their ada. “Why! When I was a boy, that would’ve been a sign of affection, of caring.”
And then Rocket ran off towards the basketball court, and Sparkroot had to chase him, so he didn’t get to hear what else they said.
Their ada had left by the time Sparkroot and Rocket returned with their snack.
They didn’t see Ada for a while after that.
Then one afternoon, Ama took them all to Old Town to buy Florinda her first pair of ballet shoes, and when they went into the store to try them on, Rocket began racing around making a loud train noise.
“Do you want to play, Rocket?” Ama asked.
“Train late!” Rocket yelled. “Back on schedule! Woot!”
“I’ll take him out to the square!” Sparkroot volunteered. “We can play there while you buy Flor her slippers.”
Florinda stood transfixed by the display of pink, white, black, and red ballet slippers. “They’re so beautiful!” she sighed, stroking the leather of a sky-blue pair.
“OK, Sparkie,” Ama said. “Have fun and meet us by the café in half an hour, and we’ll have bread and chocolate!”
“Milky-tea!” shouted Rocket.
Sparkroot placed his hands on Rocket’s shoulders, and together they chug-chugged out of the shop and onto the sidewalk.
Rocket followed the lines in the pavement, like a good engine, huffing and hooting. And then, he stopped, right outside of the pub.
“Ada!” he shouted. “Ada!”
He ran inside, and Sparkroot ran after him.
Their ada sat on a barstool, talking to Anderson, a friend of Semperviren’s mom.
“You really should take the Loogaroo Express,” their ada said to Anderson. “There are plenty there in Forgotten Hollow who’d like to see you. Plenty.”
“Hi, Ada,” said Rocket.
“Oh, hello, son,” said their ada. “Hello, Sparkroot.”
Sparkroot waved, and Ada continued talking to Anderson.
“A young person like you, you’d find a warm welcome, that’s for sure! In fact, there are some unique opportunities there for someone like you.”
“Not Loogaroo,” said Rocket. “No Hollow. Loogaroo not good, Anderson. Loogabad.”
Ada turned and opened his mouth.
“Come on, Rocket!” said Sparkroot. “No-face is here!”
They saw the hooded man that Rocket and Florinda had met before, sitting in a chair in the corner of the pub. He had been turned towards Ada and Anderson, as if he’d been listening in.
“No-face Guy!” Rocket said, and he ran towards him singing and clapping. “Dance, No-Face!”
Sparkroot, Rocket, and No-Face danced until Sparkroot remembered the time.
“We gotta go, Rocket,” he said. “Bye, Ada!”
“Bye, No-Face,” said Rocket. “Bye, Ada!”
“Bye, sons,” said their Ada, turning back to Anderson.
“No Loogaroo, Anderson!” said Rocket, as the boys left the pub.
When they met their sister and ama at the café, Florinda cradled a white shoe box. “I got the blue pair,” she whispered to Sparkroot.
“Do you love them?” he asked her, and she nodded. “You’ll dance like a princess,” he whispered.
“Like a superhero,” she whispered back.
That evening, Miss Penguin dropped by their home for a visit.
“Your husband has done the most amazing thing for this region,” she told their ama. “That Loogaroo Express is the best thing to happen in a long time! Why, I ride it three or four times a week! I just can’t get enough of Forgotten Hollow!”
“No Hollow!” said Rocket. “Loogabad!”
Miss Penguin described the quaint architecture, the dark woods, the interesting people, the culture, but Rocket would have none of it.
“No go,” he said. “Loogabad.”
Sparkroot had to agree. The train itself was exciting, with the leather seats, zipping speeds, and, of course, the hot chocolate. But he’d be happy if he never set foot in Forgotten Hollow again.
Just thinking about it, connected to Windenburg by the line his ada had been in charge of constructing, was enough to get the badger biting.
He tried to forget about that dark valley, now a short ride away. Especially at night, when he lay down in the tiny room at the top of the stairs that he shared with Florinda, he tried to put the Loogaroo out of his mind.
When he had trouble banishing the image of the train and the valley it led to, he would imagine instead something he’d seen one day when he was walking back home after visiting Sempervirens.
At the bend in the road, he’d come upon his ama, playing on her fiddle a tune that Sugar taught her. He stopped to watch and listen.
It was a good song, full of old-fashioned riffs and turns, and it sounded like a cross between a jig and a promenade. And when he heard it, he felt brave inside and safe.
He asked his ama about the song that evening, when she tucked him in.
“It’s an old protection song,” she said.
“Will you play it often?” Sparkroot asked.
“I will,” she replied, “and I do.”
She kissed him on the forehead, and hummed the song as she walked back downstairs to tuck in Rocket, and while Sparkroot fell asleep, he imagined her standing at the bend of the road, playing with all her heart, to keep the bad things out.