Jason swallowed his fear of the monster under his bed and lifted his blanket to peer in the darkness. Unable to see anything, he felt around timidly, but found only missing socks and dust bunnies. Frustrated, Jason stood and stomped out of his bedroom and knocked on Julia's door across the hall.
"What?" she called from within.
"Let me in!" Jason yelled. "I know you have it!"
After a moment, Julia flung her door open and bent down so she was eye-level with
her little brother. "Have what, squirt?" she said, giving him a playful shove.
"My new toy!" Jason crossed his arms. "You took it! I can't find it anywhere!"
Julia straightened. "What would I want with a child's toy?"
"I don't know," Jason admitted in a mumble.
"Besides, James is the family thief," Julia said before slamming the door.
With a sigh, Jason walked down the hall to Julia's twin's bedroom. Jason knocked on his door, but was met with no response, so he opened the door slowly and peered inside. Sure enough, James wasn't there. Taking advantage of his big brother's absence, Jason dashed inside and picked through heaps of dirty laundry, crumpled papers, and trading cards from every game and sport in search of his beloved toy.
It was an outdated thing that couldn't be found in many toy stores nowadays, and to Jason, that made it even more special, besides the fact that he'd never had a spinning top before.
Aunt Martha visited the Keplers after visiting Greece and before leaving for Japan, and brought presents, as she always did. James got a heavy Frisbee that Aunt Martha called a discus, Julia got a necklace, and Jason got his golden spinning top. Julia laughed whenever she saw him playing with it, and James never failed to mention that it wasn't real gold, but Jason didn't care. It was pretty, had his name engraved on the top, and featured pictures of people, whom Aunt Martha called Argonauts, on a boat.
Jason set it down on his dresser that night before going to bed; when he woke, it was nowhere to be found. Without even changing out of his pajamas, he tore his room apart looking for it.
Now he was doing the same to James' room (although it was already trashed). Jason had just flung another musty T-shirt across the room when his big brother entered.
"What're you doing in my room, shrimp?!" James demanded.
Jason jumped and turned to face him. "I was looking for my top," he said, slowly remembering his previous anger.
James snorted. "Yeah, 'cause I totally took your little toy. It's not even real gold." He pushed Jason out of his room and slammed the door in his face.
Jason groaned and marched downstairs to interrogate his parents about the whereabouts of his top. Unfortunately, Jason saw The Note instead, and, although he couldn't read that well, Julia and James assured him that it always said something like Mommy and Daddy are running errands and that dinner was in the oven or fridge and that his big siblings were in charge and could do practically whatever they wanted.
Jason hunched his shoulders and went out to the backyard, too sad to even pour a bowl of cavity-inducing cereal and watch Saturday morning cartoons. Instead, he lay back on the dry grass and watched the few clouds meander across the sky.
Just then, a huge snowy bird circled over Jason before landing on the Keplers' peach tree. It turned its head to regard Jason thus revealing its identity as an owl before casting its gaze back upon the horizon. With all the curiosity and wonder of a child, Jason leapt to his feet and approached the owl.
"Hello, Hedwig!" he said excitedly, eagerly about to jump into his role as Harry Potter and pretend that this owl were his faithful companion.
The bird rustled its feathers a bit and parted its beak, from which came the words: "My name is not Hedwig, thank you."
Jason started. "You can talk?!" he exclaimed in the wonderful fearlessness of youth.
The owl turned its head to Jason, which sickened him a little, and said, "Of course, you just heard me. Now leave me be, I am awaiting the Hero."
The owl clucked. "The Hero who has lost something valuable, for I know where it is hidden."
"My top!" Jason said. "You know where it is?"
"Be not foolish, child, for surely you cannot be whom I seek."
Jason crossed his arms. "Why not?"
"The road to this treasured item is perilous, and you are but a lad."
"But I really want my toy back," Jason mumbled sadly. "It was a gift. And almost solid gold."
The owl sighed. "Very well, then. I shall reveal to you the tasks you must complete to retrieve your toy. There are three in all, and if you truly are the Hero, they shall prove no challenge to you.
"Your first task is to climb the Stairs to Nowhere and find the silver compass. If you succeed, return to this tree, and I will tell you how to proceed." Without further ado, the owl spread its grand wings and soared away as quickly as it arrived.
Jason blinked up at the sky in wonder for a moment before running back inside the house. In the kitchen, James and Julia were already fixing their breakfast and arguing about who got the last of the Coco Puffs.
"Did you guys see the owl?" Jason said excitedly, interrupting his siblings' argument.
"What?" Julia said as she got another bowl down for Jason. "An owl?"
James snorted. "Owls are nocturnal, dummy."
"They sleep during the day," Julia clarified after punching James in the arm for his insult.
Jason crossed his arms. "Well, I saw an owl, and he said "
"Owls can't talk, pipsqueak," James said with a laugh. He wrestled the box of Coco Puffs out of Julia's hands, poured himself a bowl, and added milk before cackling and heading to the living room.
Julia groaned and retrieved a box of Raisin Bran from the cabinet. "I hate saying this," she said, "but James is right." Then she headed to the living room to fight for the remote.
Realizing he was getting nowhere at home, Jason quickly changed his clothes and headed to his best friend's house next door. When Mrs. Laurels opened the door and saw Jason, she immediately called her daughter, Medea, downstairs.
"Hi, Jason," she said through a grand smile.
"Hi, Medea," he said. He beckoned her to follow him outside, which she did loyally.
"Why are you walking so fast, Jason?" she asked, struggling to keep up.
"Because an owl told me I gotta look for the Stairs to Nowhere so I can find the silver compass!"
Medea raised an eyebrow. "You met a talking owl?" Jason nodded. "Well
I remember that porch near here that didn't get knocked down with the rest of the house." Medea shrugged. "It kind of leads to nowhere."
So Jason followed Medea to the cul-de-sac adjacent theirs and, soon, they were before the house-less porch.
"Here goes nothin'!" Jason said. Medea took his hand, and Jason took a deep breath before leading her up the wooden stairs and through an invisible, watery barrier.
Once through the barrier, Medea and Jason looked around. They were in a blue room that was full of shelves. The children looked around in awe at the shelves filled to capacity with toys and trinkets, both new and broken.
They barely took three steps inside before a peacock landed in front of them. She spread her magnificent plumage and said, "Halt!"
Medea jumped, but Jason, who was used to talking birds, said, "We're looking for a silver compass."
The bird cawed, and then replied, "Who sent you?"
The peacock ducked her head and stepped aside. "You will find it in aisle three, row F. I warn you: take only that which you seek."
Jason and Medea thanked the bird and ran to the correct row and aisle. Jason spotted the compass immediately and put it in his pocket.
"Look at this!" Medea squealed in delight, pointing at rows of charm bracelets, dolls, and tiaras. She reached for a tiara that spelled 'princess' in diamonds.
"Medea, don't !" Jason began but stopped when he caught sight of the latest Captain Supernova, whose eyes really lit up! Jason grabbed the action figure, and Medea snatched the tiara; both immersed themselves in innocent fantasies, in which Jason was a superhero and Medea, a fairy princess. Lost in their pretenses, neither heard the distant but constant thuds of falling objects. Only when the shelves of aisle three began swaying, then crumbling, then crashing did the children freeze in panic. The peacock circled them overhead, shouting, "I warned you! I warned you!"
Jason and Medea dropped their distractions and ran for the exit. When the peacock realized what their intended destination was, she swooped down to peck at their heads and faces. Swatting the bird away in vain, they stumbled to the exit a rippling and iridescent patch of air. Just as they were going to leap through to safety, Medea tripped and fell. Jason grabbed her arm and pulled her through the portal.
Just as Medea caught her breath, Jason was gently tugging her to her feet. "Come on," he said. "We have to go see the owl!"
They went back to Jason's house, ignoring his constantly bickering siblings. When they got to the tree, the owl, whose name is not Hedwig, was already there.
Jason showed it the compass.
The owl nodded approvingly. "Your next task is to find something of both sentimental and monetary value."
"Huh?" Jason asked.
The owl clucked. "Find something important and worth a lot of money."
Jason scratched his head in thought, but Medea spoke up: "My daddy gave my mommy a pretty necklace last year. He said it cost him an arm and a leg. But he still has his whole body
." She drifted off in confusion about using body parts as currency.
"That will do," the owl said before taking off again.
"Come on," Medea said, and she and Jason ran back to her house.
When they arrived, Mrs. Laurels was baking in the kitchen and Mr. Laurels was watching television. The children sneaked upstairs and into Medea's parents' room. She went straight for the jewelry box she often imagined owning someday and rummaged through it until she found the right golden chain. She yanked it, taking several other items with it.
"Somebody's coming!" Jason whispered sharply. Sure enough, they heard someone walking up the creaky stairs. Medea rushed to pick up the jewelry she dropped, and finished just as her father walked into the room. She hid the locket behind her and smiled sheepishly at her father.
"Medea!" he said. "What are you guys doing in here?"
"Oh," Medea replied. "I, um, thought I saw my bouncy ball roll in here. Guess
not." She shrugged.
"Okay," Mr. Laurels said. He patted Medea's head. "Go have fun. Nice seeing you, Jason."
Jason waved and followed Medea back to his house to reconvene with the owl.
When Medea showed the owl the locket, it almost looked impressed. "Your final task awaits," it said. "Use the silver compass to find the Shadow River. Then pay the boatman with the locket for safe passage to Penumbria. In that land, you mustn't fear the dark, for that is where the lost item and its captor are hidden." Jason shuddered at the thought of plunging willingly into darkness. "Do you understand?" The boy nodded. The owl took off for the final time and called, "I bid you good luck!" before soaring beyond the horizon.
Jason opened the compass as Medea watched over his shoulder. The needle spun wildly, and then slowed down to a stop.
"That way!" Jason said as he pointed. They marched off in the indicated direction.
Conveniently, there was a river in the small woods just beyond Jason's cul-de-sac, and this is where the compass led them. When they stepped onto the bank, the needle again spun out of control.
"This is it," Jason said. As soon as the words left his lips, a raft jumped out of the water bearing an old man holding a very long stick. Medea and Jason started in surprise.
"I am Charon the boatman," the man said as he guided the raft to the bank.
"We need to go to Penumbria," Jason told him.
"What do you offer?" Charon replied. Medea handed the locket to him. "This will cover just one of you." He looked at Jason. The boy thought for a moment, then held up the compass.
"We don't need it anymore," he said.
Charon took the compass. "Climb aboard." The old man rowed them away from the bank. The raft tipped forward, making the children fear they'd be capsized. They gripped the sides of the raft when they were almost vertical in the water, but found it unnecessary: they didn't fall. The raft continued to flip until they were completely upside down, but they were not under water. In fact, the underside of the river's surface was merely its surface in another world!
"Whoa," Jason and Medea said together, each on opposite edges of the raft, drinking in the wonders of the world: creatures they'd seen only in fairy tales, people with skin black as the night, a red sun and purple moon rising together, blue grass growing on the black river's bank. The people watched and waved to the children as they passed.
Charon eventually pulled up alongside the bank to let the children off. "Penumbria lies there." He pointed to a wall of darkness speckled with suffocating light. "Walk the white path, and you'll not be lost. Good luck." Charon departed, leaving the children to pluck up the courage to enter the darkness.
Hand in hand, Jason and Medea plunged into Penumbria. They quickly found the lit path and followed it. They tried earnestly to ignore the sounds coming from either side of them. Once, Medea squeezed Jason's hand as something large, dark, and furry scampered across their path.
At last, they reached the end of the path: a spot light on a certain golden top.
"Look!" Jason said. He ran toward the toy, leaving Medea to wonder if the top was what all the fuss was about.
Before she could voice this thought, a black snake slithered around the top and flicked Jason back with its tail. It hissed in laughter at the frightened children.
"Do you remember me, Jason?" it said coldly. "I lived under your bed for a ssssspell."
The boy gasped and hugged his kneed in fear. Medea comforted him.
"Mommy said you weren't real," Jason said softly.
Then snake issued its hissy laughter again. "I am asss real asss your fear of me!"
This gave Medea an idea. "Jason," she said, "I thought you wanted that toy."
"I do, but "
"No buts! You're gonna let a little worm keep it from you? He's just a slimy bully!"
Jason rose to his feet, towering above the suddenly very small snake. "You're not so tough," he said before stomping on it and retrieving the top.
With his monster vanquished at last, the lights that dotted Penumbria grew until they melted together, banishing the darkness that plagued the land. The monsters and creatures that were once obscured dissolved into wisps of black smoke, which soon faded, and were replaced by wonderful animals, like centaurs and sprites and nymphs.
A snow white owl, first unnoticed by the children because of its camouflage with their surroundings, soared above and landed before them.
"You've done well," the owl said. "Unfortunately, this is where we must part." The owl waved its right wing, and a doorway appeared. As Medea and Jason walked through it and into Jason's backyard, the owl said, "A prosperous life to the Hero and his companion!" Then the door shut on Penumbria forever.
Jason and Medea went to the patio to play with the top. As they sat down, Julia came outside.
"Jason! Where've you been?" she said.
The boy smiled. "Looking for my top."