by Mel Gilden


 For all who go down the rabbit hole

Chapter 1: Lost!


         The family was on vacation, an unusual occurrence because Albert's father rarely took a day off. Albert and his little sister Lily were sitting in the back seat of the family car, ignoring each other as best they could.

          Albert's mother had expressed a desire to "see San Francisco" before they settled in at the Valley of Enchantment campground of Redwoods National Park.  Expressing such a desire wasn't so much a mistake as it was pointless. Albert's father liked to "make good time." This meant he liked to drive from one place to another as quickly as possible without caring much about seeing anything in between. At the moment he was driving up and down the hills of San Francisco. Albert had no idea where they were or what the significance was of the buildings they were passing.

          Lily yanked earbuds from her ears and threw them into her lap. A song from a late sequel to High School Musical squeaked out of the earbuds as if the music were played by insects. "Mom," Lily cried, "Albert's hand is on my side."

          "You're such a child," Albert said.  "I'm nowhere near your side."

          "Give it a rest, Albert," his mother said.

          Albert sighed.  His parents were always on him about something. Meanwhile, Lily got away with murder.

          "If I hear another word from either of you, we're going home," Albert's father threatened.

          It was an empty threat, Albert knew, because they were hundreds of miles from home and they'd already made a reservation in the Valley of Enchantment. If they went home now, they would lose their deposit.

          Albert's father found the freeway onramp he was looking for and they were once more on their way to the Valley of Enchantment. A few hours later they were driving through a forest of redwoods, enormous trees that could be many hundreds of years old. The trees looked mysterious, and Albert imagined they were big batteries storing time. Lily had her eyes closed and was bopping her head in rhythm to music coming out of her iPod.

          "It looks like a Tulgey Wood," Albert said.

          "What does that mean?" Albert's mother asked politely.

          "It's a place in Through the Looking Glass. It's a book."

          "Ah," his mother said.

          "You'll be in high school next year," Albert's father said. "You might try reading something a little more adult."

          "The Alice books are classics," Albert told him.

          "Don't take that tone with me," his father said. He'd been driving all day and he was a little cranky. Albert felt a little cranky himself. Sitting in the back seat with his sister was no picnic either.

          The Valley of Enchantment was an area in the visitors' center of the national park where people stayed if they were too cheap to stay at the hotel. Each group rented a big room that was a cross between a tent and a building—tent material nailed across a wooden frame.  Muddy open areas between the tent things allowed cars to drive right up to them. Albert called their camping area the Site, and the name stuck. Inside the tent was a table, chairs, and four camp beds. The floor was a wooden platform that looked as if someone had tried to clean it but without great success.

          They dragged in their luggage, and Albert claimed the camp bed farthest from the door by dropping his suitcase and his book on it. The book was a Star Wars novel he'd been saving for the vacation so he could read it all at once.

          "That's my bed," Lily cried. She lay down on the camp bed Albert had chosen and kicked around with her muddy shoes, knocking Albert's possessions onto the floor and generally making a big mess.

          "Dad," Albert wailed, "Lily is getting mud all over my bed."

          "Everybody has muddy shoes here," Lily said, missing the point entirely. "Besides, this is my bed."

          It was very cold, and his father was attempting to start a fire in a stove in the center of the room. "Just take the other bed, Albert," he said without even looking in their direction.

Albert had had about enough of his family. He stomped out of the room, making a satisfying bass drum thumping against the floor. Outside, his mother was making dinner on a brick barbecue. "We'll be having dinner soon," she said as she dumped a can of chili into a battered sauce pan.

          Though he was hungry, Albert didn't care about dinner. He only wanted to get away for a while. He marched past his mother and out into the redwood forest. Still fuming, he stomped around among the big trees. He kicked one of them, then felt ridiculous for doing it.  He continued feeling sorry for himself as he hurried along taking no notice of anything but his own anger.

          But the shadows and crisp spicy air of the forest could not be ignored for long.  Albert felt as if he were exploring an enormous church; he imagined he could feel the eons of time stored in the trees. Though the sun would not be down for several hours, the forest seemed to get darker as Albert delved deeper into it. He looked back once or twice to make sure he knew how to return to the Site.  The Valley of Enchantment was still back there, glimmering with lanterns and campfires, but it appeared farther away than Albert expected it to be, as if he were looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope.

          He heard a noise unlike any he'd heard before. It was something between a bellow and a whistle, with a kind of sneeze in between—and it seemed to be getting closer. Convinced the noise was made by a wild animal, Albert began to run away from it. But as fast as he ran, he could not outrun the noise.



Chapter 2: More Organic Than Most


          At last, out of breath, Albert hid behind a tree and took a moment to contemplate the situation.  He'd never heard a sound like that before, but he'd seen it described.  It was outgrabbing, the call of the mome rath or lost green pig from "Jabberwocky," a poem in Through the Looking Glass.  Impossible, of course, but that was the way he'd always imagined a rath would sound.

          In the next second his considerations were interrupted when an animal no bigger than a small dog bounded past.  It looked like a bunny rabbit with big horns like a reindeer.  Albert knew the creature was called a jackalope because he'd once received a postcard from a relative in Arizona that had a picture of something like it.  As far as he knew, jackalopes were mythical beasts, invented by some clever photographer.  Yet Albert had no doubt—there it was.

          Albert didn't have time to worry about the jackalope because whatever made the outgrabbing was bearing down on him.  A moment later, a big green pig with enormous tusks and bat ears—a rath?—ran past Albert outgrabbing for all it was worth, obviously hot on the trail of the jackalope.

          Albert had read the guide book before they left home and no mention had been made of either jackalopes or raths.  Frightened by the strangeness of his experience, Albert was ready to return to the Site.  He looked back the way he thought he had come and saw only more forest that extended as far as Albert could see.  The lights of Valley of Enchantment were entirely gone and the redwood trees now looked like sinister guardians standing watch over the shadows that thickened in the distance.

          Albert tried calling his father on his cell phone, but all the signal bars were gone and a message on the front window told him that the phone was searching for service.

          One time Albert had read a book about what to do in various dangerous situations, like falling out of an airplane or being attacked by sharks.  One of the chapters dealt with what to do if lost in a forest.  It said that the best thing to do was to stay in one place.  But he hadn't really been out here long—the Site had to be nearby.  Besides, if he needed to be rescued, Lily would never let him hear the end of it.  He looked all around him at the dark forest.  One direction seemed as good as another.

          "I wish I knew which direction to go," he said out loud. 

          "That depends a great deal on where you want to get to," a shrill voice nearby said.

           Albert quickly stepped back.  All he could see was a tall bush with small shiny leaves and masses of tiny white flowers with scalloped edges.  Maybe an animal of some kind was hidden among the branches of the bush, but a talking animal seemed almost as unlikely as a talking bush.

          "Unless you're planning to stand there all day," the shrill voice went on.  No doubt about it, the voice seemed to be coming from the bush.

          "Did you speak?" Albert asked.

          "I did.  And let me tell you it's very tiresome to manage both sides of a conversation alone."

          "Oh," Albert said.  "Sorry."  First the outgrabbing, then the jackalope and the rath, now this.  Maybe he was farther from the Site than he thought.  "Flowers don't talk where I come from.  I was a little surprised."

          "I'm not just any flower," the bush said.  "I'm a huckleberry flower, soon to be a huckleberry.  And I can talk because I'm organic."

          "I thought all flowers were organic," Albert said.

          "I am more organic than most," the huckleberry replied, sounding irritated.

          It occurred to Albert that a talking huckleberry bush who lived in the forest might know the way out of it.  He couldn't lose by asking, anyway.  "Do you know the way back to the Valley of Enchantment Visitor's Center?" he asked.

          "I never heard of a place called Visitorzsenter," the huckleberry said, "but he may have."

          "Who may have?" Albert asked.

          "He," the huckleberry said.  "Him.  The person by the blue light."

          The bush had no finger to point with, so Albert had to glance around.  And sure enough he saw a blue light blinking in the distance.  It seemed obvious now that he'd seen it, and he was disappointed with himself for not having seen it before.       

          "Thanks very much," Albert said as he marched off hoping that the blue light person might have a better cell phone then his own, or at least a good map.



Chapter 3: Brillig


          Albert soon discovered that the light came from a flashing sign on the back of a step van that was parked at a place where two narrow roads crossed.  The blue light flashed BRILLIG B-R-I-L-L-I-G BRILLIG.  The delicious smell of hot grease wafted from the van, making Albert even hungrier than he already was.  His parents would be angry if he missed dinner and, worse yet, wasn't hungry when he returned, but at the moment Albert didn't care.

          He strode out of the forest and ran across the road, though he saw no traffic in either direction for miles.  The side of the van had been raised to make an awning, and to reveal a counter and a cozy kitchen.  Five stools were set up in front of the counter, and Albert climbed onto one of them.

          A man turned around and smiled at him kindly.  He was very tall, and he seemed in constant danger of bumping his head against the kitchen ceiling.  He had wispy white hair and an enormous white mustache.  The apron he wore looked as if it had gotten a lot of heavy use. 

          "What'll you have?" he asked.

          At one end of the counter stood a chalk board with the usual offerings: hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, and so on.  "What's a bandersnatch?" Albert asked.

          "A burger with hot chili," the man said.  "It goes for the throat, just like a real bandersnatch.  It's my own invention."  He chuckled.

          "I'll have one of those," Albert said.

          "Right you are, bud."  The man turned around and slapped a hamburger patty on the hot griddle where it hissed like an angry snake.  "Fries?"

          "Why not?  By the way, can I make a local call?  My cell phone can't get a signal."

          "What's a cell phone?" the man asked over his shoulder.

          Jackalopes, raths, talking flowers, and now this, Albert thought.  He'd apparently walked a lot farther than he thought.  "Do you know the way to the Valley of Enchantment?" he asked.