Not the final version. Book version may vary.
Alden plodded in a daze. He could only think about what had happened between him and his friends, but his mind never fully processed it, stuck in a loop that couldn’t finish. When he heard his name he looked up at Xavier and Orville—somehow he had made it home.
“You’re back early,” Xavier said, sitting on the sofa.
Alden opened his mouth but made no sound.
“What happened?” Orville asked, leaning forward in the easy chair. “Did you meet the princess? Did she fall in love into your arms? Will the tabloids all be abuzz tomorrow of the princess’ new boyfriend?”
The weight of everything crashed into Alden’s mind and he fell to the carpet sobbing, tears dousing his head like the punch that had splashed Princess Serani.
“Alden!” Xavier cried. He bent down and pulled Alden in his arms. “What happened? Speak to me!”
“Oh dear,” Orville said; “perhaps I mentioned something I shouldn’t have.”
“Top! Ropak!” cried Alden between sobs. His glasses fell as he squashed his face into his hands. “I’m sorry.”
“Top and Ropak?” Xavier asked. He led Alden wailing to the sofa. “What happened? Where are they?”
“I’m sorry, guys,” Alden cried. His mind replayed the last moment he saw his friends. “I didn’t mean to. Ropak. I know . . . Of course . . . I should . . . Top, I didn’t mean it, I love your nonsense.”
“They must have had a fight,” Orville said. “Something set them off against one another.”
“I’m sorry,” said Alden, trailing to mumbles, “I didn’t . . . Come back. I’m sorry. I–” He saw Xavier and grabbed his shoulders. “Xavier!”
“Alden,” Xavier said, holding his brother’s arms. “Don’t worry, I’m here. It’ll be okay.”
“No, it won’t.” Alden looked around as if only now realizing where he was. “I have to make it okay. They can’t hear me. They can’t hear me here.”
“They aren’t here,” Xavier said.
“Exactly! They can’t hear me because they aren’t here. They need to hear me. They need to know I’m sorry.” Alden jumped off the couch. “I need to find them and tell them I’m sorry!”
“Then let’s call them,” Orville said. “I have their numbers recorded somewhere—oh, right, on my cell phone.”
Xavier held Alden’s arm and asked what happened. By the time Alden settled enough to explain Orville reported that neither Top nor Ropak answered their cell phones and he sobbed another round of tears.
“Uncle, what are we going to do?” Xavier asked, rubbing Alden’s back.
“We must go posthaste to find Top and Ropak,” Orville said with a thrust of his arm. “Perhaps Top is holed up at his pizza place?”
Alden looked up. “Yes, of course.” He ceased sobbing but the tears still flowed. “I need to apologize to Top and Ropak. I went crazy and I need to make up with them.”
He ran out the door at full speed. Orville followed, and Xavier ran after. “Wait! Alden, could you at least let us know what happened?”
* * *
After running down three streets Xavier convinced Alden they should call a taxi service. As they sat out in the night waiting for the cab Alden’s brother got the whole story out of him—or at least most of it, some parts choppy when Alden choked up. Once the taxi arrived Xavier directed the driver to Top’s Pizza.
The cramped vehicle had stiff seats in need of patches, but they were as clean as fresh cushions. As Alden told the rest of the story the driver glanced back, her frizzy hair swinging.
“So Top and Ropak basically made a mess of things?” Xavier asked.
“No! I mean, maybe. But I only made it worse by going off on them,” Alden said. “I took them for granted. I don’t want to lose them!” They’d struggled through so much, and to split up because of a stupid little fight—Alden couldn’t bear the thought.
“Right up here,” Orville told the driver. “Yes, here we are.” They pulled into the strip mall with Top’s Pizza.
Before the cab came to a full stop Alden jumped out and ran to the darkened restaurant. He gasped. The front door was boarded up. Sort of—several wooden boards were stuck over it with duct tape. Alden read a sign scrawled above:
Top’s Pizza is closed FOREVER!! Maybe! I dunno! I’m going through a lot of stress right now! Maybe we’ll open a new location in my own stupid little world!
Alden’s heart wrenched. He hated himself for those words. With a sigh he slumped to the sidewalk. He didn’t know what to do.
Xavier and Orville walked up behind him. “Poor guy,” Orville said.
“I know,” Xavier whispered. “He just feels so guilty.”
“Actually, I meant Top,” said Orville. “But poor Alden, too. Anyway, no reason to sit around here. Let’s get to the forest.”
“The forest?” Alden stood up. “Yes, the forest. It’s where Top and Ropak are from. It’s where I’m from, too. Where we met. They must have gone home to the forest.”
“Well, that and the other sign,” Orville said. Alden looked—at the corner of the first sign a second was taped up:
Or maybe in the forest I dunno.
Alden ran back to the cab. “Come on. To the forest! We have to find Top!”
“You say the forest, fella?” The driver scratched her hair. “Wide place.”
“And we haven’t a clue where to begin,” Orville said with a smile.
The driver grinned. “I’ll get you as deep in as I can drive ya.” She drove back to the street. “These friends of yours you’re looking for—what do they look like? I can send out a call for the other drivers to look out for ‘em. If one of them’s still in the city, they can find ‘em.”
“Thank you!” Alden said. “Thank you, that’s really nice of you.”
“No problem, pal. I don’t want to see you so despondent.”
* * *
Only a few major roads passed through the forest, which was nearly as big as the city. The rest of the paths were byroads, many ending in small clearings. The cab driver drove them to one such clearing deep in the woods. By now it was the middle of the night and near pitch-black; the only light came from the moon and stars, scattered through the dusky trees.
“You sure you’re gonna be all right out here?” the driver asked, her brow raised.
“Certainly,” Orville said. “There’s no scalago-eating animals in this forest, right?”
“Nothing really dangerous, no, but there are trees. Roots, you might trip.”
“Cell phone flashlights on!” Orville said.
Alden stepped into the woods. After a couple meters he could only see darkness; with his phone’s light, several meters. The chirp of bugs filled the area, but he heard a low growl or squeal on occasion. They had considered waiting until morning, but Alden couldn’t wait. Top and Ropak could be gone by then. He’d visited the forest several times—and sure, fine, he hadn’t seen even half of it, but that didn’t matter. He had to find Top and Ropak. He looked at his family.
“Let’s split up, we can cover more ground that way. If you find Top or Ropak, tell them I’m sorry.” He sniffed. “Tell them to please come back.”
Xavier looked at Orville, who looked back. “Are you sure about splitting up, Alden?” Xavier asked. “It’s late, it’s really dark.”
“Yes.” Alden gave a weak smile. “Come on, guys. We’ve lived in a forest all our lives. This should be no problem.”
Xavier looked around. “Our forest was thinner, though.”
Orville held Alden’s arm. “Everything will be fine. You know what you’re doing. Let’s go.”
Alden searched for an hour, rushing down trails barely wide enough for him. He crossed thick plants, some of which stuck to and cut him, but he pressed on. He held his phone forward to shine its light, stopping only to check it every few minutes, every other minute, every minute for any message from anyone who’d seen Top or Ropak. He called out for them, said he was sorry, pleaded for forgiveness, but no one answered.
After another hour he sprinted, afraid he’d never see them again. They would hate him, he would hate himself. Alden slipped and crashed to the hard ground, and he wept.
“Top . . . Ropak . . . I’m sorry. Please, come back.”
He heard a wail and looked up. That sounded like . . . “Top!” Alden scrambled through the forest. He stumbled over everything, his wet vision too blurry to see, but he always moved forward. The wailing grew louder. Top! I’ve found Top! repeated in his mind. “Top! Where are you?”
He heard a scream. “No! Go away, Alden. You’re not allowed in my stupid little world.”
That felt like a punch to Alden’s gut. “But—Top . . . I want to be a part of your world. I’m sorry I said those things. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t want to mean it.”
“But you said those mean words,” Top said.
“I’m sorry. I was stuck in my stupid little world, and I didn’t realize what I was saying. If I had a time machine, I would go back and stop myself from ever saying them.”
“Then build a time machine!”
“I don’t know how.”
“Thad does. Ask him.”
“What are you . . .? Look,” Alden said, “the point is, I can’t erase what’s been said. I just want you to forgive me, and I want to forget that I could ever say anything so mean and callous and insensitive and thoughtless and despicable and . . .” He fell to his knees and sobbed. “Oh, Top, where are you?”
Alden spun around. Top sat in a tree knothole. Their frown was big enough to give someone cramps. Alden slumped to the ball.
“Top, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I was angry. I was stupid. I like your nonsense. It’s a break from harshness. A reminder that we can’t get bogged down with our worries. I never want you to stop being you, and I never want to say anything so mean again. I’m as sorry as I could possibly be. Let’s not let our friendship end.”
Top mumbled. “Alden—did you bring me any food? There’s nothing good to eat out here, and I’m hungry.”
“No . . . No, I didn’t.”
The ball stared at Alden. They jumped into his arms and hugged him. “That’s okay. I still forgive you.”
“Thank you, Top,” Alden said, returning the hug. “Thank you.”
* * *
“Alden! Alden, where are you?”
Alden opened his eyes. Sunlight shone on the rainbow foliage around him. The last he remembered it was dark. He screamed and rose, knocking Top to the ground. He’d fallen asleep against the tree.
Xavier and Orville called out for him again. “I’m over here!” Alden said.
“Alden!” Xavier clambered through the foliage and hugged his brother. “We were worried you’d gotten lost. We called your cell phone but you didn’t answer.”
Orville smiled. “I see you found Top.”
Alden rubbed Top’s head. “We made up.”
“Everything’s cool now.” Top grinned and waved. “Hi, guys!”
“Wait,” Alden said, “everything is not cool. We still don’t know where Ropak is.”
“Oh, yeah,” Top said, “you kind of went off on him, too.”
“Top, do you know where he is?” Alden asked.
“I saw him last with you,” Top said.
“No one’s seen him in the city,” said Xavier.
Alden sighed. “He has to be somewhere. He still might be in this forest. Let’s keep looking.”
“Wait,” said Xavier, “let’s at least stick together so one of us doesn’t get lost.”
“All right.” Alden wiped the sticky leaves and thorns off his wrinkled suit and his hand caught in a few rips.
Xavier helped him. “You look an utter mess, Alden. No offense, but not surprising, either. I think this suit is ruined.”
“I don’t care,” Alden said. “I don’t! I’d go naked for Top and Ropak.”
“Yeah!” Top said. “Nudity!”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Orville.
Xavier looked at him. “Why would it come to that?”
They searched the forest, though Xavier soon suggested they change tactics—their only lead to the forest was for Top, not Ropak. Alden pressed on, determined to make up with his friend. Eventually he stumbled upon something after stumbling over it.
“Those appear to be footprints,” Orville said. He knelt to the indentations on the path. “They very well may be wrallot footprints—not many people around here could make such round prints.”
“Ropak came this way!” Alden said.
“I’m glad we kept looking out here, then,” said Xavier.
“Should I make a cast of the footprint?” Top asked. “It’ll be proof of the legendary wrallotfoot.”
“Just follow the footprints,” Alden said, stepping forward.
“How do you know which way they’re going?” Top asked.
Alden stared at the footprints. “Er.”
“Well, based on the shape of each footprint,” Orville said, “I would say he was traveling in this direction.” He pointed ahead.
“How can you tell?” Alden asked.
“Well, you see,” said Orville, “wrallot feet slightly curve here, and they have little–”
“Never mind, let’s just find Ropak,” Alden said.
He hurried along the footprint trail, taking care not to trip again. The trees thinned out and the ground sloped upward. Atop the hill Alden stopped and stared—it was almost impossible not to.
The dusty land below looked cracked and dull as if nature had given up. Withering shrubs dotted the landscape, but mostly dirty rocks jutted out. The few trees that grew looked stunted and bare. Caves and tunnels pocketed the landscape with holes, some surrounded with excavation machinery. In the distance stood buildings, the tallest a craggy castle that, even from far away, gave vibes that said, Go away. I hate you.
“The Thraundlus Kingdom,” Alden said. “We’re at the border.”
“What’d they do, place the border where it turns into ugly land?” Top asked.
“I guess so,” Alden said. “I guess the Salenth Kingdom claimed the good land and the Thraundlus Kingdom took what was left.”
“I suppose I can see why they might harbor some jealousy,” Orville said.
“I don’t see why Ropak would want to go there, though,” said Xavier. Indeed, the footprints led straight into the kingdom.
“He must have been really upset,” Alden said. “Upset enough to leave the country.” He groaned. “You guys don’t have to come with me, but I have to find him. I have to make up with him.”
“I’ll come,” Top said.
Alden nodded. “Thank you.”
“I think it would be best to get Orville home. We’ve been out all night,” Xavier said.
“Good idea. I’ll see you soon,” Alden said.
“Good luck, Alden,” said Orville. He smiled. “I’m sure you’ll find him.”
Alden took a deep breath. He raised a foot to enter the new kingdom.
Alden turned. Up the hill marched a platoon of scalagos wearing light military uniform in pastel Salenth Kingdom purple and orange. Those in front gripped particle beam swords, while the others held pistols or rifles. Alden lost his balance and would have fallen down the hill if Top hadn’t pulled him back.
“What’s going on?” Xavier asked.
“You’re coming with us.” The soldier watched them closely like someone with a ward. “No one is allowed into the Thraundlus Kingdom at this time.”
“Why not?” Alden asked.
“We are not authorized to answer that,” the soldier said. He glared at them. “You may be spies for the Thraundlus Kingdom.”
“We’re not spies!” Alden said.
“I can’t even keep my own secrets,” said Top. “I paint my yellow stripe to make it look more vibrant!”
Alden’s time in the Zhopian Guard passed through his mind. He hoped the soldiers only thought they could be spies because they were at the kingdom’s border. But why are they here at all?
“For your sake, let’s hope you’re not spies.” The soldiers surrounded them. “We’re bringing you to our camp until we can confirm your status. Cooperation will be the key to your safety.” The soldiers ushered them back into the forest. Alden watched with wide eyes and drooping face.
I’m just trying to find Ropak. What do these soldiers have to do with that?
He had a bad feeling the answer wouldn’t be nothing.