February in Minnesota means crusty ledges of snow that catch shadows from empty trees. On the fine wintry day this story begins, however, Landon Snow sat in the middle of his fifth-grade classroom at Cornhusk Trail Elementary School, oblivious to the cold and sunshine and tree shadows outside. He was in homeroom, and his teacher’s name was Ms. Gillersby.
Valentine’s Day had just passed, and the classroom was festooned in pink, white, and red. Chains of hearts circled the room, and one giant red construction-paper heart bloomed behind the calendar on the wall. A black arrow pierced the heart at an angle, going in through one rounded lobe and coming out near the point at the bottom.
Landon stared at the arrow, and his heart began to race. He was remembering a wild ride through a forest on horseback. An elflike creature called an Odd fired a hail of arrows as Landon and his horse friend, Melech, raced for their lives. No matter how far they ran, the arrows kept coming. The Odd who was shooting at them, Landon later learned, was named Maple Tree Max or Long Shot. Max had quite a range, but only one of every hundred of his shots found its mark. Maple Tree Max was the man on the perimeter, the Hundred-to-One Odd. . . .
“Landon Snow, are you paying attention?”
Landon nearly shouted, “Ho, Ludo!” before he checked himself and realized where he was. A figure loomed before him, her hands on her hips, her lips pursed in a disapproving frown.
“Yes, Ms. Gillersby.” The lie slipped out before Landon could stop it.
“Well then, what is the answer?” Her scowl opened like a flower into a broad questioning look.
Blood rushed into Landon’s face as he heard a couple kids snicker behind him. The teacher gave them a sharp glance, and the room became quiet except for the soft tick of the clock. Ticktock. Landon snuck a peek at it. Ticktock. The bell wouldn’t ring for another five minutes. He sighed. It was too long to wait.
What was the question? Should he ask and reveal his lie? Or should he take a blind stab at it? Before his mind totally clouded Landon blurted the first thing that popped into it.
“Twenty-one,” he said feigning confidence.
The classroom fell apart, and Ms. Gillersby’s face shrank as if she’d just bit into a lemon. She quickly swivelled her head, quieting every laughing kid with her eyes. Then she settled her gaze on Landon so long he could hear blood marching in his ears with the rhythm of the clock.
“No, Mr. Snow. Our sixteenth president was not Twenty-one.” Her eyes briefly darted to squelch any giggles. “Can anyone tell me who was the sixteenth president of the United States?”
A hand shot up.
“Very good.” Ms. Gillersby smiled at her star pupil and then glared at Landon before turning and striding to the front of the room. “Each year in February we celebrate President’s Day in honor of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. . . .”
Her voice droned away as Landon looked at a picture of the sixteenth president that was made of cut pieces of white and black paper. The largest piece was his top hat. The only person Landon had ever seen wear a top hat in real life was a sprightly sprig of a fellow named Ludo. He was the leader of the Odds and the reader of the Coin, which Landon had seen hoisted into the night sky from the center of the Echoing Green.
As the bell buzzed, Landon was jolted back into the classroom. Ms. Gillersby wished everyone a happy President’s Day weekend, and then she stopped Landon on his way out.
“Are you okay, Landon? You seemed distracted today.”
“Yeah,” said Landon trying not to act impatiently. “I’m fine, just excited for our trip.”
“Oh? And where are you going?”
“We’re going to Button Up to see my grandparents.”
“Button Up—where the big library is, right?”
“Yeah!” Landon’s eyes grew wide despite himself. He was not only distracted; he was excited. The greatest adventure he had ever known had started—and ended—in Button Up. “Can I go now, Ms. Gillersby? I still need to pack.”
“Certainly. Have a good trip.”
“Thanks,” said Landon, and over his shoulder he added, “Sorry. . . .” This was for being distracted and all in class, but as he was already halfway to his locker when he said it, the apology seemed to get lost in the hubbub of the hallway.
On the bus ride home Landon thought about Grandpa Karl’s study and the swinging bookcase and the secret tunnel and the first part of the Auctor’s Riddle on Bartholomew G. Benneford’s rowboat tombstone.
The bus hit a bump, and Landon swallowed with a gulp. As excited as he was to see his grandparents and visit the BUL (Button Up Library), he was also a little nervous and sad. What if he could never go back to the forest again? Then he would not see the friends he had made there. The foolish Odd named Hardy, who wasn’t so foolish after all. The old man Vates and his signs and poems and messages. The girl Ditty, who literally snapped Landon from Ludo’s enchanting spell. And (a lump formed in his throat) Melech, his noble steed.
Melech wasn’t Landon’s horse by ownership or anything. When Landon thought of him as his horse or his noble steed, it was like saying his friend. A friend who happened to be a horse.
Landon really wanted to see him again. And the others, too.
As time had passed, drifting from his birthday in early October to Halloween and then Thanksgiving and right on through Christmas, New Year’s, and now Valentine’s Day. . .well, the whole thing seemed more and more like a dream. Landon had seen Grandpa Karl and Grandma Alice over Christmas, but they had come down to Minneapolis for the visit. This would be Landon’s first time back in Button Up since his birthday in October.
Time, of course, is measured best by holidays. Until this year, this very weekend, Landon had hardly cared about President’s Day. It hadn’t seemed a real holiday, to be quite honest, even though they got the day off from school. (And this was only because it happened to coincide with a teachers’ workshop.) The very best holidays involved presents, of course. These would be Christmas and one’s birthday. The next best involved candy, to include Easter (chocolate eggs and bunnies), Halloween (chocolate bars and candy corn), and even Valentine’s Day (chocolate hearts and hard hearts with silly red phrases). Next would be the Fourth of July (fireworks), New Year’s (stay up late and watch TV), and Thanksgiving (turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and football). But President’s Day? What was so great about President’s Day?
Well, it meant the Snow family was headed up north, so just maybe another adventure might be in store for Landon. That would definitely move President’s Day up on his holiday list.
Landon’s sister Holly, a fourth grader who was less than a year younger than him (and never let him forget it), sidled alongside him as they started walking from the bus stop.
“I hear you like Cammie Dewdrop,” she said.
The icy air filled Landon’s lungs with each breath. It took him several brisk steps to realize what Holly had said. Without breaking stride he said, “Who told you that?”
“Cammie did,” Holly said in a singsong. “She said you gave her a Valentine.”
Landon stopped in his tracks. “I gave everyone a Valentine.” He continued crunching through the hard-packed snow. When he reached the front door to his house, he held the handle with his gloved hand and muttered as if Holly wasn’t there. “Besides, my real Valentine is saved for somebody else.”
Uh, oh. As soon as he said it, Holly leaned in with narrow, piercing eyes.
“Who?” she asked pushing against the door to keep him outside until he’d told her. “Who is she? Danielle? Emma? Madeline? Who?”
Landon shook his head and puffed out a thick cloud of frosty breath. “You don’t know her, Holly. Let go of the door.”
“You have to tell me, or I’m going to tell Cammie it is her.”
“That’s not fair,” said Landon. “And that would be lying.”
“Well you lied to Ms. Gillersby today.” Holly narrowed her eyes and smiled with thin, tight lips.
How did she know this stuff? “I did not, I just got the answer wrong. Besides, you weren’t even there. Who told you?”
Holly laughed. “You didn’t see me sitting by her on the bus, did you?”
Landon tilted his head. “Who?” He tugged on the door, but Holly leaned against it harder.
“Cammie! Wow, you really are distracted, Landon. You have to tell me.”
Landon groaned. Despite being in the fourth grade, Holly had somehow managed to weasel her way into friendships with a lot of his fifth-grade classmates. At least all the girl classmates. This had often put him at a disadvantage, as he had no inside “spies” watching her in her classes. Not that he really wanted any.
“Come on, Holly. It’s cold, and we’ve got to pack.”
“I packed last night, and if you don’t tell me who you’re in love with, I’m telling Mom and Dad you lied to your teacher.”
Landon blew a stream of vapor like a chimney. His lungs felt like they were about to burst from the icy air. As much as he didn’t want to tell his sister about the girl whom he thought about most often (he wasn’t quite in love with her, however—that was pushing it rather far), something inside him suddenly did want to tell her. He wanted to share not only about the girl, but everything that had happened to him that wondrous night he fell into the Book of Meanings at the Button Up Library.
“Her name’s Ditty,” he said finally, feeling relief and disgust for giving in to his sister. “Anyway, you don’t know her.”
Holly frowned, searching Landon’s face. Then she smiled and burst out laughing. “Ditty? What kind of silly name is that?” She clapped her hands and chanted, “Landon loves Ditty, Landon loves Dit—”
But her chant was cut off as Landon yanked the door open, sending Holly sprawling from the step and into the snow.
“She’s not dumb,” said Landon glaring. “It’s not her fault that she can’t read. And she’s probably a lot smarter than you.” Landon was as surprised by his anger as Holly seemed. He was panting uncontrollably and clenching his fists.
Holly stared back at him, sitting awkwardly in the snow with her knees jutting up. “She can’t read? How old is she, Landon?” She didn’t look hurt or angry herself. Only curious and surprised and puzzled.
Landon tried to control himself. He looked down at the powdery snow on the step. “I–I don’t know. I don’t even know how ages work there.” His mind was beginning to spin. He had never talked with anyone about this. It felt a little weird. So far it had been his special secret.
Holly was getting up and brushing herself off, all the while looking askance at her brother. “How ages work where, Landon?” She stood before the step, out of reach from the door. “What in the world are you talking about?”
Landon looked at her, and he felt a smile lifting his face. “Not what. Where. The question is where in the world am I talking about. I’ll tell you everything,” Landon added, “on the way.”
Holly nodded, and they went inside so Landon could pack.
The youngest Snow family member—Bridget—had the first bench in the SUV all to herself, and she was sprawled out and hidden from Landon’s and Holly’s view as they sat together in the backseat. Bridget was sleeping, even though she had voted for the movie that was playing on the DVD player.
Landon and Holly paid the movie no heed. Landon did notice his mother peeking back at them every now and then with a bemused smirk on her face. The reasons for his mother’s bemused expression, Landon figured, were probably: 1) nobody was watching the corny movie, 2) he and Holly were sitting together in the backseat (Landon usually fought for the seat and got it all to himself for these trips), and 3) because he—not Holly—was doing all the talking and Holly was doing all the listening. His mom was probably curious what he could be telling Holly that kept her from talking and from counting objects outside.
Holly loved math, and often she counted things merely for the sake of counting them. Usually she’d report her totals at the end of the trip. On their last trip to Button Up, she had counted water towers and Dairy Queens, of all things. Though Holly wasn’t counting or making comments about things out loud, Landon did notice her glancing at the road and silently tallying the hash marks as their car gobbled them up. Holly just couldn’t help it. Still, she was listening to his story and at certain parts making faces that expressed wonder or alarm or mild fear. Mostly, however, she seemed to express doubt and skepticism.
“So,” Holly said interrupting Landon at one point, “you’re saying the Book of Meanings grew bigger than. . .than a building? And then you climbed it?”
Another time she said, “The giant knight piece picked you up and carried you to the edge of this board place, and then you jumped together, and it turned into a horse?”
So it went throughout Landon’s tale. When he finally reached the end, Holly said, “And there you were standing outside Grandma and Grandpa’s, after you’d stepped out—what’s his name? Vates?—after stepping out from Vates’ place in the hillside?”
Landon nodded. He felt exhausted. It had taken him nearly two hours to tell his story. Tired as he was, there was also great joy and relief for finally having shared his adventures. What a fantastic journey it had been!
“Wow,” said Holly, staring out the windshield and counting road stripes.
Landon looked at her. It wasn’t the response he’d been hoping for. “Wow, what?” he said finally, though it was tiring just to ask. He preferred not having to ask questions and figuring things out on his own. But he couldn’t figure out Holly’s deadpan reaction.
“Well, wow, big brother,” she said, turning her head and swishing her straight blond hair. “I mean, you made up all that to tell me you don’t like Cammie Dewdrop. I mean, wow, I am impressed. You’ve got more imagination than I’d—”
“What?” he shouted.
Landon’s mom turned, and he lowered his voice. “What do you mean, Holly? You think I made that stuff up? About the Bible’s pages turning and the bookcase opening and, and. . .” It was hard to speak through all his agitation and bewilderment. “And everything? Ditty is real. And so is Vates and Hardy and Ludo and”—a lump formed in his throat—“and Melech.”
Did she really not believe him? Suddenly he wished he hadn’t opened his big mouth after all. His adventure was better as a secret that seemed like a dream than as a shared story that only met disbelief.
Holly switched her gaze from the road to the screen flipped down from the ceiling. The movie’s credits were scrolling upward. She appeared to be counting the names.
Landon wanted to scream or at least make Holly sit in front with Bridget where she belonged. What a waste of time this had been. He would never confide in her again, that was for sure. He looked out his window to the white-frosted evergreens and the fields of snow that lay spread like blank pages in a huge, vast book. “It was real,” he muttered to himself. “And Ludo’s tree was bigger than all those trees put together.”
What Landon hadn’t told Holly was that Vates had said he probably could return to their land again, if he really wanted to. Landon’s desire to do so was growing, yet he couldn’t help but wonder how he would get back. He’d left Melech and Ditty and Hardy with Vates in the hill. Would he have to go back through the Book of Meanings again? And into the Quality Control room? And onto the giant chessboard? Landon swallowed anxiously at the thought of the dark king. He didn’t want to have to face him again. Besides that, Melech was no longer on the board, so if Landon got stuck there again who would help him? Would another piece come to his rescue?
Landon was still lost in his thoughts when he felt something nudge his arm. It was Holly. The video screen was blank. The movie credits were done. What did Holly want now? To switch places with him so she could better count the telephone poles, which ran along his side of the road?
“There’s one way you can prove it,” she said quietly. Landon studied his sister’s face, ready to tell her to brush off if she was only kidding around. She appeared to be earnest.
“What’s that?” he said, not getting his hope up.
“You said you took Grandma and Grandpa’s flashlight, right? That it fell and broke down in that, uh, tunnel you said you went through underground?”
Slowly Landon nodded.
“Well, if the flashlight’s gone and Grandma and Grandpa don’t know where it is, I might believe you. Might,” she added for emphasis.
“No, Holly,” said Landon, “you will believe me. Because I’m not making it up. You’ll get to see for yourself that this”—he motioned to the outside world—“ isn’t all there is. There’s more, much more than even I have seen. I’ve only caught a glimpse of a vision, a tiny part of a dream that’s not made up but is even more real than real.”
The words sounded like nonsense even to him, yet Holly seemed to take them in. “More real than real,” she said. “I want to see this place.”
Landon smiled. Besides smiling at his sister, he was smiling at the thought of two things he’d packed into his travel bag. One was a hard plastic flashlight with a shatterproof lens and a wrist strap. The other was his Bible, which Grandpa Karl and Grandma Alice had given him for his eleventh birthday.