no place like oz Page 1

One

They say you can’t go home again. I’m not entirely sure who said that, but it’s something they say. I know it because my aunt Em has it embroidered on a throw pillow in the sitting room.

You can’t go home again. Well, even if they put it on a pillow, whoever said it was wrong. I’m proof alone that it’s not true.

Because, you see, I left home. And I came back. Lickety-split, knock your heels together, and there you are. Oh, it wasn’t quite so simple, of course, but look at me now: I’m still here, same as before, and it’s just as if I was never gone in the first place.

So every time I see that little pillow on Aunt Em’s good sofa, with its pretty pink piping around the edges and colorful bouquets of daisies and wildflowers stitched alongside those cheerful words (but are they even cheerful? I sometimes wonder), I’m halfway tempted to laugh. When I consider everything that’s happened! A certain sort of person might say that it’s ironic.

Not that I’m that sort of person. This is Kansas, and we Kansans don’t put much truck in anything as foolish as irony.

Things we do put truck in:

Hard work.

Practicality.

Gumption.

Crop yields and healthy livestock and mild winters. Things you can touch and feel and see with your own two eyes. Things that do you at least two licks of good.

Because this is the prairie, and the prairie is no place for daydreaming. All that matters out here is what gets you through the winter. A Kansas winter will grind a dreamer right up and feed it to the pigs.

As my uncle Henry always says: You can’t trade a boatload of wishes for a bucket of slop. (Maybe I should embroider that on a pillow for Aunt Em, too. I wonder if it would make her laugh.)

I don’t know about wishes, but a bucket of slop was exactly what I had in my hand on the afternoon of my sixteenth birthday, a day in September with a chill already in the air, as I made my way across the field, away from the shed and the farmhouse toward the pigpen.

It was feeding time, and the pigs knew it. Even from fifty feet away, I could already hear them—Jeannie and Ezekiel and Bertha—squealing and snorting in anticipation of their next meal.

“Well, really!” I said to myself. “Who in the world could get so excited about a bit of slop!?”

As I said it, my old friend Miss Millicent poked her little red face out from a gap of wire in the chicken coop and squawked in greeting. “And hello to you, too, Miss Millicent,” I said cheerily. “Don’t you worry. You’ll be getting your own food soon enough.”

But Miss Millicent was looking for companionship, not food, and she squeezed herself out of her coop and began to follow on my heels as I kept on my way. I had been ignoring her lately, and the old red hen was starting to be cross about it, a feeling she expressed today by squawking loudly and shadowing my every step, fluttering her wings and fussing underfoot.

She meant well enough, surely, but when I felt her hard beak nipping at my ankle, I finally snapped at her. “Miss Millie! You get out of here. I have chores to do! We’ll have a nice, long heart-to-heart later, I promise.”

The chicken clucked reproachfully and darted ahead, stopping in her tracks just in the spot where I was about to set my foot down. It was like she wanted me to know that I couldn’t get away from her that easily—that I was going to pay her some mind whether I liked it or not.

Sometimes that chicken could be impossible. And without even really meaning to, I kicked at her. “Shoo!”

Miss Millie jumped aside just before my foot connected, and I felt myself lose my balance as I missed her, stumbling backward with a yelp and landing on my rear end in the grass.

I looked down at myself in horror and saw my dress covered in pig slop. My knee was scraped, I had dirt all over my hands, and my slop bucket was upturned at my side.

“Millie!” I screeched. “See what you’ve done? You’ve ruined everything!” I swatted at her again, this time even more angrily than when I’d kicked her, but she just stepped nimbly aside and stood there, looking at me like she just didn’t know what to do with me anymore.

“Oh dear,” I said, sighing. “I didn’t mean to yell at you. Come here, you silly hen.”

Millie bobbled her head up and down like she was considering the proposition before she hopped right into my lap, where she burrowed in and clucked softly as I ruffled her feathers. This was all she had wanted in the first place. To be my friend.

It used to be that it was all I wanted, too. It used to be that Miss Millicent and even Jeannie the pig were some of my favorite people in the world. Back then, I didn’t care a bit that a pig and a chicken hardly qualified as people at all.

They were there for me when I was sad, or when something was funny, or when I just needed company, and that was what mattered. Even though Millie couldn’t talk, it always felt like she understood everything I said. Sometimes it even almost seemed like she was talking to me, giving me her sensible, no-nonsense advice in a raspy cackle. “Don’t you worry, dearie,” she’d say. “There’s no problem in this whole world that can’t be fixed with a little spit and elbow grease.”

But lately, things hadn’t been quite the same between me and my chicken. Lately, I had found myself becoming more impatient with her infuriating cackling, with the way she was always pecking and worrying after me.

“I’m sorry, Miss Millicent,” I said. “I know I haven’t been myself lately. I promise I’ll be back to normal soon.”