no place like oz Page 14

My feet tingled against the bricks as we eased our way down the road, letting it lead us lazily through the hills and fields and valleys of Munchkin Country. With every step I took, it was like I could feel magic flowing up from the road and into my body. Surprisingly, even after as long as we’d been walking—even in heels higher than any I’d ever seen before, let alone worn—my feet didn’t hurt. It was just the opposite actually. It felt like I was getting a very pleasant foot rub.

We strolled for hours without getting tired. Everyone seemed so happy. Uncle Henry was whistling one after another of the old songs he’d learned in the war, and Aunt Em was peppering me with questions, like, “Where was it that you met your friend the Scarecrow?” And, “I still don’t understand why this Tin Man of yours wanted a heart so very desperately. He sounds like he was perfectly kind and loving and gentle without one, so why bother?”

She often gasped in amazement at a strange plant or animal—she was practically beside herself with glee when we came upon a resting flock of flying piglets, no bigger than sparrows, who were nibbling at some apples that had fallen into the road—but other times, like when we passed by the waterfall that fell up instead of down, she was simply caught without anything to say.

When we walked through the field of poppies that I remembered so well, I told everyone to hold their noses so we wouldn’t be tempted to lie down for an endless nap. We walked right on through, admiring the ruby-red blossoms and the little puffs of pink smoke that shot into the air every so often.

We made it through without our eyelids even fluttering.

“In some ways it’s so different from Kansas and in others it’s just the same,” Aunt Em remarked a bit later as we strolled through a flourishing field of corn that grew over our heads on either side. Clearly she was trying to put a positive spin on things. “I mean, we grow a lot of corn back home, too.”

“This corn’s different, Aunt Em,” I said. “It comes right out of the husk already buttered, and it’s like nothing you ever tasted.”

“Never had a problem buttering my own corn, thank you very much,” Henry sniffed. But I could tell even he was impressed. Back home, butter was for special occasions only. When I plucked an ear from a stalk and shucked it, the smell wafted up enticingly. Aunt Em took a nervous bite and her eyes widened. As soon as he saw her reaction, Uncle Henry helped himself to his own, and soon all three of us were sitting by the side of the road munching to our hearts’ content.

It was so wonderful that I almost forgot anything was wrong. I almost forgot Glinda’s desperate plea for help, and the fact that if Glinda was in trouble, Oz was in trouble, too. If wickedness was allowed to run rampant, the lush, magical cornfields would probably be replaced with barbed-wire orchards or bulldozed to make way for pincushion factories or something even more terrible.

I couldn’t forget that. I was here with a job to do.

But for now the corn was plentiful, there was nothing wicked in sight, and all seemed right with the world.

That is, until we’d finished our lovely picnic, set off traveling again, and made our way a few more miles down the road.

That’s when the screaming started.

Eight

Soon after we left the cornfield, the sky darkened into dusk and the picturesque fields and farmland we had been traveling through began to give way to a barren, burned-out landscape of stunted, sickly trees and shrubs, which made the constant screaming even eerier. The grass thinned out until the ground was mostly just blue-gray dirt dotted with sad and dried-out patches of weeds. Even the road itself was different here, dull and worn down, the bricks cracked or loose or missing entirely. Crows swooped overhead, their dark wings casting long shadows on the pale yellow bricks.

Up ahead, a forest loomed. It was deep and black, thick with vines. It stretched on and on endlessly in either direction.

The screaming was coming from somewhere deep in the forest, a deep guttural wail that shook me to my core.

It was a scream, but it was also something like a song, too. It was like all the pain and sorrow in the world was being dredged up from the bottom of the earth and was twisting itself into a horrible, tortured melody.

We all stopped walking. Even Toto, who was usually brave in the face of any danger, crouched in a ball at my feet, quivering with fear.

“I don’t like the sound of that, Dorothy,” Uncle Henry said with a grave expression.

“No,” Aunt Em agreed. Her face turned pale. “I don’t like it one bit.”

I had to give them credit for putting it so mildly. Sometimes people you think you know well can still surprise you. They were being brave. Or, at least, they were trying.

I wasn’t sure if I was capable of the same. Everything in my body was telling me to give up and run away. Back to the cornfield, to the Munchkin village, to the little old farmhouse by the riverbank in the woods. Back to Kansas, even.

But when I turned around, I saw that single path we had been following now forked out behind us in five unfamiliar directions. Some force wanted us to pick one of those paths in the hope it would lead us back to where we had come from.

I had a feeling none of them would. In my experience, when a dark force you don’t understand wants you to do something that badly, it’s best to do exactly the opposite.

I looked into the distance. The road plunged straight ahead like a golden knife through the heart of the forest. However horrible that screaming, the only choice was straight ahead.