Authors: Jennie Bates Bozic
The first crack of sunlight poking through the slits wakes me. The carrier is motionless, so I can only assume we’ve stopped. I stand up and peek out through the small opening in the door.
I have no idea where we are. The carrier sits on the ground in front of a mound of dirt that is the spitting image of an out-of-control anthill. They must have erected a smaller dome fence over the photo shoot area because it’s magnifying all of the sunrise colors from the sky. The dirt and grass are painted with electric oranges and pinks. Several crew members mill about, adjusting lighting and reflectors.
Someone picks up my carrier again, and I lose my balance, flying backward onto the cushion. When the door opens, I get up but then stand there, confused. Why does this setting look so familiar?
Then it dawns on me. The mound of dirt is a replica of Harney Peak.
Dr. Christiansen has recreated my first date with Jack.
Up until today, I’ve managed to be a good sport to make sure Jack remains unharmed. I’ve had my picture taken in trees, on a lily pad in a pond, and in the midst of an artificial cloud made with a fog machine that gave me several asthma attacks. I’ve also had about ten billion portraits taken, and I smiled dutifully for each one.
But this…this is too much. I press the backs of my hands against my cheeks to cool them. Hot tears of embarrassment and violation escape before I can sniff them away.
Dr. Christiansen’s face appears in the doorway, and her expression shocks me to the core. She looks
, as if she expects me to be enjoying this set-up.
“What the hell?” I whisper.
She sees my tears, and her demeanor instantly reverts to its default coldness. “Come out,” she says in her clipped tone. Do I actually hear disappointment in her voice? “Stand next to Tom2.” She disappears from my view. Stunned, I walk out of the cage into the sunlight.
Did that really happen? Did I see a look of sadness in her eyes? I take my place next to Row without even really looking at him. The doctor stares off into the distance, but her face is pulled into a blank mask. Whatever I thought I saw definitely isn’t there now.
A shoulder gently bumps mine, and I look up into Row’s face. “Hey, Lina,” he says with a weak smile. “Good morning.”
I try to pull up the corners of my mouth into something resembling a happy face, but I can’t. “Hey,” I reply. “How are you?”
“Sleepy.” His eyes are all puffy. Poor guy.
“Yeah, me too.”
He takes a deep breath. “I just want to say I’m sorry about all of this.”
“You get that this wasn’t our idea, right? We don’t have a choice either. I’m sorry it’s so unpleasant for you. I mean, we grew up with each other and we’re friends—well, most of us—and you don’t anyone and now you’re stuck with a bunch of strange guys.”
I bite down hard on the inside of my cheek. I wish I could tell him it has nothing to do with him or any of the other Toms, although it would still be a terrible situation even if I’d never met Jack. Deep, ragged breath. Get a handle on yourself, Lina!
I eke out a smile for him. “Well, let’s make the best of it, shall we?”
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade?”
“No, no, it should go like this: When life gives you lemons, squirt the juice in your enemy’s eyes.”
He looks confused for a moment and then bursts out laughing. His laugh is a little squeaky and high-pitched, but real. It cracks my sadness, and I can’t help but join in.
A flash goes off in our faces, shattering the brief moment of happiness, and I immediately cringe.
“Lovely, absolutely lovely, darlings,” the photographer mumbles as he gets into position for another shot. “Let’s do that again. Lots of laughter! Happy thoughts!”
But the joy has already leaked out of me.
By the end of the morning, my face hurts from smiling. We wrap right before lunch, and food is served on a folding table right next to the “mountain.” Another tiny table sits at the end, and I join the Toms. It’s the first time we’ve sat together for a meal since my birthday.
This time I end up between Blue and Shrike. Lunch is macaroni and cheese. In our case, a single macaroni with a drop of cheese.
I hate macaroni and cheese.
With a sigh, I slice off a quivering chunk of noodle with my spoon. Al has already eaten half of his. Blue sits there, chin in his hand, staring off into space. Row is happily going on and on about something to Crane, who listens without a word. Shrike and Perry are deep in their own conversation.
It occurs to me that, if circumstances were different, I wouldn’t mind hanging out with these guys. Most of them have been kind to me. I look over at Blue again, and he turns and meets my eye. He smiles, although his expression remains serious.
“So…” I say.
“So here we are,” he replies.
“It’s a nice day.”
“For Denmark, sure.”
“I never did hear where you guys live.”
He pauses as though he’s carefully planning each word. “The Lilliput II Project is in New Zealand. We live right near the beach. I wake up every morning to the sound of the surf. It’s weird being here and not hearing or seeing the ocean every day. I miss it. I even miss the salt.”
Embarrassingly, until now, it hasn’t occurred to me they might miss their home. I certainly didn’t know they’d come all the way from Down Under.
“So you all live in one house,” I said. “Do you share a room?”
“No, not all of us. And I’d say ‘house’ should be used pretty loosely. We have little shelters built along the beach, but whenever a storm comes along, they don’t hold up. We had to build them ourselves. Row and I teamed up to make ours, so we share. Al and Crane share one, and Perry and Shrike share another. Perry and Shrike have the best spot; theirs is up in a tree. We couldn’t find another tree that was suitable, so ours butts up against a rock.”
“Did they give you the materials to build it?”
He nods. “Well, some of them. We never did get any glass for the windows. It gets interesting when it rains.”
I shake my head, grateful for George. “Do you at least have beds?”
He grins. “We have sand beds. They’re really comfortable. We had normal beds when we were kids, but I definitely prefer the sand ones.”
“What exactly is that?”
“It’s a wooden box full of sand. You put your sheets and blankets right on top, and it molds to you while you’re sleeping.”
I laugh. “I’ll take your word for it. So are you and Row good friends?”
He nods. “Row and I are pretty different, but he’s solid. I trust him.” He pokes at his macaroni. “You should get to know him.”
I’m not sure what to make of that comment, so I shove a spoonful of food into my mouth. It’s not as bad as I remembered. Maybe they hired a better chef for the show. I glance over at Blue. He’s watching me, waiting for an answer.
“I’m serious,” he says. “You won’t find a better guy than Row.”
Well, I guess
not interested in me.
“Okay, okay,” I say. “Now you have to tell me why you’re pushing me toward him.”
“He’s a great guy, and he deserves to be happy.”
“What about you?”
Blue stares over Al’s head at the sky and shrugs. “I’ll get my chance.”
And now I’m annoyed. What the hell is that supposed to even mean? Is that all I am—a chance at happiness and they’re all lining up to get their turn? Well, I guess I’ll give him what he wants then.
“You’re right,” I say as I stand. “I
get to know him.” I fly over the table and wiggle in between Row and Crane. They quickly make room for me, and Row catches me up on their conversation.
“…and then we pushed the paper plane off the top of the house and Crane rode it all the way down to the beach without even cracking his wings open.”
Crane grunts and smiles. “The tongue depressors were the trick.”
Row leans in, practically lighting up the table. “Yeah, we used them as a frame to make it more sturdy! Crane was only what—seven years old?”
Crane directs his shy grin at the tablecloth. “Yeah, around there.”
else could do it. We all crashed into the bushes or had to start flying.”
I can almost see sunbeams shooting from Crane’s face. Now I understand Row’s magic; he finds a way to make everyone feel like a superhero.
As Crane floats on cloud nine, I turn toward Row. I can see it in his eyes; he knows exactly what he’s doing, but he’s still completely sincere.
“How come you’re always so happy?” I ask him.
His glory fades a little. “I have my down days, too. I don’t know… I prefer to stay optimistic.”
“Okay, okay, I have a question for you. My stylists have been reading magazine articles to me with questions to ask potential dates.”
“That’s not fair—we’re not even shooting yet!”
“Consider it practice,” I say with a smirk.
“All right, go ahead.” Row reaches around me and taps Crane on the shoulder. “Hey, you have to answer this, too.”
“When was the last time you cried?”
Row goes white, then flushes bright red. Crane chews his food thoughtfully.
“I can’t remember when,” Crane says. “I don’t cry very often. It’s probably been a few years.”
“I think it was about a month ago for me,” Row says quietly. I’m suddenly sorry I asked, and I don’t dare push him to find out why.
“I beat both of you,” I say.
An awkward silence descends on our corner of the table. Nice going, me. Time to change the subject.
“Okay, I have one more question.”
They’re both wearing wary expressions, but Crane says, “Okay.”
“Who has been your biggest crush to date? Models, actresses, and made-up characters count.”
“Elsa Ridek,” Crane says without the slightest hesitation.
“Who is that?” I ask.
“She’s a Polish movie star from the 2030s. Really pretty.” He turns red and stares down at his food again.
“Um, I had a crush on our gardener’s daughter,” Row admits. “When I was a kid.”
“Daphne?” Crane asks.
“Yeah. How about you, Lina?”
Shoot, I forgot I would have to answer, too. I have to think of something, some movie star.
“Clark Gable,” I blurt out.
Row puzzles over the name as though he’s trying to place it. “From
Gone with the Wind
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Row says in an absolutely terrible imitation.
I crack up laughing and give him a round of applause. “Very nice.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to direct that at you.”
“I know, Row. Don’t worry about it. It was funny.”
One of the production assistants comes and hovers over us. “I have some updates for you all, so listen up.”
The guys set down their silverware, and we all pay close attention as she reads off of her notes.
“First two individual dates are coming up. You’ll go in order of your names. So that’s Crane, then Row. Then there’s a group date followed by dates with Al and Shrike. Then another group date, then Perry and Blue. After that, Lina will get to pick who she wants for the last two dates.”
“Where are the dates taking place?” I ask. “Is it going to be more stuff like this?” I wave toward the fake Harney Peak.
“That’s a surprise.”
“Of course it is.”
After the shoot wraps, I’m only in my prison cell of a bedroom for five minutes before Susanna slips through the door.
“I only have a minute,” she says before setting her paper bundle on my bed. “Hope this helps. He didn’t seem to have any problem seeing me when I picked it up.”
“Yeah, well, he can see shapes and stuff, so he fools most people.” I hope she never mentions this to anyone else. “Thanks so much.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll see you tomorrow. First date!”
“Yeah.” I pump my fist weakly into the air. “Whoopee.”
She gives me her concerned look once more and then leaves. As soon as the door clicks closed, I take a giant winged leap toward the package and flip it over. Mr. Coxworth’s wax seal is still intact so I tear the paper carefully around it and then unfold everything. Inside is a tiny bag full of the requested guarana, but I don’t care about that. The note inside the bag is all that matters to me. It’s written in hastily scrawled English.
My dear Thumbelina,
Can’t begin to fathom what goes through the white witch’s head. Might be motivated by money. I think the project has lost funding over the years. I’ll see what I can find. So sorry. Next time, ask for peppermint for the terrible stomachache you have.
– Mr. C
I fold up the note into a miniscule sliver before sliding it inside a hole I’ve made in my giant pillow bed.
Money. I’ve been sold out for money. I’m not sure what she’s planning to do with more funds because Lilliput is largely self-sustaining now. She must have something else up her sleeve. Something to do with Jane’s ugly experiment with the cat. I suck in my breath and sit down on my pillow.
I have to figure out what she has in mind. In order to do that, I need to get into her office and the only way out of this room is through that giant locked door.
Come on, Lina! You can figure this out. You can get out of here.
And like a jolt of electricity, an idea lands in my head.
A devilish grin spreads across my face as a plan formulates in my head—a plan involving lightning bugs.
I sleep like a baby for the first time in weeks. When the hair and makeup crew rolls in at 7 a.m., I’m already up and waiting.
“Wow, that stuff must work well,” says Susanna as she sets her makeup kit next to me.
“Like a charm.”
“I’ve never seen you looking so…awake.”
“It’s pretty powerful. Only thing is, and I forgot this earlier, it gives me a nasty stomachache.”
She grimaces. “I’m sorry. I think I have some medicine in my purse.”
“I can’t take that stuff. It’s not meant for people my size. But Mr. Coxworth makes an amazing peppermint concoction that works like a dream.”