* All characters in the following story are fictional. Any similarity to persons, past or present, is purely coincidental.
"Who's that?" Max pointed to the big oak tree across the park. "That little guy just came out of the hollow tree trunk."
Marge squinted at the tree. "That little guy is a dwarf, Max, and he's bigger than you. I wonder if he needs rescuing."
"Over here," Marge yelled. "Are you all right?" The dwarf changed directions and came over, wiping sweat and grime from his leathery face.
"What's wrong?" Max asked. "You looked stressed."
"Stressed?" The dwarf replied in a ruffled voice. "I should say I'm stressed!" He slumped to the ground and stared blankly into space.
"Here," Marge said, "drink some water." She produced a small bottle of spring water from her rescue bag. "This here's Max and I'm Marge. Why don't you tell us what happened?"
The dwarf took a long swallow of water and wiped his brow again. "Not so fast, my little fairy friend. First, I'd like a couple questions of my own answered."
"Fair enough," Marge said. "Fire away!"
"The first question is 'do you know you have a tail'? Fairies don't have tails, so I'm told. It looks weird."
"It's not weird," Max chimed in, "it's unique."
"Unique, huh? Looks weird to me." The dwarf picked up the tip and studied it. "What's it for?"
"Fire and rescue," Marge said.
"And it's all legal like?"
"Why of all the nerve," Marge said. "Of course it's legal. Do you think I'd break the law? I'm a well-respected fairy with a growing business."
"She has scruples," Max volunteered.
The dwarf waved a hand and yawned. "Scruples, pooples. It's all the same to me seeing as I'm just passing through." He looked around. "What's this place called?" That's my other question.
"The Land of In Between," Marge said.
"And I bet there's an explanation for that name. Not a long one, I hope." The dwarf yawned again. "I'm very tired. I've had a most trying day."
"It's simple. We're called the Land of In Between because we are exactly half way between here and there."
The dwarf looked at Marge and then at Max. He scooted a dwarf's length away and looked again. "O.K., enough said. Just tell me how to get out of here and I'll be on my way."
"But you can't leave," Max said. "You've only just come. And why would you want to leave anyway? No one ever leaves here unless they're tricked into it." Please say you'll stay."
The dwarf rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I can't believe I'm sitting here in the Land of what's-it's-name being instructed by an elf. Where I come from that's intolerable."
"But that's it," Marge said. "Don't you see? You're not where you came from. You're in the Land of In Between. Here everyone is treated equal. The Lord wants it that way."
"The Lord, huh? Where was he back in the clearing? I could've been killed.
"Won't you stay?" Marge asked. "This is ever so better than your old place. You'll see."
"Well," said the dwarf, "I suppose I could stay for a few days, to lay low, so to speak. Just till the heat's off back home. Then I'll be on my way."
"Are you in trouble?" Marge asked. "Why did you come here?"
"It was a mad woman that drove me to it. I feared for my life. There was seven of us, see" he said. "I'm the only one who got away."
"Seven?" Max looked at the dwarf carefully. "Say, you're not one of-"
"Don't ask." The dwarf covered his eyes with a grimy hand and shook his head. "It was awful! Just thinking about it makes me all misty eyed, like." He pulled out a well-used handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. "One minute we're all sitting around making plans for our annual squirrelfest, and the next minute she's chasing us around the cottage with a shovel."
"She? Was her name-"
"Please, I'd rather not say. Shouldn't talk about others behind their backs. Gossip and all that. Not nice, at all. Won't tell my name either."
"Why not?" Max asked.
"Don't want to make waves, that's all. Word gets out that I'm here and that--that wild woman is sure to find out." The dwarf shivered. "Gives me the creeps just thinking about it."
"What do you want us to call you then?" Marge asked.
The dwarf took off his hat and scratched his balding head. He thought hard. "Well," he finally said, you can call me 'Irv.'"
"O.K., uh-Irv. That's a good name." Max got up and stretched.
"Not as good as my real name," Irv said, "but I guess it'll do. Have to!" Irv yawned. "Could use a nap. Trying day. Very upsetting."
"Won't you tell us the rest of your story first?" Marge asked. "Then you can rest and we'll let the Fairy Queen know you're here. She'll want to have a banquet in your honor."
"My honor? But I didn't do anything to earn a banquet," Irv said.
"You don't have a banquet for doing anything," Max explained. "You have the banquet just because you made it here."
"Very unusual." Irv looked puzzled. "Well-back to my story then. "As I said before, my buddies and I were planning our annual squirrelfest and only hinted, hinted mind you, that there might be much skinning, cleaning and cooking involved. Then I believe that's when I casually mentioned the hundred or so guests we'd invited." Irv buried his face in his hands and sobbed. The tears left dirty trails of mud down each cheek. "I think that was my mistake." He sniffed and wiped his face on a shirtsleeve. "I saw the desperate look in her eyes and that's when she lunged for the shovel. I sprang up and ran into the forest, yelling for my buddies to follow but I knew they wouldn't leave their gold. Gold's their life."
"Then what happened?" Marge asked.
"I ran out of breath and looked for a place to hide. I saw a big oak tree with a hollow trunk and ran inside. That's when I came out here."
Marge looked at Max. That's the way it happened with everyone. The point they were at in their old world was the exact point they entered the Land of In Between. How odd, Marge thought. She'd have to ask Fairy Queen about that.
Irv yawned and stretched out. "Sleep. Need sleep." He tipped his hat over his eyes and immediately began to snore.
"Keep an eye on him, Max. I'm going to let Fairy Queen know he's here." She headed for the palace.
"He's a queer duck," Max said.
Marge stopped and looked back. "Haven't you noticed, Max? We're all queer ducks." She scooped up her tail, draped it over her shoulder like a lariat, and continued on her way.
Max rested his chin on his chest and dozed off.
"Max! Wake up! We've got a situation here."
Max sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Where did you find him?"
Max inspected the dwarf. He was leathery looking like Irv and about the same height. His thinning hair was matted to his head and his clothes were dripping wet. Marge had him secured hand and foot with her tail.
"I fished him out of the pond. He just floated to the surface screaming that he can't swim."
"I can't swim," gasped the dwarf. He coughed and spit out a mouth full of water.
"Then why were you in the pond," Max asked?
"Running for me life. The blooming woman was trying to put me down."
"Did she have a shovel," Marge asked?
"Aye, that she did."
Irv bolted into a sitting position and looked around. The two dwarfs stared at each other. "Say," said the prisoner, is that you?-"
"Irv. The name's Irv." He put a warning finger to his mouth. "I'll explain later."
"Well, Irv, said the new dwarf, "why didn't you wait for me? You know I can't run as fast as you. I was right behind you and then, POOF! you were gone. She was gaining on me so I jumped into the pond without thinking."
"What about the others? Did they get away?"
"They ran into the mine. They knew she wouldn't follow them there. Wouldn't want to get her white dress all smudged." The new dwarf shook his head in disbelief. "The cheek of that woman. Coming after us with a shovel like that. Why if I ever-"
"Calm yourself down, uh-Eddie. Don't be so grumpy."
"What do you mean, Eddie! My name's not Eddie and you know it. I don't have to take that!"
"Oh, take a powder will 'ya. Just be glad you're safe now."
"But we're not."
"What do you mean were not safe?"
"Because she saw me jump into the pond. She's going to show up here, I just know it." He tried frantically to get himself loose. "Ma'am, if you would be so kind to release me from me bonds, I'd have a fighting chance."
"Do you promise to behave yourself?"
"Aye, that I do."
Marge unwrapped her tail from around Eddie and he scooted next to Irv. "Any suggestions, Max?"
Max shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. Post a guard? We've never had invaders with shovels before."
"That's a good idea, Max. Round up some of the others and surround the pond. If what this little guy says is true, that's where she'll appear."
"Hey, missy. What do you mean little?" Eddie grabbed his pants and pulled them up higher. "I'll have you know I'm 42 inches tall. That's not little by any stretch of the imagination. Why I was voted dwarf most likely..."
"There you two are! I knew I'd catch up with you." A woman with dark hair and a sopping white dress slowly advanced towards them. She kicked off her shoes, grabbed the shovel in both hands and moved steadily closer.
"Go for reinforcements, Max. I'll try to hold her off."
Irv and Eddie scooted behind Marge and cowered there.
"You can't hide from me," the woman shouted. "You're brave, you two, hiding behind a woman's skirts like that."
"Excuse me, dearie. Lady indeed! I'm a fairy not a lady."
"Begging your pardon, I'm sure," said the woman. I just call them as I see them. You're in a skirt. I just assumed."
Marge uncoiled her tail. "What do you want here?"
"I have some unfinished business with those two."
"Well apparently their business is finished with you for here they stand. They've left their old lives behind."
"I am their old life and I'm here to collect some dues."
"You have no claim to them anymore. They belong to the Land of In Between now." Marge started playing with her tail. Her muscles were taut and her eyes focused on the shovel.
"It was just a simple squirrelfest," Irv said.
"A squirrelfest! Simple! You call skinning, cleaning, cooking and feeding a hundred guests simple?"
"But it's only once a year," Eddie volunteered. The rest of the time we take care of you."
"I shouldn't have to do anything. It's not proper. Why, I'm expecting a prince any day and that makes me a princess. That's the way the story is supposed to end, not hosting a squirrelfest. Do you have any idea what that would do to my creamy smooth hands? And it would ruin my nails! You have no respect for royalty. I won't stand for it." She suddenly lunged at the three swinging her shovel.
Marge sprinkled her with fairy dust. The woman sneezed but held onto the shovel.
"Aachoo! I'll take care of you next, little lady."
Eddie and Irv broke into a run back towards the pond and the woman swung around to go after them. Marge spun her tail and let go. It wrapped around the woman's ankles. She fell on her face and dropped the shovel. Marge kicked it out of her reach.
The woman rolled onto her back and glared at Marge then she looked down at her gown. It was caked with mud and grass stains. "My dress, my dress," she screamed. You've ruined it. My beautiful, expensive, fancy dress. You can't do this to me. Do you have any idea who I am? I'm famous. I've had stories written about me. They've made a movie and-"
Marge doused her with fairy dust again and shook her. "Snap out of it girl. Have you gone off your brick?"
The woman silently stared at Marge then looked around for the shovel. When Irv and Eddie saw the woman was subdued and she no longer had the shovel, they inched their way back. Irv picked it up and clenched it in his fists. Eddie walked up to the woman and shook his head at her disgustedly. "Oh, what a wicked web we seem, when at first we, ah-try to be one." He cleared his throat and began again. "A web is wicked and-"
"Be quiet, Eddie," Irv said. "You're making a fool of yourself."
They all turned at the approaching footsteps. There was an elf, a gnome, two trolls with capped teeth, a short giant and another fairy. Bringing up the rear was a rather large frog with what appeared to be a crown on his green head. Max led the procession. Each wore a determined look on his face.
"Well, me never," said Eddie. "Where'd you get this mixed bag of nuts?"
"The same place we got you, Eddie," Marge said.
Eddie blushed and lowered his head. "Begging your pardon, miss."
"Everything is under control, Max," said Marge.
"The perimeter's secured," croaked the frog. "The perimeter's secured, the perim-"
Max turned around. "Somebody make him stop."
Marge turned to the woman. "O.K. listen up, missy. You've come here to cause trouble but now that you're here you're welcome to stay. Just understand that everyone is treated equally and fairly. If you want to stay under those conditions, we'd be glad to have you."
The woman looked around at everyone, glared at Irv and Eddie, then looked at Marge. "But I'm not equal. I'm better than these misfits. Why, anyone can tell that just by looking. I'm famous. I've had books written about me and a-"
Marge motioned to Max. "Get her out of here. Take her to the edge of the woods. She can find her cottage that way." Marge looked at the two dwarfs. What about you two?"
"We don't want to go back," Eddie said. "There's peace here."
"And love," Irv chimed in.
"Aye, and love," Eddie said. "But begging your pardon, miss. Would there be any squirrels?"
PLEASE ENCOURAGE AUTHOR,
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