by Seth Augenstein
Ava—away from the window. Dada doesn’t want you there—you might get hurt. Come up here, on my lap. There we go.
Story time? Let’s have story time.
Yes, I see them down there in the trees, Ava. Stop looking. No, Ava—Mama’s sleeping in the other room. Don’t bother her.
See there, on the window? That’s frost. It happens when it’s very cold. Winter’s here. Big cold winds are blowing from far away—from where Santa lives. That’s what they say.
Yes, honey, I see them out there in the darkness. They’re sneaky, down there by the black trees, waiting for their moment. They’re the bad guys. But don’t worry. They have to stay out there as long as you’re with me. We can just sit here and they can’t bother us yet.
So about that story. Where to start…
Once upon a time, a king lived in a mountain castle with a beautiful queen and their little princess—a girl just like you. The king ruled a big kingdom, a frozen land. His people were warm and happy and ate cheese and drank milk from fat cows in warm barns. Snow fell every day. The people were rich from chopping up blocks of ice, which they loaded onto trucks and sold to a kingdom by the sea, where it was hot and sunny. The queen oversaw all the accounts, and the princess helped keep the workers’ ice saws sharp. The snowy kingdom was rich and happy—from the royal family down to each loyal subject.
But things changed.
One morning the snow-gray clouds over the kingdom blew away, and the sun appeared. The people came out to walk around, rubbing their eyes, blinking at the bright blue above. Their shock gave way to joy. They threw a party. There were games, a festival, voices singing. Laughter. Everyone went to bed happy and tired, ready for the next day’s work.
But when they got out of bed the next morning, the bright sun was still there. It was warm. The ice kingdom started to melt. Drips fell from roofs. The workers tried to saw at the ice, but chunks of slush just splashed into puddles. The trucks’ tires spun deep into muck.
The next day was even worse. Brown squishy mud emerged—something the people had never seen before. Filth covered everyone’s feet.
Panic set in. No one slept. Fires were lit. Screams echoed from the dark edge of the town. Someone drowned.
That night the beautiful queen stood on the balcony, murmuring the numbers from the accounts, staring up at the vindictive stars, listening to the drainpipes gurgling. She made her choice. She slipped out of the castle, and drove away on the sturdiest truck. She swerved down the hills and through the valleys to the kingdom by the sea.
That very night she made a deal with the other king. He would come and overthrow her husband, marry her and rule over the melting kingdom—if he would only come and impose order. They agreed, sealing it with a treacherous kiss. The deceitful queen sped back, slipping into the marital bed moments before dawn.
The king awoke from fitful sleep a short time later. He kissed his queen on the cheek, and then he marched to his office. There was much work to do.
But throughout the palace halls something ground under his royal boot. At first he took it for some of that disgusting dirt from the thaw outside. But when he knelt on the marble tiles, he understood.
Sand. Grains scattered from the truck all the way to the bed where his wife lay asleep.
Sand from the kingdom by the sea.
In his office, the king convened a meeting of his advisors. An army was marching from the seaside up the mountain, easily traversing the melted mountain passes, they said. The enemy’s advance messengers arrived with an ultimatum: surrender the armies, the queen and the princess—or face annihilation.
His advisors scurried away. The king gnashed his teeth; the king wept. The sun set. Finally, the king knew what he had to do. He grabbed his sword, he went to the dark bedroom, shutting the door behind.
Afterward the king sat on his throne, tired and weak. Sword in hand, he called to the princess. She came and sat on his lap. Together, they waited. Somehow it had grown cold again. They watched out the frosted window as the invading armies emerged from the night, lurching toward the castle.
Ava, no. Your mother’s asleep. She doesn’t want to hear this story anyway.
Yes, I hear it too, Ava. Here they come. Quick—let’s get to the ending.