Isla Ellington was a young girl, only the age of ten. She had curly brown locks that flowed down her back, ending right above her tailbone. Her eyes sparkled with the lightest blue, reflecting the sky on a cloudless day. A small gap held place between her front teeth, making it an easy target for the kids at her school.
“Why don’t you get your teeth fixed, Isla? Or do you pronounce it Itha.” The boys in her class would smack each other on the back, congratulating the other on the insult. Isla had no trouble speaking and she found the comment senseless. They had no idea what they were talking about. So, she let it roll right off her, as she did for every other insult thrown her way. She passed through school barely talking to anyone or even making eye contact.
At the end of the day, she would ride the bus home to a small, dirty apartment complex. Most kids were off the bus by then and did not see where she lived—fortunate for her. When she opened the apartment with her very own set of keys, she would make herself an afterschool snack and sit down to begin her homework. She was highly organized, which made her an outstanding student. Every problem done by three o’ clock, every reading assignment by three-thirty, and every extra credit opportunity fulfilled. She would end her busy day by reading her favorite book: Matilda. She sometimes imagined herself as the brave, extraordinary little girl, even though her father was not terrible to her at all. He would arrive home at exactly nine o’ clock, just in time to eat a late dinner and kiss her goodnight. It maybe was not the ideal homelife, but she was sure it could be a lot worse. After her father said his goodnites, the day would end, and Isla would be fast asleep. This is how all days passed for the Ellington’s for a long while. That is, until one particular day.
On a chilly October afternoon, when Isla was dropped off at her apartment, she noticed a hunched figure shrouding around at the complex dumpster. A hood was covering their face and they appeared to be whispering to someone Isla could not see. Her heart thumped as she looked towards her apartment stairs, then back at the hooded figure. With curious steps, Isla made her way slowly to the mysterious person. Her limbs trembled and she clutched the straps of her backpack close to her body. The hunchbacked person slowly turned their head towards Isla, leaped up, and let out a shrill, terrified shriek. Isla jumped and let out a shriek of her own.
“Jeez almighty! You scared the living daylights outta me! What’s yer problem, sneaking up on little girls like that!” The person stomped their foot hard, making the hood slip behind their head and revealing a girl the same age as Isla. They both gasped. “Hey…yer a little girl like me. How ‘bout that?” The girl placed her hands on her hips and grinned a toothy grin. She stuck out her hand. “The name’s Margo. Margo Greene. The great scavenger of this whole nation! Well…this town at least.”
Isla eyed Margo carefully, caught off guard by her outgoingness. She had strawberry-blonde hair cut right above her chin and deep brown eyes. She bounced every time she spoke, causing her hair to bounce with her. Isla shyly reached out her hand to meet Margo’s. “I’m Isla,” she said.
“Isla? Isla what? You have a last name, don’t you?”
“Isla Ellington,” she said softly, keeping her eyes down.
Margo shook her hand forcefully up and down. “Nice to meet ya, Isla Ellington!” She smiled ear-to-ear and let go of Isla’s hand, turning back to her dumpster corner. “This was really just a pit-stop to where I’m really headed. Ratatouille wanted to check if there were any leftover sandwiches in the dump. They’re his favorite.”
“Ratatouille! Like the movie!” Margo reached down and scooped up a tiny, black rat nibbling on a piece of cheese. Isla recoiled, covering her mouth with wide eyes. “What? He won’t bite.” Margo held him out towards her and rolled her eyes when Isla backed away. “Anyways, we were headin’ to the woods across the street to visit some family.”
“You have family in the woods?”
“Wanna come?” Margo asked, flashing her a malicious grin.
Isla’s heart skipped a beat at the offer. Go with her? Why would Isla ever go somewhere with someone who talked to rats? And to the woods? It was a scary place, already! She shook her head with a grimace. “I’m not allowed to go places with strangers.”
“I won’t take no for an answer, Miss Ellington!” Margo tapped her foot impatiently on the cement and the rat seemed to mimic her. Isla cast a worrisome glance at her apartment. It was too risky… “I’ll have you back before your parents get home.” Margo dragged out the ‘o’ in home and raised an eyebrow.
What a mistake this is going to turn out to be, thought Isla with a sigh. She screwed up her lips and with hesitancy, said, “Okay.” With that, Margo grabbed Isla’s wrist with eagerness and whisked her away.
The sun was setting by the time they arrived in the woods and the trees loomed over them. Isla hugged herself while Margo skipped along beside her. She held the rat in one hand and swung her other arm.
“Where are we going?” Isla asked quietly after several silent moments.
“You’ll see,” Margo sang.
Margo skipped and Isla trembled for a few more moments, pausing when they reached a large, dark tree. A door was intricately carved into it along with windows, pillars, and even a terrace. Isla had to arch her neck to see the entire structure before her.
“We’re here!” Margo held out both arms mimicking a giant hug and giggled. She knocked on the carved door three loud times and rang the doorbell once. After two beats, the door opened revealing a woman with the same strawberry-blonde hair and brown eyes, only her hair was much longer and eyes a lighter shade that shone in the sunlight. She wore a lace cream dress that draped over her body with grace and she had a single sunflower pinned to her chest.
“Margo, darling!” The woman’s voice was surprisingly much more sophisticated than Margo’s. Perhaps even slightly British. She held out her arms and Margo ran into them, hugging her tightly.
“Auntie Greene!” For a moment, Isla felt an ache in her chest and her face grew hot. She folded her arms behind her back, keeping her gaze down.
“Who’s this that you have tagged along with you?”
“Auntie, this is Isla Ellington. She lives at those apartments near the dumpster Ratatouille likes to eat out of.”
“Is that so?” Auntie Greene strolled her way to Isla, tipping Isla’s chin up to meet her eyes. They were sweet as honey when she looked into them. “You don’t have to be so shy, darling. Any friend of Margo’s is a friend of mine.” She smiled amiably revealing perfectly straight, white teeth. Isla pressed her lips together, feeling more and more uncomfortable by the family reunion. “Why don’t you come inside with us? Everyone will be thrilled to meet you.”
Isla stood still, urging her feet not to move. However, there was something about the treehouse that was mesmerizing to the eye, rendering her to learn more. Isla took Auntie Greene’s outstretched hand and followed her inside.
Earth. That was the only word clouding Isla’s mind as she stepped inside the mystical tree. Leaves fluttered down from above—some as large as the palm of her hand and as small as her pinkie finger—landing on her head and sneaking in her clothes. The inside seemed never-ending and people huddled around each other, dancing and laughing. They all wore olive green clothing—dresses, shirts, suits, hats, and even shoes. People of all different sizes and ages scattered the floor and some circled around the enormous trunk of the tree, centered perfectly in the massive room.
Isla took in everything, wanting to see more of this curious mansion. She had never seen anything so magnificent in her life. She rarely left her home back at the apartment complex and, when she did, it was simply to accompany her father for grocery shopping. “Wow,” she said. The words came out barely above a whisper, a small breath in awe.
Auntie Greene placed a hand on her shoulder, gripping a bit too hard. “Isn’t it wonderful?” Coming around to face Isla, she spread her arms wide, smiling brightly and gazing at the sky. “We are the Woodlandians. People of the Earth.” As she spoke, her cream lace dress turned into the richest shade of green. It sparkled like the grass on an early morning and had leaves sprouting like ruffles at the bottom. Isla watched with wonder as the woman transformed. She was beautiful. But she was also strange looking. Her brown eyes bulged out a bit more than before and her hair took on a wiry texture, making it shrivel up several inches. It made Isla’s stomach twist in a peculiar fashion, but she pushed the feeling aside.
Auntie Greene and Margo toured Isla through the rest of the treehouse. There were doors upon doors of the Woodlandian people, all dancing or carving or having tea with each other. The halls were covered in moss and Isla ran her hand along it as they walked. When they reached the end, a lofty figure loomed over them.
“Hey there, Jumbo Jaxton!” Margo waved with both hands, bouncing on her feet as if trying to match his height. Isla craned her neck as far as she could, barely sneaking a look at his face.
“Ah, I see Margo the Mischief-Maker is back. Kidnap a friend for yourself today?” The giant’s voice was a sharp falsetto, contrasting wildly with his burly size.
Margo placed her hands on her hips and sneered. “That’s not my name! And I didn’t kidnap her, I found her! Big difference.” Margo marched over to Isla and gave her a pleading look. “Tell him!”
“You don’t have to tell me anything, little girl. If you ever need to escape from this little terror, you come to Jaxon. Got it?” He bent down to Isla’s level, winking a giant eye. She smiled shyly, tucking a piece of hair behind her ear. Margo stomped her foot and rolled her eyes, storming off in the other direction.
Hours passed as they roamed the mansion. Isla met more fantastical people of all shapes and sizes with wonderful talents. Many had different jobs within the tree that they distributed anonymously to the outside world and some simply lived their days lounging about. Isla learned that there were other trees within those woods and throughout the entire world. They were a long-kept secret and intended to stay that way.
“Now, Isla, you must listen closely. No one must know about this tree. We are a race of many but can quickly go extinct if others find us. Do you understand?” Auntie Greene’s eyes went rigid, her sweet, honey brown eyes taking on a much darker shade. A piercing chill went through Isla’s body as she nodded. She knew it could not be good if she disobeyed.
Margo and Auntie Greene led Isla back to her apartment complex just as the sun was setting. Isla had leaves stuck in her hair and she picked them out one by one. “Thank you for walking me home. I had a wonderful time,” she said.
“I knew ya would.” Margo beamed and twirled around, making her short bob twirl with her.
Auntie Greene placed her hands on Margo’s shoulders and rolled her eyes with mock annoyance. “Margo, dear, why don’t you head back to the tree? I’m sure your mother will be back from the river by now.” Margo began to argue but, with one sharp look from her Aunt, pouted and stormed back to the tree.
When she was out of sight, she turned to face Isla. “I’m glad you had a good time today, Isla. However…” she leaned closer and looked Isla right in her blue eyes. “Margo really should not have strung you along today. We do not usually welcome visitors of your kind. It’s quite dangerous.” Her voice began to take on a hard edge and was no longer a soft whisper. “We don’t let humans off easy, my dear.” She held Isla’s gaze for a minute more before straightening up. “So, please, do not come around to the woods again. Have a good evening.” She smiled kindly and waved with her fingers, pivoting in the direction Margo disappeared.
Isla stood grounded, staring off into the direction of the woods. A disturbing presence filled her body as she played Auntie Greene’s words in her head over and over again. We do not let humans off easy, my dear.
“Something tells me that’s not the last I’ll see of Auntie Greene,” Isla whispered. With one final look towards the woods, she made her way into the apartments to begin her nightly routine.