The Time and Space Furnace, Episode 1: Sanlun Che

Submitted into Contest #196 in response to: Write a story involving a portal into a parallel universe.... view prompt


Fantasy Kids Middle School

“But did it even really happen?” Dewan wants to know.

“We both remember it, so it must have, right?” Mindy answers, kicking up some dirt with her worn sneaker.

“Are those the rules?” He shrugs with sweeping hands. Mindy’s face looks blank with just a hint of “you’re supposed to be the brainiac, why isn’t it obvious to you?” 

“What I mean is, teleporting tricycles and stopped time are not part of the regular rules, so what’s to say that those things happened and not this other thing that breaks the rule, where we remember the same thing that didn’t really happen. You see?”

“It wasn’t a tricycle.”

“Fine, a teleporting sanlun che.”

“And time didn’t stop.”

“It didn’t stop in Linhai, but it stopped here!” Dewan stops. He’s been dragging his feet the whole way, but now he sees his chance to turn this whole thing around and head back to the kitchen. Doritos are way better than teleportation vehicles.

“So? That’s how it worked in Narnia too!” Mindy has come back for him, circled around and not so much pushed him as stood uncomfortably close on the homeward side in order to get him moving back toward the school.  

“Again, and I can’t stress this enough. Narnia is not real.”

“Linhai might not be real either. Let’s go see Li Luxi and find out.”

“Linhai is definitely real, but did we go there? Or did we go to the one in China and not one in some other universe?”

“Your mom was right. We were too young to watch the Multiverse of Madness.” She rolls her eyes at him. “Let’s just assume it was the regular Linhai and let’s just go.”

“Can we just think about it for a second before we go? I mean don’t you have questions? Don’t you think that some of it was just a little too coincidental?”

Now Mindy does stop, pulling the strap of her overall back up on her shoulder and flipping her braids behind her back. “What do you mean?” 

“Well, like we ran into the groundskeeper’s shed and just happened to need to burn papers. That part’s all right. Maybe anybody who opened the furnace would get a time and space trike.”

“Sanlun che.”

“Sanlun che. Same thing. It literally means three wheel vehicle. Anyway, maybe Mr. Jander is pulling the sanlun che out of the furnace and going to China all the time. But Li Luxi sure hadn’t heard of any other laowai visiting on pedicabs.”

“Okay…” Mindy’s attention has finally been snagged and she’s really listening to Dewan’s objections now. She stands out in the sunshine while Dewan hovers close to a tree trunk, feet balanced on the buckled joint of the sidewalk beneath it.

“Don’t you remember how everybody stared at us? We were the first foreigners they had ever seen.” 

She does remember. They gathered in little circles pointing, shouting out “Kan! Laowai!” which Dewan’s phone repeated back to them, “Look! Foreigner!” Dewan had been scared, huddled in the back of the pedicab with Li Luxi, passing the phone between them, trying to make sense of the scene. Mindy defiantly stuck out her chin and kept pedaling, aware (some minutes before the translation-software-mediated conversation with Li Luxi got the point across to Dewan) that the crowd was just curious and excited. A man craning his neck to watch them go by fell off his bike. Even the dogs barked at them. 

“Lots of dogs are racist,” Dewan offered. He would know. He might get almost this much attention just walking to school in Iowa. 

“Okay,” Mindy concedes. “They probably hadn’t had any other foreign visitors before that.” She’s quick to follow up, “but that doesn’t mean it was like a one-time thing. And if it was, what do we lose by trying it again?”

“That’s not what I’m worried about.” Dewan wipes his sweaty hands on his pockets before reaching for his phone. He waves it around for emphasis. “Don’t you think it’s weird that I just happened to have Chinese translation software downloaded on Mimic when we were transported to China?”

“That wasn’t just Google translate?”

“No. My mom won’t let me have data on my phone.” He takes on a slightly mocking tone. “You can’t just stare at a screen all day, Dewan!”

“At least you have a phone.” They both shrug. Mindy definitely doesn’t want a phone to worry about falling from her pockets while she climbs trees and turns cartwheels. It’s just something to say.

“So why’d you download Chinese translation?” she asks.

“I thought it would make a cool hook to a speech I had to give in IT class about coding languages.” Dewan doesn’t wear glasses, but at moments like this everyone would swear that he does. He looks around for something to do other than push glasses up on his nose. 

“Geek,” is all Mindy says after several seconds of blinking at him. 

“Ravenclaw,” he corrects.


“Anyway, there’s no way my phone would have connected to the network there to get the translation we needed. And what about the videos? Just lucky that I had those?”

“The recipes for Zhongqiu foods?” Mindy asks astonished. “Those were saved on your phone?”

“Yeah!” He responded in a tone that said “now do you see why I’m saying it’s weird?”

“Your mom won’t let you have data but she lets you just download youtube videos? How does that stop you from watching screens?”

“She’s like 35. She doesn’t know you can download youtube videos.”

“Wait, why did you have those downloaded? You just thought maybe you’d open a furnace door and a magical vehicle would transport you to China where you’d coincidentally run into a kid who needed to make a holiday feast?”

“No. I had a report on festivals in social studies class.”

“Oh my gosh, Ravenclaw. Let’s just go. It’ll take less time than figuring it out.”

“Okay, Gryffindor. I’m just saying we might not go back to the same place or time.”

“I’m Hufflepuff. No! Amity.”

“You aspire to be Amity. You’re Dauntless.”

“Whatever, Erudite. Those books didn’t even make any sense.”

But Dewan has gotten distracted. “But not Abnegation. Or Candor,” he went over in a calculating tone.


“Nothing.” He shakes the distraction out of his mind. “I’m just saying what if it wasn’t that you open the furnace and it gives you a ride to Linhai, and if you’re lucky you have with you all the tools to solve some problems and come back, but like it checks out what tools you have for solving problems and gives you a ride to the place where that problem exists?”

“Like Quantum Leap?”

“I don’t have Prime.”

“I don’t either,” she says, duh-faced, indicating her ratty overalls. “I meant the old one. The guy jumps into different people’s bodies at different times in the past and he can’t leave until he’s solved their problem.”

“Well, we did help Li Luxi with her problem,” Dewan says, remembering. “She needed a ride.”

She had come running out of her house when they pedaled by shouting at them “I need a ride!” They didn’t know that’s what she was shouting. She was practically crawling in the back with Dewan before she looked at his face and recoiled in surprise. Dewan pressed his back against the side of the cart in terror and called to Mindy “why did you stop?”

“It got hard to pedal. Like it wanted to stop.”

“Should I let her get on?” he asked.

Meanwhile, Li Luxi had checked around Dewan, seen Mindy, a no less alarming person with wiry red curls working overtime to escape her braids, shrugged and resumed climbing in beside Dewan, explaining herself in rapid Chinese as she went.

“What should we do now?” Dewan asked. In fact, it was what Dewan had been wanting to ask ever since they opened the furnace door, but Mindy was more of a do-now-ask-later type. A Gryffindor. And in defense all she could explain later about pulling the cab by the shape-shifting handlebars out of the furnace, climbing aboard, and shouting at Dewan to get in the back was that it had been a very assertive bicycle.

“Sanlun che,” Dewan would correct.

“Sanlun che,” she would agree.

But at this moment, Li Luxi was pointing a very assertive finger forward and Mindy Griyffindored it on down the shabby potholed road. 

By the time they got to the covered bridge, Dewan had solved communications and Mindy had fallen in love with the place. Iowa was green enough, but not this humid mountain green. At this time of year the corn fields were yellow-topped and dry, and she’d never seen anything like the soaring mountains or glinting rice fields terraced down their sides, dark green jungle struggling at the edges to reclaim them. She began overhearing the conversation from the back. Dewan and Li Luxi introducing themselves. We were near Linhai in ZheJiang province. 

Li Luxi had to get to town to prepare for Mid-Autumn festival and it was just lucky they’d come by in their sanlun che, which the program kept translating as tricycle. Mindy, standing up to get enough power to pull the pair uphill to the bridge, resented the word. No snotty toddler ever sweated this hard on a tricycle! But she only half listened to what they were saying. The land in the distance seemed to reach up offering embracing arms to the sky. It was nearly as astonishing to her as the vehicle that had brought them there and much more worth her attention than whatever the chatter was about.

“It’s so old.” Li Luxi was saying. Mimic couldn’t catch tone of voice, but she had said “tai jui le,” like any eleven-year-old rolling eyes at whatever her mom sang along to on the car radio. But what she was indicating was a timber bridge over the river, supported from below by massive diagonal beams. Though not all of the planks were equally worn, most were gray with age, and splinters curled out from them. Still there was such a weighty solidity to the whole that Mindy had no hesitation pedaling them into the cabin-like dark of the covered bridge. It immediately got several degrees cooler. 

“How old?” he asked his phone. “Jisui?” Mimic asked Li Luxi. 

She giggled at the awkward phrasing, but answered, “Seven hundred years.”

“Wha??” Mindy stopped pedaling and hopped down to look closely at the wall.

“No nails,” Li Luxi explained.

“You’re telling me that the only thing keeping us from falling a hundred feet to the rocks is a bridge that was already here when Columbus sailed and the only thing holding it together is gravity?Dewan exclaimed.

“Co-oo-ol!” Mindy blurted in three syllables, running her fingers along the timber. 

Dewan remembered something he’d learned from a Youtube video and began explaining that the Dao of a thing, it’s nature, would be offended by nails and respect for its way could fit it together without the need for them. Li Luxi nodded. She liked these foreigners caring about her bridge, even if it was older than her mom’s pop songs. 

Mindy was completely absorbed in wondering what tools could have been used to plane these boards back before Henry had whacked off his wives’ heads. She loved her dad’s woodshop, but now she looked at these boards as if she could see the loving tenderness soaked into their fibers along with the sweat drops from labor of that sort.

As they’d pulled up to the first village shops, Li Luxi shouting answers to the crowd’s questions about her visitors, their new friend tugged at her lower lip in worry and counted a handful of coins. She had made a few small choices, explaining to the clerk that when her parents got back from the city, they would pay the difference.

They had taken her little brother after his accident and would return tomorrow afternoon. She’d gotten a note about it this morning. But when the old neighbor who was supposed to look after her had gotten sick, she realized that she had to prepare for Zhongqui Jie. The moon would be full, her family would be around the table, but what went on the table would be up to her. And here she was with no money and no idea how to make the dishes. At least she had made it to the village and could get something. Not mooncakes, but maybe a few eggs. They were round…ish. 

But Dewan had come to the rescue, selling the shopkeeper six dollars of American money, a five and a one, for less than the exchange rate but more than Li Luxi needed to buy the necessities. 

Dewan and Li Luxi took turns pedaling back to her village home while Mindy took it easy looking at the mountains from the back. She liked the way Li Luxi said their names like Chinese words: Di Wan with a forceful first syllable and a loose second that seemed to roll around in a circle. Min Di with the “Min” a hopeful question and the “di” a note of music that should have found a home with “mi” and “la.”

Li Luxi’s home was like pioneer camp for her American friends. They filled basins of water at the pump outside and went in to heat it. Filled thermoses to take up the rickety stairs that looked about the same age as the bridge for washing before bed. There was plenty of room since her parents and brother were away and once she delivered some soup to the sick elderly neighbor, they had the place to themselves to learn new card games, a few words of Chinese, and all about what brought them together. 

“Tai hao le!” Li Luxi exclaimed when Dewan finally pulled the picture Jason Lomax drew of him from his back pocket. “It’s wonderful! You were going to burn this?” The phone repeated.

Flabbergasted, he demanded, “Wonderful? My ears! That skinny neck! I don’t even wear glasses!”

“But you look like you do,” Mindy interjected. Dewan side-eyed her.

“But your ears do stick out like that,” Li Luxi defended. “And you are skinny.” She ran her finger across the paper admiring the crosshatched lines that gave texture to the skin.

“But still it’s mean,” Dewan said, hurt.

“Oh. Was it mean when I said it?” Li Luxi wanted to know.

“No. You just…” He couldn’t explain. “To exaggerate a person’s worst features.”

“Is your neck your worst feature?” she asked.

“No!” Mindy shouted. “His worst feature is he can’t shut up about stuff he learned even when nobody wants to hear it!” Dewan shrugged and nodded a little in concession.

“You would be happy with a fat neck?” Luxi probed. Dewan chuckled softly while Mindy nearly guffawed herself off her chair. “Hao. Good,” she went on thoughtfully. “The kids at school say I look like a boy because I cut my hair short. I cut it off because my mother brushes it so hard. I think it’s a fair trade. I look like a boy; it doesn’t hurt to brush my hair.” She pulled a spoon of hot soup up to her mouth. 

The visitors observed her quietly. “It’s like the bridge. You respect the way of it and you can make it go the way you want. You look like you wear glasses because you like to learn. And you’re proud of that.”

“Like a Ravenclaw.”

“Like a Ravenclaw.” Li Luxi agreed. “Make that picture what you want. And Ja Sun. He’s good at drawing. This picture is good.”

“If it was another universe, it was one with Harry Potter,” Mindy says, yanking open the door to the groundkeeper’s shed. They step together into the gloom. 

“Do you think it’s the thing about having the tools to solve a problem?” Dewan asks.

“I don’t know. You were the one with the problem.”

“What? We gave her a ride. Bought the food, looked up how to cook.” 

“And you made friends with Jason and got him to join art club.” 

He thinks about it. “It was nice. Eating around the family table and looking at the harvest moon.”

“Yeah, nice. And you started to eat dinner with your family every night after the moon thing.”

“So did you! You took up woodworking.”

“Yes! I did! See? It was good for everybody when we went before. Maybe it’ll be good now, too.”

Dewan narrowed his eyes at her. “Why? What’s your problem?”

“I need new overalls and my curveball’s not getting any better,” she declared, flattening her mouth and shifting her eyes to the corner.

Dewan took a step toward the furnace. If she was right, maybe he wouldn’t need to press her about her brother. Maybe a solution would just assert itself from the furnace.

“What do you have downloaded on Mimic?” she asked, her eye caught by a shelf of books beneath the dingy window. 

“Arabic,” he replied.

“Arabic?” she asked in surprise before realizing just how pretty Fatima was and how unlikely Dewan was to impress her on the soccer field. “Oh! Okay. And we’ve got French on Duolingo.”

“Mr. Richardson’s choice. Are you ready to pedal?” Dewan pointed toward the furnace.

“Yeah!” she practically squealed.

He swung the door open, but instead of handlebars, there pressed forth--assertively indeed, he had to admit--the head of a camel. “Ummm..” Dewan backed toward the door as the camel got larger and stepped into the room.

“Oh!”  Mindy flapped a book at him. “This one has a camel!” “Morocco” was printed in bold letters across the cover, in the midst of a deep blue sky, above the face of a camel striding atop a red dune. “They speak Arabic and French there?”

Dewan swallowed hard as the camel nuzzled at his collar bones, back pinned to the door. “Yep.”

“Great!” shouted Mindy. “Let’s go!”

“Dauntless!” he called back. 

May 05, 2023 01:58

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Estee Kitelinger
15:04 May 18, 2023

Hey Anne, I was matched up with you on the Critique Circle. Sorry I'm a little late to give you feedback. First of all, great start. I was pulled in right away with the sentence “But did it even really happen?” Also, I feel like your dialogue is on-point. Very strong. One thing I thought it was missing in the beginning was a little bit of context. I believe in giving readers lots of questions to up the suspense, but I felt like there was almost too much up in the air with nothing for me to grip onto (if that makes sense). Plus, with so mu...


16:01 May 18, 2023

Hi. Thanks for reading. I agree with all you've said here: I'm really trying to cram a whole middle grade novel into a 3000-word story, so a lot had to be cut out, which leaves it fun but disorienting. Thanks for the feedback.


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Amanda Lieser
20:42 May 11, 2023

Hi Anne! This story felt like a magical picture book! I love the way that it leaned on some of the Harry Potter ideas because you used her words to help us understand the characters better. I thought that you did a great job with the childhood point of you. The banter between the characters was absolutely superb! I thought that it was fantastic that you included so many cultures in this piece as well. Nice work!!


21:18 May 11, 2023

Thanks for reading and for your supportive comments!


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Michał Przywara
00:36 May 08, 2023

Heh, so this is like the definition of starting in medias res :) We butt in in the middle of a conversation, which itself is in the middle of two adventures - and yet it all works. Their back-and-forth gradually gives us information (initially, hard to place clues, but eventually we get enough string to connect the dots) and soon we see the whole picture. Definitely a middle grade adventure, and it strives for and reaches some of the heights it references :) The idea of a magic furnace that generates magic time/dimension travelling vehicle...


00:58 May 08, 2023

Hey! Thanks for reading and for the interest!


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Marty B
22:51 May 07, 2023

I liked the two fast talking characters (and think I got all the young adult book references, I wish I was Dauntless, but am Abnegation ;) ). The furnace as a time travel machines threw me off for a bit, but old furnaces do seem mystical and I can see that. I look forward to the next Moroccan chapter of their adventure!


23:01 May 07, 2023

Thanks for reading—I aspire to amity, but I’m hopelessly erudite. Eww dauntless. I Hope a prompt that lends itself to a Morocco adventure comes up.


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Chris Miller
17:44 May 05, 2023

Anne, I hit like before I read this one. I can clearly see the future, because I did like it. Charming story, great characters and packed with great references and themes for the intended audience. I hope your run continues.


17:57 May 05, 2023

Thank you! I felt very rushed at 3000 words, but I’m glad I didn’t totally lose you. Writing for preteens is a different animal…


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Mary Bendickson
05:22 May 05, 2023

Way cool!


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