From the author: What would *you* do if you found out your neighbour had a kingdom of living toys in their basement? "The Penelope Qingdom" is an ode to the '80s, D&D, and first love. For fans of Stranger Things and Ken Liu's "The Paper Menagerie."
An audio version is available for this chapter. Listen online →
It was during the particularly frozen-solid Prince George winter of ‘91, a few days after the new neighbours had arrived, that I first stumbled into the Penelope Qingdom.
"What are their names?" I asked my moms as they bustled about the kitchen getting ready. They'd invited themselves next door for a "Welcome to the Neighbourhood" dinner. We'd never had new neighbours before.
"Mr. and Mrs...Qw- Qwing?" said Mom. "They have a daughter. She's eleven, too, so you'll probably be in the same class after Christmas break."
"You'd better be nice to her," Mum muttered as she dug around the fridge. "And, I think it's more like 'Sching' than 'Qwing.'" Mom made a face and stuck out her tongue. The oven timer dinged—Mom took the lasagna out and put it on the counter. Mum appeared from the fridge with a bottle of wine.
"Can you grab this, Ivan?" Mom said, gesturing at the pasta. "Can't let it cool." Without waiting for my answer, she disappeared toward the front of the house to get our winter boots and jackets. Mum followed her with the wine. I wrapped the lasagna in a tea towel, met them in the mud room, and we left the house.
The neighbour's front door swung open before I could ring the doorbell. A girl with rumpled black hair greeted us. She wore jeans and a knit sweater decorated with the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701, naturally).
"Hello," she said, her voice like dappled sunlight.
There was a moment of awkward silence. What do you say to a new neighbour? "My mom made her classic lasagna." Not my finest first impression.
"I see that," she said. Her grin was challenging and endearing all at once. I wasn't used to such complexity in a smile.
The girl's mother came to the door, martini in hand.
"Hello, Mrs..." said Mum, trailing off to avoid an indelicate pronunciation.
"Mrs. King. With a Q," she added with a flourish—the way she'd probably said it a million times before. "But, please, call me Cathy. With a C." Her tight blonde curls bounced as she winked with her whole face.
"Why 'with a Q'?" I asked.
Mum smacked me lightly across the back of the head. "Don't ask things like that!" she said.
"Hello, dear," Mom said to the girl before Mrs. Qing could reply. She had an oddly irritating smile on her face. "What's your name?"
"Penelope," said Penelope.
"Well, invite them in!" called a man's voice from deeper in the house. It wasn't quite teasing, but almost.
Their home wasn't much bigger than ours, but where my moms kept things spotless, chaos reigned in the Qing household. Respectable, understandable chaos—boxes stacked high in the hallways, furniture covered with old sheets, and walls half-painted; the detritus of an upheaved life—but chaos all the same. I loved it.
"Why don't you show Ivan the basement while we share a cocktail with his parents, Penelope?" Mrs. Qing said as soon as the front door shut. Penelope's face broke into a mischievous smile. She grabbed my hand and pulled me through a nearby darkened doorway and down a stairway.
"It's different in Chinese," she said, stopping mid-flight. Only a sliver of light reached us through the door above, so I could barely see her face as she turned to look at me. I was suddenly aware of my hand gripped firmly in hers. It wasn't like holding my mom's hand.
Not quite sure what she meant, I said nothing.
"My last name. It's pronounced differently in Chinese. That's why it starts with a Q."
"How do you say it?"
"I don't know. I don't speak Chinese."
"What about your dad?"
"He hasn't spoken it since he was a kid." I tried to imagine not speaking the same language as my parents. "I guess 'king' is just easier for people here to pronounce." She shrugged. "Come on!"
I followed Penelope as she bounded down the stairs two at a time. At the bottom she flicked on a light. "Welcome," she said, waving her hand to encompass the land's entirety, "to the Penelope Kingdom." I was not prepared for the vast world of knights and castles and dragons that awaited us at the bottom of the stairs, filling every nook and cranny of the basement.
Made of styrofoam hills and paper trees, wooden houses, LEGO castles, and plastic figurines, the Penelope Kingdom was a thing of dreams. I'd lived whole summers in the sand pile behind my house, digging ditches and building cities that dissolved in the lightest rain. Those worlds existed in my head, vast places of adventure unrivaled by anything my childhood world could offer. The Penelope Kingdom was like one of those worlds come to life.
"This is where I spend most of my time," Penelope said casually, as if such a world existed in everybody's basement. "Can I show you around?"
"Why is it a kingdom?" I asked.
Penelope looked at me sideways, her head tilted like a bird. "What do you mean?"
"You're a girl. Shouldn't it be a Queendom?"
Penelope laughed. "Girls can be kings too!"
I didn't have an answer. I liked the idea, actually.
"Besides, it works with my name," she said. Another good point.
"So, the Penelope Qingdom," I said.
The conversation stopped as Penelope picked up a box full of action figures and dolls from where it hid in a nook under the stairs. "You need to pick one," she said, "so you can enter the Qingdom."
I dug through the box for a moment, settling on an action figure wearing a black robe and a helmet that looked like a cooking pot. Penelope reached into the box and managed to pick a plastic morningstar out of the mess without looking. "A cleric. Good choice. What's his name?" she asked.
"Ivan," I said. My cheeks flushed as I bit down on blurting out a more creative name.
"Well, Sir Ivan, Cleric of the Wending Wind," Penelope said, dropping her voice an octave, "you are now anointed a knight of the Penelope Qingdom." She placed the morningstar in the palm of her hand and held it out towards the plastic figurine clutched in my hand.
To my surprise, Sir Ivan bowed his head and reached out to take the weapon from Penelope. My stomach heaved, and the cleric dropped from my suddenly clumsy fingers.
"Penelope! Ivan! Dinner's ready." Mrs. Qing's voice rang down the stairwell. Penelope grabbed my hand and dragged me upstairs without an explanation.
It is unclear when Sir Ivan, Cleric of the Wending Wind, first arrived in the Penelope Qingdom, but his rise to knighthood is well-documented.
In spring 1237 BF, Ivan Wandsworth, a lowly cleric, was involved in a fight at The Whistling Pig—a watering hole known for its rabble-rousers and bad beer. Local prison records indicate that a brawl erupted after Wandsworth was attacked by a priest of Irrinea, who targeted Wandsworth as part of his campaign to "put holes in the unholy." Sitting ringside for their pious brawl was Ulf Riggersson, a captain in the Qing's Panoply who frequented the tavern in an effort to retain some semblance of the life he led before being conscripted.
Unharmed by the altercation, Wandsworth was escorted to jail by the city guard. Much to his regret, the Irrinean priest was unaware that before life in the clergy, Wandsworth was an indentured (and very popular) pit fighter in Ooloosang. The priest was treated for a compound fracture of his humerus, but later lost his arm to the rot—justifying his belief in god's cruelty.
Wandsworth was released the following morning on account of the jailer having prior relations with the Irrinean priest. Impressed by Wandsworth's handy dismantling of the priest, Riggersson approached him as he exited the prison with an invitation to join the Qing's Panoply—an elite military company in direct service to King Penelope. Bereft of coin and dignity (else why would he be drinking at The Whistling Pig?), Wandsworth accepted Riggersson's offer. He was subsequently escorted from the prison to the royal castle's Small Chamber, where he swore allegiance to the Qing's Panoply and the Penelope Qingdom.
(Excerpt: A Wending History; Xi, Wu; Terrapin Press; 1344 BF)
"That's Ulf Riggersson." Penelope pointed to a blonde-haired beefcake who I was certain lived a former life as He-Man. I picked him up, and as soon as he was placed amongst the other living toys, he rattled to life. "He's a bit of a jerk, but you want him on your side in a fight."
I picked up another figurine—Wonder Woman, dressed in army fatigues from a G.I. Joe and colored with a felt marker to have dark brown skin. "And her?"
"Sari. She's got a lot of kids." Penelope gestured towards a pile of dinosaurs with human doll heads glued between their shoulders.
We heard the stomp of Mr. Qing's heavy black boots on the front steps all the way down in the basement. Every school night, we'd keep half an ear open for him. It was the sound of the sun setting on the Qingdom. Time for me to go home.
Mr. Qing wasn't bad, exactly. He was always polite, and drove Penelope and me to swimming on Saturdays—but he didn't really seem to pay attention when you spoke to him. He was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and sometimes it seemed like he cared more about that than anything else.
"Is it hard having an RCMP officer as a dad?"
"Well," Penelope said, furrowing her brow. "I guess so." After a pause, she continued, "I don't like moving around so much...."
"I don't think he likes me," I blurted out. I hadn't realized I'd felt so until that very moment. The words surprised me as much as they did Penelope.
She put down the figure of Wu Xi, a travelling scholar who had first arrived in the realm astride a giant tortoise. His steed clambered across the rocks surrounding the pool at the foot of the Heaven's Reach waterfall and disappeared beneath its turbid surface. A bubble of air formed around Wu Xi’s head just before he was submerged. The Qingdom settled—in seconds it was just toys, wooden block buildings, and plastic shrubbery. Penelope's eyes darted between my own and her hands, fidgeting furiously in her lap.
"My father doesn't approve of your moms," she said, as though breathing the words came at great cost.
"Well," I said after a moment, forcing a smile onto my lips, "My mum doesn't like the way your dad still hasn't taken the Christmas lights down. So, I guess they're even."
We both laughed until our cheeks hurt.
Mr. Qing came downstairs to say hello. Even in socks, the sound of his footsteps coming downstairs was unmissable. He walked with authority, always rigid, disciplined—so unlike Penelope and her mom. His scarlet RCMP uniform was imperious.
Mr. Qing watched us laughing like we were half-loony, then told Penelope that dinner was almost ready. He showed me to the front door.
Ivan Wandsworth faced brutal hazing at the hands of his fellow Panoplians. Then, one night, his toes being nipped by bogles, Wandsworth's long-sequestered rage, grown strong in the fighting pits, erupted in a fury. He inflicted severe damage on his peers in his escape: four cracked skulls, seven broken legs, thirty-two snapped fingers, and two shattered noses. However, even the feared pit fighter could not hold out against Ulf Riggersson and the half-company of Panoplians roused to detain him. Riggersson was not involved in the hazing, but his fury at being woken by the struggle has since become legend among new Panoplians.
Wandsworth was detained in a cell usually reserved for the worst of Arsi Empee's demons. There he rotted for a fortnight. Word of his escapade spread through the ranks of the Panoplians like a begrudging wildfire, eventually making its way out of the garrison, through the royal palace, and to the ears of King Penelope herself. A now-legendary meeting between the King and Wandsworth occurred in the shadows of his cell, during which she offered the cleric a knighthood if he would be her "greatest weapon against Empee."
Wandsworth accepted. Local gossip says that the King quenched Wandsworth's thirst from her own flask.
Upon his unorthodox graduation from the Panoply, Wandsworth became Sir Ivan and assumed his prominent role as the King's trusted advisor and weapon. He took his title from The Wending Wind, a fairy tale from his youth of a wind-borne priest who travelled through myriad lands in search of a song with the power to mend broken hearts.
(Excerpt: A Wending History; Xi, Wu; Terrapin Press; 1344 BF)
The next two years were a blur of new classmates, homework, endless summer days, and my mom's lectures about the benefits of 4-H and equine therapy. One thing that remained constant, however, was my forever-growing affection for Penelope. She had this frenetic enthusiasm that was almost overwhelming. I couldn't help but love what she loved; to sink into the way she described things; to touch objects warmed by her hand. She was brilliant, way above our grade level—but being around her didn't make me feel dumb, like being at school. She opened doors to a world where understanding anything was within reach if you thought hard enough and filled in the blanks with your best guesses.
Mr. Qing became openly wary of our friendship, and Penelope told me awkward stories about her mother's attempts to set her up on playdates with other girls. My moms were more open to our friendship, but on more than one occasion Mum made it clear she wished we'd spend less time burrowed in the basement.
For both of us the transition from elementary school to secondary school had been...unfriendly. One day after school, I went to Penelope's like I always did—even though I wanted nothing more than to hide in a hole. She was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs, holding a squirming cave troll, and said, "I heard. My mom heard from Principal Schmitt."
The shadow of Mum's baseball cap covered most of my face. Penelope reached up and removed it. The tenuous light of the basement's lamp spilled across my swollen eye. I looked back at her with such shame.
"Tell me," she said. The cave troll stilled. I couldn't find the words. She guided me to a chair and sat me down. "Tell me what happened, Ivan."
"Davey," I said, just above a whisper. "He asked me which of my moms was 'the boy.' So I kicked him in the nuts."
Penelope winced, but then another look came over her as she considered the implications. It was halfway between dread and fascination. A bit of pride threatened my shame. Davey was in eleventh grade but looked like he should be in college. She reached up and ran a finger lightly around the rim of my eye. It hurt, but I was more concerned with hiding my embarrassment.
"Ivan's a fighter," she said.
"No, I'm not."
"Ivan Wandsworth is a fighter."
"He is," I said, awash in her adoration. "I think I broke Davey's nose!"
"Then he got what he deserved."
I looked up at her, and she stared solemnly back. Then, to my surprise, she threw a punch, thumping me playfully on the shoulder. Before I could get her back, she tackled me to the floor. Our laughter brought Mr. Qing stomping down the stairs. He wasn't impressed.
I'd always thought a kiss would be wet, messy—but Penelope's mouth on mine was warm and dry, with just the softest touch of her tongue on my lower lip. My hands clenched at my sides, an instinctive reaction to the shiver crawling up my spine. She reached for one of my fists, parted my fingers, and entwined hers around them. I was sure my hair stood on end. Penelope pulled away first, ran a hand through her dark hair. Smiled.
I fought the urge to lick my lips, until she licked her own.
I stammered something stupid.
She laughed—then kissed me again.
The day after the kiss, Penelope left with her parents on an early summer vacation to Osoyoos. Not much fun for a kid, but she used to live there and was excited to see old friends. Mr. Qing gave me the keys to the house, and Penelope gave me the keys to the Qingdom. While King Penelope travelled to a foreign land on a great diplomatic mission, Sir Ivan was in charge.
"This is the first time in the history of the Qingdom that its safekeeping will be trusted to someone other than—" Penelope said as we stood outside her house. Her wide-eyed expression was supposed to communicate the seriousness of this historic moment, but...
I was fixated on her lips, shiny with strawberry lip gloss, and the way her hair fell loosely braided over her shoulder. I yearned to kiss her, but horrific possibilities flitted through my mind. What if her parents saw? What if she didn't reciprocate? What if she did? Then, she was gone, whisked away by her mother, seat-belted in the backseat. I watched and waved as their hatchback disappeared around the corner of our sun-soaked street.
Mum leaned against our front door and looked at me with a smile that made me want to hug her. As we walked inside together, she ruffled my hair the same way she used to when dropping me off at school. I'd asked her to stop one day, told her she was "messing it up." She'd listened. I sort of missed it.
The next day, I went over to the Qings to water the plants. When I was done, I went downstairs to assume my duties as interim ruler of the Qingdom.
I rounded the corner of the basement stairs, unsure of where to begin. There was no "hello" from Penelope, no bloodthirsty ogre roar, no proclamations from town criers, no tumbling jesters in the royal court. Just silence. I trailed my fingers down the old silk scarf that formed the Heaven's Reach waterfall. At my touch, everything stirred, like a golem come briefly to life. Two naiads splashed playfully in the spray, goading a water drake hidden behind the curtain of water. The smoothness of the silk reminded me of the brush of her fingertips. The drake parted the falls with its head, nipping at the naiads, who slipped into the pool’s depths, laughing. With the memory of her touch, the drake’s head dropped, magic losing its grip to gravity. The taste of her mouth filled the void.
Startled, I looked around. A pile of old toys filled the basement, littering a hodgepodge kingdom of spare parts, reclaimed household items, and childish dreams. I shuddered for a moment, feeling foolish for ever holding on to such a trite belief. The kiss had woken something in me, something huge, and there was no longer room inside me for the Penelope Qingdom.
I left, and when I was back in my bedroom, I circled the date of Penelope's return on my calendar. I made a promise to myself to kiss her again.
I didn't go down to the basement again.
Penelope hadn't even been home for half an hour when I showed up at her house to follow through on my vow. She greeted me with a rush of questions about the Qingdom—then a barrage of stories about her time away: water skiing, her cousin’s new tree fort, the embarrassing evening when her mother drank too much wine. We laughed, and I asked questions, but all I could think about was kissing her. She seemed oblivious to my discomfort. She gave me a bottle of wine to pass along to my moms, then pulled out a tub of stuff that looked like it came straight from a thrift shop.
"The Penelope Qingdom grows!" she said. Her grin made me smile, and, without warning, I felt a flush of nostalgia. I shook it off. The things she'd picked up were great, no doubt, but I wanted to get down to business. I hadn't built up all this courage just to let it bleed away while we looked at toys.
"I got this for Sir Ivan," she said, showing me a plastic dragon. She placed the cleric between its articulated wings as though he were riding a horse. "Every great knight needs an equal steed."
"Pretty cool," I admitted.
She arched her eyebrow at my lukewarm response. I could see the living Qingdom reflected in her cinnamon eyes. To me, though, it was as lifeless as the day after she'd left on vacation.
This is it, I thought to myself. Now. Do it now!
"I've got something for you," I said. "Close your eyes." I didn't think my courage would survive her curious stare. We sat cross-legged across from each other, so I had to lean far forward to reach her. Guessing my intent, Penelope blindly reached for my hands. The surprise was no less sweet for being spoiled. The warmth of her kiss sent courage coursing through me. I opened my eyes.
"I missed you," she said. She blushed, and I realized that she was equally anxious.
"I missed you, too." I was too earnest. I leaned in and kissed her again.
I never got a chance to tell her about the Penelope Qingdom's strange quietude.
Historical records tell of many enemies vying for the downfall of the Penelope Qingdom—however, most eminent among these was Arsi Empee, the villainous Chancellor Warlock of Set. Known for his crimson robe and faceless visage, Empee was single-minded in his quest for control, and otherworldly in his ambitions. From the moment of its founding in 14 BF, the Penelope Qingdom was harried by Empee's diabolical schemes and magical warfare.
Most of Empee's schemes involved attempted magical relocations of the Qingdom from this earth to the Outer Realms—an incomprehensible place of magic where the laws of physics are reversed. In his chronicle of the Penelope Qingdom, A Wending History (Terrapin Press, 1344 BF), Wu Xi speculates that the Outer Realms were created as the result of an accidental mana confluence following a blood magic ritual in which a young Empee attempted to resurrect his father, a treasonous haberdasher who was executed by the great Warlock Lord, Braez Tun.
(Excerpt: Magics of the Penelope Qingdom; Cant, Este; Mana University Press; 1401 BF)
Our friendship changed in the weeks that followed. It was strengthened by our newfound affection, but confused by my lingering frustration for it to grow beyond the childish borders of the Qingdom. Each time we visited, I left more tired of the imaginary escapades that still excited Penelope. So, I made every excuse to change the scenery: burgers at the pool cafe, movies and popcorn, a camping trip with my parents to Bugle Lake. Mr. Qing was particularly eager to support our above-ground social activities. At first, Penelope seemed to enjoy these new adventures, but she always came back around to the Qingdom.
We were in the doldrums of summer vacation, high school waiting like a bully around September's corner, when I found Penelope sitting on the front step of my house. She seemed...solemn. Her hands were shaking, and mascara (which she'd just started wearing) ran down her cheeks in twin charcoal tears.
"We're moving," she said, eyes downcast.
Her words hit like one of Arsi Empee's Ultimo bombs—obliterating all the frustration and resentment I'd bottled up.
"Moving..." I repeated the word slowly, not quite able to grasp its meaning.
"To Vancouver." I could tell she was angry about it. So was I.
"Why?" I asked.
"My father," she said. "Reassigned."
"Vancouver's a long way from Prince George," I said. I'd driven down there with my moms once for a wedding. It took us two days. I still remember the stream of midnight semi trucks screaming by our highway-side campground. None of us slept that night. The rush of blood pounding in my ears sounded exactly like those trucks. "When?"
"Just before school starts. We've already got boxes to pack." I remembered the piles of boxes that filled their house when I first met Penelope. "Come on," she said, smudging the mascara in her attempt to wipe it away. "Let's go downstairs."
The last recorded sighting of Sir Ivan, Cleric of the Wending Wind, occurred during the Red Autumn of 1329 BF, preceding the absolute destruction of Cerris Village.
Cerris was home to the Great Oak, a sentient tree with the curious ability to dampen many nefarious magics. Prominent among the village's residents were Sari the Everhearted and her loyal dragon-children. As sole protector of the Great Oak, it was not unusual for Sari to be called upon several times a year to defend the village from attack by the minions of the dreaded warlock Arsi Empee. During the Red Autumn, Cerris faced a direct assault from Empee himself. Survival of the Great Oak was paramount whatever the cost, forcing Sari to summon many of the Qingdom's most trusted defenders, myself included.
Sir Ivan and I arrived in Cerris as battle raged between Sari and Empee. With our aid, the tide of battle turned against the warlock, but, never content with a fair fight, he unleashed his most devastating weapon: the Ultimo bomb. The resulting explosion was so enormous that it consumed the entirety of Cerris—ending the lives of all 154 residents, and obliterating the Great Oak. It is said that the preparation of an Ultimo bomb requires the sacrifice of a thousand innocent souls. When the smoke cleared, a deep crater was all that marked the existence of the once humble village.
From that crater crawled Sari, hairless and black with soot, several of her dragon-children, and myself. (I myself survived only by taking shelter under the mithril wings of a brave dragon-child.) Neither Empee nor Sir Ivan emerged.
In the centuries that followed, the village of Cerris was forgotten, but the legend of Sir Ivan lived on. My great friend was memorialized by a monument at the deepest point of Empee Crater, carved of black diamond. Sightseers from every corner of the land still visit the site to marvel at the cleric's diamond robes billowing in the noble wind that blows through the crater at noon and midnight each day.
(Excerpt: A Wending History; Xi, Wu; Terrapin Press; 1344 BF)
On the morning of moving day, Mum found me sulking in front of the television. She asked me what was wrong, as if it wasn't obvious. I shrugged her off and stalked away. She followed me to my bedroom, where I sat on the edge of my bed, trying to focus on reading a comic book.
"I'm all ears, you know," she said. I knew she was trying to be nice, but nice wasn't what I needed. Nice wasn't enough.
"I know," I said, more snappish than I'd meant.
"You'll be all right." Mum settled beside me and put an arm around my waist, like she used to do when we all curled up together on the couch for family movie night. "She'll be all right."
I imagined the first day of school without Penelope, lost amidst a sea of people that I didn't understand, who didn't understand me. Childhood friends who were now strangers. A sick feeling rose from the pit of my stomach to burn right above my heart.
"It just...it fucking sucks," I said, spitting the curse defiantly. I hadn't cried in years, but, dammit, those words were forced around a huge lump in my throat. Tears threatened, and I turned away from Mum.
"It does, honey. It fucking sucks. I won't tell you it doesn't. So, figure out a way to change that. The world's smaller than you think it is. You can phone Penelope as much as you need to."
I hated talking on the phone.
I leaned my head on Mum's shoulder, and let the tears come. I cried until my gut ached. It felt good.
At some point, Mom joined us, one hand on my shoulder, the other resting on Mum's knee. I was sniffling away snot, about to apologize for acting childishly, when Mom said, "I think Penelope's packing the car. Why don't you go say goodbye, Ivan?"
Through my bedroom window, I could see her dad packing luggage into their nearly-full hatchback. A moving truck was also parked out front, two burly men packing it full to bursting. I'd missed my chance to kiss her goodbye when she left on vacation. I wouldn't make that mistake again.
"Oh, and Ivan, we'll talk about your language at dinner," Mum called after me as I left my bedroom.
I turned. "But. You swore too."
Mom's raised eyebrow chased me out the door.
When I got outside, Penelope was sitting beside a beat-up moving box on the concrete steps in front of her house. Her old house. I waved, and she scooted over to make room for me. Her eyes were red-rimmed like mine. Neither of us said anything about crying. The silence was awkward at first, then it settled into something comfortable.
"I have something I want to give to you," Penelope said, finally. She picked up and passed me the box. I lifted the interlocked lid flaps, and saw Sir Ivan lying on top of several recognizable characters and landmarks from the Penelope Qingdom.
"He's got a new sword," I noticed. I picked up Sir Ivan, manipulated his articulated limbs into a threatening battle pose, then gently put him back in the box. "Penelope, I can't take these. They belong with the Qingdom."
She retrieved Sir Ivan and put him back in my hand, wrapped my fingers around the hard plastic. "Ivan's not from the Qingdom," she said. "He never was. He's served the king well, been a trusted advisor and protector, but she has a new mission for him. The most important in the land's history. The world's big, Ivan—bigger than the Penelope Qingdom. Bigger than Prince George."
"The Qingdom is expanding," I said, glancing again at the box of toys.
"Let's call it a colony," Penelope said. Then, in the voice of the King, "Sir Ivan Wandsworth, Cleric of the Wending Wind, I charge you with the following: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."
I laughed, then assumed character. Under a blanket of solemnity, I rose from the front steps and knelt before Penelope, holding Sir Ivan before me. It might have been a trick of the moment, but his plastic skin felt soft and warm. "I pledge to uphold the vision of the Penelope Qingdom," I said, "to embrace what friends I find outside its borders, and defend every corner of the growing realm from villainy."
She took Sir Ivan from my hands, and kissed him once on each cheek. "You are a true hero, Sir Ivan." She looked me in the eye as she said this—not as King Penelope, but as Penelope Qing.
"This is...this is great, Penelope," I said, back to real-life Ivan. The warmth in Sir Ivan whispered away as I stuffed him in my pocket.
"You'll love Vancouver," I said. I didn't know that—it just seemed like the right thing to say.
"That's what my dad says."
"It'll be weird, waking up tomorrow and not coming over here."
Penelope's foot started tapping. "Do you have a computer?" she asked, suddenly hopeful.
"Yeah. Mum has one for work. She lets me use it if my homework's done."
"That's perfect! I learned about a world that we can go to on the computer. Darker Realms. It's a MUD."
"Like a puddle?" I was confused.
"No! Like the Penelope Qingdom, but with words instead of toys."
How could words come to life in that way? I thought of all the books sitting on the shelves of Penelope's basement, and the handwritten stories her mother left scattered atop their kitchen table.
"Words?" I said.
"I don't know if my parents will let me," I said. Deep down, I knew they would. They liked Penelope more than they hated the emerging world of personal computers.
"They'll let you!" Penelope said. "Tell them I told you about it."
A car horn sounded, breaking us from our excitement. Penelope's mother was already buckled in. Her dad beckoned from where he leaned against the car. "It's time, honey," he called.
We stood, hugged, then I kissed her, not even caring that her parents could see. After one final embrace, we parted, our hands entwined until the last possible second. Without a word, Penelope ran to the car and clambered into the back seat.
A quick wave from Mr. Qing, then he got into the car. I couldn't quite tell, but it seemed like he was smiling. They drove away, and I thought for sure the boxes piled high on the roof of their car would tumble off. I wondered which box housed the Penelope Qingdom. They turned the corner, and she was gone. It wasn't the last time I saw Penelope, but it felt like it at that moment.
I took the box she'd given me down to my own basement. After relocating my mom's forever-in-progress pile of sewing from the ping pong table, I turned the box upside down, and scattered the toys across the soil of their new home. I spent time arranging everything, trying to come up with something even half as interesting as Penelope's Qingdom.
Eventually, Mom's voice drifted down the stairs. "Ivan, lunch!" Plans running through my head, I set Sir Ivan down under the Great Oak. Finger on the basement light switch, I surveyed my accomplishment from the bottom of the stairs. It would do, I thought.
Sir Ivan, Cleric of the Wending Wind, knelt outside the Dragon's cave. His head was bowed, cowl covering his face, and his jeweled sword lay across his knees. He was several feet from where I'd just put him down. Sir Ivan drew back the hood of his robe, looked me straight in the eye, then stood, and raised the sword triumphantly into the air. He stepped into the darkness of the cave, sword still held high above his head, and kept walking until he was lost in shadows.
“Just a minute!” I hollered back up the stairs. I watched the darkness pouring from the cave mouth, and, like the glimmer of Wandsworth’s new sword slashing in the shadows, I saw the beginning of another great adventure.
This story originally appeared in Mothership Zeta.