It took a bit of fast talking, and an awful lot of womanly wiles on Jessie's part (for someone who didn't know anything about romance, she picked up the knack of exploiting it awfully fast), but we eventually managed to persuade the Commander to go along with the plan. And thus it happened that, on the afternoon of October 9, 1999, Jessie and I heard the phone ring, and, a few seconds later, heard Mom call me up the stairs. "Jake?" she said. "It's for you."
"Who is it?" I said, as though I didn't know.
"It's your cousin, the birthday girl," said Mom. "And she sounds pretty excited. I'm guessing that you did right by her."
"Well, that's good," I said. "Okay, I'll get it up here."
As I got up from the bed, Jessie leaped up and clung to my left shoulder, her legs dangling down against my back. "You think she's found out by now?" she whispered.
"I don't see why else she should be excited," I said. "The Buzz Lightyear craze was four years ago, and Beth wasn't a huge fan even then."
"Mm." Jessie kicked her toe against my back nervously. "I wonder what Louise and her husband thought when she opened it, then. You don't think we gave anything away, do you?"
I shrugged – just with the right shoulder, since I didn't want to pitch Jessie off. "I doubt it," I said. "They might have thought it was a little weird, but I'm sure Beth found a way to pass it off. She's a smart girl."
Jessie started to respond, but I'd made it to the phone by this point, so I shushed her and picked up the receiver. "Hello?" I said.
"Oh, there he is," came Mom's voice from the downstairs phone. "All right, Beth, I'll talk to you later. Happy birthday."
"Thanks, Aunt Dana," said Beth.
There was a tiny click as Mom put her receiver down, and Beth's voice suddenly sprang to life. "Jacob Peters, I am going to murder you!" she shouted.
A bit inflammatory, you might think, but I stayed calm. One has to maintain a cool head, when confronted with the emotional excesses of the female sex. "Could you repeat that a little louder, Beth?" I said. "I don't think everyone on the Eastern Seaboard heard you."
"Don't even try to weasel out of this, Jake," said Beth. "What's the idea, sending me a Buzz Lightyear that comes to life as soon as I'm alone with it? You know there's heart trouble in my dad's family; if I didn't eat Cheerios regularly, I could easily be in the hospital right now."
"You believe that, what they say about whole oats?" I said. "Because my dad says…"
"Jake." Beth's voice could have frozen helium. "Never mind about oats, or your dad's crackpot ideas, or any other subject you might wish to bring up at a later date. Just get down on your knees and start begging my forgiveness for so directly endangering my well-being."
I sighed. "Okay, okay. I'm sorry, Beth; probably I should have given you some warning…"
"He's not on his knees," Jessie sing-songed.
"If I were you, Jessie, I'd keep quiet right about now," said Beth. "You're implicated in this, too, you know. –You were saying, Jake?"
"Well, what can I say?" I said. "I thought you needed a little bit of excitement in your life. Living out there in New York, I mean, with nothing but the occasional murder to break the monotony, while I'm out here in the thick of things."
"Oh, you are, are you?"
"Absolutely," I said. "You know, just the other day one of Sheriff Brewer's deputies had to order a replacement badge, because he'd left his old one out on the porch and a crow had stolen it? Obviously the first blow in Nature's planned reconquest of the Laramide orogeny. Now, you're never going to have anything like that, because what would Nature do with that pile of concrete you live in? So, you see, it was really my cousinly duty to…"
A bubbling laugh from the other end interrupted me. "Okay, Jake," said Beth. "You win. But seriously, what have you and Jessie been up to, out there in the boondocks?"
I hesitated. "Well, that's kind of a sensitive subject," I said. "See, Jessie has friends that she wants to protect, and it'll compromise them if I say too much over the phone. Let's just say that…" I thought for a second. "Okay, you remember what you said about your teddy bear, back when we first saw the photos?"
"Um… vaguely," said Beth, sounding puzzled.
"Well, let's just say that, if he had chosen to, he could have."
"Could have…" Beth repeated slowly. It took her a second or two, but then the light bulb went on. "Oh," she said softly. "Oh, I see. You mean… it's all of them?"
"Every last one," I said.
"But, then, why…" Beth started, then caught herself. "Right, of course. You can't tell me over the phone. Who knows, maybe the international crow conspiracy has tapped your wires."
"I was thinking more about whether Mom might overhear," I said.
"Okay, fine," said Beth. "But I'll expect you to have written me a letter within the week, telling me everything about this. If you leave out even one single detail, you'll have the wrath of a Riley woman to contend with, and you know what that means."
"In a general way, I do," I agreed. "And I can imagine most of the details. Okay, it's a deal."
"Good," said Beth. "There's one question, though, that I do want an answer to right away, and I think you can give it to me without burning your mother's ears too badly."
"Are we the only ones who know?"
I hesitated. "You mean, the only full-size ones?"
"I think so," I said. "Jessie said there were a couple other people who had found out partway, like we did in July, but she never said anything about anyone else getting the full story. And even among the partial initiates, the only person she named had a 19th-Century ballet written about her, so I'm guessing she's probably dead by now."
Beth missed that last comment completely. (I know, because two months later I happened to make a reference to Jessie and the Nutcracker in a letter to her, and she had no idea what I was talking about.) "So you're saying," she said slowly, "that there's this whole other world going on all around us – that all we have to do is turn our backs for it to spring to life – and that, out of all the six billion people in the world, you and I are the only people who know about it."
Beth let out a deep breath. "Wow," she said. "Suddenly, I feel a lot more than just one year older."
"Oh, yeah, about that," I said. "Listen, I know I didn't send a marsupial card this year, and I'm sorry about that. I didn't forget our tradition, I promise; it's just that I couldn't find a decent one in the stores, and things have been so hectic lately that I never had time to…"
Beth's laughter bubbled up from the receiver again. "It's okay, Jake, really," she said. "I wouldn't have minded if you'd forgotten. After everything you've done, I wouldn't have minded if you'd forgotten my name."
"Oh," I said. "Well… okay, if you say so, Cindy."
That one really took Beth apart. It took her nearly a minute to recover from her giggling fit; when she finally spoke again, it was in a weak, gasping voice. "Oh," she said. "Oh, that hurt. Jake, you're an out-and-out rascal, you know that?"
I grinned. "I've heard rumors to that effect, yes."
"Well, believe them," said Beth. "Listen, I need to get going; my parents will be back any minute now, so we can head out to Applebee's for dinner. Is Jessie still there?"
"I'm right here, partner," said Jessie. "What's up?"
"Oh, nothing, really," said Beth. "I just wanted you to know that I've been thinking about you – and to say thank you for whatever help you might have given Jake in this little project of his."
Jessie looked down at my shoulder and started toying with her ponytail, the way she does when she's embarrassed. "Oh, I didn't really do anything," she said. "I didn't even know he was planning it."
"You told me about the Rule of Concealment," I pointed out. "I couldn't have worked it if I hadn't known about that."
"Well, that's true," Jessie admitted, "but you can't give me a whole lot of credit for that. I mean, just because I threw a hissy fit over that Qui-Gon figurine…"
"Oh, give it up, Jess," said Beth. "If I want to be grateful to you, I can be, whether you've done anything to deserve it or not. But never mind. The real reason I wanted you had nothing to do with me."
Jessie blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Well," said Beth coyly, "it just so happens that there's a handsome young Space Ranger sitting next to me who's been pining for the sound of your voice ever since he changed mail planes in Kansas City. I was just wondering if you might be willing to oblige him."
"Oh." If Jessie had had skin, I'm pretty sure she would have blushed at that point. "Well, um… sure. Just give me a sec to get settled here."
She turned to me with a no-nonsense look in her eyes, and pointed to the table. I nodded and put the receiver down, and Jessie jumped down, kneeled beside it, and shooed me away. "Okay, Bethie, put him on," she said.
I tiptoed discreetly back to my bedroom, but couldn't (or, at any rate, didn't) help overhearing the first few lines of her side of the conversation. "Yeah, Commander, I'm here." Pause. "Well, maybe it is primitive, but it does the job all right." Pause, followed by a nervous giggle. "Oh, I don't think I'd like that. I get antsy enough around cameras…"
About five minutes later, Jessie came back into my room, clearly trying not to grin like a lifelong wallflower after her first dance. Her efforts weren't doing much good, though.
"So how's the good Commander doing?" I said.
"None of your beeswax," said Jessie automatically. Then, after her brain had had a few seconds to process the question thoroughly, "That is, um… he's all right."
"Is he?" I said, smiling broadly. "I guess all that pining isn't as bad for a person as they make it sound."
It was utterly cruel of me, of course. I'd been through all this already (with Sophie Walker, my hopeless crush throughout junior high), whereas Jessie was a complete rookie. I should have been offering her sage counsel, instead of needling her mercilessly for the sheer pleasure of watching her confusion. But, if you'd been in my place, I'll bet you wouldn't have been able to resist the temptation, either.
Jessie squeezed her ponytail like a prize Guernsey teat. "Well, I don't know," she murmured. "You know what Beth's like… high-spirited… sometimes she exaggerates things…"
"Oh, of course," I said. "So the Commander didn't say anything about wishing that our backward planet had invented holographic communication, so he could gaze into your eyes while you spoke?"
Jessie's jaw dropped open, and I congratulated myself on my detective skills. It wasn't everyone who could have worked that out from the little I'd overheard.
"I… er…" Jessie started. Then I guess she decided that she couldn't win this conversation, because she suddenly changed the subject. "What was that business about marsupial cards?"
"Oh, that," I said. "Nothing important, really. It's just that, when Beth was a lot younger, she did this school project on Australia, and in the process just fell in love with the idea of animals keeping their babies in pouches. It only lasted a few months, but those few months happened to include both our birthdays and Christmas, so, by the time it blew over, we'd established this tradition of only sending each other cards that involved kangaroos, or koalas, or opossums, or whatever. We've been doing it ever since."
Jessie sighed. "Must be nice," she said.
I shrugged. "It's all right, I guess. It can be a real pain sometimes, though, looking for Christmas cards with koalas on them…"
Jessie shook her head. "That's not what I mean," she said. "I'm talking about having secret things like that, just you and the other person."
"Oh, that," I said. "Yeah, I suppose that's nice. I don't really think much about it, though."
"No, you wouldn't," said Jessie. "That's the best part, not having to think about it. But it's a special thing you two have, all the same."
I raised an eyebrow. "Not just the two of us," I said. "You and the Commander are part of it, now."
"Oh, go on," said Jessie, with a little toss of her head. I could see she was pleased, though.
"Well, you don't think we'll be able to keep you two out of it, do you?" I said. "Probably every time we talk from now on, whether it's in letters or on the phone or in person, we'll spend about half of it telling each other what you've been up to. Like it or not, Jessie, you're part of the club."
Jessie was positively beaming now. "Well, thanks, Jake," she said. "I'll try to do it credit."
"I'm sure you will," I said.
And she has. It's been nearly eight months now, and the four of us have just gotten closer. Jessie still has her neurotic moments, and we never have managed to convince the Commander that he isn't a stranded Space Ranger, but neither Beth nor I really mind that anymore. "What do we have to complain about?" as Beth put it the other day. "We have magic living in our bedrooms."
There are times when I still find it hard to believe. The hidden life of toys – a secret as old as mankind – sometimes I wonder when I'm going to wake up. But then I take another look at Jessie, sitting on the windowsill with that little smile that she gets when she watches the bluebirds, and I decide that waking up is overrated anyway.
I wish I had some profound thought to end this book with, but I don't. Profundity's for wise old men on mountaintops, not everyday schmoes like me. The best I can do is leave you with a few pieces of advice: Brush your teeth regularly. Never treat a person as a mere means. Don't throw your old toys away without at least saying good-bye to them first.
And don't underestimate the wondrousness of the world. Don't assume that, just because you've seen something every day for fourteen years, you've figured out all its secrets. There are more miracles within five miles of you than some people are willing to let into the whole universe. Trust me; I know.
Adiós, mis lectores. Or, as a friend of mine says when you pull her string, "Come on, Sheriff, that sunset's just waiting for someone to ride into it." In any case, good-bye.