Moving to England from Old New Jersey wasn't the worst thing in the world for Tom Rhodes. He was in the fourth grade, about to be in dreaded fifth, and he wasn't exactly Mr. Popular amongst his classmates. He thought that they thought he was a weirdo - and what was wrong with that? Everything, apparently. More likely, they just never thought about him at all. England could be a fresh start for Tom.
His brother and sisters did not agree.
"I hate it here already!" said Elle, the youngest sibling at six years old.
"Me too. There's no beach, mom!" said Susan. "I was supposed to lifeguard this summer."
"Sigh," said Peter, followed by a literal but quite exaggerated sigh. "You were never gonna be allowed to lifeguard, Sus."
Susan and Peter were twins, just over two years older than Tom. Susan arrived a full half hour before Peter, which she often reminded Peter of.
Their mother, Abby Rhodes (her parents had a bit of a thing for The Beatles and couldn't help themselves), glanced back at her kids from the rear-view mirror. Her stiff-upper lip, as the Brits would say, was curled into her forever crooked smile, thanks to a field hockey accident in college.
"Give it a chance, everyone. We're almost there. I think you're gonna like the house."
Their mini-van scratched against the bushes on the skinny country road.
"Maybe I should drive, Mom," said Peter. "You're not used to driving with the steering wheel on the right side."
"And you are?" asked Abby.
"Yes, actually," said Peter. "I've played every single racing video game in the world, and I'm fully prepared to drive this car."
"Over my dead body," said Susan.
Peter was about to say something, but the lane cleared into a long expansive yard, at the end of which stood a massive stone house.
"Woah," said Tom.
"It's a castle," said Susan.
"And that's where we're gonna live," said Abby. "You know how English houses all have special names? Well, ours is called Coldfast."
"Cool," said Peter. "Coldfast. I dig it."
"Is it really ours?" asked Elle.
"Well, we're technically renting it for the summer," said Abby. "But, if we like it -- and my job here works out -- then maybe we can buy it."
"Yay!" said Elle.
Tom's stomach turned, the way it did when he tried reading in the car.
"Can we get out, Mom?" he asked.
"I was going to drive up a little closer, but why not?" She stopped the car, and unlocked the sliding doors. The kids pushed out and flew across the grounds towards the house.
"There's a stream back here! It's like a little river!"
"Look at this climbing tree!"
"I think there's 5 floors!"
"Kids! Can you come here and help me carry in our bags?"
"Yes, mom!" they all replied.
There were enough bedrooms in Coldfast that none of them had to share a room, and there wasn't even much fighting over who got which one. Tom's choice must have once been an old library or a study, because it was filled with wall-to-wall bookshelves, which were now mostly bare, except for a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Tom pulled out the "T" and skimmed ahead to the find the section on turtles when an old-fashioned bell rang from somewhere downstairs
"I'm gonna have to figure out how to call you all, and this bell seems pretty good," said Abby. "A little different from our house in Old New Jersey, huh?"
"Yeah, Mom," said Susan.
"I love it here," said Elle.
"Good," said Abby. "Now I have to drive into town to get situated at work. They want me to start at Bletchley Park tomorrow, and I've got to get my ID card and whatnot set up today. So, Susan and Peter, you're in charge. Stick together, and have fun. I'll bring home something English for dinner. Ok?"
Everyone nodded. They stood at the large doorway to Coldfast and waved at their mother's minivan crunch away on the gravel driveway.
"So, we're splitting up, right?" said Peter.
"Obviously," said Susan. "We've gotta explore this place, and I want to do it my way."
"Me too!" said Elle.
Tom pulled on Susan's arm. "But didn't Mom say we were supposed to stick together."
Susan patted Tom's head.
"Don't worry. I'm in charge now."
"No, I'm in charge," said Peter. "We'll meet back here in an hour and report back on our findings."
"Ugh, okay," said Tom. "I'm going outside then." Something about the house creeped him out.
"Elle and I will explore inside," said Peter. "Susan you should try outside, too."
"I will, but not cause you said it."
Tom and Susan went outside and set off in different directions, Susan towards the stream and the rolling hills beyond the western side of the building, and he towards the pine trees on the east. He'd always loved the smell of Christmas, and pine trees were as close as you could get during the rest of the year.
It wasn't long before Tom had lost sight of Coldfast. He kicked up tufts of fallen pine needles as he walked, like little yellow fireworks for potato bugs. He wondered if potato bugs lived in England. Or if they had some other kind of rolly-polly bug.
He spotted a particularly gigantic pinecone and kicked it. The pinecone bounced and tumbled before rolling into a hollow at the base of a large oak tree. The oak seemed rather out of place in the pine woods. Tom approached the tree and crawled down to try to snag the pinecone. He felt a warm breeze coming from the hollow, and reached inside for the pinecone. He couldn't quite reach it, so he crawled his head inside. The warm feeling grew. Soon Tom was fully inside the hollow, still crawling forward. Maybe this was a cave, he thought. This would be something cool to report back to his siblings.
His head bumped into something. He reached forward. It felt like a door. It was wooden and smooth, with those boxy groves that doors sometimes have for styling purposes. Tom's hand found a cool round handle in the center of the door. He twisted it and the door opened into a sunny afternoon in a completely different forest from the pine trees where he'd been.
Something snuffled nearby. Tom flinched, worried it might be a raccoon or something with rabies.
Tom turned towards the sound. Something fuzzy with two legs was sticking out of a rabbit hole.
Tom was pretty sure it was trying to say "Help!" so he grabbed onto its legs and tugged. And tugged, until finally the thing got unstuck and the two of them rolled backwards into the meadow grasses.
"Oh, thank you, Christopher Ro -- wait a second, you're not him."
It was a talking teddy bear. Yes, Tom said to himself, A teddy bear is standing up and talking to me. I must be unconscious or something.
"Well, I always do say, a Stranger is just a Friend you haven't met yet. I'm Edward Bear, but my Friends call me Winnie. The Pooh."
Tom nodded blankly, because at this moment, behind Edward the Pooh, were three more stuffed animals: a piglet, a tiger, and a baby kangaroo.
"Pooh! Oh, Pooh!" cried the piglet. "There you are!"
"Ho-hoo," said the tiger. "And a-who do we have a-here?"
"Are you coming on our Expodition to the South Pole?" asked the baby kangaroo. "Because we could use someone Strong and Brave."
"I..." stammered Tom. "I don't know..."
"You either Know something or you Don't," said the bear. "But you can never Don't Know something. That's like saying honey isn't sweet and sticky and delicious."
"A pa-pa-paradox," said the tiger, hopping on his rather coiled tail.
Tom had enough. He was clearly losing his mind. He began crab-walking backwards towards towards the door, and grabbed its handle.
"Are you leaving us before the Expodition?" asked the kangaroo.
"Yy-up," said Tom, opening the door, scrambling inside, and pulling it shut. He crawled through the dark back into the pines, and then ran back to Coldfast as fast as he could.
He opened the front door and found his siblings arguing in the foyer.
"Well, where have you been?" snapped Peter.
Tom could barely catch his breath.
"I... I found something."
"Yeah, we all did," said Susan.
"No, no, no," said Tom. "I found this tree, with a hole in it, and I crawled through it, into this whole other forest, and there was a talking teddy bear, and a talking piglet, and a tiger that bounced on its tail, and this baby kangaroo, and they were all going to the South Pole."
"Uh-huh..." said Peter. "Sure, you did."
"No, I'm serious!" said Tom. "You have to see it. I can show you!"
"I found winter," said Elle.
"Your cheeks," said Tom. "They're freezing. Did you find a cellar or something?"
"She was just about to tell us, Tom, before you interrupted everyone," said Susan.
"Not a cellar, but a wardrobe, in another bedroom," said Elle. "I opened it up, and it was filled with these heavy coats, perfect for snowstorms, and I tried to take one off the hanger, and then I just felt more coats hanging behind them. So I climbed into the wardrobe and kept walking. I couldn't find the back of it. And it kept getting colder. Until I looked down and saw that I was walking through snow, and then I looked up and I found a lamppost, and I was standing in a forest covered in snow."
"Your shirt," said Tom. "Are those snowflakes on it?"
"Yes," said Elle. "But then I saw this goat-man walking towards me, and I screamed and I ran back here."
"I don't believe you guys," said Susan. "I saw something real, though. It was a huge battle of these rabbits on the hills beside the house. There were almost a hundred of them. One of them had a big funny tuft of hair, and another had a broken eye, and then there was this big bird helping one of the two sides. It was like watching a real war, I don't even know who won, because suddenly a bunch of the rabbits climbed onto wooden rafts and floated down the stream."
None of this would have seemed possible to Tom, if he hadn't had his own experience with the talking stuffed animals. Something was happening here in Coldfast.
"That all sounds great, team," said Peter. "But I've found something even better."
The other three stared at him.
"They have a regular Nintendo here."
"What?" said Tom.
"A regular Nintendo. The old kind. It's in the den."
"Do they have Duck Hunt?" asked Susan.
"Yep! It's the one combined with Mario Bros."
"What's Mario Bros?" asked Elle.
"Oh, you'll see, because I found something else. Something amazing. I was playing one of the levels and then I hit this block as Big Mario and then somehow Mario got sucked into the bricks and then I was at this warp pipe, and it was a new level, one of those awful water levels, but the level name was World -1."
Tom had played a lot of Mario in his life and he'd never heard of World -1.
"What does that even mean, Peter?"
"It's a secret world, obviously," said Peter. "And we're gonna go explore it together!"
They all cheered and Tom shouted, "I call Luigi!"