Isla's first real memory was of following her Auntie Ada down the sidewalk toward her new home. Auntie Ada was her new foster mom, and the small bright green house with the red trim was to be her new foster home. Uncle Ed walked behind, carrying the black trash bag that contained everything Isla owned in the world - one change of clothes, her favorite book, and an old, battered teapot.
"Girls, girls! This is Isla, your new foster sister. Please make her feel at home. Isla, say hello to Tasha and Brandy."
Isla waved shyly and mumbled an almost inaudible "Hi".
"Hi, Four-Eyes - oops, I mean LaLa," Brandy called out. She waved cheerfully to the newcomer, while Tasha kept her eyes focused on the TV.
"Brandy!" Auntie Ada scolded. "You girls play nice now. I have mending to do."
As the days passed, Isla discovered just what 'playing nicely' entailed. As long as voices weren't raised and household items weren't broken, everything else was fair game.
Auntie Ada was a loving caregiver, but she was getting on in years, and three little girls were a bit much for her to handle at times. And Brandy took full advantage of that fact. Her favorite game was finding new ways to scare Isla.
Her second favorite game was 'let's pretend we can't see Isla'.
Isla tried not to let it get to her. Her new life was exponentially better than the half-remembered chaos from whence she had come, even if she had to wear pink hand-me-downs. She hated pink. But, as Auntie Ada and Uncle Ed had patiently explained, even with the foster child payments from Sim Social Services, Uncle Ed's salary as a mail room assistant was barely enough to make ends meet.
Even pink clothes could be forgiven though, because Auntie Ada had books! A whole bookshelf full of them. Isla could lose herself for hours in daring tales of castles and princesses - where the princess was always the brave hero, of course.
And she had her own bed and her own nightstand, where she proudly displayed her most prized possession. Every night before she fell asleep, she would pat her weathered old teapot gently, and check to make sure its contents were still intact, still carefully wrapped in the tattered faded green handkerchief.
"One, two, three." Still there. Three antique skeleton keys. Isla didn't know where or when she had acquired them - that information was lost in the chaotic almost-memories of her fast-fading early years. But they were hers, and she treasured them.
Days and years passed, and Isla's life was good. Weekends were the best, because then Uncle Ed was home. Most Saturdays, he and Isla could be found at the edge of the canal behind the little green house. Uncle Ed always had emphatic yet strangely odd advice for his foster daughters.
"See, Isla, cast your line gently out into the water, and slooowwly reel it back in. That's the ticket! Now whisper to the fish, Isla. You know. Just whisper and they'll hear you. You never know when fish whispering might come in handy."
"Listen to the rocks, Tasha. Be Still now. Just listen, and you'll learn things you never knew."
"Talk to the trees, girls. Old Man Oak, he knows what's happening. He'll protect you. You gotta get on his good side, that's all."
Isla giggled, and Uncle Ed smiled indulgently. They never caught anything but minnows, but the lessons remained.
And one day, it all came to a tragic end. Uncle Ed and Isla were out by the canal, fishing and talking of sentient trees and whispering fish, when the unthinkable happened, and Uncle Ed was gone. Isla was devastated.
And nothing was ever the same after that. They all missed Uncle Ed something awful, but Auntie Ada took his death especially hard, and the now teenaged Brandy took it upon herself to order Isla around while Auntie Ada spent her days weeping in her room.
"It's your turn to do the dishes, Four-Eyes. And be quick about it, before I smack you one."
Isla expertly dodged the swiping hand and ran off to the kitchen, seething inside. She had been just about to start on the dishes; she just wanted to finish her chapter. But NOOO.
But the last straw came later that night. Tasha was already asleep, and Isla was just drifting off, dreaming of a castle nestled among the trees, and snowy mountains in the distance.
She woke with a start when she heard a loud creak from the old wooden floorboards next to her bed. What was Brandy doing next to her bed? Still half asleep, she watched as Brandy's hand slowly moved toward the battered black teapot.
Isla knew enough not to scream; Brandy would have turned everything around and blamed the whole incident on her. Instead, she quickly grabbed her treasure and hugged it to her chest. Brandy glared with narrowing eyes, but retreated to her own bed, and Isla breathed a sigh of relief.
Isla awoke the next morning with the outline of her teapot indented into her chest, and determination in her heart. She remembered Uncle Ed's advice: 'If you ever need protection, talk to the trees.'
She had giggled at the time, but it was the only advice she had, and she knew just the tree to talk to - the gnarled old oak at the edge of the canal. Grabbing her favorite book and her teapot, she called out to whoever might be listening.
"I'll be outside by the canal, if anyone cares." No one answered, so off she went.
Hmm. Now what? How does one actually talk to a tree? "Hello? Um, I'm Isla. I, uh, like your bark. Mmm, and your leaves are very pretty."
Now, that was odd. Isla didn't remember that the old oak tree was hollow. Even if the tree wasn't answering, maybe she could hide her teapot inside. She took a step forward into the darkness, feeling her way in. Squinting, she thought she saw a dim light ahead.
Isla gasped in wonder as she stepped out into a tiny forest grove. Old Man Oak had heard her! She quickly found a secure place to hide her pot.
She wished she could stay longer, but she didn't dare stay out of calling range for too long. She stepped back into the hollow, and felt her way through the darkness, relieved when she again saw a dim light ahead. She hoped she hadn't been gone too long; she had no idea how much time had passed.
She blinked in the sudden sunlight. Where was she? This certainly wasn't anywhere in Willow Creek, that was for sure.
As she ventured out into a small wooded area, she noticed a fishing pond on her left. Uncle Ed would have liked this place, she thought with a small twinge of sadness.
She sank down onto an ancient stump to think. Her mind was in a whirl. Absently, she pulled her book out and began to page though it. Her princess hero would never panic. In fact - yes, there it was.
'But Princess Plum never panicked. She slowing picked her way through the strange landscape, retracing her steps.'
Retracing her steps. Of course. Somehow Isla had failed to properly retrace her steps. She approached the hollow tree once more, and felt her way through the darkness. Yes, the sound of babbling water. She remembered that from her original journey.
She sprang out into familiar surroundings just in time to hear Brandy and Tasha both calling her name.
"Where were you, Isla?" Tasha scolded. "We were so worried. We couldn't find you anywhere."
"I was.. I was.." Isla turned to point at the hollow in the tree, only to realize that it had disappeared. "Uh, I was reading..mm..over there." She waved her hand vaguely in the direction of the neighbor's house. She never told anyone about her magic tree. She was pretty sure no one would believe her anyway.
But now that she knew the way, she traveled often to her private grove. At last she had a place where she could read in peace.
More days and years passed, and Isla still visited her private forest whenever she could. Several times she tried to find her way back to the wide meadow and snow-capped mountains, but she never could find the way again. Always the only path led back to the babbling brook and home.
Tasha graduated with honors and was accepted into Newcrest University, and then it was just Isla and Auntie Ada.
With Tasha and Brandy gone, Isla took a job at the Burger Hut just down the street to help Auntie Ada make ends meet. Between her job, and school, and taking care of Auntie Ada, she didn't have time anymore to visit her forest grove.
Sometimes as she bussed tables, she daydreamed wistfully about her old private glen, and hoped her teapot was still hidden there in the old log. Other times she wondered if she had dreamed it all - a figment of her vivid childhood imagination.
Then one day, about half-way through Isla's senior year of high school, the unthinkable happened. Isla awoke in the night to a cry from Auntie Ada, and when she rushed to check up on her, she found her already gone.
That was bad enough, but shortly thereafter, Isla, still in tears, received a call from Sim Social Services.
"Pack up your things, a social worker will be there soon to take you to your new foster home."
Isla had to do something. The last thing she wanted was to be dragged away to a new foster home. In the back of her mind, she heard Uncle Ed's words once again. She raced out to the old oak tree, tears still streaming down her face. It had to work, it just had to. She said the words, and waited, feeling silly. She was more surprised than she thought she would be when the outline of the hollow appeared, and slowing collapsed inward, revealing the way forward.
She quickly retrieved her teapot, and then it was back home. She knew Auntie Ada wouldn't mind her taking the meager 'rainy day fund' the two of them had collected over the past few years. Isla threw a change of clothes and her favorite books, along with her teapot, into her ragged pink backpack, and high tailed it the the bus depot.
"One ticket, please."
"How far do you want to go, miss?"
"As far as I can."
"Alright, then. One ticket to San Myshuno. There you go, miss."