Blanketed in snow, the orchard looks like a magical wonderland. But Peter is not so charmed by his new life. He just can’t ignore how he’s always ignored any longer. Sarah, Lizzie, and Olive are always talking over him and bossing him around. And on top of that, it’s really cold outside.
One January day, Peter reluctantly agrees to join the girls on a carriage ride through the freshly fallen snow. But things go terribly wrong when a dog incident has the horses running away in fear, with Peter and the carriage trailing dangerously behind them. Then, Peter hits his head on a passing branch and is thrown to the ground.
Woozy, Peter wakes up alone in the snow but he makes his way to a cozy cottage. Kai, the cool new kid, opens the door and welcomes Peter inside. Kai shows him a magical mirror that brings the two new friends to another world. A world where people listen to Peter and need his help to defeat dragons, warlocks, and other scary things.
Then Peter wakes up in the hospital with a bandage around his head. Everyone is so happy to see him awake. Peter tries to tell them all about the mirror but they dismiss his experience as a wild dream. When Peter goes back to school, it seems like Kai knows what Peter’s talking about. Could the dream have been real? Is there really a magic portal deep in the woods behind the orchard? Even if everyone thinks he’s crazy, Peter is determined to find out.
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Once Upon a Winter
Magic Is in the Air
Peter watched the snow come down, swirling and white, like a magic spell come to life, and listened to the chaos behind him. His house was packed, like normal on game night. Most of the time he didn’t mind. And his dads loved hosting. But today the world seemed a little off. He rolled his shoulders and tried to shake the feeling.
“Are you here with us, Peter?” a voice said near his ear. His twin, Olive, climbed up next to him in the window seat. Her eyes looked worried—she’d started having a tiny little crease on her forehead every time she talked to him lately. She knew something was wrong. There was something wrong, but Peter wasn’t exactly sure he could put words around it. Maybe he felt sad because he missed his friends in Boston. Or because every time he talked, someone interrupted him. Or because he’d felt beside the point ever since they’d moved to New Amity. And that their new best friends, Sarah and Lizzie, were really just Olive’s new best friends.
Maybe he felt sad because it seemed like he was from a different world and didn’t belong here.
Mostly, he felt a big ball of emotions that he didn’t know what to do with. So the snow seemed simpler at the moment. Plus, the way it sparkled under the streetlight made it look like it was winking at him.
With some effort, he dragged his gaze away from the snow and said, “I’m here.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say so he just looked at Olive.
Olive huffed. “Of course you’re here. I mean are you going to come hang out? We’re getting ready to play charades. Kids against the grown-ups—you know we’ll win!” She smiled at him, and he couldn’t help but smile back.
He loved playing with Olive, especially when they played guessing games. Olive and Peter each always knew what the other one was thinking—they had since birth. He stood up and tried to shake off his mood. “I’m definitely in.” Olive grinned and stood up.
His dad John said, “Uh-oh. I think we’re in trouble,” when Peter and Olive walked into the living room. David, his other dad, said almost at the same time, “Let’s not make any bets, okay?” Peter looked at the Garrisons. Tabitha and Albert Garrison owned the oldest apple orchard in New England. When Peter and Olive had first moved to the town, they’d met the Garrisons’ daughter Lizzie, who was their age. And Sarah was Lizzie’s best friend. The four of them had been inseparable ever since.
The Garrisons had another, older daughter named Gloria. She was a little . . . weird. But Peter liked how she had committed herself to becoming an actress. Even if it was a little annoying.
“Why can’t we make bets?” Sarah asked, a huge whipped-cream mustache on her upper lip. She licked it off and took another big drink of her hot chocolate. She and Lizzie sat together in one of the overstuffed antique chairs Peter’s dad David had gotten. The house they were renting was a large Queen Anne, and David had decided the whole house would be decorated in different periods of antiques.
Lizzie was trying to catch a marshmallow in her hot chocolate with her tongue. “Do we normally make bets?” she asked, confused for a second. But she caught the marshmallow and didn’t seem to care about the answer. She smiled at Peter when he joined them. Lizzie and Peter were the most alike. Even though Olive and he were twins, they had very different personalities. But Lizzie and Peter were both quiet and were okay if Sarah and Olive took charge. And they always did. Sometimes at the same time.
“Okay,” said Tabitha, “let’s let the kids go first.” She snuggled into Albert, her husband, on the antique settee. Peter’s dads also sat back on the huge velvet davenport and snuggled in, and Peter noticed that Sheriff Hadley and Ms. Shirvani also sat pretty close together at the other end. He glanced at Sarah—did she know her mom and the sheriff seemed to be . . . well, closer than most friends?
Sarah and Olive said at the same time, “I’ll go first.” But then Gloria swept in and said, “All right, darling babies. I shall show you how one inhabits a role.”
She grabbed a piece of paper before anyone could say anything. “Please do start the timer,” Gloria said, looking down her nose at the adults. Gloria was the only kid Peter knew who could do that and make it look convincing.
John turned the hourglass timer over, and Gloria looked at the piece of paper with the charades word on it. She set the paper down, closed her eyes, and whispered, “Acting!” to herself. Then she opened her eyes again and widened them. She let out a huge roar and made her arms beat up and down like wings.
“A bat!” said Lizzie.
“A vulture!” said Olive.
“A flying lion?” said Sarah.
Peter didn’t say anything. He had no idea what it could possibly be. Gloria made her mouth into an O and then moved her head back and forth, like she was blowing on everyone.
It reminded him of something . . .
His new video game, Elf Mirror! There was a dragon in there that made exactly those movements. He had just gotten the game a few days ago and already he’d become obsessed with it. In fact, it was hard for him to sit and play charades with everyone when Elf Mirror sat in his room. But here he was, and he knew what Gloria was acting out.
“A dragon,” he said quietly.
“A hose!” Olive yelled.
“Jack Frost!” Lizzie said. Everyone looked at her, and she shrank back. “What? Mom and I are reading about winter lore at night.” Tabitha grinned and winked at her, but Gloria stamped her foot in frustration.
“A flying lion with bad breath?” Sarah guessed. Lizzie and Olive giggled, and Peter snickered too.
“A dragon,” he said, but the girls had started shouting again and no one heard him.
“Time!” his dad said, holding up the hourglass.
Gloria huffed. “What would I expect from babies? I was a dragon, clearly.” She flounced off to another antique chair and plopped down. Peter saw his dad cringe at how hard Gloria sat in the chair.
“I said that,” Peter said, but everyone had started talking again and the grown-ups were taking their turn.
Maybe he wasn’t really there after all.
When it was the kids’ turn again, Olive turned to Peter. “Why don’t you go?” He knew she was saying that so they could easily get a point. He nodded and stood up.
As he grabbed the paper with the word, his dad John said, “Ready?” He flipped over the hourglass timer just as Peter flipped over the paper.
His word was “hero.”
That was a hard one. He took a second to think about how he would perform his charade. The room was quiet, making him nervous. He wasn’t a fan of having all the attention. It made him tongue-tied.
But he knew how to do this. Easy.
Looking at Olive, he pointed to Gloria. Olive said, “Acting?”
Peter shook his head. He mimicked the actions Gloria had done. Lizzie said, “Dragon?”
He nodded. He was more than a little surprised that Olive hadn’t gotten that but Lizzie had. Still, he had no time to think about it.
Sarah yelled, “Dragon Gloria!” Everyone looked at her, and Gloria rolled her eyes.
Peter mimicked riding a horse and holding a spear. He didn’t like horses, but he didn’t mind riding a fake one. Olive guessed, “Horse!” and Peter grinned. Now they were in sync. When he mimed thrusting the spear at Gloria and then getting off his horse and celebrating, Olive guessed, “Olympic medalist!”
He stopped to furrow his eyebrows at her. How could that possibly be her guess? Sarah guessed, “Party dragon Gloria!” and Lizzie said, “Happy horse rider?”
These were not charades terms. Peter was pretty sure no one had ever gotten the charades phrase “happy horse rider.” He looked at Olive with wide eyes, trying to will her into understanding him. He said in his mind, over and over, “Hero, hero, hero.”
Olive guessed, “Dragon rider?”
“Time!” said John. Peter’s heart sank.
Not so much because they’d missed a point. But the big ball of lonely seemed to be back. He shrugged and avoided Olive’s eyes as he sat down. For the rest of the game, he barely participated. He looked out at the snow swirling around outside, wishing he was in it. It really did look magical. Like the world had turned into something different in front of his very eyes.
After the game—which the kids lost handily—the whole crew grabbed more cider or hot chocolate and sat down around the fire again. Everyone seemed to cozy up to everyone else. Lizzie, Sarah, and Olive sat close, whispering to each other and giggling every once in a while. Peter couldn’t take his eyes off the snow.
Tabitha and Albert started talking about the holiday season at the orchard. “This time between Thanksgiving and the solstice is probably our biggest season. That and the beginning of fall. If you want to help out at the orchard and make some money, Peter and Olive, we’d love to have you!”
Peter turned his attention to the conversation. Olive pushed her glasses up her nose and beamed. Her answer was definitely yes. But Peter wanted to know more.
“What kind of help?” he asked, turning away from the window.
“Well, we give sleigh rides and tours—we’d love help with those. There’s a snowperson-making contest where we need people to help with setup, a baked goods sale where we need help advertising and organizing . . . we could use help decorating in general for the season! We need to put up our giant Christmas tree and the huge menorah. Our solstice celebration brings a ton of people in. Would you be interested?” Tabitha smiled warmly.
“I’m in!” Sarah said, which surprised no one.
Lizzie shrugged. “I sort of have to.” Tabitha winked at her.
Olive said, “Can I, Dads?”
Peter noticed she didn’t say “we.”
David beamed. “Of course! That sounds just lovely. Thank you, Tabitha and Albert. Peter, are you interested?”
John piped up. “I think that would be a really good idea. Peter, I think you should help with the sleigh rides.” He looked meaningfully at Peter.
Peter frowned. He was not a fan of horses; they scared him, which was why his dad was trying to get him to agree. Years ago he’d gone to horseback-riding camp and had gotten bucked off a horse. He had loved camp until then and had learned all sorts of things. But the lesson he’d learned more than anything was that horses were mean.
He wanted to help at the orchard—he really did. The thought of his friends getting to do something together without him made a pang shoot through him. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Peter missed his friends in Boston more than he had since his family had moved to New Amity. He hadn’t had a ton of friends, but he’d had a few. They were all boys, and it was different to hang around with them, but he’d loved it. Just like he used to love hanging around with Sarah and Lizzie. And, he realized with another pang, Olive. Something had changed between him and Olive, and he didn’t know what.
“Okay, I can help,” he finally said. Maybe this would make things better. Maybe he’d feel like he had close friends again.
And maybe his dad was right: perhaps it was time to stop being afraid of horses. After all, he was in middle school already. It wasn’t like he was a kid anymore. He didn’t have to like horses, but he should at least stop being afraid of them.
He swallowed. “I’ll help with the sleigh rides, too.”
Olive said, “I’ll help with you.”
Something about that irritated Peter. It would have been nice if she’d asked him if he wanted her to help. Being twins, siblings, and best friends since birth didn’t mean Peter couldn’t do things on his own.
Albert said, “Peter and Olive, you’ll love winter at the orchard. Something about the snow makes everything feel magical. Like anything can happen.”
“It’s like a whole different world,” Lizzie said, her eyes shining.
A small tendril of hope broke through Peter’s gloominess. They’d said the exact words he’d been thinking. This had to be a sign. He hoped this new world would be one where he didn’t feel quite so alone and unheard.