Welcome to the third installment of Meet Annabelle Adams. If you have not yet read chapters 1 and 2, you can find them by clicking on the list to the right.
Annabelle woke to the sound of foghorns.
She sprang to her feet in a single motion, did a few invigorating toe touches, and peered out the window of the tiny cabin. The speedboat was pulling to shore in a busy port that looked distant and exotic. Annabelle heard scampering above her head and voices chattering excitedly.
Suddenly, the cabin door opened, and Larf thrust his head inside. “Hide!” he said. And then he said “OOF!”
When she heard the “OOF,” Annabelle knew she was in trouble. But the cabin was tiny, and there was nowhere to hide. As she scurried into the cramped bathroom and then into the even more cramped shower, Annabelle heard what sounded like a confident ballerina dancing elegantly around the cabin. And then she heard the bathroom door fly open. Suddenly, a ninja was there. An actual ninja. “I had no idea there were actual ninjas,” thought Annabelle, as the ninja took out a rather large duffel bag, unzipped it, and pointed to it politely.
“You’re here to steal my jewels?” said Annabelle.
The ninja shook his head.
“You wonder if I’ve seen your missing blue jeans?”
Again, the ninja shook his head.
“You want me to get into the duffel bag?”
The ninja nodded.
“And if I don’t?”
The ninja looked uncertain. But then he reached into his robes and took out a throwing star.
“You’ll throw that at me?”
The ninja nodded reluctantly.
“Even though you’d really rather not?”
The ninja nodded again.
Annabelle considered her options. On one hand, she seemed to be dealing with a reasonable ninja. On the other hand, the throwing star looked extremely sharp.
“Very well,” said Annabelle, who trusted the small but very clear voice inside her heart that said everything was going to be just fine.
As Annabelle stepped into the duffel bag, the ninja gave her a look that seemed to say, “Thanks for being such a good sport.”
She lay back and tried to be calm as the zipper closed around her and another journey began.
Annabelle was twisted this way and that as the ninja hoisted her out of the cabin. She heard more foghorns and various shouts. The ninja was sprinting now. And then leaping. A chase was afoot. Annabelle felt glad that someone else was doing the running and dodging.
At one point, the ninja put the duffel down while (Annabelle imagined) he tossed a few of his throwing stars. Then he picked her up again. Eventually, the shouting voices fell away, and the sound of foghorns was replaced by the sound of church bells and then the pleasant chirping of songbirds. At one point, the bag opened just a bit, and a granola bar appeared. “Thanks!” said Annabelle, but the ninja did not reply. An hour—or two? (it was very hard to tell)—later, the ninja put the duffel down again. And all Annabelle heard was silence.
“You may come out.” It was the voice of a woman. A strong-sounding, confident woman.
Annabelle was about three hours more than ready to come out of the bag, but unfortunately she didn’t know how. Like most duffel bags, this one could only be unzipped from the outside.
“Thanks, but not sure I’ll be able to do that,” said Annabelle.
“Unacceptable response,” said the voice.
“Find a way,” said the voice. “There is always a way.”
“Sorry,” said Annabelle, “But this seems like one of those times where there actually isn’t.”
“Then I guess we were mistaken about you.”
“What do you know about me?” asked Annabelle, who found it irritating when people made assumptions without first getting to know her.
“We have conducted a world-wide search,” said the voice. “And that search has led us to you. But if you can’t think your way out of a zippered bag, then I will send you back home and reluctantly summon the runner-up instead.”
“But I can’t—”
“Wait,” said Annabelle, who was just as excited as she was scared. A world-wide search! She suddenly had an idea.
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“As soon as you get out of the bag.”
“Nope. Now. Right now. #1 but also maybe #2. Hard to know for sure. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I do mind. That duffel is part of my personal luggage set.”
“I’m sure it can be cleaned.”
“There will be no need to clean it because YOU WILL NOT GO TO THE BATHROOM IN MY DUFFEL.”
“One, two, three . . .” said Annabelle, with all the conviction she could muster.
“Four, five, six . . .” Annabelle firmly believed that once she had committed to doing something, it was essential to follow through.
“Seven, eight, nine . . .”
The zipper slid open. Light poured in. Annabelle sat up. The world was very bright. As her eyes adjusted, she noticed that she was in an attractive dojo with woven floor mats and walls made of rice paper panels.
The woman had a wry smile on her face and was clapping with deliberate slowness.
Annabelle stood up and stretched. She was creaky from long hours spent folded and hunched.
“May I?” asked Annabelle, looking around for the bathroom. She really did have to go.
“Right over there,” said the woman gesturing to a door. “And while you’re in there, please change into your training clothes.”
“There is no time for questions.”
Annabelle took care of her overdue business, changed into the set of light blue robes that was hanging on a hook, and returned to the dojo.
“And now you’d like a glass of orange juice,”
“How did you—?”
“I know all,” said the woman. “And so will you in time.”
Annabelle liked the sound of that.
The woman clapped twice.
The ninja appeared, carrying a decorative silver tray with a cup of orange juice and a bowl of fresh strawberries.
Annabelle gave the ninja a little wave, and Annabelle was pretty sure he wanted to wave back.
“No waving to Ninja,” said the woman.
“Sorry,” said Annabelle between sips.
“Please, sit,” said the woman, ushering Annabelle to a small table with two uncomfortable chairs.
“I have a question,” said Annabelle.
The woman sighed. “One question.”
“Who is Larf? Who is that ninja? Who are you? Where am I?”
The woman sighed, louder this time. “That was four questions. But since you are new at this, I will indulge you. Larf is a thoroughly incompetent lackey of our sworn nemesis Dr. Fungo. He also hoped to recruit you, and when he beat us to the punch, we kidnapped you back.
Ninja is a loyal friend and extraordinary leaper. He saved you from Larf by defeating approximately 200 of Fungo’s lesser henchmen without getting a single scuff mark on my duffel. I am the person who has been keeping the world from falling to the forces of darkness for the past twenty years or so. And this is our top-secret HQ.”
“Headquarters. But we are far too busy to use such a long word.”
“Makes sense,” said Annabelle, who only had one big question left.
“And now you want to know why you’re here.”
“Uncanny,” said Annabelle.
“That one was pretty obvious,” said the woman, who paused before continuing. “I’ll be honest. You are here to save the world.”
“What?” Annabelle decided that her ears must not be working properly.
“Yes. The world is in constant peril. I’ve been doing my best to keep things from falling apart for a good long while, but now I am tired.”
Annabelle had to admit, the woman looked pretty tired.
“I am discouraged,” the woman continued.
Annabelle had to admit, the woman looked pretty discouraged.
“I am still strong and quick and smart and resourceful. And so I am considering a second career in real estate development. But I lack the fundamental ingredient needed for continued success in world saving. Do you know what that is?”
Annabelle wondered to herself. Lighting-fast reflexes? The strength of seven oxen? Mastery of twenty languages? Intimate knowledge of the ancient Mayan calendar?
The woman took a deep breath and looked Annabelle squarely in the eye.
“No, no, no, and no. The essential ingredient is hope.”
“Hope?” said Annabelle. It didn’t seem like a big enough word.
“Hope,” said the woman. “To save the world, one must believe that the world can be saved.”
“And you don’t believe it can?” said Annabelle.
“I don’t,” said the woman. “And yet hope is an essential component of my job description. Do you see the problem?”
The woman leaned in and looked at Annabelle carefully. “Do you believe the world can be saved?” she asked, looking past Annabelle’s eyes to the very center of her heart, where the things that made Annabelle Annabelle lived. In this part of Annabelle was bravery. And kindness. And an insistence on justice. Also, a love of guacamole. But at the deepest center of everything Annabelle lived for and believed in was a towering statue of hope.
“I am 96 pounds of 100% hope,” said Annabelle without blinking, even though her eyes were really dry.
“I knew that,” said the woman. “That’s why you are here.”
“Now that I have answered your questions, I have a few of my own.”
“OK,” said Annabelle.
“Do you demand justice?”
“Do you begin every day with 100 toe-touches?”
“Are you ready to learn the carefully guarded secrets of a thousand generations?”
“Just one more question,” said the woman. Her voice was grave.
Annabelle leaned in and said in a solemn near-whisper, “Yes?”
“Do you have lightning-fast reflexes?” Before the word “reflexes” was entirely out of her mouth, the woman had thrown six bright blue marbles into the air. Without thinking, Annabelle caught two in each hand and trapped another between her knees. At the same moment, the ninja burst into the room like a lighting flash and caught the sixth in his outstretched hand about two inches from the floor.
“Impressive,” said the woman. “And yet more proof that everybody needs a ninja. I think it’s time for your training to begin.”
“Your training. You will train here with Ninja for the next four weeks. With any luck, the world won’t succumb to this rash of angry cats in the mean time.”
“But my parents!”
“I have left messages on both of their cell phones letting them know you have won a prestigious scholarship to attend a sleep-away summer camp for exceptional tweens and won’t be home for a month. I suspect they won’t mind a bit.”
Annabelle suspected they wouldn’t. Her parents’ two main objectives were making sure everyone knew Annabelle was exceptional and spending as little time with her as possible.
“But what about my—?”
“I have hired a docile neighbor boy named Percy to feed Ellen twice daily and to read aloud to her from the works of Shakespeare three times each week.”
Percy, who lived three houses down, was extremely docile. Ellen would be able to keep him in line. “That sounds about right,” said Annabelle.
“I am leaving now,” said the woman. “Good luck.”
“Excuse me,” said Annabelle, “But may I ask your name?”
“No,” said the woman as she rose from her chair.
“Come on!” said Annabelle, who thought the woman was being pretty unreasonable.
The woman looked at Annabelle with the searing intensity of someone who was used to trusting no one. But then her eyes relaxed a little, and in that exact moment, Annabelle and the woman suddenly became friends, or maybe something even deeper.
“OK,” said the woman. “My name is Emily. But you can call me Em.”
“Pleased to meet you, Em,” said Annabelle. She thought about offering her hand for a shake but knew deep inside that she and Em were already way past the handshake stage.
Em gave Annabelle a nod and left. Annabelle turned. There was the ninja, holding out the sixth marble.
“I guess it’s just you and me then,” said Annabelle.
The ninja nodded. But just a little.