Once a good girl named Ella had the impossible burden of being nice to her cousin Charlie. Charlie was not the nice sort of cousin (not like your own). He was the sort of cousin who spied on you writing in your diary and then went around making up songs about all your secrets. He was the sort of cousin who pinched you under the dinner table and pulled your hair when no one was looking and then cried when you accused him as if his feelings were hurt. In short, he was mean and nasty, and unfortunately for Ella, he was staying in her house for six long weeks while his parents went on a business trip.
Ella’s only escape was the woods. Whenever she couldn’t bear Charlie any more, she would escape through the back fence and out into the wild woods behind her house, wandering among the trees and gathering interesting twigs and leaves or finding a curved tree branch to settle in with a book. Charlie was from the city, and he was a little afraid of the woods, so while she was there, Ella felt safe.
One day, though, Charlie was especially bored, which meant that he was especially mean and nasty. At the breakfast table, he knocked Ella’s cereal into her lap on purpose and then laughed while she tried to clean it up. He made up an irritating little song about this event, which he spent the whole morning singing in a whispered voice that the adults wouldn’t hear. He also ripped several pages out of Ella’s favorite book and wrote a poem about how ugly her hair was, which he taped to the bathroom mirror. This last one made Ella burst into tears. She ran out of the house and through the gate as fast as she could, but she was so upset that she didn’t latch the gate behind her or make sure to take winding paths that couldn’t be followed.
Unfortunately, Charlie was also bored enough on this particular day to follow her into the woods. He was still a little frightened, but he also felt meanly proud of how he had made Ella cry, so he kept after her, hoping there would be a chance to repeat the nasty poem when she stopped running.
Ella ran a long way, crying. She had always been a little worried about the color of her hair, and Charlie’s poem hit her where it hurt. She was so busy worrying about it now that she didn’t pay any attention to where she was going. When she finally came to herself and looked around, leaning against a tree to catch her breath, she saw that she was in a part of the forest she had never been in before. The trees were tall and draped with vines, but not the scary dark tangly sort of vines. These vines had flowers all along them, and the sun was shining brightly through the leaves, making it feel like an immense wild garden. It was so beautiful, that Ella forgot all about the horrible poem and felt happier at once.
She was wandering around picking flowers when she spotted the sweetest little house she had ever seen. It was long and low, with a steep pointed roof and it was covered from foundation to peak with blooming red flowers. Flowering vines even curled around the windows and the spotless white door. It looked like it had just grown right up out of the ground fully formed, and only a little smoke curling up from the flower-covered chimney showed Ella that a real person lived inside.
Ella was normally a little bit shy, but something about this wonderful house drew her in, and she walked straight up to the door and knocked. A warm, friendly woman’s voice told her to come in, so Ella did.
When she stepped through the door she found herself in a sunny kitchen, with a clean white table in the middle and an old-fashioned stove against one wall. Wonderful smells were coming from that stove. Standing next to the stove was the most unusual person that Ella had ever seen.
She was a bear. A big, furry brown bear, with a mouth full of teeth and paws full of claws. But she was wearing a flowery dress, covered with a clean pink apron, and a sweet little cap on her head. In her hands, she had a tray full of cookies that she had just taken from the oven, and which she now set down on top of the stove.
Ella felt that she should be frightened, but she was not. She knew that bears in the wild woods sometimes eat little girls, but she did not know that they wore dresses or baked cookies that smelled like heaven, so she thought maybe she had been misinformed about bears. (As it happens, she was not misinformed. Most bears in the wild woods DO eat little girls. This bear was something special, as you will see.)
The friendly bear introduced herself as Mother Hugglemore and invited Ella to have some tea and cookies, which Ella was happy to do. She soon found herself seated at the cozy kitchen table with her stomach pleasantly full of sugary goodness, telling Mother Hugglemore (who was a delightful listener) all of her troubles.
Charlie was not having nearly such a good time. He had followed Ella until she stopped, but not being nearly as used to running as she was, he felt hot and breathless and he had a pain in his side. He flopped to the ground behind some bushes while she leaned against the tree. He thought he would wait until he felt a bit better before popping out and taunting her some more.
It took him quite a while to feel better. When he did feel ready, he leaped from behind the bushes only to find that Ella had gone. Charlie was not at all comfortable being alone in the wild woods. For the first time, he looked around him. The trees were impossibly tall and tangled with vines everywhere. To Charlie, it was like some kind of jungles scene from a movie. He wondered if these plants were all poisonous.
Charlie told himself that Ella couldn’t have gone far (she must be so tired from running herself), so he walked a few steps, looking around carefully for snakes and other dangerous creatures. He saw nothing, no creatures and no Ella, just more and more trees and ominous evil vines. Charlie forced himself to walk a bit further. He was just about to call Ella’s name when he saw the house.
Now, Charlie wasn’t one to notice things like flowers. All he saw was an overgrown old shack, but the smoke coming from the chimney made him feel slightly better. Smoke mean fire, which meant people, and Charlie felt much better about people than he did about trees. He hurried forward and opened the door without knocking.
Imagine his shock when he saw Ella, sitting at an old table, right across from a terrifying grizzly bear. He let out a scream and turned to run (leaving Ella to her fate), but he tripped on the door sill and fell sprawling onto the ground outside.
“This must be Charlie,” said Mother Hugglemore.
Ella was surprised and sad and a little angry, too, which was a combination that made it very hard to speak. She just nodded instead.
“Come in, Charlie,” said Mother Hugglemore, helping him to his feet and showing him to the table. “Have some tea.”
Charlie (who, like most people, only heard what he expected to hear) felt the bear lift him in her terrifying claws and growl angrily as she threw him toward the table. He landed, miraculously unhurt, in the chair next to Ella, where he sat trembling and trying to remember everything he had ever been told about bears. It wasn’t much. He thought he had read once, though, that with some wild animals you must hold perfectly still until they forget about you and go away. As he was trembling too hard to get up and run, he decided to try this approach.
Ella was trying not to look at Charlie. She felt that she should have known that he would come along to ruin things just when she had found someplace safe and wonderful. She felt that she was doomed to a life of Charlie forever, and she tried not to be angry when Mother Hugglemore poured him his own cup of tea.
“Now, Ella,” said Mother Hugglemore. “I think I have the solution to your problem.”
Ella looked up, surprised.
“I sometimes take in children for short periods of time. I think Charlie would be just the sort who could benefit from a stay in my house. That would give you a break from having him at home.”
Ella was upset. It seemed completely unfair that Charlie should get to stay here in the charming little cabin in the woods and eat delicious cookies and have Mother Hugglemore all to himself.
“Look at Charlie, Ella,” said Mother Hugglemore calmly.
Ella turned and looked. Now she saw that he was trembling from head to foot and his face was white as chalk.
“He doesn’t see what you see,” said Mrs. Hugglemore. “Don’t you think that it would help him very much to have his eyes opened?”
Ella wasn’t sure that she wanted to help Charlie, but she did want to be rid of him. And a small and not very nice part of her was happy to see him so afraid. Maybe this was what he deserved.
“My parents will worry,” she said at last.
“I will write them a letter asking if Charlie may stay,” said Mother Hugglemore. “The parents around here know me quite well, even if they do not tell their children. Charlie will not be my first guest.”
Ella nodded and stood up. She felt sorry to be leaving the wonderful cottage, but happy to know that Charlie would not be at home when she got there. She felt even happier when Mother Hugglemore handed her a plate of cookies to take along with the letter to her parents.
With a final hug for Mother Hugglemore, Ella went out, leaving Charlie alone with the bear.
TO BE CONTINUED