Back to Underfoot
Story by Matt & Natalie Mills · Estimated Reading Time: 15 Minutes
You have heard the stories many times by now, little one, of Andrew and his adventures in Underfoot. You have heard all about the swashbuckling battles, the hidden treasures, the magic spells. But now you are getting older, and soon I will not tuck you into bed anymore. You will go out into the world and you will live.
Now I want to tell you one more story. It is the last story of Andrew Livingston, and it happened much later. It is the story of what happened when Andrew came back to his parents’ home on Tricklewood Lane. That was when he went up to the attic and, for the first time in years, saw his childhood dresser again.
This is an important story, little one, perhaps the most important of them all. For it did not happen when Andrew was young and full of dreams. It happened much later, when Andrew was too old for fairytales.
Much too old indeed.
You remember, of course, how it all started.
When Andrew was five, he discovered a magical world, as children often do. Some children find them in paintings. Others find them in gardens. Andrew found his under a pile of clean socks.
It began when Andrew was rummaging through the bottom drawer of his dresser, looking for the bag of Skittles he’d hidden from his sister. He dug deep in the drawer, but try as he might he could not find the bottom: he stuck his whole head inside, then his torso, leaning further and further in. Then, with a cry of alarm, he tumbled inside. For a moment, he was falling through air, and then he landed with an oof.
When he looked up, he realized he was in a very different place. A vast forest of pine trees spread out from the clearing where he lay…yet the trees only came up to his knees. At the edge of the forest was a castle the size of his toy chest, and behind it was a city, with houses no bigger than tissue boxes. There was a marketplace with little vegetable stands, watermelons the size of marbles and tomatoes like grains of rice, a library with thimble-sized books, and a bubbling fountain in the town square just like the little fountain on his father’s desk at work. Everywhere he looked, everything was miniature.
But, strangely enough, there were no people anywhere.
Now, as you can imagine, Andrew was very excited. Here was a mystery, an adventure, a tiny little world to explore! He wasn’t worried about finding his way back home; children who discover magical worlds rarely are. After all, his mother still folded his clothes and cut the crust off his sandwiches: the fear of life hadn’t come into him yet.
Andrew jumped up and walked to the castle in just a few easy strides. The tallest tower only came to his belly button.
“Hello?” he called. “Is anybody home?”
A window opened. Two little heads poked out: a man and a woman the size of Andrew’s pinky finger. They were wearing crowns and long robes.
“Alas!” they shouted. “We are lost! A giant has come to finish us off!”
“I’m not a giant. I’m Andrew.”
The tiny people looked at him closely. “Oh, well that is certainly a relief. Nobody’s ever been hurt by an Andrew.”
“Is this your castle?”
They beamed. “Yes, indeed,” said the woman. “I am Lady Ingle and this is Lord Nook, and we are queen and king of Underfoot.”
“Why is it called Underfoot?”
“Why, because wherever you go, we are always right under your feet! Although you’ve caught us at a bad time, I’m afraid. Normally, the whole town would be in a flurry right now, preparing for the Festival of Dreams. Instead, everyone is hiding from the monster.”
“I told you,” said Andrew, “I’m not a monster!”
“No, no, not you,” said Lord Nook. “A horrible beast has been devouring all our cattle and laying waste to the whole countryside.”
“Well, why don’t you get rid of him?”
“Would that we could! But there is only one weapon sharp enough to pierce the brute’s hide: the Sword of Wishes. It is kept far away, on the highest peak of the highest mountain, through the Murmuring Woods and over the Whispering River. It is a perilous journey, beset with many dangers. Oh, good Andrew, it is impossible!”
Andrew squinted into the distance. “Is that it right over there?”
“Right there,” he said, pointing at the tallest mountain he could see. “It’s only a little ways away. I could get it for you.”
At that, the king and queen shouted with joy.
So, Andrew turned around and went over to the mountain, which only took him a few steps. The mountain came up to his chin, and jutting upright out of the very top was a little steel sword, no bigger than a toothpick. He plucked it out.
No sooner had he removed the sword, however, when there came a terrible shrieking sound. It reminded Andrew of the time he’d heard his neighbor’s cat fighting a raccoon. From the forest emerged an ugly little creature. It was about the size of a basset hound, but there was nothing cute about it: it was covered from head to toe in thick, matted fur and two large horns curled out from its wide, flat-nosed face.
With another roar, it thundered beyond the border of the forest to where there was a little farm, where the stalks of corn grew no taller than blades of grass and the cows were only the size matchboxes. There were farmers out working in the fields, and like the king and queen they were no bigger than Andrew’s pinky. When they saw the monster, they screamed and ran. The monster stomped after them, its eyes filled with hunger and smoke coming from its nostrils.
Suddenly, for the first time since entering Underfoot, Andrew was afraid. He realized he was in a strange land and had no idea how to get home. He wanted to run away and return to the safety of his room and never open the sock drawer again.
But then, just as he felt tears coming into his eyes, the toothpick began to glow.
It glowed a bright blue, and as it did warmth spread down his arm. Then Andrew remembered that there were people in trouble, and adventure to be had. Holding the sword up, he shouted and ran forward to do battle with the terrible monster.
As it turned out, the battle was a short one, for the toothpick turned out to be quite magical indeed. It zipped forward on its own like a bullet, pulling Andrew’s hand behind it. It pierced the chest of the beast, and the monster gave an awful wail, even more awful than before. Then it turned and fled, bleeding great drops of blood as it ran.
That night, the land of Underfoot celebrated the Festival of Dreams after all.
All the people came out of their houses, and they were very curious to meet Andrew, the not-a-giant who had saved them. Many of them were afraid, but not the children: the children climbed up his shoulders and peered in his ears, tickling him and making him giggle until his eyes watered. When the people were satisfied with their inspection, Andrew helped them decorate the town for the Festival, tying strands of glowing lanterns to the weather vanes on the little rooftops. At sunset there was singing and dancing and cheering. The farmers recounted the tale of Andrew’s bravery. The children splashed their feet in the fountain and grinned up at him.
When the singing and dancing was over, there was a great banquet in the castle. It went well into the night. Andrew sat on the side of a little hill outside and watched through the windows, and every once and a while a royal server would bring a little plate of food for him out onto the balcony…including, to his delight, his lost Skittles, which they carried with two hands like heavy rocks.
Finally, the food was eaten and the Skittles were gone and the people began to return to their homes. The king and queen came out to the balcony.
“Andrew,” said Lady Ingle, “we have a gift for you.”
She held out the little steel sword. It gleamed in the moonlight.
“Underfoot is indebted to you, Andrew,” the queen said. “But now it is time for you to go home.”
Andrew felt a lump come to his throat. “Can’t I ever come back?”
“Why, of course! The Sword of Wishes is yours to keep, and it will guide you between your world and ours.”
Andrew took the toothpick from the queen’s hands and held it between his thumb and his forefinger. All of a sudden it felt strangely heavy.
“Don’t worry,” said Andrew. “I’ll be back.”
And Andrew did go back.
You yourself know the stories. You remember how Andrew kept the magic toothpick safe between the pages of his Beginning Reading textbook, and how he would often slip it into his pocket and dive headfirst into his sock drawer for another adventure.
You remember The Jousting Tournament, when Andrew helped the noble Purple Knight triumph at the last moment against the nefarious Red Knight.
You remember The Lost Treasure, when Andrew went in search of his grandfather’s lost lucky coin, which had fallen into the drawer and been stolen by an evil witch in the Cackling Marshes.
You remember The Creature from the Deep, when Andrew waded waist-deep into the Gurgling Ocean to save the royal fleet from a sea serpent, which slithered around his legs like the garter snake in his kindergarten classroom.
But then, as all things do, the stories ended.
Andrew grew up.
There is a moment not spoken of in the stories. It happened when Andrew was thirteen years old.
By then, Andrew had been to Underfoot many times. But gradually, his dreams had begun to change from running through fields in Underfoot to running through soccer fields. He began spending more time with friends and less time at home. There were birthday parties at Chuck-E-Cheese and summer camp and street hockey games.
One day, Andrew couldn’t find one of his soccer socks. He looked under his bed and under his desk. He checked the laundry downstairs. He opened his sock drawer and dug inside.
Then he paused, his hands buried in heaps of clothes. For a moment he only sat there. He thought of the smell of pine trees and the sound of children splashing in a fountain.
Then something terrible happened. He couldn’t help it; it was an involuntary thing.
For the first time ever, he felt just the tiniest bit silly.
His mother was leaning into the room.
“Didn’t you hear me? It’s time for dinner.” She frowned. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” he said.
Then he shut the drawer.
How can I explain to you, little one, why the stories end?
How can I make sense of it for you, you who know nothing yet of the fear of life?
One day, you will find out on your own.
I don’t know how it will happen, but it will. You will hear someone laughing at you from the next table over. You will hear your parents yelling in the kitchen, not caring anymore if you hear. You will find a sparrow dying on the sidewalk, and you will sit by its side watching its little chest flutter up and down until it finally stops.
You will learn to be afraid.
You will be afraid of what others think of you. You will be afraid of never being enough.
Most of all, you will be afraid of the childish belief that in a world filled with rejection and chemotherapy and student loans there could ever be sock drawers with worlds of adventure waiting inside.
Perhaps the stories end because we stop reading them.
It was many, many years later when Andrew returned to Tricklewood Lane to get his childhood furniture out of the attic. He was thirty-one, and his wife was pregnant.
You are too young to understand everything that had happened to Andrew. You, who sit in your bed with eyes full of stars, do not want to hear about filling out college applications, or the trendy haircut he’d tried and later regretted. You can’t fathom his first heartbreak, nor how boring it can be waiting tables and buying renter’s insurance. You don’t yet know the feeling of falling in love.
No, little one: I want to tell you the last story. The final chapter of Andrew Livingston and the Tales of Underfoot.
It is the most important one, because, in some ways, it is also the first.
It was a brisk autumn morning when the moving truck arrived at Tricklewood Lane. The air smelled like apples, that crisp apple smell of cider mills and old-fashioned donuts. Out front, the maple tree was changing colors, green and yellow leaves clinging to branches while red ones ripened and fell, littering the walkway.
Andrew had brought two friends with him in the moving truck. His wife, Rebecca, drank tea inside with his mother while Andrew and his friends hauled boxes, a crib, a bookshelf, a toy chest. They were things Andrew’s mother had been saving for his unborn child, things lifted from old places, soon to stand in the unfamiliar sunlight of Andrew and Rebecca’s two-bedroom apartment.
The last piece of furniture they carried was a dresser. It was wooden and worn. Andrew was organizing boxes in the truck when his friends brought it over, but when they set it inside he stopped. His friends went back into the house, but Andrew stood in the truck, staring at it, the way you stare at an old friend.
Dust had collected on its surface, and he passed his finger over the top, leaving a streak. There were still two stickers, an eagle and a wolf, half-torn, stuck to the side where he’d put them years ago. He could no longer remember why.
Then, because he couldn’t help himself, his eyes drifted downward to the bottom drawer.
And for the tiniest moment, he thought about opening it.
But he didn’t. Instead, he got out of the truck, put his hands in his pockets, and walked inside. The morning was bright, and his shoes kicked up red leaves as he went.
Remember, little one: these days, Andrew was much too old for fairytales.
That afternoon, Rebecca supervised them as they arranged the furniture in the nursery. The crib went against the single green wall, the big white toy chest in the corner, the bookshelf beside it. On the opposite wall, standing alone, they placed the dresser.
After their friends left, Rebecca took a shower and Andrew sat on the floor of the nursery for a long time.
He was looking at the dresser.
Understand that he was not unhappy. He loved Rebecca very much. He liked his job. His rent was reasonable.
Yet, as he sat there, he began to feel things he had not felt in a long time. He had sensed them coming, even before this: they had been growing, ever since that day four months ago, the day he and his wife had bought their first pair of baby socks.
They were blue with red polka-dots. Wadded up, they fit neatly in the palm of his hand. That was when he first felt it, a weight and a presence, a thrill and a fear.
Now, seeing his childhood dresser again, Andrew wondered: what would happen if he opened the drawer?
Then, just like that day when he was thirteen, the terrible thing happened again.
He felt silly.
Andrew went over to the pile of boxes and began to unpack, one by one.
It was a sunny fall day, a week after they had arranged the nursery. It was a Saturday. Rebecca was having brunch with friends, and Andrew was restless. He made a cup of coffee and tried to start three different Netflix shows before turning off the TV. He picked up his phone, put it down.
He went into the nursery and stared at the dresser.
Then he got his coat, went outside, and drove to visit his parents.
“Andrew!” his mother said in surprise when she opened the door. “Did you forget to pick something up?”
“Kind of. Do you still happen to have any of my old textbooks?”
“Oh, you know I can never throw anything away. I think your books from high school are in a box in the basement somewhere.”
“Actually, I was looking for one a bit farther back.”
“How much farther back?”
“Well,” said Andrew, “what about kindergarten?”
It was Sunday. The red light of the sunrise was coming through the windows. Rebecca was still asleep, and Andrew sat in the nursery with his old Beginning Reading textbook open on his lap.
Stuck between the pages was a little steel toothpick.
Andrew picked it up. It was heavier than he remembered. He put it in his pocket, then knelt on the hardwood floor and opened the bottom drawer of the dresser. It was empty now. He could see the bottom of the drawer, a wholly unremarkable wooden panel.
A thickness came into his throat.
He wondered: would his son rummage around in this sock drawer one day? If he did, what would he find there? Nothing but old lint and mothballs?
Surely, he thought, nothing more.
But you know better, little one.
Yes, you know better. You know it with all the strength and simplicity in your little heart. Even now, as you lean forward in your bed with your eyes wide, you can see him there, kneeling on those floorboards, dust of the new morning swirling all around. Your heart is beating quick, like you are about to open a locked chest, or walk the plank of a pirate ship, or stand at the beginning of a high mountain road.
You know that all the good stories, the ones worth telling, begin here.
Open the drawer, you whisper.
Andrew Livingston closed his eyes.
Then he opened the drawer.
He leaned forward. His head went went inside. Then his shoulders. Then his torso. Then his feet slipped from the wooden floorboards of the nursery and he was tumbling through the air, landing with an oof.
When he looked up, his breath nearly stopped.
All around him were pine trees. But they were not the miniature pine trees he remembered, the pine trees that only came up to his five-year-old knees. These pine trees towered over him, their trunks big and thick, with limbs stretching up towards the sky. The forest floor was littered with needles and pine cones as big as his hand, and a few dozen yards away full-sized deer, as big as any he’d seen grazing on the side of the highway, were drinking from a pool.
Everywhere he looked, the forest hummed, a deep, thrumming sound of life.
In wonder, Andrew stood. A little ways away was a dirt path. He pushed through the bramble toward it, realizing, to his chagrin, that he had forgotten to put on shoes. He followed the path for a long time until the trees finally cleared.
At the end of the path was a castle.
But it was no small castle, with towers coming only to his bellybutton. Rather, it was an enormous citadel. It had high parapets and battlements, gleaming spires and flags rippling in the wind.
For a moment, all he could do was stare. Then he walked forward, down the path and over the drawbridge, under the enormous arched entrance into a great stone hall. In the hall, there was a chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and a long row of suits of armor, and hanging over the suits of armor were a series of tapestries. Each tapestry depicted a giant boy with unkempt hair. In one, the boy was helping a tiny town of tiny people hang strings of lights from their houses. In another, the boy was presiding over a tournament of tiny knights on tiny horses. In yet another, the boy was holding a little ship aloft out of the water while a snake slithered around his legs.
“Hello, Andrew. Welcome back.”
Andrew did not recognize them at first: they stood in the center of the hall, at least six feet tall, straight and elegant, the crowns on their heads covered with topaz and opals. Their long robes were stitched with gold and their faces were kind, like they had been expecting him.
Andrew stared at them. “Lady Ingle…Lord Nook…?”
“Yes, Andrew,” said Lady Ingle. Her eyes were full of laughter.
Andrew looked around in wonderment. “This…this is Underfoot?”
“Perhaps you have gotten smaller over the years, young Andrew,” said the king.
“Or,” said the queen, “perhaps little lands don’t stay little forever.”
Just then, from deep in the forest behind them, there was a roar. It was a horrible sound that made the chandelier rattle and the birds outside go screeching from the trees.
“What was that?” said Andrew.
“I think you know,” said Lord Nook. “After all, you only wounded him all those years ago. He has grown much stronger in your absence, and much more terrible.”
There was another roar, one that Andrew felt in his bones.
“Your sword, Andrew,” said Lady Ingle.
Andrew started. He reached into his pocket, but the toothpick was no longer there.
Then he saw that the queen had her arms outstretched to him. In her hands, she held the sword. It was no longer a tiny toothpick: now it was a blade, long and sharp. At the sight, Andrew’s heart began to race again, the same way it had all those years ago.
“What now, young Andrew?” said the king and queen. “Are you still afraid?”
Andrew looked out into the forest, then back up at them.
He took the sword and walked toward the woods.
This is our last story in Vol. 2.
Don’t miss future stories…