Childhood is a time for escapist fantasies and sweet friendships. Aidan Moher spins a heartwarming tale about magic real and figurative, the kind that brings two kindred spirits together and links them forever.
The Penelope Qingdom
by Aidan Moher
It was during the particularly frozen-solid Prince George winter of ’91, a few days after the new neighbours had arrived, that I first stumbled into the Penelope Qingdom.
“What are their names?” I asked my moms as they bustled about the kitchen getting ready. They’d invited themselves next door for a “Welcome to the Neighbourhood” dinner. We’d never had new neighbours before.
“Mr. and Mrs…Qw- Qwing?” said Mom. “They have a daughter. She’s eleven, too, so you’ll probably be in the same class after Christmas break.”
“You’d better be nice to her,” Mum muttered as she dug around the fridge. “And, I think it’s more like ‘Sching’ than ‘Qwing.'” Mom made a face and stuck out her tongue. The oven timer dinged—Mom took the lasagna out and put it on the counter. Mum appeared from the fridge with a bottle of wine.
“Can you grab this, Ivan?” Mom said, gesturing at the pasta. “Can’t let it cool.” Without waiting for my answer, she disappeared toward the front of the house to get our winter boots and jackets. Mum followed her with the wine. I wrapped the lasagna in a tea towel, met them in the mud room, and we left the house.
The neighbour’s front door swung open before I could ring the doorbell. A girl with rumpled black hair greeted us. She wore jeans and a knit sweater decorated with the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701, naturally).
“Hello,” she said, her voice like dappled sunlight.
There was a moment of awkward silence. What do you say to a new neighbour? “My mom made her classic lasagna.” Not my finest first impression.
“I see that,” she said. Her grin was challenging and endearing all at once. I wasn’t used to such complexity in a smile.
The girl’s mother came to the door, martini in hand.
“Hello, Mrs…” said Mum, trailing off to avoid an indelicate pronunciation.
“Mrs. King. With a Q,” she added with a flourish—the way she’d probably said it a million times before. “But, please, call me Cathy. With a C.” Her tight blonde curls bounced as she winked with her whole face.
“Why ‘with a Q’?” I asked.
Mum smacked me lightly across the back of the head. “Don’t ask things like that!” she said.
“Hello, dear,” Mom said to the girl before Mrs. Qing could reply. She had an oddly irritating smile on her face. “What’s your name?”
“Penelope,” said Penelope.
“Well, invite them in!” called a man’s voice from deeper in the house. It wasn’t quite teasing, but almost.
Their home wasn’t much bigger than ours, but where my moms kept things spotless, chaos reigned in the Qing household. Respectable, understandable chaos—boxes stacked high in the hallways, furniture covered with old sheets, and walls half-painted; the detritus of an upheaved life—but chaos all the same. I loved it.
“Why don’t you show Ivan the basement while we share a cocktail with his parents, Penelope?” Mrs. Qing said as soon as the front door shut. Penelope’s face broke into a mischievous smile. She grabbed my hand and pulled me through a nearby darkened doorway and down a stairway. Continue reading…