It was a hot summer day in Burnsville, Minnesota, when Henry walked into Christy's Dry Cleaners, dragging his feet as his mother tugged him along.
“Don’t dawdle, Henry,” his mother said, digging her long, red nails into his arm. “Mummy has to pick up her dress in time for the cocktail party tonight.”
The doorbell tinkled as they entered the shop, its chime barely audible over the whirr of laundry machines and dryers lining the back wall.
“Wait here, Henry,” his mother told him, plopping him down onto a plastic chair by the dryers. “I’m just going to pick up my things from the nice lady.”
Henry watched as she walked over to the dry-cleaning counter, licking the orange popsicle that was rapidly melting all over his shirt and clutching the grubby, dog-eared fantasy novel he’d been reading and re-reading for years. He knew his mother’s cocktail party meant being babysat by his Aunt Patricia, who always made him watch Lifetime movies while she sat on the couch eating cold tuna straight from the can. He wished he was old enough to be on his own so he wouldn’t have to suffer his smelly aunt or follow his mother on her boring dry-cleaning errands. He wished he was old enough to go places on his own—like the movies, or Disneyland, or the fantastic, snow-covered worlds of his fantasy novel, where talking snow leopards roamed the forests, reindeer-pulled sleighs traversed the streets, and kind-hearted queens granted well-behaved boys up to three wishes.
As Henry pouted and slurped on his popsicle, he noticed that one of the empty dryers had lit up. He crawled closer, swearing he heard the faint strains of piano music coming from within. Cautiously, he stuck his head through its opening. Inside, a long tunnel curled down, spiraling out of sight.
Henry looked back at his mother. She was busy chatting to the woman at the counter. His heart began to thump with anticipation—at last, here was his chance for heroic adventure. Placing his melted popsicle on the floor, Henry crawled into the dryer and pulled himself through the tunnel with his elbows. The music grew louder, the light brighter, and the temperature colder. Puffs of frozen air began to redden his cheeks, and flakes of snow speckled his red hair, until finally Henry pulled himself out, knocking over a bag of frozen peas as he tumbled out onto the linoleum floor.
He looked up. His Aunt Patricia looked down at him, her hand holding a forkful of tuna in front of her mouth. Heart of a Stranger, starring Jane Seymour, flickered on the television set behind her.
“Henry?” she said, stunned. “What were you doing in my ice box?”
Henry paused for a moment and then quickly hoisted himself back into the freezer, hastily making his way back through the tunnel. He stuck his head out through the dryer’s opening, where his mother stood waiting.
“Stop playing around in that dryer, Henry!” she scolded. “Look—your popsicle has melted all over the nice lady’s floor!”
“Sorry…” Henry sputtered as she dragged him along. As they walked, Henry turned back for one last disappointed look at the dryer. The woman behind the counter was mopping up his popsicle. She looked up at him, giving him a wink just as his mother yanked him from sight.