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Fablehavenby Brandon Mull
A Mandatory Vacation
Kendra stared out the side window of the SUV, watching foliage blur past. When the flurry of motion became too much, she looked up ahead and fixed her gaze on a particular tree, following it as it slowly approached, streaked past, and then gradually receded behind her.
Was life like that? You could look ahead to the future or back at the past, but the present moved too quickly to absorb. Maybe sometimes. Not today. Today they were driving along an endless two-lane highway through the forested hills of Connecticut.
"Why didn't you tell us Grandpa Sorenson lived in India?" Seth complained.
Her brother was eleven and heading into sixth grade. He had grown weary of his handheld video game — evidence that they were on a truly epic drive.
Mom twisted to face the backseat. "It won't be much longer. Enjoy the scenery."
"I'm hungry," Seth said.
Mom started rummaging through a grocery bag full of snack food. "Peanut butter and crackers?"
Seth reached forward for the crackers. Dad, driving, asked for some Almond Roca. Last Christmas he had decided that Almond Roca was his favorite candy and that he should have some on hand all year long. Nearly six months later he was still honoring his resolution.
"Do you want anything, Kendra?"
Kendra returned her attention to the frantic parade of trees. Her parents were leaving on a seventeen-day Scandinavian cruise with all the aunts and uncles on her mother's side. They were all going for free. Not because they'd won a contest. They were going on a cruise because Kendra's grandparents had asphyxiated.
Grandma and Grandpa Larsen had been visiting relatives in South Carolina. The relatives lived in a trailer. The trailer had some sort of malfunction involving a gas leak, and they all died in their sleep. Long ago, Grandma and Grandpa Larsen had specified that when they died, all their children and their spouses were to use an allocated sum of money to go on a Scandinavian cruise.
The grandchildren were not invited.
"Won't you get bored stuck on a boat for seventeen days?" Kendra asked.
Dad glanced at her in the rearview mirror. "The food is supposed to be incredible. Snails, fish eggs, the works."
"We're not all that thrilled about the trip," Mom said sadly. "I don't think your grandparents envisioned an accidental death when they made this request. But we'll make the best of it."
"The ship stops in ports as you go," Dad said, deliberately redirecting the conversation. "You get to disembark for part of the time."
"Is this car ride going to last seventeen days?" Seth asked.
"We're nearly there," Dad said.
"Do we have to stay with Grandma and Grandpa Sorenson?" asked Kendra.
"It'll be fun," Dad said. "You should feel honored. They almost never invite anyone to stay with them."
"Exactly. We barely know them. They're hermits."
"Well, they were my parents," Dad said. "Somehow I survived."
The road stopped winding through forested hills as it passed through a town. They idled at a stoplight, and Kendra stared at an overweight woman gassing up her minivan. The front windshield of the minivan was dirty, but the woman seemed to have no intention of washing it.
Kendra glanced up front. The windshield of the SUV was filthy, smeared with dead bugs, even though Dad had squeegeed it when they last stopped to refuel. They had driven all the way from Rochester today.
Kendra knew that Grandma and Grandpa Sorenson had not invited them to stay. She had overheard when Mom had approached Grandpa Sorenson about letting the kids stay with him. It was at the funeral.
The memory of the funeral made Kendra shiver. There was a wake beforehand, where Grandma and Grandpa Larsen were showcased in matching caskets. Kendra did not like seeing Grandpa Larsen wearing makeup. What lunatic had decided that when people died you should hire a taxidermist to fix them up for one final look? She would much rather remember them alive than on grotesque display in their Sunday best. The Larsens were the grandparents who had been part of her life. They had shared many holidays and long visits.
Kendra could hardly remember spending time with Grandma and Grandpa Sorenson. They had inherited some estate in Connecticut around the time her parents were married. The Sorensons had never invited them to visit, and rarely made the trek out to Rochester. When they came, it was generally one or the other. They had only come together twice. The Sorensons were nice, but their visits had been too infrequent and brief for real bonding to occur. Kendra knew that Grandma had taught history at some college, and that Grandpa had traveled a lot, running a small importing business. That was about it.
Everyone was surprised when Grandpa Sorenson showed up at the funeral. It had been more than eighteen months since either of the Sorensons had visited. He had apologized that his wife could not attend because she was feeling ill. There always seemed to be an excuse. Sometimes Kendra wondered if they were secretly divorced.
Toward the end of the wake, Kendra overheard Mom cajoling Grandpa Sorenson to watch the kids. They were in a hallway around a corner from the viewing area. Kendra heard them talking before she reached the corner, and paused to eavesdrop.
"Why can't they stay with Marci?"
"Normally they would, but Marci is coming on the cruise."
Kendra peeked around the corner. Grandpa Sorenson was wearing a brown jacket with patches on the elbows and a bow tie.
"Where are Marci's kids going?"
"To her in-laws."
"What about a baby-sitter?"
"Two and a half weeks is a long time for a sitter. I remembered you had mentioned having them over sometime."
"Yes, I recall. Does it have to be late June? Why not July?"
"The cruise is on a time frame. What's the difference?"
"Things get extra busy around then. I don't know, Kate. I'm out of practice with children."
"Stan, I don't want to go on this cruise. It was important to my parents, so we're going. I don't mean to twist your arm." Mom sounded on the verge of tears.
Grandpa Sorenson sighed. "I suppose we could find a place to lock them up."
Kendra moved away from the hall at that point. She had quietly worried about staying with Grandpa Sorenson ever since.
Having left the town behind, the SUV climbed a steep grade. Then the road curved around a lake and got lost among low, forested hills. Every so often they passed a mailbox. Sometimes a house was visible through the trees; sometimes there was only a long driveway.
They turned onto a narrower road and kept driving. Kendra leaned forward and checked the gas gauge. "Dad, you're under a quarter of a tank," she said.
"We're almost there. We'll fill up after we drop you kids off."
"Can't we come on the cruise?" Seth asked. "We could hide in the lifeboats. You could sneak us food."
"You kids will have much more fun with Grandma and Grandpa Sorenson," Mom said. "Just you wait. Give it a chance."
"Here we are," Dad said.
They pulled off the road onto a gravel driveway. Kendra could see no sign of a house, only the driveway angling out of sight into the trees.
Tires crunching over the gravel, they passed several signs advertising that they were on private property. Other signs warded off trespassers. They came to a low metal gate that hung open but could be shut to prevent access.
"This is the longest driveway in the world!" Seth complained.
The farther they advanced, the less conventional the signs became. Private Property and No Trespassing gave way to Beware of .12 Gauge and Trespassers Will Be Persecuted.
"These signs are funny," Seth said.
"More like creepy," Kendra muttered.
Rounding another bend, the driveway reached a tall, wrought-iron fence topped with fleurs-de-lis. The double gate stood open. The fence extended off into the trees as far as Kendra could see in either direction. Near the fence stood a final sign:
Certain Death Awaits.
"Is Grandpa Sorenson paranoid?" Kendra asked.
"The signs are a joke," Dad said. "He inherited this land. I'm sure the fence came with it."
After they passed through the gate, there was still no house in sight. Just more trees and shrubs. They drove across a small bridge spanning a creek and climbed a shallow slope. There the trees ended abruptly, bringing the house into view across a vast front lawn.
The house was big, but not enormous, with lots of gables and even a turret. After the wrought-iron gate, Kendra had expected a castle or a mansion. Constructed out of dark wood and stone, the house looked old but in good repair. The grounds were more impressive. A bright flower garden bloomed in front of the house. Manicured hedges and a fish pond added character to the yard. Behind the house loomed an immense brown barn, at least five stories tall, topped by a weather vane.
"I love it," Mom said. "I wish we were all staying."
"You've never been here?" Kendra asked.
"No. Your father came here a couple of times before we were married."
"They go the extra mile to discourage visitors," Dad said. "Me, Uncle Carl, Aunt Sophie — none of us have spent much time here. I don't get it. You kids are lucky. You'll have a blast. If nothing else, you can spend your time playing in the pool."
They pulled to a stop outside the garage.
The front door opened and Grandpa Sorenson emerged, followed by a tall, lanky man with large ears and a thin, older woman. Mom, Dad, and Seth got out of the car. Kendra sat and watched.
Grandpa had been clean-shaven at the funeral, but now he wore a stubbly white beard. He was dressed in faded jeans, work boots, and a flannel shirt.
Kendra studied the older woman. She was not Grandma Sorenson. Despite her white hair streaked with a few black strands, her face had an ageless quality. Her almond eyes were black as coffee, and her features suggested a hint of Asian ancestry. Short and slightly stooped, she retained an exotic beauty.
Dad and the lanky man opened the back of the SUV and began removing suitcases and duffel bags. "You coming, Kendra?" Dad asked.
Kendra opened the door and dropped to the gravel.
"Just place the things inside," Grandpa was telling Dad. "Dale will take them up to the bedroom."
"Where's Mom?" Dad asked.
"Visiting your Aunt Edna."
Kendra had barely ever heard of Aunt Edna, so the news did not mean much. She looked up at the house. She noticed that the windows had bubbly glass. Bird nests clung under the eaves.
They all migrated to the front door. Dad and Dale carried the larger bags. Seth held a smaller duffel bag and a cereal box. The cereal box was his emergency kit. It was full of odds and ends he thought would come in handy for an adventure — rubber bands, a compass, granola bars, coins, a squirt gun, a magnifying glass, plastic handcuffs, string, a whistle.
"This is Lena, our housekeeper," Grandpa said. The older woman nodded and gave a little wave. "Dale helps me tend the grounds."
"Aren't you pretty?" Lena said to Kendra. "You must be around fourteen." Lena had a faint accent that Kendra could not place.
An iron knocker hung on the front door, a squinting goblin with a ring in its mouth. The thick door had bulky hinges.
Kendra entered the house. Glossy wood floored the entry hall. A wilting arrangement of flowers rested on a low table in a white ceramic vase. A tall, brass coatrack stood off to one side beside a black bench with a high, carved back. On the wall hung a painting of a fox hunt.
Kendra could see into another room where a huge, embroidered throw rug covered most of the wooden floor. Like the house itself, the furnishings were antiquated but in good repair. The couches and chairs were mostly of the sort you would expect to see while visiting a historical site.
Dale was heading up the stairs with some of the bags. Lena excused herself and went to another room.
"Your home is beautiful," Mom gushed. "I wish we had time for a tour."
"Maybe when you get back," Grandpa said.
"Thanks for letting the kids stay with you," Dad said.
"Our pleasure. Don't let me keep you."
"We're on a pretty tight schedule," Dad apologized.
"You kids be good and do whatever Grandpa Sorenson tells you," Mom said. She hugged Kendra and Seth.
Kendra felt tears seeping into her eyes. She fought them back. "Have a fun cruise."
"We'll be back before you know it," Dad said, putting an arm around Kendra and tousling Seth's hair.
Waving, Mom and Dad walked out the door. Kendra went to the doorway and watched them climb into the SUV. Dad honked as they drove off. Kendra fought back tears again as the SUV vanished into the trees.
Mom and Dad were probably laughing, relieved to be off by themselves for the longest vacation of their married lives. She could practically hear their crystal goblets clinking. And here she stood, abandoned. Kendra closed the door. Seth, oblivious as ever, was examining the intricate pieces of a decorative chess set.
Grandpa stood in the entry hall, watching Seth and looking politely uncomfortable.
"Leave the chess pieces alone," Kendra said. "They look expensive."
"Oh, he's all right," Grandpa said. By the way he said it, Kendra could tell he was relieved to see Seth setting the pieces down. "Shall I show you to your room?"
They followed Grandpa up the stairs and down a carpeted hall to the foot of a narrow wooden staircase leading up to a white door. Grandpa continued on up the creaking steps.
"We don't often have guests, especially children," Grandpa said over his shoulder. "I think you'll be most comfortable in the attic."
He opened the door, and they entered after him. Braced for cobwebs and torture devices, Kendra was relieved to find that the attic was a cheerful playroom. Spacious, clean, and bright, the long room had a pair of beds, shelves crowded with children's books, freestanding wardrobes, tidy dressers, a unicorn rocking horse, multiple toy chests, and a hen in a cage.
Seth went straight for the chicken. "Cool!" He poked a finger through the slender bars, trying to touch the orange-gold feathers.
"Careful, Seth," Kendra warned.
"He'll be fine," Grandpa said. "Goldilocks is more a house pet than a barnyard hen. Your grandmother usually takes care of her. I figured you kids wouldn't mind filling in while she's gone. You'll need to feed her, clean her cage, and collect her eggs."
"She lays eggs!" Seth looked astonished and delighted.
"An egg or two a day if you keep her well fed," Grandpa said. He pointed to a white plastic bucket full of kernels near the cage. "A scoop in the morning and another in the evening should take care of her. You'll want to change the lining of her cage every couple days, and make sure she has plenty of water. Every morning, we give her a tiny bowl of milk." Grandpa winked. "That's the secret behind her egg production."
"Can we ever take her out?" The hen had moved close enough for Seth to stroke her feathers with one finger.
"Just put her back afterwards." Grandpa bent down to put a finger in the cage, and Goldilocks instantly pecked at it. Grandpa withdrew his hand. "Never liked me much."
"Some of these toys look expensive," Kendra said, standing beside an ornate Victorian dollhouse.
"Toys are meant to be played with," Grandpa said. "Do your best to keep them in decent shape, and that will be good enough."
Seth moved from the hen cage to a small piano in the corner of the room. He banged on the keys, and the notes that clanged sounded different from what Kendra would have expected. It was a little harpsichord.
"Consider this room your space," Grandpa said. "Within reason, I'll not bother you to pick things up in here, so long as you treat the rest of the house with respect."
"Okay," Kendra said.
"I also have some unfortunate news. We are in the height of tick season. You kids ever hear of Lyme disease?"
Seth shook his head.
"I think so," Kendra said.
"It was originally discovered in the town of Lyme, Connecticut, not too far from here. You catch it from tick bites. The woods are full of ticks this year."
"What does it do?" Seth asked.
Grandpa paused for a solemn moment. "Starts out as a rash. Before long it can lead to arthritis, paralysis, and heart failure. Besides, disease or no, you don't want ticks burrowing into your skin to drink your blood. You try to pull them off and the head detaches. Hard to get out."
"That's disgusting!" Kendra exclaimed.
Grandpa nodded grimly. "They're so small you can hardly see them, at least until they fill up on blood. Then they swell to the size of a grape. Anyhow, point is, you kids are not allowed to enter the woods under any circumstances. Stay on the lawn. Break that rule and your outdoor privileges will be revoked. We understand one another?"
Kendra and Seth nodded.
"You also need to keep out of the barn. Too many ladders and rusty old pieces of farm equipment. Same rules apply to the barn as apply to the woods. Set foot in there, and you will spend the rest of your stay in this room."
"Okay," Seth said, crossing the room to where a little easel stood on a paint-spattered tarp. A blank canvas rested on the easel. Additional blank canvases leaned against the wall nearby, beside shelves stocked with jars of paint. "Can I paint?"
"I'm telling you twice, you have the run of this room," Grandpa said. "Just try not to destroy it. I have many chores to attend to, so I may not be around much. There should be plenty of toys and hobbies here to keep you busy."
"What about a TV?" Seth asked.
"No TV or radio," Grandpa replied. "Rules of the house. If you need anything, Lena will never be far." He indicated a purple cord hanging against the wall near one of the beds. "Tug the cord if you need her. In fact, Lena will be up with your supper in a few minutes."
"Won't we eat together?" Kendra asked.
"Some days. Right now I need to visit the east hayfield. May not be back until late."
"How much land do you own?" asked Seth.
Grandpa smiled. "More than my share. Let's leave it at that. I'll see you kids in the morning." He turned to leave and then paused, reaching into his coat pocket. Turning back, he handed Kendra a tiny key ring holding three miniature keys of varying sizes. "Each of these keys fits something in this room. See if you can figure out what each unlocks."
Grandpa Sorenson walked out of the room, closing the door behind him. Kendra listened as he descended the stairs. She stood at the door, waiting, and then gently tried the handle. It turned slowly. She eased the door open, peered down the empty stairway, and then closed it. At least he had not locked them in.
Seth had opened a toy chest and was examining the contents. The toys were old-fashioned but in excellent condition. Soldiers, dolls, puzzles, stuffed animals, wooden blocks.
Kendra wandered over to a telescope by a window. She peered into the eyepiece, positioned the telescope to look through a windowpane, and began twisting the focus knobs. She could improve the focus but couldn't get it quite right.
She stopped fiddling with the knobs and examined the window. The panes were made of bubbly glass, like those in the front of the house. The images were being distorted before they reached the telescope.
Unfastening a latch, Kendra pushed the window open. She had a good view of the forest east of the house, illuminated by the golden hues of the setting sun. Moving the telescope closer to the window, she spent some time mastering the knobs, bringing the leaves on the trees below into crisp focus.
"Let me see," Seth said. He was standing beside her.
"Pick up those toys first." A mess of toys lay piled near the open chest.
"Grandpa said we can do what we want in here."
"Without making it a disaster. You're already wrecking the place."
"I'm playing. This is a playroom."
"Remember how Mom and Dad said we need to pick up after ourselves?"
"Remember how Mom and Dad aren't here?"
"How? Stick a note in a bottle? You won't even remember by the time they get back."
Kendra noticed a calendar on the wall. "I'll write it on the calendar."
"Good. And I'll look through the telescope while you do that."
"This is the one thing in the room I was doing. Why don't you find something else?"
"I didn't notice the telescope. Why don't you share? Don't Mom and Dad also tell us to share?"
"Fine," Kendra said. "It's all yours. But I'm closing the window. Bugs are coming in."
She shut the window.
Seth looked into the eyepiece and started twisting the focus knobs. Kendra took a closer look at the calendar. It was from 1953. Each month was accompanied by an illustration of a fairyland palace.
She turned the calendar to June. Today was June 11. The days of the week did not match up, but she could still count down to when her parents would return. They would be back June 28.
"This stupid thing won't even focus," Seth complained.
Copyright © 2006 by Brandon Mull
The next morning, Kendra sat at breakfast across from her grandfather. A wooden clock on the wall above him read 8:43. Reflected sunlight flashed in the corner of her eye. Seth was using his butter knife to bounce sun rays. She was not seated close enough to the window to retaliate.
"Nobody likes the sun in their eyes, Seth," Grandpa said.
Seth stopped. "Where's Dale?" he asked.
"Dale and I got up a few hours ago. He's out working. I'm just here to keep you company on your first morning."
Lena set a bowl in front of Seth and another in front of Kendra.
"What's this?" Seth asked.
"Cream of wheat," Lena replied.
"Sticks to your ribs," Grandpa added.
Seth probed the cream of wheat with his spoon. "What's in it? Blood?"
"Berries from the garden and homemade raspberry preserves," Lena said, placing a platter on the table containing toast, butter, a pitcher of milk, a bowl of sugar, and a bowl of jam.
Kendra sampled the cream of wheat. It was delicious. The berries and raspberry preserves sweetened it to perfection.
"This is good!" Seth said. "Just think, Dad is eating snails."
"You kids remember the rules about the woods," Grandpa said.
"And to stay out of the barn," Kendra said.
"Good girl. There's a swimming pool out back that we got ready for you — all the chemicals are balanced and whatnot. There are gardens to explore. You can always play in your room. Just respect the rules and we'll get along fine."
"When is Grandma coming back?" Kendra asked.
Grandpa glanced down at his hands. "That depends on your Aunt Edna. Could be next week. Could be a couple months."
"Good thing Grandma got over her illness," Kendra said.
"The one that kept her from going to the funeral."
"Right. Yeah, she was still a little under the weather when she left for Missouri."
Grandpa was acting a little peculiar. Kendra wondered if he was uncomfortable around children.
"I'm sad we missed her," Kendra said.
"She's sorry too. Well, I better be off." Grandpa had not eaten anything. He pushed his chair back, stood up, and stepped away from the table, rubbing his palms against his jeans. "If you swim, don't forget to wear sunblock. I'll see you kids later."
"At lunch?" Seth asked.
"Probably not until supper. Lena will help you with anything you need."
He left the room.
Dressed in her swimsuit, a towel over one shoulder, Kendra stepped through the door onto the back porch. She carried a handheld mirror she had found in the nightstand by her bed. The handle was mother-of-pearl studded with rhinestones. The day was a bit humid, but the temperature was pleasant.
She walked to the railing of the porch and gazed over the gorgeously manicured backyard. Paths of white stones meandered among flower beds, hedgerows, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and flowering plants. Tangled grapevines curled along suspended lattices. All the flowers seemed to be in full bloom. Kendra had never seen such brilliant blossoms.
Seth was already swimming. The pool had a black bottom, and it was fringed with rocks to make it seem like a pond. Kendra hurried down the steps and started down a path toward the pool.
The garden teemed with life. Hummingbirds darted among the foliage, wings nearly invisible as they hovered. Huge bumblebees with fuzzy abdomens buzzed from one blossom to another. A stunning variety of butterflies fluttered about on tissue-paper wings.
Kendra passed a small, waterless fountain featuring a statue of a frog. She paused as a large butterfly alighted on the rim of an empty birdbath. It had huge wings — blue, black, and violet. She had never seen a butterfly with such vivid coloring. Of course, she had never visited a world-class garden. The house was not quite a mansion, but the grounds were fit for a king. No wonder Grandpa Sorenson had so many chores.
The path finally deposited Kendra at the pool. Variegated flagstones paved the poolside area. There were a few recliners and a circular table with a big umbrella.
Seth leaped from a stone outcropping into the swimming pool, legs curled up, and hit the water with a big splash. Kendra set her towel and mirror on the table and grabbed a bottle of sunblock. She smeared the white cream over her face, arms, and legs until it disappeared into her skin.
While Seth was swimming underwater, Kendra picked up the mirror. She angled the face so it reflected sunlight onto the water. When Seth surfaced, she made sure the bright splotch of sunlight covered his face.
"Hey!" he shouted, swimming away from her. She kept the glare from the mirror on the back of his head. Gripping the side of the pool, Seth turned to look at her again, throwing up a hand and squinting to ward off the light. He had to look away.
"Cut it out," Seth called.
"You don't like that?"
"Quit it. I won't do it anymore. Grandpa already yelled at me."
Kendra set the mirror on the table. "That mirror is a lot brighter than a butter knife," she said. "I bet it already did permanent damage to your retinas."
"I hope so, then I'll sue you for a billion dollars."
"Good luck. I have about a hundred in the bank. It might be enough for you to buy some eye patches."
He swam toward her angrily, and Kendra walked forward to the edge of the pool. As he started climbing out, she shoved him back in. She was almost a full head taller than Seth and could usually handle him in a fight, although if they ended up wrestling he was pretty squirmy.
Seth changed tactics and started splashing her, making quick scooping motions across the surface of the pool. The water felt cold, and Kendra recoiled at first, then leapt over Seth into the water. After the initial shock, she swiftly grew accustomed to the temperature, stroking over to the shallow end away from her brother.
He chased her, and they ended up in a splash fight. Locking his hands, Seth swung his arms in wide arcs, skimming the top of the water. Kendra pushed at the water with both hands, a churning motion that generated smaller but more focused splashes. Soon they grew tired. It was hard to win a water fight when both participants were already soaked.
"Let's have a race," Kendra suggested as the splashing subsided.
They raced back and forth across the pool. First they raced freestyle, then backstroke, breaststroke, and sidestroke. After that they created handicaps, like racing with no arms or hopping across the width of the shallow end on one foot. Kendra usually won, but Seth was faster at backstroke and some of the handicapped races.
When Kendra grew bored, she got out of the pool. Walking toward the table to retrieve her towel, she stroked her long hair, enjoying the rubbery texture as the wetness made the strands cling together.
Seth climbed on top of a big rock near the deep end. "Watch this can opener!" He jumped with one leg straight and the other bent.
"Good job," Kendra said to placate him when he surfaced. Shifting her gaze to the table, Kendra froze. Hummingbirds, bumblebees, and butterflies swirled in the air above the handheld mirror. Several other butterflies and a couple of large dragonflies actually rested on the face of the mirror itself.
"Seth, come look at this!" Kendra hissed in a loud whisper.
"Just come here."
Seth boosted himself out of the pool and padded over to Kendra, arms folded. He stared at the cloud of life whirling above the mirror. "What's their deal?"
"I don't know," she replied. "Do insects like mirrors?"
"These ones do."
"Look at the red and white butterfly. It's enormous."
"Same with that dragonfly," Seth pointed out.
"I wish I had a camera. I dare you to go get the mirror."
Seth shrugged. "Sure."
He trotted over to the table, grabbed the mirror by the handle, dashed to the pool, and dove in. Some of the insects scattered instantly. The majority drifted in the direction Seth had gone but dispersed before reaching the pool.
Seth surfaced. "Any bees after me?"
"Get the mirror out of the water. You'll ruin it!"
"Settle down, it's fine," he said, stroking over to the side.
"Give it to me." She took the mirror from him and wiped it dry with her towel. It looked undamaged. "Let's try an experiment."
Kendra placed the mirror face up on a lounge chair and backed away. "Think they'll come back?"
Kendra and Seth sat down at the table, not far from the lounge chair. After less than a minute, a hummingbird glided over to the mirror and hovered above it. Soon it was joined by a few butterflies. A bumblebee alighted on the face. Before long another swarm of small winged creatures crowded the mirror.
"Go turn the mirror face down," Kendra said. "I want to see whether they like the reflection or the mirror itself."
Seth crept toward the mirror. The little animals took no apparent notice of his approach. He reached forward slowly, flipped the mirror over, and then retreated to the table.
The butterflies and bees that had landed on the mirror took flight when it was overturned, but only a few of the winged creatures flew away. Most of the swarm lingered. A pair of butterflies and a dragonfly landed on the lounge chair at the edge of the mirror. Taking flight, they flipped the mirror over, nearly sliding it off the chair in the process.
With the reflective surface showing again, the swarm pressed close. Several of the creatures landed on the face.
"Did you see that?" Kendra asked.
"That was weird," Seth said.
"How could they be strong enough to lift it?"
"There were a few of them. Want me to flip it again?"
"No, I'm scared the mirror will fall off and break."
"Okay." He draped his towel over his shoulder. "I'm going to go change."
"Would you take the mirror?"
"Fine, but I'm running. I don't want to get stung."
Seth moved toward the mirror slowly, snatched it, and ran off into the garden toward the house. Part of the swarm gave lazy pursuit before scattering.
Kendra wrapped the towel around her waist, picked up the sunblock Seth had left behind, and started toward the house.
When Kendra reached the attic playroom, Seth was dressed in jeans and a long- sleeved camouflage shirt. He picked up the cereal box that served as his emergency survival kit and headed for the door.
"Where are you going?"
"None of your business, unless you want to come."
"How will I know whether I want to come if you don't tell me where you're going?"
Seth gave her a measuring stare. "Promise to keep it a secret?"
"Let me guess. Into the woods."
"Want to come?"
"You'll get Lyme disease," Kendra warned.
"Whatever. Ticks are everywhere. Same with poison ivy. If people let that stop them, nobody would ever go anywhere."
"But Grandpa Sorenson doesn't want us in the woods," she protested.
"Grandpa isn't going to be around all day. Nobody will know unless you blab."
"Don't do this. Grandpa has been nice to us. We should obey him."
"You're about as brave as a bucket of sand."
"What's so brave about disobeying Grandpa?"
"So you're not coming?"
Kendra hesitated. "No."
"Will you tell on me?"
"If they ask where you are."
"I won't be long."
Seth walked out the door. She heard him tromp down the stairs.
Kendra crossed to the nightstand. The handheld mirror rested on it beside the ring with the three tiny keys. She had spent a long time the night before trying to find what the keys fit. The biggest key opened a jewelry box on the dresser that was full of costume jewelry — fake diamond necklaces, pearl earrings, emerald pendants, sapphire rings, and ruby bracelets. She had not yet discovered what the other two opened.
She picked up the keys. They were all small. The smallest was no longer than a thumbtack. Where could she find such a miniscule keyhole?
The night before, she had spent most of her time on drawers and toy chests. Some of the drawers had keyholes, but they were already unlocked, and the keys did not fit. Same with the toy chests.
The Victorian dollhouse caught her attention. What better place to find tiny keyholes than inside a little house? She unlatched the clasps and opened it, revealing two floors and several rooms full of miniature furniture. Five doll people lived in the house — a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, and a baby.
The detail was extraordinary. The beds had quilts, blankets, sheets, and pillows. The couches had removable cushions. The knobs in the bathtub really turned. Closets had clothes hanging inside.
The armoire in the dollhouse's master bedroom made Kendra suspicious. It had a disproportionately large keyhole in the center. Kendra inserted the tiniest key and turned it. The doors of the armoire sprung open.
Inside was something wrapped in gold foil — opening it, she saw it was a piece of chocolate shaped like a rosebud. Behind the chocolate she found a small golden key. She added it to the key ring. The golden key was larger than the key that opened the armoire, but smaller than the key that opened the jewelry box.
Kendra took a bite of the chocolate rosebud. It was soft and melted in her mouth. It was the richest, creamiest chocolate she had ever tasted. She finished it in three more bites, savoring each mouthful.
Kendra continued scouring the tiny house, investigating every piece of furniture, searching every closet, checking behind every miniature painting on the walls. Finding no more keyholes, she closed the dollhouse and fastened the clasps.
Scanning the room, Kendra tried to decide where to look next. One key left, maybe two if the golden key also opened something. She had been through most of the items in the toy chests, but she could always double-check. She had searched through the drawers in the nightstands, dressers, and wardrobes thoroughly, as well as the knickknacks on the bookshelves. There could be keyholes in unlikely places, like under the clothes of a doll or behind a bedpost.
Kendra ended up beside the telescope. Improbable as it seemed, she checked it for keyholes. Nothing.
Maybe she could use the telescope to locate Seth. Opening the window, she noticed Dale walking along the lawn at the outskirts of the woods. He was carrying something in both hands, but his back was to her, impeding a view of what he held. He stooped and set it down behind a low hedge, which continued to prevent her from seeing the object. Dale walked off at a brisk pace, glancing around as if to ensure nobody was spying, and soon passed out of view.
Curious, Kendra rushed downstairs and out the back door. Dale was nowhere in sight. She trotted across the lawn to the low hedge beneath the attic window. Grass continued for about six feet beyond the hedge before stopping abruptly at the perimeter of the forest. On the grass behind the hedge rested a large pie tin full of milk.
An iridescent hummingbird hung suspended over the pie tin, wings a faint blur. Several butterflies flitted around the hummingbird. Occasionally one would descend and splash in the milk. The hummingbird flew away, and a dragonfly approached. It was a smaller crowd than the mirror had attracted, but there was much more activity than Kendra would have expected around a small pool of milk.
She watched as a variety of tiny winged animals came and went, feeding from the pie tin. Did butterflies drink milk? Did dragonflies? Apparently so. It was not long before the level of milk in the pie tin had markedly fallen.
Kendra looked up at the attic. It had only two windows, both facing the same side of the house. She visualized the room behind those gabled windows and suddenly realized that the playroom consumed only half the space the attic should fill.
Abandoning the tin of milk, she walked around to the opposite side of the house. On the far side was a second pair of attic windows. She was right. There was another half to the attic. But she knew of no other stairway granting access to the uppermost story. Which meant there might be some sort of secret passage in the playroom! Maybe the final key unlocked it!
Just as she decided to return to the attic and search for a hidden door, Kendra noticed Dale coming from the direction of the barn with another pie tin. She hurried toward him. When he saw her coming, he looked temporarily uncomfortable, then put on a big smile.
"What are you doing?" Kendra asked.
"Just taking some milk to the house," he replied, changing direction a bit. He had been heading toward the woods.
"Really? Why'd you leave that other milk behind the hedge?"
"Other milk?" He could not have looked more guilty.
"Yeah. The butterflies were drinking it."
Dale was no longer walking. He regarded Kendra shrewdly. "Can you keep a secret?"
Dale looked around as if someone might be watching. "We have a few milking cows. They make plenty of milk, so I put out some of the excess for the insects. Keeps the garden lively."
"Why's that a secret?"
"I'm not sure your grandfather would approve. Never asked permission. He might consider it wasteful."
"Seems like a good idea to me. I noticed all the different kinds of butterflies in your garden. More than I've ever seen. Plus all the hummingbirds."
He nodded. "I like it. Adds to the atmosphere."
"So you weren't taking that milk to the house."
"No, no. This milk hasn't been pasteurized. Full of bacteria. You could catch all sorts of diseases. Not fit for people. Insects, on the other hand, they seem to like it best this way. You won't spoil my secret?"
"I'll keep quiet."
"Good girl," he said with a conspiratorial wink.
"Where are you putting that one?"
"Over there." He jerked his head toward the woods. "I set a few on the border of the yard every day."
"Does it spoil?"
"I don't leave it out long enough. Some days the insects consume all the milk before I collect the pans. Thirsty critters."
"See you later, Dale."
"You seen your brother hereabout?"
"I think he's in the house."
She shrugged. "Maybe."
Kendra turned and started toward the house. She glanced back as she mounted the stairs to the rear porch. Dale was placing the milk behind a small, round bush.
Copyright © 2006 by Brandon Mull
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