The car shook with every bump and pothole on the road, rumbling over the cow grate off the freeway onto the frontage road and into the outskirts of the small town. Kathleen Nielsen frowned at her knees, not looking at her mother or the road ahead. She knew where she was going, and she was going alone.
“Now, Katy, mind your grandma,” her mother said with a lecturing tone; the same one she used just a few minutes ago to explain that Katy would not be going to Florida with her parents. Katy needed a time-out with no perks.
Katy pulled her arms across her chest tighter, clenching her teeth together with a glare at the door handle. If they had gone slower, she would have considered leaping from the car, like they do in the movies, just to get away. It was utterly unfair that her parents got to go to Orlando, and she got left behind in the middle of nowhere with her ancient grandma simply because of one silly incident at school.
Or was it even that?
Frowning deeper, Katy continued to glare at the door. No, she was grounded until the day she died if her stupid, interfering mother had anything to say about it.
Nothing she did was right anymore. Katy didn’t practice her flute anymore. She didn’t clean her room like her mother wanted. She talked back, unable to listen to all that preaching a second longer. Her grades were slipping. And, of course, her mom didn’t like her friends. They were a bad influence her mother said. Well, she’d show her. Grandma Schmidt was not going to soften her up. She couldn’t. Grandpa wasn’t there anymore. Her mom’s secret weapon was dead.
“Didn’t you hear me?” her mother said, looking over at Katy with a tired sigh. “You are to mind your grandmother. If I hear you have given her backtalk and did not help her out with the chores, you’ll remain grounded until the end of summer. Hopefully, by then, you will have learned to behave yourself.”
Katy gave a snort.
“What was that?” her mother asked, lifting her eyebrows.
With a glare, Katy snapped. “I heard you, Denise. You don’t have to shout.”
Wishing to close her eyes, Katy’s mom frowned. “Kathleen Nielsen, that was disrespectful. I don’t care what your friends do with their parents, but you will not speak to me so—”
“Whatever.” Katy gave that snort again.
Her mother pulled the car to the side of the road and parked with the engine still running. She turned to her eleven-year-old daughter with a glare, shoving her book to the side so it would not become a victim of Katy’s oncoming tantrum.
“Kathleen Nielsen! That is the last time you will act that way. Your father and I are very concerned about you. With the way you are going, you will end up making a lot of choices you will regret.”
“Oh, please.” Katy made a face at her, but retreated towards the door in case her mother got any ideas about spanking her. “Save your holier-than-thou speech for someone who cares. When I’m eighteen, I’m leaving home to do what I want. And not you, or anyone else, can stop me. You can’t control my life forever.”
Her mother’s eyes narrowed. “Is that what you think we’re doing? Trying to control you?”
“I’d bet you’d even break my legs, so I’d have to be in a wheelchair like your crippled friend, so you can keep me locked up.” Her mother’s face flushed red like it always did when Katy brought her childhood friend into the argument. “You need people that can’t run away from you; you’re so awful.” Katy dug the knife deeper, really wanting to hurt her mom. After all, her mom took her away from her own friends. It seemed only fair to do the same to her.
But her mother lifted her chin, fingering the worn folded origami flower in the book that she always used as a bookmark, the one that particular friend had made for her. “No, Katy. You misunderstand. She just couldn’t come outside of her room to—”
“I don’t care,” Katy said turning away. “I’ve heard the stupid story a million times. Get over yourself. I don’t care about the crip-Kathleen you named me after. The chick probably had polio and died from it. Who cares?”
Her mother slapped her. Katy blinked, not expecting that at all. Staring at her mother with shock, she saw tears in her mom’s eyes. But that only made Katy smirk in triumph, biting her own tears back as her mother’s hard words spilled out in anger. “…dare you! Who cares? How did I raise such a selfish daughter? It is like some kind of changeling replaced my girl, and my Katy is lost somewhere.”
“I was never your Katy!” Katy snapped back, rubbing her red cheek now.
Silence was her answer. Her mother lowered her head.
“No. You were Grandpa’s girl. Did Katy die when he did?”
But that was worse than the slap. Katy turned and groped for the door handle.
“The child lock is on,” her mom said.
Katy clenched her teeth again with an even dirtier look. “You’re a control freak!”
Her mom shook her head and steered back into the road. “No. Just concerned.”
But that was too much for Katy to handle. She snatched the book her mom had been reading and ripped out the origami flower. Tearing it in half, she tossed both halves at her mother.
“There! You tyrant!”
Immediately the car skidded to a halt. Katy’s seat belt jerked her back. Luckily, she still had it on considering it had been hard enough to get her to wear one—she hated all restraints.
Her mom clenched the steering wheel, panting and staring at the torn rose.
“What are you trying to do? Kill me?” Katy shouted at her. “Can’t you drive better?”
Katy’s mom turned her head and stared at her daughter. Then, with a jerk, she reached over and unbuckled her daughter’s seat belt. The child lock unlatched. “Get out!”
Katy stared at her, and kicked the dash with her toe. Kicking it again, she yanked on the door. “Fine! I’m running away!”
With a dry look, her mother merely shook her head. She pointed back to the freeway. “It is twelve miles to the next town. Grandma Schmidt is only three blocks that way. If you want to walk to the nearest town, that is your affair. They don’t have a bus, so you won’t be able to catch a ride anywhere. It is farmland for hundreds of miles in every direction. Good luck. However, I’ll be going to Grandma’s. If you want dinner and a warm bed tonight, I suggest you start walking now because I am not going to put up with any more abuse today.”
“Abuse? I’m the one being abused!” Katy shouted, not quite stepping out of the car.
“Go. I won’t say it a third time. The walk might do you good.”
But Katy only scowled at her. However, her mother would not budge.
Fighting the tears that welled up in her eyes, Katy finally climbed out. She slammed the door, swearing at her mother and the door between them.
“I hate you!” Katy kicked the door for spite.
Her mother sighed and shook her head. “Too bad. I love you.”
And she drove down the road.
Kicking the gravel and then tromping around in circles in her indecision, Katy grumbled to herself for several minutes before trudging slowly toward her grandmother’s place. In truth, she had been looking forward to seeing her grandmother, and she hoped Grandma Schmidt would take her side. But Grandma Schmidt was an old-fashioned woman. It was doubtful that she would see things her way.
Of course, while walking down the road that she and her grandpa often took together so many summer days, stirred up memories she had hoped to forget. She passed the wild strawberry patch where they used to snitch strawberries on their way back from Mr. Meredith’s home—he would always let her rides his horses. She walked by the dilapidated wood and wire fence that bordered on Marge Fillmore’s property where her granddaughter used to play with them before she was sent off to New York to study acting. Katy passed by the old, now closed, soda shop that never had much business in the first place because the town was too small, but had the best malteds ever. Kicking a stone, Katy had to look away as she trudged past the crab apple trees she used to swing on and jump off as Grandpa caught her. But he was gone, and all these places felt empty.
He was gone, and that was that. Life no longer had color in it. It no longer had beauty. The world had gone silent from his laughter and the music he made. Katy couldn’t even bear to pick up her flute anymore because it reminded her of him too much. Of course, all music had that effect on her those days. It seemed unfair that music continued without the ultimate musician.
But her feet took her too easily down that road, and Katy found herself standing on Grandma Schmidt’s walkway, blinking as if waking from a dream. Her grandmother had already come out, grinning and opening her arms for a bear hug.
“Kathleen! You’ve arrived! You mother said you needed to walk! I must say, what a dramatic entrance!”
Containing a moan, Katy grimaced for her grandmother. Grandma Schmidt was all arms in her embrace, squeezing out every ounce of breath Katy had in her.
“Oh! How you’ve grown! Let me look at you!”
She lifted Katy’s arms out, grinning too cheerily for Katy’s present gloomy mood. Over Grandma Schmidt’s shoulder, she saw her mom standing in the doorway. Katy wanted to wipe that satisfied smile off her mother’s lips. If only she weren’t standing so far away.
“Mom, I must be off. Bob is waiting for me to get back by tonight,” Katy’s mother said.
Grandma Schmidt turned around and reached out for another hug, merely switching victims. “Oh, dear. So soon? Well, make this hug last, ok, Denise?”
Katy’s mom smiled, though her gaze on her daughter was pained. “Ok, Mom, but I really have to get going. Our flight leaves early tomorrow.”
“Well, if you must, you must. But be a dear and call often.”
“I will, Mom.”
Katy rolled her eyes at the spectacle both of them were making and attempted to walk past them.
She never got that far. Her mother placed a hand on her head with a softened smile and attempted to kiss Katy’s forehead like she used to do when Katy was little. Katy squirmed out of it with a jerk and tromped further indoors.
“I see what you mean,” Katy heard her grandmother murmur to her mother.
Stomping to the fridge, Katy yanked the door open as her temper rose, listening to the two conspirators whisper although she couldn’t make out their words.
“I’ll see you in a month,” her mother called over to Katy.
Katy merely grunted and took the jar of pickles out.
“Don’t worry, sweetie. Just leave her in my capable hands. I’m sure even Grandpa will be around to lend a hand.”
A shiver ran down Katy’s arms. She looked up where her grandmother stood. Then she glanced around. Grandpa? What? Was Grandma Schmidt seeing ghosts?
But her mother gave a tired smile to Grandma Schmidt, patting her hands before she turned to go back to her car. “That would be nice.”
Wishful thinking. Katy smirked at it and turned back to her task, taking out the mustard, ketchup, lettuce, and tomatoes.
“Say good bye to your mother, Katy,” her grandmother said.
Katy turned with a glare. “Get lost.”
Her mother ruffled, but did not move.
“Let’s try that again,” her grandmother said in a sterner voice.
It was not the first time her grandmother had taken that authoritarian tone with her, but it certainly hurt her in the same way. Katy looked at her mother with a scowl, ducked her head sulkily at her grandmother, and said, “Good bye.”
“I’ll miss you, Kathleen,” her mother said as she turned to go once more.
“No, you won’t,” Katy muttered under her breath, not quite sure she wanted her grandmother to hear. “You’re going to Orlando to play with Daddy and leaving me behind.”
Her mother leaned in past Grandma who stood back in appalled silence. “If you had behaved better, I wouldn’t have to leave you.”
“You don’t have to do any of it!” Katy suddenly shouted.
But her mother stood straight and shook her head. She said in a low voice, “No. This I have to do.”
And with that, her mother turned and left, walking directly back to the car on the grassy curb.
“I hate you!” Katy yelled, following her out the door.
But her mother did not stop. She opened the door, climbed in, closed it, and started the car with barely a look back. And when she was on the freeway, Katy felt the full impact of her abandonment crush against her chest. It was difficult to breathe.
“Well, now,” her grandmother said as if reminding her that she was there. “That is enough of the dramatics. I’ll prepare some lunch. You must be hungry.”
With her arms limp at her side, Katy stared down the empty farming town road. That was it. She was stuck in nowhere land now.
“Come in, Katy. You are letting in the flies.”
Drawing in a sigh, Katy obeyed. Somehow it did not seem right to argue with an old lady.
“So,” her grandmother said as she put away the food Katy had just taken out. “After lunch, you can unpack, and then you can help me in the garden.”
She took out two plates from the cupboards and set them on the table, and then grabbed the silverware from the creaky drawers, gazing over what would be her prison for the next three months. The house had an old painted look to everything. The paint was sometimes quite thick over certain parts of the house; the cupboards were white with little enamel doorknobs, and the windows had wooden frames with yellowed, melting glass. The sink was very old and so large one could bathe a small child in it, and Katy knew, based on several embarrassing photos her mother had of her, that she had been bathed in this old sink. The piping had ancient porcelain fixtures on the top—parts would be very hard to find these days. When her grandfather had built it, he fixed every piece, so it would last for generations. So far, it was holding up.
“I don’t garden,” Katy said, dropping into a chair.
Her grandmother raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? Well, now you do.”
“No, I don’t,” Katy replied, clenching her arms across her chest.
Pausing before taking out the prepared lunch of leftover meatloaf and scalloped potatoes from the refrigerator to reheat, her grandmother replied, “If you want to eat, you help. That is the rule in this house.”
Katy glared at her, but said nothing. It certainly hadn’t been the rule before. She wondered when her grandmother had made it up.
Going back to work, her grandmother said, “You are now eleven, Kathleen dear. That means you take share in the responsibility of the household. Besides, your mother said you fancy yourself an adult. Well, I am here to tell you that being adult does not just mean you get your own way. There are responsibilities, burdens, and a great deal of work—”
“Spare me the lecture,” Katy said.
Her grandmother raised her eyebrows at her and paused once more. “What for? You certainly don’t seem to be doing well enough on your own.”
“I’m doing fine!” Katy snapped back.
But her grandmother frowned. “Fine? Ending up in the police station for shoplifting?”
“It was just a game.”
“It was stealing.”
“We were going to sneak it back in.”
“Really?” Her grandmother’s skepticism was clear though.
Katy only glared.
“It doesn’t matter what you think you were doing. What you were doing was stealing. And I don’t care if your friends made you do it, or whatever excuse you have next. You are old enough to know your own mind and—”
“And I don’t want meatloaf for lunch!” Katy immediately shouted at her, standing up.
Her grandmother, hearing the microwave bell ring, took the plate out and placed it on the table. “Pity. Since that is all you are going to get.”
Katy stomped to the fridge to take out the sandwich ingredients again. But her grandmother, a spry woman, stepped right in front of the refrigerator and shook her head.
“No, no. You are going to eat what is served like a good girl.”
Kicking the table leg, Katy shouted, “Gimmie a break. I’ll starve eating that crap!”
Her grandmother’s face went white. She seized a hold of Katy’s arm and pulled her to the sink. Katy could see her take a hold of the bar of soap at the head of the sink and bring it over.
“Abuse! Abuse!” Katy shrieked, trying to kick back.
“And you are disrespectful! That is much worse. Such language will not be allowed in this house! If Grandpa Schmidt were to hear you—”
“Grandpa’s dead, you old biddy! He’s dea—”
But her grandmother lodged the soap in Katy’s mouth and proceeded to clean it out. Katy choked and spat, struggling with all her might as she kicked out with the heel of her foot. Her grandmother yelped and dropped the soap.
Wrenching out of her grip, Katy ran to the door and jerked it open. She was out the house before her grandmother could call to her. Still gagging on the nasty taste in her mouth, Katy tried to spit out the soap. Her mother never dared to wash her mouth out, though she threatened to several times. If her father hadn’t been so against physical punishment, she might have. Searching for the outside faucet, Katy caught sight of the garden hose. She followed it back to the source, quickly twisted the knob and held the nozzle to her mouth.
It squirted out too much water, spraying her in the face and all over her front. Recovering from the shock, Katy hastily sucked in water, spitting it out again on the grass. Soapy bubbles blew from her lips a few times, but mostly she felt the coating remain with that strong taste in her mouth. It took a good long suck from the hose before the majority of the soapy taste was gone. By that time, she sensed her grandmother standing over her.
“I think you have learned not to talk like that again,” her grandmother said.
Katy felt like swearing more and spraying her grandmother with the hose.
“If your grandfather had heard you, he would have tanned your hide.”
Those shivers ran down Katy’s arms again suggesting maybe he would have. Though her grandfather was a kind, softhearted man, he was also stern. Katy had not missed the stories her mother told her about when Grandfather Schmidt had spanked her for snitching a piece of birthday cake before the event. Or when he spanked her, made her give a humiliating apology to her teacher, and put her on gum-cleaning duty for cheating at school. Though the worst, Katy thought, was when they sent her off to a boarding school because she had fallen in with the wrong crowd. Her mother had threatened Katy with that one as a last resort if this trip did not reform her. At the time, Katy had said she didn’t care—but she really did. Being sent away was the worst, even if it was to her grandmother’s. It was like her mom didn’t love her anymore.
“You can come in for lunch now.”
Katy did not remove her glare. “I won’t eat that…stuff.”
With a shrug, her grandmother turned with a sigh. “Suit yourself, though I think you will get awfully hungry before dinner. In this house, there is no snitching food.”
What? Katy thought. Did she count every last pickle? Were they all numbered?
But Katy could see she would get no sympathy, and no lunch.
First kicking the wall, Katy stomped away from the house across the gravelly drive to the high weeds that now edged the yard since her grandfather died. The corral was full of these tare-like stalks, all swaying in the wind in waves. The logs of the corral were threatening to fall over as the wires holding them together were rusted and breaking. It was as if everything was falling apart now that he was gone, including her life.
What went wrong? He wasn’t that old. It was true he was much older than Grandma, but he didn’t look old enough to die yet.
However, she remembered her father had said, “Age had nothing to do with it.” Some people just die. It still seemed unfair, though. Grandpa hadn’t yet seen her in a concert, and she had practiced so hard. Nothing seemed to matter now that he wasn’t there.
Katy found that she had walked all the way around the corral past the granary and the chicken coops to where he kept grapevines. The grapes were never that sweet, but he was the only one that tended them as if they were his pride and joy. The gate was closed and locked. Katy didn’t want to go through there anyway. It only reminded her of her grandfather more, and she wanted to forget. She wanted to forget that someone loved her so much that his eyes lit up every time he saw her; that his smile spread across his face wider than even when he saw her mother come to visit; that he always rubbed her head and said, “Clever girl. Clever girl.”
Passing the grapevines, Katy went to the far fence and looked over at the distant mountains beyond the miles and miles of flat fields. They were high enough that snow still topped the caps. She drew in a breath and sighed. Though the fence was not high, she felt trapped. There was no way to escape the farm, and no way to escape the memory of her grandfather.
Katy wandered about the farmland and then the country road until her stomach growled. Luckily, she still had some change in her pocket, and Katy wandered down to the small Ma and Pa supermarket, one of the few remaining businesses in the area. It was just opposite the post office and the tiny fire station, and in sight of her grandma’s place. Those three business buildings made up the center of the town. They didn’t even have a stoplight.
Within the shop, she picked up a small package of Fig Newtons, which cost all of her remaining change. Paying the grocer, Katy scuffed her shoes against the beat up tile floor and walked back outside. She sat on the curb. Looking over at her grandmother’s place, Katy frowned. She knew she would have to go back eventually.
“No loitering, kid.” The shopkeeper leaned out the doorway, looking disapprovingly at her.
Getting up, Katy frowned. However, she walked the opposite direction to her grandmother’s farm, opening up her Fig Newtons and taking a bite to show him she didn’t care. The sidewalk ended and started in front of his shop, so she walked along the old paved highway, passing the worn highway marker with the gut desire to hitchhike her way back home if necessary. Only one beat up truck rumbled by, popping over the potholes with two cowboy hatted hicks riding inside laughing as their country music song blared from their radio. If it were the city, they would have been the jerks in the low-rider with the hip-hop song booming with thunderous beats that shook the windows around them. But then all kinds of noise seemed foreign to that sleepy little farm town, and even Katy glared at these two boys for disturbing the peace.
The shopkeeper waved at them though as they pulled up to his store, and he even smiled with a gesture for them to come inside for some motor oil or a beverage. They were probably family. Her father used to joke that the entire town was related to each other except for Grandma and Grandpa Schmidt. In-breeders, he called them. In fact, her father often puzzled over why Grandpa Schmidt moved to that small town when he was such an accomplished musician and composer. He even had asked Grandpa that once. Katy had seen his answer. Grandpa Schmidt just smiled, took up his favorite clarinet, and played a tune. When her dad persisted afterward, Grandpa merely said, “Marla’s town didn’t particularly like me. This one did.”
Grandpa Schmidt didn’t like cities, even the small ones. Grandma came from Katy’s hometown. In fact, Katy lived in Great Grandma Whittaker’s house. Her parents inherited it. People around town still gossiped about how Grandpa Schmidt came to town and got engaged to Grandma when she was only fourteen, and he was well into his twenties. Robbing the cradle, they said. It sounded funny to Katy’s ears considering how old they were to Katy. All Grandma ever said about it was Grandpa saved her life, and that was when she fell in love.
But gossip was worse in that farm town. Katy saw the old grocer gesturing over to her, and the farm boys stared. News apparently traveled fast.
Katy walked faster.
Katy decided the main roads were too exposed, so she turned the corner and went up hill. Heading back up the gravel roads, she walked along horse corrals, past haylofts, and beyond haystacks. The Gibson kids were jumping on the trampoline in their yard, and they stared as she trudged by. Katy did not stop. She didn’t like the Gibsons anyway. The kids kicked cats and were mean to strays. The older ones had teased Grandpa all the time, letting the chickens out of the coop. It always made Katy mad, though Grandpa just shrugged his shoulders and took out his old carved flute to play. The chickens never went far anyway. They knew food was indoors rather than outside in the yard, and they usually hopped right back in when Grandpa called to them. He had all the charm.
Katy kicked the nearest fence post. Even the Gibsons made her think of Grandpa.
It was not as long of a walk as Katy had wished. She was standing on the edge of her grandmother’s property once more, and her stomach growled still. The Fig Newtons were not enough.
No snitching? Katy cocked her head to think. Her grandmother was an old lady. Probably her eyesight and hearing were failing her by now. What did it hurt by trying?
She could miss dinner too.
Drawing in a breath, Katy stared at the house, not moving. Her stomach gurgled more. Closing her eyes, she took in another breath and resolved to do it. She had to go in. She had to eat something else.
Taking a dedicated march up the concrete walk to the back door, Katy stopped just short of the handle. Pulling back her fingers momentarily, she took hold of the aluminum screen door latch and pressed the plastic button on the handle, listening to the hook inside squeak. She drew the door open, hoping to make the spring stretch as quietly as possible. It did not creak loudly, but it made her nerves go raw with every sense as she listened also for foot falls. So far, nothing.
Sliding between the screen door and the real door, Katy turned the knob and stepped up into the room where they kept the washer and drier. Lifting her other foot and going forward with as much care as she could, Katy let the screen door slowly click into place behind her. She felt the plastic carpet cover under her feet squeak. Of course—Grandma’s house seemed to be booby trapped with squeaky, noisy things. The kitchen floor creaked. That was the only other obstacle Katy remembered. The others she had inconveniently forgotten.
But she was able to close the door and cross the floor without stirring up her grandmother. In fact, as Katy looked around the room, she heard the fan going in the bedroom to her left. Grandma Schmidt was napping. Releasing a great breath of relief, Katy crossed the room with less care and entered the kitchen to see if there was anything left to eat.
The refrigerator was one of those old giants with the combined freezer and fridge. One had to pull up on a large long stainless steel handle to open it. It also had a lock. Katy touched the lock and tugged on the handle. It was quite tight. Of course! Katy felt like kicking the ground in her anger, but she didn’t. She knew it would wake her grandmother. Looking up instead at the cupboards, she thought of other possibilities for food.
She went to the breadbox first. Opening it, all she could find were the stumps of three loaves that were already dry and perhaps were being saved for crumbs. Grandma topped her casseroles with these.
Opening the cupboards over the counter, Katy found the bowls, the cups, and the plates. Three sets, actually. One set was fine china, and the other was holiday dinnerware. Opening the cupboards below the counter, she found all the pots and pans. Everything was organized. There was the flour barrel to the right and the sugar barrel to the left, both behind the kitchen door. The cupboard above the stove only contained things like baking soda and salt. Then Katy looked over to the tall cupboard where Grandma kept her spices. The ironing board used to fall from it, but Grandma had removed it when she stopped having to iron Grandpa’s shirts. Crossing over to it, Katy pulled on the small knob and opened it wide.
This cupboard was dark inside. It was also deep. For some reason, this cupboard had always creeped Katy out when she was young. Looking in it now, there really was nothing to be scared of. The cupboard was lined in grapevine print contact paper, curling at the edges. The back of the cupboard did not have shelves, but the spices rested on the two-by-fours that made up the paneling in the back wall. In front of them were boxes of cream of wheat, grits, and all kind of pasta—all things that required cooking. Except….
Katy snatched the box out from the cupboard, raising it up in the air. It was a gold find. Ripping open the top, and reaching inside, she took out the opened package of graham crackers, breaking them up into pieces almost immediately. Cramming one after the other into her mouth, Katy chewed them all and swallowed with satisfaction. With each bite came a sigh of relief. Now if only she could get to the milk. Katy stared at the refrigerator longingly. Her eyes turned and fell on the box freezer under the windowsill. She had forgotten that one, but then everything in there was sure to be frozen meat and old cake as hard as ice. Grandma Schmidt made everything from scratch. She would never buy a microwave meal.
Setting the graham cracker box back inside the cupboard, Katy closed the door and crossed over to the freezer anyway. Lifting up the lid, which gratefully wasn’t locked down, she peered inside. Blinking, Katy stared at the sliver wrapped packages and the zip locked freezer bags. Inside five of them were cookies.
Blinking, she just stared. Grandma had been thinking about her. She made those ahead of time. Katy thought about taking some, but she closed the lid instead and turned around. Drawing in a sigh, a feeling of guilt crept inside her. She should have eaten that lunch. It wouldn’t have been so bad. She shouldn’t have said those mean things to her either. Why did she feel so angry all of the time?
Katy heard a creak.
Jerking upright, Katy looked to the kitchen door first, but her grandmother wasn’t there. That wasn’t where the noise came from anyway. Turning her head, she looked to the cupboard door. It was open.
Sure she had closed it, Katy crossed the kitchen floor with less care than before. She reached the cupboard door and checked to make sure the boxes were inside, fitted well so that the door could close entirely. Shutting it again, Katy turned to go towards the basement stairs. She would be sleeping down there, and she wanted to make sure her mom hadn’t left some sappy good bye note in her sleeping bag.
The cupboard door creaked open again. Katy turned her head, half expecting a hand or a scary head to stick out. Slowly walking back, ready to run if she had to, Katy peered around the cupboard door.
Nothing except the same old spices and boxes of hot cereal.
Blinking at the door edge, she felt the boxes to make sure they weren’t pushing the door open, and stuck her head in to see what was wrong. There was enough space for her to climb in if she wanted to. It was dark inside, and the grapevine printed contact paper ran up the walls of the cupboard as well as the back, covering the two-by-fours where the cinnamon and bay leaves rested. Katy peered up. The darkness continued like a chimney flue. In fact, the more Katy stared at it, the more it seemed to go on and on forever. For a moment, she thought she saw a light above, a crack of it. And she even could have sworn she felt a breeze blow down.
Her grandfather had made the house. He built it with his own two hands. Laid the foundation. Set the beams. Roofed it. Everything. He used to say a house held many mysteries. But here, Katy wondered now if he was sharing a secret. Did his house have a mystery? Or maybe it was just haunted with his ghost.
“Kathleen, what are you doing?”
Katy jerked her head out of the cupboard and jumped back. Her grandmother stared at her with a patient, but stern expression on her face.
“I, uh…” Katy frowned and then let out a loud sigh. “I was getting out some graham crackers.”
Grandma Schmidt frowned, but not entirely as her eyes seemed pleased that Katy was being honest. “You’ll spoil your dinner.”
She walked over the refrigerator and took out the brass key she always wore around her neck. The key was mostly decorative, and Katy had always thought it was just a charm her grandfather had given her grandma when they got engaged, but apparently it wasn’t. Her grandma used it to unlock the fridge.
“Are you always going to lock it?” Katy asked, her contempt returning to her voice without meaning to.
Glancing up at her, her grandma said, “It depends. Are you going to be a good girl?”
That phrase always made her feel like such a little kid. Katy hated it. However, she bit back the remark she wanted to make to avoid another mouth-scrubbing.
“I’ll eat what you make,” Katy said.
To that, her grandmother nodded. “Good. It’s a start.”
Katy did not know how to answer to that, so she said nothing.
Her grandmother started to make dinner, pulling out some thawed pieces of chicken, onions, and a few fresh vegetables. She even took out a fresh loaf of bread.
Of course, she would store the bread in a locked place, Katy thought to herself.
“Would you mind helping me?” her grandma asked.
Katy lifted her head, somewhat startled. “I…I’ve never cooked before.”
Her grandmother smiled, setting some spinach leaves onto the counter. “Well, you are nearly twelve. It is about time you learned to cook. I’ll teach you.”
Feeling a blush rise to her cheeks, Katy was again speechless. Almost twelve—in practically a year. But her grandmother saw her as nearly grown up, and she smiled.
Both turned toward the counter, and her grandmother started directing Katy at once. They took out several spices and set them on the counter next to the skillet. Grandma Schmidt showed Katy how to sauté the onions and chop the carrots.
Neither of them noticed that the cupboard door had shut itself.
“Rise and shine, sleepy head!”
Katy rolled over, pulling the pillow on top of her head to block out the suddenly blinding light that now shone overhead from the bare light bulb into her eyes. “You have got to be kidding.”
“Out of bed!” Her grandmother’s cheerful voice called down the stairs, as did the aroma of crisping bacon and melting butter. “Breakfast in five minutes, and don’t be late, or I’ll feed it to the pigs.”
Pigs? Katy merely grunted, knowing her grandpa never kept pigs.
“Come on, Kathleen. We have a full day’s work ahead of us.” Her grandmother walked from the door letting it swing slightly shut.
“Work?” Katy sat up. “I’m on vacation. I’m not here to work.”
But her grandmother did not respond. She was already gone.
Katy dropped back to her pillow, averting her eyes from the swinging light on the chain overhead. Pigs. She wondered what her grandmother meant by that. Reaching up for the pull cord, Katy yanked on it and dropped back down again onto her mattress. She closed her eyes. Falling back asleep took no effort at all.
“Gran, where did all the bacon go?” Katy stood in the doorway, staring at the cleared kitchen table. Her grandmother was just washing up at the sink, elbow high in sudsy water.
Blinking back at her, her grandmother just shrugged. “Where else? Back to the pig.”
“Not funny, Grandma. Really, where did you put it?” Katy walked over to the refrigerator. Tugging on the handle, she could see it was already locked.
“The kitchen closed at eight o’clock. You’ll just have to wait until lunch.”
Katy turned and stared at her. “Lunch? I’m hungry now.”
“If you were really hungry, you would have come when called,” said her grandmother as she went back to washing dishes.
Stomping over to her, Katy nearly swore. However, holding it in, she said, “Are you trying to starve me?”
“Of course not,” Grandma Schmidt said with a small smile. “But I am not a short order cook either.”
Katy just stared at her.
“Here you eat when you are called, and you eat what you are served,” Grandma said.
“I’m not an animal,” Katy snapped.
Grandma Schmidt nodded to her. “I can see that. But you ought to behave like a young lady. And young ladies do as they are told.”
“You are so archaic,” Katy said and turned from her, stomping out the door.
“I’ll be needing you in the garden after this.”
But Katy did not listen. No lunch the day before, and now no breakfast? Whether she liked it or not, Katy knew she was going to be very thin by the end of that month. She thought about hitchhiking home. Although she knew which direction to go on the freeway, she did not know how far she would have to travel to get home. So, doing the only thing she thought she could do, Katy trudged along the gravel road and up the hill, away from the house just for some space. If she didn’t, her grandmother was sure to make her work.
Uphill. Katy knew where that would lead her, but by this time, she didn’t care. In fact, she felt like she needed to go there. It was actually up the hill, to the left down a newly paved road with no sidewalks, and past the new church and the old school house. The empty school swimming pool was still there, but there was now a fence around it to keep children from falling in. Katy passed that and went to the far chain link fence where there was a break in it. It was just large enough for one person to squeeze through. A beaten footpath led on from there. People took it because they didn’t like taking the long way around up the road. Katy was gasping when at last she reached the top of the hill: the carefully mowed grass and the swaying trees stood over numerous stone slabs, all with names of people long dead.
Her grandfather used to say there was a lot of history in a graveyard. It wasn’t just a place where dead people were placed to get them out of the way. And in the shining summer sun, it wasn’t even creepy, just peaceful. Her grandfather used to come up there regularly to put flags out for the soldiers that died, even the forgotten ones. Whenever they faded, he’d be up there to replace them. He often said that no one deserved to be forgotten. No one.
Katy’s feet traveled from stone to stone. She looked at each grave marker. Not one was an ancestor of hers. Her grandfather was a stranger to those parts. She often wondered why he wanted to settle in a town hostile to outsiders. She had asked him once. He just smiled and said, “I knew a town like this once in my younger years, and they treated me badly as this one sometimes does now. I left that town, but I am determined to do it right in this one.”
Do it right. That’s what he had said. Katy never really knew what he meant by that.
She stopped at the edge of one grave. The stone was not the usual grave marker but elaborately carved granite in the shape of a boy with a flute, much like Pan would look, except this one didn’t have goat feet. He had a mischievous shape to his eyes, and he held an exact replica of the wooden carved pipe her grandfather loved to play in his spare time. Around him on the stone, crawling up it, were rats all carved too expertly to not believe they weren’t real. Katy peered at the name engraved there: Peter Wilhelm Schmidt. It only had his death date. No birth date. Grandpa was like that. He never said when he was born. He only smiled and said that he was very, very old.
Katy sat down on the grass and stared at the face of the boy and sighed. She gazed up at the carved grapevines also etched near his name. “Grandpa?”
There was only a breeze. She had wished he were there so she could talk to him, but it really had been a silly notion. Still, she spoke aloud anyway.
“Grandpa. I’ve missed you.”
She noticed a bird land in the tree near by and started its call, which was echoed from another tree by another bird.
“The kids at school won’t leave me alone. They say I’m a goody-two-shoes geek if I keep going to band practice like you want me to.”
She knew how he would answer: It was not important what others thought about her, only if she loved music. Katy started to cry.
“I miss playing the flute, but Robert Brinsky keeps taking it from me away at recess. He and Penny Appleby won’t leave me alone unless I go with them and do those things that make Mom so mad.”
She knew his answer also. Did she like making her mother mad? Did she like being with Robert and Penny? What happened to her other friends?
Katy frowned. Her other friends had not been there for her when her grandfather had died. They said she had changed, but they had never stood by her either. They also could not stand up to Robert and Penny. Her friends had also started to want to be ‘cool’ even if it meant getting into trouble. Staring at the grass at her feet, she whispered, “What do I do?”
A gust of wind blew by her face, brushing the hair from the back of her head into her eyes. She heard laughs coming from down the hill. Katy stood up with a jerk.
“Ha, so you are here.”
It wasn’t her grandmother, which would have been nice if she had come to find her. Katy secretly wanted someone to search for her, someone to care that she was gone. It was Carly Hillerman with Trent and Mark Gibson. They were a couple years older than she was, and just as troublesome as Robert Brinsky.
Katy dusted off her pants and turned to walk away. That’s what Grandpa always said to do when bullies came at you. Just walk away.
“Hey, Schmidt! Where’re you going?”
She quickened her pace, but they caught up with her. Trent grabbed her arm, and Carley reached out for the other one.
“What’s your rush? Don’t you want to come grave hopping with us?” Carley said.
She had a playful sound to her voice. Katy knew better. Carley was trouble. One time when Katy had gone visiting her grandpa, Carley had stolen watermelons from their garden and jumped the fence, trying to sneak through the grapevines to get away. Grandpa had been there in a flash, snatched her arm and yanked her back from his prize grapes. He had given her such a scolding that even Katy never forgot it. And neither had Carley. Carley had been spiteful towards Grandpa Schmidt ever since.
“Come on, Schmidt. What are you doing here? Communing with the dead?” Mark said.
Katy lifted her chin and squared it, glaring into his eyes. “It’s Nielsen. And let me go.”
“Ooh!” Both Carley and Trent chorused. They were cackling like they were planning some real mischief.
“Smart mouth,” Mark snapped back and shook her hard. “I oughta beat you up for that.”
But Katy refused to be intimidated. Having dealt with Robert Brinsky, she knew that showing any amount of fear only made it worse. She had to keep cool to win this fight.
“We were gonna bring you along,” Carley said, “But if you are going to keep acting all goody-two-shoes on us—”
“I’m not a goody-goody,” Katy bit back, glaring at her.
That made all three grin.
“Good.” Mark quickly wrapped his arm around her, making sure she wasn’t going to run away. “Then come with us.”
“I don’t waste my time either,” Katy said, slipping out from under his arm.
But Carley still had a firm hold on her. She jerked Katy back, shaking her head to make it clear Katy could not get away. Mark was ready to put her in a chokehold.
Trent pointed across the lawn to a gravestone. “Let’s take her over there.”
Immediately they dragged Katy across the grass where Trent already skipped over. Katy kicked out, striking Carley first in the shins and then Mark, aiming for his groin. Both let go. Katy ran for it.
“Get her!” Carley shouted to Trent, rubbing her legs as Mark rolled over on the ground.
Dodging gravestones, Katy darted straight to the tall, chain-linked fence. On the other side of the fence, there was nothing but tangled, undeveloped land covered in underbrush. Travis grabbed at her heel just as she was about to pull herself over, latching his fingers onto her shoe.
“Let go!” Katy kicked out, flopping over the wire top headfirst.
Her legs swung over, but her shoe loosened and flipped off, dropping straight into the bramble on the other side. She flipped over and fell to the ground. Trent glared at her, not quite ready to follow her into the shrubbery that was too much like a forest rather than an unused yard. Carley was running to join him, swearing at him and her.
“We’ll get you, Schmidt!”
But Katy did not stop. She dashed into the bushes to find her shoe. Carley was already climbing the fence when Katy finally found it. She ducked under the low branches as soon as she saw Carley and Trent on her side of the fence.
Without even trying to put on her shoe, Katy scrambled down the hill. The bushes scratched her, clawing at her like they also wanted her to get caught and beaten up. But Katy fought with all that she had, scraping up her legs, tearing her socks, and scratching up her arms and face. It was downhill all the way to the small, dry ravine that divided the land from the road. Tumbling to the dilapidated wooden fence mostly constructed out of dried and cracked tree trunks and metal wire, she slid though the slats and dropped down.
Katy scurried up the other side of the ravine and sprinted over the road. It was just one block away from her grandparents’ farm from there. Clenching her shoe in her hand, Katy ran with all that she had, pummeling the ground over the Hickerson’s lawn, across the Hinckley’s wide stubble where they normally grew wheat, and through the still growing patches of squash in the Layton’s yard. She could see the wooden barrier between their lots—an old farmer’s corral for a fence. Katy climbed it into her grandma’s yard, hearing the pairs of feet pounding the ground after her. Snatching up the first garden tool she could see, a hoe, Katy lifted it and swung around for a fight.
“Oh, so you decided to help me garden after all. That’s good.”
Dropping her shoe, Katy stared at her grandmother. She had not seen her weeding among the onions, but her grandmother was calmly doing so, her hat flopping over her face to keep out the sun. Carley and the two boys ran up to the fence, but screeched to a halt the moment their eyes fixed on Grandma Schmidt. They looked at Katy once more, hate on each of their faces as they turned back.
“We’ll get you—later.”
Katy did not let go of the hoe, watching them cross the Layton’s yard. Undoubtedly, they were going back to desecrate some graves.
“You know, if you are going to hold that hoe, I’d rather that you used it to weed out the beets.”
It had been easy to forget her grandmother was there. She was so silent. Katy was half tempted to just drop the hoe and go indoors. However, Katy sighed and did as Grandma Schmidt requested, searching for the beet marker in the ground.
“I’m glad you came back,” Grandma Schmidt said, bending over the carrots now. “I’d hate it if you missed lunch also.”
Katy blinked. Would her grandmother just do that? Make her miss lunch even though she didn’t have breakfast just because she wouldn’t do a stupid bit of weeding? Looking at her, Katy began to realize that she might.
“Now I don’t know what you have been doing with the Gibson boys, but I assume you came home to help me, so we’ll leave it at that,” Grandma Schmidt said.
Looking at her feet, Katy said, “I went to see Grandpa.”
Grandma paused in her weeding. Katy could hear her hold her breath some before releasing it in a sigh. “Of course.”
“I don’t even like the Gibsons,” Katy added.
That made her grandmother smile. “No good girl would. The Gibsons are nothing but trouble. Five generations I’ve seen, and they are all alike.”
Katy continued hoeing.
“That Hillerman girl, though, I’m sorry to say has gone that way from bad influence. I was hoping her parents would put a stop to it, but…” She continued to weed, silencing herself from saying any more. She believed it was wrong to talk badly about another person, said it wasn’t Christian to gossip. Unfortunately, it was very human to do so.
“So,” Grandma Schmidt changed the subject. “What are your favorite vegetables, Kathleen?”
Blinking at her, Katy stuttered for a moment as she answered. “Uh, I, um…carrots.”
Her grandmother smiled. “Good! You haven’t changed much. I had planted plenty of carrots!”
But Katy grimaced. “But I only like them raw. Cooked ones are gross.”
Blinking at her in return, her grandmother stood up. “Really? Why?”
“They’re all squishy and slimy like squash when they’re cooked,” Katy said, digging out a particularly large weed. “I hate that.”
Her grandmother just shrugged and moved on to the next row. “Any other food preferences I ought to know before this day is out?”
Katy eyed her, recognizing that tone of voice. She was being teased. “I don’t like rice or eggplant.”
“Not even rice pudding?”
“Especially not rice pudding.” Katy made another face.
There was silence in the garden. Though they could hear the echoes of the chickadees not far off in the trees and the calls of the quail that ran under the bushes like little scared rodents, they could hear nothing else but the wind. Both of them knew it would be a long time to go before they would be comfortable together.
“I’m done.” Katy tossed the hoe aside, turning towards the house.
“You barely hoed even a row of weeds, Kathleen.” Her grandmother looked tired.
Making a face at her, Katy snapped, “I didn’t want to be here in the first place. I was just running from the Gibsons. You can do your stupid gardening yourself.”
“You know,” Her grandmother went back to her weeding with a calm look on her lips. “There is an old saying.”
Katy stopped, having already turned to go, bracing herself for a lecture.
“Never bite the hand that feeds you.”
Inside her chest, Katy suddenly felt cold. Her stomach twisted sick. Bite the hand that fed her?
But Katy stomped off anyway. She was gone and back to the house before her grandmother could say another word. That was her mother’s plan, after all—to make her feel guilty. And who was perfect for dishing out heaping loads of guilt? Grandma Schmidt, the moralist. No one could get away with anything in her house. Her dad used to say it after sneaking cookies out of her cookie jar right before dinner, in a whisper of course, “Grandma Schmidt could make even the Pope feel like a sinner.”
However, Katy refused to feel guilty. She had not volunteered for the trip. She was forced to come. And starving her to death to force her to do things was just plain mean.
Never bite the hand that feeds you.
Katy shuddered, reaching for the handle to back screen door. She knew what that meant. She would not be having lunch that day either.
The graham crackers were still in the cupboard. Katy took them out and leaned on the wall, munching on them one by one and not feeling the least bit guilty. If her grandmother was going to starve her, she was going to have to find a way around those rules.
Never bite the hand that feeds you. Bah! What a control freak! Katy stuffed her hand into the box, taking out the last package and tearing it open. She’d show her.
A small breeze tickled the side of Katy’s face, brushing her hair somewhat into her eyes. Glancing to the right, Katy saw the cupboard door was open again. Was there a hole in the roof through there? She stuck her head in the dark space and looked up.
Above her head, Katy focused her eyes on that crack of light she had seen the day before. It was there. It really was there. It was strange to her that her grandfather would build that house so well, and yet leave this one part unfinished. Wouldn’t the things in the cupboard get wet from the rain?
The space was large enough, so Katy climbed in to see for herself. It took a small hop to get up inside, but the space was just large enough for her to fit and slide around on her arms. She could actually stand completely upright, not bumping her head at all on any ceiling. In fact, it looked like the cupboard continued up forever into darkness. However, the crack of light was easier to see now. It was definitely there. In fact, it looked like another door was there. Another cupboard door.
She had the urge to go up and see what was beyond that door. All that time she had visited the old place, and she never knew about this secret passage. It was exciting. Katy wondered if her grandfather had built this secret cupboard on purpose. He was a man who liked secrets. He had that smirk in his eyes suggesting he kept a great many secrets. It played out in the music he composed and the way he played the flute. There was mystery and magic in the way he moved about. It only made sense that he would still have a few lingering secrets even after he was gone. Now Katy wanted to know them all.
Placing her hand on the two-by-four beams that made up the wall supports, Katy also scooted her foot on one. She stepped up, climbing them like a ladder to get higher. Up a foot. Then up another. She climbed up five feet and turned around to face what she really hoped to be a door to the roof. What she saw was a door exactly the same as the cupboard, covered in that same grapevine wallpaper that lined the entire cupboard shelves and walls. Swinging the door open, Katy prepared to have her first look at her new rooftop playground.
Katy reached in, stroking the floor.
It was carpet. Not even dusty.
Shifting one foot from one side to the other side of the door, Katy stepped higher. Pulling her torso up and into the doorway, she leaned into the room.
The walls were covered in that grapevine wallpaper, neatly hung in elegant rows from the gabled ceiling to carpet. The carpet was plush and pure white, soft like clouds. There was nothing else in the room. No electric outlets. No hanging light bulbs. Only the walls, the carpet, and one window.
Katy tipped herself face first into the room and crawled the rest of the way inside on her hands and knees. Looking up, she blinked then rolled over onto her back, staring up at the ceiling.
It was amazing. Grandpa Schmidt made this room and didn’t tell anyone? Why?
How did it remain so unused? Why did he put the door in the cupboard? How come the room was empty? Surely a man like him had old musical instruments to store or old sheet music or frustrated crumpled symphonies that just didn’t turn out right. And how come she missed knowing it was there when she had been in the house so many times? How come her grandfather, who told her nearly everything, didn’t tell her about this?
Katy lifted her head wondering who was calling.
Rolling over onto her stomach, she crawled to the window where she heard the voice.
Katy looked down, outside. She saw a girl, a stranger she had never seen before in that small town, on her grandmother’s walk. “Hi,” Katy said, peering down at her.
The girl had dark hair done up in pigtails. She blinked up at Katy as if she were a phantom, but grinned with excitement. “How did you get there?”
Looking around her, Katy just shrugged. “Don’t tell my Gran, but I climbed up through the cupboard.”
The girl blinked at her. “I don’t think I know your grandma.”
“You’re on her walk,” Katy said.
The girl’s eyes grew wider, and she stared down at the walkway to the back door with some surprise. Then she looked up again at Katy, tilting her head. “Are you a ghost?”
Katy made a face at her. “No, stupid. I’m staying here with my grandmother. What are you doing here?”
Not taking offence, the girl frowned and kicked the concrete under her feet. “It’s summer. I’ve nothing to do. And there’s no one to play with.”
For a moment, Katy felt her heart beat faster. A friend. Perhaps this summer was not going to be a waste after all.
Tilting her head, Katy asked, “You’re not a Gibson kid, are you?”
Making a sour face, the girl replied, “Of course not! They’re so mean!”
Katy smiled. “Then I’ll come down and play with you.”
“I’m Nissa!” the girl shouted up with a grin.
“Kathleen, I mean, Katy.” Katy’s heart thumped harder. This was great. Someone to be with. Someone to stand up to the Gibson kids with. “Wait there. I’ll come down.”
“But wait!” Nissa called.
However, Katy had already turned from the window and pushed open the small door. She practically jumped down onto the spices that stood on the bottom shelf of the cupboard and leapt out into the kitchen. Dashing out the kitchen door and through the back room to the screen door, Katy wrenched the door open and jumped out onto the walk.
“I’m here!” Katy looked around.
Nissa was nowhere on the walk.
The girl was not even on the lawn, or the road or even down the street. Either she was hiding or she had really fast legs. Katy kicked the wall to the house and stomped back inside. She had to have been a cousin to the Gibsons. That was a mean prank. Tramping her way back to the cupboard to slam it shut, Katy paused. It was faint, but she could hear it.
Katy jumped to the kitchen window. No one was outside. She was hearing Nissa, but she could not see her. Was she a ghost?
She heard it again.
The sound was not coming from outside, but from the cupboard, just like the mysterious breeze that blew the door open. Walking slowly to it again, Katy carefully climbed up the cupboard and into the room. Nissa was still calling her. “Where are you?”
Crawling over the carpet to the window, Katy looked out. Nissa was still down on the back walk. Her face looked particularly nervous.
“Are you a ghost?” Katy asked, peering down at her.
Nissa looked up and shook her head. “No. Of course not.”
Looking down into the yard, Katy blinked at all the familiar things. The gravel road. The painted siding on the side gable. The tree in the yard, full of leaves. The cracked sidewalk. It was all the same—except, looking at it more, things were somewhat different. Katy could not figure out what the difference was, though.
“How come I can’t see you when I went down?” Katy asked her.
Nissa shrugged. “I dunno. How come you are in a widow that was never there before?”
That struck her. Thinking about it now, there was no upper window on her grandfather’s house. Where did this room really come from?
Katy stared down at Nissa. Of all the secrets her grandfather would keep, this was not one she had expected.
“Are you all right?” Nissa asked.
Katy felt somewhat dizzy and had leaned on the windowsill. “I don’t know.”
“Can I get you anything?” Nissa called up.
“How can you get it to me? I’m in an upstairs room that doesn’t exist in this house?” It really was too much.
Nissa just shrugged. “I could throw it up, and you could catch it.”
That made Katy smirk. Nissa was not fazed by much. Perhaps she knew more about this phenomenon than Katy did. Perhaps magic and ghosts were a way of life for her.
Katy had to ask, “Does this happen to you a lot?”
Nissa blinked for a moment and tilted her head. “No. Not exactly.”
“What do you mean not exactly?”
With a shrug, Nissa replied, “Well, Dad has some funny friends. You know, weird types. There’s this Mr. Fugit that comes around, and Dad calls him Pop all the time. But he’s not old enough to be my grandfather. And then there is this woman that visits from Europe that kinda flirts with Dad, but it doesn’t bother Mom at all. And Dad spends a lot of time in the grapevines tending them. Sometimes he just hops away on business, and he spends nothing on plane flights, though he brings back stuff from all over the world. He calls them thank-you gifts. My dad’s pretty weird.”
Katy’s eyes stared as wide as they could go as Nissa spoke. They were on Grandpa’s land. They had ended up using her grandpa’s grapes. Was she visiting the future? Was Nissa’s father a wizard or a sorcerer? It sounded crazy, like something from a book she had read.
“Your dad’s nothing like that, huh?” Nissa said, sounding glum, as if having an odd father was a burden.
“Not at all.” Katy shook her head. “My dad’s an accountant.”
“So, how did you get into my parents’ house?” Nissa asked.
Looking around at the secret room, Katy shrugged. “I’m not sure. Magic, I guess.”
Nissa nodded knowingly. “Scary. Isn’t it?”
Katy looked down at her. “Does it scare you?”
There was a pause in the way Nissa stood, mentally debating what to say. There was something incredibly familiar about it. “Not really. But people around here talk. They don’t like things mysterious. They sometimes call me the witch daughter.”
“That’s mean,” Katy said before thinking. “You can’t help who your parents are.”
“I know,” Nissa said, but she frowned. “But they pick on me. And Mom says I have to go to boarding school this next year. She says people will leave me alone there.”
“You mean you’re going away?” Katy felt her heart drop into her knees as she leaned out the window.
Nissa nodded. “Yeah.”
“Not fair. I won’t get to see you again then.” Katy glared at the tree ahead of her as though it were her own mother. “Parents can be so controlling.”
“Tell me about it,” Nissa said, nodding.
Katy looked down. Nissa actually looked like she really did want to know her woes, and wasn’t just saying it to agree. So, with a shrug, Katy said, “My mom sent me to stay with my grandmother because she doesn’t like my friends. She says they’re trouble. But trouble is here too. The Gibsons won’t leave me alone. It’s not fair.”
But it was another voice. Both girls turned and stared at the man in a nice suit standing on the walk. He grinned at them both as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
“Oh, Mr. Fugit.” Nissa relaxed her shoulders and let out deep, relieved sigh. “It’s you. Have you come to see my father?”
“Yes, I have.” The man gave Nissa a nod, winking at Katy. “If you would please go get him, I would much appreciate it.”
Nissa cast Katy a look, but did as she was asked, entering the house through the back door. Katy wondered if she would be able to see Nissa inside if she went down the cupboard hole again, or if she would only exist through the window.
“So, this is clever, Kathleen,” Mr. Fugit said, rocking on his heels as one who had all the time in the world to wile away. “Your grandfather speaks highly of you. Though lately, I hear you have been simply naughty.”
That made Katy lurch forward with a jerk. Her eyes were popping out again. “You know my grandfather?”
Mr. Fugit nodded calmly with a smile on his lips. “Of course. I know him especially among all people. He built this house.”
He did know. How? Katy puzzled. She had never seen this man before. But then perhaps he was very young when her grandfather knew him.
“Kathleen, I think your grandmother is calling you,” he said.
Katy turned, listening for herself. Very faintly she could hear it too. How this man could hear her grandmother’s voice was a mystery. Indeed, Nissa was right. Nissa’s father knew some extremely strange characters.
“Katy!” Her grandmother’s voice called again.
But Katy did not want to go. She wanted to say good-bye to Nissa at least.
“Don’t let her see you climb out of the cupboard,” Mr. Fugit said. But then he grinned wider. Waving to the door below, he crossed the concrete. “Ah! Peter!”
Nissa had run out looking up for Katy. But Katy heard her grandmother’s voice call again, and she knew Mr. Fugit was right. She had to go. She waved to Nissa, and mouthed, “I’ll come back tomorrow.”
Waving also, Nissa smiled and nodded.
Crawling back to the cupboard door, Katy stuck her head in. Her grandmother was calling for her outside. That was why her voice was faint. Making haste and trying to be careful not to knock spices and boxes off the shelves, Katy climbed back down, slipping out of the cupboard and resting her feet onto the linoleum. That was when she noticed that she was wearing only one shoe. The other was just her dirty sock.
“Katy!” Grandmother Schmidt shouted from the porch out into the yard.
Taking a step in that direction, Katy sighed. Things were just getting interesting.
“I’m here, Grandma, what did you want?” Katy stepped into the doorway.
Turning around with a start, her grandmother grabbed her own chest. “Don’t sneak up on an old woman like that. You could give me a heart attack.”
Katy only looked the other way.
“Where have you been?” her grandmother asked. She looked more than flustered. “For heaven sakes. I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”
Katy lied. “I was downstairs, taking a nap. I didn’t hear you.”
“I was just downstairs, young lady. You were not there.” Already her grandmother’s hands were on her hips.
“Fine, I was upstairs. So what? Who cares where I was? What do you want?” Katy snapped.
Her grandmother looked immediately exhausted. “What do I want? Kathleen, I want you to grow up a normal, healthy girl. Not a liar or a thief. Our house does not have an upstairs.”
Katy blinked, taken aback somewhat. Of course it didn’t. The room was magic. That place had to have been somewhere else entirely.
Turing away, Katy said, “So. What is it you want now?”
Closing her eyes, Grandma Schmidt said, “I thought you were hungry. You weren’t here for lunch. I thought we’d drive into Fillmore and get some hamburgers.”
That was not what Katy had expected. She was sure she was going to miss lunch too.
Of course the graham crackers had not been enough and Katy felt her stomach gurgle. Clenching it, she blushed. Breaking out into a smile, she nodded. “Yes, I am hungry.”
Grandma Schmidt smiled. “Then come on. Head to the car.”
Katy lifted up her sock foot with a grimace. “I lost a shoe.”
Her grandmother pulled out Katy’s shoe from her work apron. “You left it in the garden.”
Katy felt sheepish. Ducking her head, she bent over to shake the dirt off her sock and put her shoe back on. As soon as she had her laces tied, she hopped up and joined her grandmother at the door. She wasn’t going to starve. This wasn’t going to be torture after all.
They headed out to the car, opening the old barn door where they used to keep the tractor. Katy looked back once at the house. There was no upper room. There was no space for one. And there definitely was no window.
Katy had never really done anything with just her grandmother. Whenever her family visited, she had always paired off with Grandpa Schmidt. It was like he was waiting for her, like he needed her to accompany him on his little walks. He used to say that she was his buddy while he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, gave her hugs, and whispered secrets of a musician who desperately loved to make music. That was how she saw Grandpa. It was strange sitting with just her grandmother, looking at her as she sat on the old fifties-style fast food burger stool. She sat with her elbows on the bar watching the boy in the paper hat making malteds for the few customers that came in. She looked lonely too.
“I think it’s odd that you are having trouble at school,” her grandmother said at last, glancing at her. “Peter used to say that you were such a clever girl, meant for great things.”
Katy knew her grandma meant her grandfather. His name was Peter. Peter Schmidt, the famous composer of the Pied Piper Symphony. It was his one great work. His Magnum Opus, he called it. But he always smirked when he said that, as if it were nothing more than a joke. Some joke. Every orchestra and every music chamber begged their family for permission to play the piece without having to fork over money for the royalty. Her grandfather had owned all rights, and now so did Grandma. It was a beautiful piece, and Katy could play most of the parts. It had been a game between her and her grandfather for her to at least know the Pied Piper’s solo pieces.
“If you don’t mind my asking, why did you do it?” Her grandmother looked at Katy in a frank stare.
Already feeling her ears get hot, Katy ducked her head. She knew her grandma meant the shoplifting. “I dunno. It was just a game.”
She could see that disapproving look return. “There are better games to play, Kathleen. Much better. Couldn’t you have suggested one?”
Katy had no answer to that. What could she say? She just shrugged.
“You know, sometimes I wonder where that clever girl went,” Grandma Schmidt murmured. She took the malted she was waiting for from the soda jerk. “Peter would have been disappointed.”
Katy knew that, but she didn’t like hearing it.
“So, why did you stop playing in the school orchestra?” Her grandmother asked.
Hearing that made Katy feel sick in the stomach. She didn’t want to lie to her grandma now. She said, “Music stopped being fun.”
Her grandmother looked surprised.
Saying nothing, Katy took her malted and started drinking from the straw.
With a shake of her head, Grandma Schmidt at last said, “It seems a shame. You were so talented. Peter said you were born to play the Symphony.”
Katy about dropped her malted. She fumbled with her grip, keeping it from clattering and spilling all over the tabletop.
“The kids picked on me, Grandma.” Katy set the glass hard on the table. “They said only dorks play in the orchestra.”
“They sound like idiots,” her grandma replied, and she continued to drink her malted.
The soda jerk picked up the two burgers and the home-sliced fries and set them on the counter before the two. Katy just stared at her grandmother. Again Grandma Schmidt was talking in a way she never did. Her grandma always refrained from saying mean things, but here it was like a statement of fact.
“They’re my friends,” Katy said, almost tipping over her malted again as she pulled her hands into her lap.
Her grandmother leaned in closer. “Then perhaps you ought to get new friends. Real friends would like you for who you are.”
Katy rolled her eyes.
“And real friends would recognize how wonderfully talented you are and not make fun of you for doing something as wonderful as playing in the orchestra,” Grandma Schmidt said.
Slumping her shoulders, Katy replied frankly, “It isn’t cool.”
Her grandmother’s gaze was rather tired. “The word ‘cool’ is not too different from the word ‘fool.’ I think the meanings are synonymous.”
Having no idea what that meant, Katy just shook her head and reached for her burger.
They ate in silence for the rest of the hour. Her grandmother apparently realized that if she pressed the matter any further, she would probably have an argument on her hands, and Katy just might run off again. Katy was certainly sitting in discomfort, chewing her food without the usual enjoyment. It just didn’t taste as good as it should have. Mostly, Katy’s mind was occupied. It was true she had loved playing in the school orchestra. It was true she knew the parts to the Pied Piper better than anyone. But it was also true that lately people called her names for always carrying a musical instrument, asking her if she was planning on leading rats away to their doom or kidnapping kids. Her relation to that particular symphony had caused her agony. Of course, if she had played some other part in the symphony, or even another symphony, they would have found some other thing to tease her about.
“Kathleen,” she heard her grandmother say after the long silence. “I would like you to practice your flute, or one of the other instruments you can play, every day while you are here.”
Katy let out a moan. “Gramma….”
“No,” Grandma Schmidt said giving a firm shake of her head. “You heard me. No one will make fun of you here. You can play to your heart’s content.”
For some reason, Katy’s stiff shoulders relaxed some. “But the Gibsons—”
“Their opinion is inconsequential,” Grandma Schmidt said.
It was something Grandpa Schmidt would say. She was right, of course. Still, Katy could not bear having the Gibsons come around and tease her about playing her music. It was bad enough being teased at home.
But then an idea sort of floated into her head. The room. Were these particular Gibsons over in Nissa’s place? Perhaps not. Perhaps they were their descendants. That made Katy smile. It would be fun to play again, free, without pressure or criticism.
“I might,” Katy said, and she went back to eating more heartily than before.
They returned to the house after lunch, and Grandma Schmidt went into her room to take a nap. Katy was allowed to do the same, but she rolled her eyes and returned to the basement only to pick up the flute that her mother had packed in her bags.
Peeking out of the basement door with flute in hand, Katy listened to the silence in the kitchen, hoping her grandmother was asleep already. All she could hear was the fan blowing in the other room to circulate the air. The house got hot in the summer, and Grandma Schmidt didn’t like it getting too hot when she slept. She certainly seemed to be asleep.
So Katy crept out. Hearing the door creak uncomfortably louder than she wanted, Katy paused and then cautiously stepped, but the floor moaned with every step she took towards the pantry door. It was already cracked open as though that mysterious wind had blown it open to invite her in. With a cautious step and a silent hand, Katy opened it further with a strangely well-oiled squeak. She stared at the spices on the shelves and the nearly empty box of graham crackers. She stuck her head in and looked up. The light above was still there. The room had to be also, even though when she had been outside, she had checked, and there was no upper window let alone space for an extra room. Drawing in a breath, Katy heaved herself into the cupboard and climbed.
Back up in the room, Katy looked around herself. The air was much cooler here. A small breeze blew in from the window. Setting her flute case on the carpet, Katy looked out to see if Nissa was there still playing on the walk. She wasn’t.
Sighing, Katy leaned on the wall and looked out at the clear summer sky above. Wherever this was, whenever this was, it was the most peaceful place Katy had ever been. It felt safe, like being wrapped in her grandfather’s arms and rocked after she had fallen down and scraped her knees. In a way, she could hear him hum the song he always had on his lips when things went wrong. Taking her flute out of the case, she pieced it together and put it to her lips, taking a deep breath.
But she stopped, staring at it. Her flute was dirty and not set right. She had been so neglectful lately. Pulling the instrument apart, she started to clean it with the rag that she had stashed in her flute case for the job. Grandpa Schmidt always said to keep her instruments in good repair. She supposed that if he had been there, he would have been disappointed in her. So, Katy cleaned her flute out, rubbing each part until it shined. Piecing it together again, she tuned it and adjusted it until it played right. Once more she set her flute to her lips, and she began to play the tune her grandfather always hummed. Back in her heart, she hoped Nissa would hear her and call up to her.
But she never did. Down below, instead, another woodwind accompanied her. The melody floated up like a lullaby and intermingled with her tune, almost married to it. And together they filled the air until Katy got sleepy and lay down on the carpet to rest, just for one minute.
Katy awoke, and the sun was setting outside the window. She could hear her grandmother calling to her. Rubbing her eyes, Katy nearly struck her head with her flute, which somehow she had never let go of when she had fallen asleep. Crawling to the small door, Katy listened to see if her grandmother was calling her from inside or outside. She was sure if her grandmother saw her climbing out of the cupboard, she’d never be allowed near it again. It would be locked up like the refrigerator.
The sound of her grandmother’s voice grew more distant. That meant she was outside. As quickly as possible, Katy took her flute apart and set it back in the case, shoving it aside next to the door. She would come back for it there. No one needed know she had been practicing. Not even Grandma.
Rushing down the cupboard as silently as possible, Katy dropped to the bottom and hopped out. Dusting herself off of cobwebs, she crept behind Grandma Schmidt and drew in a deep breath.
Her grandmother jumped, clutching her chest and staggering back. “Goodness gracious! Don’t do that! You’ll give your old granny a heart attack.”
But she walked right around Katy straight to the kitchen with a renewed breath and reached for her apron. “Your grandpa used to do that, and it always gave me a start. He thought it was funny—the silly coot.”
Blinking at her, Katy said nothing. Yes, she missed Grandpa too.
They made dinner. It was beef stew and soda bread. Katy helped clean up the dishes afterward, and Grandma Schmidt took out a pre-made cake from the freezer, slicing off two thin pieces for them both, ladling sweetened strawberries and jam on top. As they ate their dessert, Grandma was unusually silent.
“I thought I heard you playing this afternoon while I was asleep. Where did you go?”
Katy looked up. Should she tell her grandmother about the cupboard and the room upstairs? Yesterday she had said the room had not existed.
Just shrugging, she said, “Oh, around.”
Her grandmother was silent as before.
The clock in the other room struck seven. The light shining in from the windows had gone dim. Since they had yet to turn on the kitchen light, they could barely see their plates now, but neither of them moved.
“Tomorrow Mrs. Tippets is coming over. After we work in the garden, we should make some cake for her visit,” Grandma Schmidt said.
Katy lifted her eyes and narrowly stared at her grandmother. “We’re working in the garden again?”
Her grandmother’s eyes crinkled with knowing mischief. “Oh yes. Tomorrow. The day after that. And the day after that. And the day after that. It is a vicious cycle.”
Katy knew she was being teased and frowned.
“My dear sweetie,” Grandmother ruffled her hair, “here we work the garden in the morning before the sun gets high, and in the afternoon, we run errands. Believe it or not, but Granny is a busy woman.”
“Like today?” Katy said with some sarcasm, pulling from her grandmother’s reach.
Grandma Schmidt smirked with the advantage of age. “Today I cleared free for you to adjust. Besides, everyone could use a good rest.”
There was no point in arguing that. The day had been exhausting even though they had done so little. Too much had already happened.
“Now, when Mrs. Tippets comes over, I need you to help me gather the things for the fireman’s raffle. This Saturday at the park, we are going to the community Founder’s Day Celebration, and we have volunteered to help with the raffle.”
Katy just blinked at her. We. Why was it that her grandmother always said we? Katy knew now there was no way she could get out of it. She knew she was stuck going to this farmer’s bazaar that Saturday, and the Gibsons were sure to be there.
“I’ll come, but I won’t like it,” Katy said.
Her grandmother sighed. “That is your choice. Whether you will be happy or not this month will be entirely up to you.”
As soon as Katy heard her grandmother call for breakfast, she moaned. It was the nastiest case of déjà vu she ever had. And in the back of her groggy mind, she knew if she did not get up right then, she would miss breakfast.
Grandma Schmidt noticed Katy trudge out from the basement stairwell, pushing the handmade wooden door aside and rubbing her eyes. She gave her a smile and set out a plate across from her own.
“Good morning, Sunshine.”
Katy grunted in response.
“Have some waffles.” Grandma Schmidt sat down and pulled out her napkin, bowing her head to say grace.
Taking the seat across from her, Katy plopped down and let her head hang naturally.
“For what we are about to receive, may we be truly grateful. Amen.”
Katy blinked open one eye at her grandmother, watching her cheerfully pick up her knife and fork and start to cut her waffle up. On the table, there were more than just waffles. They had grapefruit halves, a fried egg for each of them—sunny side up—and a small bowl of strawberries, undoubtedly from the berry plants Grandma maintained outside on her front porch in a pot. Orange juice stood next to each of their plates accompanied by a taller glass of milk. Katy sniffed the milk and grimaced.
“This isn’t whole milk, is it?” she asked.
Grandma Schmidt looked up from her plate and dabbed her mouth. “Kathleen Nielsen, are you just going to just sit there and find fault with breakfast, or are you going to eat it?”
Taking that as a ‘shut up and stuff your face,’ Katy grumbled under her breath and picked up a fork. It probably was whole milk.
They cleaned up the breakfast dishes just as the sun shone in the kitchen window, casting beams of light into the room and onto the table. Katy paused, staring at the light as her grandmother stacked the plates into the dish cupboard. It reminded her of the mornings when Grandpa Schmidt puttered in the kitchen, cleaning out his various instruments only to put them away again in their cases. She could still hear him say that proper maintenance of musical instruments prevented the need to buy new ones. He had one particular woodwind pipe that he cleaned with great care, rubbing it and oiling it to make sure it did not form cracks. A small beaded chain dangled from its neck, looking more worn and used than the pipe itself. He took especial care with the reed, keeping it from splitting, though he replaced it occasionally, testing the pipe out to make sure it still played well. That one instrument had a smooth tone that virtually reached inside her and pulled at all her heartstrings. But Grandpa had an order to his cleaning, and that pipe ended back in its glass case on the shelf, as did all the other instruments.
“Get changed, and I’ll see you out in the garden,” Grandma Schmidt said.
Katy blinked and looked up. Of course, the garden. With a sigh, Katy let her shoulders hang. She might as well do it. It would be a month before she could leave the farm and such stupid chores. She had to amuse Gran for the duration.
Despite her resignation, Katy took her time getting dressed. By the time she entered the garden, where her grandmother was elbow deep in a patch of carrots, thinning them out, the sun was already getting hot.
“Oh, good. You can start weeding the onions over there. Be careful with that hoe. You don’t want to dig up the plants. There are some gloves next to the basket.” Grandma Schmidt barely looked up from her work, smiling to herself with a satisfaction that made Katy’s mouth taste mildly bitter—a sensation that she was being manipulated.
Almost kicking the ground, Katy did as she was told, picking up the hoe. The onions had only sparse young weeds. It looked like her grandmother had actually maintained the garden well without her. What did she need her for? Katy could hear Grandma Schmidt hum one of Grandpa’s melodies as she pulled up the baby carrots and set them in her basket. She had that same little smile on her face. Looking over the garden patch, Katy blinked again. It was not large. It was small, certainly small enough for one old woman to handle. She didn’t need the help at all. So why was she even there?
But listening to her grandmother hum that tune, Katy began to hoe out the row, going slowly. It was the same tune her grandfather played when he took out that wooden pipe, a tune that calmed the evening storms and kept the morning bright and fresh. It was a melody that chased away nightmares and held back angry feelings and words. From Grandma it was nothing more than an echo, but that echo told her that things would be ok if she just slowed down and listened.
So Katy did.
They made lunch at noon. Right before then, Katy helped her grandmother separate the carrot leaves on the drying board from the carrot roots. They scrubbed the roots, peeled them for salad, and set them aside to dry in the strainer on the counter top. Eventually, they would put the carrots in the crisper to preserve them for later. As for the leaves, they would be entirely dried out to make herbal tea. Grandma Schmidt said that carrot leaf tea was the best tasting herbal tea available, and it was cheap to get.
“Do you want potato soup for lunch or tomato soup?” Grandma Schmidt asked, looking through her cupboards at the canned soups she kept stocked. She knew her grandma would make them from scratch if she could, but Mrs. Tippets was coming by, and they needed to save time.
“I just want a sandwich,” Katy said. She wiped the last of the dampness off the counter top and hung the dishrag on the sink spout.
Grandma Schmidt took the cloth off the spout and turned the knob to rinse it out, shoving the rag back into Katy’s hand to do it herself. “It must be clean first. And, we can also have a sandwich with lunch if you wish.”
Rinsing the rag out in the hot water, Katy said, “Just a sandwich is fine. Gran, why do you eat so much at lunch? That’s what dinner’s for.”
Shaking her head, Grandma Schmidt appeared ready to moan. “No, Kathleen. Dinner is for tiding one self over until breakfast. Don’t you know the saying: ‘Eat like a king at breakfast, eat like a merchant at lunch, and eat like a pauper at dinner’?”
Katy shook her head.
Grandma Schmidt huffed, poking Katy in the stomach. “That is why your generation is getting so fat.”
Grabbing her rather thin and healthy stomach, Katy followed her grandmother with a hurt gaze. Grandma continued to dig through the cans, taking out the tomato soup. Then she went to the refrigerator, unlocking it with that fancy looking skeleton key she always wore, and took out a loaf of bread and some cheese.
“Really, Kathleen, I often wonder how kids today do get so obese. But then with all the sugar and the junk they eat, sitting on their backsides all day in front of those game players and televisions, it really should be no wonder. I think the only thing I wonder about now is how you got out of it, being as thin as you are. You’re not starving yourself on purpose, are you? You don’t have one of those disorders, do you?”
Her grandmother’s eyes had quickly gotten wide, turning towards Katy again to seize Katy’s arms, though she didn’t lay a hand on her.
Katy had to laugh, lifting up her hands again. She was glad to know her grandmother did not think she was fat. “No, no. Mom is pretty firm about making me eat. Too bossy, in fact.”
That reassured her grandmother right away. “Good. Good.”
She set the bread and cheese on the table and reached for the butter. Katy smiled. She knew what they were having for lunch now. Grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup. Katy had always considered it a rainy day food since her mother always made it on cold blustery days, but….
Katy grabbed her arms and shivered, surprised that she was thinking about that woman. Her mother had abandoned her, left her while taking Dad to Florida so they could be alone together. That was her real plan. Her mom didn’t like her anymore. Her mom was ashamed of her. It had only been one prank she did. But, even now, Katy could see her mother’s face in her mind, the same as when she was picked up from the police station. All the light in her eyes was gone. She couldn’t even look at her. And not even since then. Her mother hated her. She hated her friends. Katy was in exile.
Looking up with a jerk, Katy glared at her grandmother. This was her jailer. Why did she forget that? Were they trying to soften her up? Were they manipulating her? For a moment, Katy contemplated skipping lunch, but her stomach stabbed pains into her sides.
“Kathleen, can you open this can for me?” Grandma Schmidt passed over the can opener. “My arthritis has been acting up lately.”
Blinking at this old woman’s calm smile, Katy let out a sigh. No. If Gran was manipulating her, then she had to be a master at it. There was no real proof that she was asking anything more than usual. She was the same old woman as ever. Lonely for Grandpa, and that was all. Maybe…just maybe her mother was thinking the same thing about her. Maybe she was wrong.
A swirl of emotions spun inside of her as Katy took the can and the can opener. Clenching it tight, she grasped the handles and turned the knob with some effort. As it slowly cut into the aluminum, she felt loneliness, even guilt, cut into her. She hated to admit it, but all Katy really missed was her mom’s approving smile. That look in her mother’s eye at the police station had ended everything. All happiness, all faith, all hope. Katy knew what she had done was wrong. She knew she had fallen among bullies and thieves. She wasn’t ignorant that the prank was illegal. It was the pressure, it was the shame, and it was the fear that made her do it. It was her loneliness, missing Grandpa, missing the loyalty of her changeable friends, missing the innocence of being just a kid who loved music. Now, she missed her mother’s love. It was over.
But Katy didn’t dare cry. She didn’t want her grandmother to see her tears. Holding them back with the same effort as clenching that can opener tight, her fingers throbbed while she turned the knob.
“Good. Now, can you find the cheese slicer for me?”
Katy passed over the open soup can and then went over the kitchen to the drawers. The cheese slicer was inside the third drawer she opened, hiding under a rubber spatula and a rolling pin with the jumble of other kitchen tools. She handed it to her grandmother and leaned on the table to watch.
Her grandmother sliced the cheese fairly thin, but not too thin. It was just like her mother. The way she held her fingers, the way she carefully pressed down on the wire to make sure it was moving right, all of it was like home. And when her grandmother set the cheese on the bread already spread with butter on the opposite side, and rested both on the skillet, Katy sighed again.
“What is it? You have been sighing like that a lot lately. Is something wrong?” Grandma Schmidt asked.
Katy just shook her head. “No. Nothing.”
“Are you being truthful?” Her grandmother gave her that look.
With a smirk, Katy returned it. “I’m fine.”
She looked away. Her grandmother let out her own sigh and continued to grill the sandwiches, setting another buttered slice of bread with cheese onto the skillet.
The smell of the melting butter and the cheese waft about, intermingling with the increasing tomato aroma as the soup had also begun to simmer. Grandma turned the heat down to warm, stirring occasionally.
But another breeze caught Katy’s attention. She turned her head and glanced at the cupboard door. It was open. Katy could already smell the carpet from the room, mixing with the spices from the cupboard. Staring at the door, Katy also could have sworn she heard Nissa call to her. But perhaps it was her imagination. Nissa had not been there when she was in the room last. Perhaps the entire encounter had really been a dream.
“Oh, Kathleen, before I forget, go into the pantry and get the cake mix. We need to make it for our guest right after lunch,” her grandmother said.
Katy walked to the cupboard, obeying her. She opened the door wider and looked up. She reached in for the only cake mix there. Chocolate. Above, Katy could see the light from the door. Nissa’s voice was clearer, echoing downward. She was calling her name.
“And when Mrs. Tippets arrives, you don’t have to stay. It will be old boring adult talk,” Grandma Schmidt said.
Ignoring the condescending tone, Katy said in a loud voice, “I’ll be right there.”
Nissa’s voice stopped calling. She must have heard her.
Grandma Schmidt set the hand that held the stirring spoon on her hip. “You want to listen to us? Your mother didn’t even like lingering when Mrs. Tippets came by.”
Turning from the cupboard, Katy closed the door. “I’m sorry, you’re right. I’ll just, uh, go play my flute.”
Her grandmother smiled. “Good idea.”
They finished making lunch.
Katy kept glancing to the cupboard door, hoping Nissa had not given up on her and left already. When they cleaned their plates and bowls, and her grandmother had started the cake, Katy peeked in once to see if the upper door had shut. The light was still there, though she could not hear Nissa anymore. Katy frowned and went back to help her grandmother.
Two hours later, the cake was cooled, frosted, and set up on the living room table with the tea set with small plates and a boiling hot brew inside the pot. Mrs. Tippets came on time. She barely noticed Katy except to say how unlike her mother she was. In fact, the woman said with a tone of disdain that Katy took entirely after her Grandfather Schmidt and asked, ‘where in the world did she get such large hands.’ It was the first time Katy had noticed that she had such hands. Though, once someone had remarked that she had piano fingers. It sounded so much more elegant the way that other person had said it. Grandma Schmidt merely smiled and replied that Katy was born to be a musician. They went directly into the other room, and Katy fled straight to the pantry door as soon as they were out of sight. It was already open.
Climbing inside, Katy looked back only once before scrambling up the two-by-fours. The room was the same. Her flute was in the same place on the carpet. And Nissa was singing to herself outside.
“Oh, where, oh where has my little friend gone? Oh, where, oh, where can she be?”
Katy poked out her head and looked down. Nissa sat on the tire swing that hung from the tree just outside. It was as if she were actually a ghost since the yard was entirely the same, though better kept up like when Grandpa Schmidt was alive.
“I’m here!” Katy called out.
Nissa practically hopped from the swing, running to the window. Her grin was wide, though also chiding. “What took you so long? I saw the window, and I heard you say you were coming—”
“Sorry about that,” Katy said with a sheepish grin. “My grandma wanted to make a cake for Mrs. Tippets. I had to help.”
Nissa made a repulsed face at her. “Mrs. Tippets. She’s where you are too?”
Katy blinked her eyes wide and leaned out further. “You know Mrs. Tippets?”
With a firm and disgusted nod, Nissa replied, “Unfortunately.”
Pulling back inside, Katy leaned on the windowsill. “She’s talking with Gran about the Fireman’s raffle for the Founder’s Day celebration this Saturday. We’re supposed to help with that somehow.”
“She’s doing the same thing in your house right now?” Nissa’s jaw dropped again with an incredulous look.
Glancing down, Katy eyed Nissa critically, closing one eye. “Are you in a parallel universe to mine?”
Nissa merely shrugged and sat down on the grass. “Who knows? You have Mrs. Tippets in your universe. I have her in mine. You talked about the Gibson jerks. I have those too. Maybe that magic window is a door between worlds. Dad says that there are many doorways to many different places, and we ought to be careful about which doors we open.”
“Like Alice in Wonderland, I suppose,” Katy said.
Nodding briskly, Nissa then rested her arms against her legs and her head on her knees. “But who fell down the rabbit hole? You or me?”
Katy did not reply, knowing she had climbed up into one. She gazed down at Nissa and wondered a moment on another thought. Despite her own banishment, Nissa looked severely more depressed than she felt. The words of her Grandfather came back to her, and Katy picked up her flute. She said them aloud, taking the flute out of its case. “Well, music is the remedy for trouble.”
Nissa lifted her head and blinked at her as Katy fixed the pieces together. Testing the sound, Katy adjusted them to fit and then played a song. It was one of her grandfather’s old melodies, one with a light, bumpy tune. He called it his “don’t get depressed” tunes. Nissa closed her eyes and smiled.
“I like that tune.”
Katy played it. Her own heart expanded as the music continued from her flute and into the air above the house. Then she played a short piece from her grandfather’s collection, one that was just as happy. When she lowered her flute, Nissa looked relaxed, grinning up at her. At peace.
“I wish you could go to school with me when I leave,” Nissa said, getting to her feet. “I hate that I have to make friends all over again.”
Setting her flute down on the carpet, Katy sighed, leaning over the windowsill. “I wish I had a ladder so I could climb out of this window, but I’m afraid you’d vanish if I did.”
Tilting her head to the side, Nissa gave a shrug. “If I had a ladder, I could climb up.” Then she blinked and chuckled. Her grin cracked across her face as she giggled with a sudden burst, slapping her forehead with her hand.
“I’m so stupid! There’s an old wood ladder in the barn,” Nissa said, turning from the house. “I’ll go get it!”
Katy watched her run across the yard over the trimmed grasses that were getting high and shaggy in her grandpa’s yard. Nissa was gone for several minutes, longer than Katy wanted to wait, but soon she saw Nissa dragging back a worn, yet tall homemade ladder of aged wood that she had never seen around her grandfather’s lot. He had some shorter ones like it, but this one could possibly reach the window. Nissa rushed to the wall as she dragged the ladder, glancing first to the right then the left to make sure no one saw her as she hefted it up to lean against the house. It was difficult for Nissa to prop up, and several times, it threatened to tip over into the tree behind her.
Yet Nissa at last jabbed the wide bottom end into the grass and looked up toward the window high over her head. “Ok! I’m coming up! Don’t vanish on me!”
Having no intention of disappearing, Katy waited, reaching out to hold the top of the ladder while Nissa climbed up. By the time Nissa made it to the top. They looked at one another face to face. Nissa was shaking with fright, obviously terrified at being up so high. She looked down at the ground, but clasped Katy’s outstretched hand, climbing inside the room with the eagerness of a rabbit escaping a fox. With one yank, Nissa toppled over the highest rung and dropped to the carpet. She let out a nervous giggle, glancing back at the window and the ladder.
“I’m sorry! That was so scary! I thought I was going to fall.” Nissa turned around and smiled at Katy. “You’re real.”
Katy nodded, her smile broadening. “So are you.”
Close up, Katy could see that Nissa had a sweet, genuine smile that reminded her of her grandmother, though the keen look in her eye was much like Grandpa Schmidt’s. Katy was so taken aback that she blinked at her new friend for a full minute. Then she smiled.
“So, what do you want to do?” Katy gestured around at the empty room. “There isn’t anything up here but me and my flute.”
Her mysterious new friend relaxed against the window edge, still smiling. “That’s enough. Play something else on your flute.”
Giving a shrug, Katy lifted her flute to her lips and played out one of the pieces she learned from Peter and the Wolf. After that, she played some parts she memorized from The Magic Flute. When she finished, Katy set her flute to the side as the length of the day abruptly weighed on her, making her tired, and she started to ask Nissa about herself—the first subject leading to music.
“So you don’t play anything at all?” Katy eventually said after hearing Nissa praise her playing with a yearning look at the flute, growing surprised at the idea.
Nissa just shrugged. “I took piano once, but all that practicing was so boring. Mom said I could quit, but Dad didn’t seem too happy about it. My brother cheered, though. He says I play like an elephant. He calls me fat-fingers. I hate him.”
Katy made a face. It was like Mrs. Tippets saying she had large hands.
“Do you have a brother?” Nissa asked still grimacing as if thinking about her own brother made her sick.
“Nope. I’m an only child.” Katy shook her head, thinking of all the reasons her parents gave for not having more kids, most of them meant to flatter her, but at times, she wondered if they were the real reasons. “My dad says that they didn’t want any more than me because I was perfect—but you know how sappy some dads get. I’m sure the real reason is that Mom was tired with just one. I think she likes it better with just her and Dad.”
“Oh no. That can’t be the reason.” Nissa frowned on Katy’s behalf, shaking her head, finding the idea too ridiculous to entertain. Katy sat with her knees bent, leaning her elbow on one and sticking her chin on her hand while she slumped over on them thinking of the last few months. “Yeah, it can. My mom hates me.”
Nissa leaned over and wrapped her arm around Katy with a new yet familiar warmth. “I don’t believe that. You’re too nice, and talented and—”
But Katy shook her head. “No, I’m not. I’m not nice at all.” She lowered her head more. “I say mean things to her.”
Nissa’s expression had no judgment in it. She mostly looked sorry. For that alone, it felt safe to reveal to her what really had gone on. Katy sat up to look her friend in the eye and said, “She’s mad at me because…because I…I did something…stupid. I listened to my friends—” She let her voice drop as she frowned. “We shoplifted at a store. It was just a game, but—”
“Katy,” Nissa set her hand to her mouth. “Oh. That’s almost like me, only it was with the Gibsons. They wouldn’t leave me alone about it. Kept calling me chicken. Only Dad caught me. You should have seen his face.”
So Nissa knew exactly what that was like. Shaking her head sadly, she knew the guilt as well as the disappointment—though in this case it was from her outlandishly amazing father who knew magic people. Katy lifted her head, wondering how much Nissa was hurting.
“Mom and Dad both think that if I stay near the Gibsons, I’ll end up as nasty as them, which is why they’re sending me away,” Nissa said, frowning. “If your friends are like the Gibsons, then they aren’t really your friends.”
Yes, Katy had heard that before. Her mom said it. Her dad said it. But what was she to do?
“They all make fun of me at school,” Katy said. “All my old friends. They say I’m a goody-goody.”
Nissa let out a low moan, rolling her eyes. “Ooh. I hate that. They’re definitely not nice. Nice people don’t say that to their friends.”
“Yeah, but—” Katy looked up at her with every ache of desperation she felt inside.
Shaking her head, Nissa grabbed hold of Katy’s knees staring her right into her eyes. “Listen to me. We’re friends now. We don’t have to take what those creeps say to us anymore. I’ll back you up, and you back up me. Ok?”
“But you’re leaving, and when this month ends, I’m going back home. And back home they’re going to still make fun of me.” Katy wished that Nissa could come to her school, but her school was just a public school. It was completely unfair to finally find someone that liked her for who she was, only to have that person leave.
Nissa grimaced, nodding with a glance towards the window, her mind turning to her own problems. “Yeah. I know. But, you’ll still be my friend, right?”
Katy lifted her head. It was hard not to smile. She sat up and wrapped her arms around Nissa, hugging her close. “Best friends.”
Outside the window, Katy heard a sound she could not make out clearly, though Nissa perked her ears and frowned.
“That’s my mom. She’s calling me.” Nissa pulled back from their embrace. “I have to go.”
Nodding, Katy helped Nissa out the window, grabbing the top of the ladder to make sure it did not tip as Nissa climbed down.
“I’ll bring some games next time!” Nissa called up as she descended to the grass.
Katy laughed, wiping her eyes of tears that she had not known were there. “I will too!”
Nissa tried to pull the ladder from the wall. But as soon as Katy let go of the top rung, the ladder all of a sudden sunk straight into the ground like it had been standing on the edge of a well and just dropped in, right in front of Nissa who stared bulgy eyed at it. Nissa bent over and patted the stumps where the ladder was deeply buried in the grass. Then wrapping her fingers around the top rung that barely stuck out of the grass, she tugged hard. With a frown, Nissa looked up.
“How’d that happen?” Katy called down, leaning as far out as she could without falling through the window.
But just as she spoke, a woman in a pink felt hat—just like the one Mrs. Tippets wore when she came that afternoon to visit Grandma Schmidt—trotted out the back door onto the concrete walk. She was chatting with Nissa’s mother in the same manner as Mrs. Tippets used to with Katy’s grandmother. Katy could not see Nissa’s mom, but obviously she stood in the back doorway.
“…Saturday. You have all day tomorrow to prepare.” Mrs. Tippets glanced down at Nissa, not at all raising her head to see Katy in the window. The woman’s voice took on that familiar snide tone. “You can even employ your little girl to help you. She should be old enough to handle something as simple as the raffle.”
Katy watched Mrs. Tippets from the window as Nissa stood up straight. Nissa pretended she hadn’t made her father’s ladder sink into the ground where it was now useless. As Mrs. Tippets trotted off across the trimmed pebble drive towards the gravel road, both girls wished she’d just stayed away.
But then Nissa’s mother said to her daughter, “Come on in and help me with the dishes. There are a few things we need to discuss.”
Nissa waved to Katy then gave a shrug. They would most likely meet the next afternoon on the following day. Already the pattern was set. As both girls peered mournfully at the sunken ladder in the grass, they took it as a clear sign that it was time to part.
Katy crawled out of the cupboard and into the kitchen. From there, she tiptoed into the living room to see if Mrs. Tippets was still talking away with Grandma Schmidt. Though neither woman was there, evidence of their previous habitation was. Two crumb-covered plates with forks rested across them. The tea set with two half drunk cups next to the no longer steaming pot of hot water and the uncovered sugar bowl. Even the pamphlets announcing the Founder’s Day celebration on the table showed that business was done. Of course, with how crazy the house was getting Katy wondered if both women had not simply up and vanished when Nissa entered the magic room upstairs.
Exhaling aloud then walking to the back door, Katy found her grandmother waving to Mrs. Tippets who had trotted away just the same as the woman that has just left Nissa’s house. In fact, it was almost as if Mrs. Tippets could have been talking to Nissa’s mother and her grandmother at the same time about the very same thing and only the girls and women were different. Perhaps Mrs. Tippets was one of those mysterious people Nissa’s father knew. It gave Katy chills just thinking about it. Gazing out into the yard, Katy could see their overgrown grasses, the weather worn fence posts and the face corral that was coming apart. This world was like Nissa’s only with no one to tend it. In a way, it was reassuring that some day someone else would take care of the house and yard.
Her grandmother turned and gave Katy a smile. “There you are. Come on inside and help me clean up the dishes. I need to tell you about what we are doing for the fireman’s raffle.”
There was that we again.
She watched Grandma Schmidt as the elderly woman walked through the back door, stepping up with confidence that Katy would follow. There didn’t seem to be any point not to do as her grandma asked, and Katy almost went back inside. But when she stepped near the door, her eyes caught on the grass before the house. There, like she had always seen, were the knobby lumps where the run off from the roof dripped into the lawn every time it rained because they didn’t use rain gutters except over the porch and the back stoop. Stones, little twigs, and whatnot stuck out in this patch of lawn from years of rain dribble, but Katy stepped over to it and stared at two larger looking lumps that in all those years she thought were nothing but rocks. Crouching down, Katy touched them.
She brushed off the grassy parts that had grown over it, feeling between those equal lumps a noticeable strip of wood. Katy’s heart rushed. It was the ladder. She looked around the yard to see if the upstairs window was there, but the roof sloped as usual without any sign of the hidden room.
“Katy! Hurry up. Or maybe you don’t want any of this cake.” Grandma Schmidt’s teasing voice came from the kitchen to the outside.
Katy stood up. Her grandfather was right. Every home had a secret. She was beginning to wonder, though, if he knew the land he had built on was more magical than he pretended. He used to say to her in his sonorous voice that in nature there was more magic to be had than in manmade things, and she ought to cling to nature as much as possible. Katy wondered now how true that really was.
She went inside.
All Friday, Katy and her grandmother were kept busy preparing for the fireman’s raffle. Mrs. Tippets had given them a list of items to raffle off. They were printed on a bright orange sheet of copy paper. She also had given them a stack of ticket rolls to sell. It was Katy’s job to decorate the raffle box for the tickets, and her grandmother’s job to collect the money. It wasn’t that her grandmother didn’t trust Katy with that job, but Mrs. Tippets certainly didn’t. That afternoon, after all their gardening and preparation for the raffle, Katy climbed into the cupboard during her grandmother’s nap to relay what she had been doing to Nissa. She brought along the leftover colored papers she had been using to cover the box like a crazy quilt.
“Nissa?” Katy called out, hoping that ladder wasn’t stuck in the ground forever. The idea of a ground that ate up ladders seemed ridiculous, but then so did the idea of a secret passage to a magical room going through her grandmother’s spice cupboard.
“Coming!” Nissa practically ran out the back door, grinning and breathless as she hopped off the concrete walk to the grass. “Katy! You can’t possibly guess what I’m going to do at the Founder’s Day celebration tomorrow!”
Katy gave a shrug as she leaned out the window. “If it’s anything like what I’m doing, then I can guess you’ll be selling raffle tickets.”
Nissa shook her head, her pigtails flopping against her shoulders as her grin widened. “Oh no. Daddy is doing that. I’m handing out the prizes! Mom’s making me a dress to wear for it, and I get to go on stage! Isn’t that great?”
Watching Nissa’s enthusiasm, Katy found it hard not to smile, though she thought Nissa was a little silly about it.
“That sounds scary. But if you like it, ok. This is what I’ve been doing,” Katy leaned out the window, tossing down a folded paper flower she had made as part of her box decorations.
Nissa set her hands on her hips, grinning broader. But when the flower floated down, she caught it. “It won’t be scary. I get to be up there with the fire chief and his dogs. The Gibsons won’t be able to mess with me at all. It will be fun!”
She then lifted up the flower and blinked at it. Her grin grew wider.
The Gibsons. Katy had almost forgotten them. She frowned. But then she leaned over the sill and peered at where the ladder had sunk into the ground. Pointing, she said, “What about that? Could you get it out at all? I tried yesterday, but it is stuck in the ground for me.”
Tucking the flower into her front pants pocket, Nissa shrugged once and walked straight to the ladder, hunkering down to pull it out with brute force. She shifted her feet first to give enough grounding for one good heave.
“I hadn’t tried. Let’s see now.” Nissa wrapped her hands around the top rung.
Almost in an instant it zipped up from the ground, heaving Nissa right up with it to the window. She shrieked, her body flopping behind her while hanging on for dear life. It practically flung her into Katy’s arms once she was up at the window. Katy grabbed any part of Nissa that she could and pulled her into the room to prevent her from falling back out and breaking both her legs. Both panted on the plush cloud-like carpet, clenching each other as if letting go would be a bad thing. Then Katy and Nissa broke into a fit of giggles.
“Wow!” Katy rolled back, gasping with her eyes to the ceiling and the grapevine wallpaper on it.
“Crazy ladder.” Nissa rocked to the other side, dropping on her knees with a peek back towards the window. “What was it trying to do?”
“Does this happen often to you?” Katy asked her as she sat up.
Nissa shook her head, glancing around at the peaceful and clean surroundings of the room. “Not until I met you. You must be one of my father’s special friends.”
Blinking several times, Katy stared. “I don’t know your father. Maybe the land is just magic.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Shrugging, Nissa drew a deck of cards out from her pocket. “So, you do you want to play a game?”
Katy grinned and nodded.
Nissa dealt. Her eyes sparkled. “Great. If I win, you show me how to make that paper flower.”
Blushing, Katy ducked her head. “I’ll show you anyway.”
Early Saturday morning Katy rose the moment she smelled breakfast cooking. She practically hopped up the steps in spite of herself. Not everything was set on the table either. Her grandmother had the butter out, but she was still making the eggs.
“Good morning Early Bird! I didn’t expect you up yet!” Grandma Schmidt did indeed look surprised. So surprised, in fact, that she nearly scorched the eggs.
Finding it difficult to keep from smiling, Katy just shrugged. She didn’t know why she felt so happy. Perhaps it was from finding a magic room, or better, a friend that didn’t care that she loved origami more than playing cards, and music more than origami. Both girls had made a bower of flowers from paper in that upper room. And Nissa took a handful back with her when she climbed down the ladder that afternoon, just as the ladder sunk into the grass like a magic escalator. It was another thing to add to their amazing collection of secrets.
“So, no gardening today,” Grandma Schmidt said, scraping the frying pan around a few times before spooning the eggs onto a paper napkin in the center of a plate.
Katy walked over and looked at the bacon that sizzled on another pan, grimacing at the rubbery strips with a wish that they had sausage instead. Her grandmother would consider it rude to say she hated bacon, but this time Katy decided against saying anything. She didn’t have to eat everything her grandmother made.
“When we’re all dressed, we’ll head out to the park and help set up for the Founder’s Day celebration,” said her grandmother.
Tilting her head back, Katy asked aloud, “How long is this thing anyway?”
“This thing?” Her grandma scooped up the bacon and set it next to the eggs.
Rolling her eyes Katy said, “The party thing. How long is it going to go?”
With an amused chuckle at Katy’s choice of words, Grandma Schmidt drew in a breath and let it out again. “The Founders’ Day celebration will last all day.”
Katy groaned, hanging her arms like rags from her shoulders.
“Kathleen Neilson, please. Have a little bit more enthusiasm. And be a dear and open the orange juice for me. My arthritis.” Grandma Schmidt picked up the plate and set the eggs and bacon on the table. The orange juice was in a can of concentrate sitting on the counter near the stove.
Closing one eye, Katy smirked at her. “I thought you made freshly squeezed.”
Shrugging with a playful smile, her eyes twinkled as she replied, “Concentrate is cheaper, and it saves time. Come on now. Everything will get cold.”
Her grandmother turned to pour a cupful of pancake batter onto the skillet now primed for cooking. Katy smothered a snort and did as she was asked, crossing the creaky floor to the container of juice concentrate and the pitcher. It wasn’t so bad. Though she doubted the old woman’s arthritis was as terrible as all that, it really didn’t hurt to help out. In a way, Katy felt needed. It was a strange feeling, actually. Though she did some chores at home, it wasn’t the same as helping her grandmother out. Housework at home felt forced, like torture. Here, she could see that extra hands would be helpful. Here, Grandpa Schmidt’s extra hands helping out were missed.
They finished setting up breakfast and ate, hardly talking though her grandmother told her to choose comfortable clothes for the Founders’ Day celebration since they would be outdoors all day. She also told Katy she should take up one of her grandfather’s hats from the wall peg in the washroom so she wouldn’t get a sunburn from remaining outside.
After they cleaned up the breakfast dishes, Katy strolled into the washroom and stared at each hat that hung on the wall. There were coats, galoshes, snow boots, and gardening clogs set under them. But the hats that hung on the brass pegs each had their own personality, and each told a story about Grandpa Schmidt. There was a red baseball cap next to a dusty blue one. He usually wore the red one when they went out to the park, although he used the blue one when he couldn’t find the red one. He had a straw cowboy style hat, breezy for when he worked in the garden and yard. She had always thought her grandfather looked at home in that hat, but she liked him best in the red baseball cap. There was a felt cowboy hat also, and a leather one. Hanging on the far wall, though, was his pointed brown leather hat that had all the semblance of belonging in Sherwood Forest. She had called it his Robin Hood hat, and Grandpa Schmidt laughed heartily when she had tried it on as a child. It fit on his head perfectly, the pointed end working like the brim of his red baseball cap, perfect for keeping rain and sun out of his eyes. It had a long pheasant’s plume in it at one time, but the feather had since disintegrated. Out of all the hats, Katy wanted to take the red one, but it had never fit. So she lifted his second best hat off the hook, the straw one, and set it on her head.
“Do you want me to braid your hair?” Grandma Schmidt was standing in the doorway, leaning back to admire Katy’s choice.
Katy just shrugged, glancing back. “I can do it myself.”
“French braid?” her grandmother asked.
Ducking her head, Katy blushed. She did like French braids, but her arms always ached trying to make them. Her mother always did them for her.
Her mother. Katy flushed, remembering that she was still mad at her mother.
“No,” Katy said, her face darkening as she pulled the hat off. “I’ll do it myself.”
She stomped back through the kitchen and down the basement steps.
Her grandmother sighed then turned from the door, watching her.
They walked to the park just off the old school grounds. Katy glanced at the empty fenced pool just as they stepped over the grass, looking for a walkway to cross over the ditch that ran along the side of the road. Katy carried the box for the raffle tickets. Her grandmother hefted the stacks of ticket rolls under her arm along with her purse that looked more like a large satchel made of carpetbag. Everything they needed was in it: suntan lotion, spending money, and a number of odds and ends Grandma Schmidt had that she had not told Katy about until they arrived at the bandstand. There, the local country band was setting up to play. Several of the members were also firemen for the town.
“Howdy, Grandma Schmidt!” One man tipped his hat to her, lifting it up with a friendly smile. His guitar leaned against a large black speaker, and he had to take the pick out his mouth to speak.
Grandma Schmidt nodded back, walking to the area where workers were hanging up the raffle sign. Katy hopped up the steps then sat on the edge of the stage. She practically blended in with those working around the area with her grandpa’s hat on, though she had opted for jeans and a powder blue tee shirt that had sparkly words declaring her ‘too cool’ to the world. Looking at all the locals that were setting up folding tables, enveloping them with checkered tablecloths—they set pies, cakes, and jams on them. She sighed aloud wondering if she was going to be bored out of her mind.
“Here, Kathleen.” Her grandmother pulled something out of her overlarge purse.
It was one of her grandfather’s black music cases. She could only guess which instrument was inside. Katy almost didn’t want to touch it, holding up her hands as though her grandma had set a spider onto her lap.
“I promised Mrs. Tippets you would play for us today,” Grandma Schmidt said.
“You what?” Katy stood up, the case nearly falling off her knees. But seeing it fall, Katy caught it and pulled the case close to her chest like she would a baby she had about dropped. “Grandma! You should have told me! I don’t wanna do it!”
But in the eye of her grandmother, she saw a number of looks. The first was disappointment, and it stabbed like her mother’s own stares that past month. The second was a look of sternness that said Katy would do it if she wanted to eat dinner for the next week. The third was encouraging, that it was about time Katy let go of her sadness and picked up music again. Perhaps that was the worst one because Katy yearned to open the case herself to see which instrument her grandmother had chosen.
“That’s not fair! You’re supposed to ask me if I wanted to!” Katy’s voice lingered on a whine, already feeling defeated without even an argument.
“Open it up, and play something,” her grandmother said with a shrug.
For a moment Katy just held the case to her chest. Her grandfather had let her handle all of his instruments except the really old pipe with the beads. That one, he said, was an antique. Grandma Schmidt would have most likely taken one of the other woodwinds since the case was too small and clearly the wrong shape to be a violin.
Exhaling with all the disgust Katy could voice, she gave her grandmother a look, turned toward the stage and set the case down to open it. Flipping up the clamps, she lifted the lid and stared at the instrument.
“His clarinet?” Katy stroked the instrument with the tips of her fingers.
Her grandmother nodded. “He’d want you to play it. He always played when we came here for Founders’ Day. I thought that you could play this year.”
Lowering her head, Katy sighed. Yes. Even the quiet small town would have missed hearing Grandma Schmidt’s musical renditions calling people to come to one kind of booth or another. Though many had looked on him with suspicion when he had first moved in, he was now a legend to the other generations as the eccentric that added real musical variety.
“Ok.” She didn’t know why she was agreeing exactly, but Katy did yearn to play that clarinet. It would be like holding her grandfather’s hand again. It didn’t matter who would be watching.
She took the instrument out of the case, cleaning it first then piecing it together. As soon as she had it fully assembled, her grandmother collected the case and cleaning rod and stuffed them both back into her bag. The band was still setting up the stage, some of them tuning their guitars and fiddles though the others were still working on the sound system, so Katy lifted her head and set her mouth to the reed, drawing out one familiar melody her grandfather had taught her.
The people around her stopped where they stood. Their heads turned, inclining to hear the music that gradually mingled with the trees and leaves on the boughs, floating upward like the feathery down from dandelions. Several of them had begun to walk towards the stage, pausing paces away with their eyes lifted to where Katy stood playing the melody like something from another world. Many knew that the granddaughter of Peter Schmidt was as talented as he was. But knowing and witnessing are two different things. In witnessing, truth had become obvious.
No one clapped when she finished, but others called for her to play more. Katy obliged, though she didn’t know why. She never cared to entertain another soul since she had quit her orchestra. But she was not doing this to entertain. Katy played because she loved the feel of the wood underneath her fingers. She loved the music that flowed from the instrument, how it connected her with something else, something that she could not touch though it felt so near. In a way, Katy could feel Nissa close by listening, and she hoped that maybe Nissa would be able to hear her play.
But the band was ready, and they waved to Grandma Schmidt with the kill gesture to get Katy off the stage. Seeing the gesture herself, Katy ended her piece and hopped down to the grass, still holding the clarinet, though she felt like she ought to hand it back.
“Keep it for now,” her grandmother said, waving her off. “Unless you want to go play with the other kids, then I can hold it for you.”
Katy looked up at the park’s playground. Mostly little children ran around the swing sets over the sand, but there were a few big kids sitting on the geo-dome jungle gym just chatting. Most of the people were still setting up booths.
Lifting her eyes to her grandmother’s face, she just shrugged. “They’re going to want me to play again, aren’t they?”
Her grandmother gave an honest nod.
“Ok.” Katy reached out her hand. “I’ll hang onto it. But can I have some money to buy some food?”
Winking at her, her grandmother dug right into her purse and removed her already fat and packed wallet mostly stuffed with coupons. She drew out a five-dollar bill and passed it over to her. “Don’t spend it all in one place. If you need more later, you’ll have to negotiate.”
Folding the five, Katy smirked and stuffed it into her pocket. “Don’t worry. There isn’t a whole lot here I want to get.”
She walked off into the rows of booths being set up, but Katy merely glanced at the wares on sale. There were handicrafts made from dried cornhusks, dyed and shaped into dolls, animals, and random shapes. Straw ornaments hung from racks next to tumbled rocks on chains. Katy smirked at the carved stones there, finding one that was a flat pendant selling for a dollar. After trading her five for four ones and the pendant, Katy trudged on, keeping one hand in her pocket and the other wrapped around her grandpa’s clarinet. She walked all the way to the end of the row where the old farmer Johnson sat telling a dramatic story to children and adults under the shade of a tent awning.
“…So the youngest prince and the wolf climbed higher up the mountain until they reached the stony church. And at the church was an enormous wood door with iron hinges and an iron handle with an iron lock. The youngest prince reached up to the handle to pull open the door, but it was locked fast. The wolf turned to him and said with a ghostly howl, ‘There is the key, but it is too high up.’ The key hung on a hook at the top of the church steeple. But just before the boy gave up, thinking all was lost, the bird he had helped flew down and fetched the key for the prince. With the key, he opened the door. And they went into the church to find the well, where in the well would be the duck. And in the duck the egg that held the giant’s heart….”
Katy squatted down and settled in with them to listen to one of the many old folk stories Mr. Johnson told. Her grandfather had much respect for the elderly man who in the end had outlasted him even though they were comparable in age. Mr. Johnson winked at her as she sat on the grass cradling the clarinet in her lap.
“They caught the duck, and out popped the egg. But it fell down, down, down into the deep well. Again the boy cried, ready to believe all was lost. But as luck would have it, the fish he had helped near the river threw back the egg they had dropped to the youngest prince who took it at once and declared, ‘Now we have the giant’s heart. Now we can save my brothers’.”
Katy watched Mr. Johnson draw in a breath with a dramatic pause. It made him look and feel like an old sage. A shiver of warmth ran down her arms. Holding the clarinet and listening to Mr. Johnson talk was almost like getting her grandpa back. Almost. The yearning was still there, yet she listened with a secret hope inside that when the story finished, her grandpa would give a warm rolling laugh, pat her on the shoulder, and challenge her to a small race to the first game they could reach.
“And when the youngest prince returned and showed the heartless giant that he had his heart, the giant trembled, shaking and making the ground shake under him, begging the boy not to hurt it. The giant even turned all those stone figures in his garden back to their old selves. But when the youngest prince’s brothers discovered that he had the heart, they took it from him, shouting up at the giant that his evil rein was at and end—and crushed it in their hands. The giant collapsed to his knees, stirring up the wasp nest where his heart should have been. As the heroes and other princes rejoiced, the youngest prince sobbed, for the giant had been his first friend. He had hoped he could give back the heart, so the giant could feel pain and love and friendship. And when he became king, he was merciful even to the unwise, warning them never to end up like the heartless giant.”
Mr. Johnson bowed, indicating that the story had ended.
Everyone in the tent clapped, including Katy who liked the way the old man made voices so dramatic. As the clapping died down, Mr. Johnson cleared his throat, reached for the bottle of water set aside for him and took a swig. Gulping it down, he then cleared his throat and looked up expectantly at the children.
“Do you want to hear another one?” he asked.
“Yeah!” several of the younger kids called out, rocking in their seats for more stories.
Katy sat back also, waiting to hear the story he would tell next. She hoped it would be something dramatic rather than boring.
“Have you ever heard the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin?” He winked at Katy as the children gave mixed responses.
She moaned quietly, now wanting to get up. There was one thing she had forgotten about this old man. Her grandpa and he used to tell stories together with Grandpa Schmidt playing tunes occasionally to make it more colorful.
“Come on, Miss Neilson. You know the tunes. Play for us while I tell the story.” He grinned with so much expectation that she felt too guilty to say no. In all other situations, she would have run off, giving the old coot a piece of her mind. But all the little kids sitting on the grass stared up at her with their big eyes, each of them with heartbreaking gazes that wished for the moon.
Closing her eyes, Katy cursed the old man in her head and got off the ground. As she dusted off her rear, she stepped over to the open folding chair next to him and sat down on the edge in a way to tell him she was there not by her own will. She lifted the clarinet up, knowing he wanted her to play pieces from the Pied Piper Symphony.
“Once long ago…” the old man led in, but Katy hardly listened. She knew the lead in music to the suite and gently played the melody. When he described the wealthy, but fairly proud town of Hamlin, Katy played the part where the mayor in the symphony talks to his people about their prosperity. When he talked about the coming of the rats, Katy went right into the rat’s entrance tune, which jumped and bumped and skittered as if hundreds of rats ran over the entire town. Then as Mr. Johnson described things being so bad that the mayor offered sixty pieces of silver to the one who rid them of the rats, Katy took a breath and waited to play the Pied Piper’s tune.
“Hey! Kid! Keep it down! We’re trying to listen to the music!” A man in dusty jeans and a flannel shirt worn over a dirty tee shouted at her.
“Then go to the stage, you jerk!” Katy shouted back, setting the clarinet down.
“Now, Miss Neilson—” Mr. Johnson urged.
But the man whom Katy now recognized as a grown-up Gibson stomped into the tent and glared at her. “What did you say to me?”
The man stood over her, reeking like he had already gone through a couple beers. He looked ready to pound her into the grass unburdened with a conscience that would remind him she was just an eleven-year-old child. The other children around him scattered. They too expected him to mash her down. Their parents glared but only backed away. The tent had emptied almost immediately.
“Thomas Gibson, what are you doing?” Mr. Johnson stood up. “She’s a child, and you’re an adult.”
“And she is sassing me!” The man reached out and grabbed one of Katy’s pigtails.
But Katy snatched her own hair and yanked at it, banging the clarinet on his hand while at the same time kicking his shins. He dropped his hold.
“Ow!” Thomas Gibson hunched over just as Katy darted from the tent. “I’ll get you, you little brat!”
Katy scrambled under two tables past the skirts of three ladies dressed up as pioneer women in calico and bonnets. Crawling behind the fishing booth and under the stand where kids were throwing rings to get them around the necks of bottles, she then slid through a rain of ping pong balls that missed the goldfish bowls they were aiming for. She lifted the cloth to another booth selling pie then looked on both sides of the space ahead before darting straight to the stage where her grandmother was selling raffle tickets. Right there in the dirt, she ducked behind Grandma Schmidt and under the wooden stage.
“What’s this? Back already?” Grandma Schmidt lifted her arms peering back at Katy with the same surprise she would have if her granddaughter was hiding underneath her skirt.
Thomas Gibson tromped over that patch of grass, looking around, but avoiding Grandma Schmidt’s gaze with all the worry of guilt. He had that same shifty look the other Gibsons had, even though they were only cousins. When he stomped off again, Katy slipped out of her hole and whispered upward. “Can I just hide here for a while?”
Her grandmother sighed. She rested a hand on Katy’s head. “Is he picking on you?”
“He’s trying to kill me,” Katy said, ducking under the stage again.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake.” Grandma Schmidt set her hands to her hips. She walked directly from the stage straight to where Thomas Gibson was now lifting up tablecloths to peek under them.
Over that distance, Katy watched her grandmother stick one of her fingers into the man’s face then verbally assault him with every stern word in her vocabulary. His tall figure hunched, backing up from her though he peered around to see if he could spot where Katy was hiding. Her grandmother’s shouts rose, even over the twang of the band that played with the fiddle whipping out a vigorous jig.
“…pick on a little girl! If your father were here, he’d be ashamed of you!”
His voice was too low for Katy to make out. The man hunched lower, but his drunken gaze searching the park said that if he got a hold of her, he would still flatten her.
“…Don’t make me bring out the secret weapon!” Grandma Schmidt shouted at him, lifting her chest up higher as she looked down on him.
“Ah, the old man is dead, Ma Schmidt! You can’t threaten me with that!”
Katy climbed out from her hiding place. There was something stirring in her as she watched her grandmother heft up her fat bag. Though Katy doubted her grandma would bring a gun to the park, the woman certainly did lift up the bag as if she’d clobber him with it. And Thomas Gibson stared at it as if she had. Katy crossed over to her grandmother and stood by her side.
“Tell me, Kathleen. Do you know how to play all your grandfather’s songs?” Grandma Schmidt asked her, peeking at her out of her corner of her eye without giving any space to the man that glared at her granddaughter when Katy arrived.
Though her lip trembled, Katy lifted up her chin like her grandma and said, “Every one.”
With a pert nod, Grandma Schmidt then said to Thomas Gibson, “There. You see now?”
Though Katy had no idea what their argument meant, she could see the effect it had on that Gibson man. He withdrew farther back and stared at Katy with a growing look of horror. But then he drew himself up and hefted his chin high so that he peered down his nose at Katy.
“So?” he said.
Katy’s grandma nodded to her. “And you can play every one of his instruments, right?”
Katy just blinked at her and shrugged this time. “You know I can.”
But that hit Thomas Gibson like a blow to the gut. He took a large step back. Then he pointed at Katy. “You—you’re a witch!”
Making a face, Katy shook her head. “You’re stupid.”
“Now, Katy, that’s not polite,” her grandma said, though she smiled at her.
Thomas Gibson retreated farther, his face going paler as he escaped across the grassy park to where his truck was parked. Katy watched him growing more and more befuddled with each step he took. However, he finally left her and her grandmother alone.
Grandma Schmidt turned and gazed down at Katy, setting a hand on her hip again. Disapproval as well as exhaustion rested on her wrinkled but usually kind face. “Ok, now what brought this on?”
Katy shrugged. Then when she saw her grandma was not convinced, she said, “I was helping Mr. Johnson tell the piper story is all. The guy told me to keep it quiet, and I told him—”
She then cringed.
“You mean to tell me you spoke rudely to him and made him angry?” Her grandmother sighed, resting her hand against her forehead. “Oh, Kathleen. What am I going to do with you?”
Kicking a worn part in the grass, Katy looked at her feet. “Nuthin’.”
Grandma’s soft hand rested on the back of her head. “My dear girl. One of these days you are going to have to learn to control that tongue of yours. Lucky for you he’s still scared of the Schmidts. I had to remind him who your grandpa was and who you are.”
“And who am I?” Katy murmured, wondering for herself. She felt so alone. All she wanted to do was go back home and talk to Nissa. But undoubtedly Nissa was at the Founders’ Day celebration in her magic world.
Her grandmother gently caressed the back of Katy’s hair. “You are your grandfather’s pride and joy.”
Katy stayed by her grandmother for as long as it took to sell all the tickets. Then as a duo, they walked through the booths admiring the things on sale and buying a wrapped sandwich and some pie to eat as the day passed. There were games, eating, and a great deal of talking among the old folk. As the sun rose higher and the games and playing continued, Grandma Schmidt retired for a small nap in the story tent, expecting Katy to entertain herself on her own. To Katy, that only meant that she had to go out and risk getting jumped by a Gibson again. Katy decided to bite her tongue and stow away the clarinet for a while, venturing out to the playground where other children played.
Stepping to the sand from the grass, Katy found an empty swing and sat down. She rocked back and forth and back and forth until she noticed one of the kids from the story telling tent standing there. He gazed up at her with the same doe eyes as in the story tent, biting his lip as he peered at her face. Then his sister, Martha Sandberg, who lives just up the hill with all those pretty horses, arrived and looked at her in the same way.
“What?” Katy stared hard back at them, clutching the chains to her swing with a growing feeling of annoyance.
“Can you finish the story?” Martha asked. Her eyes begged it.
Katy blinked and then looked towards the tent. Mr. Johnson was out cold, leaning back in his lawn chair near her grandma. She heaved a sigh and shook her head. “Didn’t Mr. Johnson tell you the rest?”
“Not after you left. He told the story of Thumbellina. He said he can’t tell the Pied Piper without a piper.”
Rolling her eyes, Katy hung in her swing, leaning on the chain. “I don’t have my grandpa’s clarinet with me anymore.”
“So? Tell it anyway,” Martha said. Her eager smile grew wider. Two other boys came over and sat along the railroad tie that edged the sand box, nodding. They also wanted to hear it.
Drawing in another breath, Katy glanced around at the shadowed playground. Everything stood in the shade of the huge oak tree. It was around noon. The air was warm. And inside she felt a comfort that said why not tell it? It would do no harm. Some stories should never be left unfinished.
So, Katy heaved up her chest and nodded to the girl. “Ok, so when the town was so overrun with rats that the people were going crazy thinking that they would starve, they sent out a message throughout all the land that they would reward sixty gold pieces to the man who rid them of the rats.”
“Not a woman?” one of the older Gibson girls, asked, standing near the metal bar that held the swing set into the ground. Her face twisted in a sneer.
Meeting her eye, Katy nodded with a simple gesture. “Back then they didn’t have equal opportunity. We are talking about the dark ages here.”
Several of the girls laughed, even Carly Hillerman who stood next to that older Gibson girl. Katy’s insides tightened up. Averting her eyes to the younger children, she continued her story anyway, counting on the hecklers to ruin it all.
“Many men tried,” Katy said, “But in the end, no one could rid the town of Hamlin of the rats…until one morning when the sun rose over the mountains, they heard a tune.”
Katy whistled the tune. It was high and merry and straight from the Pied Piper’s Symphony. Several of the little kids clapped, waiting excitedly. Somebody said ‘boo’, but all the other children hushed him up.
“Standing near the town well where wild grapes grew—”
“Wild grapes grew? That’s stupid,” Carly said, sneering at Katy. “What? Did he come out of the well on the grapevine?”
“Hey! That’s how my grandpa tells it. And he wrote the symphony so shut up!” Katy shouted back.
Carly took a step towards Katy. “Don’t tell me to shut up!”
“Shut up!” the other kids listening shouted back at her.
Blinking, Carly took a step back. She glanced to her cousin who also hissed at her to be quiet.
“So,” Katy said louder, eying Carly before continuing. “Standing near the well where the wild grapes grew was a man all in patches with a long, shiny wooden pipe, playing a tune that made them all want to come out and meet him.”
Katy whistled a piece of the tune, not noticing that other children drew from the adults and stood closer to listen.
“The mayor hurried to the front of crowd, and with all authority asked him who he was and what his business was.” Katy gave a dramatic pause, nodding to the girl who had asked for the story. “Well the piper in patches said to the mayor that he heard about his problem, and for the agreed price of sixty silver coins, he would rid them of the rats. After they shook on it and the mayor agreed, the piper went immediately to work.”
Right away, Katy hummed and then whistled the tune that drew out all the rats in the story. Most in the area had heard it before, smiling as they heard it again. A couple dogs paused and jogged over, peering at Katy with tongues hanging out, panting in stares at her. Even a couple of birds landed on the bar above the swing, cocking their heads as she whistled the tune out. Then she stopped with a grin, feeling the eagerness of the little kids waiting on her every word. Her grandmother had woken up and listened with a smile, gazing towards the play yard—though Katy did not know it. Grandpa Schmidt used to say that the best part of music was seeing who was made happier by it.
“Every rat came out every hole,” Katy swiped her hand with flourish, showing how many rats dumped out from the houses. “Hundreds. Millions. Billions of rats crawled after him. And the piper walked slowly down the road towards the raging river that had gotten very high in the last rain. And one by one, they dived into the river, trying to swim to the other side as if something better were waiting for them. But each rat drowned—all except one. That one, if anyone had asked it, would have said the music promised mountains of food, pillars of drink, and oh the most wonderful sweet things that a rat could taste within its claws—all dreams that left him wanting forever after.”
“Boring,” Carly said, tossing her head and rolling her eyes.
Katy turned her head and with a dry look said, “You don’t have to listen. You can go do something else. I’m not keeping you here.”
The other kids’ looks said the same thing. Her own cousin hushed her, glaring with a finger crossed in front of her mouth.
“Well,” Katy looked back to the other kids as her confidence grew—realizing she had stood up to Carly and Carly was now the one being cowed. “The villagers rejoiced—”
“What does rejoiced mean?” a little boy asked.
Blinking, Katy shrugged and said, “They had a big party.”
Grinning, the boy bobbed his head waiting for more.
Smiling wider, Katy lifted a finger. “Yeah, they had a big party because the rats were all gone. But when the piper came back to get his pay, the mayor thought about all that silver, and he really didn’t want to give it up. So when he met the piper, he dropped six coins instead of sixty into the piper’s hand.”
“I heard it was ten,” a girl said.
Katy shrugged. “My grandpa says it was only six. Not even ten. And that made the piper really mad. He demanded that he get paid the full sixty. But the mayor just laughed at him and said, ‘The rats are all dead. What can you do about it?’ Ooh, the piper knew then that they would never pay him. And ooh, the piper fumed until his face grew red. But then as the sun set and the moon rose, the piper played a different tune.”
At once Katy began to whistle it. All the children rose on cue and started to dance. Here Katy wished that she had the clarinet so she could play it properly. But when she finished the tune, Katy smiled and swung back on her swing. “And all the children came out of their houses. And all the adults stood where they were, unable to move.”
The children stopped dancing and stared at her, their eyes bulging as she continued the sorrowful end to the tale.
“And worse, the piper walked to the raging river, and all the adults, from the beggar up to the mayor could do nothing but watch their children walk towards their doom.” Many of the little kids gasped. Katy winked at the first boy and said, “But the piper did not lead them into the river to drown. Instead he led them up into the mountains where a dark hole opened up, and they all walked inside—except one. That one could not walk as fast because his leg was lame.”
“You’re lame.” Trent Gibson was now standing next to Carly.
“Lame means you can’t walk, stupid,” Katy said.
“Don’t call me stupid! Dork! Why don’t you just say he had a gimp?” He clenched his fist, but his older cousin shook her head and held him back.
Katy merely shrugged. “Whatever. Same thing. The point is, that kid didn’t end up in the mountain. He was left behind. And when he came back to Hamlin, he told his parents what the piper’s magical music promised.”
The children who had been dancing nodded and looked up, almost repeating the words Katy said next. “Candy, rivers of lemonade, cakes, and chocolate, cream, and pie. And games, endless games that they could play forever and ever—a child’s wonderland.”
Katy nodded. Every one of the children watched her with bated breath now.
“No one ever saw the pied piper again. But somewhere on the other side of the mountain, it is said a group of people appeared and made a village with much of the same customs and dress as Hamlin town, speaking the same language and telling a strange and mysterious story of when they lived in a dark cave, wandering for years—and of the promises a piper made but never fulfilled.”
“And that’s it?” Carly asked aloud, looking disgusted at Katy. “That’s a sucky ending.”
Katy just shrugged. “But that’s how it goes.”
“But what happened to those kids?” Carly asked.
Standing up from her swing, Katy gave a snort. “They’re the people on the other side of the mountain, just all grown up.”
“But why did the piper take the children?” Martha asked, staring at Katy, really wanting to know.
Growing exasperated, Katy tossed up her hands. “How should I know? Maybe he thought they were bad parents. Or maybe he—”
“He was a kidnapper,” older Gibson girl said, though there was no spite in her voice. She frowned though. “Maybe he was after the kids.”
“A terrible, sucky ending,” Carly said again.
Katy shook her head with vigor, a growing desire to defend that piper welling up her chest. “No. I can’t believe that. The piper kept his half of the agreement. It was Hamlin town that was acting all…all stupid.”
“They didn’t pay him,” Martha said, nodding.
Katy nodded back, briskly. “Yeah.”
“So he stole their kids?” that Gibson girl repeated.
Wincing, Katy shrugged. “It’s a fairy tale.”
“And what are we suppose to get from it, then?” Trent Gibson said with bite.
“That you have to pay the piper, or else.”
But it wasn’t Katy that had said it. She looked up and all the other kids did too. Mr. Johnson grinned at them nodding at Katy before gesturing to the other children.
“Free ice cream is being served near the bandstand,” he said.
An immediate squeal exploded from the tots, middle-grade kids, and young adolescents that had been sitting at Katy’s feet listening to her story. Even the older teens moved with a hop, and the crowd parted.
“You tell a good story,” Mr. Johnson said to Katy who also had perked up at the news. She skipped to the edge of the playground, barely nodding to him. “Do you know what it means to pay the piper, Miss Neilson?”
Katy hastily shrugged as she leapt over the railroad tie. “Keep your promise?”
He chuckled. “Yeah, that too. But it also means own up to a mistake.”
She looked back, wondering where this came from.
“We all have to own up to mistakes we’ve made. Including the piper.” Mr. Johnson walked off. But somehow his words lingered with Katy. What was he saying? What did he mean by it? Were he and Gran talking?
Looking over to the tent where she had been sleeping, Katy closed one cynical eye and muttered to herself. Buttering her up. Her grandma had been buttering her up—and everybody was now joining in on her mom’s scheme to turn her back into some docile goody-goody. More than ever, Katy just wanted to scream.
But first—ice cream. Even Katy wasn’t stupid enough to run off without getting some free ice cream first.
But then there were the jugglers. Katy had to stay and watch those. Also the cotton candy machine had at last been turned on. She had to get some cotton candy. And then another group of musicians played. It would be rude to sneak away and not listen. Besides, they were good.
Then there was hayride. Katy couldn’t miss that.
And then Martha Sandberg invited her over to join a bunch of her friends in the game of tag they were playing. Katy couldn’t possibly say no, especially since Martha had backed her up when she told the Pied Piper story. By the end of day, when the sun was setting, Katy had forgotten how angry she was at her mother and her grandmother for manipulating her. Instead she laughed with Martha and Martha’s friend, Tabitha, and Tabitha’s sister, Lindsay, looking up at the colors on the clouds with giggles, wishing that Nissa were there with them.
“Oh! They’re going to set off the fireworks!” Martha pointed up
“They gotta do the raffle first,” Lindsay said, pointing up to the bandstand.
Katy moaned. “That means I have to go up there.”
“We’ll wait for you,” Martha said.
With an appreciative grin, Katy nodded and skipped to where her grandmother was already shaking the box, peering through the crowd in search of her. Katy waved, running right over. Her grandmother smiled broadly, all her wrinkles folding peacefully with a happy look in her eye. She gestured with her head to her bag.
“Get out your grandfather’s clarinet. You need to play so people know it’s time.”
Nodding, Katy dived right down to take the instrument out of the bag. Digging through coupons, a hairbrush, a bottle of suntan lotion, Katy stumbled across a velvet bag and pulled it out. Loosening the drawstring, Katy slipped off the end of her grandfather’s antique woodwind.
“Oh, no! Not that one! The clarinet!” Her grandmother snatched the old pipe from her hands. “Find the case, dear.”
Rolling her eyes, Katy dug into the large purse again, noticing her grandmother had slipped the other instrument under her arm as she would hide a particularly sharp knife.
“Why did you bring that instrument anyway?” Katy took out the clarinet case and proceeded to get all the pieces together, cleaning it once more.
“Oh,” Grandma Schmidt took up her purse and tucked the velvet bag and woodwind back inside. “I brought it just in case.”
“But Grandpa never let me play it,” Katy said. She wetted the reed with her lips then started to tune the clarinet.
A wise look dropped in the twinkle of her grandmother’s gaze on her. “I know that, dear. But someday you will. But right now it’s dangerous, so—”
“I’ve never heard of a dangerous musical instrument,” said Katy and she played a short tune.
“Electric shock is pretty dangerous,” her grandma replied, clasping the bag closed. “Those electric guitars could kill somebody.”
Katy choked, the clarinet gave a high-pitched squeak as she laughed while playing. Lowering the piece, she just shook her head at her grandmother gone silly. “I don’t play the electric guitar.”
“Not yet.” Grandma Schmidt winked. “But someday you might.”
Shaking her head again, Katy played.
The crowds gathered like the rats in Hamlin town. All surrounded the bandstand. The Fireman’s raffle began. Katy was allowed to sit the rest of it out, watching with the other girls as they gave away homemade quilts donated for the fundraiser, pies, cakes, even a ski set for one adult. The Sandberg family had donated the grand prize—a small sleigh that a pony or a goat could pull in the winter for two people at the most. They showed it off with pride, and the winners jumped in each other’s arms when their number was read off. Though, Katy gave it one look and had to cough to hide an impolite snicker. She wasn’t so sure Martha would realize she was not laughing at her. Neither she nor her grandmother came away with a prize, but then they only bought one ticket between the both of them.
After that, everyone sat down and watched the fireworks the fire department set off. The sky glittered, raining down stars so beautiful that Katy had to say it. It had been a good day.
She walked home with her grandmother, carrying yet another cone of pink spun sugar and hefting a large spiraled lollypop in her other fist. Both of their feet were tired, and they strolled in the starlight without even a thought to the morning after. Downhill and going with the way of gravity, the pair chuckled, arm in arm, even up to the back door. They had eaten their fill of fried chicken, potato salad, hot dogs, and all other sorts—so washing up and going to bed was the only things on their minds. Katy so much wanted her own pillow under her head.
“Let me wash up first. I’m an old woman,” Grandma Schmidt said, walking straight through the kitchen to the bathroom.
“Fine.” Katy turned and sighed, crossing the room towards the basement door so that she could grab her pajamas. She set her grandpa’s hat on the table and sighed, thinking it was a good thing to come to her grandmother’s after all. A very good thing.
She heard sobs.
“Grandma?” She stepped towards the bathroom.
But the noise wasn’t coming from there. Katy heard it again. This time the breeze from the pantry door opened up. Nissa’s voice carried down, sobbing so painfully that Katy darted to it, sticking her head in.
“Katy?” Nissa answered.
Katy climbed inside the cupboard and up the two-by-fours to the room’s doorway. Opening it, Katy climbed in. Nissa looked up, startled to see her.
“Where did that door come from?” Nissa asked, watching Katy climb in.
Looking back just once, Katy shrugged. “It was always there. That’s how I get in.”
“It wasn’t there before.”
Peering around at the dark room lit only by the moonlight, Katy turned to Nissa and frowned. Nissa’s dress, which must have been pretty at one time, was covered in mud and torn in several places. Outside the window, Katy heard a familiar tune, though at that particular moment she did not recall where she knew it. All she knew was that Nissa was scratched and incredibly dirty.
“What happened?” Katy pulled Nissa’s mud stained hands from her face.
Nissa sniffed loud then sniffed up her tears again. “T—Thomas Gibson. He pushed me down in the mud and rubbed my face in it.”
“That jerk!” Katy hopped up to take on that drunken adult herself. “He tried picking on me too, but Gran was there!”
But Nissa broke into tears again. “He ruined everything.”
Katy wrapped her arm around Nissa like her mother would. “You’re safe now. He can’t get you here.”
“—Nise! Come on honey! Climb down! It’s okay. They’re gone!” The voice came from the window.
Nissa looked around. “Daddy?”
Letting go, Katy nodded. “He’s probably worried.”
Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, Nissa nodded also. “I’ll see you tomorrow then, right?”
Katy nodded then sighed, handing Nissa the large sucker she had been carrying. “Here. You need it more than I do.”
Her friend’s muddy face broke into a smile, her straggly hair falling into her face. She took the sucker stick and waved to Katy, climbing back down the ladder to the world below. Katy leaned out, watching her friend go.
In the shadows, a tall man tipped his baseball cap to her. “Go on, clever girl. Your grandmother is probably wondering where you’re at.”
Shivers ran down her arms. He had looked at her like he knew her very well. Drawing her head in, Katy caught one last glimpse of the man putting an arm around his daughter while she showed him the sucker Katy gave him. Crawling back to the cupboard door, Katy heard him say, “Oh, how nice. Did she know yours got shattered?”
Nissa’s happy voice replied, “No. I didn’t tell her. Daddy, she’s got to be one of your friends, I know it!”
He chuckled—a sound Katy hung on to as if she were hearing the call of the piper promising wishes and dreams to come true.
But the voice of her grandmother called also. “Kathleen! Bathroom’s free!”
Katy climbed back down into the kitchen and waited until she was sure her grandmother was in the other room. Opening the door, she lowered herself onto the floor with care so that nothing would creak. Katy hurried as quickly as she could to the basement to gather her pajamas. Now it was certain that she could not wait for the next day. No way she could.
Sunday was church. Though Katy wanted to visit the room through the cupboard, she never got a chance. Between services and her grandmother dragging her to visit with the sick, she was completely worn out by dinner time. And after dinner, her grandmother had guests over who had little children that Katy had to entertain, though she really didn’t want to. They sat on the front porch making shadow puppets until their parents went home.
On Monday, Nissa waited for her, pacing outside the window until Katy arrived to call her up. Of course, Katy could not get there until the afternoon because she had to help garden. But then when Nissa climbed up, she was grinning and carrying with her an acrylic box that had stainless steel edges and handles holding it together. That afternoon they painted their toenails, swapped stories, and did up their hair with all sorts of clips and bows.
Tuesday, Katy brought in the origami books she borrowed from her grandmother’s shelf, dumping in stacks of colored paper so they could make more than just flowers out of paper.
Wednesday, Nissa could not come up, though she tossed in a note she had written on a paper airplane telling Katy about the trip she had to take to the dentist that afternoon.
Thursday, Nissa lugged in her picture book of fairies, trolls, and other magical creatures and told Katy about the time that she actually saw a little gnarled man among the weeds near the garden sheds.
“They get the pictures all wrong.” Nissa tapped the page where it showed a pointed-hat gnome that looked like nothing more than a miniature dwarf. “What I saw was a gnome. Daddy said it was, and he told me to leave the man alone if I wanted to avoid trouble.”
“Does your dad see things like that all the time?” Katy lay on her back, holding up another book over her head while staring at a fanciful drawing of a griffin, its claws and wings so elegantly sketched that it was hard to not imagine something like that actually existing.
Her friend shrugged. “I don’t know. I never saw anything really like any of this except that gnome. My dad was pretty upset that I noticed that one. He said when regular people see the magical world, all it does is cause trouble.”
“But it sounds so exciting,” Katy murmured. “Before meeting you, or finding this room, I never would have believed any of it.”
Exhaling, Nissa gave a nod. “I’m not sure I believe in all this stuff either. Daddy says that some things are real and some things are made up, and both things should be left alone.”
It sounded like something her Grandpa Schmidt would say. Perhaps the magic of the house rubbed off on Nissa’s dad. On Katy’s former walks with her grandpa along the road, he would talk about how beautiful the world was without all those fanciful things in stories. Magical elixirs, exotic beasts, wishes from genies were all fine to him, as long as they remained in a book or a song. He used to say with a grave look on his face to make sure she did not miss it, ‘Trouble finds those who seek mystery. And mystery has a way of swallowing them up.’
Thinking about him while resting in the room he somehow made, Katy sighed aloud. “But, you know, I think there are some things that won’t leave you alone.”
“Like bullies,” Nissa agreed with a downturned nod.
That made Katy laugh. “Yeah. But also this room. I swear I was drawn here. The cupboard door kept opening on its own.”
“And that ladder,” Nissa agreed, nodding more with a glance out at the window. “You know, it pops up like it’s telling me to come visit you.”
Katy abruptly sat up. “Really?”
Nissa nodded again. “That night when I ran from Tom Gibson, it just appeared. And then so did the room.”
“Something wants us to be here,” Katy said.
“Or someone,” Nissa replied.
Both girls sighed together then broke into giggles, rolling back down onto the carpet.
“I don’t care really,” Katy said, clasping Nissa’s hand. “You are the best friend I ever had.”
“Me too.” Nissa squeezed her hand gently.
Friday, Katy had to accompany her grandmother to the nearby town to buy groceries. Their small store just didn’t have enough variety. Her grandmother drove.
Walking down the aisles with the fluorescent lights shining down in a somewhat bluish sick glow, which made Katy wish she was outdoors rather than in, they filled their shopping cart with canned julienne cut string beans, snow peas, and chopped potatoes in water. The elevator music version of a rock song floated over the shelves. Grandma Schmidt was reading the label of a green bean can, checking the salt content. She hardly noticed the people passing them by, or the Gibson kids that had walked in with cautious looks which suggested they were up to no good. But Katy saw them.
She leaned over, watching them cut through the checkout aisle. With the pretense of reading the tabloids, Trent swiped a candy bar and some M&M’s, stuffing them into his deep overall’s pocket. He didn’t see Katy, but then she had ducked behind the graham cracker display. The pounding of her heart overwhelmed the sweetened tuned of We’ve Got the Beat that played from the speaker just above her.
“Katy, do you…? For heaven sakes! Kathleen Neilson, what are you doing?” Her grandmother stepped set her hands on her hips.
But then her grandmother lifted her eyes. She drew in a breath, nudged Katy back to their cart, and walked straight over to Trent who had taken three packs of gum and was just now stuffing it into his pocket. Katy ducked behind the graham crackers display so she wouldn’t be seen.
“Trent Gibson, you had better pay for that!” Grandma Schmidt’s voice took an angry pitch Katy was familiar with.
The Gibson boy jumped first. Then he attempted to run from the store, ducking through the roped off end. In country grocery stores, the local folks didn’t let Trent get away as they would have in Katy’s hometown. The bagger, who was a tall lanky kid, grabbed Trent by the shoulder and got a hold of his arm. Katy could hear Trent’s shouts and curses as the bagger dragged him to the side of the doorway. Then she heard an even louder shout.
“Hey! What are you doing to my cousin?” Lloyd Gibson stomped over. A regular cowboy, tight pants, flannel shirt, hideously worn leather boots, and a lump of chaw stuck under his right lip where one day Katy imagined he’d grow a tumor—Lloyd was the scariest Gibson Katy had seen yet.
The bagger stuck his chin out with his chest. The clerk walked over to join him.
“Your cousin is a thief! Grandma Schmidt saw him stealing candy from the shelf,” the clerk said. He then glared down at Trent.
Lloyd cast a dirty glare at Grandma Schmidt. “Is that so?” He said slapping the back of Trent’s head. “Cough it up, loser.”
Trent took out the packs of gum. The candy bar and M&M’s still remained deep in his pockets. He held out the gum, looking sulky and sheepish.
“Now, say you’re sorry,” Lloyd ordered Trent in a voice that said other things, things like: ‘I’ll beat you up if you get caught again.’
Katy frowned, watching Trent look the other way and mumble out a sorry while the clerk took the gum and chided the boy, telling the bagger to let Trent go. Something jumped inside of her as she watched the two Gibsons walk to the front of the store. Trent stuffed his hands into his pockets over his other two steals.
“Wait! He still has a candy bar and M&M’s!” Katy shouted out.
Grandma Schmidt emitted a huff and folded her arms, waiting for both Gibsons to face up to it. The clerk blinked and then crossed to stand in Lloyd and Trent’s way.
The bagger burst into a laugh and shouted out. “I knew the Gibsons were thieves! Bring him back in here. A slap on the wrist isn’t enough.”
Lloyd shouted after him, but the clerk had seized Lloyd’s arm firmly, shaking his elderly face at him.
“Get your hands off me, you old—” Lloyd then started to swear like nothing else. So much that Grandma Schmidt gasped aloud and walked over to Katy to cover her ears. Katy didn’t dare say that she had heard plenty worse at school from her old friends. They just watched Lloyd shout out at the store keeper and then dig into his pockets for his wallet in between curses to pay for the candy Trent stole, especially since the store keeper threatened to call both their folks and bring up the issue with the local sheriff.
“And you,” Lloyd pointed a finger at Katy, his pitiless eyes glaring like dark specks of a devil that hated her to the core, “you fink, if I see you anywhere near our house—” He then made the kill gesture, swiping his fingers under his chin across his throat with a guttural noise.
Grandma Schmidt pushed Katy behind her, puffing up her chest. “If you lay a finger on my granddaughter, you’ll be rotting in jail for the rest of your life.”
Lloyd only snorted at her, tossing back his head. “Yeah, right, old lady. Your creepy old man ain’t around to do nothin’.”
“I’ll ignore your improper grammar,” Grandma Schmidt replied, though Katy looked up as if it were insane for such an old, helpless woman to even be facing the lead demon of the Gibson clan, “And I will warn you again. I am not friendless. We have witnesses, and I have a secret weapon. If I ever choose to unleash it, you and all your nasty family had better watch out.”
For some reason, Lloyd went white. He swallowed and his chest heaved up and down, like he was remembering some ancient horror he had forgotten once, but now jumped out at him in full force. Whatever it was, he backed away from Grandma Schmidt. However, he still cast an angry look at Katy, one that promised death or at least torture of the worst kind if he ever caught her alone.
Lloyd Gibson shoved past the clerk and stomped out of the grocery store. Katy breathed easier when he was gone.
“Thank you, Miss Schmidt,” the clerk bent down and said to Katy. “I’m glad to have an honest customer like you around.”
Katy made a face at him for getting her name wrong, still glancing outside to where Lloyd was probably waiting to jump them in the parking lot.
“Do you want me to call the police and have them watch out for you?” the clerk asked Grandma Schmidt.
Grandma Schmidt gave a kindly glance outside and nodded. “Perhaps it might be best.”
The bagger joyfully hopped to the phone. Katy watched him, wondering if they had problems with the Gibsons stealing from their store before. As he dialed, Katy peeked over at her grandmother, wondering if her secret weapon was a particular police officer. She was now chatting with the clerk in lower voices about some trouble they had lately with mischief in the neighborhood. Cow tipping was one of the things they mentioned, though battered mailboxes were another. Katy could hear the grim tone as her Gran said, “Don’t they know meddling with mailboxes is a federal offense? Not just some stupid prank?”
With a shrug, the clerk glanced at Katy again, hitching up a smile. “I don’t know what goes on in their empty heads. Probably just bad air.”
“I called them.” The bagger came back, grinning like he was having the best day ever. “If you two hang around and give your witness, they’d much appreciate it.”
Katy watched Grandma Schmidt nod; though with the gurgle in her stomach, she wished they didn’t have to stay.
The sheriff came by, chatted with Grandma Schmidt first and then asked what Katy saw. Katy burned with embarrassment as she related how she saw Trent slip in where the clerk wasn’t looking and sneak the candy into his pockets. The sheriff didn’t ask much beyond that, noting it down. As the clerk informed him that Lloyd had paid for his cousin’s steal, he noted it, but gave He also noted down from the clerk that Lloyd paid for his cousin’s steal, giving it a tilt of his head and side nod since there wasn’t much he could do about the incident except talk with his parents. There was a tired heave of his shoulders that said this wasn’t the first time the Gibsons had been caught stealing from the market.
When Katy and her grandmother finally walked to the car with their groceries, they had a deputy with them who mostly chatted as though he didn’t think there was any reason to safeguard them except to assure the store clerk who still looked agitated. Katy hadn’t forgotten Lloyd’s threat, though Grandma Schmidt didn’t look at all bothered. With her shoulders up and her chin held justified, it was clear she didn’t think Lloyd able to hurt them anymore than with threats.
As soon as Katy reached her grandmother’s house and they had unpacked all the food, they ate lunch with haste as both Gran and Katy were tired from the ordeal. Afterwards, they both parted ways—Grandma Schmidt to her nap and Katy to the cupboard.
“Nissa?” Katy climbed up, sticking her head into the attic room.
Heaving herself inside the room, Katy crawled to the window and looked out. Nissa was nowhere to be found. Their origami books were still there, and so were the myth books. Sitting back, Katy flipped the pages open to the illustrated mythology book and continued to read where they had left off. On the page was a fine illustration of a sprite. It looked half human, half insect, its long spindly wings extending over most of the page. Its legs and arms were spidery. The sprite was dressed in dry leaves, worn like a skirt, with a dainty acorn on top for a hat. Gazing on it, for a moment, Katy felt like this one creature could be real somewhere, like that little gnome Nissa had seen in her garden.
She turned a page.
Here was an elegantly painted image of a water sprite. Gills and fins, her face and hair looked scaly, but Katy blinked as the woman also looked like she had no clothes on. Rolling her eyes, Katy turned the page to read up about Sirens who were famous for drowning men in an old story called the Odyssey. These looked more sinister and sexier. They also had chicken legs and wings. Katy cringed, ready to turn the page again, but as she did, she heard an eerie wind-like moan coming from behind.
She stiffened then slowly turned to look.
But there was no ghost behind her. Instead, Katy saw hanging out from the wallpaper in ceiling, one of the grapevines. The grapevine looked real, rather than paper. And in the vine it dangled her grandfather’s old wood instrument on the end of a curled stem. A slight wind rocked the woodwind, causing that faint moan.
Her book slid off her lap. Katy closed it, blinking at the instrument. The vine from the wallpaper twisted and extended the instrument out further practically offering it to her. For one heart-pounding moment, Katy imagined this vine as some sort of wicked plant tempting her so it could strangle her. But she reached to it and snatched her grandfather’s pipe away, watching the grape vine immediately roll back and lay flat back onto the wallpaper. Rushing to it, Katy touched the wall. She felt it, patted it—but the vine was no more real than a sketch. Gazing down at the instrument with the worn beads on the neck, Katy set one hand over her mouth. Why was this here? Wasn’t it supposed to be in the glass case? How come it was here now? And what was that vine?
But she heard shouts, and Katy turned again, first to the window. But the shouts were not coming from outside. Katy then crawled to the cupboard. The shouts came down from the kitchen.
“Come on out, you little sh—” Lloyd stomped around in her kitchen, bringing something down with a loud boom.
Katy’s heart jumped. She clenched the woodwind in her hands. Her mind raced, hearing bangs and booms down below. At first she pulled away from the cupboard door, but the door opened wider, almost calling her to go down. Then Katy remembered Grandma Schmidt.
She was alone. She could get hurt.
Jumping down the dark cupboard space, Katy dropped to the bottom shelf. She pushed open the door and hopped out into the kitchen. As she saw Lloyd spin around, his eyes were lit with a fire of vengeance. Her grandmother’s glass things all around were smashed, including one window and the center of their kitchen table. She could hear her grandmother pounding behind a locked door, screaming for help. The surging impulse to play a tune she had not played in years rushed through her. It didn’t seem right. She ought to call the police. But as Katy glanced to the bashed in telephone and Lloyd advancing on her, she lifted the wooden pipe to her lips and played.
At first the tune started in like a call. It trumpeted and shouted, then proceeded into a tune for a dance. And as she played, Katy noticed fluttering first then zipping in, tiny winged things with spidery legs. One winked at her before it whipped through the air straight at Lloyd, gathering with others like irritated hornets, swarming. Their buzz filled the room the same time his bat came up. Then down went his bat.
But not on Katy.
Lloyd yowled, swatting, flailing his arms, staggering then running like a man on fire. “Hornets!”
Katy followed him right out of the kitchen in a marching stride, still playing that tune as the little sprites dived on Lloyd and another intruder, driving them straight out of the house like bees from a nest. When they had all gone from the yard, she lowered the pipe and stared at it.
The sprites were gone. For a long moment Katy wished they could have stayed. However, Nissa’s words came back to her that things like that ought not to be dealt with lightly. That, and she heard her grandma pounding on the door behind her.
Turning round, Katy walked back inside the house to her grandmother’s room. A chair had been jammed under the doorknob to keep her in. Katy removed the chair. As soon as Katy opened the door, Gran tumbled out. The old woman took one look at the kitchen, then another at Katy and Grandpa Schmidt’s pipe.
She extended her hand to Katy. “I’ll take that.”
Passing the pipe over, Katy sighed, wondering if she would ever see a sprite again. Despite all the warnings Nissa had given her, seeing magical things made her heart race with excitement. She only wanted to see more.
Grandma Schmidt went over to the neighbors to telephone the police. Katy stayed behind with orders not to clean up. That was fine. Instead of cleaning up, Katy walked around counting all the things that had been damaged. So far, it was mostly appliances, things that were out on the counters, the stove, and the table.
The police came around three in the afternoon. It was baking by then. This time the sheriff looked likely to do something rather than just shake his head. His feet crunched over the glass. It almost entirely covered the floor. He had only one question for Katy after he had seen the damage.
“What made them run away? You said you saw them. They left their weapon, but you look unharmed.”
There was no way Katy could tell him about the secret room or about her grandfather’s pipe, which had worked like magic. Instead, Katy recalled what Lloyd had shouted. “He disturbed some hornets, and they chased him out of the house.”
“The hornets didn’t sting you?” the sheriff asked, his eye scanning her obviously sting-free skin.
Katy just shrugged, not sure if what she was saying was a lie. “I wasn’t holding the bat that hit their house.”
He folded up his notebook and nodded. “Thank you.” He then turned to Grandma Schmidt and recommended she spray for hornets.
“Spray for them?” Grandma Schmidt said with a chuckle, glancing once at the broken kitchen window that now needed to be replaced. “I ought to be thanking them.”
The police left at around five in the afternoon, taking their photographs and the baseball bat as evidence, but leaving behind a man to stay with Grandma Schmidt while Katy helped her clean up all the glass. That evening they fixed a light supper of soup and sandwiches. The policeman stayed the night, waiting for news of Lloyd Gibson’s arrest.
That news didn’t come until morning.
Katy awoke, rubbing her eyes and climbing the stairs for breakfast, blinking a couple times at the new police officer that was helping the other replace their broken table with what looked like an antique. Grandma Schmidt tisked over the poor, damaged one, muttering how sad it was to lose something from her hope chest so tragically. However, this new table wasn’t any worse off than the first one. It looked equally old, and it had a crack in the center so it could be extended. They also brought in new chairs someone had donated.
She heard: “We chipped in for these as apology for not taking you seriously back in town.”
Grandma Schmidt let out a sigh that said she wished they had taken her seriously to save her the trouble. “I would have appreciated not losing a table more.”
They stood around uncomfortably at that, but neither said a word except “Sorry.”
“Are we making breakfast?” Katy asked, peeking in.
Her grandmother nodded and beckoned her to the stove. She already had eggs out, but nothing had been started.
Things only got better after that. They worked in the garden briefly. Katy kept one eye out for sprites, though she also searched for gnomes under the shadows of the bushes and in the grape vine arch where she was not permitted to go. If she saw a fluttering leaf or butterfly, Katy turned to look at it. But she didn’t see anything as miraculous as what she had the day before. By lunchtime, she was heaving heavy sighs of disappointment since all the fun and excitement was over.
When her grandmother took her afternoon nap, Katy climbed back up into the cupboard, hoping this time Nissa would be there.
Nissa wasn’t, not yet anyway. Katy heard her outside the window, but she was shouting at someone. “I said leave me alone, or I’ll get my daddy to get those hornets to chase you again!”
Scrambling to the window, Katy stuck her head out to see if it was Lloyd. The sheriff had said he had caught him that morning, but did he escape? All Katy could see was Nissa in a muddy dress, her hair looking like she had been hit with a dirt clod, the majority of mud still on top of her head. The boy she was shouting at was on the other side of the tree. All the branches and leaves obscured any clear view.
Some kid shouted back at Nissa. “Your daddy is a devil!”
“He is not! He’s the Pied Piper of Hameln, and he’ll make rats chase you if you don’t watch it!”
“Fairy story! You baby!” the boy shouted back.
Katy felt her face getting hot. She wished she had that pipe again to send pixies after him, but with a glance to the room, she knew the pipe was not there. All she had was her wits, a few books, and a voice.
So she shouted. “Nissa!”
Nissa looked up.
The boy backed off. “What was that?”
Tossing her hair back, Nissa said, “My magic friend. You’d better run, or she’ll call the pixies after you!”
And he did run. Katy saw him trip, fall down, scramble up, and run. She squinted at the face, sure it was a Gibson, but she couldn’t place which one. There were so many of them.
Nissa casually strolled to where the ladder was imbedded in the grass. She looked up, ginning at Katy. “I’m glad you’re here. I missed you yesterday.”
“Come on up.” Katy pointed to the ladder.
But Nissa shook her head. “I can’t. I have to take a bath and then go to Mrs. Hunsaker’s home for piano practice. Mom’s making me.”
“You still take piano?” Katy leaned on the sill frowning. “You didn’t tell me.”
Shrugging, Nissa sighed. “I don’t really take it, exactly. I started years ago, but I’ve never liked it. I’ve been slacking off for a while now. But since I’m leaving in a week, Mom wants me to—”
“You’re leaving in a week?” Katy’s heart immediately felt as if it had been crushed. A week was too soon. “That’s not fair!”
Nissa just shrugged again. “I know, but I don’t have a choice. The Gibsons won’t leave me alone, and Mom’s afraid that if I stay longer one of them will beat me up and leave me for dead.”
Katy thought of Lloyd. He could have beaten her to death if it weren’t for the pixies. Thinking upon that, she recalled what she had just overheard, and Katy stuck her head out to say, “Those hornets you talked about were pixies, right?”
Blinking and staring up, Nissa nodded. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
With a grin, Katy hugged the windowsill, leaning over with a grin. “I saw them too. Lloyd Gibson came over yesterday to bully Gran and me, and they came. It was so cool.”
Nissa jerked her head around in panic, looking to the left and to the right before hissing in a whisper. “Be careful. Daddy says pixies like trouble.”
Katy wondered whether that was true as she watched Nissa wave goodbye. It sounded like them. Those pixies, with their glee and their buzzing seemed just as likely to tear up the house as to drive out Lloyd and his friend. At that moment, she counted herself lucky she hadn’t found a pixie in the garden that day. And Katy hoped that if she ever did see one, the pixie wouldn’t spite her for it.
Sunday morning, Katy washed and dressed and went to church with Grandma Schmidt. She saw all the same folk sitting in the pews as the last time, though the Gibson row full of cousins and Lloyd’s family practically glared at her and her grandmother. Thomas, Mark, and Tent in particular held dark looks all fixed on Katy’s back. Nobody else seemed to notice, though the Sheriff sat in the pew just behind Katy and Grandma Schmidt. As everyone parted from the main service to Sunday School, Trent bumped into Katy on purpose and Mark stepped on her foot, both squeezing out a nasty ‘excuse me’, but their eyes said if they found her alone, she would be minced meat.
But Katy did not spend the rest of the day alone. And though Carly Hillerman gave her dirty looks with Trent Gibson, no one laid a finger on Katy at all. Martha Sandberg and her friends, Tabitha and Lindsay, sat with her during class. And right after church services, Katy walked with them over to Tabitha and Lindsay’s home, with Grandma Schmidt’s permission. Martha’s mother also drove Katy home when she picked up her daughter.
“So, how much longer are you staying with your grandmother?” Mrs. Sandberg asked.
Katy was feeling tired and had to blink to keep awake when she realized Martha’s mom was talking to her. “Oh. Uh, two more weeks. My mom is coming t….”
But her voice died as she realized that she forgotten to be mad at her mother for leaving her in that hick town. Katy swallowed and then sighed, glancing at Martha. It wasn’t so bad. That Sunday had been good, despite the dirty looks from the Gibsons.
“Denise is coming when?” Mrs. Sandberg asked.
Wetting the inside of her mouth, Katy pressed her lips together before saying decisively “She’s coming a week from Saturday.”
Martha’s mother smiled, steering the wheel to turn a corner. “It will be great to see her. Is she staying long?”
Katy shook her head. “No. She’s just coming to pick me up.”
The woman sighed with genuine disappointment. “That’s too bad. I would have liked to have visited with her.”
She couldn’t help it, but Katy peeked at the woman’s legs to see if they were misshapen or fake. But Mrs. Sandberg’s legs were as shapely and real as any thirty-something’s legs, though her stockings sagged a little around the ankles where the nylon had stretched out.
Leaning back in her seat, Katy recognized her grandmother’s house as they rolled over the gravel into the drive. When they came to a halt, Katy hopped out.
Martha waved to her. “Come hang out at my place tomorrow.”
Katy glanced at the house, half expecting to see the window with Nissa staring out. “Uh, but my Gran makes me work in the garden most of the day.”
“Come when you’re done,” Martha said.
It felt like betrayal. Turn her back on her friend in the other dimension? How could she do that?
“I dunno,” Katy said with a shrug. “I’ll see if I can.”
Grinning, Martha waved, and the car backed out of the driveway. Katy watched it go, and for the first time she felt torn.
“Kathleen! Come in for supper.”
Turning, Katy saw her grandmother standing in the doorway with a smile.
There was nothing to it but to go. So Katy went inside, putting the question into the back of her mind.
Katy woke feeling somewhat ill. It wasn’t a cold, but a sick premonition that she would have trouble waiting for her if she tried to go to Martha’s house. It wasn’t just the thought of ditching Nissa, but that the Gibsons were watching her. It hadn’t even struck her until that morning that even though Lloyd Gibson was off at the sheriff’s office under charges of breaking and entering, vandalism, as well as attempted assault with a deadly weapon; the other Gibsons were still out for vengeance—blaming her for everything. Wishing she hadn’t seen Trent steal that candy, wishing she hadn’t come to her grandmother’s house for that summer at all, Katy dreaded even getting out of bed.
However, her stomach gurgled. She sat up, clenching it as the delicious aroma of sausage and eggs wafted down the stairs to her nose. It was like that wind from the cupboard that constantly hinted that she go up to the magic room, luring her, pulling at her, calling to her—sneaky and unfairly using influence where Katy just wished to be left alone.
She got up and climbed the stairs. Grandma Schmidt, as usual, was making a feast for them both. Guilt forced Katy to go all the way up, knowing it would be such a waste to let such wonderful food not get eaten.
As usual, after breakfast they worked in the garden. No one bothered them there, and Katy did not look for sprites this time around, though in the corner of her eye Katy could have sworn she saw a lumpy brown man peer at her from under the bushes, scratching his chin before continuing on his way. Shaking her head and squeezing her eyes closed before opening them again with a blink, Katy continued to thin the beets and radishes, dumping the young ones into a basket her grandmother brought.
“That’s enough for today.” Grandma Schmidt stood up, dusted off her hands onto her apron, and lifted her gardening basket off the ground. “I think we mostly need to water this week. It looks all thinned out. Maybe we ought to start pruning the bushes tomorrow.”
“Pruning?” Katy grimaced while climbing to her feet, wondering what kind of work that entailed.
Her grandmother chuckled and patted Katy on the shoulder. “No biggie. I’ll show you tomorrow. Right now, I was thinking we’d make some cookies. Would you like that?”
Cookies sounded good. Katy tried to shrug nonchalantly but really, that sounded like the best idea yet. She forgot about the tiny man in the shadows, or the itchy feeling she was getting urging her to check if she had stepped on an anthill on accident. Both she and Grandma Schmidt went directly into the house with a quicker step than usual.
That afternoon, Katy climbed into the cupboard with a bag full of cookies for Nissa. When she entered the room, Nissa was sitting with her small jewelry-making box, stringing beads on a thread of dental floss. She looked up when the door opened and smiled.
“I was hoping you’d come today. I can’t come tomorrow. Mom’s taking me to the doctor for a physical.”
Crawling on all fours to where Nissa sat, Katy set down the cookies and frowned. “That’s like last week. Last week you went to the dentist.”
“That was Wednesday,” Nissa said. “But, yeah. It’s for all the paperwork. The school won’t take me if I have some chronic illness or something. I dunno. That’s what Mom said.”
Nissa then held up the string of beads she was making. On the string were several colors of swirled opalescent type beads, mostly ranging from one shade of blue to green to white and back again. “And—you’re going to hate me, but, I was invited to a birthday party on Wednesday—all day. This is my present. What do you think?”
What did she think? Katy frowned more. She thought it stank that Nissa had only one week left before it was good-bye forever. She thought it was awful that Nissa was going to be gone for two of those days, leaving her all alone to face the Gibsons and the boring little town. She thought it was unfair that her best friend didn’t live in her town in her dimension so that they could go to the party together and face the Gibsons together. And, she was jealous of whoever would be getting that bracelet.
“It’s beautiful,” Katy said.
Nissa grinned, sitting more erect. “Really? Good! I’ll make you one too, then!”
Suddenly Katy smiled and immediately opened the cookie bag, holding them out. “For you!”
Giggling, Nissa took one, acting dainty with a pinky stuck out as she plucked it from the bag. “I don’t mind if I do.”
Both girls burst into giggles together, Katy rolling on the carpet. A pleasant flute’s tune echoed from outside, the melody reminding Katy of happy times when she went picking berries on long walks with her grandfather. She wished now she could take Nissa on one of those walks and show her the places her grandfather had shown her when she was little.
Tuesday came, and Katy helped with the pruning of one of their berry bushes. She and her grandmother dumped the leaves in the compost heap near the corral and gathered the sticks to be used for kindling later that winter. After a good wash and then lunch, Katy took a small peek into the attic room before climbing back down again to the kitchen where she called Martha to ask if she could come over.
Martha’s mother picked Katy up in her car, grinning at her.
Martha Sandburg lived in a large two-story modern style house. It was built on a hill with shrubbery everywhere and very little yard for playing in. The rest of their property was for horses. Mrs. Sandberg spent most of her time at home with her little children while their father worked with the animals. He also kept fields of alfalfa, which he sold to other farmers for profit. But mostly he kept it for himself and his horses. He was a professional horse breeder, Martha said. But that also meant that Martha and the other Sandbergs all learned how to ride as soon as they could sit in the saddle. Katy spent most of her time sitting on the corral fence staring at the horses as Mr. Sandberg trained a young horse.
Martha talked a lot, mostly about the foals that were born that year. She said one of them was hers to care for, and she wanted Katy to meet it, which meant they had to go into the barn and walk through a lot of horse droppings to get there—not at all a pleasing idea in Katy’s mind. However, when Martha led Katy to the stall where her much older filly was eating, Katy’s eyes grew wide at its smooth brown coat and long, beautiful mane.
“Her name is Dippity. Do you want to pet her?” Martha was smiling as if the horse were her child she was showing off.
Desiring more to run from the animal almost taller than she was, Katy followed Martha inside the stall, hesitantly reaching out her hand.
“Don’t be scared. She won’t bite.” But Martha was secretly laughing. She took hold of Katy’s hand and set one of the brushes into it. From there, she guided Katy in, putting the brush to her horse’s back. “Just brush along like this. Gentle like.”
Following her strokes, Katy started to brush on her own, though her heart pounded a mile a minute as she did. The young horse tromped her hoofs, anxious being so close to a stranger, likely to stomp on Katy’s foot. Martha guided her for only a short while before turning toward the feed barrel to see if there was enough in it.
“Where are you going?” Katy stopped brushing.
Martha looked back with a smile. “Keep brushing. I’m just fetching some water.”
Katy started to brush again, but glanced nervously at the horse who noticed Martha leaving, and seemed to disapprove.
“Hum to her, or sing softly,” Martha said, still going. “They like that.”
Biting her lip, Katy continued to brush down the horse’s back and neck. Then she went into a hum, hesitant at first. It wasn’t so much a tune for the horse as it was for herself. One of her grandpa’s melodies, Katy hummed until her own heart calmed. As for the horse, it perked its ears and listened.
Up above, the swallows that had made their nests in the rafters fluttered and settled, tipping their heads over the edge of the beam, listening also.
Down in the other stalls, the other horses and also some of the goats and chickens in the far end tilted their heads, ceasing their neighing, bleating, and clucking all to hear Katy’s melody. But Katy hadn’t noticed it. She was too busy smoothing out the horse’s mane, brushing and detangling its tail. When Martha came back with the water, she stared, first at the horses, then at the chickens that had walked over to the stall door where Katy was oblivious to her audience.
“I don’t believe it,” Martha uttered before Katy saw her.
Looking up, Katy quit humming and stopped brushing.
Almost immediately a bedlam of noise broke out. The chickens scattered, their feathers flying everywhere. The birds fluttered away as if a cat were on their tails. The goats bleated in protest. Martha walked through it to get to the stall, though Katy peered over at the animals with the same bewilderment as she had when she had stepped on to the farm that afternoon. Even Martha’s horse whinnied like she wished for Katy to continue.
“I really don’t believe it,” Martha said again and set the water bucket down just outside the stall door. “Carly Hillerman said you were a witch, just like old man Schmidt—but you really did that, didn’t you?”
Katy just blinked at her. “Did what?”
“Made all the chickens stand still. And the birds—” Martha was shaking her head. “I thought what happened in the park was funny, the way you whistled. I swear I suddenly saw a party full of wonderful things, but I had thought I’d dreamed it. But now—”
“What do you mean, but now?” Katy set the brush down, stroking the horse’s back with her hand to calm it, no longer nervous at all. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
Martha narrowed her eyes, turning her head to inspect Katy. “Don’t you know what people say about you, Kathleen Neilson?”
Katy shook her head.
Sighing, Martha leaned back along the stall door. “They’re saying your family is weird. The Gibsons go on and on about how you can call up swarms of bees to attack them. They say you are crazy weird, like a witch. They say your mother is a witch and your grandpa is a devil.”
Immediately Katy’s face felt hot. “He is not!”
“I know that,” Martha said, walking over and stroking her horse’s neck now.
Calming down, Katy frowned at the straw on the ground.
“I’m just saying, what I just saw right now was freaky.” Martha looked back into the rest of the barn. “The animals were listening to you.”
“I was just humming a song like you said.” Katy stuffed the brush into Martha’s hands. “You told me to.”
Martha blinked, her thoughts going as she watched Katy gingerly step through the horse pats on the ground to the barn entrance to escape. Martha hurried after her, closing the stall door to keep the horse in, and picking up the water pail.
“Hey, wait!” Martha dumped the water into the trough and then chased after Katy.
“If I am so weird, why did you invite me?” Katy’s eyes burned with tears. The echoes of the Gibson’s rumors repeated over and over in the back of her mind.
Suddenly Martha blushed, silent with guilt. It was a secret, and one Martha was ashamed of. “My mom asked me to. She said you looked lonely.”
Huffing, Katy whirled around with a stomp and marched out of the yard. As she climbed through the fence Martha called after her, though she heard it distantly.
“Where are you going?”
“Home!” Katy shouted back, and she tromped straight to the road.
Why? Why, oh why, oh why did she have to ask it? Of course Martha invited her over only because she pitied her. No one in the real world ever liked her for who she was. Only girls through magic cupboards and old men people called devils liked her as she was.
Tears rolled down Katy’s cheeks. Was she a witch? Was she really destined to be some kind of ugly green-faced hag that people despised and wished for houses to drop on? Clenching her teeth, Katy glared at the road, glared at the street signs, glared at the hicks driving by in their trucks, glared at the stray dog that barked at her, glared at the blue sky as tears dribbled out the sides of her eyes, blurring her vision. After crossing several country roads, Katy dropped her rear on the rim of an old tractor that had been long abandoned and was flaking with rust. She set her face in her hands and sobbed.
They had called her mother a witch.
Though earlier she might have agreed with that argument, now it was an added stab into her already hurting heart. Had Grandpa Schmidt been there, he would have chased all her angry thoughts away with a song. Had her mother been there, maybe, just maybe her arm would have wrapped around Katy’s shoulders with a soft word of comfort. But here, as Katy sat alone on that country road far away from civilization, as far as she was concerned, she sobbed, wishing Grandpa hadn’t died and her mother had not left her there to fend for herself among the Gibsons.
Suddenly, her anger flared up. Katy stood upright and stomped down the street towards her grandmother’s house, fuming. Her mother had abandoned her there. How could she be so unfeeling? It was unfair! Didn’t she know what kind of place she was leaving her? Didn’t she know?
“Whoo hoo!” A truck rumbled and screeched right in front of Katy with three Gibson boys in the back. Thomas was at the wheel with a friend at his side. “If it isn’t the little witch!”
Katy jumped back, looking left then right for a way to escape. At the right was the road where they could run her over. The left was a neglected yard full of dry grass, fenced. She didn’t think longer than a second before ducking into the yard and running for her life.
The Gibson boys jumped out of the truck back, chasing right after her while the tires to the truck ripped over the gravel to head her off somewhere else. Both groups hooted as wild men on the hunt. Darting through the grass was tough enough on her short legs with Trent, Mark, and their cousin, Simon, hard on her tail, but Katy also had to break through the thick shrubbery that divided the Christensen’s lot from the Dixon’s land to get to the Hunsaker’s property where Katy knew they kept a mean bull.
“Come back here, witch!” Trent shouted just like a barking dog ready to bite.
Not at all motivated to stop, Katy climbed into the fenced lot and ran straight through at full speed. She only hoped the bull wouldn’t get to her in time, since she hadn’t seen him yet.
The bull didn’t show himself.
Trent and Mark climbed into the field after her.
Their cousin halted at the fence panting. “I’ll go around.”
He was a fat kid anyway. It seemed strange to Katy that a fat kid could grow up on a farm, but then lately life had been full of surprises. The biggest surprise was that the bull was nowhere to be seen, and Trent and Mark were gaining.
Katy climbed over the other fence as if she were flying, her leap throwing her into yet another neglected yard where someone had abandoned old farm equipment, now rusting from disuse. She still had a ways to go. As Katy reached the road, she could see the Gibsons’ truck pull up with the friend getting out. Thomas Gibson’s eyes glittered darkly as his prey was coming to him.
Still, Katy climbed towards the road hoping to find some way to cross the street before he tried to hit her with the truck. Thomas revved the engine, letting off the brake. Trent and Mark climbed over the fence right after her. Darting as fast as she could, Katy could also feel the coming of the truck. She just needed to go faster. She could beat it. She could. If only time would stop, she could do it.
She heard the screech of the tires. She heard the shouts. But Katy tripped and fell flat on her face, the gravel gouging scratches into her arms and legs in a skid. Then—
Katy’s head had been down, sure she would be crushed, or squashed, or something. However, she lifted her head up, hearing a voice then feeling a cooling shadow over her.
“Well, well, this won’t do.”
She blinked, squinting as the sun made a silhouette around the man that stood over her. He reached down, extending his hand. Katy wasn’t sure if this was some nasty Gibson prank, but after staring at the man’s thin fingers, the formal cut of his suit, and his strangely non-calloused palm, she knew this man wasn’t a Gibson at all. She took hold and let him heave her onto her feet.
The man let go the moment she stood stable, and tipped his hat to her, which was more like a business style fedora than a Stetson. “You be careful, young lady. Better to stay with friends than wandering off by yourself, don’t you think?”
Katy just nodded, not able to make out his face in the shadow of the high sun.
He chuckled and turned to go. Looking around, Katy saw, just inches from where she had fallen, the truck had stopped with skid marks right behind the wheels, even in the gravel. Thomas Gibson was still at the wheel, looking downright gleeful in his wicked intent to run her over—but not one inch of him moved. Trent and Mark were in the middle of the street frozen in dramatic poses, as if playing Red Light, Green Light. But the weirdest thing of all was the friend in a midair jump of surprise, entirely horrified at what was really happening.
Katy walked off the road, her eyes fixed on this impossible scene. She searched and found the mysterious stranger in the hat strolling down the road as one who had all the time in the world to go anywhere he wanted.
She called out to him, running after him. “Wait! What if they keep chasing me?”
The man glanced back with a smile. She caught a glimpse of his face before the strong shadow covered it. “Then I suggest you use your clever little head and run.”
Taking a step back with an earnest nod, Katy then turned left for the quickest way to her grandmother’s house. And she ran. She ran as fast as her feet could carry her. And as she ran, Katy didn’t notice when things started to move again, but she was sure it was when the stranger with the face of Mr. Fugit from Nissa’s dimension had gone from the street.
Katy’s safe arrival at Grandma Schmidt’s home was unheralded. Her grandmother greeted her first with a smile, but that vaporized when she saw all the scratches on Katy’s arms and legs. They spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning up her cuts. While Katy sobbed, her grandma tried to cheer her up by baking a cake. But while the cake was delicious, it didn’t help. Katy said for the billionth time that she wanted to go home.
“I’m sorry, Kathleen, but you mother won’t be here for at least another week.” Grandma Schmidt set her empty plate aside. “I can call Sheriff McGiven again and tell him what you told me, but there really isn’t anything I can do.”
“Grandma, Thomas Gibson tried to run me over!” Katy shouted. “And Martha was only pretending to be my friend.”
She saw her grandmother uncomfortably flush pink in her cheeks, averting her eyes. Katy frowned, knowing it was likely her grandmother might try to set up another play date with one of the other local girls.
“But, did you have fun?” Grandma Schmidt asked, trying to ignore what Katy had just said.
Moaning and slumping her shoulders, Katy answered her with a dirty look: “Martha says people think I’m a witch and Grandpa is a devil.”
Her grandmother froze. It was as though those words hurt her more than anything, and Katy had been the unwitting deliverer of the poison. Her grandmother frowned for the both of them.
Grandma Schmidt stood up. She collected their plates, covered the cake, and carried them back into the kitchen. Setting the plates into the sink and the cake onto the counter, she said, “Then, maybe it is better that you remain here at the house for the next week. You can practice playing all of your grandfather’s instruments.”
Rising from the couch, Katy followed her grandmother into the kitchen. She saw tears drop from her grandmother’s cheek, though her head was turned. An old wound had been opened, a wound Katy had not known about before. Had her grandmother been called a witch too? Had Grandpa Schmidt been accused of being a devil because he was a foreigner? Had they been bullied before this?
Katy walked to her grandmother and wrapped her arms around her, hugging tight. “It’s ok, Grandma. I’m ok.”
Her grandmother turned and embraced Katy, pulling her very close and stroking her head. “Don’t listen to them, Kathleen. Don’t listen to them. You and your grandpa are special. People like the Gibsons don’t understand people like you and Peter.”
Peering up at her, Katy felt chills run up her arms. “People like us?”
A smile broke through her grandmother’s tears. “Gifted musicians, my dear.”
Katy smiled and hugged her grandmother close and tight.
They spent the rest of the afternoon together watching television. That evening a friend of her grandmother’s came around to see how she was faring. Katy snuck off to the cupboard and climbed into the secret room where she picked up her flute and cleaned it to play. Katy played her flute up until it was near dinnertime, going through all the melodies she knew, wondering to herself what exactly had happened that afternoon.
Her mind was on Mr. Fugit. It was also on her narrow escape. She had wished for time to stop, and it did. She had met a friend of Nissa’s father who knew lots of strange and magical people. And Mr. Fugit seemed to know her. Katy’s mind reeled, wondering over all the things she had seen from the strange behavior of the animals, the pixies attacking Lloyd Gibson, and the gnome spying on her in the yard. Even as she played, Katy could have sworn she saw the dandelion fluff lift off from their stems out of the yard and swirl up in a dance, forming patterns on the wind. Birds outside the window zipped and dived through the floating fluff. Dragonflies darted in and out, everything twisting and dancing as Katy’s own heart calmed through the music. Then she stopped, lowering her flute.
“You’re very good.”
The voice came from below. Katy looked out the window and down at where a man in a straw cowboy hat stood. He peered up through the holes in his hat, his face showing a non-malicious smile. He couldn’t have been a Gibson whoever he was.
“My—my grandfather taught me,” she said.
The man nodded, smiling only a little wider. “But you have talent.”
Guessing this was Nissa’s father, Katy tried to inspect his clothing and what she could see of his face to determine what was so magical about him. So far, he looked ordinary. “Is Nissa home yet?”
He laughed and shook his head. “No. Her mother took her to the doctor and then shopping. They’re buying clothes for school.”
Katy frowned, dropping against the sill. “Do you have to send her away? I’m going to miss her.”
There was something in his smile that said he was sorry, yet determined to keep with his plan. “Kathleen, sometimes people are sent away to save them. Do you really think my baby girl would be happy living where she’d be badgered all the time by kids who don’t understand her?”
“But can’t she—”
“No, she can’t come with you either,” he said as if reading Katy’s mind.
Katy pouted, sinking lower against the sill. “Not fair.”
He chuckled. “You’ll understand in time.”
Moaning, Katy pulled back into the room. “Adults always say that. My mom says that. But she sent me to this rotten place—”
“To save you,” Nissa’s father said.
“But Thomas Gibson tried to run me over with his truck today!” Katy shouted back. “He tried to run me over! So how is that saving me?”
Standing dumbfounded, the man shrugged. “Hmm. I guess she didn’t expect that. And neither would I. Are you ok? You’re not hurt are you?”
“Only scratched.” She slumped against the windowsill again. “Your friend, Mr. Fugit, came by. Everything just stopped. Just—froze.”
“Wow.” Nissa’s father took hold of his hat like he was keeping it from falling off. “He did that for you? I guess it proves that a man can have affection for the generations beyond. Perhaps you remind him of his wife.”
Katy blinked at him, feeling a bush rise to her cheeks. “I what?”
Laughing, Nissa’s father also shook his head. “Nothing. Nothing. If he hasn’t spoken with you yet about it, I shouldn’t.”
“About what?” Katy peered down, waiting. There was something in that man’s remarks, the tone of his voice that was almost musical, reminding her of her grandfather and his inscrutable looks and secret smiles. Perhaps the land he had built on made it so the men that lived there and farmed it became like that, so full of magic that it just leeched into them.
With the same smile, Nissa’s father waved good-bye. “Maybe another time I’ll tell you, if we get the chance. It’s his story. Not mine.”
He ducked under the awning and went inside the house.
“But….” Katy watched his figure vanish from view. Frowning, she leaned her elbow on the windowsill and her chin in her hand. Not fair, she thought over and over again. It wasn’t fair at all that everyone constantly insisted on keeping secrets from her. And it was even more unfair that Nissa would not be up in the attic room to visit Wednesday either.
She lingered in the attic like this until a sudden panic seized her, reminding her that she ought not let her grandmother see her climb out of the cupboard. So, taking apart her flute and putting it back in to her case, Katy crawled back to the attic door and climbed inside. When she got down and peeked out the cupboard door, her grandmother wasn’t in the kitchen. Hopping out to the floor as lightly as possible, Katy tiptoed to the living room to see if Grandma Schmidt’s guest had left yet. She overheard: “…today down the street. Their truck crashed into the corral fence, and Thomas had his license revoked. But I hear they blame your granddaughter.”
“What for?” Grandma Schmidt asked with a snort. “It wasn’t like she was pushing the truck into the fence.”
“No,” the woman said, nearly hissing it. Katy imagined her face was like a snake, all slit-eyed and snide. “But—”
“But nothing,” Grandma Schmidt snapped. “The Gibsons are blaming my Kathleen for their mishaps when they ought to all take responsibility for their own stupidity.”
“But they said she just up and vanished into thin air, like magic.” The woman had bite in her voice. Katy imagined her having fangs. “Remember the last time things—”
Katy pulled away from the room, frowning. She bit her lip as she turned and walked through the back room and out the back door. Standing on the concrete walk outside, Katy looked up at the darkening sky. It was all wrong. The magic wasn’t her fault. Why should they blame her?
Glancing up to where the window should be, she wondered if finding the room had opened up a door to magic. Was it like Pandora’s Box? Was that land cursed? Was that why Grandpa Schmidt was able to buy it so easily when the community was so closed to strangers? Was she dabbling in things she shouldn’t? Nissa’s words reminded her that she had already taken notice of too many things that Nissa’s father said was dangerous. How much further would she and Nissa fall into it before real trouble started?
“There you are!”
Turning around and clenching her chest as her grandmother laughed, Katy tried to regain her composure.
“Mrs. Lowman just left,” Grandma Schmidt said.
Katy rubbed her chest where her heart still pounded.
“Come on into dinner, Kathleen. Tempus fugit.” Grandma Schmidt turned and stepped back through the doorway.
With a jerk, Katy spun around, hopping up the step after her. She grabbed the back of her grandmother’s shirt with one hand. “What did you just say?”
Blinking frankly, Grandma Schmidt replied, “It’s time for dinner.”
Shaking her head with vigor as she let go, Katy also waved her arm. “No, no, no! That other thing. Fugit something.”
“Tempus Fugit?” Her grandmother gave the side of her head a scratch with her forefinger.
“That it!” Katy said. “What does that mean?”
Grinning sagely, her grandmother lifted a finger and said, “It’s Latin. It means: time flies.”
“Time,” Katy muttered under her breath. “Mr. Fugit.”
Her grandmother gave her a quick look and hastily turned in towards the kitchen. She hurried to put on her apron, and tied it with jerky movements. Turning, she called to Katy, “Come on. Are you going to help me or not?”
“Time stopped.” Katy murmured to herself, not really hearing her grandmother.
Katy popped up her head. “Huh?”
Her grandmother was flushed, waving her over. “Come help me!”
No idea why, but Katy was also flushed. Her mind raced over the incident earlier that afternoon.
They had chicken and dumplings for supper. Both Katy and her grandmother were silent, except to ask to pass the butter and salt. The silence lasted even until after supper when they both watched My Favorite Brunette from Grandma Schmidt’s DVD collection. When Katy went to bed, her mind was swimming with a million thoughts. She wanted to check that mythology book Nissa had brought into the attic room. She was sure she saw something about Mr. Fugit in it. She was sure of it.
Wednesday, after gardening and lunch, Katy was about to go up into the attic during her grandmother’s nap, but the sheriff came around and wanted to speak to both of them. Katy sat in the living room, peering at the Band-Aids over her big cuts and the scratches everywhere else. He frowned, asking mostly if the Gibsons had been harassing them at all. Grandma Schmidt remained tightlipped, saying she saw nothing. He then asked Katy about it.
Katy inhaled for strength and said, “Yesterday when I was walking home from the Sandberg’s, Thomas Gibson chased me in his truck.”
He lifted his eyebrows, his eyes inspecting the bandages with a slight twitch. “And that’s where you got those scratches?”
Katy nodded. “I ran through some bushes to get away.”
“Just some bushes?”
Shaking her head with a glance to her grandmother, she said, “No. I ran through some fields too. He tried to hit me when I crossed the street, but I got out of the way before he could.”
He stared at her, almost dropping his pen. “And you saw him hit the fence?”
She drew in another breath then shook her head.
“No.” Katy could tell he was suddenly nervous, so she added, “I didn’t look back. I just ran.”
Exhaling heavily, the sheriff nodded. “You probably ducked down, so he didn’t see you.”
“What are you implying?” Grandma Schmidt’s voice unexpectedly had bite, bite that made Katy uncomfortable.
Tipping his hat, the sheriff stood up from his chair. “Nothin’ ma’am. Just hearing funny rumors is all.”
Grandma Schmidt stood up, her neck stiff as she watched the sheriff turn and walk to the front door. He gave another nod then went out.
“Now my day is spoiled. I won’t be able to rest now.” Katy heard her grandmother mutter through clenched teeth.
“Grandma?” Katy was about to ask what she was so bugged about, but the agitated look in her grandmother’s eyes stopped her. Instead she said, “Do you want me to play something for you so you can take your nap?”
Her grandmother’s expression lightened. Tears formed in her eyes, turning toward Katy. “Yes, Kathleen. I’d like that.”
Katy walked over to the music cabinet where her grandfather kept his instruments. She slid open the door, taking out oboe.
“Not that one, dear,” said Grandma Schmidt. She set her hand gently on Katy’s and made her put back the oboe. “Use his wooden flute today.”
The wooden flute was kept in a satin bag with velvet lining. Katy took it out from the glass case, cleaned it, and then set it to her lips while her grandmother removed her house shoes and climbed on her bed, laying down in complete exhaustion. Playing a lullaby she knew, Katy gently went over the notes with all feeling she had, wishing her grandmother a peaceful sleep. And sleep her grandmother did.
Once she was sure her grandmother was serenely in dreams, Katy wrapped the wood flute up again and set it back into the cabinet. She then crept to the cupboard and climbed in.
Nissa was there in the room, sobbing and covered in dirt.
“What happened?” Katy scrambled over the carpet to her, crouching at Nissa’s side.
Rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand, Nissa broke out into louder sobs. “They pushed me down. They kicked me.”
Katy wrapped her arms around Nissa, holding her close. “Those Gibsons are so mean.”
“No,” Nissa said. “The kids at the party. Linda invited me only because Mom asked her mom to.”
Frowning, Katy thought of Martha Sandberg. At least Martha was nicer.
“But they all think Daddy is some kind of devil. Thomas Gibson had told them about the hornets daddy made chase him.” Nissa looked up. “They say I’m a witch.”
“You’re not a witch,” Katy snapped, glaring out the window, still holding her. People were so mean. How could they not see that Nissa was just a sweet girl? How could they pick on her like that?
“I ran home,” Nissa said.
“Nobody tried to run you over?” Katy asked wryly, glancing at her own scratches.
“No.” Nissa wiped off her last tears with her palm, sitting up to look at Katy. “But I’m sure they wanted to.”
Katy decided not to tell Nissa about her near miss. Instead, she picked up the book about magical creatures and flipped the pages, speaking to Nissa to get her mind off of her troubles. “I found something out that you might like to know.”
Nissa sniffed, wiping her nose. “What is it?”
Passing the pictures of fauns, dryads, nymphs, sirens, and trolls, Katy opened the book on a page depicting a tremendously old man with a sickle in his hands. She pressed her finger on the page and gave a brisk nod. “This. I figured out who Mr. Fugit is.”
Peering down at the page, inspecting it, Nissa’s face contorted. Then she looked up at Katy. “That’s an old man. Mr. Fugit is a young man who wears a suit, just a friend of Daddy’s.”
With a tap on the page, Katy said, “Read the words, Nissa. Father Time has control over time. He could probably look as old as he wants. Besides, this book has pictures that are all wrong most of the time. The pixie here looks close to what I saw, but the gnome you saw—remember—was nothing like the picture.”
“That is silly,” Nissa said. “Why would Father Time, who I think is totally made up, come and visit my father all the time? Hmm?”
She had a point. Still, Katy knew Mr. Fugit was Father Time. The myth book said the man was the keeper of time.
Thinking hard, Katy replied, “I don’t know why, ok? I just know it’s him.”
“How do you know?” Nissa folded her arms across her chest.
Heaving in a breath, Katy decided to tell her about Thomas Gibson and the truck after all. She started from the beginning, relating how her grandmother had set up a play date for her at Martha’s house just like the party at Linda’s for Nissa. She then told her briefly about why she left the barn and went home, not wanting to tell Nissa about how the animals in the barn stopped to listen to her in case Nissa got scared too. From beginning to end, she told of her escape through the fields and then of her attempt to cross the road, stopping at the moment when she thought she was going to be road-kill.
“And then time just stopped. Mr. Fugit helped me up, and everything was frozen all around me,” Katy said, watching Nissa’s eyes widen with each word. “Then Grandma yesterday said something to me. Tempus fugit. That means—”
“Time flies,” Nissa murmured, slowly nodding. “I forgot.”
Katy then nodded. “So you see—Mr. Fugit is Father Time. Which means he can travel through time, make it freeze. But I don’t know why he knows your father. I think…I think this land is magical.”
However Nissa slowly shook her head. “No. That isn’t it. I once asked Daddy if the land had magic, and he smiled at me and said ‘just natural magic, honey.’ No. I always knew it was him. Daddy brings in the magic.”
Blinking at her, Katy grew puzzled. “What do you mean?”
Shrugging, Nissa sighed. “The kids call him a devil. Adults call him a genius. But Daddy says nothing about it…except he told me one story. I thought it was a joke. But now after what you just said, I’m not so sure.”
“What story?” Katy scooted closer to Nissa, perhaps at last the answer to all her questions would come.
Lifting her head, Nissa looked at Katy apprehensively. “Daddy once told me this fairytale, saying it was how his parents met. He said, once upon a time there was a man who could never die, and so he lived and lived watching generations of people live, grow old, and pass on year after year as he traveled the world. After centuries of this, he became really lonely, but he did not want to marry a mortal, knowing that he would only watch her die. That is until one day he was walking along the shores of a sea somewhere in Europe. I think the Mediterranean Sea or someplace like that. And he saw a beautiful woman swimming in the water singing the most entrancing song. He didn’t realize that it was a mermaid (though Daddy called her a water nymph when he told the story) until he got closer to speak with her. She sang to him, beckoning him to join her in the water, and he obliged her because he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He didn’t know she was trying to drown him, but by the time he was deep under the water not drowning at all, she became surprised. She was so surprised to find he wasn’t mortal, so she listened and accepted his marriage proposal.
“Daddy said they lived together for many years, way beyond that of most human beings. They had two children, both the same age. One boy and one girl. But the mermaid was bored of living with this man, and she wanted to return to the sea. She took her daughter with her, and the man kept his son. Then Daddy said to me, ‘I am that son.’” Nissa sighed and shook her head. “He was so serious, but I thought he was pulling my leg. Remember I told you funny strange people come to visit? That woman from Europe that flirts with Daddy, I think she’s the girl in the story.”
Katy blinked. “His mother?”
Nissa shook her head. “No. His sister. But she doesn’t visit often, and she doesn’t ask me to call her ‘aunt’ either.”
It was difficult to believe, but at the same time, nothing else seemed to make sense. The man whom Nissa’s father called Pop could just very likely be his father. Father Time was Nissa’s grandfather. That explained a lot of things. If a man like that moved into her Grandfather Schmidt’s house, visited by so many magical people, undoubtedly his influence would affect the house, the land and draw in magic things—even through time. Maybe that’s what Nissa’s father meant when he was surprised Mr. Fugit had interest in other generations. Surprised, but pleased.
So then, what kind of man was Nissa’s father? Certainly he wasn’t a devil. He was something else entirely. Something special.
“What are you thinking, Katy?” Nissa’s eyes were fixed on her. She bit her lip, nervous as if afraid she would lose her only friend.
Katy looked up, blinked a second then smiled. “I was just thinking how amazing it is that I got to meet you.”
A tear rolled down Nissa’s cheek. She embraced Katy and squeezed her tight in a hug. “Thank you.”
After morning gardening, Grandma Schmidt took Katy into Fillmore where they ordered a personal sized, cheese-covered combination pizza to go. They shared the pizza with very little conversation. As soon as her grandmother settled down for her nap, and Katy had locked all the house doors in case some Gibson tried to sneak in and cause trouble, she climbed up through the cupboard and waited for Nissa to arrive, playing her flute with barely a written tune at all.
Katy played her feelings mostly, thinking about the magic of the room and wondering if the magic would end once Nissa left for boarding school. She hoped the cupboard door would always remain open for her to visit, even if Nissa could not join her. In a way, she wanted the magic to linger even if it called up pixies and drew out gnomes to stare at her from under the bushes. Katy had seen three that morning. They sat in the shade under the grape vines and leaned against the wood frame like a pair of construction workers on their lunch break. She had blinked at them, rubbed her eyes, and still saw them there, so she just shrugged and continued working. And when she had walked back between the sheds to the house with her grandmother, she could have sworn she saw three pixies scampering about, jumping from leaf to leaf then lifted up on the wind. It was like her eyes had been opened, simply from her association with Nissa.
With a grin, Katy stuck her head out the window. Nissa peered up, smiling. With her foot, Nissa tapped the ladder top, and it shot straight up from the grass. She climbed up as soon as it clacked against the window edge, carrying a paper bag in one hand and setting it right on the sill the second she arrived, almost breathless.
“Hi!” Nissa climbed up farther and sat on the sill, drawing up the bag. “Look what I brought!”
She opened the bag. Leaning over, Katy peered in. Inside was caramel corn, lots of it.
Grinning, Katy sat on her haunches. “Great! Then we can have a party!”
Together they looked through the rest of the magic book, and Katy told Nissa about the things she saw that day while Nissa bit her lip in concern, stringing beads into a necklace for herself.
Nissa murmured, “I don’t know, Katy. Daddy says we shouldn’t look for those things. He says they’re trouble.”
Sighing, Katy just shrugged. “I can’t help what I’m seeing. But, trust me, I pretend I don’t see them. If I play it cool and act as if I don’t know they’re there, then I bet they’ll leave me alone.”
But Nissa frowned, taking another piece of caramel corn and popping it into her mouth. She chewed, glanced at the ceiling and then at the cupboard door. “Maybe. But Daddy says once some doors are opened, they’re hard to close. He says you have to have the right key to lock them up.”
“Key?” Katy blinked, wondering about that. It made her think of her grandmother’s skeleton key. Her grandmother had stopped locking the fridge, but Katy knew she still kept it for the glass case containing her grandfather’s favorite wood instrument. But then that instrument once came to her through the magic of the room. She wondered. “How am I supposed to lock up what I’m seeing in the garden?”
Nissa shrugged, eating another piece of caramel corn. “I dunno. Maybe you’d better talk to my dad and tell him about it. He knows how to handle everything.”
Katy nodded. If she saw him again, she would ask him about it.
That evening after Katy climbed out of the attic room, she helped make dinner. And then she and her grandmother watched the Road to Rio. Laughing at Bob Hope and Bing Crosby on the outside, Katy’s mind was back on the room and the conversation with Nissa. They only had two days left together. She had to make them count.
“Kathleen.” Her grandmother turned off the television when the film was over, pressing the button on the DVD player to take out the disk. “Tomorrow, how about we go to the library? We can pick up some books for you to read? You must be bored just sitting at home, trying to keep away from the Gibsons.”
Yawning, Katy nodded. “Morning or afternoon?”
“In the afternoon,” Grandma Schmidt said, picking up the remote and setting it back on the television.
Katy made a face. “Can’t we do it in the morning?”
She got a chiding look in response. “Kathleen Nielsen, what is wrong with going in the afternoon? We garden in the morning.”
Making an effort to rise from the couch, Katy wasn’t sure how to argue with that since gardening was a set part of the daily routine around Grandma Schmidt’s house and skipping it felt sacrilegious. Cringing as she said it, Katy replied, “I just—I just want to have the afternoon free.”
“To do what?” Grandma Schmidt tilted her head and folded her arms. “Six hours of music practice? Kathleen, I know you don’t practice for six hours straight. I listen to your playing, you know. Though I still haven’t figured out where you’ve been hiding to do it.”
Trying to keep her face from changing to pink, Katy managed a small shoulder lift, caught in half a shrug. “Oh, I’m just around.”
“Climbing trees, I shouldn’t wonder,” her grandmother said. But then she turned as if to go to bed. “Just don’t let anyone see you in a tree playing your flute. People might take you for an imp and try to shake you down.”
Katy wondered if that were true. With all the gossip about her being a witch and the influence of Nissa’s father on her and the house, it seemed likely that anything was possible.
Both of them parted for bed.
Or rather, Grandma Schmidt thought Katy had left for bed. However, as soon as the lights were out, Katy crept back upstairs, feeling the shadows and sticking close to the wall, hoping the floor below her would not creak under her weight. Unfortunately, sounds around her in the night had an amplified effect, making her ears perk at the slightest squeak and groan. The wood creaked under the linoleum tile as she inched her way to the cupboard door. Katy closed her eyes and caught her breath in her chest a number of times, sure her grandmother would jump out and catch her in the act of sneaking into the cupboard.
But no grandmother and no unexpected visitor stopped her. When she opened the cupboard door, it squeaked and the cool breeze from the upper floor stroked her face. Katy held her breath and climbed in. The journey up seemed longer, almost like the magic was drowsy, stirred only by her presence. But she reached the door at the top of the cupboard and climbed into the room. The window was open a crack, but that did not matter. Katy scrambled over to the piles of origami paper and searched around for a pen. Looking through Nissa’s things, she found a green marker. Taking it up, and pulling off the cap, Katy grabbed one of the papers and wrote out a note on it.
Gran is taking me to the library today, so I’ll be late coming. Please wait for me.
Folding it then writing Nissa’s name on the front, Katy capped the pen and stuck it into Nissa’s jewelry box. There Katy spotted a small unfinished bead strand she had not seen before, but somehow it looked familiar. The stand contained letter beads forming words in the chain. Katy read the part Nissa had finished.
“K…A…T…I…E.” A blue bead for space came next then an ampersand. “N…I…S…A.” Another blue bead was here then the letter B. The rest still needed to be strung.
Katy blinked. She had always spelled Nissa’s name with two S’s, and Nissa had spelled her name incorrectly. Of course, Katy had never spelled her name for Nissa anymore than Nissa spelled her name for Katy. In a way, it seemed like up in that room she was someone else, so she didn’t think it right to correct it now.
Putting the unfinished bracelet back in its spot and setting the note on top of it, Katy started her way back out of the room. Since Nissa was making her a present, it seemed only right she think of a gift for Nissa in exchange. Who knew when they would see each other again? Climbing down the cupboard shaft, Katy’s mind went over the things Nissa liked, hoping to think of something good.
Friday, with her mind entirely occupied, Katy kept glancing to the house as she and her grandmother gardened. She gathered up the leaves from the trimmed bush, stuffing them into the wheelbarrow her grandmother made her wheel around. After that, she had to take the wheelbarrow to the compost heap. On her way, Katy noticed one gnome just trotting about. He tipped his little leaf hat to her and continued on his way. Undoubtedly, he knew she had seen him, and that left her stunned for several seconds. But then with a shrug, she continued on her way. What was there to do anyway with tiny people nodding to her? As long as she didn’t step on one, she thought she would be ok.
Then she saw the pixie. It strolled along the top of the old corral fence, watching her as its wings flickered and twitched with gusts from the slight breeze. Its tiny face looked curious, blinking its overly large eyes as it watched Katy dump off the leaves and sticks into the compost. Then it spoke.
“You know, the bushes don’t appreciate being cut like that,” it said in its tiny, buzzing voice.
Unsure how to respond, Katy just stood there.
“But I’ve been watching you and that old farmer for years. And I know those trims do them some good—though it makes those bushes so domestic,” it said.
Having no answer to that either, Katy took a breath and leaned on the fence.
The pixie hopped up to the top of the fence post with a flick of its wings. “We miss his music. Come out and play for us some day, and we’ll forgive you.”
“Forgive me for what?” Katy said before she could stop herself.
The pixie smiled. However, it merely bowed and said, “For taking him from us.”
Katy blinked. “I—”
With a laugh, the pixie fluttered up on the breeze, its wings a whirl of activity much like that of a hornet’s. “The world misses him. But he made his choice.”
“I miss him,” Katy said, tears breaking into her eyes, not sure why she was suddenly crying.
Fluttering up close, the pixie touched her face, collecting up in its hands one of her tears as though it were a treasure. It put the tear into a small leaf pouch at its side. With a miniature smile at Katy, it flew up and patted her on the head, then zipped off like a shot. Not sure what just had happened, Katy swallowed, staring off to where it had gone. The magic world had made contact, and somehow Katy knew she would not be able to look at the world the same ever again.
Turning around, Katy heard her grandmother call out again.
“Kathleen? Where have you gone off to?”
Katy wiped her face and drew in a breath. Grabbing hold of the wheelbarrow, she pushed it back to where they were gardening for the rest of the load.
Once they cleaned up and made lunch, Grandma Schmidt collected her car keys, took up her purse and beckoned Katy to hurry up. Katy took one glance at the cupboard door, hoping to hear Nissa inside reading her note. But the chances of hearing that seemed silly. Turning to go, Katy followed her grandmother out the back door to the car.
During the silently drove to Fillmore, Grandma Schmidt fidgeted with the air conditioner, then the radio, but found nothing suitable and eventually turned both off. When they arrived at the library, she sent Katy to the adolescent book section to find a novel to read. However, as soon as her grandmother’s back was turned, she rushed into the reference section and started to look up books about pixies and mythic characters.
“Can I help you?” A librarian with a cart full of returns paused next to where Katy was reading from an enormous encyclopedia about sprites.
Blushing, Katy hesitated. “I’m…I’m just looking for stuff.”
“I know the library pretty well. I can help you find what you’re looking for,” the librarian said. She was a young woman with more of a metropolitan accent. A wedding band was on her left hand, so she was probably married to a local rather than from the area.
Shifting in her seat, Katy looked at her from the side of her eye. “I’m looking for something about a legend. Uh, how to handle pixies or gnomes.”
“Oh,” the librarian said, nodding slowly. She gestured over her shoulder to a set of wide stairs. “Then you’ll want to look over in the children’s section.”
Katy rolled her eyes. “I’m looking for a serious book. Something in mythology.”
“Mythology and serious in the same sentence,” said the librarian. “Wow. That’s a first for me.”
Katy scowled at her. And the woman saw it, immediately clearing up her amused expression.
Sighing gently, the librarian gestured down another row. “Mythology is that way, though I don’t think they make them easy to read. They have plenty of good books in the kid’s section that you might—”
“This is research,” Katy said sharply. “If I wanted something for fun, I could find a book without your help.”
Giving a shrug, the librarian pushed her cart again and went back to her task, though Katy figured the woman thought Katy was just being silly.
As soon as the woman left, Katy hurried down that aisle towards the myth books. However, when she got there, she found her grandmother standing right in that spot, peering at the outside of a book entitled, Greek and Roman Myths and another book Mythic Creatures. Katy froze then ducked out of sight. As her heart pounded, not sure if her grandmother had seen her, Katy tried to gather up her senses. Was Grandma Schmidt going to check those out? Or was she collecting them to lose them so Katy could not find them?
“You’re being paranoid,” Katy told herself. “And you’re wasting time.
“She reminded herself Nissa would have to wait a long time and would probably get bored if she didn’t just pick up a couple books to show her grandmother she was done. Rushing over to the juvenile section, Katy picked two novels with decent looking covers off the spinning rack. She really didn’t care about the content. She just wanted to get home soon. Then her eye caught on a title on a picture book.
“The Magic Flute?” Katy reached down at the book on the display stand and plucked up the book. Opening it up, she flipped through the pages, reading only a few words before she heard her grandmother.
“Kathleen Nielsen, what are you reading?”
Looking up, Katy shrugged. Her grandmother held a handful of books, but she didn’t have the myth books she had just been looking at. “Nothing. I was just looking.”
“Do you want to check that out?” her grandmother asked, gesturing to the book.
With another shrug, Katy handed the book and the two paperbacks to her grandmother’s stack. “Sure.”
Glancing at the cover, Grandma Schmidt smiled. “Ah, The Magic Flute. It is a very famous opera.”
Opera. For some reason Katy felt disappointed. Somehow she had felt she was on the edge of learning something important. Instead, she joined her grandmother in the library check out line and waited for each book to be scanned, sighing to herself with poorly masked disappointment.
As the books piled up, Katy glanced outside through the tinted glass doors, wondering if Nissa had gotten tired of waiting and left the attic. She started to feel anxious again, glancing at the clock over the check out counter then at her wristwatch, wondering which one was the correct time. When the librarian handed back Grandma Schmidt’s card, Katy heaved the books from off the counter and nodded, urging them to hurry.
“What is the rush, Kathleen?” Her grandmother walked slowly behind her.
Not looking back in case her flushed face revealed her anxiety, Katy tried to make her voice sound unconcerned. “No rush. I just want to get home.”
Her grandmother frowned. “Kathleen Nielsen, what is going on?”
“Nothing,” Katy said, turning with a slight look back.
Shaking her head, Grandma Schmidt stuck her hand into her purse, digging for her keys. “I don’t know why, but you have been acting very suspicious lately. And it bothers me when you don’t tell me what is going on.”
Sighing as loudly as she could, Katy turned as soon as she reached the car. “Grandma, nothing is going on. I just want to get home. Ok?”
Humming with disapproval, and still searching Katy’s face for some sign of mischief, Grandma Schmidt removed her keys from her purse and stuck it in the driver’s side key hole. After unlocking her side, she opened all the locks so Katy could dump their books on the back seat.
Katy closed that door when she was done and walked over to the other side, opening her door. Climbing into her seat, she put on her seat belt then closed the door. Katy sighed, wondering what her grandmother was looking for in those myth books. Did her grandmother know about the creatures she saw around the yard? Was she seeing them too? Like an adult, Grandma Schmidt probably was researching how to deal with them rather than panicking, though it seemed more natural to panic. But gazing towards her grandmother’s face, Katy realized that Grandma Schmidt was always calmer than most, almost always in control of her feelings. If her grandma had seen gnomes and sprites, then perhaps she was seeking a way to get rid of them as a protective grandmother would.
But they rode home almost in the same silence as when they came, except her grandmother asked her one question.
“What do you want for dinner tonight?”
Katy blinked then shrugged. “Sandwiches?”
“That sounds like a question rather than an answer,” Grandma Schmidt replied.
Shrugging again, Katy then looked out the window. “Don’t we usually have sandwiches for dinner?”
With a sigh, Grandma Schmidt nodded. “Yes, but I was hoping we could make something special. Maybe we’ll have lemon chicken tonight. How does that sound?”
It sounded great, and Katy said so with enthusiasm.
“Good,” said Grandma Schmidt. “After my nap, we’ll start it.”
Katy nodded. That plan was perfect. Grandma Schmidt would nap and Katy would sneak up into the cupboard to see Nissa. It was exactly what she wanted.
So when they got home, according to plan, Katy waited until her grandmother lay down to sleep then she climbed through the cupboard to see if Nissa waited for her.
Pushing open the upper door, Katy peered inside. No Nissa.
She let out a moan, but she crawled in anyway, moving on her hands and knees to the bead box where another note rested on top of her note.
Sorry, but I can’t come either. Mom is taking me to get notebooks and paper and stuff like that. Tomorrow is our only day left. If for some reason I can’t meet with you, I want you to have the bracelet in my box.
Katy dropped the letter and quickly opened the box. The beaded bracelet was complete. It said Katie & Nisa, Best Friends—Friends Forever.
Tears welled up in Katy’s eyes. It wasn’t fair. Nissa would be gone, and she would be left alone. What was magic without a friend to share it with? Why did she have to find that room only to lose her best friend?
Unhooking the clasp to the bracelet, Katy wrapped it around her wrist and connected it. Slightly loose, Katy shook it, watching the letters spin around. Yes. Friends forever. Katy clutched her arm and the bracelet to her chest, closing her eyes.
She stayed in the attic for an hour making Nissa a special origami rose, the kind her mother taught her how to make with a stem and a leaf. She used several shades of pink and red to make the rose, each piece twirling around in a spiral. She curled the leaf, and checked the stem to make sure it was sturdy. Then, taking one of the green markers from Nisa’s box, Katy wrote a little note on the flower.
Best Friends Always! I will never forget you. Kathleen and Nissa BFF.
She set it on the bead box. Then she crawled back to the door for the cupboard. Climbing down, Katy sighed hoping Nissa would find the rose before she left for school. Nissa never did say if she was leaving in the morning or the afternoon. Katy only hoped it would be later in the day.
She dropped down to the bottom of the cupboard and opened the door. Then she looked up as she hopped into the kitchen.
Grandma Schmidt dropped her baking pan. It clattered to the ground with a boom, but that was nothing compared to the sudden gasp her grandmother made. “Kathleen Nielsen! What were you doing in there?”
Going bright red, Katy tried to look away. “Um…”
Her grandmother stomped over. “Playing in the cupboard? Kathleen, you could have gotten hurt!”
“But I wouldn’t have. There’s a room up there.” The secret jumped from her lips before she could stop it.
Pulling back, Grandma Schmidt blinked at her. “A room? Kathleen, don’t tell fibs.”
“But I’m not lying!” Katy shouted, tired of sneaking around. She stomped her foot. “There is an attic room with a carpet and a window up there. That’s where I’ve been playing my flute all this time.”
“There isn’t an attic,” said her grandmother.
“There is!” Katy stomped her foot again.
“No, there isn’t, young lady.” Grandma Schmidt shut the cupboard door to banish the entire room. “I was here when your grandfather built this house, and he did not make an attic. There is barely enough space for boxes up there. I know. I tried to store some, but they wouldn’t fit.”
Katy stomped her foot again and folded her arms across her chest. “But I was just there! And I am not lying! There is a big attic room with white carpet, a window, and the wall paper is the same as in the cupboard.” Katy jerked the cupboard open. “See?”
She stuck her head in to see if the door was open, but the usual crack of light was gone. Katy frowned.
Pulling Katy from the cupboard, Grandma Schmidt shook her head. “I think you need to lie down. Obviously the heat has—”
“I am not sick!” Katy jerked from her arms, her face contorting as she fought tears. Why had the magic abruptly closed on her? Would she never see Nissa again? “I was in a room up there! I met Nissa in that room. Look! She gave this to me!”
Katy stuck out her wrist, showing her grandmother the bracelet.
Her grandmother drew in a breath, peering at the bracelet then at Katy’s face.
“It’s a magic room, Grandma. I don’t know how it is there, but it’s there. And I have to go see Nissa off tomorrow. Her parents are sending her away, and I’ll never get to see her again if I don’t go.” Katy was panting, upset, and peering at her grandmother’s face, wishing that for once people would trust what she said.
Suddenly, the anxiety and fear that had etched into her grandmother’s wrinkles the day they had problems with the Gibsons slowly smoothed out. Grandma Schmidt drew in a breath and nodded to herself in agreement with something Katy had said. Closing her eyes, sighing softly, Grandma Schmidt nodded. “I see.”
But Katy wondered what her grandmother understood, still watching her.
Relaxing her shoulders, Grandma Schmidt closed the cupboard door again and said, “Kathleen, if you help me with supper, you can stay in that room for the night if you would like. I think your friend will be leaving early in the morning, and you won’t have much time to see her before she goes.”
Blinking first, Katy’s eyes then widened. “You believe me?”
With a wry smile, Grandma Schmidt sighed once more. “When you have lived as long as I have, you can honestly say that you have seen just about everything—especially in this house.”
Not sure which part to be the most glad about, Katy bear-hugged her grandmother then dashed to the basement stairs to get her pajamas and blanket.
“I said, after supper, Kathleen!”
Ducking her head, Katy halted in the stairwell and turned around with a sheepish grin, climbing back up. “Sorry.”
The chicken took an hour to cook, but it was as delicious as Katy had imagined when her grandmother mentioned it in the car. She helped clean up, and then in a flurry she ran down the stairs, gathered her things, and darted up the stairs, hauling everything into the cupboard one by one until the room was well stocked with supplies.
The window was slightly closed when she at last settled down to sleep, though in the light of the moon, Katy stared up at the ceiling and imagined her last goodbye. When her eyes closed, Katy found herself in a dreamless sleep, one that reminded her of the times when she fell asleep on her grandfather’s lap as a child. For a brief moment, Katy could feel as though he were still holding her, telling her everything would be ok.
Hearing her name, but not sure if it were a dream, Katy rolled over.
Blinking, she rubbed her eyes.
“Come on, Katy! Wake up! I have to leave in a couple minutes, and Mom hates waiting for me long!”
Katy sat right up, nearly hitting her head with Nissa’s. But, luckily, Nissa backed up in time.
“I was so glad when I saw the window. I had to come in to see you,” Nissa said. She then wrapped her arms around Katy in a tight hug.
“Did you get the rose?” Pulling back, Katy felt around near the bead box.
Nissa lifted it up, grinning. “Yeah. Thank you.”
Both girls sat there on the carpet, now suddenly without things to say for a full minute.
Nissa averted her eyes to the carpet. “I wish you could write me, but I don’t know how that could happen.”
“You can’t send me an email, can you?” Katy replied, stroking the beads on her wrist nervously.
Laughing, Nissa shook her head and climbed onto the windowsill. “You say the funniest things, Katy.”
Katy didn’t see how it was funny, and shrugged, following her as Nissa climbed back onto the ladder. Outside, they both heard a car horn sound. Nissa cringed.
“Mom must be tired of waiting for me. I gotta go or I’ll miss my plane.” She climbed down another rung then paused, looking up. “Never forget me?”
“Not ever,” Katy said, touching Nissa’s hand one last time. “BFF.”
“What does that mean, anyway?” Nissa asked.
Smiling, Katy said, “Best Friends Forever.”
With a nod, Nissa climbed down the rest of the way. The ladder sunk into the ground the second she stepped off. Nissa cast it a small glance as if wondering if the ladder would work in the future. It didn’t seem likely for some reason. She gazed up at Katy in the window and waved.
“Best Friends Forever!”
Katy watched Nissa walk under the tree across the yard to a waiting car. She could hardly make out the face of the driver. And once Nissa climbed inside, Katy could no longer even see her face. But Nissa waved to her in the window even as they pulled out the pebble drive onto the gravel road. Then, in just a few seconds, they were gone from sight.
Alone, Katy cried, holding on to her bracelet. She pulled in from the window and sat back, sighing as she sniffed to herself. Scooting farther from the window, Katy noticed that the glass slid down by itself and shut. The curtains drew in front of them—all of this with silent hands. Was that it? Was the room saying she had to leave? It was getting darker. Perhaps it was time to go.
Gathering up her pillow first, then her blankets and then her origami books, Katy put each one of her things next to the cupboard door. In her gathering of belongings, she found that picture mythology book still in the room. Nissa had forgotten it. Taking it up with her flute, Katy climbed down the cupboard slats and put the book and the flute on the kitchen table. She went back up for her other things until one by one the room was empty of them. As she removed the last thing, Katy could hear the door above shut, but somehow it did not feel locked—that is, if she really wanted to, she could go in still, throw open the curtains and open the window. But, not now. Now it was time to leave.
Carrying her blankets and pillow down the basement stairs, Katy glanced out at the morning light that softly shown into the room. At the small window was a gnome. He smiled and winked at her, then walked off. For a moment, Katy paused. The room was closed, but she was still seeing strange things. With a shrug, she continued to the bed and went right along and made it. Tossing on the pillow, Katy hopped back up the steps, glancing out the window to catch sight of another gnome if she could. Nothing was there except grass and perhaps an earwig crawling along the rim.
Back in the kitchen, Katy shut the basement door behind her, going straight to the table where she wanted to make her origami papers neater to put away. Grandma Schmidt entered from the living room, lifting her eyes to Katy’s face like she would ask a question, but she remained silent—all until her eyes fell upon Nissa’s book.
Plucking it off of the table, Grandma Schmidt turned it over in her hands. “Well, glory be! Where did you find this?”
It was clear she knew it didn’t come from the library.
Katy just shrugged. “It was Nissa’s. She forgot it when she left.”
Clicking her tongue, her grandmother just shook her head with a secret laugh. “Really? Well that explains a lot.” She then handed it over to Katy. “It’s yours now.”
Taking the book, Katy felt sorry that Nissa had lost it.
“Oh, don’t make that face. When you see your friend again, you can give it to her,” Grandma Schmidt said, and she turned to cook on the stove.
A frown settled on Katy’s face. “I won’t see her again. That’s the problem.”
Still smiling in her secret-joke sort of way, her grandmother replied, “I don’t know about that. The world is a mysterious place. You’d be surprised what might happen.”
Katy watched her grandmother as she went to the refrigerator and took out some eggs and a package of sausage. Already she was getting the makings for breakfast, but she seemed unusually chipper, as though all the stress from that week has been wiped away. It was just plain odd. But then Katy considered her grandmother may just feel relief that Katy had no reason to go into the magic room anymore.
“Go take the rest of your things to your room. Then after breakfast, I was thinking we’d drive north to Spanish Fork and see a movie. We can have lunch and dinner there. Does that sound good?” Her grandmother paused, with a cracked egg in her hands, holding the empty shells over a bowl she had dumped the contents in.
Shrugging, Katy also sighed. It was better than lingering around a small town without Nissa. “Ok.”
“Go change.” Grandma Schmidt returned to her cooking.
Katy turned, sighed again and did as she was told.
Katy had been rather down since Nissa had departed from the small town. Though she enjoyed the movie, she would have enjoyed it more if Nissa had been there to see it with her. After the movie, they had eaten lunch and dinner in a restaurant, but somehow the food didn’t taste as good since she couldn’t tell Nissa about it. Katy just kept touching her bracelet, rolling the letter beads under her finger, reading over and over again Katie & Nisa, Best Friends—Friends Forever. She went to bed, looking up at the ceiling, wondering how Nissa was faring at boarding school.
On Sunday morning, Katy hardly noticed the Gibson boys her age making faces at her, or Carly Hillerman’s snide remarks. Their words and gestures were nothing more than the same blur of the Nissa-less world. Even the uncomfortable glances from Martha Sandberg and her friends didn’t register. None of it mattered to Katy. And that afternoon, Katy sat in the living room just making origami flowers and sighing to herself. Grandma Schmidt was oddly patient about it and made a chocolate cream pie that evening for dessert. In a way, Katy knew she was trying to lift her spirits.
When Monday came and they returned to the yard to cut the grass that had grown and trim the roses, Katy saw yet another pixie, whose appearance woke her from her stupor. The magic was not gone.
It was a more masculine type pixie. Different coloring and shape. He fluttered then landed on a nearby rose, standing about the height of Katy’s own hand. He blinked dark black eyes at Katy a few times, his hand tucked behind his back as he watched her pull weeds from the flower bed. Then he said with a humming buzz, “The tune you sigh is sad. Breathe something more cheerful.”
“Breathe?” Katy lifted her head, looking at him straight. “Don’t you mean sing?”
The pixie’s mouth curled slightly on the ends as he lifted off the flower. “Singing would be good too. But you breathe a song with every sigh, and the flowers are weeping.”
“That is the silliest thing I have every heard anyone—”
But the pixie interrupted her, fluttering near her face. She pulled back. “Can’t you hear them?”
Katy went immediately silent, tilting her head to listen. She heard the wind. She heard the boughs above her creak as the breeze blew over it. The grass rustled, and above where the birds flew, the hum of insects seemed to go in harmony, and then—incredibly faint, in a way she could hear the flowers weeping. Leaning closer, Katy listened more.
The pixie landed on the grass, setting his hands on his hips. “You bring your feelings with you and spread them all around. When you are happy, everything sings. When you are sad, everything weeps. Bring a happy song, for we wish to dance.”
He then lit off the ground and fluttered up into the trees. Katy could hardly hear him as he flew off.
“Kathleen? Is something the matter?” Grandma Schmidt hadn’t noticed the pixie, walking over to look at where Katy had been staring off into space.
Though she had told her grandmother about the magic room, Katy was unsure if she should tell her about the tiny, magic people in their yard. Biting her lip, Katy got up. “Nothing, really.”
Sighing herself, Grandma Schmidt tilted her head and said, “I think we’ve done enough yard work for today. What would you like to do this afternoon?”
Katy shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll read.”
Nodding, her grandmother sighed again and walked toward the compost heap to dump the grass clippings. “Ok. But if you change your mind, I’ll be in the house.”
Watching her go, Katy glanced back at the rose bushes. Three pixies stuck their heads out and watched Katy anxiously. Perhaps they were the ones making the weeping noise. Nissa did say pixies liked trouble.
Getting up, dusting her pants off, Katy marched back to the compost heap and dumped her weeds also. Then she walked right into the house, taking a deep breath. If there was anyone to trust, with Grandpa Schmidt gone and Nissa gone, it had to be Gran.
“Grandma?” Katy followed her into the kitchen where Grandma Schmidt was already thinking about lunch, opening the refrigerator. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the room up there. But—I have another secret.”
Grandma Schmidt turned her head to look at her, her face showing a comforting openness. “What is it?”
“You know that fantasy book?” Katy said.
Her grandmother nodded.
“In it are pictures of magic people and creatures. You know, things that aren’t supposed to be real. Imaginary. Only—” Katy swallowed hard, struggling to think of a way to say it, “I’ve been seeing the ones the book calls pixies, and uh, gnomes. Only they don’t look like the pictures.”
She waited to see what her grandmother would say. Grandma Schmidt certainly stared with wider eyes—somewhat shocked, yet not entirely.
Straightening up, Grandma Schmidt closed the refrigerator then nodded to Katy. “I see.”
“I’m not schizophrenic. Nissa saw them too. The pixies were the ones that chased Lloyd Gibson from our house.” Katy waited now, watching her grandmother.
Her grandmother leaned on the chair and nodded again, but this time she stared into space. While not exactly frowning, Katy could tell she was not happy with this news.
“Nissa said her father told her pixies are troublemakers, and I shouldn’t get involved with them. But they keep talking to me,” Katy added.
“And what do they tell you to do?” Grandma Schmidt asked.
Katy shrugged. “To play happy music. They want to dance.”
Her grandmother gave a small laugh and pinched the ridge of her nose. She then turned and walked straight into the living room. Katy followed her. Walking directly to the music cabinet, Grandma Schmidt took out her fancy skeleton key and opened it up, going straight for the glass case with her grandfather’s special instrument. She opened that next, taking the woodwind out then turning toward Katy.
“I think you had better use this one. Play two of your grandfather’s tunes.” She set the pipe into Katy’s hands, patting her fingers gently. “The first tune should be Fairy Dance. The next tune Entering the Mound. Then bring me back the flute. Alright Kathleen?”
Nodding, Katy drew in a breath. “Ok, but—”
“Don’t ask questions. You weren’t supposed to get this flute until you were sixteen, but I think your grandfather will forgive me if I let you use it today for this one thing.” Grandma Schmidt walked to the front door and pushed open the screen. They both walked out onto the front porch where Grandma Schmidt gestured for Katy to find a comfortable place to sit. “I’ll go make lunch. As soon as you are done, come inside. And whatever you do, don’t talk to them when they leave. Understand?”
Katy nodded again.
Watching her grandmother go, Katy then glanced at her grandfather’s prized instrument. It was true. She had never seen any of those magical things until after she has used this pipe to chase Lloyd from the house, but then the pipe had come to her. Maybe the flute itself was magical, which would explain why the library book caught her eye.
Taking it in her hands, Katy cleaned her grandfather’s instrument and wet the reed in her mouth. Then lifting it to her lips, Katy played the first tune her grandfather had taught her—Fairy Dance.
Almost immediately, the pixies rose from the yard, perking up their tiny heads, their antenna twitching, keying into the sound. Their wings fluttered, lifting them high. Then, obeying the song, they danced—flying, twirling, whirling and spinning all around Katy, the trees, the flowers and the porch, skipping about with glee, each one dressed in pieces of spider web, dry leaves, and flower petals. Every pixie had a unique shape. All were dressed with leaves and petal from the plants around the yard, each one big-eyed and spindly-legged, with mischief sparkling in their smiles. Round and round they went. Up and up, they flew until the climax of the sprite melody where Katy concluded things with a brisk high note.
All of the pixies gathered around Katy now, grinning and panting, eager for more dance and more song. But she remembered Nissa’s words: they were trouble and mostly likely would cause her some if she meddled with them too long. So, Katy played the second song she ever learned.
Entering the Mound was beautiful from the very beginning, starting out light and happy, but leading on to a sleepier tune that sounded like a call from a real distant place. Each one of the pixies danced, lifting off from the porch, Katy’s lap, and shoulders. Fluttering overhead, the pixies waltzed their way into the air, as the sound of wind joined Katy’s melody. Then, forming a procession, the pixies danced together, flying into a hole somewhere at the base of their apple tree. They flew in like butterflies migrating together, but a few were left—stragglers with a mite more mischief than the others. They called to Katy to play some more. Several waved good-bye, asking her to come and play again. But Katy did not forget her grandmother’s words, and up until the final note of the song, she did not break off or say a word.
Exhaling, she lowered the pipe.
One fat little pixie flew up to her face and shouted, “You can’t be done yet?”
Stopping herself from replying, Katy turned and headed into the house, opening the front door. She heard its little buzz behind her say irritably, “Alright. I’m going already. Meanie.”
Katy would have said something then, but she stopped herself. Entering the living room, Katy crossed through it and walked straight into the kitchen. Grandma Schmidt had set two stacks of grilled cheese sandwiches on the table and was stirring some soup for them both. She set her finger to her lips, nodding for Katy to set the pipe on the table. Katy did, still saying nothing.
As soon as her grandmother took the soup off the stove, setting two bowls at each place, her grandmother sat down and motioned for Katy to bow her head. Deciding it was not a good idea to argue right now, considering the pixies just might come back if she spoke, Katy did as she was instructed.
Her grandmother said grace, then lifted her head and put her hand on the pipe. “You can talk now. It’s ok.” She got up and walked into the living room. “You could have talked as soon as you came inside—”
“Grandma!” Katy slumped her shoulders, realizing she had been played. However, she didn’t hold it against her grandmother as she saw her teasing smile when Grandma Schmidt returned to eat. Instead Katy took up a sandwich and sighed. “So, do you think they’ll come back?”
Her grandmother shook her head. “No. Not unless they are called again.”
“Do you think I will still see gnomes?”
Nodding, her grandmother’s smile widened. “But they won’t bother you.”
Katy set down her spoon and leaned over her bowl. “How did you know what to do? How did you know I wasn’t crazy?”
Meeting Katy’s eyes, Grandma Schmidt conveyed in a look many years of experience and understanding. “I have seen a great number of things in my life, Kathleen. I have learned a great many things. And one thing most important I learned is to keep my eyes open and my mouth shut.”
That answer was not what Katy wanted to hear. She grimaced.
“That, and to love music,” her grandmother added. Grandma Schmidt leaned back in her chair with a far off look, gazing towards the cupboards, though Katy wondered if she was staring at her cupboard. “My love for music saved me.”
Katy blinked at her.
“And it can save you,” Grandma Schmidt said.
There was no way Katy could respond to that. She already knew music was important to her. She knew it.
Monday finished silently. Grandma Schmidt took her nap while Katy picked up some paper and drew what she remembered the pixies looked like, including the fat one dressed in a morning glory hat and several pieced-together leaves all over its body. Doodles really—and they didn’t look all that good in comparison to what she had seen. But Katy didn’t want to forget the pixies, the gnomes, Mr. Fugit, or Nissa. She didn’t want to forget the secret room or the cupboard door. She didn’t want to forget any of it. Katy stowed away her pictures before her grandmother could see them, tucking them in the bottom of her travel bag,
The rest of the week felt dull in comparison to the first three weeks. They weeded the garden, took naps, and read books. Katy did, however, continue her sketches of things she saw around the garden. She drew up a gnome, and one gnome walked by to critique it. He had tilted his head and said nothing, lifting one eye at Katy, seemingly trying to decide if she were making a book, but then Katy turned and offered to draw him. For a moment she sat and drew his portrait, then handed him the torn off sketch. Smirking, the gnome bowed and carried away the little piece of paper like he had been handed a child-sketch from his own kid. Katy had not seen him since.
Once Friday arrived, Katy had a stack of pictures of strawberry plants, the garden, a gnome under the grape vines, all the places she and her Grandpa Schmidt used to go that were not too far from the house in case a Gibson came along to harass her, and the apple tree with pixies flying though the leaves. As she sat on the porch, drawing one of the roses with pixies peeking out, Katy heard the generally intermittent rumble of a car roll over the gravel road. She glanced up once, wondering if it were someone calling on her grandmother for a visit, but her eyes caught on the familiar sheen of blue to her mother’s car. Katy sat up.
She had completely forgotten to be mad at her mom. Katy blinked, her heart pounding, wondering what would happen now. It was a day early. One day too early. It was unfair, totally unfair that her mother was going to take away her last evening at Gran’s.
Katy kicked the porch railing. White paint chips fell, and she felt automatically guilty, wondering why she hadn’t suggested that she paint the porch before she left.
“Kathleen? Kathleen. You’re mother is here!” Her grandmother called from somewhere inside.
Half inclined to run away, the other half inclined to call out the pixies again, Katy ignored her feelings and drew in a breath. She had to meet her mother again anyway. Sooner was better than later.
Turning over the picture on the book she used as a drawing table, Katy marched to the screen door and pulled it open. The spring gave that same old, questioning twang and snapped when Katy stepped inside. She took in a breath, set the book and drawing on the couch, and crossed the rest of the distance to the kitchen door.
Katy took one step into the kitchen.
Her mother turned hesitantly, with caution, but with hope in her eyes. Katy didn’t want to reward that, to let her see she had become the reformed, model child just as her mom wanted. But inside another feeling rose, one Katy tried to beat down.
“Hello, Mother,” Katy said in as cold a voice as possible, trying not to reveal any weakness on her part.
Nodding with dismay, Katy’s mother sighed. “Hi, Kathleen. How was your summer?”
Averting her eyes to the living room, Katy replied with some bite, “Thomas Gibson tried to run me over.”
Grandma Schmidt cut in between them, raising her hands with an apologetic blush. “Don’t worry, Denise. We had a little trouble with the Gibsons, but Sheriff McGiven has taken care of it.”
Right away Katy’s mother turned from her daughter to her mother. “Oh, the Gibsons aren’t at it again? Are you all right? You haven’t had any trouble with them at all have you?”
Katy rolled her eyes and walked straight through the kitchen to the basement door, wishing with a frown that her mother had at least broken down and cried on her behalf. However, when Katy looked back, she saw her mother’s worried expression turn to her. It was the same look she had given when she left Katy at her grandmother’s, but now, somehow, Katy felt like she heard that pixie say to her, “Do you hear the flowers weeping?” and she wished to listen to see if they really were. But Katy stepped into the basement stairwell.
“Kathleen?” her mother called out.
Katy paused, turning her eyes to look.
Still hesitant, her mother asked, “Are you ok? Thomas Gibson didn’t hurt you, did he?”
Ducking before the tears could come, Katy hurried the rest of the way down the stairs.
It was what she wanted. She had wanted her mother to care if she were hurt. She wanted her mother to miss her and feel sorry for leaving her in that place. But her concern only reminded Katy that Nissa was gone, for some nutty reason. It felt as though she were staring at Nissa’s face when her mom asked about her.
“Kathleen?” Her mother still called down.
“I’m fine,” Katy called back, wiping away the tears.
Walking down the stairs some, her mother called again. “Kathleen, are you—?”
“I said I was fine!” Katy snapped.
Her mother stopped on the stairs. “Alright. I just wanted to know if you needed any help with packing.”
“Are we leaving tonight?” Katy asked.
“No, tomorrow,” her mother said.
Katy sat down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. It still felt too early. She wanted to see Nissa one more time, but that was impossible. Not even the upstairs room appeared anymore. It seemed the magic had ended.
She heard her mother’s feet head back up the stairs. The upper door closed.
They ate supper with very little conversation. Mostly Katy’s mom asked Grandma Schmidt about the broken window and then how she was going to get it replaced. Grandma Schmidt then asked about what the Nielsens were doing for Christmas, if they would come and stay or if they were going to Florida to visit her husband’s relatives.
“Oh, we’re coming here, Mom,” Katy’s mother replied, not really looking at how Katy picked at the green beans on her plate or how little Katy had eaten of her sliced cooked carrots next to the pork chop she hardly nibbled on. “Every Christmas here is a gift.”
Grandma Schmidt smiled.
“And will Matthew be visiting also?” her mother asked about Katy’s uncle.
Uncle Matt lived in Redlands, California, working at a bank. Katy’s cousins were older than her by two years and always told Katy she was weird, like Grandpa Schmidt. Remembering that made Katy wonder. Before it just felt like they were making fun of her, putting her on the defensive even on behalf of Grandpa Schmidt, though he laughed when he had heard it. But now she wasn’t so sure. They were alike. And listening to them talk, Katy remembered she missed him.
“Yes. Matt will be here for Christmas,” Grandma Schmidt said. “You may want to drop by and visit him on your way home.”
“That’s twelve hours out of the way, Mom.”
“Oh. I keep forgetting how far apart you both are. Alright then. But you must promise me that when you come to visit, you’ll bring that electronic keyboard of yours and play for us. We don’t have a piano anymore.”
“I will, Mom. But you know how rusty I am.”
“Well then, practice, dear. You have that keyboard for a reason, you know. You can’t expect Kathleen to play her instruments if you won’t.” Her grandmother winked at Katy.
Katy poked her pork chop again. Everything was falling back into the same conversation as always. Grandma would nag her mom about something she wanted to see again. And then her mom would make promises she hoped Grandma Schmidt would forget about when the time came. But Katy didn’t want things to go back the way things had been. She didn’t want to lose the magic of the cupboard. She didn’t want to forget that she had been left at the mercy of the Gibsons and strange magic of another world. She wanted things to keep changing.
So Katy sat up and said, “Don’t worry, Grandma. I’ll make Mom practice.”
Grandma Schmidt smirked and lifted her chin to nod at her daughter as if that settled that.
But Katy’s mother laughed. “And how are you going to do that?”
Looking her mother in the eye, Katy said, “I won’t go back to the orchestra if you don’t practice piano. It’s only fair.
Katy waited, expecting her mother to become angry with her, but instead she burst out laughing.
“Ok! It’s a deal!” Her mother even stuck out her hand to shake.
Taking it, trying to squeeze hard to show she meant it, Katy shook on it.
With her hand in her mother’s, a shiver ran up her arm. When they let go, Katy stared at her palm, wondering why she felt so weird. Her anger was melting, and only a residual of resentment lingered. She wanted to hate her mom; but looking at her face, hearing her voice, Katy also wanted to embrace her. That feeling had been welling up since the moment she saw her. But, as ever, Katy held it inside, refusing to give in to it.
That night, when Grandma Schmidt finished catching up on the news with her daughter, and Katy’s mother had folded out the couch inside the living room, Katy snuck into the kitchen one last time and climbed into the cupboard. She had to push with her whole arm to get the upper door open, and when she climbed into the room, she had to part the curtains herself and lift the window open to peer out. When looking out, she saw the moon and a plethora of pixies whirling about to Fairy Dance over the trees, trailing in a procession around a lean figure playing in the moonlight. The man turned, tipped his head and continued to play the song until it was finished. The pixies cried out for more, but he shook his head, turning his eyes to Katy. “Do you like the song?”
“How do you know that song?” Katy stared at him, knowing it was a private family tune her grandfather had written.
He smiled, the shadows obscuring his face. “I know the writer.”
But her heart jumped. Katy would have leapt from the window into his arms if she could. “Grandpa!”
The man smiled and stepped into the moonlight, looking up. His face was much younger, but the sparkle in his eyes glistened also with tears. “How is my clever Kathleen?”
She shook her head, her tears rolling down her face as she wished with all her might that Nissa’s ladder would pop up so she could climb down to him. “Terrible without you! Why did you go?”
Sighing, he shrugged. “It is the cost of love. Mortality is necessary in order for that love to continue on forever.”
“I don’t understand,” Katy said, weeping as she wished to be in his arms.
“Not for many years yet, will you,” he said, “But one day you will.”
Wiping her face with her fingers, Katy still cried. People always said, ‘one day.’ She wanted that day to be now.
Young Grandpa Schmidt called up with the same comforting, wise, yet playful voice. “Go on, my sweet heir. It is time for you to go home. Your best friend is waiting for you.”
“Nissa?” Katy lifted her head, not sure she heard right. “I’ll get to see her again?”
“Oh, yes,” he said with a smile. “That is definite.”
With a joy that welled up in her chest, Katy jumped away from the window and rushed to the door. She climbed down the cupboard and back into the kitchen, not even noticing how the window closed right behind her, the curtains were drawn, and the doors shut under a silent command, even to the cupboard ceiling where Katy turned and drew in breath as her heart pounded loudly. She would see Nissa again.
Not even bothering to hide the noise her feet made on the floor, Katy rushed back to the basement and hurried to bed, hoping she would see Nissa before she left.
Katy rolled over and rubbed her eyes.
“Kathleen! Breakfast! And hurry. We have to leave before the sun gets high.”
Moaning, she realized there would be no way to sneak into the cupboard with her mother there making breakfast. But a sudden hope welled up as Katy wondered if her grandpa meant she would see Nissa through the window instead. It would be a switch, but stranger things have happened.
So, she got up, hastily dressed, and packed her bag. Katy then made the bed, taking special care since her grandmother didn’t like climbing the stairs in her old age: her back and knees could not take it anymore. With her load, Katy climbed up to the main floor and paused at the door. Glancing once at the window, Katy saw her gnome friend standing there. He held out a piece of paper, rapping on the glass.
Careful not to knock him off his feet as she tilted the window open, Katy reached out, letting him place the paper on her palm. Without a word, he bowed with a smile and walked off under the bushes in the grass. She closed the window and then peered at the paper. It was a tiny sketch, better drawn than her childish scribbles, of himself and then one of her playing her flute in the window. With a smile, Katy tucked the picture inside her bag and walked to the door, opening it.
“Katy, we need to hurry,” her mother said, rushing from the stove with pancakes and a jar of jelly.
Reluctant to even step into the room, Katy did, setting her bag down near the box freezer. “Is Grandma up?”
“She’s getting dressed, dear.” Her mother nearly jerked the drawer open, grabbing up forks and knives from it. Whipping around, she set them on the table. Looking up at Katy, she said, “You didn’t forget anything?”
With a resentful grunt, Katy slid into a seat. “No.”
But then her mind flashed on the mythology book and her pictures. Katy had left them inside the living room. She popped up from her seat and rushed into that room to get them.
“Go and put your things in the car, then,” her mother said, still rushing about to set the table.
Katy didn’t respond. She found her book where she left it and turned the picture she had drawn over to look at the unfinished sketch. Partly, she wished she had a picture of Nissa also, but that was too late.
Glancing outside, Katy blinked. Or maybe it wasn’t too late.
Carrying book under arm, Katy hurried outside with it and her pictures and peered up at the top of the house. No window. But she shook her head, telling herself, ‘Of course not. It’s the wrong side.’ She ran down the steps and around to the other side, stood on the back walk, and stared where the window ought to be.
Katy’s shoulders drooped. Her grandfather wouldn’t lie to her, but why wasn’t Nissa there?
Disappointment weighted so heavy on her shoulders as she trudged the rest of the way to her mother’s car. Opening the passenger side, Katy dropped her book face down on the seat and then slammed the door.
“Slamming the door is not necessary,” she heard her mother say from inside the house.
Frowning, Katy kicked the ground and trudged back to the house, up the walk, and then inside to eat breakfast and say goodbye to her grandmother.
Grandma Schmidt gave Katy a hug.
“Mom, we’re not leaving yet. Let’s sit down to eat.” Katy’s mother pulled out a chair to offer her.
But Grandma Schmidt patted Katy on the head and whispered, “Patience.”
Katy blinked, wondering if her grandmother knew of her conversation with Grandpa Schmidt the night before.
But her mother watched them; her eyes saying hugs can be saved for after breakfast, so both of them parted. Katy took her seat and Gran hers.
After grace, they ate with the usual morning silence, a word here, a comment there, and a brief dialogue where Grandma Schmidt asked Katy’s mom if she had everything she needed. Inside Katy chuckled at how her own mother was still treated like a child needing a reminder to make sure she completed everything. She supposed that even her mom had to be nagged. Of course she had learned the habit from Gran.
They finished and cleared. Katy then hugged her grandmother, promising to write. Then she whispered, “Let me know if you see any pixies or gnomes. Ok?”
With a grin, Grandma Schmidt nodded. “Of course.”
“And let me know if the Gibson’s harass you,” Katy’s mom added.
Katy glanced at her mother, but nodded to agree. “Yeah, Grandma. Call us.”
Katy’s mother smiled, then steered them both to the door.
“Come and visit any time!” Grandma Schmidt said, following them out.
“I’ll try,” Katy’s mom said, but they continued to the car.
“Oh! Wait! My bag!” Kat dashed back into the kitchen to get it.
“But I thought you put it in before breakfast.” Her mother already fell back into her tired mother mode, watching Katy rush back into the house.
Snatching the bag off the floor, Katy hurried to the cupboard for one last look. No breeze, no light, no nothing. She frowned. Hefting her bag up on her arm, Katy walked back to where her mother and grandmother were waiting. Grandma Schmidt had a sympathetic smile, but she said nothing. Her mother, placed her arm on Katy’s shoulder and led her back to the car, all the while Katy glanced at the smooth house roof with no magic window. There would be no goodbye. No seeing Nissa again. Maybe her grandfather was just wrong. Maybe the pixies had influenced him to lie. But that idea seemed foolish, and Katy banished it in an instant. She sighed and bade the house good-bye. Her grandfather simply had been wrong, or maybe it wasn’t her grandfather at all but some magical man who took on his voice and pretended to be him.
With that sad thought, Katy opened the back door and tossed her bag on the back seat and closed the door. The magic had ended. Perhaps, in a later visit, she might see Nissa again. Maybe during Christmas, she could sneak up and find Nissa visiting her family. Surely during Christmas break, Nissa would go home to see her family. That had to be what he meant.
Katy climbed into the passenger seat and shoved her book to the middle. It bumped against one of her mother’s usual books, knocking it onto the floor. She pulled on her seatbelt and exhaled a long sigh while her mother climbed into the other side, getting ready for the long journey home.
“Your father has planned for us to go to the state fair as soon as we get home. Hopefully, it won’t be too late when we arrive,” her mother said.
“Hmm.” Katy leaned on the window edge, already feeling the shaking of the car engine when her mother turned the key.
The silence was awkward. Katy heard her mother inhale and exhale without anything to say either. So, as the car started and she shifted out of park to drive, the pair of them rolled off Grandma Schmidt’s pebble driveway onto the gravel road. Katy waved to her grandmother with her mother, but Katy’s eyes were on the smooth roof, hoping to catch a glimpse of the window and the room with Nissa in it.
But no window and no room.
And soon they rolled out of sight beyond the house, and into the street that would take them to the freeway.
Over the cow grate, past the barbed wire, up the hump and onto the onramp, the car picked up speed and soon was traveling back south toward home. Eleven miles along, and they passed Fillmore. Katy’s eyes lingered on the green freeway sign. Then all she saw for miles was grass and perhaps the distant volcano that had lain dormant for so long.
“Kathleen? Katy? Could you please roll up the window? I want to put the air conditioning on.”
Katy turned and glanced at her mother, sighing once more. Her eyes fell on her myth book. She drew in a breath and nodded, then rolled up the window as her mother had asked. While her mother fiddled with the air conditioning switches, then the radio knobs, Katy opened up the book, taking her drawings and tucking them in the back.
“Won’t reading in the car make you nauseated?” her mother asked, barely glancing at it.
“I’ll be fine,” Katy replied. “I’m just looking at pictures.”
Her mother glanced at it again then jerked the wheel with another look. The car swerved to the right, weaving on the road. Lurching, Katy screamed, her book falling down her legs to the floor.
Right away, her mother pulled to the side of the road, panting hard and clutching her steering wheel while braking.
“Are you trying to kill us?” Katy grabbed her chest and clutched her seat belt, grateful it existed.
But her mother turned with a full frontal stare at Katy’s face. Then she grabbed Katy’s arm, holding it up with her eyes fixed on the bracelet Nissa had given her.
“What is the matter with you?” Katy jerked out of her mother’s hold.
Katy’s mother was shaking. With a trembling finger, she pointed down at Katy’s myth book. “Where did you get that?”
Blinking, still wary of what just happened, Katy replied, “My friend left it behind. Grandma said I should keep it.”
Her mother’s eyes went wider. “Your friend? Who?”
Sighing, she wondered if her mother would believe she could have any other friends beside punks. It crossed her mind that her mother might even think she made pals with the Gibsons.
Katy cleared her throat and said, “My friend, Nissa. She gave me this too.” She showed her mother the bracelet. “See? It says—”
“Katie & Nisa, Best Friends—Friends Forever,” her mother murmured, but she was not reading it. She was looking at Katy, but her eyes were inspecting Katy’s face.
Katy pulled back. “What? I can’t have friends?”
Closing her eyes, Katy’s mother shook her head.
“No, I’m fine with that. But—” She then opened her eyes and looked around at the car seat. “Where did my book go?”
With a blink then a shrug, Katy bent down and picked it off the floor. “Sorry. I bumped it. It should be ok.”
But as Katy handed it back to her mother, her eyes fell on something she had seen year after year—yet now it was like seeing it again for only the second time, years after she had just made it. The bookmark Katy’s mother had used time and again. Her cherished, worn, bleached out—taped up where Katy had ripped it a month ago—bookmark was the origami rose Katy had made only a couple of days ago. She recognized it.
Slipping it out of its place, Katy turned it over to see the faded writing on the stem.
Best Friends Always! I will never forget you. Kathleen and Nissa BFF.
Katy swallowed. Then she looked up at her mother. “How did you get this?”
Tears welled up in her mother’s eyes. The smile of an old, lost friend spread across her face. “Don’t you remember, Katy? You gave it to me.”
Blinking at her mother’s face, she saw those eyes she had found kindness and understanding in for the past three weeks. Looking at the rose, the words of her grandfather came back to her. Katy suddenly let go of everything that held her back and threw her arms around her mother. “I thought I lost you forever!”
“Never,” her mother cried, sobbing with happy tears. “We’re best friends forever. BFF.”
Katy laughed. “Yeah. BFF.”
So her mother did understand after all.
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 17.07.2015
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