Wheel of Katarnum (Work in Progress)
Chapter 1 - Lost Hope
Rob stared down at his desk, letting his long, straight hair form a black curtain, a barrier shutting out Miss Weatherby. As usual, she was up front droning on and on, and unfortunately it was
im-possible to block out her irritating voice completely, which sounded amazingly like a duck's. The kids had dubbed her "Daisy Duckface," in honor of Donald Duck's girlfriend.
Just forty-five more minutes -- then no more Duckface, no more boring Social Studies for three glorious months.
With his pencil Rob traced the letters some jerk had carved in his beat-up desktop: "Haunted Hawkins." He sighed. Thanks, Dad. Because of his worthless father all of Misty Grove knew his family by this "cool" nickname. Who says he didn't leave them anything when he deserted them?
"Rob? Rob Hawkins!"
Rob jerked in his seat and knocked something to the floor with a loud whap! Smirking at him from the next desk, Mary Jo Sims picked up his Social Studies book and handed it to him.
"Daydreaming again, are we?" Miss Weatherby peered at Rob over her granny glasses.
"I -- I wasn't daydreaming, I mean --"
"Then I'm sure you can answer the question for us."
Oh, crap. Duckface strikes again. "Could...uhhh...you repeat it, please?"
A sadistic smile came over Miss Weatherby's face. She had a big, flat nose and painted-on eyebrows. If you squinted your eyes, you could really imagine Daisy.
"Why certainly," she quacked. "Who was it that had such a big influence during this period?"
A drop of sweat crawled down Rob's cheek. A big influence? During what period? Clueless, Rob stole a glance at his friend Hamp, sitting in the next row. Hamp mouthed something behind his cupped hand that looked like "King." Rob's brain was whirling. King? Just a few days before they had talked about Elvis having a big effect on the youth of the fifties. People used to call him the "King of Rock 'n Roll," or something stupid like that.
Miss Weatherby tapped her finger on her open book. "I'm waiting, Robert."
Nothing to do but go for it.
"Uhhh... Elvis Presley?"
A shower of snickers rained down on him. Miss Weatherby rolled her eyes, but even she couldn't keep from smiling a little.
"Nice try, wrong 'King'. Elvis was not one of the most important civil rights leaders of the 20th century, Martin Luther King was." Miss Weatherby took a step closer to Rob and stuck her duck bill right in his face. "Just because it's the last day of school doesn't mean I'll condone day-dreaming in my classroom. I've got some desks to move around after class today. Why don't you help me with that, and we'll use that time to discuss who Dr. King was."
"On the last day of school?"
When Rob finally burst out of the front doors of Misty Grove Middle and High School, it was after 3:30. He paused on the sidewalk, breathed in the smell of lilac and liberty and smiled. He had a whole summer of sleeping late and basketball ahead of him. There was no way Duckface could ruin that.
"There's the poor little Indian boy now," said a familiar female voice. "Let you out on good behavior, huh?"
Rob turned. "Hey, Sam. You waited for me?"
"Had to." She shook her head disapprovingly. "Didn't want you to get in any more trouble with Daisy." Then a lop-sided grin spread across her face. "Besides, we were going to celebrate and play some ball today. And I'm planning to start the summer by beatin' your puny, little --"
Rob let out a guffaw. "Whooa, little squaw have heap big mouth!"
Sam batted her eyes. "Chief Red Face soon find out!"
Something bumped Rob hard on the shoulder from behind.
"I bet the little black girl can beat your scrawny redskin butt any day, Frog Eyes." A muscly, red-headed boy strutted by, not even looking back at Rob. Lance Cradder, basketball jock and total jerk.
Rob scowled at Lance's back, trying to think of a brilliant comeback. It was amazing the way Cradder could -- in one sentence -- put down Rob's Indian heritage, his basketball ability and his eyes, which unfortunately were about the color of one of those tropical lagoons in travel ads.
"Oh yeah?" he finally spit out. "I'll take you on any time!"
Lance glanced around and shook his head. "See you at Patoma, then, Robby Boy. Lookin' forward to it."
Man, would Rob love to wipe up the pavement with his backside.
Sam's touched his shoulder. "Don't let that moron ruin the start of vacation, Rob. Come on, let's go by your place and get your new ball."
Rob glared after Lance a moment longer, then sighed and nodded. To be honest, Lance's taunt about Sam was not far off the mark. Even though Samantha Falcon had the slight disadvantage of being a girl, she was only a little shorter than Rob and had quicker moves than any boy Rob knew, not to mention a killer jump shot. There was always the chance he really would get his butt kicked when they played one-on-one. Probably one reason they were such good friends.
They walked past the school and turned left onto Grizzle Road, a long, rambling street that became a country road before it wound by Rob's house. Just about the point where the pavement turned to gravel, Rob saw his ten-year-old, well-fed neighbor Teddy Smidgens puffing toward them, his face as red as an Arkansas strawberry. Something was definitely up -- this was the first time Rob had seen Teddy run anywhere.
Now it hit him. He and Sam were supposed to pick up their little sisters at Teddy's house after school. Sure, they were thirty minutes late, but no real harm done. Nothing serious enough to make Teddy take up sprinting anyway.
Teddy skidded to a stop in front of them. "Come --- quick!" he said between gulps of air.
Sam looked worried. "What's wrong, Teddy?"
Teddy put his hands on his knees, wobbling unsteadily. "They never showed up."
"What do you mean?"
"Hope and Josie -- they was supposed to be at our place -- at quarter to three, but they never came." Teddy's beady little eyes sparkled with excitement.
Rob felt his chest tighten. This was crazy. Where could they possibly disappear to on a sunny day like this? Of course, Rob hadn't dreamed his dad would vanish last winter, either.
He glanced at Sam. "Probably just got like -- side-tracked," he said, trying to sound offhand, and failing. "You know what space cadets they are sometimes."
Still bent over and panting, Teddy looked up at Rob. "My mom -- called your mom, Rob, and she just got home. She's about to have -- a cow."
The drawstrings in Rob's chest tightened a little more. His mother must be flipping. "Thanks, Teddy." Rob gave him a quick pat on the shoulder. He and Sam broke out in a sprint.
"Hey, wait for me!" Teddy yelled. He wobbled again and collapsed in the grass.
They raced around the last curve and past the ancient Post Oak Cemetery that flanked Rob's yard. Rob jumped both steps onto the front porch and stopped, panting, with Sam right behind him. The front door of the old Victorian-style house stood open. Rob stared at it for a moment, a familiar bitter taste forming in his mouth, as if he'd just bitten into a crabapple.
His mother appeared at the door with the telephone receiver in her hand, her face the color of cold ash. Rob could see all the trouble of the last year creased in that face; she looked older than he could remember.
"Rob, where have y'all been?"
"I -- I had to stay after school."
His mother shut her eyes and put a hand to her forehead.
Rob felt like disappearing himself. "I'm sorry, Mom. But don't worry, we'll find her."
"I don't understand," his mother said. "Where could they be?" Tears formed thin, watery rims on her eyelids. "I already looked in the cemetery. Even went up to Wheeler Woods. But there was no sign of them. Oh, Rob --."
She clutched his arm, a wild look in her eyes. Rob suddenly felt dizzy, but shook it off and pulled his thin frame up to a little more than its five-feet-eleven. "We'll look in the woods again. I'll bet anything they just got to playing and went a little too far in."
"I'm sure they're all right, Mrs. Hawkins," Sam said, but her voice quivered a little.
Rob's mother nodded stiffly. "Go. But hurry. I'm calling around and see if anyone's seen them. Sam, I couldn't reach your father yet, but I'll keep trying." She bit her lip. "If we don't find them by the time y'all get back, I'm calling the police."
The desperate expression on his mother's face gave Rob a queasy déjà vu feeling, like the nightmare of his dad's disappearance was starting all over again.
Chapter 2 - Mr. Fleetag
Rob and Sam jogged across the sprawling front yard and past the cemetery. In a minute they stood in front of the woods, a 40-acre patch of forest belonging to one of the big-shot Misty Groves families, the Wheelers.
"So we need a plan," Rob said, running his fingers through his long, black hair.
Sam stared defiantly into the woods. "When we find them, Josie's dead meat." Then her expression melted, and she looked more like a five-year-old who'd just lost her teddy bear. "We are going to find them, aren't we?"
Rob gulped. He thought of the last time his mother had sent him here to find Hope over a year ago. She had been playing with a friend at the edge of the woods, still in sight of Rob’s front porch. But with darkness coming on fast, they had disappeared. That time was different, though. That time Rob was more worried about missing his favorite TV show than finding his sister. It never occurred to him back then that she could vanish forever.
"Of course we are!" he said a little too loudly. "Look, let's separate. We can cover more ground that way. I'll cut through here and you go the other way. We can criss-cross and meet at the back of the woods."
Sam nodded. "Ok, let's go."
They parted and Rob ran diagonally into the woods, loudly calling for Hope and Josie. With the afternoon sun filtering through the huge oaks and elms, he could see a fair distance. But the only living things around were a few squirrels and blue jays chasing each other in and out of the splashes of sunlight.
After a few minutes, Rob met Sam at back boundary of the woods, marked by a fence of decaying logs. She held up her hands. "Nothing -- not a soul."
Rob kicked at a fallen limb and leaned against the old fence. The rotten log gave way and he landed on his butt before he could blink.
Sam gave him her hand."You OK?"
Rob pulled himself up and swore. "That old caretaker of the Wheelers must not do squat."
An idea hit him. He looked at Sam and knew she was thinking the same thing. "Yeah -- what about old Fleetag? His house is not far."
"But he must be like a hundred years old by now, if he's even still alive."
"Oh, he's alive all right," Rob said. "I saw him last week in that old red truck of his."
"Well, I haven't seen him since forever," Sam said, an uneasy edge to her voice. "I remember, when we were little, Bobby Towerman telling us Fleetag was a leprechaun and would turn us into toadstools."
Rob nodded. "Yeah, we ran like mad when we saw him. At the 4-H campout a couple of years ago, one of the guys was telling a story about Fleetag stewing kids in a big, green pot."
"Stupid stuff," Sam said. Her lower lip slid forward. "He is a creepy little guy, though. Hope and Josie wouldn't go over to his place, would they?"
"Who knows, but he's the only one living in the woods." Rob gazed into the lengthening shadows. He knew he was grasping at straws, but right now he needed something to hold on to. "Maybe he's seen her, or --"
"Or what?" Sam's eyes grew large.
"Come on! We just have to follow this fence row to his road."
The road leading to Mr. Fleetag's old cottage ran from Grizzle Road along one side of the Post Oak Cemetery and continued to the back edge of Wheeler Woods. After jogging for a few minutes, Rob and Sam came upon it, wild and overgrown, not much wider than a foot path. A washed-out, crooked sign read "Private -- Keep Out."
Rob felt something lurch in his stomach. "Uhh...maybe we better...like kind of check things out first."
Sam's brow furrowed. "OK, better safe than sorry, I guess."
They continued down the road, moving as silently as possible. After a minute, Rob held up his hand and then put his index finger to his lips. He and Sam stepped behind a large oak.
"See that?" he whispered, pointing toward a small patch of red shining through the dense foliage. "That's Fleetag's old jalopy."
Rob stared at the rusty, old car and shook off the chill creeping across his back. "Ok, let's split up here. You circle around to the left and I'll go to the right."
Sam frowned at him. "All this sneaking around is giving me the creeps. Why do we have to split up?"
"Haven't you ever like, seen any Westerns? Maybe we'll catch him off guard. We'll meet on the other side of the house. If you get into any trouble, just yell."
Sam rolled her eyes. "OK, Big Chief Red Face. You da boss."
They separated. Rob kept his eyes trained on Fleetag's cottage. After a few moments Sam vanished in the thick underbrush. Rob licked his suddenly dry lips and felt a bead of sweat trickle down the side of his face.
When he had gone about fifteen yards around the perimeter, Rob saw a ramshackle, old tool shed standing directly in his path. He headed for it, scampering from bush to bush in a sort of half-squat, like a giant crab. Still crouching, he peered around the edge of the shed and got a clear view of the cottage. Oddly, it was built in old English style like some he'd seen on TV, with half-timbered, stucco walls and a thatched roof. Chunks of stucco were missing here and there, and the moldy roof was so high and crooked it looked in danger of crashing down any second.
Rob wondered if old Fleetag was in there now. And what about Hope and Josie? Where they in there, too? A shot of adrenaline wound him up tight as a spring.
Then he felt a tap on his shoulder.
Rob's heart shot into his throat. He wheeled around and a pair of stern, green eyes stared at him. Staggering backwards, he fell over a stump and landed dead center in a large honeysuckle bush. The owner of the green eyes raised a crooked black stick and pointed it directly at Rob's nose, like he was covering him with some sort of weapon. Rob couldn't move a muscle, not even to yell.
"And what brings ya to me 'umble 'ome, Mr. 'awkins?" Mr. Fleetag said in a thick Irish accent. He sounded like he was greeting his next-door neighbor.
Rob moved his mouth, but no sound came out.
"Ya wouldn't be lookin' for two little girls, would ya now?" Mr. Fleetag displayed a sly little smile and stroked his beard, which came almost to his waist.
Relief, fear and anger washed over him at the same time. "Have -- have you got them?"
"I beg your pardon, Mr. 'awkins!" Mr. Fleetag said, shaking his walking stick at Rob. "What could I possibly want with those young ladies? Don' tell me ya believe those ridiculous stories the young ones tell about me?"
"I -- but then how did you know we're looking for them?"
"Ya'd be surprised, Mr. 'awkins, how much I know about what goes on in these parts. And other parts as well, yessiree!" He straightened his bright yellow tie and smoothed his green velvet vest. "Now if ya'd get out of that silly bush, I might be able to 'elp ya."
"You what?" Rob struggled to his feet.
"First," Mr. Fleetag said, pointing with his stick, "please call your friend. She's 'iding behind that rock over there, I believe."
Rob looked back over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of a dark head of hair disappearing behind a small boulder about thirty feet away.
"OK, Sam," Rob said, "come on out. He's already seen you, anyway."
"I thought we were supposed to yell if there was trouble," the boulder said.
Sam emerged from her hiding place and approached, eyes narrowed. She looked like a young wildcat sizing up its foe.
Mr. Fleetag chuckled, his plump mid-section jiggling. "Don't worry, miss, I 'aven't turned anyone into a toadstool in years."
Now that Rob was standing, he realized just how tiny Mr. Fleetag was -- he and Sam both towered over him. Still, he somehow had an commanding aura about him, like someone you didn't want to mess with. His face looked tough and weather-worn, but ageless. Rob couldn't tell if he was closer to sixty or a hundred and six.
"Well," Mr. Fleetag said, "I think we're all together now -- that is if I am correct in assumin' there's no one else hiding in the underbrush."
"Look, I'm sorry we barged in like this, but we thought you might have...like..."
"Ya thought I might've locked your sisters in me gingerbread 'ouse?"
Rob glanced over at the old cottage. They could really be in there right now, and this midget was playing games. "Look, we just didn't know where else to look. My mother is going to call the police any minute, so do you know where they are, or not?"
"Of course, your mother would be concerned." Mr. Fleetag's brow wrinkled. "The truth of the matter is, I just saw the two lassies over at Post Oak Cemetery."
Rob shot Sam an incredulous look. "Hope's not supposed to go in there. My dad banned us from the graveyard since forever."
"We don’t always do what we’re supposed to, do we, lad? If ya don't believe me, just stroll over to the main Wheeler monument on the west side o' the cemetery. You might still catch 'em."
"You mean the big one that looks like a mini version of a medieval church?" Sam asked.
"That's the one, Miss Falcon. Ya can go through the back gate -- it'll save ya a bit 'o time."
"But, Mr. Fleetag," Rob said, "I don't understand. How --?"
"As ya said, Mr. 'awkins," Mr. Fleetag interrupted, "ya don't 'ave time for explanations now. Now that we're acquainted, ya two will have to come back soon and we'll continue our discussion over a cup o' bumbleberry tea. Now, away with ya!"
Was this guy telling the truth, or was he just trying to get rid of them?
"I sure hope you're right," Rob said, trying to read the little man's eyes. But they glittered like a pair of rhinestones, green and unfathomable. "If she's not there, we'll be back."
Ignoring Rob's threatening tone, Mr. Fleetag nodded and wagged his walking stick for them to get moving. Rob and Sam took off at a trot down the overgrown road.
"What a wacko," Rob said, once they were out of earshot. "What did he want us to drink? Bumblebee tee? Oh, brother."
"But he must've really seen them," Sam said.
Rob nodded. "Yeah, he knows something. That's what's got me worried."
Actually, except for the fact that his mother had already looked there, it wasn’t too far-fetched that the girls could be in the graveyard. It was right next to Rob's house, and they had caught Hope playing among the tombstones a couple of times, even though his dad had declared the place strictly off limits. The little dork actually seemed to like to the graveyard, instead of being afraid of it.
Chapter 3 - Two Girls and a Donkey
The back fence of the cemetery was practically swallowed by a tall, untamed hedge and a tangle of vines, but the rickety gate was standing open. Sam led the way in, weaving between the old oak and sweet gum trees, which were almost as dense as in the woods. After a few seconds the Wheeler monument came into view. Rob had forgotten how big and ghoulish-looking it was -- complete with gargoyles. Even though his father had forbidden it, or maybe because of it, he and Sam had played "Ghostbusters" there more than once when they were smaller.
"Man, you'd half expect Dracula to pop out of that thing any second," Sam said.
"Yeah," Rob said, then he frowned. "But where are the girls? That munchkin probably does have them locked in his gingerbread house."
Sam stopped so suddenly Rob bumped into her from behind.
"Whaaat?" Then he saw what she was staring at.
There, on the other side of the monument, giggling and talking, were two little girls, one fair with blond hair, the other with hazelnut skin and a long, black braid. They both held huge bunches of multi-colored flowers.
"Hope! Josie!" Rob and Sam yelled together, rushing toward them.
The girls looked up and squealed like two little pigs. Hope ran up to Rob. "Rob, you'll never guess what happened!"
"Thank God you're OK!" Sam said, bear-hugging her sister. "Cause now I'm gonna kill you, you little squirt!"
"Yeah, Mom's worried sick!" Rob felt like kissing and smacking Hope at the same time.
"But Rob, listen --"
"No, you listen!" Rob ignored his relief; Hope deserved his anger right now. "You two can't just disappear like that. You just about gave us all heart attacks! Where've you been anyway? Where'd you get those flowers?"
Hope's smile widened. "That's what we wanted to tell you. We went to Wonderland!"
Rob and Sam looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
"Are you two really all right?" Sam asked. "Did that Fleetag guy do something to you?"
Josie's eyes sparkled. "You mean Mr. Fleetag, the little leprechaun man? He had to go. But he left Bobbel here with us."
"Bobbel?" Sam said.
"Yeah, he's right over there." Josie pointed toward the monument.
A furry gray head with large, pointed ears and almost luminous green eyes disappeared around the corner of the tomb.
"That did look like a donkey!" Rob said. He and Sam ran behind the monument, only to see a donkey's tail end going back around front.
"Stop it, Bobbel," Rob heard Hope say. "That tickles."
They came to the front of the building again and saw a small gray and tan donkey rubbing his muzzle on Hope's cheek as she tried to push it away.
Rob grinned. "Well, I'll be a -- it is a donkey."
"The runt of the litter, my dad would say," Sam said, smiling too. "Sure is friendly, though."
The little animal took a step backwards and turned toward Rob and Sam. Rob could have sworn he was grinning, too.
"What did you call him?" Rob asked.
"Bobbel. That's his name."
Sam smirked. "How do you know that?"
"Weeell...he told us," Josie said, looking as if she were surprised by her own answer.
"I know it's funny," Hope said. "This whole thing is funny. But Bobbel can really talk!"
Sam gently guided Hope to sit on a gravestone.
Rob took a deep breath. "Look, girls, I know you’re scared about getting in trouble, but lying's not going to help. We’re not, like, in a Disney movie here."
"Bobbel’s not Disney! He’s real!” Hope jumped off the gravestone and stamped her feet.
Rob rolled his eyes. "Can he fly, too?"
Hope stepped up to Rob and pulled his shirt so he bent down face to face with her. "I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him.”
"Why don’t you?" Rob said. "He’s your friend."
"OK, I will," Hope said, turning to the donkey, "Bobbel, I don’t know if you can fly, but you sure as heck can talk. So say somethin'."
The animal looked from one child to the next but didn't produce any intelligible sounds. Rob looked at Sam and shook his head. This was just an ordinary, B-flat donkey, for God’s sake. Big ears, big eyes, wide mouth, but definitely a pigmy -- just about on eye level with Hope. Rob did notice a strange marking just behind his left shoulder, however: a black circle surrounding three smaller interlinking, reddish brown rings arranged in a triangle.
Josie got in the donkey's face. "Bobbel, please! Say something!"
The donkey touched his nose to hers. She jumped back, wiped her nose and frowned. Then a light seemed to go on in her eyes. "Maybe he can't say anything on this side."
"This side of what?" Sam asked.
"On this side of the shiny doorway."
"Wait a minute, Josie," Rob said, shaking his head. "This is getting weirder by the second. Why don't you just start like from the beginning and tell us what happened. We'll worry about the donkey later."
"If you don't believe Bobbel can talk you won't believe anything else we tell you either," Hope said, her lip protruding slightly.
Rob looked at his sister for a moment. Hope had a lively imagination, but she usually didn’t go around telling bald-faced lies. Would the rest of her story be as unbelievable as a talking donkey? "OK, we promise to believe whatever you tell us," he said, winking at Sam.
"Well, OK then," Hope said. "Let me see ... oh, yeah, well, on the way to Teddy's house we got this great idea to surprise Mom with some flowers. Then I remembered there were some pretty daisies by this funny stone house, here, and..."
"Just a minute," Rob said. "You're not supposed to go in the cemetery."
Hope's face reddened. "I can look over into the graveyard from my bedroom window, and I saw the daisies. And there's like this hole in the bushes over there," she said, pointing, "so I came in a couple of times to pick some. You won't tell Mom, will you?"
Rob looked at the hedge separating the cemetery from their property and, sure enough, there was a hole in the ancient picket fence and the hedge big enough for Hope to wriggle through.
"We'll figure out something to tell her," Rob said with a reassuring pat. "Go on."
"So, anyway," Hope said, "we came in here to pick some of the daisies. Then we saw this light. It was coming from right over there."
She pointed at the front of the monument. All four children walked over to the archway, followed by the donkey. The tomb had a small covered portico on the front side with four round pillars supporting the low gabled roof. Between the two middle pillars was fancy archway that formed an entryway to the portico. Small gargoyle figures were guarding each corner of the roof.
"This whole doorway," Hope said, her eyes glistening, "was just kind of shining, like there was a door made of light right here. And somehow, I just couldn't help it." She extended her hand toward the doorway, still grasping the flowers. "I held out the flowers to the light like this, and I just kind of fell through the doorway. Josie and me were holding hands, so she fell with me."
Rob gawked at Hope's bouquet.
"Hope, what do you mean -- you fell -- through the doorway?" Sam asked. "Did you land on this porch?"
"No, that's what's so funny. We sorta flew through this dark tunnel and landed somewhere else. We weren't in the graveyard anymore. Everything looked different. There was like lots of big trees behind us -- but they weren't like these trees. And when we came through, there was Bobbel starin' right at us! 'Course we didn't know who he was then. But I guess we scared each other, because he jumped and we jumped, too. It was awesome!"
Rob sat down on the nearest gravestone and stared at the donkey. "But Hope --"
"You promised!” Hope said, holding up her finger. That he had.
Josie jumped from one foot to the other. "Let me tell some!" Hope nodded reluctantly and Josie dove in. "So we saw some cool flowers across this road, and went over to check 'em out. This meadow was like jammed with lots of awesome, colorful flowers -- it was really like Wonderland, man! We just had to pick some. I had a pretty big bunch when I looked over my shoulder and saw Bobbel watchin' me. "So I said, 'Hi, what's your name?' And I couldn' believe it -- he just came right out and said, 'My name is Bobbel'. Then he came over to me and pulled on my shirt with his teeth. When I didn't move, he said, 'You two got to go back. It's dangerous here.'"
"Uh-huh," Rob said. How could he argue with a story like this?
Hope walked over to the donkey and patted his head. "So I said, 'Wow, cool! You can talk! Say some more!' But he didn't say anything, so I said, 'Just let us get some more flowers for my mom.' Then he said something kinda strange. He said, 'No, we got to go now. You don't want to get stuck over here, too, do you?' That scared us a little, so we followed him. We went back to the woods to the same really big tree that had like lots of roots taller than you, Rob. Then Bobbel stared real hard at the roots and one place started glowing. Josie and me held hands again, and he pushed me a little with his nose toward the shiny hole, so we walked up to it and fell right through again. Then everything went sorta fuzzy. The next thing we knew we were sittin' here again."
Josie and Hope joined hands and looked at Rob and Sam like they'd just won first place on the debate team.
Rob gazed at the donkey, who appeared to be grinning again, and at the flowers the girls were still clutching. They sure sounded like they believed what they were saying. Maybe they'd found some funny mushrooms. "Wow, that's some story, girls. Are you sure you didn't dream it?"
Hope stamped her foot. "See, you didn't believe us!"
“How do you expect us to believe a crazy story like that?” Rob said, throwing up his arms.
"Well, if we dreamed it, smarty pants, where did Bobbel and these flowers come from? Huh?"
"She's gotcha there, Rob," Sam said, grinning. She was getting off on this, which irritated Rob even more.
Suddenly Hope grabbed Rob's arm, her face lighting up. "Wait a minute -- I completely forgot! I found a little magic rock right here in the middle of the daisies before we went through the shiny door. That's proof, too."
She reached in her jeans pocket and pulled out what appeared to be a coin or medallion about the size of a silver dollar. She handed it to Rob. It was coal-black, polished stone with a velvety sheen and red markings on both sides. Around the edge something was inscribed that was obviously not in English or in any other language he'd seen.
Rob turned the stone over in his palm. "Do you think this is some kinda Indian money, Sam?"
Sam took the stone and studied it. Although Rob's great-great-grandmother had been full-blooded Ouachita Indian, Sam knew a lot more about Native Americans than he did. She said once her love of history had actually begun with reading Indian stories.
"Wow, this is so awesome! But they didn't use coins themselves, I mean, like for money. Maybe it's some other kind of Indian relic."
Sam turned back to Hope. "So what did you do after you found the stone?"
"Er -- it was kinda dirty," Hope said, "so I rubbed it off and we were just lookin' at it, and -- then we saw the doorway shinin' with this gold light."
"Wait a minute," Sam said, grabbing the stone from Rob. "You mean the doorway started shining right after you rubbed this stone?"
"Yeah, I think so."
A Cheshire cat grin gradually spread across Sam's face. "Well, c'mon, let's give it a try."
Rob rolled his eyes. "You gotta be kidding?"
Sam held the stone out toward the monument entrance in the palm of her hand and gave it a few tentative strokes.
She rubbed it more vigorously.
She frowned at the stone and rubbed it furiously for a few seconds.
If anything, the monument archway seemed to grow even darker, Rob thought.
"See," he said. "This whole thing is dumb."
"Let me try!" Hope said. "I did it the first time. Maybe it just works for me."
Sam shrugged and handed her the stone. Hope held it ceremoniously between her hands and rubbed them slowly together, then faster and faster. But not a shimmer of light appeared.
"Hee-hee-hee-haaawww!" Bobbel said.
"Did you hear that?" Sam said. "He's laughing at us! Well, Mr. Smart-A... - I mean, Mr. Smart-Mouth. You think you can do better?"
Bobbel trotted over to Hope.
"I think he wants me to give him the stone," Hope said, her eyes wide.
"Yeah, I bet Bobbel can do it," Josie said. "Let him have it! Let him have it!"
Hope held out the stone in the palm of her hand. "Here, Bobbel."
Bobbel studied the stone in Hope's hand for a second and took it carefully in his mouth.
"When he spits it out, it's all yours," Rob said, shaking his head.
They all watched Bobbel's mouth working, as if he were munching on the stone. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Rob saw a bright flash of golden light come from the direction of the moment. When he looked directly at the archway, however, it appeared just as before.
"Eeeeeeh!" Hope pointed at the archway "Did you see that?"
Rob and Sam could do nothing at first but stand rooted to the spot and stare. As usual, Sam broke the silence first.
"Shut up! The doorway really lit up!"
"Yippeee!" Josie squealed. "We told you!"
Rob was still gazing at the dark archway. "I can't believe it. It must be some kind of optical illusion."
"Optical illusion, my foot!" Sam said. "There really is a shining doorway!" She pointed at Bobbel. "And he knows how it works!"
The girls descended on the small donkey.
"Bobbel, you little devil, you!" Sam said. "If you really can talk, tell us how this doorway works?"
Bobbel smacked his lips and opened his mouth slightly. Even Rob got the feeling he might let out an intelligble sound. Then the black stone slipped out and fell with a gooey splat! directly on Sam's left shoe.
"Oo-oo-oo, man!" Sam screwed up his nose.
Sam produced a slightly used tissue from her jeans pocket and fished the stone out of a little pool of donkey saliva, wiping it dry.
"Come on, Bobbel," she pleaded. "I know you can tell us."
"Yeah," Josie said, "pleeease."
But Bobbel's only reply was a complacent smirk.
Rob glanced at his watch. "Fantastic! Do y'all know what time it is? Mom's probably got the National Guard at our house by now."
Hope looked worried. "What're we gonna tell Mom?"
Rob sighed. "Well, one thing's for sure. We can't tell your story to Mom. She'll never believe it -- and then we'll all be in trouble. We'll have to come up with something Mom'll swallow until we can figure this out."
After a moment's silence, Sam snapped her fingers. "How about ...like... Hope followed Bobbel into Wheeler Woods, then she came upon a flower bed near Fleetag’s place, and he like let her pick some of them. And that’s where we found her."
"But me and Josie will still get in trouble for that," Hope said.
Rob patted her shoulder. "We'll make it sound good, and Mom will be so glad to see you she won't stay mad long."
"What about Bobbel?"
"Bobbel should come with us," Sam said, "as proof, you know."
"Oh, I'm sure he'll come," Hope said, smiling at the donkey. "Won't you, Bobbel?"
The little donkey pricked up his large ears and opened his mouth, but all that came out was "heeehhawww".
Josie patted Bobbel on the neck. "I sure wish you'd say something in people language."
"The quickest way is through the bushes," Hope said.
"But we'll never --"
Bobbel was already trotting over to the hedge. He took one glance over his shoulder as if to say, "Follow me," then stuck his head into the hole. In a second he had disappeared through it. Rob thought he almost seemed to get shorter before he slipped out of sight.
"What the --! How did he do that?"
"I don't know, but if he can, we can," Sam said.
Hope got down on their hands and knees and squirmed through the hedge. Sam followed, a little more slowly. Rob cursed under his breath, got down on his belly, and squeezed through -- somehow.
Chapter 4 - The Haunted Hawkins
When they got to the front door, Rob told Bobbel to stay outside. Then the three kids took a collective deep breath and went in. Mrs. Hawkins met them in the hallway. When she saw Hope, she scooped her up in a tight hug. Rob watched, his eyes stinging. Stupid, but he couldn't help it.
"I told you we'd find them," he said.
But this was a marathon hug not to be so easily interrupted. Finally, Mrs. Hawkins held Hope at arm's length and kissed her. "My precious girl!" Then she let her go and turned on Josie with an embrace almost as ferocious.
When that was over she headed for Rob and Sam. "You really found them!" Rob couldn't tell whether she was laughing or sobbing. "I was just going to call the police. Thought all of you had disappeared." She wiped her eyes. "Sam, I never did get you father, but that's just as well now. Where were you, anyway? What happened?"
With Sam, Hope and Josie playing supporting roles, Rob relayed the story they had agreed on. It was a good performance, but his mother didn't seem completely convinced. Hope got a five-day TV ban, despite the flowers she gave her mom.
"My, but they’re gorgeous!" Mrs. Hawkins said. "That Mr. Fleetag must have a green thumb if they can grow flowers like these. You know, I've run into him a time or two in the past few years, and I always thought he didn't deserve the reputation he's got. Oh, he's a real character, all right, but I thought he was quite charming in an off-beat sort of way." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "We really should thank Mrs. Wheeler for the flowers since they came from her place. She may be a mean-spirited old woman, but she's still our landlord."
Mrs. Hawkins looked at Hope and tears welled up in her eyes again. She squeezed her daughter in her arms. "Honey, please don't ever give me a scare like that again."
"I'm sorry, Mommy."
"Now, what's this about finding a donkey?" Mrs. Hawkins said, glancing at Rob. "I don't know anybody who's got a donkey around here, except maybe the Zilchers."
As Mrs. Hawkins spoke, they heard the screen door creak. There, at the other end of the big breezy hallway, was little Bobbel, standing just inside the door -- looking pretty pissed.
"Well, I'll be darned!" Mrs. Hawkins said.
Hope giggled. "Isn't he cute, Mom?"
"I don't care how cute he is, I won't have a donkey in this house."
"But can't we keep him for a while?" Hope asked.
"Just until we find out who he belongs to?" Rob added.
Hope clasped her hands prayerfully before her mother's face. "Please, Mom, pleeeease!"
Mrs. Hawkins sighed. "Well, I suppose we can't just leave him in the street. I guess he can stay in the lean-to until we figure out where he came from. I just cleaned it out. Rob, you and Hope will have to take care of him. Maybe we can get some fresh hay from Mr. Smidgens in the morning."
"Awesome! We're going to keep Bobbel!" Hope and Josie danced a little jig.
"What was that you called him?" her mother asked.
"Bobbel," Hope said brightly. "That's his name."
"Uh... she means, that's what she named him already," Rob said. "You know how little kids are always...like...naming anything they pick up on the street."
Hope and Bobbel both shot Rob dirty looks.
"Well, please take Mr. Bobbel to his new accommodations before he messes up my floor."
The donkey took a step back and served Mrs. Hawkins with an indignant "he-haw."
"You'd almost think he knew what I was talking about," she said.
The children exchanged conspiratorial glances and led Bobbel out the door.
As they went around the the side of the house to the lean-to shed, Hope's and Josie's outlandish story went through Rob’s head again. Hope had told a few fibs in her time, but nothing as far out as this. There had to be a logical explanation, but what was it? One thing she had said hung like an over-ripe plum in his brain. He let the two girls lead Bobbel to the shed and hung back with Sam.
"Sam, do you get what Hope said about Bobbel's warning that it was dangerous and they might get stuck over there, too, wherever 'there' is supposed to be? That's kind of a strange thing for them to come up with."
Sam reflected a moment. "Yeah, it's hard to believe they just made all that up. Josie's got an imagination and a half, but she knows lying will get her in mega trouble."
"This whole thing is bonkers," Rob said, banging his forehead against the shed. “Come on, let’s get this place in shape."
The shed was attached directly to the side of the house, thus the name ‘lean-to’. Luckily his mom has just cleaned it out, because as long as Rob could remember it had been full of junk. As he went in he saw a kind of slanting trap door near the back wall he had never noticed before. He opened it, revealing steps which led down to a mold-green door, partly obscured by cobwebs. A funky smell drifted upwards.
"Hey, this must go down into Dad's lab," Rob said. "The door’s always locked from the other side."
"Yuck!" Hope said, screwing up her nose. "Shut it. It smells icky."
Rob let the trap door fall and the children got to work. Sam swept the lean-to out, Rob rigged up a trough with an old wooden flower box, then filled it with grass and clover. Hope put a fresh bucket of water next to it and stuck some wildflowers in a jar on the window sill.
"Well, what do you think, Bobbel?" Rob said, stepping back to admire their handiwork. The place actually looked almost homey.
Bobbel sniffed at the doorway and walked casually inside.
"He likes it!" Hope said, with a squeal.
The kids went to the door and looked in.
Sam snickered. "Well, we know what he likes to eat, anyway."
The jar of wildflowers was empty. Bobbel wore an expression of total contentment as the last ox-eyed daisy vanished into his mouth.
That evening Rob was wiping off the kitchen table and noticed his mother standing at the sink, motionless, gazing out the window into the blackness. She laid down her dish towel and turned toward him. Her eyes were moist.
"Honey, sit with me for a moment," she said, taking his hand.
Oh, God, a "honey-sit" session. Rob didn't know if he was up to that right now, but he sat.
"I was pretty scared today for a while, Rob, I admit it," his mother said, holding his hand in both of hers. "I don't know what we would've done if Hope had just," she covered her mouth with one slightly shaking hand, "vanished. You and Hope are the most important things in the world to me, and I don't plan to lose you."
Rob felt his mother's hands become steady again, closing firmly around his, and he saw a gleam come into her eyes. "But we didn't lose Hope, and you know what? I still can’t really believe we've lost your father. Like I said from the beginning, I'm not going to believe he's dead until someone can show me proof. And lately, I don't know, I've been having this strong feeling like maybe he's going to come home to us." Her grip hurt Rob's fingers now. "I know it sounds silly, and I can't explain it, but I've had some dreams about your father that seemed just as real as you and me sitting here."
Dreams. Great. His father was gone, period. Hasta la vista, baby. Why couldn't his mother accept that?
He stared at their joined hands. "Mom, those were just dreams you had. They're not real."
"Well, I'm not so sure." She gave a huge sigh. "Anyway, I can't get over the feeling that maybe your dad's leaving us has something to do with this old house. I know you don't like this place, but if we leave here, I'm afraid we'll lose every chance of getting him back."
Rob rolled his eyes. "Oh, Mom! Six years we've been stuck in this spooky old barn! You said yourself it costs too much to heat and keep up. The only reason we’ve stayed here is because Dad wanted to." Rob untangled himself from his mother's grasp and propped his chin on this fist. "Sam's dad said we've been here a lot longer than any of the other renters before us."
"I don't care what the other renters did," Mrs. Hawkins said. "Besides, you know why the other families left, and it wasn't because of a few drafts, the big chickens."
"Yeah, right," Rob said with a grimace. "Well I don't blame 'em! I'm sick of the weird stuff that goes on around here, too. I'm sick of the kids at school calling us the 'Haunted Hawkins'!"
As if on cue a clock chimed on the shelf above the table. Rob and his mother both jerked in their seats.
His mother sighed again. "I keep wishing that Ryan would just appear sometime like that silly old 'phantom chimer'."
"That's just what I mean," Rob said, pointing angrily at the ornately carved, antique clock. "How are you supposed to live in a house where stuff like that keeps happening?"
Rob stared at the clock with a sour expression. It seemed to stand for all the bizarre things he hated about the house. They called it the "phantom chimer" because on any given day it might turn up uninvited in any other room in the house. At first all of the family members had accused each other of moving the clock around as a prank. Then, as a test, Rob's dad locked it in a cabinet and left the key at work. Two days later, the chimer appeared in his parent's bedroom.
"Just a couple of nights ago," Rob said, "I was reading in the living room, and I heard those children's' voices again, not loud, but plain as day. Sounded like they were right there in the room with me."
His mother nodded. "I know, honey, but --"
"And last Saturday night," Rob interrupted, "the good ol' 'Poltergeist Express' came through again!"
Although there wasn't a railroad track within miles of the Hawkins' house, the "Poltergeist Express," as Dr. Hawkins had dubbed it, visited them about once a week. It started with the low rumbling of a locomotive, then a faint whistle blew. As the rumbling gradually grew louder, the lights flickered and the house and everything in it began to shake. When the sounds subsided the distinct smell of axle grease and coal smoke hung in the air.
Mrs. Hawkins shrugged and reached for Rob's hand again, but he drew it away, folded his arms tightly and stared angrily at the fridge across the room.
"Honey, you can’t blame your father for what goes on in this house."
"Who knows. Maybe he was behind some of it. He sure thought his 'haunted house syndrome' was the coolest thing since sliced bread. He never cared how much it bothered us." Rob looked his mother in the eye. "All he cared about was his stupid research, his work. He didn’t even know I existed."
His mother put her hand on his crossed forearms. “Rob, that's not true! Your father loved you very much. He -- he just wasn’t very good at showing it, that’s all.”
“You can say that again. When did he ever ask how things were going at school? Or ask what I made on my report card? Or even make it to a basketball game?”
“I know, Rob, he was awfully wrapped up in his work. But he really wanted to turn over a new leaf. Just before he disappeared, he told me he wanted to spend more time with you kids. He really felt bad about it.” She stroked Rob’s arm.
Rob pulled his arm away. "Yeah, right."
“My God, in all the excitement I never told you, did I?"
"Told me what?"
"That he was planning to send you to the Tri-State Basketball Camp last year. And as a surprise he wanted to have a basketball goal with a paved court put in on the east side of the house while you were gone.”
Rob shifted his gaze from the fridge to his mother. “You’re -- you’re kidding.”
“The gospel truth.”
The silver light of the rising full moon washed through Rob's large window, illuminating the elaborate, hand-carved designs on his Victorian-style ceiling. Rob lay in bed, tracing the carvings with his eyes. He longed for that deliciously sleepy feeling you get when you’re exhausted and know sleep is coming. But tonight it wouldn't come.
Rob shook his head and slipped out of bed. He went over to his cluttered desk and leafed through a stack of newspaper articles until he found one from the Misty Grove Daily Banner. dated February 5th:
"Search for Hawkins Abandoned"
"Misty Grove -- The Sheriff's Office announced today that it is officially abandoning its four-week-long search for Dr. Ryan Hawkins, a local college professor, who disappeared in early January.
'We've carried the investigation as far as we can, and turned up absolutely nothing,' said Misty Grove Sheriff Roy Clayburn. 'We even brought in the FBI and conducted a nation-wide manhunt, but Dr. Hawkins seems to have vanished into thin air.'
Hawkins was last seen in the early morning hours of January 8 by his thirteen-year-old son Robert Hawkins. The younger Hawkins claims to have talked with his father at about 2 a.m. in Dr. Hawkins basement laboratory. The police found no evidence of foul play at the scene the next morning...."
Rob stopped reading and stared out his window at small clouds drifting by the full moon. In the last few months, he had been pretty successful at pushing this whole business out of his mind, but now it came flooding back.
He had been awake for hours that night. The sounds of his dad working in his basement lab were driving him crazy. An air-conditioning duct running from the basement past his room let Rob hear any noises coming from the lab. His father had been down there since early evening, and he was still down there at two in the morning.
Well, Rob was fed up. Fed up with his dad ignoring him. Fed up with his dad’s obsession with this stupid haunted house thing. And he was finally going to tell him just what he thought about it.
When Rob entered the basement, his father looked very excited. He said he was getting close to something big. Rob asked if it had something to do with the haunted house syndrome. His father didn't reply directly, but the glint in his eye gave Rob the answer. That was when he blew up.
"This stupid stuff is all you care about!" Rob had yelled. "I hate it! I hate you! Why don’t you just move into your office at the college and leave us alone?"
Without giving his father a chance to answer, he stormed out of the basement. To make sure he couldn't hear his father's bumping around, he threw himself onto the living room couch instead of going back to his bedroom. He had never talked to his father like that before and wondered if he would come and yell at him, punish him, or maybe even apologize -- but he never came. Typical.
That was the last time anyone ever saw Ryan Hawkins. The next morning he was not to be found in the basement. Or in the house. Or at the college. He had simply vanished.
Rob picked up the newspaper again and skipped farther down in the article:
"Dr. Hawkins was a highly respected, if sometimes controversial, professor of mathematics and physics at Eagleton College. He was well-known in scientific circles for his work in quantum physics and his contribution to the "unified field" and "many worlds" theories..."
Rob looked blankly into his dark computer screen and shook his head. Most of his father’s ideas and theories were considered outlandish by the faculty at Eagleton, but students flocked to his courses simply because they were so fascinating. He was always working out bizarre lab experiments with outcomes ranging from amazing to creepy. Once he changed the waveform of one of the student's bicycles for a few seconds and transported it to the other side of the room. The only problem was, when it re-appeared the pedals and handlebars had changed places. Apparently, he didn't quite understand this experiment himself, because was never able to repeat it successfully -- or repair the bike.
Who was the real Ryan Hawkins? Rob felt like he never truly knew him.
His head spinning, Rob dragged himself back into bed.
He tried everything to get to sleep, from counting sheep to listing the last twenty college basketball champions, but his thoughts were irresistibly drawn to the terrible time after his father's disappearance. Many a night he had lain awake for hours, and when he did sleep that last expression on his dad's face down in the basement haunted his dreams -- was it disappointment or anger? He knew it was crazy, but part of him felt guilty, like he was to blame for his dad's vanishing act. Another part was furious that his father had deserted him, his mother and his sister.
Then, one moonless night he woke from a fitful sleep and heard soft bumping noises coming from the basement -- noises like his dad used to make working in his lab. Rob didn't stop to think. He sprang out of bed and took the steps three at a time into the basement. He threw open the door, imaging he would see his dad puttering away at the battered old lab table. But the room was empty -- the only movement was the lamp hanging by a cord in the center of the room, swinging slowly to and fro.
Now look who was seeing ghosts.
In that moment something snapped in Rob's head -- or maybe in his heart. Sobbing, he threw himself in the corner. He had never felt so alone, so abandoned.
How long he lay there in that corner, he couldn't say. At some point, though, he wiped his eyes on his T-shirt and got wearily to his feet.
"Good-bye, Dad," he murmured, trudging back up the stairs. "And thanks for nothing."
Rob felt like he had finally buried his father that night. Mercifully, the torture seemed to have ended. His life drifted back toward normality...
Lying on his bed staring up at the ceiling again, Rob blinked and rubbed his eyes. There was something strange about the light in the room. He got up and went back over to the window. The moon had moved quite a distance to the west and seem much larger than before. But the really bizarre thing was, it had a distinct green tinge to it. Mesmerized, he continued to gaze at the green orb as it grew larger and larger. He felt panic creeping up his spine, but he couldn't take his eyes off it. A cold sweat broke out on his back. It seemed as if the moon was going to engulf him...
...then darkness. Cool, damp air. The smell of fir and rotting leaves.
Rob looked wildly around. Trees. Trees dimly outlined in the gloom. Emerald green moonlight trickled here and there through a forest canopy. He wiped his eyes and tried to think. He must be dreaming. Of course, that was it. He pinched himself, then slapped his face, but nothing changed. Either this was one of those nightmares you couldn't wake up from, or...or what?
Ahead he could see what looked like the edge of the forest and the green moon hanging low like a giant Christmas tree ornament.
He ran toward moon, toward the light, wondering if he'd regret it. Branches lashed at his face and tangled in his long, black hair. Underbrush clutched at his feet like tiny goblin hands.
At the edge of the forest he stopped. In front of him, about a hundred feet away, a high, rugged cliff face stretched out to the left and right as far as he could see. He groaned. No way out.
A wave of green mist covering the upper part of the cliff rolled away. Crouched on top like a gigantic black panther was a castle, complete with turrets, towers and a maze of walls. He shivered. His eyes wandered down the rock face to a patch of black at the bottom. An opening? A way out of this place, or a dead end?
Something moved in the dark patch. A tall, thin man staggered out into the moonlight. The man spotted him and limped frantically toward him, half dragging his left leg.
Rob's mouth turned to sandpaper. It was too dark to make out the man's face at this distance, but he would know his father's limp anywhere.
A wave of conflicting feelings swept through Rob. Part of him was disgusted and afraid and wanted to run back into the forest, but part of him wanted to help his dad in his obvious misery and distress. As usual his duty (love?) won out.
"Dad, it's Rob!" he yelled, but the night swallowed his words.
Suddenly an invisible force yanked his father backwards, as if some phantom fisherman were reeling him in. He gasped like a drowning man.
"Rob! Find...a willowheel. Get help...please..."
An orange light flashed from the dark opening. The blackness engulfed his father.
Another flash of light. Rob's breath was suddenly gone. Something was tightening around his chest, crushing the life out of him. He doubled over and saw no more.
When he came to, he was sprawled in front of his window. His room was dark, the moon having vanished behind the side of the house. Trembling all over, he got up and sat down on his bed. He took a couple of deep breaths. This had been no normal nightmare. It wasn't like anything he'd ever experienced. He had the overwhelming feeling it really happened. Some part of himself was actually in that creepy forest. But that was crazy, impossible. He must have had some kind of a weird blackout. Great. Just when he thought he'd put his dad behind him, he was coming back to haunt him and drive him nutty.
He sighed and lay back on his bed, the image of his father being sucked into that black hole replaying like a YouTube video.
Chapter 5 - A Strange Invitation
A persistent tugging on Rob's toe awakened him.
"Ooow! Have we got snapping turtles in here or something?"
There was a high-pitched giggle. "No, sillykins. It's just me."
"Well, 'just me', go away!"
"But we got to take care of Bobbel. And you got to call Sam back."
Rob gave a fog horn yawn and swung his feet heavily to the floor. The remnants of his nightmare or blackout or whatever it was hung like cobwebs in his brain. He shook his head to clear it out. What was Sam calling about so early? Then it hit him and he groaned. He and Sam had yard work to do.
He pulled on some shorts and stumbled down to the kitchen, where his mother gave him an impossibly cheery smile.
"Hi, Hon. Sleep well?"
"Umm." He poured himself a bowl of "Choco Bombs," flopped into a chair, and squinted at the morning sun streaming through the window. "Milk?"
"Certainly, dear," his mother said, opening the refrigerator. "I'll be at the college from nine till two today, so you'll have to look after your sister."
Rob crunched sleepily on his "Bombs" and sighed. Awesome. The first day of vacation and he would have his sister underfoot almost the whole day. Since his father had been gone, his mother had almost doubled her course load as a professor at Eagleton College. Even so, they still couldn't afford a baby sitter.
"We got a yard job this morning, Mom. Granny's yard."
"Wonderful. You can take Hope with you." His mother sat down across from him. "What are you and Sam calling your business again?"
Rob stifled a yawn. "S & R Yard Service," he said through a mouthful of cereal.
"Pretty nifty. And how many jobs have you got lined up this week?"
"Three. And four more next week."
"Wow! That's a great start. You'll make a mint this summer."
"Hope so." Rob wasn't overjoyed at the idea of doing yard work all summer, but Sam had a real green thumb, and at their age it was the only type of work that offered the chance to earn some decent money in a little town like Misty Grove.
"I've been thinking," Rob said. "Me being the man of the house now and all, I think I should help pay for a few things. I want to put a quarter of what I make into the household kitty."
Mrs. Hawkins mouth dropped open, then she covered it with her hand. "Rob, that's so sweet! But you don't need to do that."
"Too late. I already made up my mind."
His mother ran around the table and hugged him tightly around the neck.
"No big deal," Rob said. And it truly wasn't, he thought, with a little pang of guilt. He should help out more, but his and Sam's main motivation for working was to make enough money to attend the Tri-State Basketball Camp in August. The camp was the best in the region and would be great preparation for the eighth grade team tryouts at school in the fall. Sam would be sure to get on the girls' team, but Rob was a different story. He hadn't played more than thirty lousy minutes all last year. Like Rob, Sam couldn't depend on her parents to pay the camp fees. Her mother had died five years ago, and her father didn't make big bucks doing carpentry work. Besides Josie, she had a six-year-old brother Zack. With three mouths to feed, money for basketball camps was pretty scarce.
When Rob called Sam, the first thing she asked was how Bobbel was doing.
"Hope's already given him some more water and said he's fine," Rob told her. "Come on over and see for yourself. Then we've got to get on Granny's yard."
While Rob was gathering up the garden tools, Sam strolled into the back yard. "Hey, where's our little four-legged search-and-rescue friend?"
Rob jerked his thumb toward the bushes. "Back there stuffing his face."
Sam walked around the greenery and came back with the little donkey, her hand resting on his back. "He's definitely a cutie," she said, scratching him behind the ears.
The back door slammed. Hope raced up to Bobbel and hugged him around the neck. "Hi Sam. We about ready to go?"
Rob patted Hope on the head a little too hard. "I forgot to tell you, Sam, we've got expert help today."
"Yeah, me and Bobbel are both experts," Hope said. "Bobbel's an escape expert. He got out of the shed this morning, even though it was locked."
Sam's eyebrows rose, as she looked at Bobbel. "Wow! 'Course that's easy compared to turning on the magic door to Wonderland." She winked at Rob.
Bobbel gave her an irritated look and trotted into his shed. In a moment he reappeared holding something green between his big teeth, and it wasn't wildflowers.
"What have you got there, Bobbel?" Rob said.
Bobbel stuck out his muzzle and Rob pulled out a slightly soggy envelop. In very fancy handwriting on the front stood, "To Robert Hawkins, Esq., Miss Hope Hawkins, Miss Samantha Falcon, and Miss Josephine Falcon."
Sam peered over Rob's shoulder. "What the heck! Where did you get this, Bobbel?"
Rob stared at the envelop, then at Bobbel. There was definitely more to this donkey than met the eye. Rob opened the envelop, slid out a faded green letter and read aloud:
As I mentioned at our first meeting, I would be very honored to have you over to my humble cottage for tea. I hope tomorrow at two-thirty will be
I wish your visit could be purely of a pleasurable nature, but the events of the last few days have made it quite urgent.
I hope you will not disappoint me. The matter is of the utmost importance!
Your humble servant,
Flanagan Fleetag, G.E.
Rob was stunned. What was this strange little guy up to? Suddenly he remembered Fleetag's words: they "would really be surprised how much he knew about what goes on in these parts."
"Cool!" Hope clapped her hands. "We're going to see the leprechaun man!"
"Whoa, this is bizarre!" Sam said. "But I always thought it was no coincidence he saw Hope and Josie in the cemetery. I'll bet he's behind this whole thing."
"What whole thing?" Rob said. "Nothing really happened as far as we know."
"Oh, Rob, you've got to admit that something weird happened in the graveyard the other day, even if you don't believe the girls' story."
Rob shook his head. It was just too crazy to think that Bobbel had anything to do with that flash of light in the graveyard. And even crazier to think that there was some kind of passageway there. It was true, he couldn't get their story out of his head, but he couldn't believe it, either, although he thought they probably did. That meant it was either a hallucination, or it really happened. That’s right -- donkeys talk, pigs fly and Alice lived happily ever after in Wonderland.
"Maybe that light was just a reflection of the sun from an airplane flying over at that moment," Rob said. "There's got to be a logical explanation."
Sam rolled her eyes. "Why, Rob? Why does there always have to be a logical explanation with you?"
"Because there always is -- sooner or later."
"And you get to say what's logical and what's not, huh? If it doesn't fit Mr. Reasonable Hawkins' idea of what's logical, then it can't be true."
"Yeah," Hope joined in, "It's easy to see why Bobbel knows how the door works, since he brought me back through it." She drew something out of her pocket and shoved it under Rob's nose. "And what about this little magic wheel? Where did it come from? Huh?"
"What do you mean 'wheel'"?
"Well, anybody can see it's a wheel, dummy." Hope shook her head.
Rob squinted at the litte stone Hope had found yesterday. On each side, a small circle was inscribed in the center and seven double lines radiated from the circle out to the edge, where they joined a larger circle going around the circumference. The markings on it really did look like a hub, spokes and a rim.
Rob shrugged. "So what? Who cares if it's a whe--"
He stopped short. His mind jumped involuntarily back to his blackout from the night before. He heard his father's voice clear as bell, like he was there again.
"Rob, what is it?" Sam said. "What's wrong?"
Rob's moved his mouth, but it was like he was hearing someone else say the words: "Dad said, 'Find a willowheel'."
"Dad?" Hope grabbed Rob's arm. "Did you say Daddy?"
Hope's touch snapped Rob's brain back to the present. What was going on with him? The last thing he wanted was to drag this weird dream out now. "Forget it." He shook off Hope's hand. "It's nothing."
Sam slapped him on the shoulder. "Rob, there is something. Tell us!"
"Look, it's really nothing. It's stupid."
"I don't care!" Hope cried. "If it's about Daddy, I wanna know."
Him and his big mouth. Too late to take it back now, though. "OK, but don't laugh. This is pretty dumb." He sighed. "Last night I had a really bizarre dream, that's all. I was in some dark forest. Then I saw Dad come out of, like a cave, and say he wanted me to find some kind of wheel." He shrugged. "That's it. See? It's stupid."
Sam's brow furrowed. "Rob, are you saying maybe your Dad was talking about these stones in your dream?"
"I'm not saying anything. Forget about it. It's just a coincidence."
But Sam appeared fascinated. "Hey, wait a minute. I've read about stuff like that happening -- you know, people communicating with other people through dreams."
Rob scowled. "You're starting to sound like my mom."
"Well, a lot of people think that. Maybe there's something to it. So you said your dad wanted you to find this stone, or wheel. Did he say anything else?"
"I don't think so. Who cares?"
"I do. C'mon, think."
Rob ran his fingers through his hair, pulling it back from his face. "No, that was all he said. Look, I don't like my dad talking to me in my dreams any more than in person."
"Oh, Rob, don't be a dork." Sam made a face. "Well, I for one am keeping an open mind about it."
"You girls are crazier than that Fleetag dwarf," Rob said, shaking his head.
Hope put her arm around Bobbel's neck. "I don't care what you say. Bobbel rescued me, and he can talk, 'cause I heard him!"
Rob shot Sam a look, then bent down to eye level with his sister. "Hope, we still need to keep this whole thing a secret until we figure out what's going on, so don't go blabbing it around, OK?"
"I don't blab!" Hope said, "I'm great at keeping secrets." She marked an "X" with her finger across her chest. "Cross my heart and hope to die."
"At least having tea with Mr. Fleetag will give us a chance to apologize and thank him," Sam said. "You practically accused him of kidnapping our sisters."
"And you were right with me."
Sam looked at her watch. "C'mon, let's get on Granny's yard. If we hurry, we might even have time for some ball this afternoon."
The foursome started out with Rob pulling an ancient, jumbo-sized "Red Flyer" wagon full of garden tools, Sam pushing the lawnmower, and Hope and Bobbel bringing up the rear.
"I just don't see why Bobbel has to go walking all over Misty Grove with us."
"Why can't he?" Hope asked.
"Well, he's not a dog, you know. What will people think?"
Bobbel held up his head high and gave Rob an offended glare.
The morning summer sun beat down unmercifully, and Rob felt the first trickle of sweat roll down his forehead.
"How could it already be so hot at 10:30 in the morning?" Sam asked.
Rob nodded absently.
"Rob, what are you thinking about?"
"I'm thinking this whole thing with Bobbel and the shining doorway is starting to get to me. I'm thinking our little leprechaun friend had better do a ton of explaining tomorrow."
Sam lowered her voice. "Well, I'm thinking, if this golden doorway really does lead to some other...uhhh...place, then maybe...well," and now she whispered, "maybe that's got something to do with your dad."
Rob stopped and looked at her. Then he started walking faster again, putting a little distance between them and Hope so she wouldn't hear. "Sam, get real! You're talking about Never-Never Land and fairies and -- and -- talking donkeys!"
Sam shrugged. "I never would have believed it before, but after what happened yesterday in the graveyard anything could be possible. It's crazy, but it all kind of fits together, doesn't it? In your dream your dad said to use those wheels. Then Hope finds this little stone wheel that seems to have some kind of power. Maybe your dad really was trying to send you a message in that dream."
Something in Rob's stomach seemed to be trying to bust its way out. "Would you get off it about my dad! This has nothing to do with him. My dad's gone, and that's just fine with me!"
Sam slowed her pace and touched Rob's shoulder. "Oh great, just what we need -- the Cruddy twins."
Lance Cradder and his brother Stan were headed straight toward them, smirking and swaggering, their flaming red hair glowing like two warning buoys. Bobbel made a low rumbling noise that sounded almost like a growl.
"Well, I do declare, it's Robby and Sammy, Mr. and Mrs. Weirdo of the Year," Lance said in his oiliest voice. It turned Rob's stomach. "And look, they brought a little jackass with them for a mascot." He let out a staccato laugh. "Did Sammy invite y'all over for some grits and poke salad, Robby boy?"
Rob felt the heat rise from his gut into his head. He shot a glance at Lance, then turned quickly to cross the street and muttered, "Stuff it, Lance, we're busy." Immediately, part of him -- the cowardly part -- hoped that Lance hadn't heard him.
"What did you say to me, Frog Eyes?" Lance said, stepping forward.
"He said go stuff your u-u-ugly self in a toilet and see if you can find your brains in there," Sam had turned to face Lance, fists on her hips. Nothing got her pissed off quicker than slamming her black heritage.
"Why you little --" Lance strode toward Sam, his face flushing to match his hair. Rob moved quickly in front of Sam, cutting Lance off. He wasn't sure who was more surprised -- Lance or himself.
"Look, Lance," Rob said, his voice suddenly hoarse, "we don't want any trouble." He hoped he sounded more menacing than pleading. The problem was, he had no chance in a fight with the Cradders. Lance was a year older than Rob and solid as a rock -- and Stan was a dead ringer for a red-headed King Kong. In fact, Sam's nickname for him was K.K.
"Oh, Robby doesn't want trouble, Stan," Lance said in a mocking falsetto, as his brother stepped up next to him.
"That's too bad," K.K. said, "'cause he got some."
For a couple of seconds, Rob and Lance glared at each other like two gunslingers waiting for the other to make the first move. Rob's heart banged against his ribs and his legs were on the verge of buckling.
Something beeped behind him and he glanced toward Sam.
"Back off!" Sam held her thumb poised over the keys of a cell phone like it was a weapon. "I press this button and my dad'll be here in nothing flat. He's working right around the corner."
Lance sneered. "Typical! Calling Daddy to save your yellow hides!" He looked at his brother, who had already backed up a step. Everyone in town knew you didn't mess with Sam's dad. "Well, your daddy wouldn't bother us any," Lance said, "but we got more important business at the moment. See you at the courts, Robby boy. It'll be a pleasure dunking one in your face."
When the Cradders were out of earshot, Sam shook her fist after them. "Man I'd love to punch that creep's lights out! Thinks he's God's gift to the world."
Rob wiped beads of sweat off his forehead and sighed. "Unfortunately, I don't think we're ready for hand-to-hand combat with the Cruddy wrecking crew."
"What's he got against you, anyway?" Sam said. "Course, we know what he's got against me, the bigoted moron."
Rob watched Sam slip the phone back in her pocket. "I didn't even know you had a cell phone."
"I don't," Sam said. "Belongs to my dad. I borrowed it today because he said he might need me to run an errand for him."
Hope put her arm around Sam's waist. "Boy, it's a good thing your Dad's so close by!"
Sam winked at Rob. "Oh, did I say that?"