Chapter 1: An Earful
“On your left, lass.”
I pulled Red, my two-year-old bike, to the right and shot past my favorite Scarlet Oak. Radiant in the sun, its umbrella of orange and amber leaves glowed like a stained-glass window. Nature, as usual, had a way of moving me.
“Mornin’ t’ ya.”
I nodded to the cyclist pacing me—a slender man in a black suit and top hat, as if Halloween had come six weeks early. Pushing on the pedals, I veered by the tennis court, stuck like a postage stamp in the northwest corner of Sunset Park.
“Got a wee minute?”
I glanced back and my grip tightened on the handlebars. The man was following me. “No! I’m late for school!”
“I won’ be bitin’ ya, Seven.”
How did he know my name? Only Dad called me Seven. To the rest of the world I was Lyris.
Switching to a higher gear, I swerved onto the cement path dividing a wide stretch of beach. Most days it was crowded with roller-bladers, moms and strollers, kids on tricycles, joggers, cyclists, kite flyers, you name it. Today? Deserted.
The man zipped up next to me as if his bike was rocket-propelled. “Don’ ya believe in magic, lass?”
Was he a magician? The summer street artists had left Wycliff Harbor two weeks ago. I gave him a leave-me-alone stare, noting his long, silver hair that seemed at odds with his tanned, unwrinkled face.
“The name’s Peregrine—the messenger,” he said, as if it would make a difference.
“Go away!” I yelled.
Something flashed from his eyes: a glare, like sun glinting off a mirror, and though I pedaled like mad, Red came to a coasting stop by itself. Grabbing my cell phone, I hopped off as my bike keeled over in the sand.
“Came t’ tell ya th’ goblin’s takin’ hold.” With another eye flash his bike disappeared. Poof—gone.
Yanking my blazer around me, my heart hammering in my chest like a gavel, I backed up a few feet, maybe ten. “I gotta go.”
He performed a chain of back flips that sent his top hat sailing twenty feet into the air. When he came to rest, he had no shoes. Or feet. Two black paws—like bear paws—stuck from under his pants’ legs, and long, pointy ears poked above his head. Like a warm piece of chocolate, my phone slipped from my hand.
“Jus’ a bit o’ time ‘tis all I be needin’.”
He parked himself on the bike path, and the top hat thumped back on his head. For the first time I noticed the color of his eyes: Windex blue. Disconcerting. Maybe he was a harmless escapee from the mental hospital in Fernside. Locals called it Happy Daze.
Hugging my arms, I took the direct approach. “Why … why do you want to tell me about a goblin?”
“Ya be thirteen next year. Time t’ use your magic. Got a special gift inside ya—” He punched his chest. “—one tha’ come along once in a thousand spans.”
“You’ve got the wrong person,” I said, kicking a mound of seaweed. “I don’t know a thing about spans, and there’s nothing magical about me at all.”
The seaweed spun into a tight green ball and twirled across the sand, scattering a swarm of sand fleas before it collapsed in a breaking wave. Nothing like that had ever happened before.
“See ya know ‘bout your tappin’.” A slow smile spread across his face.
“Tapping? All I did was—”
“Be useful when ya come over.” Like during visiting hours? “Me boat’s right there.” He pointed out to sea where a ghostly ship, veiled in fog, drifted on the horizon. “So, off we go.”
Go? The thumps of my heartbeats almost drowned out the surf. Where was everybody?
“I’m not going anywhere with you, especially not in a boat. I get seasick … and car sick, bus sick, plane sick, every kind of motion sick. I get sick in an elevator.”
“Time be runnin’ out, lass. Th’ goblin’s takin’ t’ killin’ forests, an’ th’ creatures livin’ in ’em.”
Had to get in touch with the guys in white coats. I was totally over my head here, under water, out of my league—fill in a favorite cliché. “I’m … very sorry about that. But one thing I know about goblins is they’re not real. So—”
“T’ be sure, they’re real. Dreadfully real. One especially.”
“If that’s the case, what could I possibly do?”
“Stop ‘im. Time t’ teach ya th’ ways.”
“Goblins are outside my comfort zone, okay?”
“Th’ aird’ll be a help t’ ya.”
A gust of wind whipped my hair across my face. Brushing a clump behind my ears, I considered my options: One, take off. Right. He’d just follow me. Two, convince him that I wasn’t the person he imagined I was.
Dropping to the sand, I leaned toward him, noting a sweet scent of candy and cinnamon buns that mingled with the salt-sea air. “I haven’t got an aird, whatever that is,” I said.
His healthy tan seemed to pale a bit. “Ya no’ have it? Has your father said nothin’ ’bout your flute?”
“My father! How do you know my father?”
“We go back a ways, Seven.”
Such great eyes. Awesome cheekbones too. But now I knew how to call his bluff:
Ever since the day I was born—the seventh day of the seventh month on the seventh day of the week—Dad had called me Seven. Only Dad. To him it meant ‘everything’s cool,’ lucky number seven, that sort of thing. A word hug between him and me. Somehow, this guy had found out, and had picked today of all days, when I was late for school, to play with my head.
“You said your name is Peregrine, like the falcon?”
“That be me—a beautiful soarin’ spirit.”
“A-and you say you know Dad. So … I’m sure one day he mentioned his favorite piece of music.”
“O’ course!” Peregrine slapped his knee, and a snoozing seagull flapped into the air. “Th’ Bach Partita #2 for Solo Violin. Heard him play it once.”
Oh, man. He did know Dad.
The bear-footed man bent closer. “Ask ’im about the aird. Your other world be needin’ ya, Seven. ‘Tis more important than anythin’ else. Make your farewells an’ come back tomorrow. Same time an’ place. I be waitin’.”
With a glance at my watch, I jumped to my feet and tossed my sandy phone into my backpack. “Don’t wait. This is … not my thing at all. I’m probably just hallucinating you because I’m exhausted from too much homework, and now a tardy has my name on it.”
Peregrine somersaulted to his paws and rubbed his chin, as if I’d become a perplexing puzzle he needed to solve. With another flash from his eyes, a small bottle appeared in his hand. “Take this.”
This was a bottle of dark blue glass slightly larger than a tube of lipstick. “What is it?” Something inside made a gloop-gloop sound.
“A portal-maker. Guard it well.” He set it in my palm. “When ya be ready, pour th’ contents on th’ ground. For help b’fore ya go, take yourself t’ Dragon’s Tail.”
“You know about Dragon’s Tail?” I tossed Frisbees over there.
“At th’ old oak a portal once connected our worlds. Jus’ a teensy hole now. But a friend on th’ other side be hearin’ ya.”
I dropped the bottle into my backpack. What I’d do with a portal-maker I didn’t know. Again, I told Peregrine that he had the wrong person. He tilted his head, as if listening to something in the air.
“My apologies.” His eyes dimmed to sapphire, like a cloud crossing the sun. “I be summoned. Farewell ’til tomorrow.”
With one last flash, he followed his bike—poof—and the white boat vanished inside a cloud. Not even Shannon, my best friend, would believe this story.
I whisked sand off my skirt and settled Red on the bike path as a blast of wind shot down my neck. Pausing to raise my collar, I noticed horse hoof prints trailing toward the bluff. A local from one of the hillside ranches must’ve been out for an early ride. Two joggers passed me. Now they show up.
Shaky with adrenalin, I raced the rest of the way to Ridgemont Preparatory School and pedaled up the drive. Another wind gust shot a two-by-four into my eye. Blinking away tears, I wobbled Red along the pavement. Tires screeched behind me. I spun around just as a blue BMW hopped the curb, bounced a few feet, and bashed into a fire hydrant. Dropping Red, I ran toward the car and recognized the kid inside: Joe Wheeler, my cousin Darla’s boyfriend.
“Stay there. Let us take care of him,” yelled a staff person.
A fountain of water drummed on the scrunched hood and splattered the sidewalk as a siren wailed and people swarmed from the administration building. A teacher helped Joe un-wedge himself from a prison of giant-marshmallow-like airbags while he mumbled about ‘texting somebody.’ Ha. I knew I didn’t like the dumb dude. He could’ve launched me into another dimension. Wait ’til I told Shannon about this.
A bunch of students huddled on the sidelines, Darla’s BFF Emily among them. I’d seen her and Joe kissing in the student parking lot a couple of times. Glancing at me, she turned and whispered to the girl next to her.
With Red stowed in the bike rack, I huffed and puffed into Advanced English. “Sorry, Mrs. Ruffino. There was an accident.” The kids stared up at me. “I … nearly got hit by a car.” Pant. Pant.
Eyebrows raised, the teacher gave me a not-so-sure-I-buy-this stare, and handed me my two-page essay on H.G. Wells. “Please take your seat, Miss Radlek.”
Causing a breeze, I raced to my chair, my eyes on the red-penciled A- circled at the top of my essay. Most of the time I could count on Mrs. Ruffino to start the day on a high note—like two octaves above middle C. Today felt more like a high E for Escape.
“All right, class,” Mrs. Ruffino began as I plopped into my chair, “What did Henry Thoreau mean by ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them’?”
A hand went up in the second row. “Yes, Mr. Lim?”
“Thoreau meant that many people die unhappy because their lives didn’t turn out the way they’d hoped or dreamed.”
How depressing. With a capital D. Even if life took me down a path I hadn’t planned on, there was a chance it could turn out better than I’d hoped or dreamed. Besides, nothing could keep a song inside of me. Singing was like chocolate: my up elevator, my happy place. I didn’t even mind that the choir had to sing old Rogers & Hammerstein musicals. ‘Oklahoma! Where the wind comes whippin’ down the plains’ sort of got my blood stirring.
After school, I met Shannon and we rode home through the park. Although she lived downtown with her mom and two younger brothers, our routes overlapped part of the way. As we crunched through rust-washed leaves skittering across the ground, I gave her the rundown on my conversation with the P.E. teacher, Miss Fitch. The Peregrine story would come later.
“Miss Fitch asked you again?” Shannon wrinkled her wind-reddened nose.
“Yup. Every fall it’s the same.” Squinting in the afternoon sun, I steered around a parked car. “Why am I supposed to love basketball just because I’m tall? Maybe I should’ve said I had enough balls to juggle.”
Her laugh—a trill, really—was like a stone skipping across a pond. We’d been friends since second grade. So, maybe I could trust her to be her usual kind, non-judgmental self about my chat with a rabbit-eared elf. Maybe.
“Shannon, do you believe in real magic?” It seemed a safe opener.
“I don’t know.” She pulled a hood over her auburn curls. “I guess it’s possible. Why?”
“Just wondered.” As soon as Dad came home, we’d have a totally out-of-the-box conversation about what was possible. But I hadn’t enough guts to say more to Shannon.
Eleven minutes later I wheeled up the hill and into our driveway, prepared to let myself in. Maybe Mom couldn’t help that she wasn’t around after school for days or weeks at a time. Staying on top of Depositions and Deadlines kept her busy, and Dad’s musical career kept him busy too. I often felt Deserted, especially when the sky darkened, and the lights switched on in the empty house—empty, that is, but for me.
Today, though, an excited bark from the next-door neighbors’ yard meant a welcome Diversion. Tuxedo, the Colton’s black and white spaniel, waited at the gate, wagging his tail. Tuxedo and I were pals. One day he’d told me he could pee higher on a tree than any other dog—a big thing in Doggyworld. I thanked him for sharing and always checked for damp spots before I leaned against a trunk. After parking Red at the side of the house, I jogged over.
“Wanna play, Tux?”
He jumped in a circle with a slobbery, green ball lodged between his teeth. That was my answer. Sometimes, a picture says it all.
“Okay. Drop it,” I said, opening the gate.
He laid the ball at my feet and my first long throw sent it sailing into the woods. Of course, Tux went after it. Bounding over the back fence as if it were a log, he disappeared into a grove of White Ash. I raced after him. The Coltons would never forgive me if I lost their dog. So, I didn’t pay attention to where my feet went, and when I stepped into a beehive nestled inside a hollow log, a million bees swarmed over my shoes. If their low-pitched drone was any clue, they considered the invasion a serious crime.
I twirled around, my heart doing jumping jacks, and glimpsed a bottle-green insect—maybe a dragonfly—hovering over the log. Weird. I could’ve sworn it winked at me. Probably a light trick. Or Tux’s shadow. Just a few yards away he pawed at a puddle to rescue his half-buried ball, his fur a muddy mess.
“Tux, let’s get out of here!” I led the way despite his ‘help-me’ whine. “Never mind your ball. Come!”
For some reason the bees didn’t chase us. But hosing the mud off Tux and the honey off my shoes got me soaked, so I had no choice but to go home. I stomped upstairs with my backpack, and in a dry pair of socks from under the bed, a green sweatshirt, and baggy jeans, headed for the kitchen. Wait. The potion Peregrine had given me. Should check it out.
The bottle had shifted to the bottom of my backpack. When I finally found it and rolled it between my fingers, the word ‘magic’ didn’t come screaming to my lips. It was just a small blue bottle with an ordinary glass stopper. I yanked off the top and sniffed the stuff inside. Yuck! Gross! Pee-ew! Like somebody badly in need of a shower. Back went the stopper, but a drop of blue stuff dripped onto my finger. Ouch! Pain like a burn from a lighted match. I shot to the floor and wiped my finger on the carpet. Yikes! A wisp of gray smoke rose from the spot. The potion was singeing the carpet! If the house burned down, I’d be hauled to jail for arson.
I beat on the spot with my wet shoe and the smoke took a last breath. But the damage was done: My pale blue carpet was pockmarked by a nickel-sized hole. Mom would notice. I carried the bottle to my desk as if the stuff inside was radioactive, and hid it underneath a pile of junk in my middle drawer. I’d figure out a safer place for it later.
Downstairs, I grabbed an apple from the refrigerator and heard Mom call me from her study. She must’ve come in while I was with Tux. Crunching on the apple, I propped myself in the doorframe. Although sunlight streamed in from the garden windows, the desk lamp was on.
“Whatcha doing?” I asked, as if I didn’t know. Probably a Deposition. Papers littered the entire surface of her desk.
Mom slid back in her chair, her silk blouse pulled from the waistband of her skirt. “Organizing my notes for tomorrow’s deposition. Court let out early.”
I nodded, trying not to roll my eyes. “Do you know when Dad’ll be home?”
“Don’t you remember? He’s on a golf trip with two of his buddies from the orchestra. He’ll be back tomorrow.”
I did know that. Dad had told me before I went to bed. So my questions about Peregrine would be limbo-ed for another whole day. “What’s for dinner?” All I could smell was lemon furniture polish. The oak-paneled walls reeked of it.
“With meatballs, right?”
Her exhaled breath fluttered her papers. She wove her fingers through her cropped, highlighted hair, the wisps on top waving like corn silk, and turned toward me. “You need to know that Darla’s staying over tonight.”
Not good news. The guest room was piled with file boxes because Mom had run out of space in her study. “Where’s she gonna sleep?”
“With you, of course. On the extra bed.”
“Aw, come on, Mom! Darla snores.”
“You’ll manage. Doctor Meecham didn’t make it to her appointment today. Some emergency. So Darla’s rescheduled for the morning and I’m driving her in.”
“Why can’t Aunt Jessica take her?”
“Mornings aren’t usually … good for my sister. Besides, Darla’s cardiologist is right next to the courthouse. It works for me.”
“Not for me.”
Mom hunched over her desk again, and the creak of her chair made me think of the rocking sailboats over at the marina.
“Did you have a good day at school?” she asked, her voice weary.
Maybe I should tell her that a strange dude expected to take me away in his boat, and that I was nearly run over by Darla’s boyfriend. “I got an A minus on my English paper,” I said.
“Good for you, honey! Now, unless you’re fixing dinner, let me finish here. I’ll be more conversational after this is done.” She gave me a lightning-quick smile. “And just so you know, I’m not making meatballs.”
Back in my room I flicked open my social studies textbook, and a slip of paper flitted from between the pages. Someone had written notes about trees, maybe for a quiz. ’Sap is like a tree’s blood,’ ‘Leaves are like its lungs,’ ‘Trees need air as much as people and animals,’ ‘Without the oxygen trees make, we couldn’t live on this planet.’ I taped the note to the base of my desk lamp, although, as far as I was concerned, the best thing about a tree was none of those things. The best thing: A tree stayed in one place and was always there for me.
After Uncle Frank dropped off Darla, the two of us set the table and Mom dished out the spaghetti—with meatballs.
“Hey! I thought—”
“I changed my mind,” Mom said.
Right. Because Darla liked meatballs. Her heart problem always got special treatment.
I left a mound of spaghetti on my plate to make a statement. Didn’t matter. Darla asked for seconds. Later, while a puttering-motorboat noise rattled my brains from the extra bed, my mind swirled with images of long ears and bear paws. My stomach felt frozen, and the coldness refused to melt.
There are strings in the human heart that had better not be vibrated.