As disturbing as this new development appeared, Josh found that he was vitalized by everything that had happened over the course of his first day as a glyph writer. Once Lee had finished telling them about the wish glyph, he’d dismissed all of them except for Josh. And then he only explained the way teaching worked in the mansion. Apparently, they only had classes one day a week, and that was Sunday. During the week, they were expected to read as many books as possible. They could read whatever books they wanted, but it was very important that they read every single one of the books about glyphs. Josh asked how many books there were and nearly feinted at the answer. But, being an avid reader, he resolved to begin at the top of the shelves and work his way down without argument. Considering how quickly he could read, he figured he’d have them done in a few years.
Josh liked the free reign he had of the mansion. No rooms were restricted. When he woke up the next morning, he decided to forgo reading for at least a few hours so he could explore the massive house. He had plenty of time to read. He was in limbo after all.
As Josh set out from his bedroom, he thought about the previous day. It hadn’t been wasted on him the fact that he and his roommates hadn’t eaten lunch or dinner together. Lee hadn’t even been at the meals. Mr. Tuff was there though.
“I make dinner for sit down, of course,” he said. “But if you prefer it to be brought to your room, I will do that as well. Your three young companions always get meals in their rooms. And Lee is generally not here for meals. He usually only comes around a couple times a week to check on you kids.”
They really were on their own. Being stripped of his parents was just the beginning. Josh had no one now. Lee wasn’t even a permanent fixture in this mansion. Only Mr. Tuff seemed to be constant, and he was odd and task-oriented.
Josh stepped down onto the floor of the main hall. He resolved then to find each of his new roommates and get to know them. None of them seemed interested in being friends with each other, but Josh wasn’t going to let that continue. Trust was an important thing for him. He trusted his parents because they loved him unconditionally. That love had always given him the comfort he needed to live his life. Without them, he needed something else. He needed friends.
First he checked the parlor, but nobody was there. Before leaving, he used a step stool to stretch and reach the very first book on the bookshelf. Without looking at it, he tucked it under his arm and left the parlor. He checked the dining room, the kitchen off the dining room, and the hallway to the back of the house. Empty. He went through the doorway at the back of the house to find a new complex of rooms. The first room was for sitting, kind of like the parlor, except there were four couches forming an open-cornered square with a circular table in the center. The next room had yet more couches situated randomly, and in the center of the room was a stereo. Music spewed loudly from speakers in each upper corner of the room. The listener sat on a couch facing away from him, but Josh knew the spiky hair belonged to Check.
Josh went over to the couch and waved.
Check jumped a little, but seemed unsurprised for the most part. He used a small remote control to lower the music volume as Josh sat down across the couch. Check was reading one of his books.
“I’m sorry if I said anything yesterday to upset you,” Josh said immediately. “I just…I mean, I don’t know anything about anyone, so…”
“It’s okay,” Check said with a smile. “I know you don’t know me, or any of us. I shouldn’t have gotten so upset. I’m the only one here whose parents didn’t even try to keep him.”
“What did they do, just throw you out?”
“In so many actions, you could say.” Check sighed. “They had lots of money, but were too greedy to allow me to mess up their little plan. So, when I turned thirteen, I was just lucky enough to get away from the Thief.”
“The Thief?” Josh asked.
“Yeah, he’s the guy who comes to houses and takes children away.”
“Oh. Have you ever seen him? I think he might have been in my house.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen him,” Check said gruffly. “He’s got a big tattoo over one of his eyes. That’s so he can see if kids have more power than others.”
“That’s what that’s for.”
“Yeah. He’s bad news.”
“The day before I left my home, he was in my kitchen,” Josh said. “I tried to draw the symbol, uh, glyph I saw on his face. I drew it on a piece of my sketch paper and I looked through it. It showed me him as he was walking down an alley.”
“Really?” Check asked excitedly. “You shouldn’t have been able to. You see, the glyph on his face is for seeing power. But, a few minor adjustments can turn it into a far-seeing glyph, which allows you to see anyone you think of. You must have had him on your mind when you looked through it.”
“Are glyphs really that similar between the different uses?”
“Some of them. The difference between the seeing enhancement and the power enhancement is just a matter of a few lines shortened or lengthened. It’s a precise art.”
“I’m starting to see that. So I guess you can make those kinds of glyphs, right, since you’re specialty is enhancement?”
“Yep. I know a lot of them. I’ve been here almost a year. Technically, I am still thirteen, but I’ll be fourteen soon. In two months.”
They sat in the cocoon of the music playing for a few minutes without talking. The conversation had gone fine so far, but Josh wanted to get to know Check a little more.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
Check looked up from glancing at his book. “I was born in Seattle. That’s where my parents still live.”
“Wow, you came all the way from there? Did you go through the snow to get to the mansion?”
“Of course,” Check answered. “Lee takes everyone through the snow. It’s the only way to get into the mansion. It’s one of the reasons this place is so safe. First you have to have the right glyph to open a door to the snow and then you have to find the door to the mansion and use the right glyph for that door too.”
“I guess Lee is the only one who knows the glyph for the mansion door,” Josh said.
Check smiled as he touched his nose, indicating that Josh was correct.
“I’m sorry again about upsetting you yesterday,” Josh offered contritely. “I’d rather not create animosity between us, or the others. I’d really like it if we could all be friends.”
“Friends?” Check blurted with a laugh. “Who needs friends here? We just sit around and learn about glyph writing in case we have to use it. We’re not some kind of special forces team. We’re kids. We’re here just waiting until Lee can stop the other elder.”
Taken aback by this passive approach, Josh sputtered without saying much. Finally, once recomposed, he said, “That’s idiotic. I mean, come on. What happens if something goes wrong? What if Lee goes out to do his battling, or whatever, and the Thief comes back instead? What would we do?”
Check’s eyebrows arched up high. “Obviously, I hadn’t thought of that,” he muttered. “We have a lot of faith in Lee. I can’t imagine that he would get caught or anything.”
“Then, you’re just learning about glyph writing because it’s the only thing you can do?”
Check shrugged. “I think that’s basically it.”
Josh shook his head. He wasn’t happy with this development at all. Maybe he couldn’t do a lot to stop full-grown adults, but he could do something. He made a million dollars appear. He can help Lee, or at least be prepared to defend himself. Plus, he was incredibly curious about this whole glyph writing business. He wanted to learn about the glyphs that he could master himself. He’d be sure to stay clear of enhancements, conjuring, and scribing, but he’d like to learn all the others.
Check would probably appreciate being left alone, Josh thought, so he stood up to leave.
“Do you know where Alice and Luna are?” he asked. “I’d like to get to know them too.”
“Good luck talking to Luna,” Check grunted. “She’s always miserable in her room. But Alice generally hangs out in the attic. There’s a ladder on the sixth floor hallway.”
“Thanks,” Josh said. “Uh…Check, I was wondering if we could all eat dinner together tonight. Do you think you’d be up to it?”
Check looked skeptical. “Um, well, I guess so. Maybe.”
“Okay great. See you later.”
Josh started up through the main staircase of the mansion after he checked out the remaining rooms on the first floor: an indoor pool, an indoor tennis court, and a big theater room. First he went to his bedroom again, just to make sure everything was in order, and to take a moment for himself. He’d adapted pretty well, he thought, to his current situation. Indeed, he felt proud of himself for being so self-reliant. He wondered how he could have matured so much with only thirteen years of life under his belt. But it wasn’t like he really had a choice. His parents had ushered him out of the house in desperation, worried that their precious son would be taken away from them. It was knowing that their last action toward him was an attempt to save his life that Josh found strength. His dad had said they would be together again.
So, standing in his bedroom, tears freely dripping from his eyes to his chin, Josh vowed that he would reunite with his parents again. Whether it took him a day, or ten years, he would see them again.
Once Josh had composed himself, he once again left his room and searched the halls of the house. Each bedroom floor was a single long hallway lined with doors. Without a clue as to any of his roommates’ bedroom locations, he started on the second floor and checked each door. He hoped the doors belonging to his companions would be marked in some way. The entire second floor was vacant, but the third floor had a door with a sign that said, “Check’s Room,” on one of those license plates you can buy at the boardwalk, except it originally had the name Chuck on it, but someone had scribbled out the “u” and rewritten an “e.”
Josh continued on. The fourth floor was empty. Josh checked each door, opening to find nearly identical rooms behind all of them. Eventually, on the fifth floor, a door stood out quite obviously. It had a sign written on a white sheet of paper in black marker. “Stay Away.” Josh assumed this to be Luna’s room, and so he knocked loudly on the door.
He knocked again.
The door cracked open and Luna’s face peered out angrily.
“Did you happen to read this sign?” she asked.
“Um…yeah,” Josh stammered, taken off guard by Luna’s emerald green eye, “but I was hoping I could talk to you.”
Luna paused for a second. “No,” she said plainly.
“Oh…ok, well, do you think you might come eat dinner with all of us tonight? I’m getting all of us together.”
Again she paused, as if to allow Josh to figure out what her answer was going to be before she said it. “No.”
“Okay, well,” was all Josh got out before Luna slammed the door shut.
“Great,” Josh muttered. He sighed, and said, “Time to find Alice.”
Josh’s next stop was the attic, the place Check said Alice would be. Sure enough, in the middle of the sixth floor hallway. There stood a ladder dropped from the ceiling to the floor. Josh peered up it doubtfully. As he had approached the ladder, he had visions of Wes Craven’s horrors in his mind, maybe Freddie Krueger or one of those mutants from the hills. A thought occurred to Josh then that maybe his parents shouldn’t have let him see such scary movies. Or maybe he should be able to handle it. They were just movies, after all.
A minute later, Josh was up the ladder. The attic was certainly the top of the house, made of the triangular roof of the building. The floor had been boarded up, though, so one could walk all through it. Endless amounts of featureless, plain-looking boxes were stacked everywhere, the remains of former tenants no doubt. Josh wondered what kind of secrets might be lying within these boxes. Before he could create things in his head and convince himself to begin rooting though everything, he heard Alice’s voice. It sounded like she was singing.
Josh instantly softened his footsteps and began tiptoeing through the attic. All the way at the far end, Alice sat on a chair identical to the ones from the first floor. She was leaning back against the chair in a relaxed pose with an open binder on her lap, her eyes fixed to the pages. She sang softly, a mere whisper, mostly singing for herself, Josh assumed. She was undoubtedly sad, though the song seemed to be from the movie Mary Poppins. She sang “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.”
Josh crept up on her, halting his encroachment only a few feet from the chair. A second chair stood opposite her, but Josh decided to let her sing.
Alice didn’t finish the song. She stopped singing when she noticed Josh.
“Disney song,” Josh said with a smile.
“That’s funny, huh?” Alice said. “Sit down.”
He sat down. “Your name isn’t really that funny, “ Josh offered.
“I know. But Luna is a super jerk. She loves being a jerk.”
Josh shrugged. “Who cares?”
“I do. I have to live with her.”
“Yeah, but nobody in this house seems to care about socializing.”
“Who would want to socialize with that girl?”
Josh shook his head silently and looked down at his knees, thinking of what he wanted to ask Alice. Josh was good at asking questions. His ability to inquire had gotten him the chance to take a very advanced class in school. He wanted to get to know his roommates, and so he needed to ask the right questions.
“Were you a big Disney fan before?” he asked to break the ice a little more than it had been already.
“Of course. I still am,” Alice answered. “I am only thirteen years old. But my big sister was really, really a big Disney fan. We used to watch Mary Poppins all the time. Every weekend.”
“Do you miss her?”
Alice breathed a laugh. “What you think? Do you miss your sister?”
“I don’t have one. But I miss my parents terribly.”
“Well, there you go.”
“I was wondering something,” Josh said.
“Okay, new kid. What is it?”
“Well, I was hoping you would come down and eat dinner at the dining room table. I already asked Check and Luna.”
Alice’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Why?”
“So we can all be friends,” Josh quickly, and confidently, replied.
“Are you serious? Didn’t you notice the girl with the black hair? She hates all of us. And she makes us hate each other.”
“What? Why do you hate Check?”
Alice shrugged. Sitting there in her little dress and her blonde curls, she looked like a fairy tale heroine. She took a deep breath and said, “I don’t know. I hate being here. Being stuck here makes me hate.”
Josh thought for a moment. “Do you hate me?” he asked, sounding shocked and offended.
“See, how could you? We just met. Let’s try to get along. Play games or something. Read together. Whatever. Tell me about your glyph writer specialty.”
Again, Alice’s eyes narrowed. “I hate glyph writing. It took me away from my family. I hate it.”
“But you have to do it. You have to be able to protect yourself.”
“From what? Nothing can get in here.”
Josh shook his head. “You know, everyone in here is really negative. It’s horrible. My dad told me I’d be with my parents again some day, so there’s no way I’m gonna just sit here and be miserable. I’m going to prepare myself so when the time comes for me to make a difference and stop the problem that’s keeping me and my parents apart, I can do it. I don’t want anything else.”
“Wow,” Alice said, her eyebrows arching. “That was a nice speech. I think I’m on board.”
“What?” Josh said, surprised.
“I’m with you, doofus. I’m down. I believe in Josh.”
“So, you’ll eat dinner with me down in the dining room tonight?”
“Yeah, I will.”
“Okay, awesome. Um…what else?”
“What do you mean, what else? You’re getting a little greedy.”
“Oh, oh, sorry. Um…I guess I should just get to reading.”
“What did you do?” Alice asked without warning. “Did you really wish?”
“Um…yeah…I used the wish glyph. I wished for the money my parents needed to keep me away from the Thief.”
“Oh, I hate that guy. He’s so mean.”
“Hey, Alice, what’s the deal with Luna? Why is she so mean?”
Alice shook her head. “You have to ask her, I think. She’s never really told any of us, though we do know most of it. I won’t tell you though. As much as the three of us don’t get along, we also don’t talk about each other. We each have our stories and we own our stories. No one else is allowed to tell them.”
“That’s certainly respectful.”
“Yeah, it is.” Alice smiled and tucked her hands between her legs. “Hey, look at this.” Suddenly, she dropped down onto her hands and knees and started drawing with her finger on the wooden floor. The lines she made with her fingertip started to glow, a square-shaped symbol made of diamonds and straight lines. “Just so you’re not skeptical about Lee’s story about the wish glyph, watch this.” She slapped her hand down on the glowing glyph and then slowly raised her hand up, keeping her fingers perfectly parallel with the floor. Out of the glyph rose a plastic water bottle. Alice grabbed the bottle and tossed it to Josh.
“That’s a basic conjure glyph,” she explained. “There’s no way you can make a million dollars come out of that. So, don’t doubt what Lee says. He’s as trustworthy as George Washington.”
Josh’s eyes were wide with awe, but he blinked painfully when Alice finished her thought. “Y-yeah. I see that. Don’t worry. I trust Lee.”
Alice nodded. “Good.”
“So, what’s that binder you were singing to?” Josh asked.
Josh’s question prompted Alice to protectively fold the binder shut. “It’s a photo album,” she replied. “From home. It was the only thing I could grab before I left my home. I didn’t even have any clothes when we were chased away. I was in my pajamas.”
“Where’d you get the dresses you wear now?” Josh asked. “There aren’t any stores in the mansion.”
Alice shook her head. “I conjured them.”
“Oh…you knew how to conjure before you got here?”
“Yeah. My parents taught me.”
“You’re parents used glyphs?” Josh asked, shocked.
“No. They didn’t have any powers at all, actually. But they had books. Books on conjuring. So, they taught me.”
“Wow. My parents didn’t even want me to know about glyph writing, I don’t think.”
“I don’t blame them. If my parents could do it over again, I don’t think they would have taught me anything.”
“Because I shouldn’t have learned anything until I turned thirteen. But now that I am thirteen, I’m too advanced for my own good. The thing about the Thief is he can see glyph writing ability in people. So, when my parents started developing it in me when I was three, then four, then five, and so on, it became extremely visible within me. So when the Thief saw me the first time when I was eight, he thought I was the one for sure. But I never knew the wish glyph like you do. Looking back, I’m glad they never got me. Once they realized I didn’t have the wish glyph, they probably would have turned me into a Drone.”
“What’s a drone?”
“The other elder, the one Lee told us about, he tattoos glyphs on people to give them abilities. We call them Drones.”
“Oh, I see. That’s a little messed up. Tattoos are forever.”
“No kidding,” Alice laughed.
“What happened that you only had time to grab your photo album?”
Alice shrugged. “Nothing special. The Thief broke in one day and my parents and I had to run. Eventually, I got through a door and Lee found us.”
“That must have been scary.”
“Not so much. My parents had been preparing me for the day ever since we first met the Thief.”
Josh nodded. “So…teach me some glyphs.”