Despite their conversation in her bedroom the previous night, Josh and Luna’s relationship didn’t change. Josh awoke the next morning thinking he’d stop by, but she greeted him with a frown and slammed the door in his face as she had done in all of his other attempts to befriend her. So with nothing else to do, Josh worked his way down the mansion floors to the dining room where he would eat breakfast. Since he recruited Alice to be his friend, the routine had been the same each day. He and Alice ate all their meals together, just about at the same time each day. He was right on time when he entered the dining room, but Alice wasn’t there.
Josh had to admit to himself he felt relief at the empty dining room. He needed some time alone. It seemed his situation was actually getting to him now. The loss of his parents had been eased by his quick friendship with Alice, but the pain wouldn’t stay away forever. Until he could reunite with his mom and dad, he would have that void inside of him. All he could really hope for was the ability to force the sadness down into him instead of letting it out with tears or anger. Josh refused to allow himself to become hateful like Luna, or closed off like Check. He didn’t even really want to be like Alice either because she still didn’t handle things very well. Often when they studied together, Alice would drift off into whispered song from a Disney movie, ignoring the things around her. Josh didn’t want to lose his mind.
He wanted to endure. He’d considered himself resilient when asked in school and now he planned on demonstrating that resiliency one hundred percent. He could handle it. Plus, with Alice as his friend, he had an escape from thinking too much. If he were to spend the next how ever many days, weeks, years alone, then he certainly would end up like the rest of them.
Alice didn’t join Josh for breakfast that morning. Sometimes she didn’t come down at all, for days at a time. And of course, aside from Sundays, neither Luna nor Check came out from wherever they stayed all day.
Weeks passed. Weeks became months. With Alice’s help, Josh had conjured up a calendar, so he knew just how long he’d been at the mansion. He counted the days, hoping each morning that the fight with the elder would end and he could go back to his home. That was all he could do though. With only one door in and out of the mansion, there weren’t many choices. Besides, the only thing on the other side of that one door was a blizzard.
Over time, Josh and Alice fell into a routine. They spent each morning eating breakfast and donuts in the dining room, reading together. Then they would return to their bedrooms to change and shower. Then they would spend some time having fun. And then they would study until dinner, eat together, and study some more. The pair claimed one of the sitting rooms that Check never used in the back of the house. At first they just sat there and read, or made forts out of the couch cushions. But eventually, they got bored of that. Together they wrote several conjuration glyphs to liven up the mansion, adding two pinball machines and several other arcade games to the sitting room.
Luna never came down into the back of the house, but Check did often.
“Oh my god,” he muttered in disbelief when he saw the games for the first time.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Josh said, smiling.
“Cool? Better than that. Do they take quarters?”
“Of course not.”
With the arrival of the arcade games, Check became a friend once in a while, sometimes showing up to play with Josh and Alice. But that was still the only time they spent with him.
Over the course of three months, Josh learned as much as he possibly could about glyph writing, and by no small feat, essentially mastered several modes. Among others, he became extremely proficient in assist glyphs, which included travel, far-sight, sharp hearing, and other abilities meant to assist in a person’s goals. Alice always seemed so impressed with Josh’s abilities, but it was her who clearly possessed the most skill of all four of the kids. She could conjure just about anything. But the thing that made her so good was the mechanics of conjuration and the way the glyphs could backfire. Alice absolutely tamed the wildness out of the conjuration glyphs. She was so precise, so spot on with her writing that anything she conjured came to her without much effort. Meanwhile, just moving from the attic to the dining room with a travel glyph fully exhausted Josh. The attic to the dining room was the longest he’d managed to travel. He only tried it once, and immediately fell asleep when he emerged in the dining room.
“I don’t know how you do it, Alice,” he said to his friend one day while they sat on the edge of the indoor pool, their feet dangling in the warm water. Alice had conjured bright-colored swimsuits for the both of them.
“Do what?” Alice replied.
“I don’t know how you can conjure such big things without falling asleep.”
“It’s not a big deal. I think it’s because I started glyph writing at such a young age; my body is used to it.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. But if I pass out each time I travel with a glyph, I might never be any good to anyone.”
Alice smiled and fixed Josh with her deep blue eyes. “Don’t worry about it. You’re only thirteen. The more you use a glyph, the more it becomes part of you. That’s why I’m so good at writing. I’ve known the conjuration glyph since I was three. It’s a part of me. It’s written on my soul.”
“Wow. You must really love that glyph.”
Alice sighed. Then she slid into the pool and dove down deep. Josh watched her. He knew the sound of that sigh. He and Alice had spent so much time together that they could basically tell exactly what the other was feeling. Josh knew Alice’s sigh as one of despair. It was no secret between the two that Alice missed her family immensely. She hated the people who had done this to her so fervently that sometimes Josh feared she would have a breakdown. Luckily, he had been there for her every time.
Alice’s head popped up. She looked right at Josh as she treaded water. “You know I hate everything about glyphs,” she hissed. “I hate this mansion. I even hate Mr. Tuff and Lee. I hate everything about glyphs.”
“You don’t hate Lee!” Josh cried, appalled. “How could you say that!”
“Cause it’s how I feel.”
“Don’t talk like that, Alice. It’s important for us to stay positive. I’ve told you that almost every day for the last three months.”
“Yeah, I heard you. But I can’t change my feelings. You know that better than anyone Josh.”
Josh sighed. He really didn’t like the way Alice was talking. Usually when she got like this, she could be cheered up. But this time she seemed even more detached than usual.
“I hope, if the time comes one day, that we need to rely on each other to survive, that your hatred for everything around doesn’t cost any of us a chance to stay alive.”
“That is pretty grim.” Alice slowly floated toward the edge of the pool.
Josh frowned, adding to his doleful grimace. “Yeah, well, that’s how you make me feel sometimes.”
Alice grabbed the pool’s edge and lifted herself up to come face to face with Josh. “Josh, I will never let anything happen to you. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. I would protect you before I protected myself. So don’t get so bleak. Just let me wallow once in a while.”
A smile slowly hiked across Josh’s face, clearing away his cloudy expression. “Yeah, I know.”
“Good!” Alice cheered. She kissed Josh on the cheek and then thrust herself backward into the pool again.
When her head bobbed back up, Josh called, “I’ll protect you too!”
One month into his tenancy at Yadwiga Mansion, Josh discovered something. He kept it a secret after he found it. Even as his relationship with Alice strengthened over those first three months, Josh kept the secret to himself because he partly knew why it needed to be a secret.
One unremarkable day that slowly soldiered on without consequence, Josh found a crease in the fifth floor hallway. Alice had holed herself up in her bedroom that day and so Josh’s boredom had grown to cataclysmic proportions. Finding the suspicious crease in the hallway wall had created a brand new adventure for an otherwise endlessly boring day.
First Josh pressed his face right up against the wall between two bedroom doors. The crease must have been as thin as a piece of loose-leaf paper. He couldn’t see anything beyond the wall. But what else could this crease be other than part of a doorway? Before he got his hopes up, Josh checked the rest of the wall in that hallway and found no creases. And by the time he had found this crease, Josh had already explored every single secret corridor in the entire mansion. He knew that none of the secret routes began or ended in this hallway.
Before he arrived at the mansion, Josh probably would have used tactics employed by any curious thirteen-year old. He would have looked up and down the wall, felt his hands all around for something out of the ordinary. But he’d been a glyph writer for a month at this point, and so he used the tactics of a young glyph writer.
Josh placed his finger on the wall and wrote a glowing white glyph. He used a reveal glyph, which showed any hidden exceptions in the material it’s written upon.
It worked perfectly.
The crease Josh had initially seen lit up as if a car were behind it with its high beams on. The crease showed itself fully, going up to the height of the other doors in the hall, across a few feet and down to the ground. It was a doorway. After a moment, Josh’s reveal glyph dissipated only to be replaced by a new glowing glyph. It was unfamiliar to Josh, but he recognized a few subtle characteristics of the symbol telling him it kept the door hidden and not locked, among other things.
Filled with excitement, Josh placed his hand on the door, pushed until he heard a click, and drew back. The door slowly, silently swept open to show a long, dim corridor with nothing but darkness at the far end. Without hesitation, Josh entered the hallway, the door slowly closing behind him.
The hallway didn’t offer much. It was featureless, smooth walls, no lights, carpeted. And at the end stood another door, but this one looked normal with a knob and visible hinges. Josh noticed instantly the glyph on the doorknob. Considering he’d been studying glyphs for a month, he thought he knew the glyph on the knob was for travel, but it contained some weird subtleties. Where would it go though? All of the kids knew that the front door of the mansion was the only way in or out. So where could this door possibly lead?
Josh didn’t need to think about it much. Lee obviously wouldn’t allow a door that would put any of them in harm’s way if they were to find it. So he grabbed the doorknob, twisted, and walked through.
Sunlight blinded him momentarily, and a warm spring breeze flowed all about him. When his eyes finally adjusted, he was stunned. Josh stood on a cobblestone balcony with a wrought iron banister around its semi-circular perimeter. To the right the cobblestones followed a curved stairway down to a flowering spring meadow. In the distance in all directions, a mountain range rose up over the horizon. Behind him, there was no building, but merely a door. Josh leaned over the banister to see behind the portal and saw only the back of the door.
Josh couldn’t help but smile, his face beaming like the sunlight from the sky. He’d been cooped up in that dark mansion for so long he’d almost forgotten what outside was like. This seemed like the most glorious day of his life.
Had he not suddenly realized why this place was here, Josh probably would have run down the steps and through the fields a la Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. But before he even made it halfway down the steps, he saw to whom this place really belonged.
The meadow had its share of beautiful trees, among them a copse of five anciently massive willows. Each breeze that blew by created a heartwarming rustle like a lullaby one could fall asleep to even in the midst of a construction sight. The willows hugged around one single figure. Josh didn’t want to get too close, but he could see clearly enough that Luna enjoyed this secret meadow. Squinting, Josh saw she was dressed differently than normal. She didn’t have on her customary long sleeve shirt, instead opting for a nice comfortable green sundress. Luna’s constantly half-masked face had no hair over it at all. Her long black hair was now tied back in a ponytail with a ribbon the same color moss green as her dress.
His first urge was to run over there and surprise Luna. In his mind, Luna was startled at first, but quickly, albeit demurely, shared her story with him. Of course that plan just as quickly disintegrated because Josh knew there wasn’t a chance in the world that Luna would so amicably relate anything to him. No, Josh’s own common sense cut his enthusiasm down to size. Instead of running through the fields to this girl he had such odd affections for, Josh instead sat down on the steps and peered through the iron banister, watching Luna read.
The days and weeks went along like this. Learning about Luna’s meadow routine was easy. She went there every day. Usually in the morning she spent a few hours and at night she spent double the time she spent in the day. And each time she wore the same type of outfit. In the meadow, Luna was a happy, free, fourteen-year old girl in a dress with a ponytail and an open book on her lap. In the mansion, that same girl became closed off, dark, dreary, and hateful. Josh couldn’t fully blame her for her attitude. If he didn’t have Alice to keep him happy, Josh probably would be the same way.
This made Josh wonder, though. Why was Luna the only kid in the mansion who knew about the meadow? What was different about her? This was the only meadow in the mansion, Josh made sure of that. He checked every single inch of every wall in the entire house before he was satisfied. This was the only meadow, the only portal to someplace outside, and Luna the only one who knew about it (aside from Josh of course). But he was clever enough. He could put things together and make sensible theories. Unfortunately, without speaking directly to Luna, he’d never be able to figure it out for sure. All he could come up with was the meadow must in some way be related to Luna’s never writing glyphs on Sundays, as well as the skin she always kept covered.
Watching Luna became an obsession. Most days, Josh spent his time with Alice, but at night, after bedtime, when Luna spent most of her time in the meadow, Josh found himself compelled to follow and watch her. Thinking Luna had no idea he spied on her, Josh was shocked to find her absent from the meadow one night. He’d been watching her for two months, and this was the first time she hadn’t shown up.
Josh stood up against the banister, peering out over the meadow. He scanned every inch of the horizon and found nothing. He even resorted to using a far-seeing glyph, but still saw no one. Frustrated and angered, he sat down on the top step. He couldn’t believe how negative his attitude had become simply because he could not admire Luna. Once in a month she decided to do something else and he couldn’t handle it. Why? What was wrong with him? Josh had no idea. He decided to take a walk through the meadow to clear his head.
He thought himself lucky that the steps curved below the sight line of anyone coming through the doorway because the moment his foot touched the soft ground at the bottom, he heard the door click open. Josh gasped and skittered under the balcony, behind the steps. He didn’t want to frighten or upset Luna, and so he prayed she didn’t notice him hiding there.
When she came down the stairs with heavy footfalls, Josh was surprised to see her in her Sunday attire, long sleeves, hair down, jeans. She looked dark and miserable as she always did in the mansion. She stood at the bottom of the steps, hands on hips, as if she were waiting for something to happen. She looked left and right, put her hand up to her brow to block out the sun as she gazed across the meadow. Then, abruptly, she cocked her head a little, seeming to come to a conclusion. She turned on her heel and looked straight at Josh with her one green eye.
Luna sighed like a babysitter sighs at a child who had been bad all night. “What are you doing here?” she asked with far more reserve than Josh thought she would have.
“Um…” Josh sputtered. ”I’m…I was taking a nap down here. It’s a great place to nap.”
She sighed again, sounding even more aggravated than before. “Get out from under there, please.”
“Sure, sure,” Josh said as politely as he could; he wanted to keep things friendly. He trotted out from beneath the balcony and smiled.
Luna’s serious face clearly meant all business right now. “How’d you find this place?”
“By accident,” Josh said truthfully. “I just found it one day in the hall.”
“And you thought you’d spy on me?”
“Uh…n-no, I wasn’t doing that. I wasn’t spying. I…” Josh felt an acute need to express himself genuinely right then. “You know, we had that talk a couple months ago, back when I first showed up here in the mansion. Then you didn’t talk to me again after that. So when I found out you had this place, I wanted to watch you, maybe I could learn about you since you obviously weren’t voluntarily giving away anything. I know Alice and Check, but you won’t let me in one bit.”
“Why do you want to get to know me anyway?” Luna grumped. She folded her arms over her chest.
For some reason, Josh’s cheeks flared up the color of a barn. His entire face burned with embarrassment.
“What’s your problem?”
“Um, I don’t know,” Josh muttered. “I…” He took a deep, steadying breath. “I just want to get to know you. That’s all. There’s nothing more. I know you’re a private person, but I don’t care.”
“Well, what have you learned about me since you’ve been watching me?” Luna smiled. She actually seemed entertained by this encounter.
“Nothing, really,” Josh replied. “All I know is you wear dresses and tie your hair back when you’re in the meadow.”
She began nodding, her mind running in circles trying to think of what she should do with him. Josh hoped terribly that she would allow him to stay and talk to her.
“I’m telling you the truth, Luna,” Josh added. “And I haven’t told anyone about this place. I promise.”
“I know you haven’t.”
Josh’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know? I could be lying.”
“You’re not though.”
Without giving him an answer, Luna turned and walked away toward the willow trees. “Come on,” she called. Josh gasped and ran after her like a puppy running after its owner.
Josh made sure he stayed a good distance behind Luna. He still thought of her as a doe that might get startled at any minute and run away, or in this case, make him leave the meadow. The trees were a hundred yards away. As soon as Josh entered the threshold of the willows, he saw much more than he’d seen from a distance. Deep within the willows, there was a little living area set up with a small round table, four chairs, a kitchen island with a small sink and cutting board, and a small refrigerator. Off to the right stood a clothing rack with numerous colorful dresses hanging on hangars next to a shoulder-high folding screen.
“This place isn’t just for you,” Josh observed.
Luna’s eye grew wide and dangerous. “Yes it is. I was given this place. It’s mine to give to whom I wish. You forced your way in. But the others must be invited. Understand?”
Shrinking under that fierce verdant gaze, Josh merely nodded.
“Well, then,” Luna said. “I suppose…well, I don’t know what I suppose.”
“Are you trying to warm up to me?” Josh asked.
She took a deep breath. She seemed as nervous about this encounter as Josh. “Yeah, I guess so. Let’s sit down.”
They sat cross-legged facing each other a few feet away. The ground was soft and inviting, like a brand new mattress made of clouds. The grass tickled Josh’s legs.
“Well,” Josh began.
“Let me speak.”
Luna smiled. “Thanks. Um…the others know my story. They won’t tell you though.”
“I know. Alice refuses.”
“It’s because they’re trustworthy.”
“I know they are,” Josh said with a tone far angrier than he intended.
Luna sighed. “I know a lot, Josh. I know things nobody should. Things about the future. About my future, yours, Alice’s, Check’s. I know them because I’m…I’m a mistake, Josh. I know you’ve wondered why I don’t write glyphs on Sundays. It’s because…” She looked down at the ground. Obviously she was having a hard time revealing the truth.
Sensing her troubled mind, Josh reached out and took Luna’s hand in his. He rubbed the back of her hand affectionately. “A little bit ago, I was talking to Alice at the pool,” he said. “I told her I’d protect her. I feel the same way about Check, but I don’t think I can say something like that to him. But…I should have told you first.”
Luna’s head snapped up, her eye clearly astonished by Josh’s words. “What did you say?”
“I said I should have told you first. I should have told you I’d protect you.”
Luna’s mouth dropped open. She sat staring at Josh for a long moment. She seemed to regain composure as the seconds marched on. “I don’t write glyphs, Josh, because I’m not a glyph writer.”
“What?” Josh cried, taken aback.
“I’m not a glyph writer, not anymore. I can’t be. I have no powers.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Because I did have powers once. I had them just like you and the others. But they were taken from me.”
“I don’t understand.”
Luna nodded. “I know you don’t.” She sighed, obviously wishing things were different for her. “I want to change my clothes so you can have a better understanding of who I am. Alice and Check have never seen my arms or face. So relish this opportunity,” she added with a wry grin.
Luna stood up, grabbed a purple dress from the rack, kicked off her boots, and went behind the folding screen. She draped her black shirt over the top of the screen as well as her jeans. When she reemerged, she looked completely different.
She didn’t come sit with him, instead deciding to stand away several feet allowing him to see her completely for the first time. Josh recognized immediately the reason for the long sleeves and mask of black hair. He’d seen this attribute before in two others.
From shoulder to wrist, spiraling around her arms, Luna had tattoos etched into her skin. On the left side, from her hairline to the bottom of her jaw crossing over her eye in a crescent shape, still more glyphs adorned her. Both of her eyes indeed were green, beautiful, and glistening behind tears.
“Luna…” Josh whispered. His mind went completely blank. His throat and mouth dried up like he’d tried to eat a whole box of crackers. His breath started coming in long, controlled waves. He could not look away. He was struck by feelings he’d never known before.
“This is why…” Luna started before choking up. “This is why I hide myself.”
Josh didn’t know what to do, what to say. He stood up slowly, taking nervous, deliberate steps toward Luna. Only one thing came to his mind as he stood there, merely two feet away from her.
“I remember thinking, the first time I saw you, that the color of your eye reminded me of a meadow. A meadow like this one.” His voice sounded barely audible. He couldn’t even tell if he was making any sound or not. By the look on Luna’s face, she seemed to be hearing him. He had nothing else to say. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered.
That broke her. Luna burst out crying, weeping as she grabbed Josh and pulled him close in a massively painful hug. She’d obviously been holding in any affection she had for anyone for the past two years. Josh couldn’t blame her. Embarrassed of her appearance, humiliated by her inability to write glyphs, only hatred, enmity, detestation grew within her, overthrowing any semblance of a well-adjusted pre-teen girl.
Luna cried for some time. And Josh held her.
Once the pair had calmed down, they sat back down in the grass to talk.
“Thank you,” Luna said first. “Thank you for not turning me away even though I’ve been so mean.”
“Tell me your story,” was all Josh needed to say. He felt the bond between them now. Neither one needed to get into apologizing for everything.
“It’s not long. I came here a year ago when I was thirteen. My story started only days before that. I was the first kid to be collected by the Thief. That also means I was the first kid the Thief thought had knowledge of the wish glyph. I didn’t. I still don’t know what it is. But that wasn’t okay with the elder. I got to meet him. He’s a nasty, nasty man. He looks a lot like Lee, same shade of tan skin, same native-American facial features. He still has his hair though. They call him Ani. His name is Anidibikad. It means ‘night approaches.’ He turned me into a drone. He was so angry that I didn’t know the wish glyph that he branded me with these tattoos. The ones on my arms seal my ability to write glyphs. He managed to get these ones on my face before Lee saved me. He was trying to make me into a better Thief than the one he had. But Lee showed up. He fought off Ani and the Thief and took me away. Once we got to the mansion, Lee altered the glyphs on my face because they were incomplete. He made it so I can see truths.”
Luna stared solemnly as she told her story. The evil Ani demonstrated made Josh shiver with fright. What kind of a man does that to a thirteen-year old girl? All he wanted was the wish glyph. It crossed Josh’s mind plenty of times that it might just be easier to give the enemy what he wants so he would leave them alone. But seeing how horrible Ani could be made Josh resolve that the wish needed to be kept safe forever.
“Did it hurt?” Josh asked.
“You have no idea,” Luna replied. “These aren’t tattoos you get from a tattoo parlor. They don’t use a needle and ink. It’s morel like branding. The glyphs are written on your skin; then the powers are invoked, burning you permanently. It’s torture.”
“It’s long passed now.”
“So you’ve been here ever since.”
She nodded. “Yeah. Lee wants me to be safe.”
“What about your parents?” Josh asked.
“Don’t have any. They died when I was a baby. I was living in a catholic orphanage when the Thief took me. They were so mean there and had so many runaways, I think they probably took me for one as well.”
Josh shook his head in disgust. “I could use the wish glyph right now,” he said impulsively. “I could wish those tattoos off your body.”
Luna’s eyes brightened for a brief moment, but good sense got the better of her quickly. “But you can’t. You can’t ever use it. Ever.”
“Why not?” he said defiantly.
“You know why not. We all know why not. It’s too powerful. If you used it, Ani would know. And he would find a way to get here. Right now, he can’t get to us. We need to keep it that way.”
“Aren’t you afraid Lee might not be able to protect us forever?”
Luna looked up into the sky. She took a deep breath before lying back onto the grass. Josh blushed furiously when Luna’s dress showed off a good amount of her legs. Funny, he thought, that he didn’t feel the least bit embarrassed seeing Alice in her swimsuit, but Luna’s legs were burning him up.
“One thing,” Luna explained, “the glyphs on my face do is give me a glimpse into future events. I told you, months ago, in my bedroom, that I wanted to prepare you for the future, didn’t I?”
Josh got the gist. He needed to make sure he could defend himself and his friends if and when something happened that allowed either the Thief or Ani himself into the mansion. This wasn’t just a place to sit and learn in limbo, Josh realized. This was a place where they could study and prepare in peace. They were safe as long as Lee could keep them safe. But Lee’s recent appearance on Sundays didn’t go unnoticed by Josh. Lee had always seemed tired, but the past two Sundays, he seemed even more so. Josh wondered how long Lee would be able to hold off Ani’s forces. He wondered exactly what Lee was fighting, what he was doing outside of the mansion.
Josh turned onto his side, propping himself up on his elbow. Luna did the same.
“This is the first time I’ve seen you smile,” he said.
“I try to keep my reputation in the mansion,” Luna replied.
“What did you mean before when you said you can see our futures?”
“I can’t see the future. I’m not Dr. Manhattan. I can see things about people, though. Sometimes truths from the present tell about the future.”
“Oh, that’s interesting. So what do my truths tell you about my future?”
At that question, Luna recoiled. She rolled to her feet abruptly. “I think you should get going and let me do some reading.”
“Because. Come on.”
“But I want to stay with you. Don’t make me leave.”
“You need to leave.”
“You need to. Now come on.” Luna took Josh’s hand and led him to the edge of the willows. “Thank you for listening to me. I…I’m sorry that you had to sneak in here and spy on me before I’d voluntarily give you a chance to know me. I should have just invited you here, considering.”
“Considering what?” Josh asked. He was thoroughly confused.
Luna suddenly became flustered. “Oh, um, nothing. Considering nothing. The circumstances! That’s all. Nothing important. Okay, now. Get going.”
Reluctantly, Josh left the meadow to return to the mansion. He put on pajamas and climbed into bed in a daze. He’d digested so much information today that he could barely think. He felt like he was in a dream. It wouldn’t be difficult to keep his secrets from Alice and Check. Somehow, Luna knew he wouldn’t tell. She was so different from the rest of them. She had unique abilities that were obviously the key to their survival. It would take Josh a long time to process all of this.
Needless to say, he didn’t sleep a wink that night.