“IS SHE DEAD?” SHOCK SHIMMIED UP my spine at the sight of Great-Aunt Jules crumpled in my mother’s arms. I couldn’t tear my gaze from her conspicuous black eye, the size and color of a plum.
“Sadie!” Mom shot me a scornful look and shifted from under the weight of our Irish aunt. Not hard to do since she was smaller than my eleven-year-old sister Sophie. “Why do you always imagine the worst? Run and get a wet washcloth for her face.”
My breath came in shallow spurts. I dashed to the guest bath and scrounged a cloth from the cupboard, turning the tap full blast. Maybe it would drown my growing alarm. It takes a certain strain of vicious behavior to attack an elderly woman. And I’ve got my reasons for imagining the worst. With vindictive force I wrung out the washcloth and darted back to Mom.
“Sophie and Brady,” Mom shouted. “Downstairs. Now.”
Mom snatched the washcloth and pressed it against Aunt Jules’s forehead. With her other hand she stroked the crimson curls around our great-aunt’s face, speaking in hushed tones. If not for the unnatural angle of Aunt Jules’s body, she might have been sleeping peacefully.
I knelt beside my mom. “What’s this?” I reached for a piece of paper that Auntie clutched against her chest.
“Don’t touch it.” Mom’s tone made my fingers recoil. “Someone ransacked her house. They left a note.”
My mind reeled. Her tidy beach bungalow was in a safe, gated neighborhood where everyone looked out for each other. Uneasiness continued to swell.
Footsteps bounded down the stairs. Brady and Sophie stumbled into each other at the sight of our aunt.
“Oh, no!” Sophie’s hands flew to her face. “Is she dead?”
“For Pete’s sake.” Mom shook her head. “What’s with you kids? No. Aunt Jules fainted.”
“When did she get here?” Brady crossed to the couch. His lanky, fifteen-years-and-growing body towered over Mom and the patient. “Is she sick?” He crouched beside me. “Wow. Now that’s a shiner.”
Mom ignored his comment. “Carry her upstairs to Brock’s bed. She’s hurt…and who knows what else. Prop her feet on a pillow.”
Aunt Jules moaned when Brady scooped her up.
“Sophie, get an ice pack and a glass of water.” Mom pointed toward the kitchen. “And Sadie”—she gave me a serious look— “call your dad. Tell him, ‘code word curator.’ It’s a word we picked to alert one another in case of danger or a family emergency.”
“Code word? We have code words now? I thought all our bizarre family secrets were finally out in the open.” I was treading on thin ice, for sure. But the last six weeks had uncovered a host of skeletons from our family’s creepy closet. Living specters that had rocked my world.
“Not…now.” Mom looked ready to snap.
With a huff, I turned to find the phone. I used speed dial to call my dad at the Camas School of Cosmetology, the cosmetology college he owned. His occupation was only one of the numerous quirky things about my family. It helped that I was homeschooled—yeah, that qualifies as quirky too—so I didn’t constantly have to explain things like this to a multitude of people.
“Camas School of Cosmetology. This is Dinah. How may I direct your call?”
“Dinah? Hey, it’s Sadie. I need to talk to my dad.”
“Sorry, Sadie. Your dad hasn’t come in yet. Did you try his cell?”
“What? Are you sure?” I leaned against the wall. “He left like two hours ago.”
“Hmm. Lemme double check. I’m usually the first person to see him, but maybe he snuck past. Hold on.”
I wandered into the kitchen, dodging Sophie and her icepack and water. “Oh, my goodness.” I froze.
My two-year-old brother, Nate, sat in his booster seat, covered in oatmeal. In all the uproar, the poor kid had been left to mind himself while strapped to his chair. Supporting the phone with my shoulder, I grabbed a bunch of paper towels and mopped the gummy stuff from his face.
“Sadie? No sign of your dad. Sorry.”
“Okay, thanks for checking. I’ll try his cell.” The oatmeal had migrated to my fingers. I leaned over the table and let the phone plop from the crook of my neck.
Nate clapped his sticky hands together, making slimy, suction noises between his fingers. “Mushy, mushy.” He smiled at the goo. The pale-colored oatmeal contrasted with his chocolaty Ethiopian skin. I envied my adopted brother’s year-round tan.
“Yep. It’s mushy, little man.” I crossed to the sink for more wet towels and caught sight of my youngest sister, Nicole, outside on the tire swing. “Hey, Nicole,” I called through the open kitchen window. “I need your help. Come ’ere.”
She slid open the patio door and peeked inside. A pink, plastic tiara nestled lopsided in her honey hair.
“Would you finish cleaning Nate? I have to do something for Mom.”
“Sure.” Nicole took the paper towels and zeroed in on the moving mound of muck. At only seven years old, she tackled most of Nate’s needs with the skill of a seasoned babysitter.
I picked up the phone and headed to the privacy of the living room. Something about using code words made me feel like I’d better keep the convo under the radar. While Dad’s cell rang, I wandered to the front window and puzzled over the random word my parents had chosen. Curator? Isn’t that an old person in charge of a museum or something?
“You’ve reached the voicemail of Liam Larcen…”
I caught sight of my haphazard reflection in the window. I didn’t want to dwell on the pimple on my chin, the cowlick in my brown locks, or the smudged mascara I forgot to wash off the night before. Instead, I focused my attention past the mess that was me and peered outside while I waited for the voicemail beep. Is it okay to leave code words in a voicemail?
Aunt Jules’s old VW Beetle was parked crooked in our driveway and blocked both of our family vehicles. She obviously parked it in a hurry.
“Oh my.” I smacked the phone onto the windowsill and booked it upstairs. “Mom, Mom!” Nausea swirled in my gut. I whipped around the corner and skidded to a stop in my brothers’ bedroom. Everyone—who was conscious— jerked their heads in my direction.
I took a deep breath, then another, dreading what I had to say.
Mom paused in the middle of placing a blanket over Aunt Jules. “Sadie, please. Spare us the dramatics.”
I slowly exhaled. “Dad’s car is still in the driveway.” The blanket slipped from Mom’s hands. “What?”
“His car. It’s there.” I thumbed in the general direction. “Parked.” The words impregnated the room with sinister implications. My mind flashed back to earlier this summer when both my parents went missing.
Mom shook her head. “No. He kissed me goodbye. I watched him walk out the door.”
Sophie shoved the icepack at Brady and brushed past me.
“Sophie!” Mom’s eyes flashed. “No, ma’am. Get back here.”
Sophie shuffled back in the room, arms crossed and chin set.
Mom raised a warning finger. “No one goes outside.”
“Amy?” Aunt Jules’s eyes were still closed. “What’s going on?”
Mom clasped her hand over Aunt Jules’s clenched fist. Unconscious or not, Auntie kept a stranglehold on her scrap of paper. “Someone broke into your house, remember?”
Aunt Jules’s mouth pressed into a frown, an uncommon sight for the cheerful woman. She blinked. The swollen bruise twitched. Her gaze settled on Mom. “I know what happened t’ me. Did somethin’ happen to Liam?”
Mom bit her lip. She appeared to weigh the wisdom of sharing bad news on top of bad news. “Uh, not sure. He left for work a couple of hours ago, but his car’s still here.”
“Ya think it’s related to what happened to me?” Aunt Jules tried to roll onto her side. Her emerald eyes winced with the effort.
Mom gently pushed her shoulder back onto the pillow. “That remains to be seen. I still don’t know what happened to you. You barely made it into the house, mumbling about a break-in, when you passed out.” She handed Aunt Jules the icepack. “Here, use this on your eye. When you’re feeling better, we’ll talk.”
Aunt Jules shoved the pack away. “Won’t be needin’ that. Nothin’s wrong with me that a steamin’ cup o’ tea won’t fix. It’s painfully clear we’ve got loads of talkin’ to do.”
“Um…” Sophie looked at us like we’d been struck with amnesia. “Dad’s missing. Shouldn’t we call the police?”
“It’s true, your father’s not here.” Mom swallowed. “But…that doesn’t mean he’s missing. I mean, not in that way. It’s doubtful.” Her voice grew quiet. “Not after what happened before.”
“Family meetin’. Soon as the kettle whistles.” Aunt Jules worked her legs out of the blankets.
“Nonsense.” Mom barred her way. “You’ve had a terrible scare. You’re hurt. Now lie down and ice your eye…please. We’ll bring you the tea.”
“Amy Ann Larcen! If I say I’m fine, then I’m fine.” The spunky little redhead swung her legs off the bed and stood. “I won’t be lyin’ here when earth-shatterin’ events are takin’ place right under our noses. You’ve no idea how serious this is.”
Sophie, Brady, and I exchanged troubled glances.
Mom looked resigned to Aunt Jules’s insistence while she grabbed the ice pack. “Fine. But you’re going to keep this on your eye. You’ve got a terrible periorbital hematoma, and it needs attention.”
“Poppycock!” Aunt Jules straightened her twisted velour sweat suit. “Don’t throw that highfalutin’ medical talk at me, nurse Amy. Nobody dies from a black eye. If ya don’t mind, I’d like to speak to ya about this”—she waved the scrunched paper at us—“or somebody else is likely to go missin’ while I’m lyin’ here like a helpless lump o’ sugar.”
“Yes, let’s talk about that.” Mom looked like she was teetering on her last available nerve. “Before we do anything else, would you mind explaining what kind of burglar beats up their victim and leaves a note?”
“It wasn’t a burglary.” Aunt Jules shook her flaming curls. “Nothin’ valuable is missin’. These intruders weren’t thieves. Leastways, they weren’t today because they didn’t find what they came for. Which is why they left this for me.” She indicated the note and sat back down on the edge of the bed.
Mom looked puzzled. “Okay…”
“Ya think me brain is addled, don’t ya?” She leveled her gaze at Mom. “Listen, there’s somethin’ stirrin’. And it has to do with me late husband—and so much more.”
Mom shifted her weight and looked impatient. “I’m not following you. What could the intruders possibly want in regards to Uncle Daniel? He’s been dead for over thirty years.”
I scooted closer to my brother and sister. Their expressions a mixture of confusion and skepticism— exactly like my brain.
One lone tear slipped down Aunt Jules’s cheek. “Thirty- eight years, actually.” She stroked the crinkled letter repeatedly across her lap. Her head shook slowly. “This note. I wouldn’t believe a word of it, but…” Another tear dripped.
“But what?” I burst out.
“But I’d know this handwritin’ anywhere. I know who penned these here words like I know the wrinkles on me own face.”
Mom lowered herself onto the bed and placed a gentle hand on top of our aunt’s nervous fingers. “Whose handwriting?”
Aunt Jules let out a ragged sigh. “The date, see?” She pointed. “This note was written last week. But I’d swear by the dragon’s lair that the handwritin’ belongs to me dear husband, Daniel.”
BRADY OFFERED TO CARRY AUNT JULES downstairs, but she stubbornly refused. He settled for helping her totter to the kitchen and then returned to his empty bedroom. He hadn’t slept well for the past six weeks—ever since he had been separated from his autistic twin brother, Brock.
Brady paced in tight circles, trying to calm a sickening sensation that something must be happening where Brock lived since life in the Larcen household was, once again, in a state of chaos. Brady had protected Brock all of their lives. Protected him from bullies who didn’t understand the blond little boy who refused to play tag on the playground and rocked back and forth to music only he could hear. Protected him from unkind customers at the mall who didn’t like having to step around someone who stopped the flow of shoppers. Brady had endured a few black eyes for his brother’s sake. Gladly. But now…now he could no longer run interference, and it left him feeling lost. And empty.
Brady plopped onto the beanbag between his brother’s bed and his own. Brock’s blanket lay skewed from where Aunt Jules recovered a few minutes earlier. Brady grinned to think how Brock would react to seeing his bed in such a disorderly mess.
On Brock’s nightstand sat seventeen Matchbox cars— his favorite number. They were always placed in precisely the same way—front bumpers aligned in a semicircle. Did Brock miss his cars?
Does Brock miss me? Brady bit his lip and stared at a picture of the two of them, identical on the outside, so different beneath the surface.
As twins, the two hadn’t been apart for more than the occasional night or two. But earlier this summer, things changed in major ways. It began with their parents being kidnapped and taken to a world that none of the kids knew existed. A world where Brock now lived as an apprenticed future king—away from the watchful eye and quick fist of Brady.
Though the whole family, Brady included, loved the fact that Brock’s autism made him the perfect fit for kingship —Brady struggled to find himself outside of his position as protector and interpreter for his quiet brother.
Clearly he was having an identity crisis. One that left him restless, worrying about Brock. Wondering what part, if any, he himself would have in this strange, new place that had invaded their lives.
The thought of what might be happening to his dad— and by default, to Brock—left him with a mix of fear and exhilaration. Fear for the safety of those he loved. Exhilaration that he might be going back to this world to do something about it.
I silently volunteered to put the kettle on for tea and made a beeline for the kitchen. How was it that missing people and family meetings had become an integral part of our lives?
In the kitchen, I filled the teapot and looked out on the perfect summer day with sadness. The treehouse and tire swing called to my childhood. Gone were the blissful, carefree days of pretending there were Dwarves and Dragons lurking about. I now knew how very real they were and missed the ones I could control with my innocent imagination.
Nicole carried Nate piggyback across the yard to the shade of a tree. Our little Corgis, Ollie and Mindy-loo, romped about nearby. Mom’s warning suddenly blared in my brain. No one goes outside. I ran to the door and yanked it open.
“Nicole! Nicole, let’s come back in the house.” I trotted across the cool concrete patio and into the dewy grass.
“Is it time for school already?” Nicole slid Nate from her back.
“No. I don’t think we’re having school today.” Nate reached his chubby arms my direction, and I lifted him to my hip. “Aunt Jules is here.”
“What? Oh awesome.” Nicole zoomed into the house.
“Awesommme,” Nate crooned.
I kissed his curly head. Glad someone can find a reason to smile.
Back inside, Brady helped Aunt Jules into a chair at the breakfast table. She still clutched the crumpled note.
“Guess this means I’m not getting my driver’s permit today.” Brady glanced at Mom. “Which also means I cut my hair short for nothing.”
Mom sighed. “No. Sorry. Not today.” She brought a box of Darjeeling tea to the table. “But thank the Lord for small favors. Your hair needed to be mowed worse than grass in springtime.”
“Why can’t Brady get his permit?” Nicole asked. “And how did Aunt Jules get that black eye?”
“I’ll explain, later. You and Nate may go watch one of your shows.”
Nicole glanced at me. She seemed to sense something in the air. I shrugged and gave her a wink, then watched her disappear into the living room with Nate.
“Lucky,” Brady whispered to me. “Our lives hadn’t turned into a freaky fairytale when you were getting your driver’s permit.”
I gave my brother a sympathetic grin. “Wish I could help ya out.”
He plopped into a chair.
“Hang on.” Mom held up a hand. “I know it’s probably pointless, but I want the two of you to accompany me outside to look for clues to your father’s disappearance. There’s safety in numbers.” She turned to Aunt Jules. “Auntie, we’ll be right back. Let that tea work its magic, and then we’ll talk. Sophie will stay and keep you company.”
“But, I wanna—”
“You’re staying, Sophie. Don’t argue.”
Sophie clammed up but looked on the brink of tears.
She had more guts than me, hands down. When our parents disappeared, she handled it with grace and courage—something I couldn’t claim. Death defying circumstances seemed to bring out the best in her…with a side of annoying, overeager behavior.
Mom led the way to the front door and stopped. “Look for any sign of struggle. Stay close.”
“Gee, that won’t look suspicious.” I glanced at Brady.
“I’m not really concerned about appearances at this point, Sadie.” Mom tugged the door open.
We slowed every few feet, inspecting the hedges, the walkway, the brick, and so on. Once in the driveway, we walked around both vehicles looking for anything out of the ordinary. Our minivan still sported three claw swipes from earlier in the summer when my parents were abducted by Bigfoot.
This seems like a good place to point out another quirk about my family…my mother’s occupation. She’s an expert on Bigfoot, as well as Leprechauns, Elves, and other mythical creatures. This bizarre hobby has always been a source of embarrassment for me—wackier than my dad’s flair for hair. That is, until their kidnapping set off a chain of events that led my siblings and me to travel to a world inhabited by the very creatures she studies. This world, we learned, exists within our own planet. Seriously. It’s called the Tethered World. And Bigfoot is one of the villains living there. Whatever you want to call him—Sasquatch, Yeti, Abominable—those are mere cultural names for something else you’ve probably heard of: the infamous, villainous Troll.
Beyond that interesting factoid, my brother Brock was now spending the summer in the Tethered World as High King in training with some of the good guys. While he stayed behind to learn how to run a powerful realm of—get this—Gnomes, the rest of us have been missing him terribly. Counting the days until he returned from his first round of internship.
As I combed the yard for signs of my father’s disappearance, I wondered what implications this real-life plot twist had for Brock. Was he in danger? Did something happen to him today, as well?
“There’s nothing here,” Brady said.
We had made concentric circles around the driveway and yard, but it looked undisturbed.
Mom puffed out her cheeks and expelled a breath. “Well…” she placed her hands on her hips.
“What about Mr. Marshall?” I pointed to our neighbor’s house across the street. The man stayed rooted to his front porch, or behind the front window, watching the world go by. There was rarely a time when he wasn’t sitting there in a fog of cigar smoke or silhouetted behind the glass. He had blinds installed a couple years ago, but when the light slanted in at the proper angle, I could still glimpse his stout body positioned in its regular spot.
“Good thinking, Sadie.” Mom turned toward our nosy neighbor’s house. “If anyone happened to see something, it would be him.”
We traipsed across the road, and I noticed the blinds snap shut at our approach.
Mom raised her fist to knock, then turned and looked at my brother and me. She whispered, “Let me do the talking. I need to ask him a few things without telling him anything.”
Good luck with that.
MR. MARSHALL PULLED THE DOOR OPEN before my mother could knock.
“Well, well, looks like we’ve got company.” The balding man wore a newsboy’s cap and stood in a swirling cloud of smoke. His cigar dangled from beneath his mustache so precariously, I expected it to fall at any moment.
“Hello, Joseph.” Mom nodded. “How are—”
“Who’s at the door, Joe?” a shrill voice called from behind the man.
Mr. Marshall hollered over his shoulder. “Just the Larcens paying us a visit, Abigail.”
“Oh. How nice.” Mrs. Marshall peeked over her husband’s shoulder, but he didn’t seem inclined to move and share the doorway. “Why don’t you invite them in?”
“No, no.” Mom held up a hand. “We can’t stay. We, uh, wondered if you saw unusual…activity…in front of our house. This morning.”
Mr. Marshall closed the door farther, so that it framed his plump, crinkled face. “See anything like what?” His voice was low.
“Out of the ordinary.” Mom sounded impatient. “C’mon, you look out your front window 24/7. You probably know what unusual looks like better than we do.”
His eyes narrowed. I don’t think he appreciated my mom pointing out the obvious. “Sorry, but I don’t know what you mean. Abigail feels under the weather and has required my care most of the morning. I haven’t been paying attention to much of anything besides my dear wife.”
Mom nodded. “Okay, okay. Sorry to have bothered you.”
“No bother, Amy.” Mr. Marshall grinned, biting his cigar between his teeth. The smell was getting to me. “You mind telling me what I should be looking for?”
Mom shook her head. “Nope. Nothing that we won’t be able to take care of. Soon as Liam gets home, I’ll discuss it with him. If he thinks there’s reason to be alarmed, then I’m sure he’ll talk to you and the other neighbors.”
A strange look flashed across Mr. Marshall’s face. So swift, I thought I imagined it. “Very well.” He took a drag from his cigar and blew the smoke out of his nose.
“See you, Joseph.”
Our own front door opened before we left Mr. Marshall’s driveway. Sophie stared a hole through us as we approached. “Well?” she asked, when we were within earshot.
“Nothing.” Mom shrugged.
We stepped inside and Mom locked all three deadbolts, slid the chain in place, and locked the doorknob— precautions we hadn’t bothered with since sleepwalking Brock stayed behind in the Tethered World.
I linked arms with Brady, needing to siphon some of his bravado to face the long, disturbing conversation I knew awaited us. Sophie danced ahead into the kitchen. I didn’t know if she felt giddy with excitement or needed the restroom. Either way, I found her obnoxious. My disposition was slipping back into resentful, fearful territory and I felt powerless to stop it. Having to face these family demons again, so soon after our big “showdown” earlier this summer, seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. I only wanted my senior year to get started. At this rate we wouldn’t begin the new school year anytime soon.
Aunt Jules sat staring at her empty teacup. I grabbed the kettle. “You want seconds?”
“Yes, guppy, I surely would.”
A measure of calm washed over me. It registered that guppy was the first pet name that Auntie had used since she arrived. Pet names and Aunt Jules were synonymous.
Things felt better already.
Crossing to the stove, I fingered the necklace my father gave me “just because” after our adventures this summer. A tiny silver charm shaped like a book. He told me to wear it as a reminder of things to come. A promise that I wouldn’t have to lose the things I love in the midst of this new part of my life in the Tethered World. I often found myself messing with it to calm my nerves.
“Lovey, tell me what ya found.” Aunt Jules held her used teabag under the stream of water as I poured.
Mom shook her head. “Nothing. Nada. We even went across the street to Mr. Marshall’s house—you know, our oddball neighbor who always seems to be watching us— but he claimed to be taking care of his sick wife all morning.”
“She didn’t sound sick to me,” Brady said.
“Yeah, I noticed.” Mom brought an empty mug to the table. “My guess is that Mr. Marshall is so disagreeable, his wife puts on a happy face to make up for it. Even when she’s ill.”
“So, now can we call the police?” Sophie jutted her hip sideways and crossed her arms.
“You don’t get it, do you?” I snapped. “Dad isn’t here. Not topside, anyway.”
“How do you know?”
“Because, I do! What happened to Dad and Aunt Jules is obviously connected?” I plunked into a chair.
“It’s not obvious to me. I don’t see how Aunt Jules fainting has anything to do with Dad disappearing.”
“Sophie, open your ears and close your mouth for once. You don’t—”
“Sadie!” Mom interrupted. “You need to take your own advice.” She arched an eyebrow and pointed her finger at me.
I pressed my lips tight. Before today, things had finally begun to feel normal—and I wasn’t ready to revisit the bizarre side this soon. Though I came around to accepting my family’s connection to the world below, it hadn’t taken long to slip back into my old attitudes.
Aunt Jules reached a hand to Sophie and gave her shoulder a pat. “Have a seat, peanut. This is complicated.”
I drew my legs up and hugged my knees. The last big powwow we had with Aunt Jules around this table had left me shaken, scared, and angry. When our parents disappeared, Auntie came to stay and spilled the beans about our ancestral connection to the Tethered World and the main hub within it called the Land of Legend. She had been the one to pull the curtain back on a history that included our family and the world at large. Things you’d never read in a history book, guaranteed.
One thing she shared was that her twin sister, Judith, was the current queen of a special realm within the Tethered World called Vituvia. All our lives we heard that this sister lived “abroad”. This is why we had never met her. Made sense. Turns out “abroad” was a very broad term that included the world below. The very place where Brock now apprenticed with Queen Judith, learning how to rule Vituvia when the time came for her to retire.
Hearing that our discussion would be “complicated” didn’t inspire confidence about the subject matter. This time, instead of dealing with waves of alarm that grew with each revelation unveiled by Aunt Jules, panic wrapped its tendrils around me nice and tight, right from the start.
To read the entire tale, preorder now, right here! Paperback available November 1st. Click here to join the Facebook Virtual Launch Party to win some sweet book swag!
Sadie Larcen and her family are slowly recovering from their life-altering trek to the Tethered World. That is until their aunt arrives clutching a mysterious letter and sporting a black eye. The letter that Aunt Jules shares with the family writhes with sinister implications. A new and menacing enemy has slunk from the shadows and is conspiring to seize the most powerful piece of weaponry in the land: The Flaming Sword of Cherubythe. The sword must—at all costs—be kept from the enemies who lust for its power.
The threat extends to Sadie’s autistic brother Brock. As High King in training, he now resides in the Tethered World, within close proximity to the sword. It’s apparent that drastic measures will be required by all in order to protect what’s most important. Can Sadie once again confront her disabling fear, stare evil in the face, and walk away whole—let alone alive? How can one teenage girl and her family save a sword with the potential to start a world war? Will lines be crossed even as Sadie’s faith is tested? Sadie knows it’s going to take a lot more than strength, grit, and courage to survive.