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The Genesis Tree Sneak Peek!

Launch date for The Genesis Tree is looming into view! I’ll be planning another epic Facebook party soon (stay tuned!) and I’m super stoked about having all three books available when I travel to Portland this summer for the NW Book Festival in Pioneer Square. You might notice the inclusion of that very destination in The Genesis Tree, below!

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Since there are a few spoilers revealed in these chapters, pleeeease refrain from reading until you’ve finished The Flaming Sword. Seriously, don’t ruin the plot twists for yourself! (Or for me! Lots of mental anguish went in to getting those twists properly orchestrated 😀 )

If you want a quick refresher of the other stories, you can read several chapters of The Tethered World here. For some reason, when I posted the first three chapters of it on this blog, I didn’t keep them up and didn’t save it! **pounds head against the keyboard** I only left it here for a week and then took it down (???).  Guess I wanted to create a sense of urgency or something goofy. However, I was smart enough to keep the first three chapters of The Flaming Sword .

It’s always a fun challenge to find some photos to slide into the story on my blog. This time it was more of a challenge than fun. Just about impossible to find things that would fit! So excuse the random photos which include a grocery sack, and even a cartoon! I often had to search plan B, C, and D instead of using plan A.

Without further yakking…on with the story!

CHAPTER ONE

“KATU Channel 2 News. We’d like to ask you a few questions.” A female voice called to us through the front door after a rapid-fire knock.

My eleven-year-old sister, Sophie, catapulted from the couch. “I’ll get it!”

“Hang on.” I heaved myself out of the beanbag chair—my favorite place to curl up with a good book—and hobbled to the door. With my foot in a walking cast, everything I did took twice as long. “Let me see if it’s for real.”

Sophie stepped aside, hand on the knob. “What could they want with us?”

I squinted through the bubble of glass without answering my inquisitive little sister. A distorted camera lens stared back from the shoulder of a guy with a bushy goatee and oversized, black-rimmed glasses. He stood behind a lady whose face looked misshapen through the peephole. “Looks legit.”

Sophie twisted the knob on one of the deadbolts. Although we had three installed for our sleepwalking brother, Brock, we only used one when he was gone. My sister pulled the door open dramatically, which is pretty much how she does anything.

A redheaded woman wearing a pale blue dress and too much makeup blinked at Sophie, then at me. I recognized her from television.

“Hello!” She gave us a syrupy smile from behind her microphone. “I’m Michelle Gaelyn with KATU Channel 2 News. Is this the residence of Sasquatch specialist Amy Larcen?” The hipster cameraman pointed his lens at us. A red light blinked, indicating he was recording.

Sophie glanced at me. Our mother—and said Sasquatch specialist—wasn’t home. I guessed my sister was uncertain about how to answer.

I stepped closer to Sophie. “She’s unavailable at the moment.”

The woman blinked again. “We wanted her to weigh in on your neighbor’s claim to be in possession of the body of a dead Bigfoot.” She jerked a thumb behind her, indicating the house across the street. “His press conference begins shortly. Said he welcomes skeptics, reporters and questions. What a crazy coincidence that the man who swears he has a Yeti lives across the street from a Yeti expert.”

I faked a laugh to cover a gasp of indignation. Our diabolical neighbor had called a press conference to show off the body of a Bigfoot? Though I was well aware of the corpse, I had no idea the creep planned to play show-and-tell with it. Such publicity would be dangerous.

The reporter stuck her microphone in my face.

“Yes. Crazy.” My heart hammered a distress call. “Um, I’ll let my mother know you came by.”

“Has she inspected the body?” The redhead placed a navy stilettoed heel into the doorway. “Surely your neighbor, Joseph Marshall, has shown your mother his trophy catch. Normally we would dismiss such hype as yet another hoax, but Mr. Marshall emailed some very convincing photos.”

I stiffened. Though this woman could have no idea of the bad blood between us and our neighbor, she was quickly gravitating toward my disagreeable side by mentioning him by name. His fake name, in reality.

“Actually, this is the first I’ve heard. And I’m certain she would’ve mentioned something if she knew.” I shrugged. “Also, you might want to do a little fact checking about the man himself. Joseph Marshall isn’t his real name, so who knows what he plans to display to the media today. I’d be careful, if I were you.”

The reporter took a step back, bumping into the cameraman. “Really?” She pressed her lips together and smoothed her skirt with her free hand. “Well. I—I thank you for your time. And the…tip.”

“You’re welcome.” I couldn’t help but smirk at her reaction.

Sophie stuck her hand in the air and waved. “We’ll tell Mom you came by when she gets home.”

Sophie.” I yanked her behind me.

“Oops.”

“Here’s my card.” The woman shoved her business card at me. “Please have your mother call if she has anything to add, after the broadcast. I’m flabbergasted that your neighbor has kept this to himself. She has an excellent reputation.”

I closed the door and leaned against it, eyeing my sister. “Breaking news…Joseph Delaney isn’t going to mind his own business and stay out of our lives.”

“Mom’s gonna flip out when she hears this.” Sophie shook her head and ambled back into the living room.

A door creaked upstairs. My brother Brady towered from the top step, his blond hair wet, a piece of toilet paper stuck to his jaw where he’d evidently cut himself shaving. “Mom’s going to flip out about what?”

Before I could answer, Sophie squealed. “Oh my goodness! A van from Animal Planet just pulled up to the curb.”

I lurched over to the couch, followed by my brother. The three of us perched on our knees, peeking through the blinds at the boxy vehicle enveloped in the bright, catchy logo of the Animal Planet channel. They’d parked on our side of the street.

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“What’s going on?” Brady nudged me.

“Apparently Mr. Delaney—aka Mr. Marshall—plans to capitalize on that Yeti his wife Abigail killed helping dad escape from their basement. He’s holding a press conference or something.”

“Seriously?”

Sophie bounced on the cushion beside me. “Yep! Channel 2 News just knocked on the door ’cause they wanted to ask Mom a few questions.”

Brady groaned. “Mom is gonna flip. This is not the kind of exposure she needs.”

The driver of the van got out and walked across our grass to the back of his vehicle. He opened the rear doors, which blocked our view of his movements. Another man slid out of the passenger seat, then disappeared on the other side.

A pickup truck from KOIN 6 News pulled up behind the Animal Planet guys, in front of the house next door.

I raised an eyebrow at Brady. “He’s got quite the audience. Since when do major news stations take Bigfoot findings seriously? They’ve stonewalled Mom for years.”

“That reporter said Mr. Marsh—Delaneysent very convincing pictures.” Sophie hopped off the couch. “I’m gonna go outside and watch.”

“I don’t know…” Before I could finish my thought, she was out the door.

“Good luck keeping Sophie in the house when there’s a circus out front.” Brady chuckled and stood, offering me a hand. “Besides, aren’t you the least bit curious? We should probably keep an eye on things.”

I clutched his forearm and pulled up with most of the weight on my good leg, and Brady helped me hobble to the door. It occurred to me, with a stab of surprise, that his shoulder was now level with my chin. Though younger by seventeen months, and about my height at the beginning of summer, he had shot past me by several inches. It startled me to imagine my other brother, Brock, being this tall. He was Brady’s identical but autistic twin, and I had barely seen him throughout our family’s very peculiar summer.

Sophie stood in the middle of our driveway, gaping at the reporters and camera crews milling across the street. Brady and I positioned ourselves behind her.

“I’m gonna text Mom.” What would she say to this craziness? I pulled my phone from my back pocket and noted the time. Nearly four in the afternoon. Though she’d probably be home any minute, I went ahead and divulged the news. When the wrath of Mom arrived, this circus would come to a screeching halt.

Other people gathered on their front porches or in their yards, peering at the commotion. Our next-door neighbor’s kids, RJ and Bethany, dashed across the lawn and set about mauling the Animal Planet van, pointing at the different species depicted on the sides and peeking through the windows.

Found on Oregonlive.com
Found on Oregonlive.com

The irony of the situation made me shake my head. Mr. Marshall, whom we now knew to be Mr. Delaney, had been the world’s nosiest neighbor for the five or six years he had lived across the street. He seemed to be spending his retirement watching us from his front porch, or from the front window of his home, blurred by a haze of cigar smoke. We used to joke that he’d moved here merely to gawk at our homeschooled family, like we were some sort of novelty or lab specimen.

The unfortunate truth of it, we had recently discovered, was worse than our silliest speculations. He knew secrets about my family…secrets I had only learned at the beginning of summer. The man had certainly been watching us. Watching and waiting.

Now all eyes and cameras were on him. What did he hope to accomplish?

I had a sinking feeling he was trying to revive something that recently had died—and it wasn’t Bigfoot. It was his sick agenda that my family had managed to sabotage a month or so back. It looked as if Mr. Delaney wanted to resurrect his foul and nefarious plans right in our faces.

My hand instinctively sought the little book charm hanging around my neck, a gift from my dad. Although I often messed with it absentmindedly, stress drove me to zip it back and forth along the silver chain like it might catch fire. And at this moment, I was smoking mad at what I was witnessing across the street.

The front door of our neighbor’s house opened. Reporters and onlookers turned to watch. A cloud of smoke preceded Mr. Delaney’s stout body like unintended special effects.

From pinterest
From pinterest

He tipped his newsboy hat and stuck his thick thumbs in his suspenders, waddling toward the garage door. The crowd shifted to his driveway and would have blocked our view, if not for his property’s steep incline.

The man’s thick mustache stretched into a grin, a nubby cigar protruding from the side of his mouth, as always. “Glad you all could make it today. I promise it’ll be worth your time. You’ll have an opportunity to take a brief look and snap some photos. Then I’ll answer a few questions.”

Even through the veil of smoke, I saw his beady eyes peer at me and my siblings, as if daring us to speak up and threatening us if we dared.

He removed something from his pocket with a flourish. The mechanical humming of the garage door commenced, and it lifted like a slow-motion curtain revealing a stage. Bright lights set up inside the garage beamed onto the large silhouette of something lying on a table beneath a blue plastic tarp. Mr. Delaney walked to one end, grasped the cover, and pulled it away with a swoosh.

CHAPTER TWO

From the murmurs and gasps of the onlookers, they sounded impressed. Bodies and equipment crowded into the garage, cameras flashing and recording. Curious neighbors rushed to join the frenzied crowd. One little kid buried his head against his mother and she pulled him away, looking horrified as well.

I didn’t need to see the creature for myself. My father had recently been guarded by that brown, hairy ape-man while he was a prisoner of Mr. Delaney, and I was glad the thing was dead. I’d met more than my share of Yetis over the course of summer, and I liked the dead ones best—with a couple of exceptions.

I also knew they preferred a different moniker. Legends? Definitely. But their folklore went back further than nicknames like Bigfoot and Sasquatch from our local Pacific Northwest traditions. Back to darker tales in superstitious and unenlightened times. These hulking, hairy monsters were really Trolls.

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Mr. Delaney strolled the fringes of the crowd looking like the cat who swallowed the canary. He even had the nerve to glance at Brady, Sophie, and me and tip his hat.

My anger flared at his cockiness. I felt Brady tense beside me. Before we could get too riled up, I spotted our minivan, weaving through the crowded street toward the house. Mom nosed the Honda Odyssey into our driveway and stopped, the back bumper extending into the street. The driver’s door flew open, and she bounded out in yoga pants and a ponytail, looking more soccer mom than Bigfoot expert. She left the door flung wide.

“Please tell me this is a sick joke.” Her voice held a tremor that seemed to come from sparks of anger firing in her eyes.

Brady shook his head. “He’s obviously a sick man but this ain’t no joke.”

“Mom, what are you doing?” Nicole, my seven-year-old sister, was yelling from inside the van. The side door slid open and she hopped out, looking from us to the crowd across the street. “What’s going on?”

Mom flexed her jaw and took a deep breath. “I’m not sure, honey. Please stay with me.”

“Mom, Mom, Mom!” Nate, my baby brother, flailed his legs in his car seat, strapped and trapped.

“I’ll get him.” I limped over and leaned inside. “Hey, little man, are you ready to get out of this seat?”

“Yesss.” He clapped his dimpled toddler hands. “Want to get out.”

I unlatched his buckles, and he wriggled onto the floorboard. He had a new pair of tennis shoes that lit up when he walked. He stomped his feet and giggled at the lights.

“Those are the coolest shoes ever.” I snatched him up and carried him to where the others stood. He leaned his head on my shoulder, which shoved his curly black hair in my face. We had adopted Nate from Ethiopia when he was a baby, and I envied his thick, corkscrew curls and smooth, dark skin.

Cute little toddler at a playground

“The nerve of that man.” Mom shook her head.

“Channel 2 News came by.” Sophie grabbed Mom’s sleeve. “They wanted to talk to you about the Bigfoot body.”

“Oh really?” Mom raised an eyebrow at Sophie. “So they dismiss my research for years, but one shout from Smokey the Bear over here, and they come running. Ugh.”

Nicole stood on her tiptoes peering across the street. “What are they looking at?”

“Sweetie, why don’t you take Nate into the house and get him a snack. There are some bananas that need to get eaten.” Mom took Nate from my arms and plunked him on the ground next to Nicole.

“But what are they doing?” Nicole didn’t move. “Hey, RJ! What’s going on?”

RJ and Bethany turned and waved at my sister.

“Nicole, I’m not going to say it again.” Mom’s tone left no room for arguing.

Nicole slouched away, and Nate toddled along beside her.

Mr. Delaney’s voice rose over the commotion. “All right, all right. Step back. As you can see, this here Sasquatch met his maker from the end of my shotgun.” Mr. Delaney lifted his hat and scratched his head. “That overgrown monkey picked the wrong house to wander into.”

A smattering of laughter peppered the crowd.

“What a liar.” Brady crossed his arms. “But there’s no way to prove it.”

Mr. Delaney raised his hands to quiet everyone. “Before I take questions, let me show you one other little surprise.”

He disappeared into the garage. The crowded driveway made it difficult to see. When he came back into view, he lifted his arm and revealed something boxy covered with a black cloth. “In this cage is another legendary creature. Though much smaller than Bigfoot here, it’s still a fabled creature that most people pass off as the figment of overactive, superstitious imaginations.”

“Mom!” Sophie turned anxious eyes on her. “What do you think he has in there?”

“Shh.” Mom held up a finger but didn’t peel her gaze from Delaney.

“I figured if I sweetened the pot, so to speak, I’d have your attention.” Mr. Delaney took a long draw on his cigar and puffed a cloud of smog at the crowd. “Because what I want you to know is that there’s more where these came from.”

“More what?” someone shouted.

“More Yetis. More real, live folklore, my friend.” He held up the shrouded cage with one hand and removed the black cloth with the other. The crowd blocked my view of the contents. A collective gasp morphed into awkward laughter.

“I can’t stand it. Let’s go inside.” Mom stomped toward the house.

My siblings and I looked at Mom, then back across the street. Go inside? How could she go inside? I didn’t move.

“Oh—the groceries.” She strode to the Odyssey and shut the driver’s and passenger’s doors, then popped the hatchback. “Are you guys going to stand there or come help?”

I could hear questions shooting off across the street. It sounded as if Mr. Delaney was trying to regain the upper hand, but I couldn’t concentrate over the crinkling sound of plastic grocery bags. I trudged to the back of the minivan, where lumpy sacks slouched their Fred Meyer grocery store logos.fredmeyer

Brady tossed me a disappointed glance, and I followed him into the house, several bags in each hand. Sophie brought up the rear. We placed the sacks on the kitchen counter and started putting groceries away. Tension permeated Mom like too much perfume. No one spoke.

A knock on the door made me drop a can of organic corn. Sophie shoved a jar of peanut butter into the pantry and started toward the foyer.

“No you don’t.” Mom stopped Sophie with an upraised hand and marched out of the kitchen, leaving my sister deflated.

I heard the front door open and a voice say, “Michelle Gaelyn, KATU Channel 2 News. Can I ask you a few questions about Joseph Marshall and the Bigfoot body he has on display?”

No one moved inside the kitchen.

“I have no comment,” Mom said.

“No comment? You’re a Sasquatch expert, and there’s a very convincing body across the street. Doesn’t that intrigue you?”

With a finger to my lips, I crept out of the kitchen and the others followed. We sidled up to the wall.

“Mr. Marshall hasn’t bothered to include me in his escapade. I’m afraid that leaves me without comment.” Mom stepped back and tried to swing the door shut.

The reporter thrust her microphone across the threshold. “What about his claim to present a live Sasquatch to the world at his upcoming press conference?”

Mom lifted her chin. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re referring to. Now if you’ll excuse me.”

Michelle Gaelyn pressed a persistent, manicured hand between them. “I personally requested that Mr. Marshall invite you to the press conference next week. If he wants his claims to be taken seriously, he should include you in his presentation.”

Mom cocked her head. “Well, you should’ve checked with me first.”

“Mrs. Larcen, he plans to bring a live Bigfoot for the world to see. You’re a Bigfoot expert. I can’t imagine why you’d want to miss something like this. Plus, he claims he’ll bring a gnome and a leprechaun as well.” The woman chuckled. “Of course, he claimed to have an elf in his little cage today but it was empty. He said it must’ve become invisible or escaped. Still, that Yeti looked authentic. It was convincing enough to make us want more. I really hoped to get your reaction to run with the spot on the six o’clock news.”

While the woman spoke, I watched my mother’s body language surrender. She heaved a sigh. “I’ll say something.”

“Terrific!” The reporter turned to her cameraman. “Roll camera.”

The goateed dude stepped back, and I watched the camera light blink to life.

Sophie looped her arm through mine and stretched toward my ear. “This is cool.”

The reporter stood poised like a contestant in a beauty pageant. “I’m here with world-renowned Sasquatch expert Amy Larcen, bringing you the breaking story that has coincidentally unfolded right across the street from her home. Amy, your neighbor, Joseph Marshall, has produced a very credible-looking Bigfoot body today. Have you had a chance to inspect it?”

“I have not. As you well know, I’ve only learned about the body this afternoon, But I plan to pay my neighbor a little visit. Soon.” Mom’s voice held thinly veiled sarcasm.

“I see.” The reporter flipped her ginger hair behind her shoulder. “And do you have any comment about the press conference that Joseph Marshall scheduled for next week in Pioneer Square? He’s promised to bring creatures straight from the pages of folklore, including a living, breathing Sasquatch. What do you make of such claims?”

“I make them out to be full of hot air, to be honest. But I suppose time will reveal the truth.”

“Will we be able to count on you to participate in the press conference? I know your feedback would be valuable.”

“Oh, yes. Wild, uh, Yetis couldn’t keep me away.”

Michelle laughed. “Excellent. The world looks forward to hearing from you, as well as seeing if Mr. Marshall can deliver what he’s promised.” She turned to face the camera. “Stay tuned, folks. KATU will have all the latest information on the upcoming press conference. And remember, you were first to hear from Sasquatch expert Amy Larcen here, on KATU Channel 2 News.”

The camera light winked off, and Michelle extended her hand to my mom. “Thanks for taking the time to visit today. Here’s my card. Please call if there’s anything new that would be relevant.”

“You bet.” Mom nodded and shut the door. She turned and leaned against it, catching sight of us. “Well, never a dull moment around here.”

“Can we watch the news tonight?” Sophie skidded up to Mom and grabbed her hand. “You’re gonna be famous. Wait ’til Dad hears about this.”

Mom smirked. “Yeah, that ought to be interesting. Dad will probably want to share the gift of sign language with Mr. Delaney.” She raised her fist. “Right in his cigar-smoking kisser.”

CHAPTER THREE

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“There’s Mom!” Sophie stabbed her finger excitedly at the TV.

“Move.” I swatted her hand from in front of my face.

Seven pair of Larcen eyes were glued to the flat screen TV, platefuls of chicken Caesar salad balancing on our laps—with the exception of Nate. He sat in his highchair, playing with slices of grilled chicken and cheese.

“Mommy!” Nate waved at Mom’s image on the screen.

Dad aimed the remote at the television and cranked the volume.

“…I suppose time will reveal the truth,” the recorded Mom stated, disdain oozing from the television pixels.

I glanced at Mom to see her reaction. Her hand was sprawled across her face but she peeked between her fingers. “Ugh. I look so unprofessional in my yoga pants.”

“Why are you on TV?” Nicole sat in the beanbag chair and poked her fork from Mom to the TV. “Does this have something to do with your work? Hey, that’s Mr. Marshall.”

Shh.” Dad increased the sound to ear-splitting.

Images of the dead Yeti were spliced into the segment. Matted, nut-brown fur filled the screen. A brief, partially blurred shot of the fatal, blood-caked wound was replayed several times. The camera panned to Mr. Delaney, standing near the leathery, gorilla-like face. He puffed habitually on his stubby cigar while promising a live exhibition in downtown Portland at the Square. The parting shot was a final glimpse of Bigfoot.

How had he managed to preserve the body of the beast? It had been five weeks since Mr. Delaney’s wife shot the thing. I wondered what she thought of her husband’s bold escapades. Was she watching the news from her new home? Despite our neighbor’s bold claims to the contrary, she had killed that creature to free my dad—and herself—from Mr. Delaney’s tyrannical schemes. Her husband had left the Yeti guarding my father in their house. In the meantime, the man went away to plot with other Trolls about total world dominance. And no, that’s not an exaggeration.

Quiet-spoken Abigail Marshall had blasted the furry giant with a shotgun and put an end to my dad’s imprisonment, which helped put an end to Mr. Delaney’s plans.

Or so we thought.

When the ordeal was over—an ordeal that left me with a broken ankle and Brady with a few dead Trolls under his belt—we were powerless to punish Mr. Delaney for his involvement. And he knew it. Pandora’s box could not be shared with local law enforcement. Even if we risked exposing our family’s connection to a land full of legends, who would believe a word without proof? Such proof meant placing many creatures, and our friends, in danger. It was a risk we wouldn’t dare take.

But Mr. Delaney planned to offer the world the evidence it craved. And, in the process, endanger our family and folklore-friends by parading to the media what we had so carefully guarded—for untold generations.

And the media was lapping it up.

A live shot of Michelle Gaelyn, in the KATU studio, came on the screen. “After we readied this spot for this broadcast, one of our editors made a fascinating discovery.”

A video rectangle popped up next to the reporter. Slow-motion footage played in the inserted screen. “Watch carefully, folks, as Mr. Marshall lifts the cover off the cage.”

A painfully slow version of Mr. Delaney’s earlier antics began. He reached a burly hand to the black cloth and ever so slowly pulled it free.

“There! See that?” The reporter’s voice was giddy. “Watch again in case you missed it.”

A few frames of film replayed several times. Finally, the shot froze with the cover halfway off the cage. A colorful blob could be spotted inside. By the magic of computers, a red circle appeared around the shape. Though it was blurry, something was obviously there in one frame and gone the next.

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“Mr. Marshall claimed to have an elf—an elf—in this cage.” Michelle Gaelyn’s eyes blinked excitedly, defying her otherwise polished demeanor. “Once he removed the cover and found nothing inside, he claimed the elf was either invisible or had escaped. Of course, the onlookers scoffed at him. But I have to admit,” the video replayed and froze with the splotch visible in the frame, “something is definitely in this cage. And then it’s not.”

The camera cut back to the reporter. “An elf? A cat in costume? Who knows. As a journalist, I’m definitely curious to see what Mr. Marshall and Mrs. Larcen will present to us this next week in Pioneer Square. As a native Portlander, I’m fascinated by the local folklore. This is a story that I’ll be following. And I look forward to bringing it to our audience. Back to you, Sean and Melissa.”

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The screen filled with the two news anchors—one raised his eyebrows while the other nodded skeptically. “An elf? Bigfoot?” Sean said with a grin. “You’ve certainly got us curious.”

The screen went dark. Dad smacked the remote onto the coffee table. His greying temples pulsed with the flex of his jaw.

Nicole squirmed onto her knees and popped up in front of the television. “Mom, why were you and Mr. Marshall on TV? Does he have a pet Bigfoot? Did it die?” She tossed out the questions casually, as only the daughter of a Sasquatch expert could.

“Baby.” Mom puffed out her cheeks and released a slow breath. “It’s complicated. But, yeah, I guess you could say his pet Bigfoot died. And remember, his name is really Mr. Delaney.”

“But they called him Mr. Marshall on the news.” Nicole crossed her arms.

“Yeah,” Mom waved dismissively, “guess it doesn’t really matter.”

Dad stood and paced between the television and coffee table. He looked like a caged animal ready to pounce. I glanced at Brady and Sophie, sharing looks of concern. Since his kidnapping, our carefree, creative father had become a pressure-packed firecracker with a short fuse.

Between my mother’s occupation of Sasquatch-ology and my dad’s unusual foray—owning a local cosmetology school—we were graced with a set of easygoing, nonconformist parents. And although I shied away from divulging their quirky professions to, well, anyone, I did appreciate their carefree ways.

But all that had changed this summer. As I watched my father stride back and forth, filling the room with tension I could all but stuff in my pocket, I longed for the way things used to be.

Sort of.

I missed our peaceful household, true. But in exchange for this great upheaval of life-as-I-knew-it, a bolder side of my personality had emerged. It was a satisfying discovery—but one that came at great personal cost.

This brave, new Sadie had inherited a key with the potential to start World War III—one part of the recent makeover I wished I could forgo. Instead, the unique key, disguised as a ring, encircled my right ring finger, looking like an innocuous piece of jewelry. I stared down at its familiar gold swirls, remembering how it had been my Great Aunt Jules’ wedding ring. But this summer I had become her successor and the latest in a long line of key keepers whose task was to hide this powerful little key in plain sight.

With a frustrated grunt, I covered the ring with my other hand. There were times, like now, when I wanted to forget I even had it.

Dad stopped pacing and threw up his hands. “No matter how I approach it, we’re basically stranded at sea. We have no choice but to swim along with this charade and hope to make it to shore.”

“I like charades.”

“Liam,” Mom tilted her head, “let’s talk about this after I get the little ones to bed.”

Nicole sprawled dramatically in the beanbag. “I’m not tired. I wanna play charades.”

Dad grinned and scooped her up. “Tell ya what. If you get ready for bed quickly, we can play a round of charades before you go to sleep.”

“Yes!” She pumped a fist in the air, then wriggled out of his arms and scurried up the stairs.

Mom slid Nate’s tray away from his bibbed belly and plucked him up. “We’ll be back in a jiffy.”

“Come on, kids, let’s clean up.” Dad unlatched the messy tray and headed to the kitchen. The rest of us hopped up and worked to clear the living room of the dinner debris. My dad’s willingness to interrupt our latest crisis to play games with Nicole was another interesting twist in the family dynamics, thanks to our precarious summer. When you nearly lose your life, or the life of someone you love, your priorities do some seismic shifting.

In the kitchen, we worked in silence. I guessed the others were contemplating the “breaking news” as well. Like Dad, I couldn’t see a way around our involvement with the loathsome neighbor and his meddling plans.

Besides, what better way to keep an eye on the troublemaker than for Mom to march into the media mayhem and pull off a believable performance of her own?

Brady stood at the kitchen sink and scrubbed the stainless-steel salad bowl with vengeful strokes. He couldn’t believe his parents were agreeing to go along with what Mr. Delaney was forcing on them. But was there an alternative?

Brady couldn’t think of one. Besides sabotage, he said to himself. Yes. “Sabotage,” he whispered. He liked the way the word slipped out with a snarl. That would be his personal mission. If Mr. Delaney planned to parade carefully guarded secrets before the eyes of the world, Brady would do what he could to bring the man down before he got off the ground.

A lot could happen in a week, give or take. Brady had learned that fact earlier this summer when his parents were kidnapped by Trolls and taken to the Tethered World—a vast land tucked below the earth’s surface and teeming with creatures that had once roamed the Garden of Eden. He vowed to do all he could to prevent Mr. Delaney from jeopardizing his family’s privacy—not to mention the lives of those he loved, both above and below ground.

He was a Guardian of the Sword, after all—sworn to protect his brother who was to become the new monarch of Vituvia, a city in the Tethered World. Well, guardian in training, anyway.

After round two of dangerous underground insurgencies, he had come home for a brief reprieve. He would resume his training at the end of September, bringing a semester’s worth of sophomore curriculum back to the Land of Legend—the heart of the Tethered World, inhabited by the Gnomes, Dwarves, and Trolls. The end of September was only a week away.

A lot could happen in a week.

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