Startled, Emma stumbled.
The box in her hands flew out, tipped sideways and spilled toothpaste and soap in all directions. A bottle of shampoo rolled back down the stairs to the first landing where it spun like a merry–go–round before finally coming to a stop.
Emma dove after the bottles to re–collect them, so she never really saw anything other than the stairs until the woman stepped foot on the landing. At that very moment, Emma stood up with the bottle of shampoo in her hand and found herself face to face with an old woman. Her breath struck Emma in a hot, stifling blast.
“Cat got yer tongue, child?” croaked the woman with a squint.
Emma almost dropped the bottle again in surprise and fumbled with it she tried to step aside, but her heel caught the banister, and she almost fell down the stairs herself. Her father leaped back down the half flight, still balancing the box he was carrying in the other, and caught her arm at the last instant. Emma caught her breath. She looked timidly at the old woman, and she opened her mouth to apologize. She suddenly felt overwhelmed, tired, confused and off–balance, but at the same time, she was rooted to the spot.
“Yep, jest as I suspected. Yer child’s a mute or an idiot?” she growled, turning suddenly to Emma’s father. He was taken aback almost as much Emma was. She had never seen her father surprised like that before.
“I … er … I mean, she …,” he sputtered.
“Oh, I see. Runs in the family, does it?” cackled the woman. “Idiots. One branch of the family goes rotten, and the next thing you know, whole tree runs sickly with them.”
She pushed her way past them, and they looked at each other with a look of surprise in a private, voiceless conversation:
What was that?
I have NO idea!
Emma and her father collected themselves and their boxes and proceeded silently back up the steps, trailing the old woman by a half a flight. By the third floor landing, Emma had nearly caught up with her. She made a move to pass in the corridor, but the woman stepped onto the next set of stairs and cut her off. Emma looked back at her father. He shrugged. So Emma followed the old woman step by step up to the fifth floor. The fatigue in her legs made her painfully aware of each and every step she took.
The woman turned down the hallway in the same direction as their apartment.
Oh no, Emma thought. She’s heading straight for our place!
Instead, the woman stopped abruptly, in front of the door to the mysterious apartment with the strange noises Emma had heard earlier. The old woman threw the door open and a blast of brilliant light filled the hall. She stepped inside and slammed the door behind herself. The hallway became very dark, very quickly.
Emma and her father hurried down to the end of the hall, opened the door to their apartment and scooted inside.
They closed the door and looked at each other. She’d never seen her father look so surprised. The expression on his face made her giggle. Seconds later, his mouth twisted from shocked “O” into a smile and then into a grin, and soon he was laughing too. This only made Emma laugh harder, and she sank to the floor, laughing so hard her stomach hurt, the box of soap and shampoo still in her hands.
They made short work of the rest of the boxes and carried the last of their luggage into the living room just as the last rays of sunshine finally disappeared, and the sky turned black, or at least as black as the sky can get in a city at night. They cleared a small space between the boxes in the living room. They opened the curtains and windows to help clear the air and managed to dig out a pot and a can opener to make a simple supper of soup and bread. By the time the dishes were done, the city had lit up the sky outside the window like an urban nightlight, and skyscrapers dotted the distant horizon like a river made of constellations.
Her father pushed back his bowl and sighed contentedly, the way he always did after a meal. Emma stood up and reached for the bowl to clear the table.
“Hon, go rest. I’ll clean up here,” he said, placing his hand on hers. She looked at him, ready to protest, but she could tell from his face that he meant it. So while her father tidied up the few dishes and puttered about, humming a complicated tune from one of the many pieces he was always composing, Emma curled up on the sofa with her storybook to read some more Greek and Roman mythology. She started in on the story of Perseus, the Greek hero who tamed the flying horse Pegasus and slew the horrifying, evil Medusa.
It had been such a long day. All that driving and lifting and walking up and down the stairs. Emma felt her head getting heavier and her eyelids droop. As she read about Perseus’ encounter with three strange old women, she thought about the woman down the hall and the apartment with the strange noises. For the first time in days, she was curious to know what her new school was going to be like and if she would make any friends there. She wondered how her father’s new job would work out, and how long it would last.
At some point, she must have fallen asleep because when she opened her eyes again, it was very dark, and she found herself in her pajamas in her new bed. She could barely make out the edges of the closet and the door to the hallway. She could see the faint edges of the blind moving gently in the breeze, and she could see a dark patch on the wall near the ceiling, which turned out to be one of those old vents with a decorative metal grill cover. The apartment was very quiet, so quiet she almost forgot she was in the middle of the city.
A cool breeze blew into the room, making the blind shimmy and rattle against the window frame. The air felt good on her skin as it passed over her, taking the edge off the day’s heat. A second breeze fluttered past the blinds and felt just as good.
As the breeze picked up, the blind started to dance along with the wind, billowing in when the air pushed into the room, and pressing back into the screen with a little suction–y pop when the air retreated back into the night.
Emma allowed her breath to follow along. Inhale. Exhale. Pop. Inhale. Exhale. Pop. Exhale. Exhale.
Exhale? Emma lifted her head, puzzled. It seemed like the air was pushing from inside the building instead of blowing in from outside. She watched intently. The blinds seemed to be pressing against the screen harder each time the outside breeze let up.
That isn’t right, she thought. How can the wind push out? The door is closed. There’s no place for the wind to come from in here.
And then something completely unexpected happened.
The building sneezed.
Emma sat bolt upright and scrambled to the top of her bed, pressed her back against the wall and pulled her cover sheet to her chin with both hands. Everything went quiet, except the sound of her heart pounding in her throat. Then the light came on in the hallway, and she heard footsteps in the hall. A gentle knock at her door sent her heart racing again.
How far will you go to find your way home?
Emma and her father are always on the move, travelling from place to place as her father’s work demands. Their new home, however, is different. There’s a frightening woman who lives down the hall: she bears an uncanny resemblance to a witch. A mysterious light comes from her apartment, and a small boy seems to be trapped inside. School in this town is no happy place either, with an odd principal and a gang of girls who make tormenting Emma their special project. And strangest of all is the fact that there seem to be brownies – basement brownies, in the air vent in her bedroom.
Haunted by visions of her mother, Emma travels through the brownie burrow to the valley of Hades to visit with the goddess Ceres, following a series of clues that lead her across the sea of memory to the centre of the world. There, on an inhospitable rock floating in a sea of steaming lava, Emma must find a way to release her mother from the sea of memory and restore magic to both the brownie burrow and the human world above.
Genre – Middle Grade Fantasy Adventure
Rating – G (ages 10+)
More details about the author