I’m upstairs in my attic, writing in a new journal I had received for my fourteenth birthday.
I’m away from Casey’s crazy tenth birthday party—
My dad’s firm tone reminded Casey she can’t jump off her bunk bed, no matter how many girls have done it before here, nor how many times she begs, pleads, whines and even bribes him.
“The answer is no.”
A door closed. A pound caused a yell and then a fake apology. My decade-and-a-half year old brother, Decade, and his two so-called tough guy friends, Greg and Geoff, were pranking on Casey. Any minute now, shrieks were going to pierce the air.
I just shook my high, straightened ponytail and returned to my journal writing—
I got an earful of shrieks, causing my dad to yell above the noise. The screams and screeches from eleven ten and eleven-year-olds lowered as many decimals as they would if one of them saw a huge, hairy spider—
The girls’ screams caused the pounding of fists to hit the hardwood floor. When some of the girls announced it was fake, Casey huffed and told Decade and his two friends to leave. They did, because the front door creaked open. All three boys started discussing playing basketball and then going over to Geoff’s house to destroy each other’s high scores in a confusing, weird video game of Bonjoe Three Hundred.
The front door slammed.
As the wooden stairs creaked from the girls’ footsteps all climbing, one of them asked where I was.
“Oh, Yule is in the attic.”
A slam of Casey’s door.
Casey’s sad voice made me sag my shoulders in guilt. “I wish she was here to help us. Since I’m the birthday girl, I thought she could help us all…” The sound of a drawer opening. Macy’s gasp, and then Olivia’s dreamy sigh. I knew she was looking up in amazement as she imagined her wedding day looking as beautiful as the rolls of thread Casey was displaying before her friends. I knew this because she planned to have me weave them throughout each girl’s hair.
But I straightened and continued writing, scribbling something onto the paper. If I’m going to be a children’s author, I need to write!
After a couple of penned words, I felt wind on my face, and whipped around, my almost blond eyebrows furrowing and my pale yellow hair billowing behind my head. “Huh?”
A steam train’s smoke rose, and the screeching of rusty, metal wheels made me slap my hands over my ears. I didn’t want to suffer from visions of nails running down the chalkboard. Or worse, teeth grating against each other.
I fled down the rest of the tiled station walkway, not looking back. Where I was going, I didn’t know. But then my eyes grew wide. My journal! I wasn’t done writing that paragraph.
I checked myself while I ensured I didn’t fall into the railroad below. Where was it? I had it with me. I wondered whether all this was a dream? I squeezed my eyes shut. Then I opened them. Out of the periphery of my eye, a boy close in age was running behind the arched train station. He disappeared behind a pole, and then appeared again.
I ran up to him.
“Just follow me, okay?”
He looked like he was from Victorian times—an English flat cap, brown cotton jacket, beige knickers. His overcoat even had brown buttons trailing down one of the sides. Ugly holes decorated his black shoes, but I looked away to avoid embarrassing him.
“Hey!” I said as I ran besides him. “Where are you going?”
We sidestepped some wooden boxes and crates. I gagged on smoke as the ugly, black stuff billowed from huge, black steel trains. Scraping sounds made me scowl at men with their bent backs, their shovels scooping coal into the trains’ furnaces. Inhaling the sooty atmosphere, I nodded: we had gone back in time to Victorian England. If only I could meet the writers of this period. and tell my dream of writing a children’s book. I smiled. But I felt eyes on me. I turned back to the boy.
“Where’d my journal go?”
He took out a pocket watch. “I have ten days. It takes ten days to get there.”
He looked at me. “Will you help me?”
“Do what?” I pressed. He sighed, like he told me a million times.
“I have to repair…” He returned to the watch, but I snatched it out of his hand. I kept it out of his reach, and he growled at me to give it back to him. I wanted to play a game of come and get it, but he kept yelling at me and threatening to trip me if I didn’t return it. I finally tossed it to him, and he caught it, scowling back at me before jamming it in his pocket. He looked like he was about to just dash off.
“I…” I just stood before him. “Look, I don’t know how—”
“It doesn’t matter.” He grabbed my wrist. “I need to get back to the watchmaker. If I’m late, he’ll kick me out of his shop. I’ll never be his apprentice again.”
We ran past shopkeepers, chimney sweeps, angry butchers, women sweeping their front porches, street lamps, piles of ashes and coal, funeral pyres and sprays of dust making me gag and choke. The boy coughed and sniffed, covering his mouth and telling me to stuff my shirtsleeve in my mouth to avoid getting sick and, worse, develop lung problems. I heard him add that if he wasn’t prompt, he’d have to sweep chimneys forever.
I laughed as some pigeons in front of us panicked, taking flight.
“I’m running from another thief.” He showed a pocket watch in the light after we turned into a dingy alleyway. “I stole it from him. But he stole it from a watch shop. I was walking outside one day, and he happened to be coming around the corner. I asked him whether he had something for me to at least munch on, as my stomach was screaming for some food. He pulled this little beauty out. I snatched it up and he yelled after me. Soon, the police were coming! I escaped like mad. I guessed it was quite a while since I took it, so I’d sit around and have a drink or two at the pub. Or I’d steal some crust of bread from an elderly, blind woman sweeping her porch.” He snickered. “Why she was doing that or how she was doing that job, I don’t know.”
“But…you’ve got ten days to fix this watch with your teacher. How are we going to do that?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know. How’d you get here?”
I looked at him a minute. “I don’t know! I just sat down in my attic to get some peace and quiet from my sister’s crazy tenth birthday party. But she’s pretty low-key compared to my brother, Decade—”
A sputter of laughter. “A brother named Decade—”
I punched his arm, but he just smirked, rubbing it. “He pulls stupid pranks on me, but he’s still my sibling!” I glowered at him, and he jerked his head down and took his hat off.
“Sorry.” He blinked.
“Well, if we need to repair and return that watch, let’s go.” I turned to go, but he just looked at me.
“I’m only thirteen. I may run into him, and I’d be sweeping his chimneys faster than I can say ‘no’. He’ll be really angry.”
I told him I could help him.
“Yes! Thank you.” His eyes shimmered with gratitude.
We escaped the sewer stench, him laughing as some clumsy people bumbled their way through the alleyways. I smiled at the beauty of lilies in a field, and felt a poke in the back. Looking back, I grinned, my cheeks burning from embarrassment. Still, he held the flowers out to me. I grabbed them and then thanked him when he caught up to me. He just tipped his hat towards me and grinned.
“You a thief, too?” He nodded towards my hand, and I skidded to a halt and looked down. someone’s crust of bread in my hand! I widened my eyes, dropping it.
“No!” I backed away. “I need to return this food you stole!”
Something beige and fleshy covered my mouth, and I witnessed in horror as the boy kicked his legs and whipped his arms around as some huge guy carried him off to a large horse-drawn carriage. I heard some grunts, and a complaint that children couldn’t understand adult’s needs. Then pain shot through my chest as it smacked wood. Crawling on my elbows and knees was going to take forever as I would have to wiggle under and over crates and boxes, so I pushed up only to immediately rub my aching head—I guess a box was stacked above me. I then lay down, curling myself up inside this pitch blackness. I called for the boy, but only heard muffled replies.
He must be gagged with a cotton cloth!
I felt the carriage lurch. The field was moving past me, I saw from an overhead cloth’s holes. We were moving—but where? Then it hit me—that thief he stole the watch from! Could these burly men be his henchmen?
I didn’t try to escape lest one of them had a knife or something horrifyingly deadly they’d use to stop me. And maybe for good. Soon, the carriage stopped. Last night, which I just noticed with a gasp, had changed to today. I inched my way backwards, along the wooden boards, elbows and knees moving at a snail’s pace. How long—
It must be Day 1. 9 more days to the watchmaker. I needed to find the boy.
“No longer with your friend, eh?”
Obnoxious laughter sounded from behind me. I felt the carriage getting lighter. I looked: crates and boxes were being stacked on top of each other in front of a house. A huff sounded on the front porch, and an order was made for them to be brought inside. I breathed very slowly. Deliberately, more like. I swallowed and blinked. I bit my lip. I curled up. And tried thinking of Casey and Decade and Geoff and—
My arm was roughly yanked by the same hand, and I was shoved towards the stairs. I looked up, but was grabbed again by a frilly-sleeved woman. She started commanding me to prepare breakfast and then wash the clothes piled to the ceiling in a wicker basket. I started surveying the large kitchen and its fine china cabinet, but I immediately whirled around after getting kicked in the back, my hands clenched. I bounded for the door and banged on it, but the woman threatened to beat me if she didn’t see her orders fulfilled immediately. Even fiddling with the door knob was useless—the woman was pulling it shut, she barked. I yelled that I was never going to slave under someone like her, when the door barged open (I flew out of the way), and the woman, enraged, clapped me on the cheek and spat that I was here for a reason.
“Get those clothes done and the washing, or I’ll send you to bed with no supper or breakfast!”
I glowered at her and then whizzed through the door, hurtling over the front porch’s steps. I grabbed an axe lying beside the house, and swung it around a little sloppily but sliced the air only. I soon controlled it, aiming and hitting the screaming horse’s carriage shaft. The panicked animal reared up, but I dropped the axe and calmed it, and for some reason, it listened to me. We bolted away, me determined to find that boy. And, hopefully, my journal.
Birds fluttered to and fro above me. I felt some cool liquid on my forehead and opened my eyes to see a familiar face and an animal’s nose above me. It was the carriage’s horse…and the boy!
I bolted upright. “I must’ve fallen asleep.” I stared at him. “Did you find your teacher?”
“Nah.” He shrugged as he walked down a leafy hill and returned with a barrel of water, dropping it under the horse’s head. “Besides, I know this way. It’s not long.”
I stared at him. He was so casual about it. “I thought you were going to become a chimney sweep forever if you didn’t find him!” I blanched. “What are you talking about?”
His eyes were half-closed as he pointed behinds me. “I escaped those stupid men. Besides, it’s about a two day journey—”
“And I need to find my journal!” I lunged for the horse, and got on (somehow). I jerked out a hand. “Come on!”
The horse began quenching its thirst. I kicked it, but it just shook its mane a little.
He lunged for the horse’s side, saying that we had time. “Seven more days.” Getting on in front of me, the boy kicked the horse. We galloped, he telling me he didn’t care what happened—he’d escape again. He sounded a little older—or maybe a little more confident. He didn’t seem so young and boyish anymore. I looked down at his left hand. I wanted to hold it to be safe, but I didn’t know him. How would I know he wouldn’t use his horse to guide us not to the watchmaker but to a palace where he is actually a prince of some kind—
No! He couldn’t do that. I shook my head. But I straightened and squeezed my legs against the horse’s chocolate brown sides, crossing my arms. Before I knew it, the bright blue sky’s shining sun traded for stars twinkling overhead. The horse stopped by some trees in a desert, and we made do with scrappy things the boy found.
The stolen things he “found.” I gave him a piercing sideways look I wished he’d see. But his face stayed perpendicular to mine, our fire’s glow lighting up the left side of his face.
When I screamed at a scorpion in the wee hours of the morning, we mounted the horse again and rode for a couple more days. I exhaled and rolled my eyes to the sky as the boy returned to us with some bread and nuts he said he stole from a nearby merchant.
“The shopkeeper was stone drunk, so I just took what was left.”
After trying to split the lunch with me, he wolfed it down himself. Later, the horse stopped at a brook. Water must’ve never looked so inviting to the boy—he leapt straight off and sprang towards it. He beckoned me, and I reluctantly joined him. Soon, I found myself drinking it, too, trying to swallow it fast so we could get on with our day. But he kept swatting water at me and laughing, his head thrown back and mouth open wide towards the beautiful blue sky. I finally played along with him while the horse drank and flicked its pretty brown tail.
We caught some fish the next morning, sinking our teeth into its gills and insides. I retched, but the boy stuffed his cheeks and somehow swallowed it all without choking. We galloped some more and then stopped for the night and the next one. I, tired of horseback and starving, calculated our remaining days. “We need to make it today!”
We trotted by some butcher shops. When my stomach grumbled, the boy halted the horse and ground-tied it. We went inside. Bargaining ended up with us being chased out by the crazy butcher. Our stomachs ached hours later, and the boy’s complaints caused me to halt the horse this time.
“How do we know they’re not poisonous?” I wondered, salivating at the juicy blueberry patch taunting me.
We traded the berries for another horse ride. A pocket watch dangled from someone’s hand in a window that night.
After dismounting, we burst through the door. The sitting man rose and hugged the boy. “Welcome. I’ve been waiting for you.” He and I talked some, and then the man clapped the boy’s shoulder.
“Use this time to show your friend your pocket watches. Then, we’ll both watch how you make one. And give one to her!”
He chuckled. I smiled and looked at the boy.
He raised his eyebrows at me. “Will you help me?”
I crafted myself one, too, but gave it to him. Then I told them I’d best be getting back. The boy frowned, and his shoulders slumped.
Closing my eyes against the wind flowing through my hair, I smiled sadly when I saw the station and its train. Looking everywhere for my journal, I couldn’t find it. Returning home, I found it sitting where I sat writing. I heard one of Casey's friends wonder whether I ever spent time with her, and Casey just sighed. "Not really."
When I burst into her room, the girls all looked at me, especially Casey.
I stuffed my hands in my pockets. “I can always go back to writing.”
Casey grabbed my hand and pulled me downstairs, the girls’ squeals filling the living room as I braided my sister’s hair first and then weaved her friends’ braids and ponytails with the icing white, sapphire, ruby and silver threads my sister had said she had wanted to use.
The boy returned the stolen pocket watch to the man. When I questioned whether he had taken anything, the boy displayed two empty hands. “Besides, did you find your journal?”
The train moved past us this time.
I took his hand. And told him to help me.
“With what?” He called as he hung on with one hand.
I yelled my answer.
Once we had jumped off simultaneously, he nodded and tipped his hat. “Yes, ma’am!”
I grinned, and we ran off together.
On another adventure.