All adults do is file taxes, complain that eating hot chip upsets their stomachs, and lie.
Take today for example. Mom and Dad told me we were going to have fun today as we got into the car.
So I stayed in the car, tightly gripping onto my seatbelt because for once it was actually useful—it kept Mom and Dad from forcefully scooping me up and taking me into Great Aunt Margaret’s mansion.
Yeah, that Great Aunt Margaret. The one I was named after. The one that’s like a hundred years old.
P.S., that’s why we’re at her mansion, for her hundredth birthday party.
“Come on, Maggie,” Mom coaxed. “All your relatives are inside and they’re just dying to meet you.”
My mouth dropped. “They’re dying? Ohmygod, dead bodies are gross.”
“Not literally dying, sweetie,” Dad said.
I crossed my arms. “I don’t wanna go. There’s no one my age in there. Everyone’s either fossils or on their way to becoming fossils.”
“Come now, there’s your cousin Denis. He’s around your age.”
“He graduated college last year. I’m eleven.”
“Maggie, you need to come inside.”
“Maggie!” Mom said, using her I’m-serious voice. But it wasn’t gonna work this time, Mom. I won’t crack. I’m not going inside for that lame family birthday party.
I ended up going inside. It was totally my choice though, not because my parents made me.
Not that it mattered. My parents ditched me as soon as my aunts and uncles greeted them. They sent me off to ‘play with the other kids’ with a wave of their hand.
But there were no other ‘kids’. Like I said before, the closest person my age in my family was Denis, but he was still twelve years older than me. That means the person I have the smallest age gap with will be my cousin Ginny’s baby once she pops it out. From the look of it, that maybe any minute now.
But still, I got yet another ‘go play with the other kids’ from my parents so I scurried off to the living room where Denis had set up shop with his Xbox. My other technically-young (still in their twenties) cousins, Victor and Tiffany, sat beside him. They only had three controllers so I just sat behind them.
“Oh, hey, Mags,” Victor said, not taking his eyes off the screen. He probably saw my reflection off it. “We don’t have any more controllers.”
“That’s fine,” I lied. “I’ll just watch.” Anything is better than being with the adults.
I was wrong.
After two minutes, my mind started drifting into daydream land—my favorite place! But, every five seconds I’d hear another loud bang or boom or you suck at this and snap out of it.
“Can you turn down the volume, please,” I asked.
They turned it down from fifty-five to fifty-three. So not only were they being stingy about the volume, they made the number off by not having it be even or a multiple of five. That’s just evil.
My eye twitched. Then, I hit my first stroke of luck since coming to this place—a board game.
Yeah, that’s right. A board game. Oh how far the mighty had fallen…
I unwedged it from under the table it was holding up. “Hey, let’s play this.”
One causal over the shoulder glance was all it took to be denied. “Ew, no, Maggie,” Tiffany said, “The Greatest General? That was a board game when my dad was a kid. He used to love it and make me play it all the time—but it’s totally sexist. All the women characters are total bimbos. Hard pass.”
“I’m on a kill strike, Mags,” Victor said. Another boom from the screen.
“Sorry, Maggie,” Denis said. “Maybe later.”
Which really meant never. My gaze fell to the floor.
Denis must have noticed because he quickly said, “Hey, maybe you can get the others downstairs to play with you.”
You mean the ones who already tried to pass me off to you? Fat chance.
There are some relatives that haven’t built up immunity to my puppy dog eyes yet… I was saving that for better Christmas presents this year but desperate times call for desperate measures.
And I was about to die from boredom.
“Who wants to play this board game with me?” I cracked open The Greatest General on the coffee table in the middle of the second living room.
No one turned a head at me and kept going with their nonsensical conversations.
“Did you get that promotion, Stephanie?”
“You should get a restraining order on him. You know, my dog walker’s cousin’s landlord’s old tenant is a law student. He could probably help you out.”
“No, I don’t think that mole is normal. And for Christ’s sake, Lavern, pull your pant leg down! No one wants to see that.”
I cleared my throat and tried again.
When I got no response the second time, I made direct eye contact with Uncle Jeffrey—Tiffany’s father—and gave him my puppy eyes. “Please, Uncle Jeffrey.”
“Awe, sure, sweetheart,” he said. “Hey, Robert, Linda. You remember this game? Maggie wants us to play.”
An echo of ‘oh, sure’s followed. Everyone selected their pieces and I rolled the dice. After making my move, I stared at Uncle Robert to make his, but he had already forgotten and started up his old conversation again. “Well, Linda, you deserve that promotion. At the very least a raise. If you don’t get a raise every year, with inflation, you’re taking a pay cut.”
I cleared my throat and pointed at the game. “Why don’t you just roll for me, Maggie,” Uncle Robert said.
So, I did. Because what other choice did I have?
“Aunt Linda, it’s your turn.”
But of course, she was still talking to Uncle Robert. I played for her too.
My last hope was Uncle Jeffrey, but… “I said pull the pant leg down, Lavern. So help me or you're getting skinny jeans for Christmas this year. Good luck rolling those all the way up to mid-thigh.”
“Can someone just play with me?” I finally asked and swiveled my head around for my parents. They’ll take my side.
They have to.
Luckily, Mom moseyed on over and took a seat next to Aunt Linda. “Maggie, dear, why don’t you join us in the conversation instead. Rebecca, have you tried switching out your locks yet? You know, whatever hair-brained schemes that soon-to-be-ex-husband of yours plays, we’ll always be here to support you.”
“What lawyer did you get for the prenup again? You can use him for the restraining order.”
“Or at the very least the divorce.”
“Yeah. Don’t let that rat bastard take any of Great Great Uncle Jimbo’s fortune. That’s for family only.”
I half expected for something to say ‘watch your language around Maggie’ but they’ve already forgotten about me.
“Forget this. I don’t even exist to you,” I muttered then got up to leave.
“Oh, honey. Don’t say that. No one’s trying to ostracize you, Maggie,” Mom said.
Ostrich—What? I know my teacher told them she’d teach us a new word every day during back to school night, but in reality she only cries about whatever scummy ex-boyfriend dumped her that week.
I don’t even wanna be an ostrich. I just want someone to realize I’m here and matter.
“I’m gonna go back to Denis and the others.”
And then whoop sucked right back into the conversations.
When I finally reached the gaming trio, I gave them one glance, then kept walking. Not repeating that mistake.
I didn’t really have anywhere to go, but I just kept lapping the mansion. I picked up this habit when skipping class. If you don’t want to get caught, just look busy and keep moving. If someone motions in your direction, pick up the pace.
This was going well for about half an hour when I tripped over some uneven wood flooring and fell. I winced and slowly picked myself up. While rubbing my stubbed toe, I glanced back over at what made me trip. After my foot hit it, the wood panel had become more than uneven flooring—it was completely out of place.
I pulled it away from the floor, revealing a brick tunnel instead of a cement foundation. Dang, are all mansions made like this? With secret passages? It was like straight out of one of my mystery books.
I removed the surrounding floorboards to fully reveal the child-sized tunnel. It was a good thing I was child-sized. So I climbed in.
The tunnel let out into a huge room—far bigger than any of the living rooms above. Automatic lights flickered on as I walked in. I gasped.
The hidden room was like a mix of modern and ancient. The lights and electricity were all modern, but the walls, ceilings, and floors all looked ancient—like they came straight from one of Mom’s historical dramas that she always cries when watching. I never understood that. It's in the past. Everyone’s already dead. Why are you surprised when someone is killed off? You knew it had to happen…
I can’t believe I got distracted from the mystery room under my Great Aunt Margaret’s mansion.
On the back wall of the room a was a message carved into stone. It read: It’s always the one who strays from the herd and their path that discovers new land (and become rich off oil haha!).
It was signed from Jimbo. I have no idea who this man is but he left a bunch of old toys underneath the message so thanks, I guess?
There were stackable rings, bags of marbles, an unbelievable amount of stuffed animals, and more. In the center of it all was a large box stuffed with crummy hand-written notes that look like they had been written by five-year-olds. And as it turns out, some were.
I unfolded a few and read them.
I’m Jenny, and I’m five today. The adults forgot about me so maybe you won’t when you read my note.
My name’s Tyler. I’m ten and the youngest in my family like everyone else here.
I’m Margaret. I’m nine. Please take good care of Mr. Hoppers while you’re down here. He’s always taken good care of me.
Etc, etc… They were all just a bunch of letters from the previous youngest of generation. Finally, I got to the bottom note—but again it was carved into the bottom of the box. It was from Jimbo again. It said: Write who you are now before you grow out of it. Age tries to sell our innocence but no more than those older who try to force it out of us.
Some of the notes mentioned the toys left behind. They kept referring to them as my or mine, so I guess they must have left their favorite toys here on purpose. I picked up a dusty stuffed bunny. For the next forgotten child.
Ope. That’s me.
“Is someone down there?” An old voice called out to me.
Shoot. Guess my time’s up in the mystery room. I scurried back up through the tunnel, popped out of the hole, and saw Great Aunt Margaret standing next to it. She gave me a wrinkled smile. “Oh, Maggie, there you are.”
Her eyes fell to the stuffed bunny in my hand. “And Mr. Hoppers, there you are.”
I froze. Mr. Hoppers? So then… “You wrote down that note? You left him in the secret room. You were the previous youngest?”
Great Aunt Margaret smiled. “Why do you think I’m the only one still alive? My old siblings and cousins all kicked the bucket long again. That’s where your twenty-year age gap gets you. Alone yet again.”
“What was the deal with that room, Great Aunt Margaret?”
“It’s a safe haven for every child that feels outcast by their family. It’s been cultivated and modified by every youngest since Great Great Uncle Jimbo created it.”
“You mean the guy who wrote the stone message?”
“Yes, he was the youngest of his family generation too. Out of place with his family, he strayed from the old family business of shoemaking and became an oil tycoon. He specially designed that room when he built this mansion.”
“Cool,” I breathed.
Great Aunt Margaret handed Mr. Hoppers back to me. She placed a finger to her lips and said, “Now Maggie, you must promise me to not to tell anyone about that room.” She winked. “It’s an old family secret, alright?”
With a smile, she said, “Now then, why don’t you and I go play with Mr. Hoppers while the others are off arguing about politics.”
“I don’t want to play with a stuffed animal though.” I pouted. “I’m too old for that.”
“But I’m not.”