Chapter 18: A Haunting in Asteria

Dear Leon,

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Something terrible has happened, and I’m afraid I may be responsible. I should have foreseen it. I should have warned Belinda – I should have told her the truth about the town of Asteria. As it was, she didn’t even know what I really did for a living. I told her that I sold insurance.

If I missed the warning signs, it is because my real job, the one where I don’t sell insurance, had gotten very busy. Maybe it is that people grew bored as winter began to paint the world with its icy paintbrush. And what do residents of Asteria do when they’re bored? Call me for psychic readings or séances. Beg me to read their tarot cards or gaze in my crystal ball to help them plan for the upcoming new year. Once in a while, someone even called me to “clean their house.” In other words, their house was possessed, or poltergeists made mischief in their basements. Mostly, these turned out to be nothing – a family of possums, or a tree branch scraping against a window. But once in a great while, I encountered an actual haunting.

The week before the attack, I received an urgent call from D.J. I hadn’t heard from him since he had begun his alchemy training with Clara the Genie. “Can you come to our house right away?” His voice sounded anxious. I agreed, and was just getting ready to go when Belinda stopped me.

“Hey, you said when you had a minute, we could talk about Justin,” she said.

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I sighed. I really didn’t have a minute. But Belinda had been trying for days to tell me about her new boyfriend. “You guys are getting pretty serious, aren’t you?” I asked. Belinda nodded, her eyes shining with happiness. I patiently listened to her, and over the next ten minutes, discovered that Justin was perfect, funny, thoughtful, liked New Wave music, and was cuter than Corey Haim. Or was it Corey Feldman?

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“He’s so different from any guy I’ve ever met!” she gushed.

I rolled my eyes. “You’ve barely met any guys, remember?” I picked up my handbag, promised we could talk more about Justin later, and rushed out the door.

By the time I arrived at D.J.’s house, I had put Belinda and Justin out of my mind. “What seems to be the problem?” I asked. D.J. let his roommate, Keith, do the talking. There had been a series of strange occurrences and sightings in their home. Objects that moved on their own. Odd sounds. Toys and books that appeared in random places.

 

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“Do you have any of the toys or books?” I asked. “I may be able to use them to channel any spirits that may be lingering here.” Keith retrieved a worn stuffed bear. As soon as it touched my hands, a cold energy radiated from the toy and flowed through me. As I pointed the bear around the room, the sensation grew duller, then more intense. “Are you there?” I called out.

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“I am here,” said a deep, raspy voice. Keith and D.J. made no indication of having heard. I continued to converse with the spirit. His name was Raymond. He had lived in the house with his family until the winter of 1921, when a terrible accident had occurred. His younger daughter, Talia, had wandered to a nearby pond, fell in, and drowned. Raymond was so overcome by grief, that he had drunken himself into a stupor and fallen down the stairs. The impact snapped his neck, and he, too, had died.

“Have you been lost here ever since?” I asked the ghost. “Is Talia here, too?”

“Yes,” said a high-pitched child’s voice. “I’m here, too. Do you want to see my room?”

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“Yes,” I said, smiling. “I would like very much to see your room.” D.J. and Keith had been staring in fascination as they watched me talk to thin air. Now they followed, bumping into each other like puppies, as I followed Talia up two flights of stairs and toward a closed door in the attic.

“Oh that door’s locked,” said Keith. “We’ve never been able to get it open.”

I gave the knob a twist. It turned, and the door creaked open.

“How did you do that?” asked D.J. I ignored him and stepped inside. Talia’s room was freezing cold. Everything in it was covered in a thick layer of dust. But I could picture how it had looked one hundred years ago, the dollhouse and rocking horse shiny and new.

“You had a beautiful room,” I told Talia.

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Talia didn’t answer.

“Talia?” I called. “Raymond?” No answer. The cold current of energy had faded away the moment I had entered the little room. I turned toward D.J. and Keith. “I think they’re gone.”

It was a happy ending, I guess. I sang to myself as I headed home that night, feeling satisfied at having helped someone. But the moment I arrived home, I knew that something was wrong. The front door was open. A trail of blood led up the rickety staircase and into the house. “Belinda!” I said. Heart thudding in my chest, I raced inside. More blood was smeared across the living room floor, where Belinda, my dear adopted sister Belinda, lay crumpled in a heap. I fell to her side. “Please don’t be dead, please.” The last word came out as a sob. I couldn’t lose her. Not after I had lost so many of the people I had loved.

Belinda stirred. As she turned toward me, I could see where her clothes had been ripped, exposing one of her shoulders. Blood seeped out from a huge, jagged gash on her shoulder. It looked like…a bite mark. Had she been attacked by an animal?

“What happened to you?” I asked.

Her eyes fluttered open. She reached up and grabbed my arm, then struggled to take a deep enough breath to utter one word. “Justin.”

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Chapter 17: All That Glitters…

Dear Tadi,

There is something seriously wrong with the town of Asteria. So many bizarre things have happened lately. You won’t believe me no matter where I begin, so I may as well start with The Thing that happened to D.J.

Remember how I told you that the three of us went out to find jobs? Well, D.J. was being very mysterious about how he was spending his time.

“I’m making money,” is all he would tell Keith and me when we asked.

“Making money doing what?” I asked.

But D.J. just grinned and shook his head. “I’ll tell you when the time is right,” he said.

Months slipped past, and still, no money. I was starting to feel agitated. I mean, yeah it was great that D.J. was letting us live rent-free in his aunt’s house. But while Keith was out getting spooked to death and I was driving a rattly ice cream truck up and down the streets while wearing a ridiculous bunny suit, D.J. was doing, well, nothing, as far as I could tell.

Anyway, after The Thing, D.J. at last filled us in. All that time, he had been trying to make money. Literally make money. No, not counterfeit bills. That would have been smarter, maybe. D.J. was trying to learn alchemy. Honest-to-goodness boil-stuff-in-a-pot-and-transform-it-into-gold alchemy.

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I can hear your voice now. “Is he crazy? You can’t turn things into gold!” (Well, you say this in Oromo, but still). Up until a couple of weeks ago, I would have agreed with you. But now I’m not so sure.

Okay, it gets weirder. D.J. apparently went to see a local fortune-teller, who told him that to learn alchemy, he must visit Clara the Genie. Clara was a very powerful genie, because she wasn’t trapped in a lamp, and had the freedom to move around and grant wishes to whoever she wanted, etcetera, etcetera. So off he went to become Clara’s pupil.

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There was just one problem. Yep – D.J.’s temper. Clara the Genie is extremely smart, but according to D.J., could also be sarcastic and condescending. Whenever D.J. made mistakes while mixing potions, Clara would make little quips, like, “Gee, why don’t I repeat those instructions a few hundred times. Maybe it will sink into your little brain!”

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Instead of keeping his cool, D.J. would snap back at her. Sometimes, he would really lose it. I can just picture him stomping around the room, red as boiled crab, shouting at poor Clara.

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“Big mistake man,” he told us later, with a sad shake of his head. “One does not lose his cool with a 3,000 year-old genie girl.”

Clara did not hold back in making her displeasure known. After one outburst too many from D.J., she raised her hands, claw-like, and zap! She placed a curse on D.J.

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What kind of curse, you ask? Well, have you ever read the story of The Frog Prince? Yes, that. Let’s just say that D.J.’s new favorite snacks were small buzzing insects.

Clara had two fairies, Barbie and Mariah, who both burst into giggles at the sight of D.J.

“Hi there, Froggy Face!” they teased. “Are you feeling hoppy today?”

D.J. wanted to yell at the obnoxious fairies and at Clara, who stood nearby with a smug expression. He opened his mouth, ready to cry, “Change me back right now! Do you hear me?”

But all that came out was, “Croo-oaak!” That made the fairies laugh even harder.

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Humiliated, D.J. turned and fled toward home, stopping every few blocks to catch a fly.

He hid in his room for the next couple of days, sneaking out to eat only when he was sure that Keith and I wouldn’t see. When the spell didn’t wear off, however, he crept back to the genie’s house, prepared to fall to his knees and beg forgiveness the best he could without speech.

But the genie refused to see him. Instead, Barbie the Fairy took pity on him. “Don’t you know the way this story is supposed to end?” she asked. D.J. shook his head. “You have to find a kind woman to kiss you. It’s the only way.”

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The only way? D.J. stared, wide-eyed. Well, even wider-eyed. How in the world would he find some woman to kiss him? One look at the frog man, and every girl in town would run away screaming in fear, right?

Wrong. Because this is not an ordinary town. It turns out that people in Asteria are used to bizarre occurences like genies and fairies and frog men. And so, all D.J. had to do was approach one of the women who lived in town.

The woman rolled her eyes. “You’re like, the third frog I’ve had to rescue this month,” she said, making a face. Still, she leaned in and kissed D.J.’s slimy face. And poof! The frog curse was lifted, and D.J. was a man again.

“Oh my god! Thank you so much!” D.J. hugged the woman tight, even though she was a total stranger.

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Now, I wish I could say that he and the woman got together and became a couple and everything. But no. Instead, D.J. had to go and steal my girlfriend. But that’s a story for another letter. The good thing that came out of all this, though, was that D.J. never lost his temper with anyone after that. Not even Keith. The transformation was so striking, you might say it was …magical.

 

Your weirded out friend,

 

Leon

 

Chapter 16:The Girl and the Gift

Dear Leon,

I’m afraid that what I have to tell you may come as a shock. Forget everything the elders told us. Lay aside your prejudices and hold off on your judgment until I explain, okay? Are you ready?

Magic is real.

No, I am not talking about the illusion of a magician’s parlor tricks. I mean real, honest-to-goodness fairy tale magic. Speaking of fairies, I think I’ll start there.

All I wanted was a job. Some way to earn a meager living while Belinda and I were holed up for the winter in the old house on Silvermoon Lane. I would have been happy to do anything – wash dishes, scrub floors, even babysit, not that anyone would trust a total stranger from out of town with their children. I did find a job, but it was not at all what I expected.

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After a good night’s sleep, I dutifully returned to the strange little trailer the next day. But instead of the very old woman, I was greeted by a very young girl. “Hello Girl from the Savanna,” she said with a warm smile. “I knew you’d return.”

“Who are you?” I asked. “How do you know—”

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“Shh…” The girl reached out and took both my hands in hers. “Close your eyes and listen.” I frowned, but did as she said. At first, there was only darkness, and the flickering sound of the candle which burned on our table. But then, it was as though I had been transported into a scene from a children’s book. I stood rooted in the middle of a lush green park. The sun gleamed high in the blue sky, and birds tweeted from the treetops. Across from me, the young girl was dancing to some tune I couldn’t hear. Two tiny, glowing insects flitted through the air around her.

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“Barbie! Mariah!” The young girl called, clapping her hands three times. “Show yourselves!”

Swish! Swish! The glowing insects disappeared. In their places stood two more girls, with shimmering wings.

Wings? I rubbed my eyes. The wings were still there, fluttering gently as the girls moved about. Fairies, I realized. They must be fairies. “Hi, Clara!” the fairies said in unison.

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I opened my eyes. The park scene had disappeared. I was sitting across the table from the young girl once again. “Clara?” I asked.

Clara smiled. “Welcome to Asteria, Girl from the Savanna. We have a job for you.” We, as it turned out, meant Clara the Genie and her two fairies, Barbie and Mariah. And the job turned out to be telling fortunes to the local townspeople and tourists who passed through town. Apparently, Clara felt that I had The Gift, whatever The Gift may mean.

I spent the next several weeks in training. Clara taught me how to use The Gift – turning my vision inward to see glimpses from Beyond. It was not easy training. Clara was a tough teacher, and the fairies – well, let’s just say that fairies are not sweet, gentle little creatures who fly around sprinkling people with fairy dust. Well, they can fly, but that is where the similarities end. Fairies are mischievous little pranksters. They glow and flutter their wings, and make you ooh and ahh. Then when you least expect it, they pull one of their silly pranks. One time, Mariah doused me with dragon stars. Then she and Barbie roared with laughter as fire blazed from my ears! I tried to be a good sport and laugh about it with them. But after that, I kept my distance.

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After I was fully trained, Clara put me to work telling fortunes, reading palms, and writing horoscopes for the local paper. Much of it was mumbo jumbo – a show conjured up to entertain people and make money. But sometimes, the visions seemed incredibly real.

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My most frequent client was a man who had recently moved to town with some friends. He was seeking a way to make money, but not in an ordinary way. When I heard his idea, I tried to talk him out of it. But he grew red with anger. “I just paid one hundred dollars,” he growled. “Now show me what I came here for.” With great reluctance, I gazed into the crystal orb. At the end of our session, the stranger strolled away, whistling cheerfully. I watched him go with a heavy sense of foreboding. Oh Leon, I feel that I have made a grave error.

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Always,

Tadi

 

Chapter 15: Ghostly Emergencies

Dear Tadi,

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I’m kind of worried about Keith. Ever since he started working at the graveyard, he’s been pretty obsessed with ghosts and weird stuff. It was bad enough when he thought he was seeing spirits float around the tombstones late at night. But now, he’s convinced that our house is haunted, too.

“I swear guys, something strange is going on,” he said one day, his eyes wild and red with lack of sleep. “I keep hearing things.”

“What are you hearing? Voices?” D.J. rolled his eyes. “I hear there’s a special hospital for people like you.”

“You’ve gotta believe me!” Keith sounded desperate. “Look, when I went up to the attic yesterday, the electric train started running all by itself. Then the radio turned on, too.”

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D.J. snorted. “What song was playing? Oh wait, I know. Ghostbusters!”

“Well what about the ice cream?” asked Keith. Several days before, he had taken a brand-new quart of mint chip ice cream out of the freezer, then slipped out of the kitchen to answer the telephone. “When I came back two minutes later, the carton was empty!” he said. “Empty! Nothing left. Like the carton had been licked clean.”

“Maybe you had already eaten it all and forgot,” said D.J., shrugging. “Or you ate it in your sleep.”

“I wouldn’t forget something like that!” said Keith.

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I couldn’t take Keith’s claims seriously, either. I mean, ghosts? Come on! I figured that he was either having sleep-deprived hallucinations, or he was on something. It was much more believable. There were a couple of strange occurrences, though, that even D.J. couldn’t explain away. While home alone one night, I found a book lying on the living room floor, and stooped down to pick it up. To my surprise, it wasn’t a book I had ever seen before. It was an old children’s book, its faded cover caked with gray dust. How it had ended up in the middle of the living room rug, I had no idea, as the nearest bookshelf was more than ten feet away.

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To tell you the truth, even though it was just an ordinary kids’ book, I felt a little weirded out. But I wasn’t ready to blame it on ghosts. I didn’t bother to mention the book to Keith or D.J. Things had been a little tense between the two of them lately, thanks to the teddy bear incident.

You see, one morning, Keith came running upstairs, shouting, “Wake up! Emergency! Emergency!” I leapt out of bed, heart pounding in my chest. I was envisioning a fire, my mind flashing back to my family’s hut, thick with smoke, and the pop pop pop of soldiers’ gunfire. I yanked on some jeans and raced downstairs after Keith, fearing the worst. And then he stopped still and pointed…at a teddy bear.

So help me God, a teddy bear.

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It was shabby, missing one button eye, stuffing poking out on one side. Some well-worn child’s playtoy from long-ago.

D.J. appeared beside me, his face growing darker by the second. “Keith,” he said, his voice eerily calm, “Tell me. Is this teddy bear actually a bomb that is rigged to blow up my Aunt Mabel’s house?”

“No, but—”

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“Is it some amazing new electronic invention that’s going to make us all rich?”

“No, but—”

D.J. exploded. “THEN WHY THE BLEEP DID YOU JUST WAKE ME UP AT SIX O’CLOCK IN THE BLEEPITY-BLEEP BLEEPING MORNING ON A SATURDAY, YOU BLEEPITY-BLEEPER…”

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Okay, you get the point. D.J. was not a happy camper. He pretty much warned Keith then and there to either knock it off with the stupid ghost stuff, or he could pack his bags and hitchhike back to Michigan.

As for me, I put the unexplained children’s book on the shelf, figuratively and literally. I had much more important things on my mind than whether or not ghosts existed. You see, while driving around in my truck, I met this amazing girl. Her name was Caroline, and she had a smile that could melt…well, ice cream. I gave her a grape popsicle in exchange for her phone number. We’ve been dating ever since.

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I think I may be in love, Tadi.

I may not believe in ghosts, but Caroline haunts my every waking thought.

Your lovesick friend,

Leon

 

Chapter 14: 632 Silvermoon Lane

Dear Leon,

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I’m sorry that so much time has passed since I’ve last written. Life has been…well, kind of insane. Ever since we left the farm, Belinda and I have been on the move. We’d stop in some nameless town and find a place to pitch our tent – sometimes in a patch of woods, or an open field, or even on the cracked asphalt of a parking lot behind some abandoned warehouse. Then we would try to make some money. Once in a while, we found temporary work washing dishes or doing odd jobs in exchange for a hot meal or a few dollars. But mostly, we ended up panhandling in parks and on street corners. I only know how to play a few songs on my guitar, but I strummed these over and over until my fingers were sore, as strangers paused to drop a few cents in our can.

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Sometimes, people began to look at us funny, or ask too many questions. “Shouldn’t you girls be in school?” That’s when we knew it was time to move on. We’d pack up our gear and walk, or take a bus, or hitch a ride to the next town. At first, it was exciting, venturing into the unknown like characters in one of the shallow paperback novels Belinda sometimes buys for a dime at a secondhand store. But after a couple of years without a place to call home, it grew old. On some cold nights, when the wind howled and shook our tent, and my stomach growled with hunger, I actually missed the farm, where food was plentiful, and my warm, soft bed waited each night. But I knew that there was no going back.

Then our luck changed. Late one night, a truck driver dropped us off on the outskirts of some town. (Actually, I made him stop, because he was getting a little too comfortable with Belinda, if you catch my drift. We constantly have to be on guard in case we encounter idiots like that on the road). It was November, and there was a frosty bite in the air. We set off in search of shelter, or at least a good place to set up camp, when we came across an odd little trailer. Belinda said it reminded her of the story of Hansel and Gretel, which I had never heard.

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“Maybe someone inside can tell us where to go for shelter or work,” I said. Belinda, still muttering about witches, waited outside while I went in. A very old woman sat inside, wrapped in shawls, her hands resting in her lap.

Before I could speak, she held up a hand to stop me. Then she picked up a pen and notepad and began to write. She tore off the note, folded it, and placed it in my hand before pointing toward the door. Confused, I exited the trailer, and the door slammed shut behind me.

“What happened?” asked Belinda.

“I don’t know,” I said. I stared for a moment at the note in my fingers, then unfolded it to read the message. It said:

 

632 Silvermoon Lane

You will return tomorrow, Girl from the Savanna.

 

A shiver ran through me which had nothing to do with the cold. How did the woman know that I was from a place in the savanna? I turned around and tried the trailer door, but it would not open.

“What did the note say?” asked Belinda.

I swallowed. “I think she told us of a place where we can stay.” With that, we followed the highway toward the main part of town, and traveled up and down each road, until at last we came to one called Silvermoon Lane. And there we found the address the old woman had scrawled on the note. It was a very large old house, which appeared to be abandoned. The front door screeched as we swung it open, and something flew past our heads and out into the night.

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“What if it’s haunted?” asked Belinda, clutching my arm.

I laughed. “Well, then the ghosts can keep us company.” I flicked on my flashlight and motioned for Belinda to follow me inside. It was soon apparent that no one had lived in the house for a very long time. Dust and cobwebs coated every surface. The floor creaked and groaned with our every step, as though no longer used to holding up the weight of people. We didn’t find any evidence of ghosts. But we did find a box of candles and a stack of kindling. Soon, we had a cozy fire to sleep near.

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The next morning, we explored the rest of the old house. We also discovered a neglected vegetable garden out back, which still boasted a few wild crops. Apples! Pumpkins! Even a few handfuls of beans. It was not much, but when you haven’t eaten in two days, any food seems like a miracle.

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Did I return to the trailer to visit with the old woman? Well yes, I did. And you will never believe what happened. But I will save that story for another letter. I promise to write again soon.

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Always,

Tadi

 

 

Chapter 13: Living in a Small Town World

Dear Tadi,

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Picture this scene: Three guys, crammed into a car. And Keith keeps whining, “Are we lost? Where are we, guys? We’re lost, aren’t we?”

And I heave a sigh and sink lower in my seat. And D.J. rolls down the window and thrusts a hand into the wind, and says in a booming voice, “Not till we are lost do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations!”

Now multiply this scene by two days of driving, and throw in a lack of showers and nothing to eat but convenience store chili dogs, and well…now I understand why Thoreau wanted to live in solitude.

The only thing that saved us was D.J.’s good taste in music. When Keith’s whining went on like a broken record, we turned up the radio and drowned him out with electric guitars.

One morning, at the crack of dawn, we rolled into a town. It wasn’t much different from a lot of the other towns we’d stopped in to fill up the tank or check the map. Quaint, shabby houses, tree-lined roads, and trim gardens. A ring of sloping mountains embraced the town like guards keeping something from getting in. Or maybe out. Who knew?

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D.J. passed the gas stations and shuttered stores, winding around streets as though he knew where he was going. “Where is this place?” I asked him. D.J. responded by pulling into the driveway of a large Victorian house and turning off the car.

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“Boys,” he said, “welcome to Asteria.”

The house, as it turned out, belonged to D.J.’s Great Aunt Mabel, who went to live in a resting home and had to abandon her huge house. “Don’t worry, it’s legit,” said D.J. “When I called my mom, she suggested we move in and take care of the place. Keep out the riff-raff.”

“Aren’t we the riff-raff?” I asked.

D.J. grinned. “Only on weekends.”

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And that’s how we came to live in a big old drafty house. It had, like, a hundred rooms (okay, maybe that’s a stretch), some of which had locked doors which we couldn’t open. We discovered this cool electric train set in the attic and had a blast setting it up and watching it go. There was also a huge piano. D.J. sat down and, to our surprise, began to play. I mean, seriously play. Like Beethoven and Mozart and whoever else composes classical music. Keith and I stared in amazement.

D.J. just shrugged. “What? My parents made me take lessons ‘till I was sixteen.”

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When we grew bored of exploring the house, we began to explore the town. Like I said, it seemed pretty normal, as far as towns go. People didn’t smile much, and looked away quickly when we tried to catch their eye. D.J. said that people are more suspicious of strangers in these small towns “out in the boonies,” as he put it. At the edge of town, there was more nature than I had seen since my days in Ethiopia. The woods were alive with birds and rabbits. Deer, startled by our presence, darted into the brush. If only you could see it, Tadi. Standing there, away from civilization, hearing only the wind whispering in the treetops and the trickling of water from a nearby creek, I had another true Thoreau moment, my mind spinning with his words about the tonic of wildness, and never having enough of nature.

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But it ended too soon. The sad reality hit us that we were running out of money. And though we had this great house to stay in, no money meant no food. And so, we scoured the town for any menial work we could find. And menial work is, indeed, what we found. I am embarrassed to tell you the truth. I have become an ice cream man.

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Yes, really. I drive up and down the streets, blaring music and dishing out cold treats. I also work in the local ice cream shop. It’s not my dream job, but it does help to put food on the table. And hey – it comes with some sweet perks.

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Keith found a job, too, working as a graveyard shift security guard at – you’ll never guess – the graveyard. Haha! I think the job is beginning to get to him, though. He comes home every morning looking pale, convinced that he’d seen actual ghosts and zombies wandering around the tombstones. Maybe he’s watched Michael Jackson’s new Thriller video one too many times.

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As for D.J., well, I don’t know. He says that he found a way to make money. But so far, he has yet to produce a single dime. He won’t even tell us where he’s been supposedly working each day. I’m beginning to suspect that he’s not being truthful. But I’m hesitant to say anything, since this is technically his house, and his car is my only ride out of town should things go south. So for now, I’m keeping my lips zipped.

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Your small town ice-cream-serving friend,

Leon

 

Chapter 12: Mail-Order Bride

Dear Leon,

 

Something disturbing has shaken up Rainbow Acres. One night, Belinda came to find me in the barn, where I was playing my guitar instead of cleaning out the wine-making equipment as Spring had ordered me to do. I sang along as I strummed, lost in the music.

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“Tadi!” Her panicked voice cut through my reverie. I gasped, fingers slipping from my guitar, which clattered to the wooden floor. Belinda’s face was pinched with worry. “I think something’s happening with Leslie,” she said. She spoke in a loud whisper, although we were alone in the barn.

I frowned. “She seemed fine at dinner.” A little quiet, maybe, but then, Leslie was always on the quiet side.

Belinda gripped my arm. “I’m telling you, something just isn’t right. Have you noticed how much attention The Teacher has been giving her lately?”

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I had. Usually, The Teacher would exchange few words with us girls, pausing only now and then to compliment our cooking or give some brief inspirational speech. But during the past few weeks, he’d been paying special attention to Leslie, taking her for walks, or horseback rides around the countryside. Leslie came back from these outings glowing with happiness as the rest of us clustered around, begging her to tell us the details.

“There’s not much to tell,” she kept saying, her flushing as red as her hair. “We just…talked.”

We found out soon enough. Two days after Belinda had found me in the barn, River and Spring gathered us girls (minus Leslie) together, and announced that there would be a change in our household. “Our Leslie is getting married,” said Spring. “Isn’t that wonderful news?”

We were stunned. Married? “To who?” asked Belinda, who sounded like getting married was anything but wonderful news.

“To whom,” said River. “The Teacher has found a man who agreed to become Leslie’s husband. The ceremony will take place in one week, here on the farm.”

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“Is Leslie going to go away?” Megan’s voice trembled.

“Of course,” said River. “She will go and live with her new husband.”

Belinda kept shooting me wide-eyed glances. Later, when we were out of earshot, she said, “We need to get out of here. Before the Teacher makes us marry some strange man, too.”

“Why would he do that?” I asked. “We’re only fifteen!”

“And Leslie just turned sixteen!” Belinda shook her head. “I’m telling you, this all feels wrong. This isn’t the way things are supposed to happen. We have to run away.”

“But what about Megan?” I asked.

Belinda sighed. “You’re right. We can’t just leave her behind.”

We tried. We really tried. But no matter what we said, we could not convince Megan to leave with us. “I don’t care if the Teacher makes me get married,” said Megan. “The Teacher always knows what’s best. Remember what River and Spring taught us?”

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Of course we remembered. It was among the things we were required to chant together each day before breakfast. The Teacher is our provider and the savior of our family. The Teacher’s words are true. The Teacher always knows what’s best.

But what if he didn’t?

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“Please don’t go,” said Megan, her eyes filled with sadness.

Belinda exchanged glances with me. “Don’t worry. We won’t go,” she said.

But it was a lie. Early the next morning, she and I fled Rainbow Acres for the last time.

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Luckily, we were able to track down the boy, Lloyd, who had first introduced us to the world outside the farm’s boundaries. He was shocked when we told him what had happened, and offered to ask his parents to give us shelter.

“No, I think it’s better if we get as far away from here as possible,” said Belinda.

Lloyd said he understood. He gave us food and some camping supplies from his garage, and all the money he had saved. It wasn’t much, he told us. Just enough for a pair of bus tickets out of town, and maybe some clothes from the secondhand store.

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A few days later, while camping in some faraway town, Belinda and I read in a newspaper about the Teacher’s arrest. Apparently, he had tried to sell Leslie as a mail-order bride to some man who turned out to be a police officer. River and Spring were also arrested. The newspaper didn’t say what had happened to our sister, Megan. I still remember with great sadness my lonely days as an orphan at the refugee camp. I hope that Megan did not suffer a similar fate. She will always be in my heart, as are you.

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Always,

Tadi