"Can she breathe? Quick! Somebody do CPR!" Buttercup the rat cried, putting her paws on her cheeks in rat panic. She gnawed on Natalie's shoelaces.
Natalie sat in a kitchen chair in the middle of Mr. Leery's kitchen. Her mouth opened and closed like a guppy, but no sounds came out. A pink notebook slipped from her lap and smacked onto the floor, startling the rat on her sneakers.
Penny and Luke stared at Natalie. They had never gotten along with their neighbor and fifth-grade classmate, mostly because she alwaysbragged about everything her dad bought her. But that didn't mean they liked seeing Natalie gasping for breath.
"Well, this is going well," Mo said sarcastically. Mr. Leery's black cat sat on top of the counter. He lifted a huge paw and casually cleaned the tuft of hair between his ears.
"Hush, Mo," Mr. Leery said. "The girl has suffered a shock. Give her time to get used to the idea. I'm sure she'll be fine."
"Natalie Lawson has never been fine," Luke muttered. "And she's never been speechless, either."
Penny swatted Luke on the arm. "Well, there's a first time for everything," she said. "Now, be nice."
"Why?" Luke asked. "It's Natalie. She's never nice to us."
"Oh dear, oh dear," Mr. Leery said, bending down in front of Natalie and snapping his fingers in front of her eyes. "Talk to me, child."
Natalie's eyes slowly focused on the old man. For as long as anyone could remember, Mr. Leery had lived in this small cottage at the dead end of the last street in Morgantown. Everyone thought he was harmless. Luke and Penny knew he was much more than that, and now Natalie was beginning to find out how deceiving looks could be.
"Rats," Natalie mumbled as she gradually remembered where she was. "I saw rats. Here. Your house. It's infested. With rats. Must tell. My father."
"No, no, no," Luke said. "Don't you remember a word of what we told you?"
Penny and Luke had helped Mr. Leery explain everything to Natalie. But as soon as she'd seen the dragon and unicorn she'd totally blanked out.
"This isn't a rat," Penny said, pointing to the animal perched on Natalie's shoe.
"Yes, it is," Mo purred. "A big, fat, juicy one."
Buttercup squeaked and gnawed on the lace edge of Natalie's sock.
"Shh, Mo," Mr. Leery said. "You're not helping."
Penny started over. "Okay. This is a rat. But it's not a normal everyday kind of rat. She's your link. Just like Kirin is my link."
At the sound of her name, a unicorn clomped into the kitchen from the living room to gaze at Natalie. "How many times do we have to go over this?" the unicorn snapped. "I'm hungry."
"And Dracula is my link," Luke added, ignoring Kirin's complaint.
"That's me! That's me!" sang a dragon the size of a Doberman pinscher as he flapped into the kitchen. The kitchen was too small for his wings and he ruffled everyone's hair as he searched for a place to land.
"They came from the other side of the border," Penny explained.
Everyone in Morgantown knew about the thorny bushes at the edge of their town that had been there for as long as they could remember. What they didn't realize was that the bushes formed a magical border between what was realand what was magic. The only people who were allowed to know were the Keyholders, a force of three whose job it was to maintain the border.
"Mr. Leery chose us as the new Keyholders," Luke said. "It's going to be our job to make sure magic stays out of our world."
"To be a Keyholder you have to be chosen by a link from the other side of magic," Mr. Leery added. "And this very special creature chose you."
Natalie glanced down at Buttercup. The rat stopped gnawing long enough to give Natalie a small wave with her paw. The color disappeared from Natalie's face and she shuddered. She looked up. Her eyes landed on the unicorn peering over Penny's shoulder.
"Back up," Penny told the unicorn. "Give Natalie some room to breathe."
When Kirin took a step backward, she trampled Dracula's tail. Dracula swooped up, knocking over a pitcher of water on the counter. Buttercup squeaked as the pitcher smashed tothe floor within inches of her tail. Kirin automatically tossed her head at the high-pitched sound, her horn catching in the curtains and ripping them off the window.
"Enough!" Mr. Leery bellowed and raised his arms. The room fell silent.
Except for Natalie. Natalie whimpered.
"I would not have placed this burden on you at this time if it wasn't an emergency," Mr. Leery said. "But it is. Two Keyholders are gone and I can no longer protect the border by myself. My magic is not strong enough alone. Already the border is weakening. I need your help, Natalie. Yours and Penny's and Luke's. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait to have your official ceremony. For now, I will give you this for ... protection." Mr. Leery pulled the bracelet from his wrist. It was silver like Penny's and Luke's, but this one had a purple stone. It was a perfect match to the collar dangling from Buttercup's neck, the very one that used to hang on Mo.
"That silver will keep the boggarts and goblins away," Kirin said with a nod of her horn. "That and bells work every time."
Dracula flapped his wings so that he could hop up and down. "Bells! Bells! I like bells!"
"But I don't want to be what you said," Natalie whispered. "A Keyholder."
"Too late," Luke said. "You already are one. The rat picked you."
Buttercup spit out a shoelace. "Just barely in time. I say, barely in time," she babbled. "Because the Queen of the Boggarts is out to get us, one and all!"
Copyright © 2009 by Debra S. Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones