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A TROUBLING NOTE
When Elizabeth Somers tugged open the gate to her aunt and uncle’s yard and saw an envelope duct-taped to the front door of the shabby house she shared with them, she knew it was bad news. The porch steps—which her uncle Burlap never kept clean—were slick with snow and ice, and so Elizabeth stepped up carefully, set down her school backpack, and slid her hood from her head with a wet shake. She already had a pretty good idea of what the note inside the envelope would say as she plucked it from the door and then opened it:
We informed you several times we would be going on a three-week getaway and you would not be staying alone while we are gone, so you won’t be surprised to find this letter. The house is locked tight. There is a ticket for the 6:20 train north in this envelope. Catch that train, and when you get off in the morning at Sternhaven, there will be a ticket waiting for you at the bus station. Get on the bus that goes to the Winterhouse Hotel—they will be expecting you. Here’s three dollars in case you need anything on the way. You’ll get another ticket to come back after the new year. Don’t cause trouble for anyone. None of your nonsense!
Elizabeth studied the train ticket: 6:20 was in three hours—the first three hours of her twenty-four days of Christmas vacation. And, as they had promised, after lecturing her for the past two weeks about how they were leaving for Christmas and Elizabeth would be sent away, her aunt and uncle really were gone. Elizabeth glanced at the street through her foggy glasses; the snow was falling harder.
A plastic grocery bag hung on the doorknob. Elizabeth peeked inside and saw it was filled with three of her shirts, two pairs of socks, a pair of pants, and some undergarments. She examined the three grimy dollar bills she’d been given, all the while imagining Aunt Purdy peeling them from her coin purse with her thin fingers and reluctantly smoothing them into the envelope. In Elizabeth’s imagination, Uncle Burlap was standing beside her and eyeing the money doubtfully, as if even this amount was too much. She let this picture fade away like the steam of her breath in the chill air.
Elizabeth read the note once more. She stuffed it into her jacket pocket with the money and the ticket, and then unzipped her backpack. From the bottom of it, beneath the four paperbacks the school librarian had allowed her to check out for winter break and her own volume of Anne of Green Gables, she removed a pen and a small notepad. The notepad was spiral-bound along its top edge, green-covered, and worn with creases—the sort of pad a waiter might use to take your order at a restaurant. Elizabeth flipped it open, and on the fifth page—entry number forty-three on her list of “Reasons Why I Do Not Like My Aunt and Uncle”—she wrote, Because they are sending me to a hotel in the middle of nowhere during Christmas with no money and hardly any clothes.
She returned the notepad to its place, then put the plastic grocery bag inside her pack and zipped it closed. She was about to leave but found herself staring at the strip of duct tape that had held the envelope, her breath rising high and tight in her chest, and her eyes beginning to water. And then, before she realized what she was doing, she slammed her palm against the plywood door. The sound, a sharp thwack like the noise of a book dropped on a wooden floor, startled Elizabeth, made her wonder just what had gotten into her. She looked around to see if anyone had been watching, but all was silent, an empty street in the growing darkness, with the snow falling more heavily now. Elizabeth sighed and picked up her backpack.
Why can’t I have my parents back? she thought.
And then, because there were no friends she might possibly ask to stay with for three weeks and no chance of avoiding her aunt and uncle’s anger if she didn’t follow their instructions, Elizabeth turned to walk the mile and a half to the station and wait for the 6:20 train to Sternhaven. She hoisted her backpack onto her shoulders and retraced her steps to the gate, and right as she stepped out of the yard and onto the sidewalk, the feeling came over her. She froze in place, wide-eyed, and wondered what was going to happen this time. Her heart began to beat quickly. All was silent—and then a loud crash sounded behind her.
STRANGE PASSENGERS ON THE BUS
The sensation Elizabeth had was the one you get when you are certain something—good or bad, fun or not so fun—is about to occur. She couldn’t explain why whenever the feeling came over her, that she had this certainty, or even why the feeling came over her at all. She only knew it had started the previous summer and it had been happening more often as winter approached. What was odd was that the things that occurred seemed to have no cause or explanation. Maybe a book would fall off a nearby shelf, or a glass would topple in the sink, or her empty lunch tray would slide off the table while she ate her mashed potatoes and gravy in the school cafeteria. All she knew was that right before each of these incidents, she experienced a stomach flutter that made her certain something was going to happen. Which is why, when the feeling struck her on the snowy sidewalk just then, she was unsurprised to hear a noise behind her.
Elizabeth turned to see that the gate, which she hadn’t touched and which could not possibly swing closed on its own, had slammed shut—and she was relieved. Compared to a plate breaking or a book smashing onto the floor, this was harmless. Still, even though she had nearly stopped being frightened by these odd bangs and crashes, she wanted to understand why they happened and why the feeling came over her.
She looked around the block once more to see if anyone had noticed the noise of the gate, but saw no one. With a deep sigh and one last look at her aunt and uncle’s house, Elizabeth headed for the train station.
* * *
Near dusk the next day, after the all-night train ride and a five-hour wait at the bus station, Elizabeth sat and watched the snow fall outside the ice-rimmed window of the bus. The only food she’d eaten had been the leftover half of a peanut-butter sandwich from the previous day’s lunch, sunflower seeds and raisins she’d bought for $1.35 at the train depot, and a candy bar she’d found in the magazine compartment of her train seat. She kept trying not to think depressing thoughts: The road was taking her closer to some destination in the mountains where she would spend her Christmas holiday at a hotel she imagined would be a cross between an old persons’ nursing home and that creepy place they took kids to in The Golden Compass, one of her favorite books. For seven years she had been hoping someone would rescue her from her aunt and uncle, ever since she’d been sent to live with them. But three weeks at the Winterhouse Hotel seemed less like good luck than some clever punishment they’d cooked up. Elizabeth was eleven now, and aside from the fact that she’d been looking forward to the annual Christmas pageant held every December 21 at the community center next to her school, there were also the four library books she wanted to read in the comfort of her own room. She had pleaded with her aunt and uncle to allow her to stay by herself over the long break once they’d told her about their vacation, kept telling them she was old enough to take care of herself. She realized now there had been no chance of that.
One thing Elizabeth had been puzzling over from the moment she’d read her aunt and uncle’s note was how in the world they could afford to send her on a train ride, much less have her stay in a hotel for three weeks. Elizabeth had understood for at least two years now that her aunt and uncle were poor. Uncle Burlap sorted misaddressed letters in the far back room of the post office in Drere, the small town on whose fringe they lived. For her part, Aunt Purdy patrolled the wet roads all around Drere five days a week and collected aluminum cans that she and Uncle Burlap traded for money once a month when they drove to the big town of Smelterville, half an hour south; sometimes they took Elizabeth. This was the farthest away from Drere she could ever recall traveling. That they had been able to send her on this sort of trip made no sense to Elizabeth as she sat on the bus and considered it.
* * *
The chugging red-and-white bus was half empty after making seven stops on its journey north from the train station. Elizabeth sat in a plump seat with a comfortable head rest, working on a crossword puzzle in a newspaper someone had left on the luggage rack above her. She was good at crossword puzzles. In fact, she was good at all sorts of puzzles—word searches, hangman, acrostics, cryptograms, any puzzle with words. She especially loved anagrams, and had already mentally rearranged the letters on the advertising sign at the front of the bus—“Fred Daul Transport”—to “Dreadful Torn Parts.”
At the eighth stop, a heavy woman in a thick wool coat and with deep dimples boarded and, stopping beside Elizabeth’s row, pointed brusquely to the empty seat beside her.
“Taken?” she said, in a tone that reminded Elizabeth of the way Aunt Purdy spoke.
Although she was hungry, tired, and still a little cranky over the note her aunt and uncle had left, Elizabeth smiled pleasantly at the woman. “It’s empty and you’re welcome to sit in it,” she said, because she always tried to speak to adults the way she hoped to be spoken to by them.
The woman raised her eyebrows and then heaved herself into the seat, fussing back and forth with her elbows to get comfortable. She gave a huff and looked at Elizabeth as though surprised to see her still there.
“That’s a nice mackinaw you have on,” Elizabeth said, determined to make one more attempt to be friendly—and, also, a little bit glad to be able to try out a word she recalled from reading Mary Poppins.
The woman dropped her chin and glanced down at her scratchy green-and-yellow jacket as if searching for a soup stain. She looked back at Elizabeth and said dryly, “Is that a fancy word for my coat?”
Elizabeth felt the way she always felt when Aunt Purdy said something cutting to her, and she decided she’d made a mistake in inviting the woman to sit beside her. “No,” she said. “I meant to say ‘mascara.’ Sometimes I get those words mixed up.” She returned her attention to the crossword puzzle.
Five minutes later, after the bus had started rolling again, the woman asked, “And just where is a little girl like yourself headed today on her own?”
“Winterhouse,” Elizabeth said matter-of-factly. She continued to study her puzzle, and as she did, she thought back to the flyer Aunt Purdy had left on the kitchen table the week before—by mistake, as it turned out. The only picture Elizabeth caught a glimpse of showed a bunch of old people in what looked like long stockings and funny hats. Nightly concerts by the gala Winterhouse Choir! a headline blared. Festive meals served in our festive Winter Hall! Lectures by renowned lecturers on renowned topics! Views of lovely Lake Luna!
“That’s quite a place,” the woman with dimples said, seeming to lighten at the mention of the hotel. “I’ve always wanted to go there myself. You’re a very lucky girl.”
Elizabeth looked past the woman to a family seated in two rows across the aisle from her. She had been sneaking glances at them on and off for the past couple of hours, had watched as the father held the hand of the daughter—a girl who seemed to be about Elizabeth’s own age—and pointed out things that passed beyond their window in the falling snow. She had noticed, too, that the mother didn’t seem to mind when the boy next to her fell asleep on her lap—in fact, she seemed glad to stroke his cheek and pull his jacket up snugly around his neck.
“Yes,” the woman beside her repeated, “you are a very lucky girl.”
“I guess,” Elizabeth said. She was wishing she could sit with that family on the other side of the aisle.
“Well, be happy about something, then,” the woman beside her said stuffily. “At least this is a nice bus.”
And she was correct—Elizabeth had been thinking exactly the same thing herself. She had made a mental note to add “Rides on nice buses” to the list in her notepad with the heading “Things I’m Surprised I Like Now.” She was an expert at making lists and had scores of them in the notepad she was carrying, and in older ones she hid under her mattress at home. Some of her lists were “Things Aunt Purdy Says Are True That Are Really Not True,” “Lakes I Plan to See Someday,” “Hairstyles I Don’t Like,” “Dangerous Animals I Plan to See in the Wild,” “Favorite Soups/Stews,” “Worst Grammatical Errors Mrs. Thorngrack Made During First Semester,” “Things People Do When They Think Other People Aren’t Looking at Them,” “Things Uncle Burlap Says That Don’t Make Any Sense,” and “Famous People I’m Going to Write Letters to Before I’m Thirteen.”
Elizabeth smoothed her sweater. “I take a bus all the time to school,” she said dully. She thought again that this woman had a voice like Aunt Purdy’s. The crossword puzzle—hard but not too hard—needed completing, and she focused on it.
Not five minutes later, just as Elizabeth was considering the solution to Thirteen Across (a five-letter word for “steer”), the woman beside her pointed to the crossword puzzle and said, “I think that one is ‘pilot.’ Like, ‘to pilot a plane.’” She smiled as if she’d just handed a bottle to a baby she’d hoped to quiet down.
Elizabeth tightened her fingers on the pencil she held and said, “I think it’s ‘guide.’” She often had this feeling when she worked on a puzzle, that the words seemed somehow to arrange themselves for her in her mind, that all she had to do was study the given table, list, or grid long enough, and an answer would steadily emerge.
As the woman watched, Elizabeth jotted down two words that intersected Thirteen Across so that, sure enough, ‘guide’ became the only possible answer.
The woman tried to keep smiling, but it took some effort. “I’m usually very good with words,” she said. She adjusted her coat and examined the puzzle again blankly as though Elizabeth might have overlooked something crucial.
“So am I,” Elizabeth said sharply. “Did you know you can rearrange ‘Santa Claus’ into ‘Casual Ants’?” This was something a teacher at school had shown the class, and it had amused Elizabeth. “Or that the word ‘listen’ can turn into ‘silent’?” She folded up the newspaper and looked out the window; it was getting dark.
The woman sighed and said nothing more. She got off at the next stop, and Elizabeth found herself sitting alone once again.
Before long, Elizabeth pressed her wool jacket against herself, clicked on the small light in the ceiling above her, and began reading a book—or, in this case, rereading one, because she was halfway through Anne of Green Gables, her favorite book, and had read it four times before. Elizabeth was well into the chapter when she had the feeling someone was looking at her. She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and turned around to see a man, maybe forty years old, dressed in a heavy black coat over a neatly pressed suit and tie, looking in her direction from the rear of the bus a few rows back. Beside him sat a woman dressed all in black herself: black wool jacket, black shawl, black boots, and a black scarf draped over her head. Her hair was black, too, but Elizabeth could not see her face because she was asleep against the man’s shoulder.
It seemed the man had been waiting for Elizabeth to look his way. His hair was slicked back in a style Elizabeth associated with men from old Hollywood movies, and though he appeared elegant and refined in his dark suit, he studied her with cold, inquisitive eyes while she stared back at him. Finally, the man looked away. Elizabeth returned to her book, but ten minutes later she had an odd feeling and she glanced back to find the man looking at her once again; the woman beside him remained asleep.
“Did you want to ask me something?” she said to the man. She couldn’t imagine why anyone might be paying her any attention—she was small for her age and wore thick-rimmed glasses that embarrassed her, though they were all her aunt and uncle claimed they could afford. Brown-haired, with a face so delicate she looked as though she might startle easily in a thunderstorm (although, actually, she loved thunderstorms), Elizabeth Somers was about as plain and unremarkable as any girl could be. It was only when she was upset or frustrated and pursed her lips or scowled so deeply a little furrow appeared in the space where her eyebrows almost met that Elizabeth looked anything close to formidable. She found herself upset and frustrated more and more lately, especially around her aunt and uncle.
The man ran his index finger and thumb over his mustache and said, “Very sorry. I thought you looked like someone, is all. Apologies for disturbing you.” He nodded, smiled thinly, and then glanced away. Suddenly, the woman beside him looked up and stared at Elizabeth with eyes that were even blacker and colder than the man’s. After a few seconds she whispered something into the man’s ear before returning her gaze to Elizabeth. This was such a strange and unexpected thing—as though she had a secret to share with the man just at that moment—Elizabeth found herself feeling uneasy. Even more so because the woman continued to glare at her without looking away or blinking. She seemed to be one of those people who, if you happen to catch them looking at you, will keep staring right back just to make you feel uncomfortable. But why had she whispered to the man?
Elizabeth wanted to look away from the woman. Her eyes were so penetrating, though, and her gaze was so uncanny, Elizabeth couldn’t move. The woman’s eyes bored into hers. A long few seconds passed, and then a few more, and the tension was so great Elizabeth almost felt as though her glasses might snap. It was impossible to look away.
Text copyright © 2018 by Ben Guterson
Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Chloe Bristol