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AN INCIDENT ON THE BUS NOTEElizabeth Somers hopped from the bus’s stairs into ankle-high snow and was halfway to the door of the tiny, brick station when a shock of certainty made her stop: Someone is looking for me.
“Elizabeth Somers?” came a voice through the chill morning air. “Is there an Elizabeth Somers here?”
She looked back to the bus. These things happened with such regularity—a premonition, a sense, a feeling that something was about to occur—they no longer surprised her. A young man, wearing the same blue uniform as her driver, stood beside the doorway of the bus surveying the riders who’d stepped off to stretch their legs. He held an envelope.
“Anyone named Elizabeth Somers?” the man said as he looked around.
Elizabeth raised her hand. “Right here.”
“Ah,” said the man as he strode to her. “Then this is for you.”
He handed her the small envelope—the sort you might receive from your grandmother to thank you for a gift—and said, “This was waiting for you here at the station.” And as Elizabeth stood examining the envelope, wondering just who might have left it for her on her journey north to the Winterhouse Hotel and who might have made sure it reached her on this ten-minute rest stop, she realized she hadn’t thanked the man. When she looked up, he was gone.
This is strange, she thought. About the only people who knew she was making this trip were her aunt Purdy and uncle Burlap, with whom she’d lived for eight unhappy years in the dull town of Drere. She was so glad to escape from them this Christmas season—just as she had escaped one year before on her first trip to Winterhouse—she feared the envelope might contain some last-minute notice instructing her to return to their shabby house. Aside from them and her good friend Freddy Knox, the only other person who knew she was on her way was Norbridge Falls. Norbridge was Winterhouse’s proprietor and, as Elizabeth had learned at Winterhouse 353 days before (she kept careful track of these things), he was also her grandfather. No one else, she was sure, could have known she would be on this particular bus at this particular time.
Elizabeth tore open the envelope and slid out a note card on which was written the following:
Dear Elizabeth—We are all very excited to see you at Winterhouse once again! Please do me the favor of disembarking at the town of Havenworth, the stop just before Winterhouse, and meet me at the Silver Fir Café. It will be lunchtime when you arrive. Which means we can eat! Awaiting your arrival, et cetera and more—
Your grandfather Norbridge
Elizabeth pressed at her glasses, looked to the cluster of riders beside the bus, and tried to tamp down a swell of puzzled disappointment. On the one hand, she would be glad to see Norbridge once again, and it would be nice to explore Havenworth—but why couldn’t they just meet at Winterhouse itself, where she was longing to arrive? Why make her wait when they could just as easily be reunited at the hotel?
She read the note again, returned it to the envelope, and then—resolving to figure this out once she was back in her seat—continued to the terminal to buy hot chocolate and a pack of cookies. If nothing else, her aunt and uncle, who had driven her to the train station in Drere the night before rather than making her walk, had given her ten dollars for the long journey by train and bus to Winterhouse. Their generosity (for this sum of money was the greatest they had ever given Elizabeth by far) had surprised her, as had the touch of sadness she thought she’d noticed in them. The whole thing had been so strange and so unlike them, Elizabeth hadn’t known what to make of it. She still had $7.36 left, though, and she was hungry.
Five minutes later, when Elizabeth returned to the bus and made her way to her seat, she found it occupied by a boy about her age. The book she had been reading—The Secret of Northaven Manor by Damien Crowley—and that she had left on the seat itself to indicate it was taken, was nowhere in sight. She stood in the aisle waiting for the boy to look up. His black hair swept across his forehead and shaded his face, he wore a black woolen overcoat, and he was so intent on a game on his phone he was oblivious of all else.
The diesel engine growled to a start, and the bus began to rumble. “Everyone find your seats, please!” the driver called.
“I think you’re sitting in my place,” Elizabeth said in her most polite tone. The boy didn’t look up. She tried again. “Excuse me. That’s my seat you’re in.”
The boy slowly raised his head. His expression was dully challenging, suggesting Elizabeth had made some mistake and he might be willing to overlook it. “What?” he said flatly.
“My seat,” Elizabeth said, pointing to her backpack in the rack just above his head. “That’s where I was sitting.”
“Does it have your name on it?” came a voice from the row behind the boy. Elizabeth looked. A heavy woman in a white fur coat was staring at her. Beside her, a man with a bald head and a thin mustache scowled cruelly.
“There are no assigned seats on this bus,” the man said. He nodded at the woman beside him, who flashed him a proud grin.
Elizabeth looked to the riders in the rows opposite, thinking for sure one of them would confirm that, indeed, the boy had taken her seat, but no one looked up. She took a deep breath. “You’re right that seats don’t have names on them, but that’s my backpack right there, and I’ve been sitting in that seat since this morning when I got on. I even left my book on it.”
The boy had maintained his dry look; he appeared willing to devote only another few seconds to this distraction before resuming his game.
“Rodney,” said the woman in the white coat, “you stay right there.” The woman smiled falsely at Elizabeth. “First come, first served. There are plenty of other seats.” The man beside her scowled more deeply.
The boy, Rodney, dropped his eyes to his phone. “For sure, Mom,” he said with a yawn.
Elizabeth glanced to the back of the bus. “There are a lot of other seats,” she said. “And probably nicer people, too. Please, just give me my book, and I’ll be happy to move.”
Rodney looked up and swiveled his head from side to side with a lazy motion. “I didn’t see any dumb book,” he said, before scooting over and reaching for something next to his armrest. “Oh, unless you mean this thing.” He slid a book out and held it up like he was displaying a rag he’d pulled from the gutter.
Elizabeth snatched it and examined the volume for damage. She felt her face reddening and her breath tightening in her chest. “Thank you!” she said brusquely as she reached for her backpack and pulled it to her. “I definitely don’t want to sit here with you anyway!”
“Oh, a mouthy girl!” the woman in the white coat said.
“I need everyone to be seated,” the bus driver called. “We’re departing.”
Elizabeth hoisted her bag onto her shoulder; she was shaking with anger. “I hope you’re happy with yourselves,” she said, because nothing else came to mind. She stalked to the rear of the bus and tried to keep from muttering the insults that were bubbling up in her, when she heard the man say to the woman, “Was that a Damien Crowley book she had?”
The comment was quite unexpected, and Elizabeth was so consumed with trying to calm herself as she settled into her new seat, she nearly stopped thinking about Norbridge’s note.
Twenty minutes later, Elizabeth had resumed reading The Secret of Northaven Manor and was only intermittently distracted by her frustration over losing her seat to such a rude family. If only I’d said, “It doesn’t matter if my name is on the seat, because you don’t look like you know how to read anyway,” Elizabeth thought, before trying again to forget all about it. She considered taking out her small notebook and starting a new list, maybe something like “Things to Say When People Are Rude to You,” but she dismissed this idea.
Creating lists was something she had perfected over the years, filling three and a half notebooks with lists such as “Foreign Cities I Plan to Live in for at Least One Year Someday,” “Tastiest Cookies I’ve Ever Eaten,” “Random Rules Aunt Purdy Makes Up and Then Forgets All About,” “Teachers at My School Who Don’t Really Like Kids,” and “Houses in Drere That Need Fixing Up and/or New Paint and/or Complete Demolition” (“The one I live in,” was the first entry on this last list). Over the past year, though, her lists had begun to change. Whereas previously such things as “Favorite Candies” or “Prettiest Dolls” had held endless fascination for her, she found herself losing interest in these and was now creating ones such as “Unhealthiest Things to Eat for Lunch,” or “Things People Say That I Used to Think Were Cool but Now Don’t Seem Cool,” or “Things Girls at My School Do Just to Be Popular.” She had even started one list a few months before, just as sixth grade had begun, that was headed “Boys at My School I Might Consider Being Friends With,” a list she’d never felt moved to create in previous years.
Elizabeth sighed, glanced in the direction of Rodney and his parents, and returned to her book, a gift Norbridge had given her the year before and that she’d already read once. Just as on her previous trip to Winterhouse, Elizabeth had brought several books with her, including three she’d checked out from her school library. She loved to read, and she loved books. In fact, one of the primary reasons she couldn’t wait to get back to Winterhouse was because it had the most enormous library she had ever seen, and the librarian was a kind woman about Norbridge’s age named Leona Springer to whom Elizabeth had grown close. She was also looking forward to seeing Freddy, whom she’d met when his parents had left him alone at the enormous hotel last Christmas, and who would be visiting again this year. Freddy was the smartest boy she knew, and the only boy she’d ever had as a friend. They’d even stayed in touch over the previous year with at least two or three email exchanges a month.
“How long till we get to Winterhouse?” someone said loudly, interrupting Elizabeth’s recollections. Rodney, the boy who had taken her seat, had stretched his head into the aisle to look back at his parents.
“Only a couple of more stops,” came his mother’s voice. “Play your game, and let your father and me rest.”
Rodney shifted his eyes and glared at Elizabeth. “Three weeks at Winterhouse. With no losers to bother me.”
“Yes, Rodney,” came his father’s voice. “Now, focus on your game and quiet down.”
Rodney grinned cruelly at Elizabeth and then snapped his head back out of sight.
Great, Elizabeth thought. That boy and his parents will be at Winterhouse. She stretched, set her book down beside her, and put a hand to her sweater above where the pendant of her necklace lay. This was the one thing she owned that had belonged to her mother, an indigo circle of marble rimmed in silver and with the word “Faith” inscribed on it.
Hoping for another great vacation at Winterhouse, she thought.
The year before, Elizabeth had learned that her mother—who, along with Elizabeth’s father, had supposedly been killed in a Fourth of July fireworks accident—had been Norbridge’s only child. This meant that she, Elizabeth, was one of the last remaining members of the Falls family. Because of this, Norbridge had promised he would find a way to bring her back to Winterhouse for good, and when she’d first returned to Drere eleven months before, she’d expected to be back at the hotel within a matter of weeks. Things hadn’t turned out as she’d hoped, however. Winter had ended and then spring had arrived and then summer, and despite Elizabeth’s attempts to raise the matter with her aunt and uncle—who acted as if they didn’t know what she was talking about—it seemed something had gone wrong and she would remain in Drere. This was a puzzle and an immense disappointment to her, relieved only slightly by a letter from Norbridge that had come on the longest day of the year informing her there had been some “unforeseen and difficult legal complications” that were preventing him from getting her back to Winterhouse permanently.
In any event, Norbridge had written, while I continue trying to solve this problem, I will make sure you come see us for three weeks at Christmastime.
At least Norbridge had kept his word about that, as frustrated as Elizabeth was over the rest of it. Whatever Norbridge had done to persuade Aunt Purdy and Uncle Burlap to let her return, she was headed back for a visit to the very place where, the year before, she had solved a mystery involving a magical book hidden in the library. This book—or, rather, as the Falls family had known it for generations, The Book—was what Norbridge’s twin sister, the evil Gracella Winters, had sought for years. It had been Elizabeth who’d defeated Gracella, using her wits and a sort of power that she’d discovered she possessed.…
“Havenworth in fifteen minutes!” the bus driver called, interrupting Elizabeth’s recollections.
She glanced at the luggage rack that ran along the upper length of the bus. A sticker on its rim said PLACE ITEMS CAREFULLY! and Elizabeth began mentally rearranging “place items” into “staple mice.” Anagrams fascinated her, and at times her brain formed them on its own. One of her favorites, which she’d shared with Freddy when she’d first met him, was her own name, Elizabeth Somers, transformed into “heartless zombie,” though she’d since discovered “sizeable thermos” was another good one.
Rodney’s bag, a ratty camouflage duffel, sat above the sticker and directly over Rodney’s head; Elizabeth noticed that with all the jostling of the bus and also because Rodney had left the bag at a clumsy angle, it was drooping from the rack.
One element of the power Elizabeth had first developed the year before was that if she cleared her mind and focused her attention, she could—to her amazement—make objects move. That is, if she chose, and if she concentrated very hard, she could cause a drinking glass to topple on the counter or a shoe to flip-flop on the floor or even a book to tumble off a shelf. It had been this very power that had saved Elizabeth—and all of Winterhouse—from Gracella’s evil, because she’d used it to wrest The Book from Gracella at a crucial moment. Afterward, Elizabeth had learned from Norbridge that every member of the Falls family had some sort of unique power; he’d also warned her that her power was not to be used for selfish or improper ends. Now, though, on her way to Winterhouse and with the thought that it would be harmless enough to get just a tiny bit of revenge on Rodney, she was curious to see if she could scoot his bag a few inches farther—and make it plop down onto him.
She stared at the bag, felt her mind clearing and her vision dimming. Her eyes remained fixed on the green duffel; a small tremor moved through the pit of her stomach. The bag above Rodney’s head twitched so slightly a person looking at it might not even notice. Elizabeth kept her focus on it as the bag began a slow slide off the rack and down …
Text copyright © 2018 by Ben Guterson
Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Chloe Bristol