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The Secret of Zoom
By Lynne Jonell
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2009 Lynne Jonell
All rights reserved.
CHRISTINA had fallen asleep while reading under the dining room table and awakened to the clink of silverware and the sound of grown-up voices telling secrets. And that was how she found out, long after it had happened, that her mother had been blown up.
"Blown to smithereens," said a lady's voice cheerfully. "Right in her own laboratory, poor dear. And her daughter was just a little thing, too."
"Those scientific experiments can be tricky," said a man's voice. "Pass the salt, please."
Christina sat up attentively. All around her were legs — black-and gray-trousered legs for the men, nylon-stockinged legs for the women, except for one woman with hairy knees who wore white socks and sandals. The crimson tablecloth hung down to their grown-up laps, giving the light beneath the table a reddish hue. As usual, someone had dropped a roll. Christina poked at it with her finger, dimpling the crust.
She didn't remember her mother. Or, rather, she remembered only bits of her mother. A comfortable lap. A hand, patting. A rocking motion and a voice, singing low.
Christina pressed her finger into the roll again, and a third time. The three holes looked like two eyes and a nose. She was considering the mouth — should the face be happy or sad? — when heavy footsteps crossed the floor.
"I'm sorry I was called away," said the deep voice of Christina's father, and the chair at the head of the table was pulled out. "There was a problem at the lab — you know how it is."
Adult voices murmured agreement as Christina broke little pieces off the roll. Her father, Dr. Adnoid, was the top scientist at Loompski Laboratories. His friends were all scientists. And all her life, people had told Christina that she would grow up to be a scientist, too. But now, after hearing what had happened to her mother, she wasn't sure she liked the idea.
It occurred to her as well that her father might get blown up someday in his laboratory. And while Christina didn't see Dr. Adnoid that often — and when she did, he only seemed interested in her math grades — still, he was her father, and if he died, then she would be an orphan. And orphans, as she well knew, went to the Loompski Orphan Home just down the road and were taught useful trades like shoe shining and floor mopping and garbage collecting.
Of course that all sounded like fun to Christina. She had often envied the orphans, watching from her window as they came down the street in their orange and red vests, dumping garbage cans into the rear of a big truck painted with happy faces and banging the lids back on in a businesslike manner. And every so often, if she was lucky, she would see the big rear panel come down with a bang and press all the garbage back with an interesting grinding noise.
She wasn't allowed out when the orphans came by, though. In fact, she wasn't allowed out at all, except for an hour a day, when she stood at the tall iron rails that fenced in her yard and stared longingly through the bars at the world going past.
Christina's house was big, old, and set on a hill. It had been built years ago when Dr. Leo Loompski, one of the famed scientific Loompskis, had come from the city to visit his brother and find a place for his laboratories.
He had stepped off the riverboat at the sleepy little town of Dorf and looked up. Above him were foothills and a spreading forest, and beyond that was nothing but the bare gray rock of the Starkian Mountain Ridge and the nests of some large and high-flying birds.
He had been a small man — almost the size of a child, some said — but all the same, he put on big heavy boots, grabbed a walking stick, and hiked straight up.
When he came back, smiling as if at some great and wonderful secret, he bought the land. Then he promptly fenced off a hundred acres of forest, built his laboratories at the very center, and put up a stone house for himself at the edge of the woods. And ever since Leo Loompski's time, the head scientist of Loompski Labs had lived in the very same house.
The house was full of portraits of the Loompski family members and their awards. Although Leo's parents had been rather ordinary, four of their five sons were anything but. Between Leo, Lester, Lars, and Ludwig, they had won all the major mathematical and scientific prizes; they had married unusual and talented women; and even their dog, Lucky, had her portrait on the wall. (Lucky had won Best of Show nine years running for being able to tap out the first seven numbers in the Fibonacci sequence.)
But in pride of place was Leo Loompski's portrait, hanging next to the Karsnicky Medal. The medal was a golden disc on a silver ribbon, and the highest honor a scientist could achieve, but Christina liked the portrait best. Leo Loompski's eyes were bright blue, his ears stuck out from beneath his white hair, and the smile on his face looked happy and kind. Christina knew he must have been kind, for hadn't he even set up an orphanage to care for homeless children?
Still, he had built the sort of laboratory where mothers could get blown up. And he had put up a fence in the forest that was twenty feet high, made of crisscrossed barbed wire and humming with electricity. The signs posted on it said things like DANGER! and TRESPASSERS WILL BE BOILED and THIS MEANS YOU!
Christina didn't really like to look at the fence, or the forest beyond that hid Loompski Labs. So on the afternoons when she was let out, she mostly stood in her front yard. If she pressed her face between the gate's iron palings, she couldn't see any fence at all between herself and the town of Dorf below, with its river that curled through the valley like a long blue snake. On cloudy days, it looked more like a gray snake, but it didn't much matter what color it was — Christina knew, no matter how she begged, that she would never be allowed to play on its banks.
"But why do I have to stay in the yard?" she asked at breakfast, the morning after her father's dinner party. She had asked many times before, of course, but Christina hoped that if she kept asking, someone might one day give in.
"The world is a dangerous place," said Nanny, squeezing Christina in her plump arms. "Your father wants to keep you safe. Eat up, now."
Nanny's hugs were a little on the smothering side. Christina squirmed away. What was so great about being safe all the time? She could think of much more important things — like meeting kids her own age and having a little fun now and then.
"Your father already lost his wife," said Cook darkly, coming in with a tray of muffins. "He doesn't want to lose you, too."
Christina crumbled a muffin into bits. She had heard this before. When she was younger, she used to wonder if her mother had been lost in the Loompski forest and might find her way back someday. It hadn't been until recently that Christina had understood: When people said her mother had been lost, they meant she had died.
"I could at least go to school," Christina said rebelliously. "Kids are supposed to go to school, aren't they?"
"But your computer classes are far superior to any ordinary school," said her father, wandering past with a cup of coffee in one hand and a calculator in the other. "You have the finest instructors from all over the world, and you never have to leave your room. Speaking of which, how are you doing in math these days?"
"Fine," muttered Christina, making a face.
"You know, math is so much more fun than you realize. Here, I'll show you."
"No — really, I'm fine —"
Dr. Adnoid pulled a notebook and pen from his pocket. "You're going to enjoy this problem — just listen for a minute, now. Say you had seven integers, three of which were divisible by two ..."
Christina ate her oatmeal in gloomy silence. When her father finally put his pen away to leave for work, she was so relieved that she followed him out to wave good-bye.
Dr. Adnoid's dark green car pulled out of the carriage house, passed the front gate, and disappeared down the gravel road that led into the forest. The gate shut with a metallic clang. Christina winced — she hated that noise — and stood a moment in the bright morning air, facing the house.
The house that Leo Loompski had built was a little like a castle, with brass-studded doors, stone lions at the steps, and grinning gargoyles on the roof. If Christina hadn't been so lonely, she would have loved living there. The inside was filled with surprising little closets and cupboards big enough to crawl into and window seats in the oddest places.
"Christina! Time to come in!" Nanny stood at the door, hands on her sizable hips.
Christina dragged her feet, looking wistfully at the stone facade. If only she were allowed to climb on the roof! There were unusual-looking places behind the stone gargoyles that she would love to explore.
There was nothing new left to discover indoors — she had already located everything that was interesting. Rumor had it that Dr. Loompski had built a secret tunnel, but rumor was wrong. Christina had never found it, and she had searched for years.CHAPTER 2
CHRISTINA stared grumpily at her computer. She had already done spelling, history, and Spanish verbs. She had passed a health screening (apparently she wasn't colorblind) and finished three workbook pages, and it wasn't even time for lunch.
Dancing numbers filled the screen, each with its own happy face. "Here comes Math!" intoned a falsely cheerful voice from the speakers. "It's fun, fun, FUN, and YOU get to solve the problems YOUR way —"
Christina snapped it off, irritated, and went to her telescope on its tripod by the window.
She turned the focusing knobs carefully, first one and then the other, until the schoolyard of Dorf Elementary came into view. She flipped her straw-colored braids back over her shoulders, looked through the eyepiece, and sighed with longing. Recess again.
Of course it was fun to watch the kids arrive and leave school, too. Christina loved the bright orange flags that the big kids held out over the street so the little ones could cross safely.
But recess was both the best and the worst to watch. It was the best because the kids were having the most fun, running and swinging and climbing up and sliding down. And it was the worst because she wanted so much to join them, and couldn't.
What were they playing today? Christina squinted at the mass of kids running about and recognized one of her favorite games — Chase and Tap. Or at least that was the name she gave it in her mind.
But today they had added something new: Kids froze in place when the chaser tapped them and ran off when someone else tapped them again. Christina pulled a small notebook out of her back pocket and penciled in "Chase, Tap, and Freeze" at the bottom of her list. If she ever did get a chance to play with other kids, at least she would know something about their games.
She looked through the telescope again. Some of the kids were climbing trees. Was it hard? she wondered. Maybe she could try it herself, in her yard.
She knocked at Nanny's door. "Please, can I go out early? I've done my morning work."
The door, unlatched, drifted open. Nanny was lying down with an afghan over her legs, snoring.
Christina moved closer. Flat on her back and rather thick about the middle, Nanny sounded exactly like a lawn mower that someone kept trying — and failing — to start.
"Nanny?" Christina said softly. "Can I go outside?" She tried not to stare at the thin line of drool that slid from the corner of Nanny's open mouth across her double chin — and then a flash of orange from the window caught Christina's eye.
She looked out. The orphans were collecting trash across the street.
"I'll stay in the yard," Christina said in a whisper, and shut Nanny's door behind her.
"Where are you going, young lady?" Cook wagged a finger at her from the kitchen. "It's not time for your afternoon outing yet, is it?"
"I've done my morning work," said Christina, "and I asked Nanny if I could go outside."
"Well, what did she say?"
"She didn't say no," Christina said cheerfully, and skipped out the door.
Christina jumped away from the tree she had been attempting to climb. A hand beckoned from the bushes on the other side of the iron railing.
Christina peered in between the leaves to see a lean boy's face, with dark straight hair and worried gray eyes, thickly lashed. She stared, fascinated. She had never seen someone her own age up close before, at least not that she could remember.
"Don't look at me!"
Christina was startled. Was this what kids usually said when they met someone?
"Act like you're doing something else. I'm not supposed to be talking to you." The boy glanced over his shoulder.
"Oh." Christina looked down at her knee and pretended to pick a scab. She understood about trying to get around grownup rules. "I'm not supposed to be talking to you, either. Who are you, anyway?" She slanted a look upward and caught a glimpse of an orange and red vest. "Oh, wait, I know — you're one of the orphans."
"That's right," said the boy, sounding annoyed, "just one of the orphans. We have names, you know."
Christina sat back on her heels. She had always wanted to talk to another child, but this one seemed kind of rude. "You haven't told me your name," she pointed out. "I'm Christina."
"Yes, I know. And your father's the head of Loompski Labs." The boy's voice was eager. "What's it like to have a dad who's a scientist?"
"Boring," said Christina.
"But — what about when his scientist friends come over, and talk —"
"Double boring," said Christina.
"— about their experiments? That can't be boring."
"Want to bet?" Christina pretended to find a rock in her shoe. "How come you're so interested in science, anyway? Do they teach it at the orphanage?"
The boy snorted. "Are you kidding? They teach us all about mop cleaning — and trash compacting — and the proper way to scrub plastic —"
"No Spanish verbs?" said Christina dreamily. "No math?"
"Just the boring kind of math," said the boy. "All we get to learn is adding and subtracting and multiplying, enough so we can count the plastic toys that we find in the garbage and keep an inventory. No algebra. No x times y squared. Nothing fun —"
"You should meet my father," said Christina gloomily. "You'd be his dream come true."
"I wish I could," said the boy fervently.
"Taft!" a loud voice called from the street. "Keep moving!"
Christina heard a loud clang and then the grinding motorized whine of the garbage truck as it crushed the trash. Through the bars of her front gate she could see a small girl dragging an empty can back to the curb.
The boy pressed his face to the iron bars. "Look, I've got to go. But listen —" He looked over his shoulder.
"Have you found the tunnel yet?"
Christina stared at him. "That's just a rumor."
"It's not just a rumor." The boy gripped her arm through the bars. "I heard it from a guy who heard it from his cousin's best friend who got it from the nephew of somebody who actually swept floors for old Leo himself."
"I've looked in the cellar," said Christina hurriedly, "and I've looked for trapdoors on the ground floor —"
"But those are the obvious places," Taft insisted. "Leo Loompski was brilliant, he was a genius, he won the Karsnicky Medal. He wouldn't have hidden a tunnel in the first place anyone would look. You've got to keep trying — think bigger — look higher —"
"Coming!" Taft backed out of the bushes and onto the sidewalk. "Some litter blew into the bushes," Christina heard him say. "I thought I should get it out."
"You're not paid to think," roared the voice. "Get a move on, boy, or I'll put you on the next truck up the mountain!"
Think bigger — look higher —
What had Taft meant?
Christina understood about looking higher. Up until now, she had only searched the cellar and first floor. It wasn't likely that a tunnel would be on the upper floors, but at least they were higher.
But think bigger? It didn't make sense. For one thing, everyone said Leo Loompski had been a very small man — probably not much larger than Christina herself. If anything, she should think smaller.
Maybe the entrance to the tunnel was just Leo's size?
Christina nodded decidedly. That would be easy. She had long ago searched out all kinds of small places in Leo Loompski's big old house.
There was the window seat in the music room, with its velvet curtain that could be pulled shut, hiding her from everyone.
There was a narrow space behind the couch on the landing and a dusty but private spot in back of the overstuffed chair in the corner.
The dining room had a long wooden bench with a carved seat that was hollow beneath and very convenient for playing fort. Under the table was good, too, if there was a tablecloth, and the built-in cupboard in the hall had space to squeeze in, if she was careful not to bump the dishes.
And of course there were the closets. Christina went to every one, carefully tapping the walls and floors for signs of a door or hidden panel. She carried a tape measure and wrote numbers down in a notebook so that she would seem to be doing homework — and no one stopped her or even asked what she was doing.
Excerpted from The Secret of Zoom by Lynne Jonell. Copyright © 2009 Lynne Jonell. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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