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BOOKS AND SWORDS
Twelve-year-old Dorothea Barnes was thoroughly un-chosen, not particularly deserving, bore no marks of destiny, lacked any sort of criminal genius, and could claim no supernatural relations. Furthermore, she'd never been orphaned, kidnapped, left for dead in the wilderness, or bitten by anything more bloodthirsty than her little sister.
Don't even begin to entertain consoling thoughts of long flaxen curls or shiny tresses black as ravens' wings. Dorrie's plain brown hair could only be considered marvelous in its ability to twist itself into hopeless tangles. She was neither particularly tall or small, thick or thin, pale or dark. She had parents who loved her, friends enough, and never wanted for a meal. So why, you may wonder, tell a story about a girl like this at all?
Because Dorrie counted a sword among her most precious belongings. Yes, it was only a fake one that couldn't be relied upon to cut all the way through a stick of butter, but Dorrie truly and deeply desired to use it. Not just to fend off another staged pirate attack at Mr. Louis P. Kornberger's Passaic Academy of Swordplay and Stage Combat (which met Tuesdays behind the library after Mr. Kornberger finished work there) but, when the right circumstances arose, to vanquish some measure of evil from the world.
Dorrie regarded every opportunity to prepare for that moment as a crucial one, and the Passaic Public Library's annual Pen and Sword Festival-always bursting with costumed scribblers and swashbucklers-afforded, in her strongly-held opinion, one of the best. On its appointed day, she pounded down the wide battered staircase of her home long before the rising sun finished gilding the rusty dryer that sat, for lost reasons, on top of it. She did so in the one tall purple boot she could find, dragging her duffel bag behind her.
At the bottom, in the vast chamber that had once served as a ballroom, Dorrie caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror that hung over a bureau by the back door, and hiked up her wide leather belt. She had buckled it over a hideous, electric-blue-and-black-striped suit jacket with ripped-out sleeves that Dorrie's father swore he had worn proudly out in public in a bygone era. Underneath it, a shirt with great puffy sleeves and dangling cuffs screamed "pirate" loudly and well. After taking a moment to tug on the hem of the moth-eaten velvet skirt that was meant to hang to her knees but had got caught in the waistband of her underwear, she glowered into the mirror, her sword aloft. Despite the missing boot, the overall effect pleased her.
"Yo ho, Calico Jack," called her father. "Put this back in Great-Aunt Alice's sitting room, will you?" Dorrie looked away from the mirror to see her father, holding a tiny carved owl. He wore a ruffled, candy-striped apron that read, "You Breaka My Eggs, I Breaka Your Fast". With his free hand he was stirring a pot of glopping oatmeal in the part of the old ballroom the Barnes called "The Kitchen". Other parts of the once grand chamber served as "The Living Room", "The Office", "The Rehearsal Hall" for Dorrie's fourteen-year-old drum-pounding brother, Marcus, and "The Playroom" for Miranda, Dorrie's four-year-old sister.
Dorrie made her way to her father across one of the dozen rugs bought cheap from thrift stores currently living out their end days beneath the daily burden of ill-conceived art projects, the occasional mislaid plate of scrambled eggs, and books. Heaps and hills and hoards of books. Books left open on the back of the sway-backed sofa and under the piano, on the top of the toaster and hanging from the towel rack.
"Miranda borrowed it," he said, dropping the carved owl into Dorrie's outstretched hand. Dorrie gave her father "a look." Her sister had a deeply ingrained habit of "borrowing" things. Dorrie set off for Great-Aunt Alice's sitting room, which lay on the other side of the deteriorating mansion.
Great-Aunt Alice had invited Dorrie's family to live with her two years ago when her sprawling home had become too much to care for by herself.
Besides the ballroom and a few bedrooms, the rest of the mansion was her territory. Just as shabby, she kept it spare and clean and orderly. Great-Aunt Alice claimed the Barnes side of the house gave her fits of dizziness.
After Dorrie set the owl back on its shelf in Great-Aunt Alice's empty sitting room, the thick hush tempted her to tuck her sword beneath an arm and open a little stone box that stood beside the owl. Inside lay an old pocket watch and a silver bracelet set with a cloudy black stone.
The doorbell rang, and Great-Aunt Alice's voice in the marble-floored hallway made Dorrie's hand jerk so that the box's lid fell closed with a small clack.
Hurriedly, Dorrie pushed the box back onto the shelf. Then, in a silly horror at the thought of Great-Aunt Alice-who often seemed as remote and unfathomable as a distant planet-catching her snooping, she wrenched open the lid of a cavernous wicker trunk that stood against the wall and scrambled inside, sword and all. She pulled the heavy lid down on top of her. It bounced on her fingers, trapping them, just as Great-Aunt Alice hobbled into the room. Dorrie sucked in her breath, the pain making her eyes water. She heard the sitting-room door close.
"Well, did he see you go in?" asked Great-Aunt Alice.
"Oh, he doesn't have the imagination to suspect," said a young woman breathlessly.
Dorrie pressed her eyes to the gap made by her swiftly swelling fingers. Amanda, Dorrie's favorite librarian at the Passaic Public Library after Mr. Kornberger, stood now, inexplicably, just inside Great-Aunt Alice's sitting-room door. Everything about Amanda Ness was long. Her skirts, her hundred braids which hung down below her shoulders, and her nose-which had been given the usual infant inch and had taken a mile. If a long temper was the opposite of a short one, well, she had that too.
"You should be more careful," said Great-Aunt Alice, stopping at her writing desk. She smoothed a few white hairs back toward the tight bun at the back of her head. "Has anything changed?"
"Not yet," said Amanda, sitting down on the edge of a little pale-blue sofa.
"No. Of course not," said Great-Aunt Alice, easing herself down into a straight-backed chair. "It's patently absurd that we're even discussing the possibility."
Amanda looked vaguely hurt.
"I don't know what I've been thinking," said Great-Aunt Alice. "Sneaking around in there like a thief these past weeks."
Amanda clasped her hands together. "You were thinking that the stories might be true!"
Dorrie listened so hard that she could almost feel her ears trying to creep away from her head.
Great-Aunt Alice picked lint from a sweater hung on the back of the chair. "Well, I'm a foolish old woman." She caught Amanda staring at her. "Oh now, don't look so disappointed."
"Give it more time!" pleaded Amanda. "He said he wasn't sure how long it might take."
Great-Aunt Alice absently toyed with a little jar of pens on her desk. "I'm ashamed that I believed even for a moment in the possibility."
In her wonder at the thought that Great-Aunt Alice could believe in anything fantastical for even the briefest of moments, Dorrie barely felt the wicker strands of the trunk embedding themselves in her knees. After all, Great-Aunt Alice had frowned disapprovingly when Miranda asked her to clap her hands so that Tinkerbell wouldn't die.
Amanda leaned toward Great-Aunt Alice. "But it's obvious that something special is supposed to happen there." Dorrie held her breath so as not to miss a single word. The conversation positively bulged with mysterious possibilities.
"It's obvious my father wanted something special to happen," Great-Aunt Alice corrected. "My believing that it will happen is as ridiculous as Dorothea believing that she's going to corner modern evil with a sword."
At the mention of her name, Dorrie nearly lost her grip on the sword in question and had to scrabble to keep it from falling noisily to the floor of the trunk. There was a moment of silence during which Dorrie felt certain that Amanda and Great-Aunt Alice could hear the small cave-in taking place in the general vicinity of her heart, but her great-aunt only sniffed and began to talk about Mr. Scuggans, the new director of the Passaic Public Library, calling him insufferable.
Dorrie began to breath again in shallow little huffs. Ridiculous! She turned the stinging word over in her mind. Dorrie had never stopped to think about whether her desire to wield a sword against the villains of the world was sensible or ridiculous. It just was. She squeezed the hilt of her sword, drawing strength from it until the crumbling hollow feeling in her chest faded a little.
The conversation outside the basket had turned to the difficulty of cleaning the library's gutters, and stuck there for what seemed like an excruciating eternity until, at last, Great-Aunt Alice showed Amanda out. Dorrie, her heart pounding, slipped from her wicker prison, and back through the double doors that led into her family's side of the house.
She stood still for a moment, her thoughts whirring madly. Insults aside, what had Great-Aunt Alice and Amanda been talking about? Something important. "Special," Amanda had said.
Her gaze fell upon the clock hanging slightly askew on the wall above the back door. Shocked at how much time had passed in the trunk, Dorrie sprinted halfway up the staircase.
"Come on, Marcus!" she bellowed. "Hurry up! The Festival! We're gonna be late!"
With relief, she heard Marcus let down his drawbridge, the chains rattling as they lowered the doubled-up piece of plywood that he had attached to the outside of his bedroom window. It landed with a muffled thud on the roof of an old garage that served as their chicken shed. Somehow, being able to do his chicken-feeding chore without having to technically leave his room counted as a great victory in her older brother's battle to do less-a battle he waged with a fanatic's energy.
After a hurried circuit of the ballroom in search of her still- missing boot, Dorrie threw herself down on the rug in front of the Barnes' threadbare barge of a couch and began to grope beneath it. A splash and a cry of "Oh, Miranda!" came from the bathroom below the stairs. Dorrie's mother emerged, a wet cell phone held up gingerly between two fingers.
Behind her, Miranda clanked along, a velvet ribbon around her neck hung with two spatulas, a ring of old keys, and a plastic funnel. Her bushy red hair was inexplicably full of paper clips. Miranda stopped to rearrange her dangling collection. Dorrie noticed a porcelain kitten in a tiny basket hanging between the two spatulas.
"Hey, you little magpie," said Dorrie. "That's my kitten!"
"It likes me better," Miranda said, just as Marcus landed at the bottom of the stairs with a furniture-shaking thud.
"You're not even dressed yet!" Dorrie howled at him.
Marcus yawned. "Shirt," he said pointing to the black T-shirt he'd worn to bed. White letters across the chest read, "Apathy is Hard Work." He pointed to the reindeer-print flannel pajama bottoms that covered his giraffe-like legs. "Pants."
"That's what you're wearing?"
"Not every pirate was a fashion icon."
"You're not taking this one bit seriously!"
Marcus yawned luxuriously. "Who would?"
Dorrie felt her face warm as Marcus sauntered away toward the refrigerator. I do, she said to herself, swallowing hard.
"I can't find my boot!" she shouted at the top of her lungs.
"And I can't find any of my duct tape," her father said calmly, stooping to pick up the mail that had just come cascading through the letter slot in the back door.
Dorrie's father built prototypes for people who thought up interesting inventions but had no idea how to use a screwdriver. He used a lot of duct tape.
"Ask little Lady Lightfingers about it," said Marcus, looking back darkly at Miranda. "She took my drum key right out of my pocket."
Dorrie swept her arm under the couch again. It landed on a half-sucked lollipop. Trying to shake it off, she upset a tottering stack of books that had grown to the height of an end table beside the couch. Dorrie only had time to cover her head with her hands before they came bouncing and tumbling down upon her. She sat up with a jerk, and The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure slithered to a stop beside her knee. It held within its pages her favorite sword fighting scene of all time.
Dorrie slowly picked the book up, the echo of Great-Aunt Alice's words in her ears. Staring at the cover, it suddenly dawned cold and hard on her that though she might want to wield a sword against modern villains, modern villains probably had not intention of making themselves available to her for a spearing. Not the spectacularly vile wicked ones who really knew how to brew up trouble. Not the ones who surely lurked behind the radio news stories about bombs and starving kids and poisoned rivers. Not in the cooperative way they used to once upon a time, at least according to the books she liked to read.
Her father's voice interrupted the terrible thought. "Dorrie," he called in a singsong voice.
She tossed the book aside and stood, full of hot confusion. Modern villains probably wouldn't make themselves helpfully obvious with swirling black cloaks, scars in all the right places, or fiendish laughs, either.
"Please find The Three Musketeers, will you? " asked her father, sifting through a fresh pile of violently yellow envelopes, every square inch of them stamped "Urgent" and "Overdue" in blood-red ink." Before Mr. Scuggans buzzes the house in a helicopter."
"I've been looking!" said Dorrie, tossing The Princess Bride aside, and getting to her feet. And she had. For the last three weeks, Dorrie had suffered for the missing book, not daring to set foot in the Passaic Public Library. Whenever Mr. Scuggans caught sight of a delinquent borrower, he liked to publicly announce the size of any fines owed with a bullhorn. Amanda and Mr. Kornberger always took care to lower their voices when delivering any bad news about fines or the blocking of borrowing privileges. It was rumored that Mr. Scuggans wore a toupee.
Dorrie's mother's phone rang. "Well, praise Neptune, it still works," her mother said, looking pleased as she threw a handful of spoons on the table and placed the phone gingerly alongside her ear, if not exactly touching it. "Hello?" Dorrie's mother listened for a moment and then fixed Dorrie with an exasperated grimace. "Oh hello, Mr. Scuggans."
"I don't think she's so pro-Neptune anymore," said Marcus, jamming his hand into a box of cereal.
"Yes, she...yes, I...yes, she's...uh...actively looking for it." Dorrie's mother flailed one arm at Dorrie as though she were a chicken who needed shooing.
For the third time that week, Dorrie hurriedly lifted the sofa cushions. The Three Musketeers wasn't there. But her missing purple boot was. She held it up to her mother triumphantly. Her mother did not look impressed.
"Yes, we have the title," Dorrie's mother continued into the phone, as Dorrie hopped on one foot, tugging on the boot. "Hmm? No, I don't think I need the bar code numbers. Well, of course I'm taking this seriously." The doorbell clanged again in the front hall. Dorrie's mother put her hand over the phone. "Go get it," she hissed.
Dorrie jabbed her finger at the clock. Her mother jabbed her finger toward Great-Aunt Alice's territory. After giving her mother what she hoped was a suitably put-upon look, Dorrie stomped through the separating doors, Miranda skipping along behind her.
In the black-and-white marble-tiled front hall, Dorrie heaved open the door. Her eyes traveled upward. An immense man in a dark overcoat, crisp white shirt, and shining tasseled loafers stood on the doorstep. His silvery hair seemed to absorb the sunlight. At the curb behind him idled a long, black car with tinted windows.
Dorrie blinked at the man, struck by the thought that the red bow-tie he wore did not look the least bit merry on him.
"We don't want any!" said Miranda, pushing her head out from beneath Dorrie's arm.
"Charming," the man said in a velvety voice, as though the word didn't taste very good. At his side, the fingers of one gloved hand began to move up and down like piano hammers as he rolled two walnuts around and around each other in his palm.
Dorrie's face reddened. Now, strangers ringing Great-Aunt Alice's doorbell were hardly unusual. Great-Aunt Alice was an anthropologist who wrote long books filled with very small type about humans and the things they believed in. For as long as the Barneses had lived with Great-Aunt Alice, a steady stream of peculiar guests had come to be interviewed by her.
Dorrie felt these visitors came in two varieties: ones who would rather give up a kidney than talk to Dorrie, and those who, if allowed, would ensnare Dorrie in long, bewildering conversations about the mystical symbols buried in dollar bills or their identities as kings or queens of lost civilizations. The men tended to sport long walrus-y moustaches, and the women, fringed shawls and carpetbags. This man had none of these things. A hair-raising sort of wet growling was coming from inside his car.
Dorrie thought back to the conversation she'd overheard. The morning was getting stranger by the minute.
Miranda made her own gurgling, growling sound and, with bear claw arms, began to run in tight circles around the stranger.
The stranger stared straight ahead, his gaze not so much resting on Dorrie as burning through her. In his hand, one of the walnuts cracked smartly, and bits of nuts and shells fell in a thin, dusty shower onto the doorstep.
"Sorry about her," Dorrie said, hastily grabbing the back of Miranda's shirt as she passed and hauling her back inside. "Can I help you?"
"I'm Aldous Biggs. I've come to see Alice Laszlo. Is she in?"
"I'm Alice Laszlo," said Great-Aunt Alice from her sitting-room doorway, where she leaned on her cane. Dorrie found it hard to meet her eyes. "How can I help you, Mr. Biggs?"
"I've come in response to your advertisement. About the book."
"Ah," said Great-Aunt Alice. "I haven't run one in some time."
"Just the same."
Great-Aunt Alice studied Mr. Biggs. "Please come in." She opened her sitting-room door wide for him. Relieved to escape Great-Aunt Alice's gaze, Dorrie began to drag her sister back across the hall. Once firmly back in Barnes territory, Dorrie pretended not to notice when Miranda stepped with a splash into her imaginary dog's bowl full of very real water.
Dorrie's mother dropped her phone on the counter, looking exhausted. "Dorrie, you've got to find that book."
"I will," Glancing at the clock again, Dorrie slid into her seat, seized her spoon and began to shove oatmeal into her mouth double-time.
"I already did," said Miranda primly, as her mother lifted her out of the bowl of water and set her on a stool next to Dorrie.
Dorrie and Marcus and their mother and father all stopped what they were doing and stared at Miranda.
Miranda dug her spoon into the sugar bowl. "I put it in her bag."
"Oh, praise Nataero!" said her mother, grabbing the spoon back before Miranda could close her lips around it.
"Thank you?" said Dorrie, looking suspiciously at Miranda and not at all sure the Roman god of lost things deserved much praise in this case.
"New burning question," said her father loudly, as he passed around a bowl of hard-boiled eggs. "Who was fooling around with my helium tank?"
"Could have been me," said Marcus, his voice unnaturally high.
"Well, don't do it again. You left the valve open," said her dad. "You could knock someone out leaving that on."
"So are you ready for today's performance?" said Dorrie's mother, peeling an egg for Miranda. "Marcus says yesterday's rehearsal went pretty well."
Marcus began to gesture furiously, his mouthful of oatmeal traveling from cheek to cheek. He finally choked it down. "I believe my exact words were, ‘It wasn't an unmitigated disaster.'"
"I wish I could watch the performance," said Dorrie's father, "but-"
"The helium-suit field-test," everyone else at the table intoned together.
"Assuming I can find the duct tape," said Dorrie's father, wiping his mouth and getting up. He grabbed his goggles, distributed kisses, and disappeared through the back door.
"I wish I could see the show, but I won't be back from the conference until late tonight," said Dorrie's mother, fishing Miranda's ribbon of treasures out of her oatmeal. Dorrie's mother taught Latin and Italian at Passaic Community College. Her classes were never full. "Miranda will be at the babysitter's, and you two are on your own for dinner."
Dorrie threw her bowl and spoon in the dishwasher with extra force. As she slung her duffel bag over one shoulder, she turned to see Marcus making a sandwich at the counter. "We just ate!"
"Be riiiiiight with you," said Marcus, busy interspersing slices of meat and cheese to create a teetering tower of sustenance.
Dorrie's mother pointed to Dorrie's glass of orange juice which still sat on the table. "Finish that before you go."
"I don't have time," said Dorrie, picking up her sword.
Miranda held the glass out to Dorrie, her small face looking its most angelic. "It's good for you," she said. "It's got medicines."
"Okay, okay!" said Dorrie, grabbing the juice and downing it in one long gulp. Miranda beamed at her. Dorrie lowered her glass. "Why is she looking at me like that?"
Marcus slapped a piece of bread atop a massive avalanche of mayonnaise and looked up. "I think she just poured water from the imaginary dog's bowl into your juice."
Dorrie spat into her glass and looked at Miranda. Her little sister clutched a squat, silver bottle in her fist, its stopper dangling from a short, thin chain. "Miranda!"
"Go," said her mother, pushing Dorrie toward the door. "Marcus will catch up." She tucked a hank of hair behind Dorrie's ear, dug some money out of her pocket and handed it to Dorrie. "Go get 'em, tiger. Come tomorrow, things will be back to normal around here."
Just then, Miranda, who had picked up an abandoned hard-boiled egg, shot the yolk into the pot of oatmeal, sending a warm spatter flying over the table. "Normal!" she squawked happily.