Read an Excerpt
The Velvet Room
By Zilpha Keatley Snyder
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Zilpha Keatley Snyder
All rights reserved.
When the tire went flat for the third time that day, it went with a bang. The car swerved sharply to the left and then to the right and came to a sudden stop. Robin's chin hit something, perhaps her own knee, and she bit her tongue. Shirley was screaming, and for a minute Robin's eyes were blinded with tears. But she blinked them away and stuck her head out of the window. Cary was pushing and tromping, trying to get his head out of the window in front of Robin's.
Robin gasped when she saw what the car had hit. For the first time she was thankful that the poor old Model T couldn't go very fast any more. What if they'd hit all those stones at fifty miles an hour?
The car doors spilled open, and they all poured out: Dad from the driver's seat, and Cary and Theda and Rudy from the back. Mama was slower because Shirley was still hanging around her neck and yelling as if she were being killed.
But Robin just sat. She tucked her legs up on the seat and rubbed her bare toes where Cary had just about smashed them as he climbed out over her.
Dad was standing in front of the car, shaking his head slowly from side to side. "Well, that does it," he said. "That just about does it." He didn't look angry or even worried, any more—just tired.
But Cary looked positively delighted, "Lookit the wheel, Dad. Gee! Look-it the fender!" He jerked at Dad's sleeve and jumped up and down as if he were looking at a clown in a circus. It seemed to Robin that even an eight-year-old ought to know better.
Mama finally managed to unfasten Shirley from around her neck long enough to climb out of the front seat; but when Shirley saw how the fender and wheel were smashed flat against the pillar of stones, she began to scream all over again. She buried her face in Mama's skirt and wailed.
"There, there, Shirley honey," Mama said. "Don't cry. You know it's bad for you to cry so hard."
Robin smiled with tight lips. It wasn't that Shirley was old enough to realize just how bad a fix they were in; it was only that she never missed an opportunity to howl no matter what happened. And even though it was bad for her asthma, no one ever made her shut up.
"There, there, Shirley," Mama was still saying. "There's no need to take on so. Rudy can fix it. Just look, Shirley honey. Rudy's getting ready to fix it right now."
Shirley took her face out of Mama's skirt for a second to glance at Rudy. It didn't take her long to decide that Rudy wasn't doing anything that would make watching more fun than yelling, so she went right back to yelling.
Robin sighed. Rudy didn't seem to be doing anything except squatting beside the squashed wheel, touching it lightly with his fingers as if he were trying to take its pulse. Of course, if anybody could fix it Rudy could, even though he was only fifteen. Rudy might not be very good at some things, but, as Dad said, a sick machine seemed to be able to tell Rudy where it hurt.
But this might be too much even for Rudy. What could a boy of fifteen, with only a few tools, do for a wheel that looked like that? No, it was ruined. The car was ruined, and it was over a hundred miles to where Dad was supposed to get a job.
Robin pulled her legs up against her chest and wrapped her faded print skirt and thin brown arms tightly around them. She rested her chin on her knees and rocked herself to and fro.
She was beginning to have a strange feeling. It wasn't the first time she had felt this way. Everything seemed to be moving backward away from her, getting smaller and smaller, less and less real. It was as if she were watching everything from a long way off. There beyond the cracked windshield was her family, gathered noisily around the broken wheel, and closer yet was the back of the front seat, with the patches of gunny sacking sewn on over the torn upholstery. Closest of all were her own bare toes, a little bit dirty, sticking out from under the cotton skirt. But all of it—even the dirty toes—seemed quite unreal.
Robin opened the car door and jumped out. She looked quickly around. Directly in front of her was a high gate of twisted-looking black metal. The gate hung from two huge stone pillars. It was against one of these pillars that the old car had met its fate. From the tops of the tall columns of stone more black metal, in an elaborate pattern of leaves and flowers, formed an arch above the gate. In the midst of this arch the metal had been shaped into fancy letters forming the words Las Palmeras. Through the bars of the gate Robin could see a curving road, weed-grown and potholed, but lined on both sides by a wonderful procession of gigantic palm trees.
The gate was too high to climb over, but beyond the pillars the stone fence was lower. Robin easily found places to fit her bare toes. Just as she was on her stomach on top of the wall, ready to drop down on the other side, Mama saw her.
"Robin," she called. "What are you doing up there?" She started toward the wall, but because Shirley was still crying into her skirt she couldn't move very quickly.
"I'm just climbing over, Mama, to look around."
"If that's somebody's yard over there, you're going to be trespassing," Mama said in her sternest voice.
"Oh, it's not, Mama." Robin was getting breathless from hanging over the stone wall on her stomach. "It's just an orchard and an old deserted road." Without waiting for an answer, she shoved off and dropped to the ground.
Mama's voice came over the wall. "Don't you go wandering off again, Robin. You stay within shouting distance. You hear?"
"Yes, Mama," Robin shouted back as she started off through the knee-deep weeds of the old road.CHAPTER 2
The House of the Palms
Although the summer fog of coastal California had been thick all morning as they drove, the skies were now clear. Slanting rays of afternoon sun threw the long shadows of the palms far to the east. Across the old road lay only the narrow shadows of the trunks, making a striped pattern of sun and shade. Beyond the palms, on each side of the road, were rows and rows of orange trees, their waxy leaves like green glass in the sunshine and almost black in the shade.
As Robin walked slowly up the center of the road, a sudden contentment replaced the feeling that had sent her scrambling over the wall a few minutes before. It was quiet here, away from the noise of the highway and all the rush and roar of people. The air smelled of sun-warmed earth and orange blossoms. But it was the palms, more than anything else, that brought a strange feeling of peace.
They were very old trees. Their heads, shaggy with untrimmed fronds, reached far into the air, and their huge trunks were scarred with age. Bordering the abandoned road like the ancient pillars of some ruined temple, they marked the way far into the distance. Robin thought they were probably the oldest trees she had ever seen.
A little farther on, the road curved over a gentle rise. From the top Robin could see a thick grove of trees at the base of the hills. She looked back uneasily. It was a lot more than shouting distance back to the highway. She really ought to go back. But she knew that nothing could make her return until she had seen what was hidden behind that grove of trees.
As she approached, she could see that these trees, too, were very old and very large. They were mostly oak and peppers, with here and there some others she didn't recognize. The road, even more weed-choked, curved now through almost twilight shade. It curved some more and suddenly came to—a house.
It was about the largest house that Robin had ever seen. It was built of pale gray stone, and at one end it had a high round tower. A long portico supported by stone arches ran all around the front and one side.
It was a wonderful house, almost like a castle—but after a moment Robin realized that something was terribly wrong. On the bottom floor there were no windows. Every place a window should have been there were only rough planks. The house looked wounded; like a beautiful face with bandages for eyes.
Robin was standing at the edge of a large clearing that once must have been a lawn. In the center of the clearing was a stone-lined pool in which three bronze sea horses stood on a pedestal. The dry pool was littered with dead leaves, and the round mouths of the sea horses were full of dust.
How different it all must have looked when the windows sparkled with sunlight, when the fountain splashed, and the lawn was green; when the porches weren't cluttered with dirt and branches, and the curving road that swept before the door was white with fresh gravel.
It made Robin angry. How could the people it belonged to treat it that way? To let it sit there dead and lonely with its windows blinded! If it were hers, she would never have done that to it. If it were her house, she would look out of every window every day, and just be happy to be there. Just be happy to live in a house that seemed to have grown up out of the hills behind it.
"Robin!" Even though Theda was still a long way off, her voice was plainly exasperated. She must have been calling for a long time.
"Coming!" Robin shouted, and with a quick backward look at the old house, she started toward the highway. She ran fast, hoping to stop Theda before she reached the grove of trees that hid the house. She didn't know why it was so important to keep Theda from seeing the house, but it was.
She needn't have worried. Theda, plainly, hadn't come any farther after she had heard Robin's answering call. Breathless from running, Robin topped the rise in the road and saw her sitting on an irrigation weir at the edge of the orchard. She had one shoe off and was rubbing her foot.
"Where have you been?" she demanded crossly, slipping her shoe back on. "Didn't you hear Mama tell you not to wander off?"
"I didn't wander off," Robin gasped. "I was just walking, and I didn't notice how far I had gone."
"Well, we just ought to go off and leave you some time," Theda grumbled. "Serve you right. Always wandering around with your head in the clouds."
Robin glanced quickly at Theda. It wasn't like her to be so cross. You couldn't count on Theda for a lot of important things, but you could usually count on her to be cheerful—even when there wasn't a thing in the world to be cheerful about. They walked on silently for a while before it occurred to Robin that Theda's grouchiness was probably because of sore feet.
Just before they left the camp in Salinas, a woman had given Theda a pair of high-heeled pumps. Mama said that fourteen was too young for high heels, but Theda had finally talked her into changing her mind. Theda had been wearing the pumps for the last two days; but since they'd been in the car almost constantly, she still hadn't had much walking practice. Now, as she made her way carefully over the rough surface of the old road, her ankles wobbled and her freckled face looked pained.
"Why don't you take them off till we get back near the highway?" Robin suggested. "Nobody's going to see you out here in the orchard, anyway."
Theda's lips tightened, and she shook her head. She could be surprisingly determined sometimes, particularly if it had anything to do with clothes. If there was anything that really mattered to Theda, besides boys of course, it was what she was or wasn't going to wear.
The iron gates were in sight now; and for the first time since she had fallen under the spell of the ancient palms, Robin thought about the mess they were in. "What are they going to do?" she asked. "About the car, I mean."
Theda shrugged. "Rudy got the wheel clear off, and he and Dad went off to look for a service station. Rudy said they'd have to buy a whole new wheel, but Dad thought they might get it straightened out."
Robin's brow furrowed. Rudy was probably right—he usually was when it came to machinery—and Robin knew that Dad had only about twelve dollars left to last them until they got to San Bernardino. He'd said so last night when Mama wanted to take the kids to the movies to see the new Shirley Temple picture. Could you get a whole new wheel and tire for twelve dollars? And even if you could, what about food and gas all the rest of the way there?
"I wonder how much a wheel costs?" she asked Theda. "Dad doesn't have much money left. I heard him say so."
"Who cares!" You could tell that Theda's sophisticated shrug was copied from someone in the movies, but Robin couldn't think just who. "Don't worry about it. We'll get there somehow. We always do. There's always the police, you know. They'll probably see that we get as far as the next county, anyway. Remember how helpful they were that time we broke down right in the middle of Pasadena?"
Robin clenched her teeth. How could Theda joke about that time in Pasadena! It made a pain in Robin's stomach just to think about it. Everyone staring, and those awful policemen laughing about all the stuff tied on top of the car and making jokes about "Okies." Robin had tried to tell one of them how the Williamses weren't "Okies," or "Arkies," either; but the policeman had just grinned and said, "Well, you couldn't tell by looking, kid."
Robin broke into a run and scrambled over the stone wall, leaving Theda to get over as best she could in her silly high heels. Mama and Shirley were sitting in the front seat, and Mama was reading the funny paper to Shirley. Robin knew for a fact that it was at least the tenth time that someone had read that same ragged funny paper to her. Cary was up on top of the load on the roof of the Model T. He was sitting astraddle the rolled up mattress, pretending to be riding a horse. There was no sign of Dad or Rudy.CHAPTER 3
End of a Three-Year Journey
Just as Robin was climbing into the back seat over the roll of bedding on the running board, a big new truck slowed up and made a U turn in the highway right in front of them. To everyone's surprise, there in the back of the truck were Dad and Rudy. The truck stopped, they jumped down, and two strange men got out of the cab. Or rather one strange man and a boy: a thick, awkward-looking boy, as big as a man, but with a not-quite-finished look about him.
Theda had just made it over the wall, and was teetering toward the car, smoothing her hair and tucking in her blouse and trying to pretend she hadn't noticed the strange boy. Mama, followed by Shirley, got out of the car and pretty soon everyone was standing around in front of the car again. That is, everyone except Cary, who stayed on the roof, and Robin, who just sat in the corner of the back seat.
"Helen," Dad said, "this is Mr. Criley and his boy, Fred. Mr. Criley, this is my wife, Mrs. Williams, and my family. You met my eldest, Rudy here, and then there's Theda, and Robin—where is Robin?" Mama nodded toward the car. "Oh, there she is over in the car. Robin's twelve now. And Cary—up there on the load. He's eight and the baby, here, is four." Dad patted Shirley on the head; she promptly stuck her thumb in her mouth and ducked behind Mama.
Robin watched Mr. Criley's eyes move slowly and coolly over each of them. His head nodded briefly in acknowledgment of the introductions. For a long minute he looked at the ancient Model T with its top-heavy load of household possessions. As Robin looked at Mr. Criley, in a funny sort of way she also saw exactly what he was seeing. She could see every detail: every dent and paint-less patch of rusted metal, every cracked or broken window. She could see exactly how the boxes and bags and rolls looked that were piled and tied on every inch of the roof and even on the running boards. For three years the Model T had been the only unchanging part of her life; and though she realized how important the car was to them, it seemed as if every one of those more-than-a-thousand days had made her hate the old car a little more.
Mr. Criley's inspection finally appeared to be over because he turned to Dad abruptly and said, "The car will have to stay here for now. Too late to fool with it today. But you'd better bring everything else along if you don't want it to get stolen." His lips curved upward in what was supposed to be a smile, but seemed like something very different. "Don't think you need to worry about anybody stealing that car." He turned back to the truck. As he climbed into the cab, he shouted, "Better put all them younguns to work on that load. I got to get back to the ranch."
Dad didn't even give Theda and Mama a chance to ask any questions. His voice had a new sound, firmer and more lively, as he said, "O.K. everybody. Let's see how fast we can get all our stuff into the back of the truck. Step lively now. Theda, you take the bedding. Rudy, you get those boxes of kitchen things. Robin! Get out of that car and lend a hand here. Mama, I'll boost you and Shirley up, and you can push the things back in the truck bed as we hand them up."
Excerpted from The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Copyright © 2004 Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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