When a family disaster forces the four Rothbaum children to live with their aunt Gladys, they immediately know there is something strange about their new home. The crazy, circular house looks like it stepped out of a scary movie. The front entrance is a four-story-tall drawbridge. And the only food in Aunt Gladys’s kitchen is an endless supply of Honey Nut Oat Blast Ring-a-Dings cereal.
Strangest of all are the doors—there are none. Every doorway is a wide-open passageway—even the bathroom! Who lives in a house with no doors?
Their unease only grows when Aunt Gladys disappears for long stretches of time, leaving them alone to explore the strange house. When they discover just what Aunt Gladys has been doing with all her doors, the shocked siblings embark on an adventure that changes everything they believe about their family and the world.
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Zack Is Mistaken
The door to Mrs. Gizznulf’s sixth-grade class creaked open with all the subtlety of a polka-dancing zombie. In response to this unexpected distraction, four students gasped, seven looked over with eager excitement, three jolted awake, and eight remained asleep. Only one student attempted to block out the eerily squeaky interruption and actually pay attention to what Mrs. Gizznulf was saying, certain it would be on an upcoming test. Seated ramrod straight in the third row two seats from the window, Zachary Rothbaum jotted down the teacher’s every word with enthusiasm rarely seen in an eleven-year-old. Because he was focused with laser-like intensity on his task, it took Zack a few seconds to realize anyone had entered the classroom, which was unfortunate considering he was the reason the door had been forced open twelve minutes before the lunch bell in the first place.
“I apologize for the intrusion, Mrs. Gizznulf,” Nurse Hibble announced meekly, poking her head through the partly open doorway just as much as was absolutely necessary. “I’m afraid I must borrow Zachary Rothbaum.”
Mrs. Gizznulf growled, something she tended to do when either bothered or hungry. Nurse Hibble flinched and quickly withdrew her head from the classroom. “His presence is required in the main office,” she called out from the safety of the hallway.
Every head in the classroom turned toward Zack at the same time, twisting in perfect unison with the precision of a Broadway chorus line. He tried not to squirm under the undivided attention of his entire class, but having forty-five eyes staring at him at once (two each for twenty-one students and Mrs. Gizznulf, plus Tom Gillogily’s non-glass eye) caused his sweat glands to dribble irritating beads down his forehead.
Now what’s she done? he thought. He held no fantasies that Nurse Hibble was here because of anything Zack had done or said or stepped in or eaten. Whatever the issue, it wouldn’t be about Zack.
It would be about Sydney. As usual.
“Ahhhhh, Zaaaaack. You’rrrrrre wannnnted innnn the oooofficcccce,” purred Mrs. Gizznulf in a particularly thick version of her unidentifiable South American accent. A number of Zack’s classmates whimpered and sank lower into their seats, as the strength of her accent was known to be directly proportional to the size of the English teacher’s irritation.
Aware the safest way to avoid her wrath was to leave the room as soon as possible, Zack closed his notebook and quickly shoved everything on his desk into his backpack. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, standing and heaving the bag over his shoulder.
He marched down the aisle of the suddenly silent classroom and managed to leave the room without hearing the sniggers and giggles one might expect to hear during a student’s march of shame. This was partially due to Zack, who was moderately popular and could hold his weight on the playground, and partially due to Mrs. Gizznulf, who had demonstrated on more than one occasion her fanatical devotion to corporal punishment.
Mrs. Gizznulf ran a tight ship.
“What’s she done this time?” he asked Nurse Hibble as they trudged down the hall. “Is the other kid okay?” While each infraction was unique, most generally involved Sydney leaving some sobbing fourth-grade girl holding a tissue to a bloody nose. With their father working and unable to get away on short notice, and Janice now in middle school, Zack was generally called upon when his excitable sister got in trouble. About every month or so, he was summoned to the office to deal with her after her latest scuffle.
As they passed the faculty lounge, Zack realized Nurse Hibble had yet to respond to his question. Worried this meant his sister had done more damage than usual, he tried again. “The other girl’s okay, right?”
Again, silence, this time mixed with a quickening of Nurse Hibble’s steps, so that Zack found himself almost jogging to keep up. Something was definitely wrong.
“Nurse Hibble?” he asked, hoping the third time was the charm.
She stopped in front of the door to the main office, placed a hand on the knob, then paused and looked back at Zack. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Then, as Zack’s face twisted into worried confusion, she pulled the door open and ushered him inside.
Stepping in, he found Sydney sitting against the far wall, dazed and miserable. She was obviously upset, so whatever had happened must have been serious. Still, there didn’t seem to be any blood on her clothes, which was a good sign.
“Sydney,” he sighed. “Dad is gonna be pissed if you got in another fight.”
In response, she unexpectedly buried her face in her hands and sobbed in a way he’d never seen. Internal alarm bells immediately clanged in his skull.
“Sydney, hey, I didn’t mean that. It’ll be okay. We’ll come up with a good story--I promise. Sydney?”
A throat cleared behind him. He whipped his head around to hear the grim details from Nurse Hibble but stopped midwhip when he caught sight of Janice standing against the wall, tears running down her face. In her arms was their youngest sister, Alexa, pulled from her first-grade class.
Without knowing why, Zack’s stomach tightened and his tear ducts readied a deluge.
“Janice?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”
Again, the throat cleared. “Thank you, Nurse Hibble. You may go.”
Principal McCarthy stood in his office doorway, wearing his most serious face. Behind him stood a tall, thin, chinless Latina woman with tears carving gullies down her cheeks.
“What’s going on?” Zack asked the room. The weeping woman let out a pitiful moan as Principal McCarthy stepped forward to drape an arm over Zack’s shoulder.
“Mr. Rothbaum,” he said in his best “you’re not going to want to hear this” voice, “I’m afraid there’s been a terrible accident.”
Janice stared at her father, lying motionless before her on the hospital bed, his body wrapped in bandages to cover the terrible extent of his burns. She tried to hold in the tears but was not overly successful. He seemed very peaceful and calm, and not at all like someone who had quite recently been caught in a terrible house fire, suffered third-degree burns over a substantial portion of his body, and fallen into a coma.
A pathetic heaving of choked breath was uttered behind her. The overwhelming emotion in that breath threatened to send Janice over the edge, so she quickly focused on her father’s bedding, searching for imperfections she could fix in the way the blanket had been gently tucked into the sides. Spotting a slightly mussed fold in the corner of the blanket by her father’s left foot, she reached out to pull it taut.
“Give it a break, Janice, will ya?” mumbled her sister Sydney.
Janice stopped midreach. “It’s messy,” she said.
“It’s fine,” Sydney replied with just a hint of sisterly fury.
“The doctors say he could wake up anytime, anytime,” said the smelly, pudgy lawyer guy whose name Janice had not bothered to remember. “All we can do is wait.”
Another half gasp/half sob from behind caused Janice to wheel around and face the weeping individual. “Why are you weeping?” she asked.
Miss Guacaladilla, the chinless social worker who had been with them every moment since she’d ruined all their lives by coming to school bearing news of the fire, wiped her left eye clear of tears with the back of her hand, further streaking mascara across her already-mascara-covered cheek. “He’s in a coma! He’s lying right there! In a coma!”
“We know!” snapped Sydney. “You don’t have to rub it in!” Zack moved quickly to her side, placing a calming hand on her shoulder.
“At least he’s alive,” said Janice. Her siblings all silently agreed. By some miracle--no one knew how--their father had managed to pull himself out of their burning home before succumbing to his injuries. Had he not, the children would be standing at his grave instead of his bedside.
“It’s just so tragic,” wept Miss Guacaladilla.
Miss Guacaladilla seemed to find everything in life absolutely miserable, and her constant sobbing was not helping Janice or her siblings deal with the situation in a healthy, orderly manner. Janice felt a rising urge to intensely dislike the woman.
That’s not fair, thought Janice, reprimanding herself. She’s just the messenger.
Still, without having anyone else to blame, dumping everything on Miss Guacaladilla (she had asked the children to call her Lubella; the children had refused) made Janice feel better.
“Can he hear us?” asked little Alexa.
“Probably,” stated Nurse Hallabug, who had been lurking quietly in the back. She had said she wanted to give the family some privacy, but Janice suspected she really just enjoyed watching people suffer. “We are almost pretty sure that there is a decent chance that it is possible that your father can hear you from time to time. If you don’t mumble. We think.” She smiled at them--one of those “I’m smiling to show how sad I am for you” smiles--and nodded.
Alexa looked up at Janice, who nodded back down to her. “Go ahead,” said Janice.
The littlest Rothbaum inched closer to the hospital bed, standing up on her tippy-toes to get a better look. “Please wake up, Daddy,” she said.
Miss Guacaladilla broke into new sobs.
Zack stepped next to Alexa and lifted her into his arms. Janice joined them and took her sister’s hand, then was slightly surprised to feel Sydney take her other hand. The four children stood united next to their father, awkwardly waiting for one of the conscious and healthy adults in the room to do or say something.
A throat cleared. A nose sniffed. Someone loudly scratched an itch.
“Mr. Rothbaum should probably be allowed his rest,” said Nurse Hallabug. “There’s every reason to believe that it might be good if maybe he was left alone. Perhaps.”
“Yes, well. I must be off, be off,” said the smelly, pudgy lawyer guy with a commendable sigh. “Things to do, papers to file, and whatnot, whatnot.”
Miss Guacaladilla gave a loud, teary sniff as she approached the four siblings. “I do hope you poor, sad dears are ready to depart,” she said, wiping her face with the back of her hand yet again. “We must administer to your future.”
“Our future?” asked Janice. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, you sweet, innocent, miserable children,” announced Miss Guacaladilla in a warbling voice. “With your father in a coma, there is no one to look after you. Also, there’s the upsetting matter of your house burning down. I’m so sorry to tell you, but you have nowhere to go. No one to help you.”
The children looked at one another. It was obvious none of them had considered this at all. “What are we supposed to do?” asked Zack, speaking for the group.
“Oh! Yours is such an unfortunate fate!” bawled Miss Guacaladilla, her tears leaping from her face and sprinkling everyone with a fine mist. “I’m afraid you must come with me. It’s time to put you . . . in the system!”
Sydney Throws a Fit
Sydney glared at the paintings on the walls of Miss Guacaladilla’s office. They were all wrong. Rather than paintings of people or trees or a bowl of fruit, they were just colors. Lots of dark, morose, gloomy colors. They made the paintings seem sinister and depressing, and made the room feel distinctly miserable.
This was not a happy office.
For one thing, Miss Guacaladilla never stopped crying. She’d cried when picking them up from school, she’d cried at the hospital, she’d cried when checking them into a motel for the night, she’d cried herself to sleep watching over them in the motel room, she’d cried the next morning when buying them a change of clothes since they’d lost everything in the fire, and she was crying now just sitting in her chair.
There was nothing happy about her.
“Such a tragedy, my poor, sad, miserable little dears,” Miss Guacaladilla was saying. “It is almost too much to bear. To lose your home to the ravages of fire as your father lapses into a coma from which he may never recover. What a horrible way to start your young lives.”
Way to cheer us up, thought Sydney, fidgeting in her chair and swinging her legs back and forth against the back of the social worker’s desk. Zack absently reached over to still her knee, but she slapped his hand away.
“Are we going to stay with you, then?” asked Zack.
“What?” shrieked Sydney. “Miss Boo-Hoo? No way!” She gave the desk another solid kick in defiance and popped out of the chair to pace back and forth along the far wall of the office. Unfortunately, because of the minuscule size of the room, she ended up more or less just turning in circles.
“I’m afraid not, Zachary,” answered Miss Guacaladilla through a flood of tears. “As much as I adore you all, and as much as I enjoyed our evening together, I am not legally allowed to foster children.” She sighed, as if this were the one great disappointment of her life. “However, I swear on the life of my poodle, Bilbo, that I will not rest until I have secured a loving, legal foster parent for each and every one of you.”
“Foster parent?” spat Sydney. “We don’t need a foster parent. We have a real parent.”
“A real parent who is--oh, how it pains me to say this--currently unable to care for you due to his being in a coma. Has the universe no mercy?”
Sydney smoldered with untapped fury as she watched the obnoxious woman once again descend into a bawling wreck. She didn’t want a foster parent. She wanted Dad.
“Won’t it be difficult to find someone to take all four of us in?” asked Janice.
Miss Guacaladilla sucked in her breath as if she’d just seen an alien spaceship land outside her window. A very sad alien spaceship. “Oh, my poor, miserable, sad, forlorn, despondent, forsaken children!” she wailed. “No one will take you all. I’m afraid you will all be sent to different homes to live solitary lives, quite possibly in different cities or even different countries. It pains me to no end to admit that you may never see one another again! Why is life so cruel?” Miss Guacaladilla dropped her head to her desk and blubbered spasmodically.
Though her siblings froze in astonishment at this news, Sydney, who had never been frozen in her life, grabbed a thick, dusty book off the shelf and hurled it at the social worker. “No!” she roared. “That’s wrong! That’s all wrong!”
Zack managed to deflect the book before it did any actual harm, but Miss Guacaladilla raised her head nonetheless. “I’m so, so sorry, Sydney,” she said. “I wish there were something I could do.”
“Dad shouldn’t be in a coma!” yelled Sydney, giving voice to the thoughts that had been filling her mind ever since this blubbering faucet had come into their lives. “He shouldn’t even have been home! He should have been at work! It’s all wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong!”