Two spires rise sharply into the crisp blue morning sky as our minivan pulls into the lengthy drive leading toward the towering mansion. I can feel my teeth tighten at the sight. It is still an awkward feeling, these braces. Not exactly the birthday present a twelve-year-old boy hopes for, but still, I am thankful to have a better smile some day.
“Is that Uncle Julian’s house…uh…castle?”
“That’s right, Henry. I want you to remember we’re here to talk to Uncle Julian’s visiting nurse about moving him someplace that can better take care of…well…his needs.” My mom grips the steering wheel tighter.
There’s something she isn’t telling me. I don’t know what it is, but that’s not unusual. She is my mom after all.
“Doug, can you believe this place? Look at that yard!”
Doug has been my friend since first grade when he saved me from a life of boredom and loneliness. At least that’s how Doug likes to tell it.
There is no mistaking the two of us for twin brothers by any means, much less brothers at all. Except that we are inseparable. My mom knew before she asked me about going that we had to invite Doug. My friend has a mop of brown hair rather carelessly shoveled to one side, but sometimes even to the other depending on his mood – one of several visual contrasts compared to my meticulously combed blond hair, always parted to the same side. I know; it’s a thing.
The door slides open, releasing us as we snatch up our tablets. I am so looking forward to trying out a new game I installed this morning.
“No boys. Those stay here.”
I can actually feel my shoulders sink as my hand slips off the tablet. This was going to ease the ensuing boredom, but I know spending time with my uncle is the better thing to do right now. I’ve only ever seen him over the holidays once in a while at my house. We haven’t talked a great deal. Usually about baseball or something. Oh, he is nice enough, but just so adult.
After a few hours there talking, it is obvious why my uncle needs some different arrangements.
“What is it they said he has, oldshimers?” Doug leans over to me to whisper. “He’s not all there, is he?”
I draw a deep breath, feeling time crawl. “Yeah, Alzheimer’s. I guess it’s getting pretty bad.”
My uncle seems to be fine for a bit, then slips out and forgets who we even are. The nurse goes to the kitchen, probably to get some medicine or something for him. She’s been doing that on and off for hours. My mom stands up, pensive.
“I’m going to find the restroom.” She can see the look on my face, I’m sure, since she continues, “I know I said I wouldn’t leave you alone with him, but I drank all that tea. It won’t be for long.” She rushes off before I can protest.
“Good. I thought those two would never take a break.” My uncle snatches my attention back as I thought he had slipped off to wherever his mind goes.
“Let’s do this quick before one of them comes back. They won’t understand.” He plunges a hand deep under his chair as if looting a hidden stash.
“Understand what, Uncle?” I lean a bit closer, peering under the chair. This is the most interesting development all day.
A look of blissful satisfaction dances over his face as his hand retrieves the treasure. A book. A rather old-looking book. He hands it to me. Pulling the cover open, I see there is no title inside, just as there isn’t outside. I flip a few more pages. All empty.
“Of sorts,” my uncle says as a crooked smile wrenches his mouth.
I close the book and notice my name on the cover. Henry Sevenson. “Was that there? I could have sworn there were no words on it.”
“Quickly put it in your pocket, your mother is coming. Remember, she won’t understand this book,” my uncle speaks more adamantly.
“My pocket? But it’s…” I look down at the book that now looks to be barely a sixth of its original size. I glance at my equally perplexed friend, then shove the tiny book into my pocket as my mom walks in.
After another hour of chatting and working out details with the nurse, we are at the door donning our shoes for our trip home.
I feel a hand rest on my shoulder as I turn to hear my uncle, “We likely won’t see each other here, but there’s a place you will find me. Find me once you start to understand and we’ll explore worlds you’ve never imagined exist.”
“Okay,” the nurse interrupts with her shockingly awful bedside manner. “Let’s get you some rest. It seems the long day of visitors has you more confused.”
But his eyes stay locked on mine as he is led off to a room to get rest.
Back in the minivan and on our way home, only one thought keeps pushing its way through my mind. Judging by the look on Doug’s face, he probably has the same one: What’s with that book and that stuff my uncle said as we left?
I pull the tiny book from my pocket. Almost expecting it not to be there, like the entire conversation was just a daydream I had, but there it is. As it rests in my hand, the book becomes full size again. I exchange a glance with Doug. He nods, knowing we have to look inside again.
I pull back the cover and a strange warm light spills out. My head snaps up to check if my mom noticed anything, but she looks very still. Too still. In fact, so do the cars around us on the road. They are moving, but incredibly slowly.
“What’s going on?” Doug croaks the words as if not having talked for a week. It seems he and I are the only ones not affected by this slowness.
“I better close this book. This doesn’t seem right.”
The cover starts closing as I feel Doug’s hand stop me. “Wait, we need to understand what your uncle was talking about.”
I nod. “Okay, yeah. He didn’t seem to think it was dangerous. But then he wasn’t thinking clearly much at all.”
I pull the cover fully open. As our eyes start to adjust to the light, we begin reading words that form on the page just ahead of us reading them. Like the story is being written as we read.
We both start reading the words together:
The sun presses down on the two boys like hot coals. They make their way up the final sand dune, ready to escape from the heat in the refuge they expect to see any moment.
“Why do I feel sand on my feet?” Doug looks down as we both see his feet sink a couple inches into sun-drenched sand. “What are you wearing?” He lets out a chuckle so hard he has to hold his belly.
“Probably the same ridiculous outfit you are. We both look like we’re in some big bath robe. Wait! These are desert clothes. This is the story we were reading! How can this be?”
Before Doug can give an answer he doesn’t have, someone crests the dune from the other side. A rather intense-seeming woman, but I can’t make out her face with her head covering. She grabs our hands as if she knows us. Tugging us forward, she snaps, “It’s about time you two got here. We need to hurry up. There isn’t much time.”
“Wait, what? First, where is here? How did we get here? I don’t understand any of this.”
She stops abruptly and straightens up. Turning toward us, she licks her dry lips. “You don’t know? Your uncle didn’t explain anything to you? Oh great! We’re doomed. How are you supposed to help us if you don’t know how to use it?”
Afraid to ask for seeming even less helpful, “The book?”
She sighs, “The book is only a tool. A door.” The woman takes a softer tone as she places a hand on my chest. “This brought you here. Your heart.”
A cloud begins forming in the sky somewhere behind her. She must have noticed my gaze shift as she turned. The three of us watch the swirling gray cloud grow larger and bolts of lighting begin darting out of it toward what seems like a desert city.
“You’re going to need to learn very fast.” She looks back at me. “Your uncle, your mom, they are depending on it.”
“My mom? No, she doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
“Did he tell you she wouldn’t understand?” She kneels down.
“How did you know that?”
“He didn’t want you to know they were going to capture her soon.” I can feel my teeth tighten again. Not just my teeth. My hands clench into fists.
“We’ll find her before it’s too late. Don’t worry.” Her eyes waver.
She isn’t sure.