When you’re sixteen, summer is the absolutely worst season of all. Unless you have money. With dollars in your pocket you could do almost anything, go almost anywhere and hang out with your friends.
The problem was that Andrew Nesbitt had no money, few friends and nowhere to go. He had no cell phone, no Internet and no cable TV. That left almost nothing to do except complete the endless chores that his mom assigned: mow the grass, wash the windows, clean your room, take out the trash. Boring.
He tried to find a job, but because of a depressed economy, no one was hiring teens when they could hire adults for kids’ pay. He was even willing to cut his shoulder-length hair if a future employer demanded it, but still no offers.
That meant endless days of reading or playing with his annoying younger sister Angela who he had to babysit for free.
One day as he huddled in his room reading a sci-fi novel that he’d checked out from the library, the doorbell unexpectedly rang.
His mom had strict rules about opening the door, but Angela beat him and so had it wide open, staring at an unusually-dressed woman holding a tall staff in her right hand.
“Who are you?” Andrew asked as he brushed his hair behind his ears.
“Your transport,” the woman said.
“Transport?” Angela asked. “Where are we going?” She leaned against her brother’s side, wrapping her arm around his slim waist.
The stranger stared into Angela’s blue eyes. “To Maru Island near North Carolina.”
Andrew, questioning the sanity of the peculiarly dressed woman, attempted to close the door, but her sandaled foot was firmly planted in the way. “We’ve vacationed many times in the Outer Banks. No Maru. You’re lying,” he said.
The woman grabbed Angela’s arm and pulled her onto the porch. “You’re coming,” the woman said. “You’re needed.” The woman’s body fizzled as if it was disappearing. Before she was completely gone, Andrew grabbed his sister’s free arm and held on.
The three of them were sucked into a vortex of swirling lights and screeching sound. It was difficult to breathe and took all of Andrew’s concentration to bring in enough air to stay alive. He worried about his sister. Were her lungs strong enough to withstand the pressure?
When Andrew’s feet touched solid ground, the swirl of colors and sounds abruptly ceased. His first thought was Angela. He tucked her against his side and asked, “Are you okay?”
What Andrew found odd was that although he was scared, Angela was not. A huge grin lit up her face, her cheeks were flushed and her eyes sparkled. “Look, Andrew,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a very strange village.”
They stood on a cobblestone street lined with odd-shaped cottages. No roof was flat, no windows aligned, no sides straight. And no two doors matched.
Some doors were circular with no windows. Some had one window at the top. Some doors were square and others rectangular, but the rectangular ones had the long sides parallel to the ground. Very weird. And all buildings were exactly the same height. No two-story buildings, no steeples, no towers.
“We must hurry,” the woman said.
Andrew stood firm. “Who are you and what you want with us?”
“I am Qutari, the shaman of Maru. Hidden inside one of these houses is a talisman that will stop the decay that is seeping into the heart of the city. Our mages have tried to no avail. They have decided that only non-magical beings can ferret out the talisman because of some kind of blockage. That’s why you’re here.”
“How do you know we’re non-magical?” Andrew asked.
Qutari tapped her nose. “I can sense magic. Both of you have none. But you have smarts. It’s been predestined that you are the ones who will save the city. Now, come. We will search until we find the talisman. Step up to the first door.”
Angela approached a powder-blue rectangular door. Just as she prepared to knock, the door opened. Out wafted wonderful smells of baking. “Chocolate chip cookies,” Angela screeched as she hurried inside.
Indeed, standing behind a speckled blue counter stood a tiny old woman, an apron tightly tied around her waist. She picked up a tray of still steaming cookies. “Have one, my pretties.”
As Andrew reached for his favorite flavor of cookie, Angela stopped him before his fingers came in contact. “No,” she said with wide-opened eyes. “There’s something wrong.”
The old woman cackled, sending shivers down Andrew’s spine.
Qutari leaned close to Angela and whispered, “Is it the cookies?”
Angela nodded, a terrified look on her face. “I sense danger,” she said as she tugged Andrew out of the kitchen and onto the tiny street. “Can you remove the danger? To keep others safe?”
Qutari lifted her staff high over her head and brought it crashing to the ground. A great earthquake shook the house into rubble. “Done.” She led them to the next house, one with a circular door. “Go inside.”
Andrew knocked and then as before, the door swung wide open. Inside a middle-aged man dressed in dark blue overalls sat in a comfy chair, book in his lap, smoking a pipe.
“Welcome,” he said with a sneer. “Have a seat.” He pipe pointed to an empty sofa.
Andrew tightened his grip on his sister’s hand and stood stock still. “Why?” he said. “What do you want with us?”
The man laughed a rather eerie sounding noise. “You want something from me,” he said.
Andrew looked about the room. His eyes locked on a wooden box on a shelf just behind the man’s head. “What’s that?” he asked.
“My treasure box. It belonged to my wife but now it’s mine.”
As Andrew picked up the box, a strange tingling traveled up his arm. He put it back on the shelf. “There’s something wrong with this.”
Angela took it from his hands and opened it. Inside was an old-fashioned skeleton key that was a bit tarnished. She said, “This might be what you’re looking for.”
Qutari said, “Tell me what you think it might do.”
Angela held the key against her forehead. She scrunched her eyes and her breathing slowed. She stood transfixed for what seemed to Andrew like ten minutes.
He ran his hand over his sister’s messy brown hair. “Angela, speak to me.”
In a voice that wasn’t hers, words poured out. The gravelly voice said, “Give the key to Qutari and get off the island as soon as you can.” The key fell to the floor, Angela’s eyes opened and then she reached for her brother’s hand. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.
Qutari tucked the key into a leather satchel that fell nearly to her hips. “Well done,” she said once the threesome was outside. “You found the talisman. But there’s a problem.”
Andrew sighed. “What do you need from us now?”
“To find the lock that the key opens.”
“No,” Andrew said. “You only wanted the talisman.”
Qutari shook her head as she ushered the children down the street. “I said that you had to solve a problem. Well, you got the key, but now we need to know what the key opens. Solve that and I will take you home.”
A stiff breeze ruffled Andrew’s short-sleeved shirt. He wrapped his arms around his body for warmth. Angela did the same. “I’m cold,” she said. “I wish I had a sweatshirt.”
Qutari banged her staff against the cobblestone street and two sweatshirts appeared before their feet, one dark blue in Andrew’s size, one bright red in Angela’s. The kids slipped them over their heads and then the trio proceeded down the street.
“We don’t have to go in every house,” Qutari said. “Let’s stand before each one for a few minutes. Close your eyes and allow your senses to speak.”
They stopped in front of a house with a red tile roof that slanted sharply to the right. A red door stood open and a sharp smell of rotting food floated about. “Something’s dead in there,” Andrew said. “We shouldn’t go in there.”
At the next house, one with a slanted green door, Angela nodded. “This might be the one. Look at the lock. It’s old-fashioned, just like the key.”
Qutari hesitated. “No one locks their doors here. But you can check.” She handed the key to Angela, who, after first trying the knob and finding it locked, inserted the key and turned. The door opened.
The sounds of children crying filled the air. Qutari entered first after telling Andrew and Angela to wait outside. Within minutes Qutari came out with at least a dozen kids of all ages trailing behind.
“You did it!” Qutari said. “You found our children! They’ve been missing for weeks.” A grin lit up her craggy face. She banged her staff on the ground and two men appeared wearing tan robes. “Our children have been found thanks to the young people. Please, take the kids home.”
The men led the children down the street. Some of the kids were Andrew’s age. They either clutched a toddler to their chests or tightly held the hand of a crying youngster. Some of the kids followed on their own. All of their faces were smudged with tears and their clothing was dirty. All of them smelled as if they hadn’t washed for a long time. They were thin and walked as if to a slow waltz, barely lifting their feet off the ground.
“I will take you home now,” Qutari said as she grabbed Andrew’s arm. “Hold on tight,” she said as they entered that same swirling tunnel from before.
When they settled on solid ground, Qutari bowed before the kids. “Thank you for your help. Those kids will be given a nice warm bath and some healthy food and then returned to their families. We will be forever grateful to you.”
Qutari pulled two amulets out of a pocket of her robe. She handed one to Andrew, the other to Angela. “If you ever find yourselves in trouble, put these around your necks, close your eyes and allow my image to come to your minds. I will come.”
Angela wrapped her arms around Qutari and hugged her tightly. “Thanks for allowing me to help,” she said.
Andrew shook Qutari’s hand. “Me too,” he said. “It was fun. I’d go back to that village any day.”
Qutari pounded her staff against the ground and disappeared.
The two kids went inside. Instead of turning on the television, they sat together on the sofa and talked. One thing they agreed on was that their normal boring day and suddenly become one-of-a-kind.