Read A Quill Ladder Online

Authors: Jennifer Ellis

A Quill Ladder (9 page)


What if we tell you?

Caleb leaned against the locker he was standing in front of and cast a long look down the hall to where September Parsons stood waiting for him in her skinny jeans and ballet flats, her lush brown hair hanging over one shoulder. Abbey self-consciously thrust one of her sneakered feet behind the other one.


Okay, start talking.


I have to talk to Simon first. But Caleb, you have to believe me, there are reasons we aren

t telling you.


I know, I know, timeline protection, paradox, best not to know, yadda yadda yadda. Abs, either we

re in this together and we share everything, or we

re not.

Caleb flicked his finger at the card in Abbey

s hand.

And right now, it feels like we

re not. I think
I
should be the judge of what you do and don

t tell me about my future.


But how can you be the judge if you don

t know what it is?


I know you should tell me. Who

s going to make the lists if you don

t?

The bell shattered the silence of the hall and Abbey jumped.


I gotta go. We

ll talk this afternoon.

Abbey nodded and watched Caleb saunter off with September. She stared again at the cream-colored card in her hand, but no letters, no clue, no nothing appeared. Maybe she didn

t have witch blood after all.

 

Abbey, Caleb, and Simon gathered at the edge of the school field where their father had picked them up from school for the past three weeks. Abbey wanted to show Simon the card, to see if he could read it, but she didn

t want to risk having their father see it. She would show it to Simon later, and see if she was the only witch dud in the family.

Abbey scanned the passing vehicles for their blue van. She nearly catapulted out of her skin when a silvery-blue Jag pulled up to the curb and stopped in front of them. Mantis hit the power window and leaned out at them, his grey hair falling over his shoulders.


I

ve been sent to collect you,

he said.


By whom? Voldemort?

Simon snapped back.

Mantis emitted a trill of hearty laughter.

By your father, of course. He

s in a meeting. Can

t make it. I

m just to take you home and watch over you for the afternoon.


Right. Creepy Guy Nanny Services. Makes sense. I

m sure you

d be our parents

first choice in babysitters,

Simon said. Abbey stifled a giggle.

Mantis licked his lips.

Perhaps we didn

t get off on quite the right foot. But I assure you, your father
did
ask me to pick you up. I believe he sent you a text message to that effect. Let

s start over again, and try to be friends this time.

Simon withdrew his iPhone from his pocket, scrutinized it, then looked back at Mantis. Abbey peeked over Simon

s arm at the text message.

< Go home with Sylvain. It

s ok. Will be home at 5:00. And no, I have not been kidnapped. Twin Paradox. >

Twin paradox. Their family safety code word that their parents had taught them years ago as a means to tell them which strangers to trust. The twin paradox of time travel

one of the most famous thought experiments in relativity theory. Because of relativity, and the different frames of reference, the twin who travels into space at the speed of light for several years will be younger than the twin who stays home.

They had thought it funny at the time. Only their family would have such a geeky safe phrase. Other families probably used words like alligator or giraffe or sunflower. They had never needed to use it before, and they had almost forgotten it. Now Abbey saw a deep irony in her parents

choice of words.

She looked at her two brothers. Because of Mantis, Caleb would betray Simon in the future

or at least that was the deal the future Caleb had made with Mantis to help save the lives of Caleb

s people. Neither Simon nor Caleb knew that. And clearly her father didn

t know that. Only she knew that. And Jake. And Mantis.


I

m not sure what this is all about,

Simon said.

But I don

t think we

re going to be friends.


Fair enough,

said Mantis.

But do you mind getting in? I seem to be holding up a long line of traffic.

Before Abbey could say anything, Simon opened the front passenger door and got in, placing his backpack on the floor in front of him.


Looks like stranger danger is becoming our specialty,

Caleb murmured as he moved toward the back door. Abbey paused a second longer before relenting and getting in. Whatever happened, she had to stick with Simon and Caleb.

 

*****

 

It was three o

clock and Mark was nearly asleep. The hustle of the office wing had given way to a hushed silence as the afternoon progressed. Nobody had seemed to consider Mark

s occupation of the alcove to be an oddity. A few of the secretary-looking ladies had paused in the hall in front of him wearing smiles, but he had pointedly ignored them, and they had moved on. He occupied himself by tracing map lines in his mind around the green and peach patterns in the linoleum floors and by reciting the names of the world

s 176 longest rivers in order a few times. Then he reviewed them in order of the most flood prone, although this one was a challenge as it required determining whether to rank frequency or severity of flooding as the most important factor. The Nile River flooded almost every year, but the floods were expected and therefore rarely catastrophic. Mark settled for severity and began listing: the Yellow River, the Yangtze River, the Mississippi River, the Arno River, the Ganges River, the Indus River

The degree of impact was of course determined in part by the topography and type of settlement on the land surrounding the river. Dams were often built for flood control as well as hydroelectricity.

Mark decided that he didn

t like the humming of the HVAC system and that he was rather hungry

the granola bar that he had packed had been long since eaten. He checked his new Garman Forerunner watch and experienced a surge of panic. He had been very focused on getting here, and getting the map, or at least access to it, and had not really thought through getting home. He wanted to be at his new desk right now in the basement of the Sinclairs

house eating a pastrami sandwich and wearing his slippers. He checked the bus schedule that he still held in his hand underneath the map of the college. The next bus left the college at 3:20. It was a ten minute ride to downtown Coventry and then he had to switch to the Coventry Estates bus, which left at 3:50 and took another fifteen minutes to get to the stop near the Sinclairs

house. Even if he left right now, it would be 4:15 and almost dark before he got home.

Mark staggered to his feet uncertainly, the cortisol flowing over him in waves. He turned to lurch off down the hall when he saw Dr. Ford approaching at a rapid pace with a woman and two men in tow, his black and white dog following meekly. Mark ducked his head immediately, but Dr. Ford had already spotted him and was giving him a look that even Mark recognized as displeased.

Mark pulled into a full stop and plastered the largest smile he could muster on his face. The woman eyed him like a piece of unwelcome food on her shirt, her narrow face clasped in a furrow of undisguised irritation. Mark decided that perhaps this was a good thing. At least he wasn

t confused with regard to their emotions.

He focused on an odd abstract sculpture at the end of the hall and forced himself to speak.

I came for the map,

he said.

You promised.

The campus map and bus schedule felt damp in his hands.

He couldn

t help but notice out of the corner of his eye that the woman seemed to be wearing a lot of black, save for a single crimson scarf tied around her neck. The men were dressed similarly, but sported long black trench coats in place of the red scarf.

He had the vague impression of Dr. Ford clenching his teeth in a smile.

Right. Of course. I didn

t promise you the map. I promised you that you could trace it, but I think it would be best to just make you a copy. I

m afraid I don

t have time to make you a copy right now though. I

m in the middle of a very important meeting. You

ll have to come back tomorrow.


I rode the bus,

Mark said.

The fuzzy tips of Dr. Ford

s hair rose in tandem with his eyebrows.


I rode the bus to get here,

Mark repeated.

I

m not allowed to take public transit. I need the map.


Right, yes of course. I understand, but you

ll have to come back tomorrow.

Dr. Ford went to push past Mark, but Mark extended his hand and grasped Dr. Ford by the shirt.

 

*****

 


Mark isn

t here,

Abbey said.

Si, what if he got lost on the way to the college?

It seemed strange to be talking like this to Simon while Mantis,

call me Sylvain,

occupied their living room couch, typing something on his phone, his long limbs folded at exaggerated angles and his fine-cut suit jacket draped over the back of the chair. He had chittered amiably about talking computers with Simon on the way home, but when they had arrived back at the house and discovered Mark missing, Mantis had become distracted by his email.


Maybe he

ll be home soon,

Simon said, watching out the window down the road that led to the bus stop. Ocean and Farley nosed in and around all of them, mewling and wagging to emphasize their lengthy abandonment.


Are you certain he went to the college?

Mantis asked, looking up from his phone, a pair of black reading glasses perched on his nose.


Yes. Well, pretty sure. He said he wanted to talk to Dr. Ford about something...

Abbey trailed off. She didn

t think it was a good idea to mention the map, since Mantis also owned a copy of the same map.


Are you sure he didn

t go to the stones?


I don

t know,

Abbey said.

But I don

t think he

d go alone.


Only one way to know for sure.


What

s that?


We go check the stones, of course,

Mantis said.


We

re not allowed,

Abbey said. But somehow even the suggestion of a sanctioned trip to the stones, even if it was a non-trusted adult doing the sanctioning, made her heart perform a small leap. Maybe she was already addicted.

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