Children’s Literary Classics Seal of Approval
Finalist 2014 National Indie Excellence Awards, Pre-teen Fiction
Fall is off to a rough start for twelve-year-old Natalie: the kids at school have begun their typical bullying, her sole friend, Phillip, has become withdrawn with the disappearance of his father, and worst of all, Natalie has started to develop an unusual ability, one that sets her apart and undermines her every effort to be normal.
It all promises to be a bummer of a school year; one Natalie doesn’t think could get any worse, until the day Beausoleil the Magician rolls into town with his daughter Louisa and his mysterious doll…
* * *
Enjoy our free excerpt:
Natalie meandered around the front of the store, browsing through the lovely sewing projects on display. All the different colors made it a cheerful workplace. She paused in front of the bulletin board near the door. Mrs. Stone had made a pretty fabric one, decorated with ribbons and lace. People liked to put their ads and flyers on it because that background attracted everyone’s attention.
Today there were the standard “For Sale” notices, ads for babysitting services, flyers for the community bake sale and a postcard for the theatrical production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” But then Natalie noticed a colorful flyer she hadn’t seen before.
The Big Top Circus is Coming to Town!
The flyer had pictures of big flowing tents, brightly dressed clowns, and animals like elephants and tigers. The circus had never come to their town before, and Natalie had never been to one. It looked like fun. Maybe the circus could even use some help while it was in town. Natalie leaned in to read the flyer. It would be coming to town for a week during their fall break. The timing was perfect! Maybe they would not be too concerned about child labor laws.
Feeling more heartened, Natalie turned from the bulletin board to find Phillip standing at the counter, staring at her with a wary look on his face.
“Oh!” Natalie started in surprise. “I didn’t hear you come.”
Phillip shrugged. He was an average-sized boy with sandy hair and hazel-colored eyes. Natalie rather liked his eyes, but right now, they looked a little hostile.
“You didn’t have to come out and keep me company,” Natalie said, feeling a little defensive.
Phillip shrugged again. “No big deal.”
For a while they stood there, saying nothing. What does he expect me to do, Natalie wondered. She went back to the bulletin board.
The circus flyer caught her eye again. The circus would set up at Morton’s Field, right near her home. That would make it so much easier for her to work there. There was bound to be something she could do!
“What are you looking at?” Phillip had come out from behind the counter and was standing behind Natalie, trying to see what she was looking at.
“Do you always have to startle me like that?” Natalie asked crossly.
“Sorry, the flyer just looked interesting.”
“It’s an ad for the circus,” Natalie said. “Did you know it was coming to town?”
Phillip nodded. “My mom said something about it. Are you going?”
“I want to. I’ve never been to one. Have you?”
“Yeah. My dad took me once a while ago. Before he…you know.”
Natalie glanced at Phillip. Two years ago Phillip’s father had disappeared without a trace. There had been no clues as to what had happened to him, nor had there been any word of him since. Mrs. Stone had been a wreck during that terrible period, and Natalie’s mother had spent much of that time helping her through it.
Phillip, who had always been a bit of a loner, had become sullen and even more withdrawn. He and his father had been very close. His mother mentioned his father every once in a while, but Phillip never did.
“Was it fun?” Natalie asked.
“Yeah, there’s lots to do. All the shows and exhibits and stuff. Lots to eat, too.” Phillip had a little smile on his face, as if the memory of the circus was a good one.
“It must have been nice, with your dad and all.” Natalie said. She remembered Jack Stone had sandy hair like Phillip’s, and a big booming laugh that never failed to get everyone else laughing as well.
“Yeah.” A shadow fell across Phillip’s face. “What about you?” he asked abruptly. “Your dad take you anywhere fun?”
The question threw her for a second. “Um, well, I never saw him. He was gone before I was born.”
There was a flash in Phillip’s eyes before they hit the floor. “Sorry,” he muttered.
Natalie stared straight ahead at the circus flyer. “That’s okay.”
“I knew that. I don’t know why I asked the stupid question.”
“Forget about it,” Natalie said, wishing he would drop it.
An awkward lull fell between them. Natalie tried to find something else interesting on the bulletin board, but the quiet hung over them like a pall. She considered leaving and waiting for her mother at home.
She was about to say goodbye when Phillip suddenly asked, “Want to see my new maps?” Phillip was a big collector of maps.
“Sure.” Maps were not really her thing, but right now it was better than dead air.
Phillip and his mother lived above their store, which Natalie thought was really cool.
“Wow,” she said, as she walked into Phillip’s room. Phillip had hung a huge map of the world on the wall. It looked like it was made of old parchment, with antique colors and old-style print for the different countries and oceans.
“My dad and I made that,” Phillip said. “He found out how to make the paper look old, and Mom helped us with the print. I finally put it up the other night.” A fleeting sadness crossed his face and then disappeared.
“I thought it was an antique,” Natalie exclaimed. “It looks really valuable.”
“Thanks,” Phillip said with a grin. He walked over to his desk and pulled out an album. “I’ve got all sorts of maps. Dad used to travel a lot for his work, and he brought me maps from all the places he visited. Look, they all have the names in the different languages!”
“Wow.” Natalie looked on as Phillip flipped through the pages. “Your dad went everywhere.”
“Yeah, he did. Look at this one from Russia.”
Natalie squinted at the names on the map. “I can’t read the letters.”
“They have a different alphabet,” Phillip said. “I’m going to take Russian someday so I can read what it says.”
“That’s great,” Natalie said. “Do you want to travel someday?”
“Oh, yeah,” Phillip said. “I really want to go to China. They have a different alphabet, too. Here’s the map of Shanghai. I had one of Beijing, but I lost it. Here, we can take a look at it on the big map.”
Natalie followed as he walked over to the large map of the world and traced his finger along China. The map was so cool. She could not believe Phillip and his father had made it.
Natalie moved in for a closer look. There were so many different cities detailed on it. If she looked real close, she could almost see the little roads and pathways between cities.
Natalie blinked. That can’t be, she thought. She leaned closer. One little city moved into focus. She couldn’t tell which one. “Wow,” she breathed. Little buildings on the map were starting to appear.
This is strange, she thought.
“Are you all right?” Phillip’s question came from far away.
“I can almost see…” She sounded so faint. There was movement on the map now. The buildings were getting bigger. It looked like the city was rising. “What’s happening?” she asked incredulously.
Her hand reached out on its own to the map. As her fingers touched the parchment, a familiar feeling crept over her. One she had been fighting since it first came to her, slowly at first, then with growing power.
“No,” she whispered.
“Natalie? What’s wrong?” She could barely hear Phillip’s question now. She tried to look at him, but she could not move; that feeling was too strong. It washed over her, pulled her under, and she was helpless as Phillip and the world around her faded away.
It was not dark, nor was it light. It was…blank.
The air pillowed around her like a float on water. She tried to fight it. Sometimes she could fight it, but this time it was too powerful.
Something opened and unfurled, inside and all around her. Her head spun and she would have gasped if she could. There was no pain, but nothing was her own.
Then she felt something else: an awareness creeping behind her consciousness, like fire crinkling along the edges of a piece of paper, working its way in.
No, she thought, I don’t want to know!
There was no way to stem it. It filled her, working its way through expanded spaces she did not realize she had. She knew things she should not know, but somehow, something was happening to her, and she did know.
A distant voice she recognized as her own spoke.
“Phillip, your father’s alive.”
The sun was beginning to set, its last rays peeking behind grayish clouds, when Natalie finally raised her head from her pillow. Serena had checked in on her earlier, but Natalie had refused to look up, blocking out everything Serena had tried to say or do.
There was nothing anyone could do.
Natalie rolled over and faced the ceiling. This last incident had been worse than any of the others. She had lost all sense of what she was doing. It was as if something else had taken over her mind and body.
What was she going to do?
The doorbell rang. Natalie did not move; there was no reason for her to move ever again.
Voices murmured. She recognized Mrs. Stone, and then her mother addressing Phillip. She buried her head in her pillow. Just the people she did not want to see.
Her mother and Mrs. Stone continued to talk, their conversation muffled. Natalie’s thoughts wandered. What did it mean, what she had said to Phillip earlier? Why did it have to come from her? Was there anything she could do to stop this? She did not want to have to deal with it. She was a freak.
A rustling sound interrupted her thoughts. She looked over at the door leading to the balcony and froze in surprise. Phillip’s face peeked in at her.
“Natalie,” he called, “let me in!”
Natalie bolted upright. “What are you doing out there? Are you crazy?”
“Your mom said you weren’t talking to anyone, and that it probably wasn’t a good time to bother you, but I had to,” Phillip said. “Please let me talk to you.”
Natalie shook her head. “I don’t want to talk,” she said tearfully. “I don’t want to talk about anything.”
“Could you at least let me in?” Phillip asked. “I’d rather not climb back down.”
Natalie rose from the bed and walked over to the door to open it. As Phillip entered, Natalie switched on a desk lamp. She sat in her chair and watched him warily. Was he going to try to make her talk about what happened?
“Do you want anything to drink?” she asked.
Phillip brushed off his jeans. “No, I’m okay. Could I just sit here for a second? That was a hard climb.” Without waiting for an answer, he plopped down on the floor. “Gotta catch my breath.”
For a while they sat there, Phillip’s breathing the only sound in the room.
“Does your mom know you climbed up here?” Natalie finally asked.
“No. When your mom said you weren’t coming out of your room, I told Mom I’d head home. I actually was headed home when I got the idea to try your balcony.” He grimaced. “Didn’t know it was going to be a hard climb, but once you’re halfway there, there’s no going back.”
“I can’t believe you climbed up,” Natalie said.
“I know, right? Like I said, I really wanted to talk to you.”
Natalie was silent. Phillip sat for a moment, then got up and walked around the room. Natalie watched him peruse the pictures on her bookshelf. They were mostly pictures of her and Serena; she didn’t have pictures of friends. There was one picture, though, that caught Phillip’s attention.
“Hey,” he said, “this is a picture of when we went on that picnic.”
The picture was one of Natalie’s favorites. She, Serena, Phillip and Mr. and Mrs. Stone were sitting in the park on a wide blanket with big baskets of food and drink between them. The day had been beautiful and the smiles in the picture were genuine. It had been a fun day. One of the last ones she could remember with the Stones before Mr. Stone had disappeared and Phillip had become withdrawn.
Phillip picked up the picture and contemplated it silently, as if absorbing the happier times caught in the photo.
“It seems like a long time ago,” he said. His voice was low and far away.“I really miss him.”
The look in his eyes made Natalie drop hers. Please don’t make me, she thought.
But Phillip did not say anything. He set the picture down, and quiet settled into the room.
“Wanna see my pocket knife?” Phillip finally asked. “It’s really cool.”
“Sure,” Natalie said.
Phillip sat on the bed by Natalie’s chair and pulled something silver out of his jeans pocket. He held it out to Natalie.
“That doesn’t look like a knife,” Natalie said.
“Haven’t you ever seen a pocket knife? All the stuff’s inside. Look.” Phillip pulled at the knife. Little blades, bigger blades, scissors, even a corkscrew came out.
“Wow, that’s really cool!”
“Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” Phillip pulled out another section. “There’s even a screwdriver. Here, you can have a look.” He handed it to Natalie. “You can do just about anything with a knife like this.”
“You can’t comb your hair with it,” Natalie said.
Phillip grinned. “Sure you can. Pull that.” He pointed to a section on the knife. Natalie pulled at it and out popped a small comb.
“No way!” she exclaimed. It was really skinny and not much use, but nevertheless, it was a comb. “What can you comb with this, squirrels?”
“I can comb my hair just fine.” Phillip took the knife and ran the comb a little awkwardly through his hair. “Yours is just too long.”
“I guess. Where did you get it?”
“My father gave it to me. He was planning on taking me camping so I could use it.” Phillip slowly pushed the sections back into his knife. “The thing is this,” he said softly, “if you know anything about my dad, if there’s a chance he’s alive somewhere and needs help, I just have to know.”
“I don’t know anything.” Natalie cried. “I swear I don’t.”
“But what you said earlier,” Phillip persisted, “back at my house.”
“Stop it!” Natalie put her hands over her ears. “Stop it, please!” She put her head down to block out the sight of Phillip. “Please go away.”
She felt Phillip get up and move away quickly. She kept her head low and her hands over her ears. Frightening thoughts she had chased away earlier were trying to come back, and she could not let them. She scrunched her eyes tight and felt tears squeeze from them and trickle down her cheeks.
I’m not going to think about it, I’m not going to think about it, she thought. Please let Phillip go away.
Thoughts pressed along the blockade around her mind. She buttressed against them until they eased, and the panic ebbed away. She uncovered her ears slowly and took a deep breath. She felt a tentative tap on her shoulder and looked up, surprised.
Phillip was still in the room, his face pale. “I’m sorry, Natalie. I won’t bother you anymore. I just didn’t want to have to climb down. Are you okay?”
“Yes,” Natalie mumbled.
“The thing is, Mom’s gonna be mad if she finds out I climbed up here. Can you help me sneak out?”
Natalie nodded. She was anxious for Phillip to leave. She got up, and they went to the door. Natalie opened it a crack. Serena and Mrs. Stone’s murmuring carried up the stairs.
“I think they’re in the living room,” Natalie said. “You’ll have to go through the kitchen door.”
Phillip nodded. They crept down the hallway to the stairwell.
“Be careful,” Natalie whispered, “the stairs creak. Stay as far left to the wall as possible.”
Phillip moved to the left behind Natalie, and they made their way slowly down the stairs. Suddenly, Phillip grabbed her shoulder.
“What?” Natalie asked.
Phillip put a finger to his lips. “Listen,” he mouthed.
Snippets of Serena and Mrs. Stone’s conversation floated up the stairwell. Natalie strained to hear.
“What about Phillip?” Serena asked. “Has he started showing any signs?”
Natalie looked at Phillip. Phillip shook his head and shrugged. They edged their way further down the stairs.
“Not yet,” Mrs. Stone was saying, “but there’s something there. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think it’s just a matter of time.” Her voice softened. “He takes after his father.”
“Which means you’ll have your hands full soon,” Serena said. The two women laughed. “I’ll work on Natalie,” Serena continued. “I’m sorry, Janet.”
“These things can’t be rushed,” Mrs. Stone said. “And it will give me time to figure out how to keep Phillip from running off in search of his father.”
“Do you think he’ll be all right?”
“I think so,” Mrs. Stone said. “I just wish he weren’t so withdrawn. He’s had to grow up quickly. Sometimes he seems like a little man. And he misses his father.”
Natalie snuck a glance at Phillip. His jaw was tight, his attention focused on the conversation.
“I don’t know, Janet,” Serena said, “I don’t like what I’m sensing. With everything that’s happened…there’s something in the air, I don’t know what. I’m nervous about that circus.”
“Maybe the circus is nothing,” Mrs. Stone said. “Maybe it’s just passing through.”
“I hope so,” Serena said, “but I just have this feeling…” She trailed off. “We’ve worked so hard to protect what we have here. The last thing we need is something that might draw attention.”
Natalie shifted uneasily. This was getting weird. Phillip nodded and motioned to move on. They made their way down to the dining room and passed through to the kitchen. Natalie eased the door open and walked through with Phillip.
When they got outside she asked, “What were they talking about? Do you know what they meant by signs?”
“No,” Phillip said, “I sure haven’t noticed anything. Has your mom said anything to you about the circus?”
“No, nothing. What are we protecting ourselves from?”
“I don’t know. It’s all pretty weird.”
They stood awkwardly on the lawn as the cool shade of evening washed over them.
“Are you sure you’re okay now?” Phillip asked.
The question made Natalie uncomfortable. “Yes. Sorry I freaked out on you.”
Phillip was quiet. He looked up at the stars gathering in the sky. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sorry, too. Just,” he paused for a moment, as if weighing his words, “if you get any more information, will you please let me know?”
Natalie winced and concentrated on smoothing the grass with her shoe. The last thing she wanted was to get more information.
Phillip sighed. “Okay. Well, I’d better get going. See you later, Natalie.”
“Bye, Phillip,” she replied.
Natalie watched as Phillip edged his way around the side of the house and walked away. He was the closest thing she had to a friend, but she could not do what he was asking.
Feeling a heavy weight in her chest, she turned to look at the house. Through the living room window, she could see her mother and Mrs. Stone talking. Both looked worried. What did they mean earlier, Natalie wondered.