The Virtual Red Couch is hosting a collaborative short story project. Each week, a new author will continue the story. Check back every Monday to see how the story unfolds!
Written by Cole Schnieders
“What is it Daniel? It better not be another one of those Avatar graphic novels. You’re supposed to pay for ice cream next time.”
Daniel grimaced. Emma had moped for two weeks earlier in the summer when Daniel had eschewed his promise to spend his hard-earned allowance on bribery ice cream just so he could take a book home for once. However, this was more important than even Avatar and (gag) Everett Hawforn.
Emma found him next to the second-floor landing and prepared to protest his unwillingness to search for James. Before she could start, Daniel pointed to the spiral staircase with one hand and put a finger to his lips. Emma’s eyes widened.
Normally, there was only books stacked haphazardly about from patrons discarding their lesser finds before heading all the way downstairs to checkout out and a rather ugly olive paisley armchair pushed against the stairway’s railing. Now, there was a second staircase. The armchair had been moved aside, the marks in the carpet suggesting this had happened recently.
“Do you think James is up there?” whispered Emma. Daniel shrugged and reached out to touch the bannister while Emma gasped softly. Somehow, in all their trips to the Inkwell that summer and the previous, they had never noticed this staircase. Or perhaps it had only just sprung up, for the bannister was well polished and its carpet was vividly crimson, while the other staircase was as well kept as its owner. Stranger still, the new spiral staircase turned the opposite direction to the other.
“If he’s anywhere, he’d be up there,” replied Daniel in a half-whisper. While Emma reverenced the bookstore almost as much as Mrs. Schreibel, Daniel was of the opinion it was merely a cool place to avoid the hot afternoons. If Mrs. Schreibel caught them, they might get banned for the rest of the summer, but that just put Daniel closer to the fridge and Netflix. Emma squeezed his arm as if to remind him of the sacredness of the space and tried to see what was on the yet unseen third floor. Daniel shook her off and looked too, but the problem with spiral staircases is that they conceal such information and the only way to find out was to climb.
Cautiously, the two began the ascent. The thick carpet muffled their steps and Emma walked closer to Daniel than their typical sibling animosity would allow. As they neared the top, the two slowed and Daniel (the taller of the two, by an inch) tried to see out what this new floor would hold.
It was much brighter, but Daniel chalked that up to no bookshelves to block the windows. The walls were painted blue and a rich green, in a pattern almost like hills. The carpet wasn’t the familiar faded red of the Inkwell but was a randomly variegating green. It smelled cleaner up here too, like on the first warm day of spring when they’d open all the windows to catch, as their mother called it, “fresh air.”
“I don’t see her,” he whispered to Emma, referring of course to Mrs. Schreibel. The two crept up the rest of the stairs. Oddly enough, there were no windows in sight. Daniel looked up to see if there was a skylight but immediately looked down and covered his eyes. There was no roof and he had just looked directly at the sun. Emma followed suit and was also temporarily blinded. The two huddled closer as a cool breeze pulled at their clothes.
“You don’t think we’re on the roof, do you?” asked Emma.
“The roof is all tile, at least what you can see from the street. Plus,” Daniel pulled free of his sister and knelt on one knee. “Why would the roof be covered in grass?” He ran his hand over it, appreciating how soft it was.
Emma bent down. “And dandelions and clover and violets,” she added uneasily. “Perhaps it’s one of those eco-roofs? And we never are really at an angle to see what’s actually on top.”
“Well, let’s go the edge then, and get our bearings.”
“Wait,” said Emma, catching his hand. “We need to find James first. We ought to go back and enlist Mrs. Schreibel in the search.”
Daniel wanted nothing more than to explore, but there was logic to what Emma was saying. Normally he’d argue with her, but the peculiarity of the situation gave him pause. “You’re right,” he assented. Still, as soon as he could, he wanted to come back up here. He had a funny feeling that those painted, distant hills were actually hills themselves and the patches of blue an unbelievably clear sky. Turning, he yelped, let go of Emma’s hand, and rushed forward.
“There’s no staircase!” he shouted.
“What do you mean?” Emma asked. She turned too. “Oh no. No, no, no. We’re going to be late for dinner, and then we won’t be able to come back for a week!” The stairs had indeed vanished, in their place a rather thick patch of clover. She sank down and dug in the soil. “Help me look, maybe there’s a trap door mechanism that just closed behind us.”
Daniel shook his head. “You can look all you want, Em. I’m not sure there’s anything there.”
“It simply can’t be that way. What if James is still down there, what if he gets hurt?”
“If I know anything from the books I’ve read, usually it’s the youngest to start the trouble with magical lands. And I have a suspicion we’ve managed to find ourselves in one.”
Emma gave up digging and brushed her hands on her capris, then really looked around.
“I-” she stammered. “I think you’re right. What should we do?”
Daniel offered her a hand then lifted her up. “Well, at any moment, a talking mole rat or an ancient wizard will come along and tell us where we are and what quest we’re supposed to embark on. Then they’ll join us for a portion of the journey and either hand us off to another fairytale critter, or else die but leave us with a cryptic clue about who our father was.”
Emma sniffed and laughed a little; she had been crying. “And if they don’t?”
“Well, we wander off in a random direction only to find our lives in perilous danger. Then some knight or a local yokel will save us and get us to the same point really.”
“So either way, we’ll end up with a quest?”
“No doubt. And either along the way or at the end of it, we’ll recover James and he’ll be the key to our success.”
Emma, calmed down, smiled broadly. “If it’s a quest, who do you suppose the bad guy is?”
Daniel looked over at his sister and they said in unison, “Mrs. Schreibel.” They both laughed. No longer did the empty field feel so frightening. If there was one thing they knew, it was how to survive when one was suddenly thrust into a distinctly singular situation. And, they both secretly thought, they had the other.
“Well,” Emma said. “As I’m the oldest, and as no denizen of this roof top has bothered to make an appearance, I say we head in that direction.” She pointed to two identical hills that formed a neat valley between them.
“Seems as good as any other,” replied Daniel. “Just be on the lookout for quicksand, poisonous reptiles, and large beasts.” They set off, Daniel dramatically looking over his shoulder every ten yards or so to make sure they weren’t being followed.
“You’re wrong, you know,” Emma said as the hills were just a half mile off.
“What do you mean?” Daniel had stopped looking over his shoulder awhile ago, the joke having worn thin.
“Reptiles could be as poisonous as they wanted to be, as long as we didn’t eat them. It’s the venomous ones you have to look out for.”
“Whatever, Emma. Same difference.” Daniel was getting hot and annoyed no magical creature had showed up to offer them tea. He didn’t even like tea, but tea usually came with snacks.
“It’s really not. You see-“
“Stop.” Daniel was looking at the ground.
Emma stomped. “Would you let me finish just one sentence, please?”
Daniel turned to look at his sister, stuck out his tongue, and looked back at the ground. “You can be snobby in a second. Look at this.” Pressed in the emerald grass was a very large paw print.
“It looks a bit like a bear’s,” Emma said quietly.
“I think it’s a cat’s – a big cat. Like a lion’s.” He bent down and picked up a long orange hair.
Emma took it. It was longer than her own hair. “Maybe a tiger then? A really shaggy tiger?”
“Lions, and tigers, and bears,” muttered Daniel. “Oh my. Well, whatever it was, it went over that hill.”
“You two are really bad at tracking, do you know that?” droned a sarcastic voice behind them. “The prints are going the other direction.”