Lauren lived with her aunt in a house that was falling apart. Brandye thought that was why she was different. Haley wasn’t as kind.
“She’s weird. Why do we have to spend the night at her house?”
But Mom just said, “Be kind.”
So they carried their sleeping bags up the narrow stairs to the room with sagging ceilings and crooked bookcases. Lauren was wearing a large purple dress that dragged on the floor, belted at the waist with a braided length of dirty yarn. She curtsied and said, “Welcome to my domain, fair maidens.”
Haley crossed her eyes at Brandye and plopped down on her sleeping bag, pulling out her iPod.
Brandye ignored her. “Hi. Are we playing castles today? Do you have another costume?”
Lauren frowned. “You’ve spoiled it. You were supposed to say something like, ‘We are honored by your generosity, my lady.” She untied the belt and pulled the dress over her head. “We might as well go outside.”
When they got hungry Lauren led them into the kitchen for supper. Her aunt was supposed to be there, but they never saw her. Lauren shrugged and made peanut butter sandwiches on the faded linoleum counter. “She has a headache.”
“Mom won’t like this,” Haley whispered. Brandye shook her head and thanked Lauren for the sandwich.
They took them up to Lauren’s room and sat on the worn wood floor. Brandye sipped milk and looked around. In the middle of one wall a step led up to a little door with peeling paint and no handle. “Where does that go?”
Lauren glanced at the door and whispered, “It’s a portal. It opens at midnight when there’s a blue moon, but I’ve never dared to go through it. It could take me anywhere.”
Haley snorted milk through her nose, but Brandye tried not to smile. “Why does it have a step in front of it?”
“That’s where the little people live. They’re trapped on this side of the portal because they stayed too long. They’re my friends.”
“It’s just mice,” Haley said. She walked over to the step and tapped it with her foot.
“Don’t say that. You don’t want to make them angry. They still have powers.”
Haley sat on the step and pulled out her iPod. “Stop being mysterious. It’s just mice.”
Brandye turned away from her rude sister and looked at the games on the shelf behind her.
“Do you want to play Monopoly or something?”
“You’ll hear them tonight,” Lauren muttered, but she took the game off the shelf.
Haley stuffed her iPod into her pocket. “I get to be the cannon.”
They turned the lights off after midnight, but Brandye didn’t go to sleep. In the light from the hallway, the room looked mysterious. The quiet was eerie, as if something was about to happen. Haley was breathing evenly, but she thought Lauren was holding her breath. Then she became aware of a thumping sound. She couldn’t tell if it was coming from the step which was a dark blot on the other side of the room; it seemed to surround them. She told herself it was only mice. Gradually a low sobbing drowned out the other noise. She knelt on her sleeping bag and looked at Lauren. She was lying on her back, staring at the ceiling, muttering something, but she wasn’t crying.
After a minute Brandye got up and turned on the light. Lauren shot up, clutching the blanket to her chest. “Turn it off,” she whispered. “You mustn’t turn on the light. She’ll come in if she thinks I’m awake.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Turn it off, turn it off.” Lauren started climbing out of bed, so Brandye flicked the switch. She stumbled over to Lauren’s bed in the sudden dark.
“It isn’t little people, is it?”
Lauren turned her head away. “They try to protect me, but she scares them away.”
Brandye listened to Lauren sniffle. “Does she hurt you?”
But Lauren lay down with her back to the room. “I don’t want to talk about it. Just be quiet, okay?”
Lauren’s aunt made pancakes for breakfast. She wore a torn bathrobe and her hair was messy, but she smiled at the girls and offered them orange juice. Brandye watched Lauren, who smiled and said, “Thank you, my lady.” She was wearing the purple dress over her jeans.
“It was mice, wasn’t it?” Haley asked.
Lauren put a finger to her lips. “Shh. We can’t talk about them.”
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