A baleful wind announced its presence by singing eerie tunes against narrow cracks and openings in the doors, the windows and the soffit. Everything was sealed shut, but the dog still held her eyes to the front of the house, wondering if the gusts would tear the screen door from its hinges. Maisie sat in the bed in the picture window, much happier to stand guard than either of her siblings—although at that point, she had slumped down, and rested her head on the uplifted side of the fluffy bed.
Behind her, the other dog sat on the ottoman, curled up so that her tail covered her nose. Zelda sat in the open light of the window, almost as though she was looking for some sunlight to come through. But the sun had only come out for a few moments that day, and it shone through the window there hours earlier. She waited there to pounce, because the moment Maisie found someone walking down the sidewalk, she grumbled and whined, and followed them to the back of the house, looking out the back window instead, ensuring that they kept on walking. She’d find her sister in the bed in the window then instead, and would noodge incessantly to anyone who’d pay attention to her, pawing at them and standing on their chest—her way of saying without any words that the other animal had to be evicted from her window.
Peanut, the morning sentry, had retired for her noonday nap, disappearing up the stairs some time before. Every hour or so, she took a groggy walk down the stairs for a drink of water or a stretch as she checked the perimeter of the house, but everything seemed to be in good working order.
It had become routine. Over the year, the three animals had fallen into step, working together, perhaps without realizing it, to guard the house from the dangers outside.
Taking a day off, Rhianna had shifted some of her own routine. The house filled with a delightful aroma. Baking became an escape from the bitter news that seemed to spiral out of the television and the internet. Cookies were a bit of a guilty pleasure, but they were also a worthy distraction. That batch was different though. They were celebratory cookies. It was a special day—the one before Christmas Eve—and the DeAngelo family was ready for the magic that was bound to come.
Everyone needed it that year.
The cat and the dogs didn’t realize it, but there were far less visitors over the many months that passed. Nobody ventured inside the house except on one occasion in the summer, and even that one was fraught with stress and worry. The two pups hadn’t visited anyone else either. The only interaction the DeAngelo animals had with other people was seeing a family member through the fence or grumbling at a delivery person or another person walking a dog down the road.
That was, perhaps, one reason that the window had become such a coveted spot over the previous several months. It was an opportunity to see the world around them a bit more often, and it brought them together in some interesting and unexpected ways. It became less and less surprising to see all three of them together there—more tolerable of one another’s company, if not outright enjoying it.
Rhianna, sitting on the couch and playing on her phone, couldn’t hide a smile when she heard the little whine from the window. She leaned forward and saw Maisie’s tail wagging—as sure a sign as any that the final member of their family was home. Before the latest arrival even passed by the window, Maisie’s whimpers had caught Zelda’s attention, and they both dropped to the floor, staring at the door with gleeful expectation.
Despite everything that the past few months had thrown at them, when they were together, the joys they had anticipated the year before were still present.
The door opened, and Michael threw off his coat and his gloves. Maisie’s whimpers turned to little squeals as she stood up and fell back down, twirled about and jumped from the ottoman to the floor in her little “everyone is home” dance.
“Hi little baby!” Michael teased. “Give me just one second.”
He pumped a glob of sanitizer into his hand, then. It didn’t matter that he’d already sanitized in the car before his ride home. Always a little bit of a germaphobe, those past months had really pushed the man’s neurosis to the limit.
Rhianna arrived at the doorway then as well and smooched her husband before giving him some room to enter the house.
All the while, Maisie’s happy noises continued. Soon after, though, they gave way to something different, which only came once a year.
“…and I always miss you so much, and I’m always sad when you leave, but I’m so happy when you come back home, and why are you always gone for so long, and did anything fun happen, and also could you please get me some food?”
Michael looked to his wife, a little confused by the sudden speech. She, too, couldn’t hide her concerns.
The talking animals around that time was normal, all things considered. But it seemed that the arrival of Maisie’s verbosity came around seven hours early.
“That’s kind of weird, right?” Michael asked.
“It’s not anywhere near midnight yet,” Rhianna confirmed.
“Who cares?” Zelda asked, excitedly approaching the tallest members of the family. “More hours to listen to us! Throw our toys. No, give us treats. Make toys out of our treats and then throw them to us!”
“Alright,” Michael said. “But first, I want a hug.”
“Maisie can give you a butt-first hug!” Zelda cried as she ran to the kitchen, excited for treats. “Mommy! It’s important that I tell you this while I can since you don’t seem to understand me any other time throughout the year. It is always dingo’clock!”
Rhianna sighed, and headed toward the kitchen. “What’s that? You sound like a regular ol’ dog again.”
“What? No! I had so much to say! You had so much to learn!”
Crouching down, Michael held his arms out wide, indicating he still wanted the hug from Maisie. She stepped forward and smushed her head against his chest, balancing on one of his bent knees.
“Let’s get you some food, alright?” Michael said.
Maisie pushed off him and spun around before her front paws landed on the ground. “Hurray food!”
As Michael stood up again, he saw Peanut in an almost regal pose on the stairs, looking over the kingdom that was their living room.
“Hiya Peanut,” Michael said.
She stuck up her nose at the comment. “I see you’ve failed to bring home an adequate feast again. Some hunter you are.”
“I am a different kind of hunter,” he insisted. “I hunt for the missing information in our systems. I hunt for the truth.”
“The truth is I haven’t had tuna in far too long,” Peanut challenged. “This egregious oversight will not soon be forgotten.”
Michael sighed and shook his head, but stepped forward, further into the house. “You made the right choice taking the day off today,” he told his wife as he made his way down the hall. “The weather was terrible. The snow hasn’t really started yet—just a few flurries on my way in this morning—but the wind was so bad it felt like my car was going to fly off the road. And it’s the day before Christmas Eve, so we know we’ll be getting some snow. But if the snow is as bad as the wind and the frigid temperatures, I feel like the whole town is going to get swept into Tellest with us.”
“Less fraternizing, more foodernizing!” Maisie demanded.
“Alright, hold on little doggie,” he said. “I’ve got to change out of these clothes.”
“I left pajamas on the bed for you,” Rhianna said. “I figured we could eat cookies and drink eggnog while we wait for midnight!”
“What, you mean I shouldn’t walk out in front of the open window for all the neighbors to see?”
“Not if they’re all coming to the North Pole with us,” Rhianna said.
“I’ll show them a—hey, should I wear my comfy socks too?” he asked. “Do you think I have enough time to do a little writing before we leave? We’re just watching a movie and having dinner, right?”
“Some of us are still waiting for theirs!” Maisie grumbled from the other room.
“Dinner is cookies,” Rhianna said. “Cookies is dinner.”
Michael returned to the living room, and passed into the kitchen then, wearing the pajamas that his wife had set out for him—black pants that had grey, white and red patterns on them, and a comfortable red throw over sweater.
Rhianna, in her own holiday attire—a dark pajama gown with green squiggly Christmas trees upon it—held out the tray of cookies for her husband. Michael eagerly grabbed one along the edge of the tray that had a gooier set of chocolate chips in it. That first batch had cooled down enough to eat, but they hadn’t quite solidified enough to maintain their shape when grabbed up. Rather than just take a piece of it and go back for the rest, Michael shoved the crumbling treat into his mouth. He tilted his head back and leaned to the side, ensuring Rhianna knew she had done well.
“You want some food?” he asked Maisie then, his words somewhat muffled by the chunk of cookie still in his mouth.
Maisie spun about and stood up on her hind legs. “What do you think I’ve been saying all this time. You can hear me, right?”
“I hear you just fine,” Michael said. He reached up to the cabinet, grabbed a scoop of the dog’s food, and poured some out into her bowl—making sure to spill some on the floor when he did. “How about you, Zelda? Do you want some too?” His question was a rhetorical one, as he reached up and grabbed a scoop for her as well.
“Of course, I want food,” she said. “But I want your food. My delicate palate calls for only the most exquisite, the most gourmet, the most…” She huffed then and looked to Rhianna. “Mommy, make me some French fries!”
“You know we’re going to visit Santa,” Rhianna said. “He’s always got tons of treats for us. Why don’t you just wait a little bit and eat your dinner to tide you over?”
Michael leaned closer to her then. “You don’t want the French fries to smell like cookies do you?”
“I do not want the French fries to smell like cookies,” she confirmed.
Zelda stood up then, bracing herself on Michael and Rhianna’s legs. “French fry cookies sound like a great idea, and I don’t think you are giving them serious enough thought,” the pup said.
Michael smiled, and reached for another cookie then, breaking off little pieces that were free of chocolate for Zelda and Maisie. The younger dog’s eyes went wide, and she opened her mouth, a few pieces of kibble falling out while she went for the tasty morsel. Both dogs scarfed down their little pieces of the surprise treat, and that was enough to ensure that Zelda felt her hunger pangs. When she saw no more cookie bits coming, she went to her bowl and relented, conceding for dog food instead of glorious people food.
“Now tell me we have egg nog to wash this down with,” Michael said, opening the fridge up to peer inside.
“Just a swig,” Rhianna said. “We want to make sure we fit into whatever outfits Santa has prepared for us this year.”
“Don’t you think he would know if I was about to gain weight at the last minute? Wouldn’t he want me to have this?” Michael asked. “Besides, you bought the stuff. You’re at least partially responsible.”
After he took a sip, she did too, but she made sure to put it back and close the fridge shortly after. It was about that time that Maisie finished up her food. She stretched for good measure—her silent way of giving thanks. But she wasn’t about to waste a good opportunity for a post-dinner nap. She jogged to the couch, and leapt up to the cushions, approaching the L-shaped side of the furniture. There, a giant-sized blanket sat in a heap, and she meant to get comfortable within its folds. She pawed at it, a pointless endeavor, for there was no way it would move on its own.
“Come on, blanket,” she said. “Move.”
“You know there wasn’t any magic that Santa put on the stuff in our house, right Maisie?” Michael asked. “Alright, alright. But you can’t get too comfortable under there. Midnight will be here before you know it, and I can’t be digging you out of there. This huge blanket is starting to give me a sore back!”
Rhianna brought another couple of cookies from the kitchen then and handed one of them to Michael. “It’s Christmas. There are no calories.”
Her husband couldn’t challenge that logic, so he took the second cookie, and they tapped the snacks together.
Together, they both sank on the couch, and in time, Peanut and Zelda joined them there as well. The whole family was in grabbing distance of one another, though Maisie was hidden underneath layers upon layers of blanket. Michael, stuck beneath two animals, with Zelda huddled against his left leg while Peanut snuggled on his right, gently kicked the controller on the coffee table toward his wife.
“What are we going to watch today?” Michael asked as Rhianna reached for the controller. “Which funny show are we going to laugh at for the hundredth time?”
“Let’s go with the greatest hits,” Rhianna said. “We’ll watch—”
Before she could finish her thought, the wind outside roared louder than ever. It was strong enough that she was worried it would rip the door open. Without thinking about it, she climbed from her spot on the couch, and hurried back into the kitchen.
Zelda, primed for panic whenever she heard any sort of weather event, turned about and stood atop Michael’s shoulder. “It’s going to blow the whole house down!” she cried. “We need to get to the bunker!”
A sigh escaping his lips, Michael hugged the worried pooch tighter. “It’s alright Zelda-pie. It’s just a little bit of wind.” He smooched her on the head before tilting his own in confusion. “What bunker are you talking about?” Furrowing his brow, he thought of all of what he and Rhianna called her boom-holes. “Are you talking about wanting to hide behind the toilet?”
The skittish dog didn’t get a chance to answer before they heard an inquisitive noise from the back door of the house.
“Um, Michael?” Rhianna said. “You’re probably going to want to look outside.”
That single, final word was all it took to wrench Maisie from her comfortable spot beneath the blanket. She struggled against the heft and the size of the gifted cover, but finally spilled out of it onto the floor.
“She just got all snuggly,” Michael said.
“She’s fine,” Rhianna said. “Besides, I don’t think we have time to get comfortable.”
Michael grunted as he climbed off the couch. Before he even stepped into the kitchen, he could see that a strange phenomenon was occurring outside. Snow whipped against the back door to the house, and it played a strange note as it found those cracks and crevices there as well.
Rhianna swept the curtain aside and confirmed what her husband was expecting. The swirling vortex that was meant to come at midnight was already there, forming in the center of the backyard. As it did, it churned out a blizzard of snow, like a blender without a lid, casting the white, flaky stuff everywhere. The houses next to theirs retained their green lawns, and the adjacent street was untouched. Daylight was fading, but that was the earliest it had been when the portal took shape. As strange as that was, it also slowly grew from a small hole into a gaping maw.
“I’m glad I moved the fire pit yesterday instead of waiting till today,” Michael said. “Something makes me think Santa isn’t a huge fan of littering.” He lingered there at the door as well, looking at the vortex. “This is the earliest that we’ve ever seen this come through.”
“And the earliest the animals have ever started talking,” Rhianna added.
“I guess we should get out there?” Michael asked. “Should we change out of our pajamas or anything?”
Rhianna shrugged. “I’d guess if we’re already being summoned to the North Pole, it’s more important that we just get there. We’ve always been getting a spare change of clothes anyway.”
Michael nodded. “Alright then. Who’s ready for another adventure?” he asked, turning around to the fuzzy babies.
Zelda and Maisie couldn’t hide their excitement as they spun about or stood up against the window. Peanut, too, was ready, the others were sure. She sat patiently on her rump in the kitchen, as sure a sign as any that she was waiting for the door to open.
With a smile on his face, Michael turned to Rhianna. “Whenever you’re ready, release the hounds.”
The woman nodded, and grabbed the door handle, eager to see what wonders awaited them at the north pole that year. She pulled the handle down, and pushed on the door, but it didn’t budge. She thought that perhaps the wind was pushing on the door, and she struggled to shove it open, but again, was unable to move it at all.
“Come on, Muscles,” Michael teased. “All that time in the workout tower this year hasn’t paid off?”
“I’ll have you know I’m strong enough to lift an entire gallon of milk these days,” she joked back at him. “Fine. I give up. You do it.”
Michael snickered then as his wife shuffled out of the way into the crowded kitchen. “You just want to get your presents with no delay.” He grabbed the door handle then and pushed the door forward as well. Once again, there was no give. Michael looked back at his family, a little embarrassed, and turned back to the door. With his muscles straining, he tried to push on the door with all his might, and again, couldn’t accomplish anything. He turned back to his wife, confusion in his gaze. “Um… Is it a push or a pull?”
“How long have you been living here?” she asked, arching her eyebrow. She hummed to herself, taking her place in front of the door again. “Maybe it’s just not ready yet. It’s still growing, and it’s usually the size of the a big ol’ pool by the time we go through it.”
Michael shrugged. “Maybe.” He leaned against the kitchen table, watching the slow expanse of the vortex outside. “Well, I mean… I guess we’ll just wait until it grows large enough to let us walk out of the house?”
“This is weird, right?” Rhianna asked. “The timing is all off, the door won’t open. It’s almost like Santa’s got some silly trick up his sleeve this year.”
“Well, to be fair,” Michael said, “this year hasn’t exactly been known for its normalcy. Maybe it was so bad, even Tellest felt a little bit of weirdness.”
It was Rhianna’s turn to shrug. “Well, either way, we can’t let it get us down. Christmas is a magical time for us, and it should help us forget just how suffocating this year was.” She tapped her finger against her chin and hummed to herself. “Why don’t we each talk about what we think we’re going to see when we get back to the north pole?”
“I think we’re going to see Svetlana!” Zelda exclaimed. “Last time she said we were going to take a ride through the northern lights. At least, I think that’s what she was saying. She was monching on a carrot at the time. Come to think of it, she could have said it’s a good thing she doesn’t have to squeeze into any tights.”
“I wanna see our friends again,” Maisie piped up. “Halgrum and Beroras and Rurnar. Maybe we’ll get another giant blanket!”
“Maybe,” Michael said. “I wonder how those three are doing. Do you think they managed to keep things pleasant between the three of them?”
“I’m not sure,” Rhianna admitted. “If so, little a thing was able to set their greed to work against them, maybe something else urged them the rest of the way. I hope not. I think they’d be much better friends to one another than enemies.”
Michael grinned. “Besides, that little thing brought them together, didn’t she?” he asked, pointing toward Maisie.
“I make everything better,” the little pup insisted with a smile.
She basked in the thought of her heroics—greatly exaggerated in her head—of the year prior. Maisie hadn’t exactly set out to save the relationship between the dwarf, the elf and the giant, but she was sure to take credit for it when she was able to.
The family looked at Peanut then, who had yet to offer up any ideas of what she thought would happen. She rolled her eyes and tilted her head then, as though her answer would be more matter of fact than opinion. “Fiskeblugen warehouse,” she said. “It’s a natural progression of my happiness.”
“Stop trying to make yearly fiskeblugen a thing,” Michael said. “It’s not a thing!”
“Can you imagine?” Rhianna teased. “You won’t even eat fish sticks after that one bad experience.”
Michael sighed and shuddered. “Let’s try and get back to happy thoughts, huh? Maybe our back door really is just sticking. Let me try the garage door.” He walked through the house until he reached the garage, letting a tiny gust of cold air that had collected there into the rest of the building. “That’s weird,” he called out. “This one’s not opening either. Maybe it’s just because of how much wind there is. No, wait. This one is definitely a pull!”
“I don’t think that’s important,” Rhianna said.
Too far away to hear her, Michael climbed over old boxes and extra provisions then. “I’m going to try the front door. There shouldn’t be as much wind on that side,” he yelled.
“Michael!” Rhianna said.
He appeared in the kitchen again a moment later. “Am I in trouble?”
Rhianna pointed out of the window, gaining his attention, and summoning him back to his spot. He chose his steps just as carefully there, making sure not to step on any of the eager animals who congregated in the kitchen.
When Rhianna moved the curtain again, he saw what had interested her so. The vortex had grown bigger then and still seemed to be picking up speed as it swirled. Snow erupted from it as though it was an icy volcano, and the blizzard covered the yard in moments.
“Something is really funky this year,” Rhianna murmured.
Almost as though the portal had heard her words, the snow stopped funneling out of it. Its frenetic spin never ceased though, and even looked as though it might have been continuing to pick up speed. The ring of snow surrounding it began to take on a bright red glow, almost sparkling, even in the fading evening light.
The husband and wife inside the house realized that the shining ruby light was emerging from the vortex.
“Did Santa bring his own fire pit this year?” Michael joked. He looked at his wife with a glimmer of pride in his eyes, but Rhianna shook her head, ensuring he knew he had botched that attempt at being amusing.
While they looked at one another, the door flung open, letting a howling wind enter the house. The curtains flew to the side, leaving a path to the portal before them.
Zelda, the most eager of all them, sprinted out into the yard. She, too, felt the odd sensation surrounding that year’s events, and she skidded to a stop just before the portal. The pup felt rumbling far beneath her feet and lifted her head to investigate the twisting cyclone that led deep into the ground.
“Zelda!” Michael cried, running out into the snow in just his socks. He scooped up the pooch then, and turned to look back at the house, where the rest of the family still observed from the kitchen.
Maisie, the bravest of the bunch and a bit concerned, took a step from the doorway, and sniffed at the air. Her tail wagged as Michael pushed through the fierce wind. With one hand clutching Zelda against his chest, he brought his other hand up to stave off the wind and the snow, blinding him to the rest of his loved ones.
Even through the blustery gust of white powder, Michael could see as the curtains in the house were drawn out through the open door. It wasn’t as though the wind whipped it one way or another though. He could see the constant pull, like something grasped it and gave them a fierce tug.
He felt the pull on himself then as well, like a rope had been looped around his midsection, and slowly pulled him backward.
“What are you doing?” Rhianna yelled. “Get back in here!”
“I can’t!” Michael cried. “Something’s wrong!”
“I’ll save them,” Maisie shouted, charging into the yard.
Whatever deep-seated, distant shepherding genetics Maisie had in her background emerged as she gripped at Michael’s pajama pants and started trying to pull him back toward the house. Her little body, closer to the ground, didn’t seem to be affected by the power that seemed to draw Michael toward the portal.
His notion was further confirmed when he watched as the curtain was torn from the house and fluttered into the air before the portal snatched hold of it and inhaled it like some voracious beast.
While Maisie tugged at his pant leg, her efforts seemed fruitless, as Michael could feel the pull drawing him back further. He bent low, tossing Zelda forward.
“Go on, both of you!” he said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Zelda skittered away, but Maisie lingered a bit. The man realized that the dog was pulling in the wrong direction then and knew that the portal’s reach drew her in then as well. Michael fell to his knees to fight against the powerful pull of the vortex, giving him just enough strength to carry on. He reached under the dog’s chest then, and urged her forward, back toward the house.
“I can help you!” she insisted.
“I know you can,” Michael replied. “Go ahead back inside so that when I get back in, we can try to shut the door.”
She did as she was told, but she tucked her ears back, feeling as though she wasn’t strong enough to help. When she and Zelda arrived back into the house, they stood on the threshold, looking back with worry upon their face.
Michael dropped to his chest then, trying to crawl across the snowy ground with all his strength. It was too late then, however. The portal had too firm a grasp on him, and he couldn’t gain an inch. He dug his fingers into the icy ground, desperate not to relent.
Maisie wasn’t the only one who ventured forth with heroics. Rhianna emerged from the house, grabbing hold of the door frame while she offered up some means of escape for Michael.
He saw the broom then, it’s yellow handle like some golden beacon among the blinding snow.
“That thing is like ten feet too small!” he shouted.
“I have no depth perception!” his wife explained.
“Get me something like a rope or a cord!”
She disappeared back within the house, but the two dogs appeared at the doorway again.
“Catch!” Zelda cried.
One of their toys, a long, stuffed caterpillar, flew from the house, and Michael instinctively lifted his arm to catch it. He hugged it tight, more to keep it from flying back into the portal.
“We brought you a rope!” Maisie exclaimed.
“Thank you both,” Michael said, fighting with every ounce of strength. “But I can’t do anything with it when both ends are over here.”
Zelda looked at Maisie then, her eyebrows furrowed. “You were supposed to hold onto your end.”
“Well how was I supposed to know?” the little black and white dog replied.
“Daddy, just hold on!” Zelda cried.
As Rhianna ran around the house, navigating the same mess in the garage that Michael had, she finally found what she was looking for. She grabbed hold of it, charging through the untidy area until she reached the kitchen once more, where the cat rested on the runner leading toward the living room.
“You’re just going to sit there, Peanut?” Rhianna asked, shuffling past the cat so as not to disturb her.
“I’m supervising,” Peanut said.
Michael could feel his foot dangling into the portal, and his fingers left deep gouges in the solidified snow where he had been dragged backward. Though he could not see it, he knew that the red glow that shone out of the vortex had grown bright indeed, as he could see ruby sparkles across the snow in front of him.
His wife emerged from the house, the vacuum in hand. She plucked the cord from the side of the device and threw it in front of her. But looped around as it was, only the first length of the cable cast out.
Michael sighed, and let his head bow into the snow. “Just leave me,” his muffled voice called out.
“No, no I can do this!” Rhianna said. She bit on her tongue as she set to work on the rest of the vacuum’s cord. The woman unraveled the lot of it, and she looked up, watching as the crimson glow of the vortex grew in intensity. A loud roar seemed to echo out of it, as though it was a ferocious monster meant to eat their whole neighborhood, starting with them.
She shook her head and tossed the vacuum cord again. That time, it reached her husband.
But as Michael lifted his hands from the ground to catch the cable, the portal’s grasp grew too strong to fight. He caught the cable but couldn’t keep himself from being sucked into the chasm in their back yard.
“No!” Rhianna cried. On reflex alone, she lunged forward, and at once she felt the fierce pull of the portal. She grabbed the cord, and to her surprise, it went taut.
She knew that her husband clung onto it still.
Inside the house, Maisie and Zelda stood on the vacuum cleaner, helping to keep it held down.
“Get over here and help us, Peanut!” Maisie ordered.
The cat, still sitting on the runner, simply looked at the two of them. “You’ve got it covered. There’s not enough room for all three of us on that growling machine.”
“Fine,” Maisie conceded. “But there might not be enough room for you on that runner much longer.”
Peanut paused for a moment and looked to the side. “Is that a fat joke?” she wondered. But she looked down upon the runner then, and realized that it, too, was being pulled from the house, and at a much quicker pace than she would have liked. She turned about, and began running in the other direction, but the runner slid from the house faster than she expected, and faster than she could handle. Before long she tumbled from the lip of the doorway, unable to remain on her feet as the long run slid out from under her.
The disoriented cat heard a gasp as Maisie stepped off the vacuum.
“What are you doing?” Zelda asked. “I need your help keeping this in place. You’re the heavy one!”
“I’m sorry!” Maisie said, as she hopped forward. Peanut looked up at her with big eyes as she felt the pull of the portal behind her. “I’m sorry!” Maisie cried again, leaping toward the cat. With just a sliver of hesitation, she chomped at the scruff behind her neck, eliciting a growl and then a dejected meow from the downtrodden feline. “Ahm thorry!” she said as she struggled to bring Peanut back into the house.
Maisie let out a little yipe as the vacuum rolled out the door, Zelda atop it. Her little sister let go of Peanut, who skittered back into the house, shivering from the snow upon her coat and her feet. Maisie lunged for Zelda as she passed, but she moved too quick upon the rolling part of the vacuum.
A moment later the vacuum hit Rhianna in the back of the hand while she was still struggling to hold onto the cable and keep her husband from sinking into the unknown. Zelda rolled from the vacuum then, and it took the woman a moment to realize who was barreling toward the portal. She reached out—with both hands—but it was too late, and the auburn-furred dog fell away from her grasp.
“Zelda!” Rhianna cried.
“Ahh!” she heard, though it was not the dog who yelled.
Rhianna realized she had let go of the cable. As she grasped at it again, the upright part of the vacuum rolled forward, and she caught it beneath her arm. She couldn’t deny, though, that she was also being drawn into the glowing red maw of whatever strange portal had come to claim them that year.
Behind her, Peanut licked at her paws to try and stave off the cold. A moment later she was joined in the house by Maisie once more, who shook her body, sending flying droplets over at Peanut, who sighed at her futile attempt to ty and warm herself up.
While she was looking up though, her eyes went wide at the sight of the table slowly sliding toward the doorway as well. She bumped into Maisie, guiding her out of the way so that neither of them would be hit.
Outside, Rhianna couldn’t fight against the current any longer. She slid on her rump until her feet nearly hung over the lip of the strange and frightening chasm. With one last effort, she kicked with all her might, digging in her heels into the ice and snow. Her top half kept going then, and it was only by pressing the handle of the vacuum into the ground that she stopped her endless fall toward the portal.
She looked over the side then, seeing the bright red color below—like a violent strawberry milkshake, she thought. But there, hanging on for dear life with his hand wrapped around the vacuum cord, was Michael—and he once more had Zelda held tight against his chest.
“I think Santa just really wants to spend time with us this year!” he called out.
Up above, in the house, all the smaller items in the kitchen slid across counters and fell to the floor as the vortex drew them out. Peanut hid in the corner of the room, just out of reach of the suction. As courageous as ever, Maisie wore a determined gaze as she stepped toward the center of the room.
“Nobody better touch my blanket!” she grumbled.
The roar of the portal grew so loud then that the family thought it might have been a dragon instead of some festive holiday phenomenon.
“How are the neighbors not going to notice this year?” Rhianna muttered to herself. As she spoke though, she heard the struggles of the other two animals who remained in the house.
“Peanut!” Maisie cried.
Both animals struggled against the pull of the vortex, but the cat—the lightest member of the family—had already been drawn outside. Even with her claws, she couldn’t dig her feet into the snow, and without any traction, she hurtled toward the chasm.
Rhianna reached out, and Peanut wrapped all her limbs around the woman’s arm.
“Don’t let me go!” the cat pleaded.
Without Rhianna’s second arm on the vacuum, it shifted, and Michael shouted in surprise down below.
Rhianna dared a glance over her shoulder, back to the door to the house. Maisie was outside their home then too, sprinting with all her might, though every step seemed to bring her further and further toward the portal.
“Keep running,” Rhianna called out. “When you get to me, I’ll grab hold of you!”
That time came sooner than later, with Maisie running out of energy and stumbling. The dog collided into Rhianna’s chest, ensuring that all five members of the DeAngelo family were together on the precipice, or hanging down into the schism in the earth.
“Michael, I don’t think we’re getting out of this one!” Rhianna called out.
She heard him cry out below, but contending against the loud groan of the vortex, she couldn’t discern what he said.
It didn’t matter anyway, she soon realized, for the ground beneath her had solidified in the sudden icy cold. She watched as cracks formed around her, as though she lay upon a broken, frozen lake.
“Hold on, you two,” she said, resigned to whatever fate would take them.
She felt Maisie shiver against her chest, and she winced as Peanut dug her claws into her arm.
Then, the ground gave way beneath her, and the three of them tumbled into the seemingly endless pit. Rhianna heard Michael’s shout then, and the rest of family added their own—a chorus of surprise and worry following them into the vortex.
* * *
A shout rang out from between his lips even as he felt gravity shift around him. Michael knew that he no longer flew down toward the portal, but he clenched his eyes so tightly that he wasn’t aware he was moving skyward rather than careening toward the ground.
For a while, anyway.
“Daddy,” Zelda said, a calm in her voice. “Daddy?”
Michael opened his eyes, just in time to see a slow fall back toward the surface.
“Daddy!” Zelda cried, for she was not so calm anymore.
The man worked at spinning his body, angling it so that he wouldn’t squish the poor dog when they smacked into the snow. They landed with a thud, a gasp of air expelling from the poor fellow’s lungs as a cloud of snow splashed into the air. Zelda bounced off his chest, and skittered into the snow, thankful not to be faced with the roaring monstrosity of the vortex that had taken them. She sniffed at the ground but kept quiet.
Silence only persisted for another moment as Michael groaned and rolled to his belly, the snow covering his face as he thanked the solid ground beneath him. Straining to climb to all fours, he traced Zelda’s footprints with his gaze, following them until he found her.
He arched an eyebrow, for she stood at a familiar fence. Michael turned his head to the side, confirming what he had thought.
They were once again in their backyard, for their house was there before them.
“What the…?” Michael muttered.
As he sat upon his knees, an object fluttered into the air behind him. Though there was no sunlight to cast a shadow, he felt its presence. He looked over his shoulder, surprised to see the runner from the house flying across the yard. It landed beside him, unfurling as it struck the snow.
It wasn’t the only other item that emerged from the portal.
A new choir of shouting rang out, and Michael watched as the rest of his family—and a vacuum cleaner—shot out from the gaping hole in the ground as though they were shot forth from a cannon. They reached the apex of their flight a moment later, several feet in the air.
Michael clambered to his feet and spun about, hoping to help his loved ones down gently. As soon as he turned, the vacuum flipped and landed on the ground beside the man, and its cable whipped about. Michael ducked underneath, just avoiding a nasty lashing. When he rose again, Peanut was the first to drop from the sky. He held out his hands to catch her, but when she reached him, she sprang off him with her back legs.
“Rude,” he said, stumbling back a step.
By the time he watched the cat scamper away and he looked back up, Maisie was on her way down as well. She collided into him with the same heft as a medicine ball, and unprepared as he was, Michael groaned and hunched over. He knew that his wife wasn’t far behind, and he put Maisie down and urged her away. Just as before, he had no further warning when he looked up. Rhianna slammed into him, both falling to the ground then.
“I’m just going to stay here for a while,” Michael said, groaning as the snow soaked into his pajamas. “The ground wants to be my friend.”
Rhianna moaned as well, sitting up and reaching for her back. “Why couldn’t you break my fall a little softer,” she asked. “Ouch.”
“I just played human trampoline to our three fluffies. I’ve lost some of my elasticity already.”
His wife noticed what he had, moments before then. The portal had sent them in a circle, it had seemed, for they were right back to where they started.
“What the heck?” Rhianna said. “This isn’t the North Pole.” As she stood—leaving her husband on the ground the recuperate—she faced the back of their house.
All three of the animals rested beside the door, closed since they’d left. Maisie, who had the shortest hair, stood against the glass, pawing at it to be let inside.
“Maybe there were some technical difficulties,” Rhianna said. “We did know that the timing wasn’t right.”
“I hope that doesn’t happen ever again,” Michael grumbled as he sat up. “I don’t think I could bear it. When I was hanging on the cord, it felt like it I was being stretched farther than my body could bear.” He twisted his body and swung his arms out wide, trying to get rid of the aches that persisted in his back. “I know I asked Santa to make me taller when I was younger, but I never had that kind of nightmare in mind.”
“You mean you didn’t have violent vortex possession on your 2020 apocalypse bingo card?” Rhianna said.
Michael stood then. “Can’t say that I…” His words trailed off as he watched the portal close before him. It had already shrunk considerably since his wife and the other two animals came through, and he found himself watching it until it disappeared completely.
“You know, you could have watched the portal close from inside the warm house!” Peanut grumbled, gaining Michael’s attention. “If we have to go through with this again later tonight, you four can go on without me.”
“I don’t think anybody was expecting that, Peanut,” Rhianna said. “It’s never been like that before, right?”
Zelda tilted her head. “I don’t think so. I don’t remember seeing Santa or Svetlana or anyone. And we don’t have any presents. I don’t think we went at all.”
“I crawled out from under my giant, comfy blanket for this,” Maisie added.
“Alright, alright,” Rhianna said. She turned to look over her shoulder then. “Come on Honey,” she said to her husband. “We’re all soaked. Let’s change out of our clothes and see what happens closer to midnight.”
Michael did as he was told, but before he walked toward the house again, he picked up snow-dusted runner, the vacuum, and a few stray papers that had followed them through the portal. He paused to look at the neighborhood, and it seemed that nobody had reacted to the explosive vortex at all. He shrugged and hummed to himself as he hurried to his wife’s side.
“It looks dark in there,” Michael said as he grabbed the open door and nodded for his wife to venture inside with the vacuum in tow. “I hope the force of the suction didn’t break the lights.”
“I’m sure Santa would help us out with it if that were the case,” Rhianna said. “Maybe we just didn’t have them on when we were looking out the back door?”
“I thought the TV was on or something,” Michael replied.
Together, the husband and wife entered the house, and were surprised to see all three of the animals waiting for their arrival in the kitchen.
“What’s this?” Rhianna asked. “I thought for sure you would be on the living room floor, you would be in the window, and you would be under your massive blanket,” she said to Zelda, Peanut, and Maisie, respectively.
“It’s too dark,” Zelda said. “We can’t see well enough to go in there.”
As soon as Michael slammed the door shut behind them—hoping that the portal wouldn’t return to rip it open once more—the lights in the room turned on.
The lights were not the same recessed lights that they’d had in their house for nearly five years. They burned red, and they blasted heat from their specialized glassware. At once, the family felt the strange increase in temperature in the room. Michael spun about to open the door, hoping that he could help his family escape into the outdoors again.
Just as before though, the way out wouldn’t open, despite all his efforts.
“What are you waiting for?” Rhianna asked. “Get us out of here!”
“I’m trying,” her husband said. “It’s stuck again.”
He cried out and jerked his hand away. His family heard a harsh buzzing coming from the door then, and the handle rattled as though it was electrified. In only a moment, the handle retracted into the door—a feature that the husband and wife were sure didn’t exist in the original model. With Michael safely away from the back exit of the house, a klaxon sounded. Rhianna instinctively looked to the dogs, who shivered against each other due to the unexpected noise.
Though anxiety already coursed through them, another noise soon followed, as thick metal shutters dropped from the ceiling. They reached the ground with an echoing thud, and Zelda whimpered, the pitiful little noise distinct between klaxon reports.
Before anyone could say anything to one another, the red lights burned a little brighter, and the DeAngelo family could feel the heat bearing down upon them. The receptacles they fit within expanded further then, displaying some sort of caged ring.
Peanut, the only one closer to the ground who was still able to think straight, noticed that similar rings had emerged within several of the tiles on the floor, including one right beneath her stomach.
“Uh, what are these?” the cat asked.
As though the house had become sentient and wanted to answer her question, a gust of air blew out from the receptacle on the floor. The other wider holes in the ceiling—including others that were not around the heat lamps, they soon realized—also blew out air. An almost comforting hum accompanied them, and Michael and Rhianna realized they were like some sort of industrial-strength dryers. A moment later, their clothes and hair were dry.
Rhianna looked down toward Peanut and Zelda, whose long fur had puffed out, leaving them looking quite silly indeed. She couldn’t keep herself from snickering.
The cat looked up at her, her eyes narrowed and her ears back. “You’ll forget this ever happened, I’m sure,” she insisted.
Before Rhianna could react, the lights and the dryers went off, leaving the place eerily silent. And with the shutters dropped behind them, the strange rendition of their house went dark indeed.
“Alright, I’m really starting to think this isn’t our house,” Michael said.
“Starting?” Rhianna asked.
Ahead of them, a new light began glowing. Soft and inviting, it came from their living room, like the gentle flickering of candles.
“What’s that over there?” Rhianna wondered.
Their silhouettes just barely visible in the darkness, the three animals spun about to look in that direction as well.
“At this rate, I’m not sure if I care what it is,” Michael said. “It’s been a very tiresome ten minutes and I could use a real good sit about now.”
“I’ll share my blanket with you,” Maisie said. “But just this once!”
“Pfft, you take every opportunity you can to snuggle with us,” Michael teased. “You’re the least furry one in the house.”
Maisie shrugged and tilted her head, not prepared to fight against that rationale. “Well… Last one to the couch has to lift the blanket!” she cried as she skittered forth.
Weariness apparent in the way they held themselves—even with the now comfortable warmth in their clothes, hair and fur—none of them were a match for Maisie’s pep. Together, the older members of the family continued toward their living room.
When they entered the room, however, they realized it was not the one they had been living in all those years. The way opened into a beautiful library, wider and longer than their living room would have been. Bookshelves lined the walls on the sides of the room, and across the way, a strange glass case shielded a large ornate mirror. Michael couldn’t help but picture how it would have looked in their house.
“This would be where the window would be,” he said.
Maisie looked to him with excitement in her eyes then. “Window?” she repeated. She charged across the large room, only skidding to a stop as she noticed the glass enclosure that protected the mirror. She stood up as she reached the area, setting her front paws in place there. When she did though, she noticed the peculiar sight before her. “Hey! Who’s that dog think she is getting in my window!”
“It’s a reflection,” Rhianna tried to explain.
“Yes!” Maisie exclaimed. “A reflection of injustice!” It took her a few moments to realize that the dog on the other side of the glass was aping all her movements and mannerisms, and a few more to realize that it wasn’t some rude pup making fun of her.
Michael was already observing other parts of the room. The library was tremendous—possibly bigger than the entire first floor of their house. But it was also full to the brim, with many books and furnishings to make it come alive. A pair of pictures framed the glass box on the opposite side of the room. When he looked to his right, he saw another enclosed painting on the wall beside them, a lovely gold border that sparkled in the flickering light of the chandeliers that hung from the ceiling.
As he considered those candles, he saw other flickering to his left. He noticed a Christmas tree there, already adorned with decorations like tinsel and multicolored glass ornaments. Frosted etchings were fashioned on their surfaces, and he found himself drawn to them at once.
While he found himself just as distracted with the tree as Maisie was with the mirror, Rhianna spent time scrutinizing all the other aspects of the library. Peanut and Zelda sat at her side, following her gaze—there was a lamp-lit table just a little to the side of the room’s center, sitting beside a gorgeous sepia-toned globe, encircled by a golden ring. More books sat on the other side of the room, in other bookshelves that stood taller than she or her husband. The library looked as though it was owned by someone with a passion for books—not just a collector, but one who enjoyed reading at regular intervals, and who had perhaps the same sort of distracted personality as she and Michael. The books on the shelves weren’t ordered in any fashion, it seemed, with authors and entries in series scattered from one bookcase to the next. Some were aligned upright with the spines facing outward; some were stacked sideways, and some of those had their pages displayed instead of their spines. None of them, it seemed, shared their space with any other trinkets or baubles, or even bookends, however. The only semblance of décor besides the beautiful old covers was the silver garland that hung below the top shelves of the bookcases, and the ornaments that were hooked upon the various strands. Both sets of decorations seemed to be the same ones that were strewn on the tree that Michael investigated.
As he circled the small Christmas tree—a young but healthy-looking spruce that stood shorter than the man—Michael came to face the way they had come in through.
“Uh… Things keep getting stranger in here,” he said. “There’s a lock on the door we came through.”
“What door?” Rhianna asked as she stepped further into the room, observing everything with a look of whimsy upon her face. She was finally able to reign in her excitement, and when she turned to look at Michael, she followed his gaze to the door he spoke of.
Sure enough, there was a wall behind them, and a door beside it. No such obstructions existed in their home, furthering the idea that some trickery was at play. Moreover, Michael’s indication that a lock sat upon the door was a bit of an understatement. The husband and wife both approached the door and realized that there was no handle, yet a hefty padlock that was nearly as large as Michael’s head rested on a length of chain there.
“I didn’t even hear a door shut,” Michael said. “What’s going on in here?”
Rhianna pushed on the door, wondering if the lock and chain were just for show, since it didn’t appear to be keeping anything fastened shut. There was no give, however, and she stepped back a moment later, shrugging at the confusing situation.
“There’s worse rooms to be locked within,” she admitted.
“Speak for yourself,” Maisie whined as she stepped away from the glass enclosure. “I see no food anywhere here. And that guy in the window won’t tell me anything!”
Michael sighed then. “I’m starting to think that this might not be part of the adventure Santa may have had planned for us this year.” When his wife sent him an inquisitive gaze, he shrugged. “You don’t think he’s been keeping tabs on us over the last nine months? Do you think he believed us being stuck in a room was a great idea?”
“I see your point,” Rhianna said. “But if Santa didn’t bring us here, who did?”
“Are we not going to see any of our friends this year?” Zelda asked. Her voice was pitiful as she considered her first Christmas without visiting some of her favorite people.
Though both Michael and Rhianna opened their mouths to speak, they were not the first to offer words of consolation.
“Santa wouldn’t forget about us,” Peanut said. She set one of her paws upon Zelda’s back, sending a mixed feeling of relief and panic through the dog’s body. “I’m sure everything will work out.”
“Well for things to work out, I think we need to get out,” Rhianna said. She tugged on the large padlock to see if it would release, but there was no sign of escape from there. “It’s no use. It won’t budge.”
“Is it a push or a pull?” Michael asked, a teasing reminder of his earlier brain fog.
His wife rolled her eyes and bent low to the ground, seeing that there was indeed a keyhole for the lock. She hummed to herself. “What kind of person locks someone in a room with the padlock on the inside?”
Michael looked at her and arched an eyebrow. “What are you thinking?” he asked.
She grinned, rubbing her hands together mischievously. “I think we’re in an escape room. Whether it’s Santa or someone else entirely, well…”
“Is a ‘scape room kind of like a ‘scape goat?” Maisie asked. “Because I think that would be fun to play with! Or eat!”
“There will be no eating of any sort in here,” Michael said. “Mostly because there’s nothing to eat.”
Peanut leaned over and whispered to Zelda then. “Just give Maisie a minute,” she muttered. “She’ll find something—even if it isn’t food.”
Zelda snickered to hear the little tease about her younger sister.
“Alright everyone,” Rhianna said, clapping her hands together. “If this is an escape room, we’ll only have about sixty minutes to escape.”
“Right,” Michael said, as though the rules of typical escape rooms were finally dawning on him. “And unlike the normal ones we’ve done, we don’t know if we’ll be let out if we don’t win in time.”
Maisie’s eyes went wide as she turned to look at him. “But I have squirrels to watch from the window! If not me, then who?”
“Exactly!” Rhianna pressed. “We’ve got to start looking for clues, and we’ve got to start now.”
“We can just ask him,” Maisie said, spinning about to look at the mirror again. She stood more to the side then, though, and she didn’t notice her reflection in the glass then. “Wait a minute. Where did he go?”
Michael took a few steps forward and tapped her on her rump, pointing toward the lower end of the bookshelves on the closer side of the room. “Look for anything that’s out of place, alright?”
Peanut joined them there and peered from one outward-facing spine to the next. “How are we to know what’s out of place if we’ve never been here before?” she muttered to herself.
“Aha!” Zelda called out. “I see a clue!” She hopped up on the chair next to the table in the center of the room and looked at the lamp that sat upon the furniture. Covered in a dark maroon shade, there were etchings that looked like some sort of fancy script upon it. “Look!” she cried. “The sun!”
Michael smacked his forehead and turned about to look at the ornaments that hung from the garland that spanned the lengths of the bookshelves. They were etched too, it seemed, with more angular symbols, almost as though they had been carved with sturdy stones.
“Huh,” he said to himself. “These look like runes. I really should have focused more in my old dwarven classes.” Michael chuckled to himself at that thought.
Rhianna only gave a cursory glance at things as she moved alongside the bookshelves on the opposite side of the room. She noticed some of the titles that faced her. Most were old—classics among literature—although some were unfamiliar to her.
“The Poor Man and the Lady, Cardenio, Don Quixote, White Nights, Fortunata, Middlemarch.” She hummed to herself as she looked at the covers, every now and then picking one out of their spots to shift it and get a better look at them. None of the covers was thoroughly illustrated; no matter how old one seemed, they were all emblazoned with a simple gilded symbol, and an etched title, but not much else.
She shook her head and moved along, until she reached the wall beside the glass enclosure. A pair of paintings was there, each of them showing old constructions of castles and fortresses. One of them was no longer anything but a pile of ruins, an almost still stream depicted before it, and some autumn trees in the corner of the work. The other showed a more distant building in the background, sitting upon the sea, spiked parapets reaching toward the heavens while a woman sat on a blanket and pondered her life in the foreground.
“Pfft, this is boring,” Maisie said. She spun back to look for the other dog in the so-called window, but once again couldn’t see her reflection from that angle. She did see the mirrored image of the globe though, and she grew interested in it. “Wait a minute… That’s a big ball! Somebody, throw it for me!”
Nobody paid attention to her request, all enthralled in their own searches—except for Peanut, who chose to observe everyone else’s failed endeavors in finding any sort of clue in the room. Maisie was undeterred though, and she ran to the table, jumping onto the chair that Zelda stood upon while she sniffed at the old lamp before her. The pup was momentarily distracted by her sister’s interest in the other nearby objects, but she hopped up on the table a moment later, careful to avoid stepping on the opened tome that rested on table.
Her shadow danced across the old pages of the book, and in the warm light of the lamp, the flicker across the yellowed sheets caught Zelda’s attention. She looked to the book then, choosing to ignore the script upon the lamp.
The older dog’s focus fell to the pictures on the opened pages first. At the top of the left page, a red rectangular sat centered on the page, with two dark blue perpendicular lines running through it. Ancient, browning ink was written in the pages, and upon that one, strange shapes were made that meant nothing to the little dog. She looked to the other side and noticed an illustration of a golden lion standing proud with an axe clutched in its hands.
“Hey, I found Peanut’s ancestor,” Zelda attempted to tease, though she knew better than to let the cat hear it.
She thought that Maisie had caught the joke though, for the black and white dog began wagging her tail, smacking Zelda in the face every few moments as she did. Zelda blinked her eyes and turned her head away to avoid the surprisingly sturdy tail’s momentum. She ventured a glance toward the globe, which Maisie pawed, sending it spinning about in its stand.
Zelda almost joined her atop the table to look at the sepia-colored sphere as it rolled endlessly, producing a satisfying sound that calmed her. But as she stretched her legs to prepare for her jump onto the table, she spotted something on the pages in front of her that kept her rooted where she was.
“Aha!” she cried. When her family all stopped to look at her, they caught her enchanted by her discovery. “I can’t read!” she deduced.
The rest of the DeAngelo family returned to their own searches then. Michael moved onto the tree in the corner of the room close to where they had entered. Not much jumped out at him there, but he did notice that the ornaments clinging to its branches were of the same variety as those that hung from the garland on the bookcases.
Peanut, in the same predicament as her canine siblings, couldn’t really help to identify any of the writing on the spines or covers of the books. Every few moments though, she would step closer to the shelves and sniff at one of the many volumes.
“I’m making a mental note,” she said. “That one smells like fish. I will return to that one later.”
Rhianna switched to the opposite side of the room then, looking at another two paintings of old architecture. Nothing particular looked interesting to her on either of those—one displayed a castle town amidst a snowy landscape, and the other showed a long fortress battlement that spanned the length of the painting, with an opened portcullis in the background that led toward a beautiful pink and blue horizon. But without any clues jumping out at her, she chose to look around, under and even behind the paintings instead. Still, it didn’t seem that there was anything about the paintings that were worthy of note. She thought to count the merlons on the castle walls, or the birds that flew in the skies. But of the four paintings she saw, some did not have either of those features.
The woman recalled the painting on the other side of the room as well then, and she turned to gaze upon it. Even with her contacts in, Rhianna couldn’t see across the room, and she merely shrugged, figuring she’d be back there in a moment anyway. But as she turned her body back toward the wall beside her, she spotted something peculiar within the glass enclosure. The mirror that Maisie had been fascinated with sat upon rails, it seemed, able to be shifted back and forth. More interesting, however, there seemed to be a beam of light that fell behind it, falling from the ceiling of the room to land behind the mirror, and none had seen it before her.
“That’s interesting,” she said.
“I feel like I’m not getting anywhere,” Michael piped up then. “I’ve been looking at these ornaments for what feels like forever. I feel like I’m going to have to focus on the books soon, and that’s going to be a lot of work.”
“Tell me about it,” Zelda huffed. “I can’t even get past this single page.” The rest of her family thought she was making a statement about the subject matter, or her inability to decipher human writing, but they could hear her shuffling to the next page, and they could hear her sign then as well. As they turned to look at her, she offered up some clarification. “It just keeps coming back to this page!”
Sure enough, as she swatted at the pages again, even holding the book down for a moment afterward, the book worked some mysterious magic, and returned to its previous placement.
“That’s not normal,” Michael said, leaving the books and baubles behind.
Rhianna moved over to the table, too, and both she and her husband looked down at the book in front of Zelda, noting the same things that she had seen—although they could also see the words a little more clearly. Though it was written with what looked like the common alphabet, they could see that the language wasn’t English, with a few umlauts scattered about here and there.
“What’s Norge?” Rhianna asked.
Michael looked to the items on the page, not feigning for a moment to be able to ready any of the writing. But he closed his eyes as he searched for something in their past that was just on the periphery of his memory.
“Do you remember a couple of years ago when Santa gave us that book?”
“Oh yeah!” Rhianna said. “So, does that mean…?”
“I think the book is trying to tell us about Norway.”
His wife shrugged. “Yeah, but neither of us can speak Norwegian.”
“Or read it,” Michael said. His eyes lit up, and he grinned as he looked at his wife. “But maybe we don’t have. Maybe this was just a small clue.”
“The globe!” Rhianna said, excited as she thought they were on the way to figuring out the first riddle in the escape room.
Throughout their conversation, Maisie continued to swat at the globe beside the table, panting in excitement as she watched it spin. Michael and Rhianna arrived beside her then, and they stuck their hands out to slow the rotation of the sphere.
“Hey!” Maisie cried. “I was having fun with that.”
“You’re supposed to be helping us figure out how to get out of here,” Rhianna laughed at the pup. “What’s spinning the globe going to do?”
While she distracted Maisie, Michael slowly shifted the globe into place beneath a magnifying glass upon the golden railing that circled it. Before long, he had found the country of Norway on its surface, and he situated it beneath the lens.
They heard a little shift from inside the globe then, and a red light cast out upon the floor. At once, the fifth member of their family ceased what she was doing and hurried beside the table. Peanut was entranced by the red dot on the floorboards, and she tilted her head as she studied it.
“Well, what did that accomplish?” Michael asked.
“Hey! The page is changing!” they heard Zelda say then.
Sure enough, as they turned to regard the dog and her book, they saw that the sheets flowed forward, away from the original picture of Norway, its coat of arms, and the unfamiliar writing upon its entry. Stranger still, even though the pages moved, it didn’t seem to diminish the number of pages, or add to them on either side of the tome. Michael shook his head as he watched the magic work, failing to understand it.
“Alright, what does it say now?” he asked.
Rhianna shrugged as she looked over the book. “It’s still in a language I can’t read, but there’s another picture. It looks like there’s some sort of symbol near the peninsula of Norway, if that is the same country we were just looking at.”
“Hmm,” Michael said. “Maybe we have to…” He paused, for when he looked at the globe, the rest of the continents were gone, with only an enhanced map of Norway and its surrounding countries displayed on the sphere instead. “What the…?” Michael murmured. “I mean, I guess it is magic.”
He didn’t hesitate any longer, shifting the globe a little bit at a time. Maisie reached out and swatted at it as well. Michael chuckled and pet her behind her ears.
“I’m helping,” she said.
“Yes, you are,” he agreed.
As they altered the position of the globe, the little red dot that emerged from the globe moved as well. Peanut took great interest in it, following it as it moved across the floor, and eventually onto the shelf. It took all her effort to keep herself from leaving into the air to swat at the little light.
None of the others on the table realized that Peanut investigated the light that cast out from the globe, too interested in ensuring the globe was positioned as it was intended.
“Does that look right?” Michael asked.
“A little to the left,” Rhianna said.
“The right,” Zelda corrected.
Rhianna paused to consider which way she meant, and then pointed toward the right. “That way,” she conceded in agreement.
As Michael moved along the coast of Norway, words began emerging from within the tan-colored globe, the text colored in a bold red tint. He wasn’t certain, but it seemed that they were likely the names of towns and cities.
“There!” Zelda said.
Michael had already felt the globe shift into place, and he watched as the name of the city came into view. “Egersund,” he read then.
“What’s that mean?” Rhianna asked.
Michael shrugged. “I’m not sure, but something had to have happened, right?”
When they turned around, they could see that the light was no longer on the floor, but three shelves up—just about eye level for the humans, but a sizable leap for the interested cat. Peanut already lined up her jump, her legs shifting into place, her muscles tensing.
“Wait a minute, Peanut,” Rhianna said. “What are you doing?”
If the cat seemed at all like she was concerned with being reprimanded, it didn’t show. She hopped up to the third shelf with ease, and swatted as she landed there.
But Peanut didn’t calculate that taking a swat at the book that the red dot sat upon could have consequences. When her claw came down, it poked between the pages there, and when she felt that sudden change in her poise, she panicked. The cat kicked off of the base of the shelf, and began falling back, taking the book with her.
Michael was there a second later, catching the spooked feline. The book fell away from her paw and landed on the ground below with a thud—and a stronger one than would typically come from a book, the family noted.
While Peanut squirmed, Michael was quick to place her on the ground, knowing that to do otherwise was to risk an unceremonious spring from the cat where her claws would dig into his chest or stomach. She hopped away from him anyway and began licking at her paws as if her fall was nonchalant—everyone knew she was licking away her embarrassment, however.
Rhianna moved to grab up the book, and when she plucked it off the ground, she noted that it felt a bit heavier than she would have expected for a hardbound piece of literature. She turned it about and looked at the title on the spine.
“Through the Looking Glass,” she said.
It didn’t have the author’s name—only the publisher emblazoned across the bottom of the spine in gold text—but Rhianna was certain that it was the sequel to Lewis Carroll’s adventures of Alice. She looked at the front as well, where there was no title at all. Instead, only the symbol of a crowned queen rested there. Those with little knowledge of Carroll’s work might have otherwise been underwhelmed with the find, but Rhianna couldn’t hide her excitement.
She cracked the book open but was surprised (and a bit disappointed) to see that it was a false book, meant to look like one, but fashioned to open to a specific point that displayed a very specific bit of information.
“Look at this,” Rhianna said, showing the inside to Michael.
The contents of the book showed a runic symbol that looked almost like a table flipped upon its left side. It was encircled by a ring of brown ink, similar in color to the text of the book that Zelda continued scrutinizing at the table.
Michael hummed to himself. “I think I’ve seen this before.” He raised his finger, and turned back to the shelves, looking from one hanging decoration to the next. “I know I have. I saw it on one of the ornaments on the garland.”
While he began looking from one colored ball to the next, Rhianna held the book open and began looking toward the tree.
All the while, Maisie resumed swatting at the globe. The little red light danced across the bookshelves, the floor and even on Peanut. She was insistent that she would no longer be caught up in any dot-chasing antics, and she made a point of looking away as it flung this way and that.
Rhianna pointed from one ornament on the tree to the next as she worked her way around and from the top down. Every few moments she looked back to the book to remind herself of how the rune was composed. Finally, she saw one that matched upon the tree.
“Aha!” she said, gaining Michael’s attention.
He turned, and she held an open hand beneath a blue ornament upon which was etched the strange rune. She presented it with great pride, though she left it where it was upon the tree.
“That’s so strange,” Michael said. “I’m certain I saw that same rune hanging from one of the strands of garland.”
“It’s okay,” Rhianna said. “Just know that I won.”
Michael furrowed his brow and looked to the garland as though it had betrayed him then. But he arched his eyebrow in curiosity then as he looked to the other side of the room then. He grinned and pointed there, past the table where Zelda and Maisie still played with the book and the globe.
“There,” he said. “I knew that I had seen it somewhere else.”
“Oh, forget you and your good eyes,” Rhianna grumbled. “But if there’s two of them, maybe one is right, and one isn’t?”
“I dunno,” Michael replied with a shrug. He crossed the room and plucked a red ornament off the string of garland, observing it a little more closely then. It seemed just the same as all the others: a white etching of a rune within one of the colored spheres. “Maybe the color of the ornament is important? What color is the rune made of in the book?”
“It’s just brown, like old ink,” Rhianna said.
The two converged near the center of the room then, along with their pets. Even Peanut had hopped onto the table then, looking about the room for more items that might have been of use to them.
“Here,” Michael said. “Let’s look at them side by side.
As he and Rhianna brought the two ornaments together, they were surprised to watch the pair of them disintegrate from their hands. Both baubles turned to colored dust and scattered away from them as though a gust of wind had entered the room—though neither of them felt it.
“What just happened?” Rhianna gasped. “I promise, I didn’t break anything!”
“I didn’t either,” Michael insisted. “I think that something was supposed to happen when we brought them both together.”
As though the room itself was listening to the conversation, it seemed to moan as a scrape of glass on stone reported in the room. Everyone looked about then, trying to determine where the noise came from. Rhianna, however, was already familiar enough with the glass case that surrounded the mirror, and she looked in that direction. Maisie realized what she was looking at then as well, and she ceased paying attention to the globe to spring down to the chair, and subsequently the floor. She and Rhianna both reached the glass enclosure while it still sank into the ground then.
“My friend!” Maisie said, spinning about in excitement as the last several inches dropped into the hollow area beneath the floor. “You’re free!”
Michael, Zelda and Peanut lingered by the table, wondering what it was that the other two had discovered.
Rhianna continued forward, until she was reflected in the mirror then as well.
“Wait a second,” Maisie said, ceasing her spin while her eyes grew wide. “My friend has a mommy too!”
“That’s you, you nitwit!” Peanut grumbled, exasperated.
While Rhianna circled the mirror, looking for anything else that might have appeared off, Maisie sat down in front of it, lifting one paw, and then the other. Finally, she realized that the dog on the other side of the looking glass was indeed just her mirror reflection.
“I knew that,” she said. “I knew that the whole time.”
“This is what happens when we get no social interaction all year,” Zelda said, glancing at Michael and looking for sympathy.
Rhianna hadn’t heard the comment, but even if she had, the idea of being stuck in an unfamiliar place held precedence in her mind. She focused on the task ahead and cast her gaze once again to the rails that the mirror sat within upon the floor.
“I noticed those earlier,” she said, more to herself than to the dog by her side. “I think the mirror might be able to move.” She reached the looking glass and placed her hands against the sides of the stand that kept it upright. Then, with all her strength, Rhianna began pushing upon it, budging it forward inch by inch.
She felt it relent a bit more, and she noticed that Maisie joined her there, pushing against the mirror as well as she stood upon her hind legs.
A moment later, the golden light that shone from the ceiling cast down in front of the mirror rather than behind it, and Rhianna knew she had succeeded in her latest undertaking.
“Yes,” she said, shaking her fist in the air.
“Hurray!” Maisie cried. “Um… What did that do?”
“What do you mean?” Rhianna asked. “It made that light come down from the ceiling.”
They both stared at each other in silence then, for the truth of the matter soon became apparent. The light casting down meant nothing without further context.
They both heard a sigh from behind them then. Michael made his way from the table, passing them on their side. He grabbed the mirror and gave it a little push at its top.
“It’s got little bolts to keep it in place, but it’s meant to be angled.” He turned to look at the direction where he was sure the light would go, and let out a little whistle, catching the attention of the older pair of animals. “Zelda, Peanut, slide out of the way. I don’t want to blind you.”
Before either of them could think of a silly or snarky comment, he shifted the mirror backward. The golden light fell upon the bottom of the mirror as it tilted upward, and the reflected illumination radiated beneath the table and then upon it before hitting the opposite wall. The light dispersed as it shone further, but Michael already realized what was going to happen. As the widened beam of light—nearly imperceptible from that distance—fell upon the painting near the door they had entered from, it caused a reaction in the painting. The white sky above the fortress on the canvas turned black, except for a few stray lines that even Michael couldn’t see from that far away.
Rhianna hurried to the other side of the room and studied the revealed secret. “It’s a constellation!” she explained.
“Do you know which one?” Michael asked. “I don’t know what a constellation is going to tell us otherwise.”
His wife tilted her head as she considered the question. “I think it’s the Big Dipper,” she said. “But it might be the Little Dipper.” She hummed to herself. “Either way, it’s a dipper.”
Michael hummed to himself again, trying to make sense of why such a combination of symbols would show up within the painting. As best he could tell, there were no ornaments fixed in such a way that would show a similar layout as the constellation.
“Hey, the book changed again,” Peanut said. “I don’t know how to read any better than this one,” she went on, nodding toward Zelda. “But it looks at least a little more like the stuff you two know how to read.”
Michael and Rhianna converged on the table once more, and their sight settled on the book. Sure enough, the pages finally showed something in a language they understood.
The two pages seemed to be broken down into sections. The writing had diminished in size, but there was much more of it. There were numbers, too, centered at the top of each of the pages, with category classes underneath.
“Oh wow,” Michael said. “I haven’t seen these in forever. I think I need to get to a library more often.”
“Is that the Dewey Decimal System?” Rhianna asked.
“It sure is,” he replied. “Look for astronomy. Maybe there’s some books here that have some relevance to the Big Dipper.”
The left page focused on the last several entries of science. 570 was biology, 580 was plants, and 590 belonged to animals. The right page, on the other hand, showed the first few categories of the technology classes. 600 was general technology, 610 was medicine and health, and 620 was engineering.
“Alright there’s something particular we’re looking for here,” Rhianna said, looking at all the books in the shelves before them. “Do you see anything about astronomy or astrology in there?”
Michael peered at the technology classes, tracing down each of the categories. “I’m not seeing anything in here. What else could we be looking for?” He bowed his head and tried to understand what it was that the Big Dipper was trying to tell them.” He snapped his fingers as he made a revelation then. “What is the Big Dipper part of?”
Pausing for a moment to try and remember, Rhianna tilted her head. “The Bear?” she guessed.
“Ursa Major,” Michael agreed. “So maybe we aren’t looking for stars or anything related to science, but…” He moved to the first displayed page of the book and stopped his finger upon the category for animals. “590 should be the one we’re looking for.”
“590 what?” Rhianna asked. “It isn’t like…” Her voice trailed off then as she looked to the shelves in front of them. “They weren’t there before, were they?”
She pointed to the bookcases, even looking over her shoulder. There were gold etchings within the wooden cases, each shelf corresponding, it seemed, to a different numbered category. The shelf associated with animals was across from the one on the others side of the room that held the false book for Through the Looking Glass.”
Rhianna made her way in that direction, perusing the titles displayed on the spines of the books from left to right. “Moby Dick, The Call of the Wild, The Tale of Peter Rabbit…” She paused then as she looked at a book with a green cover, with little animals drawn down the spine in gold. “Baloo is a bear, right?” she asked. It was a rhetorical question, but she heard Michael confirm her thought. With no further hesitation, Rhianna reached up to grab the book.
The woman was surprised, then, to feel no give between it and the other books surrounding it. Going even further than the single false book on the opposite side of the room, she realized that every book on the shelf before her was fake. With a grin on her face, she reached up, and pulled on the top of The Jungle Book. It tilted toward her, but never left its spot in the bookcase.
A rewarding tone sounded, like a distant trumpet that heralded the family’s victory.
Rhianna expected some other kind of reveal then, but she wasn’t expecting the bookshelf itself to push backward, away from her before shifting to the side. The work that she had done to unveil the secrets of the library had revealed a brand-new room, it seemed, though it was still shrouded in darkness.
“Huh,” Michael said. I would have expected to find a key for that padlock or something.”
His wife shrugged. “Maybe we still do have to get back out by going that way. But perhaps the key is deeper within that room. The only thing is, I can’t see further than my hand in there. Do we have any light to brighten it for us?”
“The mirror only pivots backward and forward,” Peanut said then. “And I don’t see anything else in here that you can use as a light source.”
“You just gotta be brave!” Maisie yelled, running into the darkness.
“Wait, Maisie!” Rhianna cried, reaching out as the little black and white dog sprinted past. “We don’t know what’s in there!”
Maisie’s quick dash stopped when she disappeared within the dark veil. But within just a few seconds, a distant light in the room offered the DeAngelo family the way forward.
“See?” the pup called out from within the next room. “It’s just like back home with the sleepy lights that wake up when I’m there!”
All the other members of her family could see her then, and they could see her tail wagging vigorously as she took account of everything that was there in the room.
“Now this is what I’m talking about!” she said. It didn’t take long for her to charge deeper into the room then, out of sight from the rest of her family.
Rhianna was quick to follow her, but the others remained by the table in the library.
“Whoa,” Rhianna said. “This room is huge.”
Michael looked to the other two animals and shrugged a bit. “Well, there goes my hope that it was just one last little room that had the key to the padlock,” he said. He tousled the other dog and the cat along their backs before he started after his wife and Maisie.
Peanut jumped down from the table and moved on ahead of Michael, but Zelda turned about to use the chair as another step on the way down. Before she did though, she noticed something peculiar on the table.
“Ooh, shiny,” she said.
That caught Michael’s attention, and he looked over his shoulder to see that the older dog was entranced with the book that had given them little clues throughout their time in the library.
“What’s got you so spellbound?” he asked. He returned to Zelda then, and knew the answer to his own question a moment later. The tome was devoid of any writing, then, but it almost looked as though a rolling golden wave cast over the pages. “I think the book wants to come with us,” Michael said.
Zelda nodded excitedly, and she pawed at it then. “You’re going to have to get it though. I don’t have thumbs.”
Laughing, Michael scooped her up first. He pecked her on the head before setting her on the ground, and then he turned back for the book. Another glimmer of gold seemed to travel from one corner of the book to the opposite side, perhaps a little more fervently then. Michael grabbed the tome and closed it, half surprised that it let him.
The front cover of the book was just as mundane as the others that he and his family had seen in the library. An evergreen tree was framed in a small circle about the size of a quarter, though it had been emblazoned in golden ink. Just beneath it, the title of the book stated that it was called Yuletide Stories.
“Well, this certainly will be one we’re going to tell,” Michael said as he gathered up the book.
He heard a chorus of excitement and contentment coming from the other room then, and he hurried along to join the rest of his family there.
Their reactions were well-earned, it seemed, for that room seemed even grander than the library. Its reach stretched far and wide, a roaring fireplace much further to their side, along where the looking glass was in the previous room. Along the way there, however, was a feasting table that was filled to the brim with hearty and savory food, glasses of eggnog, and a few festively shaped cookies scattered about here and there.
“This looks just like last year!” Maisie cried in excitement.
“And with no magical gemstones you can swallow in sight,” Rhianna teased.
“I thought it was a tasty dessert!” Maisie grumbled.
While the rest of his family looked about at the food upon the table—for not enough cookies had been eaten at home—Michael continued to inspect the second room they had found their way into. It almost seemed as though the feast for them was a reward, but Michael thought otherwise. It was a distraction, and yet another room to escape, he was sure.
On the opposite side of the room sat a medieval kitchen, with stone-laden walls, a brick oven that had more char marks within and around it than the fireplace on the far wall, and some indentations in the wall where food or wood storage would remain. Pots, jars and small barrels lined shelves against the wall, no doubt filled with baking goods or herbs or the like.
Above them, it looked as though a thatched roof rested atop the room. Michael narrowed his eyes, knowing that if it was accessible, they’d likely be able to tear through it, and escape to safety. But he was certain that there was some treachery afoot. They wouldn’t be allowed to leave—not without completing the game.
Still, he wasn’t about to jump to conclusions without testing his theory. He walked to the feasting table, and grabbed warm, baked roll off a plate near the center. The way he walked up to that single piece of bread with purpose was not lost to his family either. They turned and looked to him while he gazed up at the ceiling.
Then, without hesitation, he threw the roll into the air.
“Why would you do that!” Maisie cried while everyone else looked on in confusion.
But Michael’s hypothesis was correct, he realized, for the roll slammed against an unseen layer of glass that protected the thatched roof from would-be escapees.
He caught the hunk of bread on its way back down, and he tore off a piece in his mouth, humming as he considered the trap in which they remained.
“Well that was odd,” Rhianna said. “And yet, not the oddest thing that has happened to us today.”
The members of the DeAngelo family picked at the food on the table then, realizing that all of it was quite warm and fresh. It appeared the person who had set it out for them had quickly set it all upon the table as they were finishing the puzzles in the library, and somehow disappeared from the room before they could be spotted.
“Solving puzzles is hard work,” Rhianna said with a shrug, before she reached for a glass of eggnog.
Michael nodded, and picked at a few of the various appetizers upon the table. “Just make sure we don’t lose sight of our real goal here. We need to get out of whatever this place is, and if there is a time limit, the clock is still ticking.”
As he spoke, he moved to the other side of the table, and pushed the chairs there closer, helping the animals get a better spot to determine what they wanted. Maisie was the first to jump up to the banquet table, her eyes growing wide at the sight of all the food before her. Peanut and Zelda joined her a few moments later, each curious to see what options they had.
The cat sniffed discriminately from one dish to the next but didn’t take a bite of anything while her sisters noshed on a few items they could reach.
“I don’t see any fish,” Peanut said.
Rhianna looked about, noticing that none of the dishes present qualified as what she would consider a main course. That included the prized food choice for the persnickety puss. “Maybe these aren’t the full meals,” Rhianna said. “It’s practically criminal not to have fish on Christmas Eve,” she argued.
“Christmas Eve, Eve,” Michael corrected. “And maybe the entrees haven’t been brought out yet.”
Maisie stepped up a little higher against the table, her eyes gleaming at that point. “You mean there will be more?”
Zelda, quiet until that point as she savored the food she carefully selected, tilted her head. “Maybe we have to find our own dinners,” she said.
Rhianna grinned. “That’s right! And maybe when we do, we’ll find the key that gets us out of the library, too.”
The family heard a scraping toward the library then and turned to regard it. The bookcase that opened into the second room slid shut again, as though the feasting hall had been listening to the conversation. Far enough away from it as they were, none of DeAngelo family even made a move to stop it.
Michael turned back to his loved ones and sucked the flaky crumbs of the bread off his fingers. “Something makes me think we’re not going to be going back to the library.” He felt a rumbling along his side then, and reached for his pajama pocket, as though he was looking for his phone. When he recalled that he hadn’t had it with him when he’d gone through the portal, he arched an eyebrow, wondering what he had felt. The sensation moved through his arm then, and he realized that it was the book in his hand.
“What’s going on?” Rhianna asked when she saw him open it.
Her husband’s reaction grew stranger when his eyes displayed a reflection of flames. “I’m thinking the book is trying to tell us something.” He swept some of the dishes, cups and baskets upon the table to the side, and set the book down upon it.
From there, the rest of his family could see that a new image was shown in the open tome, the left page in motion with a crackling, faded red flame.
“What does it mean?” Zelda asked.
Rhianna shrugged. “The only fire we’ve seen in here at all is the hearth over here,” she said, pointing to the fireplace.
She looked in that direction, looking at the mantel above it. Some strange trophies—drinking steins and stone carvings—rested there, lending the room some extra personality. They kept up with the Scandinavian feeling that they had experienced through the library’s clues. Still, looking at them, Rhianna couldn’t think of anything over there that would lead to a revelation of any sort.
“Hey, look!” Peanut said, leaning closer to the book then. Even her excitement was apparent as she spoke, though when the others looked at her with appreciative smiles, she shrank back and looked away. “I mean, it’s interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.”
By the time the others shifted their glances to the tome instead of the cat, they noticed what she had as well. Words began to show in the fiery picture on the left side of the page. The right page remained blank, even after the message was displayed.
Michael placed his finger to the page, noticing that even the depiction of the fire within the book seemed to emanate with a strange heat. He shook his head, dismissing the interesting notion as he read along with the words that shimmered in the dark brown ink that seemed to appear from thin air.
“Find the page bare, and then prepare,” the man said.
“A secret note, the bill of fare,” his wife spoke the next line.
“In the text revealed by flames,” Michael said next.
“Study close and watch the names,” Rhianna finished.
“I’ll say the next line!” Maisie announced, unaware that there wouldn’t be another one. She looked at the two rhyming couplets, and imagined it saying something she would understand. “Maisie has a grumbling belly. Give her a peanut butter and jelly. A sandwich is fine, but if you can’t tell, she’ll eat from the jars, just as well.”
Michael and Rhianna paused before they looked at each other and laughed.
“Well that was adorable,” Michael said. “But I don’t think there’s any peanut butter and jelly here. We’ll just have to try and see if we can make our way through these puzzles. Besides, there’s plenty of yummy stuff here for you. In the meantime, let’s see if we can’t figure out the riddle we just read!”
The five of them broke from the table then, each going in their own direction. Michael headed around the table, back toward the kitchen, while his wife moved closer toward the fireplace. Zelda and Peanut looked on opposite sides of the room but found the walls mostly unremarkable—with the one separating them from library mostly too dark to see anyway.
Maisie pushed aside one plate after another, saying “nothing under that one,” each time she discovered no hidden clues. And each time she found that nothing was present, she rewarded herself with a little snack.
Beside the fireplace, Rhianna took closer account of the statuettes and curios that rested upon the mantel. She looked at them from right to left, noticing the strange, ancient-looking items. There was a stone tablet upon which had been etched a dagger; an old hammer-shaped trinket with the tree of life emblazoned into its side rested upon its blunted head; a bowl sat in the center of the mantel, just above where flickering flames made their way up toward the chimney. The bowl was as antiquated as the rest of the items, but it looked a little less worn. Two heads extended from either side, fashioned to look like horses or dragons, though the finer details were lost to time. Though it seemed to be fashioned out of old wood, a closer inspection found it made of stone that had a wood-like appearance. Rhianna noticed a strange circular depression in the bottom of the bowl, and shrugged, thinking whatever liquid it had held over its history had left it dilapidated. A statuette beside it illuminated some old god, but just as the figureheads leading off the bowl, a great deal of the features had eroded with time. An ale tankard rounded out the group of items atop the mantel, the old cup losing some of its luster, but preserving much of its character.
Rhianna tried to get a better look of the horn-shaped tankard, but she found that it was fastened to the mantel. One by one, she confirmed that each of the five items there were stuck firmly to the stone shelf above the fireplace. She grumbled as she turned her attention elsewhere, knowing that time was proving to be against them.
On the opposite side of the room, Michael returned to the kitchen. With a little more focus and attention, he scrutinized every inch of the place. Special utensils—ladles, a large whisk, and a baker’s peel hung from the wall by the room’s masonry oven. Michael wore a confident grin as he opened the oven, thinking that it would be the perfect place to hind some sort of clue. When he looked inside though, there was nothing special about it. A smaller slot was fashioned beneath the main gate, where wood or coal could be ignited to heat the area above. There was nothing there either, as though all the fuel had been stripped of the place.
“I guess they don’t want us baking anything in here,” Michael muttered.
As he continued to peruse that part of the kitchen, Peanut walked behind him, looking at a bench that sat against the opposite wall. It wasn’t meant for sitting, adding to the aesthetic instead, as it held lengthy brown containers of different shapes upon it. The cat stood up on the bench, sniffing at the containers, but judging them unremarkable. Before she could look away though, she noticed a peculiar item squeezed between two of the tubes.
“Umm, servant?” she asked. When she didn’t hear a response from Michael, she looked in his direction. He was still busy looking at the objects near the oven, and he didn’t hear her. “Hey, you,” she said, but again was ignored.
Peanut sighed, then, and reached up trying to grasp the object—a piece of parchment, it seemed—between two of her claws. It was just out of range, and she struggled to stretch a little further.
The cat lost her balance then, tipping forward and tapping one of the tubes. She meowed in fright as the container fell to its side and rolled off the bench. With the fur on her spine sticking up, she took off back toward the feasting table.
Michael finally turned around then. His interest was piqued by the strange sounds that had rang out behind him.
As he took a step toward the fallen container, the parchment that it had leaned against fell without the support of another object holding it upright. Michael watched as it landed on the bench and noticed that there was nothing written on its face. It almost seemed as though it had been pulled out of the magic tome they had taken from the library.
In order to be certain, he plucked the page up from the bench, and looked at the opposite side then as well. Sure enough, it was also blank there.
“Hey, look what I found,” he announced to his family.
“You?” Peanut grumbled. “This should be my glory.” She slinked beneath the table, looking at the rest of the family through narrowed eyes, as sour a puss as she could muster.
As Rhianna hurried toward him, he was already on his way over to the fireplace.
“The ‘page bare’, right?” he asked. “Now it’s time to see if a little heat gives us a message of some sort.”
“Let me see that?” Rhianna asked, peering around Michael’s arm to look at the blank page.
“There’s nothing on it,” Michael said as he turned it to better face his wife.
“Aha!” she shouted, snatching the paper from his hand. She hurried over to the fireplace; her eager anticipation was apparent to the rest of her family.
“More power to you,” her husband said. “Just remember, whenever a kitchen and heat intermingle, you seem to have a bad time!”
Rhianna hesitated before she reached the fireplace and considered Michael’s words. Her shoulders slumped and she pouted a bit before she held up the parchment, awaiting her husband’s arrival.
“Gimme that,” he said, snatching it back from her.
He leaned over and kissed her on the head before he nudged her closer to the fire, ensuring that it was an experience they would both witness together.
Even Michael hesitated to let the flames touch the paper; he didn’t want their latest clue to go up in smoke. But as he pushed it further toward the hearth, he was excited to see brown-tinged words appear on the parchment. Even when the fire seemed to flicker against the back of the page, it was safe from any harm, not even a charred smudge appearing across its face. A moment later, the reaction was complete, with a plentitude of new clues revealed.
Michael held it out to Rhianna, who grabbed it in her hands once more, as though she was the one who had unlocked the latest mysteries. She reviewed it for a moment before tilting her head in confusion.
“What’s this?” she asked.
Maisie lowered her head and turned around, wondering if perhaps she was in trouble for sampling all the different foods upon the table.
“Apple-crusted Meatballs?” she read aloud.
Michael arched an eyebrow then. “You know, I wouldn’t be opposed to trying that.”
“Rutabaga Roulade,” his wife said next.
“Okay, you lost me,” he said, throwing up his hands.
“Olle… Ollebrod?” Rhianna said, trying her best to find the correct pronunciation. “Smoked salmon, eel bisque…” her words trailed off then, but even Peanut had grown interested.
“Someone called my name, right?” the feline asked. “I distinctly heard my name. And something about feeding me all the fish.”
“We don’t have any fish,” Michael said. “Just a…a weird menu.”
Rhianna sighed. “It can’t just be a menu, right?” She looked at the page, pointing at some of the other items she saw there. “I don’t even know what some of these things are. Nesselrode? Emmenthaler? Are these foods or cartoon characters?”
“Look at the names,” Zelda said then. When her family brought their attention to her, the little red-haired dog looking up at them with adorable eyes. “Look at the names,” she said again. “Wasn’t that what the riddle said?”
“Study and watch the names,” Michael recalled. “But I don’t see how that will…” He paused then and turned the page slightly to the side. The man blew out a sigh then and handed it to his wife.
“What is it?” she asked. “Did you figure it out?”
“Look at the first letter of every item,” Michael said, unable to prevent a grin from stretching his lips. “Think Shakespeare.”
“Shakespeare?” Rhianna asked. “She pointed along the left margin of the page then, and followed it along, realizing soon after what was being spelled. “A rose…by…any other name,” she said. “Well I feel silly.”
“It got us both,” her husband insisted. “But it didn’t get smarty pants Zelda apparently,” he said, gently tousling her hair, earning a few happy pants from the pup. “But here’s something important: just because we know the idiom, I don’t know what to do with that information.”
Rhianna shrugged. “Let’s just look around and find the flower, I guess.”
“I’m certain I haven’t seen any around here,” Michael replied. “We’ve been all over this room, and I haven’t seen any flowers at all, roses or otherwise.”
“Maybe it’s a garnish?” Rhianna wondered.
“Perhaps,” Michael said. “But usually you only see that with main courses. What about salads, maybe they snuck a flower in with all that green?”
His wife turned to regard their pets. “This is where you three can come in handy, you know. Have any of you seen a pretty flower or anything in here?”
When neither of the dogs or the cat could offer up an idea, Michael turned back toward the table.
“Time to consult the tome!” he cried out. When he arrived at the table and adjusted the book so that he could observe it a little more clearly, he could see that the riddle they had seen had not changed. “I don’t get it, though,” Michael said. “What is it talking about?”
Almost as though the page Rhianna held in her hands felt pity on the man, she felt a slight vibration between her fingers. She noticed a faint glimmer within some of the writing, then. Before long, a short line stretched beneath several of the words.
“By any other name,” she read aloud. “Flower, right?” Rhianna passed by the table, holding the page out almost as though it was a dowsing rod. She reached the kitchen, and looked about, seeing the oven, the implements used to bake, and the containers on the bench upon the opposite wall. “This is where you found the menu, right?” she asked.
While Michael looked up from the book, Peanut let out an uncharacteristic little growl.
“I was the one who found it,” she muttered, turning away from everyone.
“What are you getting at?” Michael wondered.
“Oh nothing,” Rhianna said, though a wide grin stretched across her face. “It’s just that I’ve figured out the riddle with ease.” She set to work on the cannisters upon the bench, pulling their lids off and inspecting the insides. “I’ve worked on enough cookies this year to know what flower the book and the page are talking about.”
“…flour,” Michael said. “Alright, that’s pretty clever.”
“Aha!” Rhianna said. The last cannister she grabbed—the others filled with oats, sugar, and salt—had the right consistency of flour. When she knew she had the proper container she shook it about and could hear a clunk within. “I think we have a winner.” As she spoke, little clouds of flour rose out of the cannister after it was aerated.
Rhianna tried to reach her hand into the container, but its neck was too narrow. She considered, for a moment, asking one of the animals to lend their hand instead, but she knew that they wouldn’t have the reach needed to grab whatever item was hidden inside. Dejected, she pursed her lips, and tapped her chin.
“What’s the matter?” Michael asked.
She shrugged. “I just feel bad for whoever is going to have to clean this mess,” she said, looking to the floor.
“I mean, just remember that even though we’re sort of having fun with all this, we are kind of their prisoners right now,” her husband said.
Rhianna shrugged in the opposite direction then, nodding in agreement. “Yeah, you’re right. Well then… Sorry, floor!”
As soon as she finished speaking, the woman flipped the cannister, letting the flour pour to the ground. More seemed to come out than she expected, and both she and her husband stepped back from the mountain that landed upon the floor. They watched as a small iron object dropped into the white stuff that had hidden it just moments before. Though more of the powder continued to fall from the container, Rhianna set it aside, placing it back upon the bench.
“So, what was our little prize?” Michael asked.
He and his wife both heard an excited gasp behind them then.
“Snow!” Zelda cried.
Before Michael or Rhianna could let her know that it was not, in fact, snow, she sprinted from her spot beneath the table and leapt into the air.
“No!” Rhianna protested.
But it was too late. Zelda crashed into the mound of flour, sending plumes of powder flying in every direction. The dog’s coat was covered, and it coated her face as well.
“This is some weird snow,” she said.
Her family could see her eyes begin to narrow and knew what was about to happen. Zelda let fly a shaking sneeze as she fought against the tickling sensation in her nose.
“Oh, I hope they don’t try to bake anything with that,” Rhianna said.
“By the time anyone gets in here, we’ll be well past the five-second rule,” Michael insisted.
“Hey, I found something,” Zelda said. She started digging in the flour, sending little puffs flying behind her. A moment later, she buried her head in it, only to rise a moment later with the once-hidden object clutched in her teeth. She tossed it into the air then, and Michael caught it on reflex alone. “It’s getting in the way of all my snow.”
Rhianna chuckled and shook her head. “Zelda, it’s not… You know what? You do you, puppy.” She turned her attention to her husband then, who observed the small iron object. “So, what have we got?”
Michael smiled, and opened his hand, displaying the old key that they now had in their possession. “I think we’ll be home before too long,” he said.
They both looked toward the library then, waiting to see if, perhaps, the bookcases would slide back out of the way to let them try their hand on the lock.
Rhianna tilted her head and glanced at her husband. “Maybe the key doesn’t go to that lock?” she suggested.
Furrowing his eyebrows, Michael lifted the key, taking a better look at it. It was certainly an antiquated item, with a dark brown color and a few rough spots. Still, it looked plenty sturdy, with the strangely shaped teeth intact. Michael moved his fingers, looking at the hilt of the key, which was flat and emblazoned with what looked like a tankard of ale.
“Let’s take a look at our drinking mugs,” Michael suggested.
“And there was a cool-looking horn on the mantel,” Rhianna said.
Together they returned to the familiar parts of the room and set to work investigating the objects they had mentioned. Try as they did, though, they couldn’t find any keyhole to insert their newly found clue.
They heard a burp from across the room, and saw Maisie flump down on the table after having eaten her fill of the feast before her. “This is very hard work,” she said. The little pup had fallen upon the open tome then, and as she fought off a food coma, she watched as the writing beneath her changed shape and size.
“Hey,” she called out. “Some new stuff is showing up in the book. I can’t tell if it’s tickling me or if that’s just my stomach.”
“Well you ate enough for all of us,” Michael said, handing off the key to his wife before he reached the well-fed dog’s side. “Now how am I to see what’s been written while you’re over here laying all the pudge all over the pages.”
She lifted her head to glare at him, but she gave up on the action just a moment later. “Was gonna grumble,” she said. “Too much work.”
Michael took a seat behind her, and scooped her off the tome, eliciting a mighty groan from the pup who was about to pop. He set her down in his lap, not completely ignorant to the small bit of extra weight she’d acquired since their captive stay.
Before he could even pull the tome a little closer toward him, he could already hear her snoring as she went limp and drifted off to oblivion. He smiled as he stroked her back, but he turned his attention to the book shortly after, lifting it up to see the new clues.
“Alright, you ready for this?” he asked Rhianna. “I go through a door, but never come out; come look on the floor and you’ll find me about.” He arched an eyebrow, looking to his wife across the way, who was busy brushing off Zelda’s fur—and to no avail, for the dog immediately jumped back into the white powder.
“It’s a strange one,” Rhianna said.
“So, whatever we’re looking for is on the floor,” Michael said. “Doesn’t that seem to be something our lovely little fluffs could help us with.” He gave Maisie a loving little nudge to try and rouse her.
The sleepy pup stretched and moved away from him then. “Give me five more minutes. I’m not ready for school.”
He fought against every instinct to laugh at the silly comment, but he couldn’t hold it back entirely. As his body shook from his chuckling, Maisie began to slide out of his lap. He caught her at the last moment, placing her down upon the ground with a gentle touch.
“Come on, none of you are gonna help?” Michael asked a moment later, seeing Peanut still giving him the cold shoulder.
“Wait a minute!” Rhianna said. “Maybe one of them already is helping.” The words were spoken just as Zelda took another flying leap into the air, only to crash back down upon the pile of fluffy flour. She held her hands out, displaying the dog in all her glory as she dug her paws into the pile of flour. “Zelda’s got the right idea,” Rhianna said. “If we’re trying to find something on the floor, the flour will definitely help us see if anything is out of place, right?”
“That could work,” Michael said. “But of all the things we have in here, a broom is not one of them. I guess we’re going to be on our hands and knees sweeping flour everywhere.”
Rhianna had a mischievous grin upon her face before he even finished speaking. “Before you come over here, grab one of those table settings.”
He knew better than to question her motives, as he could hear the confidence in her voice. He grabbed one of the settings, just an old rag, really, and tossed it to his wife from the other side of the pile.
She bent low, ensuring Zelda could see her. “Hey puppy, do you want to play tug of war?” Rhianna let the piece of cloth hang from her hand then and watched as Zelda’s tail began wagging—slowly at first, and then quicker with excitement. “I betcha can’t get it!” she teased.
Zelda was ready and willing to prove her wrong. She leapt into the air as best she could with the unstable mound beneath her feet, but she caught hold of the rag, nonetheless.
Rhianna pulled on the lead at once, lightly dragging the dog across the floor. Zelda whipped her head back and forth, the only fight she could give as she slid forward. Rhianna turned about and Zelda remained playful and eager as ever, still a puppy at heart. Before long, the entire floor in front of the oven was covered in a fine layer of flour. But without anything seeming to jump out at them, Rhianna kept up her game.
With a splash of white, she and Zelda tore through the larger pile that remained in the entrance to the feasting area. Zelda growled a little louder, but she didn’t relent, and her tail continued to wag.
Michael hopped out of the way as Rhianna used her makeshift mop to spread a mess instead of cleaning one up. As she and Zelda continued to play, though, Michael looked and saw something peculiar on the ground. It was a place that seemed untouched by the flour. As he drew nearer to it, he understood the riddle a little better.
“A keyhole,” he said. “That’s what goes in a door but doesn’t come out.”
Satisfied that their game had been a good idea, Rhianna released the place setting, conceding the game to the lively pup. Though she no longer had an opponent, Zelda shook her head, whipping the cloth back and forth in victorious celebration.
Michael fell to a knee, and framed the keyhole with his hand, but he swept away the surrounding flour in the hopes that no more would fall into it. It wouldn’t do to have the keyhole jammed, he thought. When Rhianna reached him there, she too drew close to the floor, inserting the iron key, which entered the aperture without resistance. As she turned the implement, she felt a pop beneath her, and she watched as the floor rose, revealing a hatch that had been hidden into the tightly packed floorboards.
“That’s a little unsettling,” Michael said. “Are we off to the dungeon next?”
Rhianna climbed to her feet and moved about to the front of the hatch, noticing the wooden steps that descended into the darkness down below.
“Can you go down first?” she asked Michael.
He arrived beside his wife then, looking into the abyss with her. Together they noticed as a frightening fog seemed to lift from the hidden compartment.
“Maybe we’ll go down together?” Michael wondered aloud. “No?” He bowed his head in defeat before Rhianna offered up any sort of verbal protest. “Alright. You three, stay right where you are, okay? This could be dangerous.”
Maisie had fallen asleep once more, snoozing upon the floor beneath the table. Peanut continued ignoring Michael and Rhianna, taking time to lick her paws and swipe them across her head. Zelda still played with her new rag, chewing on it between vigorous shakes of her head.
Michael sighed and began the slow descent into the unknown, with Rhianna daring to follow behind him, her hand gripping his shoulder.
As they went, they couldn’t ignore the frigid cold that they seemed to freeze their skin. Michael breathed out a deep breath, and even in the darkness, he saw wisps of steam leave his lips.
At the bottom of the steps, he stumbled forward, expecting to keep drawing further beneath the feasting hall. Rhianna’s fingers dug into his skin, keeping him upright and close to her.
“Thanks,” he said.
“I was going that for me,” she admitted. “I don’t want to be all alone down here in the dark.”
As Michael took another step forward, two torches burst into flame upon the walls framing the bottom of the steps. Rhianna cried out in shock, and hopped forward, burying her face against Michael’s back.
Her husband couldn’t keep himself from giggling then.
“I don’t think we have anything to worry about,” he offered up then. “Look: it’s just a cooling room for ale and eggnog and water. Or maybe that’s vodka.”
Rhianna ventured a glance over Michael’s shoulder, and saw that against the back wall of the cellar, a few crates were stacked, with long glass pitchers there atop them.
“Is that everything?” she asked. “There’s no way out or anything?”
“I could move those boxes,” Michael replied. “But no, I don’t think we’re going to be able to find a way out from down here. My guess is that the next clue is in one of those big pitchers, or the crates beneath them.”
Shrugging, Rhianna stepped forth. “It would have to be in the eggnog pitcher, right? We would see something in the ale or the water.”
“I mean, that’s a solid guess,” her husband said. “But there’s no guarantee it isn’t in the crates instead. And I’m not planning on sticking my hand in all that eggnog—though I’m not completely opposed to the idea of drinking it.”
“That’s a lot of eggnog,” Rhianna said.
“That’s a lot of eggnog,” Michael agreed. He hummed to himself, and then looked to Rhianna then. “Hold on. What if we just do what you did with the flour container? If there’s something in the pitcher, and we shake it, we should hear something thumping against the side, right?”
“Well…” Rhianna said, not quite so sure about that thought. “It’s pretty thick stuff. We might not be able to see if anything was there at all. But it’s worth a try.”
“What else have we got going on?” Michael asked. He stepped forward and grabbed the tall container, lifting it and grabbing its neck in both hands. The man swirled it around, and brought it higher, turning it about so the torchlight illuminated it for his wife to see. “Anything?” he asked.
“I don’t see an object inside,” she replied. Rhianna leaned down and looked up from the bottom, but she shook her head a second later. “There’s nothing there.”
Michael lowered the oversized pitcher and walked it back to the crate, but he took a sip of the eggnog before he set it down.
“Hoo… That’s some powerful stuff.” He smacked his lips and shook his head then. “I did not expect that to be an alcoholic eggnog. That’s not going to make looking for clues any easier.”
“Or maybe it is,” Rhianna suggested. “Maybe we just need to be in the right state of mind.”
He nodded. “If it’s true for the year, it might be true for escaping this place.” He couldn’t tell if his wife was joking, and when he looked at her, he could tell she was waiting to see a reaction from him as well. “I mean, it is that kind of year,” he said. Still he turned away, back toward the stairs. “Look, we know there’s a clue down here, otherwise we wouldn’t have been told to look for the key. Let’s go get the animals to see if they can help us and…”
Michael’s words trailed off when his wife spotted something along the wall. He followed her gaze then, noticing that a stack of smaller boxes sat along that part of the room. But it was the object upon one of them that stood out—not least of all because of the small flag that rose out of it that had their surname upon it. A small round cake that had been lightly dusted with powdered sugar sat beneath the flag.
With it in her hands a moment later, Rhianna removed the flag, and handed it to Michael to keep in one of the pockets of his pajamas. “One more yummy treat,” she said.
She split the cake in half and handed a hunk of it to her husband. As she separated it though, she noticed that it had a green coloring inside, and she froze as she considered it. Michael caught onto it a moment later, and grabbed his wife in a loving embrace, kissing her on the forehead.
Though Rhianna contended with her memories, and how they left her feeling, she emerged from her introspection with a smile upon her face when she looked back at the green cake in her hand. She placed her head upon Michael’s shoulder, and took a bite of the cake, noting and enjoying the familiar taste.
Michael moved to take a bite out of his side of the cake as well, but as he brought it toward his lips, he noticed that the flag was not the only thing that was found inside of it. A scrap of paper, folded over several times, hung out of the green, spongy texture. Michael pulled out the parchment as he took a bite of the cake, and he worked at unfolding it with a single hand.
Before long, the message, written on the same material as the other clue that Peanut had found, flashed before his and Rhianna’s eyes.
“Instead of looking for what you can see,” Michael said, “find what you can’t, invisibility.”
Rhianna turned the parchment toward her as well then and read the next lines. “Hiding in plain sight, unable to see it about, you must turn over its home, and pour it all out.”
“So, we were on the right track with the pitchers, I think,” Michael said. “It was just that the eggnog one wasn’t what we were looking for unless we wanted to straight up pass out under the table up there.”
Each of them placed their pieces of the cake back upon the plate behind them, and they returned to the other two pitchers, with Michael grabbing the one filled with ale while his wife grabbed the colorless liquid. They both swirled around the contents of their container, and in time, they heard a sound within one of the pitchers.
“It’s mine,” Rhianna said. “But I can’t see anything inside.”
“Well, the clue did mention that we wouldn’t be able to,” Michael replied. “And it also said we’d have to pour it out.”
Rhianna nodded. “I still can’t help but feel bad about the mess we’re about to make.”
“There was a basin upstairs in the kitchen,” Michael said. “That should help us keep the mess down to a minimum. And even if it doesn’t, again, we’ve kind of been kidnapped here.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” his wife said. She handed the pitcher to Michael after he placed the one which contained ale back upon the stack of crates. Rhianna picked up the cake plate then before heading back up the stairs.
After Michael followed her up the stairs, he felt eyes upon his back, and he turned about to look behind him. All three of the animals were there to the side of the hatch, looking upon him and Rhianna.
“Everything alright?” he asked.
“You were gone forever,” Maisie said. “You can’t just go and leave us!”
“I told you we were going down there,” Michael protested. “You were mad at us, you were having a full-belly nap, and you were busy playing with your new toy.”
While her husband had a full conversation with their pets, Rhianna placed the cake on the bench beside them, and grabbed hold of the water pitcher while Michael wasn’t paying attention. She moved to the basin then, and slowly emptied the container.
As the water poured out, the inside of the pitcher flowed back and forth, and every few moments, Rhianna thought she saw the torchlight flicker a little differently upon the item inside. Once it was empty of liquid, she tilted it toward her open hand, and caught the object that had been hidden inside. She found herself looking at a small glass orb, sturdy enough that it could survive rolling about inside the container.
“Hey look,” Rhianna said, turning around to catch Michael’s attention. “I found a ball.”
Before she even finished saying the final word, she understood what mistake she had made.
Zelda’s eyes went wide, and she stood on her hind legs in excitement. “Ball?” she cried and hurried toward Rhianna.
“No puppy, I can’t give you this one,” the woman said, a little dejected that she would be disappointing the playful pup. “We need to use this for whatever puzzle comes next.”
“But… do you want a little bit of cake?” Michael asked.
“We can’t give them that either,” Rhianna said. “It has pistachios in it.”
“It might,” Michael said, but they’re crushed so fine that they wouldn’t cause any belly problems for the animals.”
“Just a little bite for them then,” his wife said. “Because I plan on eating the rest of it.”
She did as she said she would, splitting up small pieces of the green cake for the animals who knew she had something they didn’t. Rhianna tousled their fur after she gave them their portions, as sure a sign as any that they weren’t about to get any more. She sat there on the bench for a while, savoring the taste of the dessert—whoever had baked the confection was keen on the familiar recipe, and she supposed she knew who would have been aware enough to have watched in been made. She held the plate out for her husband then, who took another small chunk of the cake for himself, though he did sneak two more small pieces for Maisie and Zelda, and another even smaller one for Peanut, who demonstrated that she’d already had her fill by sniffing at the crumbs for a few moments before moving on.
Rhianna found herself looking from one part of the room to the next, wondering what the point of the glass sphere was. As she looked past the kitchen, to the feasting area, she felt a chill upon her neck, leaving her to think about the flickering flames in the hearth. Her eyes went wide with anticipation, and she placed the dish on Michael’s lap, slapping his knee for good measure as she rose.
“I know where this is supposed to go,” she said, rolling the ball about in her palm, though she cupped it somewhat to keep it protected. “Is everyone ready to solve the next puzzle?”
Michael groaned as he stood, stretching sore muscles and a bulging belly. “I think we’re all so full of food and drink that it’s difficult to answer such a question.”
“Well too bad,” Rhianna said, proudly striding toward the fireplace. “I’m ready to show that we’re not going to be stuck here much longer. And as much as I like the nice little experience that…whoever is forcing us through, I’m ready to just relax, and if that means pushing a little bit further while we’re here, I’m okay with that. So come on, the rest of you. Let’s get moving so we can get find our way to Santa and help like we do every year.”
Zelda perked up at the name of the jolly fellow they saw every Christmas. “You think we’ll really see him?” she asked. “And Svetlana and the elves?”
“It’s been four year—this will be our fifth,” Rhianna said. “We haven’t missed him yet, and I don’t think he would want to skip out on us this year.” She continued along, but she could hear the rest of her family tagging along as well.
“She’s right you know,” Michael encouraged. “We need to finish these puzzles not just for us, but for Santa, just in case he needs us.”
Maisie’s tail was wagging then as well. “He made my first Christmas a really happy one,” she mused. “I’ll always make sure I do well for him.”
Even Peanut followed in step then, although she did it accompanied with a roll of her eyes. “If for nothing else, he’s let me voice my concerns once a year. I just wish we’d had a little less of a hectic ride this year—I had planned on teaching you how to speak cat. Why should I do all the heavy lifting all in this single day?”
They followed Rhianna to the hearth then, surrounding her, and watching on with curious gazes. She dropped the glass orb into the bowl that sat at the center of the mantel, and sure enough, it fit into place with a subtle thunk.
All at once, the flames in the hearth blew out, leaving the feasting hall immediately darkened. The lantern light behind them didn’t offer much in the way of illumination, but they could still see the shadowy outline of the hearth.
And they saw as it shook before they felt the trembling beneath their feet.
A new light shone as the chimney split in two, separating and pulling bricks one way or another. Even the bowl slid away from half of the mantel, and the family could see that it had sat fixed upon the mantel as part of the puzzle.
Before them, yet another staircase rose into a new room, that one glowing with a subtle blue light.
“Let’s be careful going up there,” Rhianna said. “We don’t know what strangeness awaits us next.”
Inspired by her words and her eagerness, however, the animals rushed forth, bounding up the steps, with Maisie leading the way, and Peanut trailing behind, more curious than anything.
“Do you feel brave enough to venture up this one first?” Michael asked his wife. “Or do you need me to lead the way?”
“My babies are up there, and if anything were to happen to them, I would never forgive myself,” Rhianna replied. “You can meet us up there when you catch up,” she said.
Michael wasn’t about to let the rest of his family go without him, and he hurried up behind his wife. They climbed the steps, seeing a twilight blue wash over the higher steps. The staircase turned abruptly to the side, rising toward whatever new clue-filled room awaited them.
Much to their surprise, the DeAngelo family saw windows on their right side when they arrived there at the top of the steps. The room was dark still, with the only light coming from the nearly full moon that peeked out from behind the clouds. There were tables set up at all four corners of the main room, with what looked like a small study on the opposite side as the stairs, a few sparsely filled bookshelves on either side of the opened area.
The clouds slid aside, allowing the moon to shine into the pair of windows without obstruction. With new illumination, subtle though it was, the recent arrivals were able to see the strange objects upon the tables there. Open books that appeared much older than the one which provided them their hints and riddles sat upon the workstations. One of the tables had a slew of herbs and plants that lay upon the workspace or hung from strings set up above or against the wall. A mortar and pestle lay to the side, next to a scrap of paper that had been folded many times and bore the stains of many powders that had been muddled against it over what looked like years. An old candle was melted down to its final inch or so.
To its left, the second workstation that was brightened by the moon caught the white light a bit differently. Scattered atop the old wooden desk was an array of glassware. Bulbous flasks and decanters held tremendous amounts of colored liquid, and a tiered set-up upon the corner was filled with a translucent fluid that allowed the visitors to see the various flora that were floating inside. Little wisps of steam emerged from the top of the central device and were it not for the moonlight seeping in from the cold outside, the DeAngelo family might not have noticed them. Tiny plants in equally tiny pots were situated about the desk as well, leaving it looking oft used and appreciated by whoever called it their own.
Across the room, the other two tables were a little more difficult to see, though every few moments, a stray flash of light seemed to emerge from the far corner. With enough attention drawn to that part of the room, one of the DeAngelo family members was bound to identify the cause of the intermittent illumination, but none expected Maisie to be the one to spot it.
“Is that a firefly?” she asked. “Oh, I remember warm times.” As she spoke the words, she shivered at the thought of the bitter cold that they had emerged from.
“They’re not quite fireflies I don’t think,” Michael said. “It looks like they might be lumibugs,” he said, speaking of their multicolored Tellestian equivalent.
The table closest to the family was also the one that went with the least amount of light. But, due to its proximity, the members of the family could see the outline of the table a little better. It had strange devices on and around it, which no one could clearly identify. It looked as though some kind of mad inventor made that workstation their home, as it looked as though it was put together by someone with no grasp on their sanity.
“Well, look at it this way,” Rhianna said. “This is the smallest room we’ve run into, so we might not need to spend as much time here.”
“Maybe,” Michael replied. “But it’s also by far the most confusing-looking room we’ve run across. And I’ve got to say, I didn’t exactly do so well in chemistry back in high school—you know, almost before this latest millennium.”
“That’s alright,” Rhianna said. “We have our little book of clues to help us with any trouble we may periodically find ourselves in.”
Michael lowered his head and smacked the heel of his hand against his brow. “Look, we’re all getting tired here, and if this year has done anything to us, it’s already made us a little stir crazy,” he said. “So why don’t we all look around and see if there’s anything we can figure out.
“One question,” Peanut said, alternating glances between the rest of her family, and the center of the room. “What is that?”
Michael and Rhianna both took another step forward, spotting an object that seemed to rest in the center of the room, but which was miniscule in size. With the moon landing upon it, they had missed it, for it looked like a brightly lit pyramid which sat within a flowerpot that was only about the size of Michael’s thumb.
Zelda, typically a little apprehensive of things she didn’t understand, took a courageous step forward, hunching down low on her approach.
“Whoa,” Rhianna said. “What’s with the brave new Zelda?”
“It’s getting late, and I’m sleepy,” the pup admitted. “This is too much excitement for me for one day. I’m gonna find out what this thing is!” When Zelda arrived there before the strange object, she tilted her head, looking under the pyramid as best she could. She sniffed at the air there as well, trying to get a sense of what the item was. “I think it’s just a jar of dirt,” she speculated.
Rhianna felt brave in the dog’s presence then, and she approached the miniscule flowerpot as well then. She bent low to grab it, but even though she thought she had a firm grip upon it, she found that she couldn’t pull it from the ground.
“What is this?” she asked. “The world’s heaviest twig?” She turned to her husband then, who stood watching from the top of the staircase still. “Do you want to get over here and use your muscles?”
“Nah, you’ve got this,” Michael teased. “Honestly though, I don’t think it’s worth the effort. We’ve seen that when something’s not supposed to move here, it won’t.”
“Well someone is going to trip on this, and it’s probably going to be me,” Rhianna said. “Alright, well where are we supposed to start?” she asked.
“There more of us than there are tables,” Michael said. “Maybe we can each take one, and one of us can double up and help someone else?”
All three of the animals were already on their way to the table with the herbs upon it. Maisie hopped upon the chair in front of the desk and leaned closer and closer to a string of plants, parting her lips as she neared it.
“Maisie, you’re not supposed to eat anything in here,” Rhianna warned. “That was the whole point of the last room, I’m sure. We feed you until you can’t eat anymore.”
“You don’t know what she’s capable of,” Zelda said then.
While the two dogs sent each other challenging glares, Peanut jumped up on the chair and bounced higher up, onto the desk. The cat almost knocked the mortar and pestle off table for her effort. But she ignored that near mistake, standing on her hind legs to sniff at the highest strand of herbs which were hung to dry. That mix of green and purple seemed to call to the feline.
“What are you doing, Peanut?” Michael asked.
The cat abruptly turned to regard him, her eyes going wide as if in embarrassment. Peanut didn’t waste any time leaping away from the desk to land on the floor. She took off running, toward the darker side of the room.
“Ok, Peanut, you take one of those tables I guess,” Michael said. “The doggies have this one over here—Zelda watch Maisie and make sure she won’t eat anything she shouldn’t. And then Rhianna, is there one you’re looking at with a little more excitement?”
His wife pointed toward the desk in the better-lit back corner. “That one looks like it’s got all kinds of little succulents and potions. If I was working here, that would be my desk for sure.”
“Well then I guess I’ll have Peanut as my cubby mate,” Michael said. As he stepped forward, he saw that Peanut sat underneath the farthest, table, where the lumibugs seemed to dance around in a rather large flask. “And it seems it’s my role to play the mad scientist. Better get to work.”
The other members of his family set to their tasks, looking at the odd objects in front of them—except for Peanut, who watched with curiosity as the bugs in the flask before her bounced from one side of it to the other, their thoraxes flashing intermittently. Michael grinned before opening the book as he planned on placing it down on the desk he designated as his own. The pages glowed a bright gold, though no words of wisdom were written on them.
He hummed to himself, confused by the lack of direction. Still, he used the extra light offered by the tome, and set it into place on the desk between some of the odd devices that were in place there. Michael also had enough light, then, to see the strange loop that sat on the floor—a perfect circle that had a wire running from one of its ends, which escaped beneath the carpet. Confused as he was, he simply shook his head, turning his attention back to the tome to see if he could get an idea of where to start with things.
“Alright,” Rhianna said. “Whenever you’re ready, tell us what we have to do first.”
Michael stared a while longer but was certain that nothing was changing within the book. “I think we might be on our own for this room,” he said. The book isn’t giving me anything.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Maisie said. “Let’s go back downstairs and—”
“No,” Rhianna said. “No more food.”
“That’s not what I was going to say!” the little pup argued. “I was going to say we could get my friend from the mirror and introduce him to my new friend in that glass over there.”
Rhianna leaned back, noticing that the decanter on her desk was spotless, a bulbous reflection of Maisie easily seen in its face. The woman chortled and shook her head, unable to ignore the cute, silly antics of the little pup.
“I feel like this needs some kind of power,” Rhianna suggested. “Doesn’t this thing look like it’s meant to heat up? But there’s no place to turn anything on as far as I can tell.”
As another group of clouds moved out of the way of the moon, a brighter ray of light shone into the window beside her. She could see the brass tubing that made its way up into the ceiling, almost making the device before her seem like a strange oven.
“It’s like a chimney…” she muttered.
“At least you have some idea of what you’re looking at,” Michael said then. “Like, what are these things? Whoever was working on these is either bad at what they do, or they like working in the abstract, and I’m just looking at some very strange art projects.”
Rhianna turned to her husband and narrowed her eyes, trying to see the objects around him. But the only item illuminated was the strange ring that was on the floor.
“I mean, they’re not all strange and confusing,” she said. “What about that treadmill on the floor?”
Michael tilted his head in confusion. “Treadmill?”
“Yeah,” Rhianna said, pointing toward the ring. “That thing is basically just like a hamster wheel that fell on its side, isn’t it?”
Her husband took a step to his side, observing the ring a little more closely. “How could you tell that by looking at it once, and from all the way over there?” he asked.
She shrugged, flashing a knowing grin. “Maybe I’m just working in the abstract.”
While Rhianna worked at trying to understand the items on her desk a little better, Michael plucked the ring off the ground, and set it upright. Sure enough, the device was a set of two rings that worked conceptually just like a treadmill would. The outer ring remained stationary, and kept the device secure and in place, while the inner ring rotated. Michael ran his hand around it a few times, noticing the quiet whirr it made as the treadmill spun.
“Hey, what just happened?” Rhianna asked.
Michael stopped, and looked across the room to his wife’s desk. “Is everything alright?”
“Whatever I did, this thing was working for a moment. I saw some bubbles forming in the water here, and a little puff of steam came out of this little vent here.”
“I thought you said you needed power?” Michael asked.
“I must have turned something on only to turn it off a moment or two later,” Rhianna suggested. “I’ll just try and do whatever I was doing again.”
Michael nodded, and set to work on his own item once more. He spun the wheel around once again, the little buzzing sound it made drawing forth curiosity from the dogs, who left their station.
“What do you two think?” he asked Zelda and Maisie? Do either of you want to go for a spin?”
Zelda hunched down low, trying to appear as pitiful as possible in an effort not to be placed in the unfamiliar situation. Maisie, on the other hand, simply walked away, not willing to be used in Michael’s odd experiments.
“Come on,” he teased while he spun the inner ring a few more times. “We all have a lot of food to work off after that last room.”
“There are no calories at Christmas,” Rhianna reminded him, though she kept her focus on the cannisters before her. She gasped as she saw more bubbles then, and another puff of steam. “Wait! There it is again!” Just as before though, she noticed as it stopped when she looked upon it. “What is going on?”
She looked toward her husband, exasperated.
Michael, though, arched an eyebrow. “You’re not the only one who notices things!” He began spinning the inner ring again, as steadily as he could, and sure enough, even from where he stood, he could hear the buzz coming from the cannisters on her side of the room. “This treadmill must power your machine,” Michael said. “There’s a wire that goes under the floor, but I didn’t think it would have gone all the way over to there.”
“Well keep it up,” Rhianna said. “I think we’re on the right track here.” For the first time, she could see that the water-filled cannisters bubbled with heat, and she watched the herbs that sat inside them dance back and forth.
“This is kind of tiring,” her husband said as he kept spinning the treadmill. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing it.”
Rhianna looked at the device a little more thoroughly, for as the heat ran through it, she watched as the very water inside turned brighter. More puffs of steam flew out from the vent in the front of the machine, but she wondered instead if the remnants of the liquid needed to push up through the longer chimney stack that rose into the ceiling.
She noticed, then, in the light, that there were some things on her side of the room that she hadn’t quite made sense of either. The device sat upon a spinning dais, and when she turned the machinery about, she realized that it had been facing the wall for some reason before. Rhianna was certain, then, that it was facing the correct direction then, for two large round handles sat near the face of it, on either side of a gauge that had a red needle but no clear numeration. Still, she figured that the needle had to move toward the right side of the gauge, and whatever Michael was doing wasn’t accomplishing enough, the needle only flicking back and forth for a split second.
“Something’s not right,” she said. “I think we have to vent the heat from the cannisters into the main flue. But these handles here might be too difficult for me to turn.”
Michael stopped what he was doing then and approached her table. Zelda and Maisie had given up on their desk, finding herbs mostly boring when they couldn’t be eaten.
“Okay, what am I looking at?” Michael asked.
“Do you think you can open these up?” Rhianna wondered. “I feel like it’ll be just like a jar of pickles. You’ll have an easier time with it.”
Michael shrugged, understanding the logic in it. As he worked on opening the handle on the right side, his wife continued to look about the desk, the glowing cannisters lending enough light to see far enough beyond the wooden surface. She hummed to herself as she walked behind Michael studying one end of the table and then the other.
“There’s some weird material here, too,” she insisted. “It almost looks like fireplace bellows, just without the handles. And they’re built right into the floor.”
Michael ceased turning the handle, and looked beside the desk, spotting what she had. But once he let go of the wheel, it began rotating backward the way it had been set. Michael reached for it, but it was already moving too fast, and he couldn’t fight against the inertia.
“Crud,” Michael said. “We’re not going to be able to do what you want to do and move the treadmill at the same time. These wheels are going to need both of us to do our part.”
Rhianna nodded. “I think all of us are going to need to work together here in order to make this machine do what it’s supposed to. You and I are going to have work on the wheels, but the animals can push down on these things. Watch.”
The woman stepped on the upright, extended bellows on the right side of the desk then, flattening it. Sure enough, on the opposite side, the other set of bellows extended then. Still, it wasn’t clear what was happening, as Michael couldn’t see anything change on the gauge in front of him.
“Alright, my dad was a boiler operator,” Michael said. “I can figure this out. So, it needs power from the treadmill over there. But power is just heating things up, and we need to stoke the heat by using the bellows. But even if we do that, the heat doesn’t go anywhere unless we open access from the cannisters into the central unit. That’s why you and I need to work on the wheel handles.”
“I might need you to help start the wheel off for me,” Rhianna said. “That first twist is going to be a problem for me I think.”
“I can help you with that,” Michael assured. “But we still need to figure out how we’re going to work the bellows and the treadmill at the same time.”
“Doggies,” his wife beckoned. “We’re going to need you both to listen very carefully. This is going to be a fun game for you. Maisie, you’re going to go on this side, and you’re going to step up and push down on this.” Rhianna demonstrated what it would look like, and the little dog’s eyes went wide with anticipation.
“And Zelda,” she went on, “you’re going to be working on this side of the table. See how it’s up on this side now?” The pup didn’t quite understand the idea of one side having anything to do with the other side, but she, too, grew excited when she saw Rhianna push the bellows down into the floor. “Can you do that?” Rhianna asked.
Zelda nodded enthusiastically.
Over on the other side of the desk, the bellows had already extended again, and Maisie looked from them to Michael and back again.
“Go ahead,” the man said. “You’re allowed to jump on them.”
The little black and white dog didn’t waste any time once she had permission, and she pushed down on the extended accordion shape, pushing it down to the floor.
Zelda gasped when she saw the one on her side stretching up once more.
“Once it expands all the way, you can push your side down again,” Rhianna said.
When the two dogs found their rhythm, playing with the bellows like a game, Michael looked to Rhianna and bobbed his head in appreciation. “I have to say, I wasn’t expecting that to go so well. But we still have a problem. How do we get the treadmill going from all the way over here?”
Rhianna grinned, and looked at the finicky feline, who still sat beneath the desk across from them, faintly illuminated every time the lumibugs’ thoraxes flickered.
“To keep the treadmill going, we need someone who is persistent. We need someone who is balanced, and poised, and—”
“Not interested,” Peanut said then. She licked her paw and dragged it across her brow then, ignorant of the last part of the puzzle that the DeAngelo family was faced with.
“What?” Rhianna asked, surprised at the idea that Peanut wouldn’t want to help after everything they had gone through that night. “Why not?”
“Because now I have all the power,” she said. “You have to listen to me now, and I have a few demands that we’ll need to agree on.”
“Peanut,” Rhianna protested.
“First, every morning, I shall have one barrel of fish delivered to the room of my choosing.”
“Where are we going to find a barrel in 2021?” Rhianna asked as she looked toward her husband.
“Second, it shall be written officially in the DeAngelo family bylaws that whenever Maisie lays under a blanket, I may step on her at my leisure.”
“Pretty sure you do that anyway,” Michael said.
“Yes, but it will now be official!” Peanut said. She cleared her throat, and sat up straight, looking a bit more regal as she made her declarations. “Finally, the window shall be mine again, henceforth called Peanut’s domain, banned and stricken of the foul presence and fouler odor of those two.” She sneered a bit upon the completion of her demands.
“Hey!” Maisie said, pausing her game with Zelda as the words reached her.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Zelda said, bowing her head, a little hurt by the words.
Peanut looked at everyone and hunched down a little lower to the ground, realizing that perhaps she had gone a little too far.
“Look,” Michael said. “We can’t keep the pups out of the window. That’s the only way we’re seeing the world this year. But maybe what we can do is give you a nice, big bag of…” His words trailed off, as he recalled Peanut’s reaction when they’d first entered the room and began exploring around a bit. “I think catnip would work wonders in this case,” Michael proceeded to say. “Or in this case, catmint.”
Rhianna leaned over to Michael and spoke out of the corner of her mouth. “But we already got Peanut catnip as one of her Christmas presents,” she quietly explained.
“But she doesn’t know that,” Michael replied out of the opposite corner of his mouth.
He approached the table that Maisie and Zelda had first been looking at, ignoring many of the herbs there, as well as the mortar and pestle. He was mostly concerned with the blue and purple plant that hung on a taut string above the table. There were a few other herbs that were set up that way, but he was less concerned with those ones. The string was long, with an excess amount hanging far beyond where the knots were tied, and Michael was certain that he’d have enough slack to enact his plan.
“What are you up to?” Rhianna asked her husband.
“Giving Peanut some incentive to help. Come over here and grab one of the ends of this string.”
Rhianna was happy to help, and she did as she was instructed. The couple then walked the string of hanging plants to the opposite side of the room.
“Alright,” Michael said. “Now if we tie your side of the string to the front leg of that desk, and we put it through here…” Michael continued his thought process then, ensuring that the string of herbs passed through the rings of the treadmill. He tied the other end of the string to the back leg of the desk where the strange devices had been found, and once the catmint hung in the air, he adjusted the treadmill so that the hanging herbs were nearly touching the back of it.
“Now we’re just missing one piece of the puzzle,” Michael said, looking at Peanut, who had watched with curiosity as the two humans set up their incentivized machine.
“Come here, kitty,” Rhianna said, scooping the cat into her arms.
“What?” Peanut said, trying to leap away to no avail. “What is this? Unhand me!”
Rhianna was already setting her down again, though that time it was closer to the treadmill. Peanut sprang off the woman’s chest before she could be lowered to the floor, and she came to a stop just to the side of the two rings.
The cat harrumphed to herself and looked at the two humans alternately. “There will be no further negotiating until…until…” She paused, and then turned about, sniffing at the plants that Michael and Rhianna had strung up. “Until after I figure out what this delectable smell is.”
Michael quietly stepped around to the other side of the treadmill ring, and gently urged Peanut into the treadmill. The cat was so entranced by the smell that she wasn’t even aware that she had been shepherded into place. Before long, she put one paw in front of the other, trying to draw closer to the enchanting scent just inches away from her. Likewise, she wasn’t cognizant of the wheel drawing her back. She had found the perfect placement to keep up with the pleasant aroma, and she couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to anyone else.
Rhianna waved Michael over as she tiptoed back to the other table. Her husband moved in step with her, and together, they rejoined the two dogs over on that side, who had shirked their duties in their people’s absence.
“Look,” Rhianna said, pointing toward the puffs of steam that emerged from the vent at the top of the device—though it was placed along the back side after she had rotated it. “It’s working. The power is on and it’s heating up the insides.”
“Alright you two,” Michael said when he arrived there, looking at the two dogs. “Get right back into it okay? Zelda, push down on your side, and Maisie, when it comes all the way to the top, that’s your cue to push down on the bellows.”
“Got it,” Maisie said, hunching down, and poised to jump up on the accordion-like expanded item.
“And the rest is up to us,” Michael said, grabbing his wheel handle. “Let’s do it.”
Rhianna struggled to get her side started, but as Michael turned his, hers became easier to manipulate. Whether it was due to inspiration or had something to do with the way the machine reacted to whatever he had opened within, she managed to turn it all the way.
They could hear the flow of water and watched as the liquid in the capsules began to lower. The gauge rotated until it nearly passed the other side of the dial meter, and Michael worried that he was going to have to let the animals know that would need to work a little less hard.
But all at once, the DeAngelo family realized what their hard work and critical thinking had achieved. A small grate was situated in the ceiling, so nondescript that none of them had noticed it without the light shining directly upon it. But when the glowing water poured down from it, they knew at once it was there.
The water that they had forced up through the pipe cast down, all of it seeming to land upon the pyramid that shielded the flowerpot.
“Keep at it,” Michael said. “I don’t know what it’s doing, but something is happening.”
Sure enough, the pyramid seemed to pulse, and—Rhianna was nearly certain—it started to grow. She blinked her eyes, trying to make sense of it, but as exhausted as she was, she felt she couldn’t trust what she was seeing.
Zelda helped her to clear her mind though. “You could use whatever this stuff is on our houseplants at home,” the dog suggested. “Look, it’s even making the little pot grow bigger.”
Sure enough, what Zelda claimed to see what right. Both the pyramid and the pot were growing as more of the glowing, iridescent liquid rained down from above.
As the pyramid soaked up more of that water, it changed to a darker color, and the pulsing grew more pronounced. A few moments at a time then, the family could see that it was not some meager plant that was growing, but a bushy evergreen tree. It was already nearly the size of the one that had been placed within the library downstairs. And as the enchanted water fell from the grate above, it continued to expand.
The gauge whistled for a moment, and Michael turned to regard the machine. He could see that all the water had drained out of the capsules, and he let his wheel shut, prompting Rhianna to let go of hers as well. They both stopped the pups on their closer side of the desk, for it wouldn’t do to have the bellows pumping if there was no water left to move.
Still, as they all stopped, and moved away from the growing tree, they knew that the water still traveled through the pipes up above. Though the sound of the tree’s expansion was audible and gripping, they could also hear the flow of liquid up above.
Michael hurried around the tree to the other side of the room, tearing the string of catmint away from the two desks, and plucking Peanut off the treadmill. As inebriated by the herbs as she was, the cat didn’t realize her experience had been halted, even as Michael squeezed her against his chest.
“I don’t want you to get squished,” he insisted.
“But like…aren’t we all a little squished?” she queried.
Under normal circumstances, Michael would have chuckled at the strange statement, but even stranger things were happening. As the crown of the tree tapped against the ceiling, Rhianna gasped. She ushered the dogs back to the entrance to the room, with the trio of them stopping just before they reached the stairs. Michael dared to stand a little bit closer, but he took a step back here and there as the tree kept expanding.
“Look at all the stars,” Peanut said, and for a moment, Michael thought that the tree had shorn right through the ceiling. She wasn’t looking at a twilight canopy, but the large bottle of lumibugs that flew about on the far table.
Finally, it seemed, the water from the device stopped flowing, and the tree, in turn, stopped growing. The family breathed a sigh of relief, but they realized that they weren’t certain what had been accomplished. There was still no way out, and as huge as the tree was, it didn’t seem to alter much except the amount of room that was in the latest area.
“What are we doing now?” Rhianna asked. “That can’t be it, right? Is there anything on the tree that you can see?”
Michael shook his head, but he found that he, too, was drawn to the sight of the jarred lumibugs. Rhianna tiptoed around the tree to find her way to his side, and she followed his gaze there, where she noticed that all the lumibugs seemed to be congregating toward the top of the large bottle that they were held within.
“Maybe they know something we don’t,” Michael suggested. He set Peanut on the ground, letting her drop to her side and enjoy the feel of the carpet beneath her. “Let’s let them out and find out where they go.”
Rhianna hesitated for a moment. “Under normal circumstances, I would say ‘absolutely not’ to something like that. But lumibugs are kind of cute, so I’ll make an exception.”
“Alright, let’s go liberate some multicolored lightning bugs,” Michael said. When he reached about halfway around the tree, he looked back to see that his wife was still near the stairs. “What are you doing over there?”
Rhianna folded her arms across her chest. “I said release them. I didn’t say I wanted to be anywhere near them when you did.”
Michael chortled, but he understood her concerns. With the lumibugs assembling near the neck of the container, he knew their exodus would be swift.
As he neared the table that they sat upon, he noticed that they blinked faster and for longer, almost looking as though they were trying to be persistent in lending their many-hued glow. None seemed frightened by his proximity either, even when he reached for the large bottle they sat within.
Breathing out a little sigh, Michael grabbed the container, and placed it beneath his arm, pointing it toward the side of the room away from Rhianna and their animals. Grasping the cork that kept the lumibugs trapped inside the bottle, he tugged on both sides. A satisfying pop sounded, and the insects took to the air—not in a furious escape, but in an almost serene show, as though they were like little snowflakes that were returning to the sky.
Even so, it didn’t take long for them to find what had excited them so. One by one, the lumibugs landed on branches of the tall tree. The liquid that had poured from the ceiling had them as excited as the tree, and for a moment Michael felt a sympathetic panic for his wife, wondering if the bugs, too, would grow to an immense size.
After a few moments had passed, and they remained tiny in stature, he felt a small wave of relief wash over him. He did notice that the tree or the residual liquid had at least one effect on them. Their lights diminished far less then, as though the scent of the mixture left them with a feeling of peace and contentment.
When Michael returned to his wife, he spotted the smile on her face.
“They look like Christmas lights,” Rhianna said.
From that vantage, a bit farther from the tree, she was right. The scores of liberated insects left the huge tree looking a bit brighter, and it seemed that might have been what they were intended for.
Still, it didn’t seem to answer any questions, or unlock any doors.
The family heard a strange creaking above them then, and they looked to the ceiling, wondering what it could be.
All at once, the tree burst skyward again, empowered perhaps by the last remnants of liquid that dripped from the ceiling, or by some hidden magic that the lumibugs possessed. Rhianna bent low and scooped the distracted kitty from the floor, while Michael ushered the doggies away to the safety. The lot of them leapt onto the steps, hurrying to the landing at the halfway point below.
Above, the entire roof ripped off the building, revealing the starlit sky high above. The DeAngelo family listened as the roof fell somewhere beside the house, a loud report sounding outside.
“What the heck is going on?” Rhianna cried. “We were supposed to do all that, right?”
“What else were we going to do?” Michael replied, raising his voice as he contended with the strange echo of the scattering debris outside. “Hey, we wanted a way out, now it looks like we have one.”
“What are we supposed to do—climb?”
“Sometimes I have troubles getting on the couch,” Maisie said.
“Alright, look, why don’t you stay here with the animals, and I’ll go check to make sure it’s okay,” Michael said.
“No,” Rhianna said, shaking her head. “If we go, we go together.”
Her husband looked up toward the tree, wondering if there was even a way around it then. “Fine. But stay behind me just in case anything is wrong.”
“That was going to happen whether or not you warned us,” Rhianna said.
Michael snickered to himself, even though he felt a bit apprehensive about ascending the steps once more. Still, he convinced himself to continue forth, and before long, he found himself before the large tree again.
In the time that they had reconvened on the steps, snow had begun to fall into the room, dusting the top of the tree’s branches in white. Some of the lumibugs had flown away, eager for the chance to explore even further from their earlier trappings. Many of them remained, however, leaving the tree looking even more festive.
As Michael circled around the tree again, keeping to the side of the room that he and Peanut had set to work within, he noticed a strange rhythmic rumble outside that seemed to shake the house every few moments. He tried to follow it whenever he heard it return, and it seemed to come from the side of the room opposite the stairs.
When Michael looked in that direction though, he paused, and he arched an eyebrow. With Rhianna and the animals close behind, then, he held out his arm to stop them from overtaking him. He pointed toward the back of the room and made sure that Rhianna saw what he did.
“Those steps weren’t there before, right?” he asked.
Rhianna narrowed her eyes, trying to see the faraway area of the room. “Steps that would have led to nowhere while the roof was still on this building?” she asked. “No, I don’t think they were there before.”
Michael clicked his tongue while he considered his wife’s snarky tone. “You just lost one of your presents this year, because you were mean,” he teased. He also walked ahead, braving the open air behind the tree. The man marched on, taking his first strides up the new set of steps.
When he arrived at the top, he froze.
His wife, the cat still curled up in a ball upon her arms, waited for some sort of sign for her to follow, but he didn’t seem to be offering up any indication that she should.
“Michael?” she called out.
He finally turned about, looking at her and placing a finger to his lips. He paused to consider whether he should urge her onward, but he felt comfortable with the decision a few moments later and waved her toward him.
The dogs fell in line behind her, carefully circling around the giant tree. They all noticed the caution that Michael exuded, but he continued to wave them on regardless.
“You’ll have to be very quiet,” he warned then. “I don’t know how she managed to sleep through the roof falling off the house, but then, here we are.”
Who is she? Rhianna wondered, though she kept silent as Michael had recommended. Zelda and Maisie hunched low to the ground and waited at the bottom of the steps as Rhianna ascended.
She, too, stopped in her tracks when she saw what was before her.
The steps led to a rocky crag, though the path before the DeAngelo family seemed to be flat and level. The further back the route before them went though, the rockier and more uneven the sharp stones seemed to rise.
None of that concerned Michael and Rhianna then, however. Not so far away, its snores shaking the crag and the house it nearly connected to, was a towering black dragon.
“Is that…?” Rhianna whispered.
Michael nodded. “I’m pretty sure it is. We haven’t seen her in over five years though. And yet, she doesn’t look any worse for wear.”
Hearing them talk about someone they were familiar with, Zelda hopped up the few steps then, and peered ahead. She didn’t realize at first what Michael and Rhianna were looking at. But when she saw the dragon shift a bit, she took a few steps closer and sniffed at the air. Peanut, sleeping off the effects of the catmint then, purred in satisfaction as she rested in Rhianna’s arms. But the woman tousled her belly fluff a little bit, rousing her from her slumber.
Peanut blinked away her stupor and stretched while she was in her arm hammock. But when she came to, she looked at Rhianna, who smiled and pointed down the path.
“Look who we have over there,” Rhianna said.
The cat turned her head to the side and spotted the dragon in the distance. She sprang out of Rhianna’s grasp, and landed on the stony path, though she took a few steps forward and sat beside Zelda then.
Down below, the last member of the DeAngelo family remained apprehensive. She could feel the rumbling a little clearer, then. Though Maisie wasn’t one to shy away from things that were unfamiliar or even typically frightening, there was something about that noise that left her a bit uneasy.
Still, she crept up the steps, looking up at Michael and Rhianna, who had their arms wrapped around the other’s waist or shoulder. For once, Zelda and Peanut also sat close by one another, not irked by the other’s presence, it seemed.
Maisie couldn’t help but feel as though there was something odd happening, and she was sure that she would get to the bottom of it. She strode forward, pushing between the other dog and the cat, and she sat down at the forefront of the family—completely oblivious to the large black dragon on the other side of the path, whose dark scales blended somewhat into the uneven stones and the starlit sky.
The dragon took a deep breath then, and her chest rose as she filled her lungs with air.
Her eyes growing wide, Maisie finally understood what had caught the rest of her family’s attention.
“What the heck is that?” she cried. The little dog immediately sprang back up and ran behind Zelda and Peanut, hiding behind her older siblings.
A moment passed that seemed long indeed. Yet when all seemed quiet—the dragon’s slumbering breaths slowing—the recent arrivals to the stone path knew that they had roused the frightening beast. Maisie shivered and ducked her head, hoping that she might have the means to turn invisible if the monster decided to gobble her up.
The dragon uncurled her body, digging her front claws into the ground while she stretched her chest and neck toward the sky. She rolled the end of her neck one way and then the other, before she gave a little shake and steadied her gaze, looking toward the house.
“It is you,” she bellowed, her voice rich and deep. “Just as he said it would be.”
“We meet again,” Michael said, smiling as he addressed the massive black dragon.
“I can’t believe it’s been half a decade already,” Rhianna said, stepping forward.
Bringing its wings up and back, the dragon settled into a more comfortable position a little closer toward the path. “It was a blink of an eye, and the gaze of eternity,” she said. “But I suppose that’s the sign of a life most enjoyed.”
Michael and Rhianna grabbed each other a little closer, then, and they looked at the rest of the family they had made over the years.
“And you little ones,” the dragon went on. “You seem to be well and content also.”
Zelda sat a little taller, and bobbed her head at the assessment, a little grin upon her face. Peanut shrugged and tilted to the side, believing it to be a fair judgment.
“Ah, but it seems we’ve added a member to the family,” the dragon said, peering between the cat and dog that she was familiar with. “And who might you be?”
The younger dog still cowered a little bit behind her siblings, but she ventured a glance up to the mighty dragon.
“I’m…I’m Maisie,” she squeaked.
“A wonderful name for a splendid addition to the DeAngelo household. I’m sure that if you’re on this journey with the rest of these travelers, you’re in good hands, and well looked after.”
Michael stepped forward and fell to a knee beside Maisie, scratching her side. “We found each other, just like the rest of us.”
“It’s good to see you,” Rhianna said. “But how have you come to be here?”
The dragon smiled, giving her tremendous wings a flap and sending a loud sound through the air. “Our mutual friend went through a lot of work to find where you were, and to ensure you would be able to free yourself from the grasp of the prison behind you. But it took more work than he was able to muster in one day and…” The dragon stepped forward, shaking the rocky bridge leading to the family. “I think it might just be easier if he explained it to you.”
“Santa?” Zelda asked, wagging her tail in excitement. “Is he here?”
The dragon shook her head. “No. But I can bring you to him.”
Rhianna smiled and began forward. “It’s been a strange night, but it’s been nice to see a familiar face.”
“My friends,” the dragon said, “it has been a strange year. I’m glad to see you doing so well after all the difficulties that it brings, however.”
While Peanut and Zelda followed in Rhianna’s footsteps, Maisie still hesitated. Michael felt some small shivers emanating from her, and he scooped her up, holding her against his chest.
“It’s alright puppy,” he said. “She’s just our marriage dragon. She may look a little scary at first, but she’s truly magical and majestic, and she’s never let us down.”
Maisie nuzzled against Michael’s neck, still unsure about the approach toward the mighty creature. But Michael noticed that her shivers had subsided, and he rubbed her back for further encouragement.
Behind the dragon, a small rising outcropping of rocks served to help the DeAngelo family upon her back. Peanut made the leap on her own, but Zelda needed a little help, Rhianna scooping her up and taking a long stride to step upon the creature’s dark scales. When she had cleared the gap, she set the pup down, and Zelda scampered into place not far from where Peanut had settled.
Michael was not far behind then, and he joined the family upon the dragon’s back a moment later, setting Maisie down in front of him. She peered up, and breathed out a sigh, happy to be on the dragon’s back instead of in her gaze, feeling as though she’d make a quick snack.
“Hold tight, everyone,” the marriage dragon warned. “Let’s get you out of here.”
Though the DeAngelo family was ready for her wings to flap and lift them into the air, they were still surprised by the forceful gust of wind she produced. Rhianna leaned forward, holding onto Zelda and Peanut, who had already dug their claws into the closest dragon scales beneath them.
As they rose higher into the air, Michael and Rhianna looked down at what had been their strange prison for the night. From their vantage, they could see that it was a strange building indeed, surrounded by only a few other buildings that helped to make a convincing illusion that it had been their house. But even those other constructions were only quickly put together, and not fully realized—more like set pieces than real structures.
Rhianna leaned back and arched her eyebrow. “I wonder who set all this up to trap us here,” she said.
“Well it wasn’t Santa,” Michael said, reminding her of what the dragon had said. “If he was looking for us, that means someone else got to us first this year.”
“It’s about to get a bit bumpier,” the dragon warned as she began flying forward.
The world around the strange house below seemed naught but a snowy wasteland, with nothing else except strange dark mountains dotting the landscape. The DeAngelo family felt the powerful wind that blew through the area, especially on the downbeat of the dragon’s wings.
She let a powerful roar tear past her mouth, and Maisie’s shivering resumed.
But far ahead of her, a new portal opened in the sky, and the others understood that they were going to leave that land behind.
“We’ll be there soon, my friends,” the dragon said. “Hold each other close and prepare yourselves. You’ll see Santa before you know it!”
Michael reached forward, holding Maisie around her chest while he grabbed hold of Rhianna’s shoulder with his other hand. She turned her head and kissed his hand before she reached out and touched Peanut and Zelda, creating a chain between the family members.
The dragon flew higher and higher, until she was far above the portal she had summoned, though still several hundred feet back. Without further warning, she tucked back her wings, almost brushing them up against the family she held on her back. She dove forward, racing toward the portal, which already looked as though it was beginning to close.
As fiercely as the family held on, they felt a weightlessness began taking hold. Peanut and Zelda fell back a step, and Rhianna bent lower, ensuring they wouldn’t go anywhere. Michael scooched forward, making sure that the rest of them were stable, while Maisie buried her face against the large black scales beneath her.
“Here we go!” the dragon bellowed.
They passed into the eye of the portal then, leaving their strange Christmas prison behind.
* * *
The door to the workshop opened, letting a gust of cold wind inside, along with a dusting of snow that cast about the floor.
“Ah, Revan,” the fellow in the bright red jacket said as he whittled away at a design at his desk. “Is the sleigh ready to go?”
“There are still some more modifications I have to make, Santa,” the elf said. “But I came here to give you better news than that.”
When he turned about, the man saw that five new guests had arrived.
“My friends!” he shouted out, lifting his hands in cheer. “I knew that you would escape that blasted house before long.”
“We’re sorry if we missed any of the festivities,” Rhianna said. “Then again, we weren’t expecting to be sucked into a dummy portal to a world that looked like our own.”
“Nor should you be punished for that,” Santa said, waving the DeAngelo family over toward his desk. “I have a gift for you that I was hoping to give you a little bit earlier in the day, but it seems we’ve lost a bit of time. Take hold of these, but don’t open them until we reach our destination.” He handed two boxes and a bag to Michael, who grabbed them, but already wore a confused look upon his face.
“Destination?” he asked. “But Santa, we just arrived here.”
“And I’m happy that you did, but we’re already running late. And unfortunately, I spent a good deal of the last week trying to help you where I could to make sure you wouldn’t spend all the way through next Christmas in the prison house.”
“So that was you,” Michael replied. “We thought that was you leaving us clues. But why didn’t you just spring us out when you were setting things out for us to discover?”
“Come along,” the spirit of Christmas said. “We can certainly talk about it on the way.”
Together, the six of them left the workshop, and Santa waved his hands before the doorway ahead of closing the way behind them. The DeAngelo family watched as the lights dimmed in the building, and by the time they turned, Revan, the elf, had brought Santa’s sleigh out into the snow, a team of reindeer leading the way.
“Svetlana!” Zelda cried, rushing up to meet her reindeer friend.
Santa let a loud belly laugh escape his lips as he slapped his chest. “She’s my lead reindeer this year,” he said. “I kept hearing you sing her praises, Zelda, and I knew she needed a chance to shine.”
Revan hopped away from the driver’s seat then, hooking the reins upon the pommel at the front of the sleigh.
“It’s all primed and ready for you Santa,” she assured. “Leoden made the changes to the navigation system as you requested, and you should be able to make it across the world even faster this year.”
“Wonderful,” he replied. “And the reindeer are ready to take flight?”
“It’s been difficult to keep them to the ground,” Revan said with a smile. She turned to the family members then and offered up a little bow. “I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend more time together this year, but I’m sure next year will be better. And it was nice to meet you, Maisie!”
The little dog’s tail wagged as she spun about in excitement.
“Do we get to come here every year?” she asked Rhianna.
“Nothing could keep us away,” the woman replied with a smile.
“Alright, in we go,” Santa said. He shuffled into the driver’s seat of the sleigh while he waited for the others to move into the rear seat. Peanut and Maisie were quick to join Michael and Rhianna there, but Zelda still chatted with the reindeer at the front of the team.
“Come on Zelda!” Michael called out.
“Okay,” they heard the little dog say. “Bye!” At once, she came bounding over to the rest of her family, and she joined them there in the sleigh. The animals sat between the two humans in the back seat, who leaned over and shared a Christmas kiss.
“Up we go!” Santa cried, giving a light snap of the reins.
At once, Svetlana led the way, marching forward for a few steps and urging the other reindeer on. Together, they sprinted ahead in step, and once they’d picked up enough speed, they burst into the air, lifting the sleigh along with them.
“So, you wanted to know why I wasn’t there with you?” Santa asked as they reached a steady pace. “Would that I could have,” he said. “But I had been there before you. Once I realized that you weren’t joining us for some reason this year, I went on a search to find you. I reached out to all our mutual friends to find you, but it was your family’s guardian dragon who finally helped me locate you.
“It seems that faux house was set up for you for months, at least by my estimations,” he went on. “Over the years, you’ve been dependable allies for me and indeed for all of Christmas, and it seems that’s been learned by those who would wish to cause trouble for us instead. But I couldn’t have just left you there, so I had to hatch my own plan, but I needed plenty of time to do it. With your dragon’s help, I made my way to the house, but I went there days ago, using some of my Christmas magic. I couldn’t adjust my plans this close to the big day, so I needed to give myself more time to help you. That’s why you found the tome, and why I left some extra clues around to give you a leg up.”
“You couldn’t be there in person, so you were there in spirit,” Peanut said, stepping up to lean on the back of Santa’s seat.
“That’s right, little one,” he explained. “As much as I would have preferred to spend most of this day with all of you.”
“But who would have wanted to trap us?” Rhianna wondered. “I’m sure there could have been others who wanted to ruin Christmas who could have done so with much more nefarious means.”
“Well, I don’t think our impish adversary was prepared for anything besides mischief this year. After all, none of what you experienced was dangerous, and even when I had made my way through the puzzles he’d set up for you, I thought it was all to benefit you and your sense of imagination and whimsy anyway.”
“Santa, do you know who it was who captured us?” Michael asked.
He paused for a moment as he turned toward the brightened moon. “I have my suspicions. You read the book I’d given you all those years back, yes?”
“I did,” Rhianna said. “Are you saying it’s…?”
“I’m almost certain it’s my brother,” Santa said. “After all these years, he’s managed to find me, but he’s still playing his games. And I imagine he’s a bit hurt that it turned out I was alive when he’d thought me dead for centuries upon centuries.”
“Your brother?” Michael said, surprised and excited by the idea of one of Santa’s siblings introducing himself.
“In any case, he’s interrupting some of my most trusted associates,” Santa said, offering a wink as he turned about in his seat to look at the DeAngelo family. “We’ll have to be ready for him next year.
“In the meantime,” he went on, “let’s talk about this year for a moment, shall we? As I understand it, you spent a considerable amount of time in your own home before you were whisked away to the fake one, correct?”
“Yeah,” Rhianna said, bowing her head. “Along with nearly everyone else.”
Santa nodded. “Word of this year’s troubles reached me long ago, and I knew that you could use a moment of reprieve. After my tasks this year, I wanted to bring you someplace special. Well,” he said with a laugh, “since you were wrapped up in my brother’s traps, I managed to have some of my other friends help me about the north pole. But it would seem a waste not to give you the gift I’d intended. What do you say? Are you ready to take one last journey this Christmas?”
“Yeah!” Zelda said, jumping for joy in the back of the sleigh.
“Let’s go!” Maisie shouted.
With a smile upon his face, Santa turned back to face the front of his sleigh. He reached forward, flicking a switch on the dashboard of their vehicle.
“That’s new, isn’t it?” Michael asked. “What does that dooooooooooo!”
Before he could finish speaking, a roar from behind them explained the answer to the man’s question as the new navigation system on the sleigh flickered to life. In the blink of an eye, the sleigh and the reindeer zipped forward across the sky, leaving the north pole behind them.
Far below where they had been flying, a dragon soared above the frozen plains, swooping down on tremendous, icy worms that burst from the snow.
* * *
The warm sands were a pleasant change of pace, and the gentle lapping of the waves was almost enchanting. Zelda and Maisie ran toward the receding waters and sprinted back away from them when they came rushing back onto the shore.
Michael and Rhianna, sitting a little further upon the golden sands, spent their time crafting an impressive sandcastle that watched out over the rest of the beach. It felt strange to be in such a balmy place in the middle of December, and even stranger to be there in bathing suits—the outfits that Santa had gifted to them that year. But just as Father Christmas had said, it had been a stressful year indeed, and they weren’t going to miss a chance to finally sit back and relax for a change.
Peanut sat further ahead up the beach, every now and then taking a step off the blanket they had set out, and every time thinking better of it before curling up in a ball and laying in the pleasant rays of sunlight that cast down from the beautiful sky above.
“Now don’t go treating this beach like your own personal litter box,” Michael teased.
The cat was already snoring though, glad to be in a quiet place—with a bucket of fish at her side.
All the family paused what they were doing then, for they heard a jolly cry high above them. With smiles upon their face, they looked upon the sleigh, the reindeer and the man—and the banner that flew behind them.
“Merry Christmas to you,” Michael read.
“And a very happy and healthy New Year,” Rhianna finished.
The husband and wife leaned toward each other once again, and gave each other another Christmas kiss.
Happy Holidays everyone!
If you enjoyed this story, check out the DeAngelo Christmas Archive.