The chronicles of harris.., p.13
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       The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, p.13

           Chris Van Allsburg
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  "They can spell—really, they can. I saw them do it outside."

  "Well, maybe you should take them back outside then," her oldest brother told her. He picked up the paper the caterpillars were on and slid them back into the jar. "Careful!" Alice told him, taking hold of the jar.

  Mrs. Randolph appeared at the study door to inform her family that lunch was ready. As the men filed out, Alice held the jar up to her face. "I'm very disappointed," she said.

  She put the jar on the worktable and joined her family. From the mealtime conversation Alice could tell that the morning had not gone well for her brothers and father. What had looked like a promising approach to solving the conjecture earlier in the week had turned out to be just another dead end, another "Farkas Phantom," as her brothers referred to the family's failed attempts.

  Mrs. Randolph could sense her sons and husband's frustrations. She suggested they take a break from work for the afternoon. Perhaps a long walk would clear their minds. The professor agreed, reluctantly, and after finishing lunch, the men took their leave. Alice, though invited to accompany them, declined. She wanted very much to get back to Oscar and Alphonse and find out if they would still spell for her.

  Back in the study, she opened the jar. Oscar and Alphonse climbed out. "Why didn't you say something when I introduced you?" The caterpillars spelled out "sorry very shy" Then they lifted their tiny heads once again and stared at the chalkboard. It was filled with equations and notes. Oscar and Alphonse seemed to sway back and forth as they took it all in. Finally they wiggled around: "we know" "Know what?" Alice asked. "The answer" was their reply.

  Alice looked at the chalkboard and then back at Oscar and Alphonse. "To that?" she asked in disbelief.

  The caterpillars began moving. "Watch carefully," they spelled out. Alice picked up a pencil and paper. Slowly, Oscar and Alphonse began forming the same strange mathematical signs and symbols that covered the chalkboard. She dutifully and carefully wrote each one down, filling four full pages.

  The caterpillars stopped. "Is that it?" Alice asked. "Not yet," they answered, "very tired very hungry." Alice helped them back into the jar, where they immediately began chewing on the leaves. They had eaten most of what she had put in the jar, so Alice took them outside to get more, returning to the rock where they had dried themselves out. She heaped leaves onto it. Oscar and Alphonse contentedly munched away. It looked to Alice as if they were growing larger with every bite.

  You wouldn't think writing out signs, symbols, and numbers would make a person tired, but Alice was as exhausted as the caterpillars, and the three of them fell sound asleep. Alice did not awake until she heard a voice calling her name.

  The sun was getting low in the sky and Alice looked around for Oscar and Alphonse, and found they had climbed back into their jar and were still asleep. She heard her name called out again, picked up the jar, and headed for home.

  When Alice stepped out of the woods into her backyard, she saw two of her brothers, hands raised to their mouths, calling out for her. When they caught sight of their sister, they excitedly ran to her. Words tumbled out of them: "Stroke of genius," "mind blowing," "cosmic insight." They pulled her along into the study, where her other brother and her father had just finished filling the chalkboards with the notes that Alice had taken from Oscar and Alphonse.

  Her father turned when Alice entered the room. He held up the notes. There seemed to be tears in his eyes. "Alice, Alice, Alice, why didn't you tell us?" "Tell you what?" she asked. "That you..." Her father paused, at a loss for words. "That you knew, that you were working right along with us, but never said a word?" He held the papers up high. "This is a work of genius."

  One of her brothers took Alice by the shoulders and looked straight into her eyes. "This is the approach we have been struggling to find. This takes us closer than we have ever been, than anyone has ever been. How did you figure this out?"

  Alice was growing uncomfortable accepting praise for something she did not do. "It wasn't me," she answered, and lifted up the jar holding Oscar and Alphonse. "It was them. They showed me what to write down." The men were silent. They didn't know whether to rejoice because Alice, the baby of the family, was the most brilliant person they'd ever encountered, or to be worried, because she apparently believed she could communicate with caterpillars.

  But her father was certain of one thing. As remarkable as Alice's progress and calculations had been, she had stopped just short of proving the conjecture, and there were still some steps to take. He knew those last steps could use up another lifetime.

  If the only way to get Alice to keep going was to let her pretend that the caterpillars were solving the problem, that was okay with him. He'd spent his life around eccentric and peculiar scientists; he knew how to handle them. So he gently went to his daughter and asked her if she thought her friends might be willing to finish their work. Alice looked into the jar. The overfed caterpillars were sound asleep.

  "They're too tired right now, I think. But we can try tomorrow." Her father nodded, and her brothers, humoring her, agreed and told her that was an excellent idea.

  Alice climbed the stairs to her room, carrying Oscar and Alphonse. Later her mother came in, to bring her a tray of food and to tell her how proud her father and brothers were.

  Alice awoke early the next morning. She looked into the jar. Oscar and Alphonse had eaten through all their leaves and were lying peacefully at the bottom of the jar. She thought they might like some fresh air, so she got dressed, went outside, and returned to the rock where they had first met. She unscrewed the jar and let the caterpillars crawl onto her hand. She could see how much larger they had gotten in just the day she'd taken care of them. They were ready, any minute, to start making their cocoons, to become what they were meant to be—butterflies. She knew it was time to send them back. The caterpillars softly wiggled in her hand, spelling out "goodbye." She helped them climb onto the bark of a small tree and watched as they slowly inched their way upward and out of sight.

  The House on Maple Street

  It was a perfect lift-off.



  Although she was only five, and the youngest of the Bradbury children, Melissa had very sharp eyes, and it wasn't really surprising that she was the first to discover that something strange had happened to the house on Maple Street while the Bradbury family was summering in England.

  She ran and found her older brother Brian and told him something was wrong upstairs, on the third floor. She said she would show him, but not until he swore not to tell anyone what she had found. Brian swore, knowing it was their stepfather that Lissa was afraid of; Daddy Lew didn't like it when any of the Bradbury children "got up to foolishness," and he had decided that Melissa was the prime offender in that area.

  It would probably turn out to be nothing, anyway, but Brian was delighted to be back home and willing enough to humor his baby sister, at least for a while. He followed her down the third-floor hallway without so much as a murmur of argument, and only pulled her braids.

  They had to tiptoe past Lew's study, because Lew was inside, unpacking his notebooks and papers and muttering in an ill-tempered way. Brian's thoughts had actually turned to what might be on TV tonight—he was looking forward to a pig-out on good old American cable after three months of the BBC—when they reached the end of the hall.

  What he saw beyond the tip of his little sister's pointing finger drove all thoughts of television from Brian's mind.

  "Now swear again!" Lissa whispered. "Never tell anyone—Daddy Lew or anyone—or hope to die!"

  "Hope to die," Brian agreed, still staring, and it was a half-hour before he told his big sister, Laurie, who was unpacking in her room.

  "Sorry," Brian said, "but I gotta show you something. It's very weird"

  "Where?" She went on putting clothes in her drawers as if she didn't care, but Brian could tell when Laurie was interested, and she was interested now.

>   "Upstairs. Third floor. End of the hall past Daddy Lew's study."

  Laurie's nose wrinkled the way it always did when Brian or Lissa called him that. She and Trent remembered their real father, and they didn't like his replacement at all.

  "I don't want to go up there," Laurie said. "He's been in a pissy mood ever since we got back. Trent says he'll stay that way until school starts and he can settle back into his rut again."

  "His door's shut. We can be quiet. And if you're really worried about him coming out, we can take an empty suitcase. If he opens the door, we'll pretend like we're putting it in the closet where we keep them."

  "What is this amazing thing?" Laurie demanded, putting her fists on her hips.

  "I'll show you," Brian said earnestly, "but you have to swear on Mom's name and hope to die if you tell anyone." He paused, thinking for a moment, then added: "You specially can't tell Lissa, because I swore to her."

  Laurie's ears were finally all the way up. "Okay, I swear."

  They took along two empty suitcases, one for each of them, but their precautions proved unnecessary; their stepfather never came out of his study. They could hear him stamping about, muttering, opening drawers, slamming them shut again.

  But a moment later, when she looked at the place Lissa had pointed out to Brian and that Brian now pointed out to her, she forgot about Lew completely.

  "What is it?" she whispered to Brian. "My gosh, what does it mean?"

  "I dunno," Brian said, "but just remember, you swore on Mom's name, Laurie."

  She could have strangled him ... but a promise was a promise, especially one given on the name of your one and only mother, so Laurie held on for more than one full hour before getting Trent and showing him. She made him swear not to tell, too, and as the oldest, he had no one to tell.

  Trent stood, looking at what the other children had looked at before him. He stood there for a long time.

  "What is it, Trent?" Laurie finally asked. It never crossed her mind that Trent wouldn't know. Trent knew everything. So she watched, almost incredulously, as he slowly shook his head.

  "I don't know," he said, peering into the crack. "Some kind of metal, I think. Wish I'd brought a flashlight." He reached into the crack and tapped. Laurie was relieved when Trent pulled his finger back. "Yeah, it's metal"

  "Should it be in there?" Laurie asked. "I mean, was it? Before?"

  "No," Trent said. "I remember when they replastered. That was just after Mom married him. There wasn't anything in there then but laths."

  "What are they?"

  "Narrow boards," he said. "They go between the plaster and the outside wall of the house." Trent reached into the crack in the wall and once again touched the metal. The crack was about four inches long and half an inch across at its widest point. "They put in insulation, too," he said, frowning thoughtfully and then shoving his hand into the back pockets of his faded-wash jeans. "I remember. Pink billowy stuff that looked like cotton candy."

  "Where is it, then? I don't see any pink stuff"

  "Me either," Trent said. "But they did put it in. I remember." His eyes traced the four-inch length of the crack. "That metal in the wall is something new. I wonder how much of it there is, and how far it goes. Is it just up here on the third floor, or..."

  "Or what?" Laurie looked at him with big round eyes. She had begun to be a little frightened.

  "Or is it all over the house," Trent finished thoughtfully.


  After school the next afternoon, Trent called a meeting of all four Bradbury children. It got off to a somewhat bumpy start, with Lissa accusing Brian of breaking what she called "your solemn swear" and Brian accusing Laurie of putting their mother's soul in dire jeopardy by telling Trent.

  "Hush, all of you," Trent said. "What's done is done, and I happen to think it all worked out for the best"

  "You do?" Brian asked.

  "Something this weird needs to be investigated, and if we waste a lot of time arguing over who was right or wrong to break the promise, we'll never get it done."

  Trent glanced pointedly up at the clock on the wall of his room, where they had gathered. It was twenty after three. He really didn't have to say any more. Their mother had been up this morning to get Lew his breakfast, but afterward she had gone back to bed, and there she had remained. She suffered from dreadful migraines.

  She wouldn't see them on the third floor, but "Daddy Lew" was a different kettle of fish altogether. With his study just down the hall from the strange crack, they could conduct their investigations only while he was away, and that was what Trent's glance at the clock had meant.

  Lew had left shortly after noon, with a briefcase crammed full of papers, but he might be back at any time between now and five. Still, they had some time, and Trent was determined they weren't going to spend it squabbling about who swore what to whom.

  Laurie spoke for all of them when she said: "Just tell us what to do, Trent—we'll do it."

  "Okay," Trent said. "We'll need some things." He took a deep breath and began explaining what they were.


  Once they were convened around the crack at the end of the third-floor hallway, Trent held Lissa up so she could shine the beam of a small flashlight into the crack. They could all see the metal.

  He turned to Laurie and asked her to give him the drill.

  Brian and Lissa exchanged an uneasy glance as Laurie passed it over. They were afraid Daddy Lew would notice if they drilled the holes in the wall outside his study.

  "Look," Trent said, holding the drill out so they could get a good look. "This is what they call a needle-point drillbit. See how tiny it is? And since we're only going to drill behind the pictures, I don't think we have to worry."

  There were about a dozen framed prints along the third-floor hallway, half of them beyond the study door, on the way to the closet at the end where the suitcases were stored.

  "He doesn't even look at them, let alone behind them," Laurie agreed.

  She took down the picture that hung closest to the small crack in the plaster and gave it to Brian. Trent drilled.

  The drillbit went easily into the wall, and the hole it made was every bit as tiny as promised.

  After a dozen or so turns of the drill's handle, Trent stopped and reversed, pulling the bit free.

  "Why'd you quit?" Brian asked.

  "Hit something hard"

  "More metal?" Lissa asked.

  "I think so. Sure wasn't wood. Let's see." He shone the light in and cocked his head this way and that before shaking it decisively. "My head's too big. Let's boost Lissa."

  Laurie and Trent lifted her up and Brian handed her the flashlight. Lissa squinted for a time, then said, "Just like in the crack I found"

  "Okay," Trent said. "Next picture."

  The drill hit metal behind the second, and the third, as well. Behind the fourth—by this time they were quite close to the door of Lew's study—it went all the way in before Trent pulled it out. This time when she was boosted up, Lissa told them she saw "pink stuff"

  "Yeah, the insulation I told you about," Trent said to Laurie. "Let's try the other side of the hall"

  They had to drill behind four pictures on the east side of the corridor before they struck first wood-lath and then insulation behind the plaster ... and as they were rehanging the last picture, they heard the out-of-tune snarl of Lew's elderly Porsche turning in to the driveway.

  Trent quickly hung the picture.

  "Go!" he whispered. "Downstairs! TV room!"

  The back door slammed downstairs as Lew came in.

  There was a moment of almost unbearable suspense when the only sounds were the kids' footsteps on the stairs, and then Lew bawled up at them from the kitchen: "KEEP IT DOWN, CAN'T YOU? YOUR MOTHER'S TAKING A NAP!"

  And if that doesn't wake her up, Laurie thought, nothing will.


  During the next week and a half, they drilled other small holes around the house when there was no
one around to see them: holes behind posters in their various rooms, behind the refrigerator in the pantry, in the downstairs closets. Trent even drilled one in the dining room wall, high up in one corner where the shadows never quite left. He stood on top of the stepladder while Laurie held it steady.

  There was no more metal anywhere. Just lath.

  The children forgot about it for a little while.


  One day about a month later, after Lew had gone back to teaching full-time, Brian came to Trent and told him there was another crack in the plaster on the third floor, and that he could see more metal behind it. Trent and Lissa came at once. Laurie was still in school, at band practice.

  As on the occasion of the first crack, their mother was lying down with a headache. Lew's temper had improved once he was back at school, but he'd had a crackerjack argument with their mother the night before, about a party he wanted to have for fellow faculty members in the History Department. If there was anything the former Mrs. Bradbury hated and feared, it was playing hostess at faculty parties. Lew had insisted on this one, however, and she had finally given in. Now she was lying in the shadowy bedroom with a damp towel over her eyes while Lew was presumably passing around invitations in the faculty lounge.

  The new crack was on the west side of the hallway, between the study door and the stairwell.

  "You sure you saw metal in there?" Trent asked. "We checked this side, Bri."

  "Look for yourself," Brian said, and Trent did. There was no need for a flashlight; this crack was wider, and there was no question about the metal at the bottom of it.

  After a long look, Trent told them he had to go to the hardware store right away.

  "Why?" Lissa asked.

  "I want to get some plaster. I don't want him to see that crack." He hesitated, then added: "And I especially don't want him to see the metal inside it."

  Lissa frowned at him. "Why not, Trent?"

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