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Authors: Anne Nesbet

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BOOK: A Box of Gargoyles
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He shuddered.

“She has a totally incredibly huge mole right there, on her cheek. I'm telling you. And she's
. When she frowns, you think that mole is just going to reach out and whack you or something. Anyway . . .”

And then the drama faded from Valko's expression, and he was looking right at Maya, more directly and simply than people usually look at each other on sidewalks where strange things are happening, beneath walls with holes in them that if you squint just so become a lot like eyes. . . .

“I'm really sorry,” he said. “The thing is, it's bad: they're sending me back to Bulgaria.”

For a while she just stared at him. The words hovered in the air like soot.

“Bulgaria?” she echoed.

“Happy first day of vacation, right? They want to send me back to live with my totally terrifying grandmother-with-a-mole.”

If the world was a ship and the ship was already tilting, all unsteady, to one side, suddenly Maya was in the water, with the cold waves rolling right over her head.

She said, “Why?”—but she couldn't make the sound of that word very loud. The water was too cold, and she was sinking through it way too fast.

“Because I'm
not Bulgarian enough
,” said Valko, with a flourish of despairing bitterness. “Because
I've been dragged all over the world
—that's my grandmother talking, right? She had a marathon conversation on the phone yesterday with my parents. My Bulgarian is
. I have no understanding of the
great cultural traditions of my homeland

He paused.

“Hey, really, are you all right? You look a little pale or something.”

How was she supposed to be all right? You think things are finally getting to be sort of okay, and then the universe goes and pushes you right off the deck of the boat. And the water is freezing cold.

“Did you say something weird was happening out here?” he prompted kindly.

Maya, of course, was drowning in cold water and trying very hard not to do something stupid like cry, both at once. She shook her head to clear things up. The air was still humming all around them, but it's hard to care about things like random branches on random trees suddenly sprouting random fuzzy little leaves when your friend, your true friend, your
real friend in a huge, old city where you still don't really belong, tells you he's going to vanish—
—because of some dreadful grandmother.

“But . . . Bulgaria! That's awful!” she said, trying hard not to sound too clingy and pathetic. Her voice was all wobble, though. And then she realized how close she was to that scary edge where you fall totally apart and are embarrassed about it, probably, for the rest of your life.
Haul yourself back, Maya!
She hauled herself back. She stood straighter. After all, she was the very same girl, the new Maya-from-Now, who had just been feeling all hopeful about the world a few minutes ago. Maya Davidson was the kind of person (right?) who looked dangerous people in the face and foiled their evil, evil plans. One Bulgarian grandmother was not going to do her in now.

Nor was one oddly seasick world.

And why didn't Valko look more seasick, come to think of it? He didn't seem fazed by the strange things happening to car antennae or sidewalk trees; to judge from the expression on his face, the only thing worth worrying about was Maya herself.

“I wouldn't have minded so much,” he was saying, “back in August. But I was kind of a friendless loner, back in August. Now I'd mind. I'd mind a lot.”

Those, by the way, are the kind of words a person can hug pretty close to her soul. Maya stashed them away and felt several notches' worth better about everything, strangeness or no strangeness.

Me, too
—but quick, look over there,” she said (since kind words can melt if you stare at them too hard). “See how weird that is?”

She was pointing at the policeman's still slightly fluttering cap.

Valko looked. And then turned back to Maya, his expression friendly, but with a thin blur of puzzlement around the edges.

“The policeman? They've had someone posted here all week,” he said. “You know that. Ever since the wall went slightly kaboom on Saturday. Don't want random strangers climbing into the embassy gardens, right?”

He paused.

“Listen, I'll try not to let them make me go. You know I'll try. It's just, my

Maya gave a thin-lipped nod, staying very strong.

“It wouldn't be right now—it would be in December.”

They already had a date!

Cold water in her lungs. But she did it again: she
hauled herself back
. She made herself point one more time at that policeman.

,” said Maya in the weird, extra-quiet voice that was all she could manage just at that moment, “has

“He's a
French policeman
,” said Valko. He was trying to help her out of the water. That's what he was doing. There was a smile flickering there somewhere, deep in his friendly gray eyes. “That's his

Fluttering wings? Just part of the uniform? Maya took another, closer look at Valko, and a new tendril of worry (distracting her from the cold water, thank goodness) brushed against her mind. Did he really not see how strange that cap was?

“And that branch over there has leaves on it, all of a sudden. Look! And the antenna there shredded right up into ribbons, and something weird was happening to the pavement, too, back by the hole in the wall—”

Valko followed the swoop of her hand (all those strange things!), but once his gaze reached the ground behind them, his eyes widened and stared.

“Wow,” he said. He sounded impressed. “Writing on the sidewalk? You? With the cop standing right there? Wow.”

“I didn't—,” said Maya, but when she turned her head to look, all the rest of her thoughts withered up and died, just like that.

The looping black sand had finished its work. All those curlicues and angles turned out to have been busily spelling something, and the word they had spelled out there on the pavement, plain as smoke against a pale sky, was—


“Oh, no,” she said. She felt wobbly again, looking at the sidewalk's bold, confident scrawl. “You think I did that?”

“What did you use, charcoal? Chalk?” said Valko, leaning low over the sidewalk to take a closer look at that elaborate, impossible
. “Wait, that's not chalk. You wrote your name with

“I didn't write anything with anything,” said Maya. It came out sounding a little testy, but that was because of her nerves. “I guess it wrote itself. After I touched the wall. I was just standing here, and I touched the wall, and the gargoyle saw me, and all this
started happening.”

Little stuff, true. Small things. The leaves on that branch were as tiny as could be. But it was all wrong, wrong, wrong. And there was the hum in the air, too. It was hard even to think properly, with that hum in the air.

“Excuse me, but did you just say
?” said Valko.

“The one up there,” said Maya, and pointed. She had to pull Valko back away from the wall so that he could see.

Valko squinted.

“No,” he said. “There can't be anything up there. That's where my room is.”

“Well, but look,” said Maya. “On that little ledge outside. The
. Wait, no,
gargoyles. I didn't see the other one before.”

They had just about stepped right into the street by now, trying to get a better view.

“Oh!” he said, and shook his head three separate times, like a dog confused by too much water.

“But gargoyles are heavy,” he said. “Aren't they? There can't be a
gargoyle. It must have always been there. Even if it wasn't. I mean, I didn't see it before. There was never a gargoyle on my windowsill. But I must have been wrong. It must always have been there. Right?”

“What do you mean,
?” said Maya. Valko was really beginning to worry her. There are friends you go to when the world gets wobbly and you need someone to explain again that everything is logical, really, if you study it hard enough. That was Valko. That was always Valko. And now here he went sounding, of all things,
. “I don't know about the gargoyles, but I told you, the rest of it just happened two minutes ago. When I touched the wall. Valko?”

“There's got to be an explanation,” Valko was saying, more to himself than to anyone else. “There's always an explanation. All right. A branch with new leaves—why? It came from a tree from a warmer climate, maybe, and was just grafted onto that trunk today. Or a committee has been wrapping it in heating pads, maybe, at night? That could be. All those warm heating pads, fooling the branch into thinking it's spring already. Or a bunch of people with hair dryers—”

Maya couldn't help herself: she snorted out loud. It came from nowhere at all, that snort. For one second she had forgotten the cold water entirely.

“Why are you laughing?” said Valko, turning to look at her (but she was already not laughing anymore, because as soon as he looked at her, she remembered all over again about December). “It's a
scientific explanation
. Hair dryers. Why not? Yes, that's what it must have been.”

“Stop it!” said Maya. “Something's messing with your brain.” It was beginning to creep her out, to tell the truth.

“Oh,” said Valko, and he perked up a little, considering that possibility. “Really? Like seeing things that aren't there? Like that shadow thing following you?”


Maya spun around to look.

It was true. Behind them the wind had kicked up a little column of leaves—of dust—of something. A sack's worth of shadow, hugging the embassy wall. It paused, spinning in place, tasting the air, and then began slipping along down the sidewalk in their direction, feeling its way toward them
against the wind
. A silvery trickle of cold raced down Maya's spine.

“I wonder what the scientific explanation is,” said Valko, “for that shadow?”

It was tempting, at that moment, to turn tail and run. To drag Valko away in a completely other direction.

But she had just been thrown from the tilting deck of the world into a lot of very cold water, and one effect of that, it turned out, was that bubbling up inside the old, cautious Maya was a new, half-drowned Maya, a little bit furious with the unfairness of the world. You know?
So this is what she did instead:

She took one reckless step toward that shadowy, lurching column—and she


t's a useful talent, being able to bark like a dog. The shadow fell back, quavering, and Valko made the small gasping sound of someone finally waking up.

“Maya?” he said. “Did you just
at that thing?”

“Let's get across the street,” said Maya. But she couldn't help feeling flattered by the look on Valko's face: he was plainly impressed.

“You did! You
at a
!” he said. “You're as crazy as those French ladies back there. I mean, the ones singing.”

Ladies singing? Maya turned to look, and there they were, a small group of swaying, singing women farther down the sidewalk, their briefcases and shopping bags slumping carelessly to the ground. A wave of thin, nasal harmony was already rolling across the square. The words did not sound French.

Maya and Valko looked at each other.

“What's going on?” said Valko. “I mean, really. I didn't think so at first, but something really happened out here, didn't it?”

“At four o'clock,” said Maya. “The bells were ringing when I touched the wall. I don't know where that creepy shadow came from, though. Oh, no—”

BOOK: A Box of Gargoyles
11.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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