Authors: Jessica Penot
First published by Our Street Books, 2014
Our Street Books is an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd., Laurel House, Station Approach,
Alresford, Hants, SO24 9JH, UK
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Text copyright: Jessica Penot 2012
ISBN: 978 1 78099 933 3
All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publishers.
The rights of Jessica Penot as author have been asserted in accordance with the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act 1988.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Design: Stuart Davies
Illustrations and cover design: Irina Grabarnik
Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY
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This book was the vision of my two sons, Gabriel and Xander. Without their unique imagination and creativity, this book would have never been written. Their ideas find breath on the pages of this book. I thank them a thousand times for helping me write this. I would also like to thank my husband who puts up with me wasting all my time writing books and daydreaming.
My mom used to say that all adventures begin with a journey. My mom used to say all kinds of stuff. She liked to take us places and tell us about everything. She took us to Paris once, and told us stories as we walked through the Louvre. She told us stories about kings, queens and the secret magic that all old cities were built on. I wish I had listened better. Now, I can't remember her words. I can only remember the feelings and the sense that the world was older than time and that magic tied it together.
My brother sat up as the plane touched down. He hadn't said anything to me for the entire trip. In fact, Alex and I hadn't talked much at all since the funeral. I suppose we thought that if we didn't say anything, then none of it would be real. If we didn't say our parents were dead, they might show up at any minute and take us home.
Alex and I waited while everyone else got off the plane. We weren't in any hurry. We weren't going any place we wanted to be. The people around us talked and I could get an idea of what they were feeling, but I didn't understand what anyone was saying. I had never learned French. My dad had tried to teach me. He had sat with me going over lesson after lesson and I had stared off into space thinking about video games or movies.
Finally, the plane cleared and I grabbed my stuff. Alex dragged his feet and his backpack down the aisle of the plane. I poked him in the ribs and told him to move faster and every time I poked him he whined, “Stop.”
If all adventures began with a journey, ours had certainly begun. I never wanted to see an airplane again. It
had taken us three airplane rides to get to Poitiers and I felt completely lost. When we got off this airplane, I felt even more lost. All the signs were in French and no one spoke any English. We wandered this way and that until we found our way to customs. An angry looking guard who barked at us in French, stamped our passports, and we collected our bags.
I hadn't seen Aunt Perrine in over three years. She hadn't been anyone's favorite aunt. My dad always said she lived too far away to visit when we went to France. Everyone else came up to see us in Brittany when we visited, but Aunt Perrine said she didn't like driving and that it was too far.
“Lazy old bag,” my mother had complained. “What else does she have to do? It's not like she works. She could come see her nephews. What does she do all day? Knit?”
As we exited the baggage claim, I thought that maybe Aunt Perrine did knit all day. She was wearing an old green sweater that looked like she had made it herself and she had another sweater over it. She had a knitted scarf and even her green, misshapen hat appeared to be made by her.
Aunt Perrine smiled broadly at us and ran towards us. Alex's eyes widened a little in terror as she kissed him on each cheek and exclaimed, “Oh, les enfants! C'estdomage!” And then in English, “Poor little babies!”
She backed away from Alex, leaving him disheveled and covered in red lipstick before she turned to me. “Gabriel,” she said with a horrible French accent. “Oh la la, look how big?” And she kissed my cheeks with equal gusto.
I smiled at Aunt Perrine and she took my hand. “Come now,” she said and she dragged me away from the airport and into the parking lot where her miniature car sat in the shadows.
Alex grimaced and whispered in my ear, “Can we fit in that car?”
I don't think he was joking. For a minute, as I shoved our suitcases in the trunk of the car, I thought there was no way we would all fit, but we managed to all pile in and Aunt Perrine smiled brightly as she tuned the radio on.
The music was terrible. It was like country music, in French, but Aunt Perrine sang along to every word of the song.
It was a long drive with no stoplights. Instead of the stoplights, the roads had a bunch of circles that you spun around in. Alex and I sat quietly as Aunt Perrine drove and sang.
We watched the French countryside as we might have watched an alien landscape. Everything was so old and so different. Old houses, old churches, even the light seemed old and Aunt Perrine looked like she was the oldest thing of all. The journey was long and it was made longer still by the knowledge that we would never go home again.
We drove through long vineyards and sunflower fields until we came to a tiny town with roads so narrow, even Aunt Perrine's tiny car scraped the sides of the medieval houses as we drove through the road. The village was drawn tightly together and all the houses touched. They were made with old mortar, and even though the Middle Ages had ended five hundred years ago, I thought that maybe I had stepped backwards and fell into them.
Finally, Aunt Perrine took a hard right and the car fought its way up a steep hill and over a drawbridge into the gates of a decaying castle. Inside the walls of the castle, there was a crumbling stone church with demons and gargoyles engraved on the outside. The church was attached to a long wall that rose up into large, half-fallen towers and half a keep. On the other side of the wall, there were little houses built directly into the fortress wall. There were cats everywhere. They sat on the old walls and in the
doorway to the church. They reclined lazily and watched us with sleepy eyes.
“Zey used to be for zee servants,” Aunt Perrine explained. She pointed to the houses built into the walls. “Do I say zis right?”
“So, zis is us,” she said and stopped the car.
Aunt Perrine went to close the castle gate and Alex and I were left staring upward at our new home.
“Why did Mom and Dad do this?” Alex asked suddenly.
“What?” I answered.
“Why didn't they leave us with someone at home? Why didn't they have plans? I hate this place. I hate this country and I hate this castle.”
I didn't know what to do so I put my hand on his shoulder. Alex was only seventeen months younger than me, but he was as tall as me and twice as irritable. Sometimes people even thought we were twins. We both had the same dirty, blond hair and bright blue eyes. We both had similar features. Mom even used to try to dress us alike. But Alex and I were as different as steam and snow. I was neat and he was messy. I liked to read and play video games inside and he always wanted to be outside playing with friends or mucking around in the mud. He was loud and I was quiet.
Alex pushed my hand off his shoulder and stalked off in the direction of the castle keep. I realized, sadly, that my birthday was only a week away. I'd be twelve. Mom would have baked me a cake and Dad would've taken us camping.
“What do you zink?” Aunt Perrine asked.
“It's creepy,” I answered coldly.
“Oh, yes. And it is very 'aunted.” Aunt Perrine winked.
My mouth fell open. “Haunted?”
“Yes, yes,” she said.
“Yes. Ghosts and monsters and such.” She said it happily as if she was talking about a pie she had made for us.
“I don't believe in any of those things.”
“Oh, well. Give it time.” She opened the trunk of the car.
The servant's quarters had been remodeled into a cozy little home. There was a living room, dining room, and kitchen. The kitchen had a massive medieval fireplace and the floors felt so cold that the cold spread upwards. Aunt Perrine had furnished her home with antiques and covered everything in pink roses and lace doilies.
Her bedroom was downstairs and the stone walls of the room were covered in pictures of kittens and cats saying cute things in French. In the middle of the house, a long, spiral staircase, carried us upstairs to four rooms that had been converted to bedrooms and a bathroom. Up even further, above the heavy brown beams that supported the old structure, were a loft and an attic.
“Don't go up zere,” Aunt Perrine said as we past the stairs up to the loft. “Zis is very, very âaunted.”
I opened the door to my room. It was clean and neat. A large, lazy gray cat was sitting on my bed purring loudly and the walls had been hung with large tapestries to keep the cold out. There was a weird rug on the ground that looked like it was bearskin, but it had three eyes and a smashed face. Its fur was purple and matted.
“You like?” Aunt Perrine asked.
“I guess,” I answered.
Aunt Perrine walked over to the cat and petted her. The cat leaned into her hand and purred even more loudly. “Zis is Bastet,” she said. “She is zee queen of zee cats. She sleeps in 'ere wiz you. You be good to 'er.”
“OK.” I petted the cat's soft fur.
Alex's room was a little smaller than mine and the sheep skin rug on the floor wasn't even half as interesting as the rug in my room, but the window in his room looked out on the village bellow and had a cool, airplane comforter on the bed.
“Your mamman said zat you like planes, Alex? No?”
“Now you boys get settled and zen come down for gateauâ¦cake.”
We both agreed and when she left we fell on our beds like logs. We were so tired we could hardly stand. Alex began to cry softly and Bastet came and sat on his belly. He
stroked her fur and wept. “I wanna go home.”
“This place is creepy.”
“It's just old.”
“Everything here is weird.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “It's France.”
Alex brushed the tears from his eyes and gave a great sniff. “I don't like it.”
“Well, it doesn't matter. We're stuck here.”
He wiped his nose on his hand in response.
“That's gross, you're disgusting.”
“Well, you smell,” he retorted.
“Well at least my arm isn't covered in snot,” I responded.
Alex stuck his tongue out at me and rolled off the bed. He swung the door wide open and ran into the hall.
“What're you doing?” I asked.
Alex frowned. “I'm going upstairs.”
“Aunt Perrine told you not to do that.”
“I don't care. Why should I care? I want to see what that crazy, old lady is hiding up there!”
“You're going to get us both in trouble.”
“I don't care.” Alex ran up the spiral stairs and they groaned angrily with each step he took. He stopped at the top and looked down at me.
“You better not!” I yelled.
Alex looked up defiantly and disappeared into the darkness. I waited. I thought he would come back and tell me there was nothing up there, but some old French books and old lady stuff, but the silence only seemed to grow.
There was no answer. I moved towards the stairs and bent my neck so I could see into the loft, but the lights were off and I couldn't see through the darkness.
“Alex!” I yelled again. “Get down here or I'm telling on you!”
Still there was no noise. I stepped onto the stairs. They whined more loudly with each step I took. I crept to the top and took a large step onto the floor of the loft. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the dark. I could just make out shapes in the shadows. There were boxes and the outlines of what looked like furniture, but there was no Alex. My heart raced a little. I could still hear Aunt Perrine saying it was a very haunted in the loft. I stumbled over something in the darkness and then something big hit me in the face.
I panicked as whatever it was fell off my face and down my shirt. I started yelling and jumping up and down in a silly attempt to remove whatever it was. I could feel legs and cold feet on my stomach.
I screamed and fell backwards hitting my head on the banister. The pain was sharp and when I stood back up a large plastic spider fell out of my shirt and onto the floor. Alex jumped out of the darkness and laughed and then ran down the stairs.
“I'm going to kill you!” I crushed the plastic spider with the ball of my foot and followed him down stairs. I caught up with him in the hall and tackled him. He fell onto the floor and started yelling as I jumped on top of him. I punched at him as hard as I could and he screamed out.
“I hate you!” Alex wailed as he covered his face. “You don't even care that Mom and Dad are dead. You like it here in this creepy, old place!”
I stopped hitting him and looked at his tear stained face. “That's not true,” I said. “Just 'cause I don't mope around all the time and cry like a baby doesn't meant I don't care.”
“Why'd they leave us?” Alex asked, still weeping.
“Sometimes people just die. I don't think they meant to
Alex pushed me again and I fell off him. I let him run into his room and close the door. I shook my head and dusted myself off. For a minute, I just sat on the floor. I wasn't sure what to do, but I finally decided to just go to bed. I walked down to the kitchen, where Aunt Perrine sat with a cup of tea and some kind of pastry. It looked good, but it wasn't cake. “I'm going to bed,” I told her.
“You 'ave zee gateau,” she said. “You will feel better.”
I sat down beside her at the table. She had put on another sweater over the other ones. She looked like a big, overstuffed pillow. She smiled. “You eat zee cake.”