It was the very first morning of summer vacation, and Cadence’s parents were leaving her behind yet again, and all Cadence could think was her parents didn’t want her with them.
She knew they loved her, but it seemed like their careers were more important to them than she was.
And this time, even Gran Nell and Tell had left her behind, away on an Alaskan cruise, so instead she would be staying with Mrs. Brier.
Her parents were heading out later that morning to a music festival halfway across the world, to Vienna, Austria. They were classical musicians, and spent a great many months of the year traveling around the world, teaching and performing at workshops, festivals, and other events.
So this was nothing new. She’d spent plenty of summer breaks with the Grans.
Nor was it anything new that they’d forgotten her birthday – her twelfth. It had come and gone a week ago.
Her mother, Kathy, suddenly remembered it while they were in the car, heading over to Mrs. Brier’s.
“Oh, dear. We’ve forgotten your birthday, Cadence. Again!” she said, looking back at her daughter with dismay. “We’ll celebrate when we’re back from Vienna, alright?”
Cadence, who was slumped down in the backseat, mumbled some sort of a reply.
“I’m sure you’ll have a nice time at Rose’s,” Kathy continued, trying to sound cheerful. “She has this wonderful old house. I think you were too young to remember it when we were last there. I still remember exploring it when I was a girl. And she has a lovely piano.”
Mrs. Brier, Rose Brier, was a long-time friend of Kathy’s parents, Gran Nell and Tell, and Kathy and Gran Nell and Tell had actually stayed with Mrs. Brier for a time. How they had ended up staying with Mrs. Brier was a fairly long story, but a familiar one to Cadence. The short version of it was that the Grans’ house had caught on fire in a freak lightning storm, and then a tree fell on it the day they were planning on moving back in, so they stayed on for even longer. There might have been some other mishaps in addition to those. The story, as told by the Grans, tended to change a little each time.
Mrs. Brier had been like part of the family for many years. After Kathy grew up and went off to the Music Conservatory, though, it had been less and less so. Mrs. Brier was also gone for long stretches of time.
Cadence knew Mrs. Brier and liked her, though she didn’t know her very well. When her parents had moved back to town two years ago, Mrs. Brier had come to a number of their various musical gatherings, and, to Cadence, Mrs. Brier was just one of the crowd of friends and musicians who came in and out of Cadence’s family’s life. Cadence had never stayed with her before.
“We’re almost there,” Kathy said brightly.
Cadence, who was still slumped down, didn’t reply at all this time.
Mrs. Brier lived in a tall Victorian house near the top of a hill. It was one of a cluster of renovated Victorian-era houses. It had originally been built in 1901, when the city was still new and more forest than city.
Cadence didn’t remember the house at all. She had been a toddler when they were last there. It was painted a dark grey, unlike its colorful neighbors. Also unlike the other houses, it was largely hidden from the street by hedges and trees that bordered its garden grounds; only the sharply slanted roof was visible, peeking out above the treetops.
The street was fairly ordinary, a turn or two off one of the city’s more major roads, and curving sinuously around the houses, up the hill. At the very top of the hill was a small neighborhood park with a view of the city.
Along the stretch where Mrs. Brier lived were rows of ancient bowed trees and sidewalks disjointed by the tree roots. They pulled up near the house alongside these and got out of their battered car. Cadence’s father, Raza, led the procession with Cadence’s suitcase in hand, through the iron gate and down a narrow stone walk to the front entrance.
Both her parents were slightly built and looked like classical musicians. They wore a lot of black. They both had dark hair, but her mother’s hair was fine and straight, while her father’s was thick, with a characteristic wave. Her father also had a darker complexion and an impressive nose like an eagle’s.
Cadence looked decidedly more like her mother. She wore her hair in a ponytail mostly, but when she had it down, Raza, her father, would say that she looked like a pixie version of her mother.
But Cadence inherited Raza’s dark brown eyes; Kathy’s were light brown, almost hazel.
She inherited both her parents’ musical talent. She played the piano, and her main goal in life was that she might someday be able to tour with her parents and not be left behind.
When they stepped up onto the broad porch, Kathy corralled Cadence under her arm, giving Cadence a reassuring squeeze. Cadence accepted it with a resigned air.
The porch was swept clean, and, like the house, not at all rickety; this was no spooky, forbidding Victorian house. But it was also rather impersonal-looking, like no one really lived there.
The front door was made of stained glass on the top half, featuring a colorful, circular pattern, framed by dark-stained mahogany, and with a curving pewter door handle.
Kathy rang the doorbell.
Rather than some elaborate chime, they heard just an ordinary “bing-bong”.
Kathy said, tightening her arm affectionately around Cadence, “It sure brings back memories, coming to Rose’s. When I was a girl, I used to sit on that swing there,” she said, pointing toward the swinging bench. “I’d spend hours reading.”
Raza said, grinning, “Not just when you were a girl, when we were last here. How long has it been? I think it was when we were still living in New York, and in town visiting your parents.”
“Oh, dear, has it been that long? Yes, you’re right. Cadence was just a toddler. I remember she was running about the garden paths, playing hide and seek. And we couldn’t find her for a while! We were frantic! Then after that Rose was away a lot, traveling for some years, so we really haven’t been back since. Hard to believe it’s been ten years! Funny, it’s always been at our place that we’ve seen her since we’ve moved back.”
Mrs. Brier soon answered the door, smiling and welcoming them.
“Kathy, Raza, and Cadence,” she said in a rather grave, but not unkind, voice.
She was old by Cadence’s standards, older than even her parents though not as ancient-old as the Grans. She was tall and lean, with long, sinewy limbs and a long face. Her thick dark hair, streaked with some grey, was pulled back in a loose knot.
It was her eyes that were somewhat startling, a disconcerting amber color, almost orange, with a piercing quality about them. Otherwise, there was nothing extraordinary-looking about her. Cadence would have never guessed that Mrs. Brier was so much more than she seemed.
She wore trousers and a cardigan over a crisp, collared shirt. The only real color she wore was a strand of vividly green malachite beads around her neck. They made her eyes look more orange.
She asked Kathy and Raza if they had time to come in.
“No, I’m afraid not,” Kathy said with a sigh, glancing down at Cadence regretfully. “We have to get the car back and then it’s off to the airport. But thank you, thank you once again, Rose, for letting Cadence stay with you.”
The grown-ups exchanged other platitudes about needing to visit again when there was more time. Then there were more thank-you’s, hugs and kisses.
It seemed to happen all too quickly that Kathy and Raza were leaving, waving back as they walked down the path to the gate.
The gate closed resolutely behind them, and they were instantly gone from sight as they turned the corner around the tall hedges.
Cadence was left standing next to Mrs. Brier, who seemed very tall, towering over her.
When she glanced up at her, she saw Mrs. Brier was smiling kindheartedly down at her. Her sharp, weird-colored eyes seemed somewhat softened but were still too penetrating.
Cadence found herself blushing self-consciously because she was trying hard not to cry. She rapidly blinked away some tears. She was much too old to cry, she told herself.
“Shall we go inside?” Mrs. Brier said gently, “I’ll show you your room and you can unpack if you’d like. Have you eaten breakfast yet?”
Cadence acknowledged that she had had breakfast, this with the slightest of nods. It hadn’t been much of one; she had taken some bites of oatmeal at her mother’s insistence before they left their home. She hadn’t been hungry, though. She still wasn’t.
Mrs. Brier said, “I have people take off their shoes to keep the floor clean. Do you mind?”
“Oh, of course not,” Cadence said, rallying herself.
She slipped her sandals off with the automatic ease of habit, for that was the rule at their apartment, too.
Then Cadence followed Mrs. Brier in through the heavy glass-and-mahogany door and into the interior of the house, which seemed dim and hushed compared to the outside.
She couldn’t help but cast a wistful glance back at the stone path leading to the street. Her parents had probably already driven off, maybe no longer thinking of her, thinking now of their return home to collect their luggage, of calling a taxi to the airport, and of their upcoming trip and performances.
She followed Mrs. Brier through the broad, wood-paneled entrance hall and up a creaking massive staircase.
It was really only after she was deposited in her room upstairs that Cadence really paid attention to her surroundings. It occurred to her that everything was very big. Mrs. Brier had put her suitcase down on the bed, which was huge compared to her own at home; it was the size of her parents’ bed but made even more massive by the ornate poster bed frame.
The room had windows looking out toward the back and the side of house; the two side windows didn’t have much of a view, just trees and someone else’s house, but the back window looked out at the spread of garden, a grove of trees, and, beyond, the rise of the hill.
The walls were painted a pale blue, and the bedding was also in shades of blue, patterned with flowers. The furniture was all made of warm cherry wood, with lots of fancy fluting.
The room was very old-fashioned looking, but was saved from seeming too pretentious by the relative scarcity of furniture and extra ornamental decorations; there was only the bed, a wardrobe, and a small writing desk. It felt almost like a hotel room.
Mrs. Brier had left her standing next to the bed, beside her suitcase, and Cadence had had every intention of opening it and unpacking. But, instead, after surveying the room, she drifted over to the back window.
At least the impulse to cry was finally easing off.
She drew aside the curtains and pressed her face close to the window, and gazed down at the garden.
It wasn’t a vast backyard; she could see the iron fence boundaries. This was, after all, a city neighborhood, not some country estate.
By ordinary standards, though, it was quite large, and from her vantage she saw a number of rambling stone foot paths amidst colorful flower gardens and some surrounding treed areas. She saw that there was also what seemed to be a statue or fountain peeking through the cover of a stone wall and trees, at the very back of the property.
It appeared to be a separate, interior garden.
Cadence wondered if it was something like in a book she had once read, The Secret Garden.
She fancied there was something mysterious about it. Perhaps it was because there were lots of shadows cast by the trees. It made it look a little like an ancient, forgotten ruin.
But the sunlight was growing with the new day, and no doubt the “hidden” garden would start to look much more ordinary.
It would be somewhere to explore, at least.
It made Cadence begin to feel curious about the rest of the house. The house was old, after all, and might have some secret passages. She would have to ask Mrs. Brier.
She reflected that the Grans’ home was very different; their place was a rambling ranch-style home in one of the more suburban neighborhoods. It was cluttered with kitschy knick-knacks they’d collected over the years, ranging from their children’s art projects to souvenirs from tourist traps.
The Grans were very different from Mrs. Brier, too. They were rather noisy and always seemed to be busy doing something or the other, usually part of fundraising and planning committees for various arts festivals. Cadence usually got “volunteered” to help out when she came to stay with them.
Although she knew Mrs. Brier, Cadence didn’t feel she really knew her, though Cadence had never really thought about it.
She left the window and went to her suitcase. She opened it up now and unpacked her clothes, stuffing them into one of the drawers of the massive wardrobe. Her clothes only took up a small portion of it. The wardrobe had both drawers and a large interior space, and smelled of wood varnish and age.
She glanced at her now empty suitcase, which was an elderly, old fashioned canvas and leather box, and decided she might as well store it in the wardrobe. She latched it up and hoisted it into the main space, pushing it in.
As she did, she felt it catch on something.
She quickly pulled the suitcase back out.
She thought she heard a pebble or some other small object fall to the wood floor, a soft “clunk”. She looked about the floor but didn’t see anything.
She was about to give up when a shaft of sunlight coming in from one of the windows caught the edge of a distortion on the floorboards.
She knelt down to look.
It was a faceted piece of glass. She picked it up.
It was rectangular in shape, with flat surfaces and beveled edges, the size of a piece of Halloween candy. In the palm of her hand, she saw that it was pale blue in color, like the color of the walls in her room, like the color of the sky.
It was either glass or a gemstone. Probably glass, Cadence thought. Otherwise, it would have been worth a fortune – though it could be part of a bejeweled statue from some ancient civilization, Cadence thought, letting her imagination go. Better yet, it was probably cursed, stolen by marauders or some other adventurer, and passed through many generations till it somehow ended up here.
Cadence grinned to herself. She enjoyed coming up with adventures.
She turned toward the back window, and the crystal sparkled as it caught more of the sunlight coming in.
As she moved her hand into the direct sunlight, the glittering became even more brilliant. And then an extraordinary thing happened.
She found herself surrounded by blinding light, as if the whole space around her was caught in the reflecting facet of the crystal.
She nearly dropped the crystal but managed to hold on, enclosing it in her fist.
Even then the light around her didn’t go away; it didn’t seem to be coming from the crystal or a particular direction. It was just everywhere.
By degrees, it became less intense, less all-encompassing. Blinking, Cadence found herself standing on a narrow path. It was crowded in by trees and bushes. The sunlight was dappled, wavering under the canopy of branches and leaves. The smell of the fragrant summer air and the sound of the leaves rustling all around her seemed very real – or more than real; all the colors were very vivid and everything was in sharp focus.
Then, in another instant, the vision, the experience, whatever it was, vanished.
Cadence found herself back in the room.
She was still next to the opened wardrobe, turned toward the window. It was quiet and still. The colors seemed muted around her. Sunlight was coming in from the window, but weakly, creating diffuse patches of light on the wood floor before her.
She opened up her fingers and looked down at the crystal.
It caught a bit of the light from the outside, but otherwise nothing more happened. It was just a pretty but ordinary piece of colored glass.
Cadence looked about the room, at the heavy antique furniture and light blue upholstery.
It was as if nothing had happened.
She shook her head, wondering if anything had happened, after all.
The vividness of the sensations of the experience was already fading, so it was easy to believe it hadn’t been real.
Did she somehow fall asleep on her feet and dream it? Or half-asleep, in the very least.
She looked down at the crystal in her palm again.
She waited for something more to happen.
But why should something more happen?
It had probably been, she decided, the reflection from the crystal just momentarily playing tricks on her eyes.
She shrugged, then placed the crystal in one of the drawers of the wardrobe. Then she lifted her suitcase into the wardrobe again and closed the wardrobe door.
Now there was really nothing more to do than leave the room and seek out Mrs. Brier.
Should she ask Mrs. Brier about the crystal? No, Cadence decided. That would be silly.
Mrs. Brier appeared at the doorway just then. Cadence hadn’t heard her come. She found herself blushing guiltily as if she’d done something she shouldn’t.
Mrs. Brier didn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary, or possibly interpreted Cadence’s rather serious expression as shyness or homesickness.
She said, “Well, Cadence, I thought I’d give you a tour of the house now. Are you unpacked?”
Standing there, Mrs. Brier seemed reassuringly normal.
“Yes,” Cadence said.
“I’ll keep it pretty brief, and then you can go wherever you want and explore if you’d like. It has lots of inefficient nooks and crannies, but no secret passageways.” She paused, seeing Cadence’s rather disappointed expression. “I guess it would be more exciting if it did, wouldn’t it? Here, let’s go into the hall.”
She first showed Cadence the library across the way from her room. It took up most of the side of the house, and it was filled with shelf upon shelves of books on all the walls. It had a large bay window with a cushioned green velvet window seat opposite the door, which looked out at the side of the house at trees and the neighboring house. There was a scattering of deep leather club chairs and small side tables, perfect for reading a book.
“Lots of books,” Cadence said with some awe.
“Yes,” Mrs. Brier said. “I’ve been collecting them off and on for a great while.”
“I like to read sometimes,” Cadence told her.
“Well, maybe you’ll find something you’ll like. They’re mostly yawners, but maybe there’s something buried in there more interesting.”
She briefly pointed out the front two rooms, her bedroom and study, and Cadence caught a glimpse of them, both with antique furniture like the rest of the house.
They descended the staircase to the main floor, and Mrs. Brier led her through to the front parlor, which looked old-fashioned and very red, with red walls and drapes. There was a dark leather chesterfield and wing chair grouped before an imposing, ornate fireplace that had a glass mosaic framing it. In the corner was an alcove, part of the turret seen from the front, with a red-velvet window seat and cushions.
“A lot of red, isn’t it?” Mrs. Brier said wryly, otherwise offering no further comment.
They left it and crossed over to the room on the opposite side of the hall.
“Kitchen and dining room are in the back,” she said with a rather dismissive wave toward down the hall, “but I thought this room might be of particular interest to you. It’s what I call the conservatory when I’m feeling grandiose, and the music room when I’m not.”
The music room was directly under the library, but it also had a sun room attached to it, which was filled with potted plants and some places to sit, and with windows for walls. It overlooked a line of trees on the side of the house. Some light from the morning sun was coming in, casting long shadows.
As for the main part of the music room, it was hard to miss the flamboyant violet walls, which were saved from garishness by dignified-looking dark wood wainscoting and leather furniture.
But, more importantly, it had a shiny black grand piano, which took up much of the space.
“Oh,” Cadence breathed with appreciation.
In their own small apartment, they could only fit an upright piano.
“Please practice on the piano as much as you want,” Mrs. Brier said. “I like playing in the evening sometimes. Otherwise, you can use it whenever you’d like.”
“Thank you,” Cadence said, feeling a little shy.
Maybe, she thought, she could practice a lot during the month she was here. She could surprise her parents and music teacher with all the progress she’d made; lately, she’d been distracted by school and a science fair project. She could even work on a piece in one of her music books that had been played by the girl who’d beaten her at a recent state competition.
Music was, she knew all too well, even at her age, awfully competitive. If she ever wanted to tour with her parents, she had to win more competitions, get into the right music school, and win there, too.
Thinking of all this, of her absent parents, gave Cadence a sharp pang of worry and homesickness, and she sighed involuntarily.
Maybe it would be best not to think about practicing just now.
Mrs. Brier either didn’t notice or feigned not noticing her sigh.
She said, glancing outside, changing the subject, “Well, it’s supposed to get quite warm out today; I think I’ll take this early-morning opportunity to get some gardening in. If you’re ever wondering where I am, it’s likely you’ll find me there. If you like weeding,” she added with a wry smile, “which I don’t expect you do, you can join me. Or explore on your own, if you’d like. Or play on the piano, of course.”
Cadence looked at the piano.
She said after some consideration, “Well, I think I’ll explore the wooded part of your backyard. I saw it from my bedroom.” She momentarily thought about the crystal, then deliberately pushed any thoughts about it away. She asked, “Is that a fountain, toward the back? I thought I saw it through the trees.”
“Fountain?” Mrs. Brier said. She looked genuinely surprised, maybe even alarmed. But it was only a momentary look. “Oh, a fountain,” she repeated, almost more to herself, in a murmur. Then she said in a clearer voice, “Yes, there’s a fountain back there. It’s usually quite hidden. It’s an – old fountain. It hasn’t been working for many, many years. In fact, no one’s seen it for many years.”
“Is it locked up?”
“It’s like a secret garden, like the book. They find the key to it and plant flowers in it. Then in the spring, everything blooms.”
“I believe the key is – lost,” Mrs. Brier said with a slight, ironic smile.
“Oh. Well, I guess you could get a locksmith to open it.”
“Yes, I suppose I could. Or perhaps it’s best to keep it locked up.”
“But why?” Cadence asked boldly. Her curiosity was aroused.
“It’s a mystery, isn’t it?” Mrs. Brier said unhelpfully, in a light voice. “It was locked up shortly after this house was built. It might be – unsafe. So, unlike the book, perhaps some mysteries are meant to stay that way.”
“Alright,” Cadence said, a little disappointed. “How old is the house?”
“Very old, indeed. It was built in 1901.” Then Mrs. Brier said as an afterthought, “Well, who knows, maybe you’ll find the key somewhere.”
“Maybe hidden somewhere in the house?” Cadence asked, hope rising.
“Yes. But I’ve never found it. But, then again, I’ve never looked, either.”
“Maybe I’ll look for it.”
Mrs. Brier said thoughtfully, “Yes, you could. Perhaps you’ll find it, despite my efforts to keep things – tidy. That’s just the way it is. Perhaps you’ll uncover mysteries about this house.”
An expression of weariness crossed her face but then it was gone, and she seemed back to her usual self. She gave Cadence that slight smile of hers.
Cadence wondered what other mysteries there might be, though. She thought again of the blue crystal she had found in her wardrobe, and of the extraordinary experience she had had.
But, of course, she had only imagined it. It would sound silly if she mentioned it.
Or, perhaps, it was one of those mysteries that Mrs. Brier mentioned.
Mrs. Brier said presently, “Well, I guess it’s off to battle the weeds,” shaking off any residue of vagueness or mystery from her own face. “And – exploring for you?” she added under arched brows, looking at Cadence with her inscrutable, weirdly orange eyes.
“Yes, I think I will.”
“Well, let me know if you need anything. If not, at some point I’ll call you for some lunch, all right?”
After retrieving her sandals from the front porch, Cadence followed Mrs. Brier out the kitchen door, into a vegetable garden patch. There was a small shed to the side.
Mrs. Brier bid Cadence good exploring with a casual air that suggested no further mystery at all and then headed to the shed to retrieve her gardening tools.
Cadence decided she would head over to the secret garden and the fountain inside it.
She crossed through the tangle of growing rows of vegetables, then followed a stone path past flowerbeds, going in the direction of the fountain as she remembered it from her view upstairs.
Presently, she entered a narrow path that dived into a wooded area.
The trees seemed to crowd in on her almost at once, and the stone path was enshrouded in layers of dense shadows. Cadence suddenly felt chilled.
As she continued walking, what had seemed fairly straightforward from what she had seen from her bedroom was rapidly becoming confusing; the path bent left, then right, and now and then forks in the path appeared, necessitating a decision on which way to go. She lost her sense of direction and found that she had no idea where she was. When she came to another fork in the path, she could only blindly choose a direction to go.
For a backyard of someone’s house, these woods seemed very large and complicated, and a lot bigger than they had looked. She felt a little nervous. She shivered from the cool air and uncertainty.
Then, ahead of her, she saw a clearing. She almost started running.
When she emerged from under the cover of the trees, into the warmth of the growing day and golden sunlight, she saw that she had managed to loop around toward the front of the house. She shook her head in amazement and relief.
But why was the fountain so difficult to find?
She went up onto the porch and took a seat on the swinging bench. It swayed under her but felt solid and predictable in its movement. Any feeling of unease that had crept up while she had been wandering through the grounds receded quickly now.
Some birds chirped from the trees, and a car or two passed by on the street.
Cadence began to feel silly that she had even felt a little scared.
“Well, I’ll try it again,” she said aloud to herself. “I’ll find it yet.”
She decided she would take another look from her bedroom and from there plot out the path she could take. Maybe she could even draw out a map.
Surely getting to the fountain was simple. She had just taken the wrong turn.
She would find it next time.
Her stomach started to growl; the bites of oatmeal she had had in the early hours of the morning no longer were enough. She was hungry. She went inside to the kitchen to find something to eat.
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