Chapter 15

Mabel wasn’t surprised to discover that Mrs. Pilderjack’s car was just as pink on the inside as it was on the out. Mrs. Pilderjack climbed into the driver’s seat, picked up a small pink spray canister and pumped a squirt into the air.

“Mmmmm…fresh!” she said, turning around to smile cloyingly at Van and Mabel. Van winced. Mabel tried not to gag. She felt almost overcome by the nauseatingly artificial cherry odor permeating the car’s interior.

“And now children,” said Mrs. Pilderjack, “we’ll go to a special place to spend the night, and you’ll have some nice dinner!”

The ride seemed interminable. Neither Mabel nor Van felt much like talking. They’d crossed the bridge and traveled a good half-hour from East Logjam. It was nearly dark when Mrs. Pilderjack pulled into the drive of a somewhat dingy white ranch house, badly in need of a paint job. Mabel could just make out that the sign in the yard said “Algonguin County Protective Services.”

The children followed Mrs. Pilderjack into the house. A hulking man with a crewcut sat doing paperwork in what used to be the kitchen, but now seemed to be all office equipment with one plug-in hot plate.

“Gotchoo some Peppy Meals,” said the man, grunting as if he were lifting heavy barbells. Without looking up, he reached under the counter and pulled out two colorfully decorated bags, extending them toward Van and Mabel.

Mrs. Pilderjack smiled a squinty smile and nodded at the children.

Van shrugged at Mabel and took both bags, then handed her one.

Mabel ate a chewy, but otherwise unidentifiable, brown nugget, and drank a bit of watery soda, but even had her appetite been better, the odor of Mrs. Pilderjack’s freshly applied pink nail polish wafting across the table would have made food unappealing. Even Van ate very little.

Mrs. Pilderjack stood and clapped her newly manicured hands twice.

“Bedtime!” she said, leading the children down a drab hallway.

Van was ushered into a room to the left, then Mrs. Pilderjack opened a door on the right for Mabel. Two sets of metal bunk beds furnished an otherwise empty room. A bathroom, covered with moss green tiles in an undulating wave pattern adjoined the bedroom.

“Now then,” said Mrs. Pilderjack. “There’s a nighty on the bed, and a toothbrush in the bathroom. I’ll see you in the morning!”

Mabel chose to ignore the nightgown and the toothbrush and stay in her clothes. She barely slept. When the first sign of sunrise crept through the bathroom window, she looked at her watch. 5:24 a.m. Probably Mrs. Pilderjack was still asleep, if she was even in the house at all. The bedroom door creaked only slightly as Mabel peered into the hallway. She stealthily crossed the hall and opened Van’s door a crack.

He was sitting on a bed cross-legged with his chin propped on his hand.

“Welcome to the Ritz Carlton,” he said.

Mabel sat down next to him. “We’ve gotta get out of here,” she stated.

“We will,” he said. “Let’s wait and see if they’re sending us home first.”

They sat on the bed and played rock, paper, scissors, until the door popped open thirty minutes later.

“Oh, no, no, no!” cried Mrs. Pilderjack. “Girls in the girls’ room, boys in the boys’ room!” She carefully removed a hairnet which was holding her beehive in place, and said, “Well, nevermind. You can’t help your upbringing.” She sniffed, then assumed a tone one might use when speaking to a puppy. “Mr. Higglesworth has some breakfast for you in the kitchen!”

Van and Mabel followed Mrs. Pilderjack, who marched purposefully toward the former kitchen. Mabel wondered how Mr. Higglesworth could have obtained breakfast when he appeared not to have moved from his position at the counter. Nevertheless, he grunted as before, and held out a wax paper bag containing two donuts with colored sprinkles, and two cartons of orange fruit drink.

“Thanks,” said Mabel.

Mrs. Pilderjack beamed, then began to reapply her makeup at the table, using a small handheld mirror.

“I do have some news,” said Mrs. Pilderjack. She sighed slightly and continued working on her lipstick. “Though I must say I question the wisdom of this decision, it seems your parents have signed paperwork releasing both of you to the custody of Ramon Somebody-or-other, at the restaurant.”

Van breathed a sigh of relief. Mrs. Pilderjack glared at him.

“I must say, though,” she continued, “to turn children over to someone who wears tribal clothing and doesn’t even have a last name…well…it’s not my decision to make…but, dearie me.”

Mrs. Pilderjack took a swig from a coffee mug which was heavily marked with pink lipstick. “Well, then,” she said, standing up, “shall we?”

Mabel expected dismal weather, to match the dismal events of the previous day, but the sun was bright, and surprisingly warm for Fall. She and Van climbed into the back seat of the pink car, as Mrs. Pilderjack took the driver’s seat.

“There is one stop I must make before I take you children to school,” said Mrs. Pilderjack, sighing again. “I must get that Ramon fellow’s signature agreeing to accept temporary guardianship. So, our first stop is the restaurant, or commune, or whatever it is.” She muttered to herself for several minutes as she drove down the road to Logjam.

They began to pass the trimly manicured lawns of West Logjam. Mrs. Pilderjack managed to stay on the road and reapply lipstick at the same time. Suddenly she straightened up and looked positively perky.

“And oh yes, I almost forgot! The paperwork came last night allowing me to remove that poor little sick child from the custody of the senile old man.” She patted her beehive into place. “So…we can all feel better about that. I understand she needs some serious medical attention.”

Mabel sunk into her seat and looked at Van in horror. He returned the look but raised his hands in helplessness and shook his head. Mabel dropped her napkin onto the car’s floor, made an “oops” face, and bent down below Mrs. Pilderjack’s line of vision.

“Dropped something, huh?” said Van audibly, as he too bent down below the top of the front seat.

“We have to get Ivy,” Mabel mouthed silently to Van.

“How?” he noiselessly replied.

She shrugged and whispered, “No doctors!”

“What was that?” said Mrs. Pilderjack sharply, attempting to see them in her rear view mirror.

Mabel sat up. “I was just saying, there are no doctors in East Logjam,” she said in an earnest voice.

“And so there aren’t,” replied Mrs. Pilderjack. “I’ll be taking the child to the clinic in West Logjam where she can get proper treatment.”

Mabel turned her head so that only Van could see her near-panic expression. The car began to cross the Willibunk River bridge.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Pilderjack?” said Van.

“Yes?” she answered.

“You have lipstick on your teeth.”

The pink car screeched to a jarring halt, throwing Mabel and Van against their shoulder belts. Right in the middle of the Willibunk River bridge, Mrs. Pilderjack flipped down the driver’s side sun visor and began to make toothy faces, examining herself in the mirror.

With surprising agility, Van kicked his door open, pushed the buttons holding both their seatbelts in place, grabbed Mabel by the arm and scrambled out of the car pulling her along with him. They did not stop to talk or think. They tore across the remainder of the bridge on foot and dashed across the front porch of Franklin’s Guest House. There was no time to look, but Mabel felt, as they passed a certain window, that something ancient and decayed was watching them pass.

Mabel and Van stopped to catch their breath behind Jackman’s Drugstore.

“Okay,” Van panted, “we ditched…Pilderjack…now what?”

“We…get Ivy,” Mabel panted back. “Then…I don’t know what.”

“What if someone sees us?”

Mabel looked around. “We’ve gotta make sure they don’t. We’ll cross the street in front of here, then stick to the woods.”

Mabel peered out from the alley between Jackman’s and The Village Grocer. River Street business wouldn’t really get going for another hour or so, and the street seemed clear. “Now,” she said.

“Mabel Crockett!” barked an indignant voice, startling them into freezing just as they reached the opposite curb. Holly Bumper stood at the bus stop in front of O’Boyle’s Soda & Sweets, her hands on her hips. “You’re about to miss the bus, get over here right now!”

Van looked at her momentarily. “Thanks for the warning, Holly!” he shouted before running for the woods behind Minnie Filo’s hair salon. Mabel was right behind him, and they could hear Holly’s voice as they reached the tree line screaming, “Mabel Crockett and Van Peale! You can’t skip school! I’m telling!”

“Okay Holly, whatever,” said Van as they jogged through the woods alongside Rocky Creek Road.

“School’s going to know we’re not there anyway,” observed Mabel.

“Mabel,” said Van, pushing his way through the trees, “what are we going to do once we get Ivy?”

“We’ll just have to think of something,” she replied. “I don’t know, hide out somewhere.”

A gentle wind rippled through the canopy of leaves above their heads. Gradually, the rippling moved downward, until it seemed the noise was coming from the tree trunks themselves.

“Weird,” said Van, glancing around.

“Yeah,” said Mabel, “the trees…” She stopped. “No, wait Van…listen.”

A tiny, tiny voice, almost right in Mabel’s ear seemed to say, “they’ll help you.”

“What?” exclaimed Van.

Mabel shushed him. Very quietly she said, “who will help?”

“They’re ready for you. At the spring,” came the barely audible reply.

The breeze dwindled to nothing. The woods were silent, except for a chirping bird.

Van looked at Mabel quizzically. “The spring?” he said. “What spring? And who was that?” Van looked around, slightly frustrated. “Who Was That?” he said louder, as if to the woods.

“That’s all,” said Mabel. “They won’t say anything else. I’ve talked to dryads before. That’s all they’ll say.”

“Mabel,” said Van, shaking his head. “You know the weirdest people.”

Van and Mabel crossed Rocky Creek Road without encountering any cars at all. Even so, they kept to the woods as they climbed the hill to Halfslips’, half expecting that at any moment a chunky pink vehicle would screech up beside them.

But they spotted no vehicles, and entered the house to find Ivy curled up on the living room sofa with something resembling a green milkshake.

“Pop-pop made it with tofu,” Ivy said, managing a small smile. “It tastes pretty good, but I don’t have my appetite yet.”

“It’ll come back,” said Mabel, trying hard to sound confident, but actually thinking that Ivy looked positively wilted.

Norton shuffled into the room. He leaned heavily on a wooden cane, and in the other hand carried a glass of something resembling the concoction Ivy was working on. He smiled at the children, and lowered himself, painstakingly, into a rocking chair.

“Ivy,” said Mabel, sitting down at the other end of the sofa, “we have to get you away from here. Now.”

Ivy read the concern on Mabel’s face. “Why,” she said, “what’s the matter?”

“There’s this lady,” said Van, “a real nut-case. Mabel and I just ran away from her.”

“She’s coming here to take you to a doctor, Ivy,” continued Mabel. “Probably the only reason she’s not here already is she’s looking for me and Van.”

Ivy pulled herself, with obvious effort, into a sitting position. “Where will we go?” she asked, “Pop-pop can’t walk much, you know…and I’m not sure I can either.”

Mabel suddenly began to feel quite clear about where they would go. She looked around the Halfslips’ living room. The decor was largely botanical prints and a poster from Norton Halfslip’s old job with Billy Limpit’s Flying Circus.

“We’re going to a spring,” said Mabel confidently, “to find my…relatives.”

The Flying Circus poster was large and colorful, a painting of exciting images from the airshow.

“And we’ll get there,” Mabel continued, focusing on an illustration of Norton Halfslip waving from the cockpit of a bi-wing, “in the Shooting Star.”

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