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       Floors, p.11

           Patrick Carman
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  Merganzer D. Whippet, the field

  It took me a long time to understand what my father had meant. How wrong I’d been about those fateful words.

  You will prosper in the field of wacky inventions.

  I’d sold all of his buildings and all but one property, a forgotten country estate I’d never seen nor heard of. I’d spent many years building one hotel, with many invented things. And when my work was done, I sat on the roof with the ducks, looking at the city rising up all around me.

  “I must go to see this last piece of property before I sell it.”

  And so I did.

  I took my dear friend, George Powell, who by then was also managing most of my affairs. We drove out of the city and into the far upper reaches of New York State, armed only with a map and a duck. (Always bring a duck if you can. They are very useful creatures.)

  We ventured out onto a distant country road dotted with cows and goats, until we came over a bluff and we both saw it off in the distance. We just … knew. It was my father’s estate. It had to be. A high, rolling stone wall surrounding acres of land, and as we came near the gate, my heart sank.

  The wall was old and falling down in places, overrun with weeds and thistle, crawling with green ivy. I had a key, which had been kept with the deed, and the key unlocked the high, arching metal door, rusted at the hinges.

  We walked through the gate and my heart sank deeper still.

  It had the appearance of a place that was to be, but never became, a place that had a special purpose, often thought of but never acted on.

  There were no buildings, not one. Not a house or a red barn or a garage where a rich man might tinker with a foreign sports car he never intended to finish. But there were signs every where, expensive ones made of marble, like tombstones now, tipped over and dotting the acreage.

  This is what the first one we came to said:

  Here I will build a country house, where my wife and boy will play. And I will play with them, too. When my work is through.

  Farther still, another sign, the corner cracked and broken:

  This is where the greenhouse will go, where my wife will grow rare orchids. And I will grow them, too. When my work is through.

  And more:

  The barn will go here, with horses my son will ride. And I will ride one, too. When my work is through.

  The pond will go here, with ducks for Merganzer, because he loves ducks. And I love them, too. I’ll love them best when my work is through.

  And finally, we came to the saddest marble sign of all, the one that echoed my father’s words down through the years. The largest plot remained.

  And here I will make my field, a place with tools and sheds and tables of every kind, a field where we will imagine the wildest things in the summer sun, my boy and me. In the field of wacky inventions, my boy will prosper. And I will, too. When my work is through.

  I stood in that open field, watching the wind blow through the tall weeds, and my good friend, George, put an arm around me. We cried for what never was and what could never be.

  “His heart was in the right place after all,” George said.

  It was just the sort of thing a best friend should say.

  I believe he was right.




  Leo showed Remi how to double back through the maintenance tunnel onto the grounds through a trapdoor in the gardening shed. Unfortunately for Remi, when he opened the trapdoor, Mr. Phipps was in the shed, sharpening his shears.

  “Lost?” asked the old gardener, sliding a blade across a big stone on a bench without even a glance at Remi.

  Remi thought he might run, but what he really needed was an alibi.

  “I was helping Leo. He showed me the way out.”

  “Uh-huh,” said Mr. Phipps, holding the shears in the light and running his finger along an edge. Remi gulped.

  “Anyway, you know how Ms. Sparks can be. She hates Leo. Any chance I could say you needed some help out here instead?”

  Mr. Phipps looked at Remi then, one dark eyebrow raised, and Remi crumbled.

  “It’s only my second day on the job, Mr. Phipps. My mom will kill me if I get fired.”

  Mr. Phipps smiled, laughed soft and deep, and waved his hand toward the door.

  “Better get back where you belong — tell Ms. Sparks I needed help moving dirt bags.”

  “Wow, thanks, Mr. Phipps! I totally owe you one.”

  Remi dug into his pocket and held out the smashed remains of his enchilada, which Mr. Phipps gladly accepted. Remi ran with all his might, the red jacket flipping up behind him in the wind. He waited outside the hotel door to catch his breath, then went inside and found that Ms. Sparks had returned.

  “Mr. Phipps needed help,” Remi blurted. He was a lousy liar. “You were sleeping so I didn’t want to wake you.”

  Ms. Sparks was fuming mad, but what could she say? She’d been caught snoozing.

  “You and that maintenance boy are up to no good. Don’t think I don’t know.”

  “His name is Leo,” said Remi.

  Ms. Sparks stared down at Remi with a look that said Of course I know his name is Leo! I just don’t care!

  Ten minutes later, she let Remi off for the night with a stern warning about sneaking around, and soon after that he was standing on the eighth-floor landing with Leo, late by fifteen minutes for the dinner party they’d been invited to.

  “Are you ready?” asked Leo, who had put on his one and only suit and tie, a sad little affair that made Remi laugh.

  “Trust me, yours isn’t much better,” said Leo, pointing out that Remi was wearing a red-and-white monkey suit.

  “You got me there,” said Remi, and then added, “Do you think he’ll be in there?”

  “You mean Merganzer?”

  “Yeah, the main mystery dude.”

  Leo shrugged his shoulders, hoping that would be exactly who they would see inside. He had already imagined the dinner party. It would be Merganzer D. Whippet, Leo, Remi, and Betty. The four of them would talk about every thing (Betty would quack a lot): all the hidden floors, all the mysteries of the hotel.

  “Here we go,” said Leo, taking the skull-and-crossbones knocker in his hand and whapping it against the door three times.

  The door began to open, and Remi saw the darkness and shadows inside. He started backpedaling toward the stairs and bumped into something, which made him scream. LillyAnn Pompadore had come up the stairs, half out of breath. She was holding Hiney in one arm as she touched up her hair with the other.

  “Oh, good,” she said, brushing past Remi as if he didn’t exist. “I hate to be the last one at a party, and I’m running terribly late.”

  Before Leo and Remi could say a word, Ms. Pompadore had gone through the door and slammed it shut.

  “What’s she doing in there?” asked Leo. “You don’t think she was actually invited?”

  Remi shrugged, stepping forward and knocking on the door once more.

  “Hey, if she can do it, I can definitely do it. Let’s go in and see what this is all about.”

  Leo’s heart was broken. He’d made the mistake of letting himself get excited about seeing Merganzer again, but it was beginning to look like the invite list for the party was anything but exclusive.

  The door opened, and this time the two boys went inside the Haunted Room. It was the least-rented floor in the entire hotel; in fact, the rumor was that it had never been rented. Not even once. When the door slammed behind them, Remi could see why.

  “It’s dark in here,” he whispered. “And spooky.”

  A collection of bats — were they real or mechanical? — flew low overhead, screeching as the boys ran farther into the gloom. A dark blue moon hovered in a cloudy sky as the shadow of a werewolf crept into the moss-encrusted trees. The shadow (or whatever was making the shadow) growled, baring its huge, shadowy teeth.

  “I can see why this room isn’t ve
ry popular,” said Remi, practically jumping into Leo’s arms.

  “Just remember it’s all fake and you’ll be fine,” said Leo. “It’s like a haunted house. Embrace it.”

  “It’s all fake, nothing is real,” Remi repeated over and over.

  They heard voices, which they followed, and entered a dreary clearing with a long stone table.

  “This can’t be,” whispered Leo, for the table was very full of people. All the long-term guests were there, even Theodore Bump and the Yanceys.

  “Mom?” said Remi.

  “Remilio!” She beamed with plea sure at the sight of her son. She stood up nervously, still in her maid’s uniform.

  Clarence Fillmore was also there, sitting across from Remi’s mom.

  “What’s going on here?” The question came from Leo and Remi at the same time.

  “All the invitations were the same,” said Mr. Fillmore, holding up an envelope. It wasn’t tiny, like the one Leo and Remi had gotten. It was a normal size. A lot of the other guests held up their invitations, too, and Leo’s dad read his.

  “‘Party on the eighth floor, tell no one! Arrive eight P.M. sharp.’”

  “Really, I was only going to stop in for a moment,” Pilar said again, feeling awful for not telling her own son. “Mostly out of curiosity.”

  Clarence Fillmore nodded the same, but little Jane Yancey felt differently. “I don’t know why the help get to come, especially those two.” She pointed in Leo and Remi’s general direction. “It’s a hotel, Daddy. It’s for guests.”

  The chandelier over the table fell two feet and jerked to a stop, sending all the guests into a fit of screaming and laughter.

  Jane Yancey glared at Leo. “Hey, Mr. Maintenance Man, your light fell down. Aren’t you going to fix it?”

  There was one thing Leo and Remi were starting to realize about Jane Yancey: It took a lot to scare her.

  A single bat flew over the table and disappeared in a burst of flame. When the smoke cleared, Count Dracula was standing at the head of the table. Jane Yancey rolled her eyes as Dracula spoke.

  “Dinner is served.”

  The restaurant staff was dressed in black — grim butlers and maids — and they began serving the first course.

  Remi and Leo couldn’t help notice their parents were sitting across from each other, ignoring everyone else at the table.

  “I think I’ll show Remi around the Haunted Room,” said Leo. “We’re not hungry.”

  “But …” said Remi, thinking of how little he’d eaten all day. He looked at Leo and could tell he didn’t want to sit at the long stone table and talk to a bunch of grown-ups. Besides, they were there for a reason the others weren’t: They had to find a Flying Farm key card.

  The two headed down a dark path sparkling with fireflies, and when they were out of earshot, Leo reminded Remi of Merganzer’s words.

  “Don’t you remember, from the box?” he whispered. “‘When all are gathered, make your flight.’ This whole thing is a setup so we can move around the hotel unseen.”

  “He’s helping us!” Remi said too loudly, which was followed by the sound of a witch cackling off in the woods.

  “Not everyone’s here,” said Leo, who was less enthusiastic than Remi. “I didn’t see Ms. Sparks or Mr. Phipps.”

  Remi punched Leo in a friendly sort of way. “Even Merganzer wouldn’t invite that old witch to a party, and Mr. Phipps goes to bed at, like, seven thirty. Dude’s probably sleeping.”

  “Either way, we need to get out of here,” said Leo. “It’s what the box said.”

  “Right, focus,” said Remi. “We got this.”

  Just as he said We got this, a gathering of zombies started following them on the path. Two more appeared in front of them.

  “We’re trapped!” yelled Remi.

  “Remi, please, try to remember. It’s all fake.”

  Leo walked up to one of the approaching zombies and brushed it aside. Its arm fell off and Remi shuddered, but Leo picked it up and tossed it into the gloomy trees. All the zombies followed after it.

  “This is the weirdest hotel room ever,” said Remi.

  “That’s what you said about the last one.”

  “Yeah, but this time I really mean it.”

  They arrived at the opening of a narrow tunnel, which would require getting down on their knees. A creepy slurping sound came from inside.

  “No way,” said Remi. “Not gonna happen. Whatever’s in there will eat my face off.”

  “For crying out loud, Remi,” said Leo, sitting down in front of the opening and patting the ground. “Come on, sit down. Let’s just take a break and get you back in the game.”

  Remi sat on the far side of Leo, away from the opening, and a spider the size of a tennis ball drifted down in front of his face. Remi was having some trouble breathing until Leo batted it away with his hand and it went scurrying into the dark.

  “You’re a braver man than I am,” said Remi. “I don’t know how you do it.”

  “I’ve been in here with Merganzer about a hundred times,” Leo offered. “I’m telling you, it’s all mechanical.”

  He glanced at Remi and felt sorry for him.

  “The first time I came in here, I came close to peeing my pants.”

  “You’re just trying to make me feel better,” said Remi.

  “No, honestly. It was pathetic.”

  Remi started laughing as the mechanical spider crawled up next to his leg.

  “Hey, little fella,” he said, picking it up by its back as the legs searched for footing. Once he had a hold of it, the spider wasn’t so bad. The fact that it was robotic turned it from scary to cool in a hurry.

  “Where’s your favorite place to go, besides the Whippet Hotel?” asked Remi, touching the legs and finding they were cold.

  “The New York Public Library,” Leo said without the slightest hesitation. It came to him instantly, but saying it sort of made him sad.

  “You like books, huh?”

  Leo sighed deeply, listening to the fake wind rustle through the fake trees.

  “Yeah, I like books. We didn’t — well, we don’t have much money. My mom used to take me to the library every Saturday. I think I liked the books more than she did.”

  Remi knew Leo’s mom had passed away a few years back; his own mother had told him that much. Touchy subject, she’d said. Tread lightly.

  “Your dad doesn’t take you? I mean, you know, since …”

  Remi felt like he’d totally blown it, but Leo didn’t mind.

  “He has a hard time going to places we used to go. But I think he might finally be feeling a little better.” Leo looked off toward the table, imagining his dad talking to Pilar. He thought of the ring he’d gotten back for him. Maybe his dad was almost ready to start living again.

  “You’re lucky,” said Remi, setting down the giant spider, which clung at his leg. “You get to live in this place all the time.”

  Remi was nervous about saying anything more, because he’d always worried his friends would judge him if he told the truth.

  “It’s a pretty good gig, I have to admit,” said Leo. “Where do you live? What’s your dad do?”

  Remi didn’t say anything for a few seconds, and Leo thought maybe he should just crawl into the cave and forget about it.

  “Staten Island. That’s where we live,” Remi blurted out. “After work we take the subway to Battery Park, then catch the ferry, then hoof it to a crummy old building, then hoof it up the stairs to a crummy little apartment. Dad’s not in the picture.”

  There, he’d said it.

  “Must take a while to get home,” said Leo, figuring it up in his head.

  “An hour and a half here, an hour and a half back, but it’s a good job and Mom needs it.”

  Leo was about to say he would talk to his dad and see if maybe something could be worked out, but before he could say anything, he saw Jane Yancey walking toward them on the path.

  “I give her point
s for being brave,” whispered Leo. “Nothing scares that kid.”

  “Wanna bet?” asked Remi, picking up the spider.

  “You wouldn’t.”

  Jane Yancey marched right up and stood in front of them with her hands on her hips.

  “I bet you’re both too chicken to go in there,” she said, staring at the hole and hearing the noise.

  “You got that right,” said Remi. “No way we’re going in there.”

  Jane looked at Remi like he was the most pathetic kid on planet Earth and crouched in front of the hole. As soon as she started crawling inside, Remi set the giant spider on her back.

  Jane backed out of the hole and stood up. She had a strange look on her face. The spider crawled up on top of her head, then down onto her face.

  Then Jane Yancey screamed and ran away.

  “I guess there is something that scares that kid,” said Leo.

  “Come on! Let’s get out of here while the getting is good.”

  Remi went first, then Leo, and before they knew it, they’d passed the foot-long slurping cave slugs and entered a small room with a glowing floor.

  “There,” said Leo. “On the wall.”

  “You’re sure this is going to work?”

  “I’m never sure of anything in the Whippet, but the box made it clear: slug cave, turn the goat two times around, push.”

  There were hieroglyphics of flying animals on the walls, one of which was a goat with wings far too small to lift it off the ground. Leo covered the goat with his palm, turned his hand twice, and pushed. The flying goat spun once, then twice, followed by a baaaah sound from the ceiling.

  “Is that it?” asked Remi, staring up into the high arch of the cave. “The Flying Farm key card?”

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