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       Floors, p.13

           Patrick Carman
 
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  The junk was moving, like the sound of a very old boat on a windswept pond.

  “I have a feeling we better not touch any of it,” said Leo.

  The goat trail was narrow, barely wide enough for two boys, a duck, and a flying goat to pass in single file.

  “Hey, Leo, check this out.”

  Remi held the gray key card out so Leo could see it. The touch screen had changed.

  “Now I see why we needed a flying goat,” said Leo. Betty quacked as if to say Merle’s not the only one that can fly around here, you know!

  “There’s the end,” said Remi, touching a flashing green arrow at the far end of the screen. He might have been smarter to point, not touch, because Merle was gone around the first corner of the goat trail before they could stop him.

  Remi was just about to push on the start of the maze again and call Merle back when Leo grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into the maze.

  “RUN!”

  The towering junk teetered back and forth and started to crumble, then the entryway to the maze came crashing down as Betty took flight and landed in Leo’s arms. An old bicycle seat flew through the air and hit Leo in the back of the head. It was a soft seat, but it hit him hard, knocking him forward as Betty sprang free and flew away.

  “Leo! Don’t move!” yelled Remi. They’d come around the first corner, and the junk was no longer only on both sides of them. Remi was the first to see that the junk was now over the top of them as well. They were trapped in a cocoon of garage-sale castoffs. One false move and the whole room would come crashing down on top of them both.

  “I’m okay, in case you were interested,” said Leo, rubbing the back of his head as he sat up.

  “Glad to hear it.”

  Both boys sat on the floor, staring at the fallen entryway, as Remi called Merle back with a touch of his finger. The key card screen now showed their progress, so he knew where to touch, and Merle was hovering overhead a few seconds later.

  “There’s only one pathway out of this crazy thing,” said Leo, staring down the narrow goat trail that branched out like veins in every direction. “Good thing we have a flying goat that can lead the way.”

  “You said it, brother,” Remi offered. He hadn’t meant it to sound like they really were brothers, but they both smiled awkwardly at the idea, anyway.

  “Where’s Betty?” asked Leo, suddenly realizing the duck was gone.

  They both worried over which path she might have flown down, and Leo felt especially terrible.

  “I never should have brought her in here. If she gets turned around, she’ll never find her way out.”

  Remi sent Merle back toward the exit and they followed, careful not to touch the walls as they went. Each time Merle got too far ahead of them, Remi called him back with a touch of his finger. They went on like this — in circles, it seemed — for some time, until Leo heard a loud crash somewhere off to his left. Both boys could only think of one thing, but neither of them would say it. Betty.

  “Let’s just keep moving — we’ll find her,” said Remi. And so they did.

  Ten minutes later, Leo was sure they’d come back to the same spot.

  “I saw that mailbox a while back,” he said, pointing to a rusted-out box without a door, holding someone’s old mail.

  They heard another crash, this time on the right, and the floor started to move.

  “This can’t be good,” said Remi, balancing as his feet wobbled back and forth. He put the gray key card in his pocket for safekeeping just as the floor gave way in a perfect circle ten feet back. The circle was about two feet across, the path they stood on falling away into black. A second later, another hole caved in. Then another.

  “Those holes are chasing us!” yelled Leo. “Which way?”

  They’d come to a fork in the path. Remi pulled the key card out of his pocket once more, but Merle was at the exit again. The card had told Merle where to go, but the flying goat was so far ahead, he’d left Leo and Remi wondering where to turn.

  “I can’t remember which way to go!” Remi said, three more holes appearing behind them.

  Leo looked in both directions. If he chose wrong, the holes might chase them into a dead end and swallow them up.

  “I say left,” said Remi.

  “I was thinking the same thing,” said Leo.

  “At least we’ll be right or wrong together!”

  As a hole dropped through right behind them, Leo lost his footing and began falling back. Remi grabbed Leo by the hand and pulled as he felt the floor shifting under his feet. Two seconds, maybe three, and a hole would appear, dragging them both under. Remi pulled as hard as he could and dove down the path.

  Leo landed on top of Remi, then accidentally batted the wall of junk with his hand. The ceiling made a horrible grinding noise as every thing shifted. Both boys closed their eyes tight, waiting for the end.

  Three seconds passed, then five, then ten. The ceiling, it appeared, was going to hold.

  “You dove right,” said Leo, sitting up and seeing where they’d landed, right on the edge of the Y in the path. The holes had continued to the left as far as he could see.

  “Good thing you almost fell into that hole or we’d both be goners.”

  Leo and Remi stood up, called Merle back, and worried about Betty.

  “You probably saved my life right there,” said Leo as they kept walking. “How about I take you to the Cake Room when we get out of here?”

  “Now you’re talking!”

  Merle returned very quickly this time, which told them something important: They were near the end of the goat trail. In fact, as they came around the next corner, they could see the exit, which bothered them both.

  “We can’t leave Betty in here,” said Leo. “What would Merganzer think?”

  But they needn’t have worried so much. They heard Betty’s familiar quack, and it wasn’t coming from anywhere behind them. It was coming from somewhere beyond the exit.

  “Smart duck you got there,” said Remi.

  “No doubt,” Leo answered, and they both followed Merle to the end of the path. The closer they got, the more they both thought they heard a new sound, like rusty scissors opening and closing. It did not strike either of them as a good sound.

  “Do you see that?” asked Remi, stopping in his tracks.

  “I do,” said Leo, and then they both started running.

  The old sinks and Crock-Pots and dressers were moving, not toward them, but away from them.

  The wall of junk was coming alive.

  “Bad flying creatures!” yelled Remi. “Bad bad bad!”

  They’d run with every thing they had to the exit, watching as toasters and tricycles and every thing else sprang to life and began flying overhead. Like a host of sleeping prehistoric flying beasts, the walls and the ceiling woke up, screeching their terrible wings over a field of flowers. Behind them, the entire maze fell to the floor with a great crash, and Leo had to wonder whether or not the whole hotel wouldn’t fall down with it. Behind them lay a junkyard, before them a pristine field of flowers, over their heads an unimaginable sky of flying garbage.

  “Are they mechanical or are they holograms?” Remi asked, hoping against all hope for the latter.

  “I’ve never been in here before. I have no idea!” Leo answered. But then a flying picture frame slammed into the junk pile, sparks of glass flying every where.

  “I think that answers our question,” said Remi. “This stuff is real! We’re dead!”

  They stood at the edge of the junkyard as crazy flying creatures guarded the field of flowers. Merle had joined in and the key card had gone totally blank, so they weren’t getting any more help from the flying goat.

  “What are we supposed to do?” asked Remi. The key card began to vibrate in his hand, and the black screen wasn’t totally black anymore. It looked like someone was inside the card, writing on the screen with his finger, as if the screen were filled with black soot and it could be wiped away
from another world that lay hidden in the card.

  “Um, Leo, you better check this out.” Leo ducked as a giant bug with a popcorn popper for a head did a kamikaze dive, crashing into the debris with a flash of sparks. He leaned in close to the screen and watched as a message appeared.

  Always good to have a duck.

  DUCK!

  Both boys looked up and saw a swarm of flying metal insects, all of them made of globs of scissors, diving toward them. They ducked to the floor in the nick of time and the bugs exploded against the junk pile, raining down scissors as Leo and Remi fire-rolled out of the way.

  “We were almost shish kebabs!” yelled Remi. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the main course at the next Whippet Hotel barbeque.”

  “I’m with you,” said Leo, and he whistled three times fast, the same whistle his father had used in the hotel lobby when Betty and her buddies had gone berserk. The sound echoed through the room, and off in the distance, at the far end of the field of flowers, a tiny duck head popped up.

  Betty quacked.

  Then she ran and took flight, calling out wildly as she careened around the room. The flying junk gathered in a line behind her, as if it were being called to follow and Betty was its leader. She flew around and around until all the rubbish followed her like a long, whipping tail.

  “Go, Betty, go!” Remi yelled. And go she did, over the junkyard, swooping high, then diving straight down. She turned at the last second, and every flying creature slammed one by one into the scrap pile.

  All was quiet then, but for the sound of Betty’s wings as she flew overhead and back to where she’d come from on the other end of the room. A moment later, she landed in the tall flowers and Leo couldn’t see her anymore.

  “I have a feeling she knows where we’re supposed to go,” he said.

  Remi just shook his head. “‘Always bring a duck.’ Words to live by.”

  The room felt deathly still as they walked a thin path through a field of orchids.

  “These are hard to grow,” said Leo, having a sudden memory he’d all but forgotten.

  “How do you know that?”

  “They’re orchids. They take special care.” The memory flooded back now as Leo reached out and touched the weirdly shaped flowers. Some were orange, some red, some blue, and all of them had long green stems and oddly shaped petals.

  “My mom tried to grow them once in our living room, under a lamp,” said Leo, a dreaminess to his voice that Remi hadn’t heard before. “She said it would make our apartment feel like magic. And it did. I remember now, she did grow an orchid.”

  “Only one?” asked Remi. But looking at the flowers, he could see how just one would be enough to make his own crummy apartment feel magical.

  “Remi, I know what the ghost is,” said Leo, a tingle in his voice.

  “What ghost?”

  “The one from the box, remember? ‘Tipping cows, a ghost, apple juice.’”

  “Yeah, that one’s had me stumped.”

  Leo didn’t answer; he simply kept on down the path, looking back and forth over the field of orchids. As they approached the end of the path, the garden turned swampy and they waded through a foot of water with fallen trees strewn about.

  “Do you smell that?” asked Remi. “Smells like apple juice.”

  “That means it’s blooming,” said Leo, spotting Betty lolling in the water contentedly. She was swimming around under a branch, and on the branch sat a perfectly white box with its lid open.

  Light was coming out of the box.

  “Hold on a second, Leo. The finger is back.”

  Remi held out the key card so Leo could see, as it vibrated, the screen filling once more with black.

  “By the way, whoever’s in the card? They can see us,” said Remi. He’d been thinking about it a lot. “How else would they have known to say ‘DUCK’?”

  Leo looked all around, expecting to see MR. M. hiding somewhere, but he did not.

  The finger drew a message, then crossed part of it out.

  The box is for Leo.

  “Looks like I might get this one,” said Remi. “I wonder why?”

  But that was not to be. Instead, the finger filled in a different name.

  The box is for Leo. Clarence.

  Remi looked at Leo, who didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he was smiling.

  “The box is for your dad?”

  “Uh-huh,” Leo answered, then he turned for the box and quietly moved through the water. “Be very quiet and careful; they’re sensitive.”

  “Who are?” asked Remi.

  “That smell of apple juice comes from only one flower, Remi. My mom never dreamed of trying to grow one, because it’s the rarest flower in the world. But she told us about it: the ghost orchid.”

  “Cool,” said Leo.

  They both leaned over, staring into the white box, and there it was. The rarest flower of them all, in a full bloom of white.

  “That’s a cool-looking flower,” said Remi. “And I don’t even like flowers. You’re right — it’s like magic. And look — the box is made to hold it. It’s got lights in the lid and on the floor. It’s perfect.”

  The key card vibrated once more, and a final message appeared.

  Six A.M. tomorrow, duck elevator.

  Only Leo.

  “It’s okay,” said Remi, seeing that Leo wished they could go together. “My mom and I don’t get here until seven, anyway. Good luck, bro.”

  Leo shut the lid on the box and gently picked it up. When he did, a door popped open on the wall to the left of the field of flowers. There were white stairs leading down, which would take them back to the Flying Farm Room.

  Where Ms. Sparks awaited them both.

  CHAPTER 14

  FIRED!

  Leo left Remi in the upper part of the hotel and crept down to the basement with the box. They both agreed that Remi would play the decoy, drawing Ms. Sparks away if she appeared. The last person they wanted getting her hands on such a special box was old beehive head.

  As Leo walked, the box dimmed slowly from light to dark. Night for the ghost orchid had come. Opening the door to the basement, Leo saw lights flashing against the walls.

  “Oh no, more trouble,” he said to himself. “At least the siren isn’t going off.”

  As he crept down the stairs and peered around the corner, he saw, to his relief, that his father wasn’t there.

  What was not so relieving was the state of the call center. Daisy had spit out a rolling pile of twisted paper that looked like it was a mile long … and she was still going. The ticker tape of broken things in the hotel kept getting longer and longer, and all the lights on the call center wall were flashing. Leo had never seen the call center so wild with activity, so wild, in fact, that steam was pouring out of the corners of the wall. It looked like the entire thing might explode at any moment.

  But why no siren? Leo inspected the call center more closely and saw that someone — probably his dad — had cut all the sound wires, which dangled and sparked against the wall.

  “He must have grown tired of all the noise,” Leo said, speaking this time to the ghost orchid hidden in the box. “Good thing. I know how loud noises bother you.”

  The ghost orchid was delicate. It bloomed over and over in the summer, but only if the conditions were right. Too much clatter or a storm — anything like that and the flower would close and might not ever open again.

  “Better get you safely hidden away,” said Leo, stepping over piles of ticker tape on the way to his cot.

  As he slid the box under his bed, he took note of the four boxes that had gathered there: first the purple one, then the blue, then green, and now white. Four boxes.

  He was arranging them just so when the door to the basement opened. He stood up, leaning against the washing machine as casually as he could. He expected to see his father, racing back for tools to fix this or that, but when he looked up, it was Ms. Sparks. She had Remi by the ear,
and he bounced down the stairs behind her, yelling for Leo to run.

  “Shut up, enchilada!”

  Leo looked at the tiny window above his cot and wondered if he could reach it, climb through, and run for the gate. He was that scared by the look on Ms. Sparks’s face.

  “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get to the Puzzle Room,” she said. Leo could practically feel her icy cold breath. “NOW!”

  Leo was terrified that the booming voice of Ms. Sparks would kill the ghost orchid before he even had a chance to give it to his father. The thought sent him scurrying for the door, right past Ms. Sparks as she slapped him on the back of the head.

  Looking back, Leo saw that Ms. Sparks was eyeing the basement, walking farther into his home without being invited. She dragged Remi behind her and stood before the call center.

  “Are you coming?” asked Leo from the top of the stairs.

  “I’ll leave here when I please, and not a moment sooner,” said Ms. Sparks, looking at the boiler, the shelves of boxes, the washing machine. The cots.

  “I’m going, then,” said Leo, trying to distract her. “I’ll be in the Puzzle Room, like you asked.”

  “Take your friend with you,” said Ms. Sparks, letting Remi go with a twist of her hand, as if she were snapping her fingers with his ear in between.

  “Just so you know,” said Remi, “that really hurt.”

  “GET OUT!” she screamed, and Leo’s heart broke again. What rare and beautiful flower could possibly live in the same space as Ms. Sparks’s shrill voice?

  Neither boy spoke as they walked through the lobby and into the Puzzle Room, having no idea what they might find there. All Leo could think about was Ms. Sparks finding all four boxes, which would mean she’d know about the secret rooms. What then? What would she do? He was sure she was behind all the trouble at the hotel, sure it had been her at the gate with the black car, plotting the hotel’s demise with a shady developer. She was driving down the price of the hotel and getting a piece of the action. Or worse, she would own the Whippet with someone’s help. It was a complete and total disaster in the making. Still, even those dark thoughts didn’t prepare Leo for what awaited him in the Puzzle Room.

 
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