Curse of the broomstaff, p.4
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       Curse of the Broomstaff, p.4

           Tyler Whitesides
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  Spencer felt a shock of betrayal. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “It’s been three months since you brought him back, Spence,” Alice whispered. “Since then, I have seen my husband twice. Twice!” She took a gasping breath to steady herself. “He has no right to involve you like this! If Alan thinks he can just stand on the sidelines and call for help whenever he needs it—”

  “With all due respect, Mrs. Z,” Bernard cut in, “Alan is out there doing everything in his power to save education and stop the fall of this great country.”

  “Well, maybe he should worry more about saving his family,” Alice said. The room drooped in awkward silence. Alice lowered her face into her hands. She held her breath for a long moment.

  Spencer felt a wash of similar emotions. What had been the point of rescuing his dad if they never got to see him anyway? It was jealous thinking, and it made Spencer angry. Angry at Alan for loving his secret work more than his family. Angry at Alice for not trusting her husband more.

  Alice let out a long and deliberate sigh. Her hands slipped from her now-red eyes. She looked at Spencer, Daisy, and Dr. Bernard Weizmann. Then she whispered, “The package is downstairs.”

  Chapter 6

  “That’s irony.”

  It took a moment for Alice’s words to ring around the kitchen table. Bernard stood up slowly. “Wait a minute,” he said. “You’re talking about the package?”

  Alice nodded, her expression blank.

  “How long has it been here?” Spencer had to ask the question. Had his mom been hoarding this information for all these months?

  “I don’t know,” Alice said. “I just found it last night.”

  “It’s been in the mail for over two years?” Daisy exhaled. “Slow delivery.”

  “It was delivered to our old house,” Alice said, “years ago. It’s addressed to Spencer, from Alan. And the postage date is a match. It must have gotten lost in the clutter of the old house. Somebody packed it when we moved and it’s been sitting in a box downstairs for who knows how long. I was just looking for birthday candles.”

  A deep shred of anxiety entered Spencer’s heart. A question came to his mind that he and Alan had both been interrogated for. “Did you open the package, Mom?” Spencer asked.

  She turned to her son, managing to shake her head. “Your father said not to.”

  Spencer felt a rush of relief, dispelling his unease from the moment before. If Alice hadn’t looked inside the package, then she posed no threat to the BEM. Now Spencer could leave safely, knowing that the Bureau wouldn’t come after the rest of his family on Hillside Estates.

  “Then it was you who took the radios off the grid?” Bernard asked, glancing at the walkie-talkie on the table in front of Spencer.

  Alice nodded. “I thought he would come,” she said.

  “Oh, he’s coming, all right.” Bernard looked at the clock. “But not here. First rendezvous time expires in half an hour. We’ve got to take the package and move on to the next site.”

  “Happy birthday to me!” shouted a little voice from the entryway. The birthday boy stood with a mischievous glint in his eye, brown hair shaggy and unkempt. Max was pulling something wrapped in a bedsheet over one shoulder like a big makeshift sack. He’d dragged the load up the stairs when he saw the visitors at the table.

  “Presents!” Max shouted, throwing back the sheet to expose his loot. The four-year-old had gathered anything that looked like it might be a birthday gift and piled it into his sack.

  “Remember, Max,” Alice said, “we’re not opening presents till the party tonight.”

  Max threw his head back and growled. Then he dove into his pile of gifts and grabbed the biggest box in bright happy birthday wrapping. He shook the present with all his strength, listening to the way the box’s contents clanked around.

  “Presto Racing Police Edition Remote Control Car!” Max shouted at the top of his lungs. He did a little happy dance, kicking and scattering presents from his pile. Max’s foot caught on something. He tripped, sending a parcel skidding across the hardwood floor to rest at Spencer’s feet.

  It was a white mailing tube, about a foot long, with plastic caps over both ends. There was a set of postage stamps at one end, slightly bent and crinkled from neglect.

  Spencer reached down. His chair shifted, and the mailing tube rolled another half-turn, exposing a smudged address label in Alan Zumbro’s distinctive handwriting.

  To: Spencer Zumbro 477 Winowah Way Spokane, WA 99223

  From: Dad

  Spencer’s hand closed over the mailing tube, his heart hammering as he realized the significance.

  “Mine!” Max threw himself at Spencer, gripping the package with both hands. Spencer jerked back, feeling the mysterious contents of the mailing tube slide from one end to the other. The brother tug-of-war lasted only a moment.

  Alice descended upon Max, prying him away from the important package, trying to explain that it wasn’t another birthday gift. The conflict ended poorly, with Max abandoning his entire pile of presents and running, sobbing, to his bedroom.

  “Poor little guy,” Daisy said. She turned a disapproving stare at Spencer. “Why would you steal his presents?”

  Spencer set the postal tube on the table, checking that the end caps were still secure. “Because it wasn’t for him.” Spencer pointed to the address label. “This is it.”

  Alice nodded in agreement, a trace of embarrassment on her face for having already lost track of the package’s whereabouts.

  Bernard put a hand to his forehead, as if the strain of the situation were too much to handle. It was clear how easily things could go missing in the Zumbro house. Only twelve hours after the vital package had been discovered, Max had almost thieved it for a birthday gift.

  “Hmm,” Daisy said. “I didn’t think the package would look like that.”

  “What did you think?” Spencer said.

  Daisy shrugged. “I thought it’d be a little black box covered in stickers that say top secret.”

  “Something you should know about top secret packages,” Bernard said. “They never say top secret.” He leaned forward and picked up the mailing tube. He examined the postage stamps and the address label.

  “Oh, the irony,” Bernard muttered. “After all his time out searching, Alan could have found what he was looking for right here at home.” Bernard shook his head. “That’s irony.”

  Bernard sighed and tucked the package into the front of his striped overalls. Standing, he glanced at the clock once more. “Time’s up,” he said. “Best be getting on the road.” He turned to Spencer and Daisy. “You two got any luggage?”

  “They’re not going with you,” Alice said.

  “Whoa, lady!” Bernard held out his hands. “You can’t go making statements like that. These kids are part of the team. They’re off the grid now, so regardless of what happens, they’re going into hiding until the mission is over.”

  “What about school?” Alice said.

  “About school . . .” Spencer muttered.

  “We’re good!” Daisy said. “We just got suspended. Can’t go back till March.”

  Alice shook her head, as if she couldn’t allow the idea of suspension to enter her brain right now. “What about your parents?” she said to Daisy. “You can’t go off the grid with your parents!”

  Daisy scratched her forehead. “Actually, I think they’d be okay with it.”

  “Are you kidding?” Spencer said. “Your parents are, like . . . super protective!”

  Alice threw her hands in the air. “What does that make me?”

  Daisy turned to Spencer, her eyes full of sincerity. “I think it’s time to tell my parents.”

  “Tell them what?”

  “The truth,” Daisy said. “About everything.”

  “We’ve been over this, Daisy,” said Alice. “Telling your parents would put them onto the BEM’s radar. It would make your whole family a target. I promised Walter that I would

  “But they’ll believe me!” Daisy said. “They’ll believe anything I say!” Again it was quiet around the kitchen table.

  “Problem is,” said Bernard, “you can’t say anything. I’m no parent, but I don’t imagine your folks will let you ride out of town in a stranger’s garbage truck. We’ll have to slip out quietly without confronting your parents.”

  “That’s not my way,” Daisy said. “I tell them everything!” She looked from face to face, but no one would hold eye contact. “At least a note!”

  Bernard nodded. “Keep it vague. We can’t have anyone finding out where we’re going or how long we’ll be there.”

  “Disneyland,” Daisy said. “We’re going to Disneyland.”

  Spencer fished a paper and pen from a drawer and passed them to Daisy. She stooped low over the page, her tongue sneaking out in concentration. When she began to write, Spencer, Alice, and Bernard couldn’t help but watch every unconvincing word unfold.

  Dear Mom and Dad,

  Spencer needs some help. He’s going to Disneyland with his dad and I have to go along. Luckily, we’ve been suspended from school, so we won’t miss anything important. Be back soon!

  Love, Daisy

  She dotted the i in her name and sat back.

  “Lovely note,” Bernard muttered.

  Alice sighed. “That’s it?” she said. “Your folks are going to buy that?” She shook her head. “Of course, I have to be the bad guy again. I have to deliver the note and answer phone call after phone call from your parents.”

  Daisy tapped her chin with the pen. “One more thing!” She bent over and scratched out a final sentence at the bottom of the page:

  P.S. My socks are warm and fuzzy!

  Then she folded the note and slid it across the table to Alice. Daisy set down the pen. No one said anything about her quick postscript. It was gibberish to Alice and Bernard. But Spencer’s mouth had fallen slightly open, and he studied Daisy with a curious expression.

  Daisy finally looked over at him, a pleased smile across her face. “Well,” she said, “I’m ready when you are. I’ve always wanted to go to Disneyland!”

  Chapter 7


  Alight snowfall flittered in the headlights of Bernard’s garbage truck. The flurries had come and gone since dinner—never enough to whiten the road, but keeping the windshield wet so that Bernard had to use the wipers.

  Bernard’s garbage truck smelled weird. Spencer hadn’t expected a nice scent, but the sight of so many car fresheners had momentarily lifted his hopes. Bernard had at least a few dozen pine-tree-shaped fresheners dangling from the truck’s rearview mirror.

  There was a myriad of scents: cinnamon, coconut, vanilla, sprucewood, lavender, and even bacon. The hodgepodge of fragrances, combined with the truck’s preexisting odor of garbage, had been terrible at first. But after so many hours in the truck, Spencer had grown accustomed to the smell.

  Spencer yawned. They were somewhere in eastern Wyoming. The Mickey Mouse clock on the dashboard said it was just after ten o’clock. They’d been driving steadily since noon, stopping only to refuel the garbage truck. Even lunch and dinner were eaten on the go. Alice had packed a cooler with enough food for the three of them.

  Once she had finally agreed to let Spencer and Daisy go, Alice had gone above and beyond to prepare them for the journey. In addition to the meals, Alice had packed a gigantic duffel bag with blankets, sleeping bags, and clothes. Spencer’s sister had a few clothes that would fit Daisy, as well as a coat, gloves, and hat. Thanks to Alice Zumbro, they were prepared.

  “Ahh, goodie,” Bernard said, cranking the big garbage truck around a corner. “Here we are at last.”

  Through the headlights and falling snow, Spencer saw a parking lot. Along both sides were rows of yellow school buses. There must have been more than fifty, all lined up and carefully parked. The windows were dark, and a bit of snow had started to gather on the roofs of the vehicles.

  “It’s like a bus cemetery,” Daisy whispered as they pulled into the lot.

  “Actually,” Bernard said, “it’s a district bus depot. This is where all the buses park overnight.”

  “Where are all the bus drivers?” Daisy asked.

  “Probably at home sleeping,” answered Bernard.

  “But how’d they get home if all the buses are here? Ooh, maybe there’s a special bus that all the bus drivers ride.” She scratched her head. “But who would drive it?”

  “Is this the second rendezvous point?” Spencer asked, distracting Daisy from her chain of useless questions.

  “That’s right,” said Bernard. “We’ve got about two hours here.” He parked the garbage truck in the center of the lot, with rows of quiet school buses on either side. “See if anybody from the team shows.”

  In Spencer’s vision of Walter, the warlock had mentioned that he wouldn’t meet them until the third rendezvous point. But that still left Penny and Alan unaccounted for. Either one could show up here.

  Bernard’s blue eyes scanned the area, pausing on a distant dumpster. “I’m going to check out the trash,” he said. Reaching over, he opened the glove compartment and fished out a headlamp. Bernard strapped the light over his aviator cap, clicked on the bulb, and turned to the kids. “You two stay here.” Then he lowered himself from the truck and took off at a jog toward the dumpster.

  “Guy’s crazy,” Spencer said. “We’ve been with him for ten hours and don’t know a thing about him.”

  “We know he likes garbage,” Daisy said. She pulled a battered CD case from a pocket on the passenger door. “And he listens to They Might Be Giants.”

  “So he likes weird music and digs through people’s trash.” Spencer shrugged. “He’s crazy.”

  “We know he’s a good guy,” Daisy said.

  Spencer sighed. At least they had that assurance, directly from Walter’s mouth. There was no questioning the garbologist’s loyalty. Bernard was weird, but he was also a faithful Rebel.

  “I mean, it’s a good thing Bernard came to get us,” Daisy said. “Without him, we wouldn’t have even known we were on the team. I’d be back at home, listening to my mom’s library presentation.” Daisy glanced at the clock. “Actually, that’s probably over by now.”

  Thoughts of home and Daisy’s parents brought something back to Spencer’s mind. It was something that he hadn’t dared mention with Bernard in the truck. But now that he and Daisy were alone . . .

  “My socks are warm and fuzzy,” Spencer said.

  Daisy instinctively flinched and ducked low in her seat. But Spencer shook his head. “I saw you write that at the bottom of your note.”

  Daisy relaxed a bit, seeing that there was no real danger. “It’s a family phrase,” she said.

  “But it means something,” said Spencer. “Something about danger.”

  Daisy shook her head. “Not danger. It means something Toxite-related is going on.”

  “But that doesn’t make sense. Why would your parents use that phrase? They don’t even know—”

  “I need to tell you something,” Daisy cut him off. “But you have to promise not to tell the others. Not your mom, not Walter, not anybody. Promise?” She stuck out her pinkie.

  Spencer hadn’t pinkie-promised in years. He’d grown out of it, realizing that a pinkie couldn’t magically make someone keep a promise. But the look in Daisy’s eye and the sincerity in her voice caused Spencer to offer up his pinkie without question.

  Daisy linked her little finger around his. The cab of the garbage truck was already chilling off, and Spencer could see her breath against the passenger window.

  “My parents know, Spencer.”

  Spencer should have seen it coming. The family phrase, Mr. Gates’s unquestioning trust in his daughter . . . all the evidence led to this conclusion. But how could Daisy have kept this from Spencer?

  “They’ve known from the very beginning,” she continued. “When you left the soap at my ho
use, I told my dad about it. I was scared to try, so he said he’d use the soap with me.”

  Spencer’s pinkie slipped from their grasp. Part of him was impressed at Daisy’s faithfulness in keeping it secret for so long. But another part of him felt utterly betrayed.

  “That’s how I knew your mom would believe us if we told the truth,” Daisy said. “’Cause my parents already had. I’ve told them all about the BEM’s plan to ruin education and take over the world. That’s why they let me go to New Forest Academy. And that’s why they’re going to be okay with me going on this mission.”

  “You’ve got to tell Walter!” Spencer said. “Your parents could be in danger!”

  “No!” Daisy held up her pinkie to reaffirm their promise. “The only reason they’re safe is because no one knows that they know. It’s our family strategy. We’re the Gullible Gates family.”

  There, in the dim cab of Bernard Weizmann’s garbage truck, Spencer sensed a depth to Daisy Gates. Her face half illuminated by a snowy streetlamp, Spencer saw a complexity and wisdom that he’d never noticed before.

  “Promise?” Daisy said.

  He nodded, taking her outstretched pinkie once again. “I promise.”

  The driver’s door jerked open, and a little flurry of snow whipped into the truck. Bernard scampered up the steps, clutching something small in his hand. He was shivering, but there was a smile on his face.

  “What did you find?” Spencer asked.

  Bernard’s headlamp shone on his hand. “Treasure!” His fingers uncurled to reveal the item he’d brought from the dumpster.

  “A retainer!” Daisy said. Sure enough, Bernard was holding a dental retainer. The kind people wore to keep their teeth straight after braces.

  “Not just any retainer,” Bernard said. “Rainbow colored!” He held it outstretched, shining his light through it. “Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.” He grinned, and Spencer thought he looked nuttier than ever. “Never found one like this before!”

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