Here is the opening chapter of Grim Hill Six, Carnival of Secrets!
Chapter One – A Grim Reality
I opened my eyes, broke out of my peaceful dreams, and then sensed something was not quite right with my world. Although the sun painted my room with light, and birds chirped outside my window, my heart hammered so loudly I could hardly hear them. Even though it was a warm summer day, a heat-sucking cold dread coursed through my body. Then I realized. . .
I was caught in one of those moments between waking and remembering—remembering that my sister, Sookie, was gone—no, not gone, but changed horribly.
“Cat! Breakfast!” Mom called from downstairs. “You have to hurry.”
I ignored her call and huddled deeper under the sheets. Once I crawled out of bed and let my feet touch hard, smooth wood, I would have to deal with the unthinkable.
On the summer solstice, my kid sister had entered Fairy to save my friends and me. But both the fairy world and our normal world overlapped on the longest day of summer, and when she’d opened the door, Fairy had seeped into our world like an ugly stain. When my friends and I returned home, my worst fears had come true…fairy magic had overtaken Grim Hill. An evil carnival had hammered in its tent stakes just outside of town, and showed no signs of leaving anytime soon.
Going to Fairy had changed my little sister, Sookie, into an evil, full-fledged witch. And what was even more horrible, since fairy-time was different than ours, she was no longer little—she’d been transformed into a grown-up. Worst of all, she had become a scourge in our town, causing all sorts of evil mischief.
Now I was the kid and Sookie was the adult. I couldn’t even boss her around anymore. It was no surprise that I was still having nightmares—not about being lost in haunted woods, or being chased by desperate outlaws, but about losing Sookie to dark magic. I kept dreaming about both of us being trapped on a carousel ride spinning faster and faster to our doom… Every night since I’d returned I kept waking up thinking there was scratching on my window, or I’d sit up startled with a pounding heart and an uncanny feeling someone was watching me in the dark. And no matter how tightly I kept my window shut, tinny, eerie music still drifted in from the carnival.
“Cat,” Mom called again. “You’ll be late for school.”
School! In the middle of summer. So not good…
It all started back in the school year when my perilous encounters with magic caused me to have a less than-stellar attendance record —not to mention the black mark on my student file due to the whole break-in incident during the school exchange in Sweden. My science teacher wanted me to be placed in an advanced science class in high school, but my new counselor, Ms. Needlemeyer was skeptical I’d be successful because of my record. She had decided I needed to write an entrance exam.
With everything else going on with the fairy world that spring, I didn’t exactly ace the big test. The bad news was that my science teacher, Ms. Dreeble, told Mom to sign me up for summer school so I could still be in the advanced science class in September, which was now almost here. Worse yet, I hadn’t concentrated as much as I should have in the class, and now I was being held past summer school for personal tutoring from Ms. Dreeble!
I threw my pillow against the wall. Failing a test and missing out on soccer camp had seemed like a terrible fate, but it didn’t even matter anymore. I had a much bigger problem—to somehow undo all the harm that I had caused by letting the fairy world invade, not to mention causing Sookie to become a witch. Then I remembered I was supposed to meet up with my friend Jasper.
We were about to return to the place I dreaded most—Grim Hill. But we needed answers about how to save my sister and our town, and only one person would be able to help us with that…
With a new focus I slipped out of bed, and stumbled over the discarded quilt on my floor. I must have kicked it off during one of my nightmares. I threw a few sunflower seeds in Buddy’s cage. One morning Buddy and his cage had simply appeared on our back porch. I still couldn’t believe my sister had left behind the little hamster she’d once loved.
Hurriedly, I tugged on shorts and a T-shirt and bounded downstairs four steps at a time. At the kitchen table my mom had filled my bowl with Frosty Oats, and I dumped that cereal back into its box and grabbed a piece of toast instead.
My mom waved a spoon at me. “Cat, I bought this expensive cereal and you haven’t touched it. I can’t afford to throw money away on food you won’t eat.”
“Frosty Oats are not my favorite cereal, Mom.” I said a little louder than I’d meant to. I poured a small amount of the cereal in my bowl and took a spoonful before pushing the bowl away.
For a moment Mom looked confused and then annoyed. “I clearly remember adding this cereal to my shopping list because someone was insisting!”
Someone had insisted. The cereal was Sookie’s favorite, not mine, but I didn’t say that out loud. Mom couldn’t remember that Sookie had been her little daughter, and it was better that way. I mumbled, “Sorry, I guess I’m not very hungry.” I grabbed my book bag, slipped into my sneakers and opened the door. I blinked at the sunshine and stepped outside into the warming summer air.
“Cat,” Mom called me back. I turned around.
“Mom, I’ve got to get to school.”
Mom reached over, took a strand of my dark hair and brushed it off my forehead. She never mentioned the green streaks in my hair that would never wash out since I’d been marked by the fairies.
“Cheer up! It’s the last day. I know you’ve hated being stuck in summer school,” Mom said. “And that you’re disappointed about missing soccer camp. But it isn’t like you to sulk. I can tell you haven’t been yourself all summer. These last few days you’ve hardly said two words.”
She thought I was sulking, but I was caught up in trying to figure out how to thwart the fairies and get my sister back. Today I had all my hopes pinned on one meeting. I bit my lip and resisted spilling my troubles—worries that Mom couldn’t begin to understand or even believe. She couldn’t see that a wicked spell had settled over our town in the form of an evil carnival. Fairy folk wandered around those grounds and who knew what they were getting up to.
Not to mention, Sookie was up to her own mischief. She’d managed to terrify anyone who trespassed on the property of the old house she’d taken over. I fought back tears thinking about how Sookie had even threatened to put me under a wicked spell if I tried to go near her place.
“I’m okay, Mom, really. But I’m going to be late.”
“Come on now,” Mom put on her encouraging voice when she noticed my eyes tearing up. “My daughter digs her heels in when things aren’t going her way. She always finishes the job, no matter what. Where’s your competitive spirit? Where’s your steely determination? Where’s that girl who scores all the goals?”
I stood up straighter and tried to smile, and even gave Mom a quick hug. Mom misunderstood me, yet she’d managed to give me a good tip. Maybe the fairies had the upper hand right now. But I did have steely determination.
Those stupid fairies had better realize I would never give up. Maybe today would be the day I’d form a plan to get back what I had lost. Jasper and I had to get to Grim Hill as soon as possible.
When I arrived outside the school building, Jasper was not at the playground or waiting on the steps. I would have to meet him later. All through the morning I listened to all my friends playing soccer outside on Darkmont’s soccer field. As their shouts drifted through the open classroom window, I admit that despite all my worries about Sookie and our town, I couldn’t help but listen and do some mental coaching. No! Clive shouldn’t play goalie; he should play center. The goalie should be Mitch. Mia shouldn’t have taken that that shot on goal! Why didn’t she pass the ball to Amarjeet?
“Cat, you’re not paying attention.”
My teacher, Ms. Dreeble, straightened her lab coat and adjusted the glasses on her nose so that she could peek over the rims and fasten her eyes on me. “I want to see you focused on your work for the rest of class.”
I tried, but the words on the page swam in front of my eyes, and the shouts of my friends made me turn constantly to the window. Close to noon I began squirming in my seat. To meet Jasper I had to get away as soon as class was over. I slipped my books into my bag and looked out the window one more time to make sure my friends were still there. Maybe they knew where Jasper was. When the bell rang, I grabbed my book bag and raced for the door.
“Caitlin, please come back. I need to talk to you.”
Having a teacher call out my full name was never a good sign. My heart sped up as a quiet voice in my head said, “Hurry, Cat! There isn’t much time.”
“Yes, Ms. Dreeble.” Purposely sounding eager, I hurried to her desk as I snuck one last glimpse out the window trying to spot Jasper Chung.
“If it’s not too much trouble, Caitlin, I’d like your full attention,” said Ms. Dreeble.
I forced my eyes away from the window.
Ms. Dreeble tapped her pen against the desk and each click was like an exclamation point. “You are going to qualify for advanced science in high school, like it or not. You can do extra homework this weekend to make sure you fully understand your lessons.” Click. Click. “I’m not letting my goal of preparing you for the placement test slip.” She didn’t add, like you have, Cat.
“Now pull out your book and I’ll assign the pages and questions.”
“But this is the last class, how can you give me homework?” I had meant those words to come out as a question, but I’ll admit it sounded more like a smart aleck remark.
Ms. Dreeble gave her head the smallest shake and looked away from me, as if that disappointed her more than my poor progress. “Cat, I will be in school next week setting up for regular classes. Bring in the work and we’ll go over it together.”
It took all my steely determination not to sigh as I yanked out my books. If only the adults in my life would just get out of the way so I could get on with my real goal.
When I finally got out of Ms. Dreeble’s clutches, all my friends had disappeared. I wondered if they’d gone to play baseball after soccer practice. As I headed to the park, everybody I met on the street kept their head down. It was as if everyone in town wanted to stay out of sight and out of mind. I stopped by Esmeralda’s dress shop, but there was no chance to gaze through the window at her super-fancy dresses. She’d shut tight the heavy velvet curtains.
Mr. Keating wasn’t standing outside his grocery store, and even his apple barrels were tucked inside the store. I spotted him under the awning in the shadows, peering out his window. I took a few steps more and called out, “Hi, Mr. Keating.” He only nodded curtly.
Curtains were drawn in every window I passed even though it was a beautiful afternoon. Then I stopped dead. A group of kids were skipping rope at the edge of the park, and they chanted a chilling rhyme:
Children be quiet,
Children don’t yell,
Or Sookie will find you and cast a dark spell.
She’ll change you into frogs,
And make your frog legs twitch!
Stay far, far away from that evil, mean witch.
I swiped my arm across my face to dry my tears. I ran past the kids and through the park. I rubbed my eyes to make sure my face looked normal when I spotted my friends.
Pulling myself together and without even saying, “Hello,” I blurted out, “Where’s Jasper?”
Mitch shrugged his shoulders. “He didn’t show up for soccer camp.”
Clive stared at what were probably red streaks on my face. “Looks like someone isn’t too happy about being stuck in summer school.”
My withering glance forced Clive to take a step back.
“What’s the matter?” Amarjeet asked quietly. “I don’t think Clive was trying to be . . .” I glared at my friend. She didn’t turn away. Instead she adopted her no-nonsense voice. “There is something wrong, isn’t there, Cat? And it has nothing to do with summer school.” She tapped her head as if she was trying to pry loose a hidden memory.
I didn’t have the heart to explain that everything was wrong, and that they too were under the fairy spell that gripped our town. Jasper and I held charmed feathers that helped keep our heads clear of glamour—the fairy enchantment that made everyone else forget the wicked things the fairies had done in the past.
A truck lumbered past the park carrying more supplies to the new school they were building on top of Grim Hill—a school for evil fairy folk. Under terrible risk, my friends and I had played a deadly soccer match to shut down the old school. Now all of our work which had trapped fairy magic inside Grim Hill was being undone. If the fairies weren’t even trying to keep their business hidden, what good was a charmed feather, anyway?
“Did Jasper say why he wasn’t going to be at soccer today?” I asked. Mia shook her head. “I don’t think so. He mentioned something about meeting someone, but he never specifically said it would be this morning.”
I couldn’t believe Jasper hadn’t waited for me. Then again, he wouldn’t have risked missing the meeting even if it meant going alone. As if an ice cube had slipped up and down my spine, I shivered. Then I started running
“Where are you going Cat?” “Don’t you want to play?” “I don’t get it—since when does Cat pass on sports?”
I didn’t stop running until I reached the forested Grim Hill. The shadows on the hill didn’t offer the refreshing shade of a tree on a hot day. Instead, the shade felt like a creeping cold that could set your teeth to chattering if you lingered there for long.
Not that anybody did—as soon as you stepped onto one of the paths on Grim Hill, it was as if you’d stepped inside a haunted house. Everything about the place drove even the calmest mind into a panic. I had to force myself up a narrow, leaf-strewn path until I stood under the main copse of trees. The breeze moving through the branches sounded like ghostly whispers. My hair prickled the nape of my neck, and now it was as if a whole bag of ice cubes was sliding around my back.
Beside me, the sweeping branches of a fir tree parted.
I jumped like the scaredy-cat Sookie always accused me of being.