Tess and her brother Max had had a fight the day before. Over nothing. It was always over nothing. They were playing Monopoly. The British version because that was all Evie had in the house besides Scrabble. Tess was winning. Tess had three hotels and she rolled double sixes, for the second time in a row, and Max had thrown the board at her. Well, not really at her but in her direction… Tess got mad, too. But rather than having a fight with him, she’d stormed off on her own into the back garden and kept on walking.
Tess never could stay mad at Max for more than half an hour but it was nice to be outside, the air was fresh, and so, she continued walking up the path to where the pear and plum trees were planted on the hill. She stopped and ate a plum and then was surprised to see the path continued beyond the small orchard. She kept on walking, higher and higher. The path stopped at a moment, dead-ended against a hill, but then she took the narrow trail to the right and there was a clear view across a field of tall grass sprinkled with wild flowers. Tess didn’t know why she’d never been up here before.
She walked across the small meadow, back onto a path, and up the hill which was now becoming almost rocky as if she’d happened onto a cliff. Off to her left, she could see something she’d never seen before, certainly it wasn’t visible from the main road she didn’t think. It was an old house, ancient maybe, well, house might not be the right word as it looked awfully large, but it was hard to tell since it seemed as if it was covered in a cloud of mist.
She stopped on the path for a moment, struck by the image of what looked like a castle in the mist, so startling and yet so still, almost if it was a painting.
There seemed to be steps in the cliff-side, carved into the rock, and Tess followed them, slowly. She stopped to look back for a moment. She could see the top of her Aunt’s house seemingly far in the distance. She realized she might have walked further than she’d thought. And then the path stopped and there was just the face of a rocky hill above her. She turned to the left and saw a tangled rose bush; its tiny pink flowers reminded her of her mother’s garden in their small country house on Long Island.
She sat down on the highest step and looked out over the dark green moors, seemingly endless grass, and what looked like a herd of cows which must be the dairy farm a half a mile down the road from Aunt Evie’s. They would go there to get eggs and cream for the week and farmers’ cheese if he’d made any. They always went to the dairy farm on Mondays. Her Aunt said it was a good thing to have a bit of a schedule, especially if you lived alone.
Tess stood up and realized she was a little out of breath from the climb or else she was up so high, the air was thin. She looked again at the tangled rose bush and was surprised to find, just next to it, a wooden gate that was carved. It looked a little like a gingerbread cookie with a funny symbol in the middle, not quite like a heart, more like a coat of arms. The curious thing about the gate though was it didn’t seem attached to a fence. Tess had noticed that about England – people weren’t as big on fences as they were in America – everything wasn’t all closed in. She’d asked her Aunt about it. Evie had thought it had something to do with old horse trails that linked the neighborhood together and the fact that the houses were so far away from one another. Tess hadn’t pressed her on this but she did wonder if there wasn’t a stable nearby and one day her Aunt might let them take a riding lesson or at least go out on a ride. Tess loved horses and the way it felt to to be up on one. Max wasn’t as keen on it, so she hadn’t suggested it yet. Still, it was curious that there was a gate and there wasn’t any fence. She thought she might as well just walk around it.
She was surprised when she tried. It was as if she’d hit a flat surface. First her toe banged into it and then her shoulder. But there wasn’t anything there. Not anything you could see, anyway. She took a step back and put her hand out. It had a smooth surface, cold, almost like polished marble. But there wasn’t anything there that she could see and she couldn’t quite see through it either. Like an invisible wall. It was very odd. She walked down to the other side of the gate and tried again. But once again, her toe hit the wall and then she bumped it with her elbow. Something didn’t want to let her in. She traced that side with her hand as well, and well it was curious…
She was a little frightened. It didn’t make a lot of sense. She wondered if she might have had too much sun and she was imagining things. If she’d had any sense, she probably would’ve run back down the path to her Aunt’s house where everything was just as it was supposed to be.
The gate itself was also odd. It was a carved wooden gate but it didn’t have a latch or a keyhole and its surface was flat, no edges of wood to get a foot on so that you could try to climb over it. It was just high enough so that no amount of jumping could get her to reach the top –– not that she was enough of a gymnast to have hoisted herself over it if it did, and if she could, she wondered how she would ever get back...
She was just about to give up when she looked down and saw a round piece of metal, almost like an iron ring, buried in the dirt. She leaned down and using her t-shirt like a glove, clawed at the dirt and pulled out what looked like an old skeleton key.
She knew instantly it was the key to the gate. But then she had what her Dad would call a dilemma. If she’d found the key to someone’s “house,” did it mean she had the right to use it? Well, it wasn’t really the key to the house, she reasoned, it was just the key to the gate. And if there were dogs on the other side, they would’ve been barking already.
She brushed off the key as best she could completely forgetting that there wasn’t any keyhole to put it in. It was as if she was compelled to try it. She held the key up to the gate and then realized how ridiculous that was, but as the key neared the place where the keyhole should’ve been, the rust flashed away in an instant – she swore she saw sparks – and the gate seemed to lighten as if it had been built in this century after all. It was almost as if it was a magnet, or two sides of a magnet anyway, as her hand pushed the key into a shiny brass keyhole that appeared out of nowhere. She was a little frightened now but the gate swung open before she could even turn the key...
She could see a pond, the water pale blue, with white swans in it and what seemed like water lilies growing around the banks. There were hedges in the distance, staggered in lines, that reminded her of the maze at Hampton Court. She wondered if it was a maze. The hydrangeas were blooming, their lush white flowers looked like pom poms. It was definitely somebody’s estate. And now she was worried that the invisible “wall” on either side of the gate was like an electrified fence or something – her father had told her about those – and she really shouldn’t be there, at all.
But before she could shut the gate and run back down the hill, a voice called out, “Helllo-o.” There was a boy who looked to be almost her age kicking a yellow ball practicing soccer moves. He stopped the ball adeptly between his feet and called out again, “Hello.” And then he added the strangest thing, “I’ve been expecting you.”
Copyright © 2017 by Amy Ephron. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.