Sarah Spellings & The Followers of The Grove

The Other Side of The Photograph

Sammy slept over in Sarah’s treehouse. The next day, shocked murmurs circulated in the grove. Sarah would overhear her father’s name, and whirling around, she would find the averted eyes and guilty faces of gossipsMurdock took Sammy for a walk to explain what he and Fern had seen.

“Dad went on a kayak trip with Milton,” Sammy told Sarah later.

Her brother’s thick brown hair stood up in comical tufts, and his jeans and woollen coat were smeared with mud. He looked pathetic, small, and vulnerable. He wiped his runny nose with the back of his hand.

“Seems weird, I know,” said Sarah. She patted her brother on his back, and forced herself to smile. “Dad must have had a good reason for going, and I’m sure he’ll come back soon.”

Hanx and Trig kept Sammy busy for the rest of the day. After the evening meal, Sarah clattered her plate into the dish bin, and walked Rumpus down to the lake. Her mind was reeling. Shivering, she tugged her green poncho around her shoulders. Leaning against a giant maple, she remembered healing tree wounds after Parleyment’s attack on the grove. The warmth of her powers coursing along her arms and tingling in her hands was almost forgotten; it felt like a fanciful, pleasant dream. As winter came on, her old fears were returning. Her silver locket felt heavy; the powers that connected her to her mother were slipping away. She felt like she was losing her mother all over again.

Footsteps crunched beside her, and Levvy handed Sarah a folded piece of bannock with blackberry jam filling.

“Blessings,” Sarah said forlornly.

“There’s no reason to freak out. Your dad isn’t a Parleyment kind of guy. There must be another explanation for where he went.”

Sarah swallowed with difficulty, easing bannock past a lump in her throat. “He’s been visiting Milton, though. I’ve seen him there lots of times. And he’s been avoiding me,” Sarah confessed, tears threatening.

“Hey, it’s going to be okay. Shh—the others are right behind me,” Levvy warned.

Rumpus barked as Fern, Murdock and Quinn skidded down pebbles to the lakeshore, their hands full of bannock. Sarah glanced balefully at Fern.

“What?” Fern bristled. “I know what I saw, Sarah. Your father left with Milton.”

“Maybe your special vision isn’t working right,” Sarah said. “Remember when Spex and Grump were hiding in the woods, and you didn’t see them when you scanned?”

Murdock shushed a red-faced Fern before she could retort. “Point taken,” he said. “It was late, it was getting dark, and we were dealing with a soaking wet, haywire dog. Maybe we misunderstood. For Sammy’s sake, we should give Tony the benefit of doubt.”

“So you want us to pretend we didn’t see what we saw?” Fern spat, and for a second Sarah saw the ruthlessness of a Parleyment agent in the reformed spy.

Quinn cut in. “Of course not, Fern. Just stick to the truth. From what I can tell, the only facts are that one, Milton got away, and two, Tony followed him. Anything more is guesswork.”

It was reassurance Sarah desperately needed to hear, and she beamed her thanks to Quinn. He returned her smile, and then busied himself stuffing bannock and blackberry jam in his mouth. A loon called, its haunting oooeeeooooeeeooo echoing across the water. Murdock cleared his throat.

“Fern and I want to take Sammy to Vancouver for a few days. It will take his mind off his father, and hopefully Tony will show up while we’re gone. I could shop for a bicycle for Sammy. Anyway, Sassamatta Grove needs to trade fish and preserves for rice and flour. What do you think? We’ll take really good care of him, I promise.”

Sarah was torn. If her father returned to find his son gone, how would he react? The old Tony Spellings trusted his daughter’s judgement, but the sullen, withdrawn person living in her father’s skin these days might not forgive her for making such a big decision on his behalf. Distracting Sammy was a good idea, though. Murdock and Fern held hands, waiting for Sarah’s answer. Fern’s eyes had softened to slate grey, and the couple seemed like a benevolent aunt and uncle.

“We could all go to Vancouver together,” Sarah blurted, but to her surprise, Quinn and Levvy shook their heads regretfully. “Why not? You guys begged me to come last time.”

Levvy sighed. “My parents should have been here weeks ago, Sarah. I know it’s bad timing, but we have to go back to Wailsmouth Street, and find them.”

Quinn interrupted. “Sarah, Milton works for Ichamus Nickel, so he’ll be reporting what he’s observed about our grove. Spex says Parleyment forces are gathering in your old neighbourhood. It’s probable that Levvy’s parents are involved in some sort of resistance movement. We should combine forces with this resistance, before Parleyment descends on our grove.”

Sarah nodded. It was true that Doug and Debbie Dwight should have found Sassamatta, and their daughter, long ago. At the very least, they should visit Spex to learn what he’d overheard from Wailsmouth Street.

“Okay,” Sarah said. “I’ll come with you to visit Spex. But I don’t know about Sammy going to Vancouver. He could hang out with Hanx and Trig, play checkers and splash in puddles.”

Murdock shook his head. “He won’t be happy here, waiting for his father to get home. Sammy’s like the brother I never had, and I promise won’t let him out of my sight for a second. He’d have an awesome time in Vancouver, and be totally safe.”

Sarah relented, and went to pack a bag for her brother.

The next day brought thick fog and thin rain. Sammy was overjoyed about going to Vancouver, and as Murdock had predicted, excitement kept the boy from worrying about his father. Sammy tore around the grove, telling everyone about his upcoming adventure. After lunch, Sarah hugged her brother goodbye. Fern and Murdock took his hands, and swung Sammy between them like doting parents. But watching them walk away from Sassamatta, Sarah felt a flicker of fear: her little family was blown apart. A few months ago, she couldn’t have imagined life without her father and brother. Now she wondered if the three of them would ever be a family again.

Cold wind stabbed the grove that night; winter was arriving in earnest. Burrowing deep in their pile of soft cedar branches, Sarah and Levvy reminisced about the old days on Wailsmouth Street. Treehouse walls stopped the wind from getting inside, but its howling kept the girls awake. Quinn snored peacefully beside them, and Rumpus slept too; Sarah couldn’t bear to leave him in the doghouse on freezing nights.

“Are you thinking about your Dad?” Levvy whispered.

“Yeah, I guess so. I’m wondering where he is, and where your parents are, too. I’m glad we’re going to try and find them. It’s really weird they’re not here. I’m also worried about the Parleyment attack. Spex said they’re organizing something bigger, but what could be worse than fire and saws, for a village of treehouses? I’m kind of concerned about Sammy being in Vancouver without me or my father, and I’m afraid my powers won’t work when we need them. I haven’t felt a twinge since the hunaja thing.” Sarah stared into the darkness, waves of anxiety washing over her.

“How can you worry about all those things at once?”

“I wasn’t finished. I’ve been thinking about my mother, too.”

“Mmm,” Levvy put a hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “Do you remember her?”

“No, not really.” Sarah’s hand drifted up to her neck, and found the locket. “This picture makes me think I remember her, but the memories I have are impossible. They feel like dreams. You know the playground at the old elementary school?” Levvy nodded, and Sarah closed her eyes. “I’m on the swingset, and my mother is pushing me. It’s a sunny day, and I’m squeezing my eyelashes together so I can see rainbows, you know? A blonde toddler goes down the slide, and lands wrong, and starts crying. My mother goes to help her up, and dry her tears, and my swing keeps swinging the whole time my mother is gone. I swing as high as when she was pushing me, only I’m not moving my legs. It must be a dream, right? But it’s like I can remember it. My mother’s dress is white, with little bunches of red cherries on green stems.”

“Sarah, it’s snowing!”

Through a crack in the doorway, Sarah saw it was true. Flecks of white were drifting down between the branches. Soon wet snowflakes collected and stuck to the ground, until the blacks, browns, and dark greens of the bleak November forest were covered in a brilliant skiff. Mesmerized by the unusual sight, Sarah stayed awake long after Levvy was asleep.

Dawn broke, the first brilliant, sunny day in weeks. Levvy leapt out of bed, threw the treehouse door open, and scrambled to dress. Sunlight on snow sparkled like diamonds, and Sarah was transfixed by the beauty of the scene. Quinn’s bed was empty; they heard his piercing eagle call. Sarah put on her warmest clothes and joined Levvy on the deck. Far below them, Quinn waved, and pointed proudly to three pairs of snowshoes.

Sarah was tired, but the prospect of a tramp through the forest in snow invigorated her. They packed their backpacks, strapped snowshoes to their boots, and headed out toward Spex’s hut. Rumpus, overjoyed by the snow, frolicked madly, bounding ahead and blazing a trail. Midmorning, Laxgi joined them, swooping from tree to tree the way she had on their first trip to the grove. In late afternoon they passed Quinn’s outpost treehouse. Some snow had melted as the day wore on, but patches of white remained in the shade.

“Let’s sing Christmas carols,” Levvy suggested, and they launched into a rousing rendition of Jingle Bells. Quinn sang harmony in a clear tenor. Hearing their merry approach, Spex met them on the threshold of his home, wiping his hands on a well-used apron. Grump was chewing a mouthful of hay inside a ramshackle shed.

“My good friends,” said Spex. He wobbled comically, shifting weight from foot to foot. “I’ve been expecting you. In fact, I thought curiosity would summon you sooner. Ah, young master Quinn. I see you have detected the delectable aroma of my specialty, egg-and-nut loaf, topped with that rarest of edible treats, cheese. Doubtless you will welcome a hearty meal.”

Quinn looked at Spex suspiciously. “You seem nervous,” he said. “Better give us the bad news now, and get it over with. We already know that Milton escaped, and Tony went with him.”

“And you have come to investigate their disappearance,” said Spex. “Excellent.”

“No, we’re here to find my parents,” Levvy said testily.

“But your mother and father are quite safe!” Spex exclaimed. “They continue to run emergency services in your old neighbourhood. As for Sarah’s father, I shall endeavour to enlighten. However, let’s not be hasty. Come in, come in. Let us dine before all else.”

They were too hungry and tired to disagree. They removed their snowshoes, slung them over low-hanging branches, and squeezed into the rock-and-branch hovel. Crammed around the tree stump table, they chatted about the grove as Spex served dinner, then greedily they devoured a hearty, cheesy nut loaf. Rumpus ate his portion under the table, and begged for more. When they were done, and the dishes were piled in the rock basin sink, Spex began to wobble again.

“Out with it, please,” Sarah said. “Whatever your news is, let’s hear it.”

“Just so, Sarah Spellings, just so. Erm, let me see. Where to begin?” Spex closed his eyes.

“I find the beginning often works well,” said Quinn.

“Capital suggestion, Quinn. Just as I have come to expect from you. The beginning, indeed.” Spex’s glasses glinted in the candlelight. “Sarah, my dear. Your father instructed me to speak with you, in the event of his disappearance. Would you be so kind as to open your exquisite locket?”

Surprised, Sarah covered her locket defensively with her hand. “My locket has a picture of my mother,” she said.

“You will find this disconcerting, but I’m familiar with the photograph,” said Spex gravely. “Please remove it from the frame, and read what is written on the back.”

With clumsy, uncertain fingers, Sarah did as Spex asked. A little lip of silver held the photograph in place. She carefully coaxed the photo past this lip, and pried the tiny oval of paper from the locket. She returned her mother’s sad smile, then flipped the photo over in her palm.

Victoria….” Sarah read, and her eyes widened in shock. “ABBOTT?”

Tip: You can use left, right, A and D keyboard keys to browse between chapters.